Book cover design tips for indie RPG creators
This is the second of a series of posts about art and design for indie RPG creators (with a little extra attention to DMs Guild creators specifically), but really, most of the stuff applies to book design in general).
In the first part, I talked about the importance of good art and design and discussed five ways indie creators can get good art for their titles with little or no money up front. This part focuses on cover design, and I’ll talk about interiors in a post or two sometime soon.
The cover of your book—any book—is the first thing people most people see when they poke around DMs Guild, DriveThruRPG, or most other virtual storefronts. If you’ve got a brilliant idea for a rulebook, module, or supplement, this is your best chance to grab people by the eyeballs, pull them in, and shout, “HEY! THIS IS AWESOME.”
In the first post, I shared this piece as an example of a good cover for a hypothetical 5e module:
Two main things make this a good cover:
- The cover art is pretty great.
- The typographic elements and logos on the cover properly emphasize and frame the most important elements.
So how do you make your own book covers look as sharp as possible? First, we have to think about what book covers are for in the first place.
Form and function
As mentioned last time, good covers set a tone and an expectation for what kind of content to expect inside. Cover art does the heavily lifting for this, usually. But good cover design is not all about the art.In design, form and function should go hand in hand. In addition to looking cool, covers need to convey a certain amount of information about the book.
For an indie RPG creator, in roughly descending order of importance, that means:
- the cover artwork;
- the title of the book and subtitle, if any;
- (optionally) the writer or writers’ names;
- (optionally) some descriptive text or tag lineabout the content of the book, such as “a 4-hour adventure for level 1–3 characters” or the Monster Manual’s “A menagerie of deadly monsters for the world’s greatest roleplaying game”;
- (optionally) your publishing company logo if you’re publishing anywhere that allows it; and
- (for DMs Guild creators) the required DMs Guild logo.
This is subjective, of course—especially the ones in the middle—so when designing your own covers, figure out how you want to rank them on your cover.
In design, we talk about visual hierarchy: a visual element’s prominence communicates, through its size, placement, color, and saturation, how important it is. So once you know all of the elements your cover needs to contain, you can think of them like puzzle pieces; as the designer, your job is to find the best way to showcase the important pieces and de-emphasize the less important ones.
Let’s start at the bottom.
The DMs Guild logo, or “Where am I?”
The absolute least important visual element on the cover of DMs Guild titles… is the DMs Guild logo. The DMs Guild requires it to be there, so it is definitely important! But think about what information it communicates to your potential buyers: “This title is available in the DMs Guild”? If they’re in the DMs Guild store, they already know this. If they’re not and they’re unfamiliar with what the DMs Guild is, it means nothing to them. If they are familiar with the DMs Guild, then it can point them where to go to find it—though a link could do that, too… more effectively, even.
Despite its limited utility, many covers display this logo at an absolutely enormous size. This is the exact size of the logo on a product image from the DMs Guild:
It was 2.5″ high and the single most prominent thing on the cover! The DMs Guild simply requires it to be “legible,” so make it big enough to be clear, but small enough to avoid competing with the other, more important visual elements—say, an inch or so tall.
Publisher logos and author bylines, or “Who made this?”
The DMs Guild doesn’t allow “personal branding” on the cover of DMs Guild titles, so no publisher logos are allowed. They are okay inside, though!) If you’re designing for anywhere else, though, it should fit into your visual hierarchy somewhere very near the bottom.
Comics publishers mostly put their logos at the top left, and since I was a cartoonist for a decade, I have a tendency to follow suit. It’s just “where publishing company logos go” to me. But anywhere along the edges is appropriate in most cases. Just be sure to leave a little breathing room around it; don’t butt anything up against the very edge of the cover or any other, more important elements.
If you’re a huge star, your name might be more important than the subtitle. Sometimes a very popular novelist’s name is bigger than the titles of their books—though that can come off as a bit much, especially if the person looking at the cover has never heard of you.
On the other hand, you might think your name is less important than any descriptive tag… or you might even leave author credits off entirely, because their names won’t affect sales or there are too many contributors to list. (Fiction anthologies sometimes credit the editor or editors; I have mixed feelings that practice…. But I digress.)
Anyway, if your name is very important, place it near or even above the title. Otherwise, put it somewhere out of the way. Roughly the same size and location as the descriptive text is a safe guideline.
Secondary text, or “What is this?”
Sometimes book titles will have something like “A Novel” appended to them on a cover, and it seems odd because you’re standing in the Fiction section of the store, so that’s kind of obvious, maybe? (Kind of like the DMs Guild logo.)
But RPG books often actually need a little more information. You could be looking at a supplemental rulebook, an adventure module… even a setting book (probably not in the DMs Guild). So if the title and subtitle aren’t crystal clear about it, text explaining what your book is can be helpful (if not indispensable) to your potential customers. “A(n) X-hour adventure for Xth level characters” is pretty standard for modules, but try being a little more creative than that and throw an adjective in there!
