On Having Game Design Rationales in the Text

Let’s talk today about having game design rationales embedded in game texts.

Some of the work I do as a technical writer is communications writing, like emails to customers about upcoming changes or actions they need to take. And some of you cringe at the thought because you know how low a success rate those emails get.

Still, they’re necessary for getting adoption. If you can get the word out there, some users will actually read emails and do whatever action they deem is necessary—which means you need to make that action super-clear and super-surfaced. You’re writing to those users, because those users will talk with other users and be your advocates (if the process you’re writing about doesn’t suck).

Those users are easy, though. You’re writing to a second group of users too, who might do what you need but are skeptical. One way we achieve what we want with those users is to tell them the story of why something is happening. “Hey, we know X is a pain to deal with, but we’re doing it so you can get the latest and greatest update, also if you don’t do X your shit will def break by Y date, yo.”

(Except more corporate-y.)

So… why don’t we do this in RPG books?

Why don’t we include elements of system rationale in our books? Why don’t we say things like “Fate Core characters have five aspects by default, so you have a few options on the table at any given point that could apply, but not so many that situational aspects feel superfluous”?

I’m not saying to belabor points. The last thing we need are longer RPG books that are filled with material not referentially useful. But some rationale in context could help those players inclined to just play rules as written understand why they’re written that way, and help those skeptical understand what they should be considering.

That, and in articulating the rationale for readers, you could find your rationale to be bullshit when it makes sense semantically unformed in your mind.

There are other potential benefits to rationale text. In Katanas & Trenchcoats, I use such moments to reinforce tone and atmosphere, rather than explain a design principle explicitly.

So consider incorporating rationale text in your manuscript. In the editing process, you could always remove or reposition that text, so you lose nothing by trying it in the first place. That, and maybe later in the design process you end up disagreeing with your past self; such things work as notes for you, too.