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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.