What Not To Do

Posted by on Sep 16, 2013 in Design, Writing | 7 Comments

At a GenCon auction ten or twelve years ago, someone suggested to me that the greatest tragedy that can befall a wargame is to be auctioned in a state where the shrinkwrap has been removed but the counters remain unpunched. Someone wanted to love this game but never began preparing to actually play. The game somehow turned an eager player into one who couldn’t bring him or herself to separate the components.

I’m reading — or, rather, have begun to read — a gorgeous rulebook that I picked up at GenCon. It’s a beefy, full-color hardcover crafted by a designer with a good eye. The game appears to have been designed from laudable assumptions, and word-of-mouth is positive.

What I discovered when I actually began to read it is that the text is a disaster, and in spite of the positive buzz, wanting to like the game, and thinking that it looks great, I can’t bring myself to continue reading. Much less play the game, to say nothing of buying the other beautiful components and follow-on products.

No creator wants this to happen to his or her game. Certainly this game’s designer didn’t set out to write a horrible rulebook. So, without naming names, I thought I’d enumerate some of this game text’s sins, that others may avoid them.

Leaping Voices

As the book unfolds, the game’s voice leaps all over the place. The game’s creators speak in their own informal voices (“Look, we made a thing!”), their own omniscient voices (“Our thing is like such-and-so…”), the omniscient voice of their world’s history (“Faction X arose when…”), the omniscient voice of the rules-instructor (“…then, move the component 7 inches…”), and the personal voice of your buddy (“…and if you do all these things, you’ll be a Master of The Game!”). At one point the presentation even shifts as if the game’s components are speaking in their own voice. (“We are red cubes! We love goodness and hate evil! We are made in Germany! Yay, cubes!”)

(All of these different voices occurred in the first 25 pages of the book. Who knows how many more lurk in the 100+ pages I’ll never read?)

The most damaging thing is not that the book uses more than one voice. It’s legitimate for a work’s introduction to speak differently than it’s flavor text, which will speak differently than its rules. Most damaging here is that the prose leaps between voices without signals ease the transitions and set the table. Headers like “Introduction” are key. Introductory text like, “This chapter spells out the rules of play” can do the trick. The game’s beautiful graphic design could have done functional wonders in this area, but didn’t.

My Snowflake is Special, But Mostly In Comparison to Other Snowflakes

When it talks about itself, the game defines itself not primarily by what you’ll do and the fun you’ll have, but by the ways it’s different from other games of its type. If you find yourself writing rules this way, it’s a good indicator that you might be composing a fantasy heartbreaker, whatever your genre.

Irrelevant Intricacies

The background of the game’s world is intricate in ways that aren’t remotely necessary to enable the fun that the game promises. This detail might be excusable or even welcome in Sourcebook #8, but in this game’s case, these intricacies are presented before a single iota of core gameplay has been covered.

Worse, there are intermediate intricacies that explain how the world came to be the way it is. These transitional intricacies were so tedious that I stopped reading the background section before even learning what the world is like in its present.

(Also, the world’s background is nonsense, but that goes to world-building rather than presentation, and the latter is the category of sins at hand.)

Lackluster Fiction

The fiction that demonstrates the world is not a good story. It has all kinds of asides that illustrate the nature of the game world, but the characters in the fiction are cut-outs and even they can’t be bothered to care about the things that they ostensibly want in their little micro-drama.

Fiction is good when its characters want something desperately, have trouble getting it, and we care. Don’t illustrate a good game with bad fiction, even if it’s accurately illustrative.

We Didn’t Bother to Outline

In this book, logical sub-sections of rules text are not of remotely equivalent weight, nor do they confine themselves to the scope suggested by their parent sections.

By way of example, a pair of adjacent B-level sections are terse in the first case and long-winded in the second, and in the second case, stray several kilometers outside the scope suggested by the A-level section enclosing both. If you find yourself talking about the best kind of characters to create in the section about the game’s components, your organization is suspect.

