So We Printed Our Game Book

Last week, I finally picked up the first print run for The Elephant in the Room: Feat Taxes in PathfinderPrinted by RapidoBooks in Montreal, and designed to mimic the Dungeons and Dragons splat-books of the 1990s, each book is 40 pages long and features all of the rules presented in our online document.

Why a print run? My brother and I undertook this little book-making endeavour as both a vanity project and for experimentation purposes. To speak to the former motivation, there is just something incredibly satisfying about having your work manifest in physical form. PDFs are nice and make for easy online sharing and selling, but reading your rules in a book just hits different. Being able to give away a few copies here-and-there is also a nice bonus, particularly since the rule-set has attracted its share of fans over the last decade.

a number of "elephant in the room" books

In terms of experimentation, I mainly designed this book as a pilot project for a possible Hearth & Blade book printing. Hearth & Blade, as folks may remember from previous blog posts, is a variant rule-set and campaign setting for Pathfinder, and is an infinitely larger project than The Elephant in the Room. Whereas Elephant clocks in at about 40 pages with only a handful of images, Hearth & Blade is prospectively 200-300 pages with dozens of illustrations. Even the beta rules set is a bit unwieldly in its scope – perhaps partially due to Mathew’s insatiable lust for lore. By beginning with a 40 page project, I thought we could evaluate how practical a larger printing project would be in terms of creating layouts, editing text, and putting together a print order.

The outcome of this experiment, it appears, is the unfortunate conclusion that doing a print run of Hearth & Blade is probably not feasible. Heck, doing a print run of The Elephant in the Room was barely feasible. Although laying out the book was relatively straightforward due to my graphic design background, copy-editing its contents was an absolute nightmare. RPG rulebooks seem to combine the editing difficulties of novels and textbooks – containing both large swaths of descriptive text and painstakingly arranged tables and lists. In addition to all of the normal editing headaches, such as grammar and phrasing, it was also necessary to keep tabs on the cascading consistency errors that emerged from small rules tweaks. For example, changing the prerequisite for a single feat in the book required modifying its entry on the feat table, editing its full description, and then skimming the rest of the document to see if the alteration had any unforeseen effects on other rules. Even after multiple passes, I was still dealing with errors right up until the print deadline (and I’m certain some snuck into the final printing). With Hearth & Blade, I can only imagine that these sorts of challenges will only be exacerbated.

This leads to an important question… is designing for a print book really a good use of game development time for an indie TTRPG? One complaint we have received about The Elephant in the Room is that the print layout is actually detrimental to its design – unsurprising, considering that some many RPGs have leaned heavily into searchable online resources in recent years. Where having an all-in-one document may seem appealing, many folks would rather have the rules presented on a website or a database that can be more easily browsed. Additionally, both Hearth & Blade and The Elephant in the Room work off of established rule-sets, meaning that a great deal of book content is either redundant (exists in other books) or difficult to parse through (modified from the original version in subtle ways). A quick-start guide (such as Root’s excellent Pellenicky Glade Quickstart) may actually be a better solution for dealing with this type of game, as it is a much leaner document that emphasizes the central rules and plot, and quickly signals what players “need to know” before dipping their toes into the game.

Print is also unforgiving due to its inflexible formatting. One of the biggest challenges I faced was grappling with page layouts in the face of constant rules revisions and edits. Every edited sentence, tweaked table, or resized illustration meant going back to make sure nothing had shifted around. Although InDesign is quite good at mitigating some of these issues, they do lead to an editing process that is more difficult than changing a live website or Google Document. When you design for print, as we did for The Elephant in the Room by releasing versioned PDFs, it means dealing with these issues for months as folks point out errors in the document or suggest further changes. Errors beget errors in this workflow, creating a bit of a feedback loop of fixes that take a lot of time to implement.

Looking toward the continued production of Hearth & Blade, one of the main things that this print run has taught me is that its rules documents need to be flexible. If we ever want to make a book for the project, it would probably have to be a capstone rather than part of the design process, as upkeeping a single document of that size would likely be more trouble than its worth. Some alternative options I have toyed with are modular releases (i.e. separate lore and rules documents), quickstart guides (i.e. brief guides with an emphasis on play rather than completeness), or fully online resources (i.e. a wiki or website). Over the summer, my brother and I will be reviewing our options and considering the best ways to release the game and facilitate some sort of formal beta test.

All that being said, I’m still over the moon for how The Elephant in the Room books turned out! While the process may be a bit of a pain, the outcome is delightful, and I only wish it was a bit easier to put these sorts of projects together.

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By Michael