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.

Calculating Shipping

Without further ado, follow this formula for shipping costs to protect yourself from misfortune:

Final Shipping Cost (Per Country or Region)
Actual Shipping Cost
Platform Fees
Payment Processing Fees
Packaging Materials Costs
Handling Fees
Distributor Transfer Fees
5% to 10% for Wiggle Room

Now Let's Go Through an Example

Let's create a simple, hypothetical campaign. We'll give them 100 backers, a low and flat actual shipping cost of $5, a distribution partner, and use of Backerkit.

$5 Actual Shipping Cost
Backerkit Fulfillment (3.5% Platform Fee and 2.9% + $0.30 per order Payment Processing Fee)
$2 Handling Fee (including Packaging Costs)
$30 Distributor Transfer Fee (over 100 backers): $0.30 per backer.
10% Wiggle Room

(($5 + $2 + $0.30 + $0.30) / (100% - (3.5% + 2.9%))) x 110%

($7.60 / 0.936) x 1.1

Final Shipping Cost: $8.94

This final number should net the publisher $0 profit after all fees and assuming the 10% wiggle room gets eaten up by replacement packages (an inevitability) or other unforseen costs. 

If this hypothetical publisher ignored all the fees and just charged the Actual Shipping Cost, they're losing almost $4 ON EVERY SALE (if I did my math right). That's a straight $400 loss for our modest hypothetical campaign with 100 physical backers, totally unacceptable. If we plugged the above figures into my previous campaign instead, we'd be looking at over a $4000 loss—nearly all of my profits.

Note that the above doesn't account for the 2% campaign funds Backerkit initial load-in fee. Let's assume this hypothetical Kickstarter chose to subsidize those costs or factor them into their pledge totals, but another might choose to factor them into the shipping.

If the Above Example Made Your Eyes Glaze Over

I wouldn't recommend using it if you can avoid it, but if you struggle with math or just can't be bothered—here's a simplified heuristic formula that should get you pretty close:

Shipping Cost + Handling Fee + Materials Cost + 30% Total Fee Estimate

Using the numbers from our above example, you get: ($5 + $2) x 1.3 = $9.10 (pretty close)

Formula Analysis

Now that you've seen the what, let's get into the why.

Business Man says, "Invest in yourself!"

Actual Shipping Cost

To find this, you'll need to identify how you plan to ship your zines. If using a distributor, request their current rates for all regions. If you plan to ship them yourself, you might want to look into a label printing service like Pirateship (if US based) for large order quantities. The costs via these services will likely be lower than the costs at your post office. No matter how you find these prices, make sure they're accurate and up to date! Don't guess.

Make sure to weigh your parcels using the actual products and packaging materials you intend to ship with. Package weight and size has a huge bearing on shipping prices, so be sure to double check postage requirements!

Note that I was able to print a batch of USPS First Class (the cheapest method for the posters I was shipping) labels via PayPal after I realized USPS doesn't offer First Class label printing on their website. I wouldn't recommend PayPal for very large orders (their interface is clunky), but it's usable in a pinch if you don't have time to sign up for a dedicated label service. This is how I shipped my approximately 50 posters to backers, and it went off without a hitch.

Platform and Payment Processing Fees

No matter which platform you use, you'll almost certainly run into fees. Generally, you'll be looking at a 5-10% loss if you fail to budget these into your shipping costs. Here's a brief overview of some common costs:
  • Kickstarter Fees: 5% platform and 3% + $0.20 per pledge payment processing fees
  • PledgeManager: 5% platform and 2.9% + $0.30 per pledge payment processing fees (Stripe default)
  • Backerkit: 3.5% platform and 2.9% + $0.30 per pledge payment processing fees (Stripe default)

Notably, to factor in these fees you should NOT multiply your shipping costs by the added fees (calculating it this way will lose you money). Instead, divide by 100 minus the total fee %. That way, when the fees are deducted you will zero out to the base shipping cost.

Packaging Materials Cost

Most distributors will factor materials cost into a flat handling cost, but when shipping pledges yourself it's best to calculate them separately. Packing could again be a whole blog post in its own right, so I'll just give a very brief overview here: Buy materials in bulk, err on the side of stiffness + safety (I prefer rigid mailers for zines), keep track of all your costs.

Handling Fees

These are most relevant when using a distributor ($2 seems about typical for handling from most outfits), but it's worth considering placing a value on your own labor if handling the shipping yourself. Researching shipping costs and methods, organizing backer reports, importing and printing labels, packing boxes, and delivering them to your post office is a massive time investment.

Personal note: I spent a full 2 days just packing and shipping out 50 poster tubes for my Kickstarter, and that was with the part-time help of family members. If we were calculating the value of that labor based on my local $15/hr minimum wage, that's over $500! Even if I was just counting my own labor, I'd need to charge a handling fee of nearly $5 per backer to appropriate compensate myself for my time. I didn't charge my backers any handling fee for that labor and wouldn't charge anything that high for future projects, but you should be doing calculations like this when thinking about your budget and pledge costs.

Distributor Transfer Fees

If you're working with distributors, an easy way to lose a big chunk of money is forgetting that you'll need to reimburse them for the cost of the shipping—doubling up on payment processing fees. If you use a service like PayPal or Stripe, that means losing another 3%. Ouch!

Particularly if you're dealing with large sums (I've collected about $8000 worth of shipping fees!), you should look into cheaper methods like a wire transfer or check. With my bank, I'm charged $30 per transfer to domestic banks—making that method nearly 10x cheaper than PayPal.

Wiggle Room

A certain portion of your packages (I've seen 3-5% quoted before, but it could be even higher in the Covid era) WILL be damaged or lost in transit to your backers. Many retailers and publishers offer free replacements for damaged packages (I have been), which means you're both paying for shipping and handling again out of pocket AND giving away product stock (you overprinted to account for replacements, right?).

Add onto this the possibility of fees from unexpected sources, sudden cost increases, erroneous quotes and any other number of very realistic misfortunes, 10% starts to feel like a conservative margin!

Decisions, Decisions

While including all these steps gives you a highly conservative and low-risk number, they don't each apply to all situations and projects. You might want to subsidize some of these costs for backers (I did in some cases, you're welcome Canadians) or bake them into the cost of your pledge instead. What you shouldn't do is handwave them away and hope for the best. Even if you plan to subsidize most of these costs, you should do the math and figure out what kind of losses you're really working with.

You might feel hesitant to pass these fees onto your backers, which is an instinct I understand. I certainly don't want to charge people more than I absolutely must and I recall the sharp sting of an unseemly shipping cost deterring me from a purchase. When making these decisions, never lose track of scale—a given fee might mean less than $1 to your individual backers, but hundreds or thousands of dollars to you.

Before leaving you, let's address a core ethical assumption to all of my advice here: We calculate these costs and fees with the goal of charging backers an amount accurate to the total shipping and handling cost and walking away with no losses or profits. If at the end of a project you find yourself unexpectedly profiting from shipping, you might consider adjusting your calculations lower for your next Kickstarter. Be fair and honest, including to yourself.

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.

I used a combination of international distributors for physical fulfillment to get regional shipping prices as low as possible: The Melsonian Arts Council for the UK, Monkey's Paw Games for Canada, and Exalted Funeral for the US and rest of the world. I did not charge shipping fees up front, instead opting to load all my backers into a pledge management service (via a company aptly named "PledgeManager", more on them later) and collected separate shipping fees shortly before fulfillment.

Some Pertinent Facts and Figures:

  • If I had charged backers my initial shipping estimates up front (posted to my campaign page), I would have lost about $1500. Slight cost increases across the board, unexpected fees, and UK to European shipping going to hell because of Brexit adds up over 1100 physical orders.
  • I made about $1000 through PledgeManager between ~50 pre-orders, sundry add-ons and pledge upgrades in the 4 months it was live.
  • With about 3 weeks lead up time to the first wave of fulfillment, I managed to collect shipping from about 87% of physical backers. As of writing, I'm gearing up for a third fulfillment wave with about 95% of total orders completed. The remaining 5% won't receive their zines until I can track them down to pay for shipping.

