OVA at MechaCon

If you’re an anime fan in the New Orleans area, you probably know all about MechaCon. Should the promise of panels, events, special guests, and legions of cosplayers descending on the Big Easy not ensure your attendance, you’ll have one more reason to go: Wise Turtle and MechaCon are teaming up!

As the official RPG of MechaCon, OVA will power campaigns and content featuring their GEARE Universe. While much of this won’t kick off until next year’s convention, you can still drop by and pick up a copy of OVA and take in the sights and sounds of a bit of Japan in our part of the beautiful South.


Sword Art Online — Levels Are Just Numbers

Ever since I watched .hack//SIGN over a decade ago, I have been in love with the idea of setting stories in the context of MMORPGs. I think it’s the coexistence of two worlds, of the real and the digital one, that immediately gives layers to every character, a bit of mystery and secrecy of the person behind the computer screen. Too, the way the “rules” of the online world are tangible and exact things, how they’re presented as a sort of setting-building that makes no apologies or excuses. Or maybe it’s just because it legitimizes a passion for video games in a tale of rousing adventure.

But there’s never really been much like .hack since, leaving the entire concept a lonely and untapped genre. It’s especially conspicuous when you consider that MMO games are exponentially more relevant than they were in the early 2000s. So when I first heard about Sword Art Online, I was determined to watch it. The hook alone is pretty arresting, with thousands of so-called VRMMO players not just trapped within the game, but faced with the stark reality that dying in the virtual world also means death in the real one! Still, I had a few reservations. On the surface, SAO had the makings of yet another teenage male wish-fulfillment story, the kind where a normal geeky guy’s skill at video games makes him a hero and nets him the girl. I was prepared for that being pretty much all I got out of the show, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Dual Wield That’s because SAO is dedicated making the game world more than just window dressing. While its collection of rules and concepts are not always objectively sound if presented in a “real” MMORPG, Sword Art Online weaves its unique brand of video game logic through every layer of the narrative. Whether it’s the ebb and flow of its gorgeously animated, adrenaline-pumping battles and PvP duels, the fulfillment of quest lines and their requisite rare drops, or an entire episode devoted to a murder mystery wherein the culprit seemingly breaks the laws of SAO’s reality, the show never lets you forget that the world of Aincrad is part of a game. Even the protagonist, Kirito, has much of his golden-boy power and plot invulnerability explained by his previous experience as a beta tester. It’s great fun, and this exploration of the game itself is a piece of the puzzle .hack//SIGN glossed over in its version of the stuck in a video game tale.

But for all its mechanics and RPG trappings, the first arc of SAO is as much about relationships as it is the crossing of swords. While it is a love story, describing it as just another teenage romance sells it short. It’s about forging friendships and family, coping with death and loss, and finding a way to exist in the violent digital world that has become reality for the thousands of players trapped in Aincrad.

(12) And Asuna, the show’s requisite waifu for Kirito, far exceeds such a label. That’s because Asuna is more than a damsel backdrop for Kirito to show off his mettle. If anything, Asuna carries the show. While Kirito has his beta test experience and a few convenient plot abilities to fall back on, Asuna’s aptitude at the game was tempered in the game itself. She is on the front-lines despite not knowing the road ahead, and it is through her own conviction and power that the day is saved at critical moments throughout the show’s first story arc.

But it’s for all these reasons SAO’s second story arc “Fairy Dance” seems to fall short. The game that was so intrinsically tied to the narrative has become more of an afterthought, relegated to the weak PvP structure of Alfheim Online and a few beats dedicated to the new flying mechanics. Asuna, for all her agency in the first arc, has become little more than a princess to rescue. And with Kirito logging into a new MMO where the “you die in the game, you die in real life” hook is gone, most of the dramatic tension evaporates.

Overfly That’s not to say the second arc is bad. It’s perfectly watchable, and despite fan outrage that I largely chalk up to “She’s not Asuna,” Sugaha/Leafa is cute and likeable. It just doesn’t deliver on the promise exhibited in the earlier episodes, instead falling hook, line, and sinker into the mire of expectations it so expertly cast off before.


