Saturday, March 12, 2011

Arrows And Boxes And Columns And Bullet Points


Plant Growth

Plant Growth?


PlantGrowthSpells-by-Level...Magic-User Spells...Levelllllfourrrrr...
"Massmorph", "Monster summoning"...PLANT GROWTH!


Except as noted above, this spell is the same as a third level druid spell, plant growth. (q.v.)

Q.V. stands for "quod vide", and I don't speak Latin, but I assume it means either "so, yeah, good luck finding that" or simply "go fuck yourself".

Ok, but that was forever ago, in the AD&D Player's Handbook, back when the world was wonky and there was no money in Lake Geneva, let's zoom forward in time:

Type IV D&D Player's Handbook. So: good news--this one actually has a graphic designer credited. Three actually.

So: ok, kids, let's make a character...I have played this game many times before so this should be easy...

Now, wisely, they have chosen--on pages 30-31--to ape the most clearly-written RPG book ever written (Call Of Cthulhu) and have a 2-page spread with a little version of the character sheet here, with little call-outs, in order, telling you what to do. Let's take a look, shall we...

1. Character Name. So I'm choosing a name before I've got a race or class? Well, I choose that stuff myself anyway, why not...

2. Level/Class/Paragon Path/Epic Destiny: Leaving aside the fact that I do not know what half that shit means, let me just say that, hey choosing class now is ok by me...

3. Total xp. Well, zero, duh.

4. Race and Size. ok.

5. Age, gender, height and weight I haven't got ability scores yet, but ok...

6. Alignment, deity, adventuring company or other affiliation...ok...

7. Initiative Ah, at last, something to figure out. See page 267 (suspiciously high number for a basic concept, but whatever). On it!, wait, on page 267 it tells me that my initiative involves my Dexterity Modifier. but I haven't even got dexterity yet, much less a dexterity modifier, hey...

Of course what's really going on here is that page 3o is not actually a copy of that cool spread in Call of Cthulhu where they show you a character sheet and use it to walk you through character creation, it's just a full-color two-page spread showing you what a fucking character sheet is. Really?

Like it says:

6. Alignment, deity, adventuring company or other affiliation
: Record your alignment, your character's patron deity (if you choose one), and the name of the group you belong to (if any).

Wait a second...So we have this labeled piece of paper, full of concepts that are explained in the book it is printed in. And then, in the book, there is a picture of the piece of paper full of concepts explained in the book and the picture is labeled with little call-outs with the names of the labels that they are calling out and then after these labels of the labels, there's explanations explaining that you should write in the thing the label describes after the label itself.

Really? Really? Really?

Ok, let's try generating a character again...

Turn back to page 14. Here are, (with no picture) the character generation steps.

1. Choose Race. Decide the race of your character. Your choice of race offers several racial advantages to your character. Chapter 3.

See a whole chapter? You couldn't at least list them here? Ok, well race is a fairly complex concept, maybe it needs a whole chapter, let's give them the benefit of the doubt...
step 2 is class (same deal), step 3...

3. Determine ability scores. Generate your ability scores. Your ability scores describe the fundamental blah blah..Chapter 2.

So let's ignore the fact that chapter 2 comes before chapter 3 but is the other way around in character generation--maybe they felt they had to do it that way to explain the concepts to newbies. Still, could they have at least told us what the 6 abilities were here? Or given us a short version of the 3 methods? Or at the very least fucking given us the fucking page number that the specific generating ability scores blurb was?

And then there are 6 more steps, each telling you almost nothing and then saying "read a whole chapter, fuckhead".
How hard is this?
Let's take a look at how Cthulhu does it...pages 34-35...

Little character sheet, little arrow...big grey box

1. Determine characteristics. Find a blank investigator sheet. Be sure it is for the right era of play. Write your name in the space on the side.(see, they even had room for that).

-Roll 3d6 once each for...(and then all of the ability scores)...

They even have room for some hand-holding "these numbers are your investigator's skeleton. Be alert for ways to..."

