Posts Tagged ‘text design’
Today, I talk about the think I brought up last week in my post about minimalism vs baroque text design: context channels.
A context channel is a collection of related information dictated in the same way. Rules are one context channel. Examples are another. Commentary sidebars are yet another. And fiction in games is one more context channel.
(There are other channels that cannot exist in a book, like in-person or video demonstrations, actual play podcasts, and, you know, actually playing the game. But I’m talking about text design here, so those are out of scope.)
Here’s a quick diagram I made to help illustrate this idea:
This goes into one & two contexts, which is typically what you find in most games: games that are example sparse (and thus really only have rules) are one-channel, and games with a healthy amount of rules & examples intermixed are two-channel.
For examples of three-channel, look at the commentary on either The Dresden Files of the various Burning Wheel books.
If you have only one context channel in the book, that is the make-or-break point. If that doesn’t convey information that sticks with confidence in the reader’s mind, you’re fucked. If it does, then you’re awesome.
If you have more than one context channel, you increase the likelihood that you’ll created that confidence-rich understanding…in theory. However, if that second context channel is sloppy or discordant (like the examples don’t appear to quite mesh with the rules), then you can destroy confidence the first channel created. The chart above (attempts to) visually show the potential results of two context channels.
Note that in two of those three situations, the result is positive. That’s why I’m about multiple contexts. And since I want to support people with learning disabilities (a later post), that’s why I look at text design this way.
However, if you’re not careful, it can backfire. The multiple contexts have to be in sync, sympatico, in both content and page placement. Otherwise you’re created a murky environment, and very few people feel confident in a bog.
And it does generally increase the amount of text to read & process, though if it’s done well it’s visually distinct enough for people to skip it if they feel like their minds want to keep on the current context (or, in layman’s terms that most readers think, “I’ll read the examples later once I’ve finished with the rules”) and it’s appropriately adjacent to related information.
This is the intro post about the idea. I have a flight to catch, like, right now, and the wifi here is hell. So, more later! :)
Happy Boxing Day, y’all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The opposite of minimalism, the philosophy behind baroque is to create a rich or deep series of information channels.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
 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.
 Okay, I just wanted to write “strata”.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re making a game. And let’s call this game oh, I don’t know, something totally out of the air…Mythender. You’ve run this game at least 50 times at conventions and a bunch at home, and you’ve made characters over and over and over again.
So you should know how to write the character creation chapter, right? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! You’d think so, but suddenly you’re overwhelmed by all the times people have had problems, and as you’re writing a procedure you’ve outlined, you’re constantly doing dumb crap like writing sidebars of advice and getting distracted and feeling like you’re making little progress. And then you feel really dumb, because you can explain these ideas really, really well…vocally.
See, I’m an orator. Podcasting is natural to me. Being mouthy at Barcon is natural to me. And a friend recently helped me understand why: in those moments, I have a specific audience. When I’m writing, I’m, to borrow a phrase from the redoubtable Chuck Wendig, painting with shotguns. And that’s fucking my process all manner of up.
I have come up with an experiment to help me, and people like me, get through this roadblock. It’s about writing a letter that will teach them how to do something. This trick is mainly for procedural texts, but the crafty among you (which I’m going to charitably assume is all of you) will stumble across other uses of this trick, I’m sure.
Writing a Letter to Two Friends
In this exercise, you’re going to pick a single piece of your game you’re struggling with, and two people whose intellect you respect and who come from different backgrounds. And you’re going to write one letter addressed to both of them. This is not just some hypothetical exercise. You are going to write a letter to two people and email it to them.
Pick friends who are:
- People whose intellect you respect. That way you aren’t second-guessing your audience and what they know or can easily figure out. You have time in the future to fill in “I’m going to second-guess you” text, if you absolutely have to.
- People who come from different backgrounds. This will mean their assumptions will be a bit mismatched, so you’ll have to over-explain yourself just a little. And a little goes a long way, because — and here’s the rub — if you only write it to one person, you’re going to assume what they’re assuming. That’s like playing a game of Telephone with your draft. Avoid that.
- People who will take the time to give you feedback. Unless you’re the sort of self-deprecating sadsack that assumes your book won’t be read, the point of writing a book or game is to communicate ideas with people. So test if your communication is any good.
- People who know how to give feedback & critiques. Not everyone knows how to do this. I recall in high school showing people my poetry, and most people would say “that’s cool” or whatever. You know the people in your life who will give you good feedback and know how either to not be a cockbite about it or how to be the right cockbite about it.
If you can’t find people with all four, pick three out of four of those ideals. Whatever it takes.
Living this Exercise: Mythender
Let’s take that “hypothetical” from earlier. I’m struggling with Mythender’s character creation, because there are parts that are difficult. And I’ve designed a lot of small influencing bits around them to make them easier. Now the trick is to codifying that into text. Which is fuck-all hard for me, for some reason I don’t understand. Probably the fact that there’s all this built-up expectation and I’m the only one who knows all the pieces, so I can’t rely on other people to help me riff-write.
So I’m writing the character creation chapter. I’m picking two friends or this exercise: Josh Roby and my friend Lily.
