Exploring Libreté: Brutalism in RPG Graphic Design

While previous installments of Exploring Libreté have focused on key game mechanics and the language used for them, this time I want to talk about how the game looks. In particular, I’d like to explain how I used basic principles of information design and presentation to create a layout that puts everything important right where you expect it, and where you need it most.

To do that, however, we need to take a quick detour into the architectural style known as Brutalism. Brutalism flourished in the middle of the 20th century as an offshoot of postmodern architecture, and emphasized unpolished, geometric, practical aesthetics in brick and concrete (béton brut is French for “raw concrete”).

Brutalist buildings are often maligned as ugly or simply outdated, but I find something beautiful in their raw simplicity. The Brutalist philosophy is one that’s very close to my heart: embrace the material of your trade. Don’t hide behind layers of paint and glass, or obfuscate your design with artistic frivolities. Function before form, always. Utilize the medium, if you will.

This brings us to graphic design. Applying the principles of Brutalism to the layout of Libreté made a lot of sense: it reinforced the games’ themes of urban survival and a sort of cold, sterile post-apocalypse. It allowed me to design function-first, as I already prefer to do. And it gave me the chance to present something that I believe is beautiful in its simplicity.

Let’s go over the principles of Brutalism, as they apply to the design of Libreté.

  • Use simple, reliable materials in your construction. Libreté uses only one font for body and headers: Neue Haas Grotesk, the successor to Helvetica and widely lauded for its versatility and readability. Sections are seperated and emphasized with simple strokes, art, and good old-fashioned white space, but nothing is wasted.
  • Do not hide your materials behind unnecessary flourishes. No textured backgrounds or art bleeding into the text. These not only make your book harder to read for the fully-sighted, it’s a nightmare for accessibility.
  • Design around geometric shapes. Rectangles are good, squares are better. Embrace the entirety of the page and design for the information you want to present. This also allows you to create art out of shapes that reinforce what’s being written; consider the heavy black bars on the background of the page detailing the PCs encounter with a locked gate:
  • Design for use, not distant artistic appreciation. If the words in your book are interesting–and those in Libreté surely are–don’t try to steal the show with your layout. Design every page so as to showcase the information in the most practical, intuitive way possible. For this, you need a good grasp of typography and particularly hierarchies of information. Expect a blog post on that in the future.

The examples shown above all come from the Quick Start Guide, which you can get on itch.io right now if you like. It contains an introductory adventure with all the rules and playbooks needed to run a game. It’s 15 pages long, and each one was designed line-by-line with a deliberate eye for the principles above. It’s an RPG book by way of IKEA manual: unornamented, functional, meant to be scanned out of the corner of your eye for relevant information while you focus on the task at hand.

Libreté returns to Kickstarter January 7, 2020. In the meantime, consider downloading the FREE Quick-Start Guide and Demokit, available at gmdk.itch.io.

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