Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How to write rules for old school games - does it have to be bad?

As I wrote my little piece on Dragons At Dawn, I realized a thing about how to write rules text. There's a trap to look out for when writing retro clones or other games with an old school feel.

Back in the dawn of the hobby, there were lot of things taken for granted that never ended up in the rules. To some people reading those rules 35 years later or so, that leaves room for their own creativity. I think that is the wrong way to see it, if you are writing new rules in particular.

I do not think that there is a development from worse to better, so that newer rules are by definition better than the old. Something that really riles me up is when someone looks down on an older set of rules as inferior because it's older.

But, I do believe we can improve the craft of writing rules. One of the things I think we can do better now than in the olden days, is to write all our assumptions into the rules. I mean, you should strive to make the rules cover all that it is set out to cover. You do not need a rule for everything, but I think those times you don't cover something it is intentional and the base design ideas will make it less of a guesswork to fill in those gaps by your own creativity.

Naturally I can understand and sympathize with those who wants "rulings, not rules". My leanings are for the Old Ways after all. But, there are things worth imitating, and not to.

Dragons At Dawn is a peculiar game. It's trying to faithfully reproduce something where the original sources in many cases are lost. The author even makes it clear that this is a game that demands house rules. So, I will not point out that game as a bad case, but it did make me realize there is a trap out there to avoid. Remember when Goodman Games started publishing the Dragon Crawl Classics? They tried to imitate the look and feel of the old TSR modules, and other have followed. More than one reviewer thought it was cute, but also wondered if not doing something new and you own was the favoured path to tread. I kind of agree.

So, lay down the groundwork and intentions of your rules in the text. Make all assumptions and unwritten rules explicit and then I am confident it will be easier to write, easier to read, and will leave better room for rulings and not rules.
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