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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bad Design

Randall has some disparaging things to say about most "professional"-looking RPG products, and I completely agree. In particular, I don't think the White Wolf books, the WotC D&D books, or Nobilis were all that good-looking. It's like people are blinded by the glitz and didn't think about the usability.

Specific points Randall raises that I'd like to comment on:

Page Backgrounds should hardly ever be used. If you are going to use them at all, use a simple design, one to four large symbols, at about 5% grayscale, or a very pale blue, red, green, or yellow. And only use it intermittently, like on the first page of a chapter. Use it to help readers navigate, not because you think it's pretty. Solid colors that are much lighter than the color of the text may be reasonable, as well. Busy designs are crap, because then you have trouble reading overprinted text; for this reason, don't use them unless the busy part of the background is in the top half or bottom half of a page that's only half-full of text.

Borders, as Randall says, should be functional. One function he doesn't mention is as a divider. If, for example, you have a border on the top and bottom of the page, and page headers above the top border, page numbers below the bottom border, then the borders are separating the main text from the page headers and page numbers. That's useful. A border between the sidebar and the main text is also a reasonable idea, as is a section divider or border for a pull quote/optional rule/chapter summary.

The more often a stylistic element is used, the simpler it should be. Stuff that appears on every page, like the margin borders, should be very simple. Complicated designs should be reserved for chapter head, chapter end, and things like that. You should not have an illustration on every single page, because sparser illustrations help to distinguish one section of a chapter or book from another. Think of it this way: you shouldn't have more than four pages or so in a row that all have the same design. After two to four pages of plain text, throw in an illustration, a pull-quote, or a table. Likewise, after two to four pages of tables, throw something in to break up the monotony. Don't use the same limit for the number of pages in a single style, either. Sometimes throw in an illustration after two pages, sometimes four, sometimes a run of three pages with illustrations. It's all about a careful balance between a uniform appearance and a monotonous one.


  1. As has been said elsewhere, 'professional' doesn't equate to 'well-done', it just means someone got paid for it.
    The level of graphic intrusion I want depends on the game. I love the look of the DCC book... but I'm quite fond of sparse look of Traveller's original LBBs as well. Both of those have clear, readable text though.

  2. I have a boxed set of adventures from Goodman Games that contains a supplement exclusive to the package. Every page is bathed in busy backgrounds--making it vertigo-inducing to read. I recall being pretty pissed at the time since it was needed to tie all the modules together.

  3. You know, I have the Nobilis big white book on my shelf, and it doesn't suffer from any of these problems. It is beautifully laid out, with tasteful images interspersed (though not too frequently), and has crisp, black on white text (no page backgrounds). Not sure about other editions though.

    The old World of Darkness books are also quite nice (I just checked Vampire and Vampire: Dark Ages). They do feature ornamented borders, but not in a way that detracts from the information.

    1. I didn't mean to imply that Nobilis has those specific flaws, only that I don't like the design. It's designed as a coffeetable book -- something to sit there and look pretty, not to be used.

      Old WoD books, though, all seem to have multiple pages of white text on black background that is virtually unreadable. Most of this seems to be fluff text/gamer fiction, so theoretically it doesn't make the game unplayable. But still: uck.

    2. Fair enough! I tend to ignore the fiction, but I agree it's wasted space. I do actually like the layout ornaments though (like the borders), especially when compared to the complicated multi-layer layouts that many products use now.