Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thought Eater: Keeping It Short

Alright: here's a pair of new essays for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new here, these are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers assigned to write about: 
"Brevity, concision, keeping it short--when is it good, when is it bad, how has it been used well, or misused in the history of RPG writing, or GMing?" for the contest.
Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "BREVITY1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

It's common sense that it is better to keep rules explanations concise. And there is a general trend towards minimalism both in DIY D&D circles and amongst indie/story game types. I can see in the abstract why this trend is beneficial: nobody wants an unwieldy rulebook, and looking at big, thick hardback tomes like the core rules for Pathfinder fills me a kind of existential despair - I not only don't want to invest the time in learning those rules; the thought that people have to learn them or choose to do so sends shivers down my spine. Let's just play.

And yet as I sit here writing this there is a loud voice in my brain which is saying, "You are a gigantic fraud and hypocrite, because in your heart of hearts you know that all your favourite RPG books are really fucking long." And it's true. Whether it's Cyberpunk 2020, or the Planescape boxed sets and supplements, Changeling: the Dreaming, Pendragon or even the rules for AD&D, the rule books that I love and hold dear are not brief or concise in any definition of the term. Changeling: the Dreaming is so grossly and irredeemably prolix that I'm still not sure how you even actually play the damn game.

Why the contradiction? As is often the case, an abstract truism doesn't hold true in concrete cases. Rules really ought to be concise. But conciseness is not inspiring, except perhaps if good design is what you are interested in. Passion is inspiring and passion is rarely brief. Passion splurges all over the page. It struggles to express itself except in very long-winded and convoluted terms. When somebody is passionate about something they can't help themselves talking about it, frequently and at length. So while I would not want to suggest that concise rulebooks are written by dispassionate people, I like the big, unnecessarily lengthy work of the hare-brained hobbyist who loves his game so much he can't stop writing it.

And since I need to be inspired in order to want to play a game, and since a passionate author is what is needed to be inspiring, it can only be the case that long-winded doorstops which you would have to be insane to write (think of the sheer effort that went into producing the 5th edition of Pendragon) are the type of RPG books I'll end up enjoying.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "BREVITY2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

The Importance of Brevity

I am a big believer in “less is more.” Especially when it comes to games of the imagination. No matter what accessories, props, or premade adventures you are using - this is a game played within the imagination of your players.  A game of the mind.

Whatever they see in their mind comes from the information you give them. I submit to you that it's better to put the seeds of information in their head with a scalpel rather than a sledge hammer (OK, that analogy doesn't make any sense, but I think you see what I mean). Let me give you an example:

     You enter the room and see a table. On the table is a cat wearing spectacles. The cat appears to be reading a large tome.

That is a pretty brief description of a dungeon room. Now I didn't tell you how big the table was or what is it made of. I didn’t tell you what color the cat was, how fluffy it’s fur was, what style of eyeglasses was it wearing, or what kind of binding the tome had. If you asked all of your players to describe how they pictured the scene, each would have a different answer. I needed them to know that there was a table, a cat, and a book. That’s it. The rest was up to them. Imagination!

In addition to engaging the player’s minds, brevity allows the DM an incredible amount of leeway to create their world. I hate when I buy an adventure or setting and the descriptions are essentially a series of instructions that railroads the players to where the author wanted his story to end up. That is not gaming. The more information that is forced onto the player (or the DM), the less freedom they have.

Brevity also reduces the amount of prep needed to play. I really love the one page dungeon contests ( Go grab a few of them, a monster manual, and some random tables and you can game for hours with less information than most DM screens have on them.

Ok, this is becoming a bit long in an essay about brevity so I will close by saying this: Whether you are creating content for a DM to use or presenting content to your players, only give them the briefest form of the information they need. Their minds will do the rest.


  1. Dammit, Zak, I stopped back by here precisely because I wanted to read something OTHER than what randoms are writing. :(

    1. I feel your pain, but lucky for you there are thousands of other entries on this blog besides the one from the last month.
      You're probably taken care of.
      That remark is especially funny considering who this entry's "randoms" are.

  2. Wasn't the whole DYI/OSR D&D movement started by randoms writing? This whole exercise has been good. The writing overall insightful.