At the moment, I’m in the midst of finishing up the final layout retouches on one RPG and starting to design a new one. One thing I’m finding as I do both is that I want to draw more of the reader’s attention to some aspects of the game and less of it to others. I believe that every word in a game’s text should be important. If it is not important, why is it in there? Fluff and Filler text can be spotted a mile away by experienced roleplayers, and it serves only to confuse new ones. If I find a piece of text that is unimportant to how the game should be played, I should just take it out.
That’s a piece of good advice I got from another game designer a while back. But I’ve also come to realize that while yes, everything in a game’s text should be important to the game, there are different levels of importance.
Take combat and magic, for instance, in DnD- any edition. Look at how much of the PHB those two things take up! It’s close to two-thirds of the book when you include weapon lists and spells. Those two things are vital to play in DnD and therefore are strongly emphasized in the text.
Look at Town Creation in DitV. It’s a big deal. The author even says so. It has a lot of description, and if you look at the game’s website you will find sample towns available. Town Creation receives a great deal of “strength of emphasis” from its creator because it is so important to play.
But should the important stuff always be so strongly emphasized? The answer is no.
One of my favorite examples of a game that purposely did not strongly emphasize its key feature is (was) The Riddle of Steel by Jake Norwood. (Jake, if you read this say hi. It’s been a while) The key feature, IMO, to TRoS is a character’s Spiritual Attribute. But instead of going on page after page about it, it’s just thrown in with all the other character creation items. On the other hand, the book has all kinds of stuff about combat. It probably has the most realistic combat system ever implemented in an RPG. And Jake used that as a major selling point. However, talk to anyone who’s ever played the game, really played it, for an extended period of time. See which of the two they though was more important to play. The importance of Spiritual Attributes is to be discovered during play, not hammered home in the initial reading.
I have run into this sort of thing with one of my own games I am designing. It has a “Walk Away” mechanic. The game is filled with violence, tough choices, and sacrifice. That’s the point of it. But I wanted to offer the ultimate tough choice to the players: giving up. Now it’s not something I want them to choose often, but I do want it to be there. So while other game features get bold print, examples, and lots of description, the Walk Away mechanic does not. Perhaps it will only get a couple lines. But it is something I want them to discover later in play, just not necessarily in the first reading.
So what are some ways to show strength of emphasis? Below are some suggestions:
What can a heavy strength of emphasis accomplish for a game? It can draw attention to a mechanic. It can encourage the use of a portion of the text during play. And it will help discourage indifference towards that mechanic/rule/text. Basically, strong emphasis can alert a reader to something’s prominence in the game. What is strongly emphasized in the text will likely be strongly emphasized in play.
What can a light strength of emphasis accomplish for a game? It can hide surprises that come up in play. It can make the use of a particular rule or mechanic more rare. It can present options to players without making them a requirement. Finally, it can be used as contrast to help emphasize the portions of the text that are important.
At lot of this is self-evident, I realize, but this is a topic that was pertinent to what I am doing with my games. Both strong and weak emphasis are necessary to a game’s text. Used appropriately, they can greatly enhance the depth of understanding and play of a game. Used wrongly, and a game could end up an incoherent mess. It’s somewhat obvious, I know, but that does not make it any less important to design.