Design diary: Going backwards to go forwards

Getting into RPG publishing has involved quite a steep learning curve – from the basics of how to write a game (you just write a game) through to the intricacies of publishing that final product. Taking the dive right in approach I decided early on that I wanted to aim for a better layout than I could reasonably achieve with just a text document so I started to teach myself. Thanks to training in how to format academic posters I already had an understanding of the basics but dug deeper into the theory, guided by the The Non‑Designer’s Design Book.

Simultaneously I also dived into the software side in the form of Scribus, a free and open source desktop publishing program. While not as powerful or as intuitive (or as functional) as InDesign as a newbie doing this as a hobby it provided everything I needed and more. The difference between Channel Surfing, my first release using Scribus through to The Synth Convergence are a testament to the value of incremental improvements.

Last month though I made the switch from Scribus to Affinity Publisher, a vastly more powerful program and decided to go back to basics from the get go – everything from templates and style guides to page organisation and image assets. The difference was, once again, rather immediate even though I had yet to add anything beyond placeholder content.

This week though, after spending a number of hours just on setup and planning I made a rather hard decision. To start again. Why? Not because the template wasn’t working or because I’d abandoned the project but because of the slim possibility that I might want to submit these files for Print on Demand at some point in the future. It’s not the only thing I’ve thrown out this week – I’ve restarted a Sprawl mission draft three times because it wasn’t working. It’s only a small amount of text but it simply wasn’t working.

That willingness to throw material away, or even admit something wasn’t working has been a hard lesson to learn. A little over month into 2020 and happily going backwards. It’s not the position I’d planned to be in at this point but hopefully the extra work will pay off in the long run.

Reflecting on 2019 – Part 3: Earnings

As the hobby grows and diversifies there has been a growing trend amongst indie developers to talk about sales and earnings. While I am only a small hobby publisher I wanted to put my numbers out there, partially so the info is available but also as a point of reference for myself for next year.

DrivethruRPG

ProductRelease Date2019 Sales (Paid / Total)Total Sales since release2019 EarningsTotal Earnings
Towerfall05/2016– / 18207
Channel Surfing05/20173 / 20283$3.50$5.13
Missionary Opposition12/20172 / 24241$4.55$7.80
Lockdown08/20184 / 37162$3.75$5.77
Trick of the Light07/20196 / 106106$7.02$7.02
Talentless Hacks12/20192 / 7171$0.70$0.70
The Tannhauser Investment10/2019– / 299299
The Synth Convergence11/201917 / 1717$48.00$48.00
Earnings represent my personal take home after deduction of marketplace fees and automatic payments to collaborators.

Itch

ProductRelease Date2019 Paid Sales / Community copies / Total Downloads*2019 EarningsTotal Earnings
Channel Surfing05/20190 / 0 / 0$0$0
Missionary Opposition06/20190 / – / 1$0$0
Lockdown06/20190 / – / 1$0$0
Trick of the Light07/20190 / – / 4$0$0
Talentless Hacks12/20190 / – / 2$0$0
The Synth Convergence11/20192 / 3 / 39$10.72$10.72
*Itch reports the total downloads for a product as the sum of each individual file as opposed to number of individuals who have purchased the product. For The Synth Convergence this sums both downloads of the free demo and the two files in the full trilogy – what I don’t know is whether those are by the same users or unique users.
Earnings represent my personal take home after deduction of marketplace fees and automatic payments to collaborators.

Not listed in those tables is the £60 for Ghosts of Iron as part of the Crystal Heart kickstarter or a small amount of affiliate link earnings, adding those in brings my total earnings for 2019 to ~£110. Not exactly much but definitely better than nothing.

Thoughts

Looking at the tables there is quite a stark difference between the two platforms. DrivethruRPG is the dominant marketplace for RPGs and the number of downloads reflects this. It is impossible, however, to determine how many of those downloads represent active engagement with the product versus people scraping the site and downloading every free/PWYW release.

With the exception of Missionary Opposition, which started as PWYW before I switched it to a $1.50 paid product, each of my adventure starters for Demon Hunters have been released as PWYW. The main reason for this is because I originally pledged to produce them as a way of supporting the Slice of Life kickstarter. I said I would make them freely available and I have but going forward my plan is to switch over to a predominantly paid model. The overall sales will be smaller but I would like to price future adventures higher to reflect the work that has gone into them. The question here though is whether there is a market for more Demon Hunters material.

The big seller was obviously The Synth Convergence, which has quickly racked up a number of sales. I’d attribute this to two things – The Sprawl is quite a well know game and it received a number of promotional boosts thanks to people retweeting or mentioning it. Even with that though the number of sales on drivethruRPG were higher than on itch. I’ve seen people talking about itch being a better platform and getting more sales than on drivethruRPG but I think that is going to be very dependent on what you’re releasing, whether you’re a known entity and the circles you interact with. I’m not going to stop publishing there but clearly it will require more work going forward.

Reflecting on 2019 – Part 2: Publishing

Alongside actually playing games one of my aims for this year was to step up my efforts as a publisher. It sounds weird to be calling myself a publisher but it is true. I’m a small scale, indie, party of one publisher but still a publisher.

