The Inquisitive Meeple talks with rulebook editor and writer, Dustin Schwartz, on well, writing rules.
In this edition of Designing Meeples we talk with verb-grinder, Dustin Schwartz, rulebook editor and writer extraordinaire. He shared with The Inquisitive Meeple some advice on writing rules and what makes a good rulebook.
Dustin, could you share a little with us about yourself and what got you into tabletop gaming?
Dustin: It was during my final year of college that I really got into tabletop gaming in a serious way. My older brother gave me a copy of Ticket to Ride as a gift. I played that, discovered BGG, and I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole ever since.
I think what really drew me to board games so magnetically is that they’re a blank canvas for honest-to-goodness social interaction. Having grown up as part of the tech-obsessed millennial generation, I was hugely relieved to discover a social activity that’s not mediated by technology. I can’t think of another activity that has deepened my friendships and grown my capacity for community — and laughter — in quite the same way that board gaming has.
I consider myself a gaming omnivore. I’ll play just about anything once. My personal collection has pockets of heavy euros, light social deduction games, classic gateway fare, sprawling ameritrash, etc.
We are here today to talk about writing and editing rulebooks for tabletop games. Could you share with us how you became a rulebook editor? What are some games you’ve worked on?
Dustin: I’ve always had a facility with the written word. Although I didn’t pursue that career path at the collegiate level, I fell into a job as a writer right after graduation. As I got deeper into the board gaming scene, I began to see some of the deficiencies in game manuals, and this bothered me, perhaps more than it would bother most people.
As I began to make connections in the indie tabletop gaming scene, I realized that, with Kickstarter, many publishers end up with subpar rulebooks not because they don’t care but because they’re one-person operations, stretched too thin or without the native skillset to take their game’s rulebook to the next level. So in April 2014 when designer Matt Riddle uploaded to BGG a draft of the rulebook for Eggs and Empires, I took a deep breath, punched up a page of notes, and fired off a geekmail. Matt was extremely receptive to my feedback, and that’s when I knew I had found my niche.
Since then, I’ve worked with quite a few designers and publishers to edit their rulebooks. A few examples of games whose rulebooks I’ve had a hand in are Lanterns: The Harvest Festival and World’s Fair 1893 (Foxtrot Games); Kingpins and House of Borgia (Talon Strikes Studios); Wombat Rescue and Morocco (Eagle-Gryphon Games); Best Treehouse Ever, JurassAttack!, and Avalanche at Yeti Mountain (Green Couch Games); Booze Barons (Overworld Games); and Ghostel (Tinkerbot Games).
What makes a rulebook not just good, but great?
Dustin: A good rulebook has all of the information that you need to play the game satisfactorily, but a great rulebook has it organized, arranged, and visually supplemented in a way that creates a vastly superior learning experience.
Nearly every great rulebook employs the talents of a good technical writer and a good graphic designer, both of whom — and I can’t stress this point enough — should have played the game in order to have the same framework as the reader who is trying to learn the game by parsing the manual.
When it’s time to write a rulebook, where is a good place to start?
Dustin: As with any good piece of technical writing, I’d recommend you start with an outline. Your outline should lead the reader logically from one point to the next, in and out of sub-points, through the visual examples and written asides. Once you’ve figured out a good flow for the rulebook, it’s a lot easier to smith the individual sections to perfection.
After nailing your outline, my word of advice is to start with the players’ in-game objective. When you put that up front, you give the reader the ultimate piece of context, the lens by which to interpret the importance of everything else in the rulebook. Don’t bury the lede! I learned this lesson, in part, from teaching games to my family: they would often stop me in the middle of explaining this action or that rule and ask “but why does that matter?” or “how does that help me win the game?”
How do you balance using clear and precise wording with keeping it easily understandable?
Dustin: Clarity and precision are my main goals when editing a rulebook. But precision does not have to go hand in hand with a bloated word count. Being precise, more often than not, actually results in reducing the word count. In written communication, it’s a truism that the more words you write, the more opportunity there is to be misunderstood. One of my personal goals as a rulebook editor is to be able to cut the word count of any rulebook by at least 10% without reducing its efficacy.
Committing yourself to clarity and precision doesn’t mean you have to abandon a conversational tone in favor of stilted, technical language. One way to stay in the conversational zone is to read your rules aloud, over and over. If it doesn’t read conversationally, if you couldn’t improv from it as a teaching script without heavy paraphrase, then revisit it. Cut your overly long sentences in half. Reword the confusing clauses. Kill the passive voice. Try on second-person narrative for size.
What are some things designers should keep in mind when they are writing rulebooks?
Dustin: Establish your lexicon of controlled terms early on in your rulebook writing process. The great thing about controlled terms is that they are shortcuts — you only need to explain once what you mean by resource wheel or attack zone and then you can simply repeat those terms as needed. It’s a great way to keep your rulebook slim.
