Tuesday 27 December 2011

How to write a free RPG - Chapter 3: Writing and style

In this Chapter, we will look at the act of writing itself. By the end you will know some habits to keep and pitfalls to avoid. The second part of this chapter focuses on style and details how writing in a particular way can help the GM and players pick it up.

The first rule of writing an RPG is to keep writing. Do not edit until you have a full first draft of the game. The first draft will be poor but you need to have a complete game before a proper edit can occur. If you get stuck on an area, make a note in the document (I use a load of Xs like 'XXXXXXXXXX' to make it easier to pick the notes out) and move on. Writing a roleplaying game is a little like writing a novel, some of the ideas included here are applied to both and you can plunder novel writing resources if you get stuck.

Getting it finished

Any large project requires dedication to complete. Initially, you will have a fire and passion of enthusiasm, which will last about one third into the project. If you manage to force through that barrier, the next drop in enthusiasm comes at two third through. If you can get through those then the chance of you completing is extremely high. Here are some habits and tips to help you push through those barriers.
  • Set a deadline to have a 'test' version of the document. Stick to it. Produce whatever you can by that date. Whatever you have at that date, release it to the community - even if it is far from finished.
  • Schedule small releases to the free RPG community. Release small, release often.
  • Collect feedback from the community but don't edit your game right away - wait until it is finished.
  • Don't re-read the game until it is finished.
  • Set aside a time each day or week when you sit down to write. Do write outside of this time but never miss it. Use a calendar to set a regular appointment with a reminder to send you an email/text/tweet.
  • If you have control over the computer you're writing on, set up a new user account that does not have access to games and puts parental filters on games/RPG forums sites to reduce the distraction.
  • Use whatever time you have, great progress can be made even in a half-and-hour lunch break or while the newborn baby is sleeping.
  • Schedule what TV programs you are going to watch and watch only those. Never channel-hop.
  • Open a dialogue with friends and family (non-gamers too) about what you are trying to achieve. By talking about the game, you will find it easier to keep motivated. They might also enquire how it is going and that acts as a softly softly pep talk. Show them the work you have put in.
  • Write the game in any order. Later in this guide, you will learn about ways to organise your game. Organise it last, write it first.
  • [Optional] Play appropriate music to the genre you're writing in for inspiration. Soundtracks to films that inspire your genre are useful.
  • When you feel like you’re flagging, print out an attractive chunk of your game (like a picture you found) and put it on the wall next to where you create.

Good practise

Write these best practise tips on post-it notes and stick them near the place where you write.
  • Never delete text forever - when cutting a section, copy into a 'scraps' document, label it and leave it for later (I do this with graphics too).
  • Do an off-site backup your work weekly. Either upload to a free file storage (such as Google Docs) or put on an old USB thumb drive and hand to a friend or put it in your desk at work/locker at college.
  • If you are stuck finding a name for something, use Thesaurus.com to help find similar words. Mash similar words together.
  • If writing starts to slow, move onto the next section.

Writing rule Examples

A good example is essential to making your game playable. Examples should be both compound and independent. Compound examples are where one example leads on from a previous example, for example, if you describe an example character John Smith with a Strength of 9 in one example, John Smith should have a strength of 9 in all examples thereafter. Independent examples do not rely upon previous examples to be understood. A single example should be enough to demonstrate a ruling. Remember that the GM uses the book as a reference, so lean towards independent examples or repeat the important parts of John Smith.

A good example takes a small part of the rules and demonstrates it. Larger examples can build upon the simple, atomic examples but be sure to include both. Atomic examples are good for reference, longer examples are better when the book is read through at first.
Good rule example for 'Choosing to fail':
Chgowiz Clone 4123 wants to shoot at Godzilla with a Turbo-Mega-Cannon. His Brawn attribute is 5 and his Guns skill is 5, giving him 10 (Attribute + Skill). The shot is normal difficulty so he needs 12 to pass. There are only 2 dice in the pool in the middle and shooting will burn one of those.

The player knows that although shooting Godzilla would hurt it, one of the other players is going to try and ram Godzilla with a tank next turn and will probably need all the dice he can get to pass it! Instead, Chgowiz Clone 4123 decide to choose to fail. The other players decide that the shot misses and blows a chunk of the Post Office away, removing cover for another Clone character. Oops! The GM awards another die into the middle for comedy of it all. There are now 3 dice in the middle and the tank driving Clone is much more likely to hit!
Actual play examples can be useful but be careful to keep them curt and to the point - you do not have to write precisely how people speak. If you have particularly tricky parts to your system, include more than one example. It is unlikely that your audience will be completely new to roleplay.


