The Five Laws of RPG Science

In 1931, librarian S. R. Ranganathan wrote a book titled The Five Laws of Library Science, in which he set down what he believed to be the most important principles for ethically running a public library system. It’s a dense read, but the main concepts are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every book its reader.
  3. Every reader their book.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

Barring some awkward phrasing, the laws are simple and sound. Ranganathan’s vision is something I’d call humanistic utilitarianism, or the idea that the greatest resource is the one that’s available to as many people as possible, as easily as possible. Humanistic utilitarianism puts substance before style in every way–anything that breaks one of the five rules is, by definition, a barrier to accessibility.

I believe that RPG’s are really no different, and can thus be approached in a very similar way. In realizing this, I was forced to confront the idea that trimming my RPG philosophy down to five rules would have tremendous impact upon my writing, graphic design, and even social media interactions. My five laws of Role-Playing Games are tailored slightly from their library science counterparts, but the intent is the same: to create a common language for the design and management of communal resources. They are:

1: RPGs are for use.

This may seem self-evident at first, but a glance at any handful of games will show designers who eschew usability for fluff, aesthetic, or verisimilitude. Games that prioritize usability are a rare breed, but their impact is momentous–if only because they’re able to affect the widest audience.

At each point in designing an RPG, thought should be given as to how the game will be used. Everything–system mechanics, organization of ideas, layout and production of the physical/digital product–must reflect this intentionality. When you hide your game behind dense language or a complicated layout, you are building barriers to use.

This is not to say that everything you create should be equal in simplicity to a 200-word microgame. There is a place in games for crunch, but it must serve a purpose that is evidently usable. If your game is about the perils of wilderness survival, it makes sense to have dedicated rules for foraging, hunting, or constructing shelter. Likewise, a game about the complications of managing a polyamorous relationship could have detailed systems for trust and romantic fulfillment. These systems enhance, rather than obfuscate, the purpose of the game they serve. Their individual mechanics will vary depending upon the system you are designing; but again, usability should be the highest priority.

I mentioned production earlier, and I’d like to talk about it specifically as I feel it’s the aspect of RPG publishing that has the largest room for improvement. I’ve written–and will continue writing–articles about optimizing PDFs to present information in a clean, intuitive way. Far less digital ink has been spent detailing the process of creating physical books that are meant to be used. The advent of Print-on-Demand services have given many creators a much wider market for their books, but it has also uniformly lowered the standards of these books by printing them with diluted ink on cheap paper and haphazardly stapling the whole thing together. For a zine or small dungeon, these are fine–while not PoD, The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 is indeed saddle-stitched–but larger products demand and deserve tougher stuff. Consider the complaint levied often against the 5e core books, that their pages fall out: such fragility in an integral part of the game is an unacceptable violation of usability.

If your book has to be referenced often, you are being negligent in not reinforcing the binding, and perhaps springing for heavier, more tear-resistant paper as well. Your book is to be used, so figure out how: could you add a section for notes or other house rules, or embrace marginalia with matte paper and wider margins? Could you design your book to lay flat on a table to better present maps or player-facing rules? If your book works in tandem with another, could you reduce its form factor to ease some of the burden of lugging several full-size books to each session, and later propping them all up on a table?

This rule goes before the others because I think it’s one that any RPG designer can use to improve their product without compromising their vision. When you place usability before everything else, in every aspect of your game, you can all but guarantee your book will be a joy to read and play while avoiding the bloat that mires so many others.

2: Every player their game.

I deliberated on this one (and its sister, below) much longer than the others. In broad terms, this means that every player–regardless of their personal background, experiences, or skill–should be able to play and enjoy tabletop RPGs. The games themselves may differ wildly, but there’s one out there for everyone; if there isn’t, it’s time to make it.

