Saturday, July 25, 2009

Playtesters Needed

I'm nearly finished the latest revisions to my adventure The Cursed Chateau, whose earliest draft was written almost exactly a year ago. Since then, I've expanded the original adventure, commissioned new maps (by Rob Conley), and generally spruced the whole thing up. I'm fairly proud of the whole thing, but, before it's published -- sometime late this year -- I need playtesters who are willing and able to run the thing.

I'm not looking for them just yet. I still have a little more tweaking of the text to complete. I expect the playtest draft will be ready sometime next month and, when it is, I'll put out a formal call for people to assist me. I can't promise anything in return except a credit in the published version and copies of the module when it's released.

The Cursed Chateau is a self-contained module for 4-8 characters of levels 4-6. It's not written for any specific old school fantasy RPG or retro-clone, but it's broadly compatible with most of them (though it does use the traditional AC system, so devotees of alternative systems will need to do some conversion there). Playtesters can use whatever system they like, though I'd like to know what system it is, since it'll affect the weight I give to comments about how challenging the adventure is.

Here's an early mock-up of the cover (which, for some reason, is appearing as blue, when it's in fact brown and black, among other colors):

As you can see, it's not intended as an homage to early gaming art or graphic design. Much as I love that stuff, I'd much prefer it if each publisher of the old school renaissance had its own unique "look." We catch enough flak as it is about "nostalgia" and "rose-colored glasses" as it is; in my opinion aping the past only gives further fuel to such charges, mistaken though they may be. There's a diversity of approaches and philosophies in the old school movement. Wouldn't it be nice to see that diversity better reflected in its esthetics?

52 comments:

  1. The stairway reminds me of the one in Salem's Lot. Quite chilling. I would not say *welcome* to the chateau on the cover unless you expect the module to be read only by monsters!

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  2. I like the cover a lot! It reminds me of Hammer House of Horror or Dark Shadows!

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  3. In my opinion, which should not be intended as a knock on the entire work, and is of course personal, the cover is a particularly horrid example of overlayoutry. The blood splash-style fonts alone... yikes, so very late 90s White Wolf. Ook.

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  4. The cover reminds me of 'Vincent Price' horror movies which seems just about perfect. :)

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  5. I second the White Wolf feel although it seems more contemporary WW. However, unlike Melan I like it.

    The blue actually looks good.

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  6. Sweet, maybe we'll use this to playtest 3.old.

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  7. I'm sure this is unhelpful, but I like the blue. I'd keep the cover the way it is, but get rid of the splatters and change the color of the lettering to match the atmospheric blue.

    I just like the color blue I guess.

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  8. Another vote for keeping the blue cover (although to be fair, it would be nice to see it in its intended brown shade, to properly compare the two).

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  9. Looks promising - blue cover or brown. One thing:

    "We catch enough flak as it is about "nostalgia" and "rose-colored glasses" as it is; in my opinion aping the past only gives further fuel to such charges, mistaken though they may be."

    I find that an odd standpoint. If the charges are ill-placed, what care have we if a design is reminiscent of days bygone? I mean, I can see not "aping" such conceits for personal reasons or if one agrees with the charges as leveled, but doing so because of detractors' misplaced comments seems unnecessarily compliant, IMHO.

    Either way, the cover as it is looks nice, and I look forward to the final product. :D

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  10. It looks like it's going to be perfect-bound?

    I'm just wondering how the maps are going to be included in the layout. My big consistent complaint with a lot of the newer adventures is that the maps aren't easily removed from the book for reference during play.

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  11. I agree with the comment above. It is an odd stance to suggest an alternative aesthetic when you don't feel there is something fundamentally wrong with borrowing from the past. If changing to suit someone else is the point - then I say to hell with them. No need to pander to people outside the OSR who likely have preconceived opinions anyway. I'm sure the module is great, but the aesthetic doesn't say old school to me.

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  12. but doing so because of detractors' misplaced comments seems unnecessarily compliant, IMHO.

