Creative Choices: Advice for Beginning Game Designers

by S. John Ross

January 16, 2001

Creative Choices: Advice for Beginning Game Designers, by S. John Ross

Unbearably lovely music is heard as the curtain rises, and we see the woods on a summer afternoon. A fawn dances on and nibbles slowly at some leaves. He drifts lazily through the soft foliage. Soon he starts coughing and drops dead.

- Woody Allen, Without Feathers

Every game writer hits a wall, now and again: You've written a draft, assembling ideas that got you excited and jazzed for work . . . But now that it's done, it goes down like flat cola. You know the ideas are good, and you remember writing great stuff last week, so what happened?

Good ideas are six to a penny; the trick is delivering them to the reader well. And like most techniques of good writing, it's not a "trick" at all, it's a creative choice. This time around, we'll explore a fundamental one: how to vary the presentation of worthy ideas.

Skinning Cats on Ragblatt III

The bug-eyed natives of Planet Ragblatt III are ill-tempered and violent, and you want the reader to know. You've been spending hours on Ragblatt III already, waxing poetically about the ZoomZoom Trees and the Mugasnoo Birds and how every second equinox, the Snarvik Flurbs. Flushed with success, you must now establish that the natives are a surly pack of alien rednecks.

Telling it Like it Is

I opened the preceding paragraph with a very literal summary of the idea because the paragraph had a lot more to say. The Direct Approch is ideal when the notion of the moment is subordinate to other parts of the text. If the violence of the Rugblatt Rednecks is just a minor detail and the Flurbing Snarvik is the real meat of the piece, there's nothing wrong with just saying so:

The natives are ill-tempered and violent.

But . . . don't rely too heavily on literal writing. Straightaway tracks are great for picking up speed, but your manuscript will be more exciting with regular banks and curves. If you're consistently literal, your writing can feel monotone. On the other hand, if you avoid the literal entirely, you'll look like a dork.

Strong "straightaways" are built on interesting detail, and kept spare and clean. Adornments can sap the energy from your words and make you look like an idiot:

It is interesting to note that the natives of Ragblatt III, being quite ill-tempered and unpleasant, are also extremely violent. They are the very essence of danger itself.

That's just bad. It's the work of a writer who's terrified of his own voice and hiding behind fluff. A test: do a word-search for the word "quite." It's the favorite tool of the fearful embellisher.

Even concrete information can qualify as energy-sapping adornment:

The natives are ill-tempered and violent. The Ragblatt warriors enjoy combat, and take every opportunity to fight. They value good weaponry and skill at arms.

Terrible! Padding with bland detail is better than padding with qualifiers, but not by much. The only real idea introduced in the second and third lines is that the Ragblatt culture includes specific "warriors," and that's hardly a stunning revelation. And once we know they're violent, and that they have warriors, the rest is Quaaludes in text form.

Incidental detail isn't "filler"; it's color. The obvious is not colorful.

This kind of writing crops up frequently in sourcebooks where dozens of similar items are presented in a templated form. A book about a fantasy city, for example, might include a listing for every one of the city's trade guilds, and every one will get the same treatment: symbol, leadership, relationship with other guilds, distinctive dress, prices.

Gamers enjoy chapters like that, at least potentially, because they can make a world more immersive and "real." Game writers enjoy chapters like that because half of their word-count is cut-and-paste headers and insets. Mediocre game writers take it to the next "logical" step and treat the content as "cut and paste," too, spouting details that tell us nothing interesting or useful. The Cooper's Guild wears red. The Mercer's Guild wears Green. The symbol of the Wainwrights Guild is a drawing of a wheel. The symbol of the Chandler's Guild is a drawing of a candle. Whee! The result: the game writer is paid for 7,000 words of nothing, and the reader skims it to avoid coma. Correct this problem by exploring unexpected ideas everywhere, even in chapters made of cookie-cutter chunks.

The Almighty Anecdote

Journalists love this one, and for good reason. It's an expression of the moldy "show, don't tell" advice you've seen in writer's manuals. While that advice doesn't always hold true in game writing, the anecdote is still mighty, indeed.

The Galactic Patrol made first contact with Ragblatt III shortly after the Zari wormhole opened, and contact was brutal and deadly. Seven Patrol officers were wounded, and two killed, when the Ragblatts attacked without warning from the trees, wielding clay liquor jugs and primitive scatterguns.

