Grimoires & Garamond: Brennen Reece on RPG Book Design

Grimoires & Garamond: Brennen Reece on RPG Book Design

Welcome to the first of a series of conversations between Alex Roberts (our Production Assistant, who you may have heard on her interview podcast Backstory) and various members of the Bully Pulpit crew. Our inaugural interview is with graphic designer and layout artist Brennen Reece, who shares his thoughts on design, typography, and working in dialogue.

Alex: So! Brennen! You’re the graphic designer here at Bully Pulpit. What games have you worked on, for us and elsewhere?

Brennen: I’ve been working with BPG since I did the pen-and-ink illustrations for Durance. I think I’ve worked on most of the games we’ve released since then: Night Witches, The Warren, Carolina Death Crawl, The Skeletons, Ghost Court, and countless smaller games that are in various stages of existence.

As far as non-Bully Pulpit games, I’ve worked on Blood Red Sands, The Ruined Empire, The Clay that Woke, The Veil, the official card deck for the latest edition of Primetime Adventures, and a collection of strangely popular character sheets for Dungeon World and OSR D&D that look like Swiss tax forms.

In the larp world, I did the layout for Warren Tusk’s Be Not Afraid.

I’ve also done some graphic design consulting, most notably for Graham Walmsley, who is a brilliant game designer and one of my favorite people.

Alex: Graphic design consulting? Interesting! What does that entail?

Brennen: I’ll make suggestions about various aspects of layout and point out typographical errors. Things like font choices, widows and orphans, margins, when to use a hyphen and when to use an em dash.

Alex: Neat! I didn’t even know that was a thing.

Brennen: I’ve been a working graphic designer for 20 years, and I’m still learning the craft. Even if you’re really good at it, there’s always something new to learn or perfect.

Alex: What are some games that stand out to you as being beautifully designed?

Brennen: I can’t think of too many games that are well designed, graphically. There are some competent ones, but those are rare, and those invariably come out of the story games community where there is a culture of innovation and improvement. Those people tend to question, research, and enjoy learning new skills.

The earliest RPGs were horribly designed, because they were put together by people who had no idea what they were doing design-wise, and with very little budget.

The 1983 Mentzer Red Box is one of the best examples of a well-designed game text. My grandmother bought mine for me at a Toys ‘R Us in 1985. They obviously were trying to up their game for that a mass market. They had great (if somewhat unenlightened) art, the brand was well designed, and the book was written and organized so ten-year-olds could teach themselves how to play.

There aren’t any weird typefaces, obnoxious fake parchment page backgrounds, eldritch page borders. The typography is pretty damned competent. I think that is because you couldn’t just decide to be a graphic designer like you can today. There was a period of apprenticeship, that was sometimes accompanied by a design education.

 Mentzer's Red Box Dungeons & Dragons cover

Alex: It’s interesting you mention the Red Box, because that cover is one of the most iconic images in RPGs, and a lot of creators have been inspired by it. Where else would you point designers for visual inspiration?

Brennen: The biggest mistake I see is only looking at other books in the genre. You need an awareness of graphic design history or theory beyond the geek-culture visual vernacular. RPGs are first teaching texts, and then reference texts, so I’d start there. There are some incredibly well designed books for art instruction, bushcraft, cooking, woodworking, knitting, or any kind of crafting or creative hobby.

My first step designing a book is to look at a lot of art and design from that era. For Night Witches, Jason and I spent a lot of time poring over WWII-era and earlier Russian design.

I spent a lot of time looking at old book covers for The Warren. When I was working on The Clay that Woke, I did lots of research on pulp sword & sorcery novels. The cover, the lettering, and even the interior was informed by that research.

I’m a jazz musician as well, so a lot of my work is informed by classic jazz album covers. I find a lot of inspiration in the old Command Records covers, which were often designed by the Bauhaus professors who fled Nazi Germany and ended up teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Also, Reid Miles who designed for Blue Note, and S. Neil Fujita, who was an amazing abstract painter and did TONS of jazz covers, as well as the book cover for The Godfather.

Alex: I can see how keeping a broad base of inspiration is important. Do you collect inspiring images somewhere, like a Pinterest board or something?

Brennen: I live and die by Pinterest.

