Saturday, May 21, 2011

WhyIsThereNoDeadSpaceInVornheim? + More Fiend Folio

Consider the following 3 Fiend Folio do-overs for monsters beginning with the letter "I" a Joesky's rule payment for the stuff in red at the end.

The original Fiend Folio ice lizard is just a baby white dragon. Which you don't need since you can just make a baby white dragon. I made it into a sort of komodo dragon that can walk on water by freezing the surfaces it touches.
The original Imorph is not plastic-surgery software from microsoft, it's a sort of changeling that slowly copies you in combat. Which would be clever if there wasn't already the enveloper and changeling. So this one imitates everybody in the area simultaneously:As should be clear from my picture, while waiting to strike, it hides on the bottom of skateboard decks from the early 1980s.

And, finally, The Iron Cobra needs neither introduction nor renovation:
And now, I talk about to some people about graphic design:

Hey layout nerds: You know why there's no empty space in Vornheim? Because then you can fit more stuff in. You know why everything else you don't like? Because I do like it.

I didn't write it for The Public, I wrote it for me so I could use it and so people as smart as me could use it. If LOTFP calls me up and says "Hey, even though this book is our best-seller, I feel we could be making more money if we could sell it to dumb people used to reading Wired instead of novels who can't see letters when they're near other letters, so let's change it", then I just hang up the phone and Mandy and Viv can just cam for 15 minutes and we make all that money we just lost back.

This isn't my job or how I earn a living, so, paradoxically, I have the unusual freedom to make something good rather than full of WhatAGraphicDesignTextbookTellsUsMakesTheMajorityOfConsumersWantToBuyABook. If I'm lucky enough to have that freedom, why not use it?

Everybody in this cash-starved niche has had to sit through endless bullshit and bloat and bad taste because commercial pressure forced this, that and the otherfuck on products, designers rules, magazines, artists, and whole companies. In Vornheim, you at least have the comfort of knowing that the only reason you're sitting through anything is because it worked better that way for the actual human being who wrote it. Vornheim is only as stupid as I am, not as stupid as the average graphic designer thinks the average consumer is. Be happy for that small favor, if nothing else.

I'd rather make a gorgeous little book that I like that works and that (because it all fits in 64 pages) you can get at a reasonable price than "grow the hobby". Or do what some guy in emo glasses tells me will grow the hobby.


  1. Someone complained about Vornheim? I don't get it. It even smells nice!

  2. It smells FUCKING AWESOME.

    I thought I was weird for noticing that.

    Also, yeah, this is why I like writing text adventures (a niche a whole order of magnitude smaller than OSR). I have a day job. It pays me well. That means during the time I'm not working at it, I can make stuff I want to write, not stuff that I think other people will want to pay for.

    Also also, surely the iMorph is an Apple plastic surgery device, no?

  3. Crap, now I'm going to go smell my copy of Vornheim. You deprave maniacs. Look what you've done to me.

  4. my copy smells like butterscotch scones. or maybe that's the butterscotch scones i just baked.

    either way, i can't imagine complaining about anything about vornheim. it's wonderful. and i'd happily squint these old eyes to read the tiniest font imaginable if you saw fit to cram more wonderful stuff in there.

  5. Ain't no product gonna grow no hobby.


    As someone who actually does like whitespace as a border or delineator for text, you know, aesthetically, I feel like I should try to say something in its defense. But I think what I'm actually pissed off about it is terrible page-texture backgrounds and black page borders for no reason done by people who've never picked up a graphic design textbook. But even companies with access to actual graphic designers ooze doodads and colours and just stuff onto the page for no reason. I don't know. Whatever. It's not like anyone in this hobby does this as their dayjob... or their only dayjob.

