Timing Text Meant to be Read
Since I was asked last week to take my critical eye toward things I’ve worked on, I’ll talk about something in A Penny For My Thoughts that has been on my mind for over a year: text that’s meant to be read that takes too long to read. To be fair, it’s been on Paul’s mind as well, since we’ve both had some time to see the game in action outside of our “work on the book” mindset.
For those who don’t know, A Penny For My Thoughts is a parlor game/story game where you play amnesiacs recovering memories by using a scripted process. You read the text aloud to play. It’s a lot of fun, and really gets one in the mental space of playing one of these characters. The text is all in-character-voice, so reading it doesn’t take you out of playing the game; it’s part of it. If I do say so myself, and I do, it’s pretty fucking awesome.
But we did a couple things that weren’t awesome. First, I’ll show you. Then, I’ll tell you how we could have saved ourselves from “Too Long; Didn’t Listen”.
Here’s one really long piece of text that’s meant to be read as a step in the process:
There are two problems:
- The text takes too long to read. I tested myself, and it took me 2 minutes 10 seconds. I haven’t read this page in a year, but I was familiar with it, so after the second paragraph I stopped stumbling as much in my reading it.
- The text requires a page flip in the middle of reading. Luckily, it’s not a page flip where a sentence breaks, but it’s still not good.
Why This Happened
Turning the text into an in-character set of directions was a later part of the process, after a couple playtests I ran where I had problems when that wasn’t the case, and I had smoothness when it was. Paul talks about that more in the designer’s notes chapter. But by then the mechanics are whatnot were mostly tested, so we didn’t keep testing the text. We did do email games, but those didn’t address this situation.
We didn’t test people reading the text aloud. Granted, I’m pretty sure I heard it aloud, but I wasn’t listening for those problems. And that’s on me.
Keep any text you’re expecting people to read in the middle of play to around 45 seconds. A minute, tops. Keep from page flips (which, in an age of e-readers, means try to keep it to a page rather than just to a spread.)
Now, sometimes this is hard. In reading that passage, it’s that long because you need to know those things for that section. But if Paul & I were having that in mind when designing the text, we might have found a solution that breaks it up to make it more easily digested. Of the top of my head, I would put in some Stop instructions midway through, since we use that construct in the book:
[STOP] Stop here and ask each patient if they understand what’s just been read. Repeat if it need be. There are further explanations on Page XX in Chapter Three, SECTION TITLE, should you need it. Once everyone is ready, proceed.
Or break that up to:
[STOP] Stop here and ask each patient if they understand what’s just been read. Repeat if it need be. Once everyone is ready, proceed.
There are further explanations on Page XX in Chapter Three, SECTION TITLE, should you need it.
How to Test This
Have some folks over. Have one person, not you, read the text. It’s cool if they’ve read it first, since that’s not an unreasonable expectation. (Though, also test someone who has not yet read the text.) Then watch where the reader and those listening start to lose moment, start to get bored.
Hell, if you get bored reading your own text, that’s an issue. The Mythender intro text I wrote up last year bores me to read aloud about 3/4 the way through. So I need to tighten it.
In testing this, you’ll also see places where reading it to yourself is natural, but speaking it — adopting a vocal rhythm — is problematic. Listen for how people are speaking for ways to make said speaking more natural. Do this even if the text already has the content you want. If there’s stumbling the words around that content, it might not stick as well in the listeners’ minds.
Do this for your inspiring intro text, and for other text you think the GM will read, like parts of character creation, and you’ll be ahead of the class.
 Awesome enough to win Indie RPG Most Innovative Game Award in 2010.