Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Understanding Game Rulebooks: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

If you want to play games more advanced then Chutes and Ladders, Connect 4, and Battleship, prepare to do a lot of reading. Once you venture into the realm of adult-oriented board RPGs, tactical games, board games, and card games, you will discover—as I did—that there is a lot to read and a lot to learn. Get ready for a rant on how poorly most rules for many modern hobby games are written and/or organized. Be aware there is some light at the end of this dark critique. If my rant becomes tedious, skip ahead to the part on the Star Wars d20 RPG by Wizards of the Coast. That rulebook stands out to me among many I have read.

Writing pays the bills here, so I am not unfamiliar with how to write coherently so that what I am attempting to communicate is understood clearly and simply. My wife is not only a writer of textbooks for grade school and middle school students, but she is an editor too. I myself have written almost a dozen books on a variety of non-fiction topics for middle school students. Before writing sucked me in, I was also a full-time graphic designer for over a decade. I dealt with layout, type, and created art for apparel, print, and web design. Aside from just tooting my own horn, I am laying down some credentials before I tear into a few of the rulebooks I’ve read for the games that I enjoy.
For a game to be played by new players, the rules need to be written simply and presented clearly. The writing should be at a reading level so that the full age range the game is marketed to will be able to comprehend it. Oddly, even with a background in graphic design and writing, I find many of the rulebooks cryptic and poorly laid out. The writing is not necessarily bad, but often tends to be jumbled and scattered throughout basic rulebooks, making understanding simple concepts complicated.

The first example I’m going to give is the Players Handbook for 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Having never played the game properly as a kid, I started reading the 4th edition book so I could grasp the rules and play the game with my family and friends.

The book opens with Chapter 1 How To Play on page 4 but does not explain the very simple core mechanic of the game until page 11, over 4000 words later. Now while some of the words between page 4 and page 11 are certainly necessary, there is no need for them to be bunched all up front before the game’s core mechanic is explained. I’m sure the big wigs at Wizards want as many people playing D&D, as the law would allow. Simply written clear rules for new players is a must!

Another example I found completely insane was the term [W] that I kept coming across throughout the book. There are so many abbreviations in D&D that it can make anyone’s head spin. Still, once you know what they are, they are quite easy to remember. What exactly does [W] stand for, I kept asking myself as I searched throughout the Player’s Handbook? I looked and looked and looked. The [W] abbreviation is littered throughout the book perhaps hundreds of times. I tried using the index but there is no abbreviation index. Finally after skimming through the book dozens of times I came across the mysterious [W] explanation on page 276! The book states there that: Weapon Damage Dice: A [W] in a damage expression stands for your weapon’s damage dice.

I was so happy I finally found it and was aghast that the book would define something so important that is referenced so much throughout, so late in the text. The information was there, thankfully, but there was no easy way to find it. Rulebooks are not like novels that you read through from page one to the end and that’s that. Scattering information throughout the book might often be necessary due to the content, but if information is to be scattered there needs to be a better way to access that information. Better indexes, abbreviation charts, and other helpful features can help solve this.

My problems with the D&D Players Handbook do not end there. Character creation is scattered all throughout the book. While the information for the many races and classes may dictate the layout, comparing the differences between the races and the classes is far from simple because the statistical information is never conveniently presented in small comparative charts. Quick character generation by hand for casual players is difficult at best. I wound up using Excel to create a few handy charts that conveniently showed information that was scattered throughout the book. I even wound up rewriting the rules simply, minus the thousands of words of mumbo jumbo, for my son and myself to keep handy.

I have been reading Wizards of the Coast D&D Next playtest material over the last few months. My feedback, aside from nuanced rules preferences, is that they should attempt to make the rules, whatever they are, simple. Getting complex is not a big deal. Many gamers thrive on complex rules. I just suggest that the books go from simple to complex. I also suggested a better index, more charts clumped all at the beginning of the three basic guides, and a good abbreviation index or chart, too.

Unfortunately, I have found many poorly-presented rulebooks for great games. Tannhäuser by Fantasy Flight Games is another example of a very cool game with poorly-presented/written rules. Finding simple information such as why the character tokens are ringed in silver or gold was difficult. The fact that the Reich cards are similarly colored gray and the Union cards are beige made any logical color association assumptions even harder. The index did not help. On page 5, the rules explain that the objective tokens have the gold and silver rings for primary or secondary objectives. Equipment Tokens are described right above on the same page. I was mystified about why it was not right there at that exact spot, the rules do not explain that gold represents heroes and silver represents troops. The fact that this silver and gold color delineation is the same for Reich and Union despite the fact that Reich and Union can never be on the same team is also another mystery. It might be because the objective tokens can be used by both sides, but a small symbol for HERO (gold) or TROOP (silver) might have worked better so that REICH and UNION would not be confused. The section that explains that: "Each team is comprised of three Heroes and two Troopers" makes no mention of the gold silver rings that help you know who is a hero and who is a trooper. It also does not mention there that heroes have one more row of characteristics that make them more powerful. This is listed later on page 11.