It’s easy to look at a show like SAO and want to apply a traditional level-based system to it and recreate the countless mechanical minutia that make up the VRMMO—but such granularity is rarely warranted. The mechanics are more of a narrative device than anything any character concretely follows. For example, Kirito’s passive regen ability is mentioned for exactly one sequence and never acknowledged again. Representing that Ability, if you really wanted to, can be treated as Armored, Barrier, or one of many other Abilities, since its only effect was to prevent receiving damage from his would-be PKers.

(217) Unsurprisingly, level too can be treated with much broader strokes. Instead of incrementing a multi-digit number one-by-one, characters instead receive a much more abstract Level Bonus, ranging from +0 (for the newbie rif-raff) to +5 (for the top tier, maxed out heroes of the story.) This Bonus applies to every action the character does. However in contested rolls, characters’ Level Bonuses will cancel each other out. Should a Level Bonus +3 character attempt to attack a Level Bonus +2 character, the effective bonus is only +1. And so on.


One of the more unique mechanics presented in Sword Art Online is the “Switch” technique that all characters have access to. Despite being the core strategy for winning a handful of seemingly unwinnable battles, it is never really fully explained (and seems to behave entirely differently in the video games based on the anime.) Yet, it inspired me to at least give my impression of how it would work in OVA.

In addition to the usual complications in OVA, campaigns based on Sword Art Online feature another: the Flinch complication. As the name would suggest, the state is short and fleeting, not lasting until the opponent’s next turn but existing only in the brief moment in time it is inflicted. The exact effect differs depending on the opponent. Some enemies with seeming impenetrable armor will briefly reveal weaknesses, losing their Armored bonus. Others will let down their guard, eliminating their Defense Roll. Whatever the circumstances, there is revealed a brief window of opportunity.

(341) This Flinch complication is inflicted in one of two ways: One is by dealing any other combat complication, which will also inflict the Flinched status. The other is reserved for enemies with large, heavy-hitting weapons or attacks. If they should ever attack a character but deal no damage, they are immediately put into the Flinched state.

To take advantage of the Flinched complication, characters mustSwitch with an ally. By giving up their next action, the ally character may act immediately, garnering what benefits are to be had from their briefly Flinching opponent. Once two characters switch, neither character may do so again until their next active turn. But in this way, even the toughest enemies may fall!


So, readers, if you were to find yourself unable to log out of an online game, which one would you want it to be? Or for a more realistic question, what online video game do you really wish there were a tabletop RPG version of?


Puella Magi Madoka Magica—My Very Best Friend

More than many series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica thrives on its world-shattering reveals, twists, and surprises, all of which come heavy and often. If you haven’t watched, but you’re thinking about it and somehow have avoided spoilers of its numerous plot doozies, here’s what you need to know: Madoka is an attempt to capture the darker realities of what being a magical girl entails—the risks, pressures, and responsibilities of having that power at such an inexperienced, impressionable age. That, and it is a show with so many helpings of moé—that amorphous Japanese ideal of cute—that anyone without at least a marginal taste for it will likely choke to death.

Though it’s not a journey without faults, among them a terribly slow start and some thin characterization here and there, Madoka succeeds where it counts, providing a deeply touching, often grim story many have wanted from the genre for a long time. And even if its deconstruction of magical girl tropes doesn’t tug at your heart strings as much as it did mine, the ethereal visuals backed by Yuki Kajiura’s extraordinary, choral-infused soundtrack are worth experiencing by themselves.

Sayaka While I am loath to do any major spoiling in my overview here, I think it is a testament to the show that for all its turnarounds and revelations, it holds up to repeat viewings and—dare I say—is possibly better for it. Motivations that seemed arcane before are clear, and countless details unnoticeable the first time around are scattered throughout the narrative. And for all its slow pacing for the early part of the show, Madoka sets up what will be its biggest strength: The show really isn’t about Madoka at all. When you discover the heart of the matter, every frame becomes a cherished part of the whole.

