Arguably, the rulebook is the most important part of a system. I’m not just talking about the rules (which define the system), but I’m talking about the actual artefact that is the rulebook. An incredible system that has a terrible rulebook is a game that people aren’t going to play, because they’ll never get at that incredible system. Conversely, a fairly average system that has a well laid out rulebook is something that will likely do very well.
In this post, we’re going to talk about things that rulebooks consistently get wrong, get right, and some other stuff.
pdf – “pretty damned frugal”
This is tangentially related, but I don’t think it’s right to talk about rulebooks without bringing this up. This is something Wizards of the Coast with 5e had previously been very bad for, but have somewhat improved of late. Stop charging nonsense prices for PDFs/virtual copies of your game material. If I want to get Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus on DnDBeyond, it costs me $29.99, which is roughly £22. If I want to get a physical copy of it from Blackwells, it’s £26.34 with free shipping. Now admittedly they’ve got it on sale, but most retailers have it floating around at £31. You’re telling me that the difference between the physical printed book, and the virtual version (locked to the DnDBeyond platform iirc) is between 4 to 9 pounds? That’s nonsense, unless those online transactions are being carved onto gold bullion.
Paizo (publisher of Pathfinder, Starfinder) has a far more reasonable pricing scheme. If you want a hardcover copy of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, you’re looking at about £36-40. If you want to get the PDF off Paizo (with no strings attached, just a normal, searchable PDF), it’s 14.99$, which is £11, a full £25 cheaper than the cheapest physical printed copy, and a full $45 cheaper than on Paizo’s own store.
If Paizo, a far smaller company, can sell a much larger product (the core rulebook for Pathfinder Second Edition has a lot more content compared to the Player’s Handbook for D&D5e which is also $30), then Wizards of the Coast can do the same. There’s no reason that physical copies should be even remotely competitive with PDF pricing, so something has gone very wrong here. What’s even more frustrating is that publishers have a far better revenue stream in all of the other game-adjacent shite they can sell you. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love game-adjacent shite.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I will buy game-adjacent shite till the cows come home. The key thing is, I think G.A.S is a critical element in a fair and successful TTRPG business. Saps like me, with disposal income, will buy crap like spellbook cards for £25 a pop, despite the fact that they’re literally plastic with text written on, and probably cost less than half a micropenny to make (something that Wizards of the Coast has plenty of experience with). As they’re overcharging on these unnecessary pieces, this should mean that they’re able to offer fire-sale prices for the rulebook, even selling it at a loss if they need to. The videogames industry has been doing this for yonks with consoles, selling consoles at a loss to get people into the ecosystem, enabling them to buy overpriced games1.
So people who don’t have the disposable income can afford to buy the rulebooks, (hardcover and PDF), subsidized by the rich shmucks who’ll buy the crap like spellcards, battle maps, miniatures and coasters. Everyone gets access to the rules, the system creator makes plenty of money, the shmucks get to stare at their G.A.S. To go even further, you can make the lions share of the rules free online, without all of the lovely art and stories of the rulebook, and make buying the PDF/hardcover a luxury option as well. This is what Paizo have done with Pathfinder, so if we were being very snarky, I’d say that this is purely a problem for Wizards of the Coast2, with their incredibly meagre offerings in the 5e SRD. By making your rules free, and your PDFs cheap, you get people into the game and more likely to buy stuff like adventures. If you don’t do this, people just pirate the PDFs, and then you get nothing.
lore of the land
Rulebooks are for rules first, everything else second. It doesn’t matter if it’s not strictly called a rulebook: whether it’s a Player’s Handbook, Agent’s Handbook, Investigator’s Handbook, its purpose is to explain how the game is played above all else. If it contains incredible prose, fantastic artwork, phenomenal worldbuilding, but you don’t come out the other side with a good understanding of the game system, then it’s a bad rulebook. Do not get me wrong, I love a fat 600 page rulebook. I’m an absolute sucker for those double page spread full artworks. I delight in the short stories, or the world maps that I’ll never play on. But the rules have got to be there, crystal clear, first.
I might appreciate all that art when I’m sitting in bed, reading it on my free time – but will I appreciate it when I’m flipping through in the moment, trying to find a rule that a player has just inquired about? A great example of the “style over readability” problem is the Shadowrun Fifth Edition rulebook, which is full of instances where rules text has been squashed to accomodate pieces of lore or art. Where they’ve done a great job of making it look like it’s some sort of futuristic computer, but a less good job of making it nice to read.
