The following “style guide” for writers is strongly colored by some of my feelings regarding the ways in which roleplaying games (RPGs) should be written. It’s also colored by some of the war stories I’ve heard from various sides of the industry. I think you’ll find it useful, however. Just make sure that when you write for a specific company, you follow their rules (not mine) in places where they disagree — they’re the ones paying you, after all!
General Rules of Writing RPGs
Audience: Know who your audience is, and consistently aim your manuscript (ms) for that audience. Is your ms for game masters (GMs)? Players? Dungeon-crawlers? Then make sure that’s consistent. Be very up-front about who your writing is aimed at without being elitist about it.
Bias: While it can be interesting to present information from a biased viewpoint, don’t make it too biased. Information must be useful to the GM, and biased information is generally less useful than the “truth.” If necessary, provide information from a biased viewpoint but then provide the truth as a counterpoint–or vice versa. Most importantly, if you are providing biased and not-entirely-accurate information, then specify this! GMs need to know what it is they’re working with in order to make decisions about how to use it.
Game Balance: Take game balance into consideration. Provide suggestions to GMs for balancing your material in their games.
Motives: Make sure that characters and groups have motives for what they do.
Originality: Avoid cliches and stereotypes as much as possible (unless you’re subverting them in new and interesting ways). Don’t steal characters, groups, etc. from other authors, movies, TV shows, and so on. Companies want original material! (Note: Yes, it can be argued that every plot in existence has been done already about 50 gazillion times over. However, the details and trappings should be all yours. The particular way in which the information comes together should be original.)
Party Play: Remember the party play structure of roleplaying, as opposed to literary structures where it’s easy for people to go off alone for long periods of time. Write material that provides for party play. At the same time, keep in mind as you write that different player characters (PCs) may do different things, and account for that possibility. In general, don’t set your material up so that the party must stick together or split up in order to succeed or survive. In particular, don’t write such assumptions and requirements into your material without giving the PCs some reason to do things your way.
Player Variety: Remember that there is a very wide variety of players and play styles out there. You cannot assume that someone else’s gaming group will do things the same way that yours does. Go through your writing and list out the assumptions that you’re making. Then provide material to help people who don’t fulfill your assumptions.
Purpose: Always consider the purpose and goal of the piece you’re writing, and how to support that. If appropriate, make a list (for your own benefit) of what you’re trying to accomplish and how you can achieve that, or how not to go about achieving that. This can help to keep you on track.
Reasons & Responsibility: The PCs need reasons to get involved in the world, and to feel responsibility for it. You don’t need to go overboard with this, but you do need to keep it in mind.
Use: Do not put anything into game that is not intended to be used by a GM and his players! There’s little point to it except to frustrate people. Some writers use “the PCs should never actually go there” or similar arguments as an excuse for not spending the time it takes to make material usable. Don’t fall into this trap.
Tone, Style, and Wording
Clarity: Clarity is far more important than prettiness; don’t obscure important details by trying to sound neat. (If you can get poetic and still be clear, great. Otherwise, clarity wins out.) Remember that clarity doesn’t have to mean “dry and uninteresting,” however.
Figures of Speech: Be careful with colloquial speech. Color is good, but keep in mind that colloquial speech is more difficult for non-native English speakers to understand.
Purple Prose: It can be a fine line between “poetic” and “purple” at times. Try to avoid the purple and melodramatic side of the line.
Acronyms and Abbreviations: In any given piece of writing, the first time you use an acronym or abbreviation you should spell it out and put the short version in parentheses–no matter how familiar the acronym or abbreviation. This includes such common terms as game master (GM), player character (PC) and so on.
Capitalization: Avoid over-capitalization of game terms in most genres. It’s cheesy. Use them only where necessary to aid in recognizing the difference between a normal word and the word as a formal game term.
Consistency: Make sure your material all fits together and fits with things that have come before. Remain true to the previous rules, setting, etc. When providing alternate material, say so directly rather than leaving readers to think that there has been an error. Of course, the larger and more well-detailed the game world, the harder this gets. Sometimes you can still get around this by detailing smaller, lesser-known parts of the game world. This is where world-spanning organizations and conspiracies can make life difficult, because once you create one, you always need to take it into account.
Familiarity: Be familiar with the basic system and setting of a game before you write for it. It helps to have a basic understanding of what you’ll be working on.
Grammar: If you don’t have a decent handle on grammar, learn it before you try to write professionally. Buy a couple of reference books.
