Way back in 1999, I started writing my first published material by sending game reviews to RPGNet. Back then it was pretty much the only game in town for reviews. This, I think, was my first one published. Since then I’ve reviewed for a few other sites, and been pleased to succeed in my goal of getting into reviews in the first place: getting comp copies. As I was and am too poor to afford any kind of games, my dream was always to be the guy who got free stuff, and I succeeded.
Unfortunately, nowadays almost all review copies of RPGs are PDFs so I’m giving up reviewing them for the most part. I can’t re-sell PDFs if I need cash, and I find them a pain to read. I’m also giving up reviewing for RPGNet because not many people read them any more. RPG reviews are not really in demand, I feel, on RPGNet or anywhere. People would rather go to a forum and ask everyone’s opinion then read a detailed review, I think. So low audience, low return.
However, over the last twelve years I’ve written more than a hundred reviews, and been lauded for them often – often enough to get noticed, get free stuff, and even, in a few cases, get writing work with the companies. So that’s my qualifications for saying I obviously am doing something right. I must know how to write good reviews.
But until now, nobody’s ever asked me how I do it. But now they have, so I’m thinking about it.
Really, like any writing, your first rule is know your audience and know yourself. If you’re writing for a particular outlet, you have to match their style and their audience. If you’re writing for yourself – which, thankfully, RPGNet lets me do – you need to know what kind of reviewer you want to be. For myself, the goal was always to be a critic as well as a reviewer – in the best and highest sense of the word. As Oscar Wilde said: “The role of the critic is to educate the audience. The role of the artist is to educate the critic.”
If that’s how you see yourself, then your role is not just to describe but to illuminate, to not just make a declaration of worth, but to convince your audience you are correct in your declaration. It is not unlike being a travel writer; you are selling them on a book not just through facts but through a journey, an experience – your experience. It doesn’t always have to have personal context, but it should always be about your journey and what you found there. I find that the best way to leave signs behind to others, and lead them to the gems you discover, and away from the dross.
Enough waffle. Some more – and more concrete – rules I’ve learnt along the way – sometimes painfully taught. Whether they are good rules or not, they’re the ones I’ve used, and since the reviews have been well received, they may be worth something.
- Set the context. Whether personal or historical or thematic. No product exists in a vacuum, and no review should either. The audience benefits from the background, because it gives them a landscape in which to situate your comments and understand the conception of the book better. And if you talk about your background, they know how and why you came to the book, giving them greater insight in how to compare your views to their own. An authoritative voice is important – your opinion matters, and don’t let anyone tell you different – but if you make it a personal voice rather than a universal one, and an illuminating one rather than didactic, you give people room to have their own opinions and experiences, and to use your review to understand how they might feel about the work, rather than be told how they will feel about it.
- Ask (and answer) the three questions. Early on, I read something that said that a review must answer three questions: What are the goals of the work? Were those goals achieved? And Was that a worthy goal to begin with? These formed the backbone of all my reviews, and really, they’re what make a review more than just a description of contents. They also give your review coherence, direction and structure, which can be important when you’re five thousand words into a review of a five hundred page tome. By keeping the goal of the work in mind, your review gains focus and direction, and it stops you from being biased, because you remember that just because you don’t like the goal doesn’t mean the product has failed. The questions also encourage you to analyse and evaluate, which is critical. It is not enough simply to describe.
- Respect the work – but respect your audience more. A roleplaying game is, or can be, a hefty product, the output of great toil, even a work of art. It deserves your respect. You owe it to it, its creator and your audience to come to it without to much bias, to read it cover to cover, and take time to evaluate it fairly and fully. However, do not under any circumstances think you owe it or its creator any more than this. I have in the past made the mistake of being too nice, and it is a terrible idea. You feel bad because you lied, your audience doesn’t get the truth, and in almost every case, you annoy the creator or company anyway because they still don’t think you’re positive enough. Your audience demands nothing less than your total honesty. Their time and money (and yours) is vital and precious and should not be wasted on the mediocre or insufficient. Your audience is also, you must assume, intelligent, experienced, refined, and deserves the best. Any thing which does not meet those standards should be called on it, not molly-coddled or equivocated upon. This isn’t nursery school, there are no points whatsoever for trying hard or enthusiasm, and even fewer for tact.
- Respect the artist – and yourself. If it is a comp copy, let them know when you receive it. Get the review done as promptly as you can. When it goes up, take the courtesy to let them know. There’s no reason why you can’t have open communication (and comp copies and all the rest); it doesn’t taint your opinion of the work. You can still imagine what it would be like to pay for the work, and you can still suggest the artist is off his rocker if you think he is. He won’t take it personally, and if he does, then you don’t do business with him any more. A professional artist, someone worth reviewing for, someone worth your time, will never begrudge a bad review. That, indeed, is perhaps the most important sign of a professional, mature artist. And what I mean about respecting yourself is understanding that you don’t have to put up with anything less than pure professionalism. If anybody gives you any attitude about a negative review, they’re not worth dealing with ever again. Likewise, if any of your audience get their panties in a bunch because you disliked their sacred cow, ignore them entirely. Anyone who actually loves something knows its flaws, or comes to love it more when it discovers them – or has good enough arguments to refute the flaws that others see.
Beyond that: if in doubt, follow the work. Keep an open mind, give your hand to the artist, and follow him down the rabbit hole, and then be prepared, some times, to get sweaty and dirty digging yourself out again. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes, it’s miserable. But the journey is almost always worthwhile, I find. The teacher always learns more than the student, and I inevitably find I understand and appreciate a product more at the end of a review than at the start. If I don’t, it’s probably a bad review, and I need to fix it or start again.