How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 2

Aw-noThis is the second of a three-part rant discussion on things publishers do that turn me right off their role-playing games.

Naturally, a single mistake probably won’t do it unless it’s ginormous and egregious, but a few too many and I’ll move on to the next game on my long wish list.

2. Readability

A big challenge in role-playing games is that they are usually read several times in greatly differing circumstances.

  • The leisurely reading you do on the bus when you just received your book from a Kickstarter campaign.
  • The selective reading you do to familiarize yourself with the setting and make a character for next Friday’s meeting with your gaming group.
  • The studious reading your friend is doing to prep for that same game as game-master.
  • The frantic reading in the middle of a game session to locate a particular piece of information or interpret a rule.

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to address all these needs; for example, a book may be perfectly well organized to present the setting information in an orderly fashion, but make it a nightmare to retrieve in a hurry at the game table. Today, I want to examine the ease of reading proper, all the kinds of reading we do when we are not actually playing.

Bad writing and/or editing

Writing is the voice, face and personality of your game; bad writing means we don’t want to get to know your game any further. And editing doesn’t only mean correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation; it also means someone with a sharp eye and sound judgment working on the organization of the book — precisely to handle the special challenges we’ve been talking about. It also means harmonizing the various parts written at different times often by different writers: the setting information, game mechanics, play examples, fiction, sample characters, etc.

Assuming your book passed the first-impression test, we come to the actual reading: your intended reader peruses the book to get familiar with the materials inside and hopefully to prepare for a game. The typical gamer will be skimming to at least grasp the gist of the rules, get a thumbnail of the setting, and find out how to make a character. If they have more time and interest, they will then go read in more detail on the setting and rules. People who start at page 1 and read sequentially until they reach the index exist, but they are a minority and they don’t do it for every game (I say confidently as I glance at my shelf.)

This means that publishers, editors, writers, and layout artists need to consider a few tricks to help orient the reader to the information they seek: table of contents, index, clear headings, summary pages, call-outs, “see page XX,” schematics, flowcharts, text boxes, and so forth. These in turn mean a lot of pre-press checking.

Bad: Good:

The original edition of Immortal was so poorly written and edited as to be incomprehensible.
The original edition of Immortal was so poorly written and edited as to be incomprehensible.

Atomic Robo cover
Atomic Robo is clearly written and organized, full of cross-references to help locate information.

Massive data downloads without gameable content

Most setting books are guilty of this, especially when they include multi-page timelines detailing the history of the world. Not only is it tedious to slog through, it makes it hard to find again that one piece of information you thought you could use in your game, and it makes extra work for the GM remembering all this and figuring out how to introduce it in their game.

When I say “gameable content” I mean that I’m looking for plot hooks, key concepts, text boxes with NPC bios and stat blocks, short examples of play that could be inspired by the material, examples of powers, feats, stunts or other mechanical bits that could relate to the info presented, etc.

Bad: Good:

The 1st edition of Iron Kingdoms' opens with a long treatise on the cosmology and astronomy of the setting. The 2nd edition starts with 41 pages of history. The otherwise lovely Nine Worlds has a 28-page timeline in a 164-page book. I've never been able to get through it. Interface Zero's Fate edition starts with a 28-page setting and timeline section that is all data download, no gameable content.
The 1st edition of Iron Kingdoms‘ opens with a long treatise on the cosmology and astronomy of the setting. The 2nd edition starts with 41 pages of history.

Over The Edge, Mythic Russia, Mutants & Masterminds: Freedom City and most Ars Magica sourcebooks are chock-full of setting yet it's all gameable content. Hollow Earth Expedition and Castle Falkenstein have setting-only sections but their in actionable gazetteer format: short sections, easy to navigate, lots of plot hooks. The Firefly RPG has a 130-page episode guide brimming with plot ideas, NPCs, examples of play, etc.
The Firefly RPG has a 130-page episode guide brimming with plot ideas, NPCs, examples of play, etc.

More bad: The otherwise lovely Nine Worlds has a 28-page timeline without gameable content in a 164-page book. Interface Zero‘s Fate edition starts with a 28-page setting and timeline section that is all data download.

More good: Over The Edge, Mythic Russia, Mutants & Masterminds: Freedom City or most Ars Magica sourcebooks are chock-full of setting yet it’s all gameable content. Hollow Earth Expedition and Castle Falkenstein have setting-only sections but they are in actionable gazetteer format.

Lack of research

Creating a game requires lots of hard work, including research. Mastering your topic includes at least:

  • Genre: Whether high fantasy, spy thrillers, Iron Age superheroes, or transhuman science fiction, you should be comfortable with the characteristics and history of the genre.
  • Setting, including real-world inspirations: If you are drawing, directly or obliquely, from real cultures, history, people, locations, and so forth, please don’t reduce them to caricatures by assuming you can get your information from Wikipedia or an old GURPS supplement.
  • Other games tackling a similar scope: After 40 years of role-playing games, yours is unlikely to be the first to tackle a particular setting or or genre. Check where predecessors succeeded or failed, and learn from them.
  • Probabilities: You should get a good understanding of mathematical probabilities underlying your game mechanics; too many designers come up with cutesie mechanics without realizing that mathematically, they suck.

Knowledge of these basics will help you navigate between clichés and tropes, and answer in advance the questions a well-informed reader would bring up.

Bad: Good:

7th Sea presented an exciting but poorly researched mish-mash of three centuries and dozens of countries.
7th Sea presented a pulpy mish-mash of three centuries and dozens of countries.

