Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Dear Gamer: Orienting a Newcomer to TTRPGs

Recently, I was asked to speak to a young family friend who’d expressed tentative interest in RPG design and publishing. After an initial conversation to establish their interests and potential goals, I wrote them up an orientation email covering the extreme basics of where to start with RPG publication and where they might look for next steps and broadened horizons.

Below is that email (slightly re-organized, but mostly unedited).

Pictured: Tucker, prospective gamer.

If you’re also at the very beginning of an interest in writing RPGs, or maybe you know someone else who is, I hope you’ll find this useful. While extremely far from a comprehensive guide to RPG publishing, this shotgun approach should equip the reader with enough leads to get started making something.

Note that the letter’s recipient was particularly interested in publishing for D&D 5th edition and Call of Cthulhu, two games which I have no professional experience with. Consequently, I kept my advice highly general.

A Modest TTRPG Orientation

Dear [GAMER],

Per our chat yesterday, I'm sending over all of the links and advice I was able to compile from research, experience and talking with my graphic designer friends. Please let me know if you have any questions, but all this should hopefully help get you started!


I spoke to a couple graphic designers, and they recommended you avoid Homebrewery or other similar 5e layout programs that we discussed, and that Google Docs is your best bet for starting out formatting your ideas into a usable PDF.

Here's a very good tutorial which covers the basics of doing layout in Google Docs (a free word processing program): 


Here's an example of an RPG with attractive design that was completely laid out in Google Docs. You can get a free copy if you scroll down to the section that says "Community Copy":


And some the advice that one of my designer friends passed on:

  • Keep it simple!
  • Pick two or three fonts at most.
  • Pick one basic body font.
  • You can get more creative with the heading fonts, I linked a few good options below. Just make sure the headings are readable.
  • Stick to black text on white, without any page background.
  • Any Google font can be imported into GDocs, just select "More fonts" from the dropdown menu and search for the one you want.
  • Use GDoc's built in heading styles, but update them as you see fit. You can do this easily by changing text to the style you want, selecting the text, then hovering over an option from the text Styles dropdown on the toolbar, and finally clicking “update ‘Heading 1’ to match.”
  • Include a proper footer, it's easy to do and will increase the professionalism and usability of your document.
  • Also include a title page, GDocs has a feature to do this.
  • If you want art you can either Google public domain art (wikimedia commons, flickr are good sources to start with), or you can use something like unsplash for photography.
  • GDocs also has a built-in diagramming tool that is good for things like very simple maps.

Here are some 1920s/Cthulhu-esque heading fonts to choose from (pick just one to use):

And here are a couple appropriate body fonts (also pick one):


This might be an overwhelming amount of information, here's a giant resource compiling tons of blog posts and other guides covering all aspects of game design and publishing. If you're ever wondering about a specific topic, this site might have answers for you: 


Like I mentioned on our call, I have my own blog where I sometimes post game design and publishing advice. Here's a couple posts that might be useful to you:

Early publishing experiences: 


Playtesting advice: 



Game jams are a great way to find cool, low-effort and quick-turnaround TTRPG projects for inspiration. Creators host game jams on specific themes and with specific parameters, and give participants a limited window to make something for the jam. You can join a game jam to motivate yourself to just make something!

An example of a cool itch.io game jam: 


And another one: 


A game jam tracking website to find upcoming jams: 



Be sure to check out the projects being run for Zine Quest (a month-long crowdfunding initiative held by Kickstarter to encourage short form RPG projects) to get a sense of projects that are a little more ambitious than game jam projects, but still feasible for a beginner-intermediate game designer.

Here are the active Zine Quest 4 projects (it typically runs during February, but it was August this year): 



While compiling your home rules like we talked about seems like a solid first project, adventure modules/scenarios are generally the best things to create. For one, adventures are easily the most popular and useful game material out there. For another, they are easily accessible to a beginner designer—much less tricky to figure out than rules and mechanics. I would strongly recommend writing adventures as soon as possible, they're the best way to learn good game design.

