What is this?
The following blog post will be a compilation of information that I’ve gathered and learned throughout my journey in designing Unity. I plan to continue to add to it as I hit different milestones.
About 2 months ago, I posted this image online to some RPG communities to celebrate how far I’ve come along in my journey creating my own game:
The response was more than I could hope for and a lot of folks were curious about the process. I tried responding as best I could but the information wasn’t presented cohesively as I was responding to separate discrete questions that were posed in many different places. It wasn’t the most intuitive way to digest information that could potentially be very valuable to a would-be designer.
Since then, many folks have reached out to me privately asking more focused questions that I could tell were important to them and for some, acted as that final push they needed to get started.
Personally, I know how difficult it was to get to the point where I’m at now and I still have a long road ahead of me. A HUGE part of this difficulty was from the overwhelming amount of things I needed to learn to get the kind of quality I wanted. I had a particular vision for the type of RPG book that I was creating and I felt for months that I was wandering around in the darkness blind, arms outstretched just feeling for things that would get me to my destination. It’s this stumbling around that can be daunting and potentially be one of the contributing factors in turning a lot of RPG designers off or make them lose steam halfway through creating something they’re passionate about.
It’s my hope that this blog post will help shed some light on that darkness, make the path a bit clearer and easier so that you avoid some of the pitfalls that I experienced. I hope it motivates you to “go for it” by shaving off some of the learning curve and making things a little less overwhelming.
This is by no means the gospel truth on creating an RPG book — not even close. I’m halfway there myself. It’s my limited personal experience and what I think is helpful that I hope some of you will be able to tease some value from. All I can promise is if you like what you see with regards to my game Unity that I’ve presented so far, it’s all the information and experience that I’ve acquired that have helped me take it to where it currently is.
What We’ll Be Talking About
These are the areas this article will cover. The format will simply be common questions I’ve received and then my answer to them. Because it’s such a big article, feel free to skip to the section that interests you the most.
“How do you manage your time and stay on schedule?”
I use a few tools to help me organize my time and manage deadlines. I develop a Project Plan and use a Gantt chart to visualize the timeline and key milestones I need to hit. You don’t need to get crazy fancy with this but you should develop an outline of the pieces you require to assemble your game together. Getting this on paper helps you structure your approach and gives you a clear idea of what should be happening every time you sit down to write.
For creating the first test packet to distribute to my local playtest group I had to sit down and figure out what sections they needed in order to playtest properly. With me GMing there was no need for a GM section. But they’d need Class information and Character Creation information. How much was enough? What elements should come first? These are questions you are forced to answer as you create a project plan and the answers you develop give shape to your process. A Gantt chart will help you stay on track as it allows you to structure your timeline with pre-requisites that organically shift as you either finish tasks early or fall behind on some. It gives you a visual snapshot of all the different moving parts during the design process and where your attention needs to be focused. This tool is an absolute godsend for me.
You can use a completely free open source program called GanttProject to create your Gantt charts. There is a great video tutorial link on the main website as well. Don’t be intimidated by the creation of a Gantt chart, as soon as you start plugging in your milestones and tasks it’s completely straightforward.
For a more commercial solution Microsoft Project will also provide the ability to create a Gantt chart.
“How do you stay motivated? What happens when the enthusiasm dies down?”
This is a really important factor and I’d wager to say probably one of the biggest ones that stops a lot of game designers. The fire fades and the game gets shelved, maybe to be revisited at a later time or maybe never. When I was starting out I went through a lot of ups and downs motivation wise. What I’ve found happens though if you can get your project to a certain critical mass, it develops a momentum all its own and you no longer have these “dips” in motivation. It’s been about 11 months since I last felt my enthusiasm wane and I’m still crazy excited every day to get in my Unity development time. Here are a few things that I discovered that were instrumental to keeping the fire going:
- Invest in your project. If you believe in what you are doing, show it some love. For me this meant getting some nice artwork commissioned and getting an Adobe CC Suite subscription. This lit a fire under my ass because I had sunk something valuable aside from my time (which should actually be the most valuable commodity we have but we don’t really feel that way most of the time). A lot of you reading this part will balk at this and that’s totally fair, some people are perfectly fine not dropping a cent with regards to their game development and still get it done. This tidbit is more for those people that could use a booster shot to get their game to that critical mass where it’s rolling on its own and sweeps you up with the momentum generated. You don’t need to go crazy like me, but if you get one or two really nice pieces of art you will most likely be absolutely inspired and reinvigorated to crunch out more of your game.
