A rant about layout and complexity in RPG books

This post started out as a rant about Call of Cthulhu, then expanded into a general rant about layout and complexity in RPG’s and then changed again, into a general discussion about stuff I’m enjoying/playing/hating/looking forward to…


Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition
I’ve been a gamer for 20+ years and despite playing a few sessions of CoC, i’ve never owned the core books. With Achtung Cthulhu due out soon, with the option of CoC or Savage Worlds, I opted to learn how to run CoC, since surely that’s the purest form of cthulhu based gaming… I knew that 7th edition CoC was due out next year, but that Achtung Cthulhu was written for 6th Ed, so I got the PDF, and wasted a ton of ink printing ugly pages, and decided that to truly embrace the Mythos I needed to get the core book, so I ordered it.

Its a big book, but one i’d really want in hardback, and i’d have expected more effort would have been made to actually make the book look ‘eldritch’. Instead its this really floppy blue/black softcover with BIG yellow writing and a vague shadowy cthulhu behind some towers? stalactite? non-euclidean geography? As first impressions go, the cover is absolute shit.

And then the insides are not much better, varying background colours, varying font sizes, alignments, line spacings, weird ass fonts, huge side images, crappy black and white artwork that looks like it came from early 1980s roleplaying books… This thing is a shrine to crap layout. The book starts with a few short stories from HP Lovecraft, presumably to set the mythos theme up. Except they are just walls of almost unformatted text.

I was hoping once we got into the nitty gritty of the rules that the layout would improve. If anything it got worse. The book seems to randomly throw double page spreads in different layouts calling out skills or occupations into an already bad layout. And it does this out of order. Skills seem to get called out in at least 4 places before you actually need to know about them. And then a page or two after occupations are first shown off, we get a small sidebar about how a psychiatrist is 1/2 a doctor and 1/2 a psychotherapist – its so random and badly worded I can’t actually tell what they are trying to tell me about psychiatrists.

The rules text themselves are worded in a almost archaic or academic way. In the INT stat section it describes how the KNOW stat is INTx5 but you might multiply the INT stat by different numerals, often smaller. NUMERALS?!? What The Fuck? Did the word values, modifiers, amounts, quantities, factors etc not get considered? And then later on its describing your Damage Bonus and spends a paragraph trying to explain that bonus is an incorrect word and it can be negative. Erm… How about Damage Modifier then, and save yourself a paragraph. The whole way the character generation section is done, both mathematically and textually is so outdated.

And yet, the system itself is beautifully simple, you have stats and skills ranked from 0 to 99, and you roll a d100/d%, equal to or less than the amount is a success. You could therefore sum the rules up as: High Stats Good, High Rolls Bad. 6 words… Not 30 odd pages where it never really gets down to the nitty gritty of what a rolls is (compare this to 13th age, D&D Next etc, who in their how to play sections say d20+stat+modifier>=target is success).

The rules have some other weird quirks. Initiative for example… People with guns go first in DEX order. Then everyone goes again in DEX order to do their action, but if you’ve got a gun which fires more than a single shot, you get to fire it again at DEX/2 in the initiative order. This seems needlessly complex, and even more weirdly, the game makes a point, very early on in the book of saying ‘guns are bad, if players use them, they’ve messed up’. So why does the initiative pamper to them? Not only that, there’s pages upon pages of rules on fighting with guns, and parrying with guns, and point blank firing, and aimed firing, and using laser sights (in the 1920’s?) and pages upon pages of stats for guns. FOR A GAME WHERE GUNS ARE BAD!


So i’ve covered the rules, the layout etc. Now comes my biggest problem with CoC… Cthulhu and the Mythos… I’ll openly admit to not being a fan of HP Lovecraft’s work, and I think this tempers how I approach the Myuthos, but for a game where you are slowly being driven mad through the investigation of weird artifacts, weird cults, and exposure to weird otherworldly beings…

a) theres a metric fuck ton of weird shit in the world, why the fuck is no one else going mad?
b) theres a metric fuck ton of weird shit in the world, but the cultists aren’t all mad/eaten?
c) theres a metric fuck ton of weird shit in the world, and yet cthulhu still sleeps?
d) theres a metric fuck ton of weird shit in the world, and people are still scared of it?

