How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 1

Scary-BookI’m a gaming junkie, especially where it comes to role-playing games. I’ve been gaming for decades, I have played or run at least 177 RPGs as of this writing, not counting different editions, playtests, or homebrews, and my shelves are overflowing with more I have yet to play. All this to say, I want to love your game. But it’s amazing how many published games still turn me right off because of mistakes that could be avoided with moderate effort, and sometimes even quite easily.

Not that that writing games is that easy, I know! There will be competing objectives, budget and schedule considerations, and so forth. But there are also some elements that can be incorporated in the planning, and hurdles that are make-or-break. In our cottage industry of devoted hobbyists, some mistakes are being made over and over. Even free games can be ruined so thoroughly by some of these mistakes that they lose the chance for a good review, which can’t be why you’re putting them out there!

One big challenge for game publishers is that there are several ways to approach the reader or, if you want, several opportunities to lose a gamer, so let’s look at them separately.

I’ll post the other sections over the the next few days.

[Edit: Traduction française disponible chez ptgptb.]

1. First Impressions

The initial impression is often formed very rapidly — when picking up a book from the shelf at a friendly local gaming store, glimpsing a Website ad, borrowing a friend’s tome at the game table, and so forth. If pick up a book, I look at the front and back covers, then the the credits page, the character sheet, and I flip through the pages. If it’s online I browse through the preview if there is one, I read the description, look at any images associated with the book, and check out reviews. Here are ways you can lose me right then and there; as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

No pitch up-front

If I can’t figure out what the game is about, that bodes ill. There are different ways of conveying this info briefly; for example, some will have a pitch formulated much like the proposal for a new television series. Others will answer the three (four!) questions made popular by Jared Sorensen and John Wick: What is this game about? How does the game do that? What behaviours does the game reward? How does it make that fun?

At the very least, I should get a sense of what the characters are supposed to do, what kind of adventures they’ll have. Or, if your game is setting-less, you should give me a sense of what it does that will make it fun in some typical gaming romps.

Bad: Good:
IZ-cover Magpie Games' Cartel. It's right there on the cover in a few words.

Interface Zero, Fate Edition: There is no pitch. Nowhere do we get told "What the characters do" -- not on the cover, not in the introduction, not in the main text. We have to infer it from the setting's resemblance to other games.
Interface Zero, Fate Edition: There is no pitch. Nowhere do we get told “What the characters do” — not on the cover, not in the introduction, not in the main text. We have to infer it from the setting’s resemblance to other games.

Magpie Games’ Cartel. It’s right there on the cover in a few words, plus an explicit pitch in the introduction.


White dudes everywhere

If the illustrations shows shows little but white men, if the play examples or intro fiction are all about guys, I know I’m not the target audience. You’re talking to somebody else and I will leave your book on the shelf. If I flip to the credits page and I see nothing but men on the creative team, it may not be a show-stopper but it will be a red flag and I will look at everything with suspicion.

If you want to grow your game’s market, please show lots of characters with a variety of features, skin tones, body types, genders, and yes, physical disabilities. Those of us who aren’t white dudes will get an inkling that this game may in fact not shut us out.

Bad: Good:

It was so hard to pick just one cover.
Slipstream: Nothing but male-looking characters, centered on a white dude.

Tianxia Front Cover
Tianxia: That cover sold me on the Kickstarter.

It was so hard to pick examples; there are so very many available for white-dudes only, I had forgotten how many among even the games I enjoy actually offer piss-poor representation. Conversely, for the “good” example of diversity I had a number of choices, but all from a handful of publishers, and I’m trying to also be representative of a wider range range of publishers.

Poor and/or sleazy art

I wish this went without saying, but it most certainly needs to be said: if the illustrations show women as if they were all porn stars(1), you’re failing at art direction. If the illustrations evokes the question “Do I want to tap that?” rather than “Do I want to be that character?”, your illustrations do nothing good for the game.

Bad: Good:

Ah, Mongoose, you never really change, do you?


And if you think you can’t afford good quality art, you need to rethink your budget and project. Having crap art is worse than no art; here are a few things you can do:

  • Check what is available in royalty-free and public domain art.
  • Use a competent layout artist. Good spot black & white art with a solid layout can do wonders.
  • A lot of fantastic game artists offer affordable stock and custom illustrations; talk to them.
  • Learn how to provide good art specs.
  • And pay your artists!

Poor layout

Visual appeal doesn’t just mean how many illustrations you have or whether your book is in colour versus black and white. While we regularly see threads on game forums where grognards swear up and down that they’d rather have edge-to-edge print than pay a little more, they are not the people you need to reach. Layout is even more important than art because it controls how legible your text is. Sometimes a layout can be attractive but make reading difficult because of the colour, font size and type, margin size, and so forth. A word here on column layout: it is hell to read on smaller tablets and I can’t recommend enough against it.

