Rethinking RPG Book Design


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Today’s post is nominally a Let’s Build A Campaign Setting post by dint of the fact that I’m posting it on a Friday. It’s is probably more appropriate for Stat Boost – in fact it was intended that way when I began writing it a few months ago – but it’s relevant to my aims for this series, so it’s going here. (I started writing this when I first had the ideas I’m exploring here, back when I was working on Gobbos – an adventure that turned into a megadungeon that had to be shelved until I have more time to work on it).

I’m going to be talking about something that I personally think is important, something that I’ve been thinking about an awful lot recently. It’s something that won’t be relevant to a lot of the people reading this site, though. If that’s you, then I apologise. I’d recommend reading this anyway, because I think it’s at least interesting even if it’s not directly useful to you (and because I’ll be talking about my upcoming adventure Bulette Storm, too).

I know that at least a small percentage of my readers produce content for sites like DMs Guild and Drive Thru RPG. This post is for you. I want to talk about the way we think about layout in RPG products, how I think digital publishing has changed/is changing/could change the way we are – or should be – thinking about design, and present some of the philosophies and thought processes that went into the design of Bulette Storm. I’d be really interested in hearing feedback from you folks in particular about the ideas I’m discussing here.

There’ll be pictures, of course. Plenty of them. And you might even get a sneak peak of Bulette Storm, if you’re lucky and I remember to include them.

Strap yourselves in. This could be a long one.

The Current State of Things

If you’ve read this site for anything more than a few weeks, you already know that I spend a lot of time digging through the listings on DMs Guild. I’m exposed to a huge amount of homebrew material – some good, some not so good – on a daily basis.

A while ago I tweeted the opinion that the Homebrewery, while a fantastic resource that produces beautiful-looking PDFs with a minimum of effort, is starting to ruin DMs Guild a little for me. Frankly – and I’m being frank because to sugar coat this would be to add more words to an already potentially long article – I’m sick of seeing products produced using the Homebrewery on DMs Guild. Particularly egregious – to me, at least – is when creators don’t even bother to put together an attractive front cover, instead using a title page generated using the Homebrewery.

[I’m jumping back here to add a quick note. It may seem, in the discussion that follows, that I have something against the Homebrewery, or that I’m singling them out, or heaping unfair criticism on them, or something else of the sort. I promise you that isn’t what I’m intending here. As I’ve said – and as I’ll repeat a few times in this post, just to drive it home – I think it’s a great resource. I’ve used it myself. It’s fantastic. But all things in moderation, etc.

The same extends to any publishers I mention here. Any examples I use are of good design that I personally like – I’m not aiming to criticise anybody here, no matter how much it may seem that way.]

Like I’ve said, I think the PDFs produced using that resource look great. The problem is, once everything looks great, nothing looks great. And nothing stands out. I’m tired of seeing the same parchment background, the same fonts, the same centered text and red decorative line that emulates the look of official WoTC products without coming too close to directly copying Wizards’ trade dress.

The stated goal of the Homebrewery is this:

The Homebrewery makes the creation and sharing of authentic looking Fifth-Edition homebrews easy.

I’d say they’ve certainly achieved that goal. The PDFs that site produces look almost exactly like the interior of WoTC source books, and if that’s what you want, that’s great.

My question is: why do you want that?

That may seem like a silly question, but think about it for a minute. Why do you – a creator of RPG supplements – want your products to look like official, ‘authentic’ D&D materials? There’s no value judgement to that question – I’m genuinely curious, and I don’t think many people have actually thought about it before they make that decision. Because deciding to have your products look as-close-to-legally-possible like WoTC books is a decision, even if it’s not one you gave much thought to.

Now, you may have thought it through in great depth and decided that yes, you do want your books to look like WoTC products. And that’s great. Honestly, I’m being sincere – it’s great that you cared enough about the product you were putting out to properly think through your layout and the reasons behind it, it’s great that you think (to quote somebody on Twitter who joined the conversation when I was talking about this stuff) that WoTC products are the “gold standard” of RPG design (if you do think that) and want to emulate them.

Genuinely, if you’ve thought this through yourself and made that decision, I’d really like to hear your reasons for it.

And in exchange, I’m going to go into the reasons why I don’t want my products to look like WoTC releases.

