I have a tendency to write RPG reviews. It started because I’d read a book and, well, I’d have something to say about it. Either it was totally amazing, or it really annoyed me, and (as usual) I’d use a written medium to express that. I continued because I saw a lot of very superficial reviews out there, and I wanted more in-depth, carefully-considered roleplaying game reviews. After I started a review page, smaller companies started offering to send me review copies of games. I noticed a trend.
The Need for an Objective Observer
There were problems and mistakes in many of these books that could have been caught in advance if they’d had an objective observer to show their manuscript to. After all, any writer gets very close to her work. You get to the point where you can’t see the mistakes because you see what you meant to write, rather than what you wrote. You can’t catch the un-stated assumptions you’re making and the information you’re leaving out, because you already know what your world looks like and how it works. You can’t catch where your rules have gotten fine-tuned out of control because you can’t pull back and look at them from a distance.
Unfortunately, small roleplaying game companies often don’t have access to a whole lot of impartial observers. And any they do have access to, they probably used as playtesters (which leaves them unqualified to do the impartial observer thing in later stages of production). So what can they do? Are they just screwed?
I don’t think they are. Or at least they don’t have to be. A while back I started something called a “pre-review service.” The idea is that a small-press RPG company sends a copy of their not-yet-published RPG. We’d do a review of the book, and unlike normal reviews, we’d include all of the small background notes that we don’t usually include. Such as, on exactly which pages and in exactly which ways the rules get out of control.
It turned out that this was exactly what a bunch of small-press companies had been looking for, and we got more requests than we had the spare time to handle. (And that was without any attempt at advertising our services beyond one web page on our site!) In addition, things just got hectic enough that I had to suspend the service altogether. I still think it’s a great idea, though, and that someone else should get on the ball and put one together. A lot of little companies could really use the outside viewpoint.
The Money Problem
Some problems still need to be worked out, of course. Like how to make the service inexpensive enough for the small companies, while still making it worth your while. Who knows; maybe it’ll always be a spare-time sort of endeavor, but if you had enough reviewers signed up to help, you could handle a decent number of companies even in your spare time. After all, if people are willing to do the occasional normal review for a free copy of the book, then maybe they’d be willing to do an occasional pre-review for a free copy of the book and a little money.
So I’m going to try to give the “competition” a leg up. I’m going to explain what I think is needed in a pre-review service, so someone else can start one up–or so that small-press companies know what to look for in an outside reader before they publish.
Things Needed in a Pre-Review
You can’t guarantee that a game post-pre-review will automatically wow reviewers. A pre-review’s job is not to critique the basic idea of the game, I believe. It’s to catch problems in the execution of that game.
You need to be relatively impartial. A pre-review is a place for pointing out problems you see, not for ranting about how terrible you think horror games in general are. Explain where you think your biases are coloring your opinions. In fact, if you hate vampires, just don’t do a pre-review of a game about vampires. Hand it off to someone else, because clearly you’re not the audience the game is aimed at.
Pay attention to what you’re reading, and get nit-picky. If the description of the world just doesn’t leave you with a good picture of what it looks like, then say so. Also say why–is the description bland? Does it fail to use sensory details? Make sure you read everything. Be thorough.
If the fiction wanders and lacks focus, say so. If the rules have gaping holes or are radically unbalanced, say so, and give specifics. If you think the game needs examples of play, then say so. Write down pretty every thought that comes into your head when you first read the book. Then either filter out the stuff that you think is sheer preference on your part, or preface it in your pre-review with warnings to that effect. Organize it, write it up as clearly as possible, and send it off to the company.
Be a Professional
Be both honest and polite. If this is a professional service, as it should be, then politeness is just part of being professional. Also be honest, because you aren’t doing anyone a favor by pulling your punches. Being professional also means that you should let the company know when the manuscript arrives, give them a time frame in which they can expect their pre-review, let them know when payment arrives, and so on.
Professionalism also means that the pre-review should be confidential. You can also do a separate public review of the finished product, but the actual pre-review should remain strictly between you and the company. I recommend that you have someone different do the post-publication review (if you do one at all), so that there’s no worry (on anyone’s part) about someone feeling that they should be nice to the company that paid them for the pre-review.
What the Company Needs to Understand
The company needs to know ahead of time:
- what services you offer,
- what your schedule of fees is,
- whether or not you plan to playtest the game (and whether or not they need to pay extra or give you extra time for that service),
- how long it will take to get a pre-review from you,
- when payment is due,
- what form payment should take,
- where payment should be sent.
You probably want to have some normal reviews available for them to look at, so that they have an example of how fair and good your work is. You also want to write up some sort of description of the kind of things you check and comment on in a pre-review.
You need to make it clear that you cannot guarantee them good reviews in the finished product. While you can hopefully catch a lot of the basic mistakes and problems they make, you can’t promise that everyone out there will like their ideas or their approach to those ideas. You’re coming in at the end of the game-production process, not the beginning, so it isn’t really your place to tell them that their basic idea is uninteresting. (And since that’s such a personal judgment anyway, even if you did tell them that it wouldn’t mean a whole lot.)
Also make it clear that it’s up to them to filter your suggestions through their needs and desires for the game. It’s ultimately up to them to decide whether to follow your advice, and in what way.
I think the idea of the pre-review is a valuable service to offer, and I think that a lot of companies could benefit from it. The surprising numbers of small companies that expressed interest to us, even though we never advertised our services beyond a web page on our site, prove that there’s certainly some sort of market for the idea. I hope that someone else out there will pick it up and run with it.