Visual Design and RPGs

Yesterday, I was looking at the Invisible Sun RPG, from Monte Cook Games, specifically, the pre-order box set (which is, sadly, no longer available). It is a thing of beauty: a 600 page full-color hardback core book, cloth maps, special dice, nearly a thousand cards to use in play… The game collector in me swooned.

But, then, I thought about actually playing with this set. It’s hard enough teaching my group a new system that doesn’t have so many (literal) moving parts. And the price is understandable, but well beyond my budget.

On the other hand, there are the good folks at Dancing Lights Press, who enthusiastically embrace a minimalist aesthetic. Their belief is that all the art and fancy stuff get in the way of folks imagining the world of the game on their own. That, and they believe that buying a game shouldn’t break your budget.

I don’t have an image for them because, well, minimalism…

I bring these two up because I’m frequently wobbling between these two extremes. I have a very visual imagination; good art and the right layout can give me a solid feel for the mood and themes of a setting than twenty thousand words of flavor text or in-world short stories. I have an appreciation for a book as an art object, for the weight, the feel of the pages, that new-book smell.

When it comes to playing and teaching a game, though, clean pages and plain text are invaluable. Art books don’t make good reference documents, for one thing, and a 60-page book is much quicker to search than a 600-page tome. And, really, if you have a coffee-table book, maps, figures, and stacks of cards on the table, do you still have room to roll dice?

This is one of the reasons I like the way Evil Hat has laid out their Fate books. There’s a good deal of art, but the clean page layout makes sure that it never distracts from the text. More, their choices in art style reinforce the feeling of play that they were going for with the game. It’s mostly black-and-white, comic-book-like illustration. It’s clear, simple, and puts an emphasis on character and straightforward adventure.

Another example is Ironsworn, independently published by Shawn Tomkin. The art is made up of mostly black-and-white stock photos, with minimal touch-up, and simple black-on-white icons. The text is laid out in a clear, two-column format, well-organized and well-indexed.

Irowsworn, by the way, is a game I fell in love with on first read. Tomkin combines the art and text in a way that conveys the look and feel he’s going for with his game with a minimum of directly talking about it. It almost got in without me noticing, and I have to respect a text that smooth.

Really, I don’t have a point with this one. The use of art and layout in game books is something that’s often left as a marketing concern, with sales driving design more than how the book will be used in play. Maybe that should change.


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