Eleven Questions about Layout in RPGs

March 16, 2019 mothership layout rpgs graphic_design

One of the big stumbling blocks people have with RPG design is layout, I’ve talked about not worrying about layout and instead focusing on content, but recently, Saker Tarsos asked me to go into a little more depth about how I approach layout and design. They collected questions from Dungeons & Possums and Discord User Galgorian and here we are.

1. What are the first steps an aspiring designer could take to achieve the unique blend of illustration, layout, and content present in Dead Planet?

First it’s important to decide who you’re designing for. A lot of RPG modules are designed under the assumption that someone is going to read them like a book cover-to-cover and it influences everything they do, from the way the write the module, to the kinds of art they commission, and most importantly to the way they lay things out. A cynical take on this practice would be that this actually is how 99% of people primarily act with RPG modules, as fiction, or inspiration for their games.

The person I imagine when I design a module is ordering pizza, answering questions about character creation, short on prep time, and waiting for half the group to show up. That’s me nine times out of ten. So I design books for that person, someone who doesn’t have time to look stuff up, highlight or prep” the module.

When you start thinking this way a lot of your previous graphic design instincts fall flat. Does white space matter? For a comfortable reading experience, absolutely. But we’re not trying to design a comfortable reading experience we’re trying to design something that someone can use while two players argue about whether to ambush or avoid The Thing In The Tunnel. And if you want that comfy fluffy white space to make the module both easy on the eyes and easy to run, you’re going to need to cut your keys down to the bone.

2. How did you manage the back-and-forth between writing, art, and design in Dead Planet?

Donn pitched the idea to me at Origins 2018 right after the stealth release of Mothership. We only printed up fifty copies and we had very little in the way of advertising. The general crowd at the Tuesday Knight Games booth is social, casual, party gamers. That’s who we design games for primarily. We didn’t know if people would take to a sci-fi horror rpg from us because its so far outside our wheelhouse. But a whole new kind of gamer game up and started requesting Mothership by name, either for themselves or for friends back home who had heard about it online. The number one question we got asked was Is there a module for this that I can run?” Nobody wanted just a system.

So we wanted to get something out by Gen Con, six weeks away. Donn and I started texting ideas about what it could be, and at that point Fiona Geist was a fully integrated developer on the team, so we brought her in as well. We broadly staked out territory: Donn would do the Alexis and the planet below, I would do the moon colony, and Fiona would write the Red Tower and 100 Nightmares. Fiona and I would work on the generators together. We shared a group google doc that everyone poured into and I started on layout from the beginning because its fun for me and I feel like I’m really working on the thing itself.

Everyone would drop in their notes, then I would draw up a map, or paint an NPC and say can this guy be this?” Jarret Crader, our series editor, was on hand as well, spurring us on with inspirational music (Google Moon Colony Bloodbath + The Mountain Goats and you’ll find a lot of the inspiration for the module right there) and keeping everything moving. Fiona worked on punching up all of our skeletal ideas and really fleshing them out. I don’t think there’s a sentence she didn’t touch or carve in some way. She also found Stephen Wilson who did the best pieces of art in the book and brought him on.

We only had six weeks, so we stepped on each other’s toes a lot, but we were hungry and always at the edge of our ability. I think the module is better for it.

3. In what order did the team tackle layout, art, writing, and editing in Dead Planet?

It was all mixed in together because of time. Near the end some text was written directly in InDesign, as opposed to in the google doc. There just wasn’t time to write our dream content” and then see if it would fit. It needed to fit the first time. The more distinct your phases are (layout, art, writing, editing) the cleaner organizationally you are, but the harder it is to get that unique blend where the art is feeding into the layout and the text isn’t just text, it’s diagrams etc. You can get there, you just need to make sure by the time everything gets to the graphic designer (which is usually at the end), they have the authority to bounce something back to the writers and say, This doesn’t fit in the key. Can we just make this a diagram? An illustration would be better here instead of description, etc.”

4. You bring a combination of art and design skills to the table. What is your advice for someone who has experience in only one of these two fields, but aspires to make something on the level of Dead Planet?

