Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Flash, not substance

The mainstream rpg market, the one dominated by games like Paizo's Pathfinder and WotC's D&D, has changed a lot from the roots of the hobby. Where once most gamers would have been content with a photocopied manual made in their local library and purchased through the mail, the format of the books has become of greater and greater import to the people buying them. We want books that look good and have lots of pictures, presumably because our imaginations are no longer working on overtime, so we need to have illustrations on every page to remind us what our own particular fantasy worlds look like.

This is really an aspect of the DIY problem spilling over into book design. D&D, like most modern well-known and mainstream pnp games, isn't about coming up with your own stuff anymore but rather purchasing stuff that you find in a store. The shiny pages, the full-page artwork, and the strange layouts are themselves a selling point now with the content taking second place. The encyclopedic style of late-stage TSR  has been supplanted by a very simple and easy-to-read method of writing.

As the writing of the books has gotten less complex their layouts have taken up the slack. They are now shining examples of overdesign. Yes indeed! I said it once and I'll say it again! They have less content and more glamor than any books that came before them. Paizo is perhaps slightly less guilty of this (their Pathfinder book is as gigantic a paperweight as I've ever seen and I confess that I couldn't be bothered to read it thoroughly as I despise 3.x in all its incarnations) but WotC has taken this design schema to heart and so have many lesser companies following WotC's wagon train.

Take a look at any roleplaying supplement produced in the golden or silver ages of the hobby. Take a look at the original Starship Warden in the very first Gamma World set. These things aren't tarted up to the nines, they're simple. They contain what you need to play the game and often do so in a very high level of language.

They're complicated, hard to grok with ease, and often times extremely ugly. People will tell me that the expansion of the player-base is the best thing that could happen to an rpg. I deny this vigorously! The contraction of the player-base, its status as an elite group, is what made these games work.

If you can't read tables, I don't want you in my game. If you can't parse strange and backwards language or college level instructions, I don't want you in my game! We're dealing with serious shit here, the expansion of the imagination to levels where it encompasses whole universes! We are exploring interior realms of vast complexity and far-reaching meaning. If you can't understand a handbook written in a dry style, I don't want to play with you.

There is a barrier here that has been removed, and as the barrier has come down we've been flooded with mediocre content. Mediocre content can be protected by flashy page layouts because mediocre people don't care. Anyone who values the layout and art of a book over the book's actual contents doesn't belong in the same roleplaying circle as me. YES, this is the most elitist snobbery, the hardest line of grognardism.

I don't care. It's my game too, damn it, and I can fight to preserve the way I play.


  1. "This is really an aspect of the DIY problem spilling over into book design." ---> "The encyclopedic style of late-stage TSR has been supplanted by a very simple and easy-to-read method of writing."

    So now good design is a problem.

    "The contraction of the player-base, its status as an elite group, is what made these games work."


  2. Yes, god forbid PLEBES play OUR ELITE ELFGAMES, and that it should remain secret and die with us!

    Oh wait that's a horrible idea.

  3. Sorry, when you dumb down language that means dummies play. I don't want to play with dummies. Simple as that.

    1. Sorry, when you intentionally complicate language and formatting, you end up playing with pretentious wankers who call it art. I don't want to play with wankers. Simple as that.

    2. And no one likes to play with elitists who claim to be smarter than they are simply because they can parse incomprehensible rules better than the average joe.

      AD&D was a cobbled-together mess, ill-designed in presentation and form, contradicting itself and hiding important rules behind flowery prose. This is not good game design, and there's a reason it hasn't been repeated.

      "Dumbing down" the language has allowed more people into the hobby than ever before, and by giving cohesive design and easy to reference rules the hobby GROWS. It's not even trying to aim for the lowest common denominator, it's the hobby learning from its mistakes and improving so that you don't get inane rules arguments over every little thing.

      Tabletop gaming should not be something that requires a degree to figure out. Take off your rose-tinted glasses and learn game design, or maybe play something other than the same shit you did when you were 12.

      Games have evolved, you have not. Simple as that.

    3. Pandering to the lowest common denominator and making the game available to the widest possible audience are one and the same thing. It's a matter of definition, you fucking apes.

    4. No. No it isn't.

      It's no wonder the OSR movement is incompetent, it's pandering to people like YOU. Elitist neckbeards who think older and more obtuse games make them smarter, instead of just grognardian manchildren who can't adapt or even comprehend game design.

    5. Yes, because obviously the COMMON MAN and the ELITE UBERMENSCH could never enjoy the same thing. If you enjoy something that THE APE-LIKE PLEBES enjoy, they take away your permission to wear a beret and philosophize while smoking a pipe.

