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Minimalism vs Baroque in Texts

Let’s talk about something that is is a hot button for people: how much text to put into a game. Nearly half of the conversations I either see or am a part of boil down to a difference of opinion on how much text to put into a game.

There appears to be two camps: those who value minimalism and those who value baroque[1].

It’s widely known that I’m in the baroque side of the camp. Which is to say: people misunderstand what I mean. Surprise, it’s the Internet. Let’s get into the pros & cons of each.

Minimalism

Minimalist games are those that use fewer information channels — an idea I haven’t blogged about yet, but in short, different forms of information hit as different channels, such as rules, examples, commentary, fiction, etc. Those channels that are used are done so lightly, valuing terseness.

Pros

The point of channels of information is to convey context to the reader that exists in the writer. However, context that is provided by a book is weaker than context that is gained through experimentation; in other words, playing the game is always better than reading the book. Minimalist texts force the issue in order to promote quickly and necessarily self-created contexts.

Cons

Minimalism can go too far. The point of channels of information is to provide context to a reader. When you reduce channels, you are creating more and more assumptions about what the reader should know. The larger the crowd your game or text or whatever gets in contact with, the more people will approach it without that context and be lost. Knowing that you don’t have remotely the full context for a game is intimidation and can lead to paralysis or toxic play.

In addition, you may shove out people with learning disabilities by creating fewer channels for them to understand the text in the first place. Given that I have spent years around people with learning disabilities, and I am also mildly dyslexic, this is a pitfall I watch out for.

(Edit: You might also assume that the typical “you left out X rule” problem of incomplete texts in a minimalist issue, but it’s not. It’s just a crappy book issue.)

This is not at all to say minimalism is the wrong choice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Baroque

The opposite of minimalism, the philosophy behind baroque is to create a rich or deep series of information channels.

Pros

This works much like firing a quiver of arrows at once — increasing the likelihood of concepts sticking in the minds of the reader that will persist when attempting play, either as information or as reference for finding information. And additional channels act as information reinforcement, like intellectual rebar, where reading an example solidifies interpretation of game rules or reading side commentary (like what we did in The Dresden Files RPG or what Luke Crane does in Burning Wheel) presents a side viewpoint that helps align yours.

Cons

Two words: Information bombardment. This is especially the case when you, by accident or intention, assume your reader is not intelligent. (And when that’s by accident, that’s more likely showing a lack of confidence in your own skills in writing or game design.) Presenting too much information upfront — and at least a core game text is upfront info — is arguably worse than presenting too little. You’re asking for so much to stick in the mind of the reader that you create chaos. You don’t know what will and won’t stick. And just as too little information will engender a lack of confidence due to unsureness, too much will do that due to intimidation.

See, when someone opens your book, they don’t know what to safely ignore and what they shouldn’t. If you create a situation where they have to ignore something in order to process understanding, you’re likely going to get them ignoring something important.

And if too little context fucks with the learning disabled, man, too much and you might as well kiss your game goodbye. You’ve increased the amount of frustration by going too far.

It’s a Spectrum

Have you noticed how I wrote a bunch about the cons of each? That’s what happens when you take either too far. And that’s what I mean by people not understanding that I’m not actually for baroque. I’m for the happy middle. I don’t write for my alpha audience; I don’t really need to, they already get the core ideas, and I honestly think writing for only them is pretty damned lazy. (Especially if you sell a lot outside that audience.)

There is a place for minimalism, because self-created context is better than book-supplied context. There is a place for baroque, because multiple channels of information help supple context to fans outside of the alpha group (who might be tomorrow’s alphas, you know) and for those with learning disabilities.

Also know that within a book you can take different approaches. This isn’t a book-wide idea by necessity, though often it’s treated as such (and sometimes for good reason, like consistency).

The Argument of Intelligence

I often hear that advocating for baroque text is insulting the intelligence of your reader. To each of you: the hell? That assumes your reader has exactly the same form and shape of intelligence as you. And since I know that to not be true, to each of you I just shrug and say “whatever”, because you’re being far more insulting to other humans than I.

Now, if you’re saying that going too far with baroque texts is insulting? Sure, I half-buy that. I think it’s a poor reflection of the author’s skill than the author’s opinion of others, but regardless the end result is the same: a crappy book.

Layers of Context

Going too far in either direction is a problem. And, in my opinion, there are two books that knock it out of the park. One is A Penny For My Thoughts, which creates layers or strata[2] of contexts, from the minimalist second chapter that is just the rules of the game as read during play (with references to other information if desired), to the next chapter that is more or less the “advanced players guide”, to the next that is a full reply of the game with commentary. Each channel is self-selecting; you aren’t bombarded with all of them on the same page, but if you feel you need them simultaneously and don’t mind page-flipping, references exist.

That said, some people do hate page-flipping for it. That’s fair. You can’t make a book for everyone, and that was the choice we made.

The other one is Fiasco, particularly with the Fiasco Companion. The supplement is a whole new channel-set of information for those who need or want it, but it’s not required for most people to play Fiasco. That again gets to the idea of separate layers of context.

Book-External Contexts

You know what else works as separate layers of context? Blog & forum posts about experience. That fits as a commentary channel. Actual play podcasts fit as explanation or execution channels. When you hear people talking about how they didn’t get some game until they read a forum post or another game that was derived from it, that’s someone who was seeking another channel of information that didn’t exist in the book or new context created in play.