Spelling: Run your spell-checker before you turn anything in. Then, read over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb looking for those spelling mistakes that a spell-checker can’t catch. (Many people stop after running the spell checker.)
Elements of Structure
Detail: Where appropriate, present more options in less but inspiring detail. In general, I see plot hooks as being more useful to GMs than full plots. It’s good to have full plots and adventures around for those people who want them, but the majority of material should be suggestive rather than inclusive. Such material is easier to adapt to a campaign and group of characters.
Flexibility: Make your material usable to as many roleplayers as possible. This means that flexibility is important. Include suggestions for adapting your material to other styles of play, types of party, etc. where appropriate. This doesn’t mean that everything must be aimed at the most prevalent style of roleplaying out there; just don’t be unnecessarily restrictive. If your material is aimed at a particular style of play or type of roleplayer, then say so up front so other people can move on to something else.
Histories: Some setting histories seem like wastes of space; others can be mined for plot hooks quite easily. When writing history sections, concentrate on plots and plot hooks. Don’t write history just for the sake of writing history–write it because it’s useful to the setting and to game-play.
Order and Organization: Present your material in an understandable order. Make sure your material is organized for quick-reference during game-play. Where appropriate:
- Introduce concepts before mentioning them casually. (E.g., don’t casually refer to a plot twist in an adventure before that plot twist has been at all mentioned or explained.)
- Place similar subjects near each other.
- Where helpful, include a brief verbal “map” of each major chapter or section at the beginning of it. Be sure that it makes sense.
- Use obvious and useful section headings. (If you really want to use a “cool-sounding” heading, then try a double heading instead–i.e., a straightforward heading followed by a colon, with a more interesting heading after it, or vice versa.)
- Include a table of contents at the beginning of the book. Include a one-line description of what each section includes, if that would help. If you can’t afford to include an index, then make the table of contents as detailed as possible.
- Divide into sections and sub-sections often.
- If you show a necessary piece of information in a piece of fiction, a character sheet, etc., also explain it in the reference portion of the text, properly organized and labeled. Rather than going by the old writer’s cliche) (show, don’t tell), show and tell. Show readers things in new and interesting ways, but remember to tell them in ways that can be referenced quickly during game-play as well.
- If there’s scattered information that will be needed quickly during game-play, collect it in summary charts, lists, tables, and checklists.
- If you hate working from an outline, reverse-engineer an outline from the finished product and be sure that it makes sense.
Overview: Early overviews and summaries can make large works much more understandable to the reader. Settings and adventures particularly benefit from these.
Participation: Encourage participation in plots. Leave plot hooks dangling everywhere and provide concrete suggestions for how to work provided plots into an ongoing game.
Absolutes: Avoid absolutes wherever possible: “can’t,” “must,” “only,” “never.” They only serve to restrict PC action and punish player creativity. Absolutes are plot holes in disguise. An absolute is generally a sign that you haven’t thought something through enough, or that you haven’t provided enough information about something.
Antagonism: When giving suggestions to GMs, don’t encourage them to be antagonistic toward their players. Antagonistic solutions to problems should be last resorts, not the starting position.
Arms Race: Do not succumb to the desire to make your creations more powerful than everything that has come before. This is an arms race that only leads to an unbalanced game world or system.
Game State: The game state should not constantly be on the brink of armageddon (or other major disaster-of-the-week). You should not feel it necessary to constantly one-up the last writer in terms of size or impact of plot.
Judgment: Don’t pass judgment on people. Don’t make statements about ways in which the GM or the players are “stupid.” Don’t put down other people’s methods of roleplaying. My rule of thumb is: as long as people are having fun and aren’t hurting anyone or anything, they can roleplay any way they want to. A calm discussion of relative merits can work in some circumstances, but that’s different than being elitist about your preferences.
Schtick: Don’t use an in-your-face approach for its own sake — only do it to make a point, and even then use it sparingly.
Balance: Most games require some balance of “realism” vs. playability, thoroughness vs. simplicity. Keep all four elements in mind, and know which elements are most important in the game you’re writing for.
Be Constructive: Be constructive in your suggestions to GMs and players. Instead of making them feel stupid for the way they do things now, find constructive ways to make your case for what you think they should be doing instead.
Mood and Theme: Try to maintain a consistent overall mood and/or theme throughout a single piece of writing.
Variety: Variety is second only to flexibility. The two often go hand-in-hand.
Vision: Use flavor, voice, and clarity of vision. Use concrete details to ground your abstract concepts. In short, make things interesting. Make things sound good!