In this series of articles, members of the team here at MCG look back at products we’ve released over the past decade and talk about their personal experiences in their creation, and the influence the titles have had on them as gamers, professionals, and just, well, people. It’s part of our celebration of Monte Cook Games’s first ten years. In this post, Graphic Designer Javier Beltrán talks about one of his favorites so far: The Darkest House in print. The Darkest House is also available in a unique digital format; Managing Editor Teri Litorco wrote about that product earlier.
The Darkest House (the book, which was developed from the original digital version) was the first print product I worked as a full time employee of Monte Cook Games. I had been freelancing with MCG for a few years, so I had been involved with a few print products before, but this one will always hold a special place in my career as my first project as an employee. I got to see all the stages of production: I was there when Teri Litorco, our managing editor, handed files over to production. I was the person Bear, our art director, met with to discuss the broad plans. I guided the text and assets through InDesign to create the digital files that went to Transcontinental, our printer. I received the first set of copies fresh off the press. It’s my first book as a full-time member of the MCG team.
I come to tabletop games from the illustration and graphic design side of things. Games are art. For me, art is interconnected with the people who absorb it, and that makes commercial art some of the most important works in our culture. Pouring care and thoughtfulness into layout is never tedious, but rather an opportunity to enrich the source material, to elevate the message, and facilitate people connecting with imagination.
I was not involved with The Darkest House (the original app) in any way. In fact, a large part of my job before layout was spending time with the app and understanding the source material. None of it was linear the way a book is linear:
“So that’s what The Darkest House is. A product created specifically for online game sessions. Oh, I’m sure you could play it around a table. You could even probably figure out a way to print it all out and use it like a traditional book, although doing so would be tricky.”—Monte Cook, The Darkest House App: Secrets of the House PDF.
Tricky was an understatement. The app is such an ambitious and impressive product. If you love the book, get the app too, seriously. Same information, different experience. It’s a collection of PDFs along with a custom (PC and Mac compatible) application that holds all the info a GM could want in an easy-to-use format. Clicking back and forth through rooms, jumping to art and diagrams, quick copy-paste of text and links to share with players. All of the game design was initially geared toward this digital experience, so making it work just as well in a book format required careful consideration.
For context, I officially started full-time with MCG in May of this year and this book was the first major task on my plate. Keep in mind that MCG always has multiple things going on at once. Just off the top of my head, I know Bear was working on Path of the Planebreaker for 5e, and our Old Gods of Appalachia Kickstarter during that time. Despite having many other active projects, I was still given lots of support from the team during my first project.
Early on we decided to split the layout work in two. We got to bring on a talented layout artist, Vee Hendro, whom you might know from the creative duo Storybrewers and such games as Good Society. Vee handled the first half of the book, and it became my task to prepare files and guide Vee as a freelancer. This was essentially the other side of the mirror for me! On previous MCG print products, that had been me as the freelancer, and Bear preparing and handing over files. Yet another part of The Darkest House process that felt meaningful to me. I did my best to set up Vee with everything she needed for smooth success, and I mean, she knocked it out of the park.
The second half of the book is all about the rooms in the House. That’s the one I took on. An early guiding principle was that every room would have at least one spread, meaning two facing pages. If a room needed additional space it would be given two spreads (four pages). This meant that GMs would find everything for one room neatly contained. Additionally, we gave each room its own QR code! This makes all the digital assets available easily. The Darkest House uses QR codes in other interesting ways too. There are a couple of sound files that were made for this game, and the codes link directly for those. The codes are a really innovative idea. They added extra work behind the scenes, but it was worth it.
Tools for organizing information are crucial in the book. Page numbers—everywhere! In every room, for example, because the House is a non-Euclidean maze that interconnects in strange ways. Just look at the easy to find diagram on our end pages. The project’s proofreaders and editors had a very complex job to ensure all the information was correct.
Indices at the back of the book were used to collect redundant information in more organized ways. Did you know that the rooms are not organized alphabetically, but rather narratively? You’ll notice this as you scan the Table of Contents. It’s something Monte specifically asked for, and it was a great call. As you flip further into the book, the content increases in terms of horror, intensity, and importance. And, yes, we also have an alphabetical index on page 233. There are also diagrams of the house with page numbers for those more visually oriented. So there are multiple ways to arrive at the information you need.
A few more of Javier’s faves from The Darkest House. For more great art from this title, see Teri Litorco’s article on the app version of the product.
In short, The Darkest House book is a master class in layout, and an absolute thrill to have been a part of. You’ll hopefully understand how there is a lot of personal excitement and satisfaction for me in helping to create books with Monte Cook Games. I also hope I’ve shared an interesting peek at the thoughtfulness and care we put into our products start to finish. And if you’re not a fan of horror, never fear! We put the same level of care into our other books, too. I’ll always make sure to do my part and look forward to people’s excitement as we continue making games for you all.
—J. P. Beltrán
The Darkest House (the book) was released in August 2022. It was based on the app version of the product, which was funded through Kickstarter in April 2021 and released in June of that year.