First I’m going to define the different ways i think a game can “teach itself”, then I’ll look at how and if and why these are/can/should be used in the ttrpg space.
These categories are broad abstractions for my own benefit, obviously at the end of the day it’s all semantics and I’m not a theorist! (Thank god.) There are overlaps and I don’t think any game can be said to belong to just one category, in fact almost all belong to 2 or more - an argument could probably be made that they all apply to all games in some way but that’s not the point here. I’m also just talking about learning here as in the base level of knowledge needed to then go on and play/replicate the basic game state, not mastery or levels of good/“bad” play.
Games teach themselves in these four ways. (I thought of a fifth but I seem to have forgotten it.) Mostly 2 or more at a time.
Culture: The knowledge needed to play is in the ether. This is the reserve of games so simple they can’t be played “wrong” (a baby can play with a ball or blocks without instruction), or more frequently games in which the rules have achieved wider cultural understanding. Nobody reads the instructions for tic-tac-toe or tag. You might buy a chess set, but you almost certainly didn’t learn from the manual. Nobody has ever published rules for hangman.
Video games encroach on this space in some ways too (you learn how to use a D-pad probably on your own, then learn how that controller affects each game in turn, again normally through cultural understanding. Ttrpgs are moving into this space too, and in some ways have always been there (you might not inherently know about attack bonuses and AC, but you know about water displacement and what types of materials are flammable, and that knowledge can be used to play a dungeon crawl game).
Of course, these games are not learned innately as with a ball, and necessitate a combination of cultural knowledge w/ the second on our list -
Teacher: Someone teaches you how to play the game. Playground games are most common, but board games also fit this space - someone learns via another method, then imparts that knowledge via this one. You probably didn’t learn monopoly from a rule book, for instance.
This is maybe the best, most effective, and most direct method. We have schools and teachers because we believe this method works. The main advantage is tailored, personal instruction - correcting mistakes as you learn, the teacher intuiting emotions, trying different methods, etc. A Teacher can use all the other methods as tools.
Text: A rulebook. Instructional videos also count, though they feel more like Teacher - watching actual plays is maybe the biggest overlap between these. Tutorial modes or hint boxes in video games are Text as they are non-diegetic to gameplay.
Maybe the worst method. Requires the person without knowledge to intuit and interpret instructions from one medium into the new, unfamiliar game medium.
Play: Continued play will always teach further, but this is about feedback from the act of play imparting initial and fundamental lessons on itself. Sit on a bike and pedal (teacher), then I’ll let go, see if you can stay on (play). Learn how the controller works (culture, sometimes teacher or text), then see if you can beat the level (play).
Most video game types have moved partially or completely into this space, or never left it - tutorials are out of favour, if the level design itself can impart the same lessons. Mario 1-1 is the classic example - no text, no teacher (unless external), no culture (at time of release - we now all know to jump on turtles and eat mushrooms).
Ttrpgs leave the designer’s hands as Text, as if that’s enough, but in practice they almost always require a combination of the other three to actually be taught. These are generally external though - from sources other than the designer or the book itself. The GM, mostly, in the Teacher role.
We can use the other three more effectively, maybe.
Culture: OSR/adventure games lean into this by assuming a common design and even mechanical language. The Text can go further - use terms intuitively and without jargon, for instance, relying on the reader’s existing cultural understanding. Use terms from other games, wider cultural knowledge of game space, place the game within existing frameworks.
Teacher: Videos and actual plays are being used already as mentioned. Footage of someone else being taught could provide some of the same lessons as being taught directly. This is not nothing, but is still external to the text.
Hard to do it internally. Ideally the text should be clear enough and overall flow in the manner of a lesson, such that it acts as its own teacher - take ideas from lesson structure, essay/argument writing, to impart ideas, eg laying groundwork first, “testing” knowledge gained at key points? Which then kind of becomes -
Play: This is the one I’m most interested to explore. Some board games are teaching themselves - “set up the blue pieces this way, then do this,” then, “congratulations, you just played a turn” is normally the method, or thereabouts.
Could we make a text that it is impossible to interact with without playing, as with a video game? Or, signposted to encourage play, in steps, while reading? So, you can’t read the character creation chapter as written without ending up having made a character? Mothership’s character sheet has the character creation rules and a flowchart on it, this is maybe the most encouragement a non-interactive text can give.
Can we break up rules with interactive elements? We just taught you how attack rolls work - oh no, here’s a monster, quickly kill it before turning to the next page. Modular and simple rulesets obviously fit this particularly well. Can we get the reader to use each rule after it’s been taught, then find they’ve played the game in one way or another by the time they finish the book?
Or, in games whose play necessitates a GM type figure to “run”/facilitate play, can we provide teaching materials? Better than an abstract GM’s guide, but a lesson plan or checklist - not one that results in a tutorial, those suck, but one that necessitates interaction through play on behalf of the players? Tomb of the Serpent Kings is a “teaching dungeon”, but could it teach which die is which and how to add a to-hit bonus? Could character creation be a dungeon?
- of course this all has the caveat that it is harder to play a ttrpg “wrong” than, say, a board game, because the table interpreting and using the rules as and how they prefer is central to the medium and most often a deliberate design choice. So with that in mind, maybe encouraging that experimentation can be done through play? Could a game be written such that you can’t finish the book without hacking it? (Yes, almost all games already do this by their nature - but sometimes indirectly or without clear signposting.)
Anyway, I hate theory without practice with a deep, unbridled passion, so don’t worry this isn’t just abstract thought. It’s all me trying to codify thoughts I’ve already had while making something I’m working on. You’ll see my interpretations of these ideas and be able to judge whether they work or not when that thing comes out.
(Side note, is zine quest happening next year? Do we know? This was around the time last year people started planning for it)