There was something in the air last week. We talk all the time about playing roleplaying games, and last week Aaron focused on Collecting them. When we went to gather up content for the Weekend Update, it turned out the hive mind was in agreement with us: playing, collecting, and reading are all different iterations of the roleplaying game hobby. So what, then, of reading? Collectable items grant satisfaction simply by possessing them, but play is the main event, right? Surely, if you only ever read a roleplaying game book but never get to play its game, it gets relegated to the Shelf of Shame? Well, if the hobby is a Playing/Collecting/Reading Venn Diagram, I’m going to zoom in on that Reading section and explore what I think is another Venn Diagram for the motives behind that reading: Learning, Research, and Enjoyment.
On The Importance of Design and Layout
Let’s stay zoomed out for a moment, though, and talk about an important aspect of reading: readability. You can have the smoothest-running mechanics ever designed, the most interesting world-building, fiction that would immediately enrapture the reader… but if it’s a literal pain to read, all of that is going to do much less for you than you think. Your mechanics will be rendered confusing, your world will be built into a tangled mess, and your fiction won’t get finished.
This is why you can’t cut corners on design choices and layout. This is why you consider spacing, and fonts, and (if it’s part of the game’s design) art and its placement. Aaron just couldn’t get Root’s layout choices out of his craw once they got stuck there, and while I liked Star Trek Adventures (a lot) it would have been an annoyingly difficult to read block of paper if it hadn’t been for whoever put the work in on the Index (and it still isn’t always easy to read once you find the page you need).
Look, I’ve done some very little layout work in my day, and it is work. Perhaps there are those who enjoy it for its own sake, and I can see how it could be enjoyable, as you put together the puzzle pieces that are the pages of a book, but from a game designer’s perspective it is outside the bounds of the ‘fun’ part of the process. That doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely vital that your game is readable. It doesn’t have to be art in its own right, although that is certainly something that can be aspired to, it just needs to work. For companies, you’ve got no excuse. For indies, at least don’t skimp.
Now, to complicate things, readable for playing and readable for, well, reading are slightly different, which brings us to the first section of the Reading diagram as we zoom in.
In the Venn diagram of playing, collecting, and reading roleplaying game books, this is the motive that sits most firmly within the area claimed by both playing and reading. The fact of the matter is that in order to play a game you need to know how to play the game, and that would seem to involve reading the darn books that contain the game as written.
But not always. Honestly, maybe not even that often.
D&D players only have to concern themselves with the Player’s Handbook, and probably not even the entire thing, so they’re not even reading a third of the ‘core rules’. Powered by the Apocalypse, Forged in the Dark, and similar game systems that use the playbook method of character builds and moves really only require the players to read a few handouts. Electric Bastionland practically encourages the players to not bother reading the book for learning purposes at all. On top of variable levels of reading requirement, reading to learn a game system is often thought of as inferior to actually just playing the game – this is why QuickStarts with ready-to-play characters that gradually introduce the basic rules have become so popular. Reading an example of play doesn’t quite convey the natural flow of a game session like watching an actual play of the game will.
All of that being said, when we were talking about GMless games we noted that roleplaying games are much like their board gaming cousins: someone needs to actually know what’s going on, rules-wise. If you’re the group’s point person for learning a game system you may end up tapping into other resources to help the others learn, but even if you start with nothing but a QuickStart you should still be doing at least some reading beforehand. For many games, the best advice when reading to learn is to not bury yourself in every nut and bolt of a complicated game – you won’t need that reputation mechanic in the first session, and the encumbrance rules may not be of any use to you ever if you’re not planning on a survival-style game. On the other side of the page, while many games will be easy to learn via reading, read explicitly ‘rules-lite’ games a little more carefully, as understanding what rules have been used is going to be all the more important.
This is where the difference between doing layout work that eases play and layout work that eases reading diverge ever so slightly. Perhaps your spacing and fonts and art are easy on the eyes, but if the reader can’t find the rule they’re trying to study up on, well, then maybe you should have spent some more time on the Table of Contents, the Index, what was included, and the order in which things are presented. Masks, of all games, originally had a pretty good layout when it came to readability, sure. Still does now, but originally the book lacked the actual playbooks for the game because of a layout choice, which proved enough of a learning speed bump that they eventually released a new ‘Playbook Edition’ to include them!
Learning is learning to play a game, literally knowing the rules. Research is reading to bring things into your own game – while players may be researching character options, the lion’s share of this reading motive is the purview of those who are running games and/or creating games themselves. There’s still learning going on, obviously, but the difference in goal is an important distinction when it comes to roleplaying games. The first question of choosing what game to run or what game you’re going to design is: what kind of experience(s) do I want the play group to be having? The second question is: what do I need to enable the desired experience(s)? Getting to the second question is when you hit the books.
