Worlds of Design: To Design or Publish?

Tabletop game publishing is a big step to take, but the reality is it's very difficult for an unknown designer to get a game accepted by an established publisher. So what’s a designer to do?

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Publishing vs. Designing​

Publishers get hundreds or even thousands of submissions a year and publish a small number games. (Many publishers started as, and may still be, self-publishers.) Fortunately, it’s much easier to get a game manufactured than in the past. As a result I encounter aspiring designers who assume that designers are also publishers. That's not the way it used to be, but it is now.

Self-publishing is easier in RPGs because RPG rules are often only books, and books are easier to manufacture than board games. A different set of tasks is involved in being a publisher. It's not merely self-publishing that you're doing, it's publishing in itself. If you take that step of self-publishing, you're no longer just a designer, you’re also a publisher. So what is the difference between a designer's tasks and a publisher’s tasks?

What Designers Do​

Designers design the games, which involves making and modifying prototypes, and playtesting and writing rules. Then the designers at some point have to approach publishers to persuade the publisher to do the rest.

Discoverability is a huge problem. That is, if people don’t know about your game amongst so many, many others, how can they buy it? I’ve often seen new companies exhibiting their RPG or other games at conventions to try to drum up business; they seldom come back the next year because it wasn’t worth it. Advertising often isn’t worth the cost, either.

You’ve got to be a business and salesperson when you do these things, not everyone is good at that. Yet people self-publish, and some make money.

Even if someone else publishes your game, you should be doing some publisher tasks, promoting the game via social media, blogs, etc., being involved in the funding if it's crowdfunding, supporting the game after publication, answering questions and so on (at places like EN World's Promotions/Press forum).

What Publishers Do​

Publishers raise money (often through crowdfunding) to pay everyone: to pay for advertising, to pay for manufacture and distribution, to pay the designer, to pay themselves. They edit the game during the creation–and may change it a lot. They usually choose the art style, and hire artist(s). They cope with the logistics of distribution. They advertise and otherwise promote, especially at conventions and conferences. They establish links and communicate with interested parties, also often at conventions. They often ship the game to distributors, some retailers and consumers (though you can pay a fulfillment company to do that for you).

Publishers also manage customer service after publishing, which is a real burden, especially for tabletop games. Zev Schlasinger, who was the "Z" in the very successful Z-Man Games, was faced with the necessity to hire somebody to do his customer service (CS)–at that point he ran the operation with part-time employees, and he did the CS. That's a lot of work all done by the publisher. Do you want to do all that?

Book publishers also need editors. Self-editing is not as effective as editing by someone else. In addition to managing employees, the company has to raise money to afford them. Raising money is a big job in itself.

There's a lot to learn about manufacturing. Even when RPGs are just books without additional components like dice or miniatures, a lot can go wrong. If you use printers from overseas, who are usually cheaper, you may run into big communication problems and delays. I know of someone who offered12-sided dice numbered 1-6 as a Kickstarter, and then looked into overseas manufacturers. He tried some out; at one point he got somewhat cockeyed dice as a sample, told the manufacturer, “Don’t make these,” but they had already produced 180,000 and then hand sanded them to make them regular or close to it. They already had a lot of his money. What could he do?

Speaking of challenges with international manufacturing, there’s the knotty tangle of pandemic- and war-related shipping problems. Horror stories abound.

Not Making the Choice​

Some designers opt-out of being publishers by giving their game away. Even then, you have to deal with acquiring the art. You could avoid some of the publisher duties, but will you make any money, especially after paying for art?

On the other hand, PDF publishing is practical for RPG books, though impractical for board games. You still have the editing, formatting, diagrams, and other art to come up with.

In the end, many game designers become publishers not by choice but out of necessity. Publishing takes away from your design time, but you may have no other option.

Your Turn: Have you ever published any RPG material? Did you do better than break even? Was the time you spent worth it?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I was lucky enough to have a few pitches accepted by EN World's EN5ider magazine a few years ago, and that's what got.me started. Contact with a different EN World user ended up referring me to MT Black, who hired me as an editor/developer on a couple of different products. I also did some freelance design work for a few other publishers.

