Publisher magic: creating a roleplaying game based on Jack Vance’s Lyonesse novels

We speak to Lawrence Whitaker, co-founder of The Design Mechanism, to learn how the Affinity suite played a starring role in the creation of the company’s latest table-top roleplaying game ‘Lyonesse’.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your company, The Design Mechanism.

We’re a small company based in Ontario, Canada, specialising in the design and production of table-top roleplaying games and supplements. These are similar to Dungeons & Dragons, but with a different set of rules (our Mythras engine). We formed in 2011 and have been successfully producing books for the past nine years. We’ve steadily grown in confidence and range, and the two founders of the company, myself and Pete Nash, have over 50 combined years of experience in writing and publishing in this field.

Lyonesse fantasy roleplaying game.
What is the idea behind your latest publication, ‘Lyonesse’?

We are huge fans of the American author, Jack Vance, who is responsible for some of the best Science Fiction and Fantasy from the Golden Age of SF publishing in the 1950s and 60s, and every decade since, well into the early 2000s. His ‘Dying Earth’, ‘Demon Princes’, ‘Planet of Adventure’, and ‘Lyonesse’ books are highly regarded and influential.

Vance is a master of language, plotting, and characterisation, and his voice is unique. ‘Lyonesse’, published between 1983 and 1989, is a very special take on fantasy, mixing traditional folklore, the chivalric age, gritty action and battle scenes, political intrigues, and a sweeping, very involved story, with many colourful characters, villains, wizards, fairies and strange creatures. It all sounds quite whimsical, but really ‘Lyonesse’ is very grounded: almost ‘The Once and Future King’ meets ‘Game of Thrones’. All these things make it ideal for a roleplaying game setting, and especially suited to our Mythras game rules. So, we approached Jack Vance’s estate, and they very graciously agreed to us producing a roleplaying game based on the novels. It’s such a compelling world, so well described, that it’s ripe for the table-top RPG treatment.

A spread from the Magic Chapter.
The book contains 510 pages; how did you plan out and manage such a huge publication?

There were five writers and four main artists involved with the project, and each had a section assigned to them for writing or illustration. The book divides neatly into two parts: the background to the Lyonesse world, which takes up the first half of the book, and then the game rules occupying the second (which were already written, and simply needed some adjustments for the Lyonesse setting).

We began the project with a rough plan of how the book would be structured, and adjusted the plan according to input from the authorial team. Once agreed, a project manager was assigned to oversee the coordination of each contributor’s work, managing deadlines, status updates, and keeping the project on track.

Once all the writing was complete, these were handed to myself, and I began the task of assembling the documents into the different chapters, moving certain parts around, and making changes to better fit the flow of the book and the rules of the game. Then, we handed the chapters over to an editor, who went through the work line by line, liaised with the authors over corrections, and myself over changes here and there to the book’s structure. Once complete, it was my task to lay out the book using Affinity Publisher, and I tackled the task as a single large document having first designed the overall look and feel of the pages, headings, and fonts to be used.

“…it was my task to lay out the book using Affinity Publisher, and I tackled the task as a single large document having first designed the overall look and feel of the pages, headings, and fonts to be used.”

How long did Lyonesse take to produce from start to finish?

Just over two years, which was the schedule we’d agreed with Jack Vance’s estate. We finalised the contract in February 2018 and released Lyonesse on 1st May this year. We were actually only about six weeks behind schedule, which on a project this big and complex is remarkably good-going.

A spread from the Kingdoms Chapter.
What are the biggest challenges when producing a book of this size?

Working with a team of authors means managing different styles and different rates of work. There’s always the danger that something will take longer than expected, or that the style won’t be quite right, and will need some rewriting to make it fit. Fortunately, we had very few deadline issues, and the writers involved are all very experienced, very committed, and gelled very well in terms of their styles. It ended up that the biggest challenge came from within, designing the magic rules for the game: it took a long time to get right—about a year—but ended up being a centrepiece of the project.

Lyonesse was produced using the Affinity suite. Why did you choose to use Affinity for this project?

We’ve used Adobe InDesign for most of our books, but the subscription cost is hideous, and we found InDesign was becoming very unstable in some areas. Affinity is not only highly affordable and professional-grade, it’s also much easier to use than InDesign for the bulk of things we do. Things that were clunky in InDesign are much more streamlined in Publisher, once you’re used to the interface (which doesn’t take long to grasp). I’d also been part of the Affinity Publisher beta test, and designed two smaller books using the beta software, so I knew Affinity Publisher would be up to the job. And I haven’t regretted it.