Granted, I think relying on that is, again, lazy. And it privileges alpha fans to the detriment of those who stumble upon your game later and elsewhere. But it’s there if that’s what you want to do.

 

Later, when I’m not working on Mythender, I’ll go more into context, channels, etc. I did a bit cart-before-the-horse here, but given recent conversation it was on my mind.

– Ryan

[1] I really fucking hate the word “baroque” because I rarely see it used outside of pejoratives or humor, but damn it is isn’t the best antonym for minimalism that Twitter could come up with that wasn’t a judgmental term in and of itself.

[2] Okay, I just wanted to write “strata”.

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18 Responses to Minimalism vs Baroque in Texts

  1. Hi Ryan.

    I am in the baroque camp. Within reason, and done properly, more is more. The DFRPG would be not so kick-arse if it was a 64 page stapled booklet.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Paul,

      Thanks! :)

      I do wonder, from time to time, if we went too far on the Aspects chapter. A lot of it was a reaction to confusion of how things worked expressed on fora and mailing lists, and I pushed for more, but maybe I pushed too hard?

      Or maybe that’s the right amount of info, but the context is sorted wrong? I don’t really know. But that’s the part I look back and wonder on.

      – Ryan

  2. Leonard Balsera says:

    Color me surprised that the issue is as controversial as you’re implying.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lenny,

      It’s the Internet. Everything gets controversial, especially in 140 character bites.

      – Ryan

  3. Tom says:

    Dead on. To me, “information overload” can almost always be addressed with better information architecture. For example, I’ve thought about “advanced player” rules being offset somehow in running text to prevent the page flipping that comes from including those rules in a separate section. I’ve even seen a few games that use that structure, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Too much egg nog.

  4. Josh Roby says:

    As an alternative to baroque, Ryan, how about “polyvalent?”

  5. Jason Pitre says:

    There is one additional aspect here which I believe that people should be aware of. The major minimalist concern is that missing a single sentence can utterly destroy a game. The greater the word economy of the text, the more weight each individual phrase must bear.

    For the baroque, there is contradiction. What happens if your example text appears to conflict with your written rule?

    I personally try for a minimalist approach in the reference portion of my text and additional chapters for the specific purpose of teaching and providing context.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jason,

      That’s not quite how I see it. In every text, there are the key bits, the skeleton if you will, that if you take a bone from it damaged the body.

      Minimalist texts have less flesh on those bones (again, by design, expecting a reader or community to put more on), yeah, but no text is another from a bone being removed. So it’s not just a minimalist thing. In fact, if you aren’t careful in deeper production, you might miss that important sentence being removed because there”s a lot to review in editing.

      – Ryan

  6. Ezra says:

    I really like having a hypertext reference channel, like d20srd for third edition D&D, or the searchable PDF for DFRPG. That can help people look up additional details where they’re confused, without bombarding them with text.

    • Ezra says:

      (It’s baroqueish, but I think it goes some ways towards mitigating the downsides.)

    • Joseph Teller says:

      Hypertext layering definitely can be a plus as a means of presentation of larger amounts of information. The problem here is that it’s not available in enough formats (when working electronically) and fails miserably in hard copy.

      I know this from a couple of design projects of my own over the years.

  7. Johnstone says:

    Maximalism.
    How much awesome do you want, Ryan? The minimum I can give you… or the maximum?

  8. Do you have an example of minimalism because all I can think of is Lady Blackbird.

    Another thought on minimalism vs baroque is your audience. If your (assumed) audience is already familiar with the concepts you don’t need to explain certain ideas (like in Lady Blackbird) but if your audience is new to the concepts they will need everything explained (like in Dresden Files).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Chris,

      Most games that come from the Western Massachusetts school of design are minimalist. Poison’d and In a Wicked Age certainly. But even as large of a tome as it is, there’s only one real channel in Apocalypse World (while there are rules and some example text in the game, it’s all intermixed to become one channel, the effect of conversational text), making it both dense and minimalist.

      Bits of Diasopra are. Look at the how to play section. Especially Aspects.

      Dungeon World is.

      Baron Munchausen.

      That’s what Josh was doing in Void Vultures. Now Rüls of the Void will be 32 pages long instead of 24, making it a small baroque game. :) So, length isn’t the make-or-break factor that the word “minimalism” suggests. Which is why these are crap terms for both, but minimalists do seem to love that word.

      – Ryan

  9. C. Edwards says:

    Technoir strikes me as an excellent example of a fully realized minimalist text. Every idea, concept, or rule is given one concise explanation. Then each explanation is accompanied by a brief example of that game bit put into practice. Then there are some diagrams/illustrations sprinkled in for some of the procedures you carry out at the table, such as handling dice and drawing up a Plot Map. It really hits the sweet spot for me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      See, I would say that’s terse but not minimalist, because of the number of channels involved.

      Which means I need to find time to write that post about channels.

      – Ryan

  10. C. Edwards says:

    I was going to say that I don’t really buy in to multiple channels = baroque, but as I was typing I realized what a useful distinction it is to distinguish between what is baroque and what is just bad writing. There are a lot of minimalist texts that seem baroque because the writing is of such poor quality.

    Yeah, you need to get around to that post on channels. :)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah, the problem with “baroque” is that it can be misleading as a pejorative. :) And yeah, I’m hoping to get to it soon. It involves drawing charts and junk.

      – Ryan