But What Do They Do?
RPG Typesetter
by Michael G. Ryan

Words on a book's page don't just magically align themselves. They don't adjust the spaces between each other to ensure consistency, and they don't decide for themselves if Times New Roman looks better than Bookman Old Style for the text in question. If words ever evolve to that level of decision-making, typesetters will be out of work.

"Basically, typesetting takes text files and art images and smooshes it all into a layout designed by the graphic designers under the direction of the respective art directors," explains Angie Lokotz, lead production typesetter at Wizards of the Coast.

And making those words look good keeps Angie and her fellow typesetters busy. "Our schedules are monthly," she says. "Every month, we do four or five books, each averaging 320 pages, and roughly three RPGs with about 160 pages each, as well as reprints and special projects. Right now, for instance, my scheduling board has twelve projects and a total of 2,856 pages." Paperback books cycle through the typesetting process in about four weeks, she adds, while higher-end hardcover RPGs, many with more than 300 pages, are usually allowed only four to six weeks in the official schedule "but require far more time," she admits. "At this moment, all of the typesetters are working on big RPGs. We currently have Call of Cthulhu, Prophecies of the Dragon (a The Wheel of Time adventure), and Deities and Demigods (D&D) in-house. Cthulhu took about three weeks to produce a first galley."

The process for "smooshing" type into a layout has evolved quite a bit since the time Angie joined the TSR staff back at the beginning of January 1989. Prior to typesetting for the game company, she worked as the production manager of one of the biggest newspaper-style shoppers in south central Wisconsin. "I was responsible for getting the paper -- or three or four papers -- ready for press: proofing, paginating, shooting, making plates, all of that," she says. "And at the time, there was this new game out. Some people down in Lake Geneva were making it. So, we tried it. It had these funky dice, my character rolls did not please me, and I had problems trusting the DM. I preferred Scrabble."

The game might not have held much appeal for Angie, but the company that made Dungeons & Dragons certainly did when she visited its headquarters years later. "I had actually interviewed at TSR before Christmas of 1988 and had been given a tour," she recalls. "I could not believe that this was the place that made that funky little dice game I remembered from years ago. I saw a bustling place with some very interesting people. Zeb [Cook]'s cube was packed floor to ceiling with Transformers. There were paintings, games, and toys everywhere. They even had a department where people just made maps. I had always worked at 'casual dress, high creativity' -type places, but this one topped the list. I called every day saying I'd start right away. They insisted I wait until January --something about waiting until after Christmas break. The rest is history."

TSR's typesetting process, though far from antiquated at the time, was still quite a bit removed from the process Angie uses now. "We used to set type on Compugraphic equipment," she says, "and it was a convoluted, though interesting, process." Unformatted text was fed into a mainframe, and codes were added manually to guide formatting. "High-tech codes, like '<bb>' for 'begin bold,' '<eb>' for 'end bold,'" Angie says, tongue in cheek, adding that, in fact, "these are quite similar to html coding used for the web." That coded text was then fed into the typesetting machines. "We actually wrote mini-programs that told the machine what was happening on each page," she explains, "stuff like 'begin format 1, x0, y0, delay text 150pp, ret, x16, y0, delay text 150pp, ret' and so on. And because we didn't have 'What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get' (WYSIWYG) screens, after we programmed a number of pages or chapters, we would have to direct the text to the view screens. The text would fly by until the page we designated appeared. I remember this one strange editor who could actually catch a typo as the text was flying by on the viewer. I think you may have heard of him . . . his name is Kim Mohan."

Angie states that typesetting at that time was "actually quite an art form -- and it involved math. We had a clear acetate that was printed with 1-pica squares, a pica being a unit of measurement, and we would actually have to figure out how many picas to indent from the left (or right) for each return, and we would compensate depending on the leading (the space between words). In fact, I still have my typesetting calculator (base 12 and all that). I'm one of the last typesetters to always think in the measurements units of picas and points."

When Angie started at Wizards, she arrived well before most of her coworkers from TSR had moved into the Seattle offices. "I came with disk after disk of files in various stages of development," she recalls. "I looked around and asked where my crew was. They told me I was the crew." As if she weren't overwhelmed enough at the time, the projects kept coming. "I remember being asked if I could lend a hand typesetting cards. I politely declined (read: gaped in astonishment). Then I remember being asked if I read everything I typeset. I politely smiled (read: gaped in astonishment). Every time I printed a galley, someone would ask just how many pages I was printing. Every time I printed a galley someone would wonder aloud if I was 'printing a book' because it took up so much printer time. I smiled politely (read: gaped in astonishment) and said, 'That's what we do -- we print books.'"

