Tuesday, 21 October 2008


In this post I will be investigating the unavoidable truth that to play a roleplaying game, you need to print it and that is costly and a pain in the posterior. Find out how to get you favourite free gem in hardcopy without pawning the family heirlooms. For authors of freebies, I give some friendly advice to help you prepare your parephenalia for printing.

The most striking feature of tabletop roleplaying games is that they are performed with pencil and paper at the tabletop (forgive the massive generalisation, you'll see where I'm going). A group of friends sharing a single space with caffeine, dice, air, pencils, pens, junk food and paper. Some GMs use laptops to assist in their organisation but it's rare that every player brings a laptop with them. The majority of gamers resort to print on pulp. It's difficult to avoid. The upshot of this is that there is an uneasy interface between the free online world and the physical world: if the game is going to be played it needs to be printed, which is not so-cheap-it's-nearly-free as bandwidth is. You've downloaded something superb and now you have to print it. It is going to cost you but there are ways to keep the cost down. Here are some options:

I have a printer!

Well done you. Before feeding page after page into the printer with joyous abandon, try setting the printer to print two game pages on a single sheet. You can do this through Print Properties (on Windows). Also, I'd recommend printing double sided. Do this by first printing odd pages, and then feed the result back into the printer to print the even numbered pages. If you want to go further, you could try only printing out those pages that have the crux of the rules, or the maps if it's an adventure.

I don't have a printer

If begging a player to print it doesn't work and you don't have a gun or spare horse's head to convince them, you might find that there is a local 'business print shop' nearby. These places can print, bind and finish; for a fee. For the terminally lazy or home bound, you can get to them online. The same service is available for Brits and I have also used Staples. Personally, I don't like online print shops because you can't see what you're getting necessarily. I like to hold an example in my hand, even if it does mean travelling through beautiful British meterology, carbon footprint be damned.

I don't like all these pages flying around

If ring binders are your fetish, then you can be sorted relatively quickly with punched holes. If you flush with cash, sally forth to your business print portal (see above). If you're manually dexterous and have an eye for craft, you could try Toby Craig's Book Assembly photo journal. I've never tried this but it looks a relatively simple craft without the need for expensive tools. Edit Also, as posted in the comments, David Macauley has provided another excellent tutorial. Now that there are two sets of instructions, I amvery tempted to give it a go. Now to find the time...

I love this free thing and I have more cash than China

For the extravagant, there are online print-on-demand (POD) services. More on POD in the next section. Be careful when uploading something that isn't yours. I think most free game writers would not mind you using a POD service for printing for your own use but if you try and sell to others, that's likely to be not fair and probably illegal. After all, they've uploaded this thing for free, why should you be allowed to make money from it? Shame on you, filth!

I have a free thing and I want to make it friendly to people

A perrennial piece of feedback I receive is that people love the fact a game is free but they can't be bothered to print it. It seems a shame to forever encarcerate your work. As a writer, there are some things that you can do to make your free game print friendly. I will raise my hand and admit that this list is generated mostly from mistakes I've made with Icar so if you feel a twinge of guilt reading this list, imagine the gushing horror I'm experiencing writing it.
  • Cut the fluff. Wordy chatty nonsense that does not directly assist in the person playing the game or feeling the setting should be removed. Charming that the game was inspired by the sun glinting off a loved one's hair but it doesn't need to go in the book. Put that on the website where it is hosted as downloaders love backstory. The book has to be lean and mean. Remove any lengthy licences and link to a website, linking to a well know licence (such as Open Gaming License or Creative Commons).
  • Remove pointless white space. When writing the book, you might have found it useful to structure it so that a chapter starts on a new page. In science writing, that is certainly advisable but in free RPGs, it's something of a luxury. Cutting white space can turn a 90 pages book into a 60 page one.
  • Reduce font sizes and paragraph spacing. Your own personal taste is key here, make it as small as you can stomach. Once printed, it might look super small to you but then compare with other RPG books, you'll be very surprised. A cheap-as-chips (fries for our cousins across the pond) laser printer won't bleed too badly.
  • One book. Printing eight PDFs is not as easy as printing one.
  • Convert to PDF. PDF is great because Adobe has already worked out how to get your work to print on different page sizes. You don't need to shell out loads to convert it, either.
  • Avoid colour. Colour printing is very expensive (especially in POD format) so avoid it if you can. Check your images, tables, graphs and so on that they look OK in black and white by printing yourself.
Sorry if that sounds a bit like a confession, it's not intended so.

