I’ve had some conversations lately with other game devs about that pain of writing rulebook copy. For me, this has always been kind of a non-issue because my day job is probably 25% writing technical manuals, specifications, procedures, and process flows. It’s not a huge stretch to go from software to tabletop games. Procedures are procedures. However, it made me wonder how I could help other devs who may not have the experience that I do with technical writing. The rules writing aspect of game design does have a tendency to sap some of the fun out of the entire thing, even if you do know how to do it, let alone if you’re lost downstream without a paddle.
Writing rules is a lot more than just listing out the steps for how to play the game. There’s a science and an art to it that aren’t automatically known just because you’ve created a game. There’s complexity vs. simplicity to consider; not everyone wants to pore through 40 pages of rules before they can play a game. There are examples to consider; when do you need to illustrate a point with a tangible reference? There are loopholes to consider; as well all know far too well, rules lawyers are commonplace in the gaming community.
So. How do you write rules? Well, rather than list out a bunch of tips for how to do it, I’m going to share an exercise with y’all that a college professor had my class do. It’s honestly one of the best single pieces of advice I’ve gotten with regard to technical writing. Ahem… without further ado, I present to you…
The Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich Challenge
Everyone knows how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (or a peanut butter and jam sandwich if you’re across the pond). Because of this, very few people have need for a recipe. But imagine… just imagine that a friendly extraterrestrial landed in your back yard and, after you offered them your tasty peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a gift, they fell in love with it. Before they got back into their flying saucer and flew back home, they asked you to give them the ingredients and to write down the recipe for this Earthly delight.
You need to write down the procedures for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so that an alien can make it. (Feel free to replace the peanut butter with something else if you’ve got a peanut allergy, obvs. This could just as easily be the ham sandwich challenge, or any other easy-to-make ubiquitous food.)
- Find a friend, a family member, a significant other, any willing victim, etc. to be your extraterrestrial with a craving for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
- Get a piece of paper and a writing utensil.
- Make sure you have peanut butter, jelly, bread, and a knife on hand.
- Write down step-by-step instructions for your alien friend for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
- Your alien friend should follow your instructions, to the letter, and try to make the sandwich.
Note: This last one is the most important step, as it’s where the entire point of the exercise comes into play. The alien should essentially try to “break” your recipe, but without making up things that you didn’t write. For example, if you wrote, “Put the peanut butter on one piece of bread” they could simply place the unopened jar of peanut butter on top of the slice of bread. You didn’t give specific enough instructions – the alien’s cultural frame of reference is such that she can’t simply infer that you meant, “open the jar and spread the peanut butter with the knife.”
Your alien should be as creative as possible. It’s their job to find gaps in your procedures, even if it frustrates you. Keep revising your recipe again and again, until the alien can successfully make their peanut butter and jelly sandwich to your human, peanut butter and jelly-ivore standards. Or, ya know, until you get so frustrated that you have to deem your recipe as “good enough”… you can’t appease every single rules lawyer, after all!
Until next time, gang! Keep it plucky (and happy eating!),