Lessons Learned in Writing Rules

So the Malifaux experiment with the girlfriend continues. We played again this weekend and I tried out an skirmish band based around the Viktoria characters. This will not the band I am investing in long-term… though they were interesting.

But during the game I was confronted — again, with compelling evidence of why rulebook design is so important, the value of a good index, and the difficulty of different terms used in discussing how things happen in a game…

We had a resolution issue. See, I had this guy who could throw people when he damaged them. She had these guys that blow up when they die…

So I wanted to hit the exploder and toss him away so I didn’t take the damage from the exploding if he died. When we realized that we had no idea what order to resolve these events in, the game ground to a halt. She has an original copy of the rulebook. I have the revised copy.

I distinctly remembered reading something about “timing” in the book, somewhere… but after her searching and my searching, and going on the forums, and flipping around in the rules randomly while tearing at our hair… we just made a ruling and went on.

Later in that game we had to look up something else. And we found that original little sidebar about timing that I remembered reading — practically in the game introduction — even before it explains what any of the abilities requiring timing resolution even are… And it’s not referenced in the index or table of contents in either book.

The situation was ‘un-fun’ to an extreme. In a game with lots of abilities that happen “right now” and a set of character abilities that are actually titled “Triggers” it would make sense to have your timing rules really clear and put where they are nested with the rules for stuff happening. It would also make sense to have an important rules section like Timing be indexed.

This was a lesson for me, let it be a lesson for all of you… if you are designing/writing a game — a good index is a player’s/GM’s best friend.

As a side note… it was particularly frustrating because when we went to the net and checked the Malifaux site and Malifaux game forums, even though we found threads/posts about resolution timing — not one of them actually mentioned the actual Timing rules that are in the book… it makes me wonder how many other games have missed that vital rules nugget.

Ah well. Malifaux is a really fun game. As we learn it better it becomes much more fun. Other than the timing issue, this latest game we played was a ton of fun and we played to a solid draw. I think our largest problem right now is that we are still at the stage of understanding the game so little that it is difficult for us to draw expectations about what is going to happen during a game. Something happening that seems like it just dooms our team — but we come away fine — or the opposite is pretty much the norm.

I think this is another useful lesson. If your game departs from traditional play curves and play expectations enough, it is difficult for players to find the flow. The more I work on my own game and experience what Malifaux has to offer, the more convinced I am that managing player expectation is a major goal of the writing of the text for a game. I think one of the reasons I’m still so in love with the Amber rulebook and why I go back to it over and over again is how well this is done.

Thanks for reading. Now we just need to find more people to play Malifaux with…

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4 responses

  1. This is something I fret about whenever I update or add another section the system I’ve been working on. The difficulty is that as a writer and most often the one running it many things that are crucial to the game system you take for granted. Things that other people will become hung up on are like second nature to you precisely because of how invested in the system you are.

    I haven’t found a great way to address this problem yet but what I have been doing is making notes of when something was unclear or when a rules conflict arose during playtesting. I’ve also been writing down comments to myself about potential conflict and confusion when I’m prototyping a particular subsystem that way I’ll remember to clarify it later. Of course in the end I may just end up with a frequently asked questions just prior to the index. Ah the untold joys of game design.

  2. Yeah. I have an analytic person that I use as a reader who is not playing the game. She is very good at pointing out places where I’ve just left those gaps that seem obvious to me.

  3. I think RPGs (and RPG-like products) could stand to take a lesson or two from other types of games developed. Too many RPG writers don’t play-test their products enough… not to mention the lack of blind play-testing that does or does not occur.

  4. Proper play testing, like proper editing, is one of those areas that I think gets stomped on by time and budget constraints. It’s a shame but happens all too often in this industry.

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