Over the past 6 years or so, I’ve had fun trying out many new game systems. From role playing to pure tactical, from the crunchy to the more narrative, they’ve run the gamut. Through this all I’ve been reminded of two very big things:
- Crafting a smooth, engaging, fun, and enabling game system is an art.
- Conveying those rules with clarity and structure is an entirely separate art.
Neither of these are revelatory, of course. But while most of these new systems I’ve come to enjoy and find quite well done, almost all of them suffer greatly in the second department. Often, horribly so.
It’s a strange phenomenon to me, this consistency to which rulesets these days (in my experience, at any rate) are both poorly explained, with awkward, ambiguous, and poorly worded statements, and poorly laid out, with the most egregious (and, again, common) being interlocking rules elements that are strangely separated in the book by whole chapters and further compounded by meagre, or worse, no index so you can’t readily find things mid-game. It is one reason I’ve been making so many cheat sheets – designing them allows me to see and learn how the game rules actually fit together*, with the in-play for quick reference being almost a bonus feature.
This may be starting to sound a bit like a rant, and truly I don’t mean it to be. Instead, these two things have been great reminders for me of the importance of finding and trusting good editors and, even more importantly, being aware of what we’re good at, and what we’re not. We may be brilliant at designing rules, but we may stink at writing them down (or vice versa). Hiring people to aid us in those roles where we are weak can be the best thing for us and the game.
It is also a reminder that when I do find a game that excellently handles both bits, celebrate both the rules but even more so the authors/team who wrote them and laid out the book with such elegance. For it is most certainly not a given.
* To which really allows one to see just how strange the organization can be by noting how many times, forty or sixty pages later in the book, you need to go back and add something to a part of the cheat sheet you thought you were done with.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s amazing how long my friends and I played some games only to find something fundamental–really game changing–buried somewhere obscure. Years in some cases.
Do you have any examples of good, elegant design?
Hmmm, good question! In terms of elegant design in conveying the rules, I think FATE has been the best I’ve seen of late. It is well organized, the writing is clear, it is fully cross-referenced (even for a system that doesn’t need much cross-referencing), and the layout, though simple and sparse, is pleasing to look at. Quality stuff! (I’d also be tempted to say D&D 5e is also pretty well done, but my familiarity with the history of the system may make it seem better laid out than it is… :)