STUDIO BLOG: Making Toe Beans

Welcome to a new series of blog posts from the Fistful team (Frey/Steph & Logan)! We plan to blog about the projects we make in our little studio, offer reviews for indie games we’ve purchased and loved and give out advice in our expertise areas of design, illustration and printing. 
The first of these features the ‘first’ project we made together, our popular magical cat café for D&D 5e, Toe Beans! 

By Frey 

Initial Concepts 
Toe Beans was the second project I took on after creating Fistful of Crits with my business partner Logan and the first ‘module’ I had ever created that didn’t have the express purpose of being a mess behind my own DM screen. What started out in early stages as a small booklet with a printable menu ended up running away with me into something much bigger in concept for what we wanted to release.  
For those interested, here is a retrospective into the design, writing and creation of Toe Beans as someone who was new this year into the TTRPG community and hadn’t released anything like it before. 

Ummm....A Cat Café 
The idea for the cat café came after a prompt from @tavernstories on twitter, where he asked something along the lines of: if you could have any business in a D&D world, what would it be? I’m a huge lover of cats, and in D&D, all things wizard. It made sense to me that a cat café with magical cat waiters could be the perfect place for an arcane academic to spend a bit of downtime (my old PC, coincidentally, was a Wizard with a Tressym familiar, so I clearly lean in a certain direction!) I was super new to the community, but a bunch of people replied to ask if I was making it. 
So I got to work! 

Before I started sketching anything up, I had to make a few decisions about the way the project was going to go. Did I want it to be super cute and ‘bubblegum pop’ or something more along the lines of Le Chat Noir and Art Deco, Nouveau? It’s important to have a good idea of different design approaches and ages to help inform the story you want to tell. Colour palette design can really help in the decision making process, so this is the first thing I went to.

Colour Palettes
One of the things that has become really signature in my design approach in the last few years is limited colour palettes. I knew I wanted something that felt a little different from typical pastel cute colours. I spent my initial research phase nose deep in experimenting with colours and finally landed on a blend of pink and teal. I've added in the colour palettes below so you can see how I got to the end result!

Alt Image text:
'1.Persian Grey, like early grey colour schemes. Yellow as the 'pop' colour.'
'2. A tabby cat colour? Nervous about browns though.'
'3. Cute colour palette. Yellows/oranges just not working for me though.'
'4. Mixing the pinks and greens, surprised that it looks quite nice together.'
'5. Tweaked colour temps down to something less in your face bright. Loved how it looked layered. Colour palette found!'

Pink is still cute, but the teal is darker and really made the pinker tones stand out more (or ‘pop’ if you like, but rarely say that to a designer’s face). I personally use the approach that sometimes too many colours can get in the way of things standing out, especially in a market saturated with heavily illustrated covers. I ended up with a smaller limit then I started out with, but that's easier to work with. You might see later I end up using some of these colour palettes for other things, so it was good to spend time refining them down.

Starting Design 
I like to start my mind mapping on A4 printer paper - it encourages me to be less precious about getting the information down in a presentable way. You can see here I was thinking about colours, possible brand names and tag lines and what we actually wanted to design as part of the project - the receipt item cards would later become the special blends and the tote became a magical item as well as part of the physical offering. (A note mapped on the top half of the page, worked on a new sheet and then filled the bottom half of the map page with work I had developed after and was then in the process of refining. I'm just....messy and don't like to waste paper, y'all)
In talks, we wanted to define WHY we were making the product too. We decided on the following:

  • We wanted the option of an interesting change to 'starting in a tavern'.
  • Something cute, though not overly saccharine.
  • I love table props so really wanted to develop for that. We decided early on to make the booklet a menu shape and leaned hard into the menu concept (as it's also the sort of designing Logan does on his side of the business!)
  • Something easy and loose as an option for first time DM's - so it had to cover running an NPC, magic items and some easy to read stat blocks.
  • The idea of making shopping episodes fun, and part of the world - so much so that players might want to make repeat visits for rewards. (The loyalty cards came out of this, like real coffee shops)

One thing that can help inform direction is extensive research into what is already out there. For one thing, you don’t want to design something identical to something else without realising. I’ve also had many experiences as a designer where I thought I wanted to go a certain way but saw something that blew me away and inspired me to change direction.  
Cat café logos are similar, in all honesty. I wasn’t thrilled with what I’d come across, but I did take notice of a few where different elements had been played with and took that forward into my initial sketching. 

