Category Archives: Writing Basics

Writing Basics: Final Checks for RPG Manuscripts

This is the third in my series of Writing Basics blog articles, designed for people who want to write game material (especially tabletop RPGs), and are looking to pick up some insights into how to be better at its weird mix of creative writing and technical writing. These are all lessons I didn’t get in any school or class, or at least that I apply in ways no class ever suggested.

In this entry, we’re going to talk about the all the work you should be doing after you are done writing, but before you turn over the manuscript. This stuff can be a drag, especially since the thrill of writing something may be gone once you are done actually writing it, but these last checks are often the difference between a polished manuscript that gets people’s attention, and a barely-useful mess that requires significant work from your developer/editor/producer/publisher to bring up to their standards.

The Cold Read-Through

Done with your writing project? Great!

Now put it down, and leave it alone for at least a few days. A week is better.

Then reread it all from scratch, beginning to end.

Yes, this requires you have some extra time between the completion of your manuscript and the deadline. This is one of the hardest things to actually arrange for in real-world conditions… but it’s also one of the most useful. One of the reasons I often do drafts of ideas here in my blog is that when I get around to wanting to turn them into full products, I’ve been away from them so long I can look at them with almost-fresh eyes.

It’s amazing, at least for me, how often I didn’t quite say what I thought I did. This is the most reliable way for me to find unclear rules, inelegant phrases, and run-on sentences. Besides, you ought to be shooting to be done well before your deadline anyway, just in case you get kidney stones while a hurricane affects your employer so they need to to work weirdly scheduled extra shifts.

It happens.

Common Personal Error Checklist

Do you write affect when you mean effect? Do you often capitalize Class and Race names, when that’s not the style of the game you are writing for? Do you forget to italicize spell names and magic items, when that IS the style of the game you are writing for? Do you write x2 to indicate doubling something, when your publisher uses <<TS>>2?

As you discover things you do on a regular basis that are wrong, make a checklist. When you are convinced your manuscript is done, run through that list of common errors, and check for them. And make it a living document—if you stop writing “could of done better” in place of “could’ve done better,” you can take it off your personal error checklist.

Spellcheck

Hopefully, we’re all running spellcheck as the very last thing before we turn over our manuscripts, right? Okay, good.

But just running the base program isn’t good enough.

Games often have a lot of string-of-letters that aren’t words any program recognizes off-the-shelf.

Deosil. Otyugh. Sith. Bloodrager. Starfinder.

You need to have a strategy for making sure you spelled all those correctly. If you just skip over these words in a spellcheck, “knowing” that the spellchecker doesn’t recognize them, you risk have a manuscript with a Starfidner ritual for Otuyghs to dance desoil around the Blodrager Circle.

There are two good ways I have found to fix this.

If a word is going to be used a lot in your writing, it may be worth entering it in your word processor’s dictionary. That’s generally not difficult, but when you do it make SURE you are entering the correct spelling of the new/imaginary word or name. Otherwise you can turn spellchecker into an error-generating device, and that sucks.

Alternatively, you can actually take the time to check the spelling of every weird word spellcheck flags for you. Is the god named Succoth-benoth, or Seccoth-bunoth, or Succoth Benoth? You can write down the correct spelling, or have it in another tab, and check it carefully each time you run into it.

If you have some common misspellings you find, you can search for those errors and replace them (one by one—NEVER replace all, it can seriously dawizard your credibility) before you make the word-by-word check for the correct spellings.

Grammar Checker

Different grammar checker programs have different levels of value, but most can at least be used to help find common writing problems such as passive voice, agreement errors, and sentence fragments. In my experience you can’t trust any grammar checker program, but it’s worth looking at anything it flags and double-checking your own work.

Formatting

Check you Headers to make sure they still make sense with your final manuscript. If your publisher uses specific text style formatting (as Paizo does, for example), make sure you have the right formatting in the right places. If you aren’t sure about some specific formatting, it’s generally good to ask. Your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher CAN fix your formatting… but that takes time away from them doing more important work to make your manuscript awesome. Also, it generally does not endear you to them.

File Format

Most publishers have a file format they want to work with. Check with them if they don’t mention it. There can be important differences between .doc, docx, .rtf, and a Google doc. Remember that to get more work and be paid a higher rate (or to have people be happy to work for you, if you are self-published but not self-laid-out), you want to make your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher’s job as easy and pleasant as possible.

