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How to Write Reviews of Role Playing Game Books

Posted on December 7, 2004 by Flames

The purpose of a review is to provide readers with enough information to decide whether they would like to spend their time or money on reading the book, watching the film or, in our case, playing the game. Whether or not the reviewer enjoys or is enthused by the game is of less importance. The reader must come first.

However, this does not mean that the reviewer’s opinion does not matter or that we should not include our own opinions. A review that was purely objective and descriptive would almost certainly be very dull. What the best reviews do is to educate the reader about a particular game fully and fairly, while also expressing the clear and unbiased opinions of the reviewer.

Be honest about your use and experience of the game – some items really need to be played extensively and with different sets of people for a really useful review to emerge. These include new CCGs or RPGs with radically new mechanics. Others really do not need such intensive investigation: for example, a D20 supplement to an existing well-known game that provides new characters, back story and setting details. These kinds of books may be evaluated without players going through every possible option.

Remember also that other people have different requirements from games. Sometimes this is related to the genre or style of the book and sometimes not. For example, games featuring space travel or giant mechanized robots are more likely to feature extensive use of hardware and statistics for shooting things, flying and exploding. However, just because most players expect that to be part of their experience does not mean everyone will – there may well be someone in a gaming group of mecha monsters who prefers to play the soulful design engineer – does the game provide enough information for such a player? Is more than one style of play possible or are players more or less railroaded into following the same pattern of play every time?

Procedure

Divide the review into several different sections. Depending on the publication that the review is intended for, it might be necessary to give titles to each section. If in doubt, follow the general rules of doing what other reviewers in the same publication have done or else consult the editor.

The first section should give a general capsule of the product, what it is and what it does. Add one or two adjectives, if desired, to give your overall impression of the item. Bear in mind that these few adjectives will be used by readers to summarize your opinions, so choose them well.

The next sections should cover the contents and scope of the product. Try not to spell out every single chapter and its contents one after another; this may be accurate but it is dull. Instead, divide the sections thematically – rules and background or context. Are there important differences in quality between them? Are there sufficient statistics and details? These questions are currently very popular.

Finally, answer the following questions: was there excessive repetition here? And was there anything that the reader might reasonably expect to find included but which was not? For example, are all the necessary statistics provided? I personally like to see a comprehensive index at the back that allows me to look up rules or creatures without having to leaf through the whole thing. Has this been included and is it complete?

Artwork

Personally, I prefer to consider the text as more important than the illustrations, artwork and general layout. However, I am probably in the minority in this regard. Consequently, I would probably restrict my comments on visual aspects to a single section after considering the text. I would be concerned with the general feel of any illustrations, any obvious virtues or defects and whether it interferes with reading or using the product. Is the artwork used to enable readers to visualize new monsters or concepts that are difficult to imagine or is it just used to fill up space? Are maps or floorplans included where they would be helpful? In my view, the greatest crime when it comes to artwork is to have pages filled up with illustrations that may look good but which are irrelevant to understanding while other useful play aids have been omitted.

Consider also whether the artwork reflects existing ideas of what people, creatures and items should look like. We have all seen thousands of images of vampires and know more or less what to expect – if e are suddenly presented with blue, winged vampires, we will need to have that explained and justified in the text. For well-known characters or situations, many people have very strong preconceived beliefs about what things should look like. Ask yourself what color an orc is. What is your justification for saying that? Orcs in Tolkien are never described as being green.

With the rise of desktop publishing and small publishing companies, it will also be important to mention the quality of not just the artwork but also the quality of the printing. Is it too dark or light? Does it get in the way of the text? Finally, mention also if any images may possibly cause offence. It is conventional for heroes to wear rather fewer clothes than climatic conditions really require but outright nudity is likely to upset some people, most likely the guardians of minors and this soon leads to the hobby coming into disrepute. Violence against women is also best avoided. There is no need to go over the top about this, just comment whether the art is of a type that matches the expectation provided by the cover. If it says on the cover there are adult materials inside, then there is no need to be offended if there are (but you might be if the adult stuff is too tame).

Many items are sold as PDFs these days. Some old products are scanned versions and these do not always translate very well. Again, there is no need to go over the top about this but it should be mentioned, as also should be whether alternative layouts are provided for reading on-screen, printing and so on.

Summing Up

Just like the introduction, the conclusion should be a short paragraph that would make sense as a mini-review if the reader did not read any other part of the review – which very well may happen. If it is necessary to give a rating in marks out of ten or number of stars or similarly, it is probably better to be generous. Firstly, this is a fairly small community and a reviewer with a reputation for (even occasionally) giving 1 out of 5 is likely to be boycotted sooner or later. Secondly, people expect that even a competently produced item should receive at least 4 out of 5. Unfortunate though it is, grade inflation in education institutions around most of the world has led many readers (who may still be in full-time education) to equate a 4 out of 5 as a B and consequently a borderline failure grade.

What To Do When The Game Is Really No Good

There will almost certainly be a time when a review is required of something that appears to be really poor, either through production values, concept or general unplayability. A reviewer who has a number of credits and a recognizable style can indicate this by omission – for example, not providing a ‘recommended’ or not recommending buying. However, for the less well-known, it is better to provide a few comments that indicate this opinion unequivocally without upsetting the publishers and producers – this is not a multimillion dollar industry and most people involved are doing it at least in part out of love. Useful words and phrases include ‘would have been improved by the inclusion of,’ ‘would benefit from’ and ‘perhaps the next edition will include.’
Above all, do not let personal prejudices color the review. Keep political, religious and social commentary to a minimum. By all means point out where the authors have included this but leave judgment of it to the reader not the reviewer, whose job is to advise on quality, accuracy and enjoyment, not ideology. A reviewer who, for example, could not tolerate any criticism of her or his country of birth or religion (whether genuine or imagined) should probably find something else to do.

Language Issues

Again, it is better to follow the style of the publication in which the review is to appear. Many publications will provide style guidelines which should be considered compulsory rules. If not, get into the habit of emulating the style of admired authors.

Generally, avoid the use of slang, ‘it’s cool,’ ‘it sucks,’ ‘it rocks,’ and so forth as these words are overused and do not tell the reader very much. Mostly, American spelling will be required. Many people will advise the reviewer to avoid the use of the passive tense since it is felt to be difficult to understand and to lack immediacy. However, the skilled writer employs the passive voice to bring prose to vibrant life.

A spell-checker will help you but it should not be your only tool – spell-checkers will not spot words wrongly typed but which are words (i.e. ‘You are cut eyes she replied’) and rarely does well with punctuation. Use a thesaurus to avoid repetition of the same word. Get into the habit of reading and noting phrases, vocabulary or ideas that you are admire and would like to use. Make sure you know what they mean and do not import chunks of other people’s work.

Conclusion

No one has ever become rich through reviewing. Indeed, considering the effort and time required to read and play through a new product and then writing the review compared to the reward, which is unlikely to be more than just a copy of a game which might not be very interesting, it scarcely makes sense on economic terms. Nevertheless, I have a pile of free books to review and get offered new ones almost every day. Now I am starting to write reviews for The Wargamer and have just received a copy of ‘Political Machine.’ Some companies will give things away to reviewers – and there is a certain kudos attached.

Reviewing can be an important skill for a writer to develop and it certainly helps in promoting the name, therefore leading to new opportunities. Above all, it is a rewarding feeling knowing that the effort helps to support good games while helping steer people away from the less useful ones.

John Walsh, Shinawatra International University, December 2004

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