So, we’re on the Modiphius playtest for the upcoming John Carter of Mars RPG, and finally got a chance to play the packet of rules they’d sent to us. My interest and hopes for the game were quickly dashed by an absolutely disastrous experience.

Straight off, the packet did not specify how the main core die mechanic worked; I had to open the Conan quickstart file, which — while indisputably beautiful — is a monstrously large file due to this and was absolutely killing the iPad, speed-wise. I thought I had that simply basic rule down, but the players were continually asking the same question about it, so I second-guessed myself and that was that. What had started out at a good clip quicklyy bogged down to my flipping back and forth and trying to read through the dense colors of the highlighting the design team had throughout the playtest file.

Professional tip for developers/editors of any type #1: when sending something to a group of people, keep the highlighting colors as low contrast as possible. It’s damned near impossible, for instance, to read black type through a deep red highlight.

Professional tip #2: When describing a process, be specific, be simple, and assume congenital idiocy. No, most of your audience isn’t stupid, but they might be busy, as many of us are, or they’re former PhD students who no longer can stomach reading after 400 books in 3 months, and they’ve only skimmed the file. “That’s their fault!” you cry. Nope. Be simple, direct, and specific. How does the die mechanic work, in this case.

So, 2d20 is actually relatively simple, but describing it might be hard. In the case of this game you add two stats and try to get below their total. If you do, it’s a success; if you’re below the highest attribute on any die (or is it on all dice — this is where they fell down) you gain two successes; below the lowest stat, three successes. Say you need four successes (which they did not bother to explain was what D4 meant), you roll two dice and hope you get low enough on one or both dice to get four successes. So you could, in theory, get upwards of six successes on 2d20, or more with use of “momentum” (More on that in a moment.)

Really not that complicated. Any extra over what you need is “momentum”, which can be spent for yet another d20 on a following action, on damage, or a number of other things. Damage comes off of the attribute/stats you used to defend. The mechanics aren’t that bad, but the packet was a hot mess to read through. You should not have to go to another playtest book on another related game to understand what you’re doing. (Yes, it’s a work in progress, but assume no one has read your other stuff.)

Strangely, my five year old immediately grasped the rules. She wanted to play desperately, but when things bogged down, she got bored and wandered off. Shortly after, I pulled the plug on continuing and we pivoted to Hollow Earth Expedition for the rest of the night.

Which bring me to a sidenote, as I am working through product development, myself: Conan, both the Quickstart packet and the book in development are beautiful. A lot of the new RPG books are full-color, loaded with graphics, art, and high-quality layout work. They really are gorgeous. But they are 1) expensive, 2) staggeringly heavy on the pdf file sizes, and 3) for all this is supposed to help set the tone for players…I’m not so certain this isn’t working against some of the publishers.

The expense of making these books is high. The art costs, the layout costs, the fine paper and full color costs, the hardcover costs, and they’re often bloated 300+ things of late, so they’re heavy — which makes shipping (especially international) cost-prohibitive in the extreme. (Drop over to Fred Hick’s blog to read more on how shipping can crush a successful Kckstarter.) I love to love and feel of these books, as well as others…but part of me wonders if this focus on the aesthetic over the substance isn’t becoming a problem.

Some of these fancy products mean counter-productive color choices where contrast between text and background color or patterns interrupt the ability to read the rules. The focus on sounding appropriate to the setting (Firefly was a good example of this) can help set the mood, but make understanding how the hell the rules work difficult. You don’t want to sound repetitive or boring to the reader, but you are also describing a process — it’s technical writing, really — and clarity, brevity, and simplicity rule the day when teaching something to a person.

So I suppose my question is — do we need all these gorgeous books, or do we need a return to more simple layouts, good clear writing that cuts the size of a game book from a 300 page, $60 tome to something more in lines of 150 pages and $25-30? Maybe grayscale will do. Maybe black and white, save for a few color plates, will do. (It would certainly make the pdfs easier to use!) Maybe softcover will do.