Writing With Style: An Editor’s Advice for RPG Writers presents 45 pages of concise tips on simple ways to make your roleplaying game writing cleaner and clearer. This guide doesn’t show you how to structure adventures, build stat blocks, or create worlds. Instead, Ray Vallese looks at some of the most common and easily fixable grammar and style issues he’s encountered in over twenty years of editing RPGs.
Yeah, it’s not a review of a D&D adventure. I know, I only do adventure reviews. Bare with me. (That one’s just for you Ray!) I’ve been on a kick lately, that I’m sure is showing up in my reviews, that these things are padded out with loose, sloppy writing. It’s almost all I can see anymore and it sticks out like a glaring neon sign. I’ve been surveying books on how to write adventures and came across this one. It’s pretty good for what it is. It’s also the only thing in the How to Write Adventures category that I’d recommend.
This doesn’t tell you how to write adventures. Instead it’s focused on the craft of writing proper, from an editor viewpoint. It’s a small manual of style focused on RPG’s. Most of the 46 pages contain quite good advice on the techniques for writing clearer RPG supplements. Given my sworn blood-oath against Samuel Johnson and the Chicago manual of Style, this is quite the feat.
Laying out my core philosophy, the adventure book is a tool to help the DM run the adventure at the table. To do this I assert two primary conceits: it must be perfectly organized and writing must be evocative. A core part of being perfectly organized is scannability … the ability of a DM to glance at the page and immediately find what they need … locate it on the page and absorb it. The majority of Ray’s booklet of advice will directly impact the scalability of an adventure, and in particular less padding and a more active voice.
I fumble with this terminology in my reviews. I know it when I see sentences padded with text. I know that a sentence would be clearer if it were rearranged. It’s obvious to me what the mistakes are. Then I fumble around with the terminology. I throw around the term “passive voice” since I don’t know any better. Ray knows better. He knows what the issues are called and he knows what they look like and how to fix them.
One of the early insightful things he says is about Expletive Constructions. He points out that these are filler phrases like “there is “ and “there are” that add no meaning to a sentence. Joy! Look! Someone knows that sentences should have meaning! Ray has an example: “There is an old wise man who watches over the children.” which he converts to “An old wise man watches over the children.”
This sort of padding comes up time and again in the adventures I review, and Rays addresses it time and again in his book. “You find yourself drawn to beauty” as opposed to you are drawn to beauty” in the section on “Find yourself.” Future vs Present Tense, my old friend passive voice, and a host of other examples.
Ray, being a scholar and a gentleman, also knows that the rules can be broken for effect AND points you at additional resources to get answers from!
Ray’s book is not perfect. He drifts in to editor minutia in places. I don’t care about editor minutia … that’s what you pay your editor for. 😉 He also forgets his audience in places.
The most glaring example of this is the way he has the book organized. Following his own advice on alphabetical organization … he organizes the topics alphabetically by topic. WRONG! I’m sure this like a logical way, to an editor, however I suspect most readers are not going to know what “Expletive Constructions” are, and therefore don’t know to look there. Further, the topic headings tend to be a bit … generic? “Human” or “Great” or “Power.” These are meaningless topic headings. Because of this the book comes off like a bunch of rando topics mixed up. One moment it’s a topic related to padding and another its the correct usage of player vs character. Rays advice naturally falls in to certain categories and I suspect his points would be better made and/or reinforced if the book were organized that way. A section on padding, a section on proper terminology, etc.
This isn’t a book on evocative writing, or even adventure organization topics like the use of white space or bullets. He does touch briefly, in an off-hand way, on those but not to any real extent. Here’s an example from a section on stacked modifiers (IE: adjectives & adverbs) that I think can illustrate the power of the english language:
Before: Its body is thin, scaly, and wormlike.
After: Its wormlike body is thin and scaly.
It’s not perfect. Some of the advice is suspect, but it does strike a decisive blow in the war against padding and bloat. Little anecdotal in presentation, but solid advice for trimming your writing and making sentences that scan easier and have more impact through being more direct.
It’s easy to recommend this. Now the challenge becomes figuring out how to get it in to the hands of every hack distributing on Drivethru.