How to discourage me from playing your game: Part 3

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

[Edit: Traduction française disponible chez ptgptb.]

A big challenge in role-playing games is that they are usually read several times in greatly differing circumstances. In this section I focus on their ease of use at the game table. I’m not talking about system choices and mechanics, but strictly about how well the book supports game play.

3. Use in Play

At the game table, the reader will be trying to find specific information quickly, particularly rules information.

Poor organization for reference during play

As I said in Part 2, I know this is no small challenge. There are many ways to fail, few to succeed, and there will always be some readers for who your game structure doesn’t work. But it’s worth putting a lot of effort into, because that’s the purpose of the game as written: to be understood and then be played!

Cross-references (e.g., “For more on Equipment, see page XX”) can be very useful, but only if you have not scattered the information in too many places. If your setting and rules are intricately tied and constantly reference one another, for example, consider adding summary boxes, pull-out cheat sheets, and other play aids.

Bad: Good:

Burning Empires cover
The size and organization of Burning Empires make it a challenge to use at the game table to look up specific information.

Thanks to its clear organization and layout, it’s easy to find my way around Fate Core during the game.

Hard-to-find headings

Yep, layout again! Good visual contrast between headings and main text, legible and well-identified inset boxes, and other such tricks make it easier to navigate a game book quickly. I can’t say enough about the importance of good layout.

Bad: Good:

Torchbearer headings
Torchbearer is trying to evoke early editions of D&D and other old school games, so the vintage look took precedence over functionality.

Blue Planet Player's Guide headings
Blue Planet v2 uses font contrast to differentiate headings from text: size and weight, black versus regular, sans-serif versus serif, etc.

Poor use of font colour: the blue headings in Numenéra are poorly differentiated from the background.
Poor use of font colour: the blue headings in Numenéra are poorly differentiated from the background.

Font colour makes the heading levels and tables pop in The Warren.
Font colour makes the heading levels and tables pop in The Warren.

More deference to fictional voices than readers’ convenience

By this I mean what happens when the authors and editors are so in love with the narrative voice(s) used to convey setting material that maintaining that front unblemished and consistent becomes more important than giving the reader the information needed. When Narrator Character wouldn’t know about the metaplot, so they can only drop hints…

This is like the little brother to the fiction overload I was describing in Part 2, except that instead of just taking up valuable page space, it creeps all around the text and muddles things so you can’t tell what’s fiction, what’s setting content, and what’s just plain BS.

Bad: Good:

Tribe 8 cover
The original edition of Tribe 8 was written from the point of view of unreliable narrators (and in tiny font.) It made it hard to locate specific information in play.

Castle Falkenstein cover
Although Castle Falkenstein is written from the point of view of fictional character Tom Olam, it makes sense and is clear on what is setting and what is rules content.

Ebooks: No bookmarking or poor bookmarking

This is 2016 and no one at my day job has yet figured out that Adobe Acrobat does bookmarks, but we’re geeks and we know better. It pisses me off when I get a largish ebook file without bookmarks, or with nothing but “Chapter 1, Chapter 2” to identify what bookmarks are there. If I’m going to use the file a lot, I actually spend the time to bookmark it myself, but that’s just silly. PDF, ePub, mobi files can and should all be fully bookmarked.

Bad: Good:
The Laundry RPG cover Leverage RPG cover

The Laundry RPG has no bookmarks to offer for its 289 pages.
The Laundry RPG has no bookmarks to offer for its 289 pages.
Leverage RPG bookmarks

No index

Gamers have been complaining for a long time about books without an index. I’ll grant, however, that this this is a bigger challenge for publishers: it takes time and money to build an index. I recommend making it pay for itself by using this step of the process as quality control: build the index, then work with it as you’re filling all the “see page XX” cross-references.

I also recommend building a master list of terms to check for when creating the index, using terms that gamers are likely to search for. For example, regardless of the specific terms used in your system, people will probably look for words like damage, healing, equipment, gear, experience, advancement, etc.

Bad: Good:

Neither the 1st nor the 2nd edition of Thrilling Tales has an index.
Neither the first nor the second edition of Thrilling Tales (257 pages) has an index.

The One Ring cover
The One Ring‘s index is extensive, which greatly helps considering how much material the book contains.

No character sheet or play aids

Gamers are accustomed to seeing the appendix section of a game book offer a blank character sheet and often other play aids such as example characters, character and setting creation worksheets, rules summaries, etc. But sometimes a publisher is unable to include these for logistic reasons: for example, it might blow the page count and affect budget, or perhaps, the schedule doesn’t allow the creation of these play aids in time to go to press.

That’s okay! You have a second chance: make these available online as soon as you can. This even allows you to post the play aids one at a time when they are ready, rather than wait for all of them. If you are prompt in offering the minimum expected, particularly the character sheet, fans will forgive you.

Bad: Good:

Serenity RPG cover
Not only did the Serenity RPG not include even a character sheet, it took nearly a year to have one available online.

Dungeon World offers play aids in the book and a collection of downloads from its website.
Dungeon World offers play aids in the book and a collection of downloads from its website.

Edit: A final word about the examples used in this series

For those who take offence at seeing particular titles used as examples of “bad”, understand that honest critique is a tool to improve. Please note also that some titles or publishers appear in both the “good” and “bad” columns.

I tried to draw from a variety of eras, genres, production values, and publishers, and as much as possible to pair titles that had something in common that helped comparison.

10 thoughts on “How to discourage me from playing your game: Part 3

  1. The older I get, the more the layout & font issues bug me (even moreso given that I started my career umpty-ump years ago as a DTP person [for TSR UK of all places, which quickly cured me of ever wanting to work in the games industry]). Nowadays my eyes aren’t as good and my glasses apparently aren’t up to par… We bought Descent (board game) and I simply cannot read the tiny font on ye olde parchmenty background on its slick (great quality but soooo reflective) paper without having to use my led-lit magnifier. Bah humbug.

    1. It’s kids these days! No respect for their elders! In my day we had to walk six miles each way uphill barefoot over d4s – the pointy kind, not the soft, coddly ones with the corners shaved off by God! – in order to game!

      (I have a problem with those tiny fonts too. “Hillfolk” makes my eyes water if I read too much of it at once.).

  2. You mentioned cut & paste on your last post, and one thing it’s useful for is changing font from a game to maximize readability; it’s also nice to be able to have a “clean” text-only copy free of pretentious backgrounds for both reading and printing.

      1. Sadly the RPG market has not really demonstrated any sort of cost-sustaining levels of interest in ePub/mobi formatted content.

      2. I tend to end up reading the PDFs because the Kindle versions are just *too* bland compared to the rest, and because you seem to lose things like tables and sidebars and what have you, or at least they end up in weird places. Which just goes to show there’s no pleasing some people (like me). 😀

  3. I must disagree with at least part of your critique of Tribe 8.

    Yes, the font size and page layout should constitute a crime against humanity. And the system is, well, antiquated at best. But I thought that for their time they did a pretty good job of separating their fiction from their rules, which they always put in the back of each book, and were laid out with decent headers for easy reference.

  4. Concerning Torchbearer & Blue Planet:

    I have a much harder time to read something like Blue Planet than something like Torchbearer. The reason is quite simple: There are elements distracting me from text. BP has that ugly graphics around the edges of the page. AND those way too big, fat headings!!

    Torchbearer’s headings do not differentiate well from the text, I concede – but compared to BP they are acceptable.

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