I’m not sure if this is something that has been improved in the sixth edition – I hope so. For a rulebook that I think gets this just right, I’d look to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition core rules, which comes in at a lighter 350 pages, but is packed with lore (which almost entirely sits at the front of the book). The artwork is fantastic, but also used sparingly – I never feel like a part of the rules are far harder to read as a result of the formatting. The lines are nicely spaced, the font is appropriately fantasy-ish but legible.
I’m sure someone will be tempted to say “but Oli, it has far fewer rules compared to Shadowrun! They can afford to have space and nicer formatting”.
The fact that Shadowrun is a much denser, more rules-heavy game is exactly a reason that it should have better formatting. Games that are very rules-lite can afford to be wistful, with plenty of art and blank space. Games that you’re going to need to flick through quickly to reference certain sections need to be far more concise and diligent.
No matter how you cut the cheese on this, it is a decision to have a dense book; nobody is forced to make it that way. If Shadowrun 5e’s rulebase was so large that it demanded this formatting, then the lore and world aspects should not be in the same book – they should be in a separate book or resource. D&D 5e has nailed this by having the Player’s Handbook be a short (~300 page) book with only what the players need, with the setting, worldbuilding and GM elements moved into the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). I’m much happier to swap books occasionally, than I am having to fight my way through a gigantic tome full of information that isn’t useful in the moment. Bad formatting like this is a choice, and one that shouldn’t be taken.
lead by example
Give me examples of play you bastards. Not just one at the start of the book that shows how much fun and excitement one can have while playing, but one for every single major rule or section in the game. Examples of play are so good for learning how a particular set of rules work, that I will frequently read the example first and then the rules after. Even the most complicated of rules, when expressed through a near-life example can become far more comprehendible and appreciable. The stand out example of this for me is in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition’s (CoC7e) Keeper Rulebook, where we are essentially following the adventures of a character called Harvey Walters.
CoC7e has some fairly complicated rules in it, and it would be easy to get lost in situations such as “lifting a heavy object as a group” or the general framework for Chases/Pursuits if there weren’t great examples of how those rules are used in these little snippets. Monster of the Week has only a couple, but those examples give us a great window into how the creator intended the game to be run. This is another big benefit of them – often, unless you run a prewritten adventure or scenario, examples of play give you the firmest picture of how the game creators intended the game to be…played. Not just demonstrating specific rules and their usage, but giving us the tempo and temperature. It really shocks me that more games don’t have them throughout their rulebooks, as there are definitely instances of rules in CoC7e that I would have just bounced off without them.
Dark Pursuits, a prewritten adventure for the Dark Heresy 2nd Edition RPG, is one of the worst prewritten campaigns that I have ever run. It is extremely detail-light in parts, expecting the DM to do an extreme amount of work outside of the text to keep things going. It feels extremely rushed, where players and DM are whirled through a series of encounters at breakneck speed. It is also set in one of the densest, most complex entities in the Warhammer 40k universe: a ‘Hive City’. As a DM, cities are one of the hardest parts of any RPG; requiring you to manage a lot of (most likely sentient) characters, goods, government and services – all of which are contained within the same space3 with many potential interactions. Hive Cities are like this, but on space-meth. They are astronomically large, containing innumerable souls, and are socially complex, where all the various elements that make up the Imperium of Man interact with one another.
The Dark Heresy ruleset is a fairly dense one at that, boasting more complex rules than an entry level RPGer might come to expect. So we have a fairly complicated system with an adventure set in one of the most complicated settings that a campaign can reasonably be set in. I’ve missed one detail. This is the starter campaign for the game. Oh yes.
I’m absolutely in the target audience for Dark Heresy. I have a decent knowledge of the 40k universe, having played the tabletop game as a kid, and having played most of the videogames that are set in it. I’m an absolute sucker for dark, investigatory style games with terrors from beyond. A diverse party of strange, biomechanical humans wielding a collection of arcane and futuristic weaponry to solve mysteries and banish evil in a morally grey universe? Sign me the warp up. However, I bounced so horribly off this starter campaign that I’m not sure I’ll ever touch the system again. Having read stories online from other people running it, while they might not describe it as negatively as I do, there is a lot of “we went completely off the rails”, or “oh just make that detail up”. I do not want to “make it up”, that’s the whole point of a prewritten campaign4.