Post-Mortem

Once you really and truly are done and you turn your manuscript over, it’s time to think about how you can learn from it. With luck, your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher will give you direct feedback. But to be honest, time is money in this industry, and they often won’t have time to help you be better. In those cases, I find it useful to see what the final version of the published material looks like, and examine how it is different from what I wrote. This isn’t always about something being “wrong” when you turned it in, but about what changes the people who are paying you and that you want to give you more work thought made your manuscript better.

Review

This is like the cold read-through or post-mortem, but it takes place months or years later. When you look at your past work, and consider what you might do differently now.

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Writing Basics: Introductions for RPGs

This is only the second article I’ve done on “game writing basics” (the first being on Headers for RPGs), and like the first one this is designed to cover a topic that I never got a lot of training on in school. In this case, that topic is “Introduction,” by which I specifically mean the text at the beginning of a product, book, chapter, or section (likely with its own header—these things are often interconnected), that explains what’s actually in that section of text. Ideally, it’s interesting to read, gives the reader some idea of what information is coming and why, and gives some context how that material connects to other books/products/chapters/ or sections of text.

That paragraph right above this one? That’s in introduction.

Like headers, I am moved to write about introductions because there are something I see so many new writers not have any idea how to handle. All to often if I contract someone to write a 5,000 word pdf manuscript that covers a topic, the text I receive leaps right into the details of that topic with no warm-up prose. For example, I have gotten bestiaries that open with the name of the first monster, class write-ups that open with a description of the role of that class, and articles on GM advice that leap into what you should and shouldn’t do at a game without ever mentioning they’re supposed to be collections of GM advice.

An introduction doesn’t have to be very long, but it’s both an important way to set expectations of the reader, and a great way to include some information that applies to a whole section but may not make sense anywhere else. For example, if I had begun this blog post with just “Introductions are the text at the beginning of a new section of writing, and are important for explaining what is coming and why it matters,” anyone reading this article would rightfully wonder both why they care, and why I thought the topic was worth writing about. When used to introduce a new section within a larger text, an intro also lets the reader know the old topic has ended, and that they are moving on to something else. If you have a chapter on weapons, and it begins with melee weapons, a simple 1-2 sentence introducing the section on ranged weapons helps the reader know they have finished the melee section, and are moving on to different kinds of weapons. It delineates the beginning.

That said, while introductions are read at the beginning of a section of text, it’s often useful to write them last. In part, this is because an introduction serves to let the reader know what topics and ideas are going to be covered, and until you’re done writing a thing there’s always a chance that its focus and exact contents are going to shift. At the very least, it’s a good idea to re-read your introduction after you’re done with everything else, to make such it still matches in tone and details.

One great way to get a feel for introductions is to pick up books you don’t remember having introductions, and then finding and reading them. Often you don’t remember an introduction not because it’s missing or bad, but because you only needed it when you first picked up a book, and haven’t looked at it since. This is especially true for books that you frequently reference, but rarely read cover-to-cover, which is true of most readers of most RPGs. Much like a good editor, a good introduction is often at its best when it goes nearly unnoticed.

There are also things an introduction isn’t. It’s not the table of contents, index, apologia, masthead, dedication, short fiction lead-in, or credits page. If it’s appropriate you may cover some of the same territory as an apologia or dedication, but only when those serve as the kind of context a writer really needs to appreciate the words that follow. It also serves a slightly different function than a foreword, and a book can have both a foreword or an introduction, or just one, or have a single piece of text serve as both (and possibly not be labeled as either).

Ideally, an introduction feels short compared to the section of text it introduces. For most game books, one or two pages is normally plenty for your introduction, though if you are introducing a 4-500-page book, even three or four pages is a perfectly reasonable introduction. For shorter things, such as a single article, chapter, or lengthy blog post, a paragraph is likely to be enough (though if you combine this with art and/or an art element this may still take up a full page or even two—for the most part, that’s a publisher/graphic designer decision, but it’s a good idea to study the introductions of your publisher’s products to get some idea of how much text they need). For a short blog post of something that’s just a new header in a larger section, a single sentence is often enough introduction.

In many ways, the simplest way to decide what goes into your introduction is to ask yourself what someone who was asked to read the following text might ask about it, and try to answer those in broad terms. For example, if you asked someone to read a new RPG, they’d be likely to ask what it’s about, and why you think they would benefit from reading it—that information makes for a great RPG intro, as long as you keep it appropriate short. For things that introduce sections within a larger work, the intro just has to cover questions that would be asked by someone who already knew what book they were reading.