Why the ‘Gold Standard’ Isn’t Good Enough

When I was talking about this stuff on Twitter, I asked people to give me examples of RPG products that they thought had outstanding layouts. I got a lot of good responses; WoTC was obviously mentioned (that’s where the ‘Gold Standard’ observation came from), along with Sly Flourish, Modiphius, Burning Games’ Faith products, Goblin Stone, and LoreSmyth. And, undoubtedly, all of those products look great. (And, also, you should absolutely support that Goblin Stone Kickstarter!)

I fully intended to include some screenshots of those books here. Unfortunately, I left it too late to contact the authors of those products, and so I couldn’t get permission to use the images of their work in this post. I highly recommend that you click those links and take a few minutes to look at the examples, so that we’re all on the same page. Once you’re done, come back here and keep reading.

[Update: Benoit de Bernardy of Goblin Stone got back to me and kindly agreed to let me use some images from his adventure Banquet of the Damned. Thanks, Benoit!

[© Goblin Stone. Click to embiggen]

Done? Great. So, what did you think? They look good, right? They do. I’m not going to argue that at all.

The problem is, they all sort of look the same.

I’ve said a few times that I’ve been playing D&D for a long time (though not as long as many of the people I’m lucky enough to get to work with). RPGs in general, really, but D&D specifically. It was the first pen-and-paper RPG I ever played, back in the early ‘90s. In the intervening years, I’ve seen a ton of RPG books. Aesthetic preferences have come and gone, art styles have changed, but one thing has remained fairly constant – text is laid out in two or three columns down the page, with art placed around it (sometimes in the middle of the page, disrupting the flow of the text), and sidebars are used to convey information that may supplement or clarify or expand upon what the main body text is saying.

And that’s not a bad design, all things said. There’s a reason it’s persisted across so many iterations of D&D, and across so many other RPG systems. It’s a clear, (mostly) uncluttered way of portraying the information.

There have been some attempts to change this format, of course. Most notably – for me at least – is in the pages of Dungeon and Dragon magazines. But even then, those changes mostly came down to increasing the number of columns and cramming more art and sidebars onto the page. Inevitably, the layouts of those magazines tended to trend back towards the standard two-column layout that we still see in RPG products everywhere today.

That’s because it works. There’s no debating that.

Unfortunately, I hate it. We’ll get to the reasons why in a minute. First, I want to take a second to get a little bit more personal.

Why Do I Care?

So, you may be wondering why I actually give a shit about this. And there are a couple of reasons for it.

The foremost is that I want my work to stand out. It’s selfish – if it stands out, it may get more attention, and I potentially make more money (although that won’t be the case with Bulette Storm, as I’m giving it away for free). There’s the old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I worked as a bookseller for years and the fact of the matter is people can and do. Now, we’re not talking about covers specifically here – quite the opposite, really – but the same can be said of the interior design of a book, too. When you flick through a book that does something visually interesting on the page – in fiction terms I’m thinking of things like House of LeavesThe Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or absolutely anything that Dave McKean has a hand in designing – you stop. You pay attention. And, in my experience, you’re more likely to a) buy that book and b) remember it once you’re done with it.

So, that’s the first reason. Pure avarice, and a childish need for attention.

The second is a little less base, and that’s simply that this aligns with my research interests in my academic career. Many of you know – because I’ve mentioned it before – that I’m in the process of getting my MA. What you may not know is that the title of that MA is ‘Creative Writing: Innovation & Experiment’. A huge chunk of my research – and thus, my reading – is dedicated to texts that (you guessed it) innovate and experiment. The aforementioned House of Leaves, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (a book in a box, presented as a set of individually-bound, un-numbered chapters, designed to be read in any order), etc.

Basically, I’m constantly thinking about ways to experiment with – and, often, break – the way ideas are communicated through the medium of text on a page. It may be mostly academic, but if you spend that much time thinking about something, it necessarily informs the other things you do – in particular, your creative ventures. And though it may seem mostly functional, layout and design is absolutely a creative venture.

So that’s the second reason. Academic interest, and a desire to push boundaries and do something new and different.

The third – and, honestly, most important – reason is simply one of functionality and usability. As I said nearly 2,000 words ago, I read a lot of DMs Guild products. I can’t afford to print it all – and I don’t have the time or inclination to, frankly – so I end up reading on my screen.

My main computer is a laptop with a 15.5” screen. This is what it looks like when I’m reading a traditionally laid out PDF:

I’m using one of my own products as an example here, because I don’t want anybody to feel like I’m singling them out for criticism when this is a problem that affects every digital product I use. Simply put, at the smallest readable size, I can’t fit a whole page on my screen. I have to scroll to see the rest of what’s there – and with two columns, I find myself scrolling up and down all the time. It’s a pain, even when I’m just reading it for review purposes.

