33 Comments

  1. yeh right
    June 30, 2017 @ 11:57 am

    1000s of words so that you can sell your new adventure. WHy is anybody taking this seriously?

    Reply

    • loottheroom
      July 1, 2017 @ 1:00 am

      The adventure that I’m giving away for free? Very perceptive of you.

      Reply

  2. Thomas
    June 30, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

    What a great peek behind the curtain, here.

    I don’t create content for DM’s Guild/DriveThru RPG/etc., but I have a modicum of design knowledge and I create a lot of materials for my own use. Matt Sanders hits on a lot of valid points in his quote, but one reason I’ve used The Homebrewery in the past is so I can deliberately create visual continuity with the official WotC materials.

    Why might I want to do that? Well, I have an entire binder of materials that are meant for my players during character creation or leveling up. New Warlock patrons, extra feats, and the like. Some part of me likes to convey that these options I’m presenting them are in no way “less than” the official options in the PHB.

    That said, I do have a sort of style guide for adventure modules, tables, and other materials that only I’ll ever see. It’s utilitarian, designed for ease of use during the writing process and for easy legibility at the gaming table.

    I think a lot of designers would be well served by making more deliberate choices when creating their materials, for all the reasons you’ve outlined here. Kobold Press does a great job of creating a cohesive and unique design for their materials, in particular. It stands out, and you know who you’re reading.

    Bulette Storm looks great. I can’t wait to read through it!

    Reply

    • loottheroom
      June 30, 2017 @ 4:46 pm

      That’s a really good point that I hadn’t considered, either. It’s much easier to sell your players on ‘homebrew’ content if it looks like something official. That obviously won’t be an issue when it comes to adventure design, but it’s absolutely something to bear in mind for supplements intended to be used by players – character options and the like, as you say. Thanks for that; I’d overlooked it completely!

      I agree about Kobold Press, too. Having all your products look undoubtedly like *your* products is incredibly valuable and something I strive for. That’s honestly part of what made me initially question why everybody was trying to look like WoTC!

      Thanks again for your comments – you’ve give me a few things to think about. And I hope Bulette Storm is worth the wait!

      Reply

    • Matt Sanders
      July 1, 2017 @ 4:25 pm

      Interesting perspective on using Homebrewery to communicate something to the players in visual terms.

      I strive to achieve differentiation because I think we see too little of it, but it can definitely spook some players.

      I’m glad this post is unearthing some different valid viewpoints.

      Reply

  3. Isaac V
    June 30, 2017 @ 6:15 pm

    Attractive Cover: This is a budgeting issue rather than a Homebrewery one. Art is expensive, especially full page cover art. Many products would be deep in the hole paying artists.

    Homebrewery Style: A lot of people don’t have experience with graphic design. I’ve seen some products that don’t use it which are just white background, black text. I don’t think we’d see more good looking variety without Homebrewery (particularly since you’d need to purchase rights to commercially use professionally made backgrounds, or if there’s a small free selection, that’s what would replace Homebrewery’s parchment).

    “Why do you want your products to look like official, ‘authentic’ D&D materials’?”: Because I want my product to be taken seriously, following the same style guide to the best of my ability makes the product look like it fits in. I follow their rules for what gets capitalized, italicized, indented, all to make my product look like it belongs. A lot of the differentiation I see makes me more skeptical of the product, rather than excited. YMMV if you can dedicate sufficient resources to make it look just as high quality but different.

    I can definitely respect your desire to see more innovation in layout and formatting, but that’s not the realm of expertise for most people that fancy themselves able to create fun content. If someone volunteered to do that for me, I wouldn’t turn them away, but I also couldn’t afford to pay them right now.
    It looks like Sanders and I share a viewpoint based on his quote. It’s beyond expertise and budget for a lot of creators.

    I do think you’re doing cool things with the interactive adventure format though, that’s definitely eye-catching in an appealing away.