For example if you have a book about new equipment in a game, its introduction can assume people know what game it is for. Then if there’s a chapter on armor, that introduction only needs to discuss things specific to armor, since the reader already knows they are reading an equipment book. If there’s then a section on light armor within the chapter on armor in general, a short intro (maybe as little as a sentence) tells the reader that instead of information on all armor, you are now talking about just one subset of that topic.

While writing introductions can be awkward the first few times you do it, with practice it becomes second nature. In addition to helping your writing seem smooth by preparing the reader with a guide and context for each thing they write, it can also help you as a writing by giving you a tool to help define what you are trying to create, which may focus your thoughts during the writing process, as you subconsciously begin constructing an introduction in your head. It can also help you think about how to draw a section of writing to a smooth and satisfying close, so no one ends up feeling left hanging when they come to the end.

But that’s a topic for another day. 😀

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Writing Basics: Headers for RPGs

Headers are the big titles of sections of books that tell you (roughly) what content is in that section. If you want a quick overview of what headers are, how to mark them in a manuscript (which, I should note, is actually “however your publisher tells you to,” though the [H1]- and [H2]-style designations are pretty common if not universal), go check out Rogue Genius Games’ “RGG Writer Guidelines,” which discuss headers and how to let your editor and layout artist know where they should in your manuscript. That’s designed specifically for writing for RGG, but should be a useful overview you can apply to whatever style guide another publisher tells you to use.

That advice, however, is a what and a how, not a why or a where. It assumes you know when you want to have headers, and why you might want them to be different sizes. Why headers are useful and how to decide where to put them and what to call them isn’t something I learned in school, or that I was expressly taught by any editor or developer on any of the RPG projects I worked on. It is often taught, in a specific way, in courses on technical or academic writing, but those tend not to use them exactly the way an RPG does. Creating the right number of headers, in the right order and scaling, is something I picked up by example and self-education, rather than finding any course that taught it to me.

So let’s talk about how headers tend to work, for RPGs. I’ll note that this is my general advice, designed to give you a starting point, rather than an end point. Again, I’m self-taught, and learned to work with the people who published me. If you want an academic discussion of headers, you should find someone with a lot more editorial training and credentials than me.

Headers 

Headers are titles and subtitles for sections of your text. They act as labels that let the reader know what information is about to be presented, and let the readers scan for a bit of information by seeking a related header. Headers can also be useful when referencing rules. It’s much easier to say “This uses the standard rules for bull rush, as found in the Combat Maneuvers section of the Tactical Rules chapter” than to say “This uses the standard rules for bull rush, as found halfway down page 942, on the left, at the top of the really big paragraph.” By giving a section of text a header, you make it easy for the reader to know what is coming, quickly find relevant material, and safely skip part of a chapter or article if they know they don’t need that information yet.

(There are also some kinds of headers that specific publishers use for game system elements. For example, if you look at the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, every feat and spell has a different treatment of text for the name of the feat or spell. Those are a kind of header, but in general unless a publisher tell you to mark headers at that level you don’t need to. Now some publishers DO tell you to mark such things, perhaps with “Feat Title” or “Stat Block Title” notations, but that’s the kind of thing you can trust your publisher to tell you if you need to notate formatting.)

In many ways, headers are like the names of sections of an outline that you just don’t strip out. I find this a useful way to think of what to call my headers and how to organize them. In general, every major topic gets a header (which we’ll call a Article Header if it is the title or an entire article or chapter, and otherwise call “H1”), and every sub-topic that is UNDER THE SAME TOPIC gets a header one size smaller (each numbered in order, with H2 smaller than H1, and H3 smaller than H2). Not every publisher has an H3 header, while some have H4 or even H5, and some consider an in-line bold (where you don’t change the font size, you just begin a paragraph with a bolded word, perhaps followed by a colon or em-dash) to be effectively the smallest header size.

For example, if I have a chapter called Equipment, then obviously “Equipment” is my article header. If I want to open that with an introduction, then I’d write have just the word “Introduction” as my H1 header. If I then do some general equipment rules as a new section, I have a new H1 “General Rules.” I don’t go to an H2, because my general rules aren’t part of the introduction. However, if after explaining that this is a section of general rules for equipment I want to describe each of those general rules (as examples, perhaps Availability, Cost, Encumbrance, and Durability), then each of those has an H2 header, as they ARE all sub-sections of general rules.

