Once again, Scott Casper has popped in with a comment and started my mental wheels a-spinning. In a comment to my previous post (on Avalon Games’ Steel & Glory series of mini-boardgames), Scott said:

I’m curious as to what country Avalon Games is from and if English is not their first language…?

That, too, was one of my initial thoughts when I first read the S&G rules. But I think the blame for much of the problem can be lain on the doorstep of the “predictive text” feature which appears in many word processing programs. It’s a feature which (in essence) tries to “guess” how to finish a word based on the first three or four letters in a string that the user types. That could explain why a word like “Crates” became “Creates”, as well as explaining a whole passel of similar errors in S&G’s text elements. But it doesn’t explain how a game can go through a writer and an editor and still have this kind of error littering the text. (And I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade here; Men of Bronze [the only S&G game I’ve had time to play so far] is very cool and I like it very much.) I’ve sent an e-mail to S&G designer, Robert Hemminger, and will await a response before engaging in any more idle speculation on the subject of the S&G rulebook’s grammatical errors.

My point about editing and proofreading, though, is a small portion of what this post will be about (we’ll come back to it). You won’t find anything profound in this post (you’re far more likely to encounter profanity than profundity in this blog), just some woolgathering about the whole “Print & Play” (PnP) phenomenon.

Don’t get me wrong, I think PnP is an awesome concept with numerous positives:

  1. Instant gratification – you can buy a game and have it in seconds without waiting for an order to ship, or paying extra (and often rapacious) shipping charges, etc.
  2. Games with unique designs, concepts, and subject matter which would likely be rejected by mainstream game companies have the opportunity to possibly find an appreciative, enthusiastic audience.
  3. Games can be updated and errata’d cheaply and easily, and the updates can be made available to the customer without charge. Many of the PnP games I’ve purchased from RPGNow make updated revisions available for download free of charge to players who’ve purchased an earlier version.
  4. Players are often more willing to take a chance on a new game if they can buy a cheap downloadable version instead of a more expensive pre-printed product.

However, this last point also brings us to the first of the downsides to PnP:

  1. PnP carries a “hidden” cost to the user: paper and ink cartridges. And the “just take it to Kinkos” argument doesn’t always apply. The closest Kinko’s location is over thirty miles from my town, and the local printers charge scandalous rates for PDF printing (the local Staples wanted to charge me over $200 to print the five Hideouts and Hoodlums rules booklets, a combined total of less than 200 pages).
  2. You can’t “flip through” a PnP rulebook the way you can a print game at the local Borders or game shop. Some of the online thumbnail previews are quite informative, I’ll grant you, but other products either don’t make a preview available or don’t go much beyond displaying the title page and table of contents.
  3. Unless a game has already sold a few copies and its players have taken the trouble to write a review, you’ll often have no inkling of a game’s relative quality before you purchase it.

I love PnP games in principle, but there are a few practical glitches, the biggest being the occasionally significant cost of printing them out. The Hideouts and Hoodlums RPG was dirt cheap steal at about $10 for the whole shebang. I used up the best part of two $13 B&W printer cartridges to print it all out (which I’d not have done if I hadn’t been wowed by a playtest in which I used the purchased PDFs on my laptop as my “electronic rulebook”, possible because the rules are relatively short and pretty well-organized). So I’m $30+ into this thing and I have no regrets – Hideouts & Hoodlums is a great old-school/retro RPG and it still cost me less than the average RPG “Player’s Handbook” (which typically costs $40 and isn’t even a complete game). Scott Casper not only “gets it” as a game designer, but also gets it as a PnP publisher: H&H’s rules are in black and white and there are just enough illustrations to break up the text, but not so many that you’ll go broke on ink printing them out.

My biggest pet peeve with PnP lies with game publishers who produce beautiful full-color rulebooks with paintings on ever other page and baroque full-color filigrees bordering three sides of each sheet but who don’t also supply a “printer friendly” version of the rulebook! Sure, your rulebook is a visual masterpiece on my computer’s monitor, but if it’s 400+ pages long and is going to require over $100 in color cartridges to print, there’s no way in hell it’s going to get played (well, by me anyway). This is also why I said in my last post that if an RPG rulebook is more than 150 pages long (give or take), I’ll just order a print version if one is available. In a fight between instant gratification and my wallet, the latter wins every time.

