Under the Hood – Using Your Words Good

Using Your Words Good
By The Warden

Choosing the right words for your game is like searching for one volume in this library.

Choosing the right words for your game is like searching for one volume in this library.

Game design is the culmination of many different parts. If you’re an independent or casual designer, you’re piecing them all together yourself or with a couple of people contributing. If you’re really lucky and have built a career in game design, there’ll be a team of people hacking away at their own portion of this giant puzzle. Whatever aspect you’re working on and however it’s getting done, there’s one unmistakable tool you’ll need to conquer for your game to work at the table.

Words. We use them to explain every detail, every rule and every possibility players and GMs can accomplish with our game. The wrong combination of words and you’re sending out errata before DriveThruRPG can send out your first royalty payment. There’s no perfect way to use those words because language is about flexibility and with flexibility comes interpretation; that’s where words can become your enemy. So no matter how your game is designed and assembled, you must use your words to explain it properly and efficiently the first time because you may not get a second time.

For ScreenPlay, I’ve chosen to complicate matters even further by setting down a 5,000 word limit on the rules chapter. And considering I’ve elected to have the entire game introduced and explained in the same chapter, that count is getting very crowded. Over the weekend, I put together the latest draft of the rules – you can download Version 1.02 of the game for your enjoyment – and it’s sitting at 4,813 words. That leaves only 187 before slamming against the brick wall I’ve set for myself and there’s still a few additions and possible options I want to play with. Seems the only way that’s going to happen is to clean up the text for Version 1.03 and streamline as much as possible without sacrificing any clarity.

There are all sorts of tricks you can use to shorten your text, but each one works best for different reasons. While simply reviewing the text and chopping away for the sake of securing my word count goal is one way of doing it, I’m also sensitive to maintaining the original text’s integrity and purpose. That’s the thing about roleplaying text; it’s not just about making things shorter, it’s about making them simpler and cleaner. Cut it too short and you risk some of the necessary clarity game rules require for the average player. What I need are better ways to explain what needs explaining. I need shortcuts.

Here’s what I’m thinking:


ScreenPlay has an unusual advantage in that it’s not a game about players taking on the role of characters, it’s about players taking on the role of Writers tackling a script involving characters. While the game play itself may not come out that way, this fundamental difference in the game’s presentation can help determine the words available to your repertoire. Hence, in a game about screenwriters, grammar can be a shortcut to describing how the mechanics work.

Think about it for a second. If I want a faster way to describe a resource, why not simply call it a noun? If a resource is technically “a loosely defined category for any object, body part, ability, or any other component offered in a description’s details,” doesn’t that sound an awful lot like a noun? Done! And descriptions? Well, they’re a paragraph. (It has occurred to me that screenwriting terms may be more applicable considering this is a game about screenwriting, so it’s something for me to look at. For now, I’m going with basic grammar terms.) When do you roll dice? Whenever a Writer uses a verb that could meet with success or failure. All of this could save me a great deal of defining and insuring by placing the brunt of the game’s flexibility in the hands of basic grammar rules. “Can I use my elbow as a resource in this case?” “Yeah, it’s a noun. Why not?”

The idea came to me after reading the following post from Rob Donahue (of FATE infamy) on his Google+ page.

“A randomly useful thing about the advantage/disadvantage language is that it combines a portable mechanical idea with comfortable language, which is something of a holy grail for largely-but-not-entirely systemless material. So, for example, as I write about dwarves and I get to the point about the difficulty in speaking high-class dwarven, I can simply parenthetically note that characters without a deep grasp of dwarven culture are at a disadvantage when trying to speak in that manner. It’s descriptive, but it provides the mechanical hook a GM may need if it comes up.

“I dig this tech and need to find other ways to use it.”

Rob Donahue, Google+

When those two words became part of D&D’s mechanics, any unintentional use of the word “advantage” or “disadvantage” automatically causes a mechanical reaction from the players. If you read, “will take advantage of the situation” in an adventure, your mind will instantly wonder if this means they get to roll a second d20. This particular example in no way implies the use of the advantage mechanic, yet it has become such a part of the game’s vernacular that it cannot be helped.

That’s what I’m hoping to do with grammar and make it part of ScreenPlay’s vernacular. What a geeky thing to do – build a game based on English classes. If I can pull this off, my grandmother would be so proud.


Even games have their own tone and grammatical style. My last release, Killshot, was written as if recorded direct from the mouth of a hired killer who’s been there and done that… twice. Doing so opened up a few doors for me to describe the rules and style of the game, particularly with cursing. I could also be incredibly blunt with the reader and use the text to speak to them directly. While many games can read as very technical, that’s still a choice of tone and one that allows for highly precise details and lengthier sentences. Every game, in its own way, has its own tone and that provides a list of words you can use to explain your game.

What tone can I use for ScreenPlay? Good question. Writing it in character again is a good default, one I’m very comfortable attempting, but I’d also like the challenge of finding another way and it’s something I’ll have to keep considering as this project moves further and further along. For now, simply having clearly defined rules is more important than how fluffy it’s written.


I know I’ve advocated for the use of sample text before, but there’s quite a bit of text spoken for in Version 1.02’s examples. 635 words set aside for specific examples alone. That’s quite a chunk, 12.7% of the goal, to be exact. And that does not include a fictional example of the game in progress, another staple of game design. With these numbers in mind, it may be time for me to consider how to best use examples… if I bother to use them at all.

Now here’s another pickle to chew on. If the goal of ScreenPlay is that it works as an open system with setting/genre specific releases, shouldn’t the examples reflect that of the individual product? Imagine yourself reading the rules for a fantasy RPG and finding examples where the terrorist attempts to jump off a moving tank. That would instantly snap you from your concentrated reading and catch you off guard. To keep things fluid and cohesive, the examples should match the game and should likely be written uniquely with each product.


What I’ve come up as a strategy for Version 1.03 is to apply grammar terms to define mechanics, considering ditching some or all examples, and starting thinking about a tone for the game as development continues. With that in mind, here’s what I’ve done to clean things up a bit. As of right now, there are no examples and the word count is sitting at 4,038, leaving me with 962 words until hitting my self-imposed brick wall. Considering Version 1.02 stood at 4,813 and the examples weighed in at 635, that means I’ve shaved off an additional 140 words by applying grammar terms. Not a lot, but definitely a start.

This is where playreaders are very handy. How do these rules look to you? Feel free to download either of the versions introduced in this post and send me some feedback on what you’ve read and how you interpret it. Comment below or you can send me an email using the link provided on the PDFs.

You can download Version 1.02 of ScreenPlay from here. (NOTE: I’ve added notes onto the PDF designating where changes were made since the previous version, 1.01.)

You can download Version 1.03 (current draft) of ScreenPlay from here. (NOTE: There aren’t any notes as there are in Version 1.02 simply because of time constraints to get this article posted and because this draft is still in progress.)

To read more about ScreenPlay, you can see everything under it’s original codename, the Phoenix Project.


Rather than hog all the spotlight for myself, I would like to take this opportunity to point out that Mystical Throne Entertainment, the publisher behind this site, has released an Open Beta of their new system, Entropy Roleplaying Game. Available for free on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG, why not take a look and considering a little playreading/playtesting for Entropy as well.

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