How to Choose Layout Software

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Game Publishing Lessons Learned


In April 2012, Neil Carr, a member of the RPGGeek community, started a series of Amateur Kickstarter discussion threads. These discussions were partly his way of bouncing ideas off of the community and partly his way of getting advice about how to get started with a Kickstarter project he had in the works. I took part in these discussions and learned a lot of great lessons from them myself.

Now, one year later, I wanted to reflect and share what I’ve learned from those discussions and from my own experience since then. The more we can learn from each other, the better off the industry as a whole will be.

In this series I will recap, post-by-post, each of the 10 or so discussion topics raised by Neal. I’ll touch upon the topics discussed in each thread and elaborate with new knowledge I have gained since then. I’ll start with his first post, “What publishing software to use?

Neil ran his own successful Kickstarter campaign for Companions of the Firmament; I’d recommend checking it out.

Original RPGGeek Post

I’ve stepped onto the path of being an amateur RPG publisher via Kickstarter. I want to see how far I can travel from zero-to-hero and I’m looking for help along the way. These series of posts are in part just me thinking aloud, but also asking specific questions as I put the pieces together to achieve rpg publishing victory.

To kick off I’m thinking about what publishing software to use. I’ve been using Open Office for years now due to the great low price of free, though now that it isn’t supported I’ve moved over to Libreoffice as it is being supported in the opensource community. Both mimic Microsoft Office in all the types of functions you’d expect from that suite of software.

This stuff works fine for writing, and even for one-button PDF creation, but it isn’t really meant to be publishing software, particularly if you want to include a lot of art, side bars, and other features that you’d expect from an RPG product.

For that you need layout software that is designed for you to easily move blocks of material around and format them to fit with whatever style you’re trying to achieve on the page. The top of the line for publishing in general is Adobe’s InDesign. It’s powerful, it’s complicated, and it’s expensive! $300 and you’d likely need to spend another $600 on a course to understand how to use it.

For the amateur like me it’s complete overkill and the price is so high that I’d need to jack the Kickstarter up another $300 just to buy the software, and then be stressed out trying to figure out how to use this turbo charged engine while the backers gather their impatience. Too much risk all around.

One option is to leap back into the warm embrace of opensource and go download Scribus. It’s kind of the Openoffice for InDesign, in that’s it free, but still chock full of powerful features to pull off all sorts of layout needs.

Scribus saves money, but there is a learning curve to it. I’m not sure if I want to go this route at the moment.

Another option is PagePlus. This $100 package is built for layout, and purportedly is also dumbed down enough to be able to jump into it and start producing. Is this the Goldilocks Zone of layout software?

So that’s where I’m at right now in assessing what to go with next. Years of work are in Openoffice files ready to be copy and pasted out into some layout software. I’m trying to figure out my own particular time/money priority.

At some point in the future, when I’ve leveled up with RPG material published, I’d want the whole Adobe suite at my fingertips, so I’d see InDesign, the +5 Holy Avenger of layout, as something I’d want to wield, but right now I’m just trying to figure out if I should invest in a masterwork longsword or just grab a regular great flail.

Any suggestions on the above, or other things to be looking at?

My Thoughts

I would like to point out a couple of things before I get started on the subject of layout software:

  1. You don’t have to do it all yourself.
  2. You don’t need to start with layout.

Most designers will start writing their books in much the same way that Neil or I did: using a word processing program such as LibreOffice or Microsoft Word. These programs are designed to handle large blocks of text and provide a wide array of formatting options. You’ll write your manuscript and, when it’s done, import it into a layout program such as Adobe InDesign or Scribus.

When it comes time to do layout (and this won’t necessarily be the first step after writing), you’ll need to make an important decision: handle everything in-house by yourself or outsource the work to a professional. There are benefits and drawbacks of each.

Laying Out Books By Yourself

If you decide to do all of the layout yourself, you’ll need to consider some of the things Neil did. Specifically, you need to figure out which desktop publishing suite you’re going to use. There are a lot of options on the market, even more than what was discussed in the original post. Some of them are worth considering, some of them are not. Here are the basics:

Word Processor

You may be tempted to use your word processor’s Save as PDF function to export your layout. Don’t. Word processors are fine for report writing, but they don’t make very attractive books no matter how hard you try. Learn to use your word processor for organizing and writing your documents, but keep in mind you won’t be able to truly do a professional publishing job with your word processor alone.