The starter campaign for your system cannot be “budget”. This might be a player/DM’s first experience of your system, so it has to land. If it doesn’t, they might (like me), never play it again. When I say budget, I don’t mean that it can’t be short – in fact, starter campaigns should always be short because folks will often play them to get a sense of a system before delving into it more. I mean that it can’t be low effort, something stuffed at the back of your Core Rulebook with a few pages dedicated to it and a little bit of artwork. It has to be low friction, smooth learning curve, with a lot of material to ease players into it. Contrast this with the Starter Campaigns for D&D5e (Lost Mines of Phandelver) and WFRP4e (Wacky Slip on a Pie Time), which are both complete products with prewritten character sheets and plenty of G.A.S to make the experience as smooth as possible.
They also, critically, contain cut-down versions of the rules that give a beginner an easy window into the system for the purposes of the campaign.
Full disclosure, I have not finished running the WFRP4e starter campaign, due to a couple of Real Life Things getting in the way (along with a global pandemic), but it already feels like a more complete experience than what Dark Heresy offers. It’s clear that a lot of effort and thought went into it. “But Oli, those starter sets are paid for, whereas the Dark Heresy campaign came free with the rulebook”. Ignoring the “it’s free” argument5 for a moment, the Dark Heresy 2e rulebook would have been better if those pages were used for nearly anything else. A separate product (that they could have charged for) with the same care and intention that Cubicle7 and Wizards of the Coast gave theirs, would have been a vast improvement. There’s a parallel world in which they did that, and I’m still playing the system.
You get one shot with this. It doesn’t matter if the first published Dark Heresy campaign after the rulebook is an absolute corker, because the well has been poisoned for me. I would also say it’s quite rare for someone to go and buy a full campaign for a system that they’ve not played before. It’d be a hard sell for someone new to 5e to immediately buy Out of the Abyss (and also a poor intro to the system), and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect beginners to do that. So, don’t throw in a “gratis” starter campaign as an afterthought into your rulebook – either dedicate time and material to it, or don’t and look to creating a separate product. Full-arse it.
use your noggin
The Pathfinder Second Edition rulebook has a lovely little feature. On every other page, there’s a bar that tells you where in the book you’re currently reading.
A lot of rulebooks have this in the header, rather than on the side, telling you what section you’re in. Here’s it in the CoC7e rulebook.
Is this a big thing? No. Is the PF2e bar probably a whiff too large? Yep. Is this something that every book should have in it? Absolutely. My preference would be for a full bar, but some indication where you’re reading is great, especially given you might be in a section covering a large body of rules (like Combat). Here’s the LANCER one:
Like everything else in the rulebook, it’s absolutely beautiful. Do you want to see the 5e one? Of course you do, you cheeky little scamp, but you have to be careful or you’ll scare it off.
A whisper in the night, found only at the very bottom of the page. I love little stuff like this because it isn’t much, but it makes for a much more readable rulebook, and they’re all generally getting it right. I’d like for rulebooks to trend towards what PF2e has done, but with more restraint.
back against the wall
I have given you a selection of three rulebooks to peruse. Which one do you like the most? Alright, I’m cheating slightly because the one on the right is from the Collector’s Edition of 5e. They’re also being crunched slightly by my bad lighting and phone camera, but we work with what we’ve got. Let’s break this down in an analytical manner, that only the backs of rulebooks could deserve.
Dungeons & Dragons 5e
The Collector’s Edition cover is a feast for the eyes. No text, because if you’re buying the CE, you probably know what it is. The symmetry is awesome, the colours are fantastic (I heartily recommend looking at the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which is my favourite of the CE versions), and it features the prominent iconography of the D20, and the ampersand which has become the logo of the Dungeons and Dragons series. Top shelf stuff. However, this is cheating, as the CE version is much more expensive and rare, so here’s the normal one.