Now imagine I’m trying to run an adventure, and haven’t been able to print the product out. Imagine how frustrating it is for me to have to constantly scroll back and forth when trying to run an encounter, or describe an area, or read a text box, or whatever.

It’s a minor issue, but it’s one that doesn’t need to exist.

Digital Publishing

The fact of the matter is, most of us writing for DMs Guild don’t see the majority of our work in print. I know plenty of people print out the PDFs we provide, and that’s great, but many people don’t or can’t. And yet we still design with print in mind. I’m guilty of it myself, as demonstrated.

I’m honestly not sure why that is. Probably it’s just that we’re so used to seeing this kind of layout in RPG products that we’ve been conditioned to think that this is how it has to be. I don’t think anybody is making their products look like this for fear of trying something new and failing, because I don’t think anybody (or very few people) is even considering that there might be a better way to do it. (If I’m wrong, please correct me). I say that purely because this only occurred to me very recently, and I spend most of my time thinking about this in the context of fiction and academic writing. And I say it because, when I asked for examples of noteworthy layouts on Twitter, everything I was recommended was functionally the same.

Breaking The Mould

So, how do we change this? That’s what I asked myself a few months ago. I was already partway through Gobbos, and I tend to jump around when working on big projects, so I was thinking about layout before I’d even really written anything. Everything I came up with followed the same basic formula we’ve already discussed, even though I was already actively trying to make my layout stand out in some way.

Dissatisfied with my results, I started looking at magazines as a source of inspiration. Particularly in the world of high end fashion, there is some really interesting and beautiful work being done with layout and typesetting. Unfortunately the current trend is stark minimalism, with an emphasis on negative space, minimal copy, and letting pictures speak for themselves. That’s not a design philosophy that really lends itself to a text-heavy RPG book.

Then, three things happened almost simultaneously. I honestly can’t remember which came first – they were certainly on the same day.

You see, I was talking about this with my partner. She’s an illustrator – she’s going to be doing a lot of the interior art for Gobbos, in fact – and as well as being incredibly patient with me when I ramble on about these kinds of things that fascinate me and, well, don’t fascinate her, she also thinks much more visually than I do. And she, like me, plays a lot of video games, and keeps up with video game news.

One of her favourite games is Don’t Starve. The game has been regularly – and heavily – updated over the course of its life. I knew that. What I didn’t know was that the creators (Klei, who made both H’s favourite game and one of my favourite games (Invisible, Inc.) and who have a very distinct – and coherent – art style) released infographics to go with each update.

[© Klei Entertainment]

At around the same time as she showed me these amazing infographics – that cram a huge amount of information into a really striking layout (although still using minimal copy) – I was designing the contents page for Gobbos. I’d toyed with presenting it as a map – like they did in Dragon for a brief period – and I was now looking at things like flowcharts and infographics. Things like this:

[Infographic design taken from Shutterstock preview. © Aleksandr Bryliaev]

And, concurrent to both of those things, I was still looking at magazine layouts. And in that deep delve through Google images, I started coming across a lot of coffee table books.

[Taken from Envato preview image. ©ReneeBuckley]

Now. What do all of those images have in common, and in what key way do they differ from the images of standard RPG books? And is there something about them that solves the problem I have with PDFs that are either too small to read, or that don’t display a whole page on the screen?

I know you see it, because I know you’re not stupid, but I’ll spell it out anyway.

They’re all oriented to landscape rather than portrait. In the first two cases, that makes a lot of sense – they’re infographics, and they’re designed to be read on screens. Coffee table books are different, and have different design philosophies and goals, but they’re usually big, and landscape, and beautifully designed.

You’ve probably already seen what I’m getting at here. I saw all of these things, and my brain made that dull thunk noise it makes when an idea appears as though it’s always been there.

I’d been designing for print. Why wasn’t I designing for the screen? That’s where people were most likely to read my work, after all. If I’m struggling to fit a whole page on the screen, then instead I should fit the page to the screen.

So I went back to Illustrator – which is where I design my layouts, before I put it all together in InDesign – and opened a new project. And this time, instead of jumping to my default settings – A4, portrait, 300dpi, CMYK (which are print settings) – I went ahead and created a 72dpi 1920×1080 pixels artboard. A web image that, when displayed in full screen on a normal monitor (because most monitors now, as far as I’m aware, conform to a 16:9 ratio), will show a full page across the entire screen. No scrolling needed.

