Design Postmortem

What I learned from designing a DND module “magazine” from scratch, completing every aspect of creation

First of all, I’m quite proud. I really did create everything from scratch. I didn’t use a template or tools for the document layout, and I didn’t use any of the stock photos and stock illustrations that DMsguild provides on their website (which are in an out of date color profile and are unusable unless you update them).

The Things I Did Right (we must toot our own horns to fight against the cold grip of low self esteem):

There are a few things that I’m happy about.

I think my choice of typography was solid, at the very least, legible and not too distracting. The use of sans-serif for the main text and the old-timey IM Fell for the read-alouds seemed to have a decent symbiosis. I do love the typography of the standard DND document, but we don’t have to be shackled by it. I’m happy I experimented with mixed type.

The color palette is simple enough, muted yellows and purples on a warm “paper” background, and I think it works. Again, at the very least I don’t think my choices were a distraction or over-designed.

While the illustrations aren’t those 20 hours-of-work-a-piece professional joints you see in DND branded materials, I liked doing them, I liked drawing in the rough expressive gestural style, and I’m happy with how they turned out.

I think I paid some nice attention to the smaller details. I added bookmarks to the PDF, I had a running header above the page number, and I created some nontraditional custom character and paragraph styles that I think aid to legibility, namely underlining checks and saves.

Finally, one of the biggest compliments I’ve received about the project is that it “looks legit.” This is the highest praise. If it’s not an absolute wow stunning amazing document, at least it looks professional. This is what makes me proud. I can say, “okay, this may have flaws, but I’m not absolutely humiliated by putting it out there.”

The Very Important Lessons I Learned For Next Time

  1. You must draft the fuck out of your script. You do not want to be using the story editor in InDesign to complete a whole draft of the document. I didn’t do that, and the tool itself is great for what it is. I just wish I didn’t have to edit the text in the indesign document. It would have been way easier if I had just drafted the original script to hell before beginning. Also, I’m not the best copyeditor for myself, so I found plentiful mistakes to correct. This all relates to number two:
  2. There are strengths and weaknesses to the use of threaded text throughout the entire document. I used a two-column layout, 12 point font, with some fun images etc. placed around the pages. All 20+ pages of the script were threaded from page to page. The benefit is that it of course feels like one big cohesive document. The deficit was that I was making layout adjustments every time I adjusted the body text. For the future, I will split up the text into segments to limit this.
  3. Legibility is key. As an exercise, I went to the library and took some photos of some big, successful magazines. A lot are image-heavy, which can have gorgeous outcomes. However, the dnd document needs to be legible and predictable; if the DM is hurriedly darting their eyes around on the over-designed haute couture art statement just trying to find the text to read when the players open the door, the designer has lost. Function first. That said, frankly, I think I could have taken more risks. Making the document fun for the DM to read is very important, and I believe that rethinking the layout of an RPG book page is an extremely worthy exercise. Could a grid based layout be leveraged to make an rpg page even better than a blog post with pictures? I’d have to thread the needle between experimentation and utility. A block of text with headers allows the reader to find the relevant information easily. A bunch of shit placed in a nonlinear layout runs the serious and very real risk of looking interesting and being unusable. But think… what if a Cthulu dungeon had some sort of spiral layout that made the players watch their DM turn the document around in their hands to understand it? Could be very cool, but probably only once? Lots to think about.
  4. I think it would have been great to have more images. More illustrations in general. Namely, I think with a dungeon crawl, I think I would have liked to have a minimap in a corner showing which room in the dungeon the page takes place. Having the foot x foot dimensions of the rooms listed under the header where relevant would have been a nice touch. I think those cool illustration footers or illustrated margins are dope. In a weird way, I think colored illustrations are sort of overrated? It’s a game of imagination, and I think a black and white illustration has just as much impact as some fully rendered “photograph” of the monster. Basic impressionist art thinking there.
  5. color formatting: I think next time, I’ll make two versions. I’ll include a plain, uncolored, black and white document that’s printer friendly, text only with a wide bottom margin and a wide right side margin for note taking. No images, just straight text. Then, the “main” version, we can experiment with bold background colors,
  6. Don’t reinvent the wheel. I think I’m going to save all of the character and paragraph styles and just redefine them for future documents.

I will provide further thoughts in the future

There’s a lot to think about. I’m excited to make more! I’m especially excited because I feel like this is the stuff that I’m meant to do. I love to do everything involved here. I think there’s a potential for making a fully fictional story with this same format. Another thing to think about.