Update March 12, 2020: A reader would like me to point out the effectiveness of exporting PDFs from Word and Google Docs. These are now viable programs for making accessible PDFs, but they still don’t perform layout functions the same way a dedicated program does (see below). If you’re planning a simple, free product for a web-based release then these are probably just fine. Otherwise, keep reading.



Scribus is the open source desktop publishing software of choice. It is free, but it has a steep learning curve and only supports importing files from the Open Document Type (.odt) file format used by LibreOffice and OpenOffice. If you’re using Microsoft Word you may experience issues importing your documents, even if you use Word to save your files as .odt files.

A lot of people have had good luck with Scribus. Personally, I found it too cumbersome and, because I was using Microsoft WOrd as my word processor of choice, incompatible with my workflow.

Serif PagePlus / Affinity Publisher

Serif PagePlus is the middle-of-the-road alternative to Adobe InDesign. I only had experience using the demo version of this software, but it had little problem importing my document and styles from Word and the interface is clean, intuitive, and easy to learn. Because the demo only allows about 20 pages of output, it isn’t suitable on its own for large game books.

PagePlus X6 Pro is only $99 USD and you can find older versions online for less than that. It isn’t as powerful or as industry-standard as InDesign, but it does a good job for the price. Several people swear by PagePlus, but most of what I have read online is from magazine layout professionals and not from game book professionals. Your mileage may vary, but PagePlus is probably just fine for anyone laying out a book. I’d recommend tinkering with the free trial first to make sure you can get a feel for it.

Update March 12, 2020: PagePlus is now defunct. Serif now has a program called Affinity Publisher which has replaced it. Affinity is up-and-coming as a powerful and inexpensive InDesign alternative.

Affinity is available for around $50 USD. It has a lot of professional-level features at a fraction of the cost of some of the bigger fish. Many people are replacing their Scribus workflows with Affinity Publisher because the software is available for such a low price, especially if you get it on sale. Definitely keep this in mind if you’re planning to do your own layout.

Microsoft Publisher

I swear by Microsoft Office for my everyday needs. I find it much more powerful and intuitive than LibreOffice and would recommend it to anyone as a general office suite.

That being said, do not use MS Publisher to layout your game books if you plan on having them professionally printed. Simply put, it doesn’t support the PDF-X/1a file standard that most professional print houses request. Some printers may be willing to do a conversion for you, but many of them will charge you extra for it.

Publisher also doesn’t like to play with the CMYK color palette that is mandatory for professional print jobs. The options are available, but buried deep within some arcane menus, and many reports state that there is a bug which hasn’t been fixed since Publisher 2003 that prevents black from outputting as true black. I have read of workarounds, but you don’t want to be using workarounds for every single color you have to select in your entire document. It’s just not a very productive use of your time.

Publisher is great if you’re doing non-commercial products. It’s easy to use when designing flyers for bake sales that will be printed from an inkjet printer at home. I would caution against using it for professional print designs though.


I don’t recall anyone in the original RPGGeek thread talking about this program, but Steve Jackson Games uses it for their layout needs. I have no personal experience with it, but from my research it appears it is every bit as powerful as Adobe InDesign–and every bit as costly. A full license of QuarkXpress 9 will set you back $850 USD if you purchase it directly from Quark’s website.

QuarkXpress does offer a 30-day free trial if you’d like to tinker around with it and get your feet wet.

Adobe InDesign

This is the +5 holy avenger of desktop publishing software and the one you’ve probably heard of already. It is industry standard, industry leading, and comes with a price tag fitting of such titles.

On its own Adobe InDesign can set you back $700, but you’ll almost certainly need to pair it with Acrobat Pro to tighten up your PDFs once they’ve been exported from InDesign. That’ll set you back about $450, bringing your cost to $1150 USD. That doesn’t include other parts of the Design Standard suite, so you’ll need to shell out extra if you also want to get Photoshop and Illustrator to round out the whole package. You can buy the entire set for $1299 USD as part of the Adobe Design Standard bundle. (See Adobe’s Buying Guide for full details and up-to-date pricing.)