Breaking The Habit

Now, it would be easy to end this here, maybe with a couple of screenshots of the final layout of Bulette Storm (because, as I said, Gobbos isn’t even close to being done), and allow you to marvel in my genius – or tell me I’m an idiot – while I sit back and feel good about myself. But that would be disingenuous. Because even though I’d had this realisation, I was still clinging to my old ideas about designing RPG products when I did my first pass on the new Gobbos layout.

I wanted to include some screenshots of the iterations I went through before I settled on what I’ve done with Bulette Storm, but I completely forgot that I’d started writing this post and thus didn’t document any of that process.

What I can tell you is that I was still very much in the mindset of designing for print, even though I’d changed my layout. I was creating a lot of pages that looked visually pretty, but were functionally useless – chapter title pages with nothing but the chapter heading and some artwork on them, for example. Or else big, gorgeous two-page spreads. These were pages that didn’t convey any information, that a user had to click past to get to actual content.

Now, if I were in the business of coffee table books, that would be fine. In fact, that’s pretty much how I designed it – to be printed out, bound, and opened flat on a table, with the title page on the left and the first page of content on the right.

But on a screen, as a PDF, your default – and therefore the way most people will view it – is one page at a time. A two-page spread is useless in that situation. It’s redundant.

So I scrapped it. I went back to the Don’t Starve images, and the infographics, and I started to look at ways to combine lots of information in one image, clearly.

I won’t lie – I went through a lot of iterations to get it right. But I think I did get it right, in the end. Here’s one of the final layout pages of Bulette Storm:

[Character illustrations © Jeshields. Tavern sign and backpack © Deven Rue]

Honestly, I’m really happy with the decisions I made and the end product. It looks good, it’s legible, you don’t have to scroll, and it fills your screen. I’ve also done a lot of work to make sure that combat encounters are able to be run without ever having to navigate to a new page (which you can’t see on that page, because it isn’t a combat encounter).

Well, I was happy with it. But then I thought some more, and realised that I was still designing with print in mind. If I’m designing for screens, then why not embrace the technology that the screen is attached to? People already hyperlink PDFs fairly regularly – why not go one step further? Why not eliminate the idea of static pages completely?

[If I’ve done this right, that should be an animated gif]

This section of the adventure takes up 3 or 4 pages when formatted in two columns on A4. Now, it’s all on one page. Paizo have been doing something like this for a while with their interactive maps – giving users the ability to turn labels and grids on and off – but I haven’t seen anybody apply this idea to the entire adventure before. (And if somebody has done this already, please do let me know.)

There are even more possibilities – form-fillable initiative trackers right there on the page with the encounter, for example.

I’m aware not everybody is going to like this new way of doing things – and, from a practical viewpoint, I’m also aware that DMs Guild displays covers and previous in portrait format. So, as a concession to that limitation and the fact I don’t want to alienate a chunk of my potential audience – and because those pages are big and image heavy and not designed to be printed – I’m going to include a more traditionally designed PDF with Bulette Storm, too, specifically for DMs who like to print their adventures.

And that got me on to my other favourite thing, which is…

Usability

Not everybody runs adventures off a laptop screen. Plenty of people print them out. And what I’d designed wasn’t geared towards printing. So, as I said literally 40 or so words ago, I’m including a printable, two-columns-on-a-portrait-page PDF with Bulette Storm. But why stop there?

I’ve always tried to ensure that the work I produce is as useful as it can be to as many people as possible. Now, I’m in the UK and the standard paper size here is A4. But the vast majority of the people visiting this site and – I assume, though I’ve no data to back it up – buying things from DMs Guild are in the USA, where the standard size is Letter.

There’s not a huge amount of difference between the two, all things considered. Letter paper is 8.5 x 11 inches, where A4 is 8.27 x 11.69 inches. So, fairly close, but they are different, and trying to force a document designed for one size to print at another can lead to issues. Sometimes it’s just having to shrink the page to fit the new paper size – which leads to legibility issues – whereas other times you end up with sections of the content simply being cut off. I could have designed a portrait document that would print just fine on both sizes, but it would involve a lot of negative space that doesn’t look particularly good in that kind of layout.

So I thought, sod it. I’ll just make a Letter-size PDF and an A4 PDF, and people can choose whichever they want.

This is the strength of digital publishing. Web design is heavily interested in ‘responsive’ design that scales and fits itself to suit whatever display device it’s being forced into. Why shouldn’t I try to emulate that philosophy when designing this book?

