Tools for Dreaming: Games Given Form

This chapter is my attempt at providing advice on stuff like layout. It’s something I’m still working on myself, but I’ve at least distilled what I’ve learned (with a lot of trial and error) here.


The next chapter gets into the details of publishing per se. This chapter is about how to take an RPG you’ve created and make it into something you can show to the world.

Titles

Like a lot of things in most any creative endeavor, there’s not really any single way to decide on a title. It depends a lot on your particular project and the audience you’re going after. For a retroclone intended to evoke old-school D&D, an alliterative title with an ampersand in the middle could be a good way to communicate what you’re about. Titles like Dogs in the Vineyard or Thou Art But a Warrior may not grab your average geek, but that’s totally fine if you’re going for a different crowd.

While keyword optimization can be kind of obnoxious, it pays to google potential titles to see if there’s anything else out there already, and generally if it’s possible to find your game online. Even if you’re unlikely to get into legal trouble, a name that resembles something else makes it harder for people to find your game even if they do know the name. I like the title of my card game Channel A overall, but it’s also the name of a Korean TV channel, so to find it online you have to search for something like “channel a card game” unless you really want to dig through posts about Korean pop stars.

In the 1980s Steve Jackson Games developed a multi-genre RPG—not the first of its kind, but one of the most notable—and in 1986 they published it under what had been a placeholder title, “GURPS,” short for “Generic Universal RolePlaying System.”        That in turn made acronym titles kind of a running gag in the RPG world, with the likes of FUDGE (Freeform Universal Donated Game Engine),[1] TWERPS (The World’s Easiest Role-Playing System), CORPS (Complete Omniversal Role Playing System), SLUG (Simple Laid-back Universal Game), and there are more but we don’t have all day. Some are old favorites, some are well-supported small press games, and a lot are joke games. I won’t say you should never go for a title like that, but I wouldn’t personally unless it was a particular kind of satire or I had devised an agonizingly clever pun.

Writing Tips

Although a game is in essence a mental construct, a set of procedures for people to use at the table, we convey RPGs in the form of written documents even more than other kinds of games. You can get as poetic and florid as you want for the more flavor text parts of your book, but the actual procedures of play need to be crystal clear and easy to pick up. You may not need this advice at all, but I’m going to mention a few things that I think are of particular note for RPG writing. If you need a basic, straightforward reference, go pick up a copy of The Elements of Style.

Use proper punctuation. Doing it correctly goes without saying, but there are a few quirks that not everyone knows. The biggest one is knowing how to combine things with quotes. Commas, periods, and so on go inside of quotes normally. It’s weird, and even Strunk & White say that it’s illogical but nonetheless the standard.

Avoid using passive voice. This is a common piece of advice in writing in general. Saying “the enemy was defeated by our forces” is worse than saying “our forces defeated the enemy” in a few different ways, and saying “the enemy was defeated” is even worse because it leaves out information. In RPG texts, I find it makes things clearer to either explicitly refer to who it is (even if it means typing things like “the player(s)” a lot) or to use the second person, particularly in the text of player-facing rules.[2] That isn’t to say that the passive voice is totally verboten, but it shouldn’t be showing up too much. If you have a basic toolbox of ways to refer to things in the context of RPG rules you won’t need to nearly as much.

Limit use of adverbs. A while ago Microsoft Word got an update that made the proofing tools more sophisticated, and it made my writing better in part by calling out overcomplicated ways of saying things. One bad habit I’m in the process of shaking off is a tendency to overuse words like “particularly,” “really,” and “especially.” They do have legitimate uses of course—like in the paragraph below—but you’d be surprised how often you can simply delete those words and still convey the same meaning.

Try the singular “they.” Writing up RPG rules will frequently put you in the position of writing sentences about a person of indeterminate gender. Different game writers have taken different approaches over the years. Some set up a specific convention, such as referring to players as “he” and the GM as “she,” some mix it up throughout the text, and some end up saying “he or she” or even “(s)he” a lot. Using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun has been around for a while, but the more recent trend toward gender-inclusive language has made it the most acceptable it’s ever been. I’ve gotten so used to it that I barely notice when an RPG book says something like, “When a character tries to jump across the chasm, they make an Athletics check.”

Whatever you do, be consistent. RPG texts frequently involve a lot of things that mainstream style guides don’t have any advice for. We often capitalize game terms, particularly ones for character traits (Dexterity, Weakness, Magic Missile, etc.), but there are also publishers that prefer to present and conjugate game terms more naturally, as well as one or two that italicize character traits. Capitalizing is probably the most common approach, but your real goal should be clarity and consistency, whatever form that takes.