- Share your work, and develop fans. Since sharing Unity online, I’ve had multiple on going correspondences that constantly energize me and also provide inspiration that not only seeps into Unity but makes it better. When you have a touch of encouragement from people who don’t owe you a thing, it makes it that much easier to sit down and feel really good about what you are doing. This point also feeds off from point 1 regarding investing in your project. It’s infectious. The evocative artwork and professional production value I strive for plays a big part in enticing people to dive into the work and thus convert them to fans if they like what they see and read.
I understand that mindset of “if you don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to get this done, then maybe you shouldn’t do it” but my personal viewpoint is, gosh, we’re all human. It’s natural to have a cycle of ups and downs regarding motivation. For those of us who don’t have iron wills and ungodly amounts of tenacity, these things I discuss above are a helping hand to staying the course.
“How long does it take to get to your first alpha/beta? How long have you been working on this to get to where you are currently?”
I can give you my answer (2 years) but this is a very personal variable for everyone out there. What you are trying to do with your game is most likely very different from what I’m trying to do with mine. There’s also a variety of different factors to account for that aren’t exactly constant across the board. Things like how often your group gets together to playtest your iterations (if you even have a group of playtesters ready), what’s going on in real life, are you writing fluff or are you writing system rules etc. – all these details affect your pace. I was asking other designers the same thing when I was starting out. I wanted a metric and I still ask other designers silly questions that shortly after I realize the answer doesn’t matter in my own personal case with regards to timelines. All I can say is go at your own pace. If you haven’t set any milestones and deadlines for yourself, then wherever you currently are is exactly where you should be 🙂
“Where do you get your ideas and designs from?”
This is a great question that I’ve received a few times now. My best and biggest piece of advice (aside from play a lot of different games which is the standard response) is to ALWAYS have something to jot down or record your ideas with. 9 times out of 10 it’s never the moment I sit down during the time I’ve dedicated to developing my game that great ideas or an awesome name for a piece of fluff comes to mind. It’s always when I’m out and about my daily life that inspiration will strike out of nowhere. I’ve lost so many good ideas because I’ve forgotten about them or can’t recall them with any completeness later on. Everyone has a phone nowadays, there’s no excuse to not do a voice memo or punch something into Evernote or your notepad app on your phone when it comes to you.
Another huge benefit this gives you is a powerful push when you do sit down to write and design. You’ve got a wellspring of ideas to kick around, expand on and test. It will be much easier to fall into that sweet zone of focus and spend more time banging out content as opposed to sitting around trying to come up with things to write about.
“Any useful resources or tools you can recommend for the design process?”
I have a few resources I use that I think are helpful in general for anyone who’s designing a tabletop RPG game. I know I’m going to miss a ton of great stuff out there so if you have a site that you think is amazing, shoot me an email and I’ll check it out and put it here as well.
Any Dice: This is one of my favourite tools to use. You can learn the syntax (it’s not hard) and input various dice scenarios to look at probabilities. You can view them visually and also simulate as many rolls as you want to see how certain dice choices will play out. It’s been invaluable for Unity as there’s a lot of balancing going on to give parity to all the classes as well as achieving the ‘feel’ I want for my players.
Google Docs: For version control, sharing your work and having a copy of your manuscript somewhere that isn’t just confined to your local hard drive.
Design Forums: The two places where I have experience with and also resulted in positive impacts to my game are the RPG Design subreddit and the RPG.net Design Forum I’m sure there are a ton more forums out there but I haven’t tapped into them yet so I can’t quite speak to them.
