Tools for Dreaming: Publishing

Apart from some appendices that aren’t really ready, this is the last chapter of Tools for Dreaming, which is advice on how to go about getting your game out to the world, with an emphasis on self-publishing (since that’s by far the most practical way to go about it these days). Much like with the previous chapter, it’s basically stuff I’ve figured out through trial and error, and I’m sure someone with more experience could fill in some stuff.


There was a time when publishing an RPG meant you had to either find an existing publisher or take out a second mortgage. Nowadays publishing is vastly easier, and can range anywhere from putting a PDF up on a website for free to running a Kickstarter and doing a traditional print run.[1] Turning a game into a fully realized book can be really satisfying (though a lot of work), but don’t feel obligated to go that far. I’m generally of the opinion that (almost) anything worth making is worth sharing, but you don’t even have to do that if you don’t want to. If you do want to share it, you can do any number of things less involved than a fully-illustrated book.

One of my self-published games is called Raspberry Heaven. It’s the result of a decade of off and on struggle to figure out how to make an RPG for charming slice of life stories about schoolgirls in the style of manga like Azumanga Daioh and Hidamari Sketch. I went through three radically different versions of it before Jonathan Walton’s game Restless game me the inspiration I needed to finish it. The result is a game that comes as a set of 6”x6” cards, and it’s a weird story game with no GM or stats involved. It hasn’t sold a lot, but it’s more important that I achieved something as a game designer, and now I have a fun game I can play with friends.

If you’re going to get really serious about publishing (which includes anything where you do crowdfunding), you are in effect starting a small business. Having done so once, my (unofficial, decidedly non-lawyerly) recommendation is basically to buy a guide to starting a small business for where you live and follow its instructions carefully, especially when it comes to paying taxes. Ideally, you’d want professional assistance with that sort of thing, but if you’re publishing RPGs there’s a good chance you can’t justify the funds to hire a lawyer to make sure your paperwork is all perfectly in order. You should however at least get your taxes professionally done, because the tax paperwork for a business is an order of magnitude more difficult than for your own 1040.

Editor

Working with an editor is one of the more irritating parts of making a book, but also one of the most important. It’s in the nature of writing that no matter how many times you go over a manuscript, some mistakes are going to slip through. As the author, you’re a little too familiar with the writing to catch everything. An editor’s job is to find all the places where you screwed up and advise you on how to fix them, which means that an editor is going to give you a list of little failures on your part. Maybe you’re totally desensitized to that, but I think most people need to remember that this is part of a process that will make your work stronger. You don’t have to agree with or implement everything your editor suggests, especially since they can’t know the work as well as you do, but you absolutely need to seriously consider every suggestion. The editor is bringing a fresh pair of eyes, and they can give you insights on how the text flows and how it teaches the game that you can’t get yourself.

Selling PDFs

If you can make a decent-looking PDF, it’s pretty easy to put it up for sale. DriveThruRPG is by far the best place to do that in terms of reaching an RPG-buying audience. The site itself has pretty good explanations of how to go about it, but it basically comes down to signing up as a publisher, setting up a listing (with a cover image), and uploading your PDF. There are plenty of other sites you can use, like Gumroad, Payhip, Lulu, and itch.io, but using these means that you have to do more to drive traffic there yourself.

DriveThruRPG lets you set products to Pay What You Want, meaning the customer can set whatever price they want, including zero. The way you should think of this is like giving it away for free while having a virtual tip jar. Especially given the anonymity of it, a lot of people will just grab your file for free.

One of the biggest advantages of PDFs over physical books is that once you have a PDF made, the cost to distribute it is negligible.

Selling POD Books

Print on Demand (POD) services let you upload files and put a book up for sale in such a way that one is manufactured and shipped each time someone orders one, as opposed to doing a print run of many copies in advance and selling them over time. There are a few different services that you can use for this purpose, and they have different strengths and uses. It’s not too hard to set up on multiple services, but it’s been my experience that it’s not worth the extra effort to set up more than two or so.

For putting the actual book together, you basically need to make a PDF of the interior and a file of whatever the proper format is for the cover. Both will need to fit the technical specifications for the printer and the format you choose for your book. For RPGs 8.5”x11” and 6”x9” are the most common formats, but you can use whatever you think will work for your book. For my part, I’ve developed a certain affection for the 7”x10”, which is a close approximation of the B5 format that many Japanese RPGs use, and generally a nice midpoint between full letter size and 6”x9”.

