Laying Out Your Adventure on a Budget

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This post is a little late, partly because it became longer than I anticipated it being and partly because I simply ran out of energy this week. I’ve since edited it down to reduce rambling, so it’s actually not all that long now, but anyway. It’s here now, and that’s the important bit.

This was a hard post to write. I’m not a teacher. I have no idea how much use this is going to be, whether it’s condescending and really simple or else it assumes too much and glosses over things that seem obvious to me but aren’t. If any of that is true, I apologise.

If it’s not obvious from the title of this post (and it really, really should be) today we’ll be taking a look at how you can lay out a product that looks professional without much of a budget. Please don’t take this post as a tutorial, or as a set of instructions. As with the rest of these posts, this is simply me showing you what I personally do to get the most from the tools that I have. Hopefully it’s of use to you and will give you some ideas about how you might be able to achieve the results you want, but it’s not intended to be definitive by any means. (What I mean by that, mostly, is that I’m only going to talk about the programs that I use. If you don’t have access to them and want specific tips about how to do things in the programs you do have, I’m not going to be able to help.)

With Bulette Storm I set out to do something new, to set out a proof of concept for how RPG modules could be published. That was a very cheap adventure to put together, too – all it cost me was some stock art, my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, and a metric shit-ton of time – but a lot of people pointed out that not everybody has that amount of time to throw into production, and that not everybody has access to Adobe products (or the time to learn how to use them if they do have access to them).

I can sympathise wholly. When I released Bulette Storm I was only working 2 or 3 days a week. I had a ton of free time to spend on producing that adventure. Now, though, I’m woking 42 hours a week on top of doing this stuff, so that free time is massively reduced.

My aim with Breaker of Chains has been to prove that you don’t need expensive tools to make a product that looks good (though I’m only talking about the internals, here. Cover art is not in the remit of this post). I wanted to typeset this adventure entirely in Word, a program that – as far as I’m aware – most people have access to. (I’m also pretty sure you could do all of this in Libre Office, too – but as I said a few paragraphs ago, I don’t use that program and don’t know anything about it, so I can’t say for sure).

I mostly succeeded in that. I ended up making my own page background (and one half-part art background) in Photoshop and Illustrator because I didn’t like any of the stock ones I found (and I can put together something of a tutorial for doing that for a future post, if there’s an interest in it), and I reused the table of contents from Bulette Storm over the new background because I wanted to get the damn thing finished, frankly. That required InDesign, but you can put together a table of contents in Word fairly easily. (There are ways to get Word to generate your ToC for you automatically, but I haven’t done it for a long time and I’m not going to try and talk you through it. I do mine manually simply because of the way that I put together my PDFs once everything is ready, which I’ll talk about shortly. It’s not an optimal or efficient way of working. I’m aware of that.)

But anyway, enough introducing. Let’s get to the meat.

The Meat

I’ll start by showing you what the inside of Breaker of Chains looks like.

Ignoring the fact that if you want you make your own page backgrounds – or do half-page art like that first page – you’re going to need some kind of image editor (if you can’t afford Photoshop – and fair enough if you can’t – GIMP will let you do both of those things for free, but you’ll have to learn how), that layout was entirely put together in Word.

The document started out looking like this:

The first page in the final layout was only added in once I’d done most of the layout, so for now ignore it. What you’re looking at here is the content from page 2 to somewhere on page 4 of the finalised layout. I didn’t have a separate typesetting document that I flowed the text into afterwards (like you’d do in something like InDesign). The bare manuscript in this image became the laid out final product in the first image.

Most of it is really basic stuff, and I’m not going to condescend to you by explaining it too thoroughly. I’m just going to cover the key thing you need to know about to start getting good results, and a few RPG-specific cases like good looking text boxes and sidebars.

The first thing to do, obviously, is to change your page layout to two columns. After that, almost everything else is going to be done with Paragraph Styles.

I’m using Word 2010. In this version of Word, the Paragraph Styles box is located here:

Become good friends with it. You’re going to use it a lot.

Defining styles is really simple. Highlight some text that you want to define – say, a title – and make it look the way you want it to look by changing things like the font, the size, the colour, whether it’s bold, whatever. Then simply click the “Save Selection as a New Quick Style” button (or the equivalent in your version of Word – a quick trip to Google will help if you’re not sure) and bam, you’re done. From there on out, whenever you want something to look like that, you simply select the text you want (or simply put the cursor inside the paragraph) and click the corresponding style button to apply it.

The printable version of Breaker of Chains is, for all intents a purposes, a Word document that is split into columns and has paragraph styles attached. There’s nothing really clever going on.