The Free RPG Blog: Rob Lang provides a wonderful resource that discusses free pen and paper RPGs. It’s useful for designers because there’s a lot of value to be teased out in the articles and reviews. You are exposed to a smattering of RPGs that can be freely examined and potentially inspire your own designs.
Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design: I was recently introduced to this article by forum poster CharonsLittleHelper on the RPG.net Design Forums. I found myself nodding as I was reading through this. Hopefully it’s useful for some folks who need a bit of a framework to go off of.
“How did you find playtesters?”
I was lucky. I had a gaming group from the get go and through them I acquired a second playtest group as well. But what I’ve found that since sharing my game online, there is no shortage of people that will readily volunteer to playtest your game. I’ve been keeping a running list of all those interested parties for when I enter my public beta test phase. The caveat is to make it interesting and inviting for folks to want to dive in. Getting hit with a wall of text in the face about your game isn’t something that most people find enticing.
I stumbled a bit here as my first real presentation of my game was a bit all over the place but it invited conversation and later as I began to respond to questions and focus my thoughts more did people become interested and the PMs rolled in. What I did learn from this was a way to condense what my game was about and be able to give an elevator pitch (still not perfect!).
Another option was to create a 1 pager that summarized your game and what a player can expect from it. Tell them what’s exciting about your game and if it’s different – how it’s different. Then break up the text with some enticing visuals. Use artwork that’s free or public domain if you haven’t commissioned anything for yourself yet. I want to re-iterate again how important it is to break up text and not present your viewer with a giant wall of it. Here’s my 1-pager for Unity:
The human reaction to be turned off and lose desire to read something even if the premise is interesting is something that should not be underestimated. Far too many designers link to a word document that’s just pages and pages of text formatted as a manuscript and I know they are losing would be playtesters even if their ideas are amazing. The readers never get to that hook point because they won’t read through the first page or so to get there if it looks like a sea of text. Let your work breathe.
Ok so you’ve got everything nice and beautiful now along with being concise. Sweet. Where to go? Here are some of the places that I think are fantastic for recruiting testers:
Reddit /r/rpg and /r/rpgdesign subreddits. Great community. /r/rpgdesign is much smaller but there’s a bunch of regulars, everyone is crazy helpful and there’s a strong empathy shared as designers.
Another Reddit community solely dedicated to playtesting games (all types) is /r/playtesters. I’ve never been active on this community so I’m unsure of how it will work out for you, but one of my own playtesters suggested I go here when I was first starting.
RPG.net forums. This is a HUGE community and it’s well moderated. I have an 14+ page thread on the design forum for Unity and the value some of the forum members have given me is incredible. Lots of thoughtful and intelligent discussion. Just by merit of sharing my work, my inbox exploded with requests to playtest.
If you have a playtest group already and want to branch out, simply try asking your players if they know people that would be interested in trying out the game. I always provide food and drink and tons of enthusiasm to entice new players as they are providing a service for you.
“What questions to ask?”
Player feedback is invaluable. When I first started most of these sessions I felt I kind of wasted them because I wasn’t asking the right questions. “Was it fun?” is always a staple and can lead to more focused questioning but the best thing to do is to go into each session with very specific design goals in mind.
I always look at the feature list of my game. For Unity, it’s things like combo based combat, simultaneous turns, deep character development, storytelling opportunities, strongly thematic classes and embracing their fantasy. Every question I ask ties back to one of my features to ensure that it is reinforcing my design goals.
Furthermore, my style is always to lead with a “feeling” question then branch out from their response.
i.e. If you just added a new class, be sure to ask the player playing that class how using X power felt when they used it during Y situation. If they say good or bad, ask them what was good or bad about it. If their explanation is sufficient for you, take it a step further and ask them what they think would improve X power.
Some more example questions I always find myself asking:
Did it make you feel like a [insert class name]? Did you figure out different ways you could use X power with Z power or another class’ X power? How did this mechanic feel – was it too forced for you? Was the trade-off of being a little meta here worth it? Was the choice between A, B and C hard for you? My intention for X mechanic was this, did it come close for you?
You really need to direct the conversation and take the reins in order to tease out valuable information from your players.
