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[1] is that I know exactly what the reader needs to see on any given page.[2]

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.[3]
  • 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.

– Ryan

[1] And everyone in Evil Hat has a superpower. It’s a company requirement.

[2] Which is honestly a fucking intimidating claim.

[3] 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.[4]

[4] This idea in action. Though, that also goes for this whole post. And the one before it, and the one before that. Etc.


10 Responses to Your Mind is Late-War Germany

  1. Brad Murray says:

    I think there is a third front. The two you describe are indeed essential for the first read — they are what gets a game started. The third front, however, is for every single other time you open the book during prep or play and failing here will kill the long-term viability of the game: the game has to function as a reference.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I totally agree that that’s needed. Is it a third front, per se? Maybe. I don’t know — that’s about re-communicating in the future rather than cementing in the moment.

      But fuck if I’m not going to mull over that. Brilliant comment.

      – Ryan

    • Brand Robins says:


      Here’s a thing for you on that point — I use the marginalia in Dresden to help me find rules. The combination of fonts, colors, and spatial relations help mark various points in the text for quick visual identification.

      Reading the game I found them less useful than many, but they actually help me a lot in finding stuff later.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Interesting. And totally noted.

      – Ryan

  2. Naomi Tripi says:

    Okay, let’s test your two-at-a-time theory… with twister rules.

    Two at a time (inform & amuse):
    …If the spinner points to a green spot in the section labeled “left foot” you must try to place your left foot on a green circle without falling down, or kicking anyone in the face.

    All of them (inform, inspire, amuse, horrify, engage in a mystery & sympathize):
    …As the spinner teeters between “red left foot” and “green right hand” let your mind wander to the body-position of your opponent. Should you place your left foot you could just graze her hip on your way to placing your foot on the nearest available red circle, however the superior position-solidifying strategy would be to just slide your right hand over one spot to the next green circle. Though this would not allow you to cop a subtle feel, that might be for the best since your mom might not play with you again if you do what you did last time…

    A bit longer, but I think it still works on some level. :^)

  3. Codrus says:

    The one place I felt that Dresden’s marginalia worked extremely well was when it asked questions a GM or a player might ask themselves. It gave the rules an opportunity to explain some of the logic behind how the rule was crafted, or to clarify questions that someone was like to ask, or to show a GM how a rule might be extended to cover other contingencies. Good stuff.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally! That’s where the sympathy part in my bullet points comes from. It was a last-minute add-on when I was thinking about that role we had for the marginalia, as I missed it in the initial writing of this post.

      – Ryan

  4. I’m curious what parts of Apocalypse World you’re referring to. I haven’t read AW in a while, so I’m a bit out of touch with the text.

  5. Lakira says:

    That bit about horrifying or pissing you off is important but hard to do. It’s a subtle distinction between horrifying/pissing me off so that I’m intrigued or horrifying/pissing me off so that I want to continue to engage in the text because it challenges me. At the other end of the spectrum, it may fall flat.

    The one example of text which has succeeded in completely pissing me off and keeping me engaged is a novel called “Fiasco” by Stanislaw Lem. I hate all the characters with a burning passion, I hate every single decision that they make, I have to wrestle with the writing style, I think I may hate Lem by proxy… and the book continues to glare balefully at me from my bookcase, despite multiple book purges since I purchased it years ago.