Which RPG features the best writing?
From my limited experience, the best examples I can think of are all takes on gaming in the Lovecraftian mythos.
- The condensed rules for Trail of Cthulhu are well structured and clearly presented as a system of play.
- Cthulhu Dark is an unambiguous and efficient text – not really a surprise, given Graham Walmsley’s background as a software engineer.
- I appreciate fellow business analyst Paul Baldowski’s writing for Cthulhu Hack too.
The best writing makes it easy for me to understand how to run the game. I see it as a kind of technical writing, whose job is to move me from reading to playing the game.
The system, subsystems and mechanics need to be clearly articulated. I want to read rules that are unambiguous – even if they are presented as guidelines rather than strictures, and regardless of how many or how complex they are.
As well as writing style, authors have a choice about what they write about. I like to see contextually relevant examples included. They should showcase how the rules should be used in play. In character creation examples, they should help show why you might make certain character design decisions. I get frustrated when game writers use them as an opportunity for prosaic actual-play.
While presentation and layout aren’t strictly part of the writing, punctuation certainly is. Good use of bullet points, numbered lists and other text structuring devices massively improve the readability of the writing. It all makes it easier for me to quickly understand how to run the game.
As a manual I might refer to during play, good indexing and cross-referencing help too. While an index may not be considered part of the writing, in-line cross-referencing is a writing choice. I think it’s a good choice to make in a manual.
Flavourful prose is a distant second concern for me in a roleplaying game. I don’t read much fiction, and that perhaps is reflected in how I approach a rulebook. Fiction in rulebooks is great for setting atmosphere, but I don’t like it when it interferes with presenting the rules – especially in examples.
These are my criteria for ‘best writing’ in a game.
I’m not sure I can think of many games that do this really well. Too many small press games I’ve picked up in the past (usually because I have enjoyed playing them) seem to get lost in the fiction of their setting. It’s surprising as well as frustrating. Their creators usually have some really innovative mechanics that are what make the games worth playing.