Tag Archives: game

To Serif or Not to Serif

The debate of whether or not to use serifs in fonts has raged almost since Gutenberg invented the printing press back in 1440. What are serifs, you may ask? Serifs are the little decorative marks on letters, like the bars on the top and bottom of the capital “I”. Sans-serif literally means “without serifs”.

Since I write both fiction and rulebooks, I looked through an assortment of our roleplaying books and novels, and also some boardgame rules.

In our roleplaying books serifs are very dominant. I checked a sampling of our GURPS 3/4e, D&D 4e, OVA, and HackMaster 4/5e books, and they were exclusively serif fonts other than tables and sidebars in HM; sidebars, examples, and sample characters in OVA; and monster blocks in D&D. In other words, they use serifs unless the text is small enough that the serifs might make it harder to read.

Possibly the oldest novel in our collection is my much-loved and rather battered 1978 edition of Heinlein’s Space Cadet. It uses sans-serif for chapter headings and page headers, but serifs otherwise. My wife’s 2013 library book is the same – and some people say that’s the problem, but I’ll go into that shortly.

Boardgame rules are less cohesive simply because they come in a number of formats: sheet or two of paper, pamphlet, booklet, the box or similar material (Ultimate Stratego’s rules are written on the card used to divide the board while players set up). From what I have seen, those that print on card- or pasteboard tend to use serifs, while those on simple paper don’t. Munchkin uses fonts that fit the game’s mood, resulting in a mixture of serif and sans fonts in booklets. Pyramid Arcade includes a 75-page rulebook, entirely in sans serif.


The serif debate is as nuanced as any, but most people seem to fall into one of two groups:
* In long lines of uninterrupted text serif fonts are easier to read because the serifs help guide the eye.
* Sans-serif fonts are “cleaner”, and therefore easier to read. Serif fonts only seem easier to read because they are what we are used to.

I fall into that first group, but also agree that sans-serif fonts look “cleaner”, but in mixed case sans serifs can be confusing. Think of how the word Illinois looks without its serifs. In all caps or or all lowercase it doesn’t matter, but in mixed case capital “I” and lowercase “l” look exactly the same.

As a compromise I have developed the habit of using sans-serif (Arial for screen or Verdana for print) for headings, especially if they are all caps, and serif (Times New Roman) for text. Purely out of curiosity, I mocked up a fake page from my roleplaying game’s rulebook with one written completely in Times New Roman (right), and the other with Verdana headings (left).

Font Test with mock up of rpg rulebook page

So which do you prefer?

Planned Improvisation

In the midst of a moment of chaos on vacation I came up with a new word: planprovise. It’s something I’ve done my whole life, and that Lura has become comfortable with after being with me for nearly 16 years; it’s also my preferred way to GM. In short, it means planning ahead, but only as far as having a rough skeleton outline, and making up the rest as needed, and, most importantly, being flexible enough to tackle whatever surprises turn up.

Since I can easily make monsters on the fly in GURPS, I can generally fit an entire campaign onto a sheet of paper, or even an index card. The exception is my Warehouse 23 / 13-inspired campaign. Before I started steampunk-ifying the setting, I ran it so that the events of the game could have actually happened, but were suppressed from the history books. That required me to do a lot of historical research and refer it to during the session, but it’s not something I’ll ever do again, and even now can only run a single session of that campaign every few months. But even with that level of planning my players have surprised me repeatedly, forcing me to adapt on the fly.

Since HackMaster and D&D are far more complex than GURPS, for them I need to create or look up whatever monsters I want to use ahead of time. I keep them in a spreadsheet that allows me to quickly create encounters on the fly. I first made one for HackMaster Basic years ago, but have now turned it into a full-blown campaign manager for HM 5e, that I will be uploading once I have it tweaked and then remove anything that might get me sued. For D&D I started with a spreadsheet that just allowed me to easily calculate how much experience to give out at D&D Encounters, and kept the monsters in an epub I kept open in my beloved PRS-T1 ereader. Then I slowly started splicing in elements of my HM campaign manager, but at this point it’s not even to beta level – maybe not even pre-alpha.

But that is the only major prep I do for either game unless I’m running an official module, and even then I’m pretty flexible (I ended up throwing out most of a page of the last D&D Expedition I ran because player actions clashed with the author’s assumptions).

My HackMaster 5e campaign is partly an experiment in cooperative world building, in which my players and I are equal partners in creating the world. They come up with the big stuff, like the steampunkish city in the middle of the desert NE of the starting city. I had built nothing whatsoever beyond the city’s walls in that direction, so I just took it and ran with it, creating the details as we went. That campaign is an excellent example of planprovising, because my notes for it consist of a notebook I carry everywhere in which I jot down location, NPC, encounter, or villain ideas I dream up. As of now I have several villains working in the background, but only have the vaguest idea what they’re up to. Every once in a while I’ll have a minion or lieutenant stir up trouble wherever the PCs are and wait for a nibble. When they finally bite down on one then I’ll see about figuring out what he’s really up to.

