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Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

Picture This

by Mike Martinez
Dec 30,2003


Musings of a Would-Be Game Designer

By Mike Martinez

Picture This

As we continue to soldier on in the writing and production of our new d20 System game, Spacebuckler, I've been studying various d20 products and other games from small publishers, comparing them to the major games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade and GURPS to see how they stack up.

Generally, I've been impressed with the writing. Sure, some small-publisher products are just plain bad, but certainly far less than I would have guessed. And there's a bit more twinkery in some d20 products than I would have liked - enough with the over-powered feats and prestige classes, already! But for the most part, there are a lot of great writers out there taking advantage of the d20 System and the inexpensive PDF publishing route, just as we hope to do with Spacebuckler.

The biggest difference I've found between the big guys and us little guys is in illustration and layout, and quite frankly, it doesn't look good for the small publishers. Major releases from White Wolf and Wizards of the Coast have raised the bar for graphic presentation in game books. The layout is crisp, with interesting page elements such as boxes and borders that contribute to the book's "feel" without being too loud or obnoxious. And the art is evocative of the settings described within the text.

I recently flipped through a few d20 System books from small publishers - names will be withheld to protect the guilty. What did I find? Sloppy layout for one. Chapter titles and subheads were often misused, their fonts mismatched and sizes inconsistent. There were a few cases of sentences cut off in layout, their remnants never to be found in the book. One publisher thought that 11/2-inch border art would be nifty, but all it did was dominate the page and detract from the text. Another slapped in a border that had nothing to do with the topic - probably a cut-and-paste job from another book. And yet another had massive margins around the text with nothing but white space, making the text look small and rather lonely in the middle of the page.

And finally, there's art. Some publishers appear to be lucky - perhaps they have a friend who's a great illustrator, or they're able to afford the $100 or so per illustration for quality work. The majority, however, appear to have plucked their artwork from the standard pool of fantasy clip art. Either that, or somebody decided to let their cousin or brother-in-law have a crack at illustration, despite a lack of talent. Many of the illustrations were only tangentially related to the nearby text.

Don't get me wrong. Good art is extremely hard to come by, especially for small publishers, and good layout takes a steady and experienced hand. But these things have an effect on the reader, and poor art and layout can turn off many would be customers whose expectations have been set by the excellent work seen in major publishers' products. So while many small publishers can only do so much, you cannot ignore the visual aspects of your book.

The Art of Spacebuckler

I've been very lucky when it comes to art and layout. My good friend, John, has been an artist for many moons, and although the demands of career and real life have taken him away from his pens and paper for a while, he's taken to illustrating Spacebuckler like a fish to water.

And as we've spread the word about our game, we've had interest from other artists hoping to spread their wings beyond standard fantasy fare. Some, of course, wanted to charge us the usual $50 to $100 per black-and-white illustration, which naturally we can't afford. But one excellent artist, Patrick Crusiau, has volunteered his services in exchange for being published. Now, of course we were wary about such an offer - is he any good? Then we saw his work. He's really good. We signed him to a volunteer contract as quick as we could. Sure, he's in Belgium, but that's what the Internet is for. Besides, with me in Washington (soon to be New York City), Drew just outside Tokyo and John in upstate New York, one more telecollaborator isn't a big deal.

So what have we ended up with? Check out our art gallery online. Most of these are just preproduction sketches designed to allow me some feedback on the eventual finished product. That feedback is critical throughout the art process, as it allows the writer (me) to have a say in what's depicted. Indeed, we spent a lot of time in e-mail, going back and forth on how certain aspects of the setting should look, before the first sketches were drawn. And the artists, in turn, have given me good ideas as well that are working their way into the text.

Of course, despite having two talented artists on board, it's impossible for them to illustrate the entire book. Even with an average of one piece of art per four pages, we'd be looking at more than 50 illustrations. That's a lot to ask of volunteers. So the next question became what could we do to help fill in the gaps.

As a general rule, each two-page spread in a book should have something to break up the text. Often, that's a quarter- or half-page illustration. But there are other options. Sidebars, done up in a separate text box, can serve that purpose, especially if you use your layout tools to shade the box, change the font and dress it up with some graphical elements like a fancy border. In the case of Spacebuckler we'll also have a fair amount of stat boxes and charts, which can do the same thing. And we'll also have a number of maps for the planets, cities and settlements.

