Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Innovation in RPG-Land Part 3: Good rules are hard to write (or so the song goes)

I'll just pretend 2020 didn't happen, if that's alright with you ... I've done lots of posts over the years about how design emerges from scratch to finish. At least as far as concepts go. I also can DM those designs or even get others to DM them. The next problem, however, is writing them down in a way that someone who just read the rules is able to DM them as I would. It's my attempt to map how innovation is linked to several aspects on why and how we write rules. It was one of the hardest posts to write, btw. Took me months ...

Eric over at the Methods & Madness blog incidentally started a series some time ago that goes in a very similar direction and you can check out Part 1 of that series here

Also have Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on this from different angles ...

Where to begin?

From a designer's point of view, you'll have to write your concepts down, but with me it turned out to be more of a stream of consciousness type of organization and bound to be patchwork to some degree. I tried writing the rules for the game I'm working on down in a somewhat coherent way, but I gave them to test-readers and the result was in almost all cases the same: no one could have reproduced the rules. No one understood the game just from reading what I gave them (sorry about that, guys).

Which leads to the first important insight, I guess. Rule books should fulfill at least three basic functions: (1) reading them from front to back should teach you the game proper and how to use the book when playing it, which (2) means that the information presented should also be arranged in a way that allows easy access to all relevant material (tables, lists, generators, etc.) and (3) should work as a reference guide for all terminology the game uses (which means it needs an extensive glossary). Well, that and it should look nice, doesn't it?

However, that's 'just' superficial structure (or rather, something a publication needs to feature) and not yet rules presented in words (or graphics or pictures ...). It doesn't answer the question of how exactly all that information needs to be arranged for optimal effect. It is not enough to say "Well, you have to do it right, of course!" (which seems the go-to kind of advice you get when you ask people that don't know any better and it isn't helpful). It just covers typographical information structure, if you will.

Standards? What standards?

All right, all right, so I have a shit-ton of information I need to arrange in a meaningful way and I need to hit the notes I described above while doing so. How do I do that and where do I look for examples? The first thing would be to research how we learn new things, right?

Right. While it is true that we all learn differently (we can even chose between different models about how differently we are learning, figure that), the first thing we need to realize is that even if every individual would have an approach that'd be ideal for them to learn, well, anything, common sense dictates that whoever is reading a book might have learned all kinds of different techniques with all kinds of varied success (or lack thereof) and therefore ... it doesn't matter that much?

[source of original]

Sort of. It depends on how big of an overlap between the game you wrote and what happens at any given table you actually want (or need) to make the game a success. If you write a D&D clone, you can full well expect that most of the people showing any interest at all already know the original rules and (at best) will be looking for the odd rules variant they can use for their homebrew instead of actually playing the clone as written. The rules needn't be coherent or even complete to make a clone accessible for the intended target group.

With varying degree the same is true for games hewing close to the established basic assumptions of what role-playing games are (i. e., other popular brands ... it's not that anyone made an effort to create such an understanding beyond that). Abilities and Skills and some sort of die system to glue it all together while being reminiscent of "that one popular game". It'll get all the more traction the more familiarity with something known makes access easy. The further you go away from the "known", the more difficult it'll be to explain a game ... up to the point where people actually won't put in the effort to learn your game (which is a totally different story, I guess).

That said, all of the above is more or less betting on the "overlap" as a way to get a game played at all, even if it just plays like any other game of CoC (or whatever). The more "original" a game is, the more a designer will have to actually explain how a reader will be able to play the game as the designer would. The text needs to be written and presented in a way that allows strangers to recreate the experience of playing that one specific game.

A game like that would need to be as complete as possible and thoroughly tested. All possibilities of how that game might manifest need to be addressed. The onformation needs to be arranged ... carefully, which is why we should take a closer look at those games to get an idea how to make that work, exactly.

Words carry meaning (when arrayed properly)

It is not surprising that successfull games can make for good examples. Since "successfull" is a matter of debate, I'd go for those games that managed to change the gaming culture lastingly. Take Vampire: the Masquerade, for example. Undeniable impact, completely new set of rules ...

How did they present their game? Lots of exposition. Tons of it: First edition (1991) starts with a narrator, goes on establishing the world of darkness and its terms, then lays down a general understanding of how to play the game (defining the designer's stance and philosophy or approach, no rules yet), again with lots of little flavor pieces in between (Book of Nod, quotes, heavy on the artwork as well to get a reader in the mood) and it's only at page 31 (the beginning of chapter 2) that they go into the rules proper.

If the reader is invested at that point, it is in the world not the rules. It inspires readers to explore a world of gothic punk, and the 90s where full of sources to fuel something like that (The Crow, Anne Rice, Tim Burton ... it was heavey on the zeitgeist). Getting the genre and setting across like they managed to, activated people enough to go and read how they can play in that world. You wanted to know how to play a Vampire and how to experience stories in this world. You were left wanting more. I'd argue that a huge part of the success of Vampire was having a hierarchy to the presented information. It penned out the possibilities of the stories players will experience using the terminology of that world before showing how to actually do that. It's genius. A perfect storm of timing, presentation and innovation.


So other than being typocraphically challenging, it is the order of the information you present that is of great importance (with art and artwork being a third layer a good rpg book might need to exhibit). It is why we should assume linear reading as one main way of reception, btw, as it is most likely the first appoach anyone will make with any book (maybe after looking at the pictures first). The best way to get some handle on the contents of a book is to read it from beginning to end, so that should best be accomodated and encouraged.

