August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:
Today’s question is this:
Which RPG features the best writing?
Er, define best? Also, confession time.
I’m going to confess: I find game fiction mostly unreadable. I didn’t, as a kid—one of the guys I played AD&D with collected Forgotten Realms novels (as I did Forgotten Realms game supplements) and he loaned most of them to me so I could read them. I consumed piles of those things. I kind of knew they weren’t great, but, eh, they were Realmstuff. But I left those behind back in middle school, and the only exception I’ve made was… not great. (I haven’t posted about it, but spoiler: it was a Wraith: The Oblivion tie-in novel.)
But you know, I’m not talking about game tie-in books. I’m actually talking about the long-winded, mediocre fiction pieces that at some point became de rigeur in every game book. (Was it White Wolf that started this trend? I think it might have been.) I get the usefulness of a piece of fiction that conveys how the game is supposed to be played, of course, or delivers a bunch of cosmology or terminology to the reader in a digestible form. However, I don’t really find the game fiction all that good as fiction, and that makes it less digestible, as far as I’m concerned.
So, yeah: I skip the game fiction. In pretty much every book I read. Not the background stuff, not the worldbuilding material. But the game fiction? It’s rare I even look at it at all—but when I do, it usually takes moe only a paragraph or two before I bail and skip ahead to the game stuff.
And I know I’m not alone.
Another thing that turns me off is when a game designer is trying really, really hard to make the game terminology sound “cool” or “edgy.” Often, it just sort of turns me off. I had a recent experience reading a gamebook like that: interesting system that I’d be interested in understanding better… but the über-hip game terminology and style of writing was so ramped up that I just sort of felt turned off by it. It a bit like reading a TPS report full of slang words or something. Likewise, a gamebook must engage with specialized language—be it game terminology, or simply the specialized language of the setting. There’s such a thing as too much, though: Jorune is notorious for that, and so are some other games. (I’ve heard some criticize Tékumel for the same issue.)
So anyway, when I talk about “good writing” I mean clarity, creativity, and a certain crisp, pop in the quality of prose. Sometimes good writing stands out, and sometimes it’s less apparent.
Here’s some examples of books I’ve read lately that have “good” writing, and why I think it’s good.
- Qelong by Kenneth Hite. It’s a tiny little book, and yet it creates a whole fantastical, compelling little alternate-Cambodia filled with strange, astonishing stuff—and one into which I can imagine sending a bunch of Early Modern European player characters, which matters because this is a Lamentations of the Flame Princess product and Early Modern Europe is kind of LotFP’s wheelhouse. The prose is crisp and clear, and you rarely are left wondering what some term means for more than a paragraph or two at the most, and yet Hite manages to evoke a vaguely Lovecraftian awfulness without being derivative of old HPL at any point.
Oh, and though I had to hurry through Trail of Cthulhu—I was loaned it for a short time—I’d say Hite does things with the deities of the Mythos that I haven’t quite seen anyone do elsewhere: suggestions of what primal forces they might be, or what manifestations of the human psyche, or whatever. The Mythos deities section is worth the price of admission alone.
- The Core rulebook of Paranoia XP, (mostly) by Allen Varney. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, mostly because it’s so sardonic, so clever, and so brutal. Varney’s writing basically models how GMs should run the game: slipping in and out of the Computer’s voice, slipping in and out of taking the rules of the game (and of Alpha Complex) seriously. Also, it’s got some pretty good GM advice, for what it’s worth. I’m reading it right now, and very much enjoying it.
- One of the best examples of simple, clean writing is Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco. I mean, I don’t think it’s all because of Wil Wheaton that the game caught on so widely: it’s because it’s a small rulebook—and half the rulebook is actually just playsets. There’s not much to read, and what there is, is very easy to understand on the first go. It’s a textbook-worthy example of wedding clarity to flavor, and Fiasco Companion is just as good, even if it ranges more widely in terms of the flavors it works in.
- I think Michal Oracz’s De Profundis is solid attempt at writing an experimental sort of game, and mostly I think that because the rulebook itself engages in exactly what the game asks players to do: it is composed of a series of letters from the game designer to the potential player. The prose is a little awkward in places—as I suspect a lot of translated RPG products will be, and I’ll wager the Polish original is smoother and more powerful as a prose document—but it has moments both of real eeriness and of great fun in its pages. It’s just a neat game book.
- While it was controversial when it was released—and part of a game line I think is as guilty as any of overwrought text and underwhelming chunks of game fiction—I think the team of authors who created the Wraith supplement Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah did an incredible job. (For the record, that’s Jonathan Blacke, Robert Hatch, and Richard Dansky, with a foreword by Janet Berliner.) The book is dark, horrific, honest, but also respectful and serious without being po-faced or facetious. The fact someone could make an RPG book about the Holocaust (or, rather, the long-term historical effects of the Holocaust on the undead) isn’t surprising: what’s surprising is that it’s actually good.
- I find the rules material in Monte Cook’s Numenera to be really clear and simple, but also written with an eye to making players and would-be GMs feel, “I can do this.” Like I’ve said before, I felt overwhelmed by all the Ninth World material in the book—though I’m not complaining, as I’m sure it’s useful to people who want to run games in Cook’s world—but the rules and the gaming advice were very nicely put together indeed, with a kind of effervescent sense of encouragement rooted deep at the core of it all. That’s an important feature of game design: making things clear is one thing, but infusing them with a sense of encouragement and support, a feeling that these rules can totally be used by the person reading and trying to understand them, is really important. I’ve seen many games that seemed to make the reader feel
There are other designers and books I might point to when I want to talk about sheer inventiveness of their products. Zak S.’s A Read and Pleasant Land, and the first couple of editions of Gamma World, and Rafael Chandler’s World of the Lost, are all simple, clear, wildly creative, very usable, and quite evocative, but the prose is workmanly rather than artistic or subversive. That’s not a flaw, it’s a practical decision: I think that same clarity and usability is also true of the first four of BECMI Mentzer Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets. People rag on those being designed to get twelve-year-olds into the hobby, but that’s what they were meant to do, and a lot of us who weren’t old enough to be part of the first generation of RPGers got our start exactly that way. Meanwhile, the original AD&D 1st edition books are a mess, but they’re a fascinating, glorious mess, and I could easily sit and read the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for pleasure today and discover things I’d missed the many previous times I read it, if only I had a copy on hand. But that said, it’s also a mess of a book. Glorious, but messy as all get-out, and that’s hardly a surprise: ol’ uncle Gary was inventing the genre of the fat hardback game manual as he went along. Books that invent new genres usually are gloriously messy by the standards of what follows later.
But if I’m thinking of books with good writing, well, the above ones are what come to mind. Doubtless there’s more wonderful stuff I haven’t read, but I can’t talk about that. I wish I had access to more books to peruse, but, well… I live deep in the Korean countryside. Maybe on my next trip to Seoul, I’ll stop by Dice Latte and get a chance to flip through a few more gamebooks I’ve been wanting to check out—D&D 5E, they have, and the Dungeon Crawl Classics rulebook, and whatever else they have on the shelf. (I think there was a copy of some edition of Pendragon, and some old West End Games Star Wars books, too.)