If you are a tabletop game creator, you eventually get to a point where you need graphic design to convey or promote your projects. However, not everyone has the budget to hire a professional. I see creators on social media asking for help with the design aspect of their work all the time. They attempt to do the graphic design themselves and end up frustrated and disappointed.
That’s why I thought it’d be useful to put together a blog series on graphic design tips! I’ve learned a lot in my 14+ years as a designer, publisher, and marketer that I’m happy to share. I’d never claim to make someone an expert designer just by reading a blog post… But I’m hoping that these tips will at least provide a foundation of basics to help you in your graphic design journey.
This will be a four part series. Over the next few weeks I’ll be covering the topics of logo design, the printing process, and layout design for publication. But for the first article of the series, what better place to start than with the resources you’ll need to get started on a budget?
Tools Of The Trade
It’s worth mentioning that graphic design can be done with any tools or software. You could totally produce work in Microsoft Word, if you wanted to. However, professional graphic designers are very particular in the software they choose to use. Adobe Creative Cloud is the industry standard. Currently, it is a subscription based service that offers multiple apps for various design needs. For the purposes of graphic design for TTRPGs, I’ll talk a little about the big ones.
It seems like almost everyone has a little experience in Photoshop these days. It is the “starter app” that many people use as a swiss army knife when they first get into graphic design. However, Photoshop’s main functions are photo correction, image manipulation, and digital artwork. Understanding how to work with layers is the building block to understanding how to use the other Adobe apps.
Where Photoshop deals with pixels, Illustrator is for creating vector based graphics and artwork. Vector artwork is math-based and can be scaled up or down without having to worry about destroying your artwork’s resolution. This makes Illustrator the most acceptable app for logo design. Those new to the trade usually find Illustrator very difficult to learn. TTRPG creators will mostly use this for logo design, creating icons, etc.
My personal favorite, InDesign is an app specifically for publication and layout design. In my opinion, this is the best app for creating books, magazines, digital PDFs, brochures, etc. It’s really great for anything that you intend to print and make physical copies of. For tabletop game designers, it is mostly used for rule books or other multipage documents. For whatever reason, it is the least talked about of the three major Adobe apps in the TTRPG scene despite being so useful.
Free Graphic Design Tools
Because Adobe is the standard of the industry, it can be a pretty expensive monthly cost. If you don’t intend to use it beyond the purposes of the project you’re working on, you might not see it as a worthwhile investment. Luckily, there are a couple of free options available to TTRPG creators. While these resources are great, just be aware that you get what you pay for when it comes to any software.
GNU Image Manipulation Program (or GIMP) titles itself “The Free & Open Source Image Editor”. It is free to download and works cross-platform. This app is suitable for image manipulation, artwork creation, and design elements. They even offer a user manual and tutorial section to help you get started learning the basics. It’s a good option if you are on a really tight budget.
Canva is a paid subscription service. However, they offer “Canva Free”, as a free option. This app is browser based, so you won’t have to download it onto your computer and you can access it simply by logging in. It is useful for design, layout, publishing, and team collaboration. They also offer a selection of templates, graphics, images, and fonts with their free plan.
Not well versed in color theory? Adobe Color is a free tool that helps you develop color palettes. It’s very intuitive and fun to use! You can even upload images and pull colors to form the foundation of your palette. It stays within proven color theory parameters and breaks down the colors it creates in RGB for digital works and CMYK for print.
Graphic Design Self-Education
So you’ve downloaded the software. Now what? The subject of graphic design is too complex to cover in a single blog post. Developing your own graphic design education will require personal research. Graphic designers are constant students, always learning in their ever-evolving industry. Even at the expert level, you’ll always encounter roadblocks and issues when designing. However, there are a lot of free resources available to you online to further your knowledge.
Previously known as Lynda.com, LinkedIn Learning offers a vast array of video courses in just about any creative subject you could think of. Though this is a paid service, they do offer courses for free to members of a few affiliated local libraries. You can click here for instructions on how to log in with your library card. Not all libraries are connected with LinkedIn Learning, but it’s definitely worth checking.
Sometimes the best way to learn is to observe what is current in the field. Behance is Adobe’s platform for creatives to publish portfolios and projects online. It’s essentially a social network for commercial artists to connect and share their work. Behance is a great place to get inspired and search directly for the type of design project you’re interested in. Not to mention, the work showcased is usually of good quality, current, and diverse.
