Oct 8, 2014

On rules clarity and composition

Studying law I have encountered more legal texts than it is healthy, hundreds, I daresay even thousands of pages. Most of them were badly edited and written - this happens a lot in continental law where interpreting a norm is the most important part of any legal argument. 
Rule books are, in a way, legal texts. They describe how something during the simulation of a battle happens. Therefore, the first and most important merit of a rule set is clarity and a strictly logical build-up. I have now had the luck to read through some wargames rules and most had failures in this some way. Even the ones with the most ingenuous mechanisms and well-written content.
This does not spoil the entirety of the rules - it just can be annoying at times. When the player cannot make the rules out or has to browse through a handful of pages to get the information - it is the rules' failure and not the player's (an alternate version of the old saying that the customer is always correct - which is not at all true, but let us consider it was, for a little while). If it is discouraging for newbies to browse through a rule set because it's huge and complicated - it is just the same. It will not help the designer, the publisher (especially if the two are the same) and neither the player.

I like my rules dry and slim. If you read through the ones I have written, you can see that there are very little explanations besides the most necessary. Lots of tables with numbers. Consider One Page Sci-Fi: while using existing mechanisms from One Page Fleets, it is the essence of my philosophy behind game design.
These are all pit traps that some game designers fall into. Let me expand on this a little:

Start with the generic and move towards specific rules. Specific rules, as a legal principle, overwrite the generic. So if you put two sentences in the backbone of the text stating that X will do Y, but some other factor makes it do N, and later state that, by default, X does Y, it is not logical and can confuse the readers.
But this is not the rule of thumb. Always group together what you are trying to say. Do not divide or repeat information on a single topic. If you consider morale tests, for example, and officers modifying morale results, don't write it down both under Officers and Morale tests. First write a text about officers and place it before the Morale tests section. Hint as a generic rule, or do not even refer to, the effect of officers on morale tests; e.g. 'Officers can modify Morale results, see title X.X'. And with this we're back to the previous point, where you make a generic statement or general clause - as we call it in moonspeak - and fill it with normative content by the way of a specific rule.
Making tables. These can be very good and very bad. If you want to include less information, do not use a table. This one is a to-hit die results table from Inter Arma, where the hitting die is the same for all weapons, but the ranges differ: 

I like tables a lot, but this could also be written in a single sentence. However, because of the structure, you would have to unnecessarily expand on what is a range, how do you roll a hitting die and so on. Dry and slim is the way then. Second, this table, when interpreted together with the rules on firearms' shooting distances, makes more sense and is easier to see and navigate through. 

And this one is from Sharp Practice:
This is not a very elegant table, on the other hand its clarity cannot be questioned. Some rules designers would write this down in a text, which, I believe, is a lot worse, or at least can be done worse:
'All weapons roll on 1d6 to hit. Muskets can fire up to 18" in 9" increments. Up to 9", they need 5-6 to hit. Up to 18", they need 6 as a result.' 
- This is too detailed and confusing, and yet, some rules writers, even if not through all of the rule book, use this format. However, if you stick to generic -> specific, it becomes marginally better:
'All weapons' ranges are measured in 9" increments and roll 1d6 to hit. All firearms except carbines need to score 5+ to hit by default.
Muskets fire up to 18" and over 9" need to score 6 to hit.
(Detailing other firearms)
...Carbines need to score 6 to hit a target at 9" distance and cannot fire further.
- Where the first sentence is the generic rule, the second is an interposed exception, the following ones detail the general clause, and the last one expands on the exception. Write every weapon's specifics to new rows, thus break the text up and make sharp, clear sentences that follow the same format. This is repetitive, but also easy to see through. 
The table is still more clear. However, I do not agree with the aesthetics. The last column is unnecessary, for example. If the columns end at 27-36", it is perfectly understood that no firearm can shoot further. 
This is, again, personal taste, but I do not like the X-X format of writing numbers, I prefer X+ and X-. So a 5-6 becomes 5+ and a 0-9 and 9-18 becomes a 9", 18" etc.
What is not very well thought out and may be confusing is that this table uses the same numbers as margins. Roll the die for a musket, that needs to score 5 or 6 to a 9" range and the enemy is at 9" distance. Now the second column says 9-18", so if the target is in the ninth inch of distance, do I need to roll a 6 or just a 5? The X+/X- format yields clarity in this case. Some players would argue over this, and to prevent arguments, the designer sould format the distances in some other way: 9"-, 18"-, or 0-9" and 10-18". The designer could also just describe the ranges as Short, Medium, Long, etc. and expand on this general clause with specific content at a later point. This is what I did when translating Sharp Practice.
The format of similar rules mechanisms depends on the rule set a lot. Larger scale sets do not detail shooting distances. My rules use different increments for different firearms, to stick to the example. Sharp Practice uses similar increments, but some firearms cannot shoot as many increments as others and as the die scores to hit are by default very high (something that resembles black powder firearms well), it is mostly down to luck instead of better figure placement. There's a different philosophy regarding mechanisms behind SP and IA, but neither are very simulationist games: they are for fun skirmishes that end in half an hour. However there is a generic rule, which can be translated to a general clause which then gives the foundation of the mechanism, behind die results in SP just as in IA - this is why I interjected and said that the table format is not, by default, the best. This is down to the designer's personal preferences. Some designers use charts where it's unnecessary and do not use them where it would be better to do so. 

