Stories You Play

Home of RPGs by Matt Snyder, including Dust Devils, Nine Worlds, 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, and The Ladykillers

Archive for the month “June, 2009”

Layout Contest tutorial part 2: Designing the page

In my previous entry, I explained my initial steps for my book designs. I settled on type and some style sheets. I also mentioned sketching a page template. That’s what this entry’s all about.

I always have a mind’s eye view of my designs. I do my best to capture that imagined vision, but it isn’t always easy.

For Conspiracy of Shadows: Dirty Hands, I wanted to capture a gritty, horrific look and feel. And, I also wanted a medieval vibe. There are a number of ways to do both. Games Workshop does it to various effect in many of its Warhammer books (including the Black Industries cum Fantasy Flight Games versions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay).

For this project, I had a slightly different vision. I wanted the book to combine old typography with modern day grunge effects. I envisioned grungy scrollwork that’s been the rage the last couple years. Think stuff that looks like tatoos. Barbed scrollwork, maybe splatters of blood. But, I also wanted a more modern, “layered” look. It might still be some distressed boxes. The idea was how Keith presents his work. It has a very strong historical fantasy element. But, he also mixes it up with some modern elements. In the comic book dialog, for example, the medieval guys swear with modern words. I love that effect. It may seem anachronistic, but it works.

But, I face a challenge. Doing that kind of illustration is damn hard and tedious. I’m no illustrator, but I can use Adobe Illustrator with good results. So, I needed models. I started web searching. I was particularly interested in terms like “scrollwork” and “eastern european” and some others. I finally discovered a few inspiring pages from Serbian manuscripts and, oddly enough, the modern-day vestments of an Australian priest.


Inspiration from Serbian Manuscripts, a priest's vestments, and some lineart scrollwork.

Those helped me bring an imagined vision into some concrete terms, but I still had plenty of work ahead.

Choosing page and text sizes

For starters, I had to decide on a page size and text area. As always, I turned to my handy Bringhurst. The Elements of Tyopgraphic Style has some genius information about page size ratios, choosing text blocks, and choosing other page elements like folios, magins and so on.

I wanted to have a 2-column layout, because I never seem to make them work well. I wanted another stab at it (not to mention it’s much more like a medieval manuscript). But, I also didn’t want letter size. I’m just tired of letter size. So, I settled on one of my go-to sizes, half-legal. It’s a broad page size (7 inches x 8.5 inches). A nice, squat thing with plenty of horizontal space. From there, I had to choose a text block size and location. Bringhurst’s many ratios and ideas about “chords” of rectangles helped.

I confess I get wrapped up in the esoterric stuff with these ratios. It’s amusing to me. But, in truth, I fudge here and there. I just like to play around. Here’s my pencil sketches of page design:


My pencil sketches showing page size and text block ratios and measurements, plus some initial scrollwork ideas.

Here you can see a couple things. I sketched out the basic page (top left) and worked through the measurements (in picas — I always use picas, mainly because I'm used to them from way back). The star-pattern looking thing on the bottom left is mostly nonsense — me aping Bringhurst's stuff to learn. But, it did remind me that the page is divided evenly into thirds of 14 picas. Double that (and add a gutter) and – VOILA! – a "meaningful" column width.

Even more intersting is the stuff on the right side. That's me sketching out those initial scrollwork ideas, as well as some "hanging" illustrations with magin captions. That should make for interesting options in layout, but there really aren't any captions. Hmmm. Well, an idea for stuff later on then.

Next, I have to take all these sketches into digital form. Since I know I'm doing the scrollwork (by far the trickiest part) in Adobe Illustrator, I started there. I created a 2-page spread (just a landscape legal page), and set guides for all my magins and text block sizes. I used some gray boxes to represent text and some other elements. That way, I knew the confines of my scrollwork and other elements so I could do a very, very rough digital sketch for the shape. Like so:


The page takes shape in Illustrator. Note the crudely drawn scrollwork border overlapping with the precisely drawn version.

Here, you can see my clumsy first sketch (just drawn with me dragging the mouse on the pencil or brush tool). And, the crisper, better looking version of me making it work in the pen tool, which is my secret weapon in illustrator. I did a similar process to this when I designed folios for Nine Worlds.

The page started taking shape. But, I knew I had a problem. So far, I couldn’t figure out how to give the page design that layered, more modern shape I was trying to capture. So, I just started drawing more rectangles, though not entirely without purpose. I was thinking about where chapter headings, even guide words could go. Here’s the result:

The final page prototype. Note the angled bars top left and horizontal bars top right. I placed the inspiration art to test illustration locations on the template.

The final page prototype. Note the angled bars top left and horizontal bars top right. I placed the inspiration art to test illustration locations on the template.

The page finally takes shape. From vision to form. But, there’s still a lot of work to do, not least of all the scroll work. And, of course, pagination of the text itself. Both of those will take a lot of time to complete.