There should be crunchy sword-and-sorcery kingdom building games and there should be transhumanist dating games. There should be queer mecha and gourmet dungeoncrawls and Kobayashi Maru games where the only way to win is to break the rules. Every player has their own ideal game, and part of the brilliance of RPGs is sharing your personal fantasy with the community. When the barrier to entry is so low–you can publish your own RPG without spending a cent–the impetus is to innovate, to expand our humble circle to include genres, ideas, and people that have historically struggled to find a place.

GMDK’s mission is to showcase the talent of traditionally marginalized creators, but it didn’t come about simply as a matter of finding a niche in the market and hoping to capitalize upon that. The lived experiences of these creators shine through in their work, and (hopefully) resonate with the sort of audience whose experiences match ours. We aren’t just in it to tell our story, but to invite you to tell yours as well through the medium of games. If our games aren’t your style–check back, we’re expanding all the time.

There will always be a place for the “stab goblin get treasure” style games and supplements. They’re fun to write, fun to read and run, and have sold consistently for over 40 years. If that’s your game, then consider yourself lucky–there’s enough free material out there to keep you gaming happily ’til kingdom come! But it’s not everyone’s game, and as creators and publishers we have an obligation to challenge the boundaries of the medium. The sci-fi horror fan may never enjoy D&D; give them Mothership. Your cousin who loves Breaking Bad would probably not sit down for a game of Vampire: the Masquerade, but I’m sure you could convince her to give Narcos a try.

3: Every game its player.

The corrolary of Rule 2 states that it’s perfectly fine to create a game for a very specific type of player. It’s okay to create a game that has unique appeal to certain people–The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 is heavily weighted towards traditional D&D players that enjoy horror/dark fantasy dungeoncrawls. Libreté will appeal to an entirely different sort of player who prefers collaborative worldbuilding and weighty social encounters.

No game can be designed without considering the sort of person who will play and enjoy that game. Those who claim their games are nonpolitical are fooling themselves at best and seeking to fool others at worse. However, problems arise when you begin mistaking a games’ systems for its stance. B/X D&D has many rules for violence and plunder because those are areas where heavy abstraction is needed to represent things in the medium of a tabletop RPG. Emotions, relationships, conversations; these are things the game assumes you can run without explicit rules. Speaking and feeling are things the player can do without authorization from the GM, and it’s this lack of rules that makes it so powerful. The combat rules may mean you can’t take the goblin king in a fair fight, but there’s no rules against siding with them in pursuit of a greater threat, or turning the rest of their tribe against them, or convincing the local baron that they need to get involved with the problem. In RPGs, like most conversations, sometimes its what’s not said that’s the most important.

We are not here to cast aspersions at players who prefer different games than us. People play games for countless reasons, in countless ways. There will be games that do not appeal to you, whether for their themes, systems, or method of play. This does not in itself make them bad games. I will likely never play a game of MonsterHearts: its setting and style is not something I’ve ever considered myself a fan of. Nonetheless, I recognize that many people enjoy MonsterHearts as much as I enjoy traditional D&D. They are getting something from that game that I will never get, and that is their right as players. They are players of that game; that game is for them.

In recognizing this, I believe we can collectively elevate the discourse and criticism surrounding tabletop games. No one can deny that criticism is an art in itself, and that earnest reviews are worth their weight in gold to any creator. It’s known that mass reviews tend to skew negative due to satisfied customers neglecting to leave a review at all, so if you find a game that pleases you, let people know! Leave a review, talk about it on social media, recommend it to your friends. Creators who work outside of the mainstream have a tendency to toil in obscurity; if you find an underrepresented game that speaks to you, tell the world.

4: Save the players’ time.

As a designer this has a lot of overlap with Rule 1, but it’s got its own purposes enough that I felt it deserved an entry to itself. Note the position of the apostrophe: it’s important to save your individual players’ time with clear rules and simple layout, but also to show them you value their time and appreciate them choosing to spend it playing your game. This means providing resources like quick-play rules, form-fillable character sheets, and a reasonably-intuitive web presence (something I’m still working on myself).