Some eBook cover designers prioritize designing for the thumbnail and eliminating any of this secondary text (or, worse, making it absurdly large so that it’s legible IN the thumbnail). The argument is that most people will be viewing it on a virtual bookshelf.
I disagree with that, though. Designing for the thumbnail doesn’t mean you have to design only for the thumbnail. As long as the title and cover art are prominent at a small size, it’s okay to have smaller text elements that aren’t legible at a very small size. The thumbnail needs to catch the eye and get people to look closer. You could argue that having a little secondary text gives people something concrete to look closer at.
(It’s also worth noting that you don’t necessarily have to have your thumbnail match your cover exactly. You could also remove small text before exporting a thumbnail. I don’t personally advocate this, but it is an option if you prefer the cleaner “Netflix thumbnail” style, as I call it.)
The typeface you use for your secondary text should be distinct in some way from the style used on your title. (I’ll talk a little more about why when I discuss title treatments.) The WOTC approach is to use Modesto Bold Condensed for the title treatment only and Modesto Text for the small tag line. Modesto Text is lighter (in terms of visual weight) and wider, and they place it significantly smaller than the title and away from the focal point of the cover (which should be either the artwork or the title treatment), ensuring that it doesn’t compete with the more important visual elements.
However you go about it, the important thing is that this is secondary text. It is there to convey information, but the most important thing is that it does not compete with the two most important things: the cover art and the title.
The Big Picture, or “Hey! Look at me!”
If you have a bold, action-packed adventure, you want an equally bold, dynamic image to get DMs salivating at the thought of a TPK (kidding). If you’re introducing a set of monsters or a new character class, then you want to spotlight that on the cover.
Full-cover art is a common preference. For DMs Guild publications, that means usually 8.5″x11″—plus at least 1/4″ on all sides to bleed off the edge if you ever want the option of printing them up. It’s big, splashy, and covers every last inch of space… but that also means it’s expensive.
If you can’t afford full-cover art, don’t sweat it! Plenty of great covers don’t have full-cover art. The Larry Elmore painting on Dragons of Autumn Twilight only takes up about 60% of the cover. D&D modules have a longstanding precedence for this approach as well.
Aside from being cheaper to commission, there are technical advantages to using smaller art, too: you don’t need to worry about having enough artwork for bleed, because you can easily throw down a gradient, flat color, or other background to extend into the bleed, and you don’t need to worry about the title treatment and other text competing with the artwork.
A small, spot illustration or character shot is even cheaper than a fully-painted “half-page” piece. Many official DMs Guild publications go this route:
Don’t just drop spot art in the middle of the cover, though! Although that can look perfectly fine, also consider using spot art on your covers in more distinctive ways. For instance, I created the cover below for Christopher Willett’s upcoming DMs Guild title, The Creature Compendium of Ravnica, based on a cover concept by Dave Peterson.
That doesn’t look like “just” a black and white spot illustration, does it? The illustration blends together a vintage stock illustration of a shark jaw (or sharktopus jaw, for the Creature Compendium’s purposes), the long-established Ravnica Guildpact icons, and a hand-drawn disc to ground the icons. The gold leaf embossing effect is a slightly customized layer style bought from Creative Market (picked up on sale). The red background is a stock leather texture with an embossing effect (to give the “cover” thickness), an extra shadow for the hinge, and a gradient overlaid in Photoshop to darken the outer edges. In all, this cost far less than a full-cover painting to create but still catches the eye.
Of course, plenty of titles—even official ones—forego art completely, but if you’re trying to make your book stand out from the virtual bookshelf, I really don’t recommend that.
NOTE: You can find free or cheap fonts for your book design from a number of great sources, which I talk about in the “Where have all the good fonts gone?” post. I’ll talk about other design resources (for things like text effects) and demonstrate how to use them in future posts.
The intricacies of print production are too many and too complex for this post, but whether you use stock illustrations or commission original art, if you ever hope to print anything up, your art should be at least 300 ppi at the size it appears on the page. Meaning if it’s a full-page image (8.5″x11″) and 300 ppi, but you’re scaling up part of it to recrop it, the resolution effectively goes down. (Unless your artwork is 100% vectors, but that’s a whole different can of worms.)
If you’re content with just releasing things to the DMs Guild as PDFs, then an effective resolution of 150 ppi is acceptable. Any lower will look blurry. Don’t do it. InDesign includes this information for each your linked images under Link Info in the Links panel. Pay close attention to it!
The title treatment
Lastly, how your title looks. There are lots of typefaces you can use to display a title, and even within a title, parts of that title are more or less important than other parts.
There’s nothing at all wrong with using the standard Modesto Condensed type style that WOTC uses. It’s an attractive typeface, the standard white text with black border treatment pops out of literally any background, and because the font (or a knock-off version of it, anyway) is free and the white-on-black treatment is so simple, it’s very easy to make.
