There’s a subtle difference between module presentation and module design. As a freelance designer, I spend a lot of time obsessing over module design. As a self-employed publisher, I spend just as much time obsessing over the layout and presentation of the module.
I’m a huge fan of making things as easy as possible for the GM. I hate it when a company seemingly gives no thought to making a GM’s job as easy as possible. After all, I like to think of myself as a relatively typical GM:
- I have a busy life.
- I fit in game prep. around said busy life.
- I don’t want game prep. to take longer than the game.
- I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules.
- I want to make the game as awesome as possible.
That’s why I get wildly irritated when a module doesn’t help me make the game as awesome as possible. Here are six things that particularly annoy me and make my life as a GM harder:
No Stat Blocks
I understand the tyranny of word and page count. I do. But it irritates me beyond belief when the module doesn’t include the stat blocks for the monsters appearing on its pages.
I would happily pay twice or three times as much for a larger module including all the stat blocks. (I’d even pay more for an additional PDF download containing all the stat blocks). My time is worth more.
To me, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a bog-standard monster like an orc or an odd creature from some optional source. Include the stat block. (I particularly like encounters with multiple monsters whose stat blocks appear in different books or in the same book on different pages). At the least, I have to drag another book to the game (what luck I have infinite space behind my beloved GM screen) or I’m wasting time printing out a stat block or downloading a version to my shiny idevice. Time I could better spend doing literally anything else.
No Monsters in Room Descriptions
Gah! What is it about room descriptions and monsters? In many instances, it seems a room gets a lovely detailed description. Perhaps the designer lavishes great care and detail on describing the wall hangings, furniture or other features but neglects to mention the sodding great monster charging toward the party! I genuinely don’t understand this. If you’ve got—say—an ogre with a falchion charging you, you’d probably spot that over—say—the fascinating design of the inlaid floor mosaic. Sure, the designer should mention the mosaic (or whatever) but the ogre is of greater, immediate interest to the characters.
In a classic example, in the module I’m running at the moment we get a lovely room description followed by a long paragraph detailing the room’s purpose and history. At the start of the third paragraph, we discover there is a disembodied head of a Large-sized monster floating in the room (which attacks the party). Should the large, brightly coloured floating, disembodied head not be mentioned in the room description?
Badly Organised Text #1:
Ah, the dreaded wall of text. What—for the love of god—is wrong with sub-headings and bullet points? This isn’t the 1970s. Even the most basic word processing package available today has features the designers and layout team could only dream of at the dawn of the hobby.
My revolutionary suggestion is for publishers to make it easier for GMs to prepare and use modules by breaking up the text. GMs—like everyone else these days (seemingly)—are time-poor. Remove some of the stress from GMing—make the modules easy to read and easy to reference during play.
Badly Organised Text #2
When you lay out an encounter, consider the order in which the GM will need the various pieces of information.
Group relevant pieces of information together. Information critical to running the encounter should come first. Optional information should come last. And by optional information, I mean information which is nice to know (perhaps the NPCs detailed history) but which a GM in a rush doesn’t absolutely need. In a recent encounter I prepared, we had text in the following order: read aloud paragraph, paragraph of ancient backstory, the trap, paragraph of recent backstory and—finally—the clue the characters need to proceed in the correct direction. It was literally the last sentence of the encounter. Baffling.
Give-Away Cover Art
At Raging Swan Press, we are famed—or perhaps derided—for our basic covers. I’ve gone on at great length before about why we don’t use cover art. That said, art is pretty and makes books look cool. But here’s an idea: if you are going to use artwork on the cover don’t use a piece that ruins the players’ enjoyment of the module. For example, if the adventure climaxes with the characters fighting a dragon amid the frigid waters of a subterranean lake don’t show this on the cover. It’s a bit of a giveaway.
Bad Colour Choices
I’m colourblind (as are roughly 10% of men who make up the majority of role-players). I’m not trying to get your pity, but being colourblind can make running an adventure harder depending on the colour scheme of the module and/or its maps.
Of course, sometimes you have to use certain colours—a yellow forest would look odd—but if you have the option during layout don’t use colours that colourblind people regularly have problems seeing. The classic, but slightly off-topic, example for me of this was WoTC’s use of colours to highlight the various powers in 4e—green (at-will powers), reddish brown (encounter powers) and grey (daily powers). If you didn’t know, green, red and brown are the colours that people most regularly can’t differentiate.
What Bothers You?
What bothers you about module layout and presentation? Let me know, in the comments below. Not only will you give me more things to rant about, but you’ll also help me and make my own module layout better!