Anatomy of a Rulebook

Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing

When we think about tabletop gaming, we habitually conflate the book with the game. But technically—and this is important—the book isn’t the game; you use the book to play the game. A rulebook is, first and foremost, a tool. It is a technical document that enables people to perform a task, and its effectiveness is a matter of usability. The less user-friendly a rulebook is, the more difficult (and less enjoyable) the gaming experience becomes.

Even if the mechanics themselves are streamlined and simple, players won’t get the greatest value from a game. And it’s not due to a poorly designed game—it’s the result of a poorly designed rulebook.

Rulebooks 101

AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide 1978
One of the most iconic instruction manuals of all time.
Gary Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide; TSR Games, 1978.

Rulebooks are instruction manuals. Like every other instruction manual, a rulebook explains, step by step, how to solve certain problems and complete specific tasks. Those tasks are the process of playing the game.

In almost any game session, someone inevitably asks, “How do I … ?” It could be anything—cast a spell, fire a rifle, pilot a starship. If no one knows the answer, where does the group turn? To the rulebook.

If a problem falls within a game’s scope, then the rulebook contains instructions for resolving that problem. These instructions are the game’s formal mechanics.

Mechanics must be explained in clear, unambiguous language that enables the player to perform the desired action. However, players won’t be able to do so if they can’t find the relevant rules. Thus, a rulebook must also organize information logically, and it must facilitate quick and easy navigation so players can locate the desired information.

This ideal rulebook depends on two major components: close attention to detail and an ergonomic structure for those details to inhabit.

The Purpose of an Introduction

Every instruction manual—and thus every rulebook—has an introduction. It may be the shortest section or chapter, but it is crucial for two reasons: it states the document’s goal and lists all materials the reader will need to pursue that goal.

Statement of Goal

An introduction describes the whole manual’s purpose: what action will this manual enable the reader to complete?

Fiasco Introduction
Fiasco uses the conceit of the elevator pitch to deliver an efficient, entertaining introduction.
Jason Morningstar, Fiasco; Bully Pulpit Games, 2009.

When a Dungeons & Dragons player picks up the Age of Sigmar rulebook, the introduction explains that it’s a tabletop wargame and not a roleplaying game. If that experience interests the player, they keep reading. If they’d rather stick to RPGs, they put the book aside and look at something else.

A good introduction will help the reader decide if this particular gaming experience is what they’re looking for. Delivering this information alongside the required materials further characterizes the experience a player can expect, thereby motivating interest and further engagement.

Materials

For many RPGs, the materials are pen, paper, dice, and the rulebook. Other games may require additional books, boards, tokens, miniatures, etc. Stating all these material requirements up front will allow players to easily and fully prepare for play.

The list of materials doesn’t necessarily have to be a literal list; if required materials are few and the introduction is short, the materials can simply be described there. But if the materials are many and varied, and especially if they’re peppered across a long introduction, provide a formal list in a sidebar. Your players will thank you.

The Work of Technical Instructions

In games, certain actions or sequences are linear and repeatable. Most of the time, though, they are not. Every rulebook’s primary task is to organize its content—the game’s mechanics—in a logical, coherent fashion that facilitates play.

For most games, the initial process is highly linear: scenarios are established, roles are chosen, characters are created. But after setup, when players take active agency in the game, is when things get complex.

In the first five minutes of play, you could use a dozen different mechanics. In the next five minutes, you could use them again in a different order. Or you could use an entirely different set of mechanics.

Pathfinder 1e table of contents
An example of logical organization on the large scale.
Jason Bulmahn, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook; Paizo, 2009.

As a result, rulebooks are laid out by general topic. Chapters are divided into sections, sections into subsections, etc. These units are clearly labeled, visually demarcated, and grouped by relevance. They are frequently “illustrated” with narrativized examples that demonstrate how a particular mechanic is used, helping the reader to understand it in action as well as in concept.

Especially with rules-heavy games, your must be able to find the information they’re looking when the need arises. Logical organization and clear, descriptive demarcations perform crucial functions here, but on their own, they aren’t enough to ensure a streamlined experience.

Paratext

Paratext refers to bodies of information presented alongside the main text. For our purposes, these are tools that help readers navigate that text and, consequently, gameplay.

Pathfinder 1e index
An excerpt from a meticulously detailed index.
Jason Bulmahn, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook; Paizo, 2009.

The two cornerstones are the table of contents and the index. The table of contents provides a general map of its scope and organization. The index allows readers to quickly locate a specific topic within the text. Between them, the reader should be able to find whatever information they’re seeking.

To help navigate gameplay, one of the best resources a rulebook can provide is a reference sheet. This supplementary document provides a distilled version of the fundamental mechanics that players regularly use. Reference sheets help gameplay move forward by circumventing the need to flip through the book. But when the time comes to reference additional mechanics, they need to be adequately represented in the table of contents and index.

Conclusion

A game can be poorly designed, but if the rulebook enables easy play, then it is a good rulebook—even if the game played isn’t particularly fun or engaging. On the other hand, a well-designed game presented in a poorly designed rulebook carries a steep learning curve. Players must make a substantial investment before they receive the greatest value from their experience. But more likely, they’ll set the book aside and go find one that’s easier to use.

A game can only be realized through its mechanics, and if the text isn’t designed for usability, the players’ experience will suffer. The game itself could be innovative and extremely well designed, but the designer’s vision will go unrealized when not expressed coherently and accessibly.

Now that you know the rules, learn how to break them.


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