Monday, 24 July 2017

Designing your PDF: Part 2

In my last post, I asked the community: Which one should I try for: InDesign, Scribus or Web? I got some great response, and I think the results really pushed me to look into several options I was not aware of (thanks team!)

The Results to the Question:

I'm going to assume you've read Part 1, where I compare Scribus, Indesign and a small test of what Web with @page can do, and follow on from my questions. Then I'll revisit my original relevant points in the 3 main areas I looked at, and discuss my research results and how I think this may/can/will benefit myself and maybe other Indie RPG writers.

1. Can I create  graphical Templates

Yes, but No. You can data merge in InDesign, but can you data merge twice in the same document from two different XMLs? Can you layer your images in a data merge? I'm getting an InDesign friend to look into this. The generic answer seems to be "Make it in a separate document, then import.. which defeats one of the aspects/needs I'll flesh out later on in this blog.

1.b. Can I create Multi-layered Image files? and can they be in Templates?

Multi-layered Images is hard, and getting them just right is harder, Scribus and InDesign both have some semblance of this, but if you want to edit it after the fact, it does seem rather tedious.. maybe that's why we pay Designers, to sit there are do a lot of tedious pixel perfect manipulations.. maybe I can bypass this, See further on my thoughts..

2. Can I Dynamically change the backgrounds?

Yes, but not simple, would require a decent ammount of setup time and learning before the first version would be available.

3. Can I add a "blood stain' effect to some of the books,?

Yes, but No.. Again, hand crafting, one by one, yes, with a few weeks fiddling with each page, OR a few weeks fiddling with the data-merge into template system, but that asks the question.. can I data merge one background, behind the data merge of the foreground.. Which is a no.. A Template is created once, and each page uses that template to create each page from the data merge, so the blood stain would need to be built into the data-marge, or not at all.

Figure 1. The Example to Show
Looking at this example: Parchment colour, ink stains (could be blood) double stripe in red, Text and Character Image. Imagine doing this more than 3-4 times.. imagine 50 times or 500 times? Now imagine you need to change the colour of that red line 12 times, and change the stain graphic 12 times.. I got a general quote for around $1500 for such a job. at my hourly rate, that's a fortnight approx of work. I think I can write a webpage to do that in far less than a fortnight.

So, How 'COULD" I use XML Data Merge for InDesign?

If I wrote each page as an XML document, and each structure was built into the same template, like a dynamic web page already does, then I declared each bit to be toggled by the XML, then yes.. 

What that means for the layman, who for some reason is reading this, I would have to declare the blood stain location in the template for all pages, then toggle it in the XML to true or false, and if true, set its width, height and opacity, all by hand. Next, I'd be setting each page to tell me what kind of page it is, i.e. title page / text block / table / creature stat block. and ALL of those parts would need to be declared in the one single template. Sounds a bit messy to me.

Is it worth it? ... Not Really, For every hour I spend learning InDesign, or for every hour I pay a designer to do this tedium for me, I am asking myself, is this worth it.. and what if, 3 months down the track, just before printing, the printer says, the alignment is off, and I need to re-size these 3 pixels smaller. 

All the Advice, wrapped up into a paragraph or three

As I Stated before, InDesign and Scribus are, to some extent, scriptable. There are tools that some have made available online, there are aspects which are semi-pre-written. There is a learning curve to any and all of that.
There are several other tools, FOP, LaTeX, Serif, ReportLab or PDFSharp. Again, learning curve, which is going to do the job best, and how far along will I turn back with new knowledge that it cannot do whats needed and will fail me.

And if I'm going to program a PDF anyway, I may as well either use FPDF (PHP PDF Creator) or the Angular Web Test that I made before I started these last two blogs.

Except for one, small, issue.. do I want the PDF to be Electronically enabled. i.e. contents pages, click links to jump to pages in the book, or is this a pure print only PDF.

Current Test Results & Logic for Web

I Work in Web, Angular-JS, I've worked on a few large and small projects and its likely to be my career for the next few years at least. None of the above tools will be, so learning them, using them and finding all their bugs and issues will only be useful for this one single project, and I don't know if I mentioned it before, if I'm going to do something, I want it to benefit me more than once.

