Using Google Docs for RPG Books

I use Google Drive (or Google Docs or Google One, depending on what they call it this week) for basically everything. It’s free, it auto-saves, it’s the same no matter what computer I’m on, and it generally works great. This extends to tabletop RPG design. You could use expensive desktop programs like Microsoft Word, or Adobe Indesign… but they don’t get you as much as you’d think, at least when you’re starting out.

Google Docs works great for writing game rules. It’s basically just like writing in Microsoft Word, except it saves to the cloud, so you never have to worry about losing your work.

You can see an example of using Google Docs here. This is a copy of the first page of my in-progress RPG. Not bad, right? Feel free to make a copy of this document and mess around with it to see how it works (go to File->Make a Copy).

Headings

Use Headings for section titles and sub sections. This lets you style all the section headings the same very easily. It’s also used for creating an automatic table of contents later on. The easiest way to change a style is to set a line to a specific heading (see the dropdown in the toolbar labeled “Normal Text”. Then, change the style of that line, and then right click the line and select “Update Heading to match”. Then boom all your other headings will match that style. You can go to Format->Paragraph Styles to tweak your headings even more, to give them borders or backgroud colors.

The only thing that I wish google docs supported that it doesn’t is styling specific sections of text inside a paragraph. Applying a heading style applies it to the entire paragraph. You can’t, for exmaple, tag all skill names with a style and then update that style to update all instances of skill names (like making them italics or whatever). You also can’t have more than 6 headings, and you can’t name your styles. Maybe this will come later, but for now, it’s not possible.

Fonts

Please change the default fonts. While Arial is a perfectly fine font for reading, it looks incredibly generic. one great thing about Google Docs is that it has full access to Google’s huge list of fonts at Google Fonts. Only a subset are in font list to start with, so go to the Font dropdown, and choose More Fonts… to get access to all of Google’s fonts. There’s fonts for basically anything you could ever want in there, so give yourself some time to look through all the options.

If this is still not enough fonts, you can install the Extensis add-on to get even more fonts. Go to Add-Ons->Get Add-Ons, and search for Extensis. Follow the steps to install it. Now close out of Add-Ons. For every document where you want to use Extensis fonts, you have to “start” the add-on. Go into Add-Ons->Extensis->Start and you’ll see a sidebar open up with a whole new world of fonts.

Don’t go too crazy, choose a small number of fonts (2-4) to use in your text, and make sure they’re used consistently, so that the reader can infer meaning just from what font is used. It’s totally fine to just use one font for section headings, and one font for the body text.

Page Size

It’s probably a good idea to choose what size your book will be fairly early on. Things like images and tables are annoying to change up later (and in fact you might need completely different art for a different sized book). Google docs lets you change the “paper size” of the document. To do this, go to File->Page Setup and choose one of the paper sizes. At the time of writing, you can’t simply choose a custom size, but there’s a variety of popular sizes in there. If the one you want isn’t there, choose a larger size and set the margins so the text fills the space you expect.

6x9 is a popular size for indie publishers these days. At almost exactly half the page area of 8.5x11, it’ll double the number of pages in your book. This can be good if you have a book on the shorter end of things, to make it feel more substantial. At the same time, if this pushes your page count too high, it’ll make the book feel like you’re holding a pocket dictionary. Personally, I think 200-300 pages is ideal for most RPG books… it makes it feel like you’re getting a good amount of text for your money, without feeling intimidating like a college textbook.

Columns

8.5x11 is the traditional “D&D” size, but please don’t make your book full page-width. Such long lines are hard for humans to read. Instead, split your book into columns. In the last year or so, Google has rolled out column support for Docs. To change the whole document, make sure no text is selected, then go to Format->Columns and choose the one two or three column layout. Most 8.5x11 RPG books these days are two columns, but 1st and 2nd edition D&D used three columns, so if you want a really old school look, try that out.

To get some text to span columns, select that text and go to Format->Columns again and choose single column. Thus you can have your chapter or major section titles span the full page. This is also a great way to break both columns in the middle of the page and still have text below them.