    Reply

    • loottheroom
      June 30, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

      While you’re absolutely right that full page cover art is expensive, it’s not a requirement in order to look professional. Look at the work that Dwarves in a Trenchcoat do – Matt’s covers are very simple and use no images beyond the DiaT logo, yet they look incredibly professional – so much so that I bought the first Bags of Flavour based on nothing but the cover. Similarly, Drop The Die – a creator I featured in this month’s Best Of post – simply uses an image of the product with his logo superimposed over it. It’s not much, but it makes a statement about the effort that has gone into the product that is sorely missing from products that don’t make any attempt at a cover. My cover for Bulette Storm cost me a grand total of $5, spent buying a piece of bulette stock art from DriveThruRPG.

      You’re absolutely right about the barrier to entry to graphic design in terms of skill, and the Homebrewery is a great tool for those who don’t have those skills. I don’t think it’s an excuse not to at least try and learn those skills, though. As I’ve said a few times now – I don’t have a problem with the Homebrewery. I used it to make a point. That’s all.

      Wanting to look like WoTC because you want your work to look like it belongs is a very valid point, and something I hadn’t considered. I guess that comes down to a matter of personal goals – personally, I feel it’s easier to stand out by doing something different, and if you disagree with me that’s totally fine. At this point I still haven’t released anything using this new layout I’m playing with, so there’s every chance I could fall on my face with this. Since this is going to be free, I also have no idea – and no way to measure – whether this will be commercially viable or not. It could prove to be a disaster.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment, I really appreciate it.

      Reply

      • Isaac V
        June 30, 2017 @ 11:52 pm

        I checked them out in your June review, and I mean no offense to the creators but I don’t find the DiaT and DtD covers visually appealing. I don’t get the impression of effort from them (which is of course not to say the product is low-effort, I’m sure it’s a quality work to be featured). Uncommon Devotion’s cover is beautiful, and Order in Chaos’s is intriguing. They’re in line with the covers of the “Most Popular DMs Guild Titles” line.

        Cool that you found fitting art for your next work already made and available for cheap. I’ll have to browse drive-thru to see if any arts for commercial licenses fit my upcoming ideas.

        I agree that you do stand out more if you don’t adhere to the official style. The question is, do you stand out in a positive way? If you got the graphic design chops, probably yes. If you don’t, then you’re biasing people against your material before they’ve even taken a good look at it. The reader might assume that since you didn’t care to put it into WotC’s style nor make it look good in your own style, you didn’t care to balance it within WotC’s game, or similar (that’s the association I have from reading some 3rd party books from 3.0’s day).

        The format you show in the gif looks good though, so I’m sure it’ll only do you favors. Hard to measure how many favors, if it takes considerably more time to do, but certainly favors.

        Reply

  4. Ken W
    June 30, 2017 @ 11:32 pm

    Fantastic thoughts. I don’t publish on DMs Guild yet, but I do have a handful of things from my home game that I’m trying to work up to the point that they’re more generally applicable and publishable.

    I think one aspect you’ve overlooked when it comes to why designers cling to the “official” look is the fan base itself. There’s a very active and vocal community of homebrew-policing fans that will (as I can personally attest) stringently critique your every departure from WotC’s “standards” on everything from use of capitals to placement of periods and whether you chose to column break the monster’s stat block or make it wide-format – and that’s if you actually use something like Homebrewery. If you deviate from that standard, you’re lucky to get a cursory glance, even if you explicitly invite critique, commentary, and discussion.

    There’s a very real sense that if you don’t already have a strong fanbase of your own, no one takes your work seriously if it doesn’t look “correct”. I’m not saying a stellar professional grade layout couldn’t potentially garner attention, but if you’re a fledgling adventure designer inviting an audience that has no idea who you are, you’re far better off with mildly generic but “correct” styling than taking a chance.

    Reply

    • loottheroom
      June 30, 2017 @ 11:54 pm

      Another good point that I overlooked simply because I wasn’t at all aware of it! I’ve posted a few things to Reddit etc. but never anything in the form of a formatted PDF, so I haven’t really come across that response to material that doesn’t look like it came from WoTC. I wonder what’s causing that reaction?

      Thanks for your comment, it’s definitely food for thought. I’ll have to see if I can find a fan or two with strong opinions about this and ask them what their reasoning is, because I’m really curious!