To Pledge Manager or Not To Pledge Manager

Deciding how to collect shipping fees from your backers is a major decision point for an RPG Kickstarter. Assuming you're crafting or ordering a print run for your Kickstarter (print on demand solutions like DriveThruRPG are not covered by this post), you have two main options:
  1. Collect shipping fees during your Kickstarter, either bundled into the cost of a pledge or as a separate shipping charge.
  2. Collect shipping fees after your Kickstarter, either via a pledge management service like Backerkit or your own/a partner's website.
The major factor in deciding between both options is time to fulfillment, and for that you need a realistic internal deadline. I could write a blog post on just this subject, so we'll stick to a shorthand: diligently calculate each step of your design and production process, add an extra month for wiggle room, then double the whole thing. If you've run a Kickstarter before and feel confident in your time management skills, you can get away with a 50% extension instead.

If your final number lands you past 3 months, it's time to strongly consider using a pledge manager. Anything beyond that puts you at increasing risk of postage cost increases, customs procedure changes, and general project setbacks that in turn further endanger you to all three. 

How can you expect to fulfill a Kickstarter project within 3 months? Realistically, it's only possible if you begin your campaign with a 100% completed PDF, successful proof printing, and you're just waiting to push the button for the final print run. This model might not be feasible for most, but the alternatives (paying for a pledge manager or eating shipping price variance) come with their own baggage.

Direct Kickstarter Fulfillment

Kickstarter includes a handful of limited tools to fulfill projects without involving exterior services. It’s the simplest and most immediate approach, but the least flexible and most susceptible to risk. Fulfilling with Kickstarter's tools looks something like this:
  1. Add shipping costs by country directly into each physical pledge tier and add-on. Be sure to accommodate for Kickstarter's cut, payment processing, handling and other fees (I'll get into this more later).
  2. Backers pay shipping by selecting their country via a dropdown menu when going to pledge. Note that shipping fees and add-ons collected through Kickstarter both contribute to your funding total (relevant for calculating stretch goals) AND are subject to Kickstater's store and payment processing fees.
  3. After your campaign ends, send out backer surveys via the Kickstarter backend to collect shipping addresses and any other information you need to fulfill your rewards. Note that you only get ONE survey per reward tier! If you forget to include a critical question in a survey down the line, you'll need to use 3rd party methods.
  4. Export your backer report and begin fulfillment yourself, or forward it and collected fees onto distributors for fulfillment (I'll also be discussing this more later). 


  • Simple and straightforward setup. No 3rd party programs to learn and agreements to make, painless cost calculations. The best option for those most concerned with accessibility or with limited time on their hands.
  • Easiest on the backer. They pay a one-time fee collected up front, then they get their books. This also means more straightforward customer service for you to manage. Backers who don't have to deal with the added hassle of a pledge manager may be more likely repeat customers.


  • High risk. Without avenues to collect additional shipping revenue, you're at the whims of shifting postage prices. The further out your fulfillment time, the greater the risk. I'd discourage you from using this method for campaigns with long term fulfillment plans (6+ months) and/or complicated (international) distribution deals.
  • Inflexible. Once your campaign ends, that's it: No pre-orders, no further add-ons, limited survey tools.

Pledge Manager Assisted Fulfillment

A look at the PledgeManager backend. Those "sales" are 90% shipping costs.

Pledge management services offer extensive organizational and payment collection tools at a financial and administrative cost. Here's an overview of the steps involved in using a service like PledgeManager or Backerkit:
  1. On your campaign page, prominently notify backers that and how you plan to collect shipping after the campaign. Post pricing estimates for all included regions that accurately reflect current, total shipping + handling costs.
  2. During your campaign, set up your pledge management page. Depending upon which service you use, this process might involve coordinating with a representative who sets a page up for you or your own organizational efforts. This process is similar in scope and complexity to Kickstarter campaign setup, so budget sufficient time.
  3. After your campaign ends, prep your backers to load into the pledge manager. Walk them through each step to avoid confusion.
  4. Optionally, launch your pledge manager shortly after your campaign ends to open pre-orders to non-backers.
  5. When you're nearly ready to begin fulfillment, begin collecting shipping through your pledge manager and optionally open add-ons.
  6. Export your backer report from the pledge manager and begin fulfillment yourself or with a distributor. Note that with this method, not all backers will have paid for shipping by the time you're ready to fulfill.
  7. Continue to track down straggler backers with reminders to pay for shipping, sending periodical waves of fulfillment as backers complete orders.


  • Low risk. Collecting shipping once you're completely ready for fulfillment means you avoid sudden postage cost and import policy changes.
  • Flexible. Pledge managers extend the life of your Kickstarter with pre-orders, post-campaign add-ons, and communication tools. They permit dramatic adjustments in fulfillment plans which would be catastrophic for Kickstarter-only fulfillment plans.


  • Increased administrative workload. All pledge manager services involve learning an entirely new backend with high setup time and effort.
  • Service fees. All pledge managers cost money, with exact fee schemes varying from service to service. Most include an upfront fee dependent upon your backer numbers or fundraising total, plus a flat cut on all sales (including shipping) made inside their service.
  • Increased customer service requirements and backer confusion. Like you, your customers will have to interface with two services instead of one. Confusion, possibilities for errors, and need for communication compounds. Expect to double your ongoing customer service load, which will last for months after you fulfill.

Pledge Management Options

My experiences with services outside of PledgeManager are quite limited, but I'll attempt to give a brief overview of the options out there.


  • Costs: $0.25 per backer loaded in (or $150 if under 600 backers), 5% + payment processing fees for charges inside the site (uses Stripe by default).
  • Summary: Low initial setup time and learning curve, high continued maintenance effort + restricted backend control. Good for those new to Kickstarter, worse for experienced project managers.
  • Owned and operated by the people at noted Kickstarter stats tracker website Kicktraq.
  • Rather than requiring you to set up your own page like most other services, a PledgeManager representative handles most of the setup for you. The tradeoff is, to make nearly any future change you'll need to go through your representative. They're generally responsive and helpful, but without direct access to much of the backend there's always some input lag on critical changes, risk of mistakes outside of your control, and increased long term time investment via constant emailing.


  • Costs: 2% of Kickstarter fundraising total, 3.5% + payment processing fees for charges inside the site (Stripe).
  • Summary: Moderate initial setup and learning curve, moderate continued maintenance with direct backend control. Relatively inexpensive (depending upon fundraising to shipping cost ratio, worse for expensive products with cheap shipping). Good for experienced project managers or those willing to learn an additional backend.
  • The most popular pledge management service. In addition to giving you confidence about their legitimacy, their name recognition means backers are less likely to be confused when they see BackerKit emails.
  • BackerKit offers marketing services (I know nothing about these, but they're there).
  • Note that BackerKit's pricing lowered significantly (from $200 and 2% funds raised and 5% + payment processing in-site) since I made my decisions on The Drain. I would have saved about $200 using them over PledgeManager with the new pricing scheme, versus losing $150 had I gone with BackerKit's old scheme.

Other Services

  • Crowd Ox (currently in the process of merging with BackerKit).
  • Gamefound (board game focused, also a crowdfunding site, free pledge manager load-in with 5% charge for fees in-site).
  • Gumroad (an ongoing storefront you can also use for fulfillment, more info via this great blog post by Technical Grimoire).

Some RPG projects are hopping to Gamefound

Personal Recommendations

For my future projects, I am likely to give BackerKit a shot over PledgeManager or any other service should I require a pledge manager. The significant cost savings, direct access to backend, and potential marketing services put it over the line for me. PledgeManager's low learning curve was a boon when I was still grappling with Kickstarter's ins and outs, but the constant need to go through my representative has worn on me.