Speaking of breaks, you can insert a column break with Insert->Break->Column. This will end the current column (if it’s the left/middle column, the text will flow to the next column, if it’s the rightmost column, it’ll flow to the next page).

Call Outs

The nice thing about two column layout is that it makes it easy to make call-out boxes. These are the boxes with a different color background that you can use to highlight some information or note it as an aside. Highlight the text, go to Format->Paragraph Style, turn on the borders lines, and set the background to a different color. Bam, call out.

Call outs in single column layouts are a little trickier, but still doable. We actually cheat and force part of our text to be two-column. Select a paragraph of text, and use Format->Colunmns to make that part of the document two columns. At the end of the first column, use Insert->Break->Column Break to ensure that the text wraps correctly, then set borders and shading as above. It requires a bit more manual text management, but it’s doable. You can even drag the column markers in the ruler at the top of the document to make them less than 5050 on the page. If anyone finds a better way to do call-outs, let me know.

Cover Page

Everyone wants an awesome looking cover for their RPG. It grabs people the moment they open your PDF, and sets the tone for everything that follows. A huge part of a great cover is the artwork, which is beyond the scope of this post, but a cover is more than just artwork, you need your text in there as well. For this, Google Drawings works very well. It’s a part of Google Drive, just go to New->More->Google Drawings. I’ll write a separate post about google drawings, as I think it’s a pretty great tool for designers.

Tables

Please folks, remove the borders on your tables. It’ll immediately change them from looking like a document written in 1998, to something more modern.

Tables are at once useful and a nightmare. They can convey a lot of information, but large tables can be intimidating and just look nasty. Discretion is advised.

I like making every other row have a light gray background to help with readability, but there’s no built-in way to do that with Google Docs. However, there is an add-on that’ll do it for you. Go to Add-Ons->Get Add-On, and search for Table Formatter. Install that, and it’ll give you a bunch of preformatted styles that it can apply to tables in a single click. It even lets you customize your own formats. Super useful.

Distribution

There’s basically two ways to share a google doc. You can either share a link to it directly, or you can create a PDF from it. I prefer the latter, because it feels more professional (and then I don’t have to worry about whether or not I update that doc, if anyone is watching). Luckily, Google Drive is great for this, too, and you can share links to a PDF that anyone can open, even if they don’t have a Google account.

Making a PDF of a Google Doc is trivial. Just go to File->Download As->PDF. This will save a copy of the document as a PDF on your local machine. To share this PDF, add it back to Google Drive. Go to your game design folder (you do have a game design folder, right?), and click the New button, and choose File Upload. Choose the PDF you just downloaded and click ok. Once it appears in your game design folder, right click the file and select “Get Shareable Link”. Copy the link that pops up and that’s it. Test out the link by opening an Incognito window and paste the link in, to make sure it opens the PDF directly.

Now here’s where using google drive is better than just any old file hosting. You can actually update the file that opens from the link you just copied. So if you make a new version of the rules, you can create a new pdf and replace the old one. Find the pdf you uploaded in drive, but don’t open it. Right click the file and click “Manage Versions”. A small window will pop up, and allow you to upload a new version of the file, and now when people open the link, they’ll get that version instead.

Let me know in the comments if you have any other tricks for using Google Docs.

The Math of Cypher System

I finally took a look at Cypher System (Monte’s Cook’s newish generic system that powers Numenera and The Strange), since so many people had been suggesting it when I was looking at cyberpunk settings. And I just can’t get past the math.

The core mechanic of Cypher System is the GM assigning a difficulty between 1 and 10, then the player adjusting that down with skill, effort, help, etc. The final difficulty is then multiplied by 3 to get a target number, and you have to roll over the target number on a d20.

Wait, what? Why are we multiplying by 3? That doesn’t change the probabilities at all. In that system, you can never have a target number of 11. You get 9 or 12 from difficulty 3 or 4. There’s no in between. 10 and 11 are useless rolls that hold no extra information or benefit over rolling a 9.

