Back in December 2018, I made the bold assertion that I could edit a chapter from a popular RPG down to 50% of its word count. Why would I make such a foolish assertion?
My own writing can be incredibly verbose. My university dissertation came in at three-times the targeted 10,000 words, and is so tedious I’ve barely been able to read it in the 25 years since. My increasingly rare blog posts are frequently gushing lakes of word soup. If words are my stock in trade, I’ve always favoured quantity over quality.
And yet, ironically, my day job is writing. But my business writing is always accompanied by strict space restrictions. Over the years, I’ve adapted my writing style to communicate often complex business concepts in highly prescriptive word limits. Believe it or not, I’ve become pretty good at it, despite what the indulgent word splurges of this website might suggest.
Why? And how?!
In recent years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the average big-release RPG is seriously over-written. I first noticed it in Fantasy Age, a delightful and relatively simple RPG by Green Ronin. That’s a book that clocks in at just 144 pages, and yet never states any rule once when three times is better.
I saw it in Modiphius’ excellent Conan RPG, with its detailed and entirely unnecessary explanation of what the Swimming skill does. And it’s all over Pathfinder 2, with masses of repetition that suggests either each character class is designed to be printed and handed out to players separately, or the writer negotiated a strict, no-cap by-the-word contract.
So this is the context to my claim. And, after nearly 12 months of prevarication, I got down to it. The twitter poll decided the text I would tackle: the D&D Basic Rules, the free PDF of the fifth edition rules published by Wizards of the Coast.
My basic rule was, as much as possible, to keep the structure, headings and format. This wasn’t a rewrite, it was purely editing what was there. It should also read as prose, not purely a list of instructions. It took a little over 2 hours to reduce the word count by 45% in a first sweep. A quick review of which sections had been reduced the least, and I mopped up the remaining 5%. Last night, I took out another 0.5% just to be tidy. So there, less than half a day’s work. Done.
So, without further ado, here it is, arranged in two columns: the original text on the left, and my edit on the right.
I hope you’ll agree this works fine. You may prefer the original, but I’d argue that the rules are equally clear without the additional explanations the base text provides. And while flavour text may make the original easier to read, I think the fact it’s half the length more than makes up for this.
A conclusion. Of sorts.
The RPG designer, Dennis Detwiller, of Delta Green fame, has noted that as much as some people complain about big expensive glossy books, publishers use this format because the market clearly favours it: big glossy sells. I think this is probably true. The price of printing a few more pages may be more than balanced by the increased shelf real estate in your Friendly Local Gaming Store (especially where books are competing on the basis of spine not cover art).
It’s just a shame that the price of this format is generally more quantity, rather than quality. Tight writing isn’t dead. Indie games excel in delivering punch in the shortest page count possible. Black Hack and Cthulhu Hack are works of genius. King of Dungeons, by the Smart Party podcast’s Baz Stevens, compresses the essence of Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age into a pocket digest whilst adding huge amounts of colour and flavour. But where an ever-growing catalogue of RPGs are competing for shelf-space, perhaps having more pages is a necessary evil to get your book into gamers’ hands?
The D&D Basic Rules are nothing to do with me. They’re owned by Wizards of the Coast and I have not been given permission to replicate them. I don’t claim to own them, and you can get the originals directly from the WotC website (just enter D&D Basic Rules into your internet search engine of choice).
I’m hoping what I’ve done constitutes fair use, and that WotC don’t send me a cease and desist for repeating copyright material. But if they do, I’ll be taking this down immediately, because this was nothing more than a proof of concept.