Going into 2019 I had multiple projects on my radar. First off was completing the release of the Demon Hunters Slice of Life mission starters. It took me until July to release Trick of the Light while I only released Talentless Hacks this month, right before the end of the year. With those two starters out in the wild I have one left to complete – Clean-Up Crew, which I thought would be simpler because I had decided to turn that into a Fiasco playset, which is essentially just a collection of tables.

Well it turns out that writing 144 entries that mesh together into a cohesive and compelling whole is harder than it looks so that has sort of stalled for now. Before I push on with it I to spend a bit more time reading through existing playsets, as clearly there is an art to writing them.

Once the Slice of Life releases are complete I can focus on some of the other adventure drafts I have for Demon Hunters. I’ve got a number that are based on old adventures I ran with the original edition of the game, plus I am hoping to run a campaign of it during 2020 to playtest some new ideas. The big one there is Rocket Demons of Antiquity, my dual modern/Victorian adventure featuring Mina Harker and her team. I doubt I’ll write that up by the end of the year but it would be good to get all the bits into place for it.

My second major focus was Ghosts of Iron, a stretch goal commission piece for the Crystal Heart kickstarter. Writing that was a really valuable experience and one that I learned a lot from. First off was designing an adventure that would fit the world. My pitch had originally been inspired by a stock image, drawn by J. E. Shields.

From there I had to craft an adventure that would fit with the Crystal Heart setting, showcase both setting and system and then fit it all into a limited word count using the established ‘One Sheet’ format of Savage Worlds. It was a challenge, but an enjoyable one, helped along by the thrill of getting to run playtests in an amazing (and at the time unpublished) world. One of my big takeaways from writing for Crystal Heart was the value of editing, while I was happy with my initial submission the final release is polished in a way that isn’t really possible without the input of a second person. Sadly, as a one man operation hiring an editor for my future projects isn’t really an option but it’s definitely something I will be more aware of going forward.

The final project was The Synth Convergence, a trilogy of missions for The Sprawl RPG that launched right at the end of November. Initially a collaboration with Chris / @HyveMynd I ended up taking it on largely solo after they had to step back from it. By the end the manuscript had grown to over 10,000 words which needed formatting, edited and laid out – primarily during lunch breaks at work.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t immensely proud of the final product. It looks great and I really feel like the trilogy came together as a whole that groups will enjoy. This product required learning a lot of new skills, especially in terms of layout and graphic design so I’ve spent large parts of the last year just trying to get to grips with new techniques in Inkscape, Gimp and Scribus. It helped immensely that there was an established mission structure for The Sprawl, as I could focus on the content of the missions rather than how to structure them.

In terms of sales The Synth Convergence has already beat my modest target of 10 sales (currently sitting at 15 direct sales) and (not surprisingly) is also my highest earner to date. I handed out a number of business cards with free download links during Dragonmeet but so far only one of those has been redeemed. I could look at that as a negative, but just having the cards to hand out provided a confidence boost when it came to talking to people. Also they look just awesome.

Alongside these three projects there are a host of others that have yet to reach completion or even get off the ground.

After shelving it for far too long Project Cassandra returned to active development, with two playtests and a series of rule revisions. The last playtest highlighted a big issue that needs to be resolved (what is it with Dragonmeet throwing spanners into the works?) but I already have a plan for dealing with that. The big focus going forward is writing – I’ll probably start from scratch using the existing material as a guide rather than a draft so it will be interesting to see how much changes in the process.

I’d also hoped to dip my toes into the DMs Guild this year, but the ideas I had for that have yet to move past initial notes. Part of the reason for that was burnout – running D&D 5e blunted my interest in developing for it far more than I’ve experienced with any other system. With the Immortals campaign now complete I’m hoping that I can revitalise my interest in those ideas as I think they each have merit, especially Tales from the Campfire.

Finally there’s The Dyson Eclipse, a vague idea for a space opera game using an adaptation of the Faith Corps system that powers Demon Hunters. Right now that project is little more than a collection of scribbled thoughts. I’m going to work on it over the coming year but with no expectation that it will be complete any time soon. The first hurdle is likely to be the biggest – what do you do? I’d rather avoid producing yet another scoundrels in space game, there are enough of those out there already. Similarly I don’t want dungeon crawling in space, which I realised I was leaning towards during my first crack at outlining the game.

So what does the big list for 2020 look like right now?

Demon Hunters

  • Clean-Up Crew
  • Dr Ahoudi’s Mutant Menagerie / Say Aaargh
  • Knights of the Dawn
  • Eat In or Stake Out
  • Motion in the Ocean
  • Rocket Demons of Antiquity
  • Rules hacks

D&D

  • Tales from the Campfire
  • The Dawnbreakers
  • Untitled Eberron adventure

Other systems

  • Project Cassandra
  • The Dyson Eclipse
  • The Sprawl mission starters
  • 7I/2034 V1 incursion for Trophy Dark
  • Plus a couple of unannounced hacks/adventures where I need to contact a few people first

#RPGaDay2019 10th August: ‘Focus’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 10: Focus

My focus for the rest of the year is releasing material. I’ve got a backlog that I need to get through before I can begin to focus on newer ideas. The Slice of Life Adventure Starters are top of the list. I’ve enjoyed producing them but I had wanted to have them all done well before now, as opposed to still having two of the five left to produce. Talentless Hacks, inspired by the bonus episode will follow the same approach as those that I have released before, a relatively traditional mission structure with clear antagonist. Clean-up Crew is a different kettