Sunday, January 2, 2022

1d50 Things I Learned in 2021

An end-of-year retrospective, in no particular order.
  1. Trying to match colors across Photoshop and InDesign after the fact is a nightmare. Write your color codes down early, in CMYK, then stick to them across both.
  2. Mixam's page cuts are not that equal, even from page to page: what you put in the bleed genuinely does matter, even if it seems like it doesn't.
  3. Picking two or three colors (one of which can/should be black or white) as your page background, main body text color, and spot color is a very cheap and easy way to make your basic PDF stand out.
  4. In New York, unless you 100% absolutely for-sure positively know it'll be amazing and worth it, never pay more than $1 per slice of pizza.
  5. Good game text is what keeps people playing your game, but good presentation and artwork is what gets them to start at all.
  6. Almost every RPG written by beginners (mine included) is over-written. Most paragraphs can be sentences. Many sentences can be cut. Never explain anything just to explain it.
  7. Relatedly, almost all indie RPG designers (like other indie game designers, to some extent) are writing for a niche crowd that has already played RPGs. Yes, your game might be played by your mom who's a total newbie, but the person running/facilitating that random tiny indie game has read and played fifty other RPGs. Stop explaining what an RPG is.
  8. A monster that normally talks but suddenly can't is spooky. A monster that normally can't say a word but suddenly starts talking is terrifying. (Did you know ghouls can talk in most systems?)
  9. As a broad rule of thumb: wizards that travel = good; wizards that stay in one place = evil. 
  10. Unless you have the same person doing writing and layout, make sure your writing is entirely done before you go to layout.
  11. International shipping is crazy expensive. Budget at least 1.5 times what you think you should for it.
  12. Inform 7, the interactive fiction tool, is a rough ride. Parser games in general are rough.
  13. Maps are always useful. I've never looked at a map that came with my RPG and said "nah, this is useless." High-quality maps are among my most-used and most-prized RPG tools. (Top of the list currently are kahva's topographical maps and Tim Denee's Doskvol street maps.)
  14. Languages in RPGs are deeply under-explored, and people are eager and excited to use them more. Not in the sense that we need more fantasy languages, but we need new and interesting ways to use language, on a mechanical and roleplaying level.
  15. I hate reading paragraphs in RPGs. Maybe I'm just spoiled with Mosh and Mork Borg and slim little hacks, but I'm just so tired of opening up an adventure or system and just seeing paragraphs and paragraphs of text.
  16. Putting player characters in positions of power—lords, elders, commanders, cult leaders, presidents—is a good way to give them agency. Even in a system where, on paper, all power lies with the GM, giving the player characters lots of in-fiction power is a good way to get them impacting the game in big ways. 
  17. Lots and lots of "generators" in RPGs are less-than-helpful. I want a step-by-step instruction list or a mad libs fill-in-the-blank or a worksheet. Give me something I can like, fill out for my game. Stop making me do all the legwork. 
  18. Use your good ideas first; don't save your good ideas for later down the line. You'll always have more good ideas, so don't hold out on the good shit early.
  19. Editors are fucking amazing. I've only hired a couple, but every time I've gotten an outside editor to look at my work, it's improved many times over.
  20. Bigger is always cooler. A dire bear that's 22 feet tall? Cool. A dire bear that's 75 feet tall? Rad. A dire bear that's 450 feet tall? Fucking awesome.
  21. College and university campuses are a very useful scale for thinking about medieval / fantasy cities. Walkable, and small enough you can walk from one end to the other in half an hour or less—but you also will never see inside every building, nor will you ever meet every person. 
  22. There's no substitute for legwork. Legwork on the part of the designer—making maps, stocking dungeons, writing out descriptions for things, actually doing the work—is what makes RPG projects actually good. Stop giving me seeds of adventures and actually spell out the adventure for me.
  23. Unless your game is actually going to be in brick-and-mortar stores, back-of-the-book text is useless. Put another table or a quick reference or something on there instead. 
  24. I sort of knew this already, but I still feel like I'm processing it: in terms of dice, multiplication is slower than subtraction which is slower than addition which is slower than comparison. It's faster to pick the highest of 2d6 than it is to add 2d6 together.
  25. I listen to more Spotify than anyone else I know.
  26. If you can't pick a font, start with one of Vignelli's six and figure it out later.
  27. Trying to make tables in multiple layers, with the lines on one layer and the text on another, is a giant pain in the ass but also lets you do some very cool things with weathering and distressing and stuff.
