Layout: What am it, even?

A series of posts on Layout, because I can’t put all of this on one page.

Part 1: What is layout, why should we do it, and why should we listen to you?

Having written about how to use art, and what works, and what I think doesn’t, I realised a couple of things. I was drifting into talking about layout, and I was drifting into talking about layout because that’s really what is at the basis of why you use art. I was giving examples, but where the art goes is a specific example of what layout is, and I haven’t actually explained that…

So, here we go. And before we start, I’m going to note that I’m about to abuse the word ‘font’ horribly. (What I mean is usually going to be ‘typeface’ but that doesn’t matter to most people, and rather than get into semantics, I’m just going to say that if you use the word ‘font’ you’ll be understood, and you don’t need to pick up the jargon to do this right.) This is also going to be mostly related to adventures, which is what BWT have created most of. I’m also going to abuse the English language in various other ways, as and when I wish, and there’s little you can do about that.

I’ve done several adventures and sourcebooks for the Beer With Teeth publishing cooperative, on the Jonstown Compendium. That’s Chaosium’s fan publishing arm for the RuneQuest line. I’m also an artist, but I’m not a trained layout artist or designer. However, I’m not telling you I’m a pro; I’m telling you what I do and why, and things that you should think about.

Layout’s a way of making things look good, and making them readable. For RPG books, we want to do both of those things, and we want to balance them, so we’ll ignore the other use cases1Technical writing exists at one end of a scale that has comic books at the other. Fight me., and assume we’re after getting across information and aesthetics equally.

You’ve got the option of creating your own template, or using the official Jonstown Compendium one. I’m going to say that using the Jonstown Compendium Template is a good first step, and it will let you know what you want to change, if you get there. Beer With Teeth have messed with it a bit, but our layout sticks pretty closely to it. You don’t have to do it that way, but if you do it differently, make sure you are consistent with yourself throughout. I am going to assume a two column structure, because if you’re doing something else, this sort of guide is not for you. You’ll definitely learn a lot if you look at other people’s work, but until you know the basics of what you’re doing, stick to the basics. Get ideas from others; use the tool that Chaosium provided. You don’t have to use every part of it, but it’s a good start. My go-to for ignoring all of these rules, incidentally, is Ork Borg. If you take a look, and you’re reading this, also try to work out which rules it’s secretly keeping, while pretending to throw them all out.

Layout works best when there is some kind of simple, repeatable pattern of how information is put over. This is not a pattern like knitting, or a background chequerboard, but a pattern of *information*. Headers should be big and clear, and each size of header should mean the same amount of importance attaches to the thing you’re about to say. Stat blocks should be consistent. Text should have few changes of font. Colours should not be jarring2Unless you’re publishing Ork Borg..

Layout is not about squooshing in as much text as possibly to a space. If you’re finding you try to do that, either you need more pages, or you need an editor. Your text isn’t as important as you think. What is important is the ease and pleasantness of readability. Does the finished product get over what needs to be communicated, and does it do so in a way that is easy to read without adding mental burden to a person?

How, though? Well, many ways. Part 2 starts with a pretty obvious one: not switching fonts too much.

  • 1
    Technical writing exists at one end of a scale that has comic books at the other. Fight me.
  • 2
    Unless you’re publishing Ork Borg.

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