Thursday, October 18, 2012

Beedo's review of F3 Many Gates of the Gann



Beedo of Dreams in the Lich House says, "Apes and weird science mix like chocolate and peanut butter.  Giant ape-head stone guardians with disintegrator eye beams hit the sweet spot." (read more)


Also, I'm still looking for another reviewer for my earlier module, F1 The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies. If you're interested and willing, drop me a line and I'll hook you up with a copy.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

PDF Versions of F1 and F3 are Now Available


  

PDF Versions of both F1 The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies and F3 Many Gates of the Gann are now available on RPGNow.com and the entire DriveThruRPG.com family.

To help you decide, the RPGNow product page for F1 has a four-page preview, F3 has a five-page preview.

I'd love to see another review of either or both of them. If you're willing to write a review, contact me and I'll hook you up.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review Roundup: F3 Many Gates of the Gann


Bryce Lynch: "Multiple levels, complex map, and some kind of weird OD&D and weird fantasy thing all bring the noise in a GREAT dungeon crawl." (read more)

Martin Ralya: "... the dungeon is superb -- jammed with everything I like ..." (read more)

Click here for more product details, plus links to vendors.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Publishing #8: Layout Tips & Tricks


Whereas the previous article gave a generalized methodology for laying out a project, this article presents finer-grained advice and tools for handling very specific layout situations. Keep the following tips & techniques in the back of your mind, ready to apply when you hit a layout snag.

Don't be a slave to the "75% full" guideline

The previous article recommends filling a spread about 75% full of text, with the rest (25%) containing artwork or similar adornments. With only a little bit of practice – and appropriate use of line height and spacing adjustments, and other techniques – you can potentially increase the proportion of text on your page, while still keeping a great layout. If you are budget sensitive, this is a great way to reduce your artwork costs.

Conversely, if you have easy access to art and you'd prefer a more visually interesting result, feel free to increase the proportion of art on each page; it's fine to use half-page, full-page, or larger illustrations to fill the large amounts of space on a spread. The "75% text" guideline is merely a starting point, and you should not feel bound to it.

Not much text on this spread, and that's just fine.
(Example from the original/orange B3 Palace of the Silver Princess.)

Manually Insert Page Breaks and Column Breaks

Before the advent of desktop publishing software that would automatically flow our text from one column/page to the next, people took their typewriter-generated text and physically cut it up into pieces and arranged them into place, "pasting" the pieces onto other sheets of paper, which would then be reproduced.

While clunky by modern standards, this paste-up technique offered a significant benefit: You had full awareness of exactly where each contiguous piece of text was broken apart, so you wouldn't end up with accidental widows, orphans, or other unfortunate breaks. Things couldn't possibly shift unintentionally from one column or page to another, because it was entirely a manual process.

By contrast, modern desktop publishing software fosters ignorance in this regard; most people simply don't pay attention to how the software breaks their text across columns & pages, or – more importantly – how the software can subtly re-flow content in undesirable ways after you arranged it just the way you wanted it. A font change here, or a last-second editing change there, and small things might bump across columns or pages in jarring ways – and you may not even notice.

In other words: Do not trust the automatic flow/breaking of your word processor or page layout software. Insert actual page breaks & column breaks while doing your chopping and arranging, and you will largely prevent unwanted accidental re-breaks of your text.

One exception, however, is when you intense to flow a fully-justified paragraph of text across multiple columns. In this situation, it's not generally possible to insert a manual break without wrecking the full justification of the last line on the first column.

Use "Keep Paragraph Together" and "Keep With Next" Functions

Most word processing software has a function that binds all the lines of a paragraph with each other on a single column/page; this is enormously convenient during the arranging process for things like stat blocks or other content that you absolutely don't want to break across two columns. Similarly, most word processing software has a function that binds two (or more!) paragraphs together so that they're always on the same column as one another.

In Microsoft Word 2008, you can find these options under the "Format" menu, "Paragraph…" item, "Line and Page Breaks" tab. (I don't have easy access to a more recent version of Word.) In Pages for the Mac, you can find these options in the Inspector, "Text" pane, "More" tab, in the group called "Pagination & Break."

Use "Avoid Widows & Oprhans" Functions

An earlier article already mentioned this concept, but it bears repeating here. Most word processors have a function that prevents small portions of paragraphs from hanging by themselves at the beginning or end of a column. (Wikipedia has more info.) Word processing software usually has these options in the same place as the aforementioned "Keep Paragraph Together" functionality.

