RPG book design, the Hacklopedia, and Corporia NPCs

I’ve spent a lot of time lately dealing with the non-player character (NPC) and monster section of Corporia (check out the preview below). The difficulty hasn’t been the writing, but getting the layout and design completed first.

Most professional hobby game writers say that you should write first, and worry about the design later. As a starting rule, and for most individuals, I’d say that’s true. It’s less relevant so for myself, because of my background.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have nearly 11 years of experience in the hobby game industry. Through all of it, I was a professional editor and writer, but I managed many other duties in the meantime. The ones most relevant to Corporia design are (roughly): six years as an art director, five years of comic book scriptwriting, and another four years as a production assistant. Furthermore, I started designing advertising layouts within my first year, and continued handling design and layout for some ads, many ad sheets (to distributors), and a few media kits (to advertisers) for the next decade. All of this, no doubt combined with how my brain hemispheres interact, means that I tend to think heavily in terms of design.

I’ve also learned from first-hand experience that it’s helpful to know how much text you’re actually going to need on the page. The example that sticks out most in my mind was when I worked on the Hacklopedia for Kenzer and Company. For that project, I was only tangentially involved in the design process; most of that was the brainchild of Steve Johansson and Jolly Blackburn. However, I did write quite a bit of the text.

As I recall, the original inspiration for the book design was Gary Gygax’s original Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons. Thus, when I wrote a monster description, it was quite short (about 100-200 words, like what can now be found in HackMaster Basic). The new Hacklopedia ‘naturalist’s handbook’ design, however, required those be expanded from one paragraph (with accompanying chart) to a two-page spread with a one-column chart. The remaining three columns included an introductory text written by an ‘in-world’ narrator and a creature description with appropriate scientific details (biology, ecology, habitat, and so on) – and Anthony Carpenter’s incredible art, which I’m particularly proud of managing. Unless my memory deceives me, most narrations couldn’t be much more than 300 words to fit in the appropriate block, and the description no more than 700, so the writing required a deft hand at providing enough information without giving too much. The narrations were particularly tricky, since they had to tell a story within a limited amount of space.

Though the memories are a bit hazy due to all the collaborative editing and writing, I believe I recall a great deal of what I wrote. Of course, it’s not important who wrote what pieces, since it all came together to make an impressive whole, but if you’re interested to pick those out, I think the entries for which I wrote both narration and description were the: Cheetah, T-Rex, Elephant, Ent, Goat, Flesh Golem, Griffyn, Harpy, Leprechaun, Lion, Mountain Lion, Corrosive Ooze, Pegasus, Pixie-Fairy (mostly from the Adventurer’s Guide to Pixie-Fairies that I worked heavily on), Rakshasa, Rusalka, Satyr, Siren, Smilodon, Snakes, Strix, Tiger, Will-o-the-Wisp, Yeti, and Brain-Eating Zombie. There were also some for which I wrote either the narration or the description, but not both. Certainly the description for the Anaxar, Animating Spirit (almost the same text I wrote for Dangerous Denizens), Catoblepas, all the Dinosaurs, Eagle, Flesh Golem, the Vampire (which I remember writing extra-long at Steve’s request so he could cut out the fluff and keep the best bits), Yeti, and the Zombies. Also the longer full-page Ape, Centaur, and Zombie stories. No doubt there are others, and little bits like the ‘On Tellene’ sections or other paragraphs where I wrote extra text to fill in another author’s too-short entry, but those are the main ones I recall.

Okay, tangent over. My point is that it can be helpful to work within space constraints, and you don’t know how much you need to write without them. The Corporia NPC and monster section is a prime example of this:

NPCs Alpha Draft. Near-final version. (Spoilers removed.)

As you can see, I’m going for a very modern approach, with lots of floaty bits and corporate elements based on business cards and credit cards. Of course, I don’t expect these particular items to still be around in a mostly digital and augmented reality layered future, but Corporia is more of a ‘possible future’ and – let’s face it – I can’t exactly provide augmented reality along with the book. Thus, the items still give the right ‘feel’ without requiring me to invent time travel before completing this book.

Naturally, I don’t recommend this approach for everyone. Still, if you have at least basic design skills (like myself), you might consider working with the first draft or two as a simple document, then skipping ahead to put that draft in design and layout to see what you’ve got. If you have the tools, you can even do what I do, and continue working purely in the layout and never going back to the plain text. I find that it not only keeps me from writing a lot of material I’ll never use, but also forces my creativity to work within a limited space. Still, it’s a lot of work, and if you prefer to write all the text and then leave the design to the end, I certainly wouldn’t blame you…

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