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What is a roleplaying game?

January 29, 2007

With the manuscript for 1776 in the hands of the editor, I have some time to put a few thoughts down and talk about one of the things I did not do with 1776. I did not write the cliché, “What is a roleplaying game” section.

Over the past few months I have went on a research mission and studied not only the style but the layout choices taken in numerous roleplaying games. I did this to get an idea what has been done, what has not been done, but more importantly to relearn the art of presentation. Not the presentation of how the game looks, but the presentation of the information.

Roleplaying games are a hybrid of two writing styles. The first style is tech writing, and roleplaying games are some of the most technical pieces of works you will find. Unlike a boardgame, roleplaying games are products of the imagination, and they require a lot from not only the game master, but the players. It takes skill to be able to describe mechanics and how to play a game. More importantly it takes skills to describe how you should use your reason with you imagination and play the game.

The second style of writing you find with roleplaying games is fiction. Unless you are designing a game that is pure rules (GURPS, HERO, and Dungeons & Dragons just to name a few) you have to get across the flavor of the setting in the rules. Most of the time the fiction you find in roleplaying games are history and background pieces, but more times than not, you find badly written proses and short stories. These pages tend to turn the rules into a mess. Why? By devoting so many pages to this “flavor” you deny pages that could be use in better describing the game.

So during my research I paid close attention to writing styles, but soon discovered that many games tell you what they are, but not what they are.

Confused? Don’t be.

Games that tell you what they are, are games that devote the first few pages to lengthy discussions on what a roleplaying game is, how to read the dice, how to roll the dice, and the like. This material is bland, and does not get across exactly what you are suppose to do in this roleplaying game (this is not telling you what they are).

One of the key decisions I made, was that I was not going to write a “What is a roleplaying game” section. In fact I do not even include this unfriendly section about how to play this style of game. Instead, I wrote a primer, and throughout the manuscript I explain what 1776 is. I take great effort in describing what is different in the game. I also devote a lot of pages to not only describing setting, but describing the style of play.

Thanks to reading a few of jim pinto’s blog entries, as well as talking with him, I realized that a change is needed in the presentation of games. We need to strive better in telling what are game is about, and move away from the clichés that have grabbed a hold of us.

Only time will tell if I am write, but so far I feel I am. Looking over the manuscript, I am pleased with what I have done. I like that though it is different, it is not different for the sake of being different.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2007 3:48 pm

    As a comics fan I’m sure you’re well aware of Stan Lee’s mantra that every comic is the first comic for someone. I think that rule also applies to RPGs, especially for historical ones that might draw in someone who has limited or no exposure to role playing games. So how would someone who has never played a RPG but is interested in your material make sense of the book?

    Whenever I get pitched for a RPG submission, I always ask them to write the copy they’d want to see on the BACK of the book… in the old days that’s what would help seal the deal (cover gets them to pick it up, back cover text gets them to open it, interior art gets them to buy it).

  2. January 29, 2007 4:20 pm

    In the first chapter there is the primer. What this does is two things:

    1. Tells the players what the game is about, and what they do.

    2. Tells the GMs what the game is about, and what the setting is.

    Both state this is a roleplaying game, but in the context as to what the game is. There is no generic section that describes roleplaying. All descriptions are tied specifically to 1776.

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