You Suck At Writing Rules – Here Is How You Can Do Better

You heard me. If you’re reading this you probably suck at writing rules. 

What you probably (and fairly reasonably) assumed this was about was what types of rules are good to run a tournament under, and hot takes where I pretend I am smarter than everyone else. While the latter might be true, this is actually an article about how you write your rules, rather than the rules themselves.

Why Write Rules?

When you’re going to do anything, you should know WHY you’re doing it. Off the top of your head, the reason might be something like:

“I write my rules down to make sure all the information is there.”

I would argue that this is not a great goal. Sure, having them written down instead of in your head is probably a necessary first step. But if you want your rules document to not suck you should probably think more along the lines of:

“I write my rules down so I can most effectively communicate them to the participants.”

What is the difference? Imagine that you are teaching a new student who has never held a sword. As they are standing there, you start bringing up all the historical context, the nuance of the translated terms, and a summary of the original source material lineage. And while you are being exceptionally thorough in making sure every possible piece of information is available to the student they have zoned out and are wondering when they actually get to swing the sword.

We would never teach someone like that: we know that we should give them the information that is most relevant to them when they need it. Yet we generally do the complete opposite of that when writing rules.

Rules Structure

When you prepare your rules document you should make sure to either:

  1. Have an executive summary up front, detailing everything the typical participant needs to know.
  2. Front load all the information that most people will need to know.

We all know that most people don’t read the whole rules document. And while a lot of this is participant laziness (and being enabled to be lazy by event organizers doing rules briefings), most event organizers aren’t doing themselves any favors. If you can’t get the important details across in two pages or less, most people will stop reading..

It is tempting to write things in a programmatic fashion. “Well they can’t score until they get into the ring, so I’ll start with the procedure on how the director calls them into the ring”. No one cares how you call people into the ring. This can be buried in an appendix somewhere, if it’s even important to document at all.

When writing rules I can’t stress this enough:

Prioritize what you want to communicate.

Good: Revolution Rumble’s executive summary

A good example of this is the Revolution Rumble tournament rules. There is a summary of the rules ported into the tournament software, which has excellent visibility to all the participants. It is quick to read and makes it so anyone can understand how the tournament works without investing a lot of effort studying the rules. The link to a more detailed document is also included, for all the details.

Even the more thorough document adheres to these guidelines pretty well, with complicated items being explored in more depth in an Appendix.

Good: SoCal Swordfight’s tournament documents

SoCal Swordfight has approached this breakdown in a different direction, aiming to get the most pertinent information into tournament specific rules documents, and more detailed content into the General Tournament Rules. 

The intent is that competitors can have a decent understanding of how the tournament will work by checking the tournament rules, and can go to the general rules for more thorough explanations.

The information in these summaries is also purposefully ordered in order of what the author* thought was most important for people to see: A note on the most important penalties/safety violations, then how to get points, then a listing of the equipment standards. 


Lack Of Intent

If you looked at the SoCal rules you would have also noticed that at the top of each there is a statement of intent. I used to think this was stupid, but after many years of people discussing tournaments I now think it is very important. If you’re doing a well established sport, with established rules, everyone knows what they are showing up for. That isn’t the case for us, because HEMA is incredibly diverse and everyone is looking for different things.

This is about managing expectations as well: if you don’t communicate what you are trying to achieve with your event,everyone else will decide what your goals are for you. Then they’ll get upset when you fail to cater your rules/event to what they thought you must have been setting out to deliver.

That said, if you’re doing this try to make it meaningful. Saying you are making the bestest event ever, that is everything to everyone, doesn’t actually help. The goals should make it obvious why you made the choices you did in terms of event and rules design. 

The tournaments of SoCal similarly have goals, which give insight as to how certain decisions on things like scoring actions, judge standards, and skill divisions have been arrived at.

Lack of Clarity

Many rules documents leave a lot of things ambiguous. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because even worse than ambiguity is the thought that “more words = more clarity”. Because the more words you write, the more people have to remember. And when asked to remember a whole bunch of things from the rules document, experience has shown that people… don’t. Once again, prioritize the most important details that you want them to remember. It’s better to have them remember 1 or 2 important things than just remember 1 or 2 random things from the list, which may or not be the most important.

Another revolutionary idea I will propose: this is the 21st century and we are just about all writing rules that will be distributed online. Historically, information manuals had to be printed out, and thus information was limited to what could be communicated on a paper page. But this isn’t limiting us.

The first logical jump is to use more pictures. (Which also works in traditional print-able rules, btw). For instance, Revolution Rumble uses pictures to help clarify the definitions of technical terms used.

The cutting tournament rules for Helsinki Longsword Open go a step further, with the list displayed in a compact, skim-able section and an option to expand for more details and helpful pictures if clarification is needed. These rules used technology really well to balance making the document an easy read and incorporating additional detail for those who need it.  

Note: This is over and above what I would consider a reasonable level of attention for rules document formatting.

You can go even further by adding multimedia. I don’t mean a video explaining the rules, which is an adjacent aid that is outside the scope of this article. AG Open included inline video clips to help clarify the parts that were difficult to explain with words.


In summary, don’t think of your rules document as just a place to dump all your rules details in a bullet list that has like 5 layers of indentation. This is a document that is meant to:

  1. Effectively communicate the most important details as quickly as possible to your entire list of participants, without having them give up because everything is buried.
  2. Contain sufficient detail to satisfy those who want to read more in depth.

So while collapsable sub-sections and video inserts are an extreme example of preparing a document, there is no reason you can’t effectively communicate the most important features of the tournament within a page or two.

Now that you are an expert at documenting your rules, go forth and communicate all your amazing ideas to your tournament participants with maximum effect!