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Rules Text as a Design Artifact

In editing on August 29th, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Design is the process of suiting an item to a task (or a set of closely related tasks). Details like shaping a handle to fit a hand seem obvious, but they get overlooked all the time. Anyone that’s sold an RPG or a boardgame knows about game design and book design and has a lot of respect for the people that do them professionally. The idea that the text itself is an act of design may seem foreign, though. Shaping a book to fit the minds of its readers is easier to overlook and harder to accomplish. Some thought goes in to the quality of your prose, but that is the tip of the iceberg. Structure and organization are an act of design and, thanks to the nature of rules, it’s a tricky act of design, too.

The rules text is not your game, it is your game’s user interface. It is the button pad on your cell phone; the remote control to your cable or satellite box; the steering wheel, gearshift and pedals in your car. It is the way players (in the absence of a teacher) connect with your game and it needs to be designed as rigorously as the rules and procedures. Players cannot fall back on mashing your game’s buttons, poking through its menus or clicking hyperlinks at random.

Your rulebook must be more than a technical manual. It is a textbook, instruction manual, rules reference, and as the last chance to fail to convince someone to play your game it is a piece of marketing. Usability, user experience, proportion, rhythm, hierarchy and organization all affect how well your book (or PDF or ebook) conveys your game – your baby – to potential players. Fail at designing its text and your game will go unplayed. Worse, it will end up played incorrectly, condemning you to a lifetime of defending it and providing the same “obvious” tips and guidance and the indignity of a quick second edition.

Unfortunately, theory about designing RPG texts is scarce. We must rely on general design principles – Dieter Ram’s Ten Principles of Design is a good place to start – and dig through the theory of other fields of design for nuggets we can borrow. While no field of design deals with same mix of problems that the writers and editors of RPGs do, many fields touch on important ideas:

Technical Writing
While many technical manuals are a crime against the English language (and the sensibilities of their readers), good technical writing conveys procedures and behaviours clearly and in an engaging manner, an important hurdle every RPG must clear.
Web Design
Web designers deal with complicated hierarchies, focus and attention management every day. Most commercially-designed web pages are also major elements of a comprehensive marketing strategy as well.
Many web design blogs and books focus on explaining new techniques and concepts, and these articles are are quite similar to RPG texts. Sadly, presentation isn’t always given the attention it deserves (sound familiar?) The best designers – the ones who are (1) designers and (1a) coders – are masters who we all can learn from, though.
User Experience
A sub-discipline of web and interface design that focuses on how a user feels about using a website or program. User experience (UX) experts study conveying mood and atmosphere how to ensure users walk away with a positive feeling about a product or website.
Print Design
Your text will end up as a book – or PDF or ebook – so knowing how those products are designed will have a positive effect on the final product. At a bare minimum, learn standard practices for using italics, bold, all caps, small caps and underlining. Also, no whether you think it’s better or worse, use one space after the end of a sentence, not two (and learn what the rare exceptions to this guideline are).

Other fields of design have lessons to share, but these four (and general principles of design) should keep you busy and learning for a while. Their practitioners spend their lives trying to improve at them, so there’s no end of material for you to examine and consider. It’s time well spent, though. Your customers will thank you and so will your game.

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