RPGaDay 2017, Day 19: Which RPG features the best writing?

RPGaDay 2017 infographic

RPGaDay is an annual celebration of tabletop roleplaying. This is the first year I’ve tried to do it.

Which RPG features the best writing?

I understand this question to mean “writing” as something distinct from the part of game design associated with rules and mechanics. I take the question to be close to those “best art” questions, in that it refers to how the presentation and style of an RPG—in this case, its use of language—contributes to its setting, tone, theme, etc. A lot of people are probably going to say Apocalypse World for today’s answer, because it’s got a reputation for doing exactly that, bringing the apocalypse to life in the mind of the reader. Alas, I’ve never actually read the Apocalypse World book from cover to cover, and never got a sense of its use of language.

One game whose use of language I absolutely love, though, is Swords Without Master. Right from the get-go it makes it clear what sort of RPG we’ll be playing. Here’s the first paragraph:

Gather writing implements, scraps of paper, three or four of your cohorts, and two six-sided dice that you can easily tell apart to a table. A mahogany table adorned with thick, greasy candles and five human skulls. Failing that, a stout oaken table near a glowing hearth, replete with ale-filled steins and a succulent roast. Or, if you prefer, a tabletop chipped whole from a single obsidian stone, placed on the back of a coiled serpent of silver in a room high in a lonely tower shrouded in a prismatic fog.

But it goes further than this: use of evocative language is actually built into the game through its use of tones. Every dice roll in the game sets the tone as Jovial or Glum (or, rarely, a third tone chosen by a player), and the definitions of those tones are wonderful. They start with a list of pseudo-synonyms but then provide examples of the tone in play. Here are the examples for Glum:

The gray-green sky just before a storm, a starlit path, whispers from forgotten languages, the blade drawn swiftly across the throat, stifled laughing, gentle weeping, subtle enchantments, erudite conversation, the furtive glances of new lovers, a song sung in a minor key, a book enjoyed by candlelight, armies awaiting each other in the rain.

If running the game for the first time, I definitely recommend reading them aloud to your players.

You want the examples of the Jovial tone? Then I suggest you buy the game for yourself! Ho ho ho!

3 thoughts on “RPGaDay 2017, Day 19: Which RPG features the best writing?

  1. Benj August 19, 2017 / 11:54 am

    On the contrary, Apocalypse World has one of the worst writing voices I’ve seen in a game. It’s irritatingly puerile, comes across like a kid trying out swears for the first time to seem “edgy”.


    • Stephen August 19, 2017 / 8:25 pm

      Oh, fair enough. As I said, I haven’t read it myself so I’m only going on what I’ve heard from other people. I will incorporate your criticism into my understanding of the game.

      Swords Without Master, though: recommended.


  2. mpduxbury September 5, 2017 / 2:41 pm

    Apocalypse World seems to be like Marmite. I quite like the writing myself; I think it upsets people though because it has swear words.


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