Posts Tagged ‘graham walmsley’
A few weeks ago, I checked out Graham Walmsley’s new rules-light Lovecrafting horror game engine, Cthulhu Dark. I was immediately intrigued by it, but in reading it I did notice an issue that I’ve seen in many other texts — insufficient context that causes reader confusion. Today, I’ll talk about that, using Graham’s game (which can I stress again that I like? Yes, yes I can) as an example.
Remember my post about how You Don’t Own Your Message? That constantly applies, so it’s no surprise that that’ll create issues when you’re reading a text for the first time. Whatever unconscious preconceived notions you have do not get instantly wiped when you jump into a new book, document, text, whatever. This causes problems if the text doesn’t provide enough context to reset those unconscious notions.
Here’s the first screenshot of Cthulhu Dark from my iPad. (Or, you know, just grab the four-page PDF — a nice cover page & three pages of rules.)
That first bit:
Choose a name and occupation. Describe your Investigator. Take a green Insanity Die.
My initial impression:
- I only need one die for this game.
- I should grab a green d10.
- I don’t need to write anything down.
Now, this part is a little misleading I think, because I didn’t realize these even were my initial impressions until later, when they were shown to be wrong. But I had no other context, so my mind filled in half-aware blanks. Brains do that.
The First Jarring Moment
In Doing Things below that, it tells me:
To know how well you do at something, roll:
- One die if the task is within human capabilities.
- One die if it’s within your occupational expertise.
- Your Insanity die, if you will risk your sanity to succeed.
My brain: “Oh, so I need more than one die, and some that aren’t green. Okay. And I’ll probably need to write down stuff about my character. Why did I think I didn’t need to?”
Weird note: My brain didn’t pick up on the “I need to write stuff down about my character” with the part above, where it tells me I’ll be recording my Insanity. No idea why. Again, that’s brains for you. Why I even thought I didn’t need to write something down is beyond me. But, as an amateur/armchair psychologist, brains are weird.
The Second Jarring Moment
Later in Doing Things, it talks about target numbers. I’m not going to paste it here. It implies a 1-6 scale, so clearly Graham’s talking about a d6. Why did I think he was talking about a d10? Probably because when I think of Cthulhu, I think of BRP, whish uses d10s. Or because prior to reading Cthulhu Dark, I was thinking about a game I’m tinker with that uses d10s. For whatever reason, that was in my brain, so seeing the word “die” my brain slotting in “d10″ in the implied blank of “what sort of die.”
At this point, my confidence in understanding the game is shaken. I’m wondering what else I’m assuming that’s inaccurate. I’m wondering what else I should know that is unobvious. And while Cthulhu Dark intrigues me, it’s now in the pile of games “I’d rather someone run it for me first to catch what’s implied.”
Why This Is an Issue
We unconsciously fill in blank context for the same reason we can be prejudice for or against some people & things — our brains have questions about a situation and inherently fill in questions with assumed answers entirely on their own. That’s how we process things quickly.
If we didn’t, we’d be eaten by bears. Of course, in today’s modern work, this wreaks havoc with how we understand things. When we’re not slotted with appropriate context, being disproven continually causes needless confusion & frustration. And because a text is passive, that’s confusion and frustration that you cannot ease with a soft personality & response.
Or worse, their contextual error isn’t corrected when they try playing the game, and they have a negative response. If that first time playing is frustrating, now the game has a negative emotional context for those players. They’ll potentially be negative about the game in online conversations, resistant or judgmental when playing again, etc. Something unfortunate when more people might enjoy the game if the context slotting is better crafted. :/
(One of the biggest examples of this I’ve seen is all the irate discussion around Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer. Though, that was years ago. Still sticks in my mind as a text that is a paradoxically complete while having problematic context slotting.)
How to Deal With This Issue
Add appropriate context before the questions are asked. For instance:
“You’ll need a few six-sided dice, including one green one for each player. Also, you’ll want some index cards or other bits of paper to note down details about your character.”