  28. In both RPGs and video games, it's easier to mimic physical action than anything else. Give your players tools to jump, swim, fly, leap, swing, zoom, merge, and so on. 
  29. When you make a Kickstarter thumbnail, keep it simple: big text, big image, bold colors. Too many look cluttered, and that's bad.
  30. There's something a little ineffable that emerges with longer campaigns. A campaign that lasts one session feels different than three sessions, which feels different than 12, which feels different than 50, which feels different than 200. I find myself wanting to run longer ones more often.
  31. Reading before bed is absolutely cracked. Just overpowered as fuck. Reading for 30 minutes and sleeping for 7.5 hours makes me feel better than sleeping for 8. Just busted as hell.
  32. Sean McCoy's paragraph < list < table < diagram < illustration hierarchy is really, really good. 
  33. Turns out the key to making good french toast is to add a little vanilla extract and cinnamon to your egg + milk, then let the bread sit in there for longer than it feels like you should. You want the bread almost fragmenting; instead of fishing it out of the bowl with a fork, use your spatula and tilt the bowl so you can lift the whole thing out. The more milk + egg your bread soaks up, the juicier and fluffier the toast will be, and the better it will taste. And really, it's almost impossible to overdo the vanilla and cinnamon.
  34. Watercolor brushes in Photoshop are a really good way to add just a smidgen of texture to a page background, or to any illustration. Slightly offset the color (usually a touch darker) and just paint over your main body color.
  35. The RPG space is a bizarre cottage industry. Relative to other creative fields, there's no distribution, no publishers, no networks, no pipelines. Just like ten thousand enthusiasts trying to do everything themselves. I have no idea how to fix this, but it's an issue.
  36. Everything they talk about on Trying To Be Kind. Killer podcast.
  37. Undead are way scarier when they're something you saw when it was alive. A corpse in a dungeon that sits up is a little spooky; a goblin that you definitely kill and then sits up anyways is way more alarming.
  38. I'm tired of "TV Show X, but as a game!" Both in the official licensed sense and in the "strongly inspired by" sense. 
  39. The existence of Morton's List, the game written by an on-again-off-again ICP member that was banned from GenCon and is essentially Crime: The Game. Truly a wild time.
  40. Many dungeons don't need to be on grids. Flowcharts work fine. (Unless your players will be doing a lot of digging / warping through walls.)
  41. Subsection headers can be written as [Page #].[Subsection #]: so subsection 4 on page 16 would be 16.4. Mosh does this, it's not hard, it's easy to reference, it looks very cool.
  42. GM screens are a nightmare to make. Do not try to make them unless you somehow have a printing industry connection the rest of us don't.
  43. K6BD rocks. Turns out everyone saying it rocks for years was right.
  44. Secrets are a good way to make macguffins interesting. A magic rock is boring. A magic rock that has to be kept secret because otherwise the Inquisition will be after you is suddenly very fun. Players having to decide who they can trust is always good.
  45. A 100-foot cliff is a challenge for low-level players. A 1,000-foot cliff is a challenge for mid-level players. A 10,000-foot cliff is a challenge for high-level players. A 100,000-foot cliff is a challenge for anyone. (For 5e players, consider adding an additional 0 to each.)
  46. Tinfoil hat on: system design is prevalent because systems are a means for the designer to directly influence the game; content is meant to be changed and thus does not allow the same level of authorial control. System design is, on some level, an authorial power trip (also supported by all of WOTC and their marketing team).
  47. Brutalism is rad. I'm a fan.
  48. Random encounters in dungeons and wilderness zones are time pressure: more time in the dungeon means more chances of encounters means more chances of death. Move fast and you're less likely to die. Time pressure's often lacking in RPGs, and is usually good.
  49. One of the best ways to learn layout is by trying to mimic existing RPG material. I learned a ton from trying to make my own Blades, 5e, and Mosh character sheets.
  50. There's a difference in "system" between mechanical game-system and diegetic world-system. If I say "food is currency," that is a mechanical game-system, since you like pay for goods and stuff with food and thus there are some complicated currency-per-day systems, but! it's mostly a diegetic world-system. The people in this world use food as currency: the emergent behaviors from that rule make the game rich and interesting, because it's rooted in the world itself.
There were, obviously, more things I learned this year. But this is good enough for now. 

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