Alex: Cool stuff! Why would you recommend Pinterest to other graphic designers? I think some people see it and are like “oh no, another social media I don’t understand.” Which is ok (I feel that way about Snapchat) but it sounds like it’s an invaluable tool for you.

Brennen: I don’t even think of it as social media, but more of a nice, convenient way of searching and saving images. Good designers create “mood boards” for each project, which are like “vision boards,” but instead of what you want out of life, they’re what you want out of this design! A Pinterest board is like a virtual mood board, with the added benefit that if you click on an image, dozens of related images pop up. I get turned onto a lot of new (to me) art and design like that.

Alex: Do you follow other users with similar taste?

Brennen: I do. If someone posts something nice, I’ll often check out their board and follow them. My feed is pretty inspiring. Also, I like a lot of different styles, even if they aren’t similar to my own. Jason called me a “mid-century formalist” once, and, while that’s very, very true, I really love the funkier stuff and the more classical stuff. I’m trying to stretch my design muscles lately.

Alex: How would you define mid-century formalism?

Brennen: Well, to me, it’s classical design with a modern aesthetic. There’s a focus on clean, crisp typography, stripped of ornamentation, and big, dramatic photographs or illustrations. It’s concerned with communicating information rather than decorating it.

If you’re interested, you can look up Massimo Vignelli, Josef Mueller-Brockmann, Armin Hoffman, Paul Rand, Jan Tschichold.

Alex: Those are your design heroes?

Brennen: Add in Reid Miles and Bradbury Thompson, and those are my favorites from that era. The most influential for me. And no one has any business doing graphic design at all if they haven’t read The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst!

Alex: Right! I’ve actually heard of that one. What were some key things you learned there?

Brennen: It’s an indispensable reference to all aspects of typographical design. But the main thing is that the design should honor the text, and the reading experience shouldn’t be made more difficult by poor craftsmanship and visual distractions. Most of it is what I’ve heard referred to as “advanced common sense”- stuff that’s obvious once someone points it out to you, but you probably wouldn’t think of on your own.

One of the main questions in any project is that of what font to use. Most designers, especially Bringhurst and Vignelli, use a very small palette of typefaces (we can get into the difference between typefaces and fonts later). There are only a dozen or so type classifications, but thousands upon thousands of typefaces. The professional opinion is that you should only use the absolute best example from each classification, and the rest are garbage.

Alex: Haha! That’s ruthless! But it resonates with what I hear from a lot of game designers – that good design is subtraction, cutting away what isn’t necessary.

Brennen: Tufte talks about increasing the Data:Ink ratio. Anything that isn’t contributing to the signal is contributing to the noise. That’s true for writing, design of any kind, and, in a lot of cases, life.

Alex: Then how do you, as the graphics or layout person, adjust that ratio when you’re generally given text and illustrations that you have no control over?

Brennen: Well, the simple answer is that I only work with clients who respect my input and value my expertise.

I don’t think of myself as a graphics or layout person. I’m a designer and a typographer. Design means solving a problem within a certain set of constraints. My problem is how to best communicate the information to the reader. I have no problem suggesting an edit to fit the text on the page.

Honestly, the most important part of that is making sure the writing is tight. Most of my clients take this very seriously, and if I need them to rewrite something to optimize the pagination, they don’t have a problem with this. They realize that it’s a rare case when a passage isn’t improved by further editing.

It might be more helpful to phrase it this way: If you’re doing the layout and design for your own game, you have all the control you want. But, if you’re going to hire someone, don’t hire them because they know how to use the software. Hire them because they will make your game better. Think of a graphic designer as an editor for the visual presentation for your game, and consider their advice the same way you’d consider advice from a content editor.

If your designer is simply following instructions, that’s a red flag.

If you’re a graphic designer, it’s your job to solve the problem of communicating the message to the intended audience. Don’t be afraid to speak up. You’re the expert here, and if you’re not the expert in your field, you’re in the wrong line of work.

That being said, you’re not infallible, and it’s helpful to ask for lots of feedback. There are a lot of smart, visually astute people in this industry, and they can open your eyes to issues you didn’t notice. The design process is ideally an iterative dialogue between the designer and the client.

Alex: Speaking of dialogues, we should wrap this one up for now! Thanks for your time, Brennen.

Brennen: My pleasure.

You can see more of Brennen’s work at his website, or connect with him on Google+.

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