Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass

I'd like to take this opportunity, really apropos of nothing, to discuss what I have come to think of as a distinct phenomenon - Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass. This is my term for a certain stylistic choice made by writers of RPG rulebooks to, for want of a better way of putting it, take a sassy, slightly hectoring, almost tough guy tone in their writing and the way in which they present the information. It's a question of taste of course, but I don't like it.

It's hard to explain in the abstract, but it's something that I am certain you will recognise if you have read the kind of modern, indie games in which it is most used - particularly, for some reason, introductory sections on what role playing represents.

Take Mythender, for example, which is to my mind probably the paradigm case. This is more or less from the first substantive page:

Or you’ll tell the stories of how you ignore all that humanity business and go pedal to the fucking metal, diving headfirst into the heart of Myth and leaving piles of corpses in your wake. You’ll gain power by making mortals to worship you as a god. Eventually, your comrades will be forced to murder your Mythic ass. 
Spoiler alert: they totally fucking will. [...] 
Mythender is about kicking ass and erasing names to a heavy metal sound track, about dancing on the knife’s edge between having the power to slaughter abominations and becoming an abomination yourself. Go do that already

See what I mean? "Go do that already." Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass, turned to 11.

Sometimes it manifests itself in a slightly smarmier fashion. See, for instance, this section from Houses of the Blooded:

If you’ve ever played a roleplaying game before, you may have noticed that characters seldom age—locked in a perpetual state of twenty-five years old—and they always seem to “get better.” As they move through their lives, experience points always add to the character’s abilities. Regardless of how old they look, all RPG characters seem to be an eternal and everlasting twenty-five years old. 
Not so here.

Leaving aside the sniping at D&D, it's that final coda - "Not so here" - which turns this into Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass. Picture the author wagging his finger at you with a slight smirk playing across his lips. "Not so here." There's that slightly patronising subtext which is the mark of true sass.

The patronising subtext can become the supertext when the Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass becomes overt. Here's a section from the introduction to Apocalypse World:

You probably know this already: roleplaying is a conversation. You and the other players go back and forth, talking about these fictional characters in their fictional circumstances doing whatever it is that they do. Like any conversation, you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns, right? Sometimes you talk over each other, interrupt, build on each others’ ideas, monopolize. All fine. 
All these rules do is mediate the conversation. They kick in when someone says some particular things, and they impose constraints on what everyone should say after. Makes sense, right?

Makes you feel like a 9 year-old, right?

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood - I like Mythender and Apocalypse World, and Houses of the Blooded is interesting if not exactly my cup of tea. Please think of this post less as a critique or a snipe, and more of a plea to the future game-designers out there. Keep the sass to a minimum and just write nice, simple, plain, non-sassy and non-patronising, yet evocative, English like this:

Before television, there was radio. Audiences earlier in this century sat in front of their radios
and thrilled to the exploits of bigger-than-life radio heroes. Since it was radio, they couldn't see
what was going on, but they didn't need to—all the action was described by dialogue, narration, and sound effects, and was translated by the imaginations of the listeners into scenes they could see, experience, and remember. 
Role-playing games are much like radio adventures, except for one important detail: they're interactive. One player provides the narrative and some of the dialogue, but the other players, instead of just sitting and envisioning what's going on, actually participate. Each player controls the actions of a character in the story, decides on his actions, supplies his character's dialogue, and makes decisions based on the character's personality and his current game options.

Go do that already.


  1. The guy from Dragonstrike is the sassiest.

    1. I don't know. I think it depends on who or what the sass is aimed at, and whether or not it includes enough self-deprecation (or some other moderating thing) to convince you that the author isn't a jerk. I think James Raggi pulls it off in LOTFP, for example, though some might disagree. I know nothing about Mythender or its author, but reading that first paragraph makes me want to take a shower.

  2. "Not so here" is, I agree, a little priggish. Translated into Gygaxian it would be "Not so herein!", which would be no less smug but much more entertaining.

  3. I'm the first person to feel put off by that particular type of hobbyist RPGer who fills their content with that species of smarm and "machismo." It almost smacks of something written by someone who is "ashamed" of the fact that they roleplay, and therefore wants to make the hobby seem "tougher" and grittier. Some people slather their lives and works with a heavy syrup of sarcasm, and I really don't like that sort of approach to gaming and life.