This might seem like a basic answer, but YouTube really is a treasure trove of free tutorials. Search for almost any topic in graphic design and you can pretty much guarantee that someone’s made a video tutorial for it. Once you find trustworthy creators you like, you can explore all the free videos and tutorials they offer. Youtube is a really great option for when your software does something weird and you need to know how to fix it!
The Ethics Of Downloading Design Materials
Fonts, images, templates, digital brushes, and similar downloadable files are considered design materials. There is a misconception that if something is available for download online that it is free to use in your project. This… is false. It is better that you know how to source your graphic design materials before you incorporate them into your TTRPG projects. This will save you headaches and possible legal trouble later.
Check The License
Almost any design material you download comes with some form of license. The license explains how the creator of the material intended you to use it. Your ability to use the material depends on what you intend to do with it. Make sure you actually read what the license allows, as not all licenses are the same. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Please use common sense when creating and when in doubt, consult a legal professional.
When Can I Use Something For Commercial Use?
If you are creating something you intend to sell, you always want to make sure that the material is, “Free For Commercial Use”. Many materials allow you to use them as you wish; including distribution, remixing, adaption, etc. Some creators ask for attribution, or that you mention them in the credits of your work. Sometimes you can even contact the creator and ask for permission!
Using Something Without Permission Is Stealing
Remember all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into creating your tabletop role-playing game product? Wouldn’t it suck if someone found your work online, modified it, and sold it as their own? That is essentially what you are doing when you use materials without having permission. This is a form of plagiarism. If you cannot find a license on how to use a material, it’s best not to use it at all.
Sourcing Design Materials
Locating the design materials for your TTRPG product can be time consuming and difficult. This is especially true for someone just getting started. If you’re not careful, sourcing your materials can also become pricey. But like all the other topics in this post, there are a few good quality resources available for free online. Below are some of the best free resources I’ve come across in my years as a graphic designer.
Fonts For Commercial Purposes
Typefaces and fonts are readily available online for download. The more refined fonts with multiple weights and variations generally cost money. Because these typefaces are of an excellent quality, purchasing them can get more expensive than you’d think. Thankfully, there are a couple reputable websites that offer free and safe fonts for download. All the fonts that Font Squirrel provides are free for commercial use. You can also pull free font families from Google Fonts.
When people hear “stock photography”, they think of cheesy corporate images and nonsensical scenarios caught on film. However, stock photos can be more useful for TTRPG design than most people realize. Icons, layouts, textures, photography and other graphics are usually available. There are a ton of options when looking for a stock photo provider. But if you are looking for free stock photography, I’d check out Pexels or Wikimedia Commons.
Brushes, Textures, And Other Design Materials
There are many digital artists that provide free digital brush sets, texture packs, etc. Usually, this requires finding an individual artist’s personal website or social media channels. Surprisingly, DeviantArt still has a decent community of artists sharing their work for use. If you are looking for something specific, it is usually just a google search away. Just exercise caution when downloading. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
Working With Artists
At one point or another, you may need to collaborate with or hire artists for your TTRPG projects. This section is mostly about how to not have a negative experience with them. You’d be amazed at the horror stories I’ve heard about what people expect from the artists they hire. Try to remember that most artists work independently as freelancers. Also, that they are people providing a service that you cannot do yourself.
Don’t Devalue Their Work
When negotiating with an artist, it is completely acceptable to try to come to an agreement for the cost of services. What isn’t acceptable is insisting that an artist’s work isn’t worth the rate they are charging. What someone charges for their services isn’t your choice. If you feel it is too expensive, politely decline to work with the artist and look for someone more in your price range. It’s possible that the artist was overvaluing their services, but it’s also possible that you are unaware of industry standards for quality work.
Be Clear About What You Need
When hiring or collaborating with an artist, you need to be really clear about what it is you are expecting. If you’re unsure of the project’s needs, be upfront about that. Most professionals are understanding about the creative process and shifting project needs. Knowing this helps the artist give you an accurate quote. It’s also important to note that just because you are working on a project together, the artist is not obligated to render additional work for you outside of the quoted job.
Insist On A Contract
This is just a good rule for life in general. You should always insist on a contract when working with an artist. Most professionals will already have a standard contract. If they don’t, a quick Google search will pull up a template for any type of contract you might need. Contracts establish what is expected from both parties and protect each person’s interests in the project. They also can establish things like the stages of the project, how many revisions are included in the price, etc.
I hope that this was a helpful first step in your TTRPG graphic design journey. Next week in this series, I’ll be covering logo design! Until next time, stay creepy and happy gaming.