- Why Josh? If you have to ask that, you are in a cave. Man designed Smallville, the greatest game that should have been on MTV Geeks Top 10 RPGs of 2010 list. He’s a frequent cohort of mine (and working together on a new project we’re calling Vicious Crucible, and we can critique each other.
- Why Lily? She has a different background — she’s a Mage: the Ascension LARP Storyteller, runs and plays games like Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, and Rogue Trader. She’s starting to play the “dirty hippie games” like Don’t Rest Your Head (and recently talked about it on Hell Yeah, Gamemasters!) And, oh, this is important: she’s excited about Mythender. So, hey, awesome.
Now, you might be wondering why these two and not other people. Read on, friends. Read on.
Oh, and so you know, I’m on day fucking three of writing this letter, partly because it’s difficult, partly because I have like a thousand other things I have to do, and no one is paying me right now to write Mythender. (Sorry Josh & Lily, you’re not getting this until the new year.)
Dos and Don’ts
You will write in your natural voice, as you would speak. It doesn’t matter if the end product will have a different voice. That’s for a future draft. Get this letter done by writing as you’d talk. Trying to make it in another voice is one path of fucking up. A short example from the letter I’m working on:
Overview of Making a Mythender
This should take, like half a hour, 40 minutes.
Don’t get hung up on uneven descriptions. If you have a list of stuff, and one item takes three sentences to describe, one takes just one, and a third is “this should be obvious” that’s okay. Obsessing at this point is toxic to the process. This is not your final text. Another example:
A Mythender is:
…A walking slayer of gods. He is walking destruction He leaves in his wake the broken bodies and spirits of Norden’s nightmares.
…A force of nature. He is a living blizzard of chaos and doom.
…An incarnation of independence. No one owns or is master over a Mythender. The only equals a Mythender knows is another of his kind, and even then no Mythender is more powerful than another. They go where they choose, they do what they will for reasons all their own.
…A cursed soul. Mythenders are damned by Fate to become they thing they hate most: a monster, a myth. Either this or death await, and there is no third option, no matter how much one might hope.
…A lonely mortal, still capable of feeling. Mythender seem inhuman from the outside, but they still feel as mortals do. And if they ever lose that ability to feel, they will fall and become a myth. Mythenders have feeling. They have empathy. They have everything to lose.
My writer instinct tells me that “force of nature” looks wrong. But that’s to fix later. And “lonely mortal” is probably too long. Whatever. I’ll fix later, when I know what actually needs fixing.
If you have a laundry list of configurations, like Feats in D&D, list just a few. And list them when that decision will be made, even if you later intend to put that in another chapter for reference. I don’t have an example of this yet, as I’m still working on my letter.
Don’t get hung up on imperfect language. If you don’t have a good term for a concept, fuck up aggressively and call it out. Example:
First Choices: Am & Was
To start making a Mythender, you start with two choices. On the character sheet that needs to be totally reworked, you’d see “I am a ________” and “I was a _______” You can choose these in either order. [I don't have a good name for this, so I'm calling them Am and Was for now.]
It turns out that two hours after writing this, I actually came up with terms I liked. I had old terms, “Archetype” and “Identity,” which sucked. Meaningless terms just to have terms. In writing this last time, it was natural to call one History and the other Heart — for reasons I won’t get into. Still, the lesson holds. I was able to move on by just writing a shitty name and flagging it.
If you have decisions that require more mastery than you can reasonably devote space to in the email (and if it takes more the 500 words to frontload an idea, it’s too much for this exercise), give a short, imperfect version and call that out. In Mythender, your Weapons have some mechanic fiddly bits. But instead of going into that, I wrote:
Second: Coming up with your three Weapons
Weapons are the things you use in battle to completely annihilate the forces of Norden. You aren’t just killing, you’re utterly destroying and unmaking. Because of the power behind these Weapons, they’re all things of meaning and import to your Mythender. They can be skills, raw emotions, special artifacts or relic, or allies and companions.
Weapons come in three types: Intrinsic, Relic and Companion. Intrinsic Weapons are skills, talents, emotions, beliefs — anything that’s a strength of him from within. Relics are items of power that have personal meaning to your Mythender — not just any sword, but your father’s sword, or the sword of the one who killed your village, or the sword from your first Ending. Companions are those who travel with you, be they mortal, animal, or even mythic.
When writing out your Weapon, write it out as if you were filling in the phrase “_____________ is my Weapon.” You’ll see that the character sheet as “…is my Weapon” on each Weapon slot. Often they’re start with “My…” or “The…” and that’s okay.
Restrict yourself to only one level of headings. Some of you, if you’re like me, are practically felicitating whoever invented to concept of sub-headers. Don’t do that here. One level of header — maybe a second, but that second is only for individual choices in a step, not advice or whatever. I don’t have a good example that doesn’t just involve pasting the entire email, which is 2300 words so far, and I’m expecting it to hit around 6000-7000.
What You Do When You’re Done Writing
First of all, sit on the letter for at least one day. 24 hours, not just overnight. Close it, don’t just leave it open to tinker with. Ignoring this step means you hate freedom and puppies.