Using Print On Demand

Ironically, the easiest way to make your free game available to people is to upload it onto a Print On Demand service such as Lulu. Ridiculous though this might seem, it costs you nothing. If it feels odd that you are selling the free game you want to keep free then sell it 'at cost' such that you make no money from each sale and really the buyer is using Lulu as as an easy print service. Also, they probably already have the PDF so they should know what they are getting.

And finally...

Bridging the gap between the free net and the cash world is not easy but with careful print options and a little forethought from the author, the cost can be kept down. If someone thinks your free game is worth paying for, they will pay and you could well argue that it's their choice.

Can you think of any alternatives? Have you printed many PDF books, free or paid for? What experience did you have? Any top tips to keep the cost down? Let's hear from you!


Zachary The First said...

Great post, Rob! I've used lulu on several occasions, and to be honest, its the easiest path for me. My printer is a pretty amatuer affair, so printouts on that usually don't go anywhere past 20-page pdfs or so.

Jonathan said...

your links are busted. Looks like your using BBEdit code [url] etc; which blogger is like "? wtf ?" ...

Anywho... nice summary of the options. Thank you for this.

Rob Lang said...

Absolutely, I wholeheartedly recommend POD services. I am tempted to try others just so that I can have an opinion on them. Lulu, I'm told, is a little pricey because it knows it has become the defacto standard. I would like to see some of the free delights chopped down to size before throwing them into a book. My own cheapo HP Laser get very hot when I print Icar things on it. Not to mention the cost of toner!

My apologies for the BBCode schoolboy error. I am a blithering idiot. I've noticed some shoddy grammar and typos in there too. Apologies for that, I am a slave to the timed publish option in blogger. I should really pay more attention.

I am glad you liked the hints and tips. I don't like to stray too far from reviewing games as that's what I'm really about. I found that some of the books I've reviewed (and have created) do stumble onto these traps.

Many thanks for the feedback chaps!

ccollard said...

For other print options and the best pricing check out our printer comparison at: http://printedproof.com/Photo-and-Prints/Reviews/Compare-Online-Photo-Print-Services.html

Stan said...

I think those who use pdf products a great deal (free and purchased) usually have one of two things going for them.

1) They are ok reading stuff without printing it. Then you just print out a table here and there for use at the table. It's also handy if you have everything on a laptop for quick rules references.

2) They can get away with printing stuff at work so printing costs are irrelevant.

I have 100+ pdfs and have printed ~5 in their entirety.

Regarding the idea of being print conscious, there seem to be a group of pdf creators who think "Hey, I can write as much as I want! I'm giving more content to the user!" Bigger is not always better. The length limit of print can force writers to clarify their concepts in their head to get to the meat of it. I'd rather read a 1 page rule that's clear than a rambling 10 page rule.

Alessandro said...

oddly enough i use my local library to print my rpgs its in black and white and you can only print 80 pages a day but its all 100% free (at least my library is)

David Macauley said...

I've been making some of my copies of free rpg's into hardback books. Some of the readers of this blog may be interested in my DIY Guide to Making a Hardback Rule Book, posted on the Dragonsfoot forum, as another alternative to printing free rpg's.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks for the opinions and comments everyone. I've checked out David's DIY Guide and it's fantastic, thanks for sharing. I've added it to the blog post.