Use Soft Returns

Soft return characters (see Wikipedia) break to the next line without ending the current paragraph, thus avoiding all the text flow ramifications of starting a new paragraph: First line indents, gaps between paragraphs, etc. This technique dovetails nicely with "Keep Paragraph Together" functionality when used with multi-line elements, such as spell headers and stat blocks.

Vary the Column Width

If a page contains just slightly more than one column's worth of text, you can increase that column's width on that page only so that the text fits evenly from top-to-bottom in a single column. And if a page contains slightly less than one column's worth of text, you can decrease that column's width for ideal fit. Similarly, part of the content on a page might ideally fit by filling a column that spans the entire width of the page. These technique works well when the rest of the page can be filled by an illustration or sidebar.

The text spans less than half the width of the page (about 1/4" narrower than the typical column in this module), allowing it end flush at the bottom of the page.
(Example from F3 Many Gates of the Gann; art by Stefan Poag)
Although the rest of this module uses a standard 2-column layout, this page has only one wide column to help fill a spread. Artwork nicely complements the chosen text width.
(Example from Ursined, Sealed, & Delivered.)

Prepare to Eliminate Some of Your Content

If you can't quite fit your content onto a column or page, look for things to trim. Maybe a sentence is sufficient, or perhaps one or two items from a treasure horde. This technique can work wonders for solving tricky layout situations.

In extreme cases, you might need to remove an entire content element, such as a whole spell or keyed area description. The prospect might sting a bit, but you don't have to use this technique often, and you can always choose the least important element on the column or page. For example, if a particular keyed area contains two groups of monsters, each with its own stat block (e.g., 6 ogres and 3 trolls), perhaps the creatures can be consolidated (i.e., change it to 5 trolls) to save critical space without sacrificing the overall feel of the area. The key is a willingness to occasionally sacrifice a minor bit of your content for the greater good of the final product.

Another form of this technique is shifting some content to an appendix instead of removing it. If you really can't bear to prune some of your content content, you might still be able to move a less-significant chunk of content to the end of your document, where it's easier to lay out.

Re-order Keyed Areas / Rooms

Sometimes you can solve layout "fit" problems by moving a keyed area description to an earlier or later position within a module. For example, if the description for room #23 really doesn't fit on its spread, perhaps you can move it after room #28, and thus onto another spread. (Don't forget to renumber the moved room and all other intervening rooms to keep a proper numerical order!)

This technique comes with risks, so you must use it carefully. Avoid moving room descriptions in a way that radically disrupts the natural order of play through those rooms; you don't want the "deepest" room in the dungeon to be presented before the other rooms that lead to it. Also take care to go through the rest of the document and change all references to the affected rooms (such as "see area #25", or "the bugbears in area #28") to refer to the new ordinal values. And, of course, you must also adjust the numbering on the map.

Tables Deserve Special Treatment

Tables of information – abilities by class level, wandering monster charts, random weather effects, weapon charts, and similar – generally should not flow like normal text. It's often best to lay them out as though they are maps or diagrams. Don't try to squeeze tables into unnatural places, and don't always shoehorn them into your page's standard column width. Give tables spacial priority, and flow the page's other text into the areas not used by the table.

A table defines its own ideal proportions. Tables with many columns – such as a weapon table with name, price, damage, range, attack modifiers, speed, size info, and notes – should probably span most or all of the width of a page. Similarly, small tables should be kept narrow; avoid artificially stretching small tables to be wider than they really ought to be. It's okay for tables to span 2/3 of a page, or 1/3 of a page; you can use artwork to fill the rest of the space.

When you break a table into/across two columns, it's best to keep the columns vertically even. The result is a cleaner, easier-to-use appearance.

A Good Example: This page (as well as the preceding one, not shown) keeps both columns of the table vertically even.
(From Rappan Athuk)
A Bad Example: This table breaks unevenly across two columns, for a not-so-great appearance.
(From Anomalous Subsurface Environment)

More so than other kinds of elements, avoid breaking tables across pages, unless the table is extremely long. If it's short enough to fit on one page (most tables are), figure out a way to keep it all on a single page. Insert a page break just before the table, if you need to.

Unlike the body text, it's okay to decrease the font size used for tables (or parts of tables). It's even fine for different tables in your product to use different font sizes from one another, within reason. Sudden decreases in font size for body text can be visually jarring, but it's less of an issue for tables, because tables are already formatted so differently from the rest of the text. Decreasing a table's font size, or even the font size of just one or two columns within that table, is a great way to help a wide or long table fit pleasingly onto a single page.

