This week is the third installment of my graphic design tips for tabletop role-playing game creators. If you haven’t had a chance yet, check out the first two articles in this series: Free Graphic Design Resources & Best Practices For TTRPG Creators and A TTRPG Creator’s Guide To Logo Design.
Moving forward in this series, I wanted to delve into the world of print. I see a lot of TTRPG creators on social media talk about mistakes they’ve made while trying to get their games published and printed. I love the printing process and would be happy to share the basics for anyone looking to get their work physically made!
The Levels Of Printing
When selecting a vendor for your print production, you have several tiers of options. Each of the choices below have pros and cons. It really just depends on the scale of the job and the quality you’re looking for.
It is possible to print your TTRPG projects in the comfort of your own home. However, this option requires you to invest in tools and materials that might not be cost effective for your situation. You’d need a desktop printer that can produce mass quantities of high quality prints, replacement ink cartridges, paper, etc. This would be an acceptable option for a tabletop newsletter, one page rule sets, etc.
Local Copy Shop
Local copy shops or printing chains offer a surprising number of services. You can usually get smaller orders of your work printed, trimmed, and stapled at these locations. They can even outsource more complicated requests to their larger partners at additional cost. Just make sure you effectively communicate what you want. These types of shops tend to go with their standard default options if you don’t discuss your vision with them.
Large Print House
This is the professional level in the printing world. These operations are used to handling enormous print runs, well known clients, complicated book binding, etc. Almost anything you are looking to do can be done here. This is also the most expensive option. However, if you are looking to produce a high quality product, this is your best bet. These companies have entire departments dedicated to working with you, treating you more like a client than a customer.
Online Printing Solutions
An increasing number of online printing services have popped up over the last decade or so. Their offerings are usually high quality, fast, and convenient. However, you’ll want to request samples and proofs (explained later) to ensure what you see is actually what you get. This solution is also a lot less personal than the others and opens up more room for user error. Always communicate as effectively as possible when dealing with online printing.
Working With Your Printer
If you choose to work with a professional printer or printing service, there are some guidelines you should follow to make sure your expectations are met. You don’t want to invest time and money only to realize your printer cannot produce your work.
Find Out Their Capabilities
Not every company is set up to handle your project. Make sure to check out their website to learn about the services they offer. Then, I would recommend getting in contact with a representative to ask if they provide the specific things you need to get done. It might also be worthwhile to ask if they’ve worked with any TTRPG companies before. Most companies say they can do anything, they just need to outsource it to a partner company at additional cost to you. To save money, ask if they offer the services you need in-house.
Give Them Plenty Of Time
Setting up a print run takes time. A lack of planning on your part will cost you in the long run. Make sure that you give your printer plenty of time to schedule the run of your job. Last minute emergencies can result in extreme fees or even the cancellation and rescheduling of your press run. Be aware of the fact that you are not a printer’s only client. Any delay on your part holds up the entire printing schedule for their other clients.
Manage Your Own Quality Control
Be diligent in the accuracy and quality of the product you are trying to produce. Be very specific with your printer about your vision, expectations, and the details of your project. Always request to see proofs before giving the final approval. Proofs are print tests provided to clients so they can approve a job before it goes to print. They are available in digital and physical printed formats. If time allows, I’d recommend doing both.
How Ink Works
Working with inks can be a whole new experience for TTRPG creators. It may seem simple to those who’ve worked with a desktop printer before, but there’s a lot of room for errors. This is especially true when producing prints on a large scale.
Black & White
This method only uses one ink color, black, and is almost always the least expensive option. Though with modern digital printing methods, it’s sometimes the same cost as color. You can do a lot with the range of grayscale, but a piece printed strictly in black and white often doesn’t carry the same impact as something printed in full color. When designing a file to print in black & white, make sure your file is actually set up to use black ink and not the “registration” setting.
Full color printing is known as CMYK, and uses 4 inks: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. An entire range of colors can be printed by mixing these colors. However, not all colors can be printed with CMYK. When designing a document for print, you need to make sure you have the color settings set to CMYK and not RGB. Many first-timers make this mistake because RGB looks more vibrant on the screen. However, when you print from an RGB file those colors cannot be replicated and your prints will look muddy and bad.
When you need something special beyond the capabilities of CMYK printing, you can use custom inks. These require research to use, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. For instance, you can select an ink from the Pantone swatch book to achieve specific color, metallic ink, or vibrant colors. You can even mix a special ink, though this has varied results. Using additional inks in printing tends to be a costly process.
