Thursday, January 25, 2007

What's it like to publish a RPG?


So I finally got DL-Quarterly out the door and under way. Cutthroat is in customers’ hands right now and hopefully is getting played. It’s an awesome feeling, and it’s at this point I reflect on the publishing process as a whole. I thought I’d share those reflections with you.

For the most part, I talk about Design on this blog. But Publishing (in this case I’m talking about full-on book printing) is part of the process too. The first thing you should know about it, is that publishing is hard- real hard. If you are not emotionally and mentally prepared for a horrendously grueling process, then upload your PDF for free to a website and leave it at that. If you aren’t ready for this, it’s best to hold off until you are.

I’m going to break my reflections on Publishing down into two parts: Stuff you have to do before you submit you game to the printer, and stuff you have to do after.

Before: (Art, Layout, Editing)

Artwork can be a major boon to you game, or it can totally kill your game. For designers who are doing things on the cheap, I recommend looking over my Previous Article on artwork. I especially recommend Ed Heil’s Illo Trove. I can’t believe more people aren’t taking advantage of that. But anyway, here are my thoughts on art, layout, and editing:

Thought #1: No art is better than bad art. After getting my copies of Cutthroat, I really started to rethink how I used art in the game. The pictures I used do fit the themes of the sections in which they appear, but in the end I think they detract a little from the game. They do look cheap and amateurish (I am an armature after all, but still). If I had it to do all over, I would have commissioned 5-7 pieces of decent art (perhaps from Ed) and used them.

Thought #2: Art should enhance the understanding or the experience of your game. Artwork can be very important in communicating your thoughts to the reader. Imagine someone new to RPGs picking up DnD 3.5 that had no illustrations in it. How hard would it be for them to really conceptualize the difference between a half-orc and a dwarf? The pictures help form the mental pictures that the players of your game will use during play. You want those pictures to communicate your intent for the game and make the experience better. If they can’t do that, why have them? And in this case, “art” can include things like charts, graphs, and models for what you want actual play to be like. Use art that tells the reader exactly what your game is about, don’t use art just to take up space. Trust me, people will notice.

Thought #3: Organization is really important. One of the biggest obstacles to understanding any piece of writing is poor organization. For RPGs this includes both the order of information and the arrangement of that information. When I say “order” I’m talking what information you tell them first, then second, then third, and so on. I developed an outline early on that really helped me get organized. I highly recommend creating an outline. It makes the writing process easier and shows YOU where breakdowns in understand could occur. When I say “arrangement” I’m talking about layout elements. This is everything from chapter headings, to sub headings, to page number locations, and so on. Are you consistent throughout the book? How do you highlight things that are important? Is the text you use for examples differentiated from the normal text of your game? Things like this must be considered well before you go to press.

Thought #4: Spelling errors are lame. Cutthroat has ‘em. Every game does, but it’s something we can all work on. Spell-check was a great invention, but it doesn’t catch everything. Never assume all the errors are taken care of in the word processor. I’ve been burned by them many times.

Thought #5: You can’t edit your own work. Seriously. Whenever I read my own writing I get caught up in the emotions and thoughts I was having at the time I wrote it. I start finishing the sentences in my mind before I actually finish reading them. When that starts to happen, I miss every error on the page. You really can’t check your own writing for mistakes. Give the final draft of your game to someone else to read, preferably someone with a little background in writing and/or editing. A teacher or college professor (if you are on close enough terms with them) is also a good choice. I also recommend letting someone familiar with RPGs but not familiar with your game give it a look. If they are familiar with RPGs, then they will know basically what you are asking them to do. However, they will also spot areas where you aren’t explaining it well enough. A recommendation: at least 3 people outside yourself should read your game before you go to print. (please note: that’s just a recommendation, not a requirement).

After: (Follow-ups, Promotion, Supplies)

Dealing with printers, webmasters, and postal workers can be a real pain. It’s a lot coordination, and a lot of things have to go right for you to get your game into customers’ hands. It’s not easy coordinating all of that, especially if you have promised your customers they’d have their books by some sort of deadline. I’ve learned this the hard way twice now, so I’ll share might thoughts on it with you:

Thought #1: Printers have a hard life. Chances are whatever printer you go with, POD or not, their core business is not RPGs. RPGs make up a small, small part of a much larger printing market that you can’t blame a company for going after large orders. In America, we like to think all customers are important- and they are- but some are more important than others. If you’re ordering 50, 100, 200 books your order is miniscule compared to orders that printer probably receives on a regular basis. And things that are small can get lost. I don’t blame the printer so much as I blame technology and large companies submitting urgent, lat minute orders. Therefore I highly highly highly highly (that’s four highlies if you’re keeping count) recommend that you follow up with your printer every WEEK! Each week I would call to make sure they got the order, to make sure there are no problems with the files, to make sure your payment was received, to make sure the shipping address is right, to make sure proofs are coming, and so on and so on. There are a dozen or more things that can go wrong on a printing job. A printer with hundreds of orders can’t keep track of them all. Therefore it is up to YOU to make sure your job gets done right and gets done on time. Don’t be afraid to call them. And especially don’t be afraid to call them often. I promise, you’ll regret it if you just let things slide and hope for the best.

Thought #2: Get proofs! How things look on your computer screen and how things look on their printer will be different. Promise. It might sound crazy at first, but everyone’s system is slightly different. The print job on Cutthroat was very different from what I expected. I asked for proofs, but didn’t get them. I let it slide. I wish I hadn’t. Always get proofs. Look them over. It’s your last chance to fix any mistakes and make your product the best it can be. Don’t pass it up.

Thought #3: Pre-orders are good. Of all the ways to promote your game going in, taking pre-orders is one of the best IMO. You get to brag about your game a little bit (which is okay as long as it’s not taken to an extreme), you get to brag about how many people are ordering your game, and you get to show off you own excitement about your game. Pre-orders tell people that you are confident in your game’s ability to provide fun play. They will see your excitement and get caught up in it. Start a blog, post on Internet forums, and talk up your game at your local FLGS and get some pre-orders.

Thought #4: A lot of money can be sunk in shipping and handling. Investigate the costs of shipping your game to your customers. This is very important. Getting padded envelopes, postage, and whatever else you need to package with your game can be expensive. Shop around both in stores and on the Internet for good prices on the supplies you need. Talk to your local postmaster about what the best and most economical way to ship a book is. Make sure you have budgeted enough for supplies and double check your shipping and handling fees (if you charge any) to make sure it’s an adequate amount. Look for sales on the stuff you need (incidentally, I think Walgreen’s has a sale on envelopes every now and then), and then stock up on it.

For now, that’s the best advice I can give you when it comes to printing your RPGs. It is a lot more complicated than it seems at a first glance. There are many things that can go wrong, and you’ve gotta stay on top of them all. Despite some of the negativity in this article, I do have to say that publishing an RPG is a very rewarding process. It’s just also very hard and not for someone who isn’t fully dedicated to the project. Remember that, “Fully Dedicated”



Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Rare Opportunity


This goes out to all your self-published RPG designers out there. The Forge is doing its booth once again at GenCon Indy this year. You can read up on it HERE. If you've never been, this is a golden opportunity. The $100 buy in is a steal. A regular booth all by yourself will run ya close to $1,100. So, if you think you might be interested (regardless of what you think about the Forge as an entity) you should consider signing up.