Again, like D&D, all the information is there. It can all be found and pieced together. Eventually. It's just organized so poorly that I can only assume that someone who knows how to play the game very well probably wrote the rules. The writing assumes that the reader already knows information that is eventually listed somewhere but not where it logically should be. Sure, once you know how to play it all makes sense but getting there alone, and without people who already know how to play sitting there with you to explain, takes a while.

Very early on pages 6 & 7 of the Tannhäuser rules add supplemental information for an expansion pack. Why this is printed right in the front is odd. Another problematic aspect of this game is that supplemental character packs come with new tokens and rules additions that require you to carefully save more small ephemera that will definitely need to be referenced during game play. If these pieces are lost, believe me, you will be too. I could go on and on about Tannhäuser, but I'll spare you. It’s a good game. It has great miniatures, a wonderful story, and a fantastic Pathfinding System for line-of-sight. It just suffers, as many games do, from poorly-presented rules. The revised rules should be revised again, rewritten from scratch in a logical and easy to understand way. A token chart or game board is needed for quick reference during game play. Also all rules that are added with supplemental materials should be added to the basic rules or made available as PDF charts online. As well, the rulebook should be reprinted in hardcover. Any game worth its salt needs a hardcover book. Softcover is not going to last, especially since the rules cannot just be read and left behind. Unless you are some sort of wizard-like savant, you will always need all the printed material close at hand.

Fantasy Flight Games (FFG ) in general tends to produce very complex games. I’m not going to go into detail on every game I have from them, and list all my problems. It would take too long and much of it is personal preference. I will just talk about the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) game by them since I have been actively reading the source material recently.

FFG tend to produce games with lots of cards, custom dice, and a zillion cardboard punch-outs. Keeping any game purchased from them organized requires the additional purchase of holders for all the tokens. I’m on the fence about all this extra crap. Once you know the games it can make it fun, but I tend to enjoy less junk. Dice, miniatures, maps, character sheets, and even cards are enough. Once you start to get into multiple decks of cards at different sizes, as well as hundreds of different tokens, it gets kind of crazy. I can see eliminating all that extra crap where each player has an iPad for keeping track, but not everyone can go get an iPad. Still, FFG should consider apps to eliminate the extras for those who want to. They already have a nice dice app for their Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game. It’s a good app and is easy to use. Since the custom dice for WFRP are hard to find, this app helps—not hinders—the game.

I still am finding the learning curve for WFRP to be quite steep. Many online say the game is dumbed down from earlier versions. Maybe I’m dumb? An RPG with so much extra ephemera is quite complicated to me. I’m pressing onward. I like the ideas. I want to learn, but it’s not coming quickly and some of the problem, again, is the rules. The WFRP rules are written better then the Tannhäuser rules, but still could use some help. In defense of FFG and my complaints with all the tokens and cards, I was happy that WFRP does have a section called WFRP Lite. It explains how the game can be played without all the extras and just a few books and some pen and paper. The website forum has a section for house rules, too, where people can show what modifications they have made. I like this. I appreciate that they are embracing different ways to play one game. Many people create house rules with all variety of games, but it’s not always officially sanctioned.  Still, above all, I like to learn the rules before I break them.

So here is the light at the end of the tunnel I promised. Recently in our never-ending quest for miniatures I bought a huge lot of Star Wars RPG minis off Ebay. We use many minis for home-brewed games all the time, so hundreds of creatures from the Star Wars universe could only help with RPG gameplay. Finally I became curious about the actual rules for the Star Wars PPG itself. I figured we already have all the minis, I may as well track down the rulebook. After some research I decided the book to buy was the Saga Edition Core Rulebook. The books are no longer in print so I had to get them off Ebay. With some digging I got one for not much money at all. When I got it in-hand and started to read it, I was happily surprised.

The Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook by Wizards of The Coast is the most clearly-written rulebook I have come across yet. The book itself is a square and only 286-pages with a 2-sided character sheet and a 2-sided, full color map. The contents are on page 3. A very well-written foreword by Christopher Perkins is on page 5. A simple introduction is on page 7 and then the book does what it should do. First off, it’s not cluttered or printed over a faux background or anything fancy. There are not numerous blocks of multicolored text or anything uselessly distracting like other rulebooks have. It’s just simple black text on white paper. Each section heading is printed in a larger, bold, easy-to-read sci-fi style font—also in black. It’s very easy to read. It’s very easy to understand what each section is going to be about because it's well written too. It’s a very easy book to scan. The margins get slightly fancy with a decorative bar that lists what chapter you are in, page number, and what the chapter is titled. There is also a very simple and convenient color-coding system for each chapter in this margin. It’s decorative and useful. It looks nice but it can also be used to quickly help you scan the book to where you want to be. It’s exactly where it should be too, right where your thumb would go if you wanted to look through the book quickly. This is nice.