As an example, a player made up the rumor about the steam-powered city, so while giving them interesting stuff to do and see as they crossed the desert, I was also coming up with ideas for the city, and decided that it was walled in and that the leadership was corrupt, but that’s all I had in mind at that point.

When the party first arrived I made the corruption clear by having the corpulent councilman meet them in his overly-luxurious office. We didn’t get far past that before we ran out of time, and during the following week I came up with a brilliant, but unoriginal idea inspired by the Doctor Who episode “The Hungry Earth“, in which near-future Welsh researchers inadvertently disturb a Silurian city, causing them to awake from stasis and deal with the problem. I found some appropriate monsters in HackMaster Basic and put them in my spreadsheet, expecting to have a large battle with the PCs being one squad among many, but not actually planning anything.

Inevitably, my players, who are the reason why I no longer do any detailed planning for games, came with a plan Q: set up a champions vs champions fight with their leader. If the PCs lost, then the Silurians could have the city the “invaders” had unknowingly built upon their home, but if they won the Silurians had to make peace with the residents and figure out how to share the city. I hadn’t foreseen that in any way, but just ran with it and it turned out to be great fun, especially when the spell-chucker stopped controlling his Skipping Betty Fireball and it circled around the city square, and table, and very nearly ended up hitting the wizard’s player before it finally fizzled (SBF moves a random number of feet in a random direction when not controlled).

That is the power of planprovising. I was well-prepared, but flexible, as I try to always be because it helps keep me, and by extension those around me, from panicking.

Old Family + New Friends + New Games = Great Vacation

Because my family is shotgunned all over the southeastern US, my parents rent a vacation home for a week every summer so we can all get together. This year was at Carolina Beach a couple of weeks ago. Overall it was great, and I especially enjoyed getting acquainted with the new boyfriend of one of my nieces, even more especially because he’s a gamer, too. He introduced us to an amazing Czech boardgame called Dungeon Petz.

Sadly, my wife Lura got sick on Tuesday (our “not-quite vegetarian” diet doesn’t work at all with my family’s standard American diet, which we inevitably end up eating on vacation) and didn’t recover until after we got home, so she didn’t get to play. Before that, however, we finally got to play Mr. Card Game with more than just the two of us for only the second time, so that was cool, even though my niece got bored and her boyfriend won, just like the last person we taught to play the game (who also happens to be the best board game player we’ve ever met). I am also happy to report that our FLGS can special order Dungeon Petz for us just as soon as Lura’s new job makes it possible – the first job she’s had in two years, I should add. We’re really praising God for that one!

It also would have been more fun if I hadn’t fallen up the stairs and twisted my foot the first morning, forcing me to miss out on the aquarium trip, but an Ace bandage got me up and moving again, so it wasn’t too bad.

One advantage of needing to keep my foot propped up while Lura was too sick to do anything and the rest of the family was at the beach is that I got a little bit of work done on my various game aids. I may even have finally finished my D&D character library spreadsheet, but I want to use it myself a bit longer to be sure since I keep finding things I need to add to it (most recently an XP box). I am nearly done with my GURPS character creator as well, but just learned that Steve Jackson has very strict rules about how they want to be cited in fan projects, so I’ve got to go back and change that section in my two GURPS spreadsheets, and figure out how to unobtrusively add it to my character sheet. I also need to find out if Wizards of the Coast has a similar policy.

Now that I’m back from vacation and mostly recovered from it I can get back to work writing and finishing up game aids. I decided to add boxes around the various sections of the top matter on my modular D&D character sheet, and am also experimenting with edge-to-edge printing of some of the pages in order to maximize how much space players have to work with, but so far my test prints have failed because our printer is behaving oddly.  I assume it’s due to needing a new color cartridge even though what I’m printing is black and white. I suspect it’s trying to use blue for the faint grey lines and text, and that’s why they aren’t showing up. Once I get that tackled I should have what I hope will be the final version of my character sheet unless Wizards releases another class with a unique mechanic that would benefit from having a custom sheet.

On a related note: would a sheet with a dedicated section for a pet/familiar be useful? On the front or back? If I don’t put it on the front I will have to either make multiple backs again, which I won’t since it defeats the purpose of my adaptable sheet, or simply make a back that includes the animal with the inventory. It would be easy enough to free up sufficient space above the right-hand column on the two-column inventory sheet (page 4).

GameMaster – What’s in a Name?