Summary

The techniques above are just a small sampling of the methods you can use to solve tricky layout problems. You can build up your own layout toolset by critically examining other products. Notice how other products manage to fit troublesome content onto a page or spread. Look for elements that transcend the typical 2-column or 3-column layout, or that break from the product's usual flow. Look how artwork fills strangely-shaped spaces. Watch how boxes around elements help visually tie content together, while simultaneously filling space. Through study, a little bit of emulation, and a good bit of practice, you can build a library of techniques that can solve just about any layout problem.

Most of all: Don't be afraid to experiment! Be creative! Many layout problems can be solved by ignoring the rules, and simply "playing around" with the content.

Next time: Artwork commissioning.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

F3 Many Gates of the Gann & F1 The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies for $9 each


Both F3 Many Gates of the Gann and F1 The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies are included as part of the After Gen Con Sale put on by Pacesetter Games & Simulations. Right now both modules are $9 each (the lowest price I've seen either of them), there are lots of other cool modules available, and there's free shipping with $50 in purchases:

http://pacesettergames.blog.com/2012/09/07/convention-news/

But Bill only has a limited supply of F1 and F3, so if they've run out, you'll have to get them from other sources at a slightly higher price. (Click on the product pages to the right for the other sources.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Publishing #7: Layout Step-by-Step

If you want a crummy layout, simply launch Microsoft Word, set it to two columns, paste in your text, apply some fonts, and drop in some illustrations. Microsoft Word will happily oblige your desire for a thoughtless layout, potentially by splitting paragraphs across two spreads, littering your document with widows, orphans, and beheaded headers, and generally making your product hard to use.

Don't end up with a thoughtless layout!

If you want a good layout, you need to be more thoughtful about the mechanics of the layout process. (A good visual design helps too.) The following step-by-step approach to the procedural / mechanical tasks of layout can deliver a good layout. Or if you'd prefer to use a different approach, these steps might at least give you some tools to use and points to consider. In brief, the steps are:

1. Gather the Content
2. Identify the Layout Constraints
3. Apply the Basic Visual Design
4. Chop the Content into Spreads
5. Arrange the Content on Each Spread
5. Illustration Sizes Reveal Themselves

(The two steps #5 are not a mistake. They're really the same step, just listed separately to draw attention to the connectedness of the steps.)

Note that for printed products (including print-on-demand), this part of the layout process does not deal with the cover. Covers are laid out separately, and are delivered to the printer as a separate file. For PDF-only products, the front cover is really just the first page of the finished document, and thus it can be handled as part of this process.

And now, more detail on each of the layout steps…

Step 1: Gather the Content

For this step, you start with the manuscript document and add placeholders for or all the extra stuff you hope (or need) to include in the finished product. At this step, It's not important to position these placeholders precisely, and you don't need an accurate size either. Just make a short note in the document for each such extra item (one line as its own paragraph will suffice), approximately where the item would need to go in relation to the surrounding text. Also, think about how much sizing flexibility those extra parts will have. And if a particular item could reasonably go any of several places in the product, include a relevant comment in the placeholder. It can help to use a special font or other markup – such as double brackets around each comment – to make each placeholder easily identifiable.

Some examples of extra parts include:

Title Page, Table of Contents, Credits, or similar: You might want to put all of these on the first interior page of the product, or you might want/need to spread them around. You don't necessarily even need a title page or a table of contents. But credits are a good idea, especially if other people are responsible for editing, illustration, etc.

Key Illustrations & Diagrams: This includes particular areas, scenes or creatures that you know you want an illustration for. For now, only worry about the most critical illustrations and diagrams that you pretty much can't live without. Remember: You're not reserving a specific amount of space here; you're just adding a note so you don't forget to reserve space for them at a later point. (And also so you don't forget to commission the relevant illustrations at a later point.)

Tables & Charts: Monster rosters, sample PCs, and other summaries fall into this category.

Maps: Unlike other sorts of placeholders, it's important to know how much actual space to reserve for maps. You don't need to put the actual maps into the document at this point, but each map placeholder ought to list an approximate size: "full page", "half page", etc.

Open Game License: If your product will make use of the OGL or a similar license, you can vary its size pretty dramatically by changing the font & size you use for the license. In fact, the license doesn't necessarily need to use the same fonts & layout that you use for the rest of the document. To get an accurate size range, you may need to do some tests at different font sizes to see what the minimum necessary space might be. (Be sure to observe any minimum font size constraints specified by the terms of the license itself!) Then add the one-line placeholder, along with an approximate size range. For the OGL specifically, you generally need at least 1/2 page, even with a tiny font; or considerably more if you have a long Section 15.

Conspicuously absent from these examples is any mention of finished artwork (i.e., commissioned illustrations). You don't want finished artwork at this step. At this point in the process, you don't yet know which illustrations you'll have space for (except for the few you may have added placeholders for), nor do you know the appropriate sizes & aspect ratios for those illustrations.

