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Critique: The Need for Context

A few weeks ago, I checked out Graham Walmsley’s new rules-light Lovecrafting horror game engine, Cthulhu Dark. I was immediately intrigued by it, but in reading it I did notice an issue that I’ve seen in many other texts — insufficient context that causes reader confusion. Today, I’ll talk about that, using Graham’s game (which can I stress again that I like? Yes, yes I can) as an example.

The Issue

Remember my post about how You Don’t Own Your Message? That constantly applies, so it’s no surprise that that’ll create issues when you’re reading a text for the first time. Whatever unconscious preconceived notions you have do not get instantly wiped when you jump into a new book, document, text, whatever. This causes problems if the text doesn’t provide enough context to reset those unconscious notions.

The Example

Here’s the first screenshot of Cthulhu Dark from my iPad. (Or, you know, just grab the four-page PDF — a nice cover page & three pages of rules.)

First screen of Cthulhu Dark

That first bit:

Choose a name and occupation. Describe your Investigator. Take a green Insanity Die.

My initial impression:

  • I only need one die for this game.
  • I should grab a green d10.
  • I don’t need to write anything down.

Now, this part is a little misleading I think, because I didn’t realize these even were my initial impressions until later, when they were shown to be wrong. But I had no other context, so my mind filled in half-aware blanks. Brains do that.

The First Jarring Moment

In Doing Things below that, it tells me:[1]

To know how well you do at something, roll:

  • One die if the task is within human capabilities.
  • One die if it’s within your occupational expertise.
  • Your Insanity die, if you will risk your sanity to succeed.

My brain: “Oh, so I need more than one die, and some that aren’t green. Okay. And I’ll probably need to write down stuff about my character. Why did I think I didn’t need to?”

Weird note: My brain didn’t pick up on the “I need to write stuff down about my character” with the part above, where it tells me I’ll be recording my Insanity. No idea why. Again, that’s brains for you. Why I even thought I didn’t need to write something down is beyond me. But, as an amateur/armchair psychologist[2], brains are weird.

The Second Jarring Moment

Later in Doing Things, it talks about target numbers. I’m not going to paste it here. It implies a 1-6 scale, so clearly Graham’s talking about a d6. Why did I think he was talking about a d10? Probably because when I think of Cthulhu, I think of BRP, whish uses d10s. Or because prior to reading Cthulhu Dark, I was thinking about a game I’m tinker with that uses d10s. For whatever reason, that was in my brain, so seeing the word “die” my brain slotting in “d10” in the implied blank of “what sort of die.”

At this point, my confidence in understanding the game is shaken. I’m wondering what else I’m assuming that’s inaccurate. I’m wondering what else I should know that is unobvious. And while Cthulhu Dark intrigues me, it’s now in the pile of games “I’d rather someone run it for me first to catch what’s implied.”

Why This Is an Issue

We unconsciously fill in blank context for the same reason we can be prejudice for or against some people & things — our brains have questions about a situation and inherently fill in questions with assumed answers entirely on their own. That’s how we process things quickly.

If we didn’t, we’d be eaten by bears. Of course, in today’s modern work, this wreaks havoc with how we understand things. When we’re not slotted with appropriate context, being disproven continually causes needless confusion & frustration. And because a text is passive, that’s confusion and frustration that you cannot ease with a soft personality & response.

Or worse, their contextual error isn’t corrected when they try playing the game, and they have a negative response. If that first time playing is frustrating, now the game has a negative emotional context for those players. They’ll potentially be negative about the game in online conversations, resistant or judgmental when playing again, etc. Something unfortunate when more people might enjoy the game if the context slotting is better crafted. :/

(One of the biggest examples of this I’ve seen is all the irate discussion around Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer. Though, that was years ago. Still sticks in my mind as a text that is a paradoxically complete while having problematic context slotting.)

How to Deal With This Issue

Add appropriate context before the questions are asked. For instance:

“You’ll need a few six-sided dice, including one green one for each player. Also, you’ll want some index cards or other bits of paper to note down details about your character.”

With just that, my unconscious questions would have been answered, and my confidence in the text wouldn’t have been shaken. Of course, proper placement, matching voice, all that are required in this text as it is with any other.

This is where some post-text playtests come in, and where good editors who spot lack of context come in. We as writers and designers have loads and loads of context in our heads, so it’s hard to spot this for ourselves. And our alpha playtesters, the ones who helped us forge this, also have difficulty spotting this.