    I guess I partially agree with some of the negative comments about the look of many contemporary old school products. I think it's a mistake to treat TSR's 1978 graphic design as if it were the only appropriate look for an old school product. I've been pretty unabashed in my dislike of the look of, for example, Goodman's DCC line. And while I dislike much of the specifics of Paizo's art direction -- which is often a bit too over the top for my tastes -- I do think their graphic design is second to none and wish old school publishers took a page or two from their book.

    I imagine this makes me a heretic in many circles of the movement, but I'm OK with that.

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  13. My big consistent complaint with a lot of the newer adventures is that the maps aren't easily removed from the book for reference during play.

    You know, I'd never really given that much thought till now. Thanks for pointing it out. I'm so used to being able to print out maps from PDFs that I never considered others might not feel the same way.

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  14. I quite like the cover design, and the eerie blue/green watercolor palette. The splashes do have a White Wolf feel to them, but that's hardly a bad thing - those fuckers sold a'right, as I recall.

    Good luck! If you're up for it, I'd love to run the adventure as a short sidelight in our 4e campaign. ;v)

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  15. Will you be making the PDFs available to print purchasers? That would help with the map question. Alternatively there's the natty little two-volume approach, a la (sorry for this reference!) WotC's superbly-designed 4e adventures, though I imagine it's too late in the process for such a decision.

    A specific 'photocopy or download the maps' mention will probably cut down on any grousing the bound-in maps might cause.

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  16. I'm sure the module is great, but the aesthetic doesn't say old school to me.

    That's really part of the point with this book. It's not supposed to look like an old school product -- at least as "old school product" is generally conceived. Much of the interior artwork is similarly different than what people associate with the old school and that's by design.

    Lots of people like to criticize the old school movement for its lack of diversity. I think that's generally an ill-informed and misguided criticism, but I do think it packs some punch when it comes to art and graphic design. I'd like to see some experimentation in order to broaden the conception what is and is not "old school" in terms of esthetics. Outside of Jim Raggi's stuff, there's not a lot of that happening and I think that's a pity.

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  17. Lots of people like to criticize the old school movement for its lack of diversity. I think that's generally an ill-informed and misguided criticism, but I do think it packs some punch when it comes to art and graphic design. I'd like to see some experimentation in order to broaden the conception what is and is not "old school" in terms of esthetics. Outside of Jim Raggi's stuff, there's not a lot of that happening and I think that's a pity.

    This is one of the most heartening and (authentically) forward-looking things I've read on this blog, James. Like I said: good luck.

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  18. One of the advantages of a small project like this is that we can course correct quite late in the process, so we're open to lots of possible solutions to the map issue and can do so with comparative ease. A PDF with a print purchase is fairly standard nowadays, so that's a definite option. A second volume of maps isn't easily done, since it'd probably require shrink wrapping and that's a huge hassle for small companies.

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  19. How do you get around the pdf-with-print issue if you have outside vendors who can't provide that?

    My next project is another saddle-stitch job, and the maps and handouts will be in a center pull-out section. 'Map on the inside of the cover' is always a classic. Yeah, it's "old school" as it gets, but it's highly functional as well.

    But if this is to be a perfect-bound book as that spine on the cover mockup indicates, those won't work...

    Maybe put all the maps as the last pages of the book for easy removal (for that theoretical customer who doesn't have easy net and/or printer access), and having the maps available as a separate free download from your site?

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  20. All good questions and suggestions, Jim. Thanks for offering them for consideration.

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  21. you could just leave a small margin of white on the left side of the map with little dotted lines and the old "cut along the dotted lines to remove" trick.

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  22. I've always just photocopied the game maps. Now you can just scan and print. No need to detach, unless that's your bag.

    My thought would be, and I can only speak to my own experiences, is that the cover needs to speak to the contents but also to the genre or book series (insert whatever example you like). On the shelf or the rack, that will easily distinguish one genre of book, magazine, rpg, or whatever from another - from a buyer point of view. James, if you feel that the design accomplishes this then that's all that matters and more power to you. The way I see it authors know best, not graphic designers.

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  23. "My next project is another saddle-stitch job..."