      Obfuscating rules does not make them better. Good rules are always easy to read and make sense of, and presented in a well-designed and well-laid-out fashion so they can easily be re-found later. It may also indicate a problem with your faculties of imagination if seeing a few pictures of elf chicks makes it hard for you to imagine your own D&D characters.

    6. I think you are confusing different kinds of "good design", Patrick. Slick, easy-to-read, well-illustrated books are definitely good design as far as your business model might be concerned, but what the fuck does that mean for the people who actually play the game? They get more low-quality garbage that they can be expected to shill out cash for? Well, at least they LOOK pretty, right?

      "Good design" where the game is concerned, and not the selling of it (since, after all, a group only really needs a single copy of a given book, no? Even then, it could just be a tatty photocopy in a dollar store binder. Why not? It's the text you need, and guys who can comprehend and apply it.) has very little to do with flash and formatting. Selling books to people who have trouble reading encyclopedically-styled, tatty photocopies is amazing for game-sellers, but detrimental to the hobby as a whole. College-level language and the requisite reading level to decipher it are much more important, I'd say.

      Consider, say, this sort of standard-lowering approach being taken with other games. Imagine if chess were played with brightly-painted pieces on an electronic board that lights up when you take a piece and tells you that you are an awesome chess player. Pretty cool? But because the people who need this to feel good about playing chess don't really understand chess normally, they have altered the rules so that you just play checkers with the chess pieces. NeonChess players don't understand or like classical chess players, and they become insulted and indignant when classical chess players have the GALL to insult their fun, popular, and therefore good game.

      That sort of good-for-selling good design is bad, in the end, because the community becomes saturated with mooks who get upset when other people have standards.

    7. > Slick, easy-to-read, well-illustrated books
      > more low-quality garbage

      Did you miss a lot of words in there? Or is there just some sort of incomprehensible disconnect in your train of thought? Brightly-coloured cars and coal scattered everywhere, locomotive embedded in a barn.

      Your chess analogy also takes some work. Chess does, in fact, have very simple, easily-parsed rules, and anyone can pick it up and play it(though, indeed, it takes quite a bit to MASTER it). What you want is to conceal those simple rules within a 200-page, overly-verbose essay using as many five-syllable words as possible.

    8. >Slick, easy-to-read, well-illustrated books
      >low-quality garbage

      Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

    9. Josh wrote:
      "Pandering to the lowest common denominator and making the game available to the widest possible audience are one and the same thing. "

      monkeytoho wrote:
      "No. No it isn't."

      Lowest Common Denominator in a non-math situation means the most common view or ability of a group of people - i.e., in marketing, whatever will be accessible to the most people.

      No wonder you don't like AD&D. You apparently lack the reading comprehension of even a middle-school student.

    10. Funny, the AD&D 2nd Edition game I was in this past Saturday went quite well, especially when it was a Birthright game and we have to deal with running a whole nation!

      Or or, how about the many Rifts games I ran in the past, juggling 6 players at once using a clunky and ill-designed rules that makes even Synnibar look good?

      Nope, I'm clearly an idiot who can't understand anything more complicated than Kobolds Ate My Babies.

    11. Oh, no you're busting out your chops. Thank god you proved that you love to play AD&D with your fancy words.

      Unfortunately, you still didn't prove that you understand the English language. Until you do, go home and don't come back.

    12. *Oh no,

      Here, let me helpfully edit that for you, Mr. English Professor.

  4. These sad attempts to defend the craft paste you are eating and pretending is "good game design" aren't gonna fly here. Feel free to keep ranting and making yourselves look like fools.

    For the record, "easy to read" and "well designed" are not the same thing. If they were, every piece of culture would be easily digestible pap designed for a mass audience. The fact that there are levels of sophistication may frighten and anger your tiny shriveled brains and quivering genitals, but it does not, by any means, invalidate them.

    1. If it's well-designed, it is by definition also easy to read. If it's pointlessly challenging to read(i.e. provides more of a challenge than simply requiring a minimum vocabulary or pre-acquired knowledge of the subject), then it's badly designed.

      Look, I'm one of your vaunted "elites" who's hung unto the hobby since AD&D, I'm one of the people who LIKE Kult. But even I am frankly overjoyed whenever there are some RPG designers who get their heads out of their asses and just present things in a straight-forward way rather than trying to be ARTISTES.

    2. Patrick, I actually agree with the pointlessly challenging comment. However, I don't think that many of the challenging portions of early D&D are pointless.

      I really doubt anyone was sitting there obfuscating the rules on purpose; however, I take exception to playing a game with someone who doesn't understand the word obfuscating and can't be bothered to look it up.

