Syntax & Semicolons: Karen Twelves on RPG Editing


Syntax & Semicolons: Karen Twelves on Game Editing

Welcome back to the ongoing series of conversations between Alex Roberts (our Production Assistant, who you may have heard on her interview podcast Backstory) and various members of the Bully Pulpit crew. After chatting with Brennen Reece about graphic design, we join Karen Twelves, our copyeditor, to talk about the unique challenges (and fun!) of editing and proofing for games.


Alex: How would you summarize your work in games? I have a feeling there’s more to it than checking for typos.

Karen: There’s a lot of different levels of editing I could be doing on a project. On the surface I might just be checking that the terminology is all correct (Is it roleplaying or role-playing or role playing? Is it Start Deck or start deck?) and that there aren’t any formatting errors. Going a little deeper, I’m assessing if the rules are clear enough and if the organization flows well. Deeper still, I might be reviewing a game with an eye towards how engaging the setting is, or if the mechanics are balanced. And the tone should be uniform throughout–some publishers want all their books in a chatty, conversational voice, for example, or it might all be written in the voice of a particular character or setting a certain mood. Whatever the standard is, it needs to be consistent.

Alex: When trying to establish that consistency, are you usually working from a style guide?

Karen: If the publisher has a style guide, that’s great! Often, though, there’s a lot of terminology unique to that particular game, so I invariably build my own style sheet to use as a checklist. For other corrections, I fall back on the Chicago Manual of Style or good old Merriam-Webster. And I might also check in with the author or layout artist to get their ruling on something. It’s a lot of resources to synthesize!

Alex: You mentioned clarity of rules, which of course is important in a game text; how do you establish and maintain clarity? What are the common pitfalls you see when looking at rules texts?

Karen: Game rules often have a lot of conditional sentences–“If X, then Y.” Sometimes those clauses can get a bit unwieldy, so I always look at them carefully. And if there’s any example play, it’s very important to check that it sticks to the rules as written and really spells out what is happening–if someone rolls a die, what is the numerical result? (Not just “a hit?”) Also, sometimes a rule can get revised in later drafts, which causes ripple effects through the whole text. So those are all things to look out for.

This applies more to board and card games, but whenever possible I like to meet with the designer and walk through me giving them a demo, following the rules as best I understand them after having given them only a basic read-through. I’m a kinesthetic learner; I much prefer to walk through a practice round and learn as I go. So I consider myself a good litmus test for how well rules are written–if someone like me can pick it up and play, then it’s solid.

Alex: That brings up an interesting question: at what point do you prefer to be brought in? I guess too early would mean repeating too much work as the game gets refined.

Karen: With board and card games, I prefer to get it when it’s been heavily playtested and the rules are more or less set, because, yeah, otherwise I’m doing lots of revisions on a small amount of text. I love working with Eric Vogel; he’s a prolific game designer and I always know that when one of his games comes my way, my focus is more on the wording rather than assessing the mechanics. I had the pleasure of working with him on The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, and was bringing out my demo set to play all the time with friends well after we’d moved past the editing stage.

With roleplaying games, it depends on if I’m doing developmental editing or not. I got to work on the War of Ashes RPG from its inception; Sophie Lagacé is an amazing author and a lot of fun to work with. We did a lot of planning on the structure of the book, refined what to include in the setting material, and there were a lot of changes to the Fate-inspired mechanics unique to the game. And then Dale Hostman came in with an absolutely beautiful layout, and we had a TON of art from ZombieSmith at our disposal. It was a long and intensive project with many, many rounds of revisions, and the end result was a stunning book and a very good read.

In contrast, I did copyediting on Blades in the Dark, which was already post-layout when I joined the project. Also a fantastic book to read just for the setting alone, but I wasn’t involved in refining the rules. I’d been playing the earlier edition of the game already available online, so it was a real treat to be brought on to something I was already a huge fan of.

Alex: It sounds like you’ve worked on some amazing projects. What, for you, defines a great working relationship?

Karen: I have! One of my first major projects was proofing Carolina Death Crawl; I’m always excited when Steve asks if I’m available to do some work for Bully Pulpit because I know I’m going to want to play the hell out of the game when I’m done (have you seen Goth Court??).

It’s very important for me that the managing editor be very clear about what level of edit they need–I want to budget my time accordingly. Also, having a style guide ready to go saves everyone a lot of time. And if I’m doing any type of edit more involved than proofing, there will likely be more than one round of revisions and some back and forth regarding any questions that may come up. So a great working relationship requires prompt communication between anyone on the project I may be working with. Can you tell that all of these preferences revolve around time management? I know that I will want to see the draft as many times as I can, and Steve can attest to me turning around proofs on The Warren within 24 hours, just a day or two before it went to print (at my own insistence that I change “just one more thing.”)

Once a game is finally printed I get so superstitious–I’m afraid to open it for the first time and find a typo I’d missed. My name is only as good as the quality of work I do, and that’s what’s going to keep me working in games publishing. Right now it’s not feasible to be an editor full-time, though it is something I may start pursuing down the road.

Alex: Ah, yes. This industry is full of talented part-timers. Do you have any advice for people who want to start doing this kind of work themselves?

Karen: I hate saying that you gotta network but… yeah. I started with some tiny jobs that put the “free” in “freelancing” until I had a wee little portfolio, and then sent a lot of polite emails along the lines of: “Hi I’d really like to work with you again please keep me in mind for future projects I’m really good kthxbi!” Then, there were serendipitous meetings of people at conventions and at my FLGS (EndGame in Oakland! It’s the best!). As a naturally shy person I can attest that it can feel very uncomfortable to cold call, but remember that you’ve already got a hobby in common and share a passion to make great games. Now that I regularly work with the same publishers, they know me well enough to pass my name on to others, and that’s pretty awesome.

Alex: That is awesome! Anything else you want to impart, to designers or publishers who might be reading this?

Karen: Keep making games! I look forward to playing them.

If you want to keep up with Karen, and maybe have her fine work on your next project, check out

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