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Handholding for the wrong people

March 1, 2012

There’s this legacy issue I’m seeing in new rpg books that’s driving me up the wall with regards to writing.

There’s handholding for new people, where you explain the process and the steps, and you give examples. That’s good handholding, and I encourage it in games.

Then there’s handholding for people with gamer baggage, which isn’t about giving more advice on how to play the game, as much as advice on how to feel about the rules, as if you had to gingerly coax people to actually try the rules you’ve written and convince them, that yes, they indeed CAN work.

The books cry out with the idea that everyone in the audience has to make the leap over the The Gamer Hurdle, meanwhile, non-gamers are confused why all the hemming, hawing, hedging and convincing need happen at all.

And, it becomes frustrating because it also means that the step-by-step procedures of how to play become buried in this cruft, and often you see Procedures vs. Directives mashed in a way that makes it hard to navigate and impossible to reference without a highlighter or simply rewriting the actual procedures in a quicksheet.

An exaggeration, but not entirely:

The Wrong Way to explain rules

Before rolling dice, the decision should be considered carefully whether dice should be rolled. Some players like to roll dice with their left hands, some like to roll dice with the right hands. No one should fight over which hand rolls dice! Your Dice Rolling May Vary! Be sure to be fair. Be tough. Be realistic. Give the players what they want. For success rolls, 2 six-sided dice must be rolled and appropriate modifiers included. Players have to work to get what they want! Never let people use out of character information! Modifiers should include a stat and skill bonus.

Let’s break that out into something, possibly useful, huh?

1. Decide if you need to roll dice.

This could probably use a deciding rule, a procedure or directive. That can be as simple as, “Does anyone care?”

2. 2D6 + Stat + Skill Modifiers

Here’s a hard procedure rule that’s pretty damn simple and easy to understand if you don’t bury it.

It could probably do with a few examples, not just of which modifiers, but also WHY you might choose one or another.

Anyway, my general advice is to lead with your procedural steps, then explain the directives around it. In a lot of ways, I feel like when I see this weird handholdy writing, it’s like the author almost feels like they have to con the group into trying the rules – “Keep changing topics, keep throwing comfortable phrases at them, ok, now sneak in the actual rule, now pad it out some more”.

In the 90’s, it made a little more sense, especially since it was coming out of an era where some games weren’t really well designed at all, but threw lots of truisms about to cover it. But we’re talking nearly 2 decades later and it’s the same thing.

It’s frustrating to read, and saddens me, because it becomes a game that I will play or run for others, but not recommend to non-gamers as a game. Any game where I feel players need to “decode” the instructions is a failure of communication.

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