      Reply

  5. Rat
    July 1, 2017 @ 6:22 am

    I wonder if the most usable form for adventures is HTML and CSS, rather than PDF? With HTML, you get responsiveness, speed / size, accessibility features, internal and external linking. A small library of layouts for common pages (The HTML Homebrewery?) would go a long way toward encouraging adoption. A print stylesheet for each layout would also go a ways to solving the print problem.

    There are drawbacks, obviously, but a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time optimizing HTML and CSS for screen display of text and images.

    Reply

    • loottheroom
      July 1, 2017 @ 7:31 am

      I’m absolutely thinking about that, I just don’t currently have the skillset to be able to do much with it. That’s definitely something I want to experiment with in future though.

      Reply

  6. cooperme114
    July 1, 2017 @ 6:17 pm

    One thing I’d have to point out is that I think some of the allure for some people is that they already know how to read modules when they all look the same. For instance, if you have to run something on short notice, you’re not going to want to take the time to learn a new layout.

    That being said, I think you’ve got a great point about mixing things up to get more attention. Some of the pictures you showed are very attractive to me. But I’m not a new DM or one who typically has to rush these days.

    Reply

  7. Vaelorn
    July 3, 2017 @ 3:06 pm

    This is a very interesting article, and given how much digital publishing has taken off in other areas, it’s probably a good time for the industry to look at it. I don’t have anything particularly coherent to contribute but some random thoughts include:

    * Once I’ve finished reading a printed module (or a least a PDF that can be printed) I can be certain that I’ve read all the information in it. How do I know that I’ve looked at all the elements of a web page? Have I clicked on all the tabs?

    * How easy is it to make notes and annotations? Easy on paper, more difficult (but doable, maybe?) with PDF, hard with HTML (I would assume, unless it’s built into the page – and how persistent is it?)

    * Your point about the two column portrait page being a problem on screen is well taken, as I’ve had the same issues. I seem to remember that the later Dragon and Dungeon magazines were produced as landscape PDFs (3 or 4 column?). Would that be a better compromise between print and screen?

    * I hadn’t seen or heard of Homebrewery before I read this article — but I have been using Markdown for a while, and used it on some of my own projects. What’s interesting (to me, at least) is that with the right tools Markdown can produce individual or standalone HTML pages, PDFs and eBooks (among others). That could allow an author to produce multiple formats from a single source copy. Then the more capable the format and the more functional the reader the more interactivity can be added. For example, suppose you add the class “rollable” to a wandering monster table. In the PDF this is ignored and the table itself is printed as normal. But in the HTML the table gets hidden behind a text field that displays a random entry from the table when clicked. eBook readers would display whichever format they were most capable of. Perhaps a “monster stat block” would get a slider or other control to track its hit points… But again, you run into technical issues with persistence, reader/browser compatibility etc.

    * If you were going to go down this road then you might want to standardize the sort of controls you could have. I don’t know what: rollable tables and trackable stat blocks might be a start.

    * There are other possibilities too: why not have an option to select a difficulty level for the adventure? You could either display “easy/medium/hard” stat blocks depending on your selection or have code that generated or updated monster stats based on the level of the party.

    * This article focuses on adventures, but what could you do with RPG rules themselves? Switch between player and DM profiles to hide/show relevant sections? Beginner and advanced player rules? How about different ways to read the rules themselves? Top down (i.e. from “what is an RPG” down to “generate a character”) or bottom up?

    Reply

    • Rat
      July 4, 2017 @ 9:49 pm

      The persistence of notes is a good point! I don’t do much note-taking on printed material, and none on non-printed PDFs, but I can see that as a valuable feature. I can imagine a technological solution (notations and locations are saved per-account and load on login) but that’s a level of complexity well beyond just laying something out in HTML and CSS.

      Reply

      • loottheroom
        July 4, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

        I suppose one option would be to dedicate a portion of the screen (or if we’re talking HTML, and retractable section) to persistent notes, sort of like Comments in, say, a Google Document. That’s an interesting feature that I hadn’t thought of but now that you two have mentioned it it sounds like it would be really useful.