So, I took my Test Web-page PDF Creator for a spin, I looked up a few RPG books, had a look at their layouts, and realized one interesting thing.. No-one is able to / has tried to / is doing, what I thought they were all doing.. except maybe D&D. They have the money to pay designers to get their pages looking very schmik, no-one else does.

I'm going to go make up a few pages with my new tool, I'm going to try to do what D&D has done with their books, and I'll post a third blog about the results. Once done, I'm going to contact some designers (any volunteers?) to make up a similar page (I'll supply the images & numbers) and we'll compare the time taken, and results. but as it stands, I honestly think, this is a tool that doesn't exist right now. i.e. a PDF creation tool for RPG writers to make up clean, interesting and professional looking PDFs without paying $50 a month and spending months learning, just to save you some time and or money getting a professional to do, when you don't even have an audience yet.

I have 4 main page concepts for now "Object Page" which has a title, and something, such as an image. Typically this might be a page for chapters or just the front title page, but also, full page art, maps, etc. "Text + Object" pages, all text can (if you want) have its own sub-title and a 'thing' can be added to the page, such as an image or table, that the text will wrap around, so the image can have dominance. Tables can fit nicely into the text section if you want. "Specific" pages, which for me, is an NPC stat page for my test, has a very specific layout to set the text, values, etc, plus a main image and background images. This can be used for NPCs or Monsters for now, but with a tweak I can add locations (such as taverns/dungeon rooms) and such. Lastly are "stat blocks" or repeatable elements, I've use them for character backgrounds, weapon stats, shopping lists. The interesting part so far is the idea that the table for these items, is built BY the system, so you don't need to write up a table, just nominate the table you want, and the columns you need in it. All items in your whole book could be declared in one file, the you just designate them sections, and the PDF creator can do the rest.

I've opened a Patreon, Its set at a modest $1, While I will work on this for myself, and freely give out ideas on doing it for yourself, I don't want freeloaders snatching my code and selling it to others, and want people to have a sense of ownership if they contribute. So if you think you might have a page need, that I might too need, that doesn't match one of the 4 above, then lets work on that. Patreons can test it as I write it, and any feedback will become tasks that i can improve it with, so users can benefit from my tool.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Careful what you say you may ruins someones play.

This blog goes into a few different topics, I'll try to break it up with headings.Mostly its about GMing

Pro GMs Chatting with Casual GMs

Sometimes when your talking to someone that seems to understand what your saying, is on the same page as you, you might get a bit deeper into the topic, but if the other person wasn't really there on the same page, and they have a different world view on the topic, your deeper thoughts can trigger negative thoughts. 

I belong to several RPG chat groups. Its quite common to engage in discussions about new rules. Its as common to me that people pull the strings of rules to see if they are knotted well, or robust enough, so that players won't pull said strings in the middle of the game.

When describing how the players can or might pull at the strings, examples are given.

So, when I saw a fellow community member mention a new rule, I did what I thought was normal and pulled some of the strings of the rule, presenting ways in which a player or a situation could ruin the rule.

Instead I offended the guy, he got extremely defensive of his rule, politely attacked me and when I apologised, politely slapped my face. I was of course miffed, I had too late realised it was a public post, not a group post, so I was likely jumping into his realm and just rambling on about his rule having holes.

Facepalm: Meaning, Oh, Oh sorry, I made a mistake, my bad.. lets look at this differently.

Player Agency: This was my point in the pulling of strings. And brevity was my downfall.
I have often forgotten that I'm not thinking about things like others do, and I often don't want to write a paragraph of explanation to get people onto the same page as myself. So I'll often not bother, but when I think that I'm talking to a fellow games master / games designer, I just jump straight in, and I'll talk at the person, like they know exactly what I'm talking about. which often gets mis-interpreted.

Gamesmastering is not simple or easy

Case in point: Story Telling is an Art, not just in that its artistic, but that it requires an artist, to get it right. One key factor that many casual GMs will quote "its just a game". The problem is that regardless if they think its a game or not, Its also an exercise of the mind, it teaches us things, about ourselves, our players, and the world in which we live.

