Into the Odd Remastered is a rules-light, flavor-heavy roleplaying game of industrial horror and cosmic strangeness. It's written by its creator, Chris McDowall, and designed and illustrated by Johan Nohr.
This is an exhibit, which means we're going to analyze Into the Odd to learn some of its secrets. Plenty of rpgs use a column-based grid, but few have done it as well as this.
We are going to gloss over a lot as we focus on layout. If this exhibit excites you, I recommend buying the book in print at Noble Knight Games or digitally at DriveThruRPG. Every purchase you make gives a small amount back to Explorers for web maintenance.
And if you found this layout exhibit without seeing the others, I recommend checking out our exhibition of Brindlewood Bay's manuscript grid. It's a very different game and layout.
Antiquity meets Modernity
Into the Odd is a clicking, humming little book about steam engines and chattering spiders. The digital version doesn't do it justice. In person, the book feels like it always existed on a shelf somewhere. It does this by mingling historical photography and woodcuts with funkier modern typography and polish.
The layout brings them together into a functional presentation. Despite using stylized type, ornamental art, and collaging it all together—ItO is tidy. It breathes. Partly because the rules are light and the writing is pithy, but also from the subtle use of multi-column grids. That's right. Gridsssss. Nohr uses three different column grids. So let's get into it.
5 Explorer Observations
1. Put your mind in the gutter.
Into the Odd has three colored borders to represent three different kinds of content. Black indicates sections with rules, teal indicates adventure content, and blue indicates roll tables. This is a great piece of wayfinding tech, if you're looking for rules, you quickly learn to look for black. However, if we dig deeper towards the inner margins of the book, where there is no border, we see something even more interesting.
The pdf pages are 8 millimeters narrower than A5.
Here was the theory: I originally thought Johan had made his file narrower, but communicated this to printers.
An important thing to know about print shops is that it's impossible for them to carry every format size under the sun. There are far too many format sizes to realistically do that. So, instead, they stock massive sheets of paper and cut them down to the appropriate size. (This is why you have a bleed section. The cutting and inking process deviates by fractions of a millimeter, and you'll need to compensate. You can learn more about that in the layout basics guide.)
Technically, if you're in close communication with your print partners, they could cut the pages to whatever sized format you asked for and orient your files accordingly. (A lot of printers ask for your packaged working files so they can fine-tune it to their equipment.) I thought Johan might have handed off his modified document and asked them to put the missing width where it's needed most: in the gutter.
This would thereby reserve 16 millimeters of extra page for the gutter without having to change the PDF's layout for digital consumers. The proportions would stay the same across products without having to make multiple products.
In reality, this is what happened: Johan used a lesser known transitional format called PA5. It's a format that was rejected from the ISO standard to limit the number of options on the consumer market. However, because the PA5 page is only 8 mm narrower, it's still doable by home printers without special equipment, and well within the capabilities of professional print shops.
The takeaway here is that simplicity can be deceptive. The ultimate solution to the "gutter problem" in this case was making it wide enough. There wasn't any special coordination involved.
But it does point to another question, why choose PA5? Sometimes, stylistic choices don't need to solve a problem. They can just be choices.
2. Yes, there's a baseline grid.
Into the Odd uses a baseline grid to unify components from one spread to the next. Notice how the headers, body text, and markers rest on one of the gold lines. That's the baseline grid.
Traditionally, baseline grids are built around a document's body text. First, you figure out the line height of your body text, and then you take that measurement and break the spread into horizontal slices of that measurement. (Bonus points if you can divide the entire page's height into whole units of that measurement.) Don't worry, though, you don't have to do it by hand. Most design programs have settings to automatically put in baseline grids.
After that, everything falls onto those lines like notes in music. The baseline grid is a tempo, the unused lines are silence, and the copy and visuals are sound. Notice the silence between the massive headers and the copy that follows. It's consistent. It's rhythm. It's Mozart for the eyes.
Johan executes this technique well. The page is divided into almost perfect whole units of the baseline grid. The bottom margin, for example, is almost 9 rows of the baseline grid. And the top margin is almost exactly 4.
3. Whitespace is an ally.
The alleys are slightly thicker, the margins are generous, and if you look at the spreads with adventure text, some columns are deliberately left empty. The biggest mistake novice designers make is filling these spaces. Whitespace, when judiciously applied, guides the eye. Johan uses those spaces to enforce that sense of hierarchy and rhythm. In the narrower format of ItO, that's a boon.
There's a misconception that the reader gets stuck in whitespace. On the contrary, if you strike the right balance, whitespace can slingshot the user from one section to the next. Notice how in the above example the whitespace reinforces the scaffolding of information from one level of importance to the next.
4. Balance is found in the extremes.
Expansive whitespace, reliable type, and clear division between art and copy gives Into the Odd its formality and refined style. Meanwhile, the art and type gives it a Baroque patina and mystery.
When those two opposing forces work together, we get something more compelling than one alone. Many great games strike a balance with their extremes. Into the Odd is no different.
5. Breaking the grid isn't as odd as you think.
The guidelines of the grid system are—surprise—more guidelines than rules. Great layouts tend to break the grid a little. Here's why you might do that:
First off, breaking a pattern can deliberately call attention to a spread, page, headline, or element. This is often done with artwork or headers. In the case of Into the Odd, however, it's for the second biggest reason you might break the grid.
Sometimes visual elements look imbalanced if they're laid out with math.
If you think back to the principles and lessons of design, you might recall that the human eye perceives things differently than they appear. Letters, words, headers, and graphics can have an optical center that is different from their mathematical center. When this happens, you need to override the grid.
Visual designer, Johan Nohr, puts it best,"I always break my own grid on pretty much every page. Let text blocks be wider or taller if need be. I trust my eyes and gut more than the grid."
It sounds counter-intuitive but it's true. The grid helps until it doesn't.
Into the Odd Remastered is simple. Hard to pull off, but simple. There are no tricks or revolutionary techniques. It's on exhibit because it does a lot with the basics of graphic design. Intentional, careful, and diligent design will get you far, it can even make one of the industry's best entries.
The mechanics of Into the Odd are vetted by most fans of weird fantasy. If you're worried about the visual design, don't be. You can find it in print at Noble Knight Games or digitally at DriveThruRPG.
Until next time, never stop exploring.
|Format||PA5 (ISO-216 Standard)||148 x 210 mm|