It's a lot longer than "The natives are ill-tempered and violent," but it packs a lot of information. Now we know when first contact was made, we know that there's a connection with the Zari wormhole, we know that the Ragblatts ambush from the trees, we know what kinds of weapons they wield. We also get a hint that the Galactic Patrol doesn't hire the brightest bulbs in the box. It's likely that the Zari thing has been mentioned earlier in the book (the phrasing suggests that we know what it is), but the rest is fresh detail. Because the violence of the natives is the principal idea, we're free to spend a whole paragraph establishing it. Rather than padding that paragraph, we invest it with details that support and define the notion.

Your English teacher (the great enemy of good writing) told you that paragraphs should make a statement, then back it up with supporting statements, and then close. Write like that for your English teacher. Good grades are nice. But the anecdote demonstrates that actual good writing doesn't always work that way. Some good paragraphs build energy toward a conclusion . . . exactly the opposite of what your English teacher told you, which is to blow the conclusion at the beginning and then brag about it.

Joe Avatar

Inventing a character to demonstrate an idea works better in game writing than in any other form. It's a close cousin to the anecdote, but instead of a micro-story that demonstrates an idea, it's a sketch of a person who exemplifies it:

VolaBob McZarn leads the McZarn Clan of natives in the Norno uplands. A wide, dense barrel of an alien, VolaBob amuses himself by forcing his underlings to eat their own skulls, and then helping himself to their wife-sisters. He works hard to provide food and safe ground for his clan, and the fence of Ragblatt bones along the Norno ridge stands as a testament to his efforts. He fears for his life, however . . . While his clan respects his obvious dedication, they consider him too gentle to bear the mantle of leadership, and the mutterings of dissent are growing to a roar. Soon, he knows, he'll be running for his life.

Unlike a novelist or screenwriter, who needs to take care when introducing extraneous characters, or a journalist, who'll lose his job if he starts inventing people, a game designer is free to invent and discard men like VolaBob at need. The whole idea, after all, is to provide a stage where thousands of different folks might take the spotlight. Joe Avatar reinforces that idea, by providing a "free" NPC as the wrapper you deliver your ideas in.

VolaBob's bio tells us a lot, and hints at more. We don't know enough about Ragblatt physiology to understand how anyone can eat their own skull, but it sure sounds brutal, and our eyes will be open when it comes time to learn how it's possible. The bit about "wife-sisters" hints at that "rednecks in space" theme we're trying to maintain, and if ingested skulls and bone fences aren't enough to establish violence, we learn that VolaBob is considered something of a wuss. Well, then!

Telling it Like it Isn't

VolaBob demonstrates another technique worth knowing: misdirection and interconnection. I've all but built my career on it.

Put simply: A paragraph about a sword doesn't have to be about a sword. It should seem like it's about a sword, but it's best if it links the concept of "sword" to other parts of the book, especially if those links are surprising. When the reader first meets VolaBob, he's probably not expecting to gain a note of curiosity about Ragblatt physiology, or (ugh) Ragblatt incest.

Vornish Dagger [Melee; 1-H; Blade Damage; 85 Zooleks]
        The signature weapon of the Zog Citadel Guard is a 15cm-long blade of tempered Nola steel with a single edge. Every Zog child receives one at the age of seven, without ceremony or explanation. Zog parents watch their children carefully . . . If the child seems eager to use the blade for violence, or to express anger, steps are taken to instruct him in the ways of peace, to preserve the Zog unity. Those who regard the blade with appropriate dread and respect are declared fit for their first Rites of Passage.

Without being told explicitly, we know the Zog value peace, and we learned this in the weapons list. Knowing that the steel comes from "Nola" (wherever or whoever that is) is a splash of nice color, too. Overly-literal game writers keep all the history in the history chapter, all the culture in the culture chapter, and all the stats in the rules chapter, and the result is inhumanly dry writing. In real cultures, everything connects to everything else, and whenever you can include those threads without derailing or bloating a piece, do so.

A controversial aside: Note the deliberate reversal of the subject-object relationship in the second half of the paragraph. Editors who haven't yet learned to trust their ear will body-slam that text like a Ragblatt in wrestling tights (of course they have pro wrestling), because it's the dreaded "Passive Voice." Here, I've used it to create a rhythm in the paragraph: rising toward the middle, gently sloping away toward the end. The slightly bookish tone fits the notion that I'm describing a solemn ritual. More important, it makes use of the vital "sweet spot" at the very end of the last line, leaving with the reader with an image of what the "Rites of Passage" might entail.

Object emphasis is, again, a creative choice, and it should be used rarely. But game editors are a Superstitious and Cowardly Lot, and fall back on cardboard rules of style when in doubt. As far as these things go, game writing is a lot like public school. If you're smart, they'll love you. If you're smart enough to one-up the teacher, they'll resent you. Read lots of good writing, write a lot, and trust your own ear.