Step 2: Identify the Layout Constraints

This step is about determining physical and logistical details that affect the rest of the layout process:

Spread Size, or the number of pages that will be visible to the reader at a time, is the most important piece of information to gather at this step, because the spread size forms the foundation for the rest of the layout process. Typical printed books & booklets have two-page spreads. Products that you expect the buyer to print at home have one-page spreads. PDF-only products vary; if you expect the product to be used on a dedicated digital reader (iPad, Kindle, etc.), it has a one-page spread. But if you expect customers to use the product on normal computers with their more generous displays, you can lay out for two-page spreads because most PDF-viewing software on desktops & laptops supports the display of two pages at a time.

Of course, if your product might be used by consumers in different ways or via different mediums (e.g., professionally printed, and also on digital readers), you have an important spread size decision to make. Laying out for one-page spreads is more difficult, but it gives you good usability across all mediums. Laying out for two-page spreads is a simpler task, and also gives better usability on mediums that can display the full two-page spread.

Page Multiple: Books and booklets always have physical page counts that are a multiple of two or four. This count has nothing to do with how the pages are numbered; this has everything to do with how many numbered pages there could be if every sheet in the physical book were numbered on both sides. Try to find a book with exactly three physical pages!

Perfect-bound books – the sort with all the sheets are cut separately from one another and then glued to the spine, such as any of the 2nd edition AD&D Complete Handbook series – contain a page count that's a multiple of two.

Staple-bound booklets (aka "saddle stitched") and books with sewn bindings contain a page count that's multiple of four.

The page multiple tells you how many pages you will ultimately need to fill up as you lay out the product. For instance, a typical staple-bound module might have 16 pages, 28 pages, 48 pages, or any other multiple of 4. Your goal during layout is to exactly fill up some multiple of 4 pages. If you produce a module with 30 pages, it would actually be printed as a 32 page booklet, with 2 completely blank pages at the end – a very unprofessional appearance!

(PDF-only products aren't bounded by the physical realties of sheets of paper, and so they don't have any page multiple constraints.)

Strongly Related Pieces of Content: Make a note of any chunks of text that ought to be kept together with (i.e., on the same spread as) other chunks of text. The classic example is a set of keyed area descriptions (in a module) that the referee is likely to need to consult all at the same time, such as when the occupants of several rooms are expected to join combat simultaneously. You can either make a placeholder note near each such collection of text in the document, or you can keep a separate list and consult it as you tackle later layout steps.

Section Start Locations: If your product contains a number of different major sections (e.g., chapters, or dungeon levels), think about whether you want every section to start on an even page boundary, or potentially an even spread boundary. Flip open any novel you have nearby to see how this technique gives a product a clean look. If you want to do this in your product, it means every section needs to extend all the way onto the page just prior to the start of the next section.

For example, if you want all sections to begin at the start of a two-page spread, you don't want your first section to end on page 6 (the left page on the spread that shows pages 6 & 7), with a blank page 7, prior to starting a new section on page 8. A better layout would have that first section end on page 7. Though in reality, this example problem is easy to solve with a full page illustration, assuming you have room in the artwork budget for it. Which brings us to the next constraint …

Art Budget / Access to Artwork: Figure out how you're going to eventually get your artwork, and how much artwork you'll have available. If you plan to commission artwork, this means determining your artwork budget, and how sensitive you'll be to increasing that budget if/when you feel the need to add artwork to help solve "layout problems." The better your access to artwork, and the more flexible the artwork will be (in terms of your ability to get artwork that exactly fits very specific, non-standard sizes), the easier the rest of the layout process becomes.

If you have poor access to artwork, you may be forced to compromise usability (by occasionally breaking things across spreads – yuck!), or be forced to leave unsightly blank areas or uneven columns on some pages.

Step 3: Apply the Basic Visual Design

For this step, you set up the document's overall properties (margin sizes, number of columns) in the word processing or page layout software, and then go through the document from beginning to end, specifying the desired indents, paragraph spacings, fonts, sizes and styles for all the text.

Take advantage the ability to define particular named styles, if your software package supports it – most do. So you might define a "Main Body Text" style (e.g., 9 point Helvetica, full-justification, with 9 points of space after each paragraph), a "Room Name" style (e.g., 18 point Book Antiqua, bold, small caps, left justification, with 12 points of space before each paragraph and 9 points after each paragraph), a "Creature Stats" style (e.g., same as the Main Body Text style, but with left justification, and indented 1/4" on both sides, with an additional 1/4" left indent on the second and successive lines of each paragraph), and so on. Then, apply one of those named styles to each paragraph as you go along. This saves time, and also makes it easy to adjust things later; if you want to alter the indentation of every creature stat block, you just change the settings for the "Creature Stats" style and all the stat blocks in the document get updated automatically.