Arm Yourself For Adventure. A solid tagline, and especially fitting given this is the book where players will be creating, customising and quite literally arming their characters for adventure. The content in the body text below is, sure enough, an honest representation of the game. In fact, I would say that this blurb has a better idea of the strengths and focuses of the D&D5e system than most of the people playing it; but that’s a post for another time. The font is luxurious, as with all the fonts chosen in the book, and the colouring is solid as a rock. White text on a blackground is a personal favourite, and contrasted with the red of the angry fire pup on the right hand side, it practically jumps off the page at you. Lovely use of blank space, clear and concise, with a great summary of the book contents and game. Top marks.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e
A Grim World of Perilous Adventure. Oh yes indeed, life in the Old World of Warhammer is cheap and bleak. Gone is the mystique and majesty of the firey pup, and instead we have a bleak, smoggy scene from what is most likely Ubersreik, one of the major cities in the universe. This back cover says to you “your foe will most likely not be some mythical, majestic beast of flame, instead, it’ll be typhus. Or dysentry, whatever gets you first”. The little blurb on the back promises not a clean adventure of heroism and righteousness, but instead, boldly states that you’re going to be a scumbag who probably kills for coin. And it’s right.
Stated entirely in character, it fits in well with the rest of the book where you get the feeling that you’re reading the musings of some unreliable narrator, rather than some lofty god giving you the objective truth of the world. All is shades of grey (like the cover), all is relative. I do like the fact they’ve listed a time of “1-4 hours” like it’s some sort of board game, feels oddly quaint. The fonts are good, while sacrificing a slice of legibility for that Warhammer feel, and the logos along the bottom are clean and nicely pushed out of the way. Watch out for that barcode, though – it’s so large that I dare say that Ubersreik is thoroughly imperiled.
Pathfinder Second Edition
Admit it, you knew this was coming. When I showed you the gallery, you knew there was an ugly duckling in there, and it is a very ugly duckling. Advance Your Game. What game? The game of Pathfinder that I have yet to start, as I am an earnest rookie RPGer, holding the book in their hands for the first time? Perhaps, the game of life? Have I picked up the right book? Thank goodness they included the tiny “rulebook” indicator at the top, as they’ve made it as hard as possible to determine that from anything else. The centrepiece of the cover is the most bizarre part for me. The artwork is very good, apparently they knew this because the art is used again in the Alchemist class pages. But why the Goblin Alchemist? My suspicion is that they wanted to make a big deal out of the playable Goblin ancestry, and the core alchemist class, but would you care about either of these things if you weren’t already a Pathfinder player?
The summary of the game given by the text is justified in my experience of playing it, however the justification of the text is wack as all hell. They’re trying to form it around the Goblin art, but almost any other layout would have been better. It really does feel like somebody had five minutes to put some text on the back, and the clock was ticking. The strangest part is, the front cover art is actually extremely good.
This just makes the contrast between the two even worse. On one face, an epic battle depicting beloved Pathfinder characters engaging in combat with a beast that many will recognise, looming over a delightful pile of gold! On the other, a…goblin…looking at us. Why? I’ll stick by my “they wanted to sell the goblin and alchemist stuff”, but what a baffling decision that is.
Something I will chuckle about for a while, is that the logo for the Pathfinder series is just the word “Pathfinder”. Which means, on the back of the book, in the logos…
This is the same logo used on the front cover. If you don’t know you’re playing Pathfinder, then forget about finding paths, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. For full equivalence, here’s a picture of the Special Edition.
It’s…fine? I actually prefer the normal rulebook despite being a big fan of minimalism with these things. I’d take the back from that one though.
Anyway, that’s enough ranting about the backs of rulebooks. Maybe I’ll do another post about the fronts of them too, who knows. 2021 is a year of possibility.
1 I’ve been ranting about this with friends for a considerable amount of time, but the price rises in console and PC games are utterly ridiculous, and I’m stunned more people aren’t up in arms about it. £70 is not a reasonable price for a game, and if everything else inflated at the same rate that games have (despite making MORE money through additional revenue streams), we’d all be living in boxes.
2 Though Chaosium seems to think ~£21 is an acceptable price for a book that retails at around £32 in hardcover. Not quite as bad as Wizards, but still.
3 Hive Desoleum (the hive that the campaign is set in) is described as “taking several days of weeks to cross”. Do you have a map for this? No, or at least, not one that I’ve found.
4 I do not like prewritten campaigns, but I normally run them the first time that I’m playing a system if they’re easily available and not gigantic. Expect a blog post on this.
5 If I came up to your birthday cake with a grater and an onion, and began shaving the onion onto the cake, the fact that the onion was free doesn’t seem very relevant.