I would recommend PledgeManager only for first time Kickstarter users who both need a pledge management service and prioritize accessibility above other concerns.

Further Adventures in Fulfillment Land

Thus concludes my first blog post on Kickstarter fulfillment. I originally intended to keep this topic to a single post, but you can see by the length of this one (1/3 the total) why I decided to break it up.

For the next post in this series, I'll be doing a deep dive on shipping cost calculation. Riveting stuff—but more complex and important than you'd think! For the last post, I'll be talking about distribution and distributors. I might dip my toes into the frigid waters of do-it-yourself shipping and stray into the unruly realms of post-Kickstarter retail, but no promises! Expect both of those posts out in August barring the usual catastrophes.

I'll link to all related posts right here once they're out! For now, consider poking around this blog for my other Kickstarter Blueprint posts, like this one on creating your campaign page and this one on posting those dreaded campaign updates.

As a personal aside, I apologize for leaving this blog neglected for so long. I've been deep, deep down inside a publishing/Kickstarter hole for quite a while and haven't had many chances to come up for air. I expect this niche topic to see little traction, but my sincere hope is that these posts alleviate the stress of an intrepid new publisher and helps guide them to success in some small way. They're also handy for me to reference months or years later when my brain has filled with entirely different junk.

P.S. It's almost Zine Quest development season again. Are you wading in? I can barely bring myself to consider it. The ghost of ZQ past says start preparing now, or regret it... forever!... ever... ever...

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 featuring many of our works that raised over $6000 (split between the participants)—strong initial proof of collective power within our community.

All content from the bundle—from 10 contributors!

In the lead-up to ZQ3, all 6 participating publishers put our heads together and devised plans for collective support. We shared technical support by reviewing each other's campaign pages before launch, swapping industry knowledge, and generally being present as sources of feedback and brainstorming. A community's strength comes in its accumulated experience, and members shared invaluable knowledge on marketing, logistics, Kickstarter backend, post-campaign pledge managers, and much more.

We heavily cross-promoted each other's campaigns: Sharing and boosting social media posts and posting promotional pieces on the other projects within our Kickstarter campaign updates. We assembled resources on where and when to market, and posted feedback on the success of our individual attempts. We also created a marketing reference document with copy and info on each project for Tuesday Knight Games to make supporting us easier on them: TKG frequently boosted our social media posts and sent out a newsletter on our projects to their many subscribers.

Some of us worked on each other's campaigns: Meredith Silver and Eric K. Hill from the 3rd party server contributed design work to Desert Moon of Karth and Dying Hard on Hardlight Station respectively as well as my own campaign for The Drain, while I did development work on Karth. There a ton of amazing talents within our community, and it's great to put money back into that pool when possible.

Our efforts paid off in a big way. Our six projects collectively raised over $110,000 (7% of total ZQ3 funding), each raising no less than $10,000. Even beyond the analytics indicating the success of our cross-promotional efforts, having a community's support and knowledge at hand gave us indispensable tools and confidence to do what we did.

With a strong foundation in collective support, we're branching out to greater and more ambitious heights. Expect to see at least two further major collaborations from the 3rd party Mothership community in 2021, and plenty more beyond.

Dissident Whispers

Dissident Whispers began with a Discord post and 50 follower twitter account posting an idea for a BLM-supporting charity project. It grew into a 140-page book from nearly 100 contributors based on sheer momentum and dedication. Taking nothing away from the significant logistical help from Tuesday Knight Games and industry professionals like Jarrett Crader, the bulk of the work and drive came from passionate amateurs and novices. After just 10 days of work, we made a book that's raised over $60,000 for the National Bail Fund Network to date.

The project was a fever dream of activity, but I can pick out instances from the maelstrom that reaffirm my admiration for its contributors: issues raised and immediately solved, heroic marathon design efforts, moments of camaraderie, thought-provoking discussion, and joy. Ideas and effort flowed like water. A piece of every contributor went not only into the book itself, but our process and organization. It worked because we willed it.

Dissident Whispers demands a much more thorough analysis than I can give it here, so I encourage you to visit the retrospectives from contributors I've linked below:

Building Your Own Communities

Now that you've heard some hopefully compelling proofs of concept, maybe you're excited to dig in and make something happen in your own community. Here's a few notes on where to start and general advice to get you on your way.

Community Structure

Communities are a self-sustaining force for economic and social support. A good RPG community hires each other to collaborate on individual projects, boosts each other's work, and operates as a shared knowledge pool for the betterment of everyone—particularly newer creators. If you have an RPG work related question, is there a place you can go and get satisfying answers from people you trust? If not, you might want to look into starting a focused community of your own.

Starting Communities

When creating a new community, consider the group's subject and composition. Rally members around a particular game system, genre, or other hobby or social niche. Here are some questions to help solidify the concept of your community:
  • Where does your community live? Maybe it's staged in a closed Discord server, or lives freely as a Twitter hashtag.
  • Is your community private or public? In my experience, effective communities are private, small, and tightly focused. Public Discord servers can loosely function as communities, but they tend to be diffuse of purpose and less safe for discussion than vetted spaces.
  • How will you recruit? What are the entry requirements, if any? The larger a private community gets, the more it will benefit from explicit membership rules.
  • What is your community philosophy? Are you a work collective, activist group, artistic movement, or something else? What are your long term goals? Is this also a place for people to hang out, or are you laser focused on the work? Write a mission statement and put it somewhere for all members to see.

Sustaining Communities

You've invited some friends and associates to a Discord server and voila, you have a community. Great! Now what? Start thinking about activities to energize and develop your community. Here are a few examples you could try out:
  • Launch a group project like a zine (detailed in the next section).
  • Organize a fundraising event like a bundle or time-coordinated sale of community members' works.
  • Host community workshops and brainstorming sessions. Ask for feedback on your own personal projects to break the ice.
  • Organize marketing campaigns for each other's work. Schedule a flurry of releases to hit physical webstores together, or work around each other's release schedules to space things apart. Find ways to leverage your collective power.

Group Projects

Pitching a group project is an excellent way to jumpstart your community. Working intensively together towards a common goal builds trust and camaraderie and establishes potential for future projects. The trick here is that now you have to run a group project, adopting the responsibility and effort that entails. Here's a brief rundown on some areas to look out for when starting a group project:

The Troika community has cornered the jam market

What is your project? If you're establishing an RPG community, there's great precedent for zine anthologies. Game jams on are another excellent option if you want a more open, accessible, and decentralized project.

Are you paying contributors? If unpaid, are you giving away the work for free or selling it to raise money for charity? Each approach to centralized projects has its own pitfalls and advantages. Paid works establish your community as a productive workspace, while charity projects lend themselves to activist spaces. Unpaid, non-charitable projects can be a low-risk way to give your community a purpose, but is in my opinion the least useful and desirable of the three.

How do you plan to run the project? Is it all on you, or are you interested in a more flat hierarchy? Determine early and be transparent about how you plan to distribute project responsibility.

Where do you plan to run the project? If using Discord, consider how to effectively organize a work server. Supplement your main staging area with tools like Trello, Google Drive and Docs, and more. Create a comprehensive FAQ to inform all contributors about project details.

What is your scale, scope, and focus? If making a zine or anthology, you'll want to know estimated page counts, word limits, content requirements, aesthetic goals, etc.

Can you commit to your project? Possibly the most important aspect of running a group project is a willingness to put in the time and effort. Projects stall out and fail unless moved along at a rapid pace.


"Community" has become somewhat of a loaded term, co-opted by corporations and marketers. I've seen people resist the idea that the "RPG community" at large has productive meaning, which I agree with to some extent. Even so, it doesn't need to be a dirty word. Community should be an aspiration, associated with tangible good for its members and the wider hobby. Everyone deserves to access a meaningful community and benefit from its collective action.

I challenge readers to take a critical look at how you participate in the hobby, as a designer or consumer. "Community" is as much a state of mind and personal mission as it is a social construct. Do you do good? Do you operate in constructive spaces? Have you made meaningful relationships? If you feel shaky on these questions, maybe you haven't found your community yet.