Put short, watch it. Even if its themes don’t resonate with you, I would be hard-pressed to believe that something, somewhere doesn’t grab you and refuse to let go.

Madoka Magica and OVA

To discuss representing the concepts of Madoka Magica in OVA without giving much of its plot away is impossible, so read onward at your own risk. Here there be spoiling dragons.


Making the Contract

To become a magical girl, a young girl must make a contract with Kyubey. In exchange for committing their lives in the service of fighting witches, they are granted a single wish. The nature of this wish has a direct effect on the powers of a magical girl. As we see in the show, wishing for the healing of her friend grants Sayaka the power of quick-healing. Homura wanting to go back in time has given her mastery over time itself, and so on. You should consider the wish and its potential carefully when making your character.

Besides the powers that are a consequence of the wish, magical girls tend to all have a basic set of Abilities, though at differing degrees depending on their potential:

  • Attack (Weapon of Choice)
  • Dimensional Pocket
  • Magic, Arcane

Magical Girls also possess telepathy, allowing them to communicate freely with each other, Kyubey, and even normal humans without actually speaking. This is not the same as Psychic, since they cannot actually read thoughts that aren’t deliberated exchanged, nor is there any possibility to influence the thoughts of others.


The Soul Gem

After becoming a magical girl, a character’s soul is removed from her body and encapsulated in a glowing egg called the soul gem. This is to protect the soul against the rigors of battle and to divide the character’s consciousness from the body in order to withstand the great pain fighting witches and their ilk can bring—something a conventionally mortal soul could not endure. Because of its small size and magical properties, the soul gem is relatively safe from harm, and while it remains intact, the magical girl cannot die.

However, Soul Gems can be broken. Should a character receive an attack of Damage equal to their maximum Health total, the gem is shattered and the character dies. It is also possible to target a magical girl’s soul gem directly, but few are aware of its secret (including witches) to take advantage of this.

Death Because a magical girl’s soul lies within her gem, and the human body has become merely a shell for action, should the distance between the body and the gem grow too far, the ability to control the body is lost and it becomes effectively dead. As long as they are reunited, the magical girl can continue on as before, but if they are not…



In addition to Health and Endurance, every Magical Girl has a special third total called Despair. However, instead of starting at a number and being reduced, Despair begins at zero and counts up. As the title suggests, Despair represents a magical girl’s inevitable decline to becoming a witch, but it is also the source of one of a magical girl’s greatest strengths: the ability to go beyond the limitations of Health and Endurance. At any time, characters may choose to add to Despair instead of reducing Health or Endurance. This effectively makes it possible to avoid the penalty from zeroing out one total or the other, and it also allows a magical girl to keep on fighting well beyond what would be possible otherwise. It is even possible for a magical girl to persevere without remaining Health and Endurance at all, as long as they are willing to increase their Despair. If both Health and Endurance are reduced to zero, apply a –2 penalty to all actions.

As Despair increases, the taint of a magical girl’s soul gem becomes more pronounced until it becomes entirely black, at which point it shatters and becomes a grief seed—the core of any witch. Once Despair has reached 40, magical girls must make a roll against succumbing to the overwhelming grief every time they choose to add to the Despair total. The difficulty number is equal to the tens digit of Despair. So a magical girl who has reached a Despair of 65 would roll against a difficulty of 6. 120 would be a DN of 12. And so on. Players may add Iron-Willed and other appropriate Abilities when making this roll. Likewise, Weak-Willed will prove a detriment. Once this roll is failed, the magical girl is doomed to become a witch. While exchanging dialog with other player characters or performing a few more minor actions is possible, when the plot permits, the character is lost to the world and turns to darkness.


Despair and Grief In addition to willingly increasing it, a character’s Despair may increase due to circumstances.

