August 2009

Graphic Design / Organization in Gaming Books

I just made a brief comment on twitter towards Cam Banks:


Here’s a quick example of what I mean. We just released the 20th Anniversary Edition of Shadowrun (link is to PDF version). One of the chapters that I spent a lot of time tinkering with was the Skills chapter. Here’s the fundamental problem with the Skills chapter, from an organizational/layout point of view: All of the skills have a short description that are of a similar length, but some skills have no additional rules, while others have a few hundred words of additional rules, and others have even more, plus some reference tables. Then, there are the general rules for how skills work, some sidebars with example power levels and the Skill Groups, some guidelines on the various types of skills, and finally, rules for using attributes in place of skills.

Note 1: For those of you with copy of the Shadowrun 20th Anniversary rulebook handy, when I say “Basic” I mean the descriptions starting with “Combat Active Skills” near the bottom of p. 121 and ending at the bottom of the first column of p. 127. The “Using” rules start with the Using Specific Skills header on p. 130 and continue until the end of the second column on p. 138.

Note 2:The organizational work I describe here is not necessarily the job of the graphic designer; depending on how production on a book works, this organization is probably handled first by the managing editor [or in Catalyst parlance, the “Line Developer”] or editor, and given to the graphic designer to implement. In the case of this title, I had a lot of latitude to make my own decisions for organization, with developer approval. Some graphic designers will consider this work not their responsibility, and in many situations, it wouldn’t be.

There’s one obvious choice on how to organize this chapter: put all the general purpose “these rules apply to all skills” early in the chapter, along with any tables/sidebars that list all the skills and how they relate to each other, along with what categories they fit in. I’d like to think this is a no-brainer.

Other slightly less obvious but still easy choices are: sandwich the more specific rules for using the Special groups of skills [Knowledge and Language] in between the “Basic” section and the “Using” section, and put the rules for using Attributes as Skills right at the back of the chapter. They’re the most odd duck thing in the chapter, but they belong there more than in the Game Concepts chapter, as they’re somewhat special case rules.

So the big question is: do you lump all the skills [“Basic”] and all of their specific rules/tables [“Using”] together, or do you break it out into two distinct sections? Some of the questions I ask myself whenever I have an organization question like this are: How is the book going to be used? Is this chapter mostly going to be read? Used during character generation only? Used during play only? Both play and chargen? How many questions do I have to ask myself to answer another question?

In the case of the Skills chapter, the “basic” short descriptions of each skill are heavily used during character creation … but once you have a few games under your belt, you know what the skill is used for and probably won’t need to refer to them often. The “Using” rules that you may only use once a session or every couple of sessions, however, those will be harder to memorize, and aren’t as likely to be consulted during character generation. However, there’s no doubt that both “sets” of rules are 100% tied to each other, and people will be flipping between the basic and advanced occasionally, if they are separated.

Looking at all that, I made the decision that the “Basic” rules should be distinct from the advanced “Using” rules. Now within those two sets, I have more decisions to make, primarily: how to organize the list of skills. Shadowrun skills are divided into categories, such as Combat, Social, Technical, etc. In previous editions those categories may have been slightly different, but there have always been categories. Within the categories, skills are alphabetized, and skills that have an entry in the “Using” section have a page reference to that section. This should work fine — when making a character, you are often looking for certain types of skills at a time, and when skills are in categories it’s easier to see how they relate to other similar skills; if the entire skill list were one big alphabetical list, you might think you need Intimidation when the skill you’re really looking for is Leadership. With categories, those skills are much more likely to be within a few entries of each other, so it’s easier to get the “big picture” of what a category represents and how it’s broken down.


Now for the “Using” section, which frankly, was a mess in the original [“green”] versions of Shadowrun, Fourth Edition. How to fix it? First off, I put “Using” in front of every single entry: “Using Etiquette,” “Using Jumping,” “Using Survival,” etc. Yeah, there’s some slightly odd phrasing in those, but by putting the “Using” in front of every header I was able to differentiate every single one of them from their “Basic” descriptions, to make cross-referencing easier.

One major decision for the “Using” section — do I break these skills down by category, or just alphabetize them all? I chose to alphabetize them all, because this is a section that you aren’t likely to read straight through, comparing and contrasting. This is a reference section. You use it when the boat that your ‘runner was on just burst into flames and you jumped into the water and need to stay afloat: you’re looking for Swimming first, not Physical Active Skills, and when actually using the skill, the category rarely matters.

Then came adding in what I refer to as “signposts,” a subset of cross-references. Here’s the easiest example of a signpost, and why it’s in the book: there’s a header named Using Build or Repair that does nothing but point you to the header Using Technical Skills to Build or Repair. Why do this? Because players looking to Build to Repair something are likely going to look there first, especially if they are players of Shadowrun First through Third Edition, when every skill had a “Build/Repair” specialization, discussed in a distinct section. Yup, some people might consider those two lines in the book “wasted,” but I consider it space well spent.

Some of these signposts also point to subsections like Using Charisma-linked Skills, which covers such skills as Con, Intimidation, etc – so if you flip to Using Intimidation, you get pointed to the correct page, not left in the middle of a field with a broken GPS and no cel-phone signal. And some of them go right to other chapters — such as the rules for spellcasting, which are intricate enough to be in the Magic / Awakened World chapter.