Another gripe of mine: PnP publishers who charge $19.99 for a PDF file. Print & Play games aren’t Kindle eBooks; in many cases, you pretty much have to print out a PnP product to use it (or at least use it easily). I don’t even consider buying a PnP RPG book with a twenty buck price tag; if I’m going to end up paying significant printing costs, I’ll support my local game shop by buying a physical product instead. I have no beef whatsoever with publishers trying to make money; I do understand Economics 101. But some of these folks just price themselves out of the ballpark.

And that brings us back around to our first point: editing and proofreading. There are some steps that every game publisher must take to produce a decent finished product.

The first is playtesting. Now I will grant you that even the “big boys” who produce printed boxed games occasionally get bit in the butt by this one. Two notorious examples from the 1980’s spring to mind. FASA produced a Masters of the Universe RPG, which I bought on a whim from a Geppi’s Comics in a town I was passing through while I was on the road as a musician. I got the game home and thought there was a book missing from the box: several of the character cards listed powers and abilities which weren’t defined in the rules. Too bad for me, since I’d bought the game while on the road and couldn’t return it. As it transpired, though, nothing was missing from the set. A decade later (when my twins were old enough to play), I decided to use MotU to introduce them to RPGing. I e-mailed FASA about the game’s errors and was told that nothing was missing from the box; the apologetic (and very funny) e-mail described MotU as “not one of our more sterling efforts”. The game wasn’t missing any components; it was published in an incomplete state right from the git-go.

The other example is the Temple of the Beastmen boardgame from the otherwise excellent Space:1889 series by GDW. The game was unplayable as published; if I recall, a crucial component (a card I believe, the appearance or drawing of which determined the game’s end) was missing and, without it, the game would play on for eternity. The company sent out the revised rules and components free of charge to anyone who asked for them (and I think they’re available somewhere online to this day as, ironically, PnP components).

So, hey, it happens. I understand that. I have a couple of Men of Bronze rules issues I’d like to clear up with Mr. Hemminger’s help when he replies to my e-mail. I can’t think of too many games which don’t require at least a minor errata tweak or three.

BUT (aside from language translation difficulties) there’s NO excuse for a game to have text which reads like a non-native speaker wrote it. In my opinion, that’s potentially the biggest downside to the electronic publishing of RPGs and boardgames: literally anyone can whip a game together and sell it without a lick of regard for quality control. All the potential game designer needs is a word processing program, a graphics editor (both applications still come bundled with Windows when last I checked, and this doesn’t even take into account the wide variety of free software geared specifically to game design, such as Token Tool and various map tile makers), and a smidgen of know-how. In theory, someone could spend an afternoon or two banging out an incomplete or inadequate set of rules and whipping up some cheesy graphics and/or components, then fire it off to a site like RPGNow without any playtesting or even light proofreading. Instant cash cow, right?

Or maybe not. And even good game designers can get derailed by these pitfalls…

A couple of years ago, when I returned to comic book superhero RPGs after a long absence, I came across a free set of rules a fellow named Lee Walser was giving away on his website. The game was pretty good; after encountering a lot of free but substandard downloadable RPGs, I was impressed with Lee’s design and the amount of work he’d put into his game. He continued to revise the game every so often, releasing new versions as free “beta” PDFs and promising an upcoming “final” release. Along the way, I corresponded with Lee a bit and found him to be a really good guy. But there was this one little problem.

Lee can’t spell his way out of a wet paper bag.

Now, look, I understand it’s a common problem. I’m a professional writer and I still mess up a word every now and again. Read any Internet comic book discussion board and you will discover a truly impressive (and frequently hilarious) collection of howlers, boners, and gaffes. But there’s a world of difference between a misspelling on a message board and a misspelling in a commercial product. You see, Lee had this idea that he might maybe like to sell his game when it was finally finished.

I’d joined Lee’s message board and he readily admitted that his spelling was atrocious. Another member of the board even offered to proofread the final version of the rules. Lee seemed to warm to the idea of having an outside proofreader check his work, but (as I recall) he later decided to “wing it”.

I lucked into a free copy of Lee’s final finished product; he had it up on his website for a day or two before the game went “pay” at RPGNow and I just happened along during that brief window of opportunity. Now, understand, I really like this game. It’s not perfect, but it’s fun and when you’re dealing with games, that’s most of the battle. But the visual quality of the finished product has really hurt Lee’s game in the open marketplace. It began life as a $10 PDF download, but the price quickly dropped to a buck.

