How to produce RPGs on nothing a-year is a series that focuses on the technical aspect of RPG design: the layout, fonts, art, and everything else that doesn’t constitute the actual writing. In particular, we’re looking at ways to create quality products using nothing but free programs.
Last time, we looked at how Google Docs could be used to create simple-but-effective layouts for RPG modules and supplements. Though you won’t win any Ennies in the style department, the output is serviceable. Today we’re looking at a different program altogether, one that’s much beloved by academia for its customization options, extensive language support, and robust community. Today, we’re looking at LaTeX.
LaTeX is a typesetting language derived from TeX, which has been in use in some form or another for nearly 40 years. If you’ve spent any time in a higher-level math or science department, you probably just shivered in memory of the compiling errors and indecipherable documentation, and I’m pleased to say that all of that is still here. HOWEVER, with a little practice, even a total layperson can be up and running with LaTeX in no time, and, for my money, there’s no better place to start learning the basics of layout and design.
This is because LaTeX allows nearly total control of every aspect of the document, and subsequently requires a hawk-like attention to detail. Images can be moved by the millimeter. Pages can be broken into 7 columns for the first third, then 3, then 1.
What this means is that for the experienced LaTeX operator, almost no design choice is off-limits. The ability to adjust the layout on a page-by-page or even paragraph-by-paragraph basis is incredibly useful if you’re dealing with lots of art or maps interspersed with the text. I first started designing with LaTeX, and while I’ve switched mostly to Scribus and InDesign now, I still break it out on occasions when I need to write up a simple one-page handout or ultra-light adventure. I’ve even typeset an entire 64-page ruleset using it, though in hindsight that was more as a learning experience than anything.
This versatility comes at the expense of learning how to type with a certain degree of separation from the finished product. LaTeX is not a “what you see is what you get” program like Word, Docs, or even Scribus. Instead, it’s written like a coding language, with the bulk of its power coming from the use of packages. Packages are easy to set up (a simple line in the preamble) and most of the common ones come preloaded in whatever LaTeX program you decide to use. Once the package is loaded, you can input commands to unlock those packages and expand your toolset. There’s a package for multiple column support (the aptly named “multicol”), and one for images. There’s packages to change just your header fonts, or the fonts in the entire document. There’s even packages that allow you to draw graphs and lines directly within LaTeX (these are a pain in the ass to use, but they’re there).
I could go over each of these, along with pretty pictures to walk you along, but then this article would be 10 pages long and I’d have to pitch it to Texas Monthly. Luckily, LaTeX has an innate comment system that allows you to see both my code and the output side-by-side. Clicking on the link below will open the document in Overleaf, a web-based LaTeX program that’s perfect for the RPG designer on the go (or at work).
That’s all I would have for you, except…
If you don’t mind a few restrictions on your LaTeX experience, Michael Davis (Slithy on dragonsfoot.com) has created a package that almost perfectly mimics the style of early RPGs. It’s called rpg_module, and while it’s not my cup of tea, it’s an attractive and easy way to learn the basics of the system. The PDF documentation here gives you everything you need to know to insert tables, artwork, statblocks, and the package itself.
Do you have any experience using LaTeX to design RPG supplements? Any tips or advice for the up-and-coming stars of the OSR among us? Let us know in the comments section what you think, and join us next time when we discuss the big daddy of all free layout programs: Scribus.