Here's a link to the D&D "Open Games License" I mentioned, which you will need to include in anything you publish for 5th edition: 


Definitely take a look around DrivethruRPG to find other things related to your subject, there’s a good chance someone else has already made something similar to what you’re working on and you might take some useful lessons from their efforts:


If you're interested in exploring more systems outside of Cthulhu and 5e, the contemporary "indie" TTRPG design scene is the most creative and knowledgeable group around. Here's a couple free, cool indie TTRPGs you might be interested to read:





A friend of mine also recommended this as a good independently designed take on Cthulhu RPGs: 



That's everything I could think of! If you take any advice from our conversation, it should be that the best way to learn is by doing and you should just start making stuff. I hope this helps you get started, and good luck with your first project! 

Feel free to email me any time if you have any other thoughts or questions about TTRPGs.




Thursday, April 14, 2022

Zine Month 2022 Post-Mortem

In January 2022, Kickstarter officially announced that February's traditional Zine Quest start date would instead move to Auguststranding zine creators with next to no notice. Zine Month, a creator-organized Zine Quest alternative originally formed to support projects off-Kickstarter, stepped in to assume the mantle of all-purposes February zine funding event in its absence.

Zine Month saw mass participation from creators, funding 153 total projects on Kickstarter, itch.io, and other purpose built or hacked-together crowdfunding platforms. Collectively, they raised over $825,000.

In this blog post, I will analyze the successes and failures of Zine Month as a sales event, communal support platform, industry trend, and political statement. Thanks to tireless efforts from volunteers, we have extensive sales data from all Zine Month projects to evaluate and compare against statistics from past Zine Quests.* If nothing else, Zine Month gave us some of the most comprehensive and significant data on sales trends that RPGs have ever seen.


*Massive shoutout to Pandatheist for her Zine Quest 2 and Zine Quest 3 stats compilations.

The Zine Month That Was

Like Zine Quest before it, Zine Month is a diffuse entity. While Zine Quest boiled down to a loose set of official guidelines and Kickstarter search tag, Zine Month comprised a mailing list, website, Discord server, stats spreadsheet, hashtag, video seminar series, and more. No one of these things wholly defines Zine Month, and in this sense the event founders accomplished their stated goal of democratization.

To pin down what "ZiMo" truly was all about, let's investigate its constituent parts.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

A Year in RPG Self Publishing: Year 2

Have you ever wondered if there's any money in indie RPGs? 

Have you considered making a break into the industry, or just want to earn a little extra cash on the side?

In this second annual report of my run at “making it” in RPGs, I will endeavor to answer these questions and more. I will break down how I spent my year, what I published, things I learned, and get into concrete financial realities.

I entered 2021 earning $1 an hour publishing pamphlet adventures, and I’m beginning the new year with a Kickstarter in the top 100 TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns of all time ($370,000 pledged and climbing). Let’s examine what happened in between.

I leaped into full-time RPG work last year, focusing heavily on my own publishing efforts. I ran my first Kickstarter campaign, published three zines and one pamphlet for the Mothership RPG, and started a business to house it all. 

I also grappled with chronic health issues under the mounting weight of responsibility, uncertainty, and alienation. My hobby fully metamorphosed into a job and now threatens to become a career. I gambled on a massive project that will ultimately consume two years of my life. I played almost no games for fun.

As I did in my first annual report for 2020 (which you should read if you want to hear how I got my start), I’ll begin by analyzing my 2021 RPG finances. From there, we’ll move onto a summary of this year’s lessons learned—the growing pains of a tiny publisher becoming a small publisher. Finally, I’ll walk you through a brutally honest and grounded look at my entire year month-by-month to share the highs and lows of RPG self-publishing.

Financial Realities

Barring illness and the odd holiday, I worked every single day this year on my projects. I rode a wave of intense Kickstarter management crunch into intense Kickstarter fulfillment crunch into… intense Kickstarter management crunch once again. Conservatively, I worked an average of 50-60 hours per week on RPGs. It is my sole source of income. Let’s see how well I did, shall we?

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Kickstarter Fulfillment 101: Shipping Costs

You've found the second in a series of blog posts on Kickstarter fulfillment for the discerning RPG publisher, the first covering Pledge Management and perils therein. This time, I'm going to break down the exact formula you need to avoid losing money on shipping for your next project. I'll also show my work, analyzing every step in the formula in detail to ensure you never miss a hidden fee again. 

