Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Sofa for the Eyes

I've been reading an old, out-of-print RPG in pdf form for the past few days. It kinda sucks. Not the game, mind you...the game is fine...but reading out-of-print pdfs is a pain in the ass. It sucks for two reasons; one, the quality is usually pretty poor, as it's typically just some guy with a thirst for digitizing a book and the scanner he bought from OfficeMax; and two, because the RPG itself isn't optimized for pdf reading. Not a whole lot can be done about the first one, but I wanted to write a little today about the second one.

I think it's important that RPGs today recognize the increasing prominence of the digital format, and thus design their books for such. It's a lot of fun to read an RPG book in hardcopy form, to see the myriad of colors, the page-spanning pictures, the spacious two-column presentation of text; but that stuff doesn't carry over too well on a digital reading program/device/app. More often than not, I'd rather just have the RPG presented in a no-frills format, like a novel, with bookmarks. It would make referencing at the table a hell of a lot easier.

However, I also recognize the importance of art and presentation in a role-playing game. For a lot of games and gamers, the book is the primary source of creative inspiration. RPGs take place almost exclusively in the mind of the gamers, so having a little imagery to help lube those cerebral gears is very helpful. I'm not ashamed to say that I've disregarded whole games based on their poor presentation (one look at the cover of Icons and I'm ready to play just about anything else), and have cut games with great presentation a lot more slack than they've probably deserved (just about anything from Palladium games, and, of course, D&D).

So how would my ideal RPG look in this digital age? What would an RPG that's both aesthetically-effective and logistically-pragmatic in 2014 look like? Here's a little wishlist:

1. Single column presentation. With page count being a non-issue in digital format, I would love to see a pdf RPG just go to a single luxurious column for text. Fate Core (which I will talk about a lot here, because that pdf is one of the best I've ever seen) does this, making reading that book a veritable sofa for the eyes.

2. Single page artwork. An epic scene of battle splayed across the open-facing pages at the beginning of a combat chapter looks awesome in a big, hardcover RPG. In a pdf, though, one page has a smattering of text and half a picture, and the next page is just half of a picture. It's ridiculous and a waste of time and space. A good pdf RPG has full pictures on a single page, or smaller pictures presented in or around the text. Enough for flavor, but not so much that I'm wading through it to get to the meat.

3. Clear, creative fonts. A good pdf RPG doesn't use the traditional Times New Roman or Georgia fonts; it has something different enough to not be those fonts, but just as clear, if not moreso. Again, Fate Core is a fine example here. I'm not sure what font they're using, but it's crisp and clean and, again, like a sofa for my eyeballs. Mike McDonnell's excellent Fate variant, Strands of Fate, uses a different font that's just as nice. Apocalypse World is another fine example of smart font use. That kind of stuff matters in a pdf, especially with the ability to zoom in and out of text.

4. Hyperlinks and Bookmarks. If Chaosium weren't the makers of one of the best RPGs ever created (Call of Cthulhu) I would smack them upside the head for this one! There is no excuse...none...for a document as heavily referenced as a role-playing game to not have hyperlinks in the text and not have bookmarks accessible in a single button press. It should not be the case that a person with a good computer and the pdf cannot find something as fast as someone with the hardcopy of the book. Digital should win, everytime, and if it doesn't, then the pdf is not being optimized like it could, and should, be. For examples of this done right, again, look to Fate Core. Monte Cook's excellent RPG Numenera also has some smart cross-reference work in it, as well.

I can think of a couple more, but those are the big ones so I'm going to leave it at that for now. So if you're an aspiring game designer and you're looking to get me to run your game, hit up this list and let me know. I will gladly get a game like this to the table! 

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