Bad: Good:

Tiny fonts, columns within boxes staggered within columns.
Hillfolk: Tiny fonts, columns within boxes staggered within columns.

Night Witches: Clean. crisp, easy to identify sections and headings.
Night Witches: Clean. crisp, easy to identify sections and headings.

Poor physical quality

Printing, binding, paper grade all contribute to the impression formed. If you are using print-on-demand in particular, order some proofs and careful evaluate the result. If some text gets too close to edges, grey shades are muddled, or the spine falls apart apart when you crack the books open, consider modifying your layout or changing your print options.

Bad: Good:

The original Castle Falkenstein was a nice-looking hard-bound book but its binding fell apart in a matter of days.
The original Castle Falkenstein was a nice-looking hard-bound book but its binding fell apart in a matter of days.

The Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game is an absolutely luscious book to hold in your hands.
The Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game is an absolutely luscious book to hold in your hands.

Expensive ebook

This is a tricky issue and I won’t pick fights about it. However, if you want me to check out your game, the best entry point is a low-price ebook. Most of the books I buy in print are ones I checked out in ebook format first, and this pattern has been true for several years now. It doesn’t have to be the full game; a good-quality, representative quick-start adventure is sufficient.

Another solution is to offer a discount on the print book for those who have purchased the ebook first. A number of publishers off clicks-and-mortar-type discounts, but typically they offer a free or inexpensive ebook if you have purchased the print version, which is the opposite of my buying patterns.

Any game that asks me for $25 upfront for a PDF is going to remain off my buying list, regardless of any arguments about the intrinsic worth of print versus electronic publishing. If that means I’m not the target market, so be it.(2)

Free should not mean mediocre

Having talked about ebook prices and probably angered many people, I will now double down by talking about the quality of some free games. That sounds arrogant, I know, but hear me out: even if you plan from day one to offer your game as a free download and never mean to make a penny from it, it still represents you. And it still needs to provide usability to the reader, or why would you even publish it? There are a lot of free open-source software options, a lot of fellow fans who may be happy to help you, etc., so identify the help you need and explore solutions.

Bad: Good:

A page from Kapow!
A table from Kapow!

Lady Blackbird
A table from Lady Blackbird

No, I don’t expect everyone to gives us free gems like John Harper’s, but I do want to illustrate the range achievable.


(1) This is not a value judgment on actual persons who work in the sex industry, but on the inappropriateness of using these trappings for unrelated game content and particularly to portray all female characters. Return
(2) On the other side, I will not play a pirated game. Yes, on occasion a GM friend has supplied me with a PDF so I could play but if I liked the game enough to keep playing after checking it out, I then bought it fair and square. Return

19 thoughts on “How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 1

  1. I also think that if you by an ebook version of a game it should come in 3 formats: pdf, mobi and epub. Because pdf are hard to read on a tablet, and I don’t really want to print eveery game i buy. Mobis and epubs are much more tablet friendly.

    1. You make many excellent points. I enjoyed all three parts very much. Thank you!

      (Incidentally, you may wish to edit your posts soon so as not to distract your readers from your points. The paragraph under “Poor Physical Quality” is particularly egregious, but there are errors throughout your three-part essay.)

    2. I don’t think ebooks “should” come in multiple formats because that is an expense and only the publisher can decide whether there is budget and it’s worth it for them. However, tablet-friendly versions are my favourite stretch goal for crowdfunding campaigns.

  2. Finally, this had to be said about Hillfolk!! I first got the PDF version and it was sheer an impossible task to read the book. If you zoom into the basic text font you see why: They seem to use a slab serif font (normally used for titles) in the main text! This is horrible and irritating.
    Thankfully, I got a used copy of the hardcover book and the reading experience was somewhat better for this otherwise great game.

    1. First, let me say that I love Hillfolk as a system. I ran a year-long campaign and would gladly run another.

      That said, I found the book to be one of the most overproduced monstrosities ever. The tiny typeface and hard-to-read layout were nothing short of shameful, particularly for a work that received so much financial backing. I understand that there are always questions of fitting the work into the page count and a million other considerations, but for the amount that the Kickstarter project earned I would have vastly preferred a product that was somewhat less gorgeous (and it was, indeed, a thing of beauty as art) and had more utilitarian value as a game product.

  3. To the gentleman who just left the following comment:

    You know, I had what I thought was a well thought out and reasoned response to your point #2, but deleted it, because quite frankly I guess I feel it would be shouted down.