The probabilities are identical to just rolling 1d6 vs. the difficulty directly, with one minor difference - in Cypher system’s way, you can fail at the difficulty 1 task 10% of the time (rolling a 1 or 2 on d20). The probabilities are otherwise exactly the same. Rolling a 3 on the d6 is exactly the same as rolling a 9 10 or 11 on a d20. A 6 is like an 18, etc. I guess the one other difference is that Cypher gives you extra benefits when you roll 17+ (tiers of critical hits).

What I really don’t get is why there’s even a concept of the difficulty number. The very first time you see difficulty number, it’s included with a table of the target number that goes with it…. if you just chopped off the difficulty number column, you’d have the same system and you’d save yourself a step, plus you’d give yourself the ability to be more granular.

Just starting with a target number from 1-30 is a lot clearer odds when you know you’re rolling a d20. What’s more, reducing the difficulty by 1 (and thus the target number by 3) generally costs… 3 points from an attribute pool. Why are we not just directly subtracting those points from the target number? If they still wanted to restrict it to batches of 3, well, ok, but still, directly applying it to the target number seems a lot more straight forward.

Skill training can reduce your difficulty by one or two steps as well. But instead of having “skilled or expert climber” and knowing that reduces climbinb difficulty by 1 or 2 steps, you could just have “climb +3 or climb +6” and add that to your roll directly.

It’s like this was all contorted to be different just for the sake of being different…. while at the same time losing a ton of granularity over a regular d20 system.

Cypher: The wall is climb difficulty 6.. ouch. Ok, so I am expert at climbing, so that’s -2, my gear gives me a step, that’s -1, and Bill will help belay me, that’s another -1, so difficulty 2, multiplied by 3 is 6 (rolls d20).

d20: The wall is climb difficulty 18.. ouch. Ok, so I am expert at climbinb, so that’s +6, my gear gives me +3, and Bill will help belay me, that’s another +3, so +12 (rolls d20)

Not sure I see the purpose… at least in d20 you can hand out +1 for small modifiers, or +4 for large if you want.

The Best Cyberpunk Games

There are a ton of Cyberpunk RPGs around, and for better or worse, they all have their own unique spin on the genre, as well as mostly unique rules. Most of these are available on DriveThruRPG as a pdf. Please pay for them if you want them, their authors spent a ton of time working on them.

The Heavyweights

These are the most well-known names in the cyberpunk genra

  • Shadowrun. If you want Cyberpunk + Magic, this is The Game. The rules are a bit wonky, but it’s the gorilla in the room for that genre. There’s a ton of editions, I played 3rd, which was ok. I’ve heard the latest versions (4th and 5th) are a bit messed up, but have not played them. There are a couple competitors - see Entromancy under In Development, and Karma in the Dark under New Age.

  • Cyberpunk 2020 is the grandfather of the genre. It’s pretty playable if you totally ignore netrunning (which you absolutely should). It’s very combat-focused and deadly, and uses its own special system of d10s. It is the original, and if you love cyberpunk, you should definitely play it a few times. The flavor in the writing is just awesome.

Far Future

Cyberpunk is traditionally a near future dystopia, but the themes all work just as well in a far future, and many recent games go this route.

  • Stars Without Number is a interesting sci-fi system based on old school D&D (aka OSR / Old School Rennaisance). It has an expansion called Polychrome that makes it cyberpunk-compatible. Its unique system lets you generate entire worlds for use with your game. Its base book is free (which is still like 200 pages), and has gotten pretty good reviews.
  • Eclipse Phase is a sci-fi space-faring RPG based on the Altered Carbon books (and later TV show). Everyone has a cortical stack that can let them jump between bodies, and death is rarely permanent. A bit too high tech for my tastes, and the cortical stack takes a lot of the fear out of death, which IMO is critical for Cyberpunk.

The Generics

I love universal systems in theory, because you can do anything, but in practice, the extra step required to translate in-game things into generic ruless is kind of an annoyance.