  • 5 Distressing (A close battle, a heated argument.)
  • 10 Depressing (Breaking up with a friend, realizing a core truth of being a magical girl.)
  • 20 Devastating (The death of a friend or loved one.)

Despair and Time Even if a character should avoid making use of despair, the simple state of being a magical girl will taint the soul gem with time. At the beginning of every adventure after the first (presumably the one where the character made their contract) add 5 to the Despair total.


Reducing Despair There is only one way to shed Despair and return light to one’s soul gem, and that is by defeating witches and making use of their Grief Seed. The efficacy of this seed depends on the strength of the Witch—which in turn depends on the amount of Despair that the Witch had before it was transformed from magical girl. Using a grief seed removes an amount of Despair equal to half the total of the fallen magical girl it derives from.

Of course, these rules derive from the world as presented in the majority of the TV series. If you wish to set a game in the aftermath of the final episode, or even during the movie Rebellion, you will need to make some adjustments.



Erased—A Town Where Only I Am Missing

It’ll come as no surprise that I love anime. I wrote the (RPG) book on it, after all, and my twitter feed full of anime-style artwork is verification enough. But at the same time, so much anime I watch feels like it has qualifiers, excuses that need to be made to fully and heart-feltly recommend. “This show is great if you don’t mind the fanservice,” or “You have to check your brain at the door, but it’s an amazing ride.” That’s not to diss these things, as sometimes you just want brainless fanservice action romps, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But every once in a while, an anime like Erased comes along, and it really reminds me what a great show can be. A show that is good without any buts. A show that’s just good, really.

In Erased, Satoru is an aspiring manga artist and part-time pizza delivery man, seeming to rather listlessly make his way through life. But soon we discover that Satoru is far more than ordinary, as he possesses the strange ability he dubs “Revival.” When something horrible is about to occur, his body involuntarily jumps to moments before in time, giving him a second chance to notice what is awry and do his best to set it right.

Erased It’s an intriguing premise on its own, but when the death of someone close to Satoru results in him being framed for the crime, Revival kicks into overdrive and send him all the way back to 1988—to his childhood days where he and his classmates experience the abduction and death of fellow students. As an adult-minded Satoru relives his youth, he realizes that these murders may be the source of his misfortune in the present, perhaps the origin of everything, and he sets out to change the future.

If this power, this mystery, were the only things Erased had going for it, it would still be a great show. But every frame is brimming with tiny details. Cameras lovingly pan over home-cooked meals, shoes slipping off to reveal hole-y toed socks, and moths fluttering about electric lights. It’s easy to refer to these things, these vignettes into the everyday, as pleasing but unnecessary, but such words couldn’t be a bigger disservice. It’s these minutia that really bring home Satoru’s reliving of his past. As an adult, these things that are so fleeting and inconsequential to a child are so much more to his adult self, and Erased does well to give them this nostalgic gravitas.

Erased-Dinner This especially true since Satoru’s success in changing the future has as much to do with changing his relationships in the past as it does his detective work. His efforts to keep Kayo, the serial killer’s first victim, from being vulnerable and alone develop into much more, as they each discover the truth in each other and the insecurities he didn’t fully understand as a child. It’s not just Kayo, either, as Satoru reaches out and makes deeper, more profound connections with his core circle of friends, eventually enlisting them on his quest to thwart the dismal future.

Erased-PalmOfTheHand The show deftly juggles the murder mystery and everyday life, Satoru’s past and present, and spans of calm and drama in a way that neither ever outlives its welcome. It’s a mixture that thrives on each other, and the show’s pacing perfectly sets up the conclusion in a way that imminently satisfying. That’s not to say the show is without faults. One of the main antagonist’s characterization is embarrassingly thin; even the serial killer that serves as the catalyst for the entire story isn’t much better. But that’s okay, because the story isn’t really about them. It isn’t really even about the murder mystery. It’s about people treating each other with kindness, learning to see past the failings of ourselves and others, past the barriers we erect around us. And connect.

Because we don’t have to be alone.