Interlude: What's an "Element"?

The next two steps focus heavily on not breaking an "element" across two spreads, and limiting the times you break an "element" across two columns. To use that advice properly, you need to understand what an element is:

An element is the entirety of the text that fully describes one contiguous item among the several (or many) that your document covers. One element might be composed of multiple paragraphs, along with any title that precedes those paragraphs. Some examples:

In a module, each keyed area description is one element. In this case, one element might be composed of a room name, one or more descriptive paragraphs, and any monster stat blocks for that room. Each such element starts with the room's name, and doesn't end until you reach the next room's name (which is the start of the next element). Additionally, any "Introduction," "Background," "Concluding the Adventure" or similar sections generally count as one element each.

In a monster book / listing, each full monster write-up is one element. Each such element might be composed of the monster's name, some kind of stat listing, and one or more paragraphs of descriptive text.

In a listing of spells, each full spell write-up is one element, possibly consisting of the spell's name, the spell header block (e.g., the group of things like range, duration, area of effect), plus some descriptive paragraphs.

In a role-playing game rulebook, each class description is probably one element. Ditto for each race description, the description for what each character stat is used for, each skill write-up, and so on.

There will occasionally be exceptions to the basic definition of an element. Particularly long instances of any of the above examples (keyed area descriptions, spells, class descriptions, etc.) might actually be multiple elements. A good rule of thumb is if you bolded a sub-header in order to draw attention to it, you probably just ended the previous element and started a new one.

Step 4: Chop the Content into Spreads

This step is about inserting page breaks into the manuscript at appropriate places, essentially slicing up the content into the right amount for each spread, all the while keeping in mind a) the various layout constraints from step 2, b) the goal to not break elements across spread boundaries, and c) the goal to keep related elements together on the same spread. (See the previous article for more info on those last two goals.)

Note: Sometimes your elements are so long that you have no choice but to break one across a spread. That's acceptable in moderation, especially if it's not the sort of content where the reader is going to need to flip back and forth during play.

Before you begin chopping the content of a product that uses two-page spreads, switch your word processor or layout software to "Two Up" view, which will display two pages (i.e., a whole spread) at a time. "Two Up" view makes your life much easier during layout. Also note that the first and last pages of a two-page spread document are each one-page spreads. (In most software, the "Two Up" view will also correctly show the first and last pages as one-page spreads.)

This step isn't about precisely positioning content within each spread. (That's covered in step 5.) This step is only about coarsely "chopping up" the content into chunks that fill around 70-80% of each spread. That percentage isn't exact; sometimes you'll fill close to 100% of a spread, and sometimes you may fill a very small amount. But the 70-80% range is a safe starting point; it leaves enough breathing room to help solve many layout problems, and also leaves room for illustrations. (Ideally, most / all spreads should contain at least one illustration, diagram, map, or other bit of visual interest.)

The process starts at the beginning of the document and moves further along as you go. Add a page break to the document just after an appropriate amount of content for first spread, and then move onto the second, then third, and so on. If the content for a spread includes one or more placeholders for items of a specific size (as determined in step 1), make sure to leave enough empty space on the spread to fit the actual item. For spreads that end up containing very little content, you may need to add two page breaks in order to reach the start of the next spread. (As you fill up that extra space in step 6, you might need to remove those extra page breaks.)

Chopping can sometimes be a back-and-forth process, or require multiple passes:

1. As you reach a later spread, you may hit a layout problem that requires an adjustment to an earlier spread. For example, when laying out a module, you might realize that you have too much content to fit onto the current spread, perhaps because one keyed area description that fits on the spread is closely related to another area description that doesn't fit, and you really want to keep them together on the same spread. You might be able to solve this problem by pushing one of the current spread's area descriptions onto the preceding spread. This is one reason why your initial pass through early spreads should only fill each spread about 70-80% full; leaving a bit of extra room makes it easier to shuffle elements backward onto earlier spreads.

2. When you have some flexibility in the positioning of a piece of content – such as in a module, when the map of a particular level could be laid out anywhere within the set of pages containing the level's keyed area descriptions – then you may need to try placing that content in several different spots, chopping the rest of the content around it differently each time, until all the content falls into place optimally. For textual elements with a flexible size – such as the Open Gaming License – now is the time to insert that content into the document, try out a number of different font sizes, and try different chops for each different font size, picking the one fits the best.