    Dang. It would have been nice to have a discussion about it, but I guess I’m now geared to think the crowd is already hostile to such discussions.

    Weird. And yes, I’m 100% serious, and this is not a trolling comment. If you’d like to discuss it, I’d be happy to take the risk and post.:)

    Feel free to submit your well thought-out comments, but the post is about things that discourage ME from playing a game. You’re entirely welcome to have a different list, but that doesn’t change how I feel.

    1. Hey, thank you so much! Seriously. Very cool.

      I’m certainly not out to change your mind. It’s yours, and really, ultimately, it’s up to you to change anything you like.

      I just enjoy the discourse, to be honest.

      So, point #2… quite honestly, I agree 100% with what you said in the 2nd paragraph. You are spot on. And since I prefer to live in a “but-less” world* my wish would be for the following:

      The 1st paragraph of #2 is completely unnecessary. In fact, it seems to detract from the strength of the 2nd, and in some cases, would work against the very good point you’re making. Labeling #2 “Not Embracing Diversity” (or something similar) and then using just the second paragraph makes it inclusive for pretty much everyone, including white dudes (of which, full-disclosure, I am one, though not in the negative connotation implied by the title of #2). The perceived attack against white dudes hurts the rest of the piece in my opinion (it has to be my opinion, as we can’t factually prove it hurts the rest of your piece. Totes cool if you disagree, I could be completely wrong), because any reasonable arguments you make after #2 are likely to be colored in the reader’s mind (“neat piece, but yikes, she don’t like white males.”) and thus affect their willingness to share the piece for the wrong reasons (as sharing your thoughts with the world is kind of the purpose of every blog, no?). Which is exactly how I found this. It was shared by a person who labeled point #2 as both racist and sexist (as opposed to someone who would have shared this saying, “an excellent rundown on making your RPG more appealing). Granted, it intrigued me to read, but I went into it for the wrong reasons, and because of your perceived anger, I am less inclined to respect your opinion, and give you the impartial chance and fair shot I would imagine you’d want (maybe you don’t. I don’t know you).

      If any of this ramble makes sense. 🙂

      Anyway, just my take on it. Grain of salt and all that. This certainly isn’t an attack on you, or your opinions, but if we can’t throttle back on the hostility from all sides (regardless of the “rightness” of it or not), the hobby is going to continue to go in the crapper, with everyone way too mad to play with one another.

      Finally (and this isn’t a virtue signal or anything), out of the 3 of my favorite RPGs ever, only one had a white dude, and he technically was an undead of sorts (Deadlands 1st ed), so I’m not sure if gender even matters, though he/it is most decidedly white. The other 2 (BattleTech & Earthdawn) didn’t have any dudes on the cover (giant battle machine & some sort of monster). I guess it was never a big deal for me, but doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be (and clearly is) for you. :shrug:

      *but-less world. A marketing consultant taught me a great lesson a long time ago about offering feedback. People will often say, “It was great, buuuuut…” and of course, people never remember the positive portion of the feedback, just the “but.” So he encouraged us to live in a “but-less” world. Yes, offer feedback,positive and constructive. Instead of saying “but” say “my wish for you” or “my wish would be.” Has it always worked? Certainly not. Did it work better than saying “but?” In my experience, always.

      Thanks again, and I hope you have a great night. Please pardon the txt wall, and kudos for being willing to listen. That is a rare trait on today’s internet.

      1. Hi again. Despite the influx of trolls from 8chan caught by WordPress’s filters in the last few days, I decided to let your comment through because I looked up common friends and you appear to be who you say you are. Regrettably, your comment hits on points I (and millions of women, persons of colour, LGBTQ, disabled, and visible minority people) have answered so often, we are exhausted of repeating. In short:

        (1) The tone argument is a derail. Here is a comprehensive discussion.

        (2) My tone was not strong nor vulgar. It was simply not mollycoddling. In this post I’m not asking, pleading, or supplicating for the reader’s agreement; I’m telling. I’m expressing my turn-offs, and publishers are free to consider them or not, depending on who they want as target market.

        (3) I’ve already posted more kumbaya posts on the topic. Here are two recent ones here and here.

        (4) The “nice” tone doesn’t suffice. Anyone over the age of fourteen has seen the arguments presented in the “nice” tone, because we’re constantly responding to the same arguments, over and over again. The only way an adult can be shocked by my tone coming to this version is if they have remained oblivious to the bazillion times they saw the nicer form before.

        (5) My point about art was not solely targeting game covers, though of course that’s what one sees first. I’m talking about thumbing through a book.