You could create the next Dissident Whispers, so why not make it happen?

Postcards From Cable Street

Speaking of the next Dissident Whispers, Postcards From Cable Street is a brand new charity zine raising funds for British anti-fascist charities Hope Not Hate and Football Lads & Lasses Against Fascism. It hosts a tantalizing slew of articles, games, adventures, and more contributed by folks like myself, Luke Gearing, Jarrett Crader, and many other excellent people. Its punk zine aesthetic looks damn cool too.

You can and should buy it right now from these links:

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.

From the boneboxchant blog: Most backed zines from ZQ3

If you'd like even more context, check out this post from last month on my experiences in my first year trying to make it as an RPG designer.

How Much Money Did I Really Make?

What most of you probably want to know is:
How much will I as author and publisher get to keep of the $15k funding total?

I spent two months working part time to write and develop my zine, I spent another two months working full time to prepare and run the Kickstarter, and I'll spend the next several months managing my project and creating stretch goal content to fulfillment. Adding that all up and estimating future efforts, we'll probably end up with about 5 total months of full time RPG work. If I got to keep the full $15k, that might be pretty solid compensation. But I don't. Here's a rough look at my total costs:

Campaign Costs

  • Art Commissions: $2000
  • Printing (& print run shipping): $2000
  • Kickstarter cut + payment processing fees: $1500
  • Design, Editing, & Writing Commissions: $1000
  • Campaign Page & Video Production + Sound Design: $1000
  • Credit Card Errors: $400*
  • PledgeManager: $350
*I expect to be able to resolve some of these dropped backers through my pledge manager, but for now I'm chalking them up as a loss.


Funding: $15,510
Costs: $8250
Profit: $7250

Hidden Costs

Certain uncertain and potentially costly factors have yet to play out—namely shipping. Though I've done everything possible to mitigate shipping issues (working with multiple international distributors, waiting till fulfillment to collect shipping), there could still be some variance between what I collect and what I actually pay for shipping. There's also bound to be some number of lost packages given the current state of things, and shipping out replacements will come out of my pocket.

I really have no stats from which to estimate unforeseen shipping costs, but let's budget a clean and arbitrary $1000. 

Revised Totals

Funding: $15,510
Costs: $9250
Profit: $6250

Future Sales

Kickstarter is just the beginning for The Drain. I plan to continue selling it and associated products funded through the Kickstarter through all available avenues, and use it to build sustainable passive income.

The Drain is currently live for pre-orders and add-ons on PledgeManager. I bungled the pledge manager launch slightly by waiting to add a potentially popular add-on until most backers had already checked out, but I've still turned a modest profit there. Between about a couple dozen pre-orders and a handful of add-ons, I've netted myself an additional $500 profit from PledgeManager so far. By the time I close the PledgeManager after fulfilling in June, let's estimate that number will be about doubled ($1000).

After my campaign ended, I quickly reached out to retailers for wholesale orders so I could start estimating my total print run size. Tuesday Knight Games is taking the largest share for the official Mothership web store, and between all interested retailers I have around 400 retail copies lined up. I plan to increase my zine's cost from the $10 Kickstarter price to $12 retail ($6 wholesale). That's another $2400 in almost pure profit coming my way (with offset printing, additional printing costs to cover retail are marginal).

After backers have their copies, I intend to list The Drain on my DriveThruRPG and store pages for digital sale. It's difficult to gauge just how well it'll do there as my other offerings vary wildly in sales numbers, so let's err on the conservative side. 200 digital sales at $5 each (around $3.50 after store cuts) is another $700.

Though my stretch goals are costing me thousands of dollars and great effort to produce, they're far from a total loss. Their affect on my Kickstarter's success aside, some of the goals represent entire products I'll be able to sell separately once produced—notably two pamphlet adventures. Through digital sales, the pamphlets will contribute to my long term passive income. I may even end up printing some for pledge manager add-ons and retail sales if the timing and logistics work out. $300 per pamphlet is a reasonable estimate if we assume 50/50 odds of their eventually seeing a print run (less if not, more if so).

Post-Campaign Totals

PledgeManager add-ons and pre-orders: $1000
Retailer wholesales: $2400
Digital sales: $700
Stretch goal content sales: $600
Total: $4700

Grand total estimated 2021 profits: ~$11,000

All this starts to add up, and we're only talking about sales from this year. I hope to restock retailers with secondary print runs and beyond, and I expect to see a long tail on digital sales as my back catalogue and Mothership's popularity grows. I can't expect to live on this zine alone, but it's a very reasonable start for about half a year's work.

Hot Statistics

Project Followers

Gaining and converting project followers is key to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Followers receive emails when your campaign first launches, when it hits 48 hours remaining, and sometimes also 8 hours remaining (though I'm not sure what triggers that bonus email).
  • Immediately before launch, I had a little over 400 followers.
  • My follower conversion rate a few hours after launch hit 30%.
  • I grew my follower count to 1,100 by the final few days of my campaign.
  • Going into 48-hours remaining, I still had 30% conversion. 
  • By the end of the campaign, I had 47% follower conversion.
The follower count decreased slightly post-campaign

Backers by Region

By partnering with multiple international distributors, I reduced international shipping costs by over half for Canada, the UK, and EU. This had a notable effect on the quantity of international physical backers—I've heard 10-20% non-US as a typical rate.
  • Total Backers: 1402
  • Total Physical Backers: 1104
    • US: 832
    • Europe: 97
    • UK: 90
    • Canada: 47
    • International: 38
  • Non-US backers comprised 25% of all physical backers

Marketing Finds

I didn't start using custom referral links to track my marketing efforts until well into my campaign, so I missed out on a lot of critical data about my earliest and most impactful strategies. Still, there's a ton we can glean from perusing the respectable (mine has 79 different entries) referral list provided by Kickstarter on my creator dashboard.
  • The vast majority of pledges come from internal Kickstarter referrers: Kickstarter emails, site discovery and browsing, etc. 65% of my funding total came from Kickstarter.
  • Most of the externally referred backers have no associated referral data (this amorphous blob of cash is the single largest funding source for me at 17%).
  • Kickstarter's reminder emails are all-important. The "email" entry that I think is the launch notification message netted me 95 backers. The last chance reminder email that goes out at 48 hours gained me another 69.
  • Marketing works. The associated efforts of my marketing made a significant impact on my funding total. Even ignoring the huge impact of marketing to build followers, direct referrals from my marketing posts make up over 10% of my funding total. Probably a good chunk of the 17% no-data external backers came from these sources as well. Here's a more granular breakdown:
    • Reddit: 62 backers
    • Twitter: 56 backers
    • Facebook: 11 backers
    • My own blog: 7 backers
    • RPG forums: 4 backers
    • My page: 3 backers
    • A second reminder email to my DTRPG customers: 3 backers (don't do this)
    • Day-1 announcement emails to my DTRPG and Itch customers: Unknown (no referral links)
  • Promotion from other sources can also make a significant difference:
Bonus stat! Does anyone know if 34% plays completed is good?

Estimating My Work

Let's take a rough look at the total effort I put into this campaign:

RPG Writing

  • Zine: 4000 words
  • Stretch goal content: ~2000 words
  • Custom content for backers: ~4000 words

Copy Writing

  • Main campaign page: 1200 words
  • 12 campaign updates: 6000 words
  • Sundry tweets, reddit, and other social media posts: ~3000 words

Project Management

I spent the last 2 months doing little else but prepping my campaign and sorting project logistics. Countless hours went into learning how to run a Kickstarter for the first time, figuring out how pledge managers work, researching international tax law (curse you, Brexit), talking to distributors, coordinating collaborators, and much, much more.
  • Project management work to date: 240 hours
  • Future project management work: ~240 hours


  • 10,000 words RPG design
  • 10,000 words marketing copy
  • 480 hours project management work

At 10 cents/word (the RPG writing standard) and $15/hr (minimum wage where I live), we hit $9200. If my earlier $11,000 total profit estimate is correct, I will have successfully paid myself marginally more than minimum rates and wage.

