The Curse of Clarity

In talking about the salability of the dungeon as an adventure model the other day, I really came back to the fact that it’s the best answer to a new GM asking “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” That is one of the most important questions to prepare for in any game design, but it’s especially important when you’re writing a game for novices. Without a cushion of existing lore they are looking for a level of clarity comparable to what they might expect from a board game.

There is sometimes an instinct to answer that concern with simplicity, but I think that misses the mark. These potential players aren’t stupid, and the yardstick of boardgame rules is not one of simplicity (because many boardgames are in fact more complex than RPGs) but thoroughness and, yes, clarity. Making things simpler on the assumption that players will be more able to “figure it out” is building on a bad foundation. If your expectation is that your players will have to figure out the parts you haven’t explained then you’re pretty much conceding a great gaping hole in your design.[1]

The first problem is that we’re a little lazy[2]. Part of this is that we’ve found tools that work well enough (dungeons, boxed text) but but a larger part of it is that this is the boring stuff. Taking the time and wordcount to really explain this stuff is going to detract from the rest of your game design, especially with smaller press games. If you’re writing a tight, focused game about one thing or another, you’re assuming an audience who already knows this crap and you don’t want to go completely off track teaching the basics.

There are more than a few parallels to cookbooks in this. There are cookbooks that teach basic techniques and recipes, then there are the “real” cookbooks which assume you already know how to chop, mince and brown.[3] As long as you know which you’re buying (and which you’re writing) it works out pretty well, but if you expect the book on breadmaking you bought to explain how to make a simple sauce, the problem is not with the book, it’s with the mismatch of your expectations.

That said, there is a kinder problem than laziness: we also have pretty big blind spots. The more you play the more you find your own solutions to things, and the more reflexive they become. It is easy to stop even thinking of these problems as problems because the solution has become second nature. For example, I find boxed text annoying, but in a “this is utterly useless to me” kind of way. When I encounter it in a design, I do not think about the player who it is there for nor do I think about what I do to turn it into something interesting – I just do it.

These unexamined behaviors are one of the most powerful tools we have as GMs and designers, but also one of the hardest ones to bring to bear. If you can get someone to stop and realize where their blind spot is and get them to think and talk about it, odds are good they’ll be a hugely useful resource. But that’s a big if; they’re called blind spots for a reason. This is why I love talking to players and GMs with different experiences than my own – there is no better way to spot your on assumptions than in an unfamiliar mirror.

Anyway, all this came to mind out of a combination of things. Part of it was from pondering the clarity of Apocalypse World and wondering what else could benefit from that sort of clarity. Part of it came from Sarah Darkmagic raising some entirely reasonable questions about boxed text in adventures which reminded me of one of my blind spots.

So, I’ll get around to the Aspect ideas in a bit, but tomorrow I hope to talk a bit about how to not use boxed text, and what goes into the actual act of describing a scene.[4]

1 – This is not automatically a bad thing. Many, many games are not designed to be a player’s first RPG. If a player starts with one of these game then it’s unlikely they just bought it off the shelf and are trying to figure it out form the text. More likely they have been brought in by a group who are already familiar enough with play to fill in the gaps.

Now, this is not to say more games would not benefit from stating their assumptions up front, but there are only so many games where there is a reasonable expectation that the player’s first exposure to RPGs will be this game, and most of those are D&D (though not all – licensed games, for example, can hook in players). That might suggest this thinking is not terribly pressing for those of us who aren’t WOTC, but the reality is that new, unfamiliar players are the only way this hobby grows. If they come in only at the rate of indoctrination, that’ smooch slower than if they can be brought in by product (a point that has no small amount to do with the new D&D essentials line).

2 – Perl programmers know this is not necessarily a problem.

3 – And beyond that are the even more esoteric cookbooks that have high enough bars of entry as to basically be written for chefs, by chefs. How that relates to game publishing I leave as an exercise to the reader. (And, on the other hand, you have cookbooks which turn convention on its ear to create something accessible by changing the way you think about things)

4 –
Unsurprisingly, I usually write these in advance of when they go up so I’ve already been working on the boxed text one as I post this, and I just want to say, wow, I am surprising myself at how long it is to simplify.

One thought on “The Curse of Clarity

  1. Marshall Smith

    Funny auto-correct near the end of footnote 1…

    I think that, in addition to being a blind spot, it is something that is very difficult for us to articulate. I compare it to the Programming 101 exercise of writing up the algorithm to make a sandwich. “Spread the mayo on one slice” seems so easy, but there is a lot of information buried in that statement. And, for most of us, it is information that we learned implicitly, either by observing others or through trial and error. How much mayo? Which side of the bread? How do you get an even coat? What do you do with the mayo left on the knife?

    Similarly, most of us learned our GM techniques through years (*cough* decades *cough*) of play. We tried, errored, and corrected. We watched how other GMs worked and tried to emulate or avoid what we saw. We absorbed little pieces from hundreds of “GM advice” sections and articles.

    Boiling that down into sage advice for the next generation is hard. It’s not just a matter of blind spots. It’s a matter of finding vocabulary to explain things that are far, far easier to show. Pacing is an obvious example, here. It pretty much always boils down to “watch your players and feed them just a little more than they can comfortably handle.” But, that’s equivalent to the “how much mayo to use” issue. How do I know when they are comfortable? How much is a “little” more? How do I actually scale it up and down? And, what all is included in pacing? The fact that some of these are a matter of taste and shouldn’t have absolute guidelines further works against that goal of clarity.

    I also think that you need to establish a baseline of what things you include and what things you leave for later. Similar to your cookbook analogy. Or, to bring it back to games, to chess guides. The rules of chess can be fairly easily explained in under a dozen pages. The finer points of playing chess well occupy entire bookshelves. I find that far too many GM advice sections in books spend a lot of time on how to play the RPG well, and not enough time on nailing down the basics. Mostly, I think, because the writer finds it more satisfying to put their personal opinions and theories on good gaming into the book instead of going over ground that has been done a thousand times before.


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