Compounding fees will sink your budget if you don't plan ahead and factor in some wiggle room. Recalling stats from my previous post, I narrowly avoided over $1500 in losses (nearly 1/3 of my profit margin for the entire Kickstarter) by using a pledge manager for shipping cost collection and carefully calculating a tangled web of fees via the following methods. 

My fulfillment for The Drain is still underway with a few outstanding orders and replacement packages left to ship out, but I estimate my true final costs fall within a 1% margin of collected shipping costs—an extremely relieving success in my book.

Ready for math? Let's dive in.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Kickstarter Fulfillment 101: Pledge Management

Kickstarter fulfillment is an under discussed, behind-the-scenes process that can make or break a campaign as easily (or more so) than a failed launch. In a series of posts, I'm going to dig into the nuts and bolts behind shipping, distribution, pledge management, and the customer service baggage that comes with a Kickstarter. 

This first post on pledge management services is based on my own experiences Kickstarting The Drain and discussions with other indie RPG creators. I generally advocate for a financially risk-averse approach because that's my personal priority, but I will try to indicate options for those prioritizing accessibility, time investment, and other concerns.

Even if you're not planning to run a Kickstarter any time soon, you might be intrigued to learn what goes on behind the scenes of your favorite RPG campaigns after they fund.

My Fulfillment Experience

Back in February 2021, I kickstarted a 3rd party Mothership zine called The Drain. The campaign went far better than I'd hoped, closing out with over 1400 backers. I launched with a completed, edited manuscript and art + layout in process. I gave my backers a fulfillment estimate for June 2021, but internally I expected to fulfill in April-May. I ended up encountering a few setbacks and delays and used my entire grace period—beginning digital and physical fulfillment on the main zine in mid-June, with a few outstanding digital stretch goals still in the works.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

RPG Communities and Collective Action

While certainly not a novel concept to union organizers, protesters, and political activists, indie RPGs have recently seen an explosion of experimentation in collective action and activism. Group charity projects like Dissident Whispers and Postcards From Cable Street leverage donated RPG work to raise money for political causes. Communities organizing around geographic regions, game genres and hobby sub-niches push for collective betterment and financial opportunities: RPGSEA with Our Shores and the Session Zero Con, the recent LATAM game jam, and the 3rd party Mothership community to name a few.

Having seen the power of collective action on projects like Dissident Whispers firsthand, I wanted to write an article on community building and RPG activism. It doesn't take any special knowledge or connections to jump in and enact significant change: All it takes is a will to begin and dedication to see it though. You can create the next Dissident Whispers or carve a sustainable financial niche for you and your peers, and I hope to outline clear steps for making that happen.

Mothership and Zine Quest 3

I run a Discord server for 3rd party Mothership publishers with about 25 members. I founded the server several months ago after participating in Dissident Whispers and wanting to carry that spirit of community to my peers in Mothership publication. We've slowly grown into a tight knit group, with two instances of collective projects under our belt and many more on the horizon. Back in December, we published a PDF bundle on Itch.io featuring many of our works that raised over $6000 (split between the participants)—strong initial proof of collective power within our community.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Zine Quest 3 Post-Mortem: The Drain

I ran my first ever Kickstarter this year for Zine Quest 3. My project, a Mothership RPG adventure called The Drain, received over 1,400 backers and $15,000 in funding. In this post, I will attempt to convey everything I've learned through the process and share all associated costs and statistics. I hope to paint an honest portrait of running a Kickstarter for the first time. We'll start by jumping into the meatiest statistics, then settle into a host of lessons and tips. But first, a little context.

A Brief Project Overview

The Drain is a 16-page zine, priced for Kickstarter at $5 digital and $10 physical (+ digital). It's a DCC-style funnel adventure where each player runs multiple characters through a meat grinder—the first of its kind for the Mothership system.

I brought on several prominent RPG creators to work with me on the project, including Sean McCoy as an illustrator, Christian Kessler for layout, Fiona Geist for editing, then later Evlyn Moreau and Dirk Leichty as stretch goal artists. I ended up listing and funding 7 stretch goals. I wrote campaign updates almost every day. I partnered with Exalted Funeral, the Melsonian Arts Council, and Monkey's Paw Games for distribution. I approached my Kickstarter with an "all-in" philosophy: I put everything I had into making it as polished and successful as possible. I believe it paid off.