For your main text, there are a couple of useful features hidden inside the Styles menu. If you right-click on one of your styles and click “Modify”, you’ll be greeted by this dialogue:

From here you’ve got full control over every aspect of that style. And for your main body text, take note of the “Style for following paragraph” option. If you want to indent the first line of all your paragraphs except the first one, for example, this is where you’ll need to be. You simply define two different styles – I call mine “First Paragraph” and “Body Text”, inventively enough – and tell Word that “Body Text” should always follow “First Paragraph”, and you’re done.

But we’re not done. The really fun stuff lies under that button in the bottom left. The one that says “Format”. Clicking that will give you this:

Once you start playing around in those menus, you’ll soon find that you can do pretty much anything you want to your text.

When I’ve tried to typeset things in Word in the past and it’s come to making boxed text (for read aloud room descriptions, and things like that) I’ve almost instinctively tried to make them work by using tables. I’ll tell you this right now – don’t even bother trying. You can probably get something that looks good if you really try, but it’s not worth it for the simple fact that you’re going to have to mess around with each and every instance of boxed text in your document to get it to work well. And if it goes over a page or column break, you’re going to be in trouble.

That boxed text is a paragraph style. From the Format menu you can set things like the background colour and the borders. And because you’re using paragraph styles, you can modify an existing style and then save it as a new one. That means you can still use your First Paragraph and Body Text styles, but with added fanciness.

If you’re not doing anything too fancy, you can very quickly typeset your whole document simply by spending some time defining your styles and then methodically applying them to your document. At the end of it, you’ll have something that looks perfectly presentable. But there are a couple of other features I want to draw your attention to, things that will make life easier. And, of course, we need to talk about images – both inline images, and page backgrounds.

Give Me Something to Break

Sometimes you’re going to want to do something a little more complicated that two continuous columns.

The Breaks section gives you control over where text breaks on the page. Simple, right? So, for example, let’s say that you’ve reached the end of a chapter and want chapter 2 to start on the next page. You could achieve this by simply hammering Enter until you drop down a page, but if you then go back and add text to the first chapter you’re going to find that the beginning of the next section no longer lines up with the beginning of the page. If you instead add a Page Break there, then that section is always going to start on a new page.

This is useful for columns, too. There my come a time where you want to vary the number of columns used on different parts of your page. I did this on my Credits page:

The top third (ish) of the page is one column. Then it switches to three, back to one, two, then one. I could have done this with tables, too, but this way is much easier and much more flexible.

Take another look at the Breaks section. There’s an option there under Section Breaks called Continuous. This inserts a section break on the page without forcing the content that follows onto a new page. Each section can be formatted how you like, so you can have one section of 3 columns in the middle of two normal single column sections.

The problem – or the thing that seems to be a problem, until you know how to fix it – is that once you split your text into columns and start typing, you’ll keep filling the first column until you hit the bottom of the page, at which point you’ll jump back up to the start of the next column. That’s where the Column Break comes into play.

If you haven’t guessed already, a Column Break is to columns as a Page Break is to pages. Inserting one will force everything after that point into the next column. That’s how I got those three short columns to list my patrons.

Spend some time playing around with this. If your layout starts to break once you begin inserting inline images – and it will – you’re going to want to know how to use these options. It may feel crude at times, but you can make clever use of breaks to essentially brute force your layout back into line, and nobody looking at it will ever be the wiser. Unless you then write 3000 words on how you’re a hack who’s better at polishing turds than at making good, functional layouts, anyway. (Seriously, “I’ll fix it in post” is something I say unironically way too often).

Which brings us to the next part…


When I set out to typeset an adventure in Word, I was immediately worried about images. I’ve tried inserting images into documents in Word in the past with mixed results that leaned towards the crappy, and I wasn’t confident about how it would turn out. Luckily, I discovered that modern versions of Word have made some improvements with the way images are handled that helped dramatically.

First we’ll talk about the bit that I thought would be hard but was actually very easy. Then we’ll get to the surprisingly frustrating bit.

There are three instances of internal art in Breaker of Chains – one on the introduction page at the top of this post, one on the credits page I just talked about, and this one:

The choice to use very limited internal art was deliberate, because I simply didn’t want to have to deal with the hassle of it. When I’ve tried in the past I’ve found Word’s word wrapping options (that is, the way Word deals with flowing text around images) to be incredibly limited. That’s especially true when compared to something like InDesign. But those options have come a long way, and I was pleasantly surprised by how easy this step was.

The first image, the half page on the introduction, was a cheat really. That’s not an inline image but a background image (sort of – we’ll get to that). The illustration and the background are part of the same image, which I put together in Photoshop and then used as the background for a page split into two columns and then carefully edited until the text only filled the left hand column.

