Encounters Design: How Many Columns?

So I sat down this weekend to work on a layout for a new product and discovered I was ambivalent about the number of columns I used in a particular page layout. That made me wonder… What is better? Single or multi-column layouts? I’ve seen both all over the place in gaming PDFs and there doesn’t seem to be much of a rhyme or reason to it.

One big reason to go with a single-column approach is that it’s simpler to read on a hand-held device such as a Kindle or iPad. It seems easier to simply scroll up/down rather than side to side or trying to squeeze a whole page onto a small device and still be able to read the text.

In a printed form, I certainly appreciate the visual variety of multiple columns. But reading electronically seems to kill that desire for a more varied approach to layouts. Does it boil down to a question of purpose?

To date, except for the Core Rules book, all Moebius Adventures products have been intended to be read online via PDF. That said, I have brought up questions of layout before with the One Spot products due to their multi-column approach and the use of text in the margins which seemed in hindsight more like a technique appropriate to the printed page than the electronic one. So I’m attempting to address this question earlier in the process for new products this year.

It’s been intriguing looking at some products in the marketplace now however… Kobold Press seems to use a mix of one- and two-columns. Will Hindmarch’s Becoming uses a single-column layout with some inset box text. DwD Studios uses a single-column approach most of the time. Chaosium likes two columns. Much of the classic D&D library is two column. Numenera from Monte Cook Games is two column. Shadows of Esteren seems to use a mix of one- and two-column layouts. Dungeon World is a single-column layout… How do THEY justify one layout over another? Is it personal preference? Market research?

Does there need to be a dividing line between products based on the context of the reading experience? Should there in fact be two different versions of each product – a print-friendly multi-column approach and an online-friendly single-column approach?

These are VERY early drafts, but I’m curious which one you like better?

Multi-column Approach
Single Column Approach
Single Column Approach

Looking at these two, I know which one *I* prefer when reading online. What do you think?
[poll id=”12″]

I will weigh your opinions when deciding how to move forward with this decision. If you have specific research or articles you can point me to regarding the readability of online and print materials, I’d love to see links in the comments as well.

The links I’ve found so far include:


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3 Responses to “Encounters Design: How Many Columns?”

  1. You raise a great question with unfortunately no simple answer.

    Even in print the easy answer of 3 inch wide columns is not as simple as that. If you look at game books printed in 8.5 x 11 formats bound along the long edge that 2 column layout works. Its easy for a reader to scan down a column, over to the next, down that column, over, repeat, repeat, page turn.

    When you are looking at a 11 x 8.5 book the same size columns are too narrow to fill the page and two columns filling the page are not as easy to scan. Here a 3 column layout might work better.

    The more frequently seen chap book or scout book the single column makes perfect sense. Matt Jackson’s excellent _Edge of Space_ and Dungeon Worlds _Planarch Codex_ both use this single column layout in a scout book format and look great.

    The rule seems to be to take the page size and orientation into account. This can be applied to the digital readers as well but with what seems like an unending list of available formats getting it just right for everyone is maddening.

    In print we can consider 8.5 x 11, 5 x 8.5, 3.5 x 8 and with two orientations each we have 6 potential layouts. The key thing about them is not the total – 6 but that they are fixed in nature. Print a page and no matter how you flip, fold, or turn it it stays in the same layout.

    If we consider digital we have 19 inch monitors, 10 inch tablets, 7 inch tablets, 5 inch phones, 3.5 inch phones, and smaller devices. and they are all FLUID. You can resize windows, turn tablets and phone on their sides and the user expects the page to both a) remain legible, b) retain their position in the text, and c) be usable.

    This is not an easy task. If you are dealing with a pdf you can fix the layout to exactly what you expect. User can zoom in or out, tile, stack, or arrange the pages but they will remain in the same font, the same ratio, with the images breaking into the text in the same spots. THis one layout might get you 2 sizes. you can set one at 8.5 x 11 and use it again at 5 x 8.5 scaling down by half. Scaling down another half to 3.5 x 5 and it is starting to be too small to read, images that were clear are now grainy blobs.

    Going digital does not eliminate this problem – it multiplies the issue Your layout for that 19″ monitor will look terrible on a 5″ phone screen and simple scaling the layout will not work. Scaling might work for small changes but rations can change as well as sizes. Laptop screens are 16:10 or 16:9 while you can still see 4:3 desktop monitors (the majority of modern desktop monitors are 16:10). Tablets and phones come in an obscene amount of sizes. Even the same manufacturer might have several sizes available.

    So while I would love to be able to vote I’ll have to abstain until an “It Depends” option is added.

    • @Shane – I’ve added “It Depends” to the poll, just for you. 🙂

      And thank you for all the good examples and food for thought. I’m seriously considering a two-pronged approach and offering two versions of each of the encounters books – one in portrait mode with a single column and inset boxes, and one in landscape mode with two columns and inset boxes. We’ll see which goes over like a ton of lead bricks. 🙂

      • Hi all – as a follow-up, I have to say the voting was quite interesting. Almost split right down the middle. So for this Encounters product I’m going to try something new and come up with two layouts – one that’s portrait and one that’s landscape – and include both, to see how that approach is received. These books are short enough it should be easy enough to do the work up front and we’ll see which layout wins the hearts and minds of my small, but growing fan base. 🙂

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