Back in 2007, I wrote an articled called “How Can My Game Better Teach Mechanics?” I’ve learned a lot since then, so this is a follow-up article to that.
The definitions of mechanics vs. rules can be a little bit fuzzy. I’m not going to worry about the minutiae of that debate today. Basically, I’m going to refer to the Rules as the printed text in your book, and the System as the lumpley principle (see link). Anyway, here’s some pointers on helping your rules better teach people how to play your game:
#1: Write the Rules according to what the players (including the GM) actually do:
Rules should be written to provoke action by the players. The text explains what the players are supposed to be doing at the table during play. Therefore it reasons that rules should be written with player action in mind. If the characters in your game are Texas lawmen from the old west and you want to give them a bonus for aiming their rifles rather than shooting from the hip, don’t write this: “Aiming: +3 bonus to hit.” Instead, write, “Aiming: If you have your character spend one round aiming his gun, add a plus three bonus to your Attack value.” As I said in my article on writing mechanics, mechanics (rules) are for people, not for characters. The character is getting a bonus for aiming, but it’s the player that decides to have him aim.
When writing your game, you will inevitably come across a sentence or two that seems confusing. If you do, ask yourself, “Is this written in a way that talks about what the players are actually physically doing, or is it talking about something else?” If the answer is “something else” then it probably needs to be rewritten. Focus on real people making real decisions and taking real actions around the game table and your text will be much better at communicating your vision for play.
#2: Don’t just explain the rules, explain the rationale behind the rules.
Designers are getting better and better at explaining not only what to do but also why players should be doing it. It used to be that a game might propose combat options as just a list of bonuses a character could get if the player simply declared he/she is using them. There was no explanation of where to use them or why to use them. It was just assumed the players would figure it out.
This was especially true in Chargen. Take alignment from AD&D 2e for example. There was a listing of each alignment and then an explanation of that alignment, but never any rules or text about why you should play your alignment, why you should change your alignment, or why you should care what other people’s alignments were. There were rules on HOW to do those things but not WHY you should do those things. Therefore, it was my experience, that alignment rules were pretty much disregarded with the occasional exception of the cleric class.
So how can you explain the why in addition to the how?
Well, the simplest way to do that is just include it as part of the chapter or section where the rule is introduced. Vincent Baker is a master at this. Dogs in the Vineyard, In a Wicked Age, and Apocalypse World are all exemplar texts for discussing the Why along with the How without breaking up or interrupting the text.
That’s not to say that breaking up the text is a bad thing. It isn’t. Using a designer’s sidebar on the outside margins of a text is a perfectly viable alternative as well. D&D 3e did this. They called it, “Behind the Curtain.” It introduced the reader to the thinking of the designer and developer when it came to certain mechanics. This was extraordinarily helpful for players (like myself) who were converting over from AD&D 2e rules.
Another way to do this is just to have a subsection at the end of each chapter or whatever explaining your rationale for the various mechanics. So at the end of Character Advancement, you might have a section entitled “My Vision For These Rules” or “Why This Should Matter to You.” It’s okay to come right out and say “Hey Mr. Reader, this part’s important. Let me tell you why it is.”
#3: Don’t hide anything.
This is related to the first. There’s been a tradition in roleplaying texts (see my article on TITB4B) to hold back on telling the reader everything for fear of ruining the surprise or suspension of disbelief. This is silliness. Leaving out critical parts of the instructions for prescribing play is a BAD IDEA.
You are inventing a new game, even if you are basing off some other game like FUDGE, FATE, or TSOY. Therefore you need to explain, in detail, everything you as the designer expect to go on during play. You must prescribe to the players the actions they should take in order to understand, play, and enjoy your game. I’m not talking about dictating every move or adding rewards and punishments for what the characters do. I trust that a reader of this blog knows that. Instead, what I’m saying is if challenging other player-characters to duels is really fun in your game, come out and say that! Don’t just include the rules for having duels without any type of text explaining that dueling is an important aspect of game-play.
I think that some of the talk about the “Fruitful Void” is sometimes confusing to new designers. When Vincent talks about the Fruitful Void, he’s not saying that the game gets fun when the players finally figure out what you left out of the text. He’s saying the game gets fun when the players finally figure out exactly what you put in your text. The Fruitful Void is a very heavy topic and one I’m not comfortable going into at great length without its own article. For the purposes of this entry let me just say, don’t get hung up on whether or not your game has a Fruitful Void. Instead, play, play, play and then explain-explain-explain.
#4: Give model characters, items, techniques, etc.
People learn best in an apprenticeship. However, that is rarely feasible with an RPG that has any sizable print run at all. You, the designer, can’t be everywhere. Therefore you have to resort to another very effective method of teaching: models.
I regard the following as key sections in an RPG rule book:
GM Prep (if there is a GM)
(You can reference my article on the System Design Checklist for further explanation) In each of the above sections, I highly recommend you give finished, polished, and multiple models of what you, as the designer, expect. In fact, if your character creation, resolution, or GM prep rules are complicated, I would encourage you to give examples at each step and then one final, holistic example at the end. The more models the better.
Models make the abstract concrete. If someone trying to play your game gets stuck, a model can serve as a guidepost they can use to see if they are doing it right. Multiple models are preferred since it gives the reader/player multiple points of reference, thus increasing the likelihood they will understand your text.
#5: Use text features, more importantly, use uniform text features.
Text features are things like headings, titles, sub-titles, boldface, italics, bullets, pictures, graphs, timelines, charts, text boxes, colors, and fonts. There are many more, but those are the most commonly used text features.
Text features are important because they can cue a reader that something new or something important is being presented. A text box at the bottom of the page cues the reader that there may be some supplemental information relevant to the topic in that section. It also tells the reader that what’s in the box is separate from the rest of the text and therefore meant to be read separately.
One thing I’d like to stress is using uniform text features. Make all your titles, headings, and sub-headings the same size, font, and whatever else. All your titles should look the same. All the heading should look the same. All the sub-headings should look the same, and each of these things should look DIFFERENT from each other. I can’t tell you how difficult it can be to read a game text where some of the headings are boldface, others are underlined, everything is in the same font or size, and some key words are capitalized and others aren’t.
Create a style guide for yourself or adopt one from some other source like the APA or MLA. Whatever you do, be consistent. Your readers will thank you for it, and doing so will lead to better comprehension and more consistent play.
#6: Include Bonus Resources Players Can Complete or Customize.
When people think of resources in an RPG book they usually think of one of two things: Character Sheets or Maps. Those are a good start, but they aren’t enough. If the GameMaster’s job is to create a villain, give him a villain sheet to help out- one with all the relevant stats, values, and space for notes that he’ll need. If the GM has to create setting for play, give him some type of setting sheet that is- at the very least- a checklist of things he/she needs to consider when making the setting.
All sorts of tally sheets, note sheets, blank maps with a legend at the bottom, character sheets, monster sheets, charts, diagrams, or logs can be provided to help make implementing the game’s rules easier. For years players have had to create their own, and a lot of confusion can arise from this. If you provide everyone with what they need in this regard, then the resources everyone uses will be uniform and easily understood by the other participants.
The easiest way to come up with resources for your game is to watch people during playtesting. What cheat-sheets or help-sheets did they create? What sorts of suggestions did they make? What parts did they note were cumbersome to keep track of or confusing to catalogue? Playtesting is a gold mine for this sort of thing. Don’t let such valuable feedback go to waste. Use it to make your game more convenient and easier to play by turning those player-made resources into game-provided resources. Before you finish a game, ask yourself, “What else could I include that would make all the book keeping and handling time easier for this game?” Then add that stuff.