    Jim, can I ask exactly how your last project was produced? Were you putting it together yourself, was there a local manufacturer, etc.? What are your thoughts about publishing as PDF?

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  24. "'Map on the inside of the cover' is always a classic."

    Aside from the ease of viewing the maps, it was also useful to have inside-cover maps so the cover could be used as a DM screen. (Haven't done that too terribly often. :P)

    As far as modern products go, where the option of a removable cover is not - well, an option, I'd vote for having a saddle-stitched product with the maps at the center - either for removal, or easy scanning. (I personally dislike perfect-bound "modules" anyway, because they don't lay flat on the table or scanner bed - at least not without subjecting the binding to a lot of stress.)

    Just my 2cp.

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  25. Death Frost Doom is currently hand-assembled.

    After DFD's decent initial sales and warm reception (I was really worried that people were going to hate it), I'm taking a tour of local print houses on Monday to get quotes and look at options to upgrade the presentation of future releases.

    As for PDF publishing... I'm amazed people buy PDFs, but if people want things that way, I'll do what I can to make them worth buying.

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  26. JimLotFP said...I'm amazed people buy PDFs

    I mainly buy pdf's because international postal rates and poor currency exchange make justifying my rpg spending to the wife a tad difficult. I can print and bind pdf's at home to a very good quality, at a fraction of the cost.

    @James M. - The cover looks great and should give the OSR-knockers one less thing to whinge about.

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  27. "Lots of people like to criticize the old school movement for its lack of diversity."

    Lots of people sound like jerks, then. Why should anyone care about this supposed shadowy legion of plantom detractors anyway, James?

    If they are out there, this unapologetic nostalgia addict says screw 'em. Last time the people who made "old school" games took criticism from know-nothing jerks who didn't even play them, we got "angry moms from heck" and bataazu.

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  28. First, I'd be up for a playtest. Second- I'm for a new look, to be honest. I'm working on a S&W Neolothic game (humans vs Neanderthals....with the idea that trolls/giants of myth were based on a this clash) and I've been thinking of doing something modern and artistic like this.

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  29. I love the cover art and fonts! Very nice!

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  30. Wow, if this is a "haunted house" adventure, I'm in. I'm a sucker for haunted houses. I still have my copy of "The Mansion of Mad Professor Ludlow" from Dragon Magazine long ago.

    How long is this adventure? Is it appropriate for a "one-shot weekend?" If we were to playtest it, that would be the context. I've been looking for an adventure to try out OSRIC with.

    Regarding the cover and art style, I like the blue cover, too - it's really striking and ghostly-looking - but I imagine the black and brown will be nice, too.

    Regarding "old school" art style, those products which look like late-70's TSR modules may not have the best graphic design, but they do have the virtue of letting you instantly know where the product is coming from. I don't begrudge anyone using a "retro" art style to communicate to shoppers what their product is all about; it's hard to distinguish your product from all the others, and making a clear statement of tone goes a long way for those people seeking that type of product.

    That's not to say that all "old-school" products need to ape the older art styles, of course. It just means that if you're going to take the art in a new direction, you have a harder job of communicating that it's an "old school" product or system between the covers.

    Done well, a product jacket can do that without copying the look of the past, and this even presents an opportunity to distinguish oneself from the crowd. It's the bold move, and so I applaud the look of the cover for The Cursed Chateau. I'm happy to say that the art direction on this one would make me pick it up at the local game store, but I would be very surprised to discover that it's designed for systems like S&W, OSRIC, etc. From the cover, I would assume it's for a White Wolf system or maybe Call of Cthulhu.

    In that sense, not going with a retro style might actually be a risk; if White Wolf / Call of Cthulhu players are the only ones who pick it up, they might put it right back down. And people looking for old-school adventures may never pick it up, thinking it's not what they're looking for. But if you can hit that sweet spot, where you establish a new look for old-school adventures, it could lay the groundwork for a series of products that really stand out.

    Regardless, good luck with the adventure. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

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  31. Sounds pretty cool to me. I'd be glad to beta it.

