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My PAX Dev Workshop: Text Design & Page Layout

Going to PAX Dev? On Wednesday (8/26) at 3:45p in the Vashon room, I’ll be giving a talk/workshop on how you can… well, I wrote the description, so let’s just use that.

Game rulebooks live and die by how well they explain their rules and best practices. Explore how text design and page layout work together to guide a reader through digesting related context channels simultaneously. We’ll examine several game books for how they communicate understanding and confidence to a wide range of readers.

I’m super-passionate about this topic. I write about it often here, in various facets (and sometimes with horribly drawn diagrams). I suppose I kinda fall into a camp in indieland that says rules presentation is more important than rules design[1].

Another’s experience trumps your intent. You don’t get to correct the experience of readers before the damage is done. My talk is about how you can structure your material—mostly about books, but the concepts apply to online material and other unidirectional communication—to help those experiences more closely match your intent as a creator.

What’s This Workshop, You Ask?

This session isn’t a workshop in the fiction-land sense (where I’d examine works before the panel) or the typical game dev sense (where we’d go through exercises during the session). I’m planning on something more akin to an interactive talk or (to use a dirty word) lecture.[2]

I’ll dive into different ways people learn—not the crap about how some people are “kinesthetic learners,” because that’s most people, but how people are more inclined to skim than deep-read, and hunt for information in ways you might not find intuitive based on your own expertise.

Alongside that, I’ll discuss different emotional beats that can facilitate or hamper digesting the material as intended, with strategies for bringing out the good emotions and mitigating the toxic ones. Why talk about this? Because emotional response is a context channel, perhaps the most important one and can be unpredictable.

I’m going to diagram successful page spreads from a variety of sources, showing the different context channels they use to communicate the same idea from different viewpoints and voices presented thanks to both the writing and the visual design. I’m also going to tell you to hire and indexer.

I’ll offer suggestions for learning how your players digest information. That’s really hard, because being a fly on the wall isn’t practical and itself can taint investigation.

And of course, I’ll take questions. If time permits, I’ll critique live pages and spreads brought to the talk, thus maybe even holding true to the “workshop” part of the title.

How I Stumbled Into This Field

If my college training is to be believed, I’m a software developer. I’ve also been interested in writing, and took as much creative writing as I could in high school.[3] And watching my sisters struggle to learn different subjects in school infused into me the idea that sometimes we’re shit at teaching.

Then Paul Tevis hired me to develop and edit A Penny For My Thoughts, after I kept giving him structural and editorial notes. In playtesting Penny, I discovered that we had a cool game that was being explained in a jarring fashion—a way that we were patching as we weren’t explaining the game from the book. We redid the book to create a reading experience that walked the players through not only the rules but also the appropriate mindset they should be in while playing. I’m pretty damn proud of that book, as I am for the Indie RPG Award it one for Most Innovative Game.

Since then, I’ve looked at game books from a few perspectives:

  • How can we get key information across and make it stick?
  • How can we get the existence of key information and supporting information across, so people remember enough to know to look it up when needed?
  • How can we get people passionate about the material?
  • How can we enable the person reading this to teach those who aren’t or won’t read it?

I structured Mythender with all that in mind; while it’s not perfect, it’s pretty damn good for a system that’s… let’s just say component-heavy and baroque as fuck.[4] The differences in how we explain aspects in The Dresden Files and Fate Core versus Spirit of the Century come from examining how some of the Fate community struggled to learn the most fundamental part of the game. The awards those games received are certainly in great part due to rules and writing, but book structure is how those rules and words were able to their jobs.

People say that they like it when “rules get out of the way of the story.” I like it when the book gets out of the way of understanding the damn content. :)

All of this lead to my current career as a technical writer, where I’m learning even more about this part of my craft. I’ve wanted to do this talk for some years now, and this is the first year where I felt like I should do it.

– Ryan

Image: Pages 34 & 35 of The Dresden Files RPG, Volume 1: Your Story. Low-res example of dense information with two context channels going on.

[1] Which is apparently antagonistic to suggest to those who fetishize innovation. :)

[2] Mike Selinker said that my talk wasn’t either quite a workshop or a roundtable, but closer to a workshop than a roundtable.

[3] I still have my award-winning (but remember, this is high school) poetry book somewhere in my house.[3a]

[3a] No, you can’t.

[4] If I were to change one thing today, it would be to be more explicit about why there are so many dice involved. Many people look at that and balk, and that’s an emotional response not easy to overcome.

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6 Responses to My PAX Dev Workshop: Text Design & Page Layout

  1. Michael Kotschi says:

    Will this be recorded? Heck, I’d pay money for a nicely recorded version…

  2. Brad Steffen says:

    If PAX Dev does not allow recording and will not be publishing your presentation, perhaps you could release this presentation as courseware on Udemy or a similar platform?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’ll consider it! I would like more people to understand the concepts. It’s just a matter of time/energy to make that happen. But that’s a fantastic idea! :)

  3. Michael Kotschi says:

    Aaaaaaarrghh, I don’t suppose you could post your notes then, eh? Maybe as a patreon reward thingy…

  4. Ken Burnside says:

    I also want to see this. Pity I’m already on a train through Montana.