RPG Evolution: Making It in the RPG Industry

Can you make a living in the tabletop role-playing industry as your sole source of income? Unless you work for one of the major game publishers, the odds are against you. But there’s another way, and it revolves around the Thousand Fan theory.


The Thousand Fan Theory

As I noted in a previous article, the Thousand Fan Theory (TFT) posits that a creator can make a living off of 1,000 superfans paying $100 year, with few middlemen and low additional fees. This approach changes a creator’s goals from simply creating product to creating relationships. It is more important in the TFT to have subscriptions than it is to make one great product.

Applying the TFT to the tabletop role-playing game industry, this means it’s not enough to simply make one tabletop game. In fact, it’s more lucrative to create many products over an extended period of time as incentive to keep superfans coming back for more. So while a core game may provide a temporary boost to income, it’s subsequent supplements, accessories, and adventures are key to supporting a creator.

This shift in focus from one large product to many products over time means that individual creators need to create constantly. Certain mediums lend themselves to this, like web comics, podcasts, and video streams. This is why great podcasters (Russ’ podcast being one example) record so frequently. You can’t create a fan base without a steady stream of content.

Conversely, a loyal fan base does not come quickly. It can take years to launch, which means that the TFT is not feasible for someone who needs the money immediately. Ideally, a creator planning to use the TFT needs to start creating before they graduate from whatever education they’re pursuing. They’ll need at least four years to build that fan base and create a content stream.

For most adults going without income for four years is simply not feasible, so achieving the TFT means having a full-time job or a partner who pays for other expenses in the meantime. Raising a family complicates this calculation; a spouse may be able to help with expenses, but costs increase accordingly to support a family.

It’s daunting, but achieving the TFT is possible. And we know this because there are creators out there doing it. Here’s how.


Of all the income streams, Patreon has the clearest path to the TFT. To achieve $100,000 year in come, you would need to make about $112,000 (Patreon takes up to 10%, but this can vary based on your legacy membership with the platform). This assumes you have a tier of $10/month or a flat contribution of $120 that members contribute yearly.

In terms of RPG content, a creator will likely need to bolster their Patreon with updates frequently, if not on a daily basis. Fortunately, RPGs lend themselves to this. One monster, artifact, species, or class a day is entirely feasible.

DMDave is an example of a RPG creator clearing the $10K/month mark. At the time this article was written, DMDave ranks 16th in the games category. Interestingly enough, there are higher-ranked Patreon RPG creators but those affiliated with tabletop play are all mapmakers. DMDave’s Patreon went from just 12 patrons in November 2018 to 3,563 patrons in June 2020, earning $15,835 month or $4.45 per patron.


After Patreon, DriveThruRPG is probably the single-most likely distribution channel that an individual creator can use to achieve the TFT. DriveThruRPG takes 35% of the sale of each product, so you would need to sell $153,846 worth of product a year or make $12,820/month (updated thanks to JohnnyZemo). If the average product sells 10 copies a month and retails for $10, you need 128 products in circulation, selling well (most products sell a lot initially, and then level off to a trickle).

It’s worth noting that DriveThruRPG’s algorithm favors new products over old ones. Appearing on the front page of DriveThruRPG is key to driving sales. This means that to keep a content top-of-mind for consumers amid the massive amount of content on DriveThruRPG, a creator needs to produce products monthly if not weekly.

The adamantine list currently has 74 products in good company, ranging from R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk Red to Hero Kids to ZWEIHANDER to FATE. We know that if a product is on the adamantine list it's sold over 5,000 copies, but that's no guarantee of steady income. The product has to both sell at a certain price and frequently enough per year to achieve the $153,846 mark. I plan to reach out to the creators on the list to see if they can achieve this level of steady sales enough to support themselves with the income.


Many kids these days want to be YouTube stars, but it’s a lot of work to get there. More production tends to be involved with video, which means successful YouTube stars are actually teams rather than individuals, segmenting the overall income stream. Additionally, YouTube scale is variable depending on a lot of factors, which makes it difficult to accurately estimate how much any one YouTuber makes a year. We can make some educated guesses, however.

Google pays 68% of their AdSense revenue, but advertiser rates vary between 10-and 30 cents per view. On average, a YouTube channel receives $18 per 1,000 views with advertising, or $4 per 1,000 views total. The calculator at Influencer Marketing Hub gives us an idea of what it takes to achieve the TFT.

That's 18 million views per year on YouTube, to reach the upper end ($104K). That implies an engagement rate of 81%, which is highly engaged. To reach that, you'll need subscribers. Your average subscriber can contribute around 200 views. You'll need at least 100,000 subscribers to reach that. For an example of a video channel that achieves this, see the Critical Role YouTube channel with 957,000 subscribers.


Kickstarter takes 5% of any revenue with an additional processing fee of up to 5%, which means to achieve TFT you’ll need to make $112,000. According to The Hustle, games (including video, card, miniature, and tabletop games) make up 10% of all Kickstarters, are successful 38% of the time, and of those successful Kickstarters they tend to have goals around the $13K range. For games, 76% of the most successful were in the $1K to $9K range. Despite these challenges, successful game Kickstarters net on average $54,635, for a grand total of $879 million in total since 2009.

