Seeking advice on creating of better looking pdfs

Over the years I have created and ran several games using hacks/systems of my own. Few of them were good enough that I wanted to make something worthy of publishing (read as, give for free over the internet) but all my attempts of doing so using Word resulted in marginally serviceable but very unappealing documents.

Does any of you have tips/software recommendations on creating better looking/formatted game PDFs?

Additional information:
* All of the systems are either 1 pagers or up to 10-15 pages long
* I know almost nothing about creating non technical documents but I do have high technological aptitude and am willing to learn new software if needed

Comments

  • I recommend learning to use a modern DTP layout system, that's basically where those nice-looking PDFs spring from. InDesign is the current top dog, but there are free and low-cost alternatives to this highly expensive computer program.

    Getting the hang of it will be a bit of work (like, 20 hours for a technically adept person), but I have no doubt that you'll soon be creating nice simple PDFs, and more complex ones as practice and ambition grow. Reading up on graphic design and how to use a layout software for the best effect will improve your skills quickly.

    I think that's the overwhelmingly best approach to improving your graphic design game in the mid- to long-term. If you're really in a hurry, the second-best bet is to ask some friend who does this thing to do it for you. It's not that much work ultimately, and you can bake them a cake to make up for it.
  • You can get a lot of mileage out of the programs you already know and use if you learn more about design and layout in general. Hit the local library and you can probably find exactly what you need. If you need to take it to an even higher level, then you can start the layout software journey. Layout software is not magic, just a more powerful tool.
  • I am not a graphic designer. When I have to do that kind of thing, I use Lucidpress. It's pretty easy to use with helpful tool tips and free for small projects like you are doing.
  • edited April 25
    Hi drdrek,

    In Design is the industry standard for professional publishing. However, it's bloody expensive so I used the completely free software Scribus to lay out my book.

    It took me some 8 hours to figure out the layout I wanted and set up my templates, then about 1 hour per page for the first 20 pages, going down to about 15-30 minutes per page once I got the hang of it. Please note that my book's style was pretty fancy, so YMMV and it might be much faster for you.

    I found Scribus quite intuitive to use, reasonably well documented, and it's hard to beat the price!

    The only major trouble I ended up in was with fonts. Scribus didn't seem to handle embedding non-standard fonts well, and the publisher wasn't able to publish the PDF in print until I had replaced all my fonts with standard ones. If you're only publishing an electronic version I don't imagine this will be a problem for you.

    Good luck!

    --Jonathan

  • DBBDBB
    edited April 25
    Hello! Professional graphic designer here.

    As noted above, Adobe InDesign is the industry standard for laying out documents. You might also consider Adobe Illustrator if you’re only doing a few pages. Adobe currently charges a subscription fee for their software, which includes cloud storage and access to their font library. If you don’t want to do that, your best bet is to Google “InDesign alternatives”.

    As others have also mentioned, when it comes to good-looking documents, the software you use is way less important than knowing about underlying design theory. Some apps are easier to use than others, but you can achieve good design in anything if you know what you’re doing and spend the time to do it right.

    For a game doc, here’s what you need to know:

    Grids
    All good document design is based on a consistent underlying grid. Think of the way you draw old-school maps on grid paper – document layout is exactly the same, except you’re defining blocks of text & images.

    Negative Space
    Those text & image blocks you’re moving around on your grid need s p a c e. They gotta breathe. Make sure you have plenty of blank space between different elements, plenty of space between lines and columns of text, plenty of space in the margins. The human eye needs resting points, and it’s easier to find what you need on a page when it isn’t crammed up against everything else.

    Hierarchy & Contrast
    It’s also easier to find what you need when there’s a consistent hierarchy to a text. Just like you’re creating a system of rules to guide play, you need to create a system of titles and text to guide players. You need to differentiate different parts of your text, and you need to do it the same way across the entire document. Use point size, use bold/italics/underlining, use capitalization, use different fonts, use spacing, use color, use background boxes. (Just... don’t use them all at once.)

    Fonts
    Use the most readable font you can find for your body text. Don’t use more than two fonts in your document.

    So there’s your crash-course in graphic design. My advice: look at a published game you really like the look of. Figure out the design system it uses (what’s the grid, what do titles & subtitles & body text & quoted text look like?) Then try to lay out some of your own work in that same design system. Once you’ve done that, start tweaking it here and there – change the size of an element, the font, etc. Just make sure you change it for *every* instance of that kind of element in the layout. Soon, you’ll have a custom layout, and it’ll probably look pretty good!