What you do with the letters in the title treatment matters, though. It’s basically a logo for your book. Using Modesto Bold Condensed as your typeface says “this is standard D&D stuff like Wizards of the Coast makes.” For your book, that may be perfectly appropriate, even desirable—especially if you’re making something for the DMs Guild.
Typography is a skill, and in the wrong hands, even good fonts can go bad. I’ve based the example below on an actual title treatment from a DMs Guild publication. It was for a new subclass that I’ve renamed “the Master” in order to avoid ripping on anyone.
First of all, the spacing between the two lines is way too big. They’re literally using the default line spacing built into the Modesto Bold Condensed typeface.
Then there’s where the title is broken into two: “The Way of the” is huge compared to “Master.” Can these be more balanced somehow?
And then there’s the sizing of the words. Are all of these five words equally important? Just like we did with the overall cover design, we have to consider what the important elements of this title are. Wizards of the Coast demonstrates this in the Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage title treatment.
“Waterdeep” is small because it signifies the campaign; this is a continuation (sort of) from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. “Of the” is smaller, because they don’t convey as much information as “Dungeon” and “Mad Mage.”
So here’s a slight reworking, sticking exactly to the WOTC style: Modesto Bold Condensed only, small caps slightly baseline-shifted for “of” and “the”:
Better! But you’re not Wizards of the Coast, so you don’t have to adhere to their style guide exactly. It’s worth noting that while their D&D books follow this style everywhere (I think), even WOTC doesn’t follow in on every D&D product. This is from a D&D board game:
Still Modesto Bold Condensed, but with an outer glow instead of a hard black outline, and there’s a hazy light gray texture of some kind (metal? marble? I haven’t seen it up close) so that it’s not just white. They use the short caps style for Tyrants and Underdark, stack “of the” so they take up less room, and baseline shift the “nderdark” to make it all fit together beautifully. It’s a beautifully compact, elegant type lock-up.
Here’s an approach to our “Way of the Master” title that I think looks a little better:
This approach takes a few liberties with the WOTC style but still uses only Modesto (I’ve switched to Modesto Lite Expanded for the top copy), so it won’t feel too different.
Custom Title Treatments
If you’re not designing for the DMs Guild (or if you just want to differentiate your DMs Guild titles from the WOTC style), you’ll want to create a custom title treatment. To do this, I start with basically the same approach as above. Since I’m not a letterer or type designer, I don’t often draw letterforms from my imagination; I just go straight to the computer. I usually start with a single typeface that I think fits with the attitude or tone of the book. This is the one I’ll use for the key words.
I make the important words bigger so that they stand out and introduce a bit more visual contrast by using a different (less distinctive) typeface for the less important word or words. Using our example title from above, we might come up with something like this:
I usually design logos in black and white first to ensure the silhouette “reads” the way I want. Once I’m happy with that, I’ll look at adding texture and color to further emphasize or de-emphasize parts of the title/logo.
If you’re using the title treatment with fully-painted cover art, applying a Photoshop type treatment to some or the text can look great. While it’s complicated to create these styles, you don’t need to be a Photoshop whiz to use them; there are loads of free and cheap layer styles available from places like Creative Market or even DeviantArt, and customizing them is super simple.
Okay, maaaybe this looks a bit cheesy and over the top. But it does look cool, and more importantly, it didn’t take a lot of time to make!
There’s no end of ways to customize type. You can use Illustrator’s Warp effects to get customize things even further, like in this example:
Just make sure everything’s still legible after you’ve had your fun, because that’s more important than looking cool.
Integrating cover art and text
One final note: covers are a combination of words and pictures working in tandem. If you have the luxury of commissioning new art, work with your artist and designer from the very beginning. While they’re sketching up roughs, make sure that they are including enough bleed (if necessary) and, for full-cover art, leaving room for the title, trade dress, and secondary text.
Because the elements within the cover art should also follow the same visual hierarchy, it is helpful to design the art and layout of the cover at the same time; you can fine tune your cover’s design and composition with rough pencils from your artist—before they make the final artwork—and ensure the art and text elements make the best use of the space without getting up in the other’s business. If you’re using stock art, of course, you don’t have as much flexibility—but you can still recrop and resize images (up to the limits of their file size) to an extent.
Beginning designers know to make the title big, but often have a tendency to make everything equally big and bold, in order to fill up all of the space available—but if everything is big and bold, then nothing really is, because nothing stands out.
Contrast in terms of size and color is the key. What stands out with the mock-up The Burning City cover above? The dragon’s head (the focal point of the illustration) and the title treatment are the brightest things on the page, with everything else receding into the background—which is as it should be.
By the way, I’m Gordon McAlpin, a freelance designer with over a decade of experience in printing and publishing, as well as an MFA in Design from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. If you’re looking for a professional designer for your role-playing game book(s), let’s talk!
Check out my portfolio at gordonmcalpin.com and e-mail me with details about your project and your budget. Whether or not you end up hiring me to draw pictures or design your books, I would love to help you figure out how to cost-effectively make them look as good as they can.