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  • Writer's pictureJames Kerr

TTRPGs Should Read Like Magazines

How Moonlight on Roseville Beach schools the indie ttrpg industry


I work in magazines, and I've always been adamant that table-top role-playing games should take more lessons from magazines. Magazines have had more than 100 years to develop a visual language of how to lead the eye to absorb dense information. In over-simplified terms, just like how an advertisement can be visually designed to capture your attention, magazines have approaches in editorial design to attract you to an article and get you reading. We know these principals and there are many books on them. Why, then, do most ttrpgs present page after page of grey wall of text? Hard to read, hard to know how to approach, single columns blobs of nonsense. There's stuff in there you're interested in, but they're making it as hard as possible to approach that information. This is why many folks "bounce off" ttrpg books even if they already know (or even love!) the game.


The recently fulfilled kickstarter Moonlight on Roseville Beach by R. Rook Studio, created by Richard Ruane, is far from that. In fact it's probably has the best art design of any ttrpg on my shelf. And there's good reasons why.


I've read the book, read the pdf, and this is not a review exactly, but a look at why Moonlight on Roseville Beach is such a good example of a well-executed design philosophy, what layout approach can mean in the ttrpg space, and what we have to learn.


The Layout Deficit

Publishing in ttrpgs, especially indie ttrpgs, is an unfair structure. To publish you are expected to take up several profession's work of skill sets—writing, editing, graphic design, layout design (as distinct from graphic design—here I'm talking about the page design aspects as mentioned above) not to mention all the business-running, circulation, and publishing duties necessary to get the thing out. There's more, but, that's a fine list. The point is there's very few people who have all those skills, and I think it's unreasonable to expect each one-person ttrpg publisher (or more-or-less one-person) to cover all that skill territory.


(Quick plug—that's why I think the Indie Game Developer Network (IGDN) is such an important resource for networking your skill sets with other's skill sets. Find out more at www.igdnonline.com.)


Simply put, most ttrpgs are laid out horribly because the people doing it, understandably, don't have several professions worth of foreknowledge to draw upon. Auteur ttrpg publishers, strapped for time and money, focus on rules development as their first love, and—if they have to—writer's craft. Few of them really dive deep into visual design principals (beyond the dogs-playing-poker philosophy of knowing they like good art pieces when they see them) unless they've partnered with someone with has made layout and design their interest.


Illustration is held as sacred in the ttrpg industry. You are only as good as your last cover. That's normal, it's the same way in magazines, and in fiction publishing. Indie ttrpg publishers usually treat layout as a means to an end. Maslow's hierarchy of needs vis-à-vis ttrpg design goes:

  1. Mechanics and thorough rules development

  2. Cover Illustration

  3. Internal Illustrations

  4. Editing, if we have to, I guess

  5. Maybe even Sensitivity Reading

  6. Iconography and incidental art

  7. And then, at the bottom of things, Page Layout

The problem comes from—and why I think this is worth writing about—that on the consumer-end, folks don't think the same way. For someone you want to pick up the book and read and play the thing, that chain of priority probably looks something more like:

  1. Cover Illustration

  2. Brand Culture; marketing, hype, presence on social media

  3. Page Layout, which is not a conscious catch

  4. Internal Art and iconography

  5. And then as a consideration only after the thing is bought: Mechanics

As a rules developer myself I hate to admit, but ttrpgs (like magazines) are a visually-dominated medium. The mechanics themselves people do not care about until after they've bought the book and read it...the latter part of which might never happen. There are exceptions. People are all different from each other, etc. And there's a stigma against (or rather for) certain mechanical structures in the industry. But in terms of how these things get from con floor to game table, I think that's a fair rough sketch.


Editorial layout matters more than you'd think, and certainly more than the industry thinks. Moonlight on Roseville Beach seems acutely aware of that.


Moonlight Cast on Gorgeous Layouts

Every page in Moonlight on Roseville Beach matters. Just opening up a random page shows you that care was put into how that page should look. But more than that—because many layout designers can achieve that—the book works as a whole.


For example, look at how they've kept key information headers on the upper third of the left-hand pages so there are multiple levels of reading—not just deep reading, but leafing-through becomes a relevant activity for absorbing key information. They could have just as easily used the upper-third of the right-hand page to do the same thing, but the left-hand serves their chapter separation double-page spreads (DPS') a little better, I think.