A book requires a slightly different approach to layout than a PDF. The most important thing that you might not be aware of is that the margin needs to be wider on the side of the page that’s by the spine, because the way books are made naturally obscures a little bit of the inside edge of the page, and more so if the book is thicker. In Word this is a matter of setting custom margins with the Inside and Outside option, so that the widths will be different on alternating pages.

The easiest way to make the cover file is to get a template from the printer and put it on that. The page count will affect how thick the spine needs to be, which will affect how you need to format the cover file.

Once you have everything uploaded and approved, it’s best to order a printed proof. It will cost a little bit of money (though not much), but you’ll be able to see what the printed book looks like (which is a really cool experience in itself) and check it for errors and issues.

  • Amazon has a service called CreateSpace for POD of both books and optical media like CDs and DVDs. The printing costs are relatively low, the print quality is good, and you can put your books up for sale on Amazon.
  • DriveThruRPG has POD printing (with fulfillment by Lightning Source). In my opinion the printing quality isn’t as good as CreateSpace, but not bad at all. The major advantage it has is that you can put a print option on DTRPG, and offer it bundled with a free or discounted PDF. Note that their basic color printing looks kind of cheap, and the premium color is a much better (if significantly more expensive) choice. Also, try not to use transparent images in the PDFs you upload for printing, as their system sometimes turns them into black boxes.
  • Lulu was one of the first POD publishing venues. The major drawback of Lulu is that the site is poor for browsing, so if you publish there it should be because you can drive eyeballs there yourself.

One nice thing about having a POD product set up is that if you need copies to take to a convention or send to a store, you can put in an order and not have to do more than put some information into the internet. I started selling some of my self-published games through Indie Press Revolution, and when Jason tells me they’re running low on something I just go to the CreateSpace site and order some copies to ship to IPR directly. The printing takes a little extra time though, so you can’t wait until the last minute.

Even if you’re planning on doing a traditional print run, having the option to get more books printed via POD is extremely useful, so it’s not a bad idea to make your book in a format that is compatible with POD printing.

Making and Selling POD Cards

There are a few different places where you can upload and sell cards as a POD product. The Game Crafter is pretty good overall, but for a variety of reasons I’m going to focus on OneBookShelf’s card printing system. Using custom cards is a tricky proposition right now, because they tend to be relatively expensive compared to getting a book printed, and the way things are currently set up, there’s not a good way to distribute the cards with anything else. Bully Pulpit Games has put out a couple card-based games. Juggernaut has the rules on included cards, while Carolina Death Crawl has a separate rules PDF. On the other hand, cards can be a nice accessory for games that don’t strictly speaking need them.

In the world of board game design there’s a concept of “prototyping,” which is to say making very basic versions of the components that go into the game for testing purposes, since they’re basically guaranteed to change during playtesting. You can use generic pawns and poker chips in place of miniatures and custom tokens for example. In the case of cards, you can just write stuff on index cards, though for my part I prefer to make basic files on my computer, print them onto cardstock, and cut them out using a business card cutter. You don’t have to spend that much money on a thing to cut cardstock, but a basic paper cutter or X-Acto knife will be more efficient than scissors in the long run.

The Game Crafter’s back end has you upload files for cards as images. You upload one file for the back of the deck, and then you can batch upload the files for each card. DriveThruRPG has a kind of quirky but effective setup where you send them a PDF that alternates between backs and fronts. (And it does have to be one PDF per product.) There are any number of programs you could potentially use for this purpose, but I’ve found Adobe InDesign to be overwhelmingly the most efficient. Of course, InDesign is an expensive program that’s kind of difficult to learn.[2] Adobe now lets you get it on a relatively cheap subscription basis through their Creative Cloud service, but that doesn’t make it easier to learn. There are plenty of online sources and printed books available though.

One aspect of InDesign that’s incredibly useful for making cards is Data Merge. This is a feature that lets you give InDesign raw data as a spreadsheet and insert it into a layout, making copies of that layout automatically. It takes a little practice and tweaking, but compared to copying and pasting each card individually, the amount of time it saves is pretty incredible. Daniel Solis did a SkillShare course called “Design Your Own Print-Ready Cards for Table Top Games,” which covers not only Data Merge, but a variety of topics about graphic design for cards, and it’s well worth your time if you’re serious about that kind of thing. Even so, let me run through a few things that might help you:

