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When reading RPG rules text, I have noticed that the text sometimes rather inconsistently switches between assuming that the player is doing the reading and that the character is doing the reading.

For an example from D&D 3.5, here is a clause that clearly applies to the character as seen by the player:

A psychic warrior begins play with the ability to learn 1st-level powers.

Then, when we look at an individual power description, which seems to assume that the character is doing the reading:

You call forth the aggressive nature of the beast inherent in yourself, psionically transforming your hands into deadly claws.

And then there are clauses that address the player but refer to the character:

A psychic warrior begins play knowing one psychic warrior power of your choice.

In other words, the "you" in the text seems to apply to different people at different times. I am willing to assume that these particular examples are just inconsistencies stemming from the D&D 3.5 designers, but they got me wondering about how this should be done.

My question is: Does there exist applicable literature, design guidelines or community consensus on who should be addressed when writing RPG rules in the English language? If not, what is preferable and why?

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I've seen both done really successfully. It depends amongst many things on individual writing style, the genre in question etc, etc. I don't even think there is a 'correct' way of doing this. –  Phil Jun 17 '13 at 18:46
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I'll comment that even within a single game (3.5), as you note, it's done very inconsistently and I've never heard of anyone getting confused. I'd say that being consistent is a good thing just because it looks more professional, but it does not seem to impact the comprehensibility of the work. –  KRyan Jun 17 '13 at 18:49
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Actually, in the example cases, it is clearer and more concise when not consistent. "A Psychic Warrior calls forth the aggressive nature of the beast inherent in him/herself, psionically transforming his/her hands into deadly claws." –  DampeS8N Jun 17 '13 at 19:23
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What might look inconsistent on the semantic level of language is often quite consistent on the level of pragmatics. Trying for the superficial consistency in word choice can actually make it harder to understand. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 18 '13 at 4:37
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That said, this is an excellent question! It's hard to write these things well. I believe the design best practices for this is in the discipline of technical writing. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 18 '13 at 5:00
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

When you are wondering whether a pronoun is the correct one to use, there are two questions you need to ask yourself.

First, is it clear who is being referred to by the pronoun? Usually, the answer will be yes. Sometimes it will be no, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; Ambiguity has its uses.

Second, does this choice of pronoun lead to the meaning of the passage being clear? Again, the answer should usually be yes; There are situations in which being ambiguous in rules text is beneficial, but they are usually fairly rare.

Remember, the goal of any technical document is to allow a reader to gain a useful understanding of a complicated topic. As a result, you have three priorities: Clear expression (so that readers understand what you mean), evocative language (so that they 'get' the direction you're coming from and can houserule over loopholes and errors), and accurate detail (for obvious reasons). So long as it serves those purposes well, use any method of address you like!

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Personally I see the example you listed as perfectly acceptable. When describing the class, they are giving you a description on your side of the two way mirror known as the fourth wall. When they describe feats, they now expect you to be looking at the selection from the character's perspective since generally speaking feats are supposed to be more personal to the character in question. Another example of something that straddles the fourth wall is Dresden Files due to all the sidenotes "written" on the page. It assumes a perspective of both a player and a character to provide a full flavor.

I find that 7th Sea is one of my favorite methods. The book texts themselves address the reader as who they really are, but when detailing abilities they first describe them as if telling the character what they can do, then sort of steps aside for a moment to tell the player what it means to them.

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