This is a living document that should be updated as needed; contact me here.
Creators of independent tabletop roleplaying games have it rough – they don’t have the money to pay for professional services, so they need to learn how to do everything themselves. Many learn to do layout by themselves, as well as becoming art directors, learning how to find good sources of CC or public domain art and filter images that work with the theme of their game.
I would like to claim that while most indie creators learn graphic-related skillsets, they neglect editing.
Learn to self-edit, here’s some advice.
For the purpose of this article, “the rules” are the words you assemble so that the reader of those words can learn how to create for themselves the specific gaming experience you designed. It’s everything that teaches you how to play, regardless of how it’s phrased. “Counting movement squares” and “Play to find out what happens” are both rules.
The “rulebook” is all of the text, including rules, introduction, appendices, designer notes, marketing on the back, everything. A specific piece of text is a “copy”.
Add a rewrite step to your production process. This should be after the rulebook is done, and should take about a quarter of the time it took you to write it all, maybe less. During this step you go through each paragraph and rephrase the main points within it, delete lines or even entire paragraphs, and rearrange paragraphs in a chapter.
Rewrite is the phase in which you are reading as if someone else wrote the text, willing to kill your darlings. Everyone is by default in love with their own words, myself included, which is exactly why we need an outside perspective (we’ll have an actual outside perspective in Playtest the Rulebook, below).
1. Focus on the main point
We naturally write as if we’re thinking out loud into the text, so our paragraphs start with an introduction and end with the main point. But that’s not the best way to read the text, so you should rearrange it.
Identify the core concept, what the whole paragraph is about. Is it clear? is it the first thing I read? If not, is there a good reason why not? Do you repeat yourself as you make your way to it? Is it itself repeated?
Try to rearrange the sentences. Perhaps you should introduce the issue first, and the solution later; or perhaps it’s the other way around. Sometimes there’s no clear right answer here, so playtest it (see below). Rephrase them – it’s very common that two sentences say the same thing and should be just one, or that one is actually trying to achieve too much and should be two.
The “best” way to read a piece of text is dependent on its location in the reader’s journey through the greater text around it. We naturally write as if we’re having a conversation, so it might take us a while to get to the point.
This is of course a repeat of the the first paragraph of this section, with the sentences rearranged and somewhat rephrased. I find that in this, the 2nd occurrence, the second sentence is superfluous and should be removed – the copy doesn’t lose anything if it’s gone, so in other words, the text becomes clearer. The first occurance, though, is the first paragraph of the title, so it serves as an introduction – it’s where the copy can be more personal (“We” includes me, the writer), and I find it’s even prefered, because it eases the reader into the rest of the section. It also explains the situation and identifies a problem with it, thus creating a tension that the rest of the section should now seek to solve. In the 2nd occurrence, there’s no reason to present any tension, the section is basically done.
2. Discard non-relevant text
The following types of copy should be removed when encountered in the middle of the rules. They have their own place, and it’s not mid-rules.
Marketing copy: You’re trying to sell me on the experience which I’m currently already reading. Give me copy that helps me understand it, remove copy that convinces me that I should invest time in this. I already am.
Self-explanatory text: You should not tell me what a paragraph is about, that’s what titles are for. You should not explain the order of rules, they’re already ordered that way.
“In this paragraph you’ll learn how to X”, when the title “X” is right above it.
“Before you do B, you first need to do A”, when A is already placed before B.
“There are many examples throughout the chapter”, when I can already see that there are many examples throughout the chapter.
“Unlike other games”: First tell me what your game is like, only then tell me that this differs from other games. First, because we’re not talking about other games, we’re talking about yours; and second, it’s easier for the mind to get a fixed point and then curve around it rather then being told a non-existent thing and then trying to fill up the conceptual hole.
Musing: Any copy that talks to me like we’re in a conversation, taking up space and time without providing information. This can usually be compressed into two words, or deleted altogether.
Now you get to come back together and make sense of it all. – If there’s an appropriate title (“Step 6: Conclusion”), there’s probably no need for this.
Next, there is the High-Tempo mode, in which you hand the book between yourselves until everyone had a turn. It can take a while to get used to, but it’s a great way to get into the action! The Guide will get the most say regarding the World, but because each new step in the creation is passed to the next person, you get a good mix of ideas.
[Under the title: Creating The Party] 3. High-Tempo Mode: Hand the book between yourselves, with each player doing one step until everyone had a turn. This is the recommended mode, because you get a good mix of ideas!
[the Guide is not mentioned here because it was already established that she has final say on the World, in the first paragraph of this section]
3. Help the reader orient themselves
Rules have two reading modes: The first time, when you learn them, and during play, when you’re looking for a specific answer to your specific situation. This is also a layout issue.
Break paragraphs. Any paragraph longer than three sentences should probably be split up. It’s easier on the eye to read several distinct blobs rather than a single, big one. It’s also easier to reorient yourself if you get lost.
Use titles, bullet points and bolds. Help the 2nd mode reader with clear titles (not overly clever), bolding important terms, useful bullets. Consider changing fonts or all-caps titles.
Clearly separate rules from other copy. If a paragraph introduces a new topic, it should have a title afterward to separate it from an actual rule. Examples should be indented or otherwise pushed away from the regular blocks of text, so there’s no chance the reader confuses them for rules while browsing for what they’re interested at.
Order all lists. There must be some sense (not necessarily alphabetic) to the ordering of lists, regardless of the the “size” of the title – from chapter headings down to bullet points . From easy to complex; from basic to particular; from common to rare; from most to least important.
To be added if there’s a big enough response; it’s a big one!
Playtest the Rulebook
When you playtest the rules, make sure you actually playtest the rules – that is, the text you wrote down in the rulebook.
Give it to someone else and have them play it. Then ask them about their experience, and focus on what wasn’t like you imagined it should be. Was it because they missed a rule, or misinterpreted it? Ask them what wasn’t clear or what they weren’t sure about.
Give the rulebook to a friend and ask them to read through it. Don’t just ask them “what do you think” – both giving and receiving feedback is a skill, see more here.
Further Reading and Thoughts
Read Writing With Style: An Editor’s Advice for RPG Writers (affiliate link) by Ray Vallese, it’s a collection of good points and you should refer to it sometimes.
What is a Rule?
“Mechanics” is the instructions which, if followed, create a specific experience. “Rule” is the phrasing of that mechanic, so it’s actually about communications. Rules can also be phrased with graphics, which is why layout is also an important skill for an editor.
Use the introduction and graphics to set the grounds in way of theme and atmosphere, it’ll help the reader understand the rules better if they know what you’re aiming or. Take it upon yourself, as the instigator of this communication event (the rulebook) to set some guidelines that’ll help facilitate the rest of the communication.
Don’t tell me it’s simple/unique/etc. – show me what it is, I’ll understand by myself that it’s simple/unique/etc.
Avoid ambiguity, use clear indications of how to choose, from what list of options I can choose.
Explain each thing once, in a single place.
Reduce cognitive overload and noise by providing the core rule, then exceptions, then examples. Having an unanswered question creates noise in a reader’s mind.
Name important events and elements, don’t name anything else.
What about board games?
They’re a different case, for many reason. Not in this article!