What is ‘good RPG writing’?

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.

6 Comments on “What is ‘good RPG writing’?”

  1. Welleran says:

    All good suggestions. I've been adding a “notes” section with around four lines of whitespace after every encounter location for several years and find it immensely helpful (I got the idea from old Judges Guild stuff). I would add that having the same on maps is also helpful – I mark the heck out of mine during play!

  2. I think there's a big difference in what I would want from adventures I actually wanted to run (rare), vs. adventures I was reading for inspiration (which would be most of them).

    If I'm reading without the intention of running something, then the flavor text is all good and the production values are important. I own a number of Pathfinder modules, for example, despite having never played the game.

    For something I actually wanted to run, I'd want some up-front information as to the overall feel, motivations, and hooks, but the actual key should be very minimal. Realistically, I'm not sure there are any modules I could run at this point without first reducing them to some sort of shorthand notes. It's just ALL too wordy and disorganized.

  3. Limpey says:

    I didn't originally intend to just write about what form of published adventures I find most useful; I wanted to mention that some books (like the Holmes D&D book, which in retrospect seems pretty 'bad' by most standards than later, more polished products) really hooked me and made me want to play when I first picked it up. I also loved the first Monster Manual for the same reasons. Other books made me wonder “Do I really need to read all this in order to play?” Now I don't know if it was some quality in the books themselves, or if they just came along at the right moment.

  4. By and large I agree with your points. Not sure about the “flowery language”—I don't mind a few fancy words every now and then to provide flavor without compromising brevity.

    In addition I want the key to be easy to skim. To me, that means the use of bold to highlight what's immediately obvious upon entering the room. I don't want the room name to be bold, because that's something the players will never hear. If there are five lines of text and the third one says there is an orc, then that word needs be bold.

    I also like my maps to have enough whitespace to allow me to scribble on them. That's why I don't like full-colored maps or maps with a solid background. I prefer a white background and some hatching around rooms and corridors.

  5. Bryce Lynch says:

    Usherwood includes a small notes section at the bottom of every page.

  6. Limpey says:

    Wow, I just reread my original post and saw that it mysteriously ends mid sentence. I wonder what it was that I was going to write there? Ah well.

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