    Another word of advice: Regardless of the software solution you pick, the best way to learn is by doing. You’ll run into roadblocks, but if you know how you want something to end up looking, you can usually find a method for getting it to look that way with a simple web search. And once you find the answer, hey! You now know more about how to use the app.

    Hope that helps! If anything I’ve written is unclear, please ask and I’ll try to clarify.
  • Use Latex. There are ready styles that you can add and get something that looks nice. I never used it myself, because I'm an Indesign kind of guy, but that would probably be what you're looking for, unless you want every game to look different.

    Here are some basic stuff I wrote together about typography:

    http://www.erebaltor.se/rickard/typography/
  • @Rickard – Great layout/typography cheat sheet! It does a great job of illustrating the points I mentioned above, and it’s way more specific. I’m going to save this for my own future use. Thanks!
  • Thank you all for answering so quickly and thoughtfully! (Special mention to DBB That really stepped it up)

    The software and tips really gave me a good direction to go in. I feel that some holes in my technical vocabulary were fixes and that further searching for answers is going to be much easier.

    And who knows maybe I'll even muster the courage to send something your way a to criticize in the future :)
  • Just for fun, here's a good book to check out; The non-designer's design book : design and topographic principles for the visual novice by Williams, Robin
  • edited April 27
    Good advice ! I want to give a try at Scribus again. Latex user end is much less appealing.
  • edited April 28
    The short answer would be: discipline.
    Stick to a specific layout, use a grid or baselines, just use 1-2 typefaces, limit your color palette, be strict with formatting, have a uniform style, use white spaces...
    When you are disciplined in your design choices, your PDF will look better.

    I recommend using Affinity Publisher. I've used it on several projects now. It is similar to InDesign but much cheaper (currently still for free as beta, later ca. 50$ with no additional cost) and much easier to use than Scribus.
    https://affinity.serif.com/en-us/publisher/
  • Affinity is indeed doing a good job in making a very, very affordable and good graphic design set of programs! And it’s even available on Mac! The Publisher is in Beta, but the Photoshop and Illustrator equivalents are finished and available. I’ve had good experience with it, though I must say that I haven’t made anything with it for high end printing, so I don’t know how that works. But if you just need a to print it using a desktop printer or a copying machine, it certainly is a very decent and affordable option!
  • Here are some basic stuff I wrote together about typography: http://www.erebaltor.se/rickard/typography/
    Thats great, thanks!

    I'm a cheap hack so I use Google Docs for my unofficial stuff.
    Note to self: how to turn an A4 into a better looking, close to golden ratio page?
    1. Landscape orientation (faux spreads)
    2. Margins: Left/Right 1 inch, Bottom: 1.5, Top: 0.77. This creates a 6x9.69 area which has an 1.615 ratio!
    3. Header1 for chapter titles, Header2 for Headers, Header3 in italics for quotes.
    4. 2 column sample. 3 column sample.

    I love both, they are a huge improvement to my style.
    How would you improve them further?
  • The golden ration isn't everything in page design, there are other models to work on.

    The main text column in your 2 column sample is a tad too wide for your regular type. The outer margin could easily be wider (increase the inner one in proportion), making for a more luxurious look while making the text column more legible. Illustrations and such can then break out into the wider outer margin for a dynamic effect that I myself like.

    Alternatively, increase the leading - line spacing - to improve legibility in a wide column.

    Use hyphenation or justify the narrower columns in the three-column layout; a narrow column justified to both sides causes the word spacing to fluctuate too much without hyphenation.

    The bullet points in the bullet point list are too far away from the text itself. The same goes for the numbering in the numbered list, which is also aligned to the left, when aligning to the right (so the dots after the numbers are aligned to each other vertically) would look better.

    You could afford to have the paragraph space be half as wide, it doesn't have to be a full line height high. Alternatively, also consider first line indent instead; saves a bit of space.

    The colored text background is grotesque, but I assume that's not part of the plan.

