I’ve come to the conclusion, after reading dozens of rpg game rules and countless hours playing these games, that game designers need help. You’d think having 30 plus years of RPG game design to draw from would keep these people from making the same mistakes that haunted early systems like original D&D, but I guess, like most Americans, game designers are bad at history. To help rectify this, I have provided six tips game designers should keep in mind when writing their rulebooks. Use these tips and watch the gaming forum hate-spew disappear!
1. Gamers love an index so for the love of God please include one. And while you’re at it, make sure it indexes subjects and terms readers will actually want to look up. There is nothing more frustrating than looking for a key word such as “damage” in the index only to come up empty. And set important terms in bold type in the index and in the main text. I can forgive a game bad layout if it’s easy to find important terms in the index. A table of contents is helpful, too.
2. I love examples of gameplay. More is better. Nothing is more frustrating than slogging through a difficult rules section without any examples to help clarify those rules. This is especially true for combat rules, skill usage rules, and character generation, but examples are helpful anywhere. I’ve never heard anyone say that they didn’t like reading a rulebook because it had too many examples, but the opposite is certainly true. If it’s a question of space, how about less flavor text and art? Both have their uses, but if I can’t understand how the game is played the flavor text and art won’t be of much use. Speaking of which . . .
3. Do we really need 20 paragraphs of flavor text before introducing every rule? I’m looking at you, Warhammer. Flavor text is a long-standing tradition of RPG rulebooks, going back to the essay-style rulebooks of first edition AD&D. And flavor text has its uses. If the designer is introducing a brand-new character or race that gamers may be unfamiliar with or wants to tell the reader why the elves in his game are more bad-ass than any other elves (they have 12 toes!) then yeah, spend some time describing this stuff. And please, no short stories. I’m sure you’re a brilliant writer, but a fictional story set in the game world is less helpful than including an actual-play session of the game. Yes, the story of Strongbow the Awesome Archer is really great and if you want to include it in the campaign section, go ahead, but including a real-play session with someone running Strongbow in a game has more relevance to the reader.
4. Just because a rule is different and unique doesn’t mean it’s better. Rules like using a shot clock with poker cards to govern combat as done in Aces and Eights, the incredibly broken and underplaytested d12 system in Colonial Gothic, or the roll-buckets-of-dice-and-add-them-up-until-you-want-to-scream system of Oz Dark and Terrible are certainly unique and different. But are they fun? Do they get in the way of roleplaying and bog down the game session with rule questions? Would a less unique but more playable rule work better in a game session? The answer to all these question is a resounding YES. I think that new rules and ideas, carefully designed and playtested, are important in the growth of the industry and add a fun twist to a game session. BUT, there are a lot of great RPG ideas stretching back 30+ years that can be mined for use in current games.
5. What do 75% of all rpg players have in common? Poor eyesight. So why then is it a good idea to layout a page using a dark purple background and a ghosted image behind 9 pt serif type with light electric blue sidebars and 8 pt white type? Yes, designers, I know you just finished your “InDesign and You” class and you’re eager to show your chops, but before you get started think carefully about one thing: readability. This is a flippin’ rulebook you’re designing, not an art studio splash page. Think about the sequential order of rules, how boxes with similar content should have the same style, that the skills section and the combat section should not look like they’re from two different books. Style is important, it helps sell and market these books, but content and layout with a focus on readability and use should be taken into account when laying out books.
6. Does the gaming universe really need another high-fantasy RPG? There’s no denying that gamers love elves, dwarves, dragons, and dungeons, but we’ve already got a pantload of great games to choose from. I feel bad for designers who spend months, even years, meticulously working through game mechanics and carefully crafting their game world until it practically hums with precisions smoothness, carefully lay out the rules, pay artists and graphic designers, print out an expensive hardback of the rules, and then watch their system get steamrolled by already established juggernauts like D&D. I think good games will eventually find an audience, but the slice of the pie, especially in the high-fantasy market, will end up being a lot smaller than it should. A better bet might be to follow Paizo’s idea. Instead of trying to develop their own system, they took an older system (D&D 3.5) that had been abandoned by its publisher but still had a very loyal (and large) fan base, revised the rules based on player feedback, then released it as Pathfinder and have enjoyed great success since then. If you still insist on designing that fantasy RPG, then look for a hook that will get people excited about your game. Base the world on a popular fantasy novel or setting from literature. (Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, and Conan) or tie it in to an established computer game (such as Everquest, Dragon Age, and Warcraft). Have any of these systems met with great success? Not really. Again, the slice of the pie for new systems in this market will never be huge. You're better off aiming for a more generic system (such as Savage Worlds) or a less saturated niche market.