Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Early D&D Layout “Graphically Desolate”

Nostalgia works in strange ways. I have fond memories of the Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks (the Moldvay editions) that fueled my entry into the adventure gaming hobby back in 1982, but obviously back then I had no idea how graphically desolate they were apart from the iconic artwork they contained. Obviously I’m looking at the layout from current graphic standards in the gaming industry; but despite what we might consider today to be a very minimalist graphic design style, the Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks still managed to impart by its content and artwork a sense of wonder in those who entered the hobby through those books.

I’m working on several projects incorporating elements of the old school renaissance, a hearkening back to the heyday of roleplaying games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s). These projects aren’t specifically what many would consider strict “old school renaissance,” but I’m trying to integrate that feeling into some elements of the games themselves, and wanted to see if early D&D layout could add some atmosphere to the graphic presentation.

A graphic design mentor -- West End Games’ indomitable production manager Rich Hawran -- once taught me to look at other publications to see how they integrate various graphic elements to create a style, picking and choosing what worked for my project, enhancing my own concepts, and getting ideas to make things fresh on the page. Since I want one of my projects to have the visual look of early D&D, specifically the Moldvay edition that introduced me to the hobby, I thought I’d pull my old Basic and Expert D&D rulebooks off the shelf and page through them to see how the overall layout and elements like headers and footers looked in the seminal roleplaying game of my youth.

Goodness gracious me, I was disappointed.

I was looking for layout ideas that evoked the graphic feel of B/X D&D; what I found was a plain, cramped, two-column layout with minimal margins, uninspiring section titles, incidental headers, and little rhyme or reason whether they were omitted for section titles. I found no practical font usage, no text wrapped around illustrations jutting into columns, sparse sidebars, and tables set within the column text. I paged through the two modules that came with the Basic and Expert sets, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands and X1 The Isle of Dread; the most innovative layout concepts consisted of occasionally indented dungeon entries or, in X1 The Isle of Dread, some boxed text for dungeon masters to read aloud.

Perhaps this underwhelming layout helped focus readers’ visual attention on the artwork, much of which remains iconic to those who entered the roleplaying game hobby through Basic/Expert D&D. Who could forget the remarkable Erol Otus illustrations within the Basic rulebook’s pages, or the other pieces that demonstrated unfamiliar fantasy roleplaying concepts like character classes and alignment?

Certainly the graphic design of the rulebook and module covers from this era remain iconic and well-done: both the Basic and Expert rules used what has become classic Erol Otus cover artwork, and the overall graphic design of the modules, with their corner banner reminding readers “For Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set” (or Expert set), large illustration, and descriptive text, define the look of both D&D and AD&D adventures of that time.

So what makes a layout distinctly old school gaming? Is it this minimal use of fonts and font sizes, minimal headers and footers, and occasional outstanding artwork? Is it some balance between what we loved as kids exploring roleplaying games and what’s available to us now as creators and publishers? These are issues I’ll examine going forward on my projects incorporating elements of the old school renaissance and my own nostalgia for the days when roleplaying games were novel, innovative, and inspiring.

Perhaps the graphic “style” of these early, seminal rulebooks and modules is simple minimalism. Use the same font and distinguish section subheads with bold and all-caps. Avoid indentations starting each paragraph and include some extra leading between paragraphs. Indent entire paragraphs or other bits of relevant information. Keep tables in the text within the column. Keep sidebars to a minimum. Like the projects I have in mind -- which merge new game ideas with the flavor of old school renaissance -- I’ll consider which of these graphic elements work for my purpose and which don’t when designing layout styles.

Post Script: Having been involved in publishing professionally since 1990 (and in a student capacity before then) I realize graphic design practicalities were far different when D&D first appeared than they are now in this Electronic Age of desktop publishing. Still, other publications of its time show even a basic knowledge of fonts and layouts contributing to a clear organization and crisp graphic style.

Post Post Script: While poking through my rulebooks I was delighted to find a few relics from later in my roleplaying game days, when I’d returned to the B/X D&D rules in a proto-old school renaissance back-to-basics move. They included a few low-level magic items to give starting characters some inheritance to help them in their misadventures, a homemade “combat wheel” for calculating D&D thacos (based on one from Dragon Magazine for AD&D) and two hand-drawn maps of campaign locales that never really took off.