Our first roleplaying purchase was GURPS 3e Basic Set, but the first one we played was HackMaster 4e. These days HackMaster 5e is my system of choice for combat-heavy fantasy, and GURPS 4e for is for everything else. One thing they have in common is the term “Game Master” (GM), so I tend to use it rather than the game’s specific term. Even though I have run or played D&D Encounters since season 1 back in 4e, coming up is the first time I have ever used the term “Dungeon Master”.

Players who started with Dungeons & Dragons frequently use DM regardless of the system, and I’ve known World of Darkness fans who nearly always use “Storyteller”. There are lots of other terms used by various games, but those are the most common I’ve seen, with GM dominating the pack.

The nice thing about those three terms being so prevalent is that you can use whichever you prefer and everyone will know what you’re talking about. But have you ever thought about what they actually mean?

Let’s start with original: Dungeon Master (DM). Since the game is called “Dungeons & Dragons”, the term makes sense, especially because back in the game’s early days the DM’s primary job was to create the dungeons and control the monsters within them. What I don’t understand are the multitude of games that use DM yet don’t feature dungeons – some of them aren’t even fantasy games.

One of our friends runs World of Darkness as exclusively as my wife does GURPS (he ran a single session of Shadowrun 4e once) so I’ve played it quite a bit. It refers to the GM as the Storyteller (usually abbreviated ST if at all), which has always bothered me. Why? Because it makes it seem like the GM is the only storyteller at the table, when in fact all of the players are telling a story together.

At its simplest the GM’s job is three-fold: to create the setting, to put obstacles in the PCs’ way, and to be the final arbitrator of the rules. So the GM must master the rules of the game and act as a bit of a ring master, making sure each player has a chance to show off in the spotlight. That’s another reason why Game Master has always been my term of choice: it succinctly describes the GM’s job while not tying it to any particular genre.

While I may inwardly cringe when people say “Dungeon Master” when talking about my latest GURPS sci-fi game, I’m not going to deny them their right to use whichever term they like – Shield Monkey is one of our favorites – as long as they extend the same courtesy to others. Many of our D&D Adventurers’ League players use DM simply because D&D is the only system they know, while Lura and I use GM exclusively, but no one ever so much as bats an eyelid at the difference. So in the end it doesn’t really matter what term you use as long as everyone’s on the same page.

D&D 5e Character Sheet Updates

There are drawbacks to being a long-time devotee to a piece of software. Because Opera has been my default browser since version 5, someone had to point out to me the custom search function that every other browser has since copied and which I can no longer live without. I run into the same issue from time to time with Open Office. I first started using OO about 15 years ago with StarOffice 5 (now you know why OO’s executable is soffice.exe instead of openoffice.exe). At that time it was a single application that opened all of your documents into a single tabbed instance like MS Works did and browsers do now.

Since then hundreds of changes have taken place, so it’s no surprise that I missed a few. In this particular case it’s the PDF export function. Up until now I’ve been exporting my character sheets from OO using various free PDF printers (I especially recommend Cute and Primo). Naturally, that method has its limitations; for one thing, you can’t export links that way.

For my new 10 page long D&D 5e supersheet I decided to finally try out OpenOffice’s PDF export function – the resulting file was one quarter the size of the PrimoPDF version. The drawback is that for some reason the various lines came out much thinner when exported than when printed, forcing me to re-do most of the first page. While I was at it I figured I may as well take another stab at the AC shield, which I had made in Gimp but with which I was never wholly satisfied.

The first thing I did was load up the old XCF and switch it to a sans-serif font, but when I started changing the thicknesses of all of the lines in OO Writer it got tiring having to constantly change and re-import the image. For several years now I’ve been meaning to learn my way around OO Draw, so I took that as my cue to finally do it. In the end I only actually made the curved bottom half of the shield in Draw and the rest in Writer itself, but it was a good learning experience and only took about an hour.

The only other major change I made was eliminating most of my use of Times New Roman. As it was most of the sheet was in sans-serif Verdana, but the skills and several other things used TNR instead. Now the skills use TNR because serif fonts are easier to read  in sentences , but everything else is in Verdana because sans-serif fonts are generally easier to read in titles.

There’s also one change that end users won’t see but that other character sheet designers might find useful: I put all of the front page’s various frames into one giant one. When I first made the supersheet I had to manually copy over each of those frames into the new document, and that was as tedious as it was painful. Since I was rebuilding it anyway, it made sense to put it all into one frame to make it more portable. Now I can put into a new document with a single copy-paste.

A few hours ago I finally finished several days’ work making all the requisite changes to the front of the character sheet and made a test print. My task for later today is incorporating those changes into original documents since I rebuilt it in a new document. Fortunately, since I’m in the habit of using paragraph and character styles rather than in-line formatting whenever possible, I should be able to modify all of the spell, inventory, and beast form sheets in less than an hour.