Let me tell you, it was much more likely that the book would not work as a whole with the attention placed on individual pages, which is an execution philosophy normally reserved for magazine structures. It's hard to communicate how risky some of this stuff must have been in the planning stages. For example:

  • In editorial layout the easiest thing is to make a good parent page and stick to it for a standard look. Moonlight does have a parent page structure but I think it's only used about half the time.

  • The other half the time stock art (though well-researched and well-sourced stock) is arranged expertly to provoke reader engagement with the material.

  • The art they're using is old, and doctoring it up so that it would look consistent would have been a challenge. The art spans about 25 year time stretch and would not have been persevered with a consist quality. It also is of substantially different styles—which you wouldn't think looking at them because they're married so well to their layouts.

  • The DPS' are gorgeous if you can do them but they're also a liability to page count. I can only imagine the stress of planning that out for a 162 page book, which means someone really knew what they were doing.

This is not as simple as "pretty-pictures = book-likie". This is a grand manipulation of the senses designed to trick you into getting into the world of the game, wrangle you into reading its text, and spring-boarding you into both the play of it and the culture of enjoying and sharing it, just like I'm doing now. And I'm not even talking about the game mechanics.


Example TTRPGs with Magazine-like Layouts

I love the indie ttrpg space, and I'm going to say something offensive to it—the "big companies" tend to have the best layouts. Obviously, this is because they can afford to hire a dedicated layout artist who knows what editorial design should look like—largely borrowing from magazine principals, I'll note.


Some of the best ttrpg layouts on my shelf, based on magazine principals as pertinent to this analysis, are:

  • Tales from the Loop by Free League

  • Avatar Legends by Magpie Games

  • Most of the licensed games from Modiphius, most notably, I think, Dune

It's not a coincidence that even still these are all examples of pulling from vast libraries of pre-existing visual assets, or a pre-existing property with an already established and easy-to-copy visual style. That is a huge leg up, because it means the art assets are done, or at least conceptually set, and more attention can be put to how they come together in layout.


Open a magazine and open any of those books, side by side, and you'll see the similarities in layout approach.


Moonlight on Roseville Beach manages to achieve a phenomenal layout, taking more risks that the big companies, and achieving what I think is a more compelling product. Hats off to Dai Shugars, art director and layout artist.


Layouts Beyond Layouts

We get tunnel vision in the ttrpg industry and we forget that we're effectively asking people to sit down and read what amounts to a textbook. When you've done it a few times that's fine, that's normal, but in terms of getting people into the hobby it's a barrier to entry. The goal of editorial layout is just to make you read it. It's literally a set of principals designed to smooth entry.


That's part of why I like digest-sized and trade paperback sized books so much for publishing. It does not serve every game to be a huge honking A4 or Letter-sized tome with grey walls of text, which is a tradition we only inherited because it was the cheapest available printing method at the time and layout design was not considered a high priority for amateur publishers in the 1970s.


We have come...or should have come...a ways since then.


Fight to Survive

When I did the layout of my new ttrpg Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart (just came out, shameless-plug link is here: drivethrurpg.com/product/426073/Fight-to-Survive) it was with magazine layout principals in mind. I wanted each page to capture its own excitement, and more-or-less sucker the eye into reading it despite yourself. For instance:

  • Frequent call-out boxes to segment information

  • Flagrant use of pull quotes—a lesson I learned from the layouts in Cyberpunk: 2020. People love pull-quotes. It's a cheap (in terms of space) way to get people into the lore. Why isn't the industry using pull quotes more?

  • Unusually wide gutters

  • A deep and abiding love of bullet points, as you can also see here

Of course this meant that even at the writing stage I had to be aware of how the information was going to sit on the page. None of this is what ttrpg Writers want to hear, of course.


Not All Design

I should note that magazine-style is not the only layout style worth adopting for ttrpg layouts. There many great "zine"-style layouts in the last few years. I think the best example of this, far and above, is Mothership by Tuesday Knight Games. Another good example is Troika! by Melsonian Arts Council, although that kooky text might be more traditional in its layout approach than it first appears, with its love of negative space.


Digital layouts—designing a page to be read on the screen—are also, of course, a completely different animal. What works on the page does not work on the screen. That's a whole other topic, and I'll do a post about that someday.


The Take Away

Go pick up a magazine, flip to some editorial, and see if you can think about those principals in your own ttrpg layout. We can't all be as good as Moonlight on Roseville Beach, but we can try.


James Kerr

Radio James Games

www.radiojamesgames.com

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