3. If you reach the end of the chopping process and you didn't end up at the correct page multiple, you may need to go back and re-chop a significant portion of the document, either with an eye toward filling each spread with more content (perhaps 80-90% full, if you need to reduce page count) or with less content (perhaps 60-70%, if you need to increase page count by a couple pages). In extreme examples, you may need to back up all the way to step 3 and alter the visual design (generally the font size or spacing characteristics) in order to make the content fit the right page multiple. But before you dive into a drastic re-chop, the next article in the series offers some other easy techniques for "filling out" a document to the right page multiple.

Step 5: Arrange the Content on Each Spread,
and Illustration Sizes Reveal Themselves

If you followed the earlier articles' suggestions on avoiding unnecessary verbal bloat and fitting 1200+ words on full pages, then this step is where you receive the big payoff. The effort you spend on this step is directly proportional to the number of elements in your document that are longer than one-half of a column. The more long elements you have, the harder this step becomes. By contrast, if you made good choices earlier and your columns are big enough to fit two or more elements, then this step will be relatively easy.

Why? Because your goal for this step is to arrange the text and other content so that no elements split across two columns. If all your elements are significantly shorter than each column, you can easily fit several elements on a column, along with a small illustration that uses up what would be the leftover space in the column. In this way, all your columns will be precisely filled from top to bottom, giving a very clean and even result.

Admittedly, breaking absolutely no elements across columns is an impossible goal, typically. In reality, you just want to split as few as possible elements across columns. But by setting the bar at perfection, you end up getting a really nice result.

The arranging process is conceptually similar to the chopping process from step 4, just using a different scale – one column instead of one spread – and using a slightly different set of priorities. The key points are:

1. Arrange the content for each spread separately. You can start on the first spread, then do the second, then third, and so on, but because the arrangement process for each spread stands alone, you can actually tackle them in any order you like.

2. Starting with the first column of the spread, insert a column break after the element that makes the column at least 75% full. Then add graphical placeholders (I like to use bright green rectangular boxes) either at the top of the column, the bottom of the column, between elements on the column, and/or in place of earlier placeholders you added way back in step 1 (Gather the Content). Make the box(es) tall enough for all the content on the column (including the boxes themselves) to span exactly from the top of the column to the very bottom of the column. Then do all of this for each of the rest of the columns on the spread.

3. The "75% full" value isn't a hard and fast rule. The actual percentage will need to vary based on how full the spread was, the sizes of the elements, and whether sequential elements can get very close to 100% of a column's height. As with step 4's chopping process, the arranging process may require a bit of repetition, trying a number of different possibilities until you arrive at one you like the best. On a spread with four columns, from left to right, the best fit could end up being something like 40% full, 95% full, 80% full, 60% full.

4. When a column's elements themselves would make it very close to 100% full, don't add a graphical placeholder to the column to "use up" the tiny amount of remaining space. Instead, adjust the line spacing and/or inter-paragraph spacing (but not the font size!) to make the text flush with the top and bottom of the column.

5. Conversely, if you have a bit too much content to fit on one column – akin to a column being 105% full – you can decrease the line spacing and/or inter-paragraph spacing to squeeze all that content into a single column.

6. The graphical placeholders are your illustrations-to-be. They tell you three important things: Where each illustration will go on the page (i.e., it will go right where the "green box" placeholder is), what size it needs to be (i.e., it needs to be exactly the same size as the "green box" placeholder), and what the illustration should depict (something from or about an element adjacent to the "green box").

7. Since deciding the fullness of each column also implicitly decides how many illustrations will be in that column, and how those illustrations will be visually balanced across each spread, you should make your column fullness choices with an eye toward enabling illustrations that will be most useful or compelling. It's sometimes better to have just a couple larger illustrations anchoring opposite corners of the spread, instead of scattering a bunch of smaller illustrations throughout the spread.

As you arrange content on columns and consider how the illustrations will end up, you may decide that you'll get the best overall result if you break an element across two columns. That's fine, but be careful with the details of your choice. When you must break an element across two columns, insert the break at a good place within the element. Some break choices are better than others. For example, if you need to break a monster description – composed of the monster's name, a stat listing, and several paragraphs of description – across two columns, you don't want the break to happen between the name and the stat listing, or within the stat listing itself; that would be visually jarring. But it's reasonable for the break to fall between the stat listing and the description, or within the description itself.

Conclusion

When you finish the arranging process, you are a few steps away from completing the product. But before we move onto the next major step (commissioning or acquiring artwork to fill all those "green box" placeholders), it's worth going into a bit more detail on the chopping and arranging processes.

