Rules manuals have two basic purposes. They may have more, but without one of these the book is as useless as a chocolate teapot.
First, the book must teach the game. And by that I don’t mean it should have all the rules inside. I mean the text should guide the reader through the information in a way that gameplay is clear from the first page. You cannot find out, for example, there’s no spellcasting on the game by page 60. You cannot find out the size of the table required on page 30. Every game needs a solid, easy to understand organization so when the rules are explained the player has a crystal clear picture this is the game he wants to get into.
Second, it must be a good, clear, and useful reference tome. Once the players know the game rules, they should have easy access to the more complex, obscure, or less used mechanics. Rolling a die to see who’s right and then discuss it? That’s bullshit. A good rulebook has a comprehensive index in the back to find rules in a matter of seconds, read them out loud, and carry on with the fun.
I’ve been reading Malifaux. Beyond the obvious contacts with the Warmachine generation of games, it struck me that by page 50 I barely had a clue what was going on. Oh yes, I knew how to Place, Switch, Discard (discard what? the card rules aren’t even glimpsed before this), and all kinds of technical stuff extremely useful for experienced players to have clearly explained. But I was through my first read through.
Malifaux seems like an exceptional reference to experienced players. Everything is explained clearly without room for wacky interpretations. But fuck it is boring!!! I wanted to get into the world of Malifaux and all I got was how modifiers work, and not even knowing modifiers to what. It makes such a bad work teaching the game that at one point you accept the fact anything will only make sense through the second read, or even after being taught the game by someone else. And you start reading paying less and less attention when that happens. And suddenly you stop coming back to the book because it’s a job to read it through the first time to start understanding what the hell is going on the second time.
If you’re in the position to write a rules manual, not only worry about the rules and how clearly you write them. Think about the organization of your book. It doesn’t matter if the rules for shooting come before the rules for close combat for the referencing player. They are, however, important for the person reading it for the first time. Do you teach concepts in the shooting section that will be useful for later sections? Then put that before the rest, and go the extra mile to give more detail about your game. When you reach the point where you detail the rules for, let’s say, flammable terrain features, you will probably get away with simple, solid rules text, if the player is already engaged and knows what the hell you’re talking about.
Go check Warmachine Mk.2. Don’t just clone the mechanics. Take a look at the organization. It is a game about warcasters, correct? But their rules are almost the last section on the manual. Because you cannot start pushing all the warcaster’s abilities down the player’s throat if he/she doesn’t even know what a boosted roll is, what’s running and charging, or how the hell to cast spells.
[rant]And Malifaux, if you’re releasing your game freely online, protect your art all you want, but don’t be an asshole and strike down the examples. That’s just plain stupid.[/rant]
Hope this made some sense to anyone.