I hope this sheds some insight on how and why some organizational/layout decisions are made for a gaming book. It’s a matter of give and take — balancing organization, fitting all the text in, fitting in artwork, keeping things looking “cool,” while maintaining the utility of text/tables/diagrams. There’s no “one true way” for organizing a game book, or any other book — but the right way to figure out the best way for any particular title is to identify how the book [or a particular section of it] will be used, and go from there!

Things Not to Say …

“You would think the women would demo the good games.”

We’ve been demoing our upcoming card game, Paparazzi! at GenCon this week. Someone actually said the above quote to one of our demo team people, when he asked her about the game and she described it as “the game of trash-celebrity culture” [the game’s standard tagline] to him.

Would a simple “Hey, that doesn’t sound like my thing.” not have worked just as well, and not pre-judged something that he had yet to play?

Gen Con has been awesome this year, but some interactions really leave me wondering what people hope to gain from them.

This Just In From GenCon Appearance

I’ll be appearing once on the twice-daily This Just In…From GenCon! podcast this week. My episode records Thursday afternoon just before the exhibitor’s hall closes for the first day. If you want to keep up with what a bunch of podcasters and industry people think this year’s GenCon, TJIFG is one of the best way to get a quick fix that isn’t less than 140 characters.

Gen Con iPhone / iPod touch app available

Gen Con and VaViaz have whipped up a cool and free Gen Con app (link takes you to iTunes store) for the iPhone and iPod touch. It has maps of the local area and hotels, plus all sorts of searchable events information. It downloads the info and stores it locally, so you can use it even if you have data turned off on your iPhone. There are a bunch of interactive features as well, as it hooks into Twitter and Facebook. I’ve only spent about 10 minutes goofing around with it, but it looks pretty cool. Just having the maps at hand all the time will be nice!

Gen Con Attendance Tips 3: Looking for Work

My Gen Con Tip Archive: Part 1: Before the Show! | Part 2: At the Show | Part 3: Looking for Work

(Jan 2011 edit: I edited this to remove names of a company and people I don’t work with anymore, so as not to create confusion when people read this article in the future. with jetpacks.)

Jess Hartley wrote a great series of four blog posts talking about how to prepare and approach game companies at conventions if you are looking for work: Part 1: The Basics, Part 2: Preparation, Part 3: At the Con, and Part 4: Follow Ups and Follow Through.

If you’re looking for work at the show [especially if it’s one of your first times], go read those … and then come back and read the few additional tips I’ve included below.

Looking for Work

  • If you have any material that you are leaving with people you talk to — business card, a tearsheet of art, a writing sample, etc. — be sure that your name and address is on every single piece of it, on every page. Be vain: put your photograph on your card, resume, etc. Anything to help people remember you when they finally dig through those cards weeks later.
  • When you give someone your card or other collateral, take the time to write on the back of it exactly who you intend it for. If you’ve been talking to someone at the Posthuman Studios booth and you’re interested in doing Eclipse Phase artwork, you’ll get pointed to our art director, Rob Boyle. If Rob isn’t around, someone else will likely take your card and give you a time when he will be back — but write on the back of it: “For Rob Boyle. Interested in doing Eclipse Phase art.” Why? Because it’s unlikely that your business card is going to be “properly filed” at the booth. It’s going to get tossed into a pile, into someone’s pocket, and it probably won’t make it to the proper person until the last day of the show, or afterwards. And in the case when you’re leaving a card behind and not giving it to the exact target … it probably doesn’t hurt to leave 2 or 3 of them.
  • When you are walking the convention and introducing yourself to prospective clients, don’t bring along anyone else that isn’t prepared to be as professional as you are. It’s not the time to be hanging out with your friends or gaming group.
  • However, if you know someone who works in the industry and is willing to walk the floor with you and introduce you to people — take them up on this offer. Assuming they have a good reputation. But you don’t hang out with people with bad reputations, do you?
  • If you are an artist, it’s likely that someone can take a peek at your portfolio and give you a quick “Yeah, you look like you can work on some of our projects” or “Hey, you kinda only do horror art, and we only do games about happy ponies, but we’ll keep your card in case we ever decide to hurt the horses.” If you’re a writer or editor, though, it’s much harder to evaluate your work quickly — so you’ll need to have samples that you can leave behind.
  • If you do have relevant experience on your resume, be sure that you list relevant references on it.
  • Don’t disclaim yourself. What do I mean by this? Accentuate the positive, downplay the negative. Here’s an example of something that happened to me at Gen Con 2003, when I was with Guardians of Order: A woman came up with a resume and a writing/art sample to leave behind. Her and her partner had worked on it together, producing a short d20 adventure to show that they can produce art, writing, and game design stuff all in one. This was a good idea. I flipped through it quickly, took a copy, said that we would read it after the convention, and all was good. The next day, her partner came by. I guess they didn’t properly coordinate who had been to what booth … because he gave us another copy. That’s not the problem. The problem was, he said something like “Oh, by the way, about the map in there… $HerName thought that we should have a map in it, but I’m not a great cartographer, so it kinda sucks.”

    To this day, that map is the only part of that submission that I can still picture in my head. And for someone who wasn’t a cartographer, it wasn’t that bad.

  • Bring all the digital files that you used to create any collateral with you. If you run out, there is a Kinkos only a few blocks from the convention center: Suite 107, 120 Monument Cir. Map from Convention Center to Kinkos.