The processes have become far more streamlined, and now Wizards runs a fairly detailed schedule of what the typesetters will be working on for the coming year, so everyone is finally on the same page. "The schedule details the turnover deadlines for each department involved in the RPG project," Angie explains. "Typesetting likes to have all the pieces of the project on the text-turnover date so that we can put out galleys for initial review of the layout. This means that the art director has provided us with a thumbnail or sketch, or printout with the 'look' of the product." (This is usually a two-page spread and the specific chapter-start graphics.) "The managing editor has given us the text -- usually in a Word file -- mapping has sent us the maps, imaging has provided the art, and we get to work."

Often, editors provide the typesetters with storyboards on which they can base their typesetting documents. These storyboards are thumbnails of what the finished product will look like, and they detail how it lays out. Often they include a title page, a legal or credits page, a table of contents, an occasional introduction, and, finally, the consecutive chapters. Depending on the length of the book, they may contain an index or ad at the end. "We've also been experimenting with a more open storyboard approach," Angie notes, "where the editor gives us a list of illustrations and maps and their respective numbers and sizes, and the text is tagged in the Word document to alert the typesetter where the illustrations will fall. This technique has also worked pretty well."

Time is always a factor when the typesetting department begins a project, and sometimes the typesetters must work under stress to get the project finished. "Project Management is both our bane and our savior," Angie admits. "They've done all the coordination to make sure we get our materials on time, but they also encourage us to get it all done as quickly as possible." Not surprisingly, in-house projects prove to be easier than licensed products due to the length of time Wizards needs to obtain licensor approvals; approval processes can often trim precious time out of a typesetter's schedule. Fortunately, the typesetters aren't involved much in those approval processes. "We don't work all that closely with authors/designers of the product," Angie points out. "Most of our contact is with editors and art directors. If we can keep those groups pleased and meet project management's deadlines, then we're golden."

After reviewing the nuts and bolts of what she does in typesetting, Angie asks, "So . . . are you bored yet?"

With more than thirteen years of typesetting behind her, Angie can see that her projects have become progressively more complex as software and hardware have evolved to handle it. "Our backgrounds are far more interesting, for one thing," she points out. "And our line looks have become more sophisticated. But complications still arise when pieces are missing. For instance, we have a lot of projects that place art in the center of the page and have runarounds. This is not a problem if the art and text arrive at the same time, but if the art is late, then we can't properly fit the text and have no idea whether the job fits. Printing requires that books be set in sixteen-page increments. When text runs long or short we have a problem." She adds that the upcoming Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game has presented quite a typesetting challenge, but revealing why would spoil the surprise of seeing it on the shelf. "But wait until you see the page layouts," she says. "Wow!"

Over the years, Angie has worked with some great designers and art directors, but singles out some typesetting projects as favorites, projects like the Dark Sun books and Planescape. "Planescape went together especially well," she says, "because it was a project where everybody in the company gave his or her best work without a lot of interference from VPs and special interests, and the result was stunning. The art was some of the best that had ever been seen in the RPG world up to that time; the maps were amazingly detailed and complex. We had some of the coolest layouts --remember the little Modron flipbook? -- and some of the best graphics. The art was complex and took ages to print, so we had everybody working to figure out how to reduce print time. The printer worked with our imaging tech to come up with low-res files for the books that would work with the Scitex. On that project, everybody put in 110 percent."

Other projects have offered slightly different challenges to typesetting. "The oddest book I've set was a fast play rules for the Alternity game," Angie recalls. "It was a pamphlet that read one way for the GM, and if you turned it over it read another way for the [player]. I actually designed the document so that half the pages were upside down and flowed backward. You'd probably have to look at it in order to understand. But it was fun at the time."

In the end, typesetting is often a collaborative effort between the numerous people involved in the process, and some of those team efforts stand as Angie's favorite projects to have worked on. "I think Kim and Dave actually edited most of the Alternity text in live Quark documents that I fed them," she recalls. Her list of favorite projects includes The Bestiary (a Dragonlance accessory), the creative looks for the Marvel Super Heroes game and the Ravenloft realm, the accordion-fold manuals for the Dragon Dice game, and the challenging 25th anniversary box for TSR. But one of the projects that she's most proud of never saw the shelves.

"We worked so hard on the Blood Wars Tactical Manual," she says. "I remember that the book had to go to print the next day. The art was on so many separate CDs and the book was graphically complex that I stayed at work until 4:30 in the morning printing the darn thing. I got back to work around 9:00 that morning like a zombie to make sure that all the sign-offs took place. And we got the book out on time. And then the line was cancelled." She grins and sighs at the same time. "I guess that's publishing for you."

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