Research could be in-system, particularly if a game has a broad catalogue that may even include third party content. You’re looking for the aforementioned character options so you crack open Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, or you want to use some new monsters for an encounter so you take a look at the Tome of Beasts. It could be inspiration hunting – you thumb through the various published one-shots to find an adventure for your Starfleet crew, or a book of NPCs and quest prompts to populate your setting. It could be reading something like the Fate Accessibility Toolkit so you can better tailor your games to be more inclusive, or thumbing through a Forged in the Dark game to learn about clocks that you want to port over to Genesys (like our friends over at Force Majeure started doing in later seasons). It could be reading through a whole pile of Powered by the Apocalypse games to see how each tackles the challenge of creating moves so you know what you’re doing when you start work on your own game.
As a result research is probably, hobby-wide, the widest spread reason for reading a roleplaying game book. Not everyone does it, but practically every campaign and gaming group is going to have a little bit of it going on. In some cases it can be very focused (how else is this mechanic getting used and what can I do with it myself), and in others it can be very broad (perusing monster manuals and adventure hooks). When reading for research you need to be keeping the two questions mentioned above in mind, and if there’s going to be any hacking or adapting involved you need to add more: how will using this material change the existing game, and if I’m going to be making changes is there anything I’ll lose in the process that I care about?
The other thing to be said of reading game books for research is that you can never cast a wide enough net, either as a game runner or a game designer. The more you read, the more well-stocked your vault of knowledge, the more you’ll have available to draw on and tinker with. “Read with the mind-set of a carpenter looking at trees,” as Sir Terry Pratchett put it.
At last, the purest expression of the reading version of the hobby. You’re not cracking open the book to learn how its mechanics work, or to loot it for adventure seeds or game mechanics or characters to use elsewhere. You’re reading the book because it’s a fun activity, simple as that! What, though, is there to enjoy with something that’s ostensibly a book of rules?
Well first of all, again, this is another Venn diagram, so perhaps you enjoy learning new systems or researching game mechanics or thinking of how you might use a certain monster. Excellent! Even there though, deliberately making sure the reader enjoys the act is where things like in-universe fiction, interesting lore and world-building, and writing style come to the forefront. I never got to play a single session of the Iron Kingdoms RPG, but I loved learning about the history of the world in Kings, Nations, and Gods. Eclipse Phase’s setting is fascinating, I’ve spent hours reading through the core book to learn more about it. Most of the FFG Star Wars books have a bit of fiction to start them off, and the Adventure Journals were just one example from the WEG Star Wars days that spent as much time entertaining as they did providing gameable material. There’s even an entire sub-genre of roleplaying game books that are functionally about being an enjoyable read first, and I’ve had the fortune of reading a few right here at CHG. There’s not a mechanic to be found within the Book of Lore for Bluebeard’s Bride or The Book of Changing Years for Timewatch, because they’re books telling one or more stories about the game world, and they’re highly enjoyable.
More Traditional Reading
For one last note there’s also a blurry area, perhaps right on the line outlining the Enjoyment part of the Reading Venn Diagram, that is reading novels or comics or other standalone works of fiction set within a tabletop roleplaying game setting. Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, and more all have dedicated wings of pure fiction where you’ll find not even a hint of a game mechanic, and in fact you need know nothing about the games they’ve spawned from if the story pitch appeals to you. There’s not much to say on these, fiction novels are after all written primarily to be enjoyed. I will say that if standalone fiction is represented by a dot on the line of the enjoyment section, it sometimes slingshots in an orbit around and into the research and learning sections to share space with the enjoyment-first supplements (which, in some ways, only differ in which kind of store you’re most likely to find them).
While it should go without saying that you shouldn’t be trying to run the plot of a novel page for page (that’s what the novel is for), character ideas and inciting events can be quite happily
looted researched; I had Abraxis Wren appear as a contact once or twice, and the reappearance of the Mark of Death was a dramatically revealed plot point in one epic campaign. For a certain value you’re also learning more about what kind of stories and themes the game world likes to focus on, which can be quite valuable when figuring out what you’re actually supposed to do with a game.
I referred to reading a roleplaying game book for enjoyment as the purest expression of the reading iteration of the hobby not because it’s superior in any way to acquiring a book for learning or research but because it’s the one that has the most independence from the playing iteration of the hobby. For purposes of conclusion I point this out because, as with collecting, it’s about getting value out of the book you’ve acquired. You’re primarily learning in order to play. You’re researching in order to enhance play or to help with game design that will (hopefully) lead to play. Reading for enjoyment means that while play would be nice it’s not going to be the sole source of value, and its lack isn’t as much of a negative.
For an example from another side of the hobby, there are those who say that people who enjoy Actual Play productions without actually playing the games being featured aren’t ‘real’… gamers, fans, whatever. I’m not going to go out and link any of them because it’s a nonsense take, and it would be the same if it were directed at those who have only read a game book. We try to bring games and gamers together around here, and if the way that happens to produce a good experience is solely through reading, mission accomplished.
Whether you’re acquiring a book for playing, collecting, reading, or managing to land in one of the both or all sections of that Venn Diagram, the point is to have a good time and get value for the resources in time, effort, and lucre that you’re expending. If you manage that, there’s no such thing as a shelf of shame for roleplaying game books.
Besides! There’s not enough time in the universe to play all the games we’d want to anyway, so you may as well make sure you can enjoy reading them, right?
Header image is from The Tears of a Machine SC from Robot Claw Design.