At this point, I wasn’t sure of the name; I only knew I wanted it to be relevant to whatever logo I designed and maybe a little pun-ny. I tried lots of different variations, making notes for myself as I went along. I think it’s important to stress in the age of perfect sketchbook tours that its ok and necessary to make a mess or experiment at this stage. 

The small x's are just notes for myself about elements I didn't want to take forward. Following this I went back to the bottom half of the first sheet and refined the ones I wanted to take forward. I was using Toe's Beans until the last second, where I realised dropping the 's just sounded nicer.

I took the final sketch into Illustrator - vector was better for me since I wasn't sure how big I wanted it to be and with vector you can make it basically any size.
The first thing after the logo design that I tackled was the menu. I had such a great time coming up with fantasy drinks that would feel as though they could fit in most settings with a bit of allowance. I then made the menu using pink and white as the teal was too dark and would have cost us a lot to print out for as many copies per unit that we wanted people to be able to have! I then selected one tea, one coffee and one shake to be the special enchantment magic items. It was fun coming up with enchantments and abilities (though I was worried about how unbalanced they might be, I still made the commitment to make them) I reused some of the colour palettes from before and designed some new artwork to go on the cards. Here's my messy artboard from that process:

After that came the tea bag label designs and the loyalty cards. Stamps for that would cost us a lot and drive the price of the product up so we opted for little paw print stickers for the DM to use for their players cards.

This took the longest, by complication of the SRD. I had things I wanted to include before realising the SRD was a thing you MUST adhere to if creating D&D content - so all my initial ideas and pieces of writing had to change. I spent a full two days on reading through the SRD and concepting what I could use, making sure I understood the license and laying it out in the menu-style booklet format Logan and I had settled on. 
I knew I needed to have an NPC to run the cafe and give out quests, as well as all the cat waiters who would help in running the cafe. Fun fact, but all the cats are based off cats I've had! Lucci and Tira (Lucky & Tigger), Paddy (Paddy), Rosita (Rosie) Binjinn (Binx & Jinn) and Foss (Foxy). I fleshed both Mara and the cats out, giving Mara a Warlock pact as a way to explain his magic and give the cafe a bit of backstory and mystery (His Lady). I wasn't going to add art for Mara or his Lady as I was frightened of dictating what he should look like to people, but in the end I think it was necessary - and the DM can always change how he looks or substitute him for their own NPC if they wished to.

One of the most fun bits I wrote was the D100 roll table to see who is in the cafe and for the DM to determine how busy it is - I also thought it would be great to give newer DMs a starting block so they didn't have to make up NPCs on the fly. 
The magic items came next, followed by the custom monsters I had made after studying the SRD. I wanted to be able to provide ideas for quests hooks and give the DM a bit of freedom as to how they wanted the encounter work, rather than writing out an entirely new adventure module for each one. (Although, we have plans for this in the future!)
I found the balance between expecting what a DM may need and giving them a bit of freedom a challenge, but I think I was able to strike up a happy medium between the two. When I buy things like this I like the option of being able to scale things as I need - and found when writing it was really hard to anticipate a table you weren't running! Leaving things open or scaling things like the enchantments) satisfied that concern for me and I have since had feedback from people who ran the game that they found it easy to pick up and play for that reason! 