Form Factor

The traditional form factor for an RPG is a book, and while PDFs have become a major part of the medium, those PDFs are normally electronic versions of book layouts. There have been games with significantly different forms, but books are the overwhelming majority. Particularly nowadays, books have the advantage of being relatively easy to put together. In the early years of RPGs, boxed sets were the norm, and today cost is the biggest thing making boxed sets a rarity. I’ll touch on a few other possibilities, but this chapter and the next are necessarily going to be pretty book-centric.

That said, it’s important to remember that the book is not the game. In an important sense, the game is the thing that happens at the table, a sort of mental construct and set of procedures that people share, and the book is variously a teaching tool, reference manual, and accessory. Don’t get too caught up in writing a book, because it’s ultimately the medium for transmitting the game rather than the game itself.

In this respect e-books, by which I mean formats like epub and mobipocket as used on devices like Kindle and Nook, are a bit difficult to deal with. RPGs routinely involve things like tables that those formats don’t handle well, and it takes a lot of work on the publisher’s part to give an e-book enough cross-references and such to keep it from being cumbersome to use for actual play. On the other hand, for people who own e-readers, e-book files make a very convenient way to read a book, even if they’ll likely want something else to use at the game table.[3]

You absolutely can experiment with other media. There are possibilities in things like audio files (as seen in Serial Homicide Unit), apps, game boards, etc. They’re likely to demand a rather different approach to game design, and different media have their own quirks and expenses. Print on Demand technologies have made cards a viable medium for even small-scale independent RPGs, which opens up some interesting possibilities. If you want to learn how to put together cards, I recommend checking out Daniel Solis’ SkillShare courses on the subject.

More Conscious Design

Remember that section about “conscious design” earlier in the book? I’m going to get into some specifics, but the most important thing is that graphic design is another place where conscious design is important. Font choice, positioning, similarities, alignment, color, shading, and so on are all decisions that you can make with purpose, but you need to learn what your choices are, and how to make them.

Artwork

Getting artwork done for games is one of the most enjoyable parts of the publishing process, but potentially one of the most expensive. There are many talented artists out there looking for work, but they’re looking for work, and like you and I they need to eat. You need to keep control of how much you spend on your game, but either pay the artists what they ask, or have less art. When I see a promising artist online, I usually try to contact them to inquire about their availability and rates, and pretty much just pay them what they ask, and maybe more if they’re underselling themselves. Many artists will post up commission rates and rules, in which case you can ask them for pieces per their commission categories and following the procedure they’ve devised. Artists that don’t have a listing for how they handle commissions may still be willing to take on work for you, but you’ll have to (politely) ask. There are still a lot of artists that use DeviantArt, but quite a few are now using other social media (especially Tumblr) or setting up their own sites. I’ve also found some great artists simply by networking and asking on Twitter.

It’s been my experience that different artists work differently, so you’ll need to have a certain amount of flexibility. There are artists who will surprise you by coming up with things on their own, and artists who will ask for highly detailed instructions. Both have their merits, but it’s important to understand how they work to avoid frustration for everyone concerned. If you have a very specific idea of what you want for a piece of art, take the time to write it out so that you can communicate it clearly to the artist before they start drawing. Some artists will send you a finished piece before you know it, while others will send sketches and ask for feedback before they finalize it. Also, although you shouldn’t be a pest, I’ve found that in general you have to proactively keep in touch with artists and other collaborators to keep things moving.

Stock art is an option, but a tricky one. There are several different sites like Adobe Stock, iStockPhoto, and Pond5 where you can buy photos and artwork to use in commercial projects. The major issue with these is that they cater more to things like magazines and blogs, so you’re going to wind up sorting through tons of pictures that don’t particularly fit what you’re going for. Unless you’re making a game about office workers, in which case you’re in luck. Game-centric sites like DriveThruRPG offer some cheap stock art that’s more likely to fit into a typical RPG (especially for dungeon fantasy), but I find that I need to be especially picky about quality, because there’s no real filtering like on the big stock photo sites. Regardless, be careful of the rules for usage. There are some stock pieces listed as for “editorial use,” which means that they’re only for relevant news articles and such, which have more leeway for using things like photos of Iron Man action figures.