Zine Quest Advice

Participating in Zine Quest

If I had a penny for everyone I saw asking how to join Zine Quest, I'd be rich. Kickstarter posts diminishingly informative pages on the event each year, and this year they entirely neglected to inform creators how to participate. If you don't know, Zine Quest is really just the "Zine Quest" search tag they apply to participating campaigns—allowing Kickstarter users to see all participating projects. Some campaigns receive the tag automatically after submitting their page to Kickstarter for approval, and the rest of us had to reach out to Kickstarter's game division email to get it.

Beyond that, Zine Quest is a loose series of suggestions for how to make an appropriately zine-y zine. Despite some (to put it nicely) zine format sticklers raising a stink about projects breaking Kickstarter's "rules", to my knowledge not a single zine was forbidden from the event based on format.

I plan to organize with other indie creators to get the word out about Zine Quest participation and rules for next year to help alleviate first time creator confusion and anxiety. I've also talked to some other creators about staging a non-Kickstarter crowdfunding event on with the aim of opening up new viable avenues for indie RPG funding. I expect 2021 and 2022 to see more community organization and empowerment when it comes to indie RPG crowdfunding.

Start Planning Now

Do you know what you're doing for Zine Quest 4? You should. Coming to the table with your project 90% done is enormously beneficial: You have more art and content to show off on your page, your short fulfilment estimate earns backer trust, and you give yourself fewer opportunities for things to go wrong under the watchful eye of your backers. 

If you experience a delay or setback when quietly working on the project pre-KS, no one knows or cares. You can always adjust your own timelines and set your own pace. But once you launch that Kickstarter, you're on the clock and beholden to your backers' ire. Long term customer goodwill is enormously important if you want to continue working in RPGs. Backers have some tolerance for delayed projects (within limits) if given honest communication, but the longer your estimated turnaround the greater risk of becoming a Kickstarter horror story.

Note that this practice isn't economically viable for everyone. If you can't afford to work in advance and need an upfront payday, don't skip Kickstarter altogether. With economical use of time spent marketing, you can still run a very successful campaign.

Apply for Kickstarter Approval Early, But Not Too Early

Kickstarter suggests you budget a few weeks to go through their financial verification and project approval process. Add at least an extra couple weeks if you can—their approval process can be as quick as a single day or leave you hanging for weeks. You want to leave yourself plenty of leadup to your campaign so you can start marketing your pre-launch page and accumulating followers. 

You can apply for approval as soon as your campaign page has all essential information and pretty it up with art and graphics later, but I suggest you not do that. When you submit your project for approval, you want it as appealing and professional as you can make it to give yourself a shot at Kickstarter's "Project We Love" badge.

Include a Writing Sample 

Particularly if you're a brand new or lesser known creator, demonstrating your writing and design chops is a great way to win backer confidence. During my Kickstarter, I made my best selling Mothership adventure Moonbase Blues free and included a link to its page in my campaign. I can't say exactly what impact doing so had on the campaign as the data is a little nebulous, but my Itch traffic shot up massively. At the very least, it boosted the sales of my other RPG content and netted me a ton of new Itch followers. Moonbase saw thousands of downloads during the campaign, and its sales numbers have returned to normal now that it's back to $2. Some campaigns (particularly new systems) put out ashcan or sample versions of their zines as well.

Consider using a pledge manager. I could and might in fact write an entire blog post on pledge managers, but I'll just give you the highlights here. Pledge managers (most famously Backerkit) load your backers into a 3rd party website where you can sell them add-ons, take pre-orders, collect shipping costs, and generally manage your project to completion. I sought out a pledge manager after hearing nightmare stories about fluctuation shipping prices and huge Kickstarter losses from sudden spikes. 

I went with a company called PledgeManager (who also run the KS stats site "Kicktraq") and I've been very happy with the decision. I've sold about $500 worth of add-ons and pre-orders after a couple weeks and I can rest easy knowing I'll collect accurate shipping costs at the time of fulfillment. PledgeManager does cost money—they take a flat rate for each backer loaded in and they take a cut of all sales there (about the same as Kickstarter's), but it's very worth it to me. The company I went with built out a custom page for my campaign and have been extremely helpful getting me up to speed.

Expect Cancelled Pledges and Dropped Backers

If you track backer activity on your project page, you'll see a number of ugly red notifications telling you a backer cancelled their pledge or adjusted to a lower tier. All told, I had over 50 reduced pledges and cancellations on my campaign. My advice: don't look at the backer activity during your campaign. You don't need the added stress.

Some number of backers will have payment processing issues after your campaign concludes and Kickstarter goes to charge them. Immediately after my campaign ended, about 3% of my backers had payment errors. When you see this, don't panic. Kickstarter will keep trying to charge your backers and most errors should resolve themselves. After the two week payment collection period, my number of dropped backers reduced from 40 to 6.

Learn from My Mistakes

I'm proud of how much I managed to get right for my first Kickstarter, but a whole slew of things fell through the cracks. Learn from my failures.

Use Referral Links! 

Once you've launched your campaign, you can create custom referral links that track pledges from that link. With this tool, you can track the success of each marketing effort and strategy. Post to reddit? Referral link. Go on a podcast? Referral link for their show notes. I fucked this up and didn't start using them till the last third of my campaign. Don't be like me. If you intend to use Kickstarter in the future, use unique referral links for every single marketing source from the very beginning. Next time, you'll know which sites to skip and where to focus your efforts. Seriously—use referral links.

Plan your Stretch Goals for success. I thought I'd carefully planned out my stretch goals, then my campaign blew past my first two goals day 1. Afterwards I scrambled to keep up, underpriced the cost for new goals, and perpetually scrounged for new ideas. Don't do this. You want your stretch goals (if you're doing any), to boost your dreaded mid-campaign slump. If you hit a bunch of goals in the first few days, you're drowning new and exciting announcements in your already feverous launch buzz. Backers can only absorb so much information, so space things out and give them time to digest. Wait a day or two to announce a new goal. Save your sexiest announcements for halfway through your campaign.

Give Your Backers Something to Spend $20-$40 On!

I made a pretty significant error only offering pledges at the very low $10 price for a zine and very high $80 for a customized poster. Despite netting a huge number of backers, I saw much lower total funding than many other campaigns. You want to offer something in that ~$30 premium-but-not-absurd price range if possible.

Don't Kickstart Small Books!* 

*If you're trying to make money.

Kickstarter is a huge amount of effort. If you haven't run one, raise your expectations on the work involved then double it. The massive logistical, marketing, customer support, and misc. non-creative work involved remains nearly constant whether you're funding a $10, 16-page zine like me or a $50, 200-page hardback. The worth-it-ness of running a Kickstarter tails off when applying that constant block of effort to smaller and cheaper projects. I'm glad I ran this Kickstarter as it's helped me get my name out there a bit more, but in the future I might look to direct-to-retail options for projects of this size and reserve Kickstarter for larger game.

Link Your Social Media Pages!

Don't be afraid to post your account of choice on your campaign page or ask your backers to help spread the word. Kickstarter is a great opportunity to gain long term supporters via social media. Even neglecting to link my twitter on my campaign page, my follower counts there jumped by hundreds. In your very first update (the one where you thank your backers for funding you in 12 minutes), link all your socials and ask for help promoting the campaign. It can't hurt, and it very well might help.

[Probably] Use a "Funded in 15 Picoseconds" Banner!

I agonizingly debated with myself and friends about this before my campaign. I didn't end up using one, but I regret that decision. I've seen a lot of conflicting advice and no useful data, but every damn successful campaign includes one so you might as well too. I've heard it annoys Kickstarter but who cares. If these bother you (I don't particularly like them myself), I'm sorry. The war is lost.

This is what I mean

Make Your Campaign Page Accessible! 

