Creating playtest instructions

Within My Clutches has seen a ton of play with me playing, then a handful of games with me facilitating but not playing, and then a handful more of people who’d played with me bringing it to their own groups.  I knew the rules worked, but I didn’t know how easy it would be for a group to learn and remember them straight from a print-out, without me there to clarify anything.

Fortunately, I recently made the internet acquaintance of Jim Sandoval, author of the idea-packed gaming blog Plus Ten to Awesome, and he generously offered to check out Within My Clutches, and bring it to the Gamex convention in California if it looked fun.  So I finally had an opportunity to see how well I could teach the game via the printed page.

The text went through a lot of revision.  First, prompted by my desire to publish the boxed game with a single double-fold sheet containing all the rules, I started with a very condensed format.  I was just barely able to fit the instructions onto 4 letter-sized pages while avoiding overly dense text:


Unfortunately, I hadn’t left room for any orientation (“here’s how this set-up step connects to later play”) or explanations (“here’s what you should be thinking about when making this choice”).  The text styles also weren’t varied enough for a reader to easily pick out sections.

I eventually gave up on the 4-page limit, adding some clarifications, enlarging section headers, and slightly emphasizing key phrases within paragraphs to aid skimming.  I also figured I might as well add space for images, to indicate where eventual art would go:


It was at this point that I became concerned with style.  For a game celebrating comic book content, I’d really like to use visual layouts and comic book style as much as possible.  Flipping through some old Todd McFarlane Spider-Man issues, I grabbed some techniques for breaking up a page and tried them out.  Although I liked the way the page looked at a quick glance, filling boxes with nothing but text was weird, and it wound up being somewhat hard to read:


I spent a lot of time on that comic book layout, trying out every font from Times to Comic Sans to one I made from my own handwriting.  Eventually, I had to conclude that it would only work for a more illustrated style of instruction (as in Understanding Comics), which I wasn’t willing to do for page count reasons (I hate flipping pages to find stuff!).  So, I returned to refining the text-based version.  I bolded the key phrases (like I do in this blog) to make for easier skimming, and then had to increase the size of the sub-headers, as they now blended in with the other bold text.  Then the section headers needed to scale up too, to make the page hierarchy clear.  I also ditched the image placeholders, as they complicated text-on-white printing.  I now had something that was, if nothing else, pretty easy to read:


The final step before handing it off to Jim was to finalize it for his particular use, by ditching random blank space, adding an intro section, and deleting character creation instructions (as the Gamex session would use pre-gens).  Finally, I decided to provide a rules overview on page one, and then reference the overview with sidebars on each page, to reduce the confusion of the inevitable “Where were we?” moments in play.


Jim read it, liked it, and ran it at Gamex.  Afterward, he gave me some helpful tips about including more examples and other tweaks, but apparently my text was clear enough to be usable.  Hooray!

Looking back on my process now, I’m not sure whether I (a) went through a lot of necessary testing which had to be done before publication or (b) wasted tons of hours by letting my long-term goals (published instructions) dilute the matter at hand (providing a usable draft for immediate outside testing).  The pages I gave Jim still aren’t something I’d want to publish, as I haven’t abandoned all hope of getting some comic book style into the page.  Currently, I’m pondering whether I ought to make the instructions look more like this:


The steps are grouped in boxes, with the top white area being the “here’s why we’re doing this now” intro, the bold outlined part being the concrete thing you do, and the gray bottom area being “here’s what you need to know and consider when doing this step”.  I think it’s much nicer to look at than the previous version, but I don’t know if it’s as usable.  The struggle to find a balance continues…


Box or book?

I don’t know who will wind up wanting to play Within My Clutches, but I am hoping that it won’t only be experienced roleplayers. I’m going to attempt to tap into that larger audience of people who love superhero comics and enjoy structured improv. I wonder, though, if non-roleplayers will easily get excited about a game that looks like a small book.

riftsTo be honest, the traditional form of roleplaying games is not my favorite. I fondly remember reading through large RPG books like RIFTS, packed with fiction and great art, imagining all the cool things I could play. Unfortunately, when it comes time to stop reading and play, figuring out what to do at any given moment is simply way too much work. What other game out there might make you flip through dozens or hundreds of pages to answer a rules question?

dogsBeyond that, what other game requires pens and paper and dice, and provides none of these things at purchase? What other game arrives as an instruction manual only, with no physical bits to play with? Will non-RPG folks get excited when they see the small paperback Dogs in the Vineyard book the way they do when they see the Mouse Guard boxed set?

I mean, look at Mouse Guard:


I would love to present Within My Clutches to people in a form half that exciting. A box containing a tear-off pad of character sheets, a comic book of advice and examples, and all the rules on a single fold-out — this is what I’d like the game to be. Easy to take in at a glance, easy to use in play. Including 10 or so six-sided dice would also be nice, as well as some glass beads and maybe even pencils.

Here’s the problem: price. I got some reality checks on that when I brought this up at  the Story Games forum. Take a look at the recent indie RPG release Serpent’s Tooth:


The book costs creator Ross Cowman about $3 per copy to produce. The boxed set costs him $19 per copy, and that’s without factoring in the shrink-wrapper he bought, the hours he puts in assembling sets from independently-ordered components, and the increased costs of shipping the box to wherever it’s sold. In the end, he has to charge players $55 for the box instead of $20 for the book.

Is that worth it?

Several indie RPG publishers described the PAX East video game convention as a sales gold mine in part because gamers used to spending $60+ on a game were willing to throw $20 at some curiosity like Dogs in the Vineyard on impulse. So perhaps, in trying to appeal to non-RPGers, I might actually price myself out of their novelty budget.

I am hoping to keep both options open — book and box — and let a kickstarter campaign reveal how much interest there is for each. However, I don’t want to kickstart before I’ve tested the materials and done much of the layout. Should I put in the time and the work and create two prototypes, book and box, in finished form, despite the fact that one may never be sold? Or is that a will-sapping and insane approach to my very first publishing endeavor?