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.


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.

The next article covers how to deploy the Open Game License in your product.


  1. This is an excellent article. Thanks so much, Mr. Fullerton!

    I was recently running into these kinds of problems so the advice is awesome. Particularly bothersome were the widows/orphans in double column and the bleed of paragraphs onto the next page. I dearly hope MS 7 has the neat features you mentioned hidden away somewhere.

    Also, the advice on tables is great. I was recently putting out some e-book and combination print work so I had to take pictures of the tables I created to fit them in the e-books (e-books play havoc with tables).

    Thanks again!

    --David L. Dostaler
    Author, Challenger RPG (free)

  2. Another super helpful article, thanks!

  3. really informative article...excellent resource and well written.

  4. This has been a fantastically helpful resource. Is there a continuation that I missed or do you plan to add an entry on Artwork Commissioning at any point?