    Overall it's essentially OK. I wouldn't expect or recommend more from a Google Docs layout; it's not an actual layout system, so rather than trying to finesse stuff manually it's better to accept the default look it has.
  • Thanks for the feedback!
  • edited May 3
    First eliminate the unacceptable:

    - gross technical mistakes (e.g. incorrect layer order, like in the black and white POD reprint of Castle Falkenstein, missing or stretched images, missing pieces, badly numbered index...)
    - spelling and grammar mistakes (not a graphical issue, but it shows you care)
    - global typography mistakes (e.g. three digit page numbers are too wide for the available space)
    - local typography mistakes (e.g. orphans)
    - graphics quality problems (e.g. blurred low resolution images, gaps in borders)

    Then make it look good:

    - demonstrate an effort to be tasteful (e.g. burn Times New Roman, Arial, Comic Sans, etc. and choose a font instead)
    - find an actually good-looking combination of layout, font, font styles, spacing, margins, which strongly depends on your text with priorities like supporting all unusual characters you use, making long text paragraphs legible (probably with small pages or two columns), making short paragraphs not too ragged, etc.
    - use high quality font families, with correct kerning and ligatures, and software that lets you control OpenType features or the equivalent in other font technologies (for example, Microsoft Word is a bit cumbersome in this regard)

    The last stage is getting fancy:

    - instead of obeying generic good taste, adapt stylistic choices to the game's theme (e.g. with strong identity elements, like the computer citations on each page in Paranoia XP, or by using period-appropriate fonts and typographical features in games with an historical setting)
    - great-looking but needlessly sophisticated layouts with graphical elements (e.g. D&D 3/3.5)
    - special ideas (e.g. the handwritten notes, enabled by wide margins, in Stealing Cthulhu)

    EDIT: the ugly POD reprint of Castle Falkenstein is actually in color.
  • First eliminate the unacceptable:

    - gross technical mistakes (e.g. incorrect layer order, like in the black and white POD reprint of Castle Falkenstein, missing or stretched images, missing pieces, badly numbered index...)
    - spelling and grammar mistakes (not a graphical issue, but it shows you care)
    - global typography mistakes (e.g. three digit page numbers are too wide for the available space)
    - local typography mistakes (e.g. orphans)
    - graphics quality problems (e.g. blurred low resolution images, gaps in borders)

    Then make it look good:

    - demonstrate an effort to be tasteful (e.g. burn Times New Roman, Arial, Comic Sans, etc. and choose a font instead)
    - find an actually good-looking combination of layout, font, font styles, spacing, margins, which strongly depends on your text with priorities like supporting all unusual characters you use, making long text paragraphs legible (probably with small pages or two columns), making short paragraphs not too ragged, etc.
    - use high quality font families, with correct kerning and ligatures, and software that lets you control OpenType features or the equivalent in other font technologies (for example, Microsoft Word is a bit cumbersome in this regard)

    The last stage is getting fancy:

    - instead of obeying generic good taste, adapt stylistic choices to the game's theme (e.g. with strong identity elements, like the computer quotes on each page in Paranoia XP, or by using period-appropriate fonts and typographical features in games with an historical setting)
    - great-looking but needlessly sophisticated layouts with graphical elements (e.g. D&D 3/3.5)
    - special ideas (e.g. the handwritten notes, enabled by wide margins, in Stealing Cthulhu)
  • edited May 3
    That’s pretty demanding for a basics on layouts question.

    Also, of you’re only just beginning, Arial is a pretty safe bet. It is a safe bet and a good looking font in itself (though as a Mac user I’m partial to Helvetica, which is basically the same, though the a’s are different). Using the entire Arial family, including the ligh, narrow and black versions can give great effects. If you’re not sure, use Arial. Especially when starting out. For long swaths of text and text in columns, a serif is better though. It gives a horizontal line to work on. Times isn’t bad, but yeah, there are prettier options. Before Times was a standard, I think Caslon was a standard (with a very nice black/heavy version!).

    Once you’re more comfortable though, feel free to branch out, and avoid Comic Sans and Papyrus unless your intent is to actually rile people up :tongue:

    A tip I might have missed in here is that when you save or export to PDF, to make sure that fonts are included or convert them to images beforehand (either vector or bitmap, but those are fancy terms in themselves). And if you are designing for print, make sure that any images are either vectors or bitmap files with a high resolution 180 ppi for desktop printers, 300 ppi for high end offset printing. If possible, have colour files be in CMYK rather than RGB, as the first one includes all printable colours, while the latter contains colours that cannot be printed without resulting to extra pantone numbers for ink. Though I’m not sure how digital print handles it nowadays. (My professional printing days ended when digital print was brand new.)
  • edited May 2
    I have found Google doc to be really horrendous. If, like me, you like plain cheap looks, Writer is way more stable.
    Also, a font of hilarity.
  • I accidentally wrote a post that kinda reads super snobbish & gate keepery. I mean I've never been bothered by ugly PDFs exported straight from a crappy word processor. The game & the text is what matters. That said, for those looking for that little bit of extra polish, here goes:
    Use Latex. There are ready styles that you can add and get something that looks nice.
    There's also another competing TeX macro package called ConTeXt.