For years, I regarded vignettes (those little "short stories" used to fill space in may game books) as worthless fluff, but that was unfair. Most chapters about weapons are dreary, too, but they don't have to be, and vignettes can be cool if used well. The problem with vignettes boils down to bad writers giving a good idea a bad name. The exceptions, as vignette fans know, can be good fun and good writing. Back to Ragblatt we go:

Captain Davis leapt hard into the first alien, and felt a crack as his shoulder met its carapace. He fell, twisting in pain, to the gravel. Calmly, the alien stepped on his skull and crushed it. Lieutenant Elo raised her pistol.
        "Stay back, you bug-eyed things from hell!"
        The creatures shuffled and stared, oblivious to the weapon . . . One of them split two orifices wide, creating webs of pink slime. Lieutenant Elo hoped to God that wasn't how they smiled.
        It was how they spoke.
        "Sheeee-it! Looks like we got a purty one, Jeb!"
        Oh dear sweet lord. She opened fire.

Again with skulls. Vignettes borrow more from television advertising than from prose fiction. Like a TV commercial about a man going to the fridge late at night for Miracle Whip, a gaming vignette must establish some kind of tension and then change it (resolve, shift, or escalate it), quickly. More to the point, the "story" must be a container for worthwhile ideas.

In the vignette above, we're obviously witnessing the fateful first contact we wrote about earlier. Since we're on the inside of this manuscript, we know that Elo's gun might have no effect at all. That's another thread leading us to Ragblatt physiology, perhaps: Immune to zap guns, can eat skulls. Odd chaps. Either way, we learn plenty, including that they're violent, that they skunked Captain Davis, and that they're strong and have an armored carapace. We also learned that they think Lieutenant Elo is "purty," though we have no idea if a human would agree.

Vignettes demonstrate what the GM can do with a setting. Like Joe Avatars, they provide a concrete example of how to work with the material. And again, they do so as a secondary function - a clever wrapper to deliver worthy ideas to the brain of the reader. Sometimes, a vignette can say more things about the intended tone and style of a game than several pages of literal description. There's only so many ways to say "this game should be all moody and dark and stuff" without sounding like a total dork, and while the vignette won't rescue a dork from his fate, it's a power tool in the hands of a careful writer.

Stats, Quotes, and Fakery

"The leading cause of death on Ragblatt III is violent homicide."

- The Terran Allegiance Almanac

Epigraphs (quotes from books, songs, poems, speeches and so on placed at the beginning of a piece) are a terrific technique for setting tone. The Woody Allen quote at the very top of this article establishes from the get-go that I'm not taking myself (or much of anything) 100% seriously. It also provides concrete examples of several principles we've explored so far, and reverses some classic "rules" for the sake of comic irony.

So, epigraphs (real or invented) can set the tone. But clever readers will notice that, with the Ragblatt quote above, we've come full circle. Quotes, epigraphs, stats, and other citations (fake newspaper clippings are fun) are often just a colorful way to be literal. Remember that literal description is best when the information you're delivering is subordinate to the Real Point. By putting the Ragblatt III homicide statistic above the text, I add color by presenting an idea that's worthy, but not strong enough to stand alone without getting lost in what's to come. It implies the beginning of a fun ride: the paragraphs that follow should take it from there, not rehash it.

Knowing When to Shut Up

Finally, we come to this: Never be afraid to delete a precious idea into oblivion. Be aware of how the idea you're trying to express fits within the whole of your work. Even a very good idea, written well, can harm a book if it wrecks the rhythm of a chapter or distracts from a larger point.

No idea is ever wasted. Anything you delete will sit in the back of your mind and ripen. When it's time for more notions, it'll be there. Sometimes, the best thing to say is nothing at all; especially when you know you've said all that you need to, for now.

'Nuff said.

Appeared originally at RPGnet with the followingyadda-yadda at the end: S. John Ross is a freelance writer/editor/production wonk who's worked for pretty much everybody, or at least everybody that matters. Right now, he's doing a new fantasy worldbook for Big Eyes, Small Mouth, and designing Fly From Evil, a game of pulp crime drama, for his own company, Cumberland Games. He just released Points in Space and wants you to buy a copy (or at least download the freeware version). He included the stuff about the passive voice because Sandy Antunes asked him to live up to his reputation and be a contentious bastard. You can reach him at [click here for email]. This article (it's not a column, folks) is Copyright © 2001 by S. John Ross. Viva Sandy Antunes! Viva the Once and Future RPGnet! Welcome back, guy.


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