2. Determine characteristic rolls (a whole box, explaining everything)
3. Determine derived characteristic points (the whole nine)
4. Determine occupation and skills (everything you need, except a list of occupations, but they tell you where that is)
5. Determine weapons (with the actual page numbers the weapons are on)
6. Determine Additional Background (some stuff you make up, some you calculate, all the calculations are there)

Plus, on the same spread we have yearly income table, damage bonus table, and little silhouettes of a flying monster and a natty Zelda Fitzgerald clone.

You know what you can do with this spread? You can sit down with a table full of people who have never played the game before and walk them through making characters. I've done it. The only hitch is sitting around and waiting for them to decide what skills they want.

Some will say "Oh but D&D characters are more complicated!". Well then ok, make one additional page for each class. Put the fluff wherever you want, but I want everything I need to do to make a thief on one page. I want to be able to say "Here, Frankie, do this".

(Though, while we're at it: Cthulhu, it's a 287 page rulebook, why aren't the weapon and resistance tables at the back of the book with everything else?)


So: Good graphic design.

Some will say the Type 4 Player's Handbook has "good graphic design" or, at least "better graphic design than the original". These people are wrong. RPG books usually have terrible graphic design--which is sad, because they are one of the very few types of books that actually need good graphic design.

I do not mean "good graphic design" in the boring, anal-retentive sense of "do whatever you can to make the book look expensive" (WOTC has that covered, since they have money, and most other game companies have it covered to the best of their ability) or in the commercial sense of "good graphic design makes the content look more interesting than it actually is" (RPG companies are all over that, they know all about that), I mean in the sense of "organizing the presentation of the entire corpus of information to be processed repeatedly at high speed by players and GMs". (Information design + graphic design, really, as DerikB points out in the comments.)

Good graphic design in this practical, engineering sense: Novels don't need it. Magazines don't need it. Encyclopedias could use it but don't need it. You can take your time with these--if you weren't taking your time you probably wouldn't be reading these things in the first place. On the other hand: Instruction manuals need it. RPG books--up there with maps and tourist books--do desperately need it. And we haven't even gotten started on modules--adventure modules need it more than anything ever.

With RPG books--like maps, instruction manuals, and tourist books--the quality of your actual experience doing the thing that the book is about depends to a certain (not huge, but significant) degree on your ability to find shit quickly in the book about the thing. You will have a better time driving through Belgium if you can spend less time thumbing through your book about Belgium and more time looking at Belgium. So this is where we've put our effort for the Kit.

To this end, we have sacrificed values appealing to the other kinds of Good Graphic Design. Most RPG products lean heavily on Good Graphic Design in the commercial sense--they stick pictures everywhere and dress the whole thing up so it looks kinda like it's from the same century as the game. I understand. All of us have known the feeling of being transported to a rarefied realm by a weighty game tome.

But this is not that thing: we only have 64 pages to work with, and they are half the size of a piece of typing paper (so it could be cheap) and I wanted (again) to create a book that I myself would (and will) use. This book will be built for speed, not comfort. So my priorities were:

-get a lot into those 64 pages, and
-make them easy to use

So: making you feel like you were in Vornheim was not a priority. Making you feel like Lamentations of the Flame Princess was owned by the very rich and operated by the very professional was not a priority. Making you go "OoooOOOOooooooHHHH" was not a priority (Though I do hope you like the pictures.). The priority was:

You have your players and they need to do something. And they need to do it now. And you press your fingers against the back cover and push your thumb in, compressing the pages, and they fan past you, springing out from under your raking thumb, and the headings are large, and -bing- there it is. And you use it. Because it is easy to use it. And it does not slow your game down and it does not require turning to a whole other page to see how it ends and it does not need to be highlighted or re-typed or prepped and so you not only have a book full of new stuff, you have a book full of new stuff it will cost you absolutely nothing to use.

So, hopefully, you will use it. You will not hesitate to add things in the book to your game because it isn't a whole involved thing. And your ideas and its ideas go together easily and with no gears grinding and you can play the game.

