Information Density

Information Density

A design journal, sort of.

One of the things I like most about the Mothership RPG books is how they manage their information density. There is a LOT crammed into each page, and it all still works. The Player’s Survival Guide is a decent example of this, using a traditional two column layout, but the adventure modules like Dead Planet and beyond are where this really starts to ramp up.

Page for page, there are thick layers of info, but it’s all presented in such a way that you’re never lost. You can see the obvious care that went into every inch of the layout, where every idea is given its due. Considering the physical constraints of a “page”, there’s no sense of compromise.

In terms of getting projects out the door, applying “information density” has been a big motivator for me. As someone who has trouble being concise with their ideas, the value of being able to add more is very appealing. Combine that with design challenges that force me to narrow my overall scope, such as a “business card” jam, or a “one-page adventure” and my productivity seems to find a sweet spot. Draw me a box, show me how much space I have to work with. When it’s full, I’m done.

Currently, I’m working on a pamphlet adventure for Troika! A pamphlet. Two pages, six panels. Inside, outside. That’s it. Perfect. So I thought I’d examine my process on this one and see how I managed to fill up each box and be happy with calling it “done”.

Troika! What can I say… The source book conjures visions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory mashed up with Alice in Wonderland. I’m not sure if that’s Dan Sell’s intention, but that’s where my head goes whenever I flip through the pages. As such, my pamphlet adventure turned out to be a collection of strange happenings that take place on an enchanted mountain made of candy.

Setting some design criteria, there were a few things I wanted to include.

  1. Tables, tables, tables.
  2. Lots of NPC variety.
  3. A large variety of items.
  4. Locations with random events.

To start, we have the “Outside Page”. I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of room, but wanted a way for GMs/players to randomly generate a large variety of NPCs. I went to work on scouring old-timey candy websites to collect names for various traditional sweets that I could combine with different NPC types. I didn’t want to call them “enemies” per se, since any of the Candy Beings could be locals, or allies that might help the players.

I ended up with 20 “candy” types (eg: chocolate, marzipan, toffee, etc.) and 10 “being” types (eg: beast, knight, merchant, etc.) that can be randomly rolled and combined as needed. So you could end up with a Chocolate Beast (a charismatic monster), or a Toffee Knight (a stretchy noble), and so on. The “candy” type gives an NPC some kind of special ability or trait. The “being” type lists the usual Troika! based stats of Skill, Stamina, Initiative, Armour and Damage. I also opted to give a few of them advanced skills, cuz why not?

And then the meins, as Troika calls them. Attitudes that give each NPC some, eh, flavour. Funny how most flavours transfer nicely as temperaments. Though I’m interested to see how someone might portray “Minty”. Cool? Probably cool.

After that, I got to work on the items. 20 common items and 10 (actually 11, if you count the Queen’s personal maul, “Sweet Fist”) special items. GMs can dole these out as rewards, found items, or however else they fit into the game. Some of the items were derived from the Candy Beings, things you might be able to get from them. Trying not to make everything a weapon, I made it a point to make several items more utilitarian, tool-like, so as to encourage solutions beyond “hit ’em on the head”.

Riffing on the introductory elevator adventure from the Troika!, I also included a list of magic jelly beans with various effects. I sort of figured these would be better left as a mystery to the players, or maybe Doctor Xaraqus could help to identify them. Don’t roll a 10.

During layout, I saved the front panel for last, but I’ll mention it here to wrap up the outside. I had plans of doing a more elaborate doodle for the front panel featuring some of the named characters in the adventure, but I ended up using most of the space to set the scene with text (as I’m inclined to do). So I made a quick nameplate to give the front panel some presence and called it done.

Onto the inside page, the map! I didn’t really have a plan as to how the mountain would look. I started with a list of candy-based locations like “sugar slopes” and “cotton candy bluff” and then started illustrating* various layers, building up peaks and crags, duplicating, nudging and adjusting, until areas on my list started to appear on the map.

*I don’t really “illustrate”, I just make shapes and merge them when I think things are starting to look good.

Not everything from my list made the cut, but I managed to cram in 12 locations total. A lot of the major locations like Sugar Cube Keep and the Candy Crone’s Hut were added mid-way when a vague narrative started to emerge, influencing the random “happenings” in several of the location tables.

I decided to colour code each of the major locations so they were easily visible. Then it was just a matter of laying out all of the tables, adding location labels, making everything fit (information density!) and giving the mountain some texture.

And… that’s it? The Observatory was the last location to be added. It’s probably the least thematically aligned location, but I wanted something that might provide some contrast to the rest of the saccharine setting. Oh yeah, and every Knight you might encounter is on a quest, it’s a bit of an experiment. Let me know how that plays out for your group!

I’m probably going to spend another weekend fine tuning things, hunting down typos (there’s always a few) and second-guessing all of my decisions. Then I’ll post the PDF for download. Yup.

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