Sunday, August 29, 2021

Layout Noodle II: The Slickening

Way back in the olden times when TSR was in business they often produced some fairly slick products, particularly their box sets. A typical late era TSR box set would include two booklets (often with "self covers", meaning there was no cardstock color cover... like a comic book without a cover, page 1 is just the start of the book with table of contents or something), at least one large color fold out map, maybe an adventure book, and maybe some sort of loose extras like player handouts or monster sheets for those god-awful three-ring monster binders.

Overall, these were pretty nice packages. But they were not perfect. Riddled with typos and egregious omissions (TSR was dying after all, budgets were slashed), and often feeling quite hollow. One that I remember most is the Al Qadim box sets. Lovely, with wonderful large maps and cool handouts... but the booklets usually just featured the repeated box set cover art or some repurposed art from some other product. One of them, perhaps Assassin Mountain, actually had the wrong cover title on one of the booklets.

Even the back cover is rad.

Cool as these things were, they pale by comparison to some of today's slick productions. I'm not talking about large publishers here, either. I don't even know what is happening with the bigger RPG publishers these days. But in the DIY scene (OSR, Sword Dream, story games, whatever) there are books being produced that are jaw-dropping in their beauty and scope. Some of these productions are so wild, so artistic, so delicious they may even go too god damn far. I dunno. YMMV. I like 'em, but I don't aspire to them.

This is because I'm a pretty basic sort of creator. I like to work privately, on my own, without too much fuss. I am not a business person, I am not much of an influencer. I do have some social capital in the RPG DIY scene thanks to having been active on G+, doing my Black Pudding zine, and working for all kinds of crazy RPG publishers over the years from Adept Press to Goodman Games to Gary Con to DIY RPG Productions. So if I wanted to do a Kickstarter I believe I could pull it off and be somewhat successful at it. So far I have not had the urge to do so.

Because I'm just a little too basic.

My targets are lower. I come from a small press aesthetic where stealing photocopies and trading zines was the pinnacle of happiness. Low key, low bar, low point of entry. That's me. I want as few things as possible standing between me and whatever sort of creative nonsense I want to do today.

And look... people who can commit to massive projects and create lush, beautiful books that will adorn my shelves forever are supremely awesome. I tip my hat and I continue to shove money at them because I do LOVE what they create (I type this as I drool over my print copy of Knock #1... fuckin' hell this is a lovely object).

Anyway. Not every book needs to be a coffee table tome. Here are some books that inspire the shit out of me right fucking now.

Look at those pants!
Misty Isles of the Eld is from The Hydra Cooperative, by Chris Kutalik. It's part of his Hill Cantons setting and is written specifically for Labyrinth Lord rules (so it works seamlessly with B/X and Old School Essentials). This is a digest sized book with a single column layout. It's easy on the eyes, with clear presentation of information and strong, fun art. In fact, all of Chris's Hill Cantons books (Fever Dreaming Marlinko, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, etc.) are laid out similarly and of equal aesthetic and utility. I love these books because each is self-contained and can be used instantly to run or enhance games. The Hill Cantons books form the loose tapestry of a wider setting, which is, incidentally, the kind of project I'm currently working on (Yria, the world of Black Pudding, a pet project I've long wanted to put into motion).

Pretty much anything from Paolo Greco's Lost Pages line is right in the spirit of what I'm currently working toward as well. Simple, direct layouts that are easy to follow. Pleasing to the eye, for me, and that put the information forward. Check out Lumberlands by Erik Jensen for a perfect

example. It's 48 pages long and presents a robust romp of a setting you can play on its own or as part of some other campaign. This one is system neutral so you can apply your flavor of RPG rules to it. But if you're not into that, don't let it deter you. This book contains lumberjack stuff, cool new gear, poison plants, familiars, squirrels, and sasquatches. It's delicious.

My favorite bit in this book is a table of 100 little decorative and/or utilitarian flourishes you can add to any equipment. For example, a lucky rabbits foot to dangle from your pick axe or a vampire-slaying stake to put on the end of your lantern pole.

And so forth.


  1. I actually do not want RPG books to look too nice. I don't want to hesitate to toss one across the room to another player during a game.

    1. I'm working on a game called GOZR and part of my idea was to print it in floppy comic book format so you could afford to own more than one and you can throw it around the table, not worrying about getting it dirty.