It also means that we as designers must face the heartbreak of accepting that our game is likely not the only thing the players think about all week. At my table, I have a firm “no homework” rule: all I expect from my players is to show up. It is my responsibility as a game master to know the rules, the characters and their abilities, and the game world at large. When designing an RPG, consider how much weight your players are expected to carry. Consider the following test:

Imagine that, before the latest game session, each of your players was identically bonked on the head by a coconut dropped from sufficient height (perhaps by a passing flock of African swallows) to induce retrograde amnesia. Nonetheless, they soldier on, and arrive at the session without any recollection of how to play an RPG but otherwise no worse for wear. How long would it take to explain your game--its rules, system mechanics, characters, history--before you could jump back into play.

This is obvious hyperbole, but its message is important. I have a player who has been in my regular 5e game for the last 3 years and still routinely asks how hit dice work. He’s not a bad player or a stupid person, on the contrary: he’s a full time worker and engineering student who realizes that his brainpower outside of D&D is better served elsewhere. Luckily, I know the 5e rules well enough to answer his questions easily and without wasting precious session time. I save my players time by taking the onus of game mastery upon myself, but there are ways to design an RPG that save everyone’s time. A clarity of ruleset is helpful, as well as standardizing mechanics whenever possible (if you use a roll-over dice system, don’t switch to a roll-under for particular situations). Consider arranging the chapters of your book so that mechanic are introduced alongside the game world, or duplicate information if it’s truly necessary to have it referenced in separate sections–would it really be so bad if, in the 5e PHB, starting equipment damage and AC were listed in parenthesis by their appearance in the class description? Better yet, you could include a ready-to-play sample character for each class so that new players can jump right in without spending 30 minutes learning character creation mechanics that don’t translate into play!

There are a lot of RPG systems on the market right now, and as much as I’m interested in learning new games it will always be easier to default to one I’ve already put in the time to learn. Lower your barrier to entry, and you increase your chances of that critical first session that could lead to years of happy roleplaying. Good GMs take the burden off the players; good designers take the burden off the GM.

5: RPGs are a living medium.

By this I mean not only that the creation of RPGs will progress and evolve to take advantage of the culture at large, but that RPGs themselves should allow for various interpretations of their contents. RPGs have an evolving and interactive nature that the most open-world video game could never have; even expressly D&D games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment cannot match their tabletop counterpart for choices.

Take the advent of online play, for example. I was recently taken on as a graphic designer for Petals and Thorns: Strangers in Ramhorn, a 5e/Pathfinder adventure that was originally designed for Roll20. One of the stretch goals was to have the entire thing written and laid out as a PDF for more conventional sessions, and that’s where I came in. Though I know very little about virtual tabletops, what I saw intrigued me: maps with functional fog-of-war, automatic dice rolls and calculations, even customizable databases for monsters, NPCs, and player characters.

As an increasing number of players choose virtual tabletops as their medium, it’s important for us as game designers to recognize the challenges and possibilities this presents. Players mapping the dungeon as they explore was once the standard, but was phased out in many groups as it was unwieldy and slowed game flow. In a virtual tabletop with a “fog of war” effect, might we be able to recreate this sense of dread and progressive exploration without putting the onus on our players to drop their character sheets and break out the graph paper? Is designing for this style of play now easier and more intuitive than ever before?

By virtue of being a living medium, RPGs of the past are never irredeemable. Those that reflect the less tolerant time of their writing can be taken, and rewritten, and reworked to suit our standards–as your games will eventually be changed to suit the audiences of the future. Keep a close eye on these trends, and consider adjusting your designs to accommodate. Steal from the past, build for the future.

These are the five laws of RPG science as they occur to me at this moment. I don’t consider them immutable laws, merely an excuse to reflect on the act of creation and the relationship between creator and consumer. Like a library, designing a game is something of a public service–the act of creating something with the intent of bringing people together for mutual joy and enrichment. I can think of few nobler pursuits.

Published by Dai Shugars

Publisher of fine tabletop RPGs, proudly showcasing the talent of marginalized writers, artists, and designers in tabletop gaming.

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