  • GURPS is a universal roleplaying system and has an explicit cyberpunk book.
  • Hero System is much the same and also has a Cyberpunk book (though it’s out of print).

New Age

These systems use more storytelling-driven systems that are significantly different for the players. Instead of rolling a shooting skill, you might roll to see what happens if you “Mix It Up”. As an old RPGer used to his straightforward skills as descriptions of concrete abilities, these are a bit too different from traditional roleplaying for me, but a lot of people love them.

  • The Sprawl and The Veil are two PbtA games, but very different in feel. They’re both less focused on combat than storytelling, so combat is pretty rules-light. The Sprawl is mission-based, which really divides the game down into bite-sized missions, which may be good for some people, but turned me off. The veil is very mental, existential, and explores emotions more than combat.
  • Remember Tomorrow is a rules-light system (I think it’s like 40 pages and half of that is just descriptions).
  • Technoir is another rules-light system based on applying adjectives and verbs and uses d6 dice pools.
  • Karma in the Dark is a free magic + cyberpunk rules-light system.

The New Traditionalists

These are the ones that most closely resemble traditional RPGs with a “near future cyberpunk” feel. This is the list I’d probaby look at to actually play myself.

  • Ultramodern 5 and Neuropasta make 5th edition D&D into a cyberpunk-able game. Neuropasta is a bit more shiny happy star trek style than most cyberpunk settings, which is a bit of a turn off for me.
  • Interface Zero is a newer title with the most crunchy system outside of Shadowrun (it has like 300 pages which is about half rules and half setting) with what seems like a good amount of money behind it. It has three versions - pathfinder, fate, and savage worlds, so you can pick the ruleset you prefer. I haven’t read through it much (mostly because it’s so big), but it seems like fairly standard cyberpunk, maybe a bit further into the future than some “near future” ones (there are androids and “new humans”). My main nitpick is they make anthropomorphic animals (think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) a standard race which is… just a bit much IMO.
  • Neomancer is a newly kickstartered standard cyberpunk feel with its own dice pool mechanic.

In Development

There are new RPGs coming out all the time, and that includes cyberpunk RPGs.

  • Entromancy is a novel and RPG work-in-progress. It’s the only competitor to Shadowrun’s magic + cyberpunk that I know of (and as far as I know, it’s not anywhere near ready to play). It has a (funded!) kickstarter that will finish up in September of 2018.

  • Cyberpunk Red is the new version of Cyberpunk 2020, which currently has no release date or website, but was very briefly mentioned by 2020’s author, Mike Pondsmith as being under development.

  • Identco is another near-future standard cyberpunk game that finished up a successful kickstarter in September 2017. The book is not yet available, as far as I can tell.

My Picks

If you haven’t played Cyberpunk 2020, I highly recommend it. Even if some things are wonky, it’s good to see the thing that launched an entire genre.

Interface Zero looks like a good modern option with good crunch.

Personally, I am not a fan of rules-light games, so if you’re into PbtA etc, you’ll have to make your own decision.

Shadowrun, obviously is the only choice for magic + cyberpunk right now, but it’s not really my thing (not that I’d say no if someone was running it).

Bad Ideas

A post on reddit (no, I’m not going to link to it) managed to cram three different truly bad campaign ideas into one player, and I figured this would be a good subject to write on.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of really bad ideas that you should absolutely avoid in your campaign.

Evil Parties / PCs

Everyone eventually thinks they want to run a badass evil PC, or maybe all the players decide they want to run an all-evil party. This is a recipe for disaster for all but the best groups. Why? Because the whole foundation of D&D is predicated on the party trusting one another and working together. The party has to stay together, or there’s no game. The game is about the party. And if people are betraying each other left and right, the players themselves will realize there’s no logical reason for the party to stay together, and the game will just end with the dissolution of the party.

It can work if the players take a long view of their characters’ relationships and the benefits they’ll get from sticking with the party… but too often immature players will go for the short-sighted, stab-everyone-in-the-back (whether figuratively or literally) and make off with the loot.