The game is called Super Crusaders and I encourage you to spring for a copy – assuming you can find it: it’s no longer available from RPGNow and their affiliated sites. But if you like comic book RPGs, it’s the best single dollar you’ll ever spend. I’ll forewarn you, though, that you will struggle a bit with the rules, as the organization is none the best. And there are plenty of typos and misspellings:

“Arch Enimy”? Really? But the truly weird part is that he spells it correctly in the chapter text (click on the pic for a larger view and see for yourself). Another issue with the rulebook is its use of bright primary colors as the background for the charts and tables; it makes them very hard to read, especially after they’re printed out.

These errors mar a really, really good game; the game mechanics for arch enemies alone are worth the buck you’ll spend on the game since they’re easily adaptable to any superhero RPG system you may already be using. Lee got a lot right with Super Crusaders, including a bunch of free extras which not only were designed to generate interest in the game but which were also quite useful for established players (the separate six-page Powers List is not just a handy guide but also makes a kickass GM’s screen). Super Crusaders should have been the monster smash that Icons became; I might well be wrong about this but, in my opinion, all Super Crusaders really needed was a good proofreader and someone to make suggestions like “Hey, Lee, can you maybe go with lighter colors for the table backgrounds?” Instead of a stampede of new players it got a single bad review on RPGNow, a review which focused mainly on the typos and design issues. (Lee was supposed to be working on a Second Edition, the last I heard. But that news is a year old and the game has since vanished from RPGNow; here’s hoping that its disappearance is a deliberate prelude to 2e’s debut.)

There’s a moral to the story and I’m sharing it with any game designers reading this — for your own good. If you’re going to “homebrew design” a game and give it away for free, nobody’s much going to care what it looks like. A couple of years back I designed and freely distributed (with the company’s blessing) a heavily playtested set of variant rules for a popular commercial miniatures game, a ruleset which was written in HTML and exported to a PDF file. It was distributed in black and white without illustrations, it was functional, and it looked OK – all of which was adequate for a free product.

But if you plan on selling your game, you need to do (at least) two things. First, playtest the hell out of your game design. Play it and play it and play it until it makes you nauseous to even think about the damned game – then play it some more. Work out as many bugs as you can before you ask people to shell out some hard-earned money for it. They’ll find more loopholes, bugs, and flaws once the game is out there, but you can save yourself some grief if you’ll at least attempt to make the rules and gameplay as “perfect” as possible before you thrust your game out into a cold uncaring world.

The second is this: make sure your game doesn’t look and read like some half-baked piece of crap which was hurriedly banged out on your laptop during your “coffee and danish” break at work. Your finished product doesn’t have to be one of those grossly overproduced and pretentious Fey Emo Elves of Nevernevereverrealms High Fantasy RPG System thingies that are 500 pages long with a “Brothers Hildebrand”-inspired painting on every third or fourth page which’ll eat up printer cartridges at an obscene clip and end up costing more than the price tag of a new Ford F-150 to reproduce on a home printer. Just make sure that you’ve literally dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s. If you don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s” or between “forth” and “fourth” or between “their”, “there”, and “they’re”, find somebody who does know and ask them to check your work. I’m not saying that you have to hire a professional. There are a ton of functionally literate people who will be happy to proofread your rules in exchange for their name in the credits and maybe a free copy of the game, just for “bragging rights” if nothing else. And, for crying out loud, don’t use garish colors ever if you can avoid it, but especially not as background colors for the charts and tables.

Please understand, I’m not looking for mind-blowing WotC pro-level production values and component quality when I make a $6 PnP game purchase. I just want a game with readable rules that doesn’t cost me a mint to print out. And I want you to have a successful product, for the purely selfish reason that I want you to succeed so that you’ll make more of them.

Trust me, “Print & Play” publishers, I appreciate the hell out of you guys and gals. Especially when I see something like this:

Only $49.95 just to get your feet wet. The expanded game will apparently cost you a wheelbarrow of cash.

I spotted it this morning, right after I read Scott Casper’s reply to my last blog post. So what is “it”? It’s a $50 starter game. That’s right – a $50 game that’s basically just an introductory product. There’s a buttload more stuff on the way. I even downloaded and read the company’s “product guide” which was supposed to explain what the whole series is about, and I still have no clue as to what I’d need to purchase in order to play some version of the game – all I know is that I’d have to buy a ton of it.

So, believe me, if I have to suffer through an “arch enimy” or some “creates” to get a fun, playable game system which costs me a paltry $15 for three or four games/expansions compared to $200+ for whatever the hell that game system in the photo represents, I’ll joyfully do it.

But I don’t want to read any more heartbreaking one-star reviews of perfectly good games, bad reviews written only because a designer didn’t think proofreading was important. No more. Please.

Have fun! – Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.