Picking up a rule book is the first formal introduction a player has to a game.
Sure, there is the cover art and gossip from friends, video plays on YouTube, but if the rules can’t be read or understood, it will not take long for the game to be put down if ever picked up at all!
Taking from Reddit, D&D, Tiny Dungeon, Black Hack, and Stars Without Number, I have distilled the layout your game rules need to follow to have the best success in readability and understandability.
TLDR; In General
You want to keep game rules as simple as possible.
Who is the player? What are they doing? How? Why, or, what are the goals with reward?
That is the back-cover pitch. With a few keywords (e.g. from roleplaying games: d20, OSR, Grimdark, etc.), that pitch defines a lot of the game’s ‘feel’ and filters for the intended audience.
Many games now come out with a free version for folks to pick-up-and-play quickly. Though this can skimp on things like internal page art or optional rules, the core rules and an introduction to the system must exist.
Introduction to the Setting – The first section. Answers most of the ‘TLDR’ above.
Mechanics – What (and when) is conflict and how is it resolved. This is where numbers on dice or comparing card faces needs to be explained at length. The ‘when’ outlines player turns and the order of gameplay.At max, a10-page free manual to the game.
Game Moderator – If the game has a referee, this should be a 1-page outline of what they can do to make decisions and introduce compelling conflict. Also recommended to include a rules 1-pager for quick player reference!
Pre-generated Content – Characters, factions, anything a single player would control.
The Full Final Cut
This is it, the game rules as intended. Page art, examples of play, optional rules, reference tables, and tips-n-tricks for every game participant.
Here is a rundown as it would apply to roleplaying games, but can easily be altered for board games (where RPGs originated from!):
Forward – The cover, a table-of-contents, any dedications, and finally, an introduction to the game: What it is, who you are, how you do the things you do, and why.The full rulebook layout
Mechanic Systems – Details on how things get resolved in the game. When do players act, what can those actions be, and how to resolve outcomes. Randomizers of dice/cards/et al. for violence/socializing/magic need to be explained concisely along with how the player can – if at all – influence those outcomes.
Players – The characters or factions at play. What attributes do they have to affect randomizers? Any special actions or rules for the player? What are their resources, such as minerals, points, and health? Adding rules to create a character or faction from scratch should be here in the full rules.
Game Moderator – The referee needs everything they can get in the case of rules. However, when there is a referee, every rule is a guideline, not law – otherwise, what is the point of having a human not be a player? Principles, advice, and where to reference other resources exist here.
Bestiary, Tools, Rewards, Tables – The fiddly bits of play. Examples of what players and situations can include go a long way to setting the tone of the game while inspiring players for the stories they are enabled to tell. This is also the place the GM can save making a few decisions by randomly choosing from a preset.
Example Scenario – If not included separately, a starting dungeon, mission, or game needs to be included. This helps get players into play ASAP and answer a lot of common questions.
Again, make sure to flesh out a full rulebook with art, optional/alternate rules, example situations, charts, lore, factions, maps, creation processes, equipment, rewards, and extra GM resources.
As a fiddly bit here, a full rulebook can be alternately distilled into Introduction > Terms > Objective > Turns > End-game > Mechanic Details > Victory > FAQs.
It comes down to taste and the needs of the game in question (e.g. perhaps there is no victory condition or terms are defined when introduced).
Lasers & Feelings is 1-page, yet complete with the who-what-where-when-why-how required of quality game rules.
- “The crew of the interstellar scout ship Raptor.” After the introduction, a section on creating characters that details what they have and a definition of the attributes that have a mechanical impact in conflict resolution.
- Players are given options to choose their character’s goals: Advance in rank, explore, blast stuff, solve mysteries, prove something, or have nothing to prove! A random table of adventures details a conflict to resolve too, making the “why” of this game multidimensional.
- Raptor, including a section on creating this ship! Further, a random table to determine where an adventure is taking place.
- Use 1-3 6-sided dice (d6) to compare to the character attributes. Situational modifiers and success levels get short yet complete snippets.
- “When you do something risky.” Vague-though-flexible definition on implementing the “how.”
- Implied above, the adventure table details what is going on.
- A final two paragraphs outline for the ref how to navigate various situations they or the game may encounter. Quality GM advice!
A bad example would be The Orc and the Pie (despite how much I enjoy the premise, having used it not once, but twice). The rules have a who, what, why, and where, but no how – there is a present conflict, but resolution to that conflict relies on players having prior experience with game randomization mechanics.
Laying It Out
Follow this guide and reference any other highly-rated game’s rulebook to perfect the layout of your game rules.
Putting a game’s rules into a format others can enjoy is not difficult so long as a bit of prep comes with it 🙂 Cheers to your game making!