    I worry that there may be some truth to the claim of homogeneity in the old school movement, looking at how divisive the cover of this module seems to be.

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  32. "Death Frost Doom is currently hand-assembled..."

    Cool, thanks, Jim.

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  33. Speaking only for myself, my comment was not oriented at non-classical covers in general, but this one in particular. Big difference. What I really appreciate in classical cover art/layout is simple functionality, not necessarily a stylistic grab-bag. It can be done differently - consider the art in Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, or even in the recent Death Frost Doom... Different, but they have the same elegant simplicity.

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  34. It looks good.

    I have tended to agree (or perhaps not disagree) with your idea that OSR products should not ape the old designs.

    Yet, when I see this one, I can’t help but think that I’d pass it over assuming it was not “old school” and go straight to something with a cover that did more immediately say “old school”.

    Which—incidentally—doesn’t necessarily mean aping TSR’s old module design. Since Necromancer, Goodman, and others did that with d20 system products, I think it’s more subtle than just that. Probably something that looked more like an old Judges Guild or Rolemaster product says “old school” to me more than just that.

    (And—on another note—I think some publishers have done a great job of paying homage to the old TSR module style while still giving it a fresh twist.)

    Anyway, just my thoughts upon seeing it. As I said, I do think it looks good. And any design is going to have upsides ad downsides. I’m not sure that point is all that important in the grand scheme.

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  35. I can dig it, James has gone for a funky new look, and personally I think it works pretty well.I like the cover piece and the trade dresses font. The illo sets the sombre mood of the product, and the layout jumps out at the viewer.Good stuff.

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  36. Robert said more-or-less what I'd like to say about the cover. For philosophical reasons, yes, OSR products should have an original design. But for marketing reasons, there's a big advantage in designing a cover that conveys what the product is-- a) an adventure module b) written for use with rules of D&D or similar products c) but not written by TSR or WOTC d) written recently e) but based on alternate or earlier versions of the rules.

    Imitating the classic design *on the cover* (interior design and art is another story) helps people get all that.

    And I would love to playtest this.

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  37. @JimLotFP said. How do you get around the pdf-with-print issue if you have outside vendors who can't provide that?

    I can answer this. :)

    Rogue Games has been partnering with individual game stores for the Buy the Book get the PDF for free. These stores send me an email, and then I send the PDF direct to the customer. I have been busy getting more and more stores working with us.

    Now, if your store is not working with us, fear not, all you need to do is send us an email, provide proof of purchase, and bam, you get the PDF.

    Since we went public with our PDF Pledge early this year, I have personally emailed over 250 PDFs to customers. These customers have bought our games at cons, through Amazon and BN.com, and other stores. It is fast and easy. GenCon this year will see the pledge in effect, and purchases will get the PDFs emailed to them after the show.

    As for the maps, they will be available as a free download from our Scribd page, and from the Rogue Games website. Also, like everything we publish at Rogue Games, you buy the book at IPR or Studio2, you get the PDF for free. You also get the PDF for free if you buy the book elsewhere, and just contact us.

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  38. If I were publishing print products, I would probably put the PDF in a password protected ZIP file available for download. The password would be included in the book. So, anyone who bought the print version could download the PDF.

    (This isn’t the place to discuss the issue, so just understand that—based on my experience in software and e-books—I’m of the opinion that trying to prevent piracy only costs you money with zero return.)

    Putting the password on the ZIP file instead of directly on the PDF means that the user doesn’t have to enter the password every time they open the PDF.

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  39. I think the detacheable maps concern is a bit overblown. Is there some reason why photocopies of the maps wouldn't work if you can't print them directly from a pdf?

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  40. @ Robert Fisher: No DRM on our end, no passwords, nothing. You buy our books, you get your game and PDF. James and I do not get in your way to use the game you paid for in any way you choose to.

    Personally, I do not worry about piracy, and any method I would take to "fight it" would tick off the consumer who bought it legally.

    Life is too short to worry about this. Other publishers think we're crazy, but so be it. We'd rather design games and not get in the way of how you use them or play them.