“Affinity is not only highly affordable and professional-grade, it’s also much easier to use than InDesign for the bulk of things we do. Things that were clunky in InDesign are much more streamlined in Publisher, once you’re used to the interface (which doesn’t take long to grasp).”

The book contains a lot of illustrations, maps and tables, as well as a gorgeous decorative border. What was your process for designing the layout?

I already had in mind a look and feel for the book before we even began writing. One of our artists, Paul Sementilli, has the most gorgeous style that is perfect for the kind of whimsical, fairy tale world depicted in the novels. Very early in the project, he produced some concept sketches, and that helped us decide on key elements of the layout design, such as what font choices to make for heading and paragraph styles. We also wanted a decorative border to suggest the feel of reading an old fashioned fairy tale book of the kind Arthur Rackham might have illustrated, and so Paul worked with me on how the page borders should look, dimensions, placing, and so forth. I used his rough drafts as placeholders when putting the master pages together, and then worked the font choices around how they complemented the art style.

What tools/features in Affinity Publisher did you use most during the project?

Master page design and Paragraph Styles are by far and away the most used tools and features of a project like this, followed by image placing and text wrapping. I import the text one chapter at a time and spend a great deal of time applying paragraph and heading styles to all the text, then adding in graphical elements such as illustrations, maps, and tables. Once those are placed, it’s a case of tweaking the layout to ensure that everything is spaced correctly, inserting line and column breaks where necessary, and ensuring the flow is coherent and correct.

Setting up the Master Pages in Affinity Publisher.

After that, the whole document has to be indexed (we used a separate application for indexing), proofed, corrected, and then re-tweaked. Changing even a word in a complex document like this can throw-out the alignment and flow across lots of the pages. So using the leading, paragraph spacing, and kerning tools was an essential part of the process—plus adjusting text flow spacing around images to create the right balance between white space and keeping the text and illustration together.

StudioLink is a brilliant innovation. No more having to fire-up Photoshop or Illustrator to work on a graphical element, saving it, then replacing the original. Instead, I could switch between personas to make the adjustments seamlessly and know that the changes were unique to the placed element. That kind of seamless switching is very important when working on something as graphics-heavy as a roleplaying game, and it’s a fantastic feature of the Affinity suite.

“That kind of seamless switching is very important when working on something as graphics-heavy as a roleplaying game, and it’s a fantastic feature of the Affinity suite.”

A spread with graphics and text created in Affinity Publisher.
How did you prepare the final publication for printing?

Once all the proofing and final adjustments were complete, it’s a question of exporting the Affinity file to PDF (our printer uses PDF/X-1A) and making sure that the correct bleed settings are applied. The internals of the book are in one file, and the cover label is prepared separately, once we know the spine calculations based on the page count and paper type. We created the cover using Affinity Designer, importing the various illustrations and graphical elements as needed, into a correctly sized canvas. Once all that’s done, we check over the soft proof and then upload everything to the printer, who produces a physical proof copy. We had to make a few minor adjustments; some linked images somehow became decoupled during the PDF creation process, so this was an opportunity to correct those and get ready for the final print launch.

Proof copy of Lyonesse.
A printed copy of the book showing the Dukes of Lyonesse.
Morgelt’s Story: Combat Example.
Do you plan to use the Affinity suite for future projects?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve cancelled our Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, and Affinity is now our go-to suite for all our projects. In fact, it has been ever since the beta was launched, but with the full Publisher release—and the latest update allowing .idml files to be imported—we’ve had complete confidence in adopting Affinity full time. And we’re now in the process of retooling some of our older books prepared with InDesign with an Affinity Publisher layout.

What advice would you give to other designers thinking of making the switch to Affinity apps?

You have nothing to lose. I’ve spent far more money on applications that I use far less. While there is a definite learning curve with Affinity, once you’ve learned where the main switches are, it’s actually very intuitive, and many things work similarly to InDesign, so if you have used that application already, the learning curve isn’t that steep. You do need to be aware that Publisher doesn’t do everything InDesign does, but you can be confident of producing excellent results to a professional standard. Obviously, professional needs differ from project to project, but at the price, the Affinity suite is definitely worth trying. The Affinity suite can only get better, and from what I’ve seen of the community and the Affinity team, there’s a solid commitment to excellence that will see more and more improvements with each release.


You can find out more about Lyonesse at thedesignmechanism.com. Both printed and digital copies of the game are available to purchase here.

If you would like to learn more about Jack Vance and his Science Fiction and Fantasy novels visit jackvance.com.