In other words… if the mythos are so common, why are they so weird? Its kind of like race relations – when I was a kid, ethnic minorities were truly a minority where I lived and for a 5 year old kid, a big black man was a scary thing. Nowadays, the ethnic mix is more diverse, and my 5 year olds don’t consider it strange that they know people of a different ethnic group. Replace ethnic minority with eldritch horror in that last sentence and suddenly the Mythos are not scary. And if cthulhu is sleeping in R’lyeh, why is he also in rome, russia, ww1, ww2, egypt, maine, new orleans etc…

The mythos simply don’t work for me…


Dr Who
The weird initiative system in CoC made me think about changing it to one which doesn’t focus on gunplay. The obvious choice was Cubicle 7’s Dr Who game, where the type of action someone wants to do determines their place in the initiative order. Talkers go first, potentially diffusing the situation before anything happens. Then movers, more than likely people running away. Then doers, people attempting to save the day by pulling the power cord out of the generator etc. And finally the fighters… I really like the concept of this because it encourages players to think about their action and potentially stop it before it devolves into shooting and hitting people.

I got bought the Dr Who game for Christmas when it came out, and I was excited to receive it. I kinda hope i’d have had chance to play it that christmas, and I dutifully read it. And it sucked…

It’s not that the system is bad, its a good system with a novel way of handling initiative and has varying levels of success and failure, and adding to the story gives you points you can spend to then alter the story in your favour. It’s just that the way its all described and presented is needlessly complicated and written in such a way as to require a Doctor and a companion, and companions best friend and … You get the picture.

The production values were really hit and miss. My sons’ monsters and aliens books about the doctor were more informative and better laid out than the material the game came with, and the picture were a real hodge-podge from the new series shrunk down to almost invisible levels… But then it came in a BOX! and the dice it came with were beautiful!

I think my main problem with the Dr Who game is that it was a missed opportunity – they could have designed a system that was nice and simple, ironically along the lines of what they did, but described in such a way as to be easily accessible to non-gamers. It shouldn’t have been long, it should have had a good walk through adventure, and it should have been followed up with a more complete product.


Edge of the Empire
Which is how Edge of the Empire did it…

A paid for beta for dedicated roleplayers, incomplete but regularly updated, was a great way to create a buzz about the game. Then there was the beginners box, a slightly expensive intro, but in my opinion a great one, and then the Core rulebook, and now, a smattering of expansions, and a beta for its followup, allowing you to play as the rebellion.

Edge of the empire has several things going for it – Its star wars and everyone knows/loves star wars, its beautiful, its layout is superb, its fonts perfect, its artwork is exquisite. Its hands down the most amazing looking RPG book I own. And this is across all its products, from the beta, to the box set, to the core rules, to the expansions. Artwork is barely repeated across them, meaning the books are full of new concept art and sketches and drawings of our favourite locations and characters and vessels.

Character generation and advancement is both simple (pick a race and a career) and detailed (add obligations, specializations, more specialization, become force sensitive, custom your weapons, pick up new traits…), and the options available really suit the core books setting, that of scum and villainy on the outer rim, and get past the major issues I’ve had with Star Wars games in the past… too many jedi…

At its heart, Edge of the Empire uses a dice pool mechanic, add green and yellow dice based on your skill, and the gm adds purple and red dice based on the difficulty. Roll them, and cancel out the icon pairs until you succeed or fail, and potentially have some good happen or something bad happen. the mechanic takes a few rolls to get your head round, but is incredibly versatile, and its possible to get results like ‘you succeed, doing extra damage, but something VERY bad happens…’

The game however has some major flaws. The dice are unique to the game and not cheap. Ideally every player needs a set of the £10 dice, and preferably 2 sets… The Core book is expensive, and despite going through a beta and a beginners set, is full of uncorrected errors. The spaceship rules are overcomplicated, the range and movement rules abstract to the point of confusion, and its better to play the published adventures than write your own…


Marvel Heroic Roleplaying
Thankfully this travesty is no longer for sale, but I consider it one of the worst £6 I spent on RPGNow!