But this isn't really about us and the kit: We did the best we could and tried to make it fast and cheap and short and you can judge for yourselves whether we got what we were aiming for. This is actually about all the other companies out there, especially the big ones: you wanna make your game popular? Realize that making a working RPG book is actually one of the most difficult (and interesting) graphic design challenges there is (it is literature, instruction manual, reference manual and advertisement for itself, all wrapped in one), and hire people with some actual ideas* on the subject rather than drones who are just experts in making books look fancy. And then listen to them when they talk. And if you still have no ideas, check out the one page dungeon contest.

WOTC has more money than Jesus and three graphic designers and we can't even get a "How to make a druid" flowchart? "Fuck no, we need that extra space to print a second copy of the character sheet explaining that you write your character's name next to where it says 'Name'."

Ok, well how about a thumb index? Or, if that's too expensive, just a color-coded stripe down the side with different classes or kinds of powers/spells in different colors?



*Other than Cthulhu, the only genuine good new graphic design idea I have seen in RPG graphic design lately is the Origin Path chart in the Rogue Trader RPG.


DerikB said...

I think instead of "graphic design" they need information design and maybe some usability tests. Treat it like designing a good website.

Zak Sabbath said...



Destrude said...

On a tangential note, I would love to get a Rogue Trader game running some day. Any tips/tricks to get it running smoothly? Or is that not from one of your games?

mordicai said...

I think WotC just assume that you make your characters with their program now. I mean-- I seriously think that is what they assume.

I'm trying to think of a game with good technical design. I'm...not having a lot of luck. Hell, at this point I get excited if books have an index.

Carter Soles said...

Great post. I might nominate the Moldvay/Cook B/X books as having the best and most efficient "information design" I've seen. Still not perfect, but pretty damn good.

Looking forward to your book!

Daniel Dean said...

I did not buy Legend of Five Rings because from what I could tell in the store it was 100 pages before I got to anything close to character generation, and the first sign of life in this regard was a questionnaire. Character generation via a quiz on what you just read.

huth said...

4e should've sold power cards with the PHB. They did a good job of digesting all the rules information (ie. the parts I read and use making a character) into bite-sized (that is, magic card-sized) portions. Then they do the dumb thing that you point out in the post, which is spread it out across a whole book instead of leading you to the parts you're looking for when assembling the pieces. And assembling the pieces is what you're doing with 4e, instead of the straight-through you get with CoC or WoD or AD&D fighters.
Once I started using the cards, it was way more fun than 3e combat ever was.

Caveat: I am too young to remember flamewars about ccgs destroying rpgs or essentialist arguments regarding the differences thereof.

Caveat 2: Perhaps because of that, I use tiny cards with information on them to help my players no matter what game it is, so maybe I'm already predisposed to the concept. We're using a little stack of 1x2.5" cards with pictures on them as the party's equipment stores in my ToC/D&D game currently.

The game before that, the character sheets were designed to fit on flashcards.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with you with regards to the books usability. It makes me that much more interested in the Vornheim Kit, that that is one of the primary design goals. I really noticed the difference with 3.5 D&D between the WotC book and the Mongoose Pocket Players Handbook I have. Especially with regards to character generation. We had a mixed group of experienced and new players. Any of the new players with the WotC books needed a lot more hand holding that the one with the Pocket Guide. It's just that much better organized.

Anonymous said...

Jesus blistering Christ, this is probably the thing that pisses me off the most about most game books. CharGen is the root of the damn game! Why the hell can't you clowns organize a functional, attractive CharGen section in your books after decades of fucking practice? I adore White Wolf's games, but their CharGen sections (and their non-existent indexes and rudimentary ToCs) make me wanna hit somebody with a brick. And Wizards? NNNyyyyaaaarrrgggggg.

...yeah, I mighta gotten a little excited, there. It's kind of a trigger issue for me.

Zak Sabbath said...


I actually liked the cards--when I played my 1st and so far only Type IV D&D game the info worked just fine. I think once you have a character up and running the y know what they're doing (they aced it with Magic:TG so they stick to the formula).

But the books and modules?-that is, the things to help the GM make the game go? Christ almighty.

thekelvingreen said...

You know what you can do with this spread? You can sit down with a table full of people who have never played the game before and walk them through making characters.
This is exactly what I did the first time, and still do with new players, and it's one of the reasons I love the game.

