Jun 20, 2012

Designing Better and Narrower Supplements

I haven't been gaming in about six weeks, except for a single session of Thousand Thrones (and another one on Sunday). Emern is on hold, and I have yet to launch the Dawnlands game, since work is busy, I'm moving to a new apartment, several PCs are also busy, etc.

There is an ongoing thread on rpg.net on what is the cutting-edge of sandbox game play, and particularly procedural generation. One of the complaints against supplements with procedural generation tools in them is simply that in actual play, they are hard to reference - one must flip through the book, find the tables, roll the dice and sometimes look up entries. Often, one must perform this several times, flipping across multiple pages, with even more page-flipping required to move from situation to situation. As well, the procedural generation tools are often created as a set of nested tables.

I am sympathetic to this complaint. I tried to play the Riddle of Steel once, and it was nightmarish, as one had to flip repeatedly through the book, and it has made me "flip-shy" ever since. The problem is exacerbated when there is only one (very large) corebook that multiple people may need to refer to at once. If I had to coin a rule, it would be that page-flipping is death to excitement and speedy resolution.

I don't think, however, that we are doomed. Instead, I think this is a problem with a ready solution, one that can be solved by redesigning how supplements that focus on procedural generation work. I haven't seen the Vornheim supplement in person, but I have heard that it already implements something like this. If so, good for Zak, but it needs to go beyond just Vornheim.

The proposal is that we should take the mini-games or extended sequences of die rolls, and turn them into simple, small, short guides. This includes discrete mini-games like overland travel and wilderness exploration, dungeon exploration, merchant trade and domain management. I'm thinking 20-30 pages, tops. The manuals would include step by step instructions on resolving the situation, and use mainly dice maps instead of nested tables. Each step in the sequence would involve turning to the next page, until the guidebook was complete

A sample layout for wilderness exploration explaining things further:

Page 1: Table of Contents
Page 2: Die Map: What Can You See When You Look Around
Page 3: What dice to drop on the map and how to interpret the results.
Page 4: Navigation roll & notes on resolving navigation issues; Weather roll & notes on resolving weather issues
Page 5: Distance traveled per unit of time and modifiers
Page 6: Die Map: What Interesting Thing Happens?
Page 7: What dice to drop on the die map and how to interpret the results.
Page 8: Spotting Interesting Things roll and modifiers
Page 9: Die Map: Minor flourishes and details for wilderness encounters
Page 10: Treasure and other rewards from wilderness encounters
Page 11: Rules for establishing camp, setting up watches, and sleeping
Page 12: Rules governing the depletion of supplies and modifiers.

These would be 8 1/2 x 11 or A4 pages printed in a two-column format, which should be plenty of space. If any set of rules is more complicated than can be printed on a single page of 8 1/2 x 11 in two columns, it's probably too complex for actual use. The idea is that anyone, whether a PC or referee, could start on page 1, and flip through the book in sequence resolving each issue until a complete "turn" of wilderness exploration had passed. At various points, one might loop the process back. In the above example, Pages 2 through 10 could loop until PCs decided to camp down.

These kinds of supplements are simple and short enough that one could even create them for personal use. The main advantage here is clear and simple organisation, and their separation from the mass of other rules. In fact, if they're short enough, you could produce several and distribute them amongst the PCs for speedy resolution and consultation.

I'm going to try to create some of these for the Dawnlands before the end of the summer, but I would propose that you try it for your own.