The chain devil illustration is an inline image though. What I discovered was that Word now allows you to edit the wrap points of an image. In the past, Word would use the size of the image as a boundary around which text wrapped. This meant that if you didn’t crop your image carefully you’d end up with big empty spaces above and below it. And if the image had a non-rectangular composition like the one I used, you’d have a really crappy time of trying to make text flow around it and still be attractive.

If you’re not exactly sure what I mean by that, look at the chain devil image again. See how the chain on the left extends into the left column? In older versions of Word, Word would essentially draw a box around the whole image with the left-most point – i.e. the tip of that chain – and the border, and wrap around that. That image would have broken my columns.

Now, though, that’s all changed. Right click on your image and you’ll see this menu:

In that submenu there’s an option called Edit Wrap Points, and that’s where the magic happens. You’ll see when I right click on the image that Word shows you the outer edges of the image. Those are where it wraps the text by default. But I can edit those points:

By shrinking that wrap area, I can reduce the white space on the page and make sure Word doesn’t try to wrap text in the left hand column around the image in the right column. I could even shrink it more to allow the image to sit slightly behind the text, or change the angles of each wrapping line to create an effect like this:

That style didn’t really work with that image, but with the right graphics it can work well, and now you can do it in Word.

This is something you should play around with, especially if you plan to use a lot of images in your product. Word does support transparency in images, so they’re not going to look weird once you add a background.

And that’s where we come to the bit I thought would be easy but that turned out to be frustrating.

Put Him Back In The Ground

I’ve known for a while that Word allows you to set an image as the background of a page, so I thought this would be straightforward. The option is here:

Once you click that, you get this dialogue:

See that tab on the far right? Guess what that does.

So, I thought it would be as simple as opening that up and picking the image I wanted to use. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. No matter what I tried to do, Word always made the background I was using huge. It wouldn’t really be a problem if I was just using a plain parchment texture or the like, since if would still look like a parchment texture. Unfortunately my background has boxes for the page number and bits of decoration, and they weren’t visible on the page at all.

Initially I thought that this was because I was using PNG images. PNGs don’t have any stored image dimensions in them, and some programs don’t play nice with them for that reason. But when I switched to jpgs – which do have the image size contained in the file – I continued to have the same problem, and that persisted even when i made the image incrementally smaller (both in dimensions and DPI). No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t get Word to play nice with my background.

In the end I cheated and inserted the backgrounds with Adobe Acrobat, but in writing this post I went back to Word and figured out a way to insert a background image. And it’s actually quite simple.

First, you’re going to want to insert a Header:

Then, insert an image into said Header:

You’re also going to want to click “More Layout Options” under the Position menu and set the image to wrap Below the text, leaving something like this:

Then, to make the image fill the whole page, simply extend the margins in the ruler at the top of the screen while you’re still in Header mode. This will only affect the margins for the Header. Then, resize your image:

Et voila. A background.

Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t experimented with this as much as I’d like to. The published version of Breaker of Chains has three different background images – the one I’ve used here, one for the title page, and one with the half page illustration. I’m pretty sure that you can set different Headers for different sections of a Word document. If you can, then that’s one way of achieving a similar effect. I know for a fact that you can have a different header on the first page of a document, so you can at least have a different background on your first page.

Again, I haven’t tested this, so I may be talking out of my ass here, but one obvious downside to the sections solution (if it is a solution) is that you may run into issues if you’ve used section breaks to do interesting things with columns. But, again, I haven’t actually tried this, so I don’t know.

In situations like this, though, I tend towards the brute force, hack it together method. If I was only using Word (i.e. I didn’t have Acrobat) and I wanted multiple different backgrounds but couldn’t figure out how to make Word play nice, I’d simply cheat. I’d save each page individually and manually insert the correct background to each page, export each page as a PDF, and then stitch them together with one of the many online PDF creation tools. It wouldn’t be quick, it wouldn’t be easy, but it would get the job done, and nobody would ever know I’d done it.

So, that’s all I’ve got for now. Hopefully this is of some use to you, even if it just shows you some of the things you might be able to do with Word (or makes you think that it’s far too much effort and you’ll just keep using the Homebrewery). Tomorrow I’ll be talking about actually uploading your finished product to the DMs Guild, along with a few tips for things to do post-release to maximise your sales. (I say tomorrow. It’s another long post with a lot of screenshots, so it may well be Saturday. I’ll do my best.)

In the meantime… well, Breaker of Chains is out. You should probably go buy a copy, if you haven’t already.

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