August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:
Today’s question is this:
Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?
I’m going to make a bit of a departure here, and interpret jaw-dropping both in a positive and in a negative way. I’m doing that because, as I said earlier in this series of posts, the bar has really been raised in a lot of ways in the RPG publishing world. Good and even excellent layout ends up being kind of invisible: you only notice layout when it’s incredible—at which point it can become a distraction from the material—or when it’s really bad.
On the positive side, I don’t know where the idea of marginal notes started in RPG publishing—the kind we are mostly accustomed to seeing in textbooks—but my first encounter with them was in the Numenera hardback.
See that use of marginal notes on the left? They explain concepts, give page references, and even at points serve as a summary for a concept more deeply explained on the page.That’s a great idea, and an example of something small and probably invisible to a lot of people. It’s an obvious way to highlight information, making it available for quick reference while also setting it aside from the massive blocks of rules text, and yet how long did it take for people to figure out this could be used in an RPG book? (Seriously, how long? I’m asking, because I don’t think I’ve seen it before.)
A predecessor, I guess, would be the sidebar or text box, but marginal notes are a little different from either, purely because of the layout. I hope to see more of that layout trick used in RPG publishing, though of course gamers have been known to complain about what they feel are oversized margins in books—assuming they exist to “rip off” consumers. Sigh.
But on the negative side—and this may surprise you—it didn’t require much thought for me to think of an example:
That’s a page from a White Wolf RPG book in a line I absolutely love, Wraith: The Oblivion. Specifically, it’s page 56 from The Shadow Player’s Guide. Good grief, though: look at that damned page.
First, most of the text in this book looks like the bottom of column 1 and the top of column 2: it’s pages and pages of white text on a black background:
The eyestrain is all in the service of style: this is the Shadow Player’s Guide, after all, so it better be dark.
And then there’s the text boxes:
These would be less terrible, if the backing images were a little more faded out, but as they are, the text is even less readable than the black on white—and that just worsens when you consider the reader is supposed to be parsing a bunch of unfamiliar (foreign) words in italics.
Not all the Wraith books are this excessive. I think someone realized this was a replication in print form what had become a mainstay in bad web design of the time. (And I say this as someone whose personal webpage, in the early oughts, was white text on a black background and comprised of long, long essays on all kinds of subjects.) Many of the books in the line avoided these kinds of excesses, and allowed the illustrations to be illustrations. But the Shadow Player’s Guide—which seems like a cool book, actually: there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it—will definitely be the last of my Wraith books that I’ll reread, because of these layout issues.
Now, White Wolf maybe wasn’t the first to pioneer awful layout like this, but it was certainly my first brush with books that were so overwrought stylistically that you felt someone had forgotten the game content on the page had to be readable. It’s a jaw-droppingly bad solution to the question of how to lay out a book for a game where characters are all ghosts, balancing atmosphere with usability.
Happily, most designers seem to have moved far, far away from this kind of thing. Right?
I don’t know if they all have, of course, but I can say I feel like the bar has definitely been raised… and that’s a wonderful thing.