I am tired of boring rulebooks
[warning: this post contains strong language. If you don’t accept such language, please, don’t read this post, visit me next week when I’ll have a new article. Thank you and sorry for the trouble.]
On Monday I posted a short article explaining how the Neuroshima RPG book came to life. It’s sort of a preface for today’s article, so if you have a moment please, head to my other blog post and read it. It’s a 3–minute read, a really short story. It’ll give you a good background for today’s article.
Link to Monday’s article.
There were plenty of reasons why the Neuroshima RPG was a tremendous success. It was because there was no other post-apocalyptic game on the market. It was because of its rich and immersive world. It was because of a huge marketing campaign I created.
And it was because it read like no other book on the market.
Let me just give you a few examples.
How did we describe the Abilities of Player Characters in the Character Creation chapter? More or less like this:
You need this to be high to shoot well. If you can’t shoot, you’ll die. You need this to be high because you will need to escape from ruined buildings that have just collapsed, or to drive a motorbike and try to escape from mutants. You need this to be high or you’d better start creating a new character because this one is already dead.
You had better focus. There is death [to be found] in every corner of the ruins… in every bunker, old shelter… everywhere. If your perception sucks, you’ll wake up with a gun next to your stupid head and 'boom!’ will be the last thing you’ll ever hear. Have too few points of Perception and you won’t even see that fucking tomahawk that is coming to cut you in half.
Yeah, sure, invest in Charisma you dumb-ass. It’s super helpful when you are surrounded by 10 pissed-off villagers who want to kick your ass and your ammo is gone. Yeah, sure, I bet Perception will save your ass when you need to interrogate this ganger to know when his gang is going to attack your hideout. Let me just ask you one question. Have you ever hear of a dude who dodged a bullet when he had a gun next to his head? Because I tell you this… I did hear about a guy who was able to convince people to put the fucking gun away.
So low Charisma? I don’t think so…
Sure, you might be agile like a gorilla. You might have the perception of damn Jessie James. You might be a charismatic bad ass like Tommy Lee fucking Jones, but you’ll end up dumb as shit if you don’t invest in Intelligence. Guess, what…
And it went on and on in that manner. Every single sentence in the book was written for the player, and by saying “player” I mean a gamer who loves RPGs, who wants to create the best character possible and he wants to enjoy this process. Lots of jokes, lots of meta-stories, lots of bantering with player so he knows that we – authors of the book – know what we are talking about.
It’s not [merely] a boring rulebook that just includes all the how-to-play rules. It was an amazing, engaging, funny guide that told players how to survive in the world of Neuroshima and how to create a cool character. This is true for how we wrote the whole Character creation chapter and this is true for how we wrote the rest of the book.
A chapter describing Europe in the Neuroshima RPG? It goes more or less like this: „Europe, mate?! I have no fucking idea what’s 10 miles away from the shithole we are in now and you ask me about Europe? Are you kidding me? There is no radio, no TV, no Internet, and you want to know about Europe. What’s the next thing you’ll want to know? What’s my opinion on the weather on Mars? Wake up, dumb-ass. No one knows a shit about Europe.”
And that’s all about Europe you’d find in the rulebook. That’s how we rolled back then.
I’m writing about the Neuroshima RPG because I strongly believe that the revolutionary approach we made regarding the language in this book… the way we wrote it… was an extremely important part of its success . Players loved to read it. Players immediately got engaged in the game and its world. Players would – they really would! – quote the book like some movie one-liners. They were posting 'the best of’ quotes and sentences from the book. It was a blast for so many players.
Board game rulebooks are a whole different animal. They have much more in common with technical manuals for your new DVD player than with RPG books.
And yet, I’ve been struggling lately with the idea of making them more reader / geek friendly. I wonder what if instead of writing: „Each player draws 7 cards, chooses one to keep and passes the rest to the player on his left. Players repeat this process until every player has one card remaining. This card is kept along with all previously chosen cards.” I would just simply write: „Draft 7 cards. Friendly advice – choose the best of them and then crush your opponents.”
Wouldn’t it be cool to read rulebooks that are fun? Rulebooks that provide important information but don’t spend the time on explaining every stupid detail we all know? I mean, do we really need to read sentences like: „Put the board in the middle of the table so every player has a comfortable reach.”
I don’t know.
I have a well-earned reputation of a guy who was involved in extremely terrible rulebooks. I know that. I messed a lot. I am probably the last person who should talk about improving the way we write rulebooks. And yet, yes, I am struggling with this topic. And yes, I am trying a different approach. And yes, I want all of us to have better and better rulebooks.
I might try doing something crazy with the 51st State rulebook but before I do this, I’ll probably post some fragments on BGG and ask you guys for your opinion. Would you be interested in telling me that I should or shouldn’t take that route? Would you like rulebooks to be fun and engaging to read or you just want them to be extremely precise and you don’t care that they are boring as shit?
Please, give me your thoughts. Meanwhile, I’m going back to experiment with the 51st State rulebook…
Edited by Piotr, thank you.
Interesting thoughts, as usual.
Vincent Baker (Apocalypse World) has written very thematic and interesting RPG rulebooks, while still retaining clarity. They are direct, surprising, in-theme and, at times, shocking.
This works in RPGs because the fun is in the space between the rules, and that language helps to give it context. No need to be precise. I love it.
Board/card games require more precision because they’re competitive and people want a fair shake through clear rules.
That said, I think a „Quick Start Guide” could do this to set the tone and create an evocative play experience. Then make the „boring” rule book with all the details. Maybe narrated by a law-abiding character with a stick up his ass…
I am tired of „yo, bro” style rulebooks