Very few RPGs use photos, but there are exceptions like Elizabeth Sampat’s Blowback and Josh Jordan’s Heroine. Blowback uses a mixture of stock and original photos to evoke a world in the vein of the TV series Burn Notice, while Heroine uses a series of original photos with a nice fantasy feel. These games show that good photographs can do an excellent job of evoking a particular atmosphere. They’re not automatically better than artwork, but they’re certainly better for some projects, especially when they touch on genres that are strongly associated with live action. Apart from licensed games that use stills and such from TV shows, it’s still a pretty novel concept in RPGs, and if nothing else one that will make your game stand out. A few games also use artistically filtered photos, which is incredibly hard to do well. Apocalypse World and Don’t Rest Your Head use photos that are posterized to the point of being monochrome line art, and they’re about the only cases I’ve seen of an RPG using altered photos that weren’t cringe-inducing.

3D art on the other hand is pretty much a no-go for RPGs. By the time someone gets good enough at 3D modeling to produce anything worthwhile, they can get work that pays better than most RPG publishers can justify. I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong about this, but so far all the 3D art I’ve seen for RPGs has been terrible Poser[4] pictures. If you can find either quality stock 3D images or a talented 3D artist who works in your price range, it might well be worth it though. Likewise, R. Talsorian Games (which has made a lot of great games overall) was something of a laughingstock for using photos of action figures in Cyberpunk 203X. It’s not hard to imagine an RPG where well-done photos of toys would be the perfect choice, but the long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed Cyberpunk 2020 was not that game.

Depending on your subject matter, you may be able to use public domain images. Johnstone Metzger has done an impressive job of finding stunning public domain fantasy art to use in his Dungeon World books for example. Owing to large IP holders having lobbyists, it takes a very long time for stuff to fall into the public domain, but there’s still a lot out there. By U.S. copyright law, you can be sure that something is public domain if it’s from 1922 or before, which includes a great deal of beautiful fantasy and fairy tale art. Certain works have fallen into the public domain because of negligence on the part of the copyright holder (like the infamous B-movie Robot Monster), and some people have deliberately released stuff into the public domain. If it’s from 1923 or later, you’ll have to do some careful research to make sure you can in fact use it.

Creative Commons is a more recent kind of “copyleft,” where creators can voluntarily specify that others can use their creations in certain ways. There’s a wealth of CC material out there, but you have to be careful about what the specific terms of the license are. If you’re making something you intend to sell, you’ll have to be vigilant for Non-Commercial licenses, and even if it’s just a basic Attribution license, you’ll need to be sure to include the attribution.

One very useful resource you should be aware of that offers Creative Commons licenses (as well as inexpensive commercial licenses) is The Noun Project. This is a site that specializes in monochrome icons of just about anything imaginable. As I write this, the front page boasts of over 150,000 icons, and you can potentially find icons for just about any kind of subject matter. The site lets you download them in either a PNG file or an SVG file (a vector format intended for online use). Being a vector format, the SVG files have the advantage that they scale perfectly and will look sharper, though you may need to convert them to another format to use them with certain programs. Similarly, there’s a smaller site called Game-Icons.net that offers over 2,000 vector game icons with a Creative Commons Attribution license, all focused on various aspects of games. These kinds of icons aren’t a substitute for actual illustrations, but they can be good accents, not to mention being useful as actual icons. Also, although they come in black and white, keep in mind that it’s easy to color or shade them, and you can go as far as to color different bits of them differently.

Whatever kind of art you use for your game, if you have any intention of having it be in print, you need to have it be at a sufficient resolution. 300dpi is about right for most forms of printing, though higher resolution doesn’t hurt. Stuff that’s meant for viewing on a screen can be lower resolution without looking terrible. On the other hand, vector graphics are infinitely scalable, so you don’t have to worry about resolution.

Layout

If you don’t have any training in graphic design—or if you’re like me and have some but not enough—I highly recommend the book The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (a graphic designer and author, not the comedian, though by all means check out his works too). It’s a very useful book because it lays out foundational principles and provides examples.

  • Don’t center things. Center alignment has its uses, but left or right alignment usually creates a much stronger, more cohesive design.
  • Create visual relationships. Make related things look similar and group them together, and have different things look different and in different groups. For text this means using different kinds of fonts and font styles, and possibly colors as well.

For my more basic stuff I typically do the layout in Microsoft Word and output to PDF. Word is a ridiculously feature-packed program, to the point where I’m not sure there’s any one human being who knows it all, and it includes a suite of layout tools. The disadvantage of doing layout in Word is that certain things make it just lose its mind, and while in InDesign placing an image pretty much just works, Word can get really finicky at times. Columns get especially weird, and I try to avoid using them.

More basic stuff is very straightforward and efficient, though it’s helpful if you can learn to work with the grain of how Word does things. The biggest thing is to learn how to use Styles. A style is a defined format for text, and by default Word has body text in the “Normal” style and a series of Heading styles. While you can change an individual instance of text directly, it’s more efficient to just have your overall manuscript use styles and change the styles to what you want.