In the Studio
Once I had laid everything out, added in the artwork and designed all the extras, Logan and I got to work cutting stickers, running print tests and coming up with packaging solutions. As we have a heatpress in the studio to make our t-shirts with, we ordered in some tote bags to package everything into as a nice little extra (someone told me they use their tote bag now for day to day shopping, which made me super happy!) They are really cute. Ignore the messy desk, these were taken while we were doing prep for an event so it was pure chaos. The tote bags ended up being a little expensive for us but we decided to swallow that cost and not build it in too much to the final, on setting out for Fistful we wanted to make sure whatever we made was as high quality as it could be for a small business and we both loved how it looked. We've since been told by some people that we are undercharging for Toe Beans - and probably? But as it was our first venture out, we're happy with our under £15 price tag. We are also at the moment looking at quality of life upgrades for it to refine things now we've had time to receive some feedback, so the price may adjust to compensate for that in the future.

(We actually looked into making our own custom tea blends for Toe Beans! But the food license we would need to do it was crazy money, so unfortunately, that isn't possible for us at the moment. But we thought the tea bag labels coudl replace anything the DM already had. I'd love to hear if anyone brewed tea for their players and used the labels!!)

We actually ran into a lot of issues with calibrating colour for print - a pretty common thing for printing. I hate the look of gloss print so we ended up investing in an eco tank Epson we have affectionately named Rocinante (if you're an Expanse fan, you'll get that). Roci is slow but but does beautiful matte printing and the ink is eco friendly. 

I handle a lot of the social media for Fistul, as Logan isn't a huge fan of it! To be honest, marketing is still the hardest part of this business for me. I am a pretty anxious person and have only recently gained confidence in my work, so trying to market it out has been a huuuuge hurdle. I never know if doing it too much gives people a negative impression, but if you don't do it enough, no one will see it. Shopify has been a great experience for us but it DOES rely on 100% driven traffic your way. Thankfully, the friends I've made in the community really helped me gain the confidence to drop into threads and they also boosted it out to their own followers. Every time that happens I get so emotional! It means a lot to be supported when you're taking your first baby steps out, especially by people who's work you admire so much.
We debuted Toe Beans out to our favourite event in Manchester and sold out of the copies we took - which meant it was a mad rush after too to get more made in time for its online release.

Issues and Revisions
Toe Beans is now in its 1.0 format, after a kind friend made some suggestions about tweaking stat blocks and pointing out some typo errors (it happens.....) but also, product photography is the big beast that keeps defeating us. I'm not actually happy with the images we have up onsite at the moment so we are looking at learning product photography to give it a proper shoot. We had light box issues with The Architect Collection so we've so far been mocking up what we have instead, but I know people like to see the product 'in the flesh' so to speak, so that's at the front of the list going forward.
We've also had the blend cards done with a soft touch laminate - they've changed slightly in shape and feel really lovely now. 

Going Forward
This week, Logan and I have been discussing future updates to the work. We've released a free digital download of a Spring Special (on our freebies page) called Lavenpurr Latte and I am busy getting Summer, Autumn and Winter's offerings ready. The digital downloads of these will be always be free but will be limited to the season they're in for this year. The physical Lavenpurr card will be available soon on the store to purchase a set of 3. (For £3)

We've also been looking at getting custom packaging for the cards so it feels a little more premium then sitting loose of the tote bag - this is a super rough box Logan knocked up on our silhouette, but I think it looks so cute. There will be a pink inside card under the cut out window to keep it neat and reflective of the logo.
Later toward the end of the year, I am looking at making a full module quest for Toe Beans with full artwork, new items, monsters and NPCs. We also have different shop modules in mind that will have the same look and approach as Toe Beans.

I hope you enjoyed this lengthy read if you got to the bottom of it - and I hope it was insightful or interesting. I love the TTRPG community and am really happy Logan and I went into business together to create things we love with our different skill sets.
If you're in the TTRPG community and you ever have any questions about our process, please feel free to ask one of us on twitter or on our contact form above - the community is better for sharing and we will do what we can to help that.
- Frey 
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