Lastly – document or record everything than re-listen to it later (make sure your players know you are recording them). The insights you might glean from going over the recording may surprise you.
“Where do I find artists?”
- The easiest and most pain-free way is to post up a job offer on the DeviantArt forums. Find pieces of artwork that you like the style of. Link them as samples of what you are looking for in your offer post and ask artists that are interested in some freelance work to post samples of their own work. If you have a budget in mind, post up your price range for illustrations.
- Certain RPG sites will have a Freelance forum where you know you are going to get an artist that is most likely passionate about RPG illustrations and is no stranger to the needs of an RPG designer. I know the Freelance forum on RPG.net is a fantastic resource and artists will post “Looking for Work” threads and their portfolio up on there. Some have detailed pricing schemes so everything is laid out nicely for you. Believe me when I say it helps so much if you find an artist that’s into illustrating for RPGs, that passion translates directly into the quality of their work and helps feed your own enthusiasm. I’ve also seen several freelance artists offer their services on Reddit’s /r/rpg.
- This is my least favourite route as you can have some unpredictable results with it. You can reach out to artists directly if you find a piece of their work that you like. Craft an email or PM and let them know what you are trying to achieve and ask if they’d have the time and interest to bring your vision to life. Let them set their price and if it’s agreeable with your budget then you are on your way.
“How much does artwork cost?”
This is wildly variable. There’s a lot of factors that go into it. The artist’s sense of worth, the size of commission (how big, how many characters/objects), how quickly do you want it, how many revisions do you get, the type of licensing you are purchasing from them.
Prices can be anywhere from $50 to $500+ (I’ve been quoted in the thousands, which I could definitely not afford) per illustration. If it’s a simple 1/4 page B/W character or object to a full blown multi character super detailed colour double page spread with background. Pricing is an incredibly murky area especially for a subjective medium like art.
If you are just starting out it’s best you use the first method of finding an artist that I wrote above and listing your price so that your net will catch all the folks that are amicable to your terms. It will save you a lot of headache and work.
“How do I pay artists? Can I setup a profit sharing deal?”
It is a huge folly to try to setup a profit-sharing deal with artists or any type of payment that’s contingent on your own sales. If you do find an artist that’s up for that, chances are the quality of their work isn’t very in demand.
Unfortunately it’s a risk we as indie game designers need to take. It’s also a message to our audience that says “Hey I really believe in what I’m doing so I’m taking this leap”. I’ve always felt that if I can’t invest in myself and my ideas, then I shouldn’t expect anyone else to as well.
With that being said, always pay your artist straight up for their work – no convoluted fancy agreements. It’s my belief that you will get the best quality and working relationship this way.
“How do I protect my artwork legally? What rights do I or the artist have?”
There’s a few legal variants when it comes to purchasing artwork. In my research and experience, the best type of contract for our type of product is a “Work for Hire” contract. What this means is that any work your artist does becomes your property after to modify and use as you see fit. You might pay a premium for this but the headaches involved in seeing your artwork splayed up elsewhere or resold to other parties when you might be trying to craft a unique world in your RPG can be distressing.
If it’s just generic art or you don’t mind the artist reselling your work, you may be able to negotiate for lower prices as the artist can potentially create more revenue from that piece of work than a one-time payment from you.
One thing I always include in my contracts to protect the artist is to ensure they know that no matter what the artwork credit belongs to them. This is so you can’t turn around and say you created the artwork or assign that prestige to some random person. If you approach an artist and the entire contractual agreement is all about stuff that benefits you, that’s not the greatest way to start a working relationship.
If you are working with deadlines, be sure to include in your written contract your expectations for delivery of work with regards to a timeline. I usually chunk a timeline into:
- Rough sketch
- Rough colour
- Midway through details
This way, we are updated enough that we can catch things before it’s a pain in the butt to go back and fix it. Work with your artist to determine the sweet spot where he/she isn’t being worked to the bone but has enough time to create quality work for you.
