How Not to Design Your RPG Book

How Not to Design Your RPG Book

My Thursday night D&D game is on hiatus, because it suddenly became way too topical, what with it involving a ruling class exercising police power on an oppressed underclass. So we decided to play something else for a bit. One player proposed Changeling 2e. And so began our exploration of one of the worse-designed books I've ever used.

Yep, here we go.

Our Qualifications

I have never before run a full Changeling game, but I am a veteran of nWoD. It's one of my favorite systems. I've played in a game which had Changelings in it, but I was a mage in that game. I ran a short arc with changelings in a Hunter game. I'm familiar with the concepts, and the core system, so I was all "I can make this work for my players."

One of my players was a Changeling in that crossover game I was in. He's familiar with Changeling: The Lost, and provided us with the book for 2e. He's also a system tinkerer, so he's the guy you can count on to find weird interactions that snap the system in half.

The rest of my players have played a lot of D&D, and a good collection of us have played a shitton of other games of all genres and styles.

We've played lots of RPG's.

This book left us dumbfounded and frustrated.


First Impressions

Let's imagine you'd never played Changeling before, and had no idea
a) what a changeling was, and
b) what playing a Changeling game is like.
I'll even be charitable and grant that the reader knows what RPG's are and has played a few before. If you pick up the Changeling book, you are going to be lost as FUCK.

It does make an effort to give a short explanation. And this short explanation would be fine, if the setting and the 2e system were not so damn complicated. It gives you the whole "changelings are people who were kidnapped by fairies, escaped, and are trying to fit themselves back in the real world while being pursued by their captors, and constantly unsure of reality." It then gives you a few media inspirations to get the feel. This is all good, and consistent from past WoD books.

Oh No

Immediately after that, things fall to bits. Right after the media info, the book provides a Lexicon, for which the reader currently has no context. If I've never played Changeling before, anything I read in this section is going to fall right out of my head, because there's nothing to connect it to. I am going to read the world "Bedlam" and its definition within the context of the universe, and then instantly forget it within the flood of following words.

I'm going to make an effort to be constructive in this whole thing. When I point out something that doesn't work, I'll try to come up with a way to fix it. So. There ARE a lot of terms in Changeling that mean different things from their colloquial meaning within the system. I'd probably do a combination of reducing these terms, and having a setting primer set up side-by-side with the lexicon, with the words in question bolded. That way, while I read a little prose to give me context for what I'm getting into, I can go "hey, what does Gentry mean", and then glance over to the opposite page and read what it means. This would provide context, connections for your brain to make, and a much-needed clear setting primer.

Oh, that reminds me.

Limit your use of Calling a Rabbit a "Smeerp"

Now, I get that designing RPG books is hard. One of these core books has to perform as a reference book, an instruction manual, a lore guide, an art book, all at the same time. Deciding what to focus on, what to prioritize, can't be easy. However, I think I can come up with some decent guidelines to follow to maximize the user-friendly-ness of your big-ass book. When one becomes relevant, I'll highlight it as follows.

Emphasize clarity over flavor.

In its capacity as a reference book, far too many RPG books are hard or slow to use. Make use of text styles, fonts, and typefaces to encourage your eyes to snap right to the relevant information, and make that information easy to quickly digest. Have a clear index, and NEVER be afraid to re-print information, ESPECIALLY in the index. If you have a "see other thing" ANYWHERE in your index, you have fucked up and I hate you. Looking at you D&D5e.

Fuck yourself, give me a page number you piece of shit.

Art and Color

The Changeling book is Green. Everything in it is green. The borders are green, the headers are green, the backgrounds are green. Thankfully most of the plain text is black. But EVEN THE ART is just shades of green.

See? Green.

I don't pretend to be a graphic designer or anything, so I'm going to be able to be less constructive here. The thing is, everything seems to blur together, because it's all the same color. If I'm flipping through the book, looking for a landmark page I know exists, I probably have an idea of what color palette I'm looking for. Here, it's all green. So very, very green.

It's thematic as hell, but it TANKS the usability of the book.

Maybe use a variety of colors for the sake of readability and usability.

Maybe do that.

Character Creation

There are some GM's out there who get really mad that their players won't read the book, and assume a relatively good lore and system knowledge out of all their players.

I'm not that guy. I play with a bunch of other adults, with jobs and lives and families and other hobbies and all that shit. I'm not handing out homework, or expecting that my players read up on all the history of the fantasy world in order to play in my games. FUUUUUUCK that. I generally expect people to have a decent grasp of how to make a roll, a good sense of who their character is, and a reasonable understanding of what they can do, and that's about it.

Therefore, I tend to judge a system book based on how quickly it can get someone up and running and ready to play. A damn fine example of this is the D&D5e book. For any issues I have with it, they made a huge effort to allow a new player to get a character ready to play as fast as possible. They start with a quick "here's what RPG's are, here's what D&D is usually sorta like" and on page 11 they're RIGHT into character creation. They maintain an example character creation through every step, re-print information like what races get bonuses to what stats, and stress utility WAY over flavor. In the full race descriptions, there are very clear bolded areas that tell you the mechanical information in as short and clear a form as possible. There are tables that give you a short "here's what the various classes generally do. In the class descriptions, there are "quick-start" options, which allow someone to make just a few choices, and be up and running with a competent character ASAP.

Whoever was responsible for this was smart.

The Changeling book is trash for this. Character Creation doesn't come until chapter 3. Instead, chapter 1 is dedicated to Seemings, Kiths, and Courts. What are those? Go fuck yourself.