The next article covers some tips & tricks to make chopping and arranging go more smoothly.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Publishing #6: What is Good Layout?

Good layouts combine good visual design with good arrangement of the content. The previous article (Visual Design Tidbits) is as much as I feel comfortable saying about the design aspect of good layout. This article covers the second aspect of good layout: Ideal physical arrangement of the content. That is, how you should and – more importantly – shouldn't chop up related bits of text, illustrations, and other content in order to fit the product onto pages.

In order to help understand good layout, let's examine some examples of poor layout...

Unfortunate Page Flip

Here's a not-so-good layout example from Labyrinth Lord. The charm monster spell description (see the green boxes in the picture) spans pages 27-28, so it's impossible to see the whole description at a glance when you're holding the physical book:

Labyrinth Lord's charm monster spell description requires a page flip.

In and of itself, having to flip pages to read the entirety of a spell description isn't horrible, though it's certainly not ideal. This particular example is notably problematic because the spell header itself (spell name, level, duration, range) is split across two pages.

In general, avoid breaking a spell description across a flipped page. But if you absolutely must do it, keep the spell header all together on one page, plus at least a few lines of the rest of the description.

Content that's Difficult to Notice

These are special cases of unfortunate page flips, with more troublesome consequences. Here's an example from Barrowmaze, showing the 2-page spread for pages 12-13 as it would be in the physical book. The description for area 30 (in the green box) looks complete, with a description of the area & occupants that clearly terminates the paragraph.

The area 30 description looks complete...

You can run area 30 with all that's shown here. And in fact, when I ran that area (my AD&D group is currently exploring Barrowmaze), that's exactly what I used. No more, no less.

But some time later, while adjudicating area 33, I happened to notice something peculiar at the top of page 14 on the next spread. Check out the green box:

... but there's more to area 30, practically hidden on page 14.

The description for area 30 continues onto the next spread, and I didn't discover it until too late. In the grand scheme of things, the unused content is no big deal; the hard-to-notice details for area 30 aren't critical for enjoying the module.

But the problem isn't this room description. The problem is lack of predictability. One or two unfortunate cases don't just impact play for those areas; they train the reader to expect problems, thus forcing time-wasting double-checks on all the other cases that are actually just fine.

In general, avoid breaking room descriptions across two different spreads. But if you must do so, at least break the description so the reader can clearly see that a page flip is necessary. In this particular case, a "(cont'd...)" notice at the very bottom would have been useful.

Stats after a Page Flip
(and PDFs have Higher Standards)

Here's another special case of an unfortunate page flip, from The Monastery of the Order of Crimson Monks (PDF available free on Dragonsfoot). At the end of page 2, the description for area 1A makes it clear that a spider is present in the room ...


... but the spider's stats aren't shown until the top of page 3:


As much as possible, creature stats ought to be kept together with their room description. Hopefully you're sensing the trend.

But this example teaches a more important lesson: PDFs sometimes have stricter standards regarding breaking elements across multiple pages!

Unlike the two earlier examples, this example doesn't show a two-page spread. That's because two-page spreads (and the resulting less-strict layout demands) are only applicable for documents printed in book / booklet format. As a free PDF with no print-on-demand option, if this particular Dragonsfoot module gets printed, it's most likely going to be a set of single-sided individual pages. So every page is its own spread (a one-page spread) and represents a potential for an unfortunate flip situation.

Detached Heads ... uh ... Headers

RC Pinnell must have known I was working on these articles, and decided to include some less-than-ideal layout in the G4 Anniversary Edition (free on Dragonsfoot) just so I could save time looking for examples! (Sorry, Rob!) Take a look at these two separate examples:

"The Sanctum" – a section header without its section

"Rockfist Rockheart" – stats ascendant, but head alone on the ground.

In both of these cases, the section header is the last line in a column, and the rest of the description starts at the top of the next column. It's ugly, jarring, and easy to avoid. Don't do it. For these purposes, section headers can be many things: Room/area names, NPC names, subsection titles, table names, and so on. In all cases, these should be in the same column as the first part of their corresponding descriptive text.

Blank Lines at the Tops of Columns

This final layout glitch is a continuation of "The Sanctum" example. Here's the following page, with the start of the Sanctum description. Note the blank line (highlighted by the green box) at the very start of the description:

The blank line makes the column tops look uneven.

Blank lines like these cause the page to look uneven, but more importantly they use up vertical space that might be preferable to use for additional content at the bottom of the column.

This problem typically happens when the layout uses actual empty lines (i.e., presses of the return key) to add whitespace between paragraphs.