The introduction tells you how to play the game as well as explaining the layout of the book in 9 short pages. This was very nice to see. Chapter 1 has not even started and the entire mechanics of the game have already been explained simply. Anyone who reads those introduction pages will know how to play the game, if they want to try playing the game, and what they need to do, step-by-step, to continue onward. Next in Chapter 1, in three short pages, character abilities are explained. Each ability has its abbreviation listed boldly right next to it in the section heading. Wow! Ability modifiers are explained, as well as how to generate ability scores. The book’s first real table is printed here and it’s listed as Table 1-1: Ability Modifiers. These tables are referenced throughout the book and their exact number heading is used to help you quickly locate them. They are also always printed the same way, in gray with alternating gray and while bars to make them easy to find. Tables in the D&D 4th Edition Players Handbook have no such system. Odd. Same company–different ways of doing things. Huh?

Chapter 2 is for Species. A handy table is listed right up front with all the basic species and their Ability Adjustments. Then all the species are listed in the following pages. No species takes up more then ½ a page. There are a lot of species but you can easily flip through them quickly.

Chapter 3 is for Heroic Classes. We are only on page 35 and already we are having the various classes explained. The D&D 4th Edition Players Handbook is chaptered just like this, just not written as clearly and concisely. In the D&D book, the classes start on page 50 and end on page 175. Then skills start on page 176! In the Star Wars book you are reading about skills on page 57. I know many will say the D&D book has more information. D&D is more complex. D&D is for serious gamers. All of that is nonsense. There is no reason why the D&D book cannot be written as simply and as economically as the Star Wars book.

There is a reason the Star Wars book is written so well. The reason is George Lucas and Lucas Books. Star Wars is not owned by Wizards of the Coast like D&D is. Star Wars is a license that Wizards needs to pay to use. It is expensive to get the Star Wars license for anything. I know. I used to work for a T-shirt company that made Star Wars shirts when Episode 1 came out. You could not just throw together any old design and run off 10 thousand T-shirts, willy-nilly. You had to get everything approved and often times make changes that came from the people at Lucas Licensing. Star Wars is a big deal. They care about Star Wars. Anything that is officially licensed from Star Wars all needs to adhere to a certain level of quality. That level of quality is very high.  Mostly. Sometimes garbage gets through the system, but for the most part Star Wars products are a cut above.

My speculation is that the reason the Star Wars RPG book is the best-written game guide I have yet to come across is because of the people at Lucas Books. I’m sure they did not take anything for granted and made sure that the game mechanics were explained for a person who was brand-spanking new to RPGs. Perhaps even the people at Lucas Books were new to RPGs so they made sure the book was understood by themselves. The result is the finest game guide I own. Say what you will about Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks, and whatever other criticisms you might want to pepper Star Wars with. The Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook is the finest rulebook I own. It’s the high water mark that all other rulebooks should aspire to. I wonder if Wizards even knows what they are sitting on. The D&D Players Handbook is sure not instilling me with confidence that they do in fact know what they have. Further troubling is that the © for the Star Wars book is 2007 and the D&D book is 2008. This means they had already produced this gem before the D&D book. Yikes!
I hope Wizards reads this. I hope they take notice. Use the Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook as a guide for all other rulebooks you might ever produce. It’s gold. It’s Jedi caliber. 

I know it’s not a fluke either, because I have The Force Unleashed Campaign Guide from the same series and it too is laid out and written just as well. I’m now tracking all the books from this series down on Ebay. They are a must-have for any gamer. They also do a great job of explaining the d20 system. Once you read the core rulebook you’ll easily grasp any d20 game.
Lastly, I’d like to write about current Clone Wars action figures by Hasbro. Hasbro is should be noted, owns Wizards of the Coast now. A recent purchase of a random Clone Wars Battle Droid came with a Galactic Battle Card with stats on it and a custom black d6 die with gold symbols on it. A tiny, tiny instruction “manual” also came with it detailing a simple battle game that can be played with Star Wars action figures from this series. The stand has a slot to insert the card into. This is a great little game and a perfect way to get kids into RPG-style battle or strategy games. The card has the d6 symbols on it for the results and there is nothing else to it. Figures, cards, one d6, and an instruction paper the same size as the card. Go grab a few Clone Wars figures and get playing. Customizing this for a home brew RPG with figures you already own would be quite simple, especially if you grab the Star Wars Saga Edition Core Rulebook off Ebay.