Erased and OVA

Erased isn’t the sort of over-the-top high-octane show that lends itself to a bunch of new rules. The show is a framework to display, trite though it might sound, the power of friendship, and the best way to do that is load up your characters with Weaknesses that lend themselves to isolation and Abilities that they can use to help pull each other out of their self-imposed cages (or the cages imposed by others). Of course, there is one facet of Erased that begs to have a few rules applied to it, and that is Satoru’s “Revival.” Though later on it’s used almost solely as a plot device to send Satoru to his past, as presented in the early episodes, it’s the sort of Ability that could really find use in all kinds of adventurous campaigns.

Erased-Revival Revival—Time does not flow smoothly for you. When great misfortune, harm, or other danger happens around you, your life’s clock rewinds a few precious seconds, giving you a second chance to notice what has gone wrong. This awareness is not automatic, as you only know that you have jumped back into the past, not the exact reason for it. The greater your level in Revival, the more time your character rewinds backward, giving you longer to assess the situation and act upon it. Add your Revival Dice to any actions you manage to take during the span of time that you repeat. If you can’t discover the reason for the Revival (with Abilities like Perceptive or Sixth Sense) or act on them in time, the Revival and its Bonus dice end.

So that’s it for Erased! I plan to keep doing this for anime I watch, so let me know if you have a favorite you’d like to appear on the blog in the comments!


Ruling the Rules

Those of you who happen to have a copy of OVA’s first edition might remember its afterword, wherein I described my early adventures in RPG design and an epiphany concerning how to make OVA not only better, but different from any RPG that had come before: by dropping hard-coded stats from the game.

But it wasn’t the first RPG to do that. Not quite anyway. I’d later discover that characters being made up of customizable traits instead of a preset array of attributes had been done by Ross’s RISUS and before that by Tweet’s Over the Edge. They’re not quite the same of course—OVA goes so far as to define a vast collection of its Abilities and Weaknesses (making up the longest chapter in the book), while both of the aforementioned titles are far more freeform affairs.

But even so, it was a big step for quote-unquote anime RPGs, and considering how grounded I was in the RPGs of the 80s and 90s, it was still a big step for me. When I approached the new revised edition of my game I wanted to do my best to keep my eyes open for similar evolutions in its design.

Something that was important to me in the original OVA was not to punish players for being “cool.” My favorite example of this is the protagonist of Cowboy Bebop, Spike Spiegel. Again and again throughout the series, Spike is shown to be a skilled martial artist and marksman. This is a build that simply doesn’t work in many RPGs because it requires putting points into two usually separate skills, hand-to-hand and guns. What little versatility is offered by training in both is quickly overshadowed by the limited resource of build points—a character can only be half as good in two areas as they could be in one.

SpikeSpiegel But Spike isn’t just sort of good at both, he’s great. And if you couldn’t create Spike with ease in OVA, then that’s as much of a litmus test as anything. With that in mind, I condensed every combat skill into an Ability called, well, Combat Skill. With one attribute, your character was adept at attacking, whatever form that takes. Sure, it flies in the face of most RPG design that routinely compartmentalize such things, but it just made things so much easier. You could still just do one thing, of course, but if you ever wanted to branch out, you weren’t punished for it.

But the original OVA still didn’t eliminate the issue. While your ability to hit your opponent was sufficiently simplified, there were still several Abilities to cover actually doing damage. Martial Arts increased damage barehanded, Weapon gave you a weapon, and Power Move let you create a suite of special attacks that dealt even more damage but burned Endurance. It’s a system that worked, but you were still faced with paying more points to build Spike. You had to buy Martial Arts and Weapon—and arguably Power Move to boot.

