Monday, July 23, 2018

The assumption of failure in information design: Thoughts on the presentation of adventures


I often see people talk about how information needs to be re-organized and laid out differently to aid use of a product at the table.  This is a great idea, but I often see it done bass-ackwards.  People make suggestions that I think are antithetical to the ideal goal of not having to look through a book at all during play.  In short, people advocate for an acceptance of the inevitability of failure on the designer's part.

To explain further on that topic, think of the core rule from Neoclassical Geek Revival "The Known Rule".

THE KNOWN RULE
NGR contains a large number of rules,
and in the end it is not likely someone
will have them all memorized. The
rules of this game are only applicable
if someone involved actually knows the
rule or claims to. If no party involved
knows the rule then they obviously did
not choose their course of action based
on the mechanics. In such a case, the
GM should issue a ruling and move
on. You should never be looking up
rules during play. Doing so results
in –1 awesomeness for a player or +1
awesomeness to all players if the GM
looks up a rule (per occurrence). Awesomeness
is covered near the end of the
book in the End of the Session section.

That neither GM's nor Players should be spending time cracking open books at the table is absolutely critical to my gaming sensibilities.  Having a quick summary of an NPC would be to accept failure (note: this is distinct from a statblock for mechanics) .  The NPC should already be in your brain, they should be "Sticky" for lack of familiarity to any better term.

And "Sticky" is the key to the whole adventure.  When you read it, the general shape of purpose of the adventure should be in your head.  You don't need a quick summary of the NPC and their motivations because they should be vivid enough in your memory that a simple name or title ("Doug" or "The Apothecary") should be enough to make them leap into your mind fully formed with the details being "right enough".  If you forget a few details that didn't stick in your memory, that isn't a problem.

There are obviously limits to this*.  Shenanigans will ensue and you will need to periodically figure out exactly how certain things work. You may need to quickly scan a map or look at the stat block for a monster when it boils down to game mechanics and dice rolling (usually combat).  These things always go into an appendix at the back when I write an adventure for that reason.  If you need to know what the stats of a lazer-badger are, they will be in the back.  They will also be given a memorable name like "lazer-badger". Spells and magic items are also in similar appendices for the exact same reason.

For rooms I've taken to adding some colour coding,  which means you can see whats important at a glance.  I do this because I see a lot of value of making things easier to skim, provided doing so doesn't interfere with the ideal state of not needing to skim at all.  When I colour code bits of the rooms, I don't need to rewrite the room. It keeps a conversationalist and narrative structure that (to me) more easily forms a mental picture.

Random generators (such as a chart or table) also require reading because there are so many different combinations. Those definitely need good design because you need to generate something new at the table itself. It is something I am always looking to improve (with varying degrees of success).

Sometimes bits of content just aren't "sticky". They don't leave an impression in your brain. My thought to that is, why are they in the adventure?  Are they just fill? padding?  How much are you really losing from the adventure if you ditch them considering a few hours after reading them before the game you'd already forgotten they even existed? Perhaps you've crammed too much stuff in one adventure? The human mind has limits for information chunking and you should take that into account when designing an adventure (3-7 being the magic numbers, ideally aiming for 5).

To be clear, this isn't a claim that I always succeed in creating "sticky" adventures and situations. The colour codes I add to rooms are there because sometimes I will fail in my goal with the room and it doesn't hurt to add them in. Writing and design are skills like any other.  You can always improve, and the only way to do that is through practice. Practice involves failure and its prudent to take steps to minimize the impact of failure if they don't interfere with doing things right.  I am working on some additional appendix ideas that I hope to release in the future that should make investigative and heist adventures easier for that very reason.

If you write with the idea that the GM will be reading it at the table you've already failed in my mind. I am not going to read a damn thing at the table unless the situation has already broken down into analysis paralysis. This happens. Usually it happens when there is some cockamamie scheme from the players that devolves into abusing some minute fact or mechanic.  It also happens when the party travels long distances and the players "zoom out" from the matter at hand into a more abstract mindset. But if you expect me to read even one line every time the party goes into a new hallway or searches a room you've already lost me. Every time I have to read at the table I see that as a failure.



Getting near the final countdown on the Kickstarter

Edit: * Obvious limits currently.  I am sure different things could be changed in either game prep habits, adventure expectations, system design or who knows what to minimize this in the future.  Mechanical interaction is a big break point for example, but in NGR the process in which stats are derived allows for easier (though not yet perfect) "Just In Time" stat generation.  The weighted pro/cons on things like weapon tags make it easier to forget rules as well.


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