    My recommendation is ConTeXt if you want to make your own look/layout (much easier than LaTeX), LaTeX if you want to (as per Rickard's excellent recommendation) use one of the many ready-made, great-looking styles available.
    Also, of you’re only just beginning, Arial is a pretty safe bet.
    Arial does not look good. The diagonal terminals look arbitrary and sprawling. They are neither harmoniously parallel to the base line like Helvetica nor are they perfectly tangential to the curves which, while it wouldn't look good, would make more sense than the white-noise-for-the-eyes that the angle choices they went with. It's meant to evoke calligraphy brushstrokes written at an angle, but it just doesn't pull that off, at least for me, IDK.

    Helvetica is the figure/ground relationship executed perfectly. I especially love it in bold, the bold uppercase R is so good looking as is the bold lowercase a.

    There is a free clone of Helvetica called Nimbus Sans L that's great. It even has better hinting than Helvetica. One think to remember when using it is to use apostrophes like this: ’ instead of like this: '

    Helvetica works best for headers and a nice standard vanilla serif works great for body texts. Sans are easier to fuck up (there are a few masterpieces—Helvetica, Futura, Avant Garde, Optima) than serifs, where you can't go wrong with a basic Roman or something even more retro like Junicode.

    That said, like cooking… pick what you think tastes good together. And, what looks good on screen isn't always what looks good on paper; I love Deja Vu Serif as a screen font for writing on my old low-rez screen from 2009 but I'm not too fond of it in print.
  • Like, if someone genuinely loves Papyrus and Comics Sans (two well-known overused & oft-complained about fonts [which is the basic for the joke in Undertale (a video game)]—also, little known trivia about me: one of the first songs I ever wrote was for a record called "Comic Sans Must Die"; we also had plans to make records disparaging Verdana & Calibri but those projects never got off the ground) I'm sure they can make something that looks good. Passion & care shines through.

    The original release of Link's Awakening (a video game) took advantage of bitmap hinting quirks in the italic version of Comics Sans to make something that looked super cozy & warm.
  • That’s pretty demanding for a basics on layouts question.
    It's important to put good advice it in context and to understand priorities:

    -not making a defective book because only hasty and technically incompetent morons would do it;
    -demonstrating care and diligence with careful editing and tangible effort to think about design, to provide evidence of care and good taste (which readers would respect even if they don't share the same taste)
    -last, trying to do anything advanced, which should be considered a luxury (more and more affordable at increasing skill levels).

    Personally, I consider making Arial look somehow good (rather than a careless and clueless non-choice of one of the first sans-serif fonts found on the computer in alphabetical order) very difficult, significantly beyond my skill level, and a pointless stunt. I'd rather spend a few hours comparing samples of better, less challenging fonts.

  • Yeah, the question wasn't how to make pdfs (which is all you really want to know in order to make games #diy #punk) it was how to make better looking PDFs;
    lorenzogatti's answer came in three tiers which I think was good; first start with the the first tier etc.

    I disagree with burning Times New Roman though; it's not my serif of choice but it's like saying you can't serve water at a restaurant.
  • edited May 3

    I disagree with burning Times New Roman though; it's not my serif of choice but it's like saying you can't serve water at a restaurant.
    It's more like representing yourself as a restaurant and serving takeaway bags from the nearest fast food chain instead of cooking something.

    Overused fonts usually have some good qualities (there's usually a reason for overusing them), but at some point the lack of taste implied by adopting such fonts prevails over the virtual good taste of using a suitable font without actually knowing why.
    It's similar to narrative clichés displacing actual creativity, but with less opportunity for irony and limited originality.

    It's easier to see the problem with niche overused fonts, like Exocet and Mason Serif (very good looking, but "burned" by specific highly popular uses), Cooper Black, Stop, Eurostile/Microgramma (all formerly overused by the masses, but probably out of fashion enough to make sense again), Courier (good for an actual typewriter, but mediocre for fake typewritten text and inexcusable if only a monospaced font is needed) etc.
  • I disagree. Good fonts hold up to be used every single time for every single project.
    They're like pure water, salt & flour. You don't always need to be "new & unique". Make a unique game, not a unique look. Helvetica is like air. You breathe it and it's everywhere♥
    A well written text in good solid Roman is like a hot guy in jeans & t-shirt. The clothes may be plain and common but it works♥

    When I first moved to Stockholm, Gill Sans was en vogue and I saw it everywhere; signage, store logos, posters etc, I hated it — but not because of "overuse" but because I just hate Gill Sans.