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  41. My OD&D (Labyrinth Lord) campaign has characters that are at the 4th level threshold. So it would be a perfect opportunity to play-test your module.

    I agree that new OSR products should not ape the old TSR modules. It's good that you wish to establish your own graphic design style for your series of modules. However, I don't like your use of a processed photograph. This would set the precedent that would require all subsequent modules to have such a photographic image. How are you going obtain a photograph of an orc or a bugbear for your next cover?

    I highly recommend the use of a hand-drawn illustration. As a matter of fact, I think you should use the artwork of a amateur artists. This would encourage the attitude that module-making is a hobby that everyone can do themselves. Instead of using WoW-style epic superhero illustrations, use drawings by lesser artists who will work for cheap or free. D&D folk art, if you will.

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  42. I understand, Richard. I wouldn’t want to have to personally check proofs-of-purchase and e-mail copies though. (Particularly because I know the technical inefficiencies involved with e-mail attachments, and thus like to avoid them.) The password would be just to help communicate that it isn’t meant to be free.

    (Of course, I’d could see myself just making it available without a password in the old “honorware” style. If I were to ever ask for money at all.)

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  43. >>This would set the precedent that would require all subsequent modules to have such a photographic image.

    Why?

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  44. @ Robert, the thing is it is not that much of an issue. The more store that work with us, the easier the job has become. On the store level, they send me the email addresses of who purchased the game, and then the PDF goes out. Heck, I am working on making it even easier on the retail level.

    I do not see it that much work, and to be honest, I consider it as part of the customer service we provide as being a small press publisher.

    Also, if the customer provides the proof of purchase, it weeds out those who are looking for a hand out. If you buy via Amazon, it is easy enough to forward the invoice. Same with Noble Knight Games. Those who really want to free PDF, do amazing things when they know they just have to prove the purchase.

    I am doing a lot of work, behind the scenes, to make it even easier. It just takes time. Still, where we are today, compared to last year, is amazing.

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  45. Joshua said...
    "I think the detacheable maps concern is a bit overblown. Is there some reason why photocopies of the maps wouldn't work if you can't print them directly from a pdf?"

    A photocopy works fine if the binding of the book allows it to be opened up and laid flat. Perfect binding does not do this well at all, and you either have a copy that bends and distorts at the edge where the page curved up towards the binding or you actually force the book to lie flat and you risk ruining the binding.

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  46. Regarding downloadable PDF's, the #1 benefit I can see is getting the maps in miniatures scale, so they can be laid down for the players. I can work with maps in the book, but having the same nice cartography that the DM sees available for the players (sans DM keys, etc., natch), would be a real boon.

    (Kudos to Richard Iorio II, btw, for your no-nonsense approach to PDF distro.)

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  47. @CC, that is a good idea about player version of the maps as a download. I will talk to James about that this week, and see what he thinks.

    Thank you for the kudos btw, for us (James and I) we just want to make sure the games we design are there for people to play. I am always thinking outside of the box if you will, when it comes to our distribution, and the like. For me, I really think that by treating the gamer/consumer/fan with respect, you make life easier for all involved. Hence the approach I take with PDFs.

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  48. With this much commentary you're clearly not going to please everyone. Even a few days later, I still like the cover. The real question is: does the cover help sell the product? I believe so. People only look at a cover for a few seconds, typically. So it's not worth haranguing over for too long. It's what's inside that counts. :)

    And hey, at least is doesn't look like manga. That's the thing I hate about Paizo's current art direction. Other than that, their products are gorgeous.

    On maps: I used to love the old Dungeon magazine because it was black and white and easy to photo copy and 'map bash.' Maps today are barely functional because of the dark colors they use. They're next to impossible to make notes on and eat toner. I also don't think dark maps are 'accessible' to folks with vision problems which is roughly 10% of the population.

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  49. I would happy to do a proofreading pass over your module for you, James. My wife is an editor, and I've picked up a lot from her over the years, so I might be able to catch some some typos for you.

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  50. Ha ha. Rick made me laugh.

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  51. I like the cover it fits the back cover blurb pefectly. I would grab this one up just for the horror source material.

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