Although Word is a more polished piece of software overall, pretty much anything you can do in Word you can also do in LibreOffice, which is free.

InDesign is pretty much the industry standard for things like book layouts, but it’s also an expensive and relatively difficult program.

Fonts

RPG books consist mostly of text, so it’s important to make the text look good and readable. Typography is a very sophisticated field with countless works of genius, so I’m only going to try to give the most basic advice.

In typography, there’s a sharp distinction between fonts that are good for logos/headers and fonts that work well for body text. While you can make your body text stylish, it needs to be as clear and readable as possible, because it’s what readers are going to be spending the most time on. If you want to get fancy you can use something like Goudy Old Style.[5] For headers and logos, you can get away with using fonts that are too garish and gimmicky for body text, though body text fonts can also make good header fonts depending on how you use them.

RPGs typically use serif fonts (the ones with the little bits coming off the letters) like Garamond, Times New Roman, Minion Pro, etc. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but it’s important to consider that there are other options. For the printed version of this book I’m planning to use a free font called Lato (by a Polish designer named Łukasz Dziedzic), and I’m very happy with it. It’s in the same general school as the likes of Helvetica, with familiar lines and curves yet just the right amount of personality. Professional graphic designers seem to love that sort of sans serif font, and Helvetica is downright ubiquitous.[6]

Fonts are something you need to have the rights to use. Operating systems and software like word processors and layout programs will include a selection of fonts that you can use for whatever you want, but there’s a good chance you’ll want to find fonts that are more stylistically suited to your game’s general feel. There are plenty of places to buy fonts, but it can potentially get really expensive. While I have bought a few fonts over the years, I generally do so only when I can’t find something suitable for free. There are a lot of fonts available for free, but as with anything free, there’s a lot of junk along with some real gems. The FontSquirrel site collects high-quality fonts that are totally free for commercial use, and should be your first stop when you go looking for fonts to use. If you get free fonts from anywhere else, you’ll need to double-check the actual license to make sure you can use it. There are some fonts that make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial uses, which is another thing to watch out for.

Some fonts have just plain been overused, so there are a few pitfalls you might have missed if you’re not a typography nerd. Times New Roman is a perfectly good font, but it’s been used so much that it tends to feel boring. Papyrus is a decent header font (though a terrible body font), but it’s been so badly overused that graphic designers tend to despise it. Comic Sans on the other hand is just plain bad.[7] It has serious, legitimate flaws on a technical level, and if you really need a comic-y font there are many better alternatives, including a free font called Comic Neue. If you need a font in the style of comic book lettering, visit the Blambot site, which is where a lot of actual comic artists go.


[1] They later changed it to “Freeform Do-it-yourself Game Engine,” and then switched to simply calling it “Fudge.”

[2] I wound up being especially sensitive to this sort of thing because I’ve done a lot of Japanese-to-English translations. Where the passive voice is discouraged in English, in Japanese it’s actively encouraged because it’s common to omit the subject of a sentence when it can be assumed, and the passive voice reduces the need to explicitly state a new subject. Japanese RPG designers seem to find it handy, to the point where I’ve learned to make adjustments automatically while translating.

[3] Creating e-books is a somewhat arcane art. There are services that will do it for you for $100 or so, but I’ve wound up basically running a Word doc through a free program called Calibre to do it. Google Drive also now has the ability to export to EPUB format, which in turn is easy to convert to Mobipocket for Kindle.

[4] If you’re not familiar, Poser is a piece of software from Smith Micro for creating 3D animation and stills of characters. It’s possible to do some great stuff with it, but it has kind of a bad reputation because it’s just easy enough to attract a lot of people who use it precisely because they lack artistic talent.

[5] You might recognize it from Exalted.

[6] For Maid RPG, Ben Lehman chose to use a sans serif font called Gill Sans. It’s an all-around excellent font, though part of why Ben chose it was that although its creator Eric Gill was a brilliant typographer and artist, he was also a pretty massive pervert. I don’t know of any other typographers who were quite as out there, but the field certainly has its share of quirky weirdos.

[7] That said, it has a fairly interesting story behind it, and while it’s not something a serious designer should use, it’s also not something you should put too much energy into freaking out about. It was something the designer (Vincent Connare, who is actually an accomplished typographer) meant to be used for Microsoft Bob that later got sent out into the world. It also can serve a legitimate purpose, as its irregularities make it easier for people with dyslexia and certain other conditions to read.

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