Polyhedral is a RPG book design blog… or something like that.

I became obsessed with 5e a couple of years ago. I played D&D and a few other role-playing games as a kid, mostly just with me and my brother. But by college, I started paying more attention to comics and movies and forgot all about D&D. I read a fantasy novel or played a video game once in a while, but that was about it. To be fair, this was before virtual tabletops, so you had to actually know people in real life to play D&D. It sucked.

Then 5e happened, and it got a whole lot easier to find people who played. I played a short-lived campaign during grad school; it fell apart because of scheduling reasons, but it rewhetted my appetite for the game. So when I moved to the Boston area a few years back, I horned my way into a friend’s online campaign, and this time it stuck. The D&D bug bit me hard.

I devoured The Adventure Zone (which I know isn’t an actual play show and has less and less to do with D&D as the first arc progressed, but it’s still fun). I play in one campaign as an elf assassin. I briefly DMed a Waterdeep: Dragon Heist campaign that was intended to turn into a podcast, but it imploded quickly. (Ah well.) I’ve started taking commissions drawing other peoples’ characters in order to just kind of live in that world, and I’m immersing myself in books on the Middle Ages in order to develop my own, personal take on what fantasy worlds “should” look like.

This is the party in the campaign I play in. My dude is the one way in the back, as usual.

I really dig what WOTC is doing with the SRD and the DMs Guild, opening up the rules and some of the official worlds for other people to play in and make money from. There are some genius ideas in Cubicle 7’s Adventures in Middle-Earth rules. And I especially love the bold, imaginative ideas and stories indie RPG writers can create when they’re not required to hit as broad an audience as possible like WOTC is with the official publications. Gimme some pinko radical D&D adventures, DMs Guild writers! Let’s explore the inherently problematic racial politics of the archetypal fantasy world, DriveThru RPG creators! I am here for all of it.

But as a designer and illustrator with a deep love of books and book design, I’m also constantly asking myself why so much stuff in the DMs Guild and other indie RPG storefronts online is so… ummmm… difficult on the eyes?

Obviously, not all of it. For one of many examples, the design of Uncaged, Vol. 1 is lovely; it has a gorgeous cover illustration; and most of the interior art is excellent. The adventures inside are pretty great, too! There are some minor issues with the typography (which is another thing I’ll be addressing in a future post)—but on the whole, it’s a beautifully-designed book.

Many if not most of the books in the DMs Guild or DriveThruRPG and other sites are made by amateurs. But non-professional work doesn’t need to look un-professional. Knowing how and why professionals design books the way they do can help indie RPG creators (or any indie creator, really) to get their ideas “out there.” Design is communication; it helps your explain and sell your ideas every bit as strongly as the words themselves. In some ways, even more powerfully.

Here are some facts:

  • People judge books by their covers. That’s literally what book covers are meant to do: set a tone and, along with that, an expectation for what kind of content to expect inside.
  • People also judge books by their typography. This might not be so obvious to everyone, but as Butterick’s Practical Typography states, “typography can help you engage readers, guide them, and ultimately persuade them.” (I’ll be discussing a few RPG-specific issues with typography in future posts, but Butterick’s Practical Typography is a wonderful, free resource, and I highly recommend it for any writer, editor, or designer.)
  • And people definitely judge role-playing game books by their art and design.

I remember just utterly obsessed with the cover art on the D&D Basic Set box as a kid.

Although for me, the epitome of D&D art has got to be the Dragons of Autumn Twilight cover art…

These two pieces were etched into my consciousness and changed how I thing about not just Dungeons & Dragons or Dragonlance, but stories in general.

This site looks at how to make indie RPG titles look better, why that’s actually important, and what indie creators (mainly writer-publishers, but also illustrators and designers) should know if they want better art and design in their books. While I am admittedly relatively new to RPG publishing, I am drawing from two decades of experience in children’s and educational publishing and marketing for nearly two decades, and as an indie cartoonist and animator. So I’m not a stranger to being an indie creator or making books.

Posts on this site will include tutorials and links to resources that I’ve found helpful in laying out the RPG books that I’ve worked on. No single post can cover every detail or nuance in these topics, but I’ll do my best to run down the most important points in a way that intermediate users of the core design programs (Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign) can understand. (If you’re completely new to these programs, I recommend studying their user guides or taking an introductory course.)

Finally, this site is a living document. It will be continually updated, revised, corrected, and expanded to better cover these topics and interlink the posts. If I’ve made an error, tell me on Twitter or Facebook; I’ll correct it. If you have a great resource I haven’t mentioned or know better way to do something that I didn’t cover, I want to know it!

I just want to help people tell stories, and I hope you find some of this valuable.

— Gordon McAlpin