I’ve been asked for specific language that I use in my contracts but at the risk of giving legal advice when I shouldn’t be I’ll just say that if you Google “Artist Work for Hire Contract” or “Artwork Contracts” you will have a wealth of options to choose from. With that being said, remember to get all transactions with your artist in writing, preferably via email.
“How do I work with the artist?”
Once you’ve found an artist and come an agreement with him/her, you are halfway there. The next step is how to relay your vision to your artist and have them bring it to life. I’ve worked with quite a few artists by this point and I’ve found there’s a bit of variation in workflow across the lot of them.
Some artists like to ask a lot of questions, others love going on minimal direction, others update frequently and some not so much. You can ask your artist how they’d like you to structure your commission but I’ve found that every artist I’ve worked with responds well to this general template:
Of course you can go more specific if you’d like but in my experience I’ve found playing it a little looser but really honing in on the “WHAT NEEDS TO BE INCLUDED” section results in some of the finest work. It’s flexible enough for your artist to spread his/her wings yet it’s focused where it’s most important for you to ensure you get the elements that form the heart of your vision to show up in the final work.
“What other important things should I know about commissioning artwork?”
A few points that I’ve had to learn the hard way:
- *CRITICAL* If you plan on printing ensure all the work is at 240 to 300 dpi and in the dimensions that match your book. So in my hardcover book for a full page piece of art, I ask my artist for an image canvas that’s 8.5×11” @ 300 DPI. This translates into 2550×3300 pixels. That’s an insane amount of pixels but that’s what will print well. Anything less and you might end up with a pixelated mess when it’s printed (it’ll look fine on your screen though). Here’s a table I whipped up that you can use as a reference:
- Ask for the final work in PSD (Photoshop’s native file). If you can’t get the PSD or don’t have a program that can open PSDs get the artwork in a lossless format (.TIFF)
- If you are printing, your printer will most likely require things to be in the CMYK colour palette which is different from the standard RGB palette we normally use. If so, be sure to go through each your images, converting them to CMYK in Photoshop or a free alternative like GIMP. Here’s a tutorial for how to do it in GIMP. Some colours will change and may require touching up. Blues are especially vulnerable to conversion from RGB.
- Always ask the artist how they handle revisions and how many you get once the “final piece” is handed to you. This is important because I guarantee you, there will be a time, more often than not, that you aren’t happy with the end result and it’s already painful to cough up the money for something that doesn’t sit right with you. Revisions will help alleviate this pain. I tend to not work with artists that don’t allow revisions or charge me an absurd amount for them. On the flip side, it’s not kosher to ask your artist to redo an entire image or large chunks of it as a “revision”. You should be updated often enough that this shouldn’t happen.
- ALWAYS do a test run commission with the artist before committing to multiple pieces. If the artist offers you a deal/lower price per piece if they think they are getting multiple commissions, tell them you definitely will take them up on that offer but you want to do a trial run with them first and are willing to pay a bit higher for that piece in case you find you guys aren’t a good fit and the multiple commissions is now off the table.
What do you use to do the layout of your book?
I personally use Adobe InDesign. As a commercial product I know it’s not for everyone and I’ve heard such amazing things about Scribus (https://www.scribus.net/) which is completely open source and free.
Where do I even start with layout? Is it hard?
The question about difficulty regarding layout is completely based on what you are trying to do. Basic simple layout that’s functional and doesn’t assault the eyes is do-able by anyone willing to take the time to watch a few basic tutorials or even study some highly readable books they might have lying around.
Stunningly beautiful design with words and images that seemingly leap off the page to enchant you is a nuanced artform in itself. I developed such a huge respect for graphic designers the deeper I went down this rabbit hole known as layout. There’s such tiny subtleties that professional graphic designers understand that makes all the difference in the pleasure of reading something. In this regard, yes it’s difficult and the really, really nicely laid out RPG books you see are a product of years of experience and understanding from some of these very talented folks.
