On Rules Texts & Teaching Games
I’m gearing up to do a first impressions thread of D&D 4e at some point this week, and it’s got me thinking about why those threads are valuable to me personally. About the lessons I take away from them.
You may think that the value is in reading a lot of games and seeing how different designers approach and solve the same problems, and that is a benefit. But I’ve realised today that while that’s where the enjoyment comes from, it’s not the main lesson for me.
The value in those threads comes from me getting a first hand lesson in how new players come to these texts. How they read them, where they get stuck, how we can best present information to seamlessly teach our games to people.
And you may be thinking “But Chris, the only thing you’re learning is how you read a text,” and that’s completely true. But that’s also more than enough for me, if I’m being honest.
In Stephen King’s On Writing – which, whatever your thoughts about King as a person and a writer, is one of the best books about the craft of writing in existence – he talks about writing for an “ideal reader”. You can’t please everyone, so try to please one specific person.
King’s ideal reader is his wife Tabitha. He writes with her in mind. Call me a narcissist if you want to but my ideal reader is… Myself. I write the things I want to read and play that I don’t already see in the world.
So the fact that I’m getting a better understanding of how I engage with new rules texts is invaluable to me, and I think it’s inevitably going to lead to me writing better books.
And as I think about this stuff, I want to share some of the thoughts I’m having about how best to approach rules texts.
In a conversation yesterday @trebuchetops made a distinction between “read to learn” and “read to reference at the table” and I think that’s a crucial thing a lot of us – me included – have been missing.
In my experience the best way to learn a new game is to play it with someone who already knows how to play. To learn through doing. Reading the rules on your own is a distant second.
It’s also largely expected that only one player will have read the game. They’ll know it well enough to teach it, and the rulebook exists as a reference text that – hopefully – doesn’t need to be consulted during play.
We sort of have this expectation in RPGs already, especially in trad games like D&D or Pathfinder where at least initially the GM is expected to know more about the mechanisms of play than the players.
I’m obviously not saying board games are perfect. Some rules texts are just awful both as a teaching aid and as a reference during play (I’m looking at you, FFG and particularly Blood Bowl Team Manager)
But one thing board games do get right is in going further than just a rulebook in order to teach.
Shows like Tabletop, for all its many and varied flaws, did a great job of being entertaining while also teaching the rules (even if they often got them wrong).
I have bought many games I saw played on Tabletop. And when I read the rules I had a better time with them than with many RPG texts, because I’d already seen it played. So if I hit a part where the text wasn’t clear, I could largely fill in the gaps with knowledge I already possessed.
Which leads me to my first point: we should be using Actual Plays as a teaching aid. The Gauntlet are leading the pack in this regard. If I want to learn to play Trophy, there are videos and podcasts that will teach me. Same for Brindlewood Bay etc.
Now, obviously we don’t all have the resources to produce actual play podcasts and videos. And especially not to produce good, well edited ones. So what can we do instead?
The two games I had the least trouble learning from the text were Symbaroum and Pathfinder 2. And the thing these two both have in common is good examples of play that come early in the rulebooks.
Symbaroum’s is the first thing in the book (which is possibly because I read the Starter Set, and we’ll get to those in a minute assuming I remember to circle back to this point). Their example of play isn’t brilliant, and at the time I think I called it “a good idea but a little disappointing.” But it exists and is helpful.
In fact give me two minutes and I’ll find a link to the tweets where I talked about that example of play.
The Pathfinder 2 one is better, IIRC. It certainly cemented the multiple attack penalty as a concept in my head without ever using the words “multiple attack penalty”, and that’s really useful. That’s something that separates PF2 from other trad games I’m familiar with, and I didn’t have to read a section of rules text to learn it.
So how can we write a good example of play? Well, the first idea that springs to mind is to simply teach your game to new players and transcribe the session. You should obviously spend time cleaning it up and making it fun to read but that real experience on the page? Invaluable.
Bear in mind I’m talking about you sitting down and teaching the game to someone who’s never read it, here. There’s also value in giving your rules text to a new group and asking them to play it without your input. That said, I’m not about to get into “should I playtest” discourse and I’d appreciate you not bringing it here.
An example of play should do a few things. First, introduce key concepts of the game in a logical sequence that resembles the way they come up in play. Second, sell the tone of the game and some philosophical stuff that isn’t necessarily “rules”.
The Symbaroum example does that second part very well. It especially sells the idea that if something is easy or without meaningful consequences, you don’t need to roll to make it happen. That’s a philosophy of play thing, and it comes across on the first page of the rulebook.
PF2 does the first part very well. In a game where most of the rules are concerned with combat and exploration, it shows you exactly how combat works without saying “here are all the many and varied rules for combat”. It also (IIRC) introduces some edge cases, where creatures might have different rules for their multiple attack penalty.
It doesn’t explain exactly why these things are different, because that’s not the purpose of an example of play. The purpose is to prime you with the basics, so that when you read the actual rules text later you’re prepared for what you see. You already have a grounding in it, so there’s more space for things to maybe not make immediate sense.
In writing this I now can’t remember if the example of play in PF2 is from the core rulebook or the Beginner Box, but that’s not important. It is useful as a segue to talk about starter sets, though.
A starter set is an interesting thing because it’s explicitly designed to simplify the rules so that new players can get onboarded and start playing fast. It’s less concerned with being a complete reference to the rules of the game and more concerned with being a catalyst for play.
They’ll often use a slightly simplified ruleset. They come with pregenerated characters, or simplified rules for making your own. And they’ll usually include a starter adventure or two that teach the GM the things they need to know as they need to know them, and explicitly say “don’t read this whole thing in advance.”
I love starter sets.
Now, as with podcasts and actual plays, we can’t all afford to produce a Beginner Box with our games. But we can write a quickstart. I wrote one for Dice Souls (available for free here) and writing it made me a better game designer.
The Dice Souls quickstart is modelled after the tutorial level I wish Dark Souls had. It guides you step by step through exploring the world, having a fight with an enemy, gaining Soul Dice, exploring (and generating) the world, dying, and retreating to rest and spend Soul Dice.
It’s one step away from being a transcribed “I teach you to play the session” – in fact it started as an example of play before I say “let’s make this interactive and have people actually play the game instead of reading about it”.
It uses a simplified ruleset (i.e. there are fewer classes to choose from at character creation, fewer things to spend Soul Dice on). It introduces mechanics as and when you need to know about them. And it gives you a vertical slice of what the game is all about.
I think it’s some of my best work, if I’m being honest. (Ignoring the layout, which is awful and will be revisited once the full game is finished.) And I’ve heard from a lot of people that it did a really good job of teaching them the game.
It was very hard to write. It required me taking a step back from the game and saying, “okay, what’s important here? What do new players absolutely need to know?” and discarding the rest. When you write a quick start you distil your game down to its essence, and you very quickly learn what works and what doesn’t work.
This thread is a monster and while I’m sure I had other points I wanted to hit when I started it, I’ve forgotten what they are. So rather than ramble I’m just going to end things here.
This isn’t meant to be a thread that says “YOU MUST DO THESE THINGS” and I hope it doesn’t come across this way. It’s partly me digesting what I’ve learned from reading a lot of rules texts, and partly me suggesting ways we might make learning new games easier for people.
We’ve all heard the refrain of “I don’t have time to learn new games”. And I think rather than shouting “yes you do”, we should maybe look at ways we can facilitate making it easier and quicker for people. My hope with this thread is that I’ve provided some ideas for how we might start to do that.
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