      In some cases, the language serves as a barrier to the COMPLETE MORON and the ULTRA CASUAL. I really don't want to play with people other than that.

      I agree that games shouldn't be designed to PURPOSEFULLY EXCLUDE people, but nor should it be designed to PURPOSEFULLY INCLUDE people that are clearly not fit to play. Flashy graphics and sleek sentence structure are hooks for people that read comic books as their primary form of entertainment.

      I don't want someone who struggles reading The Giver or Catcher in the Rye to be playing the same D&D game as I am.

    3. The fact that there are better, more well-written, and easier to digets RPGs out there may frighten and anger your tiny shriveled brain and quivering genitals, but it does not, by any means, invalidate them.


      P.S. - Trying to call us idiots doesn't magically validate your point, it just makes you look like a goddamn fool. You are literally advocating bad and obtuse game design so that you can feel smarter, and yet can't back up your talk and just sit there with your fingers in your ears going "la la la I can't hear you everyone who disagrees with me is a retard."

      No Josh, you are the retard.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Your inability to reply cogently to any of the points raised and instead to whine "but it's hard to read! That hurts my brain and heart!" point you out as a grade A moron.

      Keep trolling, bro, your inability to argue is like a sweet sweet nectar to my parched lips.

      EDIT: you're/your hurdur

    6. What makes your game more or less intellectual is not whether the rules are HIGHLY ADVANCED or not, it's what content you put into it. I can take AD&D and turn it into a brainless hack&slash-fest for idiots who think Halo is an intellectual tour-de-force or I can take 4th edition D&D and create a deep and complex world full of puzzles, moral dilemmas and ethical gray areas.

      At most the rules will just make accomplishing what you want with the game be more or less complicated. I prefer less complicated, and I am not hating on people who prefer more complex rules, but I am hating on the perspective that simpler rules and "flashier" layouts mark people as intellectually inferior.

    7. And your inability to actually argue any point I've made paints you as a moron as well. What's your point?

      I started with Rifts, TMNT, and the other Palladium games. If you want obtuse game rules, look no further than that dying husk of a company that has refused to update its rules since the 80's. That is the shit I cut my teeth on, and I'd never go back to such garbage, or subject a new player to it; it's a system that actively gets in the way.

      Palladium is actually a perfect example of why you don't make your games difficult to grasp, because it makes you even more obscure in an already niche hobby. It is pandering to an ever-shrinking fan base, refusing to alter or change with the times, sitting in an echo chamber and producing nothing new or interesting. If game design did not evolve past this, it is highly doubtful the RPG market would have survived today.

    8. Sorry, strawman. I didn't say "write purposefully confusing rulebooks." My argument was to write rulebooks that take into account a college-grade reading level.

      If you think that's needlessly exclusive, then I guess you also have a problem with institutions of higher learning. And you must also think most human beings are pretty fucking dumb if they can't read and understand rules that are not purposefully streamlined to be as aerodynamic as possible.

    9. I'm sorry, you argued against, let me quote you again...

      "a very simple and easy-to-read method of writing."

      > EASY TO READ.

      Since when is this not something to aspire to? A book should not intentionally dumb itself down if, for instance, the only way to describe a concept is to use a college-level vocabulary. But if every concept in the book can be described with plain, simple language and formatted in a plain, simple way, why not do so?

      "Flashy formatting" isn't about appealing to idiots, it's about making things easier for EVERYONE.

      Sure, I CAN fumble my way through Exalted, or AD&D, but I'd much rather if both were formatted in as user-friendly a fashion as, say, 3rd edition D&D(not a favourite game of mine, but hell, I could pretty much always find what I was looking for!).

      What concepts in an RPG can you think of that require a specifically high reading level? Because I sure as hell can't think of any unless I'm intentionally trying to sound high-brow about simple concepts.

    10. Neglecting to write in a "simple and easy-to-read" style is NOT the same as purposefully obscuring your intentions. I agree that there's no reason to purposefully hide information; however, I do NOT agree that all concepts in pen and paper games need to be expressed in the SIMPLEST POSSIBLE LANGUAGE.

      It's not a technical manual, it's a roleplaying game.

    11. It's a technical manual FOR a roleplaying game.

      Let the game be as fancy and floofy as it wants in fluff and fiction, but once it's telling me how to roll dice, assign points and figure out success, yes, please, give me a goddamn technical manual.

      Roleplaying games aren't art, they're games. Games are meant to be played, the simpler the rules and mechanics are presented, the easier they are to pick up and play. There is no one who isn't benefited by this. There is no actual benefit from writing at "a higher level" beyond excluding some people you don't want in "your" hobby.

