Posts Tagged ‘a penny for my thoughts’
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.
When I read advice text — player or GM advice in RPGs, blog post with advice, lectures, etc. — one thing routinely happens that the advice tells you to “be” something and doesn’t back up enough of what that means. To illustrate, I’m going to use Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe.
- Yeah, three years ago I was a rabid cockbite about this book. File that under “actions I regret.”
- His recent works, A Taste for Murder and the just-released Cthulhu Dark (which is free), are brilliant and worth checking out.
- If you’ve absorbed improv jargon and technique by being around story gamers, it’s a good collection of thoughts.
The Issue: “Be” Advice
From page 6 of Play Unsafe, Graham talks about “being average”:
- People who are clued in enough to understand how to do what’s being talked about nod in agreement, and proclaim this to be good advice.
- People who aren’t clued in enough to understand how to do what’s being talked about experience frustration at the book for being unclear or shame with themselves for not getting what is so obvious to the writer.
The core of that is whether or not the reader has the skill you’re talking about — and when you talk about “be” advice, you’re saying “employ this skill.” The author almost always has that skill, and hopefully has it well, so this tends to be natural. Paul Tevis did this quite a bit in drafts of A Penny for my Thoughts, which I’ll talk about in a moment.
Why “Be” Advice is Useful
I’m not saying this form of advice is a crime. There are two places where “be” advice is really useful: when you’re reminding people who already have the skill, and when you’re giving permission to experiment.
We did some of this in Penny:
What this ends up doing is reminding people that being specific is good, and gives permission to do that for those who feel like they need it. Now, folks like me and many of my readers likely don’t need the permission (though the reminder is still handy), but we’re writing to a larger audience.
And even if we today don’t need permission, I recall a time a few years ago when reading something like this would have felt like I had that permission to experiment with a technique. Permission is about table social contract, after all. But that’s probably a bigger topic. Just trust me; it exists and is impacted with such advice text.
How to Make This Better: “Do”
Look at any time you’re telling someone to “be” something. (Especially the dreaded “be creative.” Man, do I want to punch that advice in the face whenever I encounter it.) Ask yourself the following:
- Are you happy talking only to people who possess the skill you’re talking about? If so, don’t change anything. (This, by the way, is not a passive-aggressive question. A lot of one-page or super-short RPGs assume they’re talking to at least one person who possesses skills. Graham’s Cthulhu Dark says “roleplay your fear,” and it doesn’t need to say more because of its intent and target audience.)
- Do you want to give your reader the tools to develop this skill? If so, read on.
For each point, come up with three simple actions — either specific actions or examples of the “do” in action — that back up this “be” advice. If you can’t do that, you might not actually understand what you’re talking about enough to write on it. Enough to do it intuitively, yes, but not enough to convey that to another human being. Especially via text.
Once you have three, work those into your text. Editing will reveal if you have one (or even two) “do” elements too many, or if you need to add one. But start with those three things. In the case of Penny’s Be Specific above, we have one in example-form. In Be Brief, there’s none. I’d probably add something today like “Keep it under twelve words,” but Paul might disagree.
Important: Examples of not employing the advice aren’t “do,” because it doesn’t give the reader a tool to work with, nothing to use to learn a skill. It can be good supporting text, though don’t lead with that.
Maybe there’s a degree to which the complexity of the skill needs more or less “do” support. Maybe Be Brief in Penny doesn’t need anything, and Be Specific needs only one thing. Play Unsafe’s Be Average, though, is in my mind far more complex, enough to where maybe even three “dos” aren’t enough. But that’s what the revision process is for. Start with three.
Exercise for the reader: Can you come up with three actionable items for “Be Average”? Share them in the comments!
A Litmus Test on “Be” Advice
Does it seem hard to come up with “do” advice for something you’re writing “be” advice for? Then that means your “be” advice needs “do” advice to back it up. If it’s hard for you to grasp some elements, imagine how hard it is for someone without that skill.
“Be” conveys why something is important and reminds people to do it.
“Do” tells people who have yet to master a skill how to do it.
Be a great instructor. Do both.
 And not just because I’m trying to avoid hyperbole in written form.
 For all I know, we actually discussed that back then. It wouldn’t surprise me.
 Leading with counters and don’ts will be a future critique. Man alive, it will be.
 Yes, this is also critiquing Penny, to a degree. That’ll get a couple of its own posts later.
I was heavily involved in Paul Tevis’ recently-published book, A Penny For My Thoughts — as the books editor and (as he puts it) developer. While I’ve been damned proud of the work he — hell, we — put in to make the book what it is, I’ve been hesitant to talk about it online. He has very much earned every bit of praise people are giving him, and I was worried about sounding like I was stealing Paul’s thunder or crap like that.
Last weekend, Paul asked me why I haven’t blogged about Penny, and called bullshit on my reason for not doing so. Thus, this belated post to correct my foolishness.
I want to tell you about this book, and the best way for me to talk about it is to tell you how I became the book’s editor & developer. If what Paul wrote in the Afterword was “designer notes,” these are my “editor notes.”