The Curse of the Singer-Songwriter and Writer-Director-Producer

The book credits no editor or developer. Although it’s possible that this is an error of omitted credit, I’d be surprised. And in any case, the sin isn’t lack of credit, but that there was apparently no development or editing done by someone who wasn’t also the game’s designer. Fresh, outside eyes are best at catching and fixing the oversights of a game’s designer.

Recruit (or hire) skilled supporters and let them know that their brief is to call bullshit on what’s weak, even if it hurts your feelings.

A Big Fat Bummer?

Re-reading the sections above, I worry that this entire post is a magnificent bummer at best and a mean-spirited attack at worst. In the hope of making it clear that what I really want to do here is call out common mistakes to prevent them from recurring, here are the positive lessons that I hope game creators can draw from one game’s shortcomings.

  • Speak in unified voices, and transition between them sensibly, using section headers, transitory passages, and graphic design to send signals.
  • Define your game in its own terms, not in terms of other games.
  • Get to the point. Don’t dwell your game world’s history so much as what it’s like now.
  • Fiction must stand on its own merits. If it wouldn’t be enjoyed outside a game book, see what you can change so it would.
  • Editors and developers are key. No one can produce a great game on their own.

There are other sensible practices and guidelines for writing great games and their rules, of course. This isn’t a guidebook, but a start.


  1. Justin D. Jacobson
    September 16, 2013

    Great points all. (I’ll be sure and double-check this as we move through our Dawning Star text.)

    I particularly like different voices in game texts. Best version of this I’ve seen is Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel with the different character icons representing different voices.

  2. Jeff Tidball
    September 16, 2013

    Character icons sounds like a great way to indicate voice switches. It’s the whiplash I experienced as voice shifted without warning that really hurt the overall package.

  3. John Scott Tynes
    September 16, 2013

    Great points I rarely see addressed.

    I put a lot of work into the voice in the second edition of Unknown Armies. I deliberately conflated the player and the player character by using “you” in all cases because I wanted to suggest a sort of psychic breakdown between realities, so that the dice and the life were unified. I rewrote whole chapters from the first edition just to use this voice, to make them really immediate and personal, to address the player as if he or she were the crazy one. That was as important to me as any rules changes we made.

  4. Peter Jansen
    September 16, 2013

    Very interesting piece, and it did not go where I thought it was going. I kind of want to feel sorry for you, Jeff, for however much you spent (but not wasted!) on this book, but as you have obviously gained and shared something of value from it, well, I’ll have to buy you a beer in thanks the next time I see you, whenever that will be.

    I have to admit that I have a wargame of the opened-but-unpunched variety you describe, mainly because I have never found anyone with which to play it. (And unfortunately, the Con of the North submission deadline has passed.)

    I would take minor exception to your second bullet point in your final section, however. By categorizing things as we humans do, we make them easier for others to understand; when I talk about my OBU wargame, you have an idea of the kind of game I mean.
    Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean, because yes, a game should stand out and stand on its own merits, but when we talk about a type of game, we have an idea of what kind of game it is just from being told what kind of game it is.
    Perhaps the “what it is and is not” is better for the back cover?

  5. Brendan Davis
    September 17, 2013

    If you’re referring to the belle of the ball this year, I completely agree with you on all points. Which is very disappointing considering the hype it received from the internet at large.

    Also, John Tynes? Unknown Armies is my favorite roleplaying game of all time. They’re the only books that have survived every purge, move, and attempt to quit roleplaying games since I got them. I never noticed the consistent use of “your,” but a lot of things clicked into place when you said it. Thank you, and Greg Stolze, for all of the hard work and love you put into it. I can’t tell you how much creative inspiration they have provided me.

  6. Jeff Tidball
    September 18, 2013

    No one who’s asked me privately, “Is it this game?” has been correct yet, so apparently it’s safe to assume I’m not talking about the game that most people think I am. For what it’s worth.

  7. Justin D. Jacobson
    September 18, 2013

    It’s Synnibarr, isn’t it.


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