This ends up being an issue with many indie games when it comes the second-order audience, the ones who find the game in a store or convention, and aren’t connected to the scene or contacting the designers on Twitter or anything like that.

Graham noted on Twitter that what I’m asking for means more words, which is tough given his already tight layout. That’s the double-edged sword of context. Personally, I think it could be done, but I don’t think it would be effortless to achieve. And there’s the rub.

When Not to Deal With This Issue

Here’s where we’ll talk briefly about target audience. If your target audience should have some context already, that’s probably not context you need to spell out. Doing so would really just get in the way of them engaging in your product. To take Cthulhu Dark for example, Graham does not at all talk about introducing what Cthulhu is or the spirit of a Lovecraft story of any of that. Does he need to? Nope. His target audience[3] knows that already. That would be a waste of his and our time for this particular thing.

Side Note: Check out Stealing Cthulhu

Now, I’ll stress one more time that Cthulhu Dark’s a really neat idea. And I hope some of you will check out it. But there’s something else I want to draw your attention to:

Graham’s got a really interesting project that’s in pre-order funding right now, called Stealing Cthulhu. I would be remiss if I didn’t give it a quick mention.You’ve got until June 2nd to get in on some of the really cool premium versions of it. I’ve pitched in for the The Hard Steal. There are previews on the site, but here’s some text for ya:

Stealing Cthulhu is my guide to Lovecraftian storytelling. Its central idea is: by stealing, adapting and combining Lovecraft’s ideas, you can create scenarios that seem new and horrific.

The book is 175 pages and 30,000 words long (6 by 9 inches), with original art by Jennifer Rodgers. It is annotated throughout by Kenneth Hite, Gareth Hanrahan and Jason Morningstar. It’s designed for use with any roleplaying system: Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Nemesis, Cthulhu Dark or whatever you enjoy playing.

The first part of the book breaks down Lovecraft’s stories, giving you ideas and storytelling structures to use in scenarios. The second part goes through a selection of Mythos creatures, considering what they can do for your games.

– Ryan

[1] Side note: Inconsistent capitalization of “Insanity Die” and inconsistent comma use. Yes, I catch this shit. I can’t not see it now. Sometimes I honestly wish I could. I would probably enjoy stuff more if these didn’t scream out to me.

[2] Which I believe all game designers are. Or at least should be, if they want to be good at this craft.

[3] Granted, I’m being a rather presumptive fuck by saying I know his target audience. But then, isn’t this post and my entire blog being that? :)

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4 Responses to Critique: The Need for Context

  1. For what it’s worth, we’ve never used anything beyond dice playing Cthulhu Dark. You track sanity by keeping your current score face up on the die. That + histrionics is all you need.

    Specifying die size is tricky and audience dependent – if you aren’t talking to gamers, maybe you’re better off not clouding the issue by using jargon or being weirdly specific. To the rest of the universe a die is what you shake out of a Yahtzee box. I’m don’t think that’s the case here but it is a thing.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jason,

      Sure, totally. I think that the text implies a target audience of Cthulhu-knowledgeable roleplayers. Most people who are checking this out likely already grok Cthulhu and/or Graham, and thus have an RPG context. But we’re Internet-agreeing. I just wanted to unpack my thought some — mainly that “being a fan of X person” is in and of itself a context. One that many small press games use to help initially push it.

      Now, if CD’s target audience actually is for someone without an RPG context, well, that’s a very different conversation. :)

      The “tracking with a die” thing is something I’ll talk about later in a future critique, not about Cthulhu Dark. I had an experience that has made me seriously rethink that notion in games.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jason,

      Thinking a little on it, I’ll bet you could handle the situation of “this game appeals to people new to RPGs” and “this game also targets people with plenty of RPG context” with a visual aid. When introducing the idea of needing dice, you could say “dice” with the text, and show an icon of some dice. That way you’re communicating to both parties without using jargon that only matters to one.

      At least, hopefully that’d work.

      – Ryan

  2. John Taber says:

    Hi Ryan: This thread REALLY hit home for me. I just read Weird West from Stuart Robertson. It is an 8 page RPG that I think looks fun. ( Like Ryan I will stress that I like this game. :) ) It has this exact issue. I read the start and my little pea brain started making assumptions…we all know what those do. ;) By the end I was fine but I had to jump back and forth several times to get my head around it.

    Nice post. :D
    John T>