Our Empathy Problem in Tabletop Game Writing

With tech writing, my colleagues and I keep user empathy at the forefront of our minds. The emotions going into and out of a given experience aren’t afterthoughts, and what is writing if not crafting an experience with intended effect?

When I talk about this in tech writing circles, I get variations of “of course,” “I hadn’t thought about it as such but it makes sense,” and “oh hey, I unconsciously do that.” We think about how users enter and exit individual articles, user tracks, etc. We need to think about this, because we’re keenly aware a nontrivial percentage of users will enter frustrated or outright hostile.

In tabletop game circles, this is a novel concept, because most game designers don’t have a professional writing background beyond game writing as a byproduct of game design. Game designers may be good at creating mechanisms of experience in play, but creating experience in the writing itself isn’t much of a focus.

But I’m not going here to shitpost about my fellow game writers. I sympathize, especially as I keep rewriting sections of my current work-in-progress game. Let’s dive into the problem together.

We don’t architect the information with reader experience in mind, because of our writing conditions.

We have really piss poor models of communication that long-time players expect as familiar, and we have direct customer interactions that inform patchy reactions in future works. I’m looking at you, tabletop games from the 70s, 80s, 90s.

We labor over rules text to exhaustiveness trying to avoid lengthy online discussions about corner cases[1]. We frequently operate with tight deadlines to deliver text to a printer in time for a trade show, and the very act of physical printing creates a sense of immutability. We focus on communication in a technical way a very soft series of procedures and practices, while trying to not be totally dry about it at the individual moment-level.

And the easiest thing to do is start with the classic, painful model of game book design, and write content to fit that model—to meet deadlines and to focus on individual bits of material.

Broad solutions aren’t the answer here; better understanding of our craft is. So rather than try to offer bullshit solutions, I want to suggest three targeted questions/exercises.

  • A reader opens your book. Do you do anything to direct them to various parts of the book they may want to go to, based on various typical reader objectives? People wanting to run the game for others. Folks just needing the basics because they’ll be taught the rest. Those needing deeper play info after playing a session or two.
  • Take the start of your conflict procedure rules, after any preamble. Your reader is confused at the procedure after reading it once, enough to where they don’t want to attempt play. What writing techniques do you use to instill ease or reassurance?
  • Have someone else make a list of the ten most important rules to your game. Have others try to find them in your book. Time them, and talk with them about the interpretation of what they read.

To be crystal: I’m not any better than the rest of y’all at this. I suffer from the same problems, and after the massive volume of work that is design, writing, redesign, rewriting, and so on, it’s very easy to be blind to these elements. After all, we’re writing for the product we’re directly creating, and that entails so many struggles.

I got a lot more to say on this hydra of a topic, but at around 500 words, this serves as an intro to what’ll likely be a slow series.


Hat tip to Rose Williams for the idea to start talking about this, after my lightning talk at WriteTheDocs last year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W25pY7SIFw4&t=237s

[1] Most tech writers don’t have the same sense of dread we game writers, because they don’t get held directly accountable by random people at any hour of the day, regarding what’s fundamentally a subjective form of collaborative art. This is one reason I laugh about how the hardest writing I’ve ever had to do and will ever have to do is in games. It doesn’t have the stakes that, say, a manual on doing heart surgery in space would, and yet it’s far more challenging.