User hostile: How to make a good game book painful to use

Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast has the seeds of a solid adventure. While characters visit the town of Daggerfall, they investigate mysteries like a theft and a suicide. Leads take them to a variety of dungeon sites in the region, mostly overrun with evil humanoids. At the conclusion, they can learn the secrets that tie the threads together. Recently, I finished running the adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. See “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition” for more.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

As an adventure, Scourge of the Sword Coast may be solid, but the product plumbs a low for usability in play.

When I reach a such a damning conclusion, I begin to question my adequacy as a dungeon master. Perhaps, an adequate DM can spend a couple of hours perusing the 75 pages, understand all the nuances, and recount details 10 weeks later when players uncover answers.

But I am not alone in my conclusions.

Ace convention DM Ed Kabara writes, “As a GM I felt things were too cluttered with important information being mixed with bits of encounters. I felt like the story needed a diagram to really help me to organize my thoughts regarding the plot.”

On the The Tome Show podcast, the round-table reviewers ask for more attention to formatting and organization, cite the need for a more help running the adventure, and suggest adding a timeline.

For a taste of what makes Scourge so difficult to run, imagine your players finish a key encounter, and you face this line on page 63, “If the characters save Shalendra, they can learn the story of Baazka and the specific location of Bloodgate Keep.”

First, you cannot actually reveal the specific location of Bloodgate Keep, because that lies in the next adventure. If you look for something more specific than “in the Forlorn Hills,” then you will waste time.

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Can you find anything?

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Quick! Find Baazka’s story.

Second, suppose you cannot remember all the details of Baazka’s story, so you page back through the text looking. Page 23 includes a “Baazka” subhead, but not his story, so you keep paging back. Meanwhile, you have lost your players attention. On page 15, you face this page with a “Shalendra Floshin” heading atop a column of undifferentiated text. Perhaps that hides the information she tells the players. Should your start skimming, or try the adventure background on page 3? Quick, find Baazka’s story before you lose everyone to their smartphones or to chatter.

I wish my example came from a single bump, but every time I reference this text, I find myself hunting. Every time, I wind up thinking that I remember seeing more about that, but I have no idea where.

Some of the challenge stems from the authors’ ambition. Scourge combines a sandbox with a plot, as multiple villains scheme even as the characters adventure. Like any sandbox, the text organizes around locations and characters, but all the details of the story lay threaded through these descriptions. This is why reviewers keep pleading for diagrams and timelines and advice on running the adventure.

I wish Scourge of the Sword Coast stood out as an anomaly, but it just represents another low as Wizards of the Coast grows increasingly indifferent to the usability of their products. The adventures that preceded it were just as bad. Dead in Thay mostly consists of keyed dungeon locations, but piecing together the information for my players’ handout seemed like a detective’s job.

How does Wizards of the Coast take perfectly good game content and make a book that creates hassles at the table? I suspect they focus on cramming as much content as possible into a book’s page budget, without allocating pages to indexes or other usability improvements, without scheduling the necessary drudgery of adding cross references, play aids, and index entries. I think the authors and editor approach game books as they might a novel, something to be read from start to finish. I think the typesetters and designers approach game books as a magazine that must lure potential buyers at a newsstand. Neither group of artists seems to have accepted a bitter truth. You produce technical documentation. Your stories will only come alive if you create documents that enable players to bring them to life at the table.

Next: Five ways to create more usable game books

This entry was posted in Advice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to User hostile: How to make a good game book painful to use

  1. I really liked this post so I added a link to it in my Best Reads of the Week series. I hope you don’t mind.

    http://dyverscampaign.blogspot.com/2014/06/best-reads-of-week-june-6-13.html

    • DM David says:

      Charles,
      Thanks for including me on the list. This post strays a little from my usual topics, so I worried that no one would find it interesting. I’m happy to learn that you liked it.

      Dave

Leave a Reply