Then open it up and read it aloud. Aloud. Where your mouth is doing the noise-making thing that you’re good at (assuming, again, that you’re a strong orator like me). If you can, read it to someone — but not one of the two people you wrote it to. Use that to catch problems in your email — any time you have a drop in confidence while you’re speaking, flag that bit of the text and come back to it once you’re done with this part of the exercise.
After that, you’re going to edit. You’re going to go through your text and find where you flubbed.
When you’re done, you’re emailing this to your two friends. I recommend it as two different emails rather than one, that way if they reply to you, they aren’t also replying to the other person, thus possibly annoying them or contaminating them as an experiment vector with more data than you intended to send.
Ask them to record themselves reading and trying your text. Ask for specific feedback.
Then rewrite the letter, incorporating the feedback, for two more people & repeat.
Congrats. You have a “zeroth draft” that likely works. Now you can go through the work of turning that into the text you want in your book. Fuckton easier to rewrite that text than one in a vacuum, yeah?
 This is not uncommon in our hobby. I think some of brilliant folks are better orators than writers. Listen to John Wick explain Houses of the Blooded. Then read it. It’s not that John’s a shitty writer (though I know some will argue that he is — take that argument to RPG.net please!), but that he’s such a goddamned great orator that his writing looks lessened in comparison.
 Or you could, you know, assume your readers have a higher base intelligence than that. Something I often remark when I’m editing: “Assume your reader is smart enough to get this.” (Or when I’m feisty and with the right author, “Do you seriously think I’m a fucking moron?”)
 Yeah, I was that fuck. But I won some award and got a standing ovation in my senior year of high school, so hey, it worked for me. And, honestly, the reason you’re reading this now is because of my high school creative writing teacher fostering me as a writer. I owe you a debt I can never repay, Ms. Starr-Joyal.
 As a point of note, it’s a pet peeve of mine that we call doing your own editing “editing.” It’s really “rewriting.” But that’s because too many cockbites thing self-editing is good enough to have a story or book considered edited. And that makes baby pandas cry.
For the last several years, I’ve been thinking about text design in role-playing games. Thinking about clarity of information, about voice, about flow, about organization, about all that shit. This is why people keep asking me to edit their books — Fred Hicks has said that my superpower is that I know exactly what the reader needs to see on any given page.
I have quite a few half-written posts about text design, but I finally have something I feel like I can tackle in a short post. It’s my guiding principle:
The Reader’s Mind is Late-World War II Germany.
My text has to attack on two fronts.
One front is nearly universal: my text should teach you. If you it doesn’t tell you how to play the fucking game, what’s the point of the text? So, that’s one. But the other front changes constantly from one piece of the book to the next. At different times, the book should also:
- Inspire you. Text should make you want to play the game or play with that idea.
- Amuse you. Jokes and humor help cement ideas in the mind.
- Horrify you. Piss you off. Or any strong reaction that the mind cannot avoid. (I suspect some of this is intentional in Apocalypse World. I don’t like those bits, but damn if I don’t respect the hell of of them.)
- Engage you in a mystery. A Penny for my Thoughts is subtle here, with Dr. Tompkins.
- Sympathize with your efforts in learning the text. Here some of the marginalia in the Dresden Files RPG does that.
(Not that this is an exhaustive list. Any other ideas? Please add in the comments!)
You’ll notice that all of these other fronts are emotional rather than a second form of informational. That’s the damned point. All communication has a root in emotional manipulation (and much of it manipulation that we as an audience want and accept). RPG texts are no different. Fail to manipulate the brain on the second front, and you’re bore the brain before information from that first front sinks in.
That said, I suspect a given moment in the text (whether that be passage, page, spread — however your book is structured) should not do more than two fronts. More may be distracting. But I have to think on that.
What’s the risk of not doing this? Well, maybe you’ll make a great game. Brilliant mechanics, engaging setting, all that. If your text fails, if it, as Robin Laws has said (and I am likely misquoting) reads as a set of stereo instructions, then your game will not be memorable. Does your game deserve that fate? I hope you don’t think so.
I will point out the one pitfall of this idea: it’s hard to do well in the first draft (just like everything else). This is an idea to look at during revisions and definitely during the final product. So, be careful about apply it poorly and causing writing paralysis.
Aside: That’s part of why the marginalia in Dresden works So Fucking Well. It is constantly our second front (namely amusing and sympathetic), cementing ideas in the reader’s mind. But further on that specific topic is a post for another time, because while many books do in-character marginalia, Dresden’s has frankly outdone them all. Again, though, that’s another post.
 And everyone in Evil Hat has a superpower. It’s a company requirement.
 Which is honestly a fucking intimidating claim.
 Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who has had a pick-up line work for them. Half of them work because it’s funny, which cements the other front of “being suggestive” in the mind. The best pick-up lines, I’ve found, are corny and delivered with a sense of humor. Same principle applies, since you’re trying to seduce the reader into making out with your idea.
 This idea in action. Though, that also goes for this whole post. And the one before it, and the one before that. Etc.