Naturally, my chronic pain issues limit how much of that kind of intensive computer work I can do at a time, but I hope to have the new sheets uploaded in less than a day, keep your eyes peeled here for the announcement.

Cribbage, Quest Cards, and D&D, Oh My

Cribbage Dice

For some strange reason, Cribbage Dice remains the most popular page here, even though I posted it more than three years ago. Because of that I went back and gave it a much-needed update. There were a couple of typos I had overlooked previously, and I was unhappy with the way I phrased some things. That was before I knew about Creative Commons, so I changed the license from traditional copyright to CC-BY-SA, freeing people to take the game and make it their own. I also added an example of play, complete with pictures.

Quest Cards

If you spend a lot of time GameMastering, then you may be interested in Johnn Four’s free Roleplaying Tips Weekly, a weekly newsletter full of great tips, guest articles, and contests. I have been getting it via email for years, and just recently found it was available via RSS, which is cool because a lot of sites have cut their RSS feeds. This week’s included an article by Chris Sniezak about quest cards, which are designed to help groups that meet infrequently (i.e. at least two weeks between sessions) keep track of what’s going on, but any sandbox could also be helped by them.

Briefly, the idea is to have a stack of cards or Post-Its (or Lino, the virtual corkboard my wife and I will most likely use), each holding a separate quest in a nutshell. That way both the GM and players can very quickly find out who gave which quest, the exact task or reward, and any other pertinent info. Johnn closed the article with a request for printable templates, so I took an hour and whipped one up. I also made it an A4 version, but have no way to test it to make sure it prints correctly, but I’m pretty sure it will.

D&D 5e Character Sheet Update

Since I am playing in D&D Adventurers’ League this season rather than GMing, I have made quite a few changes to my character sheets, and as well as several completely new variations. If I uploaded everything separately it would be at least half a dozen different documents, so I have combined them into three three. The first is my original sheet, with the skills on the back page, leaving a handy Character Notes space on the front.

The second is a new combined supersheet that takes the front page of my mage/single-page sheet, which moves the skills into the Character Notes space, and pairs it with seven options for the back page: blank except for guide lines, three different ways of listing inventory, and then three grimoires, one for most classes, then warlocks, and finally, characters using the optional Spell Points rules from the DMG (p 287).

Update 2015-05-20: It now includes a page where druids can detail up to five beast forms.

The grimoires and inventory sheets were actually derived from stand-alone versions I made months ago. The key difference is that since the stand-alones will not be on the back of character sheets, they each have a line for the player’s, character’s, and GM/campaign’s names. That way it’s no big deal if they get mixed in with another character. It has the has the same sheets in the same order as the supersheet, but with the added identification line on each sheet.

New and Revised D&D 5e Character Sheets

In about half an hour I will playtesting two new variations of my D&D 5e character sheet. For one I modified the back page of the mage sheet to make it suitable for a warlock. Specifically that means I removed the numbers of spell slots by level and replaced them with for space for the total number of slots and their level, since warlocks only start with 1 slot and max out at 4, and all of their slots are the highest level they can currently cast.

The other is for Farga, my dwarf fighter who is a not-entirely-honest merchant in his downtime. I have replaced his back page with an inventory sheet, sorted into Backpack, Belt Pouch(es), and everything else. I have a more detailed inventory sheet on a separate piece of paper; it holds only his lifestyle-related inventory, so it rarely comes into play during a session, but still needs to be tracked since it does change how much cash he has on hand when adventuring.

After printing out the warlock sheet a few minutes ago, I decided to adapt the grimoire yet again to make it suitable for the optional Spell Points system in the DMG (p 288). It will have spaces for Max and Current SP, and the list of how many SP each level of spell costs.

I have also decided to do something that will hopefully make people’s lives a bit easier. As it stands I have a standard character sheet, with skills on the back and a handy Character Notes space on the front, and a mage/single-page sheet with the skills replacing the Character Notes space, a stand-alone grimoire, and several variations of stand-alone inventory sheets. I am going to attempt to get that into no more than three separate documents: one for the default sheet with the Character Notes space, one for grimoire and inventories that will not be printed on the back of their character’s sheet (so they have a line for player/GM/campaign name), and one that has the mage sheet’s front and lots of options for page two (the three different grimoires and at least one inventory sheet).

Since those are all currently scattered across about a half dozen OpenOffice documents, it may take me a few days, but as always I’ll post here as soon as I get them uploaded.

On a related note, I think I may have finally finished my D&D 5e Character Library spreadsheet. I tore it apart and completely rebuilt it, so hopefully it will now accommodate any character. One major addition is a “Mod” column on skills, which gives you a place to put your bonus for the rogue’s expertise or similar abilities.