Critique: Anti-Recommendations

First of all, I’m swamped with some stuff, so these critiques will come in more of a trickle. Because of that, I’m willing to try this experiment for a couple weeks or so, rather than try to shoot my metaphorical wad in one go. Second, I want to focus on one critique at a time, rather than over-analyze a book. That whole “500 words is awesome” thing I’m rocking, because it helps focus discussion.

With that out of the way, I’m going to talk about VSCA’s Diaspora. Because this is the Internet, I have to start with a couple disclaimers:

  • I like Brad Murray, he’s good peeps, and he volunteered Diaspora for this. (Not that that would stop me, to be fair. Everything sold to the public is fair game.)
  • I’ve played Diaspora (and, you know, a bit of Fate here and there), and it’s good times
  • They deserve the ENnie they won for Best Rules
  • I’m not critiquing design. Not the focus here.

The Issue: the Anti-Recommendation

So, let’s talk about what I call the Anti-Recommendation. Here’s the example from Diaspora:

Click for Embiggening

The “Fudge Dice” sidebar at the top catches the eye, so when I look at page, that’s what I see first. I’m reading it, and I get to the second paragraph, quoted below:

The system will work with a different probability curve by rolling two different coloured six-sided dice and subtracting the darker from the lighter. Treating the -5 and 5 results as zero keeps the expected range though with better chances for extreme results, and we do not recommend it.

“…and we do not recommend it.” The moment I read this, I was annoyed. My time was wasted as a reader, and being this early on, I had the reaction of “How many other times in this book are they going to tell me something and then tell me to disregard it?” It colored the rest of the reading of the text. My trust was lost; everything was now suspect.

See, when you tell someone that you don’t recommend something you’ve spent time talking about, you’re establishing that your text was created from a disorganized thought process and then not cleaned up. We all write (or well, many of us) from a stream of consciousness approach. But that’s fine for a conversation where you’re (a) able to engage the other person and (b) it’s clear the medium is one of fluid, unedited thought. But conversations are a very poor method of passive information transfer (like, you know, from a book). Books need to be more to-the-point, with follow-up text supporting and reincorporating. When you instead undermine your text, well, you’re asking your readers to not follow what you’re trying to teach them.

How To Address This

A critique is useless, in my mind, if we can’t talk about how to deal with the issues that come up.

If you find that you’re writing something, and end with talking about it as an anti-recommendation, here are two things to do:

One, if this information absolutely needs to be in the book, lead with the disclaimer. To (very hastily) rewrite the above:

While we don’t recommend it, if you don’t have Fudge dice and the method above seems confusing, you could use the d6-d6 method. The system will work with a different probability curve by rolling two different coloured six-sided dice and subtracting the darker from the lighter. Treating the -5 and 5 results as zero keeps the expected range though with better chances for extreme results.

This also tells us why up-front that you don’t recommend something.

Two, you could cut the text. This falls under “assume your readers are smart and will get clued in to advanced topics if they’re sufficiently interested,” “don’t undermine your text,” and “don’t waste the reader’s time, as it’s a precious resource.”  That’s what I would do in this case, looking at the text.

So, here’s the first of many little posts I’ll do for this “Critique RPGs” project. Diaspora’s getting a couple more from me, as are others. But no one is paying me to blog, so back to the salt mines I go!

– Ryan


14 Responses to Critique: Anti-Recommendations

  1. Eddy says:

    Agree. This is something I talk about to my freelancers all the time: Don’t tell the reader what they can’t do — they them what they can do to be awesome. If you want to warble on about edge cases that might or might not be a good idea, the Internet is a great place to host those.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      You are, in fact, talking about a future critique post. :)

      One of the most common edits I make is when I see a list of advice and entries involve “Don’t…”, I rewrite to form it positive, and include a note that says “Don’t lead with the negative.”

      (Which, given what I’m commenting and how I’m commenting it, I take no end up amusement with.)

      And you’re totally spot-on about the Internet being a great place for that. All about the value-add on game websites.

      – Ryan

  2. Brad Murray says:

    Thanks for this Ryan. Indeed, from today’s perspective I would cut that paragraph (along with around twenty thousand other words I think).

    • This might sound snarky, but isn’t meant to be:

      Would 20 000 words be about the length of the wargames you include in the text?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      And I appreciate y’all being cool about it. Knowing y’all are working on more products makes me want to see those future books be as stellar as I know the rules are going to be.

      – Ryan

  3. Yes, finally examples and naming names! There’s no way to learn if we all pussyfoot around stuff. Thanks to you and VSCA and anyone else who volunteered. Though if sold, hell yes, it’s fair game.

  4. Codrus says:

    I think a great answer for your specific example would be to actually describe the effect it has on play, rather than dismiss it as a bad idea. One person’s extreme results is another person’s preferred randomness.

    The important concept is:educate the player the pros/cons and let the player decide which works for them.

    Slightly on topic: Way back in the days of Fusion, the hybridization of Hero and Interlock was always a little weird. The system was described as being equally usable with 1d10 and 3d6, but it never adequately explained that the two dice mechanics have different minimum/maximum/average values, nor did it describe the benefits and drawbacks to straight-line versus bell-curve mechanics. In short, if you ran it with the DCs as written, it only worked some of the time. If they’d described the actual mechanics, it would have been a big help to customers who do not write dice probability programs. :)

    Even slightly less on topic: Unusual mechanics should be called out in the rules; educating the players in how to make intelligent choices at the table is very helpful to good game play. Should I power attack or not? What’s more important — rolling an extra die or keeping an extra die?

    All that having been said: I’m not sure where the best place to put that sort of educational material is in a game. Do you put it in the main text, where it will bore some people? Do you put it in a side bar? Do you relegate it into designer’s chapter? A tweaking-the-system chapter? A game supplement? A web article? Any or all could be reasonable choices.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s what websites, or the back of the book where you can assume your players understand your game at that point, are for. Note that this is on page 3, in a section about basics.

      – Ryan

  5. Burrowowl says:

    I know you weren’t addressing layout here, so this comment suffers badly from topic drift. Having a textual call-out and a table here plants a visual hook on the page. Visual hooks, like any tool, can be used for good or ill. The text critiqued here is intended parenthetically but displayed prominently. If the publisher put this information in a special part of the page with special formatting it must be special important information.

    Call-outs like this always seem most useful to me when they contain information a reader may find useful when flipping rapidly through the book. In a way it is better for this to be on page 3, where it is less likely to interrupt page-flip navigation.

  6. Chad Underkoffler says:

    Hey, Mack, I know you’ve played a crapload of T&J and other ASMP games, so if you want to throw any of them up on the chopping block, feel free to flay.

  7. Narretei says:

    Now that you make me think about it I’ve seen this tendency to elaborate dice mechanics that the game doesn’t recommend before. Or in a lighter version: dice mechanics that could be an alternative. I didn’t like how they filled up space with foot notes and comments that’s shared with basic mechanic / rule – explanations. It doesn’t work well with basic cognition of learning I think.

    I always thought a simple reference could solve the problem in case one doesn’t want to cut it out. Something like: “If you don’t like this or your group doesn’t want to buy Fudge Dice / dozens of d20, flip to Page 3XX to see alternative dice mechanics, their advantages and drawbacks.”

    That said: Thanks for the examples and names. It’s really helpful.

  8. C W Marshall says:

    I think your comment is exactly right, Ryan, and your re-write (had it occurred to us) would likely have been included when we added errata. — Toph