So that’s what I’m doing – providing both full colour and black and white, printable, traditionally-laid-out documents in two different paper sizes, as well as a interactive 1920×1080 PDF for computer viewing. And the best thing about DMs Guild is, if I don’t zip them all together, you can simply choose which version you want to download. (And, because I’ve built the Letter document, my preview and cover image won’t look weird on the site.)

The Downside

I’ve talked a lot about how excited I am about this way of doing things, but there is a massive downside to this approach. It takes time just to typeset a standard two-column-portrait-oriented document. It takes more time to make a black and white version of that. It takes even more time to provide that document in both Letter and A4 sizes.

The time it takes to do all of that pales in comparison to the time it takes to build an adventure-length interactive PDF. There are no templates here; every page, every encounter, has to be designed from scratch to account for the information specific to that encounter. You can’t simply flow text into your layout and tweak the bits that don’t fit. At the moment, I’ve spent roughly 3 hours on each page of Bulette Storm just laying it out. Adding the enhancements later takes even longer.

I’m still happy with the result, and I have no doubt that as I continue to experiment with this that the time it takes me to produce these things will come down to a more manageable level. But it is a big time sink to prepare a document like this, and at this point – a few days before I release Bulette Storm – I have no idea whether it’s actually worth it.

That’s About It

As the heading says, that’s about it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – whether you agree with me, or think I’m wasting my time, or don’t get why I care so much about this, or anything else you might have to say about the topic. I’m interested in hearing from everyone; if you’re a creator, I’d love to hear whether you think there’s any need to diverge from the industry standard. If you’re a consumer, I want to know whether this is actually as useful to you as I think it is, or whether I’m a fringe case when it comes to my hatred of scrolling. I hope at least that seeing inside my design process was interesting.

And, of course, I hope you’re looking forward to Bulette Storm. It was meant to be released tomorrow, but the combination of this taking longer than I anticipated and some personal issues I’m having mean it’s being delayed by a couple of day. It’s out on Monday, and I’m really excited to release it. And it’s going to be free, because this month’s Patreon funding unlocked that goal.

Again, let me know your thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading


Afterword: I showed this post to my Patrons and some other DMs Guild writers before it went live here, and some good points were made. The first came from one of my Patrons, who mentioned that this post reminded him of the transitional phase before HTML fully supported responsive design. I have a vague notion that I’d eventually like ot move away from PDF with this kind of formatting, with a view to publishing adventures as responsive, interactive web pages. In talking to him, we sort of jointly came to the conclusion that WoTC are probably going to head in this direction with future updates to D&D Beyond. Their goal is to build an all-in-one D&D streaming platform, and I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing D&D Beyond-specific adventures in the not too distant future.

I also had a long conversation with Matt Sanders from Dwarves in a Trenchcoat. He had this to say (quoted with permission):

I agree at the start about it sounds a bit harsh on Homebrewery. Especially, I think it is worth acknowledging that part of the issue is for many RPG people, they have no design knowledge, and no access to the expensive tools required, and so a big reason they go for templates and existing standards is they have no other options. Often literally.

Using myself as an example, I have already spent WAY more on design stuff (Affinity Photo & Designer, a logo and a wordpress theme) than I have made back from sales. And I want to do more with layout and spend more on it, but it’s literally money in a hole that stops me being profitable.

My goal is try and reach paying myself 1 cent a word, and even though this stuff is an investment, it’s a long term one for a lot of people.

They’re all really valid points that I completely neglected in this post. The only reason I’m able to make use of Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and Acrobat Pro is because my Patrons cover those monthly costs for me. That wasn’t always the case. Dark Deeds was laid out in Word, and while I’m happy with how that product looked, there was no way I could have done anything like what I’m doing with Bulette Storm using a word processor. Strange Tidings was produced with the Homebrewery; I had access to InDesign then but hadn’t used it and didn’t have templates set up, and for that short document it was much easier to go the Homebrewery route.

To reiterate – it’s not the Homebrewery I have a problem with. It’s free and it creates great-looking PDFs easily, and allows people who don’t have access to more expensive tools to create things that look professional. That can only be a good thing. My problem is with standard RPG layout itself, not the tools available to produce it.

Please keep your thoughts coming. This conversation is incredibly interesting to me; I intend to keep updating this post for as long as people have new things to say on this matter.

  1. 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!

    • 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!

    • 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.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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!

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

    • 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.

      • 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.

  7. 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…

    • 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!

      • 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.

        • 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!

          • 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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).

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