  • DriveThruRPG has templates for their various card formats, including InDesign files. The templates are important for making sure your PDF is of the right size and has the actual content far enough away from the edges to not get cut off. The template file also has around 50 pages, and for the purposes of DriveThru’s card printing you can delete all but two of the pages.
  • Your data needs to be in a CSV file. You can create a spreadsheet in Excel, LibreOffice, Google Drive, etc., but you will need to export the final version as a CSV. CSV is a very basic, barebones format, and although it saves a lot of time, it has certain limitations you need to be aware of. In particular, it does not support and kind of special formatting. Excel lets you do things like bold certain words in a cell, and saving it as a CSV will strip that out. CSV also does not support line breaks in cells. If you need line breaks in one of the fields, you’ll have to either make an extra field, or add the line breaks after you finish with the Data Merge in InDesign.
  • On your 2-page InDesign file, set up the card back and a sample card face. I will fill in a representative card with the appropriate text to get a better sense of how it will look.
  • Once you have your CSV file and your card layout, bring up the Data Merge tools (Window > Utilities > Data Merge), click the menu in the corner, pick “Select Data Source…” and select your CSV. The Data Merge tool should now show the names of the various fields from your CSV. When you have a text box selected, you can double-click on one of the fields in the Data Merge tool to insert it. It will appear as something like <<Text>>, and if you click the Preview checkbox you’ll be able to see what it looks like with the data inserted into a card. When you’re satisfied with all of that, click the thing with a box and an arrow pointing to it in the lower right of the Data Merge tool to bring up the menu to do the actual Data Merge. It’ll generate a new InDesign file with the results of the Data Merge.
  • The multi-record layout option is handy for doing prototyping and anything else where you want multiple cards per page. You need to set up one instance of the card layout in a corner of the page with the various fields added, and the Data Merge will create a layout with that design repeated for each entry in the CSV. It does however have the limitation that the initial file can’t have multiple pages, plus it may take some tweaking to ensure that the final layout works the way you want it to.
  • After you do the Data Merge, you’ll have an InDesign file with all of your cards! Except you’ll need to check them to make sure they turned out okay. The most common issue is overset text, which is to say text that is long enough to go past the end of the text box you created. Running a Data Merge will create a Preflight report. Click the thing with the red circle at the bottom of the screen to bring it up, and then go through and fix each of the issues it finds. I will usually just reduce the point size of the text just enough to fit, but do it however you want as long as you don’t have anything cut off.
  • If your game calls for adding some additional cards (say with play instructions or just a cover), you can go to the Layout menu to add additional pages to the PDF (in twos, since you need both the front and back for each card).
  • Once you have your cards all ready to go in InDesign, you need to export it in the PDF/X-1a:2000 format. Other PDF formats may work, but it’s best to be safe. From there you can upload the files and order a proof.

Setting Prices

The prevailing wisdom about selling stuff is that your retail price should be at least 3 times your manufacturing cost, and preferably more like 5 times. POD and PDF and so forth make that a bit trickier than for selling a book from an offset printer, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter is the preeminent crowdfunding platform of the English-speaking world,[3] and tabletop games are one of the single most successful categories on it. Crowdfunding lets you the would-be publisher raise money by committing to create a product and attracting backers who want to see it realized. Expansive board games and super-popular party games tend to be the biggest draws, but it’s not unusual to see tabletop RPGs raise tens of thousands of dollars. That doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed anything, or that you should be salivating at all that money. Running a Kickstarter can get really stressful. Every new pledge is a little bit more work that you’ll need to do to make it all happen, and while you’ll hopefully have some profit left over, until you finish, every dollar is first and foremost a tool to bring your project to fruition and get it into backers’ hands.

I do sometimes see tabletop Kickstarter projects that just don’t have a chance, though more often than not they come from people who are showing off their ignorance of the medium. There will be a board game that shows way too much Monopoly influence and little to no awareness of board games that aren’t available at Wal-Mart, and/or that some guy felt the need to make so he could stick it to the left who are ruining the country or something. The failures that aren’t just plain crappy games tend to fail at selling themselves. You want to provide a visually appealing pitch on the KS page, something that intuitively gets across the feel of your product while providing enough of concrete specifics that potential backers can dig deeper to make an informed buying decision.

There’s plenty of information online about how to run a Kickstarter, so I want to focus on a few things that those guides seldom mention.