Starting with InDesign CS6, you can purchase an Adobe Creative Cloud license. Creative Cloud allows you to lease the software from Adobe; you pay a monthly fee and gain access to the software for as long as you continue to pay. With Creative Cloud, you gain access to virtually all of the products Adobe has to offer starting at $50 USD/month. To get that price, you need to purchase the license in one-year increments, so that’s a $600 USD up-front cost. It’s still cheaper than buying InDesign outright, but a hefty price when you consider you still need to learn how to use the software.

Adobe makes it a little tricky, but you can also license Creative Cloud for $75 USD/month without paying for a full year up-front. This is okay if you just need to use InDesign from time to time and can churn out a book in a month or two, but if you’re just learning you’ll need to spend several months just getting up to speed before you can start laying things out professionally.

Okay, so it’s big and expensive, but is it worth it? That’s ultimately something you’ll have to decide for yourself. If you want the best-of-the-best, InDesign is the way to go. It does just about everything you could want from a desktop publishing suite, and once you take the time to get to know it (take it on a few dates, buy it a few drinks maybe) you’ll find that it’s a faithful and valuable investment. InDesign is the no-compromise software of choice, but if you just can’t budget the price you’re welcome to go with Scribus or Affinity Publisher.

Update March 12, 2020: You can subscribe to a single program from Adobe’s Creative Suite for just $20/month. If you’re content to have just InDesign without a professional-level Adobe Acrobat, Photoshop, or Illustrator to back you up, then this is a more affordable solution. Also, I don’t believe you can buy a standalone license anymore if you’re an individual user. You’ll have to subscribe to CreativeCloud in one way or another.

Paying a Professional

If you’re going to layout books on your own, understand that it is a big commitment. To make a gorgeous-looking book you need to understand a lot of industry lingo, such as CMYK, Bleed, Gutters, Leading, Kerning, PDF-X/1a, and more. It’s a skill unto itself that you may not choose to learn. That’s okay. Nobody’s going to judge.

Thankfully, there are a lot of people in the industry who have already learned that lingo and have already purchased the software so you don’t have to. For less than the cost of a full InDesign license you can pay a pro to put your books together for you. They usually charge by the job, but in general a 200-page book will set you back around $500 – $700 USD. Considering the time you’ll save and the level of quality you’ll receive, it may be worth it to you to just hand over the reigns.

Check out and for examples of industry professionals who do layout on contract.

Read our article about how layout professionals work. Game Design Occupations Explained: Layout and Print Design.

What I Did

I took a hybrid approach to the above two methods. Psi-punk is my first book and it’s pretty big — more than 200 pages — so I wanted it to be done professionally. I hired to do the layout for my first major product, and they’re working with me now to ensure everything’s perfect and good to go. I enjoy working with them and they’ve offered me a very reasonable price. They’re gamers too, so they know what it’s like to be in my shoes.

On the other hand, Accessible Games has more than just one product planned. I wanted to be able to teach myself the ins and outs of publishing so I could eventually do all of this myself. I picked up a full license of Adobe Design and Web suite (which includes Dreamweaver and Fireworks in addition to the Design Standard products mentioned above) for less than $500 with my student discount. If you happen to have a .edu e-mail address because you are a student or teacher, you may be able to pick up Adobe InDesign on the cheap as well, which makes the investment significantly easier to manage. While I was at it, I took a college-level InDesign course to teach myself the ropes.

For the time being, my plan is to release smaller books by doing the layout on my own. Books such as Colors of Grey and Monster Kart Mayhem will be laid out in-house. Until I feel confident in my skills, I’ll continue to pay 3d6design or Eloy Lasanta to do layout for bigger books. It’s worth it to me to know that I am getting a true professional to lend their touch to my products, and they lend their own street cred to the book by having their name in the credits section.


We discussed a lot of different options for layout software and touched on the pros and cons of each. Next time I will answer the question “How to find artists and what to expect when paying for art?” This is an important topic you won’t want to miss, so stay tuned!

If you have any further questions or comments relating to the topic of layout, be sure to leave them in the comments!

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