Hand in hand with the above point is the need to leave your thesaurus safely on the shelf; a rulebook is no place to get fancy with synonyms just because you feel like mixing up your prose. If you’ve committed rulebook real estate to explaining what an attack zone is, don’t make your readers second-guess you by referring to it as an attack space or battle zone. In rulebooks, consistency is king.
How do you make sure that your rules are free of loopholes or will not be fodder for rules lawyers?
Dustin: The best way to cut down on potential for loopholes is to expose your rulebook to a lot of different players. Let me clarify what I mean: I’m not talking about “playtesting your game.” That usually involves one player reading the rulebook and teaching everyone else at a table or, worse yet, you teaching the game without any of the players interacting with the rulebook at all. What you need is to get your rulebook into the hands of a lot of sharp-eyed readers, veterans with a penchant for spotting potential exploits.
What are some of the most common or biggest mistakes that you see in rulebooks?
Dustin: Taking a step back from the minutiae, I’ll mention briefly what I see as a major misstep in any game’s journey to publication, which is the thinking that the designer is the most qualified to write the rulebook because the game is her brainchild, because she knows the game better than anyone else does.
No one expects the inventor of the latest tech gadget to also write its user manual. In my experience, the skillsets of design brilliance and technical writing acumen rarely overlap. From my standpoint as a technical writer, some of the smartest designers are those who recognize their own shortcomings as writers and who are therefore willing to outsource that part of the development process.
How important are examples in rulebooks and what kind of examples should be given?
Dustin: The presence of examples (or lack thereof) can make or break a rulebook. I can’t think of a single instance in which a strong example would not assist in reader comprehension. Examples in a rulebook serve the same purpose that anecdotes do for the public speaker — they flesh out abstract concepts and make them accessible.
Another great application of the example is to illustrate edge cases. Use your examples to show some of the more interesting dynamics and interactions that can occur, rather than just business-as-usual. It can also be a great way to subtly hint at strategy tips.
What kind of rules should you repeat in a rulebook — or should you repeat rules at all?
Dustin: One of the great dilemmas in rulebook philosophy (is that a thing?) is rulebook-as-instructions vs. rulebook-as-reference. The best rulebooks are able to serve two audiences: the player who is learning the game for the first time, and the player who knows the game already but needs to look up a rule or confirm an interpretation.
I’m generally of the opinion that repeating rules is not helpful for the rulebook-as-reference users, especially if a rule is explained briefly in one location and more fully in another. The reader may run across the brief mention first and be disappointed in the lack of clarity, not realizing it’s spelled out fully elsewhere.
For rulebook-as-tutorial users, important rules being repeated in the form of simple reminders (e.g., “Remember: you do not get change when buying resources”) is helpful. I’ve seen great rulebooks utilize a fourth-wall-breaking sprite — much like Clippy, the Microsoft Paperclip — to accomplish this task.
How do you deal with gendered pronouns when writing a rulebook?
Dustin: There are several mainline approaches to the issue of pronouns in a rulebook, when they refer to a hypothetical player whose gender is unknown. There are two primary considerations at play: clarity and inclusivity. Some people prefer the traditional “he/him” approach, but more inclusive language that doesn’t assume a male reader is on the rise.
If inclusive language is important to you, you have a few options. I’d recommend you not employ the awkward “s/he” or “he/she” formulations, as they don’t lend themselves to reading aloud. Another method that gets the thumbs down from me is using “he or she” and “him or her” every time a gender neutral pronoun is called for — it’s verbose and can introduce ambiguity.
The most reasonable approach is to use gender-neutral singular-they. Sure, some moribund grammarians will get in a twist over it, but singular-they is going to be mainstream before long. Not only that, but also consider that it’s how we talk in normal conversation; adding singular-they to your rulebook increases its readability index.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned in working on rulebooks?
Dustin: Tough question! Crafting a rulebook is far from simple, I’ve learned. It’s a collaborative effort, as exhausting as it is rewarding. It’s not enough for me to simply sling some red ink on a few sheets of Hammermill. For most rulebooks I edit, the project shuttlecocks back and forth at least two dozen times. I’ve had to learn to acknowledge my own workload limitations, so that I don’t shortchange any one particular project.
Do you have any parting words of advice about writing or editing rulebooks that we haven’t already covered here today?
Dustin: I’d encourage you not to crowdsource the writing or editing of your rulebook. The benefit of a singular, consistent voice cannot be overstated. My experience is that, because most individuals know how to write, they assume they know how to write. It can be really difficult to filter the helpful, informed voices out of all the noise.
Many thanks to Ryan for having me as a guest on The Inquisitive Meeple! You can find me on Twitter (@FreedomGunfire), where I’m always willing to dispense rulebook advice and chat about games.
Thanks, Dustin, for taking time out to do this interview.
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