Apr 22, 2010

You Need a Hook

No, I am not talking about marketing. I am talking about how to write a rulebook.

About a half-hour into episode 169 of The Dice Tower, Ryan Sturm explained how to better teach people games by saying:
In order to learn something, you have to have something to attach it to. If you don't, the information just won't make any sense.
Ryan was talking about "schemas", which can be poorly defined as a subject area about which you have previous connected knowledge.
Think about the game Puerto Rico. This game can be confusing to people who've never played a game like it; all those roles to learn and the different buildings. Right away, I start teaching Puerto Rico by telling the players "You're trying to score the most points to win the game. There are two ways to do that: producing and then shipping goods, or getting money and then buying buildings. Bing! Your player now has a schema in which to learn the rest of the game. As you go over the roles and look at the different buildings, players will be able to attach that to the knowledge that they're either trying to make goods and then ship them, or make money and build buildings. They have a very basic schema in which to learn the game . . .

One of the best things about themes in games is they help players to remember the rules.
I recently played Dungeon Lords for the first time. About an hour before we began, I went through the rulebook. I'd been told that it was an excellent example of how to teach really complex rules. This is, without a doubt, a rules-heavy game. However, the rulebook was actually quite well designed.

My favorite design tactic used was when the game had some fiddly, hard-to-remember rules which were obviously only there because playtesting showed it was needed for balance. In these cases, they had characters make up a ridiculous but thematic explanation for that rule.

In the example shown here, Priests' inability to heal when no combat has occurred is explained away as a result of them being the medieval equivalent of Rules Lawyers, gaming the system so that they don't have to work too hard.

This is a clever way to not only help players remember the rule, but defuse any potential reactions of players along the lines of "That makes no sense, they should always be able to heal." During playtests, I get more feedback from things that really boil down to thematic reasoning than I do feedback about game balance. The playtesters aren't wrong. It is my responsibility to provide an intuitive thematic framework for the mechanical decisions I've made.

I doff my cap to whoever came up with this approach. I shall have to steal it.


  1. About the DL rules specifically: The rulebook is easy to learn from, but very difficult to refer to. Try searching it for the answer to a question during gameplay--not easy.

  2. That's an excellent point. One of the challenges with rulebooks is that they need to serve a dual purpose: as a teaching tool and as a reference guide.

  3. This is a great suggestion. I've recently started writing my rulebooks in two columns, with the rules explanation in the left column and bullet point summaries of the rules, clarifying comments, and strategy hints on the right. I very much like the idea of adding thematic justifications for "questionable" rules like this. Thanks for pointing it out!