The best way to avoid this is to just have a standing rule about no evil PCs. I’ve found that it’s often good to extend that rule to Chaotic Neutral PCs, since that also often indicates the character will be selfish with no regard for the rest of the party.

The Betrayer

For some reason, it’s very common for one person in the party to want to betray everyone else. Often this goes with the evil PC, as above, but it doesn’t have to. Again, this comes down the core principle of D&D in that your party has to work together and trust each other, or the game falls apart. The problem with betraying the party is that you’re betraying the players, too. The players invest all this time and effort in the party, they’ve worked hard to build trust between the characters, and then that is just torn away. It can cause real-life arguments and fighting. It’s just not worth it. If someone comes to you wanting to have a PC that will betray the party, just say no. If you really want to try it out, discuss it with the rest of the players first. Yes, this spoils the surprise, but if it keeps everyone friends at the end of the night, that’s worth it.

Telling PCs How to Feel

A DM should never ever tell a player how their character feels. You can try to evoke emotion through your descriptions of the world, but you should never say “you feel scared”. Because the player is going to immediately say, or a least think “The hell I do!” Players need to feel like they have control over their characters. And there’s nothing more intimate about a character than what they think and feel. Unless there is some magical compulsion affecting their emotions, you should only describe what the characters experience with their senses, and let the player decide how their character reacts. And even magical compulsion should be avoided in all but the rarest of occasions, because players hate it. Most players would prefer their character be knocked out than forced to run away in fear.

This applies to normal social interactions, as well (though it’s less severe if you get it wrong). Instead of saying “you believe what she’s saying”, instead say “she sounds like she’s telling the truth”. The difference is that one instructs the character how to feel, and the other gives the player information from the character’s senses.

PC vs. PC Social Skills

The above also applies to PC vs. PC interaction. Social skill mechanics should never be used between PCs. One PC should never be allowed to roll a persuasion check to convince the other PC to do something. This is the same as telling the player how their character feels, except that it’s even worse, because it’s not the DM, it’s another player doing it. If one PC wants to convince another PC of something, they have to roleplay it out, or at least talk to the other player and try to convince them the old fashioned way. Same goes for lying or hiding things from another player. You can’t just have a PC roll and say it works. The tricked player will hate it, because the player knows what’s going on, and you’re taking away their ability to decide how their character would react.

Love, Lust, and Romance

Often times, players want their character to fall in love, either with an NPC or with another PC. This is generally a bad idea, because the game is not really built to support it, and it takes many people out of the comfort zone. If all the players are heavy roleplayers, then it can work, but you need to discuss it ahead of time. Most players do not come to the table with the maturity to describe how they woo a partner. This goes triple for PC to PC interaction. If any player wants to roleplay a romantic or sexual relationship with another PC, you must get the other player’s consent before allowing it in the game. Otherwise it can make players extremely uncomfortable.

Usually, it’s best just to avoid these situations. There’s plenty to do in D&D without talking about sex or romance.

World Names

I had an interesting thought about naming things today. I had a name I liked for my planet (Athos), but a crappy name for the continent where my campaign takes place (Loroth). And it occurred to me that I don’t actually need a name for the planet. Our own planet doesn’t really have a name. The Earth just means “the dirt”… i.e., this thing right here that we’re all standing on. Just like there’s no name for our local star, it’s just “The Sun”. There’s no real name for it, because there’s only one. You don’t need a name for something unless it’s to disambiguate it from others. Similar “the moon”.

So I used my world name for my continent, and just removed the reference to the world. Since this is a fantasy campaign, there’s no space travel, and the people on the world probably wouldn’t have a name for the planet. It’s not something they really talk about… if they did, it would just be “the world”. It doesn’t need a name, there’s only one.

Notably, if you have two moons or two suns, all of a sudden, you need names, because there’s more than one, and you need to differentiate. I don’t know if that would ever be the case for planets. Maybe in a binary planet system, but that’s really just like a moon. Unless you can go there, it’s still just a rock in the sky, and therefore easily differentiable from this rock you’re standing on.