The games credits list should have made it great, it was from Margaret Weis Production, and written by several well known and well respected members of the RPG scene. I picked it up just after launch when a RPGNow promotion coupled with a MWP one meant it went from something like £15 for the pdf to £6. Unfortunately, I don’t think its worth the £6…

I’m not sure where to start with the issues this game has. Layout, its ugly, with thick blue borders, and Marvel artwork covering nearly half of every page. Its a printer killer if you buy it on PDF and they could have used 75% less artwork and still conveyed the same feeling. Its poorly laid out, the font is ugly its size is too big, and the book is constantly referencing rules it hasn’t taught you yet. Theres no character creation, so you’re forced to use their versions of official marvel heroes only, and the big turn off for me, the game is based around a very specific point in the marvel comics timeline.

Lets take a moment to consider when this rpg hit… You guessed it, the same time as the Avengers movie. The timing was exquisite, the problem was that physical copies of the game were still weeks away, and the game bore no resemblance to the movies, nor featured the same heroes, nor was it at all accessible to new roleplayers. Like Edge of the Empire, its a dice pool mechanic game, but one that I never got my head round, and to be honest, the attitude from MWP and their devoted fans put me off it and their products for life.


I’m trying to link the sections based on some common aspect, and for Pathfinder, that common aspect would be terrible layout and rabid fans.

It often surprises people that a big 4e fan like me doesn’t hate Pathfinder. On the contrary, I think Paizo should be applauded for the Pathfinder range. It takes skill to knock out an adventure, and adventure path, a players book, a setting book, a comic, a story book, a bestiary/core book, map pack and organized play adventure every month, each with new artwork, new creatures, new feats, new deities, new maps etc. Its almost comparable to the output of TSR at its heyday, but Paizo still seem to be making a profit. They are led incredibly capably by Lisa Stevens of White Wolf fame, and Erik Mona, who is an incredibly approachable guy who loves gaming (kinda like Mike Mearls then…). They have an great staff, mostly ex WotC, and they keep the product quality high. They’ve branched out into minis, taking over from WotC, and again, are doing those incredibly well. Put simply, Paizo are incredible…

While i’m not a Pathfinder player, I pick up its books every now and again, because the material they contain is great – I recommend Castles of the Inner Sea, Thornkeep, Ultimate Campaign, Ultimate Equipment, NPC Codex, any of the Pawn collections, Kingmaker adventure path, the Rise of the Runelords anniversary edition… However…

Layout wise, Paizo have so far to go. They print huge blocks of text with only the most miniscule amount of italics or indenting on glossy paper in a tiny font. For me, their books are the epitome of unreadability. The artwork they use is incredibly, but sparsely used, and often a page or so before/after the actual thing its showing.

And then you get the Pathfinder fans, who will attempt to rip you apart if you dare suggest there is any RPG other than Pathfinder, who’ll laugh at you for liking 4e (even though the latest Mythic stuff takes some inspiration from 4e), and who’ll openly attack each other in forums for daring to suggest their interpretation of Rules As Written is not correct. I’ve seen 48 page forum threads debating the most basic of rules, with Pathfinder fans arguing the same facts with each other and calling each other gay etc despite the fact they were actually in agreement.

Pathfinder fans, you give the hobby a bad image, grow up will you!


Achtung Cthulhu
You’d think i’d link that with CoC at the top… Instead, i’m going to link it to Pathfinder based on artwork.

Achtung Cthulhu is an upcoming interpretation of the mythos setting, with rules for both CoC 6th Ed and Savage Worlds in the same book. It was successfully funded by kickstarter, with stretch goals meaning i’m getting a shit load of pdf’s, adventures, sourcebooks, crossovers etc as well as hardbacks soon. In addition, their are 3 adventures and a novel available on RPGNow, you just have to make sure you choose the right adventure to match your chosen system.

As backers, we’ve been sent the PDF’s of the players and keepers core books, and Achtung Cthulhu is a winner in terms of layout. Each page uses a background of a stack of papers, and the fonts used, coupled with the sidebars being on ‘paper scraps’ and ‘sellotaped’ or ‘paperclipped’ to the main background really give the books the sense of being official reports. Artwork is surprisingly sparse, and is a very stylistic out of focus thick stroke kind of drawing. And yet it works because the Achtung Cthulhu layout uses columns, bolds, italics, indents, sidebars, quotes and artwork to make incredible looking pages – I can’t find a single page that is just a a wall of text.

If you want an example of a brilliantly laid out core book, I would say Achtung Cthulhu is it.


