Daniel Solis is one of the masterminds of role-playing game layout. In his day job at Third Degree he’s the associate creative director; by night and weekends, he designs games (Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, Happy Birthday, Robot!) and finds new way to apply his layout skills to building the best architecture for gaming books that he can. With over fifteen games in development and a dizzying array of layout projects on his desk, Daniel was still gracious to let me steal a few minutes of his time to learn a little more about what he does.
GDG: Why did you get into game layout?
DS: I grew up playing D&D, GURPS, and other role-playing games, so I had that background in gaming from an early age. Even earlier than that, I wanted to be a graphic designer. (I think when I was a kid, I thought that meant I’d make video games or something.)
Fast forward to college: I’m studying visual communications and learning all the invisible architectures behind typography, contrast, form, legibility, information, presentation, yada yada. It was exciting being able to see the scaffolding that held the elements of a printed page together. Naturally, the first thing I did with my new-found skills was redesign character sheets.
That’s where I began trying to design a better interface for RPGs, both in the character sheets and in the books themselves. That carries over into rulebook and component layout for board games, which is what I’ve been doing more lately.
GDG: How do layout needs differ between types of games?
DS: A lot of it comes from whether the book is written as reference or as tutorial. Each has its own best practices, tropes and problems.
Reference: Take a typical Player’s Handbook, for example. Throughout most of D&D’s history, the PHB has been a reference text. You learn the very basics of play in a few pages. The rest of the book expands on subsequent permutations in exhaustive detail. You don’t have to read the whole thing cover-to-cover, but you can reasonably expect to find an answer to a sudden question somewhere in there. Of course, you will get the occasional enthusiastic gamer who does read and memorize the whole text.
Tutorial: The trend for smaller RPGs has made the tutorial format more popular. Here, you start from page 1 with no knowledge of the game. You are expected to read the whole thing cover-to-cover. The game likely has a strong procedural structure to it. So, players take turns, take steps within those turns, and have a mechanically defined goal of play. Within each step and sub-step, you probably have thorough examples of play that show those rules in action.
Neither format is better than the other, just better suited to the type of game. A sandbox game may seem artificially confined if presented as a tutorial. A procedural game may be confusing and disorganized if presented as a reference. In all cases, the fundamentals of typography and design still hold true. The text has to be readable, the information clearly presented, and the mood distinctly evoked.
GDG: What impact on the layout process does working with writers across multiple projects have?
DS: I’ve developed enough of a rapport with some of my clients that we work much faster than usual. For example, working with Fred Hicks has been a breeze because he’s had experience working in layout and design himself. That background isn’t necessary, of course. But when you’ve worked with several over a long period of time, you can’t help but pick up some key concepts like white space, type grids, etc. And on my end, I learn the preferences a client might have. Whether they prefer transparency or sudden reveals or if they like to edit or defer to my judgment. Every client is different, but over time we learn from each other.
GDG: When do you come in to a game to start working on layout?
DS: It varies depending on the size of the project. If it’s a small independent production, I’m brought in right after the designer finishes writing the text. If it’s a bigger production, the art director or project manager will contract me while the text is in editing so I make room in my schedule ahead of time.
GDG: Where does layout fit into the experience of playing a game?
DS: It matters tremendously. Especially in the case of tabletop RPGs, the book is the only unique physical artifact of play. It carries many burdens:
- While on the shelf, the book must draw attention from a curious shopper. The cover should also still be evocative even when shrunk to a tiny thumbnail in an online store listing.
- While flipping through the book, there must be several “points of entry” to draw curiosity from a potential buyer or player. Like a magazine, you should be able to open up to any page and find a compelling image or piece of text.
- While learning and teaching the game, key information must be easy to follow with as little page-flipping as possible. Examples of play should be clearly called out, with clear visual infographics where appropriate.
- While playing the game, more detailed information should be properly indexed and linked so precious time isn’t spent at the table looking up one easy-to-miss line of code. Also, the character sheet should be thoroughly tested in actual play, so it is a useful and reliable dashboard.