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By Its Cover or Its Guts?
Dragon's-Eye View
By Jon Schindehette

A while ago, I tasked Kate Irwin and Paul Hebron with following up the 1st Edition premium rulebooks with a similar product line from the 3.5 Edition era. Although the guts of the 3.5 books were much easier to handle (because we have all the digital files), we found it challenging to create a cover that made the product stand out from the initial releases but that also didn’t change the look so much that the product was not identifiable as a 3.5 Edition product. Dawn Murin and Henry Higgenbotham did an outstanding job of creating a cover that really felt like an in-world tome. So how do you keep that same look and yet make the covers look distinctly different? Add in the fact that the original covers were created as actual sculpted items and then photographed, and you might begin to understand that I gave Kate and Paul a project that turned out to be a real headache.

As with any journey, you’ve got to start at the beginning. The first order of business was to deconstruct the elements and figure out which ones were iconic and necessary. A ton of sketches were created that tried to work up a group of elements that could be used to craft the covers.

When the concept was hammered out, we went into actual design development phase and started looking at what the end result might be.

After we chose the direction, we started playing with final textures, colors, white printers, deboss elements, and so on.

When it’s all pulled together and printed, it looks something like this.

So they look a little different. You might be wondering if there is anything else about the 3.5 premium books that is interesting. In fact, yes: they also contain the latest and greatest errata!

At this point, I’m going to take a sharp right turn and move this article down a very different track. It’s time to look to the future rather than the past when it comes to product. We’ve been having some great discussions this past week between R&D and the Creative Studio. The discussions have everything to do with what your standard roleplaying game products look like. I’ve talked about this subject to a degree in a past article, and I had an even larger discussion about it at Gen Con with a room full of fans. Now it’s time to dig in and get a little dirty. I think we all agree that an RPG has to be useful, right? I mean, if you go mad trying to find data hidden within fields of text, or rant about an ineffectual index, then the product is broken . . . or am I alone in that thought? Well, let’s put it to the test and see if I’m right on this.

 How much do you agree or disagree with the following: No matter how pretty a product is, or how good the rules are, if the product isn’t usable, I’m not going to spend my hard-earned dollars on it.  
Agree
Somewhat agree
Neutral
Somewhat disagree
Disagree

I ask this question because I often receive the request to make things pretty. “Can’t we make that look nicer?” Well, nicer can be accomplished, but we need to ask ourselves to what purpose? Sometimes folks want things prettier to amp up the production values. In other words, consumers are more willing to part with their cash if something looks like it should cost more than what it is being sold for. We call it “increasing the perceived value.” Hey, I’m all about making things look good. It calls to the artist in me!

You should know that I come from the school of design that believes that graphic designers have a responsibility to create designs that increase communication . . . not just make things look nice. I don’t ever want to make things prettier if pretty comes at the expense of good communication. Don’t you agree? I guess I’ll find out when I check out the answers you all provide to the question above.

Okay, now that you know how I feel about the usability of a design, I would like to talk about the concept of making things look nice in an “in-world” sense. But first, let’s get your take on this topic of in-world visual presentation.

 How much do you agree or disagree with the following: I love well-done "in-world" design for my fantasy RPG titles, as long as it still remains readable and usable.  
Agree
Somewhat agree
Neutral
Somewhat disagree
Disagree

When we start talking about RPGs and product design, it’s really easy to start running down the alley of “make it look like it is in-world.” And you can find examples of where that in-world thing has been done so often that it has almost become cliché. You know the look: parchment feel, artisan touches such as tooled leather or jewels, maybe some illuminated text, and so on. Some folks go high fantasy and emulate something from a high court, others go lowbrow and distress the heck out of stuff. In the end, it’s all just a riff of the same idea we’ve seen a million times, right? But somehow, when it is done well, we don’t care that it is a visual cliché. We just immerse ourselves in it, and we love the feel of it. At least, that is what I’m told. Is it true? Do you love the in-world look (as long as it is readable and usable)? The covers for the core books in 3rd Edition were the epitome of in-world feel. Is that really what you are looking for in your RPGs?

Another look that is often shown to me is the “journal” look. I’m going to set this question up a bit for you, though, so that you understand what I’m talking about. Here’s a shot of one of our Practical Guides (A Practical Guide to Dragons) that is a nice example of this style of presentation. These wonderful books are full of sketches and handwritten notes that attempt to give us the impression that we snatched the field journal from some intrepid fantasy anthropologist. Although these share the idea of being “in-world,” they have a very different feel to them than the 3rd Edition game books did— they’re more personal and more casual. They tend to break up the running text even more than a standard “in-world” tome. Is this type of presentation preferred over the standard in-world tome look?

 How much do you agree or disagree with the following: I love well-done "in-world" journal style design for my fantasy RPG titles, as long as it still remains readable and usable.  
Agree
Somewhat agree
Neutral
Somewhat disagree
Disagree

Now, sure, there are a lot of other types of presentation (textbook, illuminated manuals, and so on), and I’m hoping that you will talk about them in the comments below. If you’ve got a favorite example, point to it (whether real world or not), tell me about it, and explain why it gets your imagination going. One last question before you jump into the comments field, though. We’re talking about this subject with the understanding that usability is more important that pretty, right? Or are we? Let’s find out.

 How much do you agree or disagree with the following: Overall, usability is more important than "pretty" design.  
Agree
Somewhat agree
Neutral
Somewhat disagree
Disagree

Previous Poll Results

My ultimate D&D minotaur has:
Bovine legs 2195 71.3%
Human legs 882 28.7%
Total 3077 100.0%

My ultimate D&D minotaur has:
Bovine hooves 2270 73.8%
Human feet 807 26.2%
Total 3077 100.0%

My ultimate D&D minotaur has:
A head with cowlike hair, and a body that is like a very hairy human 1397 45.8%
Has cowlike hair over all of its body 788 25.9%
Is more feral than a cow and has longer and more coarse hair than a cow 557 18.3%
A head with cowlike hair, but a body with typical human skin 306 10.0%
Total 3048 100.0%

My ultimate D&D minotaur has:
A cowlike tail 1098 35.9%
No tail 1045 34.2%
A tail that is stunted and smaller than a cow's tail, but is reminiscent of a cow's tail 913 29.9%
Total 3056 100.0%

My ultimate D&D minotaur has:
Human-style breasts on female minotaurs 2108 69.8%
Neither breasts nor udders; minotaurs are all male 590 19.5%
Cowlike udders on female minotaurs 320 10.6%
Total 3018 100.0%
Jon Schindehette
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.
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