But don’t let that deter you. You can have pretty pages too. I liken it to being able to grill a nice juicy burger or steak – doable by the everyman with a bit of practice. The majority of folks out there are going to enjoy the hell out of it even if it isn’t Coquilles Saint-Jacques or something French sounding in some fancy sounding reduction or demi-glace. Also I’m totally aware how ugly this blog article looks layout wise (I’m going to blame my lack of knowledge manipulating WordPress)… this is how NOT to do things 😀
With that being said, here are a few tutorials and resources I studied before attempting to achieve the look of my pages (which are still in constant evolution – never stop trying to improve).
Basics:This VIDEO does an awesome job explaining the basics of graphic design. There are a lot of subtle things we as an audience/viewer always take for granted but they make such a positive impact visually.
White Space:This was a huge eye opener for me. I also think it’s key to designing a pleasing read for an RPG book. We have all our fluff, rules, stats and numbers flying around everywhere that sometimes we try to cram too much into too little. Whitespace opens up everything visually and allows things to breathe, making the reader more inclined to read through. Very underrated aspect I find when it comes to RPG book design. This VIDEO gives you a primer on how to utilize white space and the feeling it can confer to a page.
Typography: This refers to the types of fonts you use, their spacing, their sizing and a smattering of other subtleties that we never really think about when it comes to type. I devoured this SITE and this SITE and learned a lot from them. I’ll be revisiting them again on the last pass before I hand my final files over to the printers.
Blending Images: Big shout out to Immersion Studios (another Indie RPG designer) for putting up these tutorials on YouTube. I would have been so lost without them wondering like a dunce how to achieve a lovely watermark blending effect. I didn’t know what to search for when I was trying to achieve this effect. Putting in “Image Blending” came up with some weird effects like layering images on top of each other with transparency but not blending the image edges to melt into the page like this VIDEO shows you how to. Anyone versed in Photoshop is probably laughing at this “tip” right now… but oh man it was hard for me to find out how to do this!
“Is there anything I need to know about layout if I’m going to print later on?”
Yes! Very much so. It’s important that you talk to whatever printing company you decide to go with and ask them what their page layouts for printing are like. You’ll find their exact measurements for bleeds, which is how much of your image needs to ‘bleed’ over a certain dimensional threshold for you to have full coverage on a page. You’ll find out about their “safety zones” which is where you want to keep your important bits within on the page. Those are the zones that are guaranteed to not be cut off. I’ve found most Print on Demand companies that I’ve contacted can provide templates for you. Some of these templates might be readily dropped into your layout software and others provide the measurements for you to set the guidelines yourself.
How do I get my book printed?
My research showed me that book printing nowadays is broken into two major types: Print on Demand (POD) and Offset Printing.
Offset Printing is the traditional way of printing books. There’s always a minimum order involved (usually 1000) for a print run. Pricing of the books is contingent on how many you print with volume discounts applying for larger print runs. The quality of the books will be higher than POD by nature of the process. Offset printing transfers an inked image from a plate onto a rubber blanket then onto the page. The downside is you need a minimum print run which means the barrier for entry to offset printing is very high financially and it’s also risky if you don’t have a clear number with regards to demand for your books.
POD allows you to print as many or as few copies as you’d like. There’s no minimum order required usually. POD companies do also offer volume discounts as well. Because this process is digital and the images/text are printed directly onto the printing surface as opposed to the multistep analog off-set process, it’s slightly lower quality than offset printing.
So that’s what my research showed me but I have to say, I’ve received some POD test prints of my hardcover and I am simply blown away by the quality. I opted for a bit heavier paper (more on this) and the colours are vibrant, the details crisp and the text is extremely easy on the eyes. The books feel decent to hold. I’ve reached out to some offset printers as well and the pricing is very competitive and beats POD once a certain volume is reached. There’s a lot more logistical factors you’ll need to account for though if you decide to do a traditional offset print run (freight, fulfilment, customs brokerage etc.).
The paper weight you select is an important factor on how well it holds the ink for your images. For black and white artwork and text, lighter paper is fine but if you have full page colour art you need to look at using heavier paper. I’d recommend 70lbs minimum paper weight if you are looking at colour printing.
There are quite a few POD companies out there currently and I’ll list a few here:
Lightning Source – I believe DriveThruRPG prints through them
For my fellow Canadians, there’s also Blurb