What is ‘good RPG writing’?
Posted: June 22, 2012 Filed under: adventures, campaigns, Dungeons and Dragons, publishing
As a part of my day job, I have been doing some very tedious but necessary technical writing. Basically, I’m writing manuals with step by step instructions on such fascinating things as to how to fill out a purchase requisition based on a vendor quote. In order to be useful, the ‘process documents’ I am writing need to be correct in the details and their order, clear and not subject to multiple interpretations, and as short as possible since the longer the boring document or memo, the less likely it will be read. The document that results could most kindly be described as ‘utilitarian.’
At the same time, I enjoy reading fiction that is filled with possible multiple interpretations and ambiguity (current favorite: Thomas Ligotti; my all-time favorite book is hard to choose, but might be either “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad or “The Crying of Lot 49” by Pynchon), which seems funny since I have to write stuff that (hopefully) can be understood only one way by the reader for my day job yet my favorite books are ones that seem to delight in leaving the reader more confused than when they started. Providence is always giving us the finger — the guy who likes ambiguity and multiple meanings in writing has to write as precisely as he can to earn a buck.*
All of this is a long winded introduction to me wanting to think about ‘what makes good writing for an RPG product?’ And I am interested in how my opinion of ‘good’ will differ from the opinions of others. Here are a few things I like to see in an RPG adventure:
· I prefer the author keep plot, motivation, etc., to a minimum. I’d rather have a location with some maps, encounters and a few ‘possibilities’ described rather than a clusterfuck of quests and subquests and whatnot. I’d consider it perfectly acceptable to develop a great deal of this ‘plot’ stuff on the fly… i.e.: if random encounters in the wilderness keep giving you orcs, why not cook up an orc invasion?
· Adventures that concentrate on being locations rather than ‘story driven series of encounters.’ To give concrete examples, I have much fonder memories of playing adventures like “Against the Giants” than “Egg of the Phoenix.” In “Against the Giants,” I felt the players set their own agenda after being initially hamfisted into an adventure (“Find out who is sending the giants against us or else!”) versus the more story-based “Start at point A, get told to go to point B, etc.” The “Egg of the Phoenix” is probably more involved, detailed and impressive, but there is less player agency in getting from point A to point B.
· Simple, short encounter descriptions and not too much flowery language with everything you need in one place. If I were to run a published adventure, I’d want to review it before play started, then be able to get ‘up to speed’ on what is going on in one location or another by glancing at the text during play. I wouldn’t want to say, “Hold on!” to the players while I search the paragraphs of verbiage for the one bit of info I need (I’m looking at you, “Temple of Excessive Description,” er, I mean, “Elemental Evil.”).
· I don’t know of any published adventure that offers this, but how about a small bit of whitespace after every entry where the DM can make notes? I know a lot of people resent white space in a product they paid for (equating quantity of ink on the page with ‘quality’), but I’ve taken to seeing published adventures as more utilitarian documents than literature… that is to say, they are there to be used to speed and enable play, not amuse the reader like a novel.
· Interesting, quirky, suggestive stuff that the DM can use to run off on his own tangents or red herrings that can be expanded upon if the DM wishes or the players choose to pursue them. Adventures like ‘Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor’ or ‘Rappan Athuk’ are great for this kind of stuff.
I hesitate to say that these things define ‘good,’ I’m just saying that they are what I like to see. Since, when I DM, I’ve decided like to create my own adventures anyway, I’m hoping
* I don’t consider myself a writer of talent. I like to write things (like this blog) but don’t think my writing has any significance other than some possibly therapeutic value for me. It’s just a fun way for me to explore topics I am thinking about.