A while back I was introduced to The Sprawl, a cyberpunk band-of-criminals roleplaying game. The book itself was printed in two versions, “Midnight” and “Noon”. Midnight was black paper with mainly white text while Noon was the opposite. I gravitated to the Noon version for a few reasons and didn’t give it much thought, but then I was contracted by Modiphius to work on Star Trek Adventures (the standalone missions, mainly), and suddenly I was working on a game line with white copy on black text.
Now both of these games (I understand) started off with white on black as the main design element, but due to comments from the purchasers, a black copy on white paper version was eventually produced. (Star Trek Adventures has a core rulebook print-on-demand version and, as far as I know, is the only product in that line with a printed white page variant.) The main reason given is simple to understand: readability. The other reason I’ve heard over the years has to do with people complaining about books with a lot of artwork or these large dark areas. When they physically print things from a PDF version, it wastes a lot of ink. I don’t know how much of a concern that is these days with books with a lot of artwork and intricate background imagery, but yeah, you can use a lot of printer ink on a single sheet of the standard Star Trek Adventures missions I’ve been working on. (What we’ve done on the STA line is create the full white on black version first, then created a copy of it to manipulate for the black on white version.)
But to that main point, the readability issue, it’s really a thing having to do with the typeface selection for the book. The main way that roleplaying books (and most everything, really) are printed is through four-color process, or the CMYK colorspace. The best way to visualize this process is by looking at a newspaper with a color photo – these are generally printed at 150dpi, half the quality of your typical roleplaying game book, so when you look closely at the photograph, you’ll really be able to see the dots that make up the image. You’ve got four ink colors at play here: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The size of the dots and the overlapping of them create all the colors in the image. Which means when you print a book, you’re adding colors together to create the full range of colors. You’re printing color.
In the case of The Sprawl’s Midnight edition and the Star Trek Adventures core rulebook, you’re printing the black of the page, not the white of the text. That white text you see are holes in the black rectangle on the page where the paper shows through.
To create that black you will want to use a rich black, which means it’s not just a field of 100% black, but it has some cyan, magenta, and yellow in there to make it look really dark. You can see the difference in this image of Batgirl from All-Star Batman and Robin #10, where the cursing is redacted as 100% black but the still-readable lettering is done in a rich black.
To get that rich black in your book, you’re putting down four layers of color. Depending on your printer, that may bleed into the non-printed lettering of the page. (And for someone printing that on a home printer, I’d much more confident saying it would.) I also find that reading light text on black can trick the eye into thinking the darker background overwhelms the light text, making the strokes of the letterforms seem thinner and, well, I guess it would be described as pinching into the intersections created by the linework that makes up the letterform.
When it comes to layout, you’ll want to use a consistently thicker typeface or a typeface with more uniformly-thick strokes. This keeps the contrast uniform and helps to avoid ghosting, when the registration of the color plates is misaligned. In the image below I sampled from PrintNInja’s website, you can see how a misalignment in the magenta plate really comes out of the black “page” at the bottom of the letterforms, but also take a look at the “We made” here. The lowercase Es have the bar (the straight part in the center of the letterform) nearly completely full of color. The thin, curved top of the a in “made”, the end of the arm leading up to that right-most serif on the W of “We” – they both vanish into the black.
I would be looking at a solid sans-serif typeface to solve this. Generally, a typeface without serifs will have less variety in thickness than something like Garamond or Times New Roman and be easier to read on a darker background. As I began this writing, I was using my laptop in a car at night while my girls were in their Tae Kwon Do class – rather than have a glaring white screen, I swapped the page color from white to a dark blue-grey but kept Calibri as the typeface. Here is this paragraph in both white on dark and dark on light. I don’t think that the readability suffers much between the two, but it does appear to me that the black background chokes the white text just a bit.
For another example, take a look at Fate Core System by Evil Hat. While this is just black ink on white, the sidebars are reversed and the text on those dark areas are a thicker sans-serif typeface. Gotham is a fine typeface with uniform stroke thickness that reads well on light or dark backgrounds. I think this looks pretty cool.
In two weeks (hopefully!): I’ll look at the steps I use on Star Trek Adventures to transform the standard white on black version to a printer-friendly black on white version.
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