Game design comes with its own set of tool, but like an adventurer’s pack clinking with thieves' tools, some are more valuable than others.
One of these tools is the grid system. A longsword in your arsenal against unfinished projects. The grid helps you marry other elements, like typography, maps, and copy (the words) into a unified whole. If a game designer makes things out of metal, the grid is their adamantium. It’s the core element of layout design.
We’re going to bend it to our will.
Why use a grid system?
Clear and consistent. A roleplaying product must be lawful good (or lawful neutral, and on rare occasions chaotic good). Repetition, rhythm, whitespace, and hierarchy are subtle forces on the reader that make your RPG product easier to use. The grid creates a structure for communication. If consistent across pages, game masters will gain momentum as they read, sliding effortlessly between flavor text, stats, and their own imagination.
Simple and intuitive. Poor layouts kill great ideas while good layouts shoulder the cognitive weight of new information. Consider stat blocks: would they be better as sentences? One after the other, breaking only when they hit the margins? No. They would be adversaries to gameplay. But layout makes them allies.
Fast and efficient. A grid gets your ideas out faster without tinkering with spacing and alignment. That means you can spend more effort on what matters: the game. We’ve all been there, debating how many pixels up and down something should go. The grid keeps you nimble by having you make a blueprint and operate within it.
Innovative. Sometimes a layout can inspire. Consider, for example, the hex map, the grid that made campaigns like the West Marches possible. Or the modular grid that lifted mega-dungeons into more usable applications by “chunking” the map into bite-size pieces. These concepts are impossible without the structure of grids and grid-like layouts.
Collaborative. Simply put, it’s easier to collaborate when everyone knows the space they’re contributing to. A grid encourages outlining your project, finalizing your word counts, and delegating sections to team members.
Anatomy of the grid
We need to establish a basic understanding of grid theory, their parts, and their terms.
Once we’ve learned the language, we can layout our game design projects deliberately. Plus, when we know how to “speak grid,” we have the power to borrow and learn from other industries beyond game design.
The format is where your grid and layout live. It’s your canvas, A4 page, US Letter, web browser, phone screen, zine spread, or back of a cereal box.
In RPGs, the spread is the combined visual when your reader opens the book, newspaper, or brochure. Normally it’s two pages side-by-side.
The bleed is where your layout forgives tiny deviations in the production process by extending past the edge of the format. Full-bleed images or background textures should extend into “the bleed.”
Margins are the “whitespace” between the edge of your format and the outer edge of your content. The margins are the “here be dragons” of the canvas. Content that pushes into the margins does so dangerously.
Some design programs use the term gutter and alley interchangeably— but for our purposes, the gutter is the combined margin between two pages of a book. If the book is thick and bound, the gutter will "eat" more of the page as it sinks into the spine.
You’ll most often find markers inside the margins—designated places for repeating information like page numbers, chapter headers, and author names. Markers can live anywhere in the margins but are often consistent.
Columns are the zones that stretch vertically from margin to margin. They’re the single most important part of your layout and decide how your content will appear.
Flowlines are lines that divide your canvas into rows from one margin to the other. They form a checkerboard with the columns and guide the eye across the page. Some grids have one flowline near the top called a hangline. Others might have none at all.
Alleys are the buffer between individual columns and rows. They act like wool between plate mail, an invisible space that keeps your design elements from grinding against each other. Without them, designs fall out of balance.
The modules are areas of space where rows and columns intersect. They’re the building blocks of your design. When modules link together, they create columns, rows, and spatial regions.
Critters like maps, illustrations, and copy reside within one or more modules. When we link or designate certain modules for that content, we call them spatial regions or zones. Think of regions like rooms to a dungeon. When we build layouts, we don't always know what will live inside of them, but if we build it, they will come.
An important thing to remember is that sometimes we don't put a region on the page where it could feasibly exist. When we do that, we're saying that nothing will live there. It's designated whitespace.
Types of formats
The A-Series, also known by the formidable name “International Paper Size Standard 216,” is used across the globe. It’s the metric system for formats. (Probably because it’s measured by the metric system.)