You, rules designer, of course, will like your own creation and it may cloud your own judgment regarding its logic and clarity. If you hand your copy of rules to a new player, they should be able to see through it in a short period of time (not specified as 'short' is different for simulationist and/or large scale and beer-and-pretzels types of games), and if they are unsure about something during play, it should be made very easy to them to navigate through the rules. Victory Without Quarter, for example, is a very simple and elegant rule set, but the pages are designed in two columns and have very little titular strong points that can be used as a reference - at least in the version I have. I'd like to play VWQ soon, but I'm going to redesign the look and add more reference points before printing the rules out.

Playtesting should reflect on the points I made before making the rules available for the greater public. Inter Arma had at least 10-20 games played through before the smallest detail was set in stone. I believe the first drafts had many of these problems I quoted and evolved to their current form by try and error. From my own experience I firmly believe that some house rules are more well made than some commercial rules, because they are freely criticised by the wider community - feedback on commercial rules, therefore, is vital to the publisher and should always be considered, just like as it would happen to legal texts in an ideal world.  
And now I'm down to the last point before setting my case: figure porns in a rule set. This annoys me a great deal. I don't mind some commercial support, putting pictures of figures from a certain manufacturer to illustrate something. I don't mind advertisements placed at the end or even in the middle of the rule book. But when a rule book consists 50% of large colored pictures and even the pages themselves are colored, it's a waste of paint, and of course, the contents of the buyers' pockets. 
Imagine a modern law book full with illustrations. For example, the Hungarian criminal justice system uses three tiers of imprisonment. Now imagine that the Criminal Code uses photos of existing facilities on its pages to illustrate how these three tiers look. Imagine that there is a huge illustration on every page, even some that don't have any relevance to the text. This is how a rule set looks that is full of figure porn.

Disclaimer:  So, again, this was a law student speaking. I am not a rules lawyer, by the way, and people who game with me know that. I'm past a long-winded post that would seem to be picking on some publishers, but it is not; and is also not an attack on any rules writers, just some observations and hopefully constructive arguments. I would like to read about your ideas on the topic.


  1. I must admit that I struggle with rule books that are over complicated. I like to know that I can get models on the table in double quick time or I lose interest. That said, I am a sucker for a good set of photographs though.

    1. Nothing wrong with good photos, but too many - even the most well made - photos are a hindrance to the rules I think.

  2. Excellent post Andras. I prefer simple, unambiguous rules too. Good points on feedback as well. I think some rules are driven by commercial interest (ie: how can we sell more of this or that particular figure) more than balance or common sense. Of course, there's nothing wrong with changing rules you don't like, so long as everyone playing agrees!

    1. Thinking about it, we house rule basically every commercial set we use, be it RPGs or wargames.

  3. Some very good points you make, Andras - I'll keep them in mind for my own sets. Some comments:

    I've often wondered about how to express intervals of distance, such as expressed in firepower ranges. Preferring tabular forms, I find a single figure to express the range always causes me to 'double-take' and remind myself what is shown is a maximum. So I've tended to use intervals like 0-9" or 9-18", say. Now, a target at 9" exactly would be short range (say), that at 9.1" at the longer range. But you are right: it is a little ambiguous. As a mathematician I might write the intervals as (0",9"] and (9.18"], the left parenthesis signifying exclusive of the lower bound; the right bracket signifying inclusive of the upper bound. This has the virtue of removing all ambiguity, but how many readers would understand that?

