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 Leaves, The 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.
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…
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.)
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.