Even games have a voice. When you sit down and read a tabletop RPG, the game itself speaks to you. The choice you make around narration heavily informs how people learn and play the game. Dungeons & Dragons has an anthropological voice, picking at pieces of the world the way a colonizer might dissect a foreign country. Apocalypse World is famously vulgar and harsh, partially designed to help players jolt out of their traditional headspace. From the clinical examination of Triangle Agency to the meandering prose of Wanderhome, the voice of a game brings a lot to how people read it and what they learn. Emerging game designers often struggle with writing rules and creating engaging texts. If you want people to actually read your game, you want to ensure your game has a voice of its own, and if the game is given space to explain itself in its own words, the text can take on a new life. Let’s go over some advice on how to create and stick to a narrative voice for your text, and how you can apply that to your tabletop RPG projects.
The Storyteller Technique
One of the first pieces of advice I give for anyone when I’ve been brought on to consult on a project is to imagine the game as an artifact of the world which itself creates. A game in a cyberpunk future might be an illegally-downloaded .exe file or a corporate memo passed down from on high. A fantasy game might be found within a wizard’s spellbook, the prayer-chants of a barbarian, or the research notes of an inventor. Imagining the relationship the game-text would have with the world it depicts will inform every aspect of the project, from art and layout to writing and design.
Once you know where the game is in the world, imagine the writer or storyteller teaching it to you. Are they a grizzled veteran of a thousand wars, or a bright-faced researcher imagining a glorious world that she’s never been to? If you were in this world, and you were documenting this game as instructed to you by the people in it, how would they speak to you? What would that be like?
This can be a challenging exercise, especially for more abstract games. It’s up to you how closely you want to stick to this inspiration — it might be a light influence gently borrowed, or a deep part of how the game is created. This is normal for all art — the narrator of some books is a far more important figure than the narrator of others. But having a sense of the narrative eye of the game itself and how that shapes the text is critical for constructing the work as a whole.
Example 1: I’m working on a dark fantasy game about a crumbling empire. I imagine the game would be played by the thieves of that world, climbing in the gutters and watching the great powers fall. I imagine the narrator to be a wretched knave in the corner of the tavern, who tells me the rules between swigs of ale and muttered curses. They’re curt and harsh, rules delivered bluntly and without any ornamentation, and every part of the world viewed with an unflattering eye.
Example 2: I’m working on a dark fantasy game about a crumbling empire. I imagine the game would be played by noblemen and debutantes, entertaining themselves with their own flattery while the common folk below suffer. I imagine the rules being taught by a smirking minor noblewoman, who loves purple prose and little bitter jokes only funny to her. She lingers on the finer points of mechanics and heaps the players and the setting both with false flattery.
Applying This Technique
Once you know the narrative voice of your game, previously-frustrating parts of game writing can become far easier. There’s been plenty said on the much-maligned “What Is An RPG” section of a game text (including by me in an earlier article) but part of the challenge of any sort of self-explaining rules section is its attempt to be both wildly generic and still useful for the text. A narrator helps turn this challenge on its head. How would a streetwise hacker explain this game to a new player, and how would that be different from how a fresh-from-the-academy magus would handle it? Perhaps different narrators would have different concepts of what an RPG is, based on the materials on hand. It’s not about constructing the perfect definition of all RPGs, but rather about giving new players just enough information to make sense of the text in front of them, and a narrative voice can make that easier to quantify.
Another advantage of getting to know the narrator of your RPG is that it helps mitigate unconscious bias in your design. Dungeons & Dragons has a notably anthropological narrative voice, explaining other cultures and creatures like a scientist in the field. The language of D&D mimics the writing style of mid-century scientists traveling to “exotic” locations and cataloging non-Western experiences as part of a documentation of the Other. It’s easy for newer designers to want to “write a game like D&D” without regard for how even the narrative voice of Dungeons & Dragons carries unintended political baggage. Is a bird’s-eye and judgemental perspective really the energy you want to bring to your whimsical fantasy world? Or is there another perspective within your world that can be more useful, and allow you to find new perspectives on the world you’ve created.
Finally, a narrative voice can help solve thorny design challenges. If it feels hard to explain your game mechanics while staying in-character as your narrator, then maybe your mechanics are too clunky and you need to streamline them. If you feel like you can’t follow what your narrator is saying, maybe you need to reorder sections of your book to help make the story of the rules flow better. Ultimately, while books aren’t the only way players learn rules, they still serve as a way to model the learning experience and create a platform for other teachers to use when helping new players onboard. If your narrator feels unclear or the text is muddled, maybe that’s a sign you need to spend some time teaching the game yourself, and experiment with different approaches.
Uses at Possum Creek
The storyteller technique shows up frequently at Possum Creek Games and is often the first piece of advice I give game designers when I’m sitting down to help them work on their projects. You can see its fingerprints all over our games, and by extension how it informs the layout and the artwork.
Wanderhome was written with a very explicit narrative voice, a character that I imagine to be an old mouse sitting by a campfire. The earnestness of the game’s narrative voice can be a real love-it-or-hate-it moment for readers, but is critically important for explaining the atmosphere and mood of the game. Snippets of storytelling and interpersonal emotion show up throughout the rules text, and that narrative perspective helps situate and ground the game’s environment and clarify the setting for the reader. Sometimes people mistake the narrative voice in Wanderhome for my own voice, without understanding that Wanderhome is told from a particular perspective within its own world.
Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast is a nostalgic kid-media pastiche, and so the narrator is one part children’s book author and one part in-universe concierge, instructing the new reader in home maintenance and gameplay. Sometimes the residents of Yazeba’s will write into the book, having conversations with the text in the margins. All of this is done to make the game feel approachable and distinct in its style, and many of the more challenging portions of the text (such as the Safety Tools or the advice on playing marginalized identities) was assisted by the writers imagining themselves as the concierge, or as a resident. Knowing who was writing any particular section of the game and why they were writing it helped ensure the enormous sprawling book could have a coherent style throughout, even if the results are sometimes a bit silly.
I was recently working on a TTRPG called The Helix Cabaret, which is a small abstract procedural game about creating multiple alternate universes for the same story structure. It’s outside my normal wheelhouse and I struggled a lot with writing it at first, because it was so abstract and didn’t have a set world. It wasn’t until I realized it could be about a troupe of performers taking on commedia dell’arte style masks, that the game itself snapped into vision for me. I invented a narrator (an Arlecchino sorta dude, but a bit more earnest and lovestruck) and imagined how he would write this game. Suddenly, the abstract procedure I’d been grappling with had emotional stakes and context, and it became a thousand times easier to create the game text. Sometimes you have an idea for a cool mechanic, but you can’t write it down in an interesting way until you know who’s teaching the mechanic to other people.
Another Tool In Your Toolbelt
Obviously, inventing a narrator and asking for their approach isn’t a panacea for your game design woes. But it’s a useful approach to apply when you’re stuck, another way to invigorate your design and come at it again from a new angle. It’s one of the first pieces of advice I give designers when I work with them, and while it can’t fix everything, it can often do a good job highlighting design challenges or areas that need improvement, while also improving the quality of your writing and unifying the text of your game.
This article was originally posted for the Creekside Community Center on the Possum Creek Games Patreon. For more essays and thoughts on game design, along with first looks and sneak peaks at upcoming games, subscribe to the Patreon here. If tabletop RPG design is your jam, I cannot recommend it highly enough.