You should also make the terminology the game uses as clear as possible from the beginning AND the terminology needs to be chosen carefully as well (as the terms used regularly will color the gaming experience). In general it seems best to start wide, leaving lots of room for the reader to get comfortable and oriented. Get more and more specific and find ways to keep the reader engaged, for instance by using connected and colorful examples and artwork as well as a typocraphical structure to have the reader informed about where they are at all times.

Alter the tone as well. Be precise when talking rules, be conversational when talking concepts and build tension when telling stories. Make clear distinctions when shifting between tones.

It is a matter of taste, now, if you write with the Gamemaster in mind from the beginning. Arguably, the only person reading a role-plaing book completely is the person actually willing to make a game happen, so there is that. It doesn't hurt, however, to start with the general assumptions of a game and have the more specific stuff (that'll definitely be for the DM) more in the back. I'd say most structures will lend themselves towards a general part in the beginning and the gamemaster part in the end.

Lots of craft (some talent, some luck)

Well, that's the scope of it. But why is it relevant? Maybe it tries to show that there's lots of room to grow when designing rules. Maybe it makes an argument for the worth of the hard work that goes into writing and designing rules. It's a craft.

Recognition is a completely different aspect, though, as is success. Both are only barely connected to how "good" a work is. If you are putting out good work constantly, there are good chances that it'll be recognized somehow, although the degree is dependant on factors that mean additional work unrelated to creating (that is: marketing).

In my experience (limited as it may be), just putting in the work will impress people most of the time, irregardless of the quality of the work. Getting them engaged enough to actually invest into it is an entirely different matter. Creating enough buzz to actually finance a work is another job altogether.

Art adds yet another dimension to craft (is there art without craft? I'd say: no), but not necessarily in a linear fashion (as in: craft allows manifesting art as intended, but mastering a craft is a worthy goal in itself) and it might even be harder to do marketing for. Those innovating will always have a harder time to also sell it.  

Talent, finally, would be how fast you pick up a craft and how far you can push it.

Talent is where talent goes ... [Source]

The rest is luck, or ...

Is that it?

Unfortunately not, as far as culture is concerned. Creating is a high risk, high reward endeavor because we, as a culture, make it so. Used to, anyway. In our digital age it seems more and more like something that an entitled group of people is allowed to get an audience for: big corp (Disney, among few others) and the dopamine-dependant shills that dominate twitter with empty but popular and intoxicating word-clouds ...

I digress, but not without reason. Mentioning the culture is important in that creators can only create, the culture is what carries and forwards them. If a culture shifts significantly into one direction, it doesn't change what's available, it changes what is picked as relevant. Access is not only about who gets a platform, it's also about what is favored. Both shape and color the input, which then encourages creators to act certain ways.

It's easy to see if a culture stifles or favors innovation and who has access to it by looking at the output it allows and the standards it endorses. Which neatly brings us back to writing rules well, I guess. As established above, rules only need to be written very well when the designs they describe are not already established to some degree or another.

If the only games getting tracktion are revisions of something already established, you have indicators on hand that the culture (or scene) involved is stagnating for lack of innovation. And if innovation is lacking, it's not (never) for the lack of potential. So there is one example. School books might be another good example where the discrepancy between what's possible and what's done is easily asserted. And so it goes.

Coming full circle (where to stop?)

So, fucking Covid, right? Sorry, couldn't resist the punchline ... The whole pandemic-business is changing our culture massively right now. If you take 5 years to write a game, and you started 5 years ago from today, the perception of what was already written will have shifted dramatically between 2019 and 2020 alone. There's no helping it, might shift further as well. It might even be almost impossible to assert how the (imminent?) changes in culture actually affect a work about to be ublished, but mostly written with a different cultural background in mind.

In conclusion, good rules are hard to write and depend as much on the climate and culture they are written in as on the craft and talent of the author. 

If nothing else, I hope this mess of a text (and the other parts of this series) help a bit showcasing the importance of culture beyond monetary gain and the importance of innovation. RPG-material just doesn't appear without context, it almost always echoes the surroundings it appears in. Nurturing innovation needs nurturing in a culture.

 Which just ends up producing more questions I don't have an answer to: what is the status of our little rpg-scene? Is it nurturing? Are there any problems, maybe? If so, what could we do to make it better? So, what do you guys think?



  1. Well, I think the secret to VtM's success was that it discovered and untapped market, namely drama majors. It stepped away from the slide-rule sensibility of early RPGs to focus on something more poetic and that attracted a mostly different crowd. The problem with VtM seemed to be a lack of interesting things to do with it beyond sitting around being dramatic.

    Nowadays? I don't know. It seems to be either all Grim Dark or all Disney & D & D. Supportive? Not at all. I think that because you need a group of friends to play it with, ttrpgs have a strong herd mentality to them. People really don't have much interest in anything that everybody doesn't already have an interest in.

    1. Thank you for commenting, JD! Arguably, they (White Wolf) had too much success and then made decisions that made them money for a while, and then didn't (same principles of bloat WotC exercised). Now they have too much product and too much different rules out there to even allow a cohesive crowd of followers (edition wars AND creature wars, because Vampires don't like Werewolves and there are demons and ghosts and mages and fay and ... it's crazy divisive that way). That more poetic streak went the way of the Punk by now, I'd say. Many posers ... Would you say the rules are well written, though?

      Disney and all the other Big Corp. are a problem, imo, and hard to ignore or workaround. Maybe it needs a solid grassroots movement for individual games based on DM motivation, maybe? It'd be something like not only rules for the DM to play the game, but also rules to create a scene ... To a degree the D&D RC went in that direction, as they sport a solid section about issues surrounding the game (unhappy players and all that). Maybe that could be pushed further? Look for the people that look for more than the theme park entertainment and build something with them :) I do believe those people are out there ...


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.