    I've considered something like 'Up to 9cm' or 'Over 9cm up to 18cm'; but that might not fit a table so well. An alternative might be something like this:
    0<SR≤9cm; 9<LR≤18cm. I think this type of unambiguous symbolic presentation might be easier to understand.

    When putting together my own rule sets (for my own use), I like to add a few photos, partly because I can, but also it breaks up white space left by inserting page-breaks between sections. Generally speaking I don't sentences or sub-sections to carry over a page, so I'm fairly liberal with page breaks. Of course, as mine aren't commercial sets, the amount of paper (not large anyhow) isn't much of a consideration.

    Crossreferencing. In my view crossreferencing should be used often, but only insofar as it is relevant. For example, suppose a unit's combat capability is affected by disorder. This will be mentioned as modifying shooting and close combat, and might also affect movement and morale. At these points a cross-reference seems indicated to direct the reader (if needed) to the substantive rules on disorder. I don't think a reverse direct cross-reference is necessary or even desirable, except to state in the substantive rule that disorder does affect these aspects of a unit's battle performance. What do you think?


    1. As far as the measurements are clearly explained, it matters little in the end how they are written; but they should not be controversial. It is a very minimal requirement.
      When translating Sharp Practice, I made cross-references from the general rules towards the specific, but did not reference back. The original rules use a title system where the titles are numbered (1.0, 1.0.1. etc.) This could have been exploited well, but the original rules did not, they were put in the index and that was it. When, in the opening articles I introduced the difference between troops and leaders, I added quick references (e.g.: "troops have two actions that they can do on a leader's initiative, see title x.x."). I really hope this will help in practice.
      Legal texts do this back and forth and sometimes when the third or even further reference is added ("as by paragraph x", then x refers to y and y refers to z") it becomes very confusing.

  4. Good observations regarding rules' design. Since ranges are continuous, in your example, it really is sloppy work to produce overlapping weapons' ranges. I would prefer each range band to list only its upper bound. That is, 9", 18", 27", 36." Now we know with certainty that close range is out to 9 inches.

    Interesting post!

    1. Thank you for reading. Your version is clear and ergonomic, something I would use.

  5. Interesting perspective, but for your last point you're comparing apples with oranges.

    Most miniatures games by their very nature are a visually stimulating hobby – we all prefer painted miniatures and covet amazingly realistic terrain to play on. It's not surprising therefore that rulebooks often try to tempt potential new players with visually stimulating rulebooks. Don't get me wrong, some rulebooks are hideously designed and have too much eye candy and not enough rule quality, but a balance can be made if done properly. It's all about marketing and branding the ruleset – a very visual industry.

    Conversely, no legal documents would ever have remotely similar levels of eye candy (if any at all) as they're legal documents and it's all about the content and not at all about how it's presented.

    1. Quite right, the comparison may not be the best. But that paragraph above all represents my own preferences: it is not a general statement and is there to emphasize (ok, make fun of) how too much is too much.

    2. Absolutely, and that's the challenge of the rulebook designer. It's a balance of making the book appealing to all (whether they like the eye candy or not) yet developing a marketable brand for the game – alas, as you say, too many miss the mark.

      I did start to read some of your own rules (will continue when I have more time) – very interesting stuff!

  6. Hi Andras! I finally had some time to get over here and read your post. You are right we both end up at the same place with your emphasis on the rules themselves and mine primarily on layout and functionality (eye candy as Mike puts it). I think we inadvertently complimented each other's posting!

    I do like clean straight forward rules, and organization of those rules is a key component of that. I dislike finding a key portion of the rules for say WWII tanks buried in the transportation section. I'm also a big fan of tables although more towards how they can be expressed on a quick reference chart. I think the best QRC I have seen is the one for Fire and Fury. Once you have played the game a couple of times you don't need anything but the reference card. The design of and what it contains, as a compliment to the rules is a key indicator to how well the author understands both the subject and his own rules.

    1. I tried to do the same with my WW2 homebrew, while the rules are basically four pages, the QRS is only one, it has a quick flow and is very entertaining.