I thought we’d do something a little different today, and talk about my process and making indie RPG stuff, specifically zines (which I’m defining here as self-published work that’s shorter than book-length). Although I see myself as a newcomer to self-publishing, I’ve been doing it for over two years now, and I’ve learned some things that other people might not know if they’re starting out. I’m going to avoid the question of ‘what should I make a zine about?’, as although it’s an interesting avenue of inquiry, I ultimately can’t tell you what ideas to have. All I can do is help you execute those ideas and present them to other people.
I must stress again, this is only describing what I personally do and what tools I use. Other creators will have other methods and that’s totally fine. Also, cargo-culting creative process isn’t very effective. When I was younger, I always wanted to use the same brush as a comics artist I really loved used, or to go and sit in the same place a novelist I loved had written, and so forth. I think there’s a pretty universal desire to mimic the style and trappings of the creators we love in the hope their genius will become ours, but it’s ultimately an empty quest. You obviously will not become Hemingway or Burroughs (here I reveal what kind of teenage boy I was) by writing on the same model of typewriter.
With that said, some tools are more effective than others, and I will make some software and reference book recommendations as we go through this.
This is obviously an incredibly important element of making a zine, and it’s the part of the process I’m least prescriptive about. You can write anywhere, anytime, anyhow. Write on Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, Scrivener, Google Docs, Notes, whatever software. Write on a bus ticket, a notebook, in blood on the trunk of the oldest oak in the forest, etc. It doesn’t matter.
All that really matters for our purposes is the writing ends up digitised and typed up somehow. Everyone will have their own preference. The Vaults of Vaarn material was written in Pages, Scrivener, the Notes app on my phone, a couple of physical notebooks, and directly into Affinity Publisher, my layout software (I do this quite frequently because it lets me see how much space I have to work with).
To get better at the actual craft of writing prose, my recommendation is to spend from now until the end of your life reading and writing every single day. There is no shortcut sadly, and as a fun bonus you can also get worse at it as time passes if you become complacent. It’s constant work.
If someone came to me asking about getting better at writing RPG zines, I would point them towards poetry, specifically prose poetry. This form has a strong resemblance to what I see as ‘the best’ indie RPG writing. Prose poetry forces you to weigh the cadence and precise meaning of every word in a sentence, and packs lots of conceptual density and meaning into a compacted space. These are skills that will serve you well when you’re writing a room description, an NPC’s personality, or a two-word result in a random table.
A couple of prose-poetry works I would recommend are Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (this is really a must-read for any TTRPG fan, being a travelogue of strange and impossible cities), The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, and the collected work of Lydia Davis. There is of course lots more out there but these are the three that jumped into my mind instantly.
The artwork for Vaults of Vaarn is all hand-drawn. I do some sketches with a soft pencil, then do outlines for the inks using a non-photo blue pencil (this is a shade of blue that doesn’t get picked up by scanners). I used to use a super hard and light 7H pencil instead but I’ve found I prefer the non-photo blue because it’s a bit softer and feels nicer on the page.
The inks in the zines are a mixture of brush pen and a dip pen. The brush pen I use is the Pentel Pocket Brush. I’d recommend this one if you’re new to brush pens just because it’s cheap and pretty good. The drawings nibs I use for my dip pen are Zebra G Nibs. Although I don’t particularly want to shill for the brands I buy, I have to say the Zebra nibs are awesome and I would strongly advise trying them if you’re looking to do dip-pen work. I used cheap calligraphy nibs from my local art shop for years and I was missing out; the Zebra nibs feel so much better to use and hold ink for way longer. Sometimes it is worth investing in proper kit.
Once I’m happy with the linework, the images get scanned in and I do some digital editing. I’m very particular about doing the actual artwork on paper as I don’t like drawing on a computer, but it really takes the pressure off when I’m working with ink to know I can remove mistakes later. The artwork for Issue #3 has some halftone shaders applied from the Horrific Halftones pack by Retrosupply. This is another case where I will shill for the Horrific Halftones, I’ve used them loads since I bought them.
Once you have your words and pictures, how do you put them together in a way that’s appealing to the eye? This is where layout software comes in. Unlike word processors, which are for writing in and creating documents that are passably presented, layout software is specifically for professionally laying out text and pictures to the standard you’d see in a magazine or commercially published book. If you care about how your zine looks I would recommend giving layout software a whirl. It is not as intimidating as it may seem and the results are very rewarding.
The industry standard for layout is Adobe Indesign; however I cannot recommend this to my readers due to the bullshit subscription model that Adobe are wedded to. I have heard it may be possible to ‘pirate’ such software and use it without paying money for it but we here at Vaults of Vaarn dot com are law-abiding citizens and would never condone such acts. However we have been informed that pirating Adobe products is possible and indeed probably quite easy and enjoyable if one were so inclined.
I personally use the Affinity Suite to do layout. You only really need Affinity Publisher, but the other two are nice to have as well: Affinity Photo is a Photoshop replacement and Affinity Designer is an Adobe Illustrator competitor (if you’re unclear what the difference is, Photo is used for working with raster aka pixel-based images. Think a digital mosaic. Designer is used primarily for vector images, which is more like playing with a set of elastic bands that you can stretch into precise shapes. I use Designer the least but it’s useful for some kinds of visual work like diagrams.) I personally cannot recommend these programs enough: I never would have been able to create Vaults of Vaarn without them. You pay for them once and they’re often on sale.
An often overlooked aspect of zine-making. I must warn you that getting too ‘into’ fonts carries great risk, as you may become a Font Pervert and spend the rest of your life talking about ligatures and kerning. However if you’re putting out an RPG zine I think it’s worth considering what your fonts are saying about the project and how they’re enhancing or hindering your overall theme. For a short crash course in font jargon, read Typography in Ten Minutes.
If you’re making an RPG zine, you’ll want at minimum a body text font and a display font. The body text font is your workhorse main font, and the display font is for titles and headings. In the first two Vaults of Vaarn zines the body text was Anonymous Pro and the display font was Gross Net. In the third issue I changed to Apparel for the body text and Exodus Display for the display font. I went with Anonymous Pro in the original zines because it evoked 70s computer terminals and early Roguelikes, and I paired it with Gross Net for a similar reason. However both fonts had flaws: Anonymous is mono-spaced, which means it takes up a lot more room than a variable width font, which is not ideal for an A5-sized zine, and Gross Net had some weird issues when resizing because it’s constructed from small squares. I knew I needed something different, and ended up switching to Apparel because I thought it had an elegant, refined look that suited my vision for Vaults of Vaarn going forward. I paired it with Exodus for similar reasons. It was quite difficult to express the off-beat, erudite tone of retrofuturism that I’m aiming for with font choices, but I tried my best.
All of this is to say, it’s worth thinking about the fonts you use and what they say about your project. Google Fonts and Fontesk between them are all the resources a budding zine-maker will need: both are inexhaustible storehouses of fonts with highly permissive licenses. Johan Nohr, Mork Borg designer, has a Twitter thread on choosing fonts that’s useful for beginners.
Ben L of Through Ultan’s Door fame has a couple of blog posts about making zines that I recommend reading: one on printing and one on paper selection. The Liminal Horror SRD site also boasts a huge archive of annotated game design resources, which is too voluminous to summarise here. Rest assured that if you haven’t browsed it already, you should.
This article is a work in progress. I’ll revisit it as new topics occur to me.
The header image is what MidJourney thinks a ‘writer’s desk’ looks like.