Monday, May 4, 2020

Stumbling Through RPG Self-Publishing

In the past few months, I've stumbled my way through the process of developing and releasing a small, 2-page RPG scenario for the Mothership RPG. Though many other creators have come before me, it's been an exciting process and I thought others might be interested to hear some bits and pieces I've learned along the way.

Back in January, Dai Shugars posted a fun prompt for a Mothership scenario in a discord server I use. I elaborated on the prompt with a d10 table to use with the scenario, and left it at that. After some encouraging words about the table, I decided to flesh it out into a fully playable scenario. A month or so later and with Shugars' permission, I had a blog post I was pretty happy with. I posted it to the always-bustling Mothership discord server as well as r/rpg, where it was met with modest interest. As of right now that blog post, "Moonbase Blues", sits at about 600 views.

A few weeks went by, I continued to write blog posts and I started running the scenario for my regular Mothership playgroup. Out of the blue, I got a message from someone I'd seen hanging around the Mothership discord but had never spoken with, Warren Denning. Turns out he'd read Moonbase Blues and liked it so much that he laid out the scenario onto a professional-looking 1-page spread with maps to use in his home game. I was floored by the work and the compliment it represented. It made me feel like the blogging I'd been doing, which had heretofore received minor engagement, was all worth it.

Warren and I got to talking about what to do with the pdf. We both agreed that we should release it to the community, but weren't sure if we should try and sell it or put it out for free. We got in contact with Sean McCoy, the creator of Mothership, who began supplying us with a TON of excellent advice and support. I seriously cannot thank him enough for the help he's given us on this project. He encouraged us to sell the scenario for a similar price point to The Haunting of Ypsilon 14, an official 2-page one-shot scenario released for Mothership earlier this year. Because the free version of the scenario exists on my blog for anyone wanting to play it but without the inclination or financial ability to pay, Warren and I made the final decision to try and sell Moonbase.

With our decision to sell the product, we started working to polish up the material and expand the scope to fill both the front and back of a double-sided pamphlet. We added more content, tweaked and improved the layout, and made several editing passes. Meanwhile, we began to work on the logistical and marketing side of our project.

First, we had to decide where to put Moonbase Blues up for sale. DriveThruRPG is the largest online RPG marketplace, and other Mothership products have had a lot of success there. There's also, a marketplace primarily used for video games sales but with a burgeoning RPG scene. DriveThruRPG takes a 30% cut of pdf sales for products sold exclusively on their website, and a 35% cut for non-exclusive products. Furthermore, they require an 18-month wait time to switch a publisher account from exclusive to non-exclusive. takes 0%, with an option to donate a percentage of the creator's choice to maintain the site. DriveThruRPG also awards products with medals according to sales numbers and visibly promotes high-selling titles, pushing creators towards putting all eggs in their basket.

I reached out to Sean McCoy for advice, who shared that Mothership received roughly 80% of its sales on DriveThru and 20% on Itch. Doing some table napkin math, I applied those numbers and determined that one would keep 72% of a product's profits selling on both DriveThru and Itch, compared to 70% from going DriveThru-exclusive (assuming equal sales numbers). I also got in contact with Aaron Sturgill, the author of Vita Nova, a 3rd-party Mothership scenario that had been for sale on DriveThruRPG for several months. Aaron also graciously shared some of his sales experiences, and told me that Vita Nova had enjoyed very consistent sales on DriveThru since its release. With this information in hand, Warren and I weighed our options and came down on the side of a simultaneous Itch and DriveThru release. Though it seemed DriveThru was helping to promote its games and drive consistent sales, the numbers were close enough that we decided to err on the side of being less constrained in our future options.

Next, we tackled the hurdle of copyright. We wanted to protect our creation but avoid the relatively costly copyright registration fee (around $50, depending) on this very small project. Luckily, an attorney friend of mine shed some light on copyright law for us. From her advice and my own research, I learned that published works in the US automatically gain copyright protections upon creation, no registration required. Even a notice of copyright is optional, though we decided to post one on the pdf for thoroughness.

Now fully prepared with our completed files and all decisions made, we went to release our little scenario. I created pages on both DriveThruRPG and and went to hit the button to upload my files to the latter site when DriveThru notified me of an approval process that would take up to 5 days. I wasn't aware of this requirement, so had to postpone release plans.

On the following Monday, I got an email from DriveThru that Moonbase was not only approved, but automatically pushed live to their marketplace. If I'd wanted the option to choose when it went live, apparently I should have set a specific release day in the future. I scrambled to organize some marketing posts before I lost the benefit of DriveThru's algorithms for newly posted content. I posted links to both the DriveThru and Itch pages to the Mothership discord, my twitter account (which had only 15 or so followers), and to a few subreddits in the body of a longer text post explaining the story of its creation and linking play reports from Warren and I.

Sean McCoy and several other notable RPG people retweeted me, so my post managed to reach a decent number of people there. On the discord, Sean posted Moonbase to their "announcements" channel where it was much more visible. My posts to reddit did better than expected, receiving some attention on both r/mothershiprpg and r/osr but climbing almost to the top of r/rpg. The marketing effort felt like a reasonable success despite my minimal social media presence, largely due to help from others.

Within a few hours of my posts, Moonbase shot to the #1 spot on DriveThruRPG's "Most Popular Under $5" section, which is prominently visible on the site's front page. It stayed there at #1 for an entire week, and has only today dropped to position 3. I attribute many of my sales on DriveThru to this. On the first day of release, Itch accounted for approximately 1/4 of our sales, but that ratio soon trailed off as Itch sales dropped to almost nothing. DriveThru sales remained fairly consistent, tailing off but at a slower rate. We earned a Bronze Best Seller badge from DriveThru within the first 24 hours of our release and Silver a couple days later.

Itch sales have settled at around 15% of our total sales, not far off the 80/20 estimation shared by Sean. I feel good about our decision to go non-exclusive, mostly because it's given us flexibility while seemingly doing no harm to (or even slightly benefiting) our sales numbers. I think in the future, I might choose to only promote a DriveThru page for a new product now that I know the vital importance of hitting its front page (which would be impossible on Itch given competition with the much more popular video games on the site), even if I was posting to both DriveThru and Itch.

Despite our rookie mistakes and various unforeseen problems and challenges, this all worked out pretty well. Starting on a small, manageable project provided plenty of trial and error learning opportunities without setting the stakes and stress too highly. Warren and I haven't earned back anything close to minimum wage given the many hours we spent on the project, but we have a shiny silver medal and a lot more experience under our belts than we started with. Perhaps most importantly, I got to feel first hand the joys of collaborative community effort I'd only heard rumors about from the glory days of G+. My efforts to make some stuff and share it with other rpg people paid off and became something more than I could have envisioned.

If you're curious to check out the finished product, here's links to Moonbase Blue's DriveThruRPG page and page.

If you found this post useful or at least interesting, please let me know! Thanks for reading.


  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing your experience! As someone who wants to publish their own RPG stuff someday, this is great. :)

  2. Interesting read. Seems like starting with a very simple product is the way to go.

  3. Thanks for your "behind the scenes" look at self-publishing. This answers some questions that I had regarding DriveThru and Itch.

  4. Really appreciate you sharing your journey on this one! It's a dope scenario and I'm glad it's getting some love.