If you present your players with a cliff, and they talk about how to scale UP this cliff, they spend minutes talking about pitons, rope, how far up is it, your players are engaing in player agency, you've given them a chance to shine, for them to solve the problem in a creative way. Do they have pitons, do they have rope, does anyone have the climb skill, do we have spells that can break the laws of gravity, can we go around? Is there anyone nearby that can supply us with tools for scaling? should we actual scale it? is it a good idea. The discussion of how to solve the problem is players engaging in the game. Its part and parcel of roleplay.

You know what it also does? it teaches players, regardless if you want it to or not, it teaches them to be creative in their ability to solve problems. It makes them better people.

Its one of the reasons why Roleplay IS such a great medium. The Agency of creative thought.
Two ways you can destroy this part of a roleplay experience, either directly or indirectly, is to take away this agency, the players choice in what solution should they use. Because players will often, if not always, take the path of least resistance.

The First, is why the above disagreement happened: Give players an out. Give them the choice to teleport the simple material objects, pitons and rope, to their characters, without any consequence.

If players can, teleport or retroactively buy components, tools, arrows and the like directly to their character, they will always do so. No need to ask around town before leaving, 'what kind of terrain will we cross' and pre-buy the goods needed, No need to worry about packmules for the goods, nor the path chosen, to get to the quest, not even a care, if the character steps on a weight based trap.. his back pack is now empty, but later, it'll be retroactively full, breaking the immersion of the game.. 

The Second, slightly less common, is when the solution is so impossible to solve, that the players, having 0 agency in the situation can only give up, a frustrated GM can't understand why the players can't see the forest for the trees, and the frustrated players can't understand how the GM can think they CAN see the forest, since they're in a desert.

As an example, back at our cliff, no material objects and the instructions clearly say they need to walk this direction, but the players are being chased by a dragon. They cannot think how to solve it, the GM keeps saying he's given them all the hints, and yet the dragon arrives, the GM has to fudge the encounter (the players gain too much XP and become OP for the rest of the campaign) change the plot (the big nasty dragon is actually goblins in disguise, but if that's so.. then how did the goblins manage to enact all those creature powers & fly & breathe fire?) or stick to the reality and kill off the party with a single flame of the dragon.

Face Palm.

The GM points out after killing off the players, that they needed to 'walk' up the cliff, its enchanted. The quote "walk this direction" was so obvious.. was it not? 

Well, unless the players had ANY experience that walking up the side of the cliff was even possible.. this is 0 agency.. they can't make the choice, because they can't foresee it being possible.

The Problem is that Casual GMs might see that arriving at the cliff without pre-purchasing pitons and rope, as 0 player agency, so giving them a retroactive purchase seems like a good idea.

But its not. because you made the choice for the players: You will need equipment, I want you to use equipment, but I know you won't buy the right stuff, so I'll let you buy it retroactively. you took away their agency.
Player Agency, Don't take away choices
I had a player, who wove elven nets into his clothes, and carried a ball of string. He'd tie objects to his body as A) access easy items and B) crude armour. When in town, he'd buy up sets of things that he felt were needed by the group. often he was asked "why are you buying a fishing hook? we're going to a dungeon!

I had another player who would guide the group on regular outings to find rare and curious material components for spell casting. Each and every time, he'd end up with something curious, and as often as not, the group would encounter some creature, guarding its lair or out hunting or protecting its territory. Not often so horrible, but always a welcome side quest, with XP.

Another player, loved to try out different woods to craft arrows, sharpening his skills as a fletcher. At one point he managed to craft a masterwork redwood sapling arrow with a crystal holder head, allowing a crystal of ice to create his +6 distance +3 armour penetration +6 ice damage arrow , which helped take down a malicious fire demon. 

If I played any of those games where arrows, spell components or mundane equipment and or backpack arrangement was cast to the side by the game or the GM, those players would not still be talking about those events, to this day.

Player Agency allows players to choose to create interesting games, They can do things, without needing to change the plot or rules or interfere with the world building.