  • Have as much of the game done and polished as you can before you launch the Kickstarter. Game design is a creative process that can be unpredictable at times, and it’s much better to have a finished game you believe in than to be rushing to get a game done. I’ve seen even some industry veterans run into this pitfall, and it’s one major reason why tabletop RPG Kickstarters can end up dragging on for a long time. Tabletop games have the advantage that you can get the actual game finished without investing much more than a lot of time and personal effort, which is why they make for better Kickstarters than video games.[4]
  • Fulfillment services exist, and they are wonderful. A lot of Kickstarter project creators end up sending packages out to backers by hand. That’s fine if there are a few hundred to deal with, but it starts to get untenable when you have a thousand or more to send out. If you contract with a fulfillment service, you pay a little extra, but then you just send the spreadsheet of backers and the books and any other items to them, and they in turn get everything shipped for you.
  • Be extremely careful of shipping costs. More than one Kickstarter has wound up losing money solely due to shipping costs. I’ll spare you a rant about the crappy political reasons why, but the US Postal Service has raised its international shipping costs to pretty ridiculous levels. Because it’s one of the few prices they can raise to remain solvent, those prices will likely continue to be a bit volatile, and any crowdfunding project that involves international shipping will require some extra planning and padding. You’re less likely to see your domestic shipping costs shoot up, but the costs are still absolutely something you need to take into consideration. Steve Jackson Games ran afoul of this in a big way with their Ogre Kickstarter, in part just because the final game got so well-funded that they let the box become just massive, so even with domestic shipping, sending it out to backers cost them a pretty penny.
  • If you know you’re doing a small project, you can offer a discount code for getting a POD book at-cost instead of printing a bunch of books and shipping them yourself or through a fulfillment service. That way, backers have a lower initial investment, and getting the books out to them is just a matter of doing some stuff with a couple websites. Backers can then order their printed books at their leisure, and with whatever shipping (and along with whatever other POD books) they want.
  • If you do well, there will be what I call “superfans,” who just plain want to give you more money. A lot of backers will just get the most basic level that gets them the game, or maybe a little higher if there are some extras they find enticing, but there are also backers who are collectors with disposable income who will happily hand over a triple-digit sum if they think your project is worthy of support and you’re offering them enough goodies. Look into what things you can make with the assets you have or can produce, but be wary of things (like T-shirts, which need to be of the correct size and such) that will be a hassle to deal with.[5]
  • Manage stress. Doing a Kickstarter is in effect getting people to give you money and promising them that you’ll put together the best product you can for them. That can be a lot of pressure, and it can be that much more pressure if the campaign is especially successful.
  • Know when to put on the brakes. Enthusiastic backers are wonderful, but their appetite for more nifty game stuff can go far beyond what you are willing or able to get done in a reasonable amount of time. If you have people who are hyped about your work backing a Kickstarter, you already have an audience and a powerful set of tools for reaching them with whatever you do next time.
  • Doing stretch goal material can be awesome, but it’s best to limit how much that additional material has the potential to slow down the main project. If you need to get half a dozen other people to finish doing writing and art before you can ship your core book out to your backers, the chances of it getting delayed are much higher.
  • Not every project needs a Kickstarter. Although there are large publishers (by tabletop standards) that regularly use crowdfunding campaigns, you can still do smaller projects without Kickstarter, or even larger ones if you already have the necessary funds. Kickstarters are great for building hype, but they do involve a lot of work beyond the core product.

Kickstarter Extras

For the most part RPGs don’t do much in the way of merchandising. You don’t often see T-shirts and such based on RPGs, except for the occasional cheesy D&D shirt. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of market for it, though for certain kinds of things there are POD and similar solutions that make it more viable than it would be otherwise. Kickstarters are kind of an exception in that there are those superfans who want more goodies, and once the funding drive ends and the backer surveys come in, you’ll know exactly how many of everything to order.

For a Kickstarter you need to think about how any extras you include will fit into the shipping process. There are all kinds of cool things you can offer people, but if they won’t fit into the same kind of box or padded envelope as your book, they have the potential to make your life more complicated.

  • Chessex and Q-Workshop both can manufacture small runs of custom dice for you. Chessex lets you change the 1 and/or 6 sides of a d6 to symbols you send them, while Q-Workshop, being the fancy dice people, want interesting designs for all of the sides. Chessex does have the drawback that they’re pretty inconsistent in what specific styles of dice they have available at any given time. Regardless, custom dice can be a really nifty little extra, plus a lot of gamers just love to collect dice.
  • Wall scrolls are a popular type of swag in anime fandom, consisting of artwork printed on cloth, with plastic rods attached to either end and a means of hanging them up. The aptly named CustomWallScrolls.com lets you buy wall scrolls printed with an image you upload to their site, and the results are quite nice. Buying a single large wall scroll from them costs around $30, but they have bulk pricing, and are even willing to do fulfillment (which is good considering that wall scrolls need to go in shipping tubes and don’t really fit in with packages of books).
  • I haven’t tried making T-shirts, because I was told that fulfilling them for a large number of people is kind of a pain, what with worrying about sizes and so on.
  • It’s pretty easy to get things like postcards and bookmarks printed and include them in a package with an RPG book. Those kinds of things can make nice little extras.

