The Importance of Clarity

So today I’m going to talk about why some games just flat-out turn me off within minutes of picking them up; these are games that should interest me, with high concepts that are intriguing, settings that have a lot of potential, and/or mechanics that are innovative. And yet they fail to capture me and occasionally leave me wishing I hadn’t backed a Kickstarter or bought a PDF.

The problem here is the lack of clarity in their design; this can show up in a lot of ways, and for me it is absolutely fatal to my interest in the game. The game designers, no matter how enthusiastic and well-meaning, dropped the ball somewhere along the way. It’s frustrating, because again, these are games that I want to like. They’re not yet another knockoff of the D&D model. They have so much potential.

Some of them fall down at something as simple as the layout; Alpha Omega, from the apparently defunct Mindstorm Labs, is guilty of this. The setting is overall fantastic, and the system is relatively good once you get past the learning curve on how the dice work. I can call out plenty of flaws in it, but they’re not the real killer for me. It’s the way that everything is scattered all over the book, and often in a completely illogical fashion. The two campaigns I was involved in – one as a player, one as a GM – the group generally had notes on where to find a given table, or screenshots from the PDFs of the most commonly used portions so that we wouldn’t lose them and delay the game for several minutes trying to hunt it down again. It was incredibly frustrating, and that more than anything else is why I never want to run another AO campaign. I admit that, given the opportunity and finances, I would happily snap up the rights to this game and see about fixing the flaws, starting with this horrible disorganization.

Others fall down on the clarity of how they present the setting; when they present world information it doesn’t feel coherent, or there are sections that feel utterly pointless. I don’t care about the half-dozen settlements around a major city if all they do is take up a couple of pages with their name, population, and a soulless description of what PCs can acquire there or what their role in the larger nation is. All this does is tell me what makes the place generic, not what makes the place unique or gives the PCs a reason to visit it as anything but a JRPG-style shop. Tell me about the shop that’s been sitting for years in defiance of attempts by a rich merchant to buy it out. Tell me about the Bohemian cultists of Leviathan that have a drum circle in the local park as a disguised ritual to their god. If you tell me they have a dock that can refit ships, tell me about the ships that tend to dock there and some tidbits about the people that run it. Give me clear insight into the world if you want me to be interested and involved with it; giving me pages of lifeless blurbs will leave me too bored to care about the interesting parts.

And then, of course, there are those whose rules are just confusing and unclear. It might partly be due to layout – sending me to a section that doesn’t exist because someone forgot to rename it or alter the instructions to skip the step – or it might be because the rules themselves are bad. Rules that require a mix of regular dice, percentiles, and/or ‘special’ dice do this. I start losing interest when I see half a dozen color-coded versions of a D6 being presented as something other than a D6, particularly if the color-coding doesn’t take the basics of color blindness into account. I’m not color-blind, but I’ve played with people who are, and I don’t want to have them confused at the table by poor design. Rules that have no logic or reasonable effort at balance will turn me off; if your rules have an internal logic, make it an external logic or you’ll lose me. As much as I love it, Eclipse Phase skirts the border here; it’s just this side of being pointlessly complicated and obscure. The Posthumans have gotten better since the core book by a large margin, and if there’s ever an Eclipse Phase Edition Two I’m sure they’ll have it much more cleanly laid out and understandable.

Clarity is king in designing a game. If potential players can’t sort it out readily, can’t keep the world straight/get bored by it, and/or can’t easily make sense of it, the game is already a wash as far as my table goes. This is, in large part, why I keep circling back to Pathfinder and the Cypher System games. Pathfinder is complex, but you know where to find things, the world information is tidy and interesting, and the rules have portions that are forgiving to newcomers and challenging to veterans. The Cypher System’s rules are simple, clear, and concise, and the world information is almost always rich with both information about the world and all kinds of little hooks to grab players and GMs alike. It’s valuable to not have to spend extra time trying to piece a game together because someone else didn’t get it clear enough.

So please, if you’re putting together a game from scratch, get people to go over it for clarity on these points. Those of us that want to play your cool idea’s final form will thank you for it.

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The Importance of Clarity

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