How Paper Works
Paper is a lot more complicated than people realize. It’s easy to get lost in the options and confused by the classifications. Here are some things to remember.
Types Of Paper
There are many types of paper, such as: Bond, Book, Text, Index, Bristol, Cover, etc. Work with your printer to select the appropriate type for your project. They are experts and can guide you in the right direction! For TTRPG content, you usually need a paper that best showcases the artwork. You’ll also need to consider the finish of the paper. Glossy paper makes images pop and produces a shiny or smooth finish. Matte paper produces deeper colors or a more subtle finish.
The Weight Of Paper
Paper is complicatedly separated by weight that is measured in pounds. In general, the heavier the weight, the thicker the paper. If possible, you should try to actually pick up and touch a paper stock when selecting it for your project. Heavier stocks tend to hold more authority, luxury, or a professional edge. This is usually reflected in the price. Beware when choosing a heavy stock that will be folded! Ask your printer if it’s too heavy to be bound or if the ink will crack on the paper when it’s folded.
Multipage documents must be bound when printed. The most common binding methods for tabletop projects are saddle stitching, perfect binding, and spiral binding. Saddle stitching is done by folding sheets of paper and stapling them together in the fold. This stops being a viable option when your book becomes too long/thick. Perfect binding is when the pages of your document are glued or stitched to a “spine” like a magazine. This clean look can accommodate most jobs. Spiral binding is a process of punching holes in pages and fastening them together with a wire or plastic coil. This option is considered the least professional of the three.
You wouldn’t bake a cake without a recipe right? The same is true of designing for print! Following the instructions on provided specs in advance will save you an emergency with the printer layer.
What Are Specs?
Specs, or specifications, are the instructions on how to set up a file for print. These differ from project to project and from printer to printer depending on their capabilities. These generally include things like dimensions, trimlines, margins, resolution, etc. (Terminology explained below). If you don’t follow the specs your work will be unprintable. This will result in a rejection of your artwork from the printer and needing to redesign the work.
Always Get Specs Or Templates Before Designing
Before you start designing, always make sure to get the specs first! This will save you the hassle of redesigning your project when you realize you didn’t follow the instructions properly. You can request the specs for your project from your printer. They will either offer you templates or instructions on how to set up your file. You should never start the file for a print project without having the specs.
Dimensions: The width and height of a document usually listed in inches (such as 8.5″ x 11″).
Picas: A typographic unit of measure, specifically used by designers. When in doubt, just use inches instead.
Trimline: The edge of a page that is physically cut to ensure a clean end result.
Margins: The distance in from the trimline of a page you need to stay within to avoid having content trimmed off.
Bleedline: The distance out from the trimline of a page to ensure that ink touches the edge of a page when cut.
Full Bleeds: When ink touches the edge of a page with no border.
Resolution or DPI (Dots Per Inch): A measure of spatial printing that determines the clarity of your artwork.
Preparing Files For Print
Once you’ve completed designing your TTRPG project, you’ll need to prepare your files for print. This can be scary for your first time printing a large job. However, if you’ve selected a good printer, they’ll usually help you through the process.
Accepted File Types
Different printing companies accept different types of files. It really just depends on the project and their equipment. You can find this information in the specs your printer provides. Generally speaking, a high resolution PDF is more or less universally accepted. Larger jobs or older companies may request packaged files. These are ZIP files that include your design files and folders containing your fonts and artwork. Though packaged files are from an earlier era of printing, it’s still important to know just in case!
Double Check Your File’s Resolution
This is something first timers don’t always think about. High resolution prints should always have a resolution of 300dpi. When printing on low quality paper, like newsprint, you can get away with a resolution of 150dpi. A resolution of 72dpi is used for digital images, but is not suitable for print. Printing at this resolution will result in an end product that is grainy, pixelated, and disappointing. Always double check the resolution of work you are designing for print!
Proofread And Finalize
Before sending a file off to the printer, make absolutely certain it is perfect. This extends to grammatical errors, misspellings, fact checking, correct artwork, etc. It is your responsibility to make sure your work is correct, not the printers. Meaning, an error in the content of your product cannot be blamed on a printer and is not refundable. That being said, some printers will actually catch mistakes and let you know. However, this isn’t something you should ever depend on.
Good luck in all your printing endeavors! Next week will be the finale of the series, covering layout design for TTRPG projects. Until next time, stay creepy and happy gaming.