The Threefold Path of RPG Reading

by Robin D Laws

As a game designer, I look forward to the realization of the still-incipient tablet revolution for several reasons. One of these addresses a constant bugaboo of the designer’s existence, rulebook organization.

Roleplaying game books are, and always have been, exercises in non-linear writing—and reading.

As a designer, I could start the manuscript at the beginning and systematically write my way to the end. But in reality I jump around from section to section. A piece of rules text might reveal a note I need to insert into the GMing chapter. A piece of high-tech equipment may require me to adjust the unconsciousness rules. It may prove more efficient to write the NPC stats for an alien race immediately after its profile as a PC character class.

Likewise, the order in which you read RPG material varies depending on use. Core rule books function as teaching tools, reference documents, and vicarious entertainment experiences.

You read a book in teaching tool mode when learning it for the first time.

You read a book in reference document mode when creating a character, statting up an opponent, designing an adventure, or using a sub-system during play.

A surprisingly large set of RPG book readers will never play the game, and are instead enjoying it as the roleplaying equivalent of closet drama. They don’t have a group, or time to play, or maybe just a group willing to try new games. But these folks read the book anyway, imagining the games they’d play if they had all of these things. We may have all been in those shoes at one point or another.

There may be other reading circumstances. Plundering a game for ideas to use elsewhere likely calls for a reading order all of its own. But I think these are the main three paths through a game book.

The challenge when assembling a rule book is that these three modes make competing demands.

To teach you the game, I want to arrange the book so you learn it quickly and without undue head-scratching. I want you to come away thinking that it’s a simple game—and saying that when you’re assessing it with your friends or on the message boards. I hope that you’ll find it easy to pick up, and come away thinking that it will be easy to teach to others.

(In most cases only the GM reads the rule book before the first session of the game. Many players never read the rules, and know them only as a verbal reconstruction by their GMs. To create a great impression, I want the GMs to be able to smoothly reassemble the game’s key points in their own words.)

To be useful as a reference document, I want to arrange the book so that all the rules you’ll need for a given task appear in the same place, and in an intuitive order.

When considering the book as a fun read, I want to interweave the instruction manual parts with jokes, setting flavor, interstitial fiction, and other elements that leaven what necessarily must be dry explanatory text. If clarity is my main aim, I’ll reuse the same words and phrases more often than would be considered good style for a piece of creative writing. That’s an opposite demand than that met by a writer working to engage the reader’s imagination.

Examples have high teaching and entertainment value, but low reference value. Once you’ve learned a rule, a huge block of example text gets in the way, pushing key points of information further away from one another on the page. But until you get to that point, examples serve as a crucial vehicle for understanding.

(And for suggesting, more broadly, what the game feels like when played. If you write with only the first in mind, you can unconsciously present a negative view of your game. Examples tell you a lot about their writers’ GMing styles, not always complimentary.)

Edge cases and additional options pose another of these dilemmas. If you want a rules sub-system to be easy to learn, you want to reduce the number of choices players and GMs can make when using it, and minimize the number of odd special cases you take into account. But during play, players rightly want an answer when they say, “Can I do this?”

For teaching purposes you want to move rarely-used, but occasionally pivotal, choices and systems to their own section, for advanced readers. For reference purposes these should all be where you’d expect them when hastily flipping through the book, during play.

In other words, you want a Schrödinger’s rulebook, which knows what mode you’re reading in when you open it, and restructures the content accordingly. (The dead-yet-alive cat comes as an extra for big pledgers to your crowdfunding campaign.)

The mind-reading may need to wait for another generation of tablet interface, but even given current technology we could certainly create a toggle that rearranges the book on command. Hit the reference button, and the examples collapse away, to be restored on a case by case basis by finger-swipe, as you need them. The special case rules migrate to sit next to the main sub-systems they arise from. Hit the tutorial button, and the special cases and crunchy bits melt away, removing the clutter so you can see what’s core to the rules and what’s a bell or whistle.

For this to happen, someone would have to create a wrapper app product that allows game companies to pour their contents into. That might require some knotty programming, but not insurmountably so. The real barrier lies in market demand. Enough RPG buyers would have to a) own tablets and b) consider this feature sufficiently valuable to pay for the extra costs, plus profit margin. A publisher might decide that these options will make their game more accessible, and therefore sell to a larger audience, and decide to absorb the cost. But in the end it would have to pay in one way or the other.

That’s why we don’t see the creative potential of current electronic delivery used to its full theoretical potential. Extensive hyperlinks make gaming PDFs easier to use. But the time and staffer attention required to insert them in the first place, and preserve them through the layout and output stages, has yet to demonstrably lead to increased sales, or support a premium price. With neither of those results in place, it’s smarter to move onto the next product than to take more time lovingly fashioning the one at hand.

But a designer can dream, can’t he?

