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Getting the Most Out of the Rules
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

L ast week, I talked about the effect that rules presentation can have on a game, specifically as it pertains to the sheer amount of rules material. This week, I'd like to continue that discussion and talk about the language used in rule writing, as it pertains to the D&D game.

It's fascinating to look at the evolution of the language and detail in rule writing starting in 1974 Dungeons & Dragons all the way through to today. Overall, there has been a general trend toward more precise and formal language, and away from a conversational tone. Precision is good and useful. Conversational language is more readable and usually more enjoyable.

Therein lies the issue.

Few people read instruction manuals for fun. They're typically dry and boring. But instruction manuals are written the way they are for a reason. They need to get important information to the reader clearly and precisely. Sometimes, changing one word, or even the order of words, can hinder the usability of the instructions. If I'm reading a manual on how to disarm a bomb, I want it to be as precise as possible. Dry and boring is just fine.

But D&D books aren't bomb-defusing manuals. They're game books about dragons, adventures, and tales of heroism. When people read a D&D rulebook, should it really be as dry and boring as a technical manual? Should it be full of precise jargon, keywords, and templated text? Or should it contain story text that inspires the imagination, giving DMs and players alike new ideas for adventures and characters?

You might argue that game rules and story have to live in the same book, and when it comes to rules, they need to be precise, or else how can you use them correctly? Some of the concepts in the game are complex, and without carefully worded descriptions free of conversational tone and flavor text, how can we expect gamers to use them?

I'm going to argue that a good game writer can do both. I think that game rulebooks and adventures can be presented in such a way that convey the needed information and yet still are exciting and interesting to read. However, I'm going to also argue that this balance is something that throughout the history of the game D&D has only done with moderate success, and usually veers too much in one direction or the other.

When I got my start in the game, around 1978 or so, it was with the original D&D set. Those books belonged to my friends, however. The first books that I personally owned were all 1st edition. I used to buy and read the products that came out (mostly adventures, back then) just for fun. I played the game a lot as well, but part of the D&D hobby experience for me was just reading the products and letting my imagination soar. When I read an adventure, sometimes I would think about the great story potential contained within, or it would inspire me to create my own stories. Other times, I would imagine what would happen if I used the adventure in my campaign. How would my players react? How would I react if I was a player? How would I run such a fun yet complex series of encounters? I am certain that I am not alone in this.

I firmly believe that fun-to-read, imaginative rules and support material is vital to the whole D&D experience. I also believe that rules need to be written, developed, and edited very carefully so that the meaning is clear. It's a game, not a novel. If the designer's not communicating his rules clearly, he's not doing his job.

To have both, a game designer must make sacrifices. Jargon, for example, is helpful in rules clarity but makes a conversational tone very difficult. Imaginative flavor text can get in the way of readability, particularly in a rule that is going to be referenced over and over again.

The choice between "fun to read" and "precise" needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Certain rules can be simple and straightforward, while other matters can be handled more conversationally or filled with inspirational descriptions of people, places, or events.

D&D gamebooks are like no other form of writing. Something like the Player's Handbook needs to be equal parts teaching tool, reference work, and muse. Someone is going to sit down and read that book to learn how to play. They need things explained carefully and often in detail. That same person will refer to that book over and over again while playing. Then they need everything to be straightforward and succinct to keep the game moving. They also need that book to inspire them to create fantasy characters and adventures. In this case, they need imaginative hooks, references, and ideas that send them off on their own flights of fantasy. All three of those aspects usually come in the form of entirely different books. To ask a book to serve all three at once is a real challenge.

Fortunately, game designers like a challenge.



This Week's Poll

When it comes to rules presentation, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I value the following things in D&D books:

 Conversational Tone  
1
2
3
4
5

 Story and Flavor Text  
1
2
3
4
5

 Clear, Formal Tone  
1
2
3
4
5

 Precise Game Language (Jargon)  
1
2
3
4
5

Last Week's Poll

Regarding the options for rules presentation, given the examples last week, I prefer:
Option 1 402 12.1%
Option 2 1613 48.4%
Option 3 1028 30.9%
None. I don't even want any rule. I want it all up to the DM. 70 2.1%
None. I want something radically different from what is presented. 218 6.5%
Total 3331 100.0%

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