I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, January 25, 2020

RPG and design, I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia

RPG and design series so far:

I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia
II - Crunch x Fluff
III - Crunch IS Fluff (excavators can't jump!)
IV - Theme, Mechanics, and Narrative
V - Incongruous and dissociated mechanics
VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)

I love playing around with RPG design, and I think part os this aspect of our hobby is criminally underrated. However, since I'm not a specialist in design, I often feel I lack the vocabulary to properly express my thoughts. This series is an attempt to order these thoughts.

(BTW, I also feel this deficiency is not only mine, but an aspect of the hobby itself; I read a lot about RPGs but seldom see these things being discussed in depth, or at least not using a common vocabulary. For example, terms like "narrativism" or "dissociated mechanics" are few and controversial. HOWEVER, if you know a place where I can find such discussions, let me know in the comments!).

First, we must separate a few different topics of discussion:

- Game design.
- Book design.
- Page design.
- Table design.
- Etc.

Even though one can use the word "design" for all these topics, there are some obvious differences.

For example: in RPG context, game design usually refers to something immaterial, that is independent of the book itself. Rules, for example. A weapon that deals 1d6+3 damage, but 2d6+3 on a critical hit is a game design choice.

However, there are material aspects to RPG design. The most obvious ones are the book's visuals: fonts, margins, colors, art, etc.

The most common RPGs books have interesting unique aspects that are not common in other books, mostly because, in addition to being "books" (in the sense of "a thing that you read through") they are teaching manuals (like school books, etc.) and reference books (like encyclopedias).

Here are some dictionary definitions, FWIW:

Manual: a book that gives you practical instructions on how to do something or how to use something, such as a machine:

Encyclopedia: a book or set of books containing many articles arranged in alphabetical order that deal either with the whole of human knowledge or with a particular part of it.

Maybe a better term would be "reference book", a book intended to be consulted for information on specific matters rather than read from beginning to end (source).

This is another topic that seems ignored in our hobby: we often use the same books for BOTH functions. But our children's books are not like encyclopedias; they teach things in a linear fashion.

If you get the 5e PHB, for example, you can see that the usual pattern is:

- This is what "race" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of races. ("reference book")
- This is what "class" means, how to use it. ("manual")
- List of classes. ("reference book")
- etc.

Another thing to consider is that some books are designed to be referenced at the table. While I usually avoid checking rules from the PHB/DMG during the game, it is obvious that the monster manuals are very often used in this way.

This means that these books must give you the information you need QUICKLY; a concern most encyclopedias and reference books don't need!

In this sense, wasting your time (with page-flipping is bad design); which is why most monster manuals will prefer lots of blank space to making you turn the page while describing a monster, for example.

Let me give you another example of the things I'm talking about:

Darkvision is described multiple times in the 5e PHB, often with identical words (especially while describing races). These would indicate that the designer's chose to treat it as a piece of information to be referenced, not taught.

However, in the "arcane eye" spell, darkvision isn't described. Which in theory would indicate that you need to check other section of the book for the explanation.

The distinction is strange. I would assume you do not need references for your race - you only have one race, you choose race only once, so eventually you'd memorize all that your race does - but many characters have multiple spells (sometimes dozens), and pick new spells every level, etc.

In addition, darkvision is repeated multiple times (for reference), but not discussed extensively (for reflection) - leaving lots of room for mistakes, doubts and errata (for example, the book never discusses if creatures with darkvision prefer to use torches, in order to see colors, or prefer to dwell in the darkness to keep a permanent advantage against other creatures).

In practice, it doesn't bother me - I have darkvision more or less memorized at this point - but it makes me feel as if the designers of 5e have not considered these issues.

Well, this "Manual x Encyclopedia" became larger than I had intended.

There are LOTS of topics to cover in these series... Information presentation, user interface design user/experience design, word count, size and format, drop die tables, analog "technologies" in RPGs, multipurpose mechanics, efficiency/elegance, information waste (on die rolls, etc.), information compression, wasted time on dice rolls, granularity, and so on... will try to tackle them next.


  1. Uh, this is very much a topic down my alley. Writing a book with rules properly is damn hard and I'm looking forward to your insights in this series (might chime in for a post myself, actually, as my next post was supposed to be along the lines of 'the difference between designing and presenting rules' ...). Good show!

    Classy spam you got there, btw. I don't get classy spam like that :)

    1. Thank Jens! I'm interested abou what you got to say about the topic as well!
      About the spam... I'm just amazed at google's inability to avoid this. I even have a vampire spammer sometimes (he promises to turn you into a vampire if you only write him an e-mail, etc.).

  2. Well, this is timely. In response to this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I727yKB-XfA&t=0s), and another conversation about how FFG's Realms of Terrinoth sourcebook, and RPG manuals in general, are horribly disorganized, I've come to the formulation that game books should be neatly organized into 3 distinct sections: 1. How to Play (including how to make a PC), 2. a Reference section for use at the table (2-page spreads for the various mini-games (personal combat, ship combat, hacking, whatever), and 3. an Encyclopedia, as you might call it, for the GM to study between sessions to understand the game concept and help create content for session. (In fairness, FFG's version of L5R RPG is nicely laid out, and carefully details 4 different kinds of conflicts (skirmishes, duels, mass combat & social combat) very nicely for ease of reference.)

    1. Interesting video, but very... hit and miss, I guess. I definitely do NOT want a list of Scottish names in my DMG (!), although I completely agree on binding and presentation.

      About L5R, I should take a look... I played a lot of 3rd edition, and this FFG one looks really neat.

      I like your organization of game books! I'm looking for something like that, definitely.

  3. Weird, I wrote something along these lines recently. I'm looking forward to follow-ups.

    1. Huh, I wish I'd read that before... You seem to have the proper vocabulary for this stuff, unlike me. Will look into DITA! Thanks!