        (6) Given the array of books I talked about, both praising and criticizing, and the wider range of games I talk about on this site, I’m at a loss as to why some commenters decided that I hated all white men. I said: “If the illustrations shows shows little but white men, if the play examples or intro fiction are all about guys, I know I’m not the target audience.” Anyone who labels this sexist or racist is using their own very special definition of the word. Incidentally, I’ve been able to track all such commenters back to 8chan, so you might not want to put too much stock in that person you mentioned. MRAs have their own agenda and there will be no meeting of the minds here.

      2. I have a few comments on this, but before I make any of them I want to make sure that we are on the same page, so to speak.

        I noticed one comment in your post that I am not sure that I understand, and wanted to get some clarification on it.

        “the hobby is going to continue to go in the crapper,”

        Now I live on the left coast, so my experience may not be representative, but to my mind the hobby is doing well at the moment. Despite some pushback from “old guard” types – which is to be expected from any sort of attempt at change – things seem to be blooming right now. I am seeing a larger and more diverse crowd at gaming sessions and conventions, the hobby seems to be branching out in lots of neat directions, and given the state of the economy sales seem to be doing OK.

        Is there something I am missing, or that my Bay Area perspective isn’t seeing or experiencing?

      3. Since it seems I cannot comment on your reply, I’ll post it here after mine. 🙂

        I know it’s been months, but I was cleaning up old email, saw I had this as unread, thought about it all and realized I owe you an apology, Mechanteanemone.

        I made the grievous mistake of simply wanting to ask you a question, and instead turned it into a critique (a well-intentioned and not mean spirited critique, but a critique) of a portion of your piece. I allowed myself to delve too far into things, rather than keep it simple and to the point, and ultimately distracting both of us.

        And for that, I apologize. I hope what I wrote didn’t cause you any undue stress or mess with your day/head/whatever. I hope you’re doing well, having wonderfully fun games and making memories that will last a lifetime.

        Have an excellent 2017.

      4. For Edmund…

        Also, old email that was never read… apologies on the ridiculous lateness, but you too deserve an answer.

        The “crapper” comment was a piece of editing that should have occurred on my part, and been fixed up to be more clear. It was born out of my frustration of the incredibly skewed perspective on gaming I see on social media, particularly Twitter, where there is a tremendous amount of antagonistic behavior.

        I agree with your statement about the rise of diversity in the tabletop community and couldn’t agree with you more as to how much of a Good Thing this is. A Really Good Thing.

        I guess the “crapper” was the idea/thought that politics would take precedence over fellowship at the table top.

        Hope that explains things. Have a great day, and better games!

  4. Hi, this is David Jarvis, of Gun Metal Games. I want to take a moment to thank you for spotlighting Interface Zero 2.0. I’m taking your comments to heart, and we’re working on fixing this issue. The PDF will be updated to include a section outlining what the game is, and what characters generally do in the setting.

    Thanks so much!

    1. This is what a game designer should be. Proactive and receptive to suggestions and criticism. (I realize I’m late to the discussion, but I only just came across this blog.

  5. Many years ago OBS said it was working on a mechanism where purchases of the PDF could get the POD at a discount (although this was actually before they provided the option of POD in the first place). Apparently the publishers using their service objected (or at least did not provide them with the incentive to pursue this idea).

    Which given the fact that many PDF are often offered at a steep discount eventually (since they have no resale value “and will eventually be pirated”), may make a certain economic sense, but is still quite irritating.

    But still, especially when you consider shipping, the purchase of a physical book is extremely expensive, I also buy the PDF and then the book only if I am actively going to use the game at the table, so I was quite looking forward to this (especially since the POD printers they use in Europe charge 1/3rd the cost shipping of books from the US).

    [Although personally I’ll scream if yet another Kickstarter project sends me a discount coupon for the PDF that reduces the cost of the book beneath the price I paid as part of the Kickstarter in order to “celebrate the completion of the project.”]

    Simply put, the publishers don’t really believe that the PDF have any real value after it is created.

  6. I cannot say how much I agree with you on layout. In age and the majority of my gaming preferences I fall into Grognard territory, but I have never liked edge-to-edge text. Flow is so important and I want the process of reading the manual to be a pleasure, not work. Especially now when due to other time commitments I spend more time reading game manuals for pleasure than I do getting to use them at the table.

    I also appreciate your comments on small spot art. Eyes get tired and even simple graphics slipped in here and there are refreshing. TSR knew that back in the days of 1st Ed D&D but not all designers seem to have remembered it.

    I will add that as a rule it’s best to avoid watermarking pages. If you absolutely must put graphics under the text, please keep it simple and pay attention to contrast.

    I’ve enjoyed this article a lot.

  7. Oh geeze, I didn’t realize how old this post is! I found it from a link on another blog. I usually don’t comment on posts this old! But yes, great article. Just reading part 2 now.

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