I need to say right off that Dresden Files has lovely layout. The pages are visually cohesive and interesting, and I’m always won over by a book willing to invest in visual jokes. I’m impressed by the amount of care and time that clearly went into the product’s development, and I speak as someone who likes pretty things when I say that Dresden Files is a very pretty book.
If Wallace Stevens could find thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, though, I think it’s the least I can do to find a few different ways of looking at a table. In this particular case, I’m going to be looking at the Supernatural Powers table from Volume 1: Your Story. For reference, here’s part of the table as it exists now. The core sorted element is the alphabetical listing of powers.
The table looks good in a two-page spread, and it has a clear organizational premise. The decision to draw the organizational line down the middle of the page, rather than use the left-hand margin, is an interesting and unusual approach, and it’s a good example of the visual design decisions seen throughout the rpg. I have a few minor qualms about the structure of the table not matching the layout of the chapter (Toughness, for example, is covered in one section in the chapter but falls into three different locations in the chart because of the alphabetization). But overall, I like this approach, and it’s a good way to convey a lot of information.
I’ve rebuilt this table here to try to show some different ways to present the same information. I’ve tried to keep the formatting choices as simple as the original, so I haven’t used dramatic color or font shifts. I don’t have Neue Swift in my font library, so I’ve used Garamond as a stand-in. The goal is to stick close(ish) to the original look and feel so that you can see the effects of different table structures. I think it goes without saying that the original material belongs to Evil Hat or Jim Butcher, as appropriate, but hey, why not state that explicitly just for fun?
Alternative: By Category
I like the category approach for a few reasons. For one thing, it lists powers by theme, which is helpful when looking for different elements that can round out a concept. If you know you want your character to be really, really fast, or have strange physical characteristics, or be the best psychic in town, this approach gives you a range of power options in that area. The secondary ordering system (cost) lets you figure out which options from each category fit within your refresh budget. The other side of this coin, ironically, is that the structure hides certain character possibilities. My Changeling, for example, doesn’t have any Faerie Magic powers since she has a Strength-Speed-Toughness build. This table doesn’t encourage as much by-power flexibility as, say, the original does.
Alternative: By Cost
I can’t see the folks at Evil Hat ever going for this kind of structure. They almost always emphasize story and theme rather than the crunchier, cost-related parts of their systems. (In a lot of ways, this is why I like their work — they see even a disadvantage as something that creates story, which is a GOOD thing.) That said, by cost is an incredibly useful construction for the practical side of character-building: making the most of those refresh points that you’re spending. A secondary ordering by category helps group powers within a particular cost range, so if you have 1 refresh point to spend on psychic abilities, it’s still pretty easy to see what your options are. Visually, this is least broken-up of my options, so I like it the least from a graphic design perspective.
Alternative: Stat Description
Here I’ve tried to follow the structure of the chapter, so the order of the powers listed matches the order presented in the text. While I have to admit that the names for effects and upgrades are pretty darn descriptive, I also like seeing the explicit stat description for what a power does. I’m sure that part of my affection here is a carryover from my first encounter with the feats tables of 3.0 D&D, but as far as I’m concerned, doing something well once should mean doing something well again. And again. And again. On the down side, this kind of chart takes up a crazy amount of space. When each page of a roleplaying game books means a larger cost per book (layout, text, printing, and — please, let it be so — editing), that extra space is quite an investment.
There’s no one perfect way to present information, and in tabletop gaming realms, you’ll often find fans taking game content, reworking it to suit their preferences, and then sharing it online for life, the universe, and everyone to use. That kind of fan engagement is one of the things that I like about the gaming community, so I’m providing the pdf and Excel files for the versions described above. I’d feel a bit weird about distributing game information if the cool folks over at Evil Hat hadn’t already made the full powers list available from their Downloads page.
Powers By Category (pdf)
Powers By Cost (pdf)
All Powers (Excel spreadsheet)
As I’ve said before, I’m a lazy tabletop player, and tables are one of the things in a gamebook that let me be lazy. Good tables make an rpg usable in a way that a text write-up simply can’t match, and there’s generally more than one right way to do this. I’d love to hear about tables you love, or hate, in tabletop games.
Dresden Files. Volume 1: Your Story. Evil Hat Productions, 2010.