Poor writing style can make your game inpenetrable. Good style can make a complex game appear simple. Write the book the way it is supposed to be played:
  • Optional rules are fine, mark them clearly as such.
  • Do not load down the game with 'The GM can ignore this if he/she likes...'
  • Avoid an overly chatty style of writing, it adds words and does not help the reader. Strike a balance between being interesting to read and being informative. Check the example below.
  • Justifications of why a rule is prefered over another belongs on a website.
  • Describe your game objectively and compare it to others only if you are extending the rules or using it as a basis. It is OK to say "Using Fudge rules but with more dice rolling" but not "It's like D&D but lighter and more fun".
  • Avoid elaborating in too much detail on a part of the system which is not core to the concept.
  • Do not add anything to the RPG that is not going to enhance the concept. If you have an idea for a tangent, write it in a notebook and use it later.
  • Avoid including your design process, that is best left on the website or internet forum.
Bad writing example:
Chgowiz uses a completely new and brilliant system where the players share a bunch of dice in the middle of the table. It's so much better than all other roleplaying games because there is normally no penalty to just rolling a skill as many times as you like, here you use up a shared dice when you do it. Sure, fewer dice are rolled but then it means more when they are. I chose this rule to force people to work together, which works really well. The GM puts more dice in when the players have good ideas or do cool things or have fun but you can ignore than if you want. It's up to, it's your game.
Better writing example:
Chgowiz uses a shard pool of dice in the middle of the table. When the game starts, 2 for every player are put into the middle. When a player wants to do an action, they must roll a dice from the centre of the table. This dice is 'burnt' and handed back to the GM. When the players do something fun, clever or choose to fail an action, the GM awards them by putting dice back into the middle. When the dice run out, all actions fail until the GM puts more back in.

Writing Chgowiz the RPG

I am frighteningly verbose (you've probably noticed in other posts) almost to the point of being lost in a paragraph of text and completely forgetting what it was I was trying to say in the first place. The style tends to lean toward the scientific, which is OK for Icar but didn't feel right for Chgowiz. I lightened the tone by writing quotes and paragraph-long stories in callout boxes for flavour. The rules could remain clean of chatty text while lightening it for those reading through.

I have also had time issues recently, given changes in job (for the worse then for the better) and being the father of a toddler who likes to play with parents. Also Minecraft has consumed my soul. In a nice way. I am getting back my routine that involves writing for an hour once my son is in bed.

Rather than write straight into InDesign (which is how I wrote Cloudship Atlantis, Commando and Icar), I used Google Docs, as a simple text editor. This way there are no distractions by messing around with graphics or layout.


Emmett said...

Often my problem is burnout. No matter how long I sit I can't think of something to say. In most situations if I go onto a different project (home remodeling, writing a novel, learning to juggle) for a while, my creative juices start flowing again.

Rob Lang said...

Having a different project was one I considered including but my problem with that is that it is difficult to set in motion a process to get you back onto the original game. You can't really make a useable rule that says "Do something else for 2 weeks then come back to it" because rules like that are difficult to keep to. I tend to have about 10 on the go!

Thanks for commenting, I am sure it will work for someone.

Thought said...

This is a fairly standard "How to Write" post, but that is a good thing. A lot of what you said here can be found in Stephen King's "On Writing," for example, so you know you're in successful company. The advantage of your version is, of course, that it's tailored for the game-writer community, that it IS a good bit shorter than a book, and that it is in your lovely "Lang-lian" style.

In particular, the comment about setting a time aside to write every day is incredibly important, and can never be said enough. One can write through writer's block, but one can't write through "not writing."

A concept that might be useful to include in the "style" section is King's rule of that the second draft should be 10% shorter (at least) than the first. If you have a chatty style in the first draft, well, it is more important to be chatty and writing than to be laconic and not writing. But cutting subsequent drafts down forces out the unnecessary chattiness, helps make points clearer, etc. Or if you are having a separate section for editing, perhaps this might go there.

Anywho, I'm being chatty. Lovely post.

Rob Lang said...

Thank you, Thought! I'm glad you agree that it's pretty typical as I am really not trying to rewrite the workshop manual for the wheel. I mention trimming down a game as part of testing (Chapter 7). It was originally in this chapter but when I read the game as a whole, I worried that people would trim the game down too early. This writing and style chapter aims to keep the words coming in - Testing is where the cold light of day shines down.

Thanks for your comment, I am glad you're enjoying the series!

Thought said...

Ah. I took the Style section as largely being on editing (and hence trimming down). Anywho, I'll eagerly await Chapter 7, then.