Here’s an example how that might be set up, though exactly how you format your headers is going to depend on your publisher—the writer’s job is to match the publisher’s requesting formatting, not to try to make your Word document match how the text will look in the end product. That’s the layout artist’s job, and your proper formatting helps them know what header should be what size and style.

[Begin Example]

[Article Title]Equipment 

You generally don’t want to have two headers right after each other, so here you might put a sentence or two equipment in your game. However, some publishers DO go directly from article title to your first H1, so check their house style.

[H1]Introduction 

Introduce why your game has equipment, and why characters care. This might just be a sentence or two, or it could be a philosophical essay about loot, treasure, power gaming, and how equipment does or doesn’t define characters in your game.

[H1]General Rules

This is a new section, still about equipment, but not part of the introduction anymore. So it gets it’s on H1, and here you talk about the fact these are general rules for equipment. If there are rules elsewhere that could interest with these (like skills, or crafting, or whatever), you might mention where those rules are found.

[H2]Availability

This is one specific “general rule,” so it gets a header one size down, an H2 compared to General Rule’s H1. Again, you can often tell what needs headers from a good outline. If you wrote without an outline, you can still go back after you are done and create an outline for a project, which may help you better organize it and determine which sections call of headers, and what kind.

[H2]Cost

Again the rules on cost are a specific “general rule,” so these get an H2, one size down from General Rule’s H1. At a glance, a reader can tell that both “availability” and “Cost” are separate ideas, both grouped under “General Rules.”

[H2]Encumbrance

Here you put your encumbrance rules, still an H2, under General Rules.

[H3]Exceeding Maximum Encumbrance

If the core of the encumbrance rules are about determining how much a character can carry, and noting where the weights of equipment are listed, the rules for exceeding encumbrance limits are clearly related, but slightly different. By giving them an H3, one size smaller than the H2 of Encumbrance rules, you make it easy for readers to find this section (which they may only reference occasionally), and give yourself the option to point to just these rules if something modifies them (for examples if dwarves suffer a less severe penalty when they exceed their maximum encumbrance, in the dwarf race write-up you can give that lesser penalty, and tell the reader to “See “Exceeding Maximum Encumbrance” mon page ##” making it easy for them to find these rules).

[H2]Durability

Since durability is another general rule, it gets the same H2 header as Availability, Cost, and Encumbrance. A reader who gets to the end of the Exceeding Maximum Encumbrance section can tell from the larger header of “Durability” that they have moved on to a new topic.

[End Example]

When determining what your headers are and what to call them, keep in mind that headers are both organizational, and graphic. If a player is going to be looking for a rule section or specific bit of lore fairly often, it aids ease of play to have a header that points them to the right place. Headers can also make a page easier to read—two pages of nothing but column after column of text is more difficult to read through than one with a header or two to break up the monotony and give the eyes something to navigate with. On the other hand, a header called “Everything You Need To Know To Play A Halfling War Baker But Where Afraid to Ask” may be overpowering and look terrible on the page.

Consistency with headers can also be useful. If you are writing up 7 kingdoms, and each one has sections on culture, organizations, population, and threats, having that info groups under the same headers for each write-up can both make it easy for readers to absorb and understand the info, and keep you on track to not forget to mention any cultural notes about Kitchenaria just because you were excited about all the War Baker Guilds you wanted to write about. Keeping the writer on track is another benefit of good, well-defined headers.

As I noted, this is just a starting point on what headers are and how they work. When you are organizing your writing, it can be very useful to keep in mind what headers your publisher uses. If you don’t know, and there isn’t a style guide that tell you, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s a lot easier to know at the outline stage that you only have H1 and H2 options and in-line bolds, than to write a manuscript that assumed you can nest H5s and H4s and H3s to go down multiple tiers of sub-categorization. There are all sorts of things—such as sidebars, and tables, and page treatments, and section breaks, and so on—that can impact what makes sense for your headers, and even what your publisher will let you do. But understanding why you need headers, and how to decide what they should be, is a big jump forward for those without a strong grasp of them.

Patron Support

All my articles are possible due to support from my patrons, and many are suggested by those patrons! If you want to encourage more writing basics articles, or just stick some money in a tip jar, check out my Patreon!