Though, while we're at it: Cthulhu, it's a 287 page rulebook, why aren't the weapon and resistance tables at the back of the book with everything else?
In some editions -- certainly fifth -- they are. The edition I have has a little five or six page section at the back that is more or less the GM's screen, and it has an two page spread weapons table and the resistance chart.

Another good -- and very simple -- thing about CoC is how they marked the edge of the rules pages with a little black splodge, so you could always find that section with ease. It's just a tiny little touch, but it does wonders.

On a tangential note, I would love to get a Rogue Trader game running some day. Any tips/tricks to get it running smoothly?
(1) Don't try to get your head around everything at once. There's a lot of stuff in there, and you won't need all of it at first.
(2) Realise that the rules are really badly written and are much simpler than they at first appear.
(3) Get Into the Storm.

Anonymous said...

I love the Rogue Trader Origin Path system. Some quick tips on Rogue Trader from a novice GM.

1) Explorers are amoral backstabbing money obsessed jerks by default. Be aware.

2) The skill system is borked. Some important stuff (like the ability to Search, or tell if someone is lying) is difficult/impossible to get unless you have a certain class or are a very high level.

3) Bolt weapons are always superior to a weapon of the same type (usually). Never let anyone get a Heavy Bolter.

4) Let the Explorers go nuts. They have a spaceship, lots of cash, and few moral restraints. They will come up with insane plans and try to follow them through. Always remember 1 though.

5) If they have a Cruiser, everything changes.

huth said...

You should totally have a cut-out-and-assemble city map thing.

Or, actually... hmmm...

Simon Forster said...

I'm looking forward to the Kit. From everything you and James have said about it, it sounds like a decent piece of RPG-ware and something I can really use in my games.

Gregor Vuga said...

1) Zack, this is from the standard PHB 4E, right? From what I understand they did their job a lot better in Essentials, but I could be wrong, I haven't held any of the books in my hands yet.

2) This is one of the reasons why I started experimenting with my own charsheet design. I don't claim to be a good graphic designer or whatever, but how hard would it be for WotC to take something like I did:, throw money at it and make it prettier and even more functional? You know, like a sheet where things that matter stand out and stuff that interacts flows together instead of just hundreds of little boxes all over the place?

3) RE: graphic design ideas I like:
a)Diaspora and Chronica Feudalis have character sheets where the top is reversed and foldable, so it's kinda like one of those standup namecards you sometimes see in classes. Your name, aspects etc (that is, the important game info about your character) is turned towards the GM and other players.
b) Apocalypse World has these "playbooks" which are basically one-sheet foldable pamphlets which you can give to the players and you have everything needed to play on there, and I really mean everything: character creation process, char sheet, notes space, advancement mechanics and choices (you don't even have to crack open the book to level up). It's awesome.

Gaptooth said...

Mordicai wrote:
> I think WotC just assume that you make your characters with their program now. I mean-- I seriously think that is what they assume.

I think Mordicai is right. I've also heard an interview with Mike Mearls in which he said that the PHB was written explicitly for experienced players, not for the uninitiated. That's why they created Essentials.

The Essentails player books are much easier to navigate. They still requires you to make your own power cards if you're not using the online character builder though, which can be a bit tedious.

The Cramp said...

You should check out the Fading Suns character generation. You could sit down with 5 people who have never played an RPG, hand them all blank character sheets and be playing in 40 minuets. It takes the skill selection out of the players hand by rather asking them, "what was you life like up until this point?" With each answer the response yields skills. "Ok, so you were from a wealthy noble family of good standing and educated by a privet tutor at your family estate? Your upbringing grants: +2 charm +2 diplomacy +1 int +2 resources. Where did your life lead you next, did you seek leadership in the court? enlist as a questing knight? dabble in the occult? stow away on an offwold ship and hang with guilded scravers and aliens?* something else?" and so on. Experienced players will obviously just grab the book and allocate their points as they like.

(*that's not prompted in the game, but I realized you wouldn't realize it was a sci-fi game with my initial description. It's a totally viable origin however.)

