Writing Game Rules
Why This Is Important
When someone tries out your game, they first must read the rules you have written. If they are poorly written, even if your game is great, the players will be frustrated. Your game lives or dies on the strength of the written rules. The rules create an early impression for the players, and poorly written rules will sour them on your game. Game reviewers often will not play a game with poorly written rules, and even if they do they will mention the shortcoming in their review. The owner of your game will have a hard time finding new players to play the game if the rules are too difficult to read. Good writing is important even in the early stages: playtesters do not like to read badly written rules before they test your game. Taking time to write your rules well may even illuminate ways to redesign the game to be better.
The three fundamental qualities of good explanatory writing are clarity, brevity, and completeness. It is very difficult to achieve all three of these conflicting qualities. Everything extraneous to the rules must be stripped out, leaving only words and pictures that help teach the game. Unless it helps the players learn the game, do not mix in humor, history of the game design, extra information about the scenario, or anything else. If you really want something extra to appear, perhaps it could be in a side bar that can clearly be skipped by the players who just want to read the rules. But if it can be skipped, why would you waste the ink on it? You are done when there is nothing left to be removed.
Order of Explanation
Give your players information in the order they need to know it. First your rules should start with a summary of the game, or the metaphor that this game represents. This is the context in which all the rules will fit in. When done well, the rules make cohesive sense, and experienced game players may even be able to predict what the rules will be based on the summary. Usually the objective of the game follows. It directs the play of the game, and players can understand how the subsequent rules will help or hinder in achieving their objective. The rules that follow should build on this foundation.
Avoid leaving the reader in suspense. Do not talk about a game mechanic that you have not yet explained.
Use white space and lists to organize the rules, so that related rules are close together on the page. Bullet points help clarify where one idea starts and another ends, and which ones are subsets of others.
When done correctly, one person will be able to read your rules aloud to the other players, and then they may begin playing. If someone has to read the rules and then "translate" them for the group, you have failed to write the rules well. Read your own rules aloud to yourself and to others. White space and bullet points help the reader have correct cadence and pauses for reflection and digestion of each new idea.
When you teach a game to someone in person, you will have a dialog with them as they ask questions about the game. Well-written rules will anticipate those questions and answer them as the player thinks of them. Reading your rules aloud to people helps bring out these common questions, and helps you order your rules correctly.
Often examples help, especially one with a diagram. Have your examples in italics, so that players who understand the rule just explained can skip them, but players who need help can read them. This simulates the extra discussion that is required with some players.
There may be extra clarifications that the players will need, but they may need it infrequently. This information should be referenced later in the rules, perhaps with a note at the appropriate spot that the information is at the end. This will give the players the most important information immediately, with the ability to check on a specific problem later. This division helps get the players ready to play the game sooner, while still remaining complete.
The best way to know if your rules are correctly written is to have them reviewed by someone else. You are too close to your own game and writing to know if you have done a good job. Solicit harsh and honest feedback, without which you cannot improve your writing. Get people who do not know anything about your game to read the rules aloud to other people who do not know anything about your game. Take notes on any confusion they have. Have the courage to rewrite your rules completely when it seems necessary, or even just to try out a different tact. The more people who review and comment on your rules, the better your rules will be.
Resist the urge to print your rules in an interesting font, even if it fits the setting. Make your rules as legible as possible. If a reference card or page would help, include it in a place that is easy to get to. Consider how the rules will be used, if they will be read once and set aside or frequently examined. Wherever possible, get input from other people about these issues, because it is other people, not you, who need these rules. With frequent revision, consideration, and rewriting, your game will shine through and be as accessible as possible to new players.