Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Defining Beauty

Sloppy layout? Not pretty? The 4e handbooks is one of the most readable and easy-on-the-eyes RPG books out there, and without question the best looking D&D manual yet seen. I was glad they got that almost perfect, regardless of how the game itself was designed. Oh well, opinions and all that... I agree WotC has problems, but I can't imagine what RPG books you'd think look better than the 4e volumes.

Thus spake Anonymous, commenting on my post "Concerned". And yeah, we can differ in our opinions on what makes something good-looking. But ergonomics is a science, it ain't fuzzy, and it applies to text. Take orphans, for example. An orphan, in this case, is a final line in a paragraph or page that is extremely short, especially if it's just one single word. Like a road that suddenly ends without warning, an orphan leaves you lost, especially if there's lots of blank space below it. The eye, used to easily tracking across the page, then down and across again, like a train on a track, wanders a moment, searching for the rest of the track. Likewise with unjustified text. Those ragged fringes of words make you hunt around, breaking up the flow of your reading. Both aren't huge problems; most people are able to find the next bit of text without too much effort. They're not nearly as egregious as a busy background that forces you to decipher every letter, for instance. But they are signs of sloppy layout. They waste paper and needlessly bulk out books. They demonstrate a lack of attention to detail. Only WotC, and maybe White Wolf and Steve Jackson, could get away with including such in their books and not fear losing something of the good opinion of their audience. The 4e core books are full of both.

And while it may be easier to read the words on the page, finding the page you want can be a real pain. There's no glossary, and the index is less than useful. The powers are listed only by level, never alphabetically. If a resource mentions "Close Quarters", and doesn't tell you what that is, you'll have to hunt for it on your own. Good luck, if you don't remember it's a 10th level Rogue Utility Exploit.

Now, let's compare that to GURPS 4th edition Basic Set: Characters. Orphans are almost non-existent. The text is justified, large, and easy to read. Even more than that, each chapter is color-coded, with thick bands of color along the edge of the page, making it easy to find the chapter you need. There's a small glossary in the front, with the page number of the larger glossary in the companion book Campaigns. Powers and traits are listed alphabetically. Need to read up on the Terrain Adaptation advantage? You'll find it right between Tenure and Terror. And the GURPS book has a six pages of three-column index. The 4e D&D PHB has a measly single page, though at least it's four columns.

Now we can quibble about details (I think the borders used in the GURPS books are a tad thick and their drop boxes seem a bit chunky as well) and the quality of the interior art, but the core books for GURPS 4e are far more professional looking and easier to use than their D&D counterparts. And I'll be surprised if SJG had a tenth of WotC's budget.


James Maliszewski said...

I think this is just another example of a generational shift, honestly. Lots of people have never known any other kind of layout than the sloppy, white space-filled and orphan-riddled stuff you see in the 4e PHB. Others know better but have acclimated themselves to it and so no longer notice. So long as a book is "pretty," the niceties of layout aren't deemed important, which is why you'll get people who look at you like you have two heads when you dare to suggest the 4e books are badly laid out.

Me, I can tolerate poor layout if the content is good, but I shouldn't have to.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Trolly old bean. GURPS 4e knocks the 4e Core Books into a cocked hat when it comes to layout. They prove you can make text beautiful, and not need to rely on 3/4 double-page spread artwork (or, as I like to call it "spurious padding") to make a thing look beautiful.

The two GURPS core books have more /game/ than the three D&D books combined and then some. The PHB layout is..... well, I've said my piece before.

Robert said...

The thing that baffles me is that other editions of D&D—other Wizards products even—have done a better job in this department. How does a group of people who’ve played with the AD&D2e PHB and the D&D3e PHBs think that if they arrange the powers by class and level that they don’t then need to include an alphabetical index of powers?

(I guess if I were more cynical, I would think that they just expect you to sign up for D&DI and use the Rules Compendium.)

trollsmyth said...

How does a group of people who’ve played with the AD&D2e PHB and the D&D3e PHBs think that if they arrange the powers by class and level that they don’t then need to include an alphabetical index of powers?

And that really is the core of my thesis. If these folks are playing the game, and I have every reason to believe they actually are, they must know how important it is to find this sort of info quickly, in the middle of the game. Maybe you're right, and maybe it is a cynical bid to sell DDI subscriptions. Me, I'm thinking clumsiness. Everyone knew alphabetized lists and indexes would need to be written, but such tasks are so lacking in sexy and glamour that they just got passed over and pushed down the line until there was no time to do them right. I see a lack of discipline or leadership or something, as "stupid" (especially the momentary kind that briefly turns an otherwise brilliant mind off) is far more prevalent in the world than "evil".

- Brian