Graphic design has been renamed "communication design" in many colleges. I would be curious to hear what you think of their how to build a magic deck/play the game, flowcharts that come with many of their products. I am way to familiar with the game to know if they are getting people to square one effectively. I basically never teach new players to play, so I have no idea.

The Cramp said...

Last paragraph: "their" = WotC

Anonymous said...

I could have gotten my way through most of that. Where 4e has my stymied is at the giant wall of powers. I start reading into the class chapters and my eyes glaze over.

Zak Sabbath said...


Well that's a whole other thing.

SirAllen said...

Zak, this is a great post about human factors design and I am happy to read it. You have written in the past something along the lines of 'trust the guy with the Yale degree and paintings in the MOMA to understand graphic design' but they aren't the same thing. You are an awesome artist, but human factors design is not the same thing as being able to create beautiful works of art (as you state above!)

Now, I am very impressed with your usability statement on current products. This is great, and what I am interested in. I had planned to buy your Vornheim supplement all along because I am a fan of your art, your game, and your take on AD&D, but this statement and analysis of usability is the strongest factor.

I don't mean any of this to sound judgemental, as blog comments can always seem this way. I am looking forward to the release of this product as much as anything I can remember from the old TSR days of my youth. Great post.

richard said...

What SirAllen said. Bravo. Now I'm looking forward to the product more.
...and I hate to ask this, when I know attention will have been paid to the physical object and binding, but will it be available as a PDF?

And FWIW you've just described what I consider to be the difference between art and design: design has a specific program of use and it can be judged somewhat objectively (or intersubjectively) by how it serves that use.

Then, of course, the term and discipline of graphic design screws with that neat separation because so much unusable but pretty stuff gets produced by graphic designers and wins awards and whatnot, and we have to come up with new and wobbly terms like "human factors design," but that's language for you.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen the graphic design behind the Old School Hack project? Curious what you'd think.

Nothing major (only 20-some pages) but John Harper-ish in its accessibility.

DukeofOrange said...

There is a really great graphic for a cool chase mechanic in the new pathfinder game masters guide. It kind of breaks a chase sequence down into a series of either/or stages, with each stage requiring one of two or three successful checks to advance to the next stage. It's the kind of thing that's really easy to draw out quick so you can toss down markers to keep track of who's where in the chase.

Crowded market place: Navigate crowd (Diplomacy)
Force your way through (strength)
Run on the stall roofs (balance)

Caltrops in the alley: Leap over them (jump check)
Go another way ( wait one turn)
Fuck it! (take some damage)

Surly Guard: Sneak past him (stealth)
Bribe him ($$$)
Bully him (Intimidate)

It's pretty cool. I'm starting to think find that pathfinder has found several decent solutions to presenting information. Their monster stat block (though clogged up with a lot of 3.5 info) lays out that information that you're looking for in a way that is logical in-game. Combat starts, the monsters senses, type, size, initiative and perception are all right there.
Players turn, AC, HD, hp, saves, resistances, immunities, weaknesses all piled together.
Monsters turn, my attacks, damage, special powers with DC's all listed.
Of course sometimes you gotta scan down the entry for details on some of the more complicated abilities, but even here, everything for this monster is on one page (or two facing pages). You never need to flip a page to figure out the monster, and there's never two monsters to a page.

That Guy said...

So...yeah, this. I got on board with Type IV (not much D&D experience and hadn't GM'd before) and quickly accepted that I'd need to run the game using a premium account at

It's lame, but having access to all of the material from the sourcebooks, and all the bookkeeping of equipment, level raising, etc. being taken care of on the website is a decent trade.

Delta said...

Two observations:
(1) It's funny that the 4E sheet rundown is not a checklist, because the one in 3E was (PHB p. 4-5)
(2) The tension between "race/class or abilities first?" has always been there. Even OD&D had it: abilities come after race/class in the book, but directs you to do it beforehand. (Vol-1, p. 10)

Doc Savage said...

Great post. If only folks writing RPGs would read this and take heed. I remembe trying to learn the MWP Marvel game and getting increasingly frustrated by references and terms that had not been explained...extremely poorly laid out book! It expects me to know game terms before they've been defined?!