So I made the single most drastic change between the editions of OVA, I condensed all the damage-increasing Abilities into one called Attack, just as I had with Combat Skill years before. While this did solve the Spike Spiegel issue deftly, probably the biggest boon from this was that it rolled the idea behind Power Move into an Ability that allowed every character to create a suite of attack moves. Whereas before it was limited to flashy energy blasts and the like, now every strike could be its own separate technique. Samurais could swap between offensive styles, ninjas could throw in a sweep kick in their repertoire, and, yes, Spike could mix up gunplay and really swanky fisticuffs. It’s a system that just works for recreating the cinematic style of combat. Moreover, because all Attack represented was your capacity to dish out damage, characters could literally describe these attacks as anything they want at any time. Want to smash a chair over an opponent’s head or stomp a loose plank into their groin? Use your Attack level without worrying about calculating the actual damage of these impromptu weapons. Characters do this all the time in action anime, but it’s typically very hard to recreate in an RPG. No longer!

ova-attack While this was easily the most gratifying change to OVA, there’s a vast variety of additions and improvements that I’m also fond of. The original game’s “knockback” was split into three separate combat complications, giving more tactical options to the otherwise streamlined rules. Looking at these, I realized that I could take the same concept and apply them outside of combat, and Succeeding with Complications was born. While I won’t be foolhardy enough to claim this is an entirely new idea (Fate, if nothing else, pushes the “fail forward” concept hard), I’m really please with how neatly it fits into OVA and brings combat and out-of-combat closer together thematically.

Scale was another useful addition, making it really simple to represent vast differences in ability. Need to have a mecha and a battleship go toe-to-toe? You can do that. How about a plucky Pokémon trainer and a tank? Sure, why not. The bout between mere martial artist and a Super-Saiyan martial artist? Faster than you can say, “ His power level is over NINE-THOUSAAAAND!” It’s all represented by a +5 bonus, and it just makes what can be really difficult in other RPGs quick and fun.

Besides that, I focused on consistency, consistency, consistency. Whenever a rule didn’t have a compelling reason to behave differently than other rules, I changed it so that it no longer did. Not only does this make concepts easier to remember, it creates a reliable foundation for hacking the system to do new things. (This happens a lot over at the Wise Turtle Forums.)

And that’s it for three-part my retrospective of OVA! How about you, readers? Do you have a particular favorite addition to the revised game? Or perhaps you remember a houserule for another RPG that you thought was really novel? Let me know in the comments!



Art and Soul

Being a game about anime, art was always an important facet of OVA to me. When I made the original book, I did my best to overcome my inexperience and lack of budget to fill it with illustrations that appealed to the Japanese conventions I admired. I enlisted the help of numerous artists, among them friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in the quest to illustrate my first RPG. And when there was no one else, I even took to illustrating a few pictures myself.

But I wanted more than just random pieces of art featuring equally random saucer-eyed teenagers, presented to the reader without context. I wanted to create a cast of characters, an entourage of affable faces that exhibited the tropes and themes that resonated with anime fans and could be recognized from page to page. They were like friends, helpful guides that would make that one special power or rules concept something tangible. You can see it in action and know how it works because, hey, that character uses it!

To this end, the first character I created for OVA was everyone’s favorite mechanical maiden with a human heart, Miho. She distilled everything I felt encompassed anime in one place, from her wild-colored hair, to the contrast of her robotic nature and human emotions, to—yes—a certain lack of aptitude in the culinary arts. Unsurprisingly, Miho is also the focus of some of the oldest art I have for the book. While her concept has always been more or less the same, you can see in Kelly Hamilton’s initial design sketches that she was once much more robotic than her final design! MihoSketches The military-inspired uniform makes its first appearance here and was used for her final design. This iconic ensemble would go on to be featured (more or less) in the revised game, despite the fact that most other character designs changed completely.

But with all the different artists, the original OVA was a bit scattered in terms of style. The second time around, I wanted OVA to have a cohesive look, to feel like a single anime series as it were. So I decided to have all the work done by one artist: Niko Geyer. If you’ve played a certain other anime role-playing game, you may recognize his work, but we’ve been friends for decades (even did a webcomic once upon a time). While many illustrations are brand new, quite a few favorites were remade.

ova-artcomparison Oh, and if you’re wondering about my illustrations mentioned earlier, here’s a final comparison featuring everyone’s favorite copper, Jiro.

ova-artcomparison2 Slight improvement, right?