    Exocet might be very associated with Duelist magazine, Planescape, and Diablo, but it's still a well-crafted, servicable, evocative font (the theta for o is a bit dumb though, almost like using Greek S (Σ) for E "Grssk Styls"). The problem with Papyrus and Comic Sans is that they're meant to evoke hand calligraphy and fail to do so since they have so many repeated glyphs.

    Not saying "go use Exocet" or any other super "out there" font but I am saying ain't nothing wrong with the classics.

    I love Cooper Black btw♥ #hippie
  • Gill Sans was inspired by the column of Trajan but adds in an ugly "chin" to the uppercase G and a completely nerve-frazzling unkernable tail to the uppercase R. Also Gill was a perp so I'm not sure I want to endorse his designs (#metoo). I already hated Gill Sans before I found out about that though
  • PS Exocet is only for fantasy, it is not in any way a traditional or medieval or historical style of lettering, it's a retro postmodern affair, which ofc I don't mind, running D&D rather than Medieval Sim 3000™
  • PPS you single out Barnbrooks fonts a lot, a love hate relationship with him?

    uh, what the heck am I doing trying to defend Exocet in 2019

    when my original point was to instead say you can't go wrong with classic fonts.
  • edited May 3
    I used to love Futura, until I found out what it’s historic context was. Well designed font. Does what it needs to. But yeah, historic associations ... :confounded:
  • PPS you single out Barnbrooks fonts a lot, a love hate relationship with him?

    uh, what the heck am I doing trying to defend Exocet in 2019

    when my original point was to instead say you can't go wrong with classic fonts.
    I just went to the Emigre web site to look for examples.
    I don't blame Barnbrook for designing popular fonts; they remain a good artistic achievement even if some of them don't have a place in actual usage.


  • I used to love Futura, until I found out what it’s historic context was. Well designed font. Does what it needs to. But yeah, historic associations ... :confounded:
    Are you thinking of Gill Sans or some other font?

    The Bauhaus school & people unaffiliated with them but inspired by them (such as Paul Renner, creator of Futura), was initially opposed by & banned by the Nazis & later the Nazis attempted to reappropriate their style. Futura was created in 1927. Renner was opposed to the nazi regime and was arrested because of that in 1933, as was Tschichold.

    Or am I missing something?
  • Ah, it was me who was appearantly missing something. I remembered it replacing Fraktur on Nazi propaganda posters from a museum visit. What I didn’t know was that by then it was too widespread to be solely associated with Nazi’s. This video explains it.

    Mea culpa!
  • I'm kind of a nerd when it comes to De Stijl & Bauhaus stuff♥
    I think I have more De Stijl books than roleplaying books.
  • Nice! I love it as well :)
  • I'm a cheap hack so I use Google Docs for my unofficial stuff.
    It's like using a crowbar to hit a nail. If you're going to use a word processor, then just go two columns (three is landscape), and place images wherever; with some images having both columns as width.

    Because you mostly wasting time that you wont get back by doing layout in a word processor.

    I will give some suggestions of improvement in the two page column document.
  • I Courier overused, should it be avoided?
    I'm asking because I'm using it (or actually Dark Courier) for presenting dialogue excerpts in an RPG manual.
  • Courier is timeless & awesome. Every movie script uses it.
  • I find it a bit hard to read though.
  • It is pretty hard to read, but excerpts are small, so that should be okay. I think is usually a stylistic choice. Does it fit the theme of your RPG? Do you want to get that movie-script feel? Is it about hardboiled detectives, or top secret documents or army briefings or writers typing away on typewriters? Shouldn’t be a problem then. :smile:
  • Btw, I might opt for a more modern monspace font, i.e. Inconsolata or Roboto Monospace.
  • DejaVu Sans is awful; Deja Vu Sans Mono is an amazing monospace font♥
  • I can't recommend Courier/Courier New because it's recognizable as an overused, meaningless "default" font and because it's wide enough to waste whole pages.

    Depending on the purpose there are better grungy faux-typewriter monospaced fonts (possibly with random variations), better readable and compact monospaced fonts (Deja Vu Sans Mono is one of them), better decorative monospaced fonts (where would they be useful?), better faux-bitmap monospaced fonts (ranging from popular ones that meaningfully reference specific computer systems, like those from Capcom arcade games, VGA, IBM 3270, Commodore 64, to obscure ones that look generically "computer like" to most peoole, to original designs)
  • As discussed above, "default" can be good♥
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