Introduction and Platform

Educator, visual designer, and self-described layout zealot. Clayton Notestine (He/Him/His) has consulted on multiple roleplaying game products as an expert in visual design and theory. His article “Layout and the Grid” has been widely featured by indie design circles and programs including The Storytelling Collective and Virginia Commonwealth University. His personal design work can be found in places like Script Change: a consent, content, and safety toolbox.

Outside of tabletop gaming, Clayton works at a design and branding studio as a verbal designer and advocate for autism awareness. He’s not working he teaches roleplaying games to creative professionals, plays fetch with his dog, and pretends to be a dwarf.

Why do you play/run RPGs?

Tabletop roleplaying games are a new medium. The practice of make believe is centuries old—but the craft of designing collaborative stories has been around for less than 75 years. I play roleplaying games to live harrowing, self-defining stories with others. As someone with autism, it can be difficult to find emotional connection with others, but roleplaying games are uniquely designed to do just that.

Now, I spend most of my time marveling at the way RPGs can create experiences through syntax, layout, and graphic design. Its quickly evolved into a hobby not unlike building a car or indie film—I love it for the craft as much as the actual consumer experience.

The ENNIES requires a major commitment of time and energy. What resources do you have that will help you discharge these responsibilities? Will your gaming group or other individuals be assisting you? Does your family support you?

My professional career is as a creative, which means I’m immensely comfortable with reviewing work. But in order to tackle the mountain of products, I’ll be setting aside  personal time on week nights to review work while my coworkers at the design studio provide coverage.

I normally teach roleplaying games to non-gamers, too, so I’ll be using them to collect unburdened, outsider feedback during playtests and demos. That’s how I review products without bringing in my experience from other games. I rarely play an RPG with the same 3 to 5 people twice.

More importantly, though, I’ll have the help of my beautiful partner and dog—who aside from the occasional dinner and hike are excited to see me pursue more design work.

Judging requires a great deal of critical thinking skills, communication with other judges, deadline management, organization, and storage space for the product received. What interests, experience, and skills do you bring that will make you a more effective judge?

Unlike some of my gaming colleagues, my experience in the tabletop industry has been almost solely on critical analysis. I consult on people’s work and teach people how to employ visual design principles in their work. This means my evaluations usually employ professional education and experience from outside the industry. Studies like information design, user theory, and UX are routinely employed in my work.

Naturally, though, critical thinking is only part of the equation. My real strength is communication. During my day job, I create and review work for clients like JetBlue Airlines, Harley-Davidson, Burger King, and more. My teammates usually expect me to “thread the needle” between the art directors, designers, and strategists. The whole job is incredibly stressful—with deadlines coming at you like laser beams—but I love it. With the ENnies, I hope to talk with other passionate people who are really different from me.

I’m a designer by religion. I have a masters degree in branding and copywriting with a specialty on experiential design. When I’m not playing roleplaying games, I go to design and typography conferences, talk about the Swiss design movement, or try to convince myself I like Bauhaus (someday I will)!

What styles and genres of RPGs do you enjoy most? Are there any styles or genres that you do not enjoy? Which games best exemplify what you like? Do you consider yourself a particular system’s, publisher’s, or genre’s “fanboy/fangirl/fanperson”?

I’m a person of two camps. I love the maximalist, copy-driven design of the OSR like the kind you find in Mausritter, but I prefer the gameplay loops and outcomes of story games like Wanderhome. Most of the products I play exhibit a little bit of both. I love the visual design and writing of Mörk Borg, the emotional resonance of Dialect, everything about Blades in the Dark, and I’m getting increasingly hyped about everything coming out of Brazil and SEA’s design culture.

As far as systems, Forged in the Dark, Powered by the Apocalypse, and Jay Dragon’s work are hard to beat. For writing, I have to say I’ve always been a fan of Pelgrane Press, but I’m growing increasingly infatuated with the punkish sensibilities of the lyrical game movement and late-stage OSR.

I started my roleplaying game journey with Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu and still regularly run campaigns in it, but I have a critical suspicion of the companies and their treatment of new creators, so while I might not consider myself a “fanperson” of any one game—I would consider myself one of traditional gaming’s biggest critics.

What games have you played in the past year? List up to 10 RPGs you have played the most. Which ones, if any, have you loved or hated?

In the last year my most played games are: Mörk Borg, Mausritter, Trophy Dark, Fiasco, The Magus, Necronautilus, Mothership, City of Mist, Dungeon’s & Dragons, and Trail of Cthulhu. I’ve really enjoyed most of them, but especially loved Mothership, City of Mist, and The Magus. Dungeon’s & Dragons’ recent adventures have felt like missed opportunities—they’re not learning from their nimbler, more diverse indie colleagues.

Briefly summarize the criteria you will use for judging products in the different categories.

My main criteria will be identifying a game’s intent, and then judging it on how well it executes the vision within a particular category. So, for example, if I’m judging something for Best Art, I want to know if the art is building upon the themes of the game or giving it added dimension. If the art is doing something I believe is counter to the product as a whole, I don’t think it can qualify for “best” no matter how polished or difficult the illustrations may be. At the end of the day, it’s about creativity and thoughtfulness more than it is about difficulty of execution or budget.

After that, I care about craft, originality, how it advances the gaming community, how it advances the gaming industry, and how fun it is to read and play (which is incredibly subjective since no game can appeal to everyone).

These different criteria should change priority from one category to another. For example, I think how a product impacts the community is more important for a podcast than maybe its craft which can quickly become an arms race of audio equipment.

How will you judge supplements or adventures for game systems whose core rules you are unfamiliar with or you believe are badly designed?

Great adventures and supplements elevate the game systems they’re in—good or bad.

If I’m not familiar with a game system or feel like the system is badly designed, I’ll try my best to re-educate myself about the system so I can see if the game is respecting the framework it’s operating in. Then, if the game feels like a part of that ecosystem, I’ll grade it like anything else with a mind for how well it accomplishes its goals.

If a adventure or supplement can make an unknown system exciting or make me want to love a system I don’t like—that’s a great sign.

How would you like to see the ENNIEs change? What should remain inviolate?

I’d like to see the ENnies continue to devalue the power of popularity as a criteria for success.

Popularity often has little to do with the product itself, and more to do with economic or social advantages. We’ve seen Chaosium and Wizards of the Coast release a new product and eclipse other games. It’s why white streamers often get more press for doing the same thing black streamers do. Or why a product wins in a category it doesn’t belong in.

The ENnies has been a lot better about ignoring popularity and I’d like to help shepherd critical analysis into its place, especially as new people enter the hobby.

BONUS: (optional) If you were an RPG, what would it be and would you play it?

I’d be a slimmed down version of City of Mist. Just as strange and compelling as the original with maybe a tad fewer options. And—yes—I’d play it in a heartbeat.