GTM #252 - Ptolus - City by the Spire
by Monte Cook Games



Ptolus: Making 672 Pages a Breeze to Use

When I set out to make the original version of Ptolus, I knew the book was going to be big, and that gave rise to some serious challenges. See, usability is one of my major concerns with anything I work on, because I want to know that people out there are really using the book in their games. Seeing my work on a game shelf doesn’t do anything for me, but seeing one of my books open on a game table makes me really happy. I knew that once a book crammed with information like this one gets past a few hundred pages, just a table of contents and (maybe) an index wouldn’t be enough to make it truly usable.

I looked at various game books, but didn’t find any good solutions—or really anything at all on the scale of Ptolus. Turning away from books in our industry, the solution became obvious: travel guidebooks. The people putting together wonderful series like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, DK Eyewitness Travel, and so forth were doing the kind of books I wanted Ptolus to be. It was just a matter of doing it for a fictional place (and adding in game info).

A lot of lessons came out of travel guides. Every double-page spread in Ptolus that describes a location (either in the city, within a building, or in the dungeons) includes the page number where a reader can find the map for the location. Every part of the book and every chapter within that part is color-coded to make it easy to flip through and find the right section. Small pieces of art are used as mnemonic devices to remind the reader of important characters. Symbols relating to each district, each type of location, and even the danger level of that location are used throughout.

Every important person, place, group, and item in Ptolus is cross-referenced. The term in the body text appears in a second color, alerting readers to look to the outer edge of the page where they can find a page reference for that term’s full description. Like a travel guidebook, this isn’t a book you have to start reading at the beginning if you don’t want to.

Lastly, although it’s not really a layout issue, I’d like to point out that the book has multiple indexes, subdivided into parts, including some that are annotated, making them more like complete glossaries of important characters and places. Plus, there’s an even larger, more comprehensive, searchable electronic index among the hundreds of pages of digital extras that go with the book. And there are four cloth ribbon bookmarks, and several cardstock bookmarks, and other aspects of the physical production that also help the GM make the most of the book.

All of that innovation and work (and it’s a lot of work to thoroughly organize almost 700 pages in this manner) paid off! Ptolus anticipates what a GM is going to need and provides it. It doesn’t just provide locations, NPCs, and scenarios, it also explains how the GM can make such things on his own, appropriate to the setting. From years of running an urban campaign, I know, for example, that the GM doesn’t just need pre-made locations, they need the ability to make up a new location on the spot—and fast. Ptolus helps with that. It provides encounters (either keyed to specific locations or to specific districts) that don’t just provide challenges, but convey flavor, verisimilitude, and the idea that it is a living, vibrant city full of people. In every way I could, I tried to make Ptolus not just a book, but a GM’s assistant.

I wasn’t just thinking about the GM, though. I also had the player in mind. And here’s the thing: It’s pretty unreasonable to expect every player at the table to purchase a $150 book—particularly when a lot of that book is “off limits” to everyone but the GM. So we also launched Ptolus with an inexpensive player’s guide. That lets everyone at the table immerse themselves in the world, have access to key Ptolus information, and create character concepts live and breath in the setting, all at a pretty modest cost. And we’re doing this—in fact, all of the things I’ve just talked about—with the new versions of Ptolus that come out this spring.

A lot of this won’t be news to modern gamers. We’ve used callouts in the sidebar, heavy cross-referencing, thoughtful page design and similar navigation aids in every Numenera and Cypher System book we’ve published at Monte Cook Games. (And we do player’s guides for our key brands, too.) That’s all a legacy of Ptolus—we invented that method then, and it worked so well I’ve continued to use it since. There’s no place, though, where it’s worked as wonderfully, and been so particularly useful to the GM, as in Ptolus. 

With over 30 years at it, Monte Cook has the longest continuous game design career in RPGs. He’s worked on hundreds of products, including as a codesigner of D&D 3rd Edition, and designer of Heroclix, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Ptolus, Arcana Evolved, Numenera, the Cypher System, and so much more, including a number of Planescape products, Call of Cthulhu d20, Monte Cook’s World of Darkness, a whole bunch of d20 stuff, and—going way back—products for Rolemaster and Champions. He’s also an accomplished fiction and nonfiction author. He’s a founder, and the Creative Director, at Monte Cook Games.