Thursday 20 June 2013

Fuck Information Design

Good information design is one of the most valuable things you can do in an RPG book. I am terrible at it. I am not a bad writer but when I try to organise my information in a useable way then I fail. I have failed two ways recently.

The animal descriptions are good but hard to use.
The cave sensory-combination thing didn’t work out.

First I will talk about a conflict.

(I am a bit of a prick here. A guy made a dungeon, and it’s pretty good and he gave it away for free on the internet. I go after his design choices a bit based on nothing more than an incoherent feeling in my head. How you feel about that is up to you I suppose. )

There is a deep conflict in RPG’s. We can call it between Use and Context. (Though these descriptors won’t be fully accurate) Conflict isn’t the right word. Tension. These things pull against and often disagree with each other. It’s hard to do both. But they also feed into each other and can make each other better. Like buddy cops. Idea’s that fight but also make out.

There is this free module and when I read it I thought “this is quite nice, the design is a mess”. The reasons for it being a mess are entirely logical and make perfect sense to anyone who has ever DM’d a game. The guy wrote stuff out twice. Each room gets a description of what is in there and what is going on. Then, below that, there is a box with the same information, but shorter.

The reason this makes logical sense is because of the way the module is going to be used. First it gets a read through. This is to tell the story of the dungeon, to inspire the DM, to fill them with the psychic energy that gives them the impetus to run a game. And this is all floaty and context-dependant. No single room in any dungeon would inspire you to run it, no matter how good it was. The knowledge of all the rooms, as a whole, the way they might interact and the context between them. The story of the dungeon or the story you might tell in the dungeon. That is the fuel.

So you give it the long read through to see if you like it and if you want to play it. Then, if you are a serious dude (I am not) you go through it again and make notes of the things you will need as you play.

Then you play the thing and as you play it, stuff comes up and you need details really quickly. Like taking 10 seconds to find something out is probably too long. You need 3 second info. This is where the boxed text comes in. It’s the stuff you need right away.

So, like a military disaster or the catholic doctrine of purgatory, through a series of basic assumptions and simple intuitive logic, we end up with something that doesn’t quite work. Or at least it doesn’t work for me. It feels off. Seeing the stuff written down twice, reading almost the same words in sequence, it got under my skin somehow. I’m not sure why.

So this brings us back to the monsters. When I went through them I was going to make them shorter. I didn’t do this for any of them. They all got bigger. And most of the material is good. It adds something to the creature, makes it more alive. I hope most of it has psychic energy. But how the fuck do you use it? I think it is not good for use. And if it’s not good for use then how can it be a good thing? It’s just more RPG noodling, it’s fan fiction essentially.

And the cave thing didn’t work out. I had an idea about three columns, one would have shape, the other aesthetics and the third a living thing. I thought that putting those together rapidly in the GM’s head would create a kind of energising activation that made the result better. But the stuff I made for the chart doesn’t fir its original purpose. It’s too long and too fancy, the shapes aren’t shapey enough and everything else is all mixed together. The chart doesn’t work. It was driving me mental.

Maybe I could make it work. That would involve throwing out a lot of detail for the cave descriptions and re-writing everything. I don’t have the will to do it. A different kind of person could maybe do it and enjoy it but I am not that person. I am going to accept that I hate looking at the thing and want nothing more to do with it. The caves can be a d100 list. That way it makes sense and I don’t have to lose anything.

I have failed to kill my children and build a new world with their bones.

I am not sure if this is failure or wisdom.

The list is over one the side. It’s all stuff that’s been on the blog before but now it’s numbered and in one place.

I am not going to make Vornheim. I am not sure I could. I am not going to win any awards for usability or information design. What I can do, I think, is jam an idea in someone’s head hard enough to make them want to use it. Then let them do the rest. So I think that’s what I am going to have to do, just fill a giant syringe with bad dreams and plunge it into the readers brain and hope they can work it out. I think people will do a better job arranging things for use inside their own minds than I would do on the page.


  1. If you have some proofed text i can indesign a pdf for you - gimme a small thing to try - images helpful or ideas for images helpful. Awesome inspirational ideas like atomic bees deserve it

    1. Thanks Chris, I am not really at the stage where I am designing things yet. I may give you a call later on though.

  2. the thing about being a weird fringe organism is you can never compete with the others things lumbering around the place. You got to just do your little mutant thing as hard as you can and find a niche or die trying. Like my drawing is like 90% avoiding learning how to do thing properly and making some mutant technique to do the job instead. And I feel good about that.
    In other words, don't try stress to much if you can't do the thing, just keep doing your own thing and even if you don't make it anywhere , at least you would of traveled extremely far in that direction

    1. NICHE OR DEAD can be the the spangled confetti words on the leather backs of our biker gang

    2. I apologize in advance for reviving this old thread. Scrap Princess, the above is an excellent explanation of owning your work and attaining satisfaction from it. Well, said...

  3. Frequenting the RPG blogs as I do there's a good chance, in my mind anyway, that you're talking about LS over at Papers and Pencils with his "The Hidden Tomb of Slaggoth the Necromancer". No need to confirm or deny this as my whole point in mentioning it at all is to say this: I get more energy, more desire, more impetus to run a game from a single one of your monster descriptions than I do from looking at that entire module. There's no need for you to dumb your work down in an attempt to make it digestible - it's too raw and alive for that. In the case of your work, I think it's something a gamer coexists with rather than subverts or conquers. This coexistence is perhaps contrary to RPG mentality, but in my opinion it's something RPGs have needed for a long time. I hope you continue with knowing that at least one person out there thinks your choice is wise and you in no way failed.

  4. Since reading the list of random underground terrain features several months ago, I have desperately wanted to run campaign that starts on the surface and progresses deeper and deeper into the earth against the players will. You must be doing something right.