State of the Instructional Art

Since I wrote about Dread, I’ve found myself noticing instructional design choices in role-playing games – and realizing that there’s a lot of great work happening in this space right now.

Boxed sets! The French edition of Dungeon World blew me away, and I don’t just say that because they’re talking about “Jessica Hammer Principles” in the context of great design. They’ve taken a role-playing game and broken it out into separate, thoughtfully-designed components. A beautifully designed dungeon map comes in the box. Powers are on color-coded cards. The set includes pre-punched figurines, so groups don’t have to scrounge up minis. And nametags! They have nametags! Plus, the game looks like a game, which opens doors to whole new types of players.

You still have a few more days to support them on Ulule. My French is terribly rusty, but I backed anyhow; design this good deserves to be funded. I’ll be using the game as an example of how to reduce players’ cognitive load, both when learning a new game and when playing.

Playbooks! Playbooks do a great job of reducing game friction: put the information a player needs on their character sheet, right in front of them! The character sheet doubles as a character creation workbook and a play aid.

I’ve seen a number of games with playbooks recently, but I’m particularly impressed with how Monsterhearts handles them. Why? A free and printable download of all the character skins. Free makes entrance easier for new players; it costs them nothing to look at the characters they might play and fantasize about which one best suits them. Printable makes life easier for game organizers. Choosing what pages to print from a larger PDF file is a small barrier, but for people who don’t love organizing games, small barriers add up.

Teaching tools! Our Last Best Hope is doing one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen in instructional design for RPGs. They’re creating demo videos for specific sections of play, keyed to QR codes printed in the book itself. If you aren’t sure how to run a section of the game, you can just scan the code and go straight to a video explaining it in more detail. This isn’t quite the “book that automatically switches between teaching, reference, and vicarious entertainment mode” that Robin Laws posits, but it’s a pretty darn slick way to help people get a deeper understanding of the rules without bulking out the book with lots of unnecessary material.

It’s also a potentially disruptive innovation for widening the RPG audience. For many people, learning from a book isn’t much fun. That’s part of why game organizers are so critical for making play happen; in most of the groups I’ve observed, knowledge of how the game works is a primarily oral tradition. Giving people the choice of text or video might make a lot more people willing to learn how to play.

And I bet there’s more! Is your game doing something interesting with instructional design? Point me at it in comments, or drop me a line!

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