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Home of RPGs by Matt Snyder, including Dust Devils, Nine Worlds, 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, and The Ladykillers

Archive for the month “May, 2009”

Layout Contest 2009


The winner for 2009 is José Jiménez. Check out the layout contest winners.


We’ve seen many game design contests. Now, take a stab at designing a killer layout from an existing game.

Layout takes some creativity and a lot of work. The length of the text in this contest is significant. I deliberately designed this contest to mimic the hard work it takes to design a game. You will learn and improve as a book designer in this effort. Stick with it!


You have until June 30 to complete an entire RPG book design for Conspiracy of Shadows: Dirty Hands by Keith Senkowski. This is a horror RPG with a pseudo-historical Europe background. It’s a wonderful, under-rated game, and the text is free.

For this contest, you’ll be using a specially edited version of the game text. It is the full game rules. However, I’ve trimmed the Life Paths and Rituals sections to help make the contest more manageable. (Don’t get too excited! The text is still robust, and Keith will release a full version with all Life Paths and Rituals soon.)


Layout/art veterans Luke Crane (creator of Burning Wheel), Keith Senkowski, and Matt Snyder (creator of Dust Devils) will judge entries based on the following criteria:

  • (40%) Information Design: Consistency, usability, & readability.
  • (20%) Art Direction: Selection of artwork, contextual placement, cover design, overall vision, and original art or artwork modfications
  • (20%) Use of Typography: Readability, composition, and “color”
  • (20%) Aesthetic Appeal: Conveys color & atmosphere of the game, pleasing to look at


Everyone who completes an entry receives free Dust Devils and Nine Worlds PDFs.

Besides fame and glory from the notoriously grumpy Luke, Keith, and Matt the winner will receive the following hard copy products:

  • Agon by John Harper
  • Dust Devils by Matt Snyder
  • Mouse Guard by Luke Crane
  • A print of artwork from Conspiracy of Shadows by Keith Senkowski

The winner will be announced near the first week of July, time permitting for judges to review entries.

Layout contest starts June 1

The layout contest is almost here! I just received a last bit of additions to the Conspiracy of Shadows: Dirty Hands text from Keith. And, I received all his CoS artwork to boot.

That leaves one last bit of proof-reading on the text additions and finalizing the contest rules.

Look for it to kick off this weekend or early next week!

Making shorter RPG texts

I just finished editing the text of Conspiracy of Shadows: Dirty Hands. I can’t say the text is perfect and flawless, but I think it’s much improved. I  hadn’t edited anything in a while, and certainly nothing that long (43,000 words). It’s a robust and “complete” game — it has lots of moving parts and play advice. Good stuff.

One of the things I’m working on in the next couple months is editing the text of my game 44: A Game of Automatic Fear. I published the game as an ashcan a couple years ago. The text is shorter — it’s around 15,000 words.

And, another thing I’m working on is a game chef 2008 idea I had called Lady Killers. It’s not a complete design. I don’t know how long it will be. I’m aiming for very short. Say, 6,000 words.

Meanwhile, John Harper put out Lady Blackbird as a not-quite-stand-alone game that’s under 12 pages.

All of this got me thinking about texts. I’m really interested to see how lean and mean I can make RPG texts. When I play well-designed board games they have maybe 3 pages of rules! There are certainly ways to make that happen with RPGs. My original Dust Devils draft was 6 pages. The book now weighs in around 120 pages, though that includes lots of advice, history, and alternate game expansions.

I have the advantage of not trying to sell hefty books anymore (not that mine were ever really hefty). I can get away with free texts that are only 12 pages long. I have to wonder if other game writers can also cut down their books.

I’m curious to find out whether doing that helps make free texts I offer more appealing and playable to others.

Collaboration on RPG design and publication

In the creator-owned culture of RPG design, collaboration is difficult. It happened, certainly, but it was the exception not the rule.

Now, I’m calling collaboration here actual assistance on the creative process. This is in contrast to something I’ll call mutualism, which is creators helping each other out with publication and marketing and so on. But, it’s murky. Is playtesting collaboration or mutualism? See? Murky.

But, it’s different enough to talk about.

In the creator owned model, if two (or more) talented designers wanted to craft a new game, it’s an uphill battle, and sometimes a battle of egos. Some people did this successfully. Some people — myself included — tried and failed before they even got out of the gate.

This creator-owned thing was important to people. It was — and probably still is — definitional among my publishing peers. It was the foundation, both philosophically and financially, upon which everything was built as a movement. There are good reasons for this.

But, it also means the model is potentially limiting. If you’re a creator, and you want full control of your efforts without others — even partners — contradicting your wishes, you’re very likely to hit obstacles. This means that most people are one-man bands. And, for many of them, that works just fine. They do seek out assistance from people. For example, they hire someone to do art or layout. And, those are creative works (usually artists retain rights to their works in this model, but layout folks do not).

Right now, I’m collaborating with a friend on his game. I seek no ownership of his property. I just like collaborating with him and with his game. In the short couple weeks I’ve been doing this, I can clearly see his game improve significantly. We’re doing things that he doesn’t have the resources to do alone. Collaboration is powerful.

I can do all this because I’m not really following any model at all outside of having fun with a hobby and helping a friend. But, it’s instructive. Should I seek out to create something new — say, a new game design — why shouldn’t I enlist a team? It’s almost certain that while I may compromise on some level of unique and passionate vision, I’ll gain much more in quality and resources for a better product.

I wish we saw more of this in the indie scene (there is some, it’s true). Of course we see it all the time in traditional RPGs. So, it clearly comes with some downsides. But, the indie scene it’s really taking advantage of the benefits.

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