        Reply

  8. Bulette Storm – Loot The Room
    July 3, 2017 @ 7:34 pm

    […] Friday I put up quite a lengthy article in which I discussed the issues I see with the current state of RPG publishing, and the few […]

    Reply

  9. Vaelorn
    July 5, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

    Ok, finally managed to get around to downloading this. Looks very nice – although the font size and contrast is a bit small for my ageing retinas! However, some of the tabs don’t work on my system (Mac, using Preview as the PDF viewer). So on the first page say, clicking ‘Adventure Information’ does nothing, although other links/tabs work fine (like the ‘Return of the Huntsman/Hunting of the Bulette’ in Part 2).

    However, please don’t take this as a criticism! I think the ideas are great and well worth following up – but there are going to be reader/browser capability issues as what you’re really doing is writing software, not a document. Lowest common denominator and all that…

    Reply

    • loottheroom
      July 5, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. A few people have mentioned the font size issue and I’m working on an udpate to that. The issue with the tabs is a strange one – as you said it’s probably a result of not using theright PDF viewer. There are definitely issues here and I’m trying to figure out ways to mitigate them, and I really appreciate knowing that it doesn’t work on Preview – I don’t have access to a Mac, so I had no way to test that!

      Reply

      • Vaelorn
        July 5, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

        More than happy to test things for you! I’ll start following this blog, or just send me an email when you have stuff to try out.

        I do wonder though if PDF is the right format for this sort of application… Maybe a standalone HTML file? I’ve seen online slideshow software (like reveal.js) which allow navigation between pages (slides) but allow for all the HTML/CSS styling as well. If that could be bundled up as a standalone HTML file (for ease of distribution, which IS something PDF gets you) then that might be easier to develop and have fewer compatibility issues… I don’t know, if I get some time I might try and test the idea.

        Reply

        • loottheroom
          July 5, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

          I think that’s definitely the way forward for sure. I did a small postmortem post earlier this week where I mentioned that – unfortunately I don’t currently have the skillset to put together something like this in HTML etc., but I’m going to try and learn. Time is a resource I don’t have much of though, so I can’t promise results any time soon!

          Thanks for the offer. I’ll definitely let you know if I need any help with testing this stuff!

          Reply

          • Vaelorn
            July 5, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

            Now that’s where I was thinking of using a Markdown converter like pandoc (pandoc.org). This will convert Markdown into many formats, including reveal.js (I think it puts all 1st level headings in their own slide, or something like that). Then you just write Markdown without worrying about formatting at all, and build the publishable content automatically.

            What I don’t know is how much customisation you can do: for example, on 1 page you may want a map, some stat blocks and a text block describing some feature or other, and you’d want to arrange them in a particular way. I don’t know if you can do that in reveal.js, or if you can, if you can specify markup options in pandoc that it will understand. But that’s my plan, such as it is!

  10. Ryan Hennesy
    July 5, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

    So, I’m a little late on commenting, but I have some thoughts…

    First, let me establish that the premise of this post is absolutely spot on. The problem with resources like Homebrewery isn’t that they make unattractive products, it’s that they’re overused, making the products that use them boring. In an ideal world, people publishing content (especially for purchase) would be able to spend some resources to create unique and attractive designs and layouts, whether that’s time, money, energy, or something else.

    And, I’m 100% on board with the idea of taking a hard look at why we design in the formats we do, and whether or not that matches the way products are used. There absolutely should be more interactive digital products.

    That said, here’s a little bit of push back. A few comments have already mentioned some of my counterpoints to this post. Here’s a quick summary.

    1. Using WotC’s style gives a product some generic sense of “official-ness.”

    2. Using WotC’s style gives a product an immediately recognizable element of belonging, both in terms of being taken seriously and creating a feeling of “genre.”

    3. Using WotC’s style ensures (to a certain extent) legibility and ease of use. People who use products from DM’s Guild have been trained to read and recognize content displayed in a particular format.

    I’ll add a related fourth: using WotC’s style gives creators a “floor” for how bad their layout and design can look. It’s not exciting, sure, but there have been at least two instances (maybe more that I’m forgetting) where I was ready to buy a product, then decided not to after looking at the preview and seeing an atrocious interior design. Homebrewery et al minimize that risk.