  6. But, yeah, aside from WotC and WW, what companies are in a situation to experience commercial pressure?

  7. On the design side, I mean. As opposed to the 'How many can we print?' side.

  8. I wonder where Zak is getting the negative feedback from? Enough to spark a diatribe from him.

  9. @huth

    All of them:

    If there's no graphic design at all, that's because they can't afford it (a commercial concern)

    If they have it, it's usually done in some standardized, not-helpful way because the designer's not trying because s/he's not getting paid well enough to care (commercial concern) or because s/he's "building the portfolio and wants to look "professional" (another commercial concern)

    ...or else the graphic designer just copies something else that sold well (a commercial concern)

    Maybe the phrase I'm looking for is "constraints created by money or lack thereof"

  10. They must have never published a zine. Creating zines taught me how to make a shitload of text and images fit on a few pages. the idea being it was cheap to produce and mail but took a long time to read and digest. There is a lot to be said for having those skillsets in laying out something that is suppose to be both useful but offers something new everytime you look at it.

  11. "As should be clear from my picture, while waiting to strike, it hides on the bottom of skateboard decks from the early 1980s."

    sk8 to create! sk8 to destroy!

  12. What can I say other than "Amen"?

  13. I dunno. I like whitespace because marginalia are fascinating and useful and enable me to enact some sort of ownership over a book - but that's what works for me and how I'd design a paper-words-thing, and it's certainly not out of a sense of professional obligation or desire to mitigate the perceived chore of reading something.

    Also, I award you enormous numbers of bonus points (redeemable for valuable coupons) for "I don't make my living from this and am free to make something good". This is how I've been saying things need to go for ages (certainly longer than I've been saying it publicly) and it's nice to see someone doing it.

  14. I dunno. I like whitespace because marginalia are fascinating and useful and enable me to enact some sort of ownership over a book

    You've got blackspace - master the silver paint pen?

  15. Most RPG material you hand to a designer isn't grappling with a manuscript that's more complicated than two columns of text and the occasional statblock. You're in an unusual place in that you're writing it and doing visual design concurrently. I haven't really noticed any constraints on any of the freelancers or developers I work with that's preventing them from thinking about presenting their information differently, other than lack of gumption to want to do it. The most likely explanation is that they approach it as a writing organization problem, instead of a visual organization problem.

    So I get handed 25 000 words or whatever of sourcebooks in magazine-article sized chapter chunks, and of course it's going to look something like a magazine (header, subheader, sidebar, appropriate illustration in the corner, doodad with text flowing around it). The informational sectioning is already done and design, in this case, is a matter of plugging it in and smoothing it out. Not everything has to be like that, but unless you get the artist or designer talking at stage one, deciding what information goes where, it's not going to happen. The care won't actually cost them much, if anything–this is already a hobby industry with hobby industry prices. If I was charging anyone I worked for the prices they told us to charge in art school I'd never get work. But asking my opinion didn't cost shit, and most people in 'the industry' I know just started with doing shit for free.

    Personally, I'd like any product I'm (wholly) responsible for to resemble Incredible Cross-Sections or an Eyewitness book, but that's me.

    I guess what I'm saying is that, anecdotally, I haven't seen any commercial pressure actually making anyone say 'fuck it, forget my high-falutin' groundbreaking idea, let's do the same old same old.' It's that the idea of alternative design approaches just isn't occurring.

  16. Conversely I think commercial constraints (including the value of a hobbyist's time for nonprofessionals with day-jobs) are actually helping *spur* design innovation, with things like the 1PD format, microlite games or your own 'how do i fit max value into 64 pages' issue.

  17. @huth

    Disagree. People who have no ideas about graphic design SHOULD NOT be allowed near graphic design software or training or jobs. Yet they are, all the time.

    The only reason they -are- is somewhere along the line these "designers" got the idea (from prevailing economic conditions) that they should have a job or skills and so they (idiotically) got them. Then someone hired them--which was a stupid, money-driven thing to do.

    But that's a side issue:

    the point is, for whatever reason, most RPG product is made in a half-assed way and this one isn't and so even if someone somewhere thinks it looks like ass, well at least it's a whole ass.

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  19. Wait, which part are you disagreeing with? That the design decisions start before layout monkeys get involved or that new/different ideas are spurred by new/different problems?

  20. They must have never published a zine.

    The vast majority of RPG products *are* zines. They just act like they're not.