    12. Well, I fundamentally disagree with you. There's nothing to really say other than the fact that you and I have different ideas of what should go into a roleplaying game.

      This is a totally different argument than the one that was being made earlier, and if we're really going to have it, it should probably be somewhere other than the tiny confines of this comment section.

    13. Would you make the case that roleplaying is not on a fundamental level an intellectual activity? It is a matter of demographic - books that are written with college-level vocabulary are clearly for people who can comprehend them. Taking those same books and simplifying and paraphrasing them is a clear attempt to open them up to people who lack the ability to read the first copy. His argument isn't that simplicity is terrible or that good formatting is necessarily awful, just that watering down what was already pretty pretty good for people who could get it, and then slapping a lot of colors and spherical boobies onto it is not only just a very transparent attempt to market the thing to worse readers and people who are impressed by pretty colors, but it is a slap in the face to the people who liked the first one.

      In short, transparent language and elegant formatting? Wonderful. Dumbing things down to make dat monay? Terrible.

    14. "My argument was to write rulebooks that take into account a college-grade reading level."

      If you are implying what I think you are, then this would preclude people of a younger audience, such as teenagers, which have been the target audience for RPGs since forever. That would be an incredibly idiotic move, since they usually are the most enthusiastic and the most willing to learn since they have more free time than adults (as well as have the most disposable income--something even TSR was aware of back in the day). By making it more complicated to read than it needs to be, you get people who become disinterested, and in droves no less, shrinking the potential base. While YOU may be more comfortable with that outcome, game companies are not--and neither is the rest of the hobby.

      Plain language is not anti-literary, anti-intellectual, unsophisticated, drab, ugly, babyish, or base. It's a requirement.

    15. If you are implying what I think you are, it's that teenagers are stupid and can't be asked to understand difficult, interesting, or complex things. If that's the case, then the can play a different game than me.

      Really, I don't believe that for an instant. There are plenty of smart teenagers in the world and YOU are the one insulting them, not me.

    16. A requirement where? Do you think all of these old grognards got into the game when they were 30? Most of these oldfags played AD&D and the like when they were preteens (though I am sadly not one of them!). Strangely, college-level readers are not all necessarily college students or graduates. A deal of them are in the fourth grade.

    17. YOU are the one insulting the base intelligence of most people by assuming that, if they can't parse college-level reading for a roleplaying game, then they shouldn't have fun with it and they shouldn't be in "your" game. As if you can claim ownership of such a thing!

    18. If you can't read dem hard buchs then you am not smart. That is a simple enough thing to understand, I dunno how you could possibly take offense to this.

      Also, I can claim as much ownership over it as I want, as much as anyone else does. I play a certain way, and that way is "my" game. I'm within my rights to defend the way I play, particularly since it seems to be endangered.

      You're the one who came HERE to attack my definition and playstyle, you fucking idiot.

    19. >excluding people is evil
      >I know, I was excluded all the time in high school.

    20. I'm pretty sure that most people that run games can claim ownership of them. It's part of running a game to decide who you will and will not play with.

    21. Its "endangered" because no one plays that way anymore, and for good reason: it's antithetical to growth, and downright hostile to newcomers. It is literally pushing anyone away who does not meet your stringent roleplaying requirements, setting up barriers for a faux "cool nerd club." THIS is what I'm challenging, if nothing else.

      You don't get to decide who should be banned from the hobby, you monumental sperglord.

    22. Do you think that it is the right of any gaming group to only allow the people that they want to play with? Of course we can't DESTROY WIZARDS OF THE COAST or some shit, but why can't we have our own philosophies about gaming and game only with people who agree?

      Are you kidding me?

    23. Actually, I get to decide whatever I want when it comes to my version of the hobby, you pathetic whiner.

      As a demonstration, all further posts you make here will be deleted sight unseen.

      See how easy that was?

    24. The goal of putting out words like this blog often does is to provide a little bit of a voice for people who feel that way, and give them an easy place to get in touch, at least in part. You are acting like Josh is some sort of autistic terrorist who is tearing apart your precious hobby, and that is pretty much what you would condemn him for.

  5. Again, just because something is easy to read and pretty does not mean it is GOOD. I am sorry that you have real trouble getting through literature or that you think that putting one sentence inside of a paragraph without highlighting it in some way is an underhanded form of word-hiding.

    1. No one ever said easy to read by default made something good. But being easy to read does not by default make it FOR THE CASUAL PLEBES either, that is the point here.

    2. I don't think anyone is saying that is the case, but rather that prioritizing design OVER content DOES make it FOR THE CASUAL PLEBES.

  6. Oh no. Someone on the internet is wrong! I better stop them.