On RPG twitter I noticed a few people calling out campaigns that included important info as images rather than text. I am regretfully an offender in that regard. Next campaign, I intend to include plain text versions of my fancy graphics (possibly in a separate google doc linked on the page) for those relying on screen readers or similar. You should too.

The Valley of Uncertainty

I've noted a few things that I'm not confident enough to posit as advice, but you might want to think about as you plan your Zine Quest 4 project.


You should do them, probably. I've heard some terms like "sole proprietorship" and "LCC" thrown around. I'm in the process of figuring these things out for myself, but I am as yet not an expert so will stop at advising you to do your own research.

Kickstarter Perks?

No one asked me about it and it didn't seem to be a big deal for the other ZQ campaigns, but there's some assumption that backing a project on Kickstarter gets you something A: cheaper / B: earlier / C: exclusive / D: some or all of the above. I plan to get backers their copies before anyone else, I'm going to raise prices for retail, and I have some KS-exclusive content. I didn't make that very explicit in my campaign, but I thought about doing so. I ended up thinking it might feel a little crass, but there's probably a way to do that tactfully? Maybe you can figure it out.

Retailer Tiers?

I've heard a variety of advice on this point. Some campaigns see 0 retailer action, other campaigns sell out quickly. I personally decided against it because I was already working with a few retailers for distrobution—but in forgoing the tier I may have missed out on business from other stores. You have a fair bit to gain from including one, and only slightly complicating your pledge tier scheme as a drawback. I know Exalted Funeral went on a big retailer-tier buying spree this ZQ. It seems like an OK thing to do? Probably?

Adding Pledge Tiers After Launch?

Say you're like me and realized you messed up by not offering a mid-price pledge tier, or you have a sweet idea for a t-shirt that you're just dying to put up. Should you add a new tier a week into the campaign, or ride it out with your initial offerings and decisions? I don't know and I suspect the answer might haunt me.

Social Media Stretch Goals?

I've seen these on million dollar board and video game Kickstarters but never on smaller indie RPG ones. These are the things where hitting certain follower or retweet counts instead of $ earns new content. Could this work for smaller Kickstarters? Is it too gauche? No clue.

The Human Cost

Friends valiantly attempting to save me from myself

Much has been said about the strategy, logistics, and numbers around running Kickstarters, but those paint only a small picture of what's involved. What you don't see is the stress. Behind every Zine Quest success hides gallons of blood, sweat, and tears.

A Kickstarter campaign consumes your life. Updates, marketing, questions, stats, an endless sea of unforeseen problems and tasks. You open a customer support business for all your backers, on the hook for their issues and concerns 24/7. And you're producing your project on top of it all. You adopt a completely different mindset in "Kickstarter mode"—become a different person. Weeks later, I'm still recovering from the shift in lifestyle.

Then there's the pressure. The numbers and goalposts always shifting, the dropped pledges, the other campaigns. Even if logically you don't see the other ZQ projects as competition and you wish everyone the best as I do, you can't help but compare. There's always something you could have done better, always another project one step ahead. I blew past even my longest shot goals with my project in a few days, and by the end of the campaign the accumulated pressure made it feel a hollow victory.

Prepare for post-campaign depression. Coming down from that adrenaline high and sustained stress load will hit you like a truck. As Sean McCoy once said to me, the daily dopamine rush from watching those Kickstarters numbers climb feels like gambling. And then when your project ends, it's like leaving a casino after spinning slots for a month. If this is your first time running a major project, the sudden crash in mood might catch you off guard. 

After your campaign, deadlines loom and the work continues. Your Kickstarter might drop out of the driver's seat of your life, but it hops into the back and watches you. Always. Until you fulfill, anyway.

Surviving the Kick

Sound scary? It should. I strongly advise anyone considering trying out Zine Quest next year to factor the stress cost into their lives and budget. Assign an actual dollar amount to the stress and add it to your printing costs and commissions.

The single best thing you can do to alleviate Kickstarter stress is to work with a partner. Someone to share the work and responsibility, write an update or two, let you take a day off here and there. I aim to never do another Kickstarter totally alone if I can avoid it.

Another tip which I didn't follow: Take time off after your campaign. After you get everything settled and backers know what to expect next, just relax for a week or two and don't think about the Kickstarter at all. Lingering adrenaline might trick your brain into thinking you're fired up and ready to dive into your project, but it's lying to you. Continuing the grind will only make the post-campaign depression hit harder and tax your physical health more. Break out of the Kickstarter cage and let yourself be a person again. You will thank yourself.

Finally, this might sound trite, but take each misstep as a learning experience. You will fuck up, you will lie awake at night realizing that thing you should have done two weeks ago, but don't worry about any of that. Future you won't make those mistakes (particularly if you write them down). Each screwup is an investment in your industry knowledge. 


If you came to this post looking for answers about whether you should hop into Zine Quest next year, the best answer I can give you is "maybe". The key to winning Kickstarter is playing the game on your own terms. Can you stomach the stress of pushing your campaign to the limit and revolving your entire life around your project? By all means, shoot for the stars. Do you just want to fund a personal project without all the hubbub? Put out a simple, low maintenance campaign and be pleasantly surprised at the love that comes your way.

I can't wait to read other people's stories and dig into stat breakdowns from Zine Quest 3. If you ran a project this year, please share what you learned in articles like this one! The more info we get out into the world, the better we can empower people to participate successfully in the future.

There's a lot more I wanted to say here, but this post is already long enough to fill its own book. Keep an eye out for future posts from me focusing on marketing strategy and collective action in RPG communities. For further reading on Kickstarter management, check out these posts I wrote for ZQ3 on writing up your campaign page and posting updates:

If you're interested in my project discussed in this post, the pre-order page is live here:

Till next time, and thanks for reading. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

A Year in RPG Self Publishing: Year 1

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? 

This article about my first year giving it a shot might provide some answers. I will break down how I spent my year, what I published, things I learned, and get into concrete financial realities.

I started 2020 with 0 published works and no following, and I'm kicking 2021 off with an RPG Kickstarter on the brink of crossing 5 figures. With this post I seek to chronicle what happened in between.

That's me!

Last year I worked on RPGs part time for most of the year, then closer to full time at the very end as I was gearing up for a Zine Quest project on Kickstarter. I self-published 6 small projects on my own, most of them for the popular (in the indie world) sci-fi horror RPG Mothership. I also did a spattering of contract work, including writing and editing, and I participated in a couple RPG community charity projects.

I'll first dive into the financial breakdowns and juicy takeaways, then go through my entire year month by month, highlighting my publications and other major events. If you're interested in the human element of RPG design, you might benefit from reading my monthly reports first then diving into the takeaways at the top. If you just want some useful advice and data and don't have time for all that, then read on.

Financial Realities

These numbers are pretty rough as I wasn't keeping close track, but I spent around 10 hours/week in the first 1/3 of the year on RPG work, going up to 15-20 hours towards the middle and then around 30 hours in the final few months. Averaged out, it approximated the work of a part-time job with flexible hours that you never really clock out from.

So how much money did I make? Between 6 separate published products and contract work, I made about $5000 gross in 2020 from RPGs. Here's an approximate breakdown of where that money came from:

2020 RPG Income
Digital Sales: $2750
Physical Sales: $1500
Commissions: $750
Total: $5000

$5000 sounds not too terrible for a mostly-hobby turned part-time job, but keep in mind that's gross. Costs, fees, and commissions ate into a huge chunk of that:

2020 RPG Costs
Commissions: $1500
Royalties: $1000
Storefront Fees: $750*
Printing Costs: $500
Total: $3750

*DriveThruRPG takes a massive 35% cut of all my sales there.

Spreadsheets are everything


So what do we have left? About $1250 in net profit that I get to keep. If my 20hrs/week average time spent working on RPGs is accurate, I made a little over $1/hr making RPGs this year. Pretty dismal.

