Tuesday, March 4, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Four

What other roleplaying author besides Gygax impressed you with their writing?

When I was first getting into RPGs, the idea of an "authorial voice" being present in the rulebooks was about the furthest thing from my mind. And most of the books I read backed that up. Sure, something like the Mentzer D&D Basic Set was clearly written in a generally more breezy and conversational tone than, say, GURPS, but I never really had the feeling that I was reading one person's distinct voice.

Then I started getting into Palladium games. Back in those days, Palladium employed two writers for the vast majority (maybe all?) of their published work: company founder Kevin Siembieda, and Siembieda's long-time friend Erick Wujcik. And, lo and behold, I began to recognize a clear difference in tone and voice depending on which of those two guys wrote the game I was currently reading.

Wujcik's style remains a model of clarity, economy, and accessibility. But for me, Siembieda was "my" Gygax. I didn't get a chance to read classic "high Gygaxian" prose, coming into the hobby when I did, until many years later. But Siembieda was very much in the same vein, not so much in technical terms but in the way that you felt like, when you read one of his games, he himself was sitting there explaining it to you in person. There was an unapologetically personal tone to all of Siembieda's writing. The front pages of every new Rifts book would often read like a newsletter, with Siembieda going on about the state of the overall Rifts line, how things were going with the company, whatever. Even after getting down to the nitty-gritty, the text maintained this sort of conversational, excited tone that often masked some pretty shoddy game design and layout issues.

Also, like Gygax, Siembieda had his share of strange tics and turns-of-phrasing that, should he have deigned to bring in an outside editor, would have been excised immediately. The one that leaps quickly to mind is his fondness for making compound phrases out of slashes. Some of this is even hard-coded in the rules, such as "Bonus to Roll with Punch/Fall/Impact". It's always "Punch/Fall/Impact", like it's some kind of German compound word. Again much like Gygax, he also showed a great fondness for overblown language. Infamously, and with no apparent hint of ironic detachment, he branded the 2006 embezzlement disaster that almost sank his company as "the Crisis of Treachery".

I was initially enamored of Siembieda's writing style, finding it a refreshing change from the usually dry tone most other RPGs took. Eventually, like most things Palladium, the bloom came off the rose. Those weird technical tics began to really irritate me. "Oh great - here's yet another slashed-up phrase/sentence/paragraph. It's the third one on this page!" Yet reading his words impressed in me a great love for any game that has a distinct authorial voice; I understand the importance of having a game be easy to reference in play, but I'd much rather read someone excitedly telling me about their system page by page than slog my way through an eye-crossing 400-page technical manual.

Nowadays, my favorite RPG writer by a country mile is +S. John Ross. The dude understands the joy of reading a rulebook penned by a writer and not just an author (or, worse, a team of authors). I have yet to do anything more than scattered one-shots in his Uresia: Grave of Heaven setting, but (going back to its original incarnation as a BESM setting) the books have always been a joy to read (and re-read). And GURPS Russia remains easily my favorite GURPS book of all time, based largely on Ross's writing. Unlike Siembieda, it's hard to put a simple descriptor on how Ross writes, in part because he writes across so many different genres. If you're not familiar with his work, you owe it to yourself to check him out.
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