July 28, 2015

RPG Reviews

When I read RPG reviews, I rarely find the answers to the questions I really need.  A good game review anticipates customers' needs and questions, and tells readers what the tool (RPGs are tools) is best for.  As a GM, you've probably been asked questions about game systems you run.  Can you recall ever being asked about the art?  The layout?  The font?  Have you ever been asked the chapter titles?  Most reviews tell you the RPG's core book's size before they tell you what the game does.

A cookbook is also a tool.  It's a tool that describes processes, rules, and techniques to produce a product for a handful of people around a dinner table, just like an RPG book.  Here's Amazon's review of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking:

This is the classic cookbook, in its entirety—all 524 recipes. 

“Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere,” wrote Mesdames Beck, Bertholle, and Child, “with the right instruction.” And here is the book that, for more than forty years, has been teaching Americans how. 

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for both seasoned cooks and beginners who love good food and long to reproduce at home the savory delights of the classic cuisine, from the historic Gallic masterpieces to the seemingly artless perfection of a dish of spring-green peas. This beautiful book, with more than 100 instructive illustrations, is revolutionary in its approach because: 
  • it leads the cook infallibly from the buying and handling of raw ingredients, through each essential step of a recipe, to the final creation of a delicate confection; 
  • it breaks down the classic cuisine into a logical sequence of themes and variations rather than presenting an endless and diffuse catalogue of recipes; the focus is on key recipes that form the backbone of French cookery and lend themselves to an infinite number of elaborations—bound to increase anyone’s culinary repertoire; 
  • it adapts classical techniques, wherever possible, to modern American conveniences; 
  • it shows Americans how to buy products, from any supermarket in the United States, that reproduce the exact taste and texture of the French ingredients, for example, equivalent meat cuts, the right beans for a cassoulet, or the appropriate fish and seafood for a bouillabaisse; 
  • it offers suggestions for just the right accompaniment to each dish, including proper wines. Since there has never been a book as instructive and as workable as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the techniques learned here can be applied to recipes in all other French cookbooks, making them infinitely more usable. In compiling the secrets of famous cordons bleus, the authors have produced a magnificent volume that is sure to find the place of honor in every kitchen in America. Bon app├ętit! 

Paragraph 1 tells the audience what the book does.  Paragraph 2 tells you who it is for, what it feels like, the range of uses it has, and what results it produces.

Bullet 1 tells us what the book does again, step by step, including the surprising information you wouldn't have guessed about buying ingredients.  Buillet 2 is about how the book is structured, to best teach the reader how to cook French cuisine.  Bullet 3 positions the book in historical and contemporary context.  Bullet 4 tells the reader what the end product the tool produces is like.  Bullet 5 describes the book's utility in the milieu of other books.

Sure, it's a glowing review, intended to sell the book; but it does a better job than most of the reviews on RPGNet.  The reason being, this review was clearly written by someone who has more than a few days' familiarity with it.  The review I would have written about my lawnmower the day I unboxed it and put it together would be far different from the review I would give it today.  

The typical RPG review is the reviewer's initial thoughts on the book - notes taken during their first read-through.  And how could it be different?  There's a race to get the first review out.  I'm guilty of writing rushed reviews, myself (and I won't do that anymore!).  The RPGNet Fate Core review that shows up when you google "review fate core" was written the week the first printing shipped!  Many RPG reviews are written by folks who were sent a review copy or just bought the book; not folks who've been playing the game for six months.  And they read like first read-through notes too.  They go chapter-by-chapter far too often.

Can you imagine a review of Game of Thrones that reads like that?  "Chapter 0, some Night's Watch rangers track down some wildlings, but discover Others instead - some sort of snow zombie monster.  The chapter is well written, with good margins and a readable font.  Chapter 1:  This chapter introduces us to the Starks.  In it, Eddard executes a deserter, and then the Stark children find some direwolf pups.  It's a very well-written chapter that shows George R.R. Martin's storytelling skills."  No!  Going chapter to chapter is not how you review a novel; it's not how you review a cookbook; and it's not how you review an RPG!

In many ways, the game designer's blurb or "back of the book" text is more informative than the reviews out there, because those are a fairly genuine claim about the game from the perspective of someone who knows it; and the blurb almost always tells me what the game is supposed to be about.  I would like it if reviewers would tell me how well the games they review meet the promises implied by the statement on the back.

We need more RPG reviews that tell us:
  • What is the game good at?  What's its sweet spot?
  • Who is this for?  
  • What does it feel like?
  • How well does it do what it says it does?  Is it useful?  Don't just say what the game appears to be like.  Tell me how it works in practice.
  • What is the game capable of, toward the fringes of its utility?  What is outside the game's scope, or where are the boundaries of its capabilities?
  • Some context about the game, and situate it in the milieu of other games.  Compare and contrast it with similar games.  
  • Something about this game that's surprising or not commonly known.  
  • A few honest criticisms of the game.