Monday, 26 October 2015

Presentation in Savage Worlds Supplements

I released my first Savage Worlds fan licensed PDF back in March 2012, and I've produced a dozen more since then. My process typically goes something like this:

  1. Scribble down lots of notes (usually in Notepad), adding more over time.
  2. Once there are sufficient notes, start organising them into sections.
  3. Once there are several fairly-complete sections, copy and paste everything into Microsoft Word.
  4. Clean up the formatting and fine-tune the content.
  5. Create the layout (front cover, index, columns, artwork).
  6. Proof-read, proof-read, proof-read.
  7. Export the document as a PDF, announce it on the forum/blog/etc.
  8. Collect feedback, fix problems I missed, re-release the PDF with a new version number.

This approach works for me, and I feel that the presentation of my supplements has improved over the last few years, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. A couple of weeks ago I finally decided it was time to step up my game, and a recent post from Manuel Sambs inspired me to share my experiences in the hope that others might find it useful. 

Obviously the professionals already know what they're doing, and have far more experience with layout and trade dress than I do, but very few people seem willing to share their knowledge and experience. There have been a few general tips on reddit, which I appreciated, but nothing really detailed that goes into all the different things you need to consider.

So without further ado, allow me to share my first fumbling steps...

Content is King

It goes without saying that before you work on the layout, you need the content. The remainder of this post assumes that you've already written your content and had it proof-read (perhaps you've even released it as a simple fan licence supplement), but now you'd like to make it look more attractive.

Of course you could contact an existing licencee and try to reach an agreement with them, perhaps they'll handle the layout for you in return for a cut of the profit. Or you could pay a third party design company to do the layout for you, and contact Pinnacle about becoming an official licencee so that you can recoup your costs.

But what if no official licencees are interested in your product, or you can't reach an agreement you're comfortable with? What if you don't want to pay too much in advance when you're not sure if Pinnacle will even agree to give you a commercial licence? What if you've no intention of going commercial at all, and simply want to make your supplements look nicer?

Layout Design

Pinnacle recommend creating document layouts in InDesign or Quark, but both tools are expensive. However there is a similar tool called Scribus - it is perhaps not as intuitive or user-friendly as InDesign or Quark, but it is still very powerful, and more importantly it's free (open source).

I downloaded Scribus and had a play around with it, and it proved to be far less scary than I'd expected. It's nice being able to define layers (instead of creating a separate printer-friendly PDF for each supplement), but there are also many other benefits - styles, master pages, frames, bookmarks, and so on. I've been teaching myself on a need-to-know basis rather than using tutorials, but it's already become clear to me that I won't ever be exporting PDF supplements from Microsoft Word again.

Font Selection

There are a lot of good, free fonts out there, and there are even websites like Font Squirrel that are dedicated to offering such fonts. As there are often usage restrictions on certain fonts, it's well worth hunting around for some that can be used freely, particularly if you're potentially considering going commercial in the future.

After a little research I came to the conclusion that most people seem to prefer a 10, 11 or 12 point sans-serif font for the body text of roleplaying supplements, so I decided to go for 10 point Open Sans.

The Pinnacle Style Template defines four headers (chapter, major section, major topic, and minor topic) in addition to the body text, and these are where the fancier fonts come in. If you look at a PDF's document properties you can see which fonts it uses - for example Accursed uses East Anglia (which is free for commercial use), while Shaintar and Lankhmar use Windlass (which works out at $110 per supplement for an embedding license).

For my latest supplement I'm considering going with Cenobyte for the chapter headings; it's not the easiest font to read, but I think it's very evocative of the style I'm aiming to capture, and I will be using it very sparsely.

Cover and Interior Background

A nice cover and interior background design can make a huge difference to the presentation of your supplement, giving it a much more professional look, and it's not going to break the bank. DriveThruRPG has loads of them available, Lord Zsezse Works alone has produced numerous $5 template packs (including the one used by Winter Eternal).

An alternative I prefer is to use a full-page illustration for the front cover, and a background design for the interior pages. However some covers include space for an illustration, so you can also combine the two concepts if you prefer.

You can even design your cover by combining different pieces of artwork. Heroes of Terra uses a free Storn Cook illustration on a background illustration by Bruno Balixa, and there are quite a few other illustrations that have a separate foreground and background, allowing them to be mixed and matched with other artwork.

One thing to look for is the page size. Some of the covers and interiors are US letter size, while others are A4, and you'll need to resize and crop them if they're the wrong size and proportion. Personally I use US letter (8.5" x 11"), as I find it the most convenient for printing, but Pinnacle are moving away from letter and digest (6" x 9") in favour of a graphic novel size (typically 6.79" x 10.37").

Title and Logo

"Stay Savage!" by Cool Text.
Once you've chosen your front cover, you'll need a pretty title for your supplement. You could hire an artist to draw it for you, but there are also websites such as Cool Text that can produce some very nice - and possibly rather familiar - results.

The logo may require a bit more work, particularly if you want something unique (I think it's best not to use stock art for the logo). For my latest supplement I merged two public domain photographs (a CD with a nice lighting effect, and a metal surface texture) and adjusted the colour and tone in Photoshop to create a pale gold that contrasted nicely with the background, then I placed a public domain clipart pentagram over the top and cut out the background, using another (dark stone) texture for the inside. Finally, I wrote runes around the outside of the pentagram using a Wizard Janji font. I'm certainly no artist, but I think the result is passable, and more importantly I can be certain that nobody else will use the exact same logo on their own roleplaying supplements.


Many Savage Worlds products have used the excellent artwork of Storn Cook, and in the past he also released a lot of his work under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic License. As a result, I was able to use it in my fan supplements, as long as I remained compatible with the licence.

However there is also a lot of free stock artwork available online. Some of it is available on clipart sites, but DriveThruRPG has an excellent selection; some of it is even free, while the remainder is usually available at a very reasonable price, and can even be used in commercial products.

If you want to commission custom artwork then the price will be higher, and even that won't guarantee exclusive rights. But if you just want some decent artwork to fill out your supplement, and don't mind if other people use it in their own products as well, even Storn's artwork can be licensed at a competitive price (including some pieces that have been used in official Savage Worlds publications).


I had been hoping to complete my latest supplement for Halloween, but time has run short, and I'd rather do the job properly than rush it. However I thought I'd give a quick teaser of the front cover and the introduction page, as an example of the layout style I'm going for.

The front cover illustration is by Bruno Balixa, the "Primordial Horrors" font was created using Cool Text and recoloured using Photoshop, and I created the pentagram from public domain clipart as described earlier. The page interiors were drawn by Mateusz Pohl, and the tentacles illustration is by Gary Dupui (although I rotated it, set the background to transparent, and blurred the edges).

I've also bought a little more artwork, but not much; I've decided to only spend money that I've earned from freelance writing on other Savage Worlds products!

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