  21. @huth

    ..and why do they act like they're not?

    they want to be "taken seriously"

    that is: commercial pressure

  22. There's two ways in which I don't get how that works.

    One: I'm not sure I've ever run into anyone who wasn't totally upfront about the fact that they started freelance RPGing due to either Alarums & Excursions (which is a zine) or because of something they said on a forum, blogpost or self-published RPG product, or are currently doing all those things now. The entire industry is self-motivated over and above financial concerns, otherwise it wouldn't exist.

    Two: It implies people who make zines do not also take themselves incredibly fucking seriously. Until art schools start teaching the history of RPG design, zines have that covered.

  23. Basically, if any RPG product was done half-assedly (and of course there are definitely many which have, like in everything), it was because it was a half-assed concept brought to fruition. Someone not being able to pay someone else to full-ass their shitty concept is no excuse.

  24. >>But, yeah, aside from WotC and WW, what companies are in a situation to experience commercial pressure?

    Internet blather makes the RPG industry seem much smaller than it is. I'm a micro-publisher and my releases involve investments measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. Second and third tier RPG company releases can easily be a matter of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Hell, Evil Hat recently blogged about getting a six figure tax bill because of their success over the past year, and I don't know that they even have any full-timers.

    Lots of pressure, even on the bottom of the ladder of a small industry.

  25. Hell, Evil Hat recently blogged about getting a six figure tax bill because of their success over the past year, and I don't know that they even have any full-timers.

    Which definitely sucks. But Do, which is the closest thing I can think of in terms of conceptually-experimental RPG presentation, is at 550% funded. The business side of RPGs isn't exactly fun (I just lost almost a month's worth of food $$ on international transaction fees, and like any other Canadian freelancer I feel ill whenever the loonie gets stronger). What I'm not seeing the part where it's forcing people to abandon attempts at presenting information in new ways in RPG products.

  26. That's why I think things like constrictive formats, like the one-page-dungeon contest or TUO's Tales of Terror are a positive thing for pushing people to try and solve previously un-confronted problems in presenting information. It turns it into a game. Zak obviously thinks about this shit a lot as it's all here on display in the blog, but goading more people into asking 'how do I get these ideas to DM Bob so that it's more fun for Player Joe' is going to take upending some of the habits other people have in how they do it already.

  27. >>What I'm not seeing the part where it's forcing people to abandon attempts at presenting information in new ways in RPG products.

    "New ways" aren't necessarily better ways (that's the whole message behind the OSR, isn't it?).

    Zak had a vision for his book (and probably had a macro for his "yes, I'm sure" responses to all my second-guessing :D) and it works. I'm glad he ignored the majority of my "helpful" suggestions.

    Someone without that sort of vision is probably better off sticking to a more safe and traditional presentation. Nothing is worse than someone trying to be clever and failing, and it's made worse when there's a pile of money on the line.

    (although this is where small publishers have an advantage over large publishers - the big boys need a steady stream of regular releases done on time, whereas smaller publishers can release something when they're ready to release it... so if they want to take the time to experiment, they're not making life difficult for a half dozen other staffers and risking making their distributors unhappy...)

  28. Wait, folks are taking exception to the exceptional layout of Vornheim?

    But... but... it works!

  29. Its a pity you have to keep repeating this whole whitespace thing.. I like the book as it is. And for those parts printed just a little smaller, I just squint a bit more and remember that most people have better eyesight than I do..

    I like the book.

  30. @All:

    If this is the person I'm thinking of, then they have the PDF, which is probably going to not look as good due to the inherent constraints of the format. (All of the qualifiers are, in effect, me saying that I don't have the money to buy Vornheim right now in dead-tree or PDF, due to my gaming budget being completely gone at the moment (200$ or so to start WH40K), and thus don't know what it looks like in either form.)

  31. Thank you for that rant, Zak. It seriously made an otherwise kinda bleak evening happy.

  32. & is White Wolf even in a position to get market pressure anymore? I mean-- I can't imagine releasing a $100 pre-orders only book using the old system is exactly market friendly?

  33. Someone without that sort of vision is probably better off sticking to a more safe and traditional presentation.

    I don't begrudge doing it for a book with decent content, and so far I've avoided working on anything that makes me cringe. But looking back at a lot of products in the last ten years of RPG material, critical vision often seems to be lacking in the outlining stage...