Monday, September 1 2003

Arcana Unreadable

Picked up a copy of Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed over the weekend, in case our group wanted to try it out sometime (D&D 3.5 went over like a lead balloon), and discovered that, while Monte may have learned a great deal from the rules mistakes in 3rd edition D&D, he has definitely not learned from the layout mistakes.

  1. the font is smaller, with a small x-height.
  2. the headers stand out less from the body text.
  3. the body font uses lower-case numbers (similar to web font Georgia, for those who aren’t up on type jargon) so they blend in with the surrounding words.
  4. new sections still start in the middle of a column, so you have to hunt for things like character types.
  5. the index, while comprehensive, is set in italic sans-serif, so it’s extremely hard to read.
  6. the index is also set with negative leading, so the page numbers in multi-line entries overlap slightly.

The only nice thing I can say compared to the WotC D&D books is that the page backgrounds aren’t crufted up with “spiffy” graphics, so you have black text on a white page. That high contrast, along with the generous leading, are all that saves it from complete unreadability. 3M Post-It Flags are all that can save it as a reference manual; you’ll never find anything quickly without them.

He does offer it as a PDF, which would be great if it weren’t for the tinyfonts. I suspect it would be quite readable blown up to fill a 20” widescreen display, but not on anything smaller. Blech.

Updates: I’ve found some more layout errors to be annoyed by.

The index is still high on my hit-list, because of the clumsy formatting. Sub-entries are indented, but entries long enough to line-wrap are not, making it difficult to skim down the page to find things. The use of italics also left them without a method of emphasis, so see-also entries look like (see “weapons”). There are also plenty of small typos in the index, which suggests it was built by hand; things like periods instead of commas between page numbers, and missing spaces after commas.

The book is set ragged-right, which is essential for the extremely narrow columns used in the spell descriptions, but I’m guessing their layout software defaulted to a very tight hyphenation zone, because there are a lot of lines broken at hyphens, more than there should be, I think.

I’m really, really annoyed at the way numbers are handled. D&D is built around numbers and formulas, and it’s essential to be able to find them in the text quickly and unambiguously. I know that lower-case or “old-style” numbers have a retro charm, and would be preferred in other contexts, but the whole point of using them is to prevent numbers from jumping off the page and catching the reader’s eye. The fact that they’re used in combination with incorrectly sized and misaligned mathematical symbols is just icing on the cake.

I’d continue, but I’m getting a headache again. I really need to pick up a full-page magnifying glass before I crack this thing open again.

Update: Just found a copy of his earlier book Requiem For A God, which uses substantially the same layout, with one critical difference. You guessed it, the font is larger. Line spacing is the same, which strongly suggests that the use of tinyfonts in AU was done solely to reduce the page count. Extremely disappointing, if true.