11 Responses to “The Threefold Path of RPG Reading”

  1. David Dunham says:

    This gives a whole new meaning to “see page XX…”

  2. George says:

    I’ve thought about this at length. Two reasons in my case: as a gamemaster I might need to use the content of a module, even when the system used is past its expiry date. The other reason is having to dig out metaplot snippets from a module, before even trying to make sense of how these impact the setting as a whole. (Dealing with metaplot that is imposed on you is one thing, but when it’s messy as well then it really is a thankless task). While we’re on the dream cloud, wouldn’t it be great if there was a section identifying themes that you might want to foreshadow in previous sessions? This would make planning easier.

    Going back to what you proposed, implementing it really isn’t difficult. And the tricky part isn’t the UI of a particular app in my opinion. Like you said, the difficult step is the paradigm shift. Once that happens, publishers could really just provide output in XML, with tags. (And put the extra effort of categorising content in tags). Personally I’d love to buy a product and not only get it in PDF format but XML too. Assuming this becomes common the next step would be to come up with some sort of standardised ontology. This would then mean that we could seamlessly merge information from many sources. It would truly revolutionise the medium. But I’m back on dream cloud territory.

    Regarding your last point: i think a publisher could hope for more than just increased sales. As technology advances, computer games get better. And attention spans unfortunately become smaller. This means a lot of people tend to write off the tabletop medium. For the tabletop medium to thrive, it has to survive. And to do that it has to be able to stand its ground against the big boys – in this case computer games.

    • Lou Prosperi says:

      Hi George,

      I think one possible step towards what you’re talking about would be for games to be written in XML (using a standard such as DITA (, and then processed in different ways for different output types. This is how lots of technical documentation is created.

      In the case of RPGs, for printed books or PDF, the XML could be processed through InDesign (or other desktop publishing software), but for eBooks, it might be processed through a tool such as DITA-for-Publishers ( This same text could then be published in a format suitable for use with Robin’s app.

      Take Care,

      Lou Prosperi

      • George says:

        Lou, many thanks for these, i’ll make sure to check them out. I’ve had a brief look – it certainly sounds like a model like DITA would be spot on.

        I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but Robin’s post and your reply was a catalyst – It would be interesting to see what would come out from bringing a few like-minded people in the same (virtual or otherwise) room to brainstorm this further.

        To Lou, and anyone else interested in getting involved in an online email discussion about this, please drop me a line at

        goblintriggers at gmail dot com

        (those who are about to get spammed, we salute you!)


  3. I’d say the rules fulfil two main functions. To resolve situations that occur in game, and to provide a framework for designing adventures.

    For example I once ran a D&D campaign where the idea was that there were six 19s. That is, people with 19 strength, 19 intelligence, 19 wisdom, 19 dexterity, 19 constitution and 19 charisma. Teh D&D system allowed scores from 3-18. The players had to identify these people and recruit them.

    Of course fantasy characters don’t really have six attributes. It was originally intended as a simplification, and a means of giving characters slightly different combat scores. But the system existed, everyone knew it like the back of their hands, so it became a structural element of the world, and something you could hang a campaign off.

  4. saku says:

    Good to know I am not the only one who enjoys reading rules and imagining how they would be played, if one only had the time and opportunity…thought it was just a sympton of general weirdness…..

  5. Jeb says:

    Interesting. Another approach would be set an example of play at the end of each major chapter (i.e. char gen, combat, intrigue/investigation, widget construction, vehicles, etc.) in its own section with hyperlinks back to the relevant rules and links in the rules to the relevant example. When used as a reference, the example sections could be skipped/flipped past.

  6. Kainenchen says:

    Your ideas intrigue me, and I am delighted that I subscribe to your newsletter!

    Seriously though, designing such an app is a thing I have given a lot of thought to recently, and your breakdown is really cool. I would suggest that platforming would solve the tablet problem; a desktop version, an online version, et al would perhaps go a long way to make such a product more attractive on a broader basis. A stretch goal might be an e-reader format which allowed for such a level of interactivity.

    The biggest problem to my mind would be getting the designers who are doing the layouts to plan and write for the different purposes, and then editing. But I’ve posted in my own blog about the problems of information presentation, and what an incredible barrier to entry it can be for people.

    Thank you for this post.

  7. Lisa Padol says:

    The low tech version would be the book as Teaching Tool with the Reference Tables at the back, I take it?

  8. Jo says:

    Hello there,

    a most interesting post. I have been thinking about the possibilities of a tablet RPG adventure reader as well but from a different angle.

    An important part of a RPG is being totally submerged into the adventure. Having too many books an a table certainly removes the ‘suspension of disbelief’ so a tabled app might help. Having a laptop on the table is even worse I think. But I mastered a few games using only my tablet and an adventure in pdf format – and it didn’t bother my group at all.

    What I started thinking about at that stage was the potential added value of the table to create more atmosphere. Imagine a andventure split into scenes and some of the key scenes having specific ambient sounds and subtle sound effects; the sound of rain clattering on a window, the rowdy bar at the riverside or the wind howling through the empty streets. Combat sound could be doable but maybe annoying,

    This would of course require yet another skill from the RPG publisher namely designing or compiling audio effects. But I would guess that this could be worth some premium from the potential buyer.

    I have been playing with this idea for more than a year now, would it be worth pursuing? As far as I heard the RPG publishing market is one of low margins so the question would be who would be interested in investing in such a new experience…

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