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:

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