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.[1]

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”.

The Issue

Here’s one really long piece of text that’s meant to be read as a step in the process:


A Penny For My Thoughts, pages 19-20
Click to enlarge

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.

Some Guidelines

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.

– Ryan

[1] Awesome enough to win Indie RPG Most Innovative Game Award in 2010.


12 Responses to Timing Text Meant to be Read

  1. Jim says:

    I guess it’s “ask and you shall receive.” I’m going to get a big head.

    I’ve found that my own writing style is too jumbled to be read aloud by doing the exact exercise that you’re advocating. It’s something that I need to consider should I ever start writing RPG stuff.

    It’s a good reminder and thanks for turning your critical eye inward. More lessons learned.


    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Sounds like you need to spend some time learning to unjumble your writing. If it can’t be read aloud well, then there’s plenty who won’t read it well at all.

      – Ryan

  2. Kit says:

    I think this applies to all text, not just text to be read. But I’m an oralist…

    Inspiring intro text with some rhythmic elements and subtle assonance can be powerful.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      If you can, sure. But baby steps — focus on what you expect people to read. (What will happen with good writers & editors is that everything else will start to step in line with that.)

      – Ryan

  3. jessecoombs says:

    I’m wondering what you think of Microscope’s text now…

    Also, how would you rate Fiasco or Serial Homicide Unit?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Fiasco doesn’t feel like It’s meant to be read at the table. I do it, but it could be better constructed for that purpose. And that’s actually more in read-at-table friendly layout and spacing than the words themselves.

      I haven’t read SHU in ages, and at some point I’ll critique Microscope. I can tell you I rather dislike that text the game made you read to us in the beginning, but that’s because it contains another issue (which I’ll get to then).

      – Ryan

    • Jonathan Walton says:

      Yeah, my main reaction to Fiasco was that the game needed to be at least 50% shorter and maybe more like 25%, in a little booklet that you could just pick up and play. But that’s probably my bias because that’s the direction I was taking Geiger Counter in.

      The most recent game that really rocks this is Jackson’s “Silver & White,” though I realize I’m pimping this game all over the place. It’s super smart about being designed to be read aloud.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I had a similar reaction. I like to read pieces of the text — notably the first page about establishing scenes — to new-to-scene-framing players. And it’s just long enough to be overwhelming, I’ve found. So I stop partway through.

      One of my goals for the next version of Mythender’s character creation text is making sure it works for a GM reading it to players. Because that happens so often in our tribe, as part of the “let’s all do this at the table” thing. And the neat thing: if you support it, you also better support people doing it on their own.

      I’ll have to check out Jackson’s game. Link?

      – Ryan

  4. JDCorley says:

    In high school, drama club taught me to read speeches out loud in front of a mirror. I did this with D&D boxed text. And I still do it with prepared material. Everyone should.

  5. stoney breyer says:

    FWIW, a good voice will lay down 125 (relaxed) – 140 (brisk) words per minute

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Sure. However, you’re not writing material for a “good voice,” but for general use. So, I might adjust that number down.

      Also, of course, depends on the words. Highly jargonized text may be slower.

      – Ryan