Under the Hood – Presenting for the Future


Presenting for the Future
By The Warden

DerVerkehrderZukunftOK, things went a little astray from the original topic last week, but I got all of that out of my system. Now we can return to our original programming.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the role original artwork plays in the interpretation and initial impact of a roleplaying game, but the visual arts goes far beyond pencil strokes and full-colour cover paintings. Roleplaying game production is a very visual art with demands and expectations similar to magazines and textbooks. Borders, font selection, colour arrangement and/or coding (take D&D‘s 4th edition as a prime example), charts, and symbology (even something as simple as providing dice tokens or pictograms explaining how to assemble and read your dice) are all standard considerations when an RPG is put together for the first time. For this continuation of the previous discussion, we’re talking about graphic design.

While there are many viewpoints and overall techniques in graphic design, such as the minimalist approach providing plenty of white space on the page, performing layout on a roleplaying product offers its own challenges and expectations to appease the average reader. As a current graphic design student and “retired” press operator, I’ve often thought putting together a complete layout for an RPG product would make for a perfect final project for students. It has everything you need to test your skills and knowledge, combining the eye-appealing visual presentation of a flashy magazine with the consistency and easy-referencing tricks found in your common textbook. When you think about it, RPG books are really just informative magazines with pictures of less realistic models, or sweet textbooks with better information than the number of people who signed some document in 1846.

As it has with artwork, the bar for a game’s graphic design has risen significantly over the last 15 years as print quality, output flexibility, and graphic resources have improved. When the original volumes of our favourite games were printed during the early 70s and 80s, text layout was done using old fashioned stripping methods where exposed film was taped and assembled to make plates. (I kid you not, the original technique before we had Quark and InDesign was known as “stripping.” I took a stripping class in college seven years ago. And no, the final exam wasn’t performed on a stage, it was the kind of stripping where you could accidentally cut your finger.) With computers, it’s entirely possible for anyone with the right skills and training to design a book as professional looking as any major publisher (which in turn has lead to the major publishers ramping up their efforts by improving their print quality, hence the standard $50 price tag for a core rulebook and limited edition leather-bound volumes).

Unlike traditional artwork, maps, or other forms of visual aids, a game’s layout can have a dramatic effect on its use during a game. The information has to be provided in a manner that’s easy to reference on the fly as well as allow first-time readers a visually appealing body of text. While many of these tricks are simple font-based solutions (using bold or italics or both to highlight key terms, headers to break apart sections, bullet points to demonstrate lists), other tactics can be applied for faster assistance during play. It’s all something we’ve investigated previously in highly regarded, award-winning, and short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG where numerous graphic techniques were applied to help new players learn a game involving a somewhat complex dice pool system. For a product expected to reach a non-roleplaying audience, it was a very wise decision, though a shame that it wasn’t able to pull in enough green to keep the product alive past a year.


As print technology shifts further and further into the digital age, what’s become key for many traditional (AKA non-roleplaying) publishers is the need for digital versions of their products, something the RPG industry has already handled for over a decade. Unfortunately, the digital shift has strayed into e-books and e-readers where the focus relies solely on text. Great for reading a novel, but very tricky when your ability scores are provided in a chart and one simple font size increase can turn it into a tab-based nightmare. Once again, RPGs stand out amongst all others, but now have the option to work on many advanced e-readers that can handle PDFs.

Personally speaking, I find PDFs are a far superior tool for presenting a new roleplaying game for one feature alone: layers. It’s not something a lot of publishers are aware of and it’s evident in how their files are presented: a ZIP folder containing a complete version (all the graphics and colour intact), a print-at-home version (with no artwork or colour whatsoever), and possibly one or two more versions of the same product to suit any Gamemaster’s needs. Layers allow you to mix them all into a single product file for the user to select what they want to see and what they want to print, all at a single click of a button. You can even provide a player’s version of the core rulebook with unlockable sidebars written solely for the GM’s eyes.

There are other tools as well, such as linked text (something put to excellent use by Paizo for their Pathfinder PDFs), bookmarks, and more, but all of these resources paled in comparison to holding a good old fashioned print copy in your hands… until the rise of the tablet. While opinions still vary, many players and Gamemasters prefer to use PDF editions of their rulebooks and adventures at the table and with the increase in virtual gaming – from playing via Hangout to virtual tabletop apps such as Roll20 – the PDF is becoming not only a better application for gamers everywhere, but a viable financial option for publishers both entrenched in success and up-and-coming.

With so many innovative tools providing new alternatives and enhancements to play existing games, the time is due for there to be a new way for RPGs to reach our grubby little fingers, is it not? For all these advancements in layout, publication, and distribution, what remains is a static method of presentation. A book – virtual or traditional – using words on a page with graphic add-ons explaining how the game is played, examples of the game in action, and breakdown of the mechanics, setting, and tips for the GM when the time has come to drop some dice for this sucker. The question remains how this will come to light and, in all honesty, an incredible opportunity for any significant publisher to seize as a means of elevating themselves above the hundreds of others found on scroll lists across the web. The only problem with that theory is the ultimate sign of success in business: brick-and-mortar stores.

For example, one of the most successful marketing tools for non-traditional tabletop games is Wil Wheaton’s YouTube show, Tabletop. Games that make an appearance at his table get a huge boost in some rather large box stores, such as Target and Walmart, but it’s expected the take-home cut to any publisher is significantly lower than it would be through digital distribution. Still, any of us would absolutely freak to find our game on a shelf in one of these stores and that means traditional publishing. So odds are it will be up to the little guys to break that barrier and find a new means of presenting their game while keeping everything in tabletop mode, as it is with most innovations. Don’t like a certain rule in your game? Simply click it out of your book and every player in your campaign has theirs instantly updated. Want to revise the next adventure for a higher-level party? No problem, consider it done. Need more space for feats on your character sheet? Done with a swipe of your finger. And why settle for traditional hand-drawn black-and-whites when your players can check out an animation of the red dragon swooping down to unleash its white-hot breath? The possibilities are as endless as our ability to find new ways to insert Cthulhu into alternate universes and I can’t wait to see what happens.

With the RPG industry, not Cthulhu. I’m happy living in a non-chaotic universe, thank you very much.

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