Usability and RPGs
I’m starting to develop opinions about the nWoD system and about RPG book usability as a whole. I’ll detail the former in another blog post (I am like 5 posts behind, oy!), but the latter … please, please, please, focus on some sort of usability testing before you release your books. Please. Everyone.
White Wolf has available a very nice – and free – set of charts for Changeling that you can print out to act as a GM screen. Some charts come from the WoD Rulebook, and others come from Changeling. I dutifully did so, thinking I’d have, at my fingertips, a summary of most of the rules I needed to know so that I wouldn’t have to look anything up.
Bzzzt. So wrong. First page, the ‘Combat Summary Chart’ describes rolling initiative as: “The result of a die roll + Dexterity + Composure.” A die roll. The game’s rolling on and I’m looking at this, blinking. A die roll? What die roll? Some skill? There are no skills that affect initiative… are there? Wait, there’s more, “The character with the highest Initiative performs her action first. Or you may yield your character’s action until later in the Initiative queue or intro(sic) the next turn.”
This won’t be the first time that I find a grammatical error, either. Unfortunately, by the time I’ve gotten to these charts, I’ve gotten so used to grammatical errors (there’s got to be close to one a page in the Changeling book), that a misspelled word doesn’t matter so much, but that’s another issue all together… oh, and changing from third person to first person? /sigh
In the middle of the game, this left me feeling like I had no idea what was going on. I made up what I thought it meant, and figured I’d go back and figure out what it actually meant later on. Here is what it means:
Roll 1d10, then add your Initiative score (your dexterity + composure) to the roll. The player with the highest initiative goes first. Players may yield their turn until later in the queue.
Or, even in smaller, easier-for-a-GM-screen speak:
1d10 + Initiative Score = Initative
ex. 9 + 6 = 15
Highest Init First
I only include the example to differentiate this roll from other WoD rolls where similar notation means you roll that many dice and count the successes. Stating that a character can yield seems unnecessary.
And that’s just one part that I find unusable. In the WoD Rulebook, there is a great Roll and Trait Summary two-pager. I printed each of the summaries from my PDF so that I could have them on hand and readily available. This summary explains explicitly how to roll a variety of common actions, like climbing things, catching objects, holding your breath, etc. It is an invaluable resource. It’s also an enormous block of text.
Each action is listed as a paragraph, like such: “Animal Training: Composure + Animal Ken + equipment (trainer) versus Stamina + Resolve (animal); extended and contested action (the task demands a number of successes equal to the animal’s Willpower; each roll represents one day of training) (p. 79)”
Why is this in a paragraph and not in a table? The whole page is a giant block of text. Tabular data:
Give me cells and lines for my eyes to follow and quick and easy notation of what it is that I need to do so that I can glance at it, tell my player what to roll, then get back to running the game. If I have to look through a page like I do a dictionary, it takes longer.
Then there’s the GM screen. The notations underneath most of the tables are so long in and of themselves that they take up more room than the table in many cases. There are important tables that are missing all together, like the example bonus and penalties table on p. 124, or the success results table on p. 126 that describes what makes up a Dramatic Failure, Failure, Success, or Exceptional Success. Inexplicably, the sample objects list from p.136 is in there, but the two tables showing how to determine the stats for other objects are nowhere to be found.
The layout also leaves something to be desired. I don’t particularly care for the way the data is organized. I’d think that you’d want to put all combat and damage-dealing things on one two-pages spread, since they’re likely all to be referenced together. Yet, they’re split up over all four pages.
I’ll be spending some time re-organizing things and putting together the tables and charts that I want to look at the most. No matter what game I’m playing or what I’m doing, there are always fiddly bits that I want to adjust. When I was the main healer in my raiding guild in WoW, I had my interface literally fine-tuned based on where my mouse pointer naturally tends to fall when I place my hand on my mouse without thinking. So, yeah, I’m a little picky when it comes to the things I’m using and how I’m using.
But, really, I’d still like to see more effort put into usability and design when it comes to RPGs. Thanks to the internet, there is a ton of data on how people view pages of all sorts, and how they best consume information. One of the major barriers to getting into a new game is understanding game mechanics. Focusing on stronger, more usable layouts can only increase the number of people who are able to quickly and cleanly grasp your system so that they can play it. Similarly, for advanced players and GMs alike, the less fiddly work we have to do to get our environment set up properly to run games smoothly, the more work we can put into making our worlds and games that much better.