What Elmore Leonard Taught Me About Game Design

If you don’t know who Elmore Leonard is, you’re missing out! He’s an American novelist famed for his crime novels (an label that sucks, but is as close as anything). He also wrote westerns and had more of his books made into screenplays than you can shake a stick at (one of which, ironically was the movie Stick). If you’ve watched the TV series Justified, seen the original 3:10 to YumaGet Shorty, or Jackie Brown, you’ve been exposed to his work.

Leonard is famous for his spare style and mesmerizing dialog. He made no bones about worshipping at the feet of Hemmingway. He’s one of my literary heroes (counterbalanced by Jack Vance, who never met an adverb he didn’t like). He wrote a brilliant little treatise called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. The book had an impact on me as both a writer and a game designer, specifically Rule 10 which states:

“Try to leave out the parts that readers will skip.”

That seems like an obvious truism, but boy have I run afoul of it in the past (and no, examples aren’t needed, they’d only be hurtful)! 

After being slapped in the face with this rule, I began applying it to my game design. Any time start to write a rule or include a side-bar full of cool minutiae, I ask myself if the reader will just skip over it to get what they came for: playing the game or running the story. People spend good money to consume my books, the least I can do is give them more meat and potatoes and less dinner rolls!

Valley of Plenty and The Jaldonkillers Saga of which it is a part are HeroQuest/QuestWorlds campaign books set in Glorantha. If you’re not familiar with Glorantha, you should be. It’s one of the most fully developed RPG settings ever imagined. It’s also easily the most original. You want nuanced, social RP balanced with over-the-top heroic action? You want Glorantha.

Peggy and I kept Rule 10 firmly in mind while writing Valley of Plenty. We didn’t include the normal “introduction to Glorantha” or “what is role-playing” sections. We assumed that if you were buying our book from Jonstown Compendium, you were somewhat familiar with Glorantha and role-playing. We didn’t go into great detail on the history of Dragon Pass, the Lunar Empire, or any other staples of the setting. Why reinvent the wheel? Instead, we pointed readers at existing publications where they could dive much deeper into the lore than required for our little campaign. Besides, most people buying the book have already read that information a dozen times elsewhere.

But what if someone is new to the setting? We have them covered. The player handouts and contain all the core information a new player will need to play a young Jaldonkiller and the scenarios contain everything a GM needs to present the world at the level of detail appropriate to the characters’ level of experience.

Our goal was to write a book that didn’t force players to drink lore from a firehose. We gave them just as much as we felt was appropriate for their characters’ age and we’ll expand on that in the second book. If players and GMs want to “skip ahead” and read lore from existing publications, well, that’s great. It means we succeeded in creating some new Gloranthaphiles!

We didn’t try to fill our readers up with dinner rolls, we tried to give them a filling plate of meat and potatoes in the form of 140 odd pages of fun stories and tightly focused lore. Did we succeed? We hope you’ll tell us. If we didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of effort. We’re going to keep trying to give you books designed for Maximum Game Fun for you and your players.

We still included some nifty side-panels and text boxes, though. I mean, those things are just cool, right?

Shawn

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