Mothership: Laying Out the PHB

April 23, 2018 game-design horror mothership sci-fi rpgs graphic-design

I’ve been working more on Mothership in an attempt to get a limited run of the Player’s Handbook done in time for Gen Con this year. I talked to Alan and I think we might be able to bring a hundred or so copies if the playtesting is solid.

The Guns page spreadThe Guns page spread

When I’m working on an RPG, most of the content exists in notebooks and in Notes documents on my phone until I think I have a good enough understanding of the game to move to layout. I like to move to layout as quickly as possible, because using the rulebook is such a huge part of how I run the game. My focus in design is in making a document that is super useable at the table - so layout is never far from my mind.

The spread above is a good example, in my docs I just started to make a list of weapons - and the easy thing to do would’ve been to make a table - which I probably will make for ease of reference. I spent a lot of time looking for better ways to do it, and one that struck my eye was this layout from the Japanese version of the Rules Cyclopedia:

An equipment spread from the Japanese version of the Rules CyclopediaAn equipment spread from the Japanese version of the Rules Cyclopedia

These image layouts aren’t super uncommon - but they aren’t as ubiquitous as I feel like they should be. Equipment is one of those things that PCs can easily daydream about - and particularly in a sci-fi game, I felt like the guns and weapons would need to pop. And again, instead of a block of text, having them be more like diagrams where you could easily find the big information (like damage) and then point out the special features with individual boxes. Again, this information should be summarized in an easy to access place (like the end papers) in a table format, for quick use during play - but for absorbing the information while reading the book, I really like this approach. (There was a version of this doc where the weapons fell exactly in the middle of the book, and in a zine format that also makes them incredibly easy to reference - if I can make this work in the final without forcing it, I’ll probably do that too).

A spread with some of the combat rulesA spread with some of the combat rules

Here’s another spread I like. Nothing too ingenious here, but taking some of Zak’s advice to turn diagrams into illustrations when you can - you get a little world-building and another piece of art out of a diagram that is mostly just there to be functional. That’s what I’m trying to do with the hit location table - nothing too fancy, and it could easily be done with a table - which is what most people do. But the goal here is to cram as much art as humanly possible into as small a space as possible, so that means some of the art has to do double duty as diagrams.

I’m also stealing Reynoldo’s idea from BREAK!! of just signposting all of my sections - though instead of within what chapter, I’m just using the page number since the book is so small as to not really have chapters at all. I’m basically trying to make every chapter” either a one page section, a two-page spread, or two two-page spreads. I’m putting the relevant information in the header (since Chapter titles aren’t that useful here, only what content is on the page).

Notes and example text is in the grey box, so that you can ignore it when you’re flipping through the book trying to find a rule, and also just because breaking up the wall of text helps people remember where they saw a thing and generally increases readability.

The spread for rules concerning panic and stressThe spread for rules concerning panic and stress

Okay, last one for now - I’m including this page because it shows what a table generally looks like. Nothing split in the column, nothing that flows to another page. Additionally, I’m adding these callouts in bubble text that remind players where other relevant information is. I probably don’t need the one on the left, since the relevant info is on the facing page - but the one on the right is important I think since that section isn’t for a few more pages. These will be a big part of blind-playtesting. I’ll be looking for feedback on what information was hard to find, or split up into the wrong sections and either reorganizing things or post better signposts for the information.

Evlyn’s art is so cute, but also totally captures how gross and terrifying some of these creature encounters should be.Evlyn’s art is so cute, but also totally captures how gross and terrifying some of these creature encounters should be.

On a final note - I got some art commissioned! Evlyn M put out a call on G+ for some low stress commissions. Incredibly affordably priced, the deal was you got a page of drawings based around a theme that you picked. I sent her the PHB doc in progress and she sent over a page of drawings (all the pieces separated out so I could move them around and make things like that group shot above, which was a huge plus)1. Long term plans for Mothership is to do zine-sized adventure modules where I can work with different artists and I’m super happy with Evlyn’s work, so I’m working to build a module around it. If you get a chance to work with her, you should nab it.

Some marines! One of them is using an Arbiter Pulse Rifle and the fallen one has an Arma 29 SMG, so cool!Some marines! One of them is using an Arbiter Pulse Rifle and the fallen one has an Arma 29 SMG, so cool!


  1. A super delightful thing, after I sent the doc over, I wasn’t expecting to see some of my suit and weapons designs pop up in Evlyn’s drawings. That really made me excited since I could start to envision the world of Mothership a little bit better, and what distinguishes it from say Star Wars, Traveller, or WH40k.



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