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…


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