People don’t just read texts as some kind of blank slate. We read them with assumptions and background knowledge, sure, but we also bring a particular set of tools to bear to understand them as we read them. You should really read Ryan Macklin on the subject of reading texts.
OK, good. Now, I’m going to talk about some of my personal experience with this issue.
My role-playing history begins with D&D, specifically with AD&D 2e. When I read that text, it was the only example of an RPG text I had ever seen. I had other game-rules texts to guide me, but it was still substantially different.
But once I had developed tools to understand that book, I was able to transfer those skills to other games: Alternity, Pendragon, In Nomine. The skills I had learned from the AD&D 2e were, in essence these: look for combat rules (which in turn consist of “how do you roll to do damage?” and “how much damage can you take?”), look for character creation rules (“how do you decide your class, race, stats?”), and look for XP systems.1
Then, I discovered the World of Darkness games, and my role-playing world shrunk, in a sense. I read the first one I got (Werewolf), and then all the subsequent ones I read, the reading tools shifted: check the power lists, the morality track, and the splats.
And those were what I looked for, fundamentally, in any game, for a while. Eventually, I broke out of that and began to play indie games, and had to re-learn how to digest a text. I learned to look for “what do you do in this game?”, “what are the roles at the table?”, “how do you make this game sing when you’re playing it?”.
I didn’t realize that I had learned to look for these things until I tried to go back and play In Nomine again. I remembered how the dice worked, but I picked up the book looking for the features I had learned to look for by playing indie games. The text was, quite simply, not geared towards that information. I’m sure some of it existed, but it was hard to find at best.
So, write for your audience, right? But think about what information that audience needs and what information they want, and how they’ll be looking for that information in the text.
- One of these early games challenged that set of tools a bit: Pendragon. But not so much so that I really noticed. [↩]