On Reviewing RPGs

Now that I have an iPad and PDFs, I find myself reading an awful lot more RPGs than I used to.  PDFs are ideal for RPGs — they are cheaper than hardcovers, they take up less space, and no one feels guilt if the game isn’t played.  A hardcover is heavy and unwieldy; a beast that takes up precious shelving space better used for, say, comics.  A PDF fits comfortably on my iPad with few concerns and Good Reader is a fantastic PDF reader.  Good Reader + easy access to PDFs == reading games.  I have conceded that I have no time to sit and play these games but I can, at the very least, give them a brisk read.

I like to review stuff I read but I want to approach in a structured manner.  The question is: how?  I have been tossing around evaluation categories for a few weeks to take the gut feeling of ‘this is good’ and ‘this is bad’ to a more concrete why one thing is better than another without major bias toward one type of system and another.  Taking a shot in the dark, I have cooked up as broad categories for scoring, from a loose most important to least.  These are for sourcebooks and not supplements — I am still working up how to handle supplementary material.

Organization

At their core, RPGs are technical manuals describing a mechanic to a group to play a game.  Difficult to follow instructions are every bit as frustrating in an RPG as they are in IKEA instructions for assembling flat-pack into a bookcase.  Imagine paging back and forth while putting together the new table just brought home from the Temple of Swedishness.  That table would never get built.  A game with poor organization never gets played.  It’s that simple.

Is the index complete?  Does the game have a table of contents?  Are the sections logically organized with all the important bits for playing a part of a game (skill resolution or character creation or setting or other information)?  Are the headings on sections clear?  Can pertinent information on a question be found in under five minutes without scanning the entire book?  Does the book function like a useful technical manual for a complex system?

Presentation

Does the game look nice? Is it laid out well?  Does the layout use a readable font?   It might sound stupid, but something as simple as a poorly chosen font detracts from the reading and comprehension experience. Most RPGs use standard fonts pre-chosen for readability but woe be to he who chooses to publish a book in comic sans.  Headers, footers, watermarks, bleed — fancy art has a way of interfering with understanding the text.  If reading the book causes a headache, the book will not be read, let alone played.

Art is a bit of a waffly subject because it is so “your mileage may vary.”  A good RPG does not require art but most utilize it in some capacity to evoke genre and mood.  Well chosen art counts for points.  Does the art detract?  Is it appropriate? Is it drawn by Rob Liefeld?  Art is great.  Bad art is far worse than no art.

Readability

The text must be read.  Is the text well-written?  Is it clear?  Does it scan well?  Can someone who only read the book understand the game well enough to discuss it?  Beautiful art can mask terrible text, but terrible text ensures the ideas contained in the book will never get exercised by actual people.

Is the text clear?  Do I understand what you mean when you give me a dense pile of rules?

Character Creation

Is character creation clear?  Does it have complete examples and a walkthrough?  How much flipping back and forth through a book(s) is necessary to find all the skills/stats/equipment/add-ons to create a character?  Does this cause tons of aggravation or is the process smooth?  Does the game include sample complete character sheets?  How much free stuff is available off the game’s website to support character generation?

Recently, I have run into the trend of group character creation.  I am all for group character creation. I like it. But I like even more complete walkthroughs and examples of how to apply it to a play group.   Bonus points for reminding the GM to provide snacks.

This leaves out things like “how much is the player invested in their character at the outset” or “are the equipment lists full of neat stuff.”  The primary concern is: what is chargen and can a group navigate it without wanting to throw the book across the room.

As a note: I put character creation above game rules resolution because if one cannot craft a character from the rules as presented, one cannot execute the system and exercise the ruleset.

Game Rules Resolution

This is the “game” part of the game.  Usually this manifests as skill resolution but not always.  It is some presented resolution mechanic to resolve conflict or facilitate taking turns to move toward a goal.

Do all the facets of a regular skill resolution — player vs. environment, player vs. npcs, player vs. player — get spelled out clearly?  Do they make sense?  Is it easy to grasp the general gist of the rules through a simple read through?  Do they feel clear?  Is it overly complicated?

Are there examples?  Is the core mechanic and all important ancillary mechanics given plenty of clear examples and scenario walkthroughs? Does the text walk through what happens when someone takes damage?  When someone is knocked out or harmed? How a character recovers?  Do the examples flow logically from one part of skill resolution to the next, from simple to more complex?

It may sound like I am harping on examples.  I am.  Examples, examples, examples.  Games can be radically different so teach me yours.  I don’t want to be told how to play.  I want to be shown.

Setting

Not every game has to bring a great new setting to the table.  I have read great games that are quite thin on the setting details and poor games with heaps of settings.  A great setting with a poor system is salvageable.  A poor setting with a great system is also salvageable.  I like great settings but if the text is poorly organized and the system lacks the game part of a game, it leaves me wondering if the authors are better off working on a novel.

Add-Ons

The most minor of categories but worth considering.  Does your urban fantasy game have a section on city construction?  Does your military game have a callout for squad combat?  Is there something new and interesting and outside the main formula this game brings to the table?  And is it necessary?

I’m certain I am forgetting some important categories.  I left off character advancement because I’m not certain how important it is any more.  To some games it is extremely important but to some, it is left on the cutting room floor.

Wow, this is long. Have I left anything out?  Any sections I am overlooking?  I am planning to apply this to an RPG as soon as I finish reading it to see how it works out for providing a comprehensive review.

  • Is there a sample adventure, or example of play?

    Is there enough support for the GM to run things on the fly (sample NPCs, common bad guys, other support material)?

    Is stuff that gets commonly referenced in play presented in a way that makes it easy to produce reference sheets/handouts for the players?

    If it’s using group chargen, is there support for a player joining the game later on? Or a player dropping out?

    • Hey, I figured out how to do threading. I feel SMRT.

      I find sample adventures to be a waste of page count. I’m sorry, but I do. I know, harsh! I slide them in the “add-ons” category because sometimes they’re neat to read and useful for inspiration. I would rather be provided with tools to build my own adventure. That may be a YMMV.

      Other than that, these are all excellent questions to ask when reading the text and I feel they’re all important call outs. How much material is available in the source book to provide a group an easy ability to sit down and start playing as fast as possible, and is it clear?

  • Since you’re reading and reviewing PDFs, it would be worth considering and discussing how/if the features of PDFs are used in the product. Is there good hyperlinking? Good bookmarking? Were the pages laid out for single-page viewing rather than spread-viewing? (The latter of which makes flipping through a PDF an annoying exercise in jumping text blocks.) Any use of forms? Video? Audio?

    • Yes! I didn’t even think about that aspect of reviewing RPGs in PDF form. Excellent, excellent point. Absolutely!

      Consider it noted down in my notes.

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  • Pran

    If there is no system for character advancement, then there has to be some other mechanic for progress or else you end up doing the same things over and over. I generally think of character advancement as fairly important, but it CAN be substituted for by plot/setting advancement. Some way of saying, “We did this, and that happened, and because of that we can now accomplish this other thing.”

    • I’m a little torn on character advancement because I have played some games recently like Fiasco which are excellent but it’s not a consideration because Fiasco is a game made entirely of one-shots. Most long-running games do need some way to model a moving forward of the characters and story. I am often a little torn about these systems and I tend to wrap them under the resolution section.

      I might need to give how to handle the character advancement aspects more thought because, like I said, there are compelling games coming out where that’s just not a consideration.