13th Age
Talking of sidebars, 13th Age deserves an honourable mention…

I didn’t really pay much attention to 13th Age until it launched, I’d got hold of the first playtest document that looked like a hideous mix of 3e and 4e, with the Icons thrown on top and described briefly, but the early stuff was in a terribly laid out word document. Friends kept me supplied with the playtest documents after the kickstarter and escalation edition stuff happened, but I barely looked at the files they inked me to, only really noticing that the 13th Age designed seemed to be having similar struggles to the Next ones in defining exactly what a fighter and rogue and ranger etc are.

Once the final version landed though, I was trying to organize a UK D&D Tweetup, and D&D Next wasn’t (and still isn’t) in a fit state to use publicly, so I looked at alternatives, and quickly settled on 13th Age.

It takes the core of 3e, and adds in the customizations and fluidity of 4e, simplifies monsters even more, and emphasises story based gaming, with the players coming up with something unique to tie them to the world. It has some great concepts like the unmodified dice roll affecting what happens, and two weapon fighting being fine but not really helping you, and has living dungeons!

But what really set the book apart for me was the sidebars. Sure, its well laid out, and well illustrated, but the sidebars feature the designers commentary rather than calling out rules quirks as other systems do. Its not uncommon to see a rule described and then a side bar from one of the designers saying ‘we agreed it this way, but personally, I like to do it like this…’. It gives the book a more conversational tone which I think really works.


  1. richgreen01

    Good layout is very important but tricky to do. I’m finding out this out the hard way as we work on Parsantium – we’re aiming to keep things clean and simple so the book will be easy to read.

    I’m not familiar with the 6th edition of Cthulhu – I have 5th ed – but the rules are showing their age, having not changed much since 1980(?). It took some getting used to but I actually prefer Trail of Cthulhu now, although the combat/action rules are practically non-existent. Generally speaking we only make a dice roll or two each per session and that’s when things are going badly wrong. Might be worth giving it a look – it’s published by Pelgrane Press who do 13th Age and the books are very nicely laid out. The Player’s Guide is $11 http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/55547/Trail-of-Cthulhu-Players-Guide?term=trail+of+cthulhu

  2. BlindGeekUK

    Trouble is, Achtung Cthulhu is not written to support Trail of Cthulhu in the core books (it might have been an addon/stretch goal)

  3. greywulf

    I pretty much agree with you. Layout for RPGs tend to fall into two camps: Trying too hard and failing (Marvel Heroic Roleplaying) and not trying at all (99% of all PDFs on RPGNow) with the ones which succeed being few and far between. For me 13th Age does hit that sweet spot dead on.

    Call of Cthulhu up to and including 6th Edition (I have three editions including 6th sat on my bookcase) is a bit of a strange beast. The layout and style is intentionally musty and academic to reflect the musty and academic feel of a classic Lovecraftian tale, but also they’re like that because Chaosium historically really sucked at page layout. Runquest II is little different in that respect. I blame an over-reliance on Quark Express and ancient Apple Macs, personally.

    Mind you, it’s perhaps unfair to compare the page layout and print quality of a product printed in 1999 with one printed in 2013. I would struggle to think of any RPG from 1999 that would hold up when compared to something like Pathfinder or 13th Age that uses modern print technology.

    When it comes to guns in CoC 6th Edition, it’s worth remembering that this edition was, as much as is possible in Lovecraft, era neutral. While the 1920s was the default, games could be set in any age up to the modern day. That’s reflected in the rules for laser sights and an equipment list that includes such items as Uzis and C-4 explosives, which also shows which era that item is suitable for.

    This partly explains why guns get their own special rules; it’s only one page in a 288 page book, so I’d hardly call it pampering, but they do a great job of adding detail if (for example) you’re playing a modern-day (or even WWII era) Cthulhu game. I’ve played in a game where the choice when facing an oncoming horror is either stand and pump it full of bullets (the initiative rules for guns do work wonderfully in play) or turn and run. When facing off against even a lowly Ghast with 20 HP, two well aimed shots from a trusty .38 Revolver (1d10 damage, 2 shots/round) would be unlikely to bring it down.

    Guns in Call of Cthulhu are finely balanced to encourage over-confidence in Players. Give them an AK-47 and they think they’re unbeatable – right up until the point where Very Bad Things happen to their mind. And limbs.

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