5 Best Practices for TTRPG Cover Thumbnails
As digital tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) marketplaces like DriveThruRPG and Roll20 grow in popularity, cover image thumbnails become an increasingly crucial first impression for any TTRPG book or supplement.
Anecdotally, whenever I’ve moderated panels of TTRPG creators, they’ve always recommended focusing art budget on your cover before anything else. We know thumbnails on digital marketplaces are as important as those on YouTube, eBay, Etsy, etc. in ensuring your creations stand out on the digital shelf. But that’s easier said than done. What are best practices for thumbnails on DriveThruRPG-powered marketplaces? I wanted to find out.
For this analysis, I focused my research on Dungeon Masters Guild, a marketplace for Dungeons & Dragons content , primarily digital PDFs. (DriveThruRPG, whose publishers also need to consider covers as physical books, is an analysis for another day.)
I studied the cover image thumbnails of the top 100 best-selling DMsGuild titles and categorized them by color palette, image description, full-image covers vs framed covers, and title font style, placement, clarity, and treatment (such as drop shadows and/or outlines).
Image descriptions included tags such as action scene, landscape, central figure(s), etc. Some images were less illustrative or painterly, relying more on vector-style art and typography, and were tagged as “graphic”.
Notably, 41% of titles featured one central humanoid figure as a clear focus on the cover. This number grows to 49% if we include several central figures (e.g. a close-up illustration of a couple) or a central item (e.g. a close-up of a sword).
Color palette identified any main/predominant colors. 97% of titles featured a clearly defined palette, with blue being the most popular color (28%) for the Dungeons & Dragons titles studied. Blue and green often were used together, bringing their total to 36%. Red was often used as an eye-catching spot color.
Other findings include:
- 87% of covers featured full artwork. 13% used a “frame” around artwork.
- 74% of covers opted for simple fonts with block letters. 26% used “fancy” fonts with flourishes or novelty styles.
- 88% of covers placed title text at the top of the image. 8% placed title text at the bottom. 4% placed text in the middle.
- 67% of covers placed title text over a “textured” background, such as negative space in an illustration or a wood-texture backdrop. 28% of covers placed title text over a solid color. 5% of covers placed title text over a graphic in such a way that the text was difficult to read.
- 67% of covers outlined their title text. 7% of covers added a drop shadow to their title text. 8% incorporated both outlines and drop shadows. 18% of covers did not use either of these treatments.
Additionally, this is how title treatments intersected with each other:
- Covers that do not include any outlines or drop shadows to increase text clarity were more likely to place text over a solid background (66.7% vs 28%). They were slightly more like to be illegible (5.6% vs 5%).
- Covers that used fancy or novelty fonts for their title text were more likely to use solid backgrounds (46.2% vs 28%) and more likely to eschew drop shadows and outlines (42.3% vs 18%). They were more likely to be illegible (11.5% vs 5%).
The Best Practices
This study highlighted a few ways creators can ensure their cover images stand out from the crowd, even at a smaller thumbnail size. Here are 5 tips based on my findings:
Opt for a clear, central focus! One central figure or item maximizes the recognizability of your cover’s illustration at thumbnail size and provides a focus on which customers’ eyes can laser in.
Choose something evocative of your title’s themes/tone! Covers should communicate what customers can expect inside your PDF. When it came to the covers in this study, calm landscape scenes performed just as well (actually, even better!) than action-packed scenes.
Define your color palette! Color palette is a fantastic tool to make your cover stand out. Ensuring your palette is clearly defined not only helps your thumbnail stand out… it can help you further communicate your game’s tone or tie together a series of titles at a glance.
Make the colors pop! To make your thumbnail extra attention-grabbing, consider using contrasting spot colors to make a central part of your cover image really stand out.
Err on the side of simple, block fonts! Legibility of title text can really degrade when a cover is reduced to a thumbnail. Using a simple “block” font will make your text clear as possible. If you want to use a “fancy” font, prioritize text size, placement, and treatment. Is your font legible against its current background? Would outlining it, adding a drop shadow, or adjusting opacity of the image behind your title help?
If you’re publishing TTRPGs on a digital marketplace, remember you want your cover image — and its thumbnail, specifically — to be evocative, eye-catching, and clear.
About the contributor
Lysa Penrose is the marketing manager at DriveThruRPG, Dungeon Masters Guild, Pathfinder Infinite, and other DriveThru-powered sites.