So who is you favorite character from OVA? What about your favorite piece of art from the revised book? Feel free to click on this post and leave a comment below!


There and Back Again

It’s been eleven years since I released OVA. More than a decade. It’s a span of time that simultaneously feels endlessly long and impossibly short. It’s a time in which things have changed. RPG PDFs, once a niche undertaking that only some took advantage of, are now the type of product almost every serious RPG maker releases. These same PDFs exist not on just computers, but on incredible machines touted about in pockets and backpacks, portable digital libraries that was the stuff of science fiction when OVA first came out. These same devices connect us more than ever before, with more ways to share, reshare, and discover. We consume media differently, with the very anime OVA is inspired by available at the click of a button and ready to watch any time, anywhere.

I’m different too. A little older of course, but hopefully a little wiser and a little more adept at making these curious games called RPGs. It’s this accumulation of knowledge that helped make the new revised edition of OVA possible. I’ve learned a lot in these years, and I put every bit of it into the game. So the passing of yet another anniversary seemed as good an excuse as any to visit the differences between the book I made then and the one available now. So here is my three-part look at OVA, old and new! First up, let’s look at the graphic design.

When I created the original OVA, I was not a graphic designer. I always had an interest in it; countless hours spent collecting fonts, designing character sheets, and a few two many greeting cards created in Print Shop Deluxe were testament enough to that. But it wasn’t something I was really cognizant of being a thing. Yet I knew there was more to making a book than typing into Microsoft Word a coherent series of thoughts and hoping for the best. I taught myself about layouts and dpis, of leading and bleed, and the Byzantine puzzles that made up Quark, and somehow made it happen.

Since then, I’ve abandoned Quark for InDesign, and at least partially mastered its own idiosyncrasies. I have been a part of dozens of books, board games, and other projects. Put succinctly, I got better. What did that mean for the new version of OVA? Let’s take a look by comparing a spread from both versions.

OVA-OldSpread OVA-NewSpread I chose this set of pages because it’s one of the few spreads that remained effectively identical between the versions with text and art placement. I think it demonstrates the difference a bit of experience makes pretty well! There’s a lot of things I could point out here, but here’s some of the biggest points of advice I can share.

Give the Layout Room to Breathe

If you look in the original book, the text is butted up to the edge of pretty much everything. The text in the note boxes practically touch the black outline of its container. Even outside of these constraints, you’ll see text struggle against large areas of artwork, almost dwarfed entirely by the sheer proximity. Economy is taught as a virtue, but for the sake of a pleasant reading experience, don’t be afraid to give the text a little room to breathe. If you plan for your book to appear in print, that means giving it some birth in the center margin as well, just so it’s not lost in the spine of your book.

It’s also okay for some areas of the page to just be blank. In the old design almost every square inch of the page has some graphical element. Again, the idea that “more is better and nothing is bad” is a phallacy you should take out of your design vocabulary right away. Compare to the new header and footer, blank except for a dotted line. (Trivia: InDesign refers to this particular dot size/pattern as “Japanese Dots.” Pretty apropos, right?)

Treat the Text with Respect

Just like arranging the elements of a page is more than just slapping words together, rendering the text itself is something that deserves your consideration. Taking the time to learn a bit about good typography is a subtle but indispensable tool in your arsenal if you plan to typeset your own books. There’s lots of great books on the subject (including Robert Bringhurst’s classic, and software independent, Elements of Typographic Style), but here’s a quick and dirty list of some of the most important things I’ve learned over the years. Just do me a favor and don’t point out how many of these mistakes appear in the old book!