However, there are some mitigating factors here. As you'll see if you read the following monthly breakdowns, I didn't really get started trying to make money from RPG stuff until April. Then, I dedicated a huge chunk of my summer to coordinating and contributing to charity projects (all donated work, but I'm still counting that towards the hourly totals). Finally, a sizable portion of my commission costs from this year went towards funding a project that's seeing a 2021 payout.

If we factor all that in, I really only worked on paying RPG projects around 8 months of 2020. Removing costs from last year I'll be reimbursed for this year, I really made closer to $2500. Without factoring in the many work hours I put in last year for unreleased 2021 projects, that puts us closer to $4/hr. Still unimpressive, but much better.

If we adjust our window of "1 year" from February 2020 to February 2021 and factor my Kickstarter into these numbers, we get yet a different picture. We'd add another month working at least full 40 hour weeks but we'd also gain the fruits of months of 2020 work as profits. Where do we stand now? With an additional full-time month, we're up to an 870 hour work year. My exact margins are a little hazy given I still have funding left to go and some fees are a little uncertain, but let's add a clean $5000 profit to last year's $1250 total. That puts us over $7/hour. Again a ways off what I'd need to support myself independently, but we're at least getting into minimum wage territory.

Hidden Value

Some other things to consider (or depending how you look at it, rationalizations):

This was my first year trying to self-publish anything, let alone RPGs. A huge portion of my time was dedicated to learning new skills and establishing good practices. I worked slowly and inefficiently, but that will improve with time.

The things I made this year will continue to sell slowly, but indefinitely. Building a passive income is a huge advantage to self-publishing, and that income will continue to grow the longer I work at things.

February's income on DTRPG so far

I started last year a nobody, with no reputation and no following. I ended 2020 still far from being an indie darling or minor celebrity, but I've grown my social media presence many times larger, my blog now sees thousands of views/month, I have an and DriveThruRPG consumer base hundreds-strong, and I've gained dozens of invaluable industry contacts and friends. 

Does it sound a little like I paid myself in exposure? Maybe, but all those things do translate to future income in a very tangible way. My currently running RPG Kickstarter The Drain has reaped the modest reputation I sowed in 2020: it's now sitting at the #3 most backed project in a field well over 100.

Lessons Learned

A Long Road

RPG self-publishing is a long game. Don't expect to show up on the scene and immediately carve out a livable income with your first publication. Building a sustainable income in RPGs takes time, luck, and a willingness to wrestle with the dark financial/logistical/marketing side of things. There's a good reason the vast majority of game designers—even some of the ones you've heard of—keep a day job. All that said, there is a real possibility of carving out a livable niche if you work hard at it.

Another's Wagon

Attaching yourself to a popular indie RPG system and focusing on making content for that game alone is a great way to establish yourself as a brand new creator. Mothership, Troika, Trophy, and Mörk Borg for example are all seeing fantastic 3rd party support from independent creators thanks in no small part to the eager, growing communities and fans each game has. What this doesn't mean is go churn out content for the most popular game you can find. You should genuinely enjoy and regularly play games you write content for, otherwise you'll be miserable and your work will suffer.

A whole lotta Mothership out there

Finding a Home

Making friends with RPG creators and being active in RPG communities is all-important. All of the jobs I did took year came from friends or contacts, or involved me commissioning friends and contacts from communities I engage with. Find people who know what they're doing and let them help and mentor you. Once you've got your footing, turn back around and start mentoring others.

Building Your Community

Think collectively. Share knowledge, break down barriers of accessibility, and uplift your community. These might sound like lofty but intangible ideals, but they can have a very real positive impact on your livelihood. One of the most successful endeavors I accomplished last year came from collective action via a group promotional bundle. Even beyond specific group projects, the work you put into your community will get back to you in one way or another. Someone you hire today is someone who can hire you tomorrow. We as indie creators are stronger together.

Timing Matters

Pay attention to when you make announcements and release products. Announcing your cool new RPG late at night, on the weekend, and/or during a holiday is a surefire way to kill your product before it has a chance to live. I released an adventure in the middle of the 2020 US presidential election when the world was at the edge of their seats, and that was a dumb choice. If you live outside the US, time your announcements and releases for US mornings anyway. That's where the consumers are and that's where the money is. Mondays through Thursdays at around 8-10 AM US Eastern time is the sweet spot.

2020 in Self-Publishing


At the beginning of 2020 I was a complete RPG nobody with a few friends in indie RPGs. I had a small and very neglected RPG blog with a few hundred views accumulated over two years.

I had recently been getting into this hot new RPG called Mothership, and I was having a blast hanging out on its bustling Discord server. I posted a little about games I'd been running, ideas I had. Then one day my very dear friend Fiona Geist came to me with a job: Take a session I'd been posting about and turn it into a pamphlet adventure, to be published first party for Mothership.

I was humbled and honored by the opportunity, and got to work as soon as I could. I am deeply indebted to friends like Fiona and others for giving me a start and pushes along the way, as you will see.

The adventure I wrote is as yet unreleased pending a fun announcement (along with a couple others I wrote for Tuesday Knight Games since then), but it got me going with the confidence I needed to try and make my own things.


Having caught the creative bug, I started blogging Mothership content for fun. I missed the boat on RPG blogging's golden years of the 2010s, but as it turns out there's still room for new bloggers.

With Mothership content, instead of seeing views in the dozens I started getting readers in the hundreds and thousands. My first Mothership post in late February, "XX-Class Ports: The Station from Hell" current sits over 2000 views (most of them from a popular post on reddit).

I continued blogging throughout the year, publishing around 2 posts per month (19 in total, mostly Mothership related). Note the dip in views around June in the stats below, you'll hear about the culprit later.

I currently have over 25,000 views on my blog. I don't know how that compares to others and I'm sure it's not up there with the big guns, but it's a number I feel pretty good about. I've since included some links on my blog to my published works, but mostly I use the blog to stay active in the RPG community and have fun playing with ideas. Recently I've been trying to write more stuff like this, to try and peel the lid back and show others how self-publishing works.


In March I continued blogging. One post I wrote—a lightly sketched-out, open-ended adventure for Mothership called Moonbase Blues—earned me a curious message from a reader. Someone liked it so much, they actually reformatted the whole thing into a pretty layout! I was flabbergasted and touched by the effort. I got to talking with that someone (Warren Denning) and we decided to take the effort a step further by polishing it up and selling it as a pamphlet adventure.

If you'd like to read more about that first self-publishing effort, check out my blog post on the subject here.


We published Moonbase Blues about a month later, to (for me) staggering success. We hit #1 on DriveThruRPG's best sellers under $5 list on their front page in the first day, and held a visible position there for weeks. I expected we'd sell maybe 50-100 copies total, but in a month we'd sold nearly 300. I had my first taste of self publishing and it felt good. The first inklings that this might become more serious than a little extra pocket change from a hobby started creeping into my head.

To date, Moonbase Blues has sold almost 700 copies (not including the December bundle). Its success was a matter of luck (not a lot of competition on DTRPG's front page that release day), timing (it was one of the first 3rd party Mothership adventures released), and hard work from Warren and me. Its sales are (or I should say were—it's currently free to promote my Kickstarter) still going relatively strong, netting about 20 purchases/month.


May was a month of hard work behind the scenes, but no publications. I posted my most successful blog post to date (the aforementioned one about publishing Moonbase Blues), I whipped up another short (not yet published) adventure for Tuesday Knight Games, and I began tentative work on what is now The Drain—the zine I'm currently Kickstarting.

Throughout all this, I'd been receiving a massive amount of support and advice from Tuesday Knight Games co-founder and Mothership creator Sean McCoy. I cannot say enough about how much Sean has helped me get to where I am, and position me for where I might go. I could not ask for a better mentor or friend.

Through Sean and other close friends in the industry like Fiona, Jarrett Crader, and Christian Kessler, I started learning the tricks of the trade. I picked up editing skills, learned how to commission artists and designers, and started putting together a knowledge and support base for publication logistics.


