Your Mind is Late-War Germany
For the last several years, I’ve been thinking about text design in role-playing games. Thinking about clarity of information, about voice, about flow, about organization, about all that shit. This is why people keep asking me to edit their books — Fred Hicks has said that my superpower is that I know exactly what the reader needs to see on any given page.
I have quite a few half-written posts about text design, but I finally have something I feel like I can tackle in a short post. It’s my guiding principle:
The Reader’s Mind is Late-World War II Germany.
My text has to attack on two fronts.
One front is nearly universal: my text should teach you. If you it doesn’t tell you how to play the fucking game, what’s the point of the text? So, that’s one. But the other front changes constantly from one piece of the book to the next. At different times, the book should also:
- Inspire you. Text should make you want to play the game or play with that idea.
- Amuse you. Jokes and humor help cement ideas in the mind.
- Horrify you. Piss you off. Or any strong reaction that the mind cannot avoid. (I suspect some of this is intentional in Apocalypse World. I don’t like those bits, but damn if I don’t respect the hell of of them.)
- Engage you in a mystery. A Penny for my Thoughts is subtle here, with Dr. Tompkins.
- Sympathize with your efforts in learning the text. Here some of the marginalia in the Dresden Files RPG does that.
(Not that this is an exhaustive list. Any other ideas? Please add in the comments!)
You’ll notice that all of these other fronts are emotional rather than a second form of informational. That’s the damned point. All communication has a root in emotional manipulation (and much of it manipulation that we as an audience want and accept). RPG texts are no different. Fail to manipulate the brain on the second front, and you’re bore the brain before information from that first front sinks in.
That said, I suspect a given moment in the text (whether that be passage, page, spread — however your book is structured) should not do more than two fronts. More may be distracting. But I have to think on that.
What’s the risk of not doing this? Well, maybe you’ll make a great game. Brilliant mechanics, engaging setting, all that. If your text fails, if it, as Robin Laws has said (and I am likely misquoting) reads as a set of stereo instructions, then your game will not be memorable. Does your game deserve that fate? I hope you don’t think so.
I will point out the one pitfall of this idea: it’s hard to do well in the first draft (just like everything else). This is an idea to look at during revisions and definitely during the final product. So, be careful about apply it poorly and causing writing paralysis.
Aside: That’s part of why the marginalia in Dresden works So Fucking Well. It is constantly our second front (namely amusing and sympathetic), cementing ideas in the reader’s mind. But further on that specific topic is a post for another time, because while many books do in-character marginalia, Dresden’s has frankly outdone them all. Again, though, that’s another post.
 And everyone in Evil Hat has a superpower. It’s a company requirement.
 Which is honestly a fucking intimidating claim.
 Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who has had a pick-up line work for them. Half of them work because it’s funny, which cements the other front of “being suggestive” in the mind. The best pick-up lines, I’ve found, are corny and delivered with a sense of humor. Same principle applies, since you’re trying to seduce the reader into making out with your idea.
 This idea in action. Though, that also goes for this whole post. And the one before it, and the one before that. Etc.