    However I feel about that sort of tone, however, I see how there might be some people out there that want versions of the D&D rules (or games with D&D DNA) that support an "in your face" style of play. We live in the post-OGL world, where one can present the rules in one's desired package. It's an exciting time, and it spawns games such as the ones referenced above, as well as offerings like LotFP, Carcosa, etc. And I say, vive le difference! No matter how unfortunate or unnecesary I see the sort of attitude ("METAL!") espoused in the aforementioned products.

    Even in the case of rule sets that don't really resemble D&D mechanically all that much, there's going to be all sorts of experimentation to "differentiate" from D&D's legacy. And while we might not agree with the tone of the content, we can easily shut the book and walk away.

    1. True, but I'm just putting out there the kind of thing that tempts me to shut a book and walk away if the designer does it. Designers can take that or leave it! ;)

  4. I'm a little surprised that you're so put off by this sort of language, knowing your fondness for Cyberpunk 2020, the progenitor of sassy RPG tone. I mean, the book of GM advice was called Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads! fer Chrissakes.

    Of course, as I'm sure you're already thinking, Pondsmith's sassy tone was leavened by somehow feeling inclusive, like you were being inducted into Edgerunner culture rather than being lectured to.

    So maybe we don't need a plea for less sass (I do like a distinct authorial voice, after all), but for writers to go back and study the masters a little more closely and learn how to not come across like smug assholes. ;)

    1. Yes, that's exactly what I was thinking. I was actually thinking of talking about Pondsmith in the post, but thought that might dilute the message. I think his tone is more or less perfect for Cyberpunk 2020. Actually in the first episode of A Gaming Podcast About Nothing I talked about his tone a little bit - I really like the way it manages to achieve genre mood while not taking itself too seriously. I recognise that Vincent Baker and to a lesser extent Ryan Macklin may have been going for the same thing, but it just doesn't ring true to me and comes across as hectoring. John Wick is another matter - I've never read a book by him in which he doesn't comes across as a smug and rather patronising person, full of snide remarks about systems he doesn't like, although this may not be at all a reflection of his real personality.

  5. My first draft of Mythender was boring as shit. Apparently a small number of people would prefer it that way, but I certainly didn't in writing it. ;)

    In any case, it's also self-selecting. If that's a tone a reader wouldn't like, I would rather they put down a game they would also probably not like and go get one they would. So it's a useful, if unobvious, tool.

    1. I also find it *super* fascinating that you'd call it a "tough guy" stance. It's always interesting to find out how people are reading a book. When I say, in personal, "Go do that already!" it's with an encouraging smile. But short of narrating the book over YouTube, you can't always convey tone. Or put emoticons in books, maybe. A writer's voice is a very tricky thing.

      I see two versions of the same concept: "swearing with the reader" and "swearing at the reader." (Not just with foul language, but it's where it gets most illustrative.) And the more I make books, the more I try to hear what the writer sounds like before I assume the latter. But that's a luxury, and not one that lends itself to first impressions. I have similar issues with Apocalypse World that you do, because it reads too much like it's punching the reader down.

      I've had a number of people who have told me (or just commented in the Internet) about Mythender's tone. It's totally a fair cop. I respect that -- after all, language is this weird beast, especially current-day English. Not every game is for everyone, and the sooner a book can help you self-select where you are in relation to it, the better. Especially if I'm also going to ask you to get that many dice and stuff to play my game.

      So I guess this is a response to your plea: understand that as writers, we're not just talking to one person in the audience. For every single person that I've seen complain about minor text quibbles, I've had a dozen thank me for the book and said they enjoyed reading it. If the ratio went the other way, I would regret how I wrote it. And given that my game was free, there's a large degree to which I'll throw marketing concerns aside.

      (All said, that's not my only writer voice. I'm playing around with a horror game right now where the voice is serious and morose, not the esprit-de-corps call to action that I went for in Mythender.)

    2. Thanks for commenting and clarifying. I like Mythender as a game (just need to get my hands on a billion more d6s...) - it's just the tone isn't to my taste. But there's no accounting for that, as they say. Interested to see what you come up with for your horror game. It's the hardest genre to pull off.