Instead of using empty lines, use paragraph spacing. Most word processors and layout programs allow you to specify a gap (usually in points) that should come before and/or after paragraphs; the software wisely chooses not to apply that gap to paragraphs that start at the top of columns.

Now let's change gears and look at ...

Examples of Good Layout

The Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert rulebooks from 1981 (the Moldvay and Cook/Marsh edits) won't win any awards for flashy visual design, but they are exemplary models of good layout arrangement for gaming content. Both rulebooks do a great job avoiding unfortunate breaks across columns, pages, and spreads. They're not 100% perfect, but layout perfection is hard to achieve, and their few arrangement flaws are generally pretty minor.

The following series of pages from the Basic rulebook contains absolutely nothing that breaks across page boundaries. Every section and/or subsection fits precisely onto the relevant page/column.

In this first Basic spread, the top text spans both columns on each page, which allows the rest of the text to fit precisely into natural and equal column lengths, without breaking a paragraph across those columns. Also note how the indentation within part of the cleric class description precisely enables that column to be exactly the same physical height as the dwarves/elves column. Someone intentionally chose the specific amount of indentation in order to equalize the column heights.


In this second Basic spread, the precisely-chosen illustration heights allow each page's worth of text to exactly fill the page without breaking a paragraph across two columns. On the left page (p. 10), someone added a little bit of extra whitespace above "Magic-Users" and "Thieves" so that the bottom of that column rested flush with the bottom of the illustration.


The third Basic spread's weapon illustration allows for perfectly even column bottoms. On the right page, the box around, and the particular indentation amounts with the Example allow it to exactly fill the rest of the page. It's also likely that the Example wording itself was tweaked in order to fit precisely.


And now, take a look at a series of equally-impressive spreads from the Expert rulebook. This first Expert spread shows how it avoids breaking spell descriptions across pages. Note how the two illustrations fill exactly the right amount of space to allow optimum fit. There are no page-broken spells at all within the eight-page spell chapter.


This second Expert spread shows the last page from the spells chapter. Note how the precise illustration size allows the spells chapter to end on an even page boundary, which in turn allows chapter 4 to begin at the top of a fresh page.


This final Expert spread comes from the monsters chapter. Although the monsters chapter has a few spots of rough layout arrangement, this particular spread is pretty great. No monster descriptions are broken across pages, only one monster is broken across columns, and the quantity and sizes of the illustrations allow all the column tops & bottoms to align nicely.


Some people believe these Basic / Expert rulebooks are the most elegant rulebooks produced by TSR. Its fans rave about the elegance of the rules, the clear verbiage and the good organization – all three attributes are built upon the foundation of a good layout arrangement!

Keep Stuff Together &
Avoid Unfortunate Breaks

Some general principles of ideal layout arrangement:

Know your spread size. For books / booklets, spreads span two pages, with an even-numbered page on the left and an odd-numbered page on the right. (The first page of the book stands alone, as does the last page if it's even-numbered.) For PDFs where you expect the reader to print them at home as individual single-sided pages, spreads are really just single pages.

Start major sections on even boundaries, generally at the top of a page or column.

Keep tops and bottoms of columns flush. Use artwork, spacing adjustments and other tweaks to keep the layout visibly even. This will be covered in more detail in another article.

Don't split critical information across multiple columns, pages, or spreads. This includes stat blocks and spell headers.

Avoid Widows, Orphans, and Beheaded Headers. Keep section headers (including room names and spell names) in the same column as at least several lines of the corresponding description. More generally, try not to leave one line of a longer paragraph all by itself at the top or bottom of a column. Wikipedia has more info.

Keep each item entirely within a single column. Try to fit the entirety of room/area descriptions on one column, including any associated monster stats. Ditto for spell descriptions, magic item descriptions, monster write-ups, NPC capsules, class descriptions, and similar. This won't always be possible (sometimes the text for an item is just too long), so do your best to keep each item entirely on a single page.

Keep related items on the same spread. For example, when two rooms are strongly associated, and likely to be referenced in play at the same time (perhaps because the occupants respond as help for one another), make sure they are visible at the same glance, generally by keeping them on the same page or spread.

Avoid breaking tables across columns whenever possible, and especially across pages and spreads.

In a nutshell, some elements should never be split across multiple columns. For other elements, it's okay to split them across multiple columns, as long as you don't split them across multiple pages. And for longer elements, splitting across pages is okay, but try not to split them across spreads unless they're very long.

This all comes back to the earlier articles' points about making choices that allow you to fit a great deal of content on each page: Appropriate language brevity, font size, margins, etc. The more content a page can potentially hold, the more content a column can hold, and thus the less likely any given element will need to break across a column, page, or spread in a jarring way.