  • Excise bad typographical habits. We’ve all heard things like “double-space after periods.” …Don’t do it. It’s a throwback to the days of the typewriter and has no place in your manuscript. Likewise, replace trios of periods with proper ellipsis characters (. . . vs. …), and learn the difference between the various dashes. A hyphen is not a catch-all, and using “- -”   in place of the appropriate dash is sloppy. And for those of you who use measurements in your games, the feet and inch marks are primes (″), not quotes (”).
  • Oh, you don’t want to google about dashes? To quickly summarize, a hyphen is the shortest (-), and the mark you’re most used to making. Its only use is compound words and breaking words at the end of lines in justified text. The en dash is debatably the width of an n (–), and should be used to indicate ranges of figures (2–4 oatmeal cookies). It also works as a minus sign before negative numbers (–2), thought technically there’s a dedicated symbol for that purpose if you want to get really nitpicky. Finally, the em dash is the longest (—). Use it for abrupt changes of thought—is anyone still reading this?—and for attributions. You can also use an en dash for changes of thought, but it needs spaces around – whereas the em dash does not.
  • Make sure your lines are not too long or too short. The optimal number of characters is around 60-70 per line (including spaces.) but you can swing as low as 40 and as high as 85 or so. The “Word Document” effect, where you just throw text full-width on letter-sized pages is both terribly unprofessional and just plain trying to read. Also consider increasing the leading (gap between lines) for longer lines to improve readability.
  • Don’t indent the first paragraph of a section. It’s unnecessary and tends to look choppy after headings, which RPGs love to use a lot of.
  • Don’t just use a series of carriage returns to separate lines. If you have a list of items in a row, consider bullet points or increased leading between the lines. Full line skips feels gappy at best and lazy at worst.
  • Use proper italics. Good typefaces will have dedicated fonts to represent emphasis, with it usually taking a cursive-like appearance. It is not just the upright font slanted, which is a butchery that should be stopped.
  • Don’t be afraid to mix serif (typefaces with little “feet” like Times New Roman) and sans serif (typefaces sans these feet like Helvetica/Arial). Used in a consistent manner, it can help give different types of text (like OVA’s note and example boxes) their own character and further individualize them from the surrounding text. While I stuck with serif for the body of OVA, it’s perfectly possible to set a book entirely in a sans serif typeface. Just print out a page and make sure it feels comfortable to read at length.
  • If you use InDesign, turn on Optical Alignment in the Story panel. This allows punctuation and other small marks to hang outside the margin and give a much more pleasing edge to your paragraphs when justified. You can thank me later.
  • Last but not least, customize your justification and hyphenation settings. Most of the settings out of the box just aren’t that great. I’ve included a screenshot of some of my preferred settings below. There are lots of great articles on what these numbers mean, but this should help you a bit.


Learn From the Best

While absorbing tips and guidelines is well and good, one of the main ways to improve your book layouts is by reading. Look at your favorite, most beautiful books. Study them. See what they did right. Don’t be afraid to look outside of RPGs for inspiration. Video game advertisements, cookbooks, and even that 99 cent app you downloaded yesterday can all feature valuable lessons in design. Just always keep your eyes open. OVA took a page from the manga that inspired it, adopting the A5 form factor over the more traditional 6″×9″.

That’s it for now. Come back next time for when I look at the evolution of OVA’s art and its characters.

25 Years of GAME BOY
Graphic Design

Happy Birthday, Game Boy!

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the venerable Game Boy console. Despite its pokey processor and unbacklit monochrome screen, I’ll always remember the time I spent with it fondly. Whether I was climbing a mysterious tower in search of a fabled paradise in Final Fantasy Legend or tossing a pokeball at Mewtwo in Pokémon, the Game Boy always felt like a console that embraced its limitations instead of being bound by them.

So here’s to you, Game Boy! I’ll play a few 8-bit soundtracks on loop in your honor. I also made this info graphic—my first—to celebrate the occasion. For such an antiquated piece of technology, the Game Boy sure had staying power!

GameboyBy the way, if anyone’s curious what font Nintendo used for the Game Boy logo, it’s Gill Sans. I also used a font called Early Gameboy for the pixelly parts.