Friday, January 30, 2015

Triple Comparison: Setting, Art, System, and Layout in P&P RPGs

In this post, I'm going to review three games based on their performance in four areas: setting, art, system, and layout. The games are:
I'm using a simple '*' rating system for each category score:
  • * = detracts from the game
  • * * = maintains game quality
  • * * * = adds significant quality to the game

Not every game needs to come with a setting. Whether it should or not depends on the goals of the game designers. In fact, if all I as a customer will get for setting is another Forgotten Realms or Firefly spin-off, I'd rather the designers save the ink, paper, and time, and hopefully save me a little money. A full-fledged setting that is tacked on at the very end of the game design process is not worthwhile, no matter how in-depth it is.

4e D&D: **
You may be surprised by this, but I think that 4e did setting very tastefully and meaningfully. Technically, the 4e D&D rules are supposed to be setting-independent, but that doesn't mean that there aren't hints dropped all over PHB at a wider world. 

Some examples: the gods (1 page, front and back) all have three strictures listed for their worshipers. Every single stricture bullet point is both a little more characterization of the deity, and a potential adventure hook for the players. All of the races have "[Race] adventures" listed, with three example characters and their motivations for going out questing. Each one of these is a window into the larger setting. Some even hook you in with references to fallen empires and ancient kingdoms.

I can appreciate the light sprinkle of setting detail over the (obviously rules-heavy) game that is 4e. It gets the players excited to write their own adventures and start playing. And best of all, in terms of game design, it takes very little work.

Ring of Fire: ***
This is an indie game that you may never have heard of. It was written by an RPG Youtuber that I used to watch religiously before I transitioned over to rpg blogs instead of vlogs. The man is a master of immersion and storytelling grandeur, so I was eager to get the WtRoF Saga book when it came out.

As far as setting goes, there isn't a sour note in the whole 60+ pages of world-building that sit at the end of this 200 page book. Ander went above and beyond any RPG setting expectations, and questioned everything, everything, to make it more fantastical. Day and night cycles? Fantastical. Calendar? Included, and fantastical. Countries and creeds? You get the picture.

This setting must have taken Ander years to put together. That is amazing, and well worth what I paid for the book. I could easily use this setting in another game as well, giving the book even more value to me. But, a time sink like this is intimidating to new players, and sometimes simply not an option for game designers.

Dogs: ***
There's more than one way to impress with your game's setting, however, and Dogs in the Vineyard is the perfect example of a less-traveled road by which to do so. In Dogs, you play the young religious police of a roughly Mormon-equivalent group in still-territorial Utah. The setting is just the 19th century United States, with a few (nicely politically correct) groups added in, plus a little religious or satanic magic too. Nothing too complex, certainly not a world-building undertaking the size of WtRoF.

BUT, the feel of the game is translated so strongly through the introductory descriptions of what being one of "God's Watchdogs" is like, that players can't help but be immersed. Dogs doesn't give you some wide world to go explore, it gives you a deep culture and time period to go explore. This kind of setting has to deliver drama and action on top of its physical locations and societies, because the game is so focused in its scope.

There is far more in Dogs about the interactions between groups than there is about the landscape or technology. That's the drama and action I'm talking about. The game would not be complete without it.

This one will be short and sweet.

4e: ***
I love 4e art. The style and color palette choices are excellent and unlike any other fantasy art I've ever seen. Occasionally, there are pieces from 3.5, but largely, the art is coherent and inspiring (especially the class close-ups, talk about PRETTY). It is professional and it ties the 4e books together neatly.

Ring of Fire: ***
This indie game used indie artists from all over. Although it isn't very coherent, and some pieces are less than professional looking, I as an rpg player appreciate when younger/newer artists contribute to my games. It feels good to know that I am helping them follow their artistic passion by buying these books. And when the art is good, it's really good (I mean, check out that cover! Bad ass.)

Dogs: **
Being another indie game, you can't compare Dogs to something like 4e. There are about a dozen pencil and ink pieces in the rule book that are all coherent and tasteful. They are black and white, which prevents you from seeing the rainbow coats that the Watchdogs have to wear, so that is a small downside. This kind of art is a good balance between a consistent look and feel and an indie budget. You can't always have it all, and using art as an accent rather than a main draw for customers is the right way to go.