Patreon

Patreon is a newer crowdfunding platform with a different approach. Its primary purpose is to let people monetize endeavors that would be harder to make a living off of otherwise, and more directly engage with fans. That’s why Patreon is at its most effective for people who make things like YouTube videos and webcomics. Rather than relying on ad revenue and merchandise, these creators can receive funding directly, and offer various kinds of extras to people who pledge. It’s harder to make Patreon work for RPGs, but there are some people (including myself) who use it and are happy with the results.

Patreon is similar to Kickstarter in that patrons pick a pledge level, which has certain rewards associated with it. It differs from Kickstarter in that a Patreon is an ongoing thing, where patrons are setting up a subscription, to be charged either on a monthly basis or a per-release basis. That makes it better for content that you can release in relatively small chunks. Epidiah Ravichol uses it essentially as a subscription service for his Worlds Without Master zine, while myself and Ben Lehman use it as a venue for releasing the occasional small, quirky RPG. Ben prefers it over Kickstarter because he makes a game and then gets people’s money, rather than receiving people’s money and having the pressure of finishing a game.

Traditional Printing

The Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter was the first time I dealt with a traditional printer, specifically McNaughton & Gunn. Where POD printing is an automated process that needs to be simple and relatively fool-proof, traditional offset printing can be much more flexible because the larger scale allows for more of a human touch on each book. For GSS we were able to get books printed in an odd Japanese size, following the Japanese convention of putting a dust jacket on a softcover (in the U.S. dust jackets are normally only for hardcovers), with a short color insert before the overall monochrome book. With POD printing we’d have had to compromise on all of those things, without substantially reducing the per-unit cost.

Many in the tabletop game industry have taken to using Chinese printers. They can produce quality books more cheaply, but there are some caveats. The biggest one is the simple fact that your books are going to be in China and then come to you on a boat over the course of several weeks, and then you get to deal with customs.

One thing to note with traditional printing is that even if your book is heading to a traditional print shop, getting a POD version done up can be helpful to let you look over a final-ish version before you send it off.

Copyright

There’s a lot of intimidating stuff people throw around about the cost of registering copyrights and the legal issues involved. The first thing you need to know is that anything you create will be considered copyrighted so long as you put a copyright notice in it somewhere.[6] Registering the copyright costs around $50, but the major difference it makes is that without a registration there’s a cap on the liability of copyright violators. Maybe you feel you’ve come up with something so incredible that it merits registration to ensure you get compensated for the IP you’ve created, but if your goal is just to make an RPG thing and get it out to the world, a basic copyright (or even a Creative Commons license or other “copyleft” scheme) is probably sufficient. I can’t speak from experience, but from everything I’ve heard, suing a movie studio over copyright is generally just not a great use of your time or money, even if you’re demonstrably in the right.

For RPG people, IP law is much more of a concern in terms of the possibility of someone suing you, especially since so much of RPGs draws inspiration from works in other media. It doesn’t actually take all that much to file the serial numbers off sufficiently to not get sued, especially given that RPGs are obscure enough to fly under the radar a lot of the time. Don’t use obvious trademarked names, and in general try to capture the overall spirit of your source material while being free to unleash your creativity on the rest.


[1] Getting a publisher to handle publishing an RPG for you isn’t impossible, but it’s really not your best bet these days.

[2] For my part, cards are pretty much the only thing I can really do with it so far, and I really should remedy that at some point.

[3] There are other platforms, most notably IndieGoGo, but the advice in this section still applies.

[4] There have been some great video games made thanks to crowdfunding, but backing a video game project basically means throwing some money their way and waiting a few years in the hopes that something comes of it.

[5] For Golden Sky Stories we were able to get wall scrolls made through CustomWallScrolls.com, and they were able to do the shipping for us. This is something that few if any tabletop games have done so far, but everyone was really happy with the results.

[6] The lack of a copyright notice is the reason the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) is in the public domain, for example. Needless to say, movie studios have very seldom repeated that mistake.

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