Thursday, June 26, 2008

Old School and New: the Aesthetics of Layout

Gallons of digital ink are being spilled all over the grognardy intrawebs today about “old school” art and the place of such aesthetics in new products. It started with James Maliszewski’s review of Matthew Finch’s The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom. That led Noisms to wax a touch ranty on the knee-jerk reactions against innovation he sees as a toxin that limits the appeal and growth of old-school gaming. Matthew Finch responded in the comments of this response by Mr. Maliszewski with a wonderful exegesis on the art of the original publications of Dungeons & Dragons. I especially appreciate Mr. Finch’s insight into “the moment of decision” versus “the moment of action”.

Tastes, of course, can differ (just see Mr. Maliszewski’s comment about Elmore’s art being “soulless” in that last link, an opinion that will receive no support in this blog). One man’s art is another man’s birdcage lining. And I certainly will not advance the notion that the succession of RPG rules, from the early ‘70s to now, intrinsically follow any sort evolution or natural progression from worse to better. Reactions to a set of RPG rules are as subjective as reactions to a style of illustration, just as they are as much influenced by what the observer is looking for as by what is actually there.

Page layout, however, has undeniably advanced in real and important ways in the nearly forty years RPGs have been with us. This is due in part to technology, which gives just about anyone reading this blog tools for layout and composition that would have been the envy of the folks who put together the original little brown books of D&D. In addition, the science of ergonomics, which deals with how people read and learn as much as it does adjusting your chair to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, has given the graphic designer additional tools for arranging text to make it easier to read and use. If there’s one place where aping the styles of the past is foolish, it’s in layout and design. Gygax, Moldvay, and the rest did the best they could, but their tools were not up to the standards of even the most casual weekend-publisher today. So, inspired by the comments on old-school aesthetics and the impending Worldwide Adventure Writing Month, here are some simple layout and design techniques to help people get more out of the adventures you write.

Taste the Rainbow
One thing those old modules lacked was color. The interiors were entirely black-and-white. On one hand, this is can be a strength. Printing these old modules from PDFs and the like doesn’t eat through an entire color cartridge. Also, too many designers just go crazy with color. While I appreciated the aged notebook feel of the 3e core books, they were also horribly busy. All that clutter exhausts the eye and makes it harder to find what you’re looking for. If you’re going to use color, remember that less is often more.

What is color good for? Transitions, for one. I’m loathe to use my own blog as an example, only because it badly needs a facelift, but this is one area where the pre-packaged layout works fairly well. Notice how each blog entry’s title is green? As you scroll down through my most recent posts, these titles are easy to find, because nothing else looks like them. You can scroll so quickly your eye doesn’t have time to actually read the words, but you’ll still know when you’ve reached the end of a post and the beginning of another by the flash of green.

You can also use color to draw the eye to important text that’s buried in the middle of a paragraph. You probably already have experience doing this. Most of us in school used highlighters to mark up our textbooks and class notes. The bright colors of the highlighter draw the eye immediately to those sections of particular note, so you don’t have to scan up and down the page, hunting for what you’re looking for. Keeping that experience in mind, have you ever found yourself hunting through the vast, grey tracks inside a module, holding up the game while you search for information? I have, and the usual culprit is stat blocks. I love the tiny stat blocks of old school games, but they very easily blend in to the rest of the paragraph they usually inhabit. Adjusting the color only slightly, adding a bit red for instance, can make them pop out more, so you don’t hold up the game while you try to find the hell hound’s THAC0.

Find Yourself in a Drop Box
The folks doing RPG design these days love drop boxes. They’re a wonderful way to include a little bit of extra info that doesn’t really fit into the main flow of the text. They can be used for parenthetical comments, to remind the GM of special cases or situations, or as a way of offering additional options or details. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when using a drop box. First, they should be short. If you’re writing more than a handful of sentences, or more than a single paragraph in your drop box, this information probably needs to find a way into the main body of your text. Second, you really want to make sure they stand out from the rest of the document. The folks at Paizo (who are some of the best in the business right now in terms of layout) make their drop boxes stand out by use of both colors (background and text within the box) and changing the font they use inside the box. The first thing in the drop box should be its title, which ought to remind the harried GM what’s in the box. “Oh, that’s right, these goblins might ally with the PCs against the ogres in area 3. I’ll just scan this drop box real quick to remind myself of the details, just in case…”

Drop boxes are also a great way for you, the designer, to speak directly to the GMs running your adventure. You can explain why your adventure is designed the way it is, suggest ways the adventure can be adjusted in response to what the PCs do, and share amusing anecdotes of what happened when you play-tested the module. Imagine how differently the history of RPGs might have gone if Gygax had been able to use a drop box to explain that the inhabitants of the keep on the borderlands didn’t have names in the module so that each individual DM could better tailor them to fit into the preferred genre or milieu.

Wisdom of the Ancients
There are some things that I loved in those old modules I don’t see much in the new ones. I loved the handouts, for instance. These were rare, but worked really well when they were used. For instance, the infamous Tomb of Horrors and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks both included numerous black-and-white illustrations of places and things the PCs might encounter. Some second-edition AD&D adventures took things even further, giving the DM maps and letters to hand to the players as these things were discovered by the PCs. Ptolus did this as well, with all sorts of handouts like official writs and menus from different restaurants.

If you’re a weekend-publisher, any art you include is likely to represent your greatest expense in publishing. That being the case, get the most bang for your buck by making that art directly useful to the GMs running your modules. I love the way Paizo gives us portraits of important PCs in their adventures, but since those portraits are often buried in the middle of the adventure, it’s difficult to share them with the players. Make it easy for GMs to show their players a sketch of the villain’s throne room, or the rickety bridge over the bottomless gorge. And please, ditch the traditional illustration of a group of heroes facing off against a monster on the cover. Not only does that picture serve little purpose in the middle of the game, but it might even spoil details best discovered during play. If you must include cover art, make it useful. Displaying the entrance to the dungeon, for instance, would be a great use of cover art.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic, such as the interactions between serif and sans serif fonts, the placement of elements to break up blocks of text and encourage the flow of reading, and the arrangement of tables for easy use. But right now I’ve got to go whack Mr. Maliszewski upside the head with a clue-by-four. Soulless indeed…

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