    And, really, I think that’s what this, like most business exercises, boils down to: risk versus reward (or cost versus benefit, if you like). The risks/costs for doing a custom layout and design are exceptionally high for most content creators on DM’s Guild. Put another way, using Homebrewery is safe. And that’s really important.

    Even just putting in the time and effort to learn about other free options to help with layout and design is costly, and that doesn’t even consider the time and effort it takes to learn to use them. And, I imagine it’s not primarily lack of motivation or desire to do something better and unique, or even the knowledge that it would help. I know that for some, it’s simply the fact that spending the time to go through that process means spending less (or even no) time and/or effort on things that are frankly more important.

    I know it is for me, albeit from the opposite side. I have three different products that I’d love to finish writing and publish. But, there are only so many hours in a day, and in order to do that I would have to give up time with my family, or switch from a full-time job to a part-time job, or take fewer paying freelance gigs. These things are more important to me than finishing those products. I’ll bet there’s at least some of this at work with layout and design, too.

    I feel like I could write more about this… maybe I will, somewhere else.

    Let me reiterate: Chris is asking some important questions, and exploring something that is undeniably significant for the future of our hobby, and for publishing in general. I hope he’s able to turn this process into a movement of sorts. I would love a world where every writer publishing D&D content could hire a layout designer like Chris (or, you know, me) to make their products look the best, or learn the skills to make them look great by themselves.

    Until then, I’d almost rather people use homebrewery to make their products look vaguely similar to WotC’s than go out on a limb that can’t support their weight. At least the generic vanilla design doesn’t offend me to the point of being unable to use a product.

    Reply

    • Ryan Hennesy
      July 5, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

      I also intended to mention Mike Schley’s kickstarter for Schleyscapes going on right now. It’s a pretty cool example of outside-the-box thinking on adventure design and interactivity, though mostly through maps.

      And, he’s done a really creative promotional piece with Instagram. I definitely recommend checking it out. Be sure to use the grid view.

      (I’m not affiliated with Mike Schley or his kickstarter. I just thought it was relevant to this discourse.)

      Reply

  11. Mike McCarthy
    July 13, 2017 @ 6:29 pm

    I can’t agree more with the points you’re making here. I work with traditional printing, and it’s an uphill battle to even get people to consider alternate formats, let alone a dramatic departure from the standard like this.

    Reply

  12. John Lent
    July 19, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

    So how did you do this? Created in an Adobe product of some kind? I love the basic concept – landscape formatted interactive digital content for RPGs just makes sense. I write A LOT of adventures for Organized Play, and our basic template is, well, a piece of crap to be blunt. It covers the basics for a non-experienced designer (description, conditions, consequences, treasure, stat blocs), but it’s really annoying flipping through unnumbered, unstapled, hard copy pages etc, when I could just touch the screen on my tablet, or zoom on my tablet, or put the tablet on the game table to show the Players a “player filtered” map.

    When I first used Fantasy Grounds, I internally vowed never to write a module outside of Fantasy Grounds again because of the flow and interactivity. What you are doing looks like it could be even better (though I would not want to use yours exactly, we have different aesthetic tastes it appears).

    Reply

  13. Taking the Crawl out of Hex Crawls – Loot The Room
    July 28, 2017 @ 3:57 am

    […] Honestly, this solves the problem I’m having almost entirely. In essence, I can build the island much in the same way that I’d build a dungeon, laying it out for myself like a flowchart of points of interest. Encounter sites etc. will form nodes on that chart, and each path between nodes will contain information about the landscape, travel time, etc. Since I’ve only been reading about pointcrawls for less than 24 hours at the moment, I don’t know exactly how I’ll execute this. But it’s good to know that this problem has already been largely solved, and that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. (I’ve had quite enough of that this month, thank you very much.) […]

    Reply

  14. Publishing An Adventure: Art & Layout on a Budget – Loot The Room
    August 29, 2017 @ 12:47 am

    […] I’ve written about layout before, and it ruffled a few feathers. My opinions on that matter haven’t changed, but I appreciate that a) layout can be hard, b) not everybody has access to InDesign, and c) not everybody has time to put together something like Bulette Storm, even if they wanted to. I won’t be doing it for The Breaker of Chains. […]

    Reply

  15. Donald Morton
    January 8, 2018 @ 8:45 pm

    Great post I appreciate the thought you’ve put into this.

