“Professional” RPG Layout and Design? Just Say No!

layout softwareMany RPG fans claim they want professional layout and design in their RPG books. Unfortunately the games I see many people who say this pointing to as example of what an professionally designed RPG book should look like, strike me as something that belongs in an coffee table art book that is striving to be edgy. RPGs aren’t art books designed to be glanced through by people in a waiting room. RPG rulebooks are more like textbooks (teaching the game) and reference books (looking things up during play).

My version of good, professional design for an RPG rulebook is the same type of good design that you’d find in the average college textbook or average reference book. I want it to be easy to read and easy to refer to using easy-to-read fonts in black(ish) type on off-white/whitish paper.

Many things that others seem to consider examples of professional layout and design in RPGs actually turn me off because they make the book harder to read and/or harder to refer to in play. Some examples:

  • Page backgrounds: I really do not want to try to read text printed on colored backgrounds, over line art, printed over pictures, etc. It may LOOK very nice when you flip through the book, but it makes actually using the book (that is, reading the text) harder for many people.
  • Weird layouts: Standard layouts (two column, three column, column and sidebar, etc.) may be boring but they are proven by long use to be easy to read and follow.
  • Distracting page borders: A fancy page border every once in a while (like for the first page of a chapter) is okay. Busy or distracting borders are not okay on most pages in the book. A page border that isn’t distracting and is actually useful (thumbs for each chapter, for example) is fine. All borders that aren’t actually useful do is take up space — and if they are busy/distracting — they don’t really count as white space either.

Perhaps I feel the way I do because I think RPG books should primarily designed for those who are going to use them in play rather than for collectors who are going to mainly “use” them by putting them on a shelf with the rest of their collection. I’m tired of picking up what I think might be an interesting RPG only to discover the fancy, “professional” layout makes it hard actually use to learn and play the game. So please, RPG publishers, just say no to “professional” layout and design that is full of edgy gimmicks and go with boring but truly professional layout and design that makes your material easy to read and use at the table.

Cover - Booty and the BeastsThe third Sponsor Microlite81 (and Lords & Wizards) Mini-Drive for RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund is running now. The goal is $500 with the following giveaway items: First Fantasy Campaign (1st Printing), Judge Guild Character Chronicle Cards, Basic Boxed Set (complete including original dice), Expert Boxed Set (complete including original dice), Journey to the Center of the Circle (from Wilmark Dynasty), and The Vampyre’s Mirror (also from Wilmark Dynasty). Each $10 donated gives you one chance at one of these items. The top three donors will have a separate drawing for a set of 1st printings of the original three TSR adventure modules (The Giants series as three separate modules: G1, G2, and G3) This is in addition to the usual PDF downloads and other benefits of a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund and sponsorship listings in the upcoming Microlite81 and Lords & Wizards games. To get help us pay our cancer treatment related bills (and to get access to some special downloads and a chance at the above-mentioned items), send a donation in any amount — small or large — to me via Paypal. Thank you!

As of 13 September 2013, $358 has been donated in this mini-drive, an additional $142 in donations is needed to trigger the drawings for the items mentioned above.

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8 Responses

  1. DerikB says:

    A lot of people tend to confuse "crowded, lots of colors and images, and unusual" for "good design."

  2. Would you name some recent layouts you like? I'm curious about who you think's doing a good job.

  3. Unknown says:

    While a lot of people would want to disagree on principle because they hate the system, the 4th Edition D&D books did a great job with their page layout.

  4. porphyre77 says:

    Third edition rulebooks were just horrid for the eyes.
    And I couldn't avoid the nagging feeling that they expected me to pay 45 Euros just for the glossy paper…

  5. Justin says:

    All of your points are exactly why the AD&D 2nd Edition core books are my go-to example for excellent rulebook layouts.

  6. Gorgonmilk says:

    Totally agree. In particular, 3rd Edition D&D was a horribly gaudy, bejeweled and hideous example of design that deserves gasoline and fire.

  7. Dave says:

    AD&D 1e DMG was the greatest RPG book published, for just these reasons! Great reference material still useful 34 years after I bought it!

  8. Absolutely! Make it readible. There's lots of design elements that you can use without messing with usability. Spend the time proofing it, indexing it, and hyperlinking your PDF.

    One thing I have seen more often is that sometimes the PDF versions of overly designed books have a "printable copy". When they have them, I always use that copy because they usually get rid of the shaded backgrounds.