With just that, my unconscious questions would have been answered, and my confidence in the text wouldn’t have been shaken. Of course, proper placement, matching voice, all that are required in this text as it is with any other.
This is where some post-text playtests come in, and where good editors who spot lack of context come in. We as writers and designers have loads and loads of context in our heads, so it’s hard to spot this for ourselves. And our alpha playtesters, the ones who helped us forge this, also have difficulty spotting this.
This ends up being an issue with many indie games when it comes the second-order audience, the ones who find the game in a store or convention, and aren’t connected to the scene or contacting the designers on Twitter or anything like that.
Graham noted on Twitter that what I’m asking for means more words, which is tough given his already tight layout. That’s the double-edged sword of context. Personally, I think it could be done, but I don’t think it would be effortless to achieve. And there’s the rub.
When Not to Deal With This Issue
Here’s where we’ll talk briefly about target audience. If your target audience should have some context already, that’s probably not context you need to spell out. Doing so would really just get in the way of them engaging in your product. To take Cthulhu Dark for example, Graham does not at all talk about introducing what Cthulhu is or the spirit of a Lovecraft story of any of that. Does he need to? Nope. His target audience knows that already. That would be a waste of his and our time for this particular thing.
Side Note: Check out Stealing Cthulhu
Now, I’ll stress one more time that Cthulhu Dark’s a really neat idea. And I hope some of you will check out it. But there’s something else I want to draw your attention to:
Graham’s got a really interesting project that’s in pre-order funding right now, called Stealing Cthulhu. I would be remiss if I didn’t give it a quick mention.You’ve got until June 2nd to get in on some of the really cool premium versions of it. I’ve pitched in for the The Hard Steal. There are previews on the site, but here’s some text for ya:
Stealing Cthulhu is my guide to Lovecraftian storytelling. Its central idea is: by stealing, adapting and combining Lovecraft’s ideas, you can create scenarios that seem new and horrific.
The book is 175 pages and 30,000 words long (6 by 9 inches), with original art by Jennifer Rodgers. It is annotated throughout by Kenneth Hite, Gareth Hanrahan and Jason Morningstar. It’s designed for use with any roleplaying system: Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Nemesis, Cthulhu Dark or whatever you enjoy playing.
The first part of the book breaks down Lovecraft’s stories, giving you ideas and storytelling structures to use in scenarios. The second part goes through a selection of Mythos creatures, considering what they can do for your games.
 Side note: Inconsistent capitalization of “Insanity Die” and inconsistent comma use. Yes, I catch this shit. I can’t not see it now. Sometimes I honestly wish I could. I would probably enjoy stuff more if these didn’t scream out to me.
 Which I believe all game designers are. Or at least should be, if they want to be good at this craft.
 Granted, I’m being a rather presumptive fuck by saying I know his target audience. But then, isn’t this post and my entire blog being that? :)
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.
Yesterday I violated Hindmarch’s Law and commented on a Story-Games thread about Sexiness and Games. Apparently it’s a weird topic for some people because, well, fuck if I know. I don’t really care about that debate, because it’s entirely about a preference at the moment and not Bad Wrong Fun either way.
Graham Walmsley posted this bit, which I thought was brilliant. Truly, truly brilliant:
You can’t just give people +1 for fucking and expect it to work.
I will now and forever refer to this as the Walmsley Principle.
You can read his full comment (#6) and the thread for more context, but I don’t think you need to in order to understand that idea. We could talk about what that means regarding encouraging, incentivizing, and reminding people about various behaviors and motivations, and I think we should, but Graham’s comment is enough to remember those things exist. It’s sharp. It’s to the point. It’s like the tip of the iceberg — there’s more underneath, and when you see that tip, you know the whole thing’s there. And if you ignore it, it will fuck your day all manner of up.
Remember the Walmsley Principle. It applies to more than just, as he says, “fucking.”
 One of the few things great about S-G is that it’s a place where you can talk about such things without people yelling at you for, god forbid, considering mixing sex and games. At least until around comment 40 or 50, when the thread derails into crap the usual suspects piss about.
 And awesome.