    I rewrite a lot of the pre-published adventures I run into bullet-pointed lists of facts. Like you would have when giving a speech. I used abbreviated language, just to jog my memory. It is very time-consuming, but it works well for me.

    It seems to me that many published adventures are designed with the intent of being read by the DM before the game night. Some thought seems to be put into at-a-glance statblocks, but there are always, always, multiple paragraphs of text that I am expected to have memorized. And what happens? The DM has to stop and some point, say “Uhh.. hang on”, and then spend an inordinant amount of time reading. It stops everything.

    I often wish writers would include “Running the game” notes along with the standard format. Just an abbreviated outline of what’s in rooms, what the plot is, etc. So the DM could reference it during the game.

    This may not be “layout-related”. But as a computer programmer, I tend to think in terms of how a product will be used by the end user. And i see that in your post.

    Reply

    • loottheroom
      January 9, 2018 @ 11:21 am

      Your point about a “Running The Game” section is an interesting one – like providing a Cliff Notes version of the adventure for quick reference. I like that a lot, and I think I might well start doing that going forward.

      I absolutely agree that there’s an issue with how modules are used at the table. I tried to get around that with the way I laid out Bulette Storm, but the issue of large blocks of text for the GM to parse quickly is still there. I don’t know if you’ve seen that adventure or not – one of the things I did was to make ‘stat blocks’ for NPCs with regard to what they do or don’t know, essentially in short bullet points. I’ve had some feedback that that was helpful, so the next step is to figure out a way to do a similar thing for room descriptions and the like. Your suggestion could definitely help there.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment. You’ve given me some interesting things to consider.

      Reply

    • Stephen
      April 3, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

      “Running the game” sidebar notes or section – great idea and I have exactly the same challenge. I think I will go back to my just finished first draft of The Missing Child (my first adventure planned for publication) and see what can be done in this vein …

      Reply

  16. Rethinking RPG Book Design: Monster Manuals Part I – Loot The Room
    January 29, 2018 @ 11:00 am

    […] in June last year when I was working on Bulette Storm where I discussed my thoughts about the way RPG products are designed and laid out. It ended up being quite a contentious post for some people, and it sparked a lot of discussion […]

    Reply

  17. Stephen
    April 3, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    I spent six years as a self employed business trainer prior to my current employed position. It occurred to me at some point in that period that laptops, and larger screens, had made landscape the idea format for brochure design. I switched to that and ended up with a rather nice hyperlinked pdf brochure that looked super sweet on a tablet! I mention all that to paint a picture prior to my publishing on DMsGuild …

    Just over a year ago I started to produce publications for sale via DMsGuild and later drivethrurpg. I went with the traditional portrait format because it struck me that most people who were reading on a laptop would most likely have access to a tablet (which renders format irrelevant) or they would be old school and want to print and read them. Personally, I much rather read something physically printed in portrait over landscape and I suspect I am not alone in that.

    Therefore on balance I thought it was best to use portrait even though I write everything on a small screened laptop and spend an eternity scrolling up and down!

    I lack the technical ability to produce an interactive pdf in the format you demonstrate. (Having read your Bulette storm (on my tablet) I found it entirely readable in the traditional format.) I also, as a business man, wonder about the time vs. reward of spending three hours per page.

    I know this one was due to be released for free however if we are thinking of regular adventures for sale then we have to consider profit. Sorry if that seems an ugly word but whilst I love producing publications I do have bills that need to be paid. I can’t live on readers happiness but I can live on their reasonable contributions for my publications (if there is enough of them.) Unless you can speed up the production process it’s not viable, in my opinion, to produce the animated pdfs.

    As a fellow gamer I would also suggest that it isn’t necessary either. More bullet points, better sign posting, play summary sections – those are probably better options. You’re one page, landscape version, designed for print, is perhaps the happy middle ground.

    Anyway, just some thoughts my friend, very interesting article.

    Reply

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