Monday, August 30, 2021

On the Application of Maquillage to the Porcine Snout

After a recurring conversations I have had with NOLAbert and Travis Miller in the wee hours after my Tuesday night Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Cha'alt games and again online -- as well as reading this article on Beyond Formalhaut I felt I needed to add an addendum to my discussion on the design innovations in the OSR/Indie TTRPG scene. Or perhaps it ought to be called a caveat.

Design has become a preoccupation of the indie game developer. And it has been a mix of good and bad on the overall culture.

When you use clever information design, it serves to augment the quality of a role-playing product. It can make a module or game much more enjoyable for the GM to use when running the game.

Likewise excellent graphic design can make a product beautiful and add appeal to collectors. Which is a concern: jams like Zinequest and premium books like modules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess have created a culture of collectors. Some people love having a shelfie-worthy collection, and others seeing their collection as a potential investment.

And a well-designed 'zine really can be a thing of beauty. I was literally stunned by the elegance of Axian Spice's Lands of Legends: Fairy.

From "Lands of Legends: Fairy" ©2021 Axian Spice

But while this has pushed indie game developers and hobbyists to bring a better game to information design and graphics, not every product has the excellence of concept that Lands of Legends has shown across four volumes.

There have been quite a few products emerging lately that are either beautiful, or incredibly elegant in layout and information design, but have little interest in adding anything new. Or even being fun, for that matter. The design is built to pad page counts or create an illusion of quality while not containing very much in the way of playable content.

These works are either hoping to attract collectors because they look great on a shelf or coffee table, or they are hoping to that the radical new design and layout will hide the fact that the actual content is lacking. This is true both in indie circles and in major corporate releases as of late. Several mid-teir TTRPG publishers have started producing a lot of attractive but vapid products meant more to collect than play 

An ornate book can sell for a lot more than a simple one, so long as the demand for premium and collectible books remains there will be an incentive for some people to produce books that have emphasize style and lack substance. Substance, after all, is hard to create.

Good information design is an amplifier. It makes a good experience better. But applied to poorly-written game content it is rather like "putting lipstick on a pig." It only makes the poor content seem all the more absurd.

Salisstach from "Bloody Engines of the
Dinosaur Men
" ©2020 Brian C. Rideout 

Don't get me wrong, I love experimenting with design and layout, but I also want to provide a good experience. While it would be nice for critics to say great things about my style, what I really want is players to talk about the awesome time they had fighting the Salisstach in their prehistoric factory, outsmarted the Barbarian tribe of Stone tooth Village, or how they escaped the witch and torturer of Harkin’s Slave-Pit. If I can't give you an experience to remember, why bother prettying it up?

At the end of the day, that needs to be the first design principle

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