Better build instructions

Make character building easier

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Many RPG rulebooks start out speaking in the bizarrely theoretical future tense, addressing the reader as if they were going to build a character: "First, you will choose a race, and then you will choose your skills." Then, over the course of the next few chapters, these player guides describe the options readers have to choose from. It's almost aggressively labyrinthine. First, I pretend to think you can memorize the steps you need to take to end up with a character, then I throw you into the deep end with all the options you have to choose from, and then demand you emerge with a character.

I have some ideas on how building a character can be less of a barrier to entry for new players.

1. Write in the present tense

Strike the word "will" from your text. Your reader isn't reading your rulebook to find out what might happen in theory some day. You want your reader to be a player now, so give your reader the gift of the present tense.

Every time you pick up a rulebook to read it, whether it's the first time or the hundredth time, you're reading it now. Books don't happen in the future. They happen now.

When you write instructions on how to build a character, assume your reader is actively building a character. Don't tell your reader what they will do, tell your reader what to do right now. It eliminates confusion about when to proceed, and encourages the reader to break out paper and pencil and to build.

2. Use imperatives

An "imperative" is a verb that commands. We use imperatives all the time in real life when we say things like "Look at that!" and "Hand me that book." and "Roll dice." Those are commands, and when used politely and with friends, they're not considered rude or presumptuous.

In fact, the advantage of imperatives is that they're clear and concise. There's little room for misinterpretation.

If you say "hand me the player's guide," then it's clear to me that you want me to give you the player's guide (probably the one that I'm holding, or the one next to me) now.

If you say "you could hand me the player's guide," then it's a little less clear what you want. Yes, I could hand you the player's guide. Do you want me to? When do you want me to do it? Do you need the player's guide now, or when I'm finished with it?

Use imperatives. Tell your reader exactly what to do, and when to do it. It's not rude, it's not abrupt. It's clear, concise, and efficient.

3. Provide an ordered list

Building a character is a linear process. No matter how [over?] complex you've made it in your RPG system, it starts somewhere and eventually ends.

Use an ordered list (1, 2, 3, and so on) to guide your reader through each step of the build process. This helps your reader differentiate between information you're providing just for context and an action you need your reader to do in order to complete the build process.

For instance, it might be useful to describe what game function the Intelligence attribute serves. But now that you've brought it up, is it something the reader is meant to go calculate and fill in on a character sheet right now? Or is this just context to help the reader understand how the game works? If it's a numbered item in a list, then it's clear that it's an action requiring completion. It's one of the steps toward the end goal.

4. Describe how to create a character sheet

Many RPG rulebooks "threaten" you with the character build process. They provide a description of how to build a character, and then they send you off to wade through the rest of the book alone.

This is a backwards model. It's giving you broad information, and then daring you to condense it into specifics in the form of a character sheet. The problem is, little to no guidance is provided on how to filter all the information. What keywords from a 500-word description of a dwarf gets written down on a character sheet for Pathfinder compared to Shadowrun? If you don't know the game yet, it's impossible to say with certainty.

Look at any empty field on a character sheet for a game you've never played, and try to determine what could possibly be entered into it. I can think of at least 6 possibilities:

  1. A number generated by a die roll
  2. A number generated by math performed on the contents of different fields
  3. A number provided by the rulebook
  4. A special keyword or text copied from the rulebook
  5. Some descriptive text of your own invention
  6. Any of the above, but not at 1st level so you can ignore it for now

If your rulebook has an official character sheet, then write your character build process with the assumption that your reader is using that character sheet. For example: "Read through these ancestry descriptions, and then write your chosen ancestry in the Ancestry field at the top of the official character sheet."

If your game doesn't assume a specific format, then tell the reader what to make note of: "Read through these ancestry descriptions, and then write down your chosen ancestry, labeling it as your Ancestry."

5. Deliver information on a need-to-know basis

At 1st level, a character is at its most basic. Regardless of how complex that character is going to get, it's never simpler than it is at 1st level. A new player doesn't need to know what features they're going to get at 5th level or even at 2nd level. They only need to know the choices they need to make right now.

"1. Choose your character class: Knight, Witch, or Jester. Write your choice on a sheet of paper."

It's fair to consider that what a character gets at 2nd level, and beyond, might influence a player's choice of where to begin. But that can usually be summarized in just a sentence. For instance, "A witch communes with the forces of nature for basic spells, and later develops powerful spells with the help of a spiritual guide."

I admit it, there's probably a lot more to the Witch class than that one sentence, but compare it to the Knight class: "A knight protects the weak and vanquishes evil with deadly attacks and powers granted by the gods." Each one gives you a general idea of what you're signing up for. It's enough, at least, for you to make an informed decision, without demanding that you invest an afternoon researching game mechanics.

If you think players should be required to read everything that's in store for their character, then just say so: "Read more about the Witch class on page 66. After reading the description, return to this page to continue."

6. Don't use examples instead of instructions

Examples can be great, but they're no substitute for instruction. It's common for RPG books to demonstrate concepts through, appropriately enough, imaginary scenarios.

The problem with imaginary scenarios is that they describe exactly one scenario. For example:

Jane has built a Witch, and wants to cast a spell. Her first two dice roll a 4 and 6, and the third rolls 1. Her spell succeeds, and she crosses out 1 spell point from her character sheet.

That's a useful example, as long as you understand the rules governing dice rolls for magic. You could read 20 more examples and possibly reverse engineer the rule, but rulebooks aren't meant to be puzzles. When a rulebook has too many examples, it's often an indication that the game designers haven't actually defined the rules in a global context. They understand how the game is supposed to work, and probably how it has worked during playtesting, but they can't say for sure how all the rules interact because they haven't defined the rules outside of gaming activity.

Create rules that can be expressed definitively without context. Add context for a glimpse of how your rules affects game play, but don't rely on game play to reveal the rules.

Here's the rule governing my imaginary spellcasting scenario:

  1. Provided you have at least 1 spell point, you may cast a spell. Roll a number of d6 equal to your spellcasting attribute.
  2. Any even number counts as a success. Ignore odd numbers, except 1.
  3. When you roll a 1, you expend 1 spell point.

7. Include some ready-made characters

I love building characters, and I think building a character creates an important bond between a game system and a player, and between the player and the character they're going to pretend to be during the game. But sometimes, you just want to sit down and play an RPG for an hour or two. That shouldn't be impossible.

A good set of pre-built characters are beneficial for lots of use cases. Here are the ones I can think of, off the top of my head:

  • Experienced players who are too busy to build a character and just want a quick game
  • New players who aren't used to building characters
  • Any player willing to try a new game, but not willing to invest the time to build a character
  • Any player building a character, and who wants to see a correct build to compare theirs against

Better building

Writing has developed a lot in the past several decades. It seems we're still trying to strike the right balance between clarity, precision, and simplicity. The RPG books on my bookshelf, and maybe yours too, reflect the changes of how writing rules for games has developed. I think it's gotten better, but we still have a long way to go. If you're writing RPG material, keep these ideas in mind, and see how simple you can keep your instructions, and how you can structure your book for clarity.

Photo by Gleb Lucky on Unsplash

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