Dresden Files RPG: Three Ways of Looking at a Table

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.

Supernatural Powers Table, Dresden Files RPG

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?

By Category View, Supernatural Powers Table

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.

By Cost View, Supernatural Powers Table

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.

Powers With Stat Description, Supernatural Powers Table

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)

Powers With Stat Description (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.

Additional Reading

Dresden Files. Volume 1: Your Story. Evil Hat Productions, 2010.

 

13 Comments

  1. This is one of those posts that should go on must-read lists for tabletop game writers. I particularly appreciate the three variations you’ve created and discussed. Providing analysis of the original chart, good; providing analysis of contrasting charts, amazing. =)

  2. Well written and insightful. For such an important topic in the industry I find that very little formal training is provided to new designers. This is one talent that has to be learned almost entirely by trial and error and your post does a good job of laying out some very attractive options.

    One table I light is the Space Travel Time table in the Diaspora core book. While very plain stylistically, I like it because it emphasizes one column – the travel time. It immediately pops when compared to the rest of the table, which is helpful in play.

    • Four Color Critic

      Thank you! I agree — the roleplaying game industry is definitely marked by on the job training and some crazy learning curves. On the plus side, I’ve found that most of the folks I ask questions of are more than happy to tell me about how or why they chose to do something, and that kind of generosity has been reassuring indeed. And here’s where I admit I haven’t seen Diaspora yet, but I’ll make a point to check it (and the Space Travel Time table) out soon. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. You’ve hit one of my design sweet spots here – interaction – I really like the way that you have delved into the different foci of the categories and structured this data for different use. The Dresden Files RPG pivot table, essentially. I’m definitely going to snag these PDFs for use in my own games. Thanks!

    • Four Color Critic

      Mmmmmm, pivot tables. You could not have made me happier if you tried. I’m with you on interaction being a key interest, though because of work I tend to think of it as user engagement. And sure thing, anytime! When you run across mistakes or areas for improvement, feel free to let me know.

  4. Great work, man! I’m going to link to this post from the downloads page on the DFRPG site. Thanks for breaking this down. The alpha-by-powers thing was entirely in service of the two-page format, meant to make it fast for someone who’s written down a power by name to look up where it is and get a general gist of what it does, but you’ve accurately identified the downsides of that, and created a great game resource in doing so. Brilliant.

  5. Four Color Critic

    Thanks — I take this as a high compliment indeed! I like the original a lot, particularly since it achieves exactly what you wanted it to. You’ve been more than gracious with my thought exercises here, and I appreciate it.

  6. Jeremiah McCoy

    I probably could have used this chart last weekend when we had our character and city creation session. Nice work. When I get around to writing the two or three games I haver boncing around in my head, I may pick your brain.

    And your awesome. Just saying.

    • Four Color Critic

      Ah, timing. Sounds like y’all had fun, though, so you achieved the desired ends anyways.

      And you know I’m always happy to help. Just make with the warning so that I can block out time to respond appropriately. And thanks, my friend. I appreciate all the support you’ve given me.

  7. nat

    You missed the thing that I find the worst development in RPG tables/lists in the last decade [for that matter, it’s become pretty common in other textual presentations: every-line striping. I find it very visually distracting, and for most tables, it’s completely overkill. Provided your entries are all single line, three-line striping is more than sufficient. You can still quickly and easily follow an entry across the table: every entry is either above a line/shade change, below a line, or neither, and adjacent entries are different of course. But it manages it with roughly one-third the visual clutter in the design.

    Also, a further critique of the original table, which all of your alternatives address in one way or another: The original is sorted on the 4th column out of 5. There’s nothing wrong with that. What is a bit of a pain is that there’s no indication of that. If that column’s entries had been bolded, or its heading underlined, or, well, something, it would’ve vastly improved it–and without needing to take up more space or change the layout of the table. As is, it took me a little while to even realize that there *was* an order to the table–i mentally checked the first couple columns, and found nothing, so I initially presumed that whatever the ordering was, it wasn’t based on data actually on the table. It was probably my 3rd time looking at the table that I noticed that the power names were in alphabetical order. (And then, in my particular case, almost entirely stopped looking at the table because it wasn’t a useful ordering for me for character creation. But that will always be the case with some portion of the users, no matter what organization you choose, and it’s a perfectly sensible organization, so I can’t blame Evil Hat for it.) Or, to summarize: Could I figure it out? Yes. Should I have to “figure out” a table? No–the whole point of presenting data that way is to make it easy to comprehend.

    • Four Color Critic

      Ah, multiple line striping — great point! I’m fairly comfortable with single-line striping because (as you say) it’s become commonplace, but this is a really good suggestion. If you have any good examples of this technique at work in RPGs, give a yell, and I’ll keep my eyes open as well. Thanks for the comment!

      • nat

        I’d have to look at my older RPG books. My recollection is that D&D3.0 PH was the first time I saw alternate-line shading, as opposed to three-line shading, but I might be forgetting something. I know the standard in the AD&D books, 2nd ed and most of 1st ed, was third-line underlines. I might have to go back a decade to find something commercial with 3-line shading.

        When I put together a PDF of the D20SRD, I used 3-line gradient fades, so sort of a hybrid of lines and shading. I thought it worked really well, but then I’m the one who did it. If you want, you can see it and judge for yourself: http://www.tiltingatwindmills.net/d20/D20SRD3.5(2-characters).pdf is the character-creation bits, so it’s full of tables. You can see how I applied it to tables with text wrap, and how I kludged a little bit for tables that had a mix of single-line and longer entries.

        -Nat

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