Yet.. for all that's said and done.. players need choice.. so if your players are new.. get them used to the nitty gritty to start with, get them experienced with how it 'can' be done.. then after 5-10 sessions, let them relax on those rules, and present them with faster approaches to do the same thing.

in Dungeonworld, we have a thing called "down time" between adventures, Its done instantaneously for us, but takes weeks in game: Often while the warrior is healing, the mage gathers components, the rogue brews up potions, the archer crafts arrows and the merchant straps all these crazy things to his next set of armour.. Facepalm. 

Friday, 14 July 2017

InDesign, Scribus or Web?

I've reached the point where its time to start putting together the final book designs, and I hit a wall. Publisher Layout.

Which One to start using? InDesign, Scribus or Web

Google Docs was great and all for writing the whole bunch of rules into various folders and chapters and such, I even managed to get a simplistic 'mail-merge' to take my 600 background professions and divy them up into strutures readable by users to choose/have chosen for them, their backgrounds. This meant that I didn't have to hand write each and every one. But it does mean I have to design each and every one.. right?

I Spent maybe 4 weekends with two of my help team (Christian & Rory) sorting through this massive list of backgrounds that needed to be tabulated and filtered into the 12 different background tables.

So now I have the stats for 600 backgrounds. I can pull those stats into a table, but the table can't take a background image, or multiple background images, and pull it all together properly. Google docs is more limited than word doc..

I Asked a graphic designer, possible? and got the reply.. Um, No? but maybe their company had never dealt with such a request.

but maybe does everything

So I started research.. InDesign, I use here as a catch-all for the "free to try, Pay by the month" kind of tools. There is a learning curve, there might be aspects of the tool I want to use, locked behind a paywall, So I gotta ask myself. is it worth the 2-4 months of learning and the $6-$60 a month membership, to be able to create the PDF just exactly so? It Better!
Learning Curve,
 might have blockers

Next, Scribus. Or all the free tools many can do everything that InDesign does, but free. Sometimes that mostly just means its harder to find tutorials or stack-exchange articles on how to do it. My real concern is that  it has less functionality.. Should I waste 4 months of learning, just to discover that it can't do what I need also?

Comfort, Ability?
Likelyhood of working?
And lastly, Web Technology.. I recently played around with the @page feature. Turns out I can make a PDF from data. Images,Gradients, positioning, all the bits and pieces I need, I just need to write it all, by hand.. (which I can do)

So I'm sitting at this point, wondering.. Which path will I go down.. what pitfalls await me, what blockages will force me to try different angles or paths or variants, and will it be acceptable to take those variants, instead of doing exactly what I want.

If you're reading this and saying.. In Design/Scribus for the Win, then I have to ask the vitally important questions:

1. Can I create a multi-layered graphical template for a 5th of the page, each element relying on data from a CSV or better yet JSON object, that will tell each template how to react, i.e. top margin 2px, top border 1px wide, red, solid, gradient, over a parchment background, with a choice of semi-transparent images of either blood, magic or burn marks, (again, based on the Data), positioning of 24 numbers, with different titles on each, and some dice symbols (either as imported fonts or graphics). With alternative, left side/right side for the text, and have 4,5 or 6 of them appear per page. With the caveat that I have a parent object true/false flag that I can toggle at any point and print only the true flagged ones for the final PDF? (incase my test runs prove that having a street thief and a beggar are too similar and I drop one, and replace it with peddler) so all I need to do is change the flags true/false and press print.

An Example of the Above:
Grabbed from Google, but represents half of what I'm talking about.

2. Can I dynamically change the background image per page, to my page numbers have a ticking clock behind each, so my reader can 'flip' book through the pages and see the clock ticking? and if I decide later to change the 'time' I can do so simply, and the whole book updates?

3. Can I nominate a transparent image to be present on each page, and alter it based on maths, to get a little larger, spread and position differently.. but drop it if need be without having to do anything other than click a box "Add blood stains".

Because, so far, my research suggests that none of this is done easily.. it would be painful to set up, create and test, chewing up any time saving from having to just position each time once at the very end of the creative process, and hope that I don't need to change it later.