Here. I'm going to show the entire first page of this chapter. Imagine you've never played Changeling before. How much useful information does this page contain, and how much does it make you feel confused and overwhelmed?

goofy voice SAVE ME.

The giant header that says "Seemings" is filled with poetry and flavor and it the absolute opposite of anything resembling useful, clear, concise information. And there's nothing useful on the next page. It's right into the Beast Seeming, which does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for you if you're confused as to what the fuck a Seeming is.

The Seeming sections themselves have an ENTIRE PAGE of poetic stuff before they get to any system information, and that system information is weirdly justified and crammed in alongside some art that crowds it out from the center of the page, forcing it to the side, and weirdly compressing it. And it's not even usefully labeled. Rather than clearly identifying what section has system info, the three sections are "Once", "Now", and "Tales". Once is generally what happened to you in Arcadia, Now contains system info, and Tales contains some sorta example characters for inspiration. But we're not here for a novel. This is RPG night and my friends need to know how to make a character.

Fuck.

Re-print important information in easy-to-reference formats, such as tables, without poetry and flavor
Put your character creation quick reference up front. Provide some quick-pick choices for the overwhelmed.

As a side note, the chapter with character creation is entitled "Words of Wonder." Want to know what that means to a new player? Less than nothing. It just makes character creation that much harder to find. I would have gone with "Character Creation" or "Making a Changeling".

Edition Woes

I am a veteran of nWoD. It's one of my favorite systems of all time. It's quick, clear, and easy to pick up. I can run it in my sleep.

In 2013, White Wolf released The God Machine Chronicle and Rules Update. If Old World of Darkness was 1e, and nWoD was 2e, this is like, 2.5e. It retains the core roll mechanics, makes some changes, and introduces new systems for psychological harm, social interaction, experience, combat, and more.

I used to think it was the coolest update ever, and now I think it mostly sucks. Almost everything they introduced breaks the flow of the system that I love so much. There's a system for social interaction that uses terms like "Doors" and is there to abstract and game-ify social interactions. But like, why would I do that when the talking and role-playing part is more fun, more memorable, and a thing we do anyway? There are now systems for adding injuries to combat, and psychological issues in response to stress, and like, this is something my players act out anyway.

Thankfully, Changeling 2e DOES reprint the rules, and acts like a core book in its own right. It does, in fact, have everything you need to run or play a game. Something I didn't know when I picked it up, and which the book seemed to take pains to hide from me.

Title your sections for clarity, not flavor.

I think one of the big issues is the fonts and typefaces used for the headers. They all look so weirdly similar that knowing what is a H1, H2, and H3 don't jump out at you, and make the book feel disorganized and meandering.

All Headers Look The Same
Make wise use of fonts, dividers, backgrounds, borders, and typefaces for a clear sense of organization.

Kickstarter, and The Audience Paradox

Changeling 2e was a Kickstarter project, much like most recent WW games. They are funded, by and large, by people who have already played, and are already fans of, the previous editions. I cannot imagine any significant number of people who weren't already fans of Exalted 2e backed Exalted 3e. Like, the pitch for those projects are essentially all your memories of having played the previous edition.

Now, this is kinda good. Kickstarter projects like this essentially guarantee a measure of success. The RPG publishing world is much different than it was 15 or 20 years ago, when you basically threw your book onto store shelves and hoped it was appealing, based on however many factors, including brand loyalty, genre, art, advertising, etc. Nowadays, you don't have to make the book before you make that gamble. You can do interest checks, get funds to pay writers and artists and designers, and know that you are guaranteed a baseline of income from the people who backed your project.

This also means that if you're making the second edition of a popular game, you're not making it for everyone, you're making it for the fans who backed it. You're mostly incentivised to design for people who are already bought in, already familiar with the concepts, already read into the jargon.

This means that you're not designing with the assumption that you need to appeal to someone from scratch, hook them right away, and make them WANT to play your game.

This is bad.

When I picked up D&D5e for the first time, I did so with a hefty background in both D&D and a lot of other RPG's. As a result, I skimmed over the introductory stuff right into the meat. But for people who aren't me? Who are just approaching D&D for the first time? The 5e PHB is designed with them in mind. There are all SORTS of little perks and helpful hints for new players, and this is wonderful. For as generic as 5e can be, you cannot deny that it's probably the most beginner-friendly core book out there right now.

Changeling 2.0 is almost the polar opposite of that. Not as bad as Exatled 3e, but close. EVERYTHING, from the sappy introduction where the designer thanks everyone for their support, to the layout, to the poetic language, is not for new players. The people who laid this book out must have thought that at some point someone new might pick up their book, but never really considered what that experience would be like. And let me tell you, it is NOT something that makes you go "oh boy, I'm excited to play this game!"

Consider and design for the experience of someone wholly new to your game. Do not drive potential players away by being obtuse and unusable.

EVEN FOR THE VETERANS, the layout was frustrating and unmanageable. I was in a position where I had to remind myself that people's frustrations and complaints were directed at the book and not at me. And even knowing that, no GM wants to preside over a session where their players are lost, bewildered, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

Conclusion

I understand that YMMV, but aside from Exalted, this was probably the least user-friendly book I've picked up in the last 10 years, and that has included multiple editions of Shadowrun, Anima (which literally has no index), fucking GURPS, and even various goddamn homebrew games.

Designing and layout for these books must be a tall task, and I sympathize. But at the end of the day, I want to be an evangelist. I want to WANT to introduce people to games, and I want them to enjoy the experience. And based on our experience, I would not pitch this to anyone.

Time will tell if actual play ends up working out, and I hope it will, but this book can go right to hell.

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