April 16th, 2010
I’m looking at the structure of game books right now, and I really think (especially as someone who’s been doing it a while myself), that there’s room for improvement.
The default model seems to be:
- Some kind of introduction. Maybe fiction, maybe bragging, maybe both.
- Maybe something about how special our unique branded setting is.
- Character types and creation.
- Combat rules (sometimes “conflict,” if you’re really abstract)
- Magic powers (possibly swapped with the previous).
- A whole bunch of not-entirely-combat rules almost everyone ignores. And which mostly consist of modifiers to combat.
- Some GM advice that’s probably terrible.
- Some monsters.
- Sometimes a sample setting providing most of the useful things that the setting information at the front completely failed to.
Dungeons & Dragons conforms to this model through most of its books, though it often leaves the terrible advice and monsters to subsequent volumes. The White Wolf games pretty much all work this way, though the nWoD shunts questions of combat back to the core.
- Creating a character (a simple fighter)
- Equipment, how it works and is bought
- Creating monsters
- Getting XP
- “The Game as it is Played”
- All the damn character types and variations
- Leveling up
- Detailed combat rules
- More monster rules
- GM advice
- Sample dungeon
- “Elaborations” — a bunch of miscellaneous rules, and descriptions of weapons
Speaking of trolls, Ron Edwards’ brilliant Trollbabe mainly describes the components of a game session in order. Loosely:
- Conflicts in scenes
- Relationships (which come from conflicts)
- Multiple characters
- GM advice and a sprinkling of player advice (actually pretty good)
- Designer notes and other appendices
It’s remarkably clear, benefiting from three things:
- A game that produces a story can be explained in the order of a story.
- There was a previous edition with years of playtesting.
- It was designed as a teaching text.1
As a gamer, I prefer the latter two models, personally. While the “top down” manual style is a great way to do a design document, I’m not sure it’s much good for teaching a game.
As a designer, it’s unlikely that my game is going to be the one that teaches anybody how to game (if they learn on my game, it’ll probably be from an experienced player). But I am teaching the game to existing roleplayers.
The first structure is pretty good for existing gamers, because they’re usually looking for content and twists they can introduce into an existing gaming style. They already know if they’re going to do a dungeon crawl,2 a railroad,3 or an investigation game.4 Because that’s how they roll. They just need to know whether they’re calling the magic user a Tremere.
Okay, that sounds a little harsh, but I think it’s true. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing. A lot of gamers pick up new roleplaying games to provide content for playing in a structure they’re already set on.
That’s why a game like Trollbabe, whose major innovations relate to structure5 almost need to be structured as tutorials.
That said, as an existing gamer, I find it a lot easier to get through Tunnels & Trolls on a read than the Rules Cyclopedia.6 On the other hand, it’s rather a pain to go back through the “expanding” structure looking for particular references.
I’d like to see the rules treated multiple ways within a single book: the rules explained in expanding fashion, with explanations, examples, and designer notes, plus a quick reference in the back, covering the basic gameplay structure and procedures.
This is, in fact, sometimes how I run Trollbabe: with a “teaching copy” of the current edition and a “reference copy” of the original.
How do you like your gaming books organized?
- I have this confirmed by Ron. ↩
- A game in which an imaginary space filled with deathtraps is explored. ↩
- A game in which the sequence of events is predetermined and players must find their way between them. ↩
- Like a railroad, except the player characters go insane at the end. ↩
- …and trollbabes. ↩
- And the regard in which I hold that latter book is well-established. ↩