Seven RPG Publication Cover Design Tips

Updated: May 5, 2020


We mentioned last week that we were hoping to squeeze in a short, two weeks Kickstarter to launch our monthly subscription.

Having pushed ahead with that project internally we got to the stage where the final copy for Issue Zero had been written and all that was left was the cover to do. Job almost done, right?

After all, how hard can it be to design a cover?

Really hard it turns out!

It's not like this is the first cover I have designed. After all, at The Grinning Frog, we've released over 30 publications and outside of this work I've produced plenty for other clients or other purposes.

Yet, for some deluded reason, I thought this would be easy... I guess because the content was produced and the imagery was strong in my head.

Turns out there are a few things to consider and here are some lessons I learnt.

Tip One: Your 'final' design won't be your 'final' design

That was the final design - all done and sorted. But, frankly, it's a bit dull. At best the door itself is pretty good but one could argue strongly that it doesn't really say 'dungeon' as images go. (Even though it's the door into the dungeon...)

The gravest sin was that it didn't catch the eye and create a 'wow' response.

Tip Two: Keep designing until your cover provokes positive responses

The one above got that. People freely replied to me on social media with comments like 'oh yes', 'wow, great' or 'that's lovely'. No one had said that about the dungeon door!

Tip Three: Be open to change

The cover above was done, finished and in the bag. Now, it did have the side-effect that I had to pivot on the content for the first issue. Rather than use the dungeon material that was written the entire Issue Zero had to be written from scratch.

Not ideal, however, there was enough time and once we did some brainstorming at The Grinning Frog HQ the ideas for the fantasy RPG forest shenanigans came thick and fast I am pleased to say!

But, and it was a big 'but'. Some of the people involved didn't like the above cover. Oh, they loved the wording, and the image but not the layout. Now, I fought back on this one.

"It mirrors the style used on our other publications" I argued.

"Brand consistency is important" I argued.

"I settled on that layout ages ago" I argued.

"It's hard to do what you are suggesting with the tools at hand..."


It hit me.

When I'm defending a design because of 'technical limitations' I'm not thinking hard enough. Instead, I'm justifying and defending.

And that' not a good mindset for a creative person.

Tip Four: When it's hard to create with the tools at hand, either learn to use the tools better or get better tools.

How technical something is to produce, has nothing to do with the design idea, only the implementation.

So, I settled back, listened to the advisers and mocked up a new layout, it looked better. I put together a finished example... it looked great! Much celebration and I applied the template to the first four issues.

Which leads me to the next cover design tip...

Tip Five: Everyone misses errors; look, look again - repeat

So, just for some variety, that's the old cover for issue two. (The forest picture is lovely but variety is the spice of life, right?) Looks, 'okay' but that text is floating (the issue the team had with it) and the text is a little crammed together. It's also incorrect.

And, that's something that escaped everyone's attention. There is an error in that title which was spotted after the multiple design versions, after it had been in front of practically everyone on the team, after it had been viewed by multiple people on social media and after I reworked the new style over the first four issues.

Have a look below and see if you spot it...

Correct; Dungeon Master's Adventure Pack... something, that for three years of development work and drafts, had escaped our notice.

I guess it is true, you can't see the forest for the trees - which given Issue Zero's topic is pretty ironic!

Tip Six: It's incredibly hard but you will eventually design a cover that you love - persevere, dig deep and have faith

And I have to follow straight on with the final tip as it is the flip side to the above...

Tip Seven: The end probably isn't the end

In my experience a cover that you love today, you might still love tomorrow, or even into the future. But, it is very likely that you will want it to evolve or change in the further future.

That doesn't mean the old version wasn't good for its time. Just like a favourite pair of shoes, sometimes a change is simply wanted or needed for a new reason or circumstance. And, as you can see above, once I had my magazine cover I needed it to a tablet mock-up so that people could understand that this was something designed for the digital age...and then, with Kickstarter (that image's destination) requiring a certain set picture dimension, I had to put the table on a background.

Such is the way of design in the modern world!

This is a big topic and I will go into more aspects of it at a later stage. For now, I hope you enjoyed the whirlwind trip through a torturous, challenging but ultimately positive process!

And, in case you were wondering,

The Kickstarter is now in the pre-launch phase, and can be seen here:

It goes live on 30 April 2020

As always, stay healthy and enjoy your gaming.


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