I spent a chunk of yesterday reading old roleplaying manuals. Partly this is a search for ideas for Heroes By Trade and partly it is just to stroke my ego when I look at the terrible design decisions made by the game designers of yore.
One of the things that really struck me when I was reading Heroes Unlimited (A Palladium RPG) was that they focused so heavily on lists rather than systems. They have dozens of different guns in the book, pages and pages of rifles, shotguns, pistols, military grade machineguns, etc. and yet when I tried to figure out the mechanics of actually using one of those guns I came up empty. You would think that if a book is going to devote several pages to listing all of the handguns in the world (keeping in mind that they mostly have identical stats except for the price tag) you would find space to tell me how to shoot one... or at least you would, in the modern day of gaming.
My theory is this: Back in the seventies and eighties you didn't find out about RPGs and learn them from nowhere, you learned them from friends. You didn't need much in the way of examples because the games were largely taught through a network and so it was reasonable to assume that players would simply ask the veteran how something worked. This is especially true in a system like Palladium where somebody had probably played that same system in a different setting. But you know what you do need? Lists of handguns! You can't just hop on the internet and type in 'list of handguns' and get 100 cool guns you can have your hero use. That sort of information is tough to come by.
Fast forward to now, and having lists of guns in a roleplaying manual is kind of silly. If they are all mechanically identical then I can simply Google handgun, pick something out, and go with it. What I do need is really good examples of play so that if I just pick up the game from an online store or a recommendation on a website I can figure out how to play. I certainly might learn the game from a friend, but there is a much greater chance that I stumble upon it randomly and don't have anyone to walk me through the basics.
So while I think it is pretty silly that old games so often had such problems with incomplete or unclear rules and such devotion to lists of gadgets I think that a big part of that really can be explained by cultural context instead of incompetence. I know that in HBT I rarely bother with lists of things because I see little point in taking up valuable book real estate with such trivialities. However, I make it a point to fill the book with examples after every rule so that people can easily see them in action. If done right it can be both a way to establish clarity of the rules and also build in a bit of lore at the same time.
It is a bit like looking at a cylinder. Look at it from the end and it seems like a circle. Look at it from the side and it appears as a rectangle. To my mind examples and rules are like looking at a cylinder from two different viewpoints so that you can fully understand the thing you are considering. It is important to have *both* the clear statement of the rule to resolve cases in future that the example might not cover as well as the example so the obvious cases don't get misinterpreted.
Or, if you are Gary Gygax, you just put a Glaive-Guisarme into the rules, spend a good chunk of a page describing the history of it, and stick numbers on it so that it is never, ever used. Either way.