Saturday, 6 January 2018

Readability and games.

Layout is tough. I'm self-taught and there's still big flaws I am looking to correct.

However, I think it's also a skill where a few tricks can go a long way and with self-publishing being all the rage in the RPG and wargaming communities, why not learn from each other?
A lot of games look bad.

I don't mean in the sense of art work: Many games have lots of gorgeous art (and most games have more art than NWG titles).
I mean in terms of the text being readable and easy to use.

There's a lot of style guides out there for writing which people may use, however, those are almost universally intended for text that is meant to be read (and often only once).
But games aren't like that.
Your player is going to need to reference the rules for "Single handed melee attack during adverse weather conditions" in the middle of a game, to determine if "a rain of acidic frogs" is considered an adverse weather condition or not.

I think we need to create our tools.

So... here's "Weasel's Rules of Making Text Less Bad":

These are not in any particular order of importance.

I welcome comments on these.
Feel free to share them or expand upon them as you see fit, as long as you give me a shout-out or link back here.


1:
Pick if you intend the reader to print or read on the screen.
Personally, I despise dual column layouts for screen reading, but on paper, a single column tends to be wasteful and inflate the page count.

2:
Tables, flow charts and similar should fit on one page if at all possible.

These are things the player will refer to during play, so having to page flip is a terrible experience.
If you are doing a print book, a table or flow chart crossing facing pages is acceptable.

3:
Try to avoid having a few lines of text spill over to the next page or column.
This again reduces readability when the player is trying to reference a rule in play, but it can also lead to parts of a rule being missed or not understood.

4: 
Try to define your rules terms and avoid using the same words in casual conversation.
I typically put rules terms in bold to make it clear when I am talking about morale as a dice roll, versus descriptive text of the Azhkhanarnian army having low morale during the Wurzenboigen campaign.

In the same vein: Try to use consistent terms.
This can be tricky but it does improve the usability a lot.
Avoid switching between "figure" and "miniature" in a war game for example.

5:
Rules text should be concise and clear, because it'll be referred to during play.
If possible, try to separate flavor text and rules text out so it's easier to parse the paragraph at a quick glance.

"German machine guns typically had high rates of fire, permitting the squad to rely on them to a greater degree.

Add +1 Attack Die when firing a German Machine Gun Team"

6: 
While it's considered old-fashioned, I think the old board-game style of rules and sub-rules works rather well.

Use formatting to indicate whether a rule is a sub-set of an existing rule. For example, if you have your Movement rules, you may have a sub-set that discusses Running or Hiding.
If each main rule is in BOLD AND ALL CAPS you might have sub-sets in CURSIVE CAPS.

You can do similar things for optional or advanced rules.

7:
Limit the blocks of text.
I use a rule of thumb to never have more than 5 lines of text before a line break.
In dual column layouts, you might go to 6 or 7.

Large, dense text blocks are hard to read for a lot of people and are hard to reference during play.
Remember, we're writing games, not literature: Our use cases are different.

Consider more line breaks in your text as well.
"When failing an ammo check, the player character must reload. This takes an action" 

versus

"When failing an ammo check, the player character must reload.
This takes an action"

The effect is not pronounced for a single line like this, but when it comes as part of a text block, it can make spotting the rule much easier.

8:
People smarter than me have suggested that if possible, try to break up each page with /something/ else than text: An image, a table, an example, a text box etc.

I still need to work on this, but I wanted to include it anyways.

9:
Also something I need to work on:
Illustrations that somehow correlate to the text on the page will improve usability of a book massively.

We've all had rule books where you remembered how to find a particular often-referenced section because "it had the picture of the dude with the sword".

Plus, it just makes the game look more cohesive.

10:
When it comes to writing rules, pay close attention to your choice of words like "will" and "may".
When you review your game rules, read them as literally as possible because that's what a substantial portion of your audience will do to.

If read literally, does the rule say what you intend it to say ?

"Characters within 2" of an enemy may attack in close combat".

Does this mean I can also choose to shoot?
Did you intend that I can opt not to attack at all?


That's it for now.
I have more things to say, but I thought 10 was a reasonable amount for one day.

What are your tips?

Do you disagree with the obvious nonsense I just posted?

Lemme know.


If this was helpful to you, why not say thank you by buying a copy of October Hammer so you can see how I screwed it all up :-)