To achieve the TFT plateau of self-sufficiency, you would need to launch 11 successful Kickstarters a year with goals of $10K. The more successful you are with each Kickstarter in exceeding those goals, the less additional Kickstarters you would need for self-sufficiency. Given that almost all the highest earning Kickstarters in the game category were video or board games, this can seem daunting for tabletop gamers, but it’s not impossible. Matt Colville’s Strongholds & Streaming made $2,121,465.

Adding This All Up

Any one of these sales channels alone is probably not enough to sustain an individual. Even if they did, there's no guarantee an income stream one year will be the same the next year. Patrons leave, subscribers quit, and pandemics happen. And none of these estimates take into account advertising, marketing, development, licensing, and other production or distribution costs. This thought experiment also doesn't assume you hire anyone else -- teams of people are necessary to make great products, so if you only use your own talent, you're going to be doing a LOT of work up front.

Conversely, effort put into one channel can bolster the others; Colville's YouTube channel was a massive boost to his Kickstarter, which created a virtuous cycle of fans generating income multiple times through different streams.

Can you make a living creating RPGs? Absolutely. But it will take a lot of effort, a lot of time, and more than just writing; creating includes editing, art, layout, design, marketing, and sales. If you’re planning to make a living from the industry, you’d better get started now!
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Dire Bare

I've run seven personal projects in 2020, six of which have been delivered. (#7 closed late last week and I'll send the review PDF to backers this coming weekend.) So far, for 2020, the Kickstarter funding has hit about $90,000 across those seven projects, so I don't think your goal of eleven projects in a year is impossible. Challenging, yes, but not impossible.

Of course, a large percentage of that goes to expenses -- artwork, taxes (so many taxes), software, hardware -- so my numbers aren't quite as impressive as they first sound. To hit your 1,000 fans/$100/year goal, I suspect I'd need to be roughly twice where I am in terms of funding.
This is the kicker right here. As an artist, even if you are technically "raking in" over $100K in a given year . . . . how much of that are you paying to other people for layout, editing, art, advertising/marketing, tax prep, etc, etc . . .

And how sustainable is making $100K per year, and then maintaining that over a career? There are plenty of artists in various fields who hit it big and made a ton of money . . . only to end up penniless and broke when it comes time to retire and health begins to fail.

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Kevin Crawford is probably my best example of what is takes to succeed at the model. His publishing arm Sine Nomine does regular Kickstarters and delivers consistently high quality products that his fans then buy.

It also helps to live where the government provides healthcare.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Any data to support his? I don't really doubt it, but the one timeline you gave for DMDave was less than 2 years...
DMDave has spent a LOT on Facebook ads. That can get expensive. That has to have hit his bottom line (though at 13K/month, just spending one month's revenue on Facebook ads will net a good return -- the more money you have, the easier it is to make more).


I totally agree with this. I would suggest that this is effectively a smaller scale version of Paizo’s model since the inception of Pathfinder. Yes their core books were successful but the real money came from releasing an adventure book by monthly on subscription. They broadened this to include maps, pawns, area guides.

When I compare the money I spent with Paizo on these additional products, APs, maps etc to what I spent on the core books, it dwarved it.

To be clear I mean that Paizo use a regular subscription model with a smaller number of fans paying a large amount of money (not that they are limited only to a 1000, or follow one backer)

£8 a month is a much easier way to reach your £100 goal than a small number of larger products.
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The Laughing One
It is perfectly possible to make a profit in RPGs, especially for a small company with few overheads.
Is it? I know that there are quite a few small companies that operate that way and make a 'profit', the question is: "What are they paying themselves and others?". We've had so many discussions about freelancers not earning much, the same is true for a lot of smaller companies, paying themselves peanuts because that's the industry 'standard'. Some small companies become somewhat larger companies, like Monte Cook Games. But it seems to me that folks are often only looking at the success stories and not at all those that failed and you never noticed. I suspect that very few small companies that start actually make a decent profit. In theory it could be done with the right people who have ALL the right skills, have the right idea, with the right sized target audience group, at the right time, in the right economy. In practice, most folks starting these small companies lack a lot of the skills or are just missing the right idea, started in the wrong economic period, or just are targeting a far to small audience...

There are a limited amount of potential customers, those have a limited pool to spend on RPG books (and other hobby articles), so these companies are all competing for a piece of the same pie. And it's often just down to who can capture the most audience for their own niche product, often ending up competing with others servicing the same niche. It all reminds me so much of the D20 glut we had after the OGL release. At least with KS people aren't printing a TON of books which don't end up selling all that much...

I’m doing it right now.

On the other hand if you weren't @Morrus of ENWorld I don't think I'd ever have heard of WOIN in a way that made me give it a second glance. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a criticism in the slightest; you've put what appears to be a vast amount of work into the community and this raising the profile of any RPG projects you create is more than fair. But it does mean that you've offloaded a lot of the publicity costs into work you've already done which is not an asset most people have.


The Laughing One
I’m doing it right now.
Yes, but are you not an exception? How much is the success of your publishing company related to ENworld? How many of such community sites are there at that scale/noteriety? And how much time have you spend over the years on both and how much has that earned you that if you translate that to an hourly wage? Below or above a burger flipping salary at McD's?

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