Nyambe
Nyambe is rich with detailed, varied, nuanced background.

More bad: TSR’s Oriental Adventures for real-world source material; Earthdawn, Thousand Suns, the original Deadlands for poor grasp of probabilities; the typical fantasy heartbreaker for lack of knowledge of related games.

More good: Godlike, 4th and 5th edition Ars Magica sourcebooks generally show exquisite research into historical sources; Mutants & Masterminds, Truth & Justice share comprehensive understanding of the superhero genre.

Fiction poisoning

Sure, some fiction can help establish the setting and get the reader excited about playing the game. I know that a lot of RPG writers also just enjoy writing fiction; moreover, it’s handy for publishers because it can be assigned to any writer without needing to coordinate too closely with other sections (or so they think.)

But let’s face it, I don’t pick up this book so I can enjoy your beautiful prose; I read it so my friends and I can have our own exciting adventures. Keep the fiction short or break it into small pieces, and only include it if it’s truly well written.

Bad: Good:

The interminable self-fan-fiction filler in sourcebook-heavy lines like Legends of the Five Rings, Vampire, etc.
Sourcebooks for Legends of the Five Rings contained reams of mediocre fiction often colliding with the mechanics.

Greg Stolze's "Legacy" in Unknown Armies, Jenna Moran's stories in Weapons of the Gods, Bill Bridges' continuing travel journals of Brother Alustro in the Fading Suns sourcebooks.
Jenna Moran’s stories in Weapons of the Gods were well-written, flavourful, and provided good sense of the setting.

More bad: The interminable self-fan-fiction filler in sourcebook-heavy lines like Vampire, classic Deadlands, etc.

More good: Greg Stolze’s “Legacy” in Unknown Armies, Bill Bridges’ continuing travel journals of Brother Alustro in Fading Suns sourcebooks.

Poor legibility on a tablet or e-reader

I love my Kindle Fire tablet, it has given new life to over a decade of accumulated ebooks on my hard drive. Even if I have the print book at the table, I like having it on my tablet too for quick reference. But with a 7 in. (175 mm) screen, not all PDF layouts work well (naturally, .mobi and .ePub files are generally fine.)

I mentioned in Part 1 that column layouts are a hassle; I will add distressed fonts (a.k.a. ripped, grunge or rough), very small fonts, colour page backgrounds, and of course larger page formats.

Bad: Good:
2016-06-24 13.07.53 InSpectres-tablet

WoD-screencap
The World of Darkness uses a variety of distressed fonts and two-column layout on a large page. I find it difficult to read in both print and ebook. (Note that these photos show up larger than my original tablet screen.)

InSpectres-screencap
Despite its age, InSpectres continues to provide easy reading on my tablet. I’m showing landscape orientation for comparison with WoD, but I can read it full-page in portrait view.

Locked ebook

A PDF that doesn’t allow page export or sometimes even copy-paste is no friend of the GM. A major reason for getting the ebook version of game is to prepare game notes and handouts. If I have to retype everything, the electronic version loses a lot of its usefulness.

Besides, the truth is that it does not even hamper piracy. There is always a workaround, it’s merely an annoyance and waste of time. And if I can get around your restrictions to print a few character sheets and a map, you can bet pirates can get your file unlocked in a jiffy.

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7 thoughts on “How to discourage me from playing your game – Part 2

  1. Thanks for the nods to Ars Magica– I only worked on a portion of the line, but we did research the heck out of our stuff and packed those things full of story seeds.

    -Ben.

  2. I agree with a lot of this article. My only issue would be that I don’t think it’s automatically a bad thing to have a gonzo historical mish-mash, so long as you’re not presenting things as historically accurate. I’m working on a campaign set in Not-Japan with a bunch of anachronisms (Imperial court set up like in the Nanboku-cho periord but there’s no shogun yet, while the military situtation and level of foreign contact is clearly patterened after the Azuchi Momoyama period). This is because I want a maximum level of dramatic conflict in both political and military arenas.

    I’m not representing it as an accurate depiction of how things were, but I am going to be faithful to technical details.

    1. As mentioned, it’s the poor research I object to, not the mish-mash. For example, it’s one thing to decide to have Roman legions meet with Chinese Imperial armies on a grand scale, it’s another not to care about the difference between Korea and Japan.

    2. Genre mashing is great! TORG’s “Cyberpapacy was one of the most innovative settings I had encountered at the time and still ranks among my favorites. And it was perfectly acceptable for the high flying, “we’re all big damned heroes” feel of TORG. There was a touch of realism (the setting was modern France, albeit somewhat modified by the reality of the cyberpapacy) but there wasn’t much of an attempt to make things historically accurate – just an occasional nod.

      What I think Sophie is talking about is trying to use historical material without really understanding the setting. If you are pitching your campaign on things like being set in 1950’s Tibet it is not unlikely that your players are going to do at least a 5 minute internet search on 1950’s Tibet so that they can come up with interesting characters that fit the campaign. If they discover that your campaign is missing many or most of the ingredients that make 1950’s Tibet interesting, they are going to a) feel let down, and b) wonder why you are setting the game in 1950’s Tibet if you don’t know the basics of what was going on in Tibet in the 1950’s.

      Same with readers looking at a product. If you can pick up an RPG about 1950’s Tibet and immediately spot errors in the research, it’s going to decrease interest in the product unless there are good and obvious reasons.

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