Well-written RPG books

Back in June, Noisms had several posts about writing quality in RPG texts (initial post and his examples of good RPG writing). I was also curious about this empirically, so I created a survey to see what other people thought. I didn’t define well-written but rather left it to the respondents to interpret as they chose. Don’t consider this a representative sample of anything other than people who follow me on Google Plus (and the followers of the several people that reshared the survey link).

The survey asked age, gender, the top five best-written RPG books, the game played most frequently, the game started with, and any general comments about the books chosen.

92 people (mean age = 39.51, standard deviation = 7.84) listed a book in top place. Gender was 88 male, 3 female, 1 other. Almost 100 engaged responses is not bad, though sadly not very gender diverse. I unified different entries that obviously were meant to be the same book (for example: “Dungeon Master’s Guide 1st Edition” and “1e DMG”). Since the format was free-response, unsurprisingly the results were not heavily clustered. 51 of those 92 responses for first place best-written book were unique. The top ten most mentioned titles were, with counts:

7 ad1e dmgd 1e dmg
5 yoon-suin
5 red and pleasant land
5 d&d b/x moldvay
3 dungeon crawl classics
3 call of cthulhu
2 vornheim
2 torchbearer
2 nobilis
2 lamentations of the flame princess

Looking at mentions in all five places, the results move around, but remain largely consistent. Traveller, Deep Carbon Observatory, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay surface while Nobilis, Torchbearer, and Vornheim disappear.

19 d&d b/x moldvay
19 ad1e dmgd 1e dmg
15 red and pleasant land
12 lamentations of the flame princess
8 yoon-suin
7 traveller
7 dungeon crawl classics
7 deep carbon observatory
7 call of cthulhu
6 warhammer fantasy roleplay

The standout trends seem to be toward high-concept settings or adventures (A Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon-Suin), general but coherent rule sets (Moldvay B/X, DCC RPG, LotFP, Call of Cthulhu), and influential, nostalgic classics (the AD&D DMG, B/X, maybe Call of Cthulhu).

71 respondents left general summary comments explaining their reasoning. Everyone who left a general comment also listed at least one book (and most listed all five). Reading through them, I identified six broad categories of concern: usability, evocativeness, mechanics, coaching, personality, and focus. Usability includes both direct, functional prose and also organization. Utilitarian concerns, basically. Evocativeness is about the aesthetic value of the text and communication of setting. Mechanics prizes elegance, preciseness, or innovativeness in terms of the game procedures. Coaching encompasses pedagogy, explaining how a game is intended to work, and theoretical development such as discussion of game concepts. Personality covers a unique creator vision or strong authorial voice. Finally, focus is concern with and strength of theme, tone, or highly specific intended play experience. Some comments counted in multiple categories.

Category n Percentage (n / 71)
Usability 41 58%
Evocativeness 27 38%
Coaching 11 15%
Personality 9 13%
Focus 9 13%
Mechanics 5 7%

Usability and evocativeness are the clear, high priorities, but were not necessarily shared and could be conflicting (such as with dense or extensive flavor text).

Some example comments (all quoted, some partial):

  • Put words to play principles and behavior that I didn’t have words for before. Set tone or setting very well.
  • An abundance of technical information and solid technical writing that prioritises the clarity and accessibility of information over evocative but unplayable flourishes.
  • Ability to entertain while informing, conveying the game information in a genuine and sympathetic authorial voice.
  • Ease of read is not really a factor for me. When I pick up the book, I pick up a manual that needs to teach me how to play the game and those games listed earlier do just that. They are not easy or “good” reads, but they convey the rules in approachable easy to understand manner.
  • They’re all written with clear discussions about what themes the games are exploring and what the mechanics are trying to achieve. Not just, here are some mechs, now go play.
  • They are books vivid in a sense of their world; they are books I re-read for pleasure; they are books I have learned how to be a better writer from reading.
  • Simplicity, clarity, not-up-it’s-own-arse prose, not trying to hard to be different, full of idea springboards.
  • I don’t like many of the rule changes implemented in AD&D 2e, but I have to admit that the core rulebooks are very easy to read and understand, even enjoyable to read. I especially liked the ecologies from the Monstrous Manual.
  • Evocative, dense, treat the reader as an adult with his/her own ideas and thoughts. Reading them makes me want to run them, and makes me think about gaming.

Almost everyone started playing with some flavor of D&D. The top ten answers listed (which made up 71 of 91 responses to this question) were all D&D, the top five being Moldvay Basic, AD&D, Holmes Basic, Mentzer Basic, and D&D (version unspecified). Nobody started with Vampire or other White Wolf game, which is the other major system I might expect.

One thought on “Well-written RPG books

  1. dwbapst

    Will you be putting the data up publicly? It strikes me that one could do some multivariate analyses to see if your catagorization of written responses influences the given ranked set of books.

    Reply

Leave a Reply