After seeing some of the products I'd worked on sell like hotcakes but me being unable to really benefit because I'd been paid a freelancer flat fee, I decided to start self-publishing. I do want to be clear here - I'm not resentful that I was paid a flat fee and not a royalty, I just saw clearly that the path to making money in TTRPGs led through publishing, not freelancing.

I am fortunate to have an educational background in design, and I've always been fairly strong with software, so I handle graphic design, art direction, and layout in addition to most of the writing. My old friend is a world class editor and is very good at making my writing look like it's supposed to be English, and also handles most of the playtesting, and I credit him with much of the success we've experienced.

I'm not going to retire off the money we make through this, but it's pretty nice to see the enthusiasm and support we receive.
 
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Mezuka

Hero
Creating and running a gaming business at the same time is a lot of work judging from my 18 month experience. Moreso now with social media, which eats up a lot of time. I no longer played anything as my schedule was always full. It's not a job, it's a vocation.

In the end, profit margin was very low, so I decided I preferred playing games with my friends and went back to my profession. No regrets.

I'm not saying you shouldn't do it. You should always try, if it is something you really want to do.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Your Turn: Have you ever published any RPG material? Did you do better than break even? Was the time you spent worth it?
I have stuff on dtrpg and itch; both selling ok, and well rated, esp for a novice effort. Players in my games convinced me to publish it, and with the hiatus enforced by the quarantines, I decided to do so.

I started with gaming in the late 70's, war games and RPG's. Did some war game design stuff, modding in the late 90's early 2000's, it was recently republished as a browser game by some other Czechs. The current setting I have on dtrpg I ran for years, it is centered around my desire for real star maps, and is near future, with some solarpunk, and transhumanist elements, as well as modern sci-fi. While published for Cepheus Engine, I have played it with Classic Traveller, and M-Space as well. It is generic enough it could be run with Mothership, or 2400, even though about a third of purchasers are buying mongoose 2e stuff at the same time, which it could possibly be played with that also. Right now, I am working on some source books, such as for spacecraft, and a few adventures. I would like to get a 3d map at my website, and a character generator. We will see where it all goes.
 

As a geeky kid stuck on a farm before the internet and never fitting in. I dreamed of working for a rpg company, maybe in PR, and then head into early retirement as I made a full-time living writing paperback novels.

snort

Part real life, part me being stubborn, part having no family/background in the arts, business, or publishing, I've changed my expectations.

Publishing Community Content: If Adobe subscriptions were cheaper, or I could pay a one-time flat fee. I would do better. Right now, I'm making lunch money. My goal is to eventually replace the retirement savings I lost between '01-'11.

Freelance: If the people who owned me would pay me, I'd have to claim it on my taxes.

I always joke that if I could do this full time, it would be a great part time job.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Your Turn: Have you ever published any RPG material? Did you do better than break even? Was the time you spent worth it?
I was a contributor on an RPG product for 3rd Edition, back in the early 2000s. I was paid $0.05/word, plus a copy of the finished product, when it went to final publication. So I certainly didn't get rich, but it made a couple of car payments for me.
 

smiteworks

Explorer
Adobe subscriptions are definitely not cheap. All of the big companies use InDesign for layout and Photoshop for graphic editing, so that is something you would need to learn and subscribe to in order to produce professional looking content that you can send to a printer or post as a PDF for sale on platforms like DriveThruRPG.

Another potential entryway into becoming a published designer would be with virtual tabletops and digital publishing. Each of the major platforms has some mechanism for publishing. Some may require a monthly fee as well and others only have a single one-time fee that lets you build and create content. Either way, they are all cheaper than even a month or two of the Adobe products you would need. You can replace PhotoShop with a free tool like GIMP to save some money in the beginning. As an example, you can get a monthly sub for Fantasy Grounds Unity for $4/mo or a one-time cost of $39 and either of those will let you build content, test it, and export it for sale. The one-time license also goes on sale periodically throughout the year.

I can't speak for details on the other VTTs, so I will focus on Fantasy Grounds Unity publishing options. The FG Forge is a newer self-publishing platform that we released last year. There is no cost to publish there and you get 60% royalties. If you are an artist that does maps, tokens, or portraits, you can also build the packs directly in the Forge UI without needing the FGU software. You can do some research there to see what price points do best and how many subscribers ("customers") you might expect to get. If your project is a team-up of multiple people, you can also set up a royalty split on your items.