Layout Contest tutorial part 1: Choosing fonts

I’ve designed over a dozen RPG books over the years. My process isn’t set in stone, but I have some good habits that help me tackle big projects. These first steps are often the most fun.

My process isn’t linear. I don’t decide one thing then move on to the next thing. Rather, I have parallel tasks that inform one another. At the start, I have a very visual thought in mind. I can actually imagine what I want the page to look like. That includes page elements, basic ideas about type (fonts), and how artwork might look on the page.

In short, that really boils down to:

  • Setting up styles to the text
  • Choosing fonts
  • Imagining, and maybe actually sketching, a page spread
  • Printing out all the art and just looking at it over and over again to “absorb” it & memorize it

For Conspiracy of Shadows: Dirty Hands, I wanted some way to convey the combined ideas of Medieval-ness (with a heavier historical feel than most fantasy RPGs) and the idea of diabolic horror. Like many of my designs, I do that by identifying the perfect fonts. Typography is probably my strongest design skill, so I use that skill to make the look and feel very strong and unified.

Here, the challenge proved much more difficult than it normally is for me.

I started with this — a small sample of the text with different heading sizes to play with:

Text with styles from Microsoft Word

Text with styles from Microsoft Word

First, the text doesn’t hasve a lot of sidebars or charts. There’s not really a need for an alternative typeface for those things. The body copy font will probably work fine.

Second, I want a body copy that is usable and high quality, but that isn’t too pristine. I wanted it to have a slight edge. Adobe Garamond, for example, is an awful fit for this. It’s a sinuous, voluptuous font. Very smooth. I kept coming back to Centaur, a font I used on Ben Lehman’s Polaris. But, it’s extremely thin and elegant. So, I kept looking. I had to look for over a week (usually this takes me a couple hours), and turn to my type bible, The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. There, I discovered a pretty common serif font that I’ve never worked with called Jenson. It’s a close cousin of Centaur, but more sturdy. Perfect! I’m using Adobe Jenson.

Third, I wanted an evocative display font. I searched around on some font sites I’ve used before and finally stumbled on Bogatyr. I was looking for Eastern European influenced designs, and this one came up. It’s styled on Russian folktale art. Neat! I figured I was set.

But, meanwhile I was also looking for a good Blackletter, which Keith Senkowski hinted he wanted to see. Blackletters are great, but damned hard to read, I think. I’m rarely happy with them in any form. I tried my go-to standards (Goudy Old Style, San Marco, and Notre Dame were good ones I looked at), then it hit me. I wanted that typeface from the titling on the movie There Will Be Blood. I found two similar versions for free (non-commercial use, which is what I’m up to) with a little searching. Both are TrueType fonts, which I often avoid like the plague, but they were too fun to pass up. One’s called German Underground. The other — I kid you not — is called Kraut-type-a-fuck. This amuses me almost as much as it amuses Keith.

So, I finally settled on my typefaces. Adobe Jenson for the body copy and examples. I’m using German Underground for titling (it’s distressed and all grunge like — perfect for the horror vibe), and the Kraut-type-a-fuck for smaller headings. That leaves maybe some Bogatyr here and there for color, or maybe not at all.

Here’s the screenshot above reworked:

Here's the same page re-styled with the fonts selected.

Here's the same page re-styled with the fonts selected.


Happy Little Accidents. Tap tap tap.

See that type at the bottom of the screenshot? That was one of those moments I love in design. It was pure accident. I had that type as Bogatyr, just playing around with its Cyrillic characters. Later, I changed the style sheets to German Underground and forgot about that text on the bottom. When I saw the Conspiracy of Shadows title in that font, I knew I had a perfect logo title without really meaning to! That happens in design all the time. Just play around, or even make a mistake, and you see things a new way. It just takes time.

Here’s the titling so far:


Now that looks pretty sharp. Perfect for the game, and just what I was going after. That’s the key to design — putting your visual ideal into reality. You won’t hit it exactly every time. I don’t even come close. But, it’s taking an idea to real form, sometimes by accident, that gets you vision. Vision is crucial for design.

I’m going to have fun playing with that logo and some grunge styling on Keith’s artwork for the cover. But, I’ll get to that later.

Next, I need to tackle creating a page template for all the inside pages. I’ve got some vision for that already, and I’ll post screenshots when I get them created.

Layout contest underway

I kicked off the layout contest for Conspiracy of Shadows: Dirty Hands, hosted right here on

Luke Crane, Keith Senkowski, and I challenge you to create an amazing book layout during the month of June, 2009. Each participant who meets the challenge receives Dust Devils and Nine Worlds PDFs. And, the big winner of the best book design receives free RPG books, including ENnie nominee Mouse Guard.

I’m really eager to see what people come up with for the contest. Meanwhile, I’ll be doing my own layout and posting here as I develop my own design. I’m just doing it for fun, maybe offering a few tips along the way. I’m not a participant in the contest.

Post Navigation