The software part is easy, just grab anything (I’m doing the art for A Pound of Flesh in MS Paint) and get started. YouTube tutorials for anything you don’t understand or hit me up. Get a blank piece of computer paper and sketch out how the layout will flow. You’ll be tempted to make a template and just flow your text into it like a novel — resist that temptation. Instead, for every discrete section (dungeon level, NPC spread, overworld map, or rules chapter) ask yourself What is the best way to get this information across so that it’s easy to parse, comprehend, and retain at the table?” It’s okay to stretch yourself and see what you’re good at. And its okay to learn that you’re not good at something and bring someone on who is good. Know what you’re bringing to the table. I bring layout to the table, I’m a competent writer, and I’m an okay artist. The first thing you’ll want to replace of mine is the art. Next is probably the writing, and last is the graphic design. Fiona and Donn have their own strengths and weaknesses. We try to play our positions as best we can and learn from the people working next to us.

5. What are your personal Dos and Don’ts of Layout and Typography, respectively?

Can this text be bullet points? Can these bullet points be a table? Can this table be a diagram? Can this diagram be an illustration? I’m not the best teacher on typography, but almost everything I learned about the basics of typography comes from Butterick’s Practical Typography. My other do’s and dont’s are:

6. Were there any commonly-held rules/advice for layout and typography that you broke in order to make Dead Planet more functional?

If people have a complaint about Mothership in the layout department it’s that the text is too small or that there’s white text on black. We used more fonts than a lot of designers would use right now. The biggest rule is: make it useful or beautiful. Everything else can be broken in service of those two rules.

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

William Morris

7. How do you decide what content to cut, and what content to keep?

You have to trust your gut. Stephen King would say Kill your darlings.” There will be sections you like but distract, or descriptions that you think are clever but are too long. Cut those. The goal isn’t to be clever, the goal is to be fun. Because I design in spreads, occasionally I’ll get into a situation where I’ll have a single page free. This happened in the Mothership Player’s Survival Guide. I had basically a page leftover and I had to decide what I wanted to put in there. I had rules for asteroid mining written up, but they were going to take a spread minimum. I wanted to keep the Mercenaries section because it was the only section in the book that would give you even a hint as to how to write a monster. Ultimately I ended up putting in a page about survival rules (running out of oxygen, food, and water). It wasn’t my preference, but I didn’t want to add four more pages to the book either. We’ll get em next time.

8. What is your ideal ratio of text/tables/images in a module?

There isn’t a universal ideal, only a contextual one. But I’d start with as much art as you possibly can, and when you can’t possibly explain the module without a map, add a map, and when that’s not enough add a table, and as an absolute last resort, write it. Everyone else does the opposite. Zig where they’re zagging.

9. What program do you use for vector art, and are there any tips you can give to newbies trying to use vector art in their modules?

I use Illustrator and it’s counter intuitive if you grew up using a raster program like Photoshop. I learned how to use it by watching YouTube tutorials and by doing projects that required it. If I didn’t have to learn illustrator because my manufacturer required me to create a die-cut line using vectors, I probably wouldn’t have. I was laying out ads for Mage Wars in Photoshop and it was taking forever. The first program takes years to learn. The second takes months. The third takes days. Just jump in.

10. What tips do you have for using layout and typography to give a module a sci-fi feel?

Sci-fi is great for RPG design because User Interfaces (UI) are an inherent part of sci-fi in a way that they aren’t in fantasy. In fantasy the most common UI theme is illuminated manuscripts and tomes. Everyone wants things to look like old books, because that’s all we’ve got. In sci-fi you have every piece of real or imagined software to pull from. So read Typeset in the Future and go and do likewise.

11. If you had the chance to do Dead Planet again, what are some things you would have done differently?

We will do Dead Planet again, once we make the move to hardcover. We’ll get a better artist for the creature art and we’ll add an entire section about what happens if you actually go through the gate on the Dead Planet. I’m incredibly sad I didn’t get to put that section in. As well as find a way to simplify the derelict ship generation process. My players love making me roll up random ships at the table and I’m getting sick of doing it.

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