Backstory Cards: Prompt Card Production Conundrums

If you were a Backstory Cards backer or get in on the pre-order (which closes January 31st!), you’ve got the PDF of the cards. I was talking about them and showing off my demo deck at an event last night at Verne & Wells—a club for professional geeks in the Seattle area, like a country club but awesome—and we got into a conversation about the prompt cards.

Here are a couple from the core deck:

BackstoryCard-C9 BackstoryCard-C18

That’s font is Sirba, and 13 point. I like it.

All of the core cards have the same font size, and we think they look pretty nice. However, when you start looking through the expansion set, you’ll see cards like this:


And the V&W folks asked me why that font was so small. It’s not a simple answer as one might think; it turned into a 20-minute conversation that I thought would be a good blog topic.

The first of the three expansions I worked on was Unseen Threats. I wrote the first five cards for the set the night before shooting the Backstory Cards Trail of Cthulhu demo video. I wrote this damn card:

You and PC were researching recent strange occurrences when you had a brief encounter with the otherworldly. They were completely unaware of it. What mark did the pure solitude of this incident leave on you? What do they think of you since then?

After layout it out, and doing some adjustments to the text, we get this:


That treatment is still Sirba, at 10 point.

This turned into a conversation between Tim and I about the feasibility of this card, and it held up production for a couple weeks because of a mismatch in assumptions:

  • Tim assumed that no card would need to have its font adjusted.
  • I assumed the font would get adjusted as needed.

When Tim asked if we could trim this prompt down, I asked him to try.  We didn’t get far in that—not enough words could be taken out without losing the vibe of the prompt. Then we talked about if we should throw the card out entirely, but I said that if we’re doing around 140 prompts (core deck, expansions, and monthly mini-expansions), we’re going to run out of juicy prompts that fit under 150 characters.

Naturally, I pushed my assumption of having the font size adjust as needed. Tim and our awesome graphic designer, Lisa Aurigemma, experimented with this, but the cards started looking weird next to each other. I pushed for a middle-size font, and it didn’t solve the problem at all.

For weeks, we would occasionally just say to one another “fucking UT5.” We knew that UT5 was going to be a problem before the rest of the expansion cards were ordered, because I sent it (and UT1–4) to Tim to do a test layout of the expansions. (It also tested having three tags and showed what having letters in the card number looked like.)

Tim was frustrated with that card spec changing after we laid out the core set, and I was frustrated with the graphic design not working like I thought it would. There’s something that thankfully Tim and I strive to do once either of us recognizes that everyone involved is getting frustrated: explicitly seek out the compromise that makes no one perfectly happy. (I deliberately frame it like that, because compromising isn’t about making people happy to me, it’s about relieving pressure.)

We made a plan: we opened the expansion deck files, looked over every one that was using the 10-point treatment, and hunted for words to cut. We made a rule that we can’t do more than 20% of our cards with the small treatment—it means that if someone has to toss those cards because of visual impairments, we aren’t making them toss many. It sucks, but it’s less suck than having to throw around 50%.

Over the phone, Tim and I went through every one, looking at words to kill. Some of them we couldn’t cut down because then they’d stop making sense. Others we could cut down, but because of the size of the words and my hatred of hyphenation, the cards kept looking weird. We live-hacked together, as a team, until we were satisfied that we hit our 20% goal and that those 20% couldn’t be pushed any further.

Then we ended up padding a couple that looked weird, because they were too short. Due to the (awesome) layout, there’s an illusion of having two lines of space on some cards, like:


But that’s actually just one line, because of the padding needed around the border. (Well, 1.5 lines. Fucking UT5.) In fact, this card highlights the main place where Tim and I were playing with different amounts of information: In the InDesign file, Tim could clearly see that there was only room for one line of text, so it wouldn’t fit. I saw only the exports, so I wonder why the text wouldn’t fit if larger.

Anyway, this was a month-long back-and-forth, from seeing the cards in layout to getting them resolved to this point. We’re happy with the compromise point: I can occasionally do long prompts, but I also know that when I do one it’ll be in a small font, so I need to make it count. And because of our limit of 20%[1], I have an interesting creative constraint that I can occasionally break out of.

If you’re curious what the maximum I can fit on a card with the normal font:


That’s 156 characters. UT5 is 246 characters. What a difference 90 characters make.

– Ryan

(And this back-and-forth process was nothing compared to dealing with the packaging. We totally weren’t prepared for that work.)

[1] Technically, we’re one card over in Distant Worlds, so it’s 27% on that one. We’re committing to 20% for the total on the monthly mini-expansions.