The A-Series is widely available and scales proportionally. If you fold a sheet of A-Series paper, you get the next smallest version of it. If you put two identical sheets of paper side-by-side, you get its next biggest sibling. In roleplaying games, the A-Series is nearly perfect. It’s proportionally narrower than the US equivalent, which makes it great for top-down hierarchy and long-form copy. And the wide availability means you can get it printed nearly anywhere.
In addition to the A-Series, the ISO provides two others — B and C. The B-Series expands the available sizing by providing options between the different A-Series. For example, B5 paper is between A4 and A5 in size. Meanwhile, the C-Series is exclusively for envelopes. They're measured specifically for folding and shipping A-Series paper. So, in other words, don't worry about the other two series. They exist to compliment and expand upon the A-series formats.
North American Format
The United States and Canada use a traditional system built on the imperial measurement system. This means they're broken down in increments of inches instead of centimeters.
Standard paper sizes in the US do not have a consistent aspect ratio but were individually set and built around its three stars—the Letter, Legal, and Tabloid. This means every format size in the "US-Series" is unique and independent of the others. If your RPG product spans multiple US formats, you have a lot of work ahead of you. You can’t resize the elements. You'll have to rearrange them, too.
Still, the traditional American paper sizes have their advantages. The US Letter is proportionally wider than the A4, which makes it friendlier to wide art and maps. The US Letter is also widely available in North American homes, which makes it a print-and-play darling. Every size in the US-Series was tailor made for a function. Perhaps your game is that function.
Note: In 1995, a new series called the ANSI/ASME Y14.1 was adopted by the American National Standards Institute. It modified the original US Letter and Legal into a more consistent aspect ratio to promote consistency across communications. Unfortunately, it didn't take off. If you manage to design something in ANSI-A (the updated version of the US Letter), it will be slightly different from the one found in North American homes. Still, North American government agencies and universities may be using the ANSI.
As shipping costs rise and we march towards a better, greener world—digital formats stand at the forefront of roleplaying game design. They can be the size of a phone, an iPad, a desktop, or even a smartwatch.
What’s interesting about digital formats is that their layouts are dynamic—they change from one device to another. This is where you find things like HTML, ePub, and interactive pdfs. Unfortunately, some of these mediums (not HTML) are inelegant without extensive exclusionary training. For example, most epubs will squeeze your copy and visuals into shape regardless of proximity, whitespace, and more. There are ways to combat this, but it raises the question.
Why not make a website or an app? The grid system lives on (perhaps thrives) in the digital ecosystem. Websites are not going anywhere and growing stronger by the day. While its technically outside the scope of this website—Explorers nudges you towards the magical world of HTML and CSS.
Where there are dragons, there is treasure.
World & Industry Formats
Countless almanacs and bestiaries would be needed to document the endless print formats. When you expand into the publishing industry or delve deeper into the writing traditions of a country, you'll find that the ISO, ASNI, and others are insufficient for mapping our options.
Picking an "uncommon" format can be a design decision all on its own. For example, if you were making an rpg about government agents, why not use the official paper formats of the American IRS? Or maybe your book is inseparable from your native culture? Could it be a powerful sign of defiance or truth to use your country's original designs?
To avoid going deep into formats, I'll leave you with this: whatever you do, check with a printer to see if it's possible. That's your only real limitation.
Types of Grids
As rigid as the grid appears, it can grow to become as unique and complex as you need it to be. The sum of a grid's parts creates a grid layout. And that layout or "grid system" will create an infinite number of configurations.
No layout is better than the rest, but one layout can be better for different projects. We're going to look at six basic grid layouts: the manuscript grid, the column grid, the modular grid, the hierarchical grid, the baseline grid, and finally the composite grid.
Note: The funny thing about grid systems is that they're entirely invisible in the final product. So, when you see listed examples, they're always approximations of what lies beneath the page—divination on how they might have been made. Explorers be warned.
A manuscript grid (or single-column grid) is the cleanest and oldest of the grids. It’s the stuff of Tudor monks and their illuminated manuscripts, novels, handbooks, and journals.
The manuscript grid is often found in smaller indie products or as introductions. It can be symmetrical or asymmetrical and is sometimes in the center of the page, but often pleasingly offset to balance against whitespace. Remember: the size of your format suggests but doesn’t dictate the grid.