This is where I could write thousands of words, but instead I'm going to choose one thing about the systems that might otherwise go unnoticed.

4e: **
Check out my Cocktail Weenie post about 4e here. My one addition would be this: when you include literally thousands of bite-sized rules, you are dissuading people from homebrewing their own. This is good for book sales, but may scare away a large customer base of rpg tinkerers. It also puts a huge responsibility on the layout people to make the rules digestible.

Ring of Fire: **
The dice system in WtRoF is a 2d8 system. Double 1s is a crit fail, but there is no crit success. Instead, 8s explode. This creates an open-ended central die mechanic. So while most rolls (and thus most character actions) will be results between 8 and 10, or average performance, you will occasionally get results in the 20s or 30s. It gives players the sense that "anything is possible," but the general grittiness of the rest of the game's mechanics prevent there from being a 4e-style "superhero" effect. Even the task resolution mechanics can add flavor and tone to your game. Which brings us to...

Dogs: ***
Dogs uses a "roll a pool of dice and use them one at a time" system for combat, and it feels like you are gambling. Because you are, essentially. If you play your cards (dice) wrong, you will have screwed yourself over for this encounter. It changes the entire pace of the game, and also emphasizes changes in strategy as opposed to big hits or critical failures. I've never seen another system like it, and I think that adds to the draw of this game. Sometimes, being different in multiple areas is enough to pull some attention in an ever more cluttered market and industry.

Surprisingly important, let me tell you...

4e: ***
I have never spent more than 15 seconds looking for a rule in 4e D&D. The books are fantastically sectioned off and many rules are color coded (although they did use both red and green, which makes it harder for my colorblind friends to differentiate at-will and encounter powers, that's a no-no). The pages never feel cluttered, the font is clear, and lists are all alphabetical unless another organization system is more intuitive. A+. This is really a matter of time and outside feedback, and it is one of the reasons I like 4e as much as I do. Infinitely better than 3.5 D&D. Also infinitely better than...

Ring of Fire: *
Ouch. This book was written like a stream of consciousness. There are chapter headings, and even the longest table of contents I have ever seen, but those things don't do much good. For example: there are rarely page references within the book when a rule is mentioned. There are key rules that are not denoted in bold or a separate paragraph, so you have to search for them every time you need them, even if you know the exact page. There are no rules for magic in the Saga book, but this was not clear until my friend and I got feedback from the creator, because the Saga book mentions magic in the rules on several occasions, but never references other books or chapters about magic. There are paragraphs that should be split up into three or four smaller paragraphs, so on and so forth. 

Not good. I would play WtRoF a lot if it were laid out in a way that could help me and others understand it better. I still bought it, but I don't think game designers should be content with that kind of reaction.

Dogs: **
My one critique of the layout of Dogs is that the margins and type face are so large, that something like character creation takes up over 20 pages. That is a lot of pages to flip through for a set of rules that will always be referenced and used all together. The creators even seemed to acknowledge this, because they put in recap pages at the end of the sections to condense the info down and make sure you got everything.

Rule of thumb: if you have to do that, maybe your layout needs to be clearer.

That being said, the sections and sub-sections are all nicely demarcated, and the table of contents is good. I did a one-shot of this game with a friend who had never seen it before that night, and he picked it up from the rule book just fine, so long as I was there to guide him through some of the sections and make sure he got everything.

  • 4e D&D: 10 stars
  • Within the Ring of Fire: 9 stars
  • Dogs in the Vineyard: 10 stars

Setting in a game needs to be deliberate and tasteful. Including a half-ass setting doesn't detract me from the product, but it does detract from my opinion of the company.

Art should be within the game designer's reasonable limits, and including indie artists is a big plus. Hell, I've seen no art games that I liked, but an illustration here or there never hurts.

System is where players' personal tastes will be most influential. System and art put pressures on layout, so make sure you understand what you are getting into. And ask yourself, what do the rules say about my game's setting and tone? Number distributions and dice rolls speak louder than you think.

Layout can be a deal breaker, even for a great game. The simpler your game, the less art, the easier layout is. But this is also where game design time and effort really shine through. Layout is not at all a matter of opinion. Some people will learn to deal with bad layouts if they have played the game enough, but new players will not. And one last thing: don't underestimate font and style. If opening your rpg book is like opening an ancient tome or magical text, points to you. 

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