Game reviews: The difference between reading and playing

Recently I’ve been thinking about how different my impression of a (role-playing) game is between reading the book and playing the game. There are, I guess, three main ways of comparing the two:

(1) Read the book first, then play it.

(2) Get the book as a campaign begins, read along as you learn to play.

(3) Get into a game and learn it from the GM and other players, then read it later.

Over the past 25 years, I have tried a lot of different games. Very often games I disliked when I first read them turned out to be much more fun in play than I expected; conversely, books I loved reading revealed flaws in play. When I first got interested in RPGs, I couldn’t quite visualize how the game would unfold just from reading the book. No one in my circle knew anything about RPGs either; I had to wait until I could learn from people who already knew the game. But in the last decade or so, I’ve grown into the habit of reading RPGs for the pure pleasure of it, and I sometimes forget how different the reading and playing experiences can be.

When I wrote my first review on RPG.net, it was what they call a “capsule” review — based on reading the book, not playing it. It was a review of the 3rd edition of Legends of the Five Rings and I gave it a rating higher than what I would now give after playing this version of the game for a while. I thought my knowledge of earlier editions of the game, combined with reading the new edition, were sufficient to form an opinion. Playing the actual rules, and having to thumb through the book to find the necessary information, gave me a different appreciation. Conversely, many is the game I disliked on first reading (Blue Planet, 7th Sea, Truth & Justice, etc.) which turned out to be a great deal of fun in play.

These days, I’ve been looking at an example of playing vs. reading that is a little different. Last fall, Tony Dowler ran a Nine Worlds game at the club (Edmund missed it, he was playing Torg). I really, really enjoyed the game. I thumbed through the book, and found it to be attractive. I already owned Dust Devils (“Revenged” edition) from the same author, which I had enjoyed reading, so I put Nine Worlds on my Christmas list, and Edmund got me a copy. I’ve been reading it on and off, when I have a few minutes. Here’s the thing: if I had read the book first, I would probably not have formed a good opinion of it.

On the plus side, it’s a pretty, well presented book with good layout, good fonts, and art that varies from technically good but not very flavourful, to very good and very inspiring. On the minus side, the writing is not very tight, it’s wordy, it has way, way too much setting chronology (about 25 Edit: 28! pages on the war between the Titans and the Eternals — I just don’t bloody care, give me the final score!), the system is “weird”, and it uses a lot of jargon. In play, none of this was a problem: the newbie players got used pretty easily to the jargon because we only needed a small portion of it, the system actually worked well despite being unusual, and the GM boiled down the metaplot to a handy-dandy relationship map. I had fun, and the game felt completely different from the impression mere reading provides me.

Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m just not all that good at extrapolating from the game text. But with almost every game I play, I have to revise the impressions formed from reading — sometimes up, sometimes down. This has me firmly decided to write nothing but “actual play” reviews, as I have for the past year or so.

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