The Threefold Path of RPG Reading

by Robin D Laws

As a game designer, I look forward to the realization of the still-incipient tablet revolution for several reasons. One of these addresses a constant bugaboo of the designer’s existence, rulebook organization.

Roleplaying game books are, and always have been, exercises in non-linear writing—and reading.

As a designer, I could start the manuscript at the beginning and systematically write my way to the end. But in reality I jump around from section to section. A piece of rules text might reveal a note I need to insert into the GMing chapter. A piece of high-tech equipment may require me to adjust the unconsciousness rules. It may prove more efficient to write the NPC stats for an alien race immediately after its profile as a PC character class.

Likewise, the order in which you read RPG material varies depending on use. Core rule books function as teaching tools, reference documents, and vicarious entertainment experiences.

You read a book in teaching tool mode when learning it for the first time.

You read a book in reference document mode when creating a character, statting up an opponent, designing an adventure, or using a sub-system during play.

A surprisingly large set of RPG book readers will never play the game, and are instead enjoying it as the roleplaying equivalent of closet drama. They don’t have a group, or time to play, or maybe just a group willing to try new games. But these folks read the book anyway, imagining the games they’d play if they had all of these things. We may have all been in those shoes at one point or another.

There may be other reading circumstances. Plundering a game for ideas to use elsewhere likely calls for a reading order all of its own. But I think these are the main three paths through a game book.

The challenge when assembling a rule book is that these three modes make competing demands.

To teach you the game, I want to arrange the book so you learn it quickly and without undue head-scratching. I want you to come away thinking that it’s a simple game—and saying that when you’re assessing it with your friends or on the message boards. I hope that you’ll find it easy to pick up, and come away thinking that it will be easy to teach to others.

(In most cases only the GM reads the rule book before the first session of the game. Many players never read the rules, and know them only as a verbal reconstruction by their GMs. To create a great impression, I want the GMs to be able to smoothly reassemble the game’s key points in their own words.)

To be useful as a reference document, I want to arrange the book so that all the rules you’ll need for a given task appear in the same place, and in an intuitive order.

When considering the book as a fun read, I want to interweave the instruction manual parts with jokes, setting flavor, interstitial fiction, and other elements that leaven what necessarily must be dry explanatory text. If clarity is my main aim, I’ll reuse the same words and phrases more often than would be considered good style for a piece of creative writing. That’s an opposite demand than that met by a writer working to engage the reader’s imagination.

Examples have high teaching and entertainment value, but low reference value. Once you’ve learned a rule, a huge block of example text gets in the way, pushing key points of information further away from one another on the page. But until you get to that point, examples serve as a crucial vehicle for understanding.

(And for suggesting, more broadly, what the game feels like when played. If you write with only the first in mind, you can unconsciously present a negative view of your game. Examples tell you a lot about their writers’ GMing styles, not always complimentary.)

Edge cases and additional options pose another of these dilemmas. If you want a rules sub-system to be easy to learn, you want to reduce the number of choices players and GMs can make when using it, and minimize the number of odd special cases you take into account. But during play, players rightly want an answer when they say, “Can I do this?”

For teaching purposes you want to move rarely-used, but occasionally pivotal, choices and systems to their own section, for advanced readers. For reference purposes these should all be where you’d expect them when hastily flipping through the book, during play.

In other words, you want a Schrödinger’s rulebook, which knows what mode you’re reading in when you open it, and restructures the content accordingly. (The dead-yet-alive cat comes as an extra for big pledgers to your crowdfunding campaign.)

The mind-reading may need to wait for another generation of tablet interface, but even given current technology we could certainly create a toggle that rearranges the book on command. Hit the reference button, and the examples collapse away, to be restored on a case by case basis by finger-swipe, as you need them. The special case rules migrate to sit next to the main sub-systems they arise from. Hit the tutorial button, and the special cases and crunchy bits melt away, removing the clutter so you can see what’s core to the rules and what’s a bell or whistle.

For this to happen, someone would have to create a wrapper app product that allows game companies to pour their contents into. That might require some knotty programming, but not insurmountably so. The real barrier lies in market demand. Enough RPG buyers would have to a) own tablets and b) consider this feature sufficiently valuable to pay for the extra costs, plus profit margin. A publisher might decide that these options will make their game more accessible, and therefore sell to a larger audience, and decide to absorb the cost. But in the end it would have to pay in one way or the other.

That’s why we don’t see the creative potential of current electronic delivery used to its full theoretical potential. Extensive hyperlinks make gaming PDFs easier to use. But the time and staffer attention required to insert them in the first place, and preserve them through the layout and output stages, has yet to demonstrably lead to increased sales, or support a premium price. With neither of those results in place, it’s smarter to move onto the next product than to take more time lovingly fashioning the one at hand.

But a designer can dream, can’t he?

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