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

Analysis

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 Itch.io 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


January

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.

February

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.

March

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.

April

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

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.

June

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

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.

August

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.

September

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.

October

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

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 Itch.io 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.

December

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 Itch.io game jam. I didn't promote my adventure and I've hidden it on my Itch.io 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.

2021

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.

8 comments:

  1. Awesome blog, thank you for sharing. Have reposted this to a few Discord communities as more people need to understand how much work goes into this and you outline it perfectly. Thank you!

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  2. As far as KS projects, there are tricks to making them more effective.

    Contact me via Twitter @blackmoor_film I am glad to share info on what I have learned.

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  3. You always blow my mind with how thorough and generous you are Ian. Keep up the flow of amazing content. Unless it gets too crazy. Then take a break... before coming back stronger than ever!

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  4. Every bit of success is well deserved. Man DW was a major impact event, I'm so glad we were all involved in that and made what we did. Keep kicking goals mate.

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  5. Damn, thank you so much for laying this all out like this. Four unreleased adventures too?! Excited to see what the new year brings from you.

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    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. One of those 4 is The Drain, the other 3 are surprises. Should be fun ones.

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  6. Great post and blog. Thank you for sharing this post-mortem on your first year of self-publishing, these contents are highly valuable. The Black Lives Matter related project sound awesome.

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