Use this design intelligently. Manuscript grids can evoke authority and signal to the reader how monumental it is. After all, it's only asking you to look at one pillar of information. That's pretty monumental.
Roleplaying game examples:
- Brindlewood Bay (2022) by Jason Cordova
- Dialect (2017) by Thorny Games
- Orbital (2021) by Jack Harrison
- Through Ultan's Door No.1 (2018) by Ben Laurence
This grid uses columns to organize its contents. It’s a mainstay of magazines and textbooks. And is also the most common grid in RPG products. The columns are often symmetrical but don't have to be used that way or be set so rigorously.
The multicolumn grid can be asymmetrical and support many columns beyond two. The more columns you use, the more flexible it becomes. An important thing to remember about columns is that they're only guidelines. Content is often spread across multiple columns. The key is setting up a consistent pattern and sense of repetition. Once you've done that, the grid system acts like an internal logic system for the rhythms and proportions of the page.
Many think of the column grid as a bread and butter layout.
Roleplaying game examples:
- Cairn (2020) by Yochai Gal
- Old School Essentials (2020) by Necrotic Gnome
- Pathfinder 2nd Edition (2019) by Paizo
- Troika! Numinus Edition (2019) by Melsonian Arts Council
The modular grid incorporates multiple flowlines to create rows in its design. It’s a natural step for multicolumn grids and is done instinctually by many designers.
When you turn the grid into modules, you create the ability to employ more complicated visual techniques. Modular grids are found in things like catalogs, magazines, and character sheets.
If your RPG product uses charts, interactive art, or unique layouts, rows are invaluable and sometimes mandatory.
Roleplaying game examples:
- ARC (2022) by Momatoes
- Black Hack 2nd Edition (2018) by David Black
- Mausritter (2021) by Isaac Williams
- Offworlders (2018) by Chris Wolf
The hierarchical grid is special. It can be set up freestyle or with the help of a modular grid. What makes it unique is that it builds its patterns and proportions around the contents' hierarchy.
Don’t let the name fool you. Other grids use hierarchy, too. But the hierarchical grid is like an ooze; It squeezes into weird shapes. you might not even realize it's got structure at all! This is why the hierarchical grid is most commonly found in digital formats. The responsive nature of screens forces many online publications to lean on their content strategy and then "cobble" the work together like masonry blocks.
To build this type of grid in print, you need to study your contents and customize the layout to have a consistent logic from one page to another (even when content changes). This means you'll spend a lot of time sorting your content into groups so that you can repeat layouts from one page to another. The below examples are rough approximations, but most of them just break the grid entirely and lean on design principles.
Roleplaying game examples:
- Crapland 2 (2021) by Sean Richer
- CY_BORG (2022) by Christian Sahlen
- Necronautilus (2020) by Adam Vass
- Quest (2019) by The Adventure Guild
The baseline grid is meant to be used in tandem with the other grids. Instead of dividing the canvas into regions, it orders the type into neat, evenly spaced lines on top of each other.
A bigger baseline grid means the lines are further apart. Small or compact grids sport lines are closer together.
Your type falls on these lines and the space between them (the “leading” pronounced ledd-ing) becomes the basic unit of separation between them. In more layman programs, this is called "line spacing." Bigger type still falls on the baseline but may be multiple lines apart.
Roleplaying game examples:
- Into the Odd (2022) by Chris McDowall
- Thirsty Sword Lesbians (2021) by April Kit Walsh
- Trophy Gold (2022) by Jesse Ross
- Runequest (2018) by Greg Stafford
A composite grid is when you combine multiple types of grids into one document. It can be a combination of a manuscript grid, modular, and column, or multiples of the same type with different proportions. The configurations are endless.
If you’re using multiple layouts, you need to find a way to unite them logically. One way is to preserve the margins and marker placements. Another is to create patterns in how you treat certain content. Either way, the composite grid is a great way to create something versatile. Most of the RPGs on the market are composited—including many of the ones in the above examples.
Roleplaying game examples:
- Haunted Almanac (2021) by Nate Treme
- Knock! Issue 1 (2021) by Merry Mushmen
- Mothership (2018) by Sean McCoy
- My Body is a Cage (2020) by John Battle