The month of Dissident Whispers. This project was probably the most important thing I've done in my whole life. It made me a better person, it taught me more skills in a shorter time than I have ever learned, and it connected me with a fantastic group of new faces—some of which became my closest friends. Most importantly, it got a lot of people out of jail.

In early June I was browsing RPG Twitter when I came across a new account with a handful of followers proposing some sort of collaborative RPG project to support the Black Lives Matter protests that were spreading throughout the US. I poked my head into the project's discord server and started chatting about how this might work. I quickly found myself taking an active role in the project's management, and tried to push for speedy organization. I helped block out timelines and organize workflows, and I asked Sean McCoy on board for advice which later turned into full-blown publishing support by his company Tuesday Knight Games.

I could write 10 massive blog posts on Dissident Whispers, but suffice it to say the project was miraculous to participate in. After only 10 days of work from 100 participants, we had a 140 page book published. Then we raised $50,000 for US bail funds in a matter of days.

How does Dissident Whispers fit into this story? I learned a LOT about managing a large project, coordinating all types of contributors (artists, editors, writers, oh my), setting and holding deadlines, publishing, finances, everything. It was a crash course in RPG publication better than any professional seminar. That information, experience, and confidence has proved invaluable as I continue to take RPG publishing more and more seriously.

I also made new friends who I never would have met otherwise. Eric K. Hill started the whole project and fearlessly lead us through till the end. Meredith Silver took on the massive role of stitching the final layout together. These two have become my best friends and we've now worked on half a dozen other projects together.

If you ever get a chance to work on a project like this and you can afford the time commitment, take it. It will pay off in ways you could never anticipate.


July was slow. The stress of working on Dissident Whispers and the lows of post-project depression weighed on me and had a profound effect on my (already not very good) health. I pushed myself a little too hard and needed some time to recuperate. I slowly picked work on The Drain back up but accomplished little else.


In August I managed to finish my manuscript for The Drain, and I started eyeing the series of logistical hurtles I'd need to cross before getting it published.

I got involved with yet another RPG community charity project, called Postcards from Cable Street. This time I took more of a backseat role, contributing writing and editing efforts to the project. I'm really proud of the work I and the others did on Cable Street (I wrote a pretty neat Troika adventure about waiting for a train during the apocalypse), but I'll spare you a massive writeup after my Dissident Whispers gushing. Postcards from Cable Street is seeing an imminent release, and you should go follow the project's twitter for updates.

This month I took some of the community building knowledge and philosophies I gained working on these charity projects and started trying to build something myself. I started a collectivist group of 3rd party Mothership publishers with the aim to share knowledge and support each other in our individual and collaborative efforts. It took a bit to get our feet, but we started really getting the ball rolling in late 2020 with a massive community bundle in December, helping each other organize a whopping 6 Zine Quest projects (all from group members), and more. We're planning a ton of cool stuff for 2021, and I'm so happy to see the collective approach working for my own little community.


In late 2020, I started increasing the pace of my self-publication efforts. In September, I collaborated with another Mothership 3rd party publisher Daniel Hallinan to write a free Mothership supplement called From Nightmares. I got to commission one of my favorite RPG authors and artists Evey Lockhart for a few illustrations, and we sent our little project out into the world.

I've heard many disparage the PWYW model for releasing RPGs, but I think it has a place for small projects like mine. I released From Nightmares PWYW as an experiment and was pleasantly surprised at the results. From Nightmares currently has well over 1000 downloads and has grossed about $250, which I would call a success.


In October I teamed up with Eric and Meredith, my new friends from Dissident Whispers, to make a Mothership pamphlet adventure about dinosaurs. It was a blast to work with them and I heartily encourage anyone looking for design collaborators to hire them for your own projects. I got to bring on my long time friend Emily Weiss to write a legal prop for the adventure, we whipped up some audio tracks and even a dang trailer to go with it.

Dinoplex: Cataclysm was the single most fun project I've had the pleasure to work on. We turned the whole thing around in under a month and had a blast the whole time. While making things and doing business together can be straining on some relationships, you better hold onto friends you work well with.

Dinoplex has seen solid digital sales, but the big payoff came from Sean McCoy ordering a print run for TKG's webstore (which should be releasing soon). The pamphlets came out beautifully and it's some of the work I'm most proud of.


November saw a major turn towards focusing on getting The Drain ready for publication. I will cover everything I had to learn and do to prepare for a first Kickstarter in a post-mortem for The Drain, but let's just say it was a lot. I expected hard work going into the project, but it was at least twice as challenging as I feared. I had been toying with the idea of a Fall-Winter 2020 Kickstarter, but at this point I was fully committed to launching in February for Zine Quest.

In November I also managed to write a 3rd unreleased adventure for TKG, and I started planning the 3rd party Mothership community's first collective project. Members of the community had made so many cool adventures, I thought it'd be cool to highlight them all in one place. Thus the Mothership 3rd Party Mega Bundle was born.

I began gathering everyone with a paid adventure out on to get together and sell our stuff in a single bundle. To make the bundle more tempting, I also started working on a campaign framework pamphlet that would tie all the adventures together in a single setting. I got Eric and Ribston Pippin (an artist who worked on Dissident Whispers) on the project and we quickly assembled The Third Sector sandbox campaign pamphlet.


I manage to slip in one extra release before our bundle went live mid-December. Together with designer David Wilkie (another Dissident Whispers alum) and a new artist friend I'd met in an art-focused RPG discord L.F. OSR, I put out my first fantasy adventure A Man on the Road

I was curious to see how a non-Mothership adventure from me might fare, and it did pretty well! I received welcome support from the Old-School Essentials community (the game I wrote it for) and have sold nearly 100 digital copies so far. I also printed up a run of physical pamphlets and managed to get them selling up on a few storefronts like Exalted Funeral, Spear Witch, and Monkey's Paw Games.

On December 15th, we launched our Mothership 3rd Party Mega Bundle with 12 existing adventures and our new bonus pamphlet Third Sector to fantastic success. Sean McCoy helped us out enormously by sending out a newsletter on the bundle, and we ended up selling over 300 copies of the $20 digital bundle in just over 2 weeks (the bundle ended on December 31st). The bundle proved to me and the other participants how valuable collective projects could be, and I look forward to doing more things like this.

While the bundle ran and I was neck deep preparing my February Kickstarter, I picked up Affinity Publisher and started toying around with layout as a diversion. I don't plan to become a designer or do layout for my own projects (I much prefer working with skilled collaborators), but it is useful to learn new skills. Understanding layout a little better should improve my collaborations with real designers and give me the confidence to whip up small bits of design like promotional materials. 

I concluded my layout experiments by releasing a 1-page adventure for an game jam. I didn't promote my adventure and I've hidden it on my store page to avoid making my other stuff look worse by comparison, but I am proud of what I was able to do for a first effort.


Wow, that was quite the write-up. Looking back, I feel pretty good about what I was able to accomplish last year. In the first half of the year I took things slowly, but by the end I'd published 6 RPG products, written 4 more unreleased adventures, contributed to 2 amazing charity projects, and grew immensely as an RPG designer, self-publisher, and person.

I've spent the first weeks of 2021 working full time to prepare, launch, and manage my first Kickstarter. As I write this, I close in on an absolutely staggering total of $10,000 pledged with a week left to go on my campaign.

Being able to support myself with full time RPG work feels not only possible, but even likely. It took a year of learning and struggling, but I feel poised to earn (gasp) something approximating a living wage in 2021.

Did you like this post? Please let me know! A lot went into writing this. Is there anything I didn't cover about RPG publishing you want to learn about? Let me know that as well, and I might cover it in a future blog post. If you've gotten all the way to the end and read this whole thing, I congratulate you. If you don't mind, go ahead and take a look at my Kickstarter project that'll be running until February 15th. Expect another massive blog post from me about the campaign after it concludes. I have a lot to say.

Until next time.