Ask The Stargazer: “Would you be willing to provide some insight into your thoughts on layout for free RPG PDFs?”

It's hard work! A couple of days ago Stargazer Games fan and fellow amateur game designer Michael M. contacted me via email and asked me to share a few tricks on doing the layout for free RPGs. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Get a desktop publishing software
    When you try your hand at layout using word processors like MS Word or Open Office etc. don’t be surprised when it looks like crap. It’s extremely hard to create a good-looking layout with a software that’s not created for that purpose.
    I prefer Adobe InDesign but it’s an extremely expensive software. Microsoft’s Publisher is AFAIK still included in some versions of their Office suite and it’s pretty easy to use. If you prefer open source there’s Scribus.
    I haven’t had much luck using Scribus, but I know that some people have created pretty cool looking stuff with it. I am sure there are many more DTP solutions for various platforms.
  2. Look at what other people have done
    That’s what I did a lot. I looked at the layouts I’ve seen in books I like and tried my hand at imitating them. That’s actually easier said then done, especially when you use another software (with less features) and when you have no idea how certain things are done. I am still pretty much an amateur but people seem to like my stuff, but I still learn something new every day. That’s actually a good segue to my next tip.
  3. Practice, practice, practice
    The only way to get better at doing layout is by doing layout. Period. Ok, when you get someone else to show you some tricks, this may also help.
  4. Make use of textures and artwork
    Everything looks better with textures and  artwork. Luckily there’s are a lot of textures on the net that you can use royalty-free. Often textures are released in the public domain or are licensed under Creative Commons. When it comes to Fantasy/SF artwork you usually have to pay for that stuff. But there’s a lot of pretty inexpensive stock art at sites like RPGNow.
    Sometimes artists allow you to use their art for free as long as your project is non-commercial. If you find a nice piece of art at DeviantArt or somewhere else, do the right thing and ask the artist for permission if you want to use it. You might be surprised how many artists are actually willing to let you use it for free.
  5. Get feedback
    Ask people for feedback. Show them a few pages and ask them how they like the layout. I actually print the layout drafts on paper so that you can better judge how the final product is going to look like. Sometimes your layout looks great on the screen but doesn’t work that well on paper.
    It also helps to have a few friends who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth when your layout sucks. And it’s even better if they can point out what they don’t like and more importantly why they don’t like it.

Please don’t forget that I am an amateur myself, so take my advice with a grain of salt. If you have some layout experience of your own, feel free to post your thoughts below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

4 thoughts on “Ask The Stargazer: “Would you be willing to provide some insight into your thoughts on layout for free RPG PDFs?””

  1. I really like Pages, Apple’s layout/word processing application for Mac OS as part of the iWork package (word processing/spreadsheet/presentation). It’s much more robust and flexible than Word or its ilk.

  2. Some quick thoughts to consider…

    > Everything looks better with textures and artwork …

    Depends on how they are used. Textures and artwork should not distract and interfere with readability. The DnD 3.0 core manuals overused textures which, in many cases made the text hard to read.

    Try to use artwork that is consistent. One hallmark of an amateur publication is the inclusion of all sorts of artwork and artwork that ranges from mundane to downright amateurish and horrible. Limit artwork styles to a few types, be very selective in quality, and place images where they enhance the content. Don’t use images of people created with Poser unless they look really natural (especially avoid the Poser figures zombie-like stare – those really annoyed me in some of the GURPS 4E manuals.) Don’t use CG graphics that look like they were created in the 1980′ (very geometric and sparse, almost wireframe). If you have some good images that you want to include but don’t fit the look of your manual you might try things like using Photoshop filters to stylize them, such as turning photos into line art, line art being one of your styles – Again, just as you don’t want to use fonts that are all over the place, don’t use artwork that is all over the place.

    Use white space to provide visual relief and to separate and group content. Don’t make the mistake of squeezing art and text into every available space, turning pages into visual junk drawers.

    I also think RPG manuals often get to wordy. I think explanatory text should not be overdone and material presented in web/presentation format when appropriate (such as bulleted short phrases). This reduces the need, for me at least, to make streamlined reference sheets to summarize what the author took five paragraphs to explain and sometime obfuscated in the process.

    My 2-cents

  3. I’ve had lots of success with Scribus, and will gladly recommend it to everyone. All Headless Hydra Games products were created using Scribus.

    The only thing that I have yet to learn is how to make tables.

    I will also add that less is more. A product doesn’t need a lot of strange backgrounds, borders and images. Sure, if you have something that looks great and/or complement your text… go for it, otherwise, leave it out.

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