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Creating Your RPG Supplement, Part 3: Layout

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We begin to delve into the more esoteric aspect of the process, namely the realm of visual art and design. The idea of laying out your own document, complete with layers, paragraph styles, and artwork is a daunting one if you don’t have much experience with it, but don’t worry, it’s actually a relatively simple process once you’ve worked the kinks out. That being said, layout design is an art form and there’s no way that we can cover all of the bases, let alone train you up to be a layout artist in one article, so I’ll instead provide you with a high-level overview of what you’ll need to be aware of so that you can get the ball rolling for yourself.

Software

Thankfully we are well past the Mad Men era of layout-by-hand. It used to be a time-consuming and manual practice that required years of dedication and craft to get good at. It was a time not much practically removed from the days of printing-press typesetting, and although I greatly respect the dedication of the individuals who worked in those eras, I am grateful that those days are behind us. Instead, we have the supreme luxury of the digital approach and can do in moments what would have taken days for the artisans of yesteryear.

If you aren’t familiar with desktop publishing and layout design, you’re going to need to decide on what program you will use to bring your creation into a presentable form. When selecting the software that you will be using it is important to look ahead and forecast what your needs will be down the road and weigh them against how much time and money you’re willing to spend in the short term. If your budget is somewhere in the zero to none range, there are a number of free options such as Scribus, LucidPress, and Swift Publisher all available for free. These options will certainly get the job done and done well, but if you can see yourself getting into creating your own high-quality publications well into the future, I have to recommend Adobe Indesign. It’s simply the industry standard for desktop publication, has a wealth of free online resources for training, and if you’re going to branch out into other areas of design such as illustration or product photography, the integration that Adobe products have with one another just make it a no-brainer. It’s unfortunate that Adobe has switched over to a licensed subscription service in the past few years, but the amount of time and frustration you’ll save in the long run will pay dividends in the form of productivity and sanity.

Typesetting

At this point, you should have a well-organized and edited manuscript to place into your layout. If you are using Indesign, there are loads of free templates to use as a starting point, even ones that may be designed specifically for the ruleset you are creating for, which will get you up and running in no time. Personally, I prefer to set up my own templates and improve on them with each product I make, simply because I like to learn, but there’s no need to waste time and energy when you have a deadline you are up against. Whether you’re using a pre-fab template or not, you’re going to want to paste your document into the layout design file and begin adjusting the flow of your text content.

Content flow is all about finding the natural stopping points and breaks in your text. New chapters need to begin on new pages and pages shouldn’t just end with only one or two paragraphs on them. You can begin adding placeholder frames for where artwork would be most impactful or where it would aid the flow of the text by breaking up dense sections of paragraphs. This is one of the most important reasons why it’s important to hold off on illustration work until the final typesetting is finished, you simply don’t know what illustrations will be required or discarded in support of the copy content.

Creating a Coherent Look

If you aren’t using a template that came pre-loaded with paragraph styles, you’ll want to begin sorting that out as soon as possible. Choosing fonts that support the mood and themes of your subject matter goes a long way in creating a cohesive product. For instance, while using comic sans as a headline font for a superhero-themed adventure might work well, it will look childish in a product about medieval fantasy. Font size is also an important consideration that can either elevate your layout with a sense of refinement or give it a clunky, amateurish feel. Google Fonts is a great free resource to begin experimenting with and they even offer suggestions for what fonts pair well with each other, making your job much simpler.

While many modern RPG products are digitally distributed, they still conform to the best practices of print design, so as a general rule keep your paragraph text somewhere in the 10 to 14 point range and your headlines somewhere between 18 and 28 points. Stay away from single-column pages where you can, as the longer a line of text is for a reader, the more fatiguing it becomes line after line.

The best advice I can give to someone who isn’t confident in their ability to create a solid layout is to simply look at what other publishers are doing. Dungeons & Dragons publications, for example, are solidly designed with a lot of depth and nuance to them that isn’t immediately obvious. Privateer Press publications, specifically their Warmachine and Hordes books are immaculate in their simple, solid, and powerful treatment of type and I would urge anyone who is interested in layout design to look there as a starting point.

In layout, less is more. You don’t need dozens of paragraph styles or page backgrounds to make an interesting layout. Don’t let your design compete with the content, it is simply there to support it and make it more visually appealing. 

Art and Illustrations

Once you have a document that has a pleasing flow of text and has sections beginning and ending in visually coherent, defined sections, it is time to consider the artwork you’ll need. You can use full-page illustrations to help ensure that chapters begin on left-hand pages (ensuring pleasing page spreads if the document is printed and bound), and smaller illustrations and embellishments to break up solid walls of text. Generally, you’ll want to have one illustration per every page spread (a spread is two pages that would appear side-by-side in print) and at least half of every page should be text. You don’t need an illustration on every page, so don’t fall into the trap of believing you do.

In the next article of this series, we’ll be covering art and illustration in greater detail. I hope this was helpful to you. Drop me a line at ryan@eternalrule.com to share any projects you’re working on!

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