Producing our RPG zine The Forest of Lost Children has been a labor of love, but it has definitely been labor. Before starting this project, I knew the general process, but I didn’t fully comprehend the work involved. That said, I’ve really enjoyed creating a published RPG product and I’m very happy with the outcome. Not to mention, I’ve learned a ton doing it.
In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about the process of producing this RPG zine. I’ll discuss our process, the tools we used, and a bit of what we learned along the way.
David originally wrote The Forest of Lost Children as a game to introduce my GF Harley and her daughter Verlina to D&D. It went over tremendously well. Unicorns, witches, puzzles, it was everything at ten-year-old girl could want in her first RPG experience. I don’t really think I’ve been able to live up to it since.
Adapting his original idea into a publishable product went fairly quickly. We started with him writing the adventure down in Google Docs. From there, I began editing, commenting, and making revisions. The ability to collaborate is essential. As with all of the games we make, I don’t think we could get them to a publishable state without having at least two sets of eyes reviewing every detail.
This was a great beginning but didn’t give us a good idea of how long the product would eventually be. Fortunately, you can format a Google Doc (or any word processor document) to be the same page size as a standard zine (8.5″x 5.5″). Now, this probably sounds obvious as I’m writing it, but it didn’t occur to me initially, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
This was the point at which we started considering where we’d get the zine printed. We decided on Mixam since they specialize in the zine format. Their turn around is quick and their prices are very reasonable. We also ordered some samples of their product and their quality was excellent.
The printer specifies all the specifics of margin, bleed, etc. As we started the layout in Adobe InDesign, we made sure to set up all these specifications from the beginning, which makes sending the files to print much easier later.
Another important detail is that the number of pages in the zine must be a multiple of four. Again, this is something that struck me as totally obvious once I read it on Mixam’s website. Zines are printed on standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, with each sheet consisting of two pages on each side stapled in the middle. This puts a somewhat frustrating constraint on writing: if you want to add one more page, you have to add three others to go with it.
As I mentioned above, we used Adobe InDesign for layout. It is the industry standard and an incredibly powerful program. If you are familiar with other Adobe products (like Photoshop) but not InDesign, you’ll probably find it incredibly frustrating. InDesign is just different enough from other Adobe products to confuse you.
However, if you embrace InDesign and learn a few of its best features, you’ll learn to love it. I’ve used the program on small projects in the past. Every time I pick it up, I have to relearn a few things, but I also expand my knowledge a little further.
If you are picking up InDesign for the first time for a project like this, there are a few features that I highly suggest you learn about.
Learn to set these up and use them. They’ll save you a lot of trouble keeping your headers and styles consistent and switching between them. Paragraph styles are also necessary for setting up other features like a dynamic table of contents, cross-references, and similar dynamic features.
Dynamic Tables and Cross-Reference
Using features like cross-references can really help your readers find what they need, especially in something like a rule book or RPG publication. Moreover, these are some of the easiest things to mess up if you try to do them manually. As I wrote (and I assume the experience is the same for most authors), I was constantly moving, expanding, and contracting different sections. I was adding in and moving images, and otherwise changing the layout. All those changes meant that most cross-references and headers changed pages frequently. Not having to constantly update the page numbers on everything saved a ton of time and headache.
I personally have a strange fondness for seeing images snuggly wrapped by test. Maybe that is a strange thing to get excited about, but I like it. Weird text wraps can get hard to read though, so it is really important to learn how to use the image wrap controls.
InDesign has this handy little “export booklet” feature that exports all your spreads in the proper order to fold and staple them together as a booklet. This means the front and back covers will print on the first page, while the first and last pages will print on the reverse side. Each following pages will be the next page on the left and the next-from-the-last page on the right. When they are all printed, you get a good idea of what your zine will look like.
Print it, read it, write on it. It’s nice to proof things in something close to their final form. And while the zine might look great on the computer screen, its also important to print it out and see what it looks like in person. Its amazing how different something can look once in a physical form.
We talked about our art direction in a previous post. For The Forest of Lost Children, we were going for an old-school feel with black-and-white pen drawings and maps. I didn’t realize it before starting this project, but there is a lot of stock art available in this style on DriveThrurpg.com. Also, some Patreon creators like The Forge Studios offer commercial licenses for their art. All of these got us pretty close to what we needed for the zine; however, we still needed a few very specific pieces. For this, we hired a local artist. These ended up being the third biggest expense of the project (after printing and editing), but it is totally worth it.
Next, I actually ventured into the realm of drawing maps myself. I’d done this in the past a bit for my own home roleplaying games but had never put together something polished enough for printing. It turns out though that there are some really great tutorials for drawing maps out on the web if you search. Starting from those, and a brand new set of art pens, I was able to create our dungeon maps and a couple of other pieces of filler art. Now, I’m certainly not a great artist, but fortunately, the map style we were going for wasn’t too hard to replicate. I was really happy with my results and excited to learn another a new skill.
If there is one piece of advice I would give to anyone working on an RPG zine or any other type of publication, it is, “hire an editor.” The more you look at your own writing, the more you’ll overlook your own mistakes. A good editor is worth their weight in gold. Not only with they find grammatical issues, but a good editor will check your references, make sure your puzzles are solvable, suggest ways to improve your writing, clear up anything that doesn’t make sense, and generally save your ass and make you look professional. Seriously, you have no idea how many mistakes you really made until you have a pro look it over with a fine-tooth comb.