There are a lot of Pros for starting off with digital publishing like this:
  1. Low cost of entry
  2. Ease of initial publishing
  3. Ease of publishing updates and errata. Fine-tune your product before you send it to printers. Once you print, you obviously can't update it anymore for the print product.
  4. Build a name for yourself with multiple, smaller projects
  5. Reach customers on different platforms
When you pick your projects, I also recommend focusing on additions or tie-ins for an existing, popular system first. D&D fifth edition has the largest customer pool, by far. Paizo products are second and then there are other game systems that fit into that tier as well before you drop into the smaller Indie Publisher pool. There are some really great Indie and smaller game systems out there. They just don't have the same level of customer support as the bigger systems. It will be harder to sell if you deviate too far from the core system you are interfacing with. You will reach more customers if you focus on initial content that is complementary to the system you are working with.

On this note, publishing through DMsGuild as a PDF would be a good option since there are a lot of customers there and you can use much of the D&D IP directly through the special license there. You can even add a Fantasy Grounds module to your offering there to expand the reach even further. The one caution I will throw out is that if you publish through the DMsGuild license and use the additional IP, you will not be able to distribute or sell that content in any other form or on any other platform. Ask yourself if you really plan to use the additional IP. If not, then I would recommend publishing PDFs only through the normal DriveThruRPG license. This will let you also publish a Fantasy Grounds Unity version of it on the FG Forge, make a conversion for Roll20, Foundry, etc., and even print books on your own if they become popular enough.

Another thing I see successful Indie publishers do is that they produce a series of related products that share a theme or similar branding. You can make the greatest product in the world, but if it is a one-off, it might go unnoticed in the marketplace. In contrast, every time you publish another product with the same brand and theme, you have the opportunity to introduce a new potential customer to your entire product line. If customers see that you continue to support your original vision, they are more likely to check it out. Starting with a small, free product or two may help you build an initial following.

Good luck.
 

Adobe subscriptions are definitely not cheap. All of the big companies use InDesign for layout and Photoshop for graphic editing, so that is something you would need to learn and subscribe to in order to produce professional looking content that you can send to a printer or post as a PDF for sale on platforms like DriveThruRPG.

Another potential entryway into becoming a published designer would be with virtual tabletops and digital publishing. Each of the major platforms has some mechanism for publishing. Some may require a monthly fee as well and others only have a single one-time fee that lets you build and create content. Either way, they are all cheaper than even a month or two of the Adobe products you would need. You can replace PhotoShop with a free tool like GIMP to save some money in the beginning. As an example, you can get a monthly sub for Fantasy Grounds Unity for $4/mo or a one-time cost of $39 and either of those will let you build content, test it, and export it for sale. The one-time license also goes on sale periodically throughout the year.

I can't speak for details on the other VTTs, so I will focus on Fantasy Grounds Unity publishing options. The FG Forge is a newer self-publishing platform that we released last year. There is no cost to publish there and you get 60% royalties. If you are an artist that does maps, tokens, or portraits, you can also build the packs directly in the Forge UI without needing the FGU software. You can do some research there to see what price points do best and how many subscribers ("customers") you might expect to get. If your project is a team-up of multiple people, you can also set up a royalty split on your items.

There are a lot of Pros for starting off with digital publishing like this:
  1. Low cost of entry
  2. Ease of initial publishing
  3. Ease of publishing updates and errata. Fine-tune your product before you send it to printers. Once you print, you obviously can't update it anymore for the print product.
  4. Build a name for yourself with multiple, smaller projects
  5. Reach customers on different platforms
Good luck.

On that note, if one plans to keep things digital for a while and haven't yet invested in learning InDesign, Affinity is a one-time purchase that also goes on sale once in a while.

Keep in mind, though, if you do go to print, you will have to go back to InDesign to clean up an Affinity file. It is also more than likely you'll have to tweak an InDesign file before print anyway.

tips hands like they are scales
 

Mournblade94

Adventurer
I have had part 5 of the Empire in Ruins campaign on backorder for months. Cubicle 7 informed me the print run was a complete botch (not their fault). Its been a tough run getting the hardcover WFRP Books. Most because of Snafus outlined above.
 

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