Case Studies in Formatting

I’ve been a bit behind on the latest updates for Street Rats, partly because I’ve been working on figuring out ways to get Street Rats unified into a more coherent document that does away with some of the wasted space (and partly due to working on other projects, I must admit): I consider the 200 to 300 page range to be the ideal for independent publisher games, especially since Street Rats has no art in it at this point: it’s over eighty thousand words long, needs editing, and really needs to be improved to meet commercial standards. Most importantly, however, I don’t want it to look longer than it is and turn away potential players.

One of the major things that needs to be done is simply going to be the product of elbow grease: formatting. I’ve been working in LibreOffice on large-scale gaming projects for about two years now.

I previously had used Scribus, which is a wonderful tool for a variety of projects, but is not quite as user friendly and lacks some of the rich word processor features. So I switched to LibreOffice starting with two Eclipse Phase unofficial supplements (I technically did some 24-hour and 72-hour stuff in LibreOffice as well, but the scale was fairly small and formatting was a quick thing and not a major thing), and moving on to Street Rats and most recently an unofficial Degenesis supplement. With my first supplement for Eclipse Phase, I ran into serious issues with the way that I had configured my formatting: all the tables at the end of the supplement were placed into frames that were then anchored to paragraphs. This allows them to be a little more flexible in terms of formatting and breaking across columns, but it also means that they’re unresponsive to each other’s positions: there have literally been tables stuck behind tables, which is not conducive to a quality reading experience. My second supplement never really hit issues with cross-column tables, in part due to the way it was planned and its relatively short outcome.

Street Rats is running into huge issues with cross-column table formatting. It uses paragraph anchoring, which means that tables never get moved far away from where they should be in the context of the book, with awkward page breaks being really the worst possible outcome of adding or removing content before the tables (which adjusts everything across tables). However, Street Rats is, well, somewhat ugly. I don’t necessarily mean that to be self-deprecating, but it’s an honest fact: I haven’t done anything to neaten it up, and as much as I want to it’s going to be a long time coming. Furthermore, putting columns of text in is a major improvement for legibility: headers have to be relatively short to fit in the table of contents. Changing the page styles to implement columns, however, means that each and every table in Street Rats will be mangled.

Now, that’s not a big deal for some tables, since things like the circumstance modifier tables (which themselves need a bit of polish) can simply be scrunched across multiple lines, even though I’ve been avoiding that. That said, it doesn’t look ugly, and though it’s one of my pet peeves it is likely an unreasonable one. The problem comes with the entire arsenal section. When I started work on Street Rats, I had about a dozen weapons in the rulebook, and that was it. Now, however, there are probably about a dozen types of ammunition and close to sixty different weapons in the book, most of which have their own independent tables.

This made it very easy to intersperse descriptions of items with the game statistics that go with them; I’m a huge fan of copious writing, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it also means that there’s several dozen tables which are formatted with an explicit need to exist outside the column structure (since you have additional columns for ammunition stats).

In my most recent work, I’ve been experimenting with ways to fix this, and page styles in LibreOffice have come to my attention as a viable alternative: right now Street Rats alternates between Left Page and Right Page (it may not use those terms) styles, but at some point that will be expanded to Left Page, Left Table Page, Right Page, and Right Table Page styles. However, once this happens, the descriptions of items will likely be better left in the column format: I’ve seen several examples of games which have alternating text in columns and out of columns across the whole page, and it looks rough.

This means that one of the major stepping stones on the road to getting Street Rats prettied up enough to start to do work on stuff like page backgrounds and inserting art (at such a point as I finally commission art for Street Rats, which is unlikely for the foreseeable future due to the profit margins* of the project) is to actually condense all the loose firearm tables into larger tables, probably grouping them by caliber into tables by class. I could also make independent frames for each of the tables, place those in the frames, anchor the frames to a paragraph position, and call it a day, like I did for earlier projects, which would allow me to create an experience more similar to Shadowrun’s tables interspersed with text, but limits the usefulness of tables for reference, since having all the tables in one place makes it easier for a variety of sources, and has the added trouble of requiring a formatting check and preflight after every change that shifts the text and tables around. There’s conventional wisdom in game design about not changing any text after a document goes to layout, and I blatantly defy that, sometimes with happy results and sometimes with real agony.

Ultimately, I’m actually quite happy with LibreOffice as a tool. A lot of exotic formatting takes longer in LibreOffice than it does in Scribus or some of the alternatives, but it works with remarkable rigidity; the fact that anyone in the world can actually open up the PDF of Street Rats in Libre Office and modify it to fit their needs is another thing that I really love: once it gets prettied up I’d love to make it possible for people to just type and have something that looks marginally professional come out of the process.

*Or, more appropriately, lack thereof. The financial reports of a lone game designer/writer’s publications are a topic for another day.

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