But even with all that, we'll still be faced with a number of text-only pages. Sadly, because of our budget, we're going to have to resort to clip art. However, we're going to be very judicious about how we use it. First off, we're not going to dip into the same well of fantasy clip art that's up for sale at and other sites. Our setting - an alternate solar system set in the late 1700s - just doesn't lend itself well to wizards and knights. However, because of our strong historical roots, we'll be able to use clip art taken from the period. Any good Web search on clip art will result in a treasure trove of off-copyright clip art from major libraries around the world, available by subscription for around $10 a month, or a few cents per download. I've found numerous hand-drawn illustrations and woodcuts taken right from the very same historical time period. From jungle settings - perfect for our vision of Venus - to ships battling in the ocean, we have plenty of extremely relevant illustrations to choose from. If we have time, we may even plug a few of them into Photoshop to add in our space fantasy elements.

Now, none of these will be truly "centerpiece" illustrations - the cover, our character class portraits and our chapter lead-in art will all be done by John and Patrick. But these historical images will certainly be good for fill-in quarter-page art, and we'll sift through to find only the ones that truly lend themselves to Spacebuckler.

Is clip art for everyone? I suppose it can be, but I would say you'd have to be extremely cautious about what you use. You should look at every bit of art you want to use and ask yourself whether you can truly see this image when you picture your game. And you should ensure that you place the art in a relevant place - my jungle clip-art, for example, would look pretty stupid when discussing the icy wastes of Europa, but it would make sense when discussing the Survival skill as well as the Venus section.

A Word on Layout

I don't pretend to be an expert in layout - I just learned the basics of Quark about six months ago as part of my day job. But having worked in newspapers and magazines for over a decade, I'd like to think I've picked up a few things that I plan to apply to the layout of Spacebuckler.

First of all, your game book shouldn't be treated like a college term paper - don't shrink your margins to make your page count, and don't make your body text any bigger than 12-point. In fact, 10- or 11-point is more than enough for most readers. Take a look at the professionally published game books on your shelf - there's about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch margins all the way around, and that's it.

Some folks don't like page borders, but I'm a fan. It's a nice graphical element that catches the eye and looks professional. It can be as simple as the Vampire faux ironwork border, no more than a quarter-inch thick all the way around, or as complex as the thick border you've seen in most WoTC products. However, I would suggest making your borders no more than 3/4 of an inch thick on the side, and 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch on the top and bottom. Indeed, you may choose to do only one border - top, bottom or side. Just make sure the border is relevant and looks professional. I remember one publication - again, not to be named - that did a cut-and-paste seashell border for its sidebars that looked like it was cribbed from a greeting card. Ouch.

We're going to hand-draw our border - just a side border - to reflect the Spacebuckler setting. We'll likely have a planet or two, a sailing ship, perhaps a compass, an alchemical beaker, that sort of thing. The trick will be to make it visually interesting, but to keep it as a piece of background, not as something that will arrest the reader's attention on every single page.

We're also setting standards right now for our fonts, chapter headers and subheads. A look at the Spacebuckler home page will give you an idea of the kind of font I'm considering for our chapter and section headers - something that looks older and hand-written, like the spidery script of a long-lost treasure map. Whatever we decide upon, it'll have to be legible and add to the feel of the game. Note that we are NOT going to use that font for our main text! Can you imagine the headaches? I'm a big fan of Book Antigua for our main text, but good old Times New Roman is fine, too. Something legible and easy to read is key here.

And finally, layout should be consistent. You should develop a style sheet for your book before you start laying it out. That sheet should consist of how your body text will look (11-point Arial, for example), how your various headers will look (20-point for the Chapter header, 16-point for the Section header and 14-point for subheads, all in Blackadder font), and how your tables should be laid out (9-point Arial). If you use bullets or other layout tricks - highly recommended to break up huge blocks of imposing text - those should be in the style sheet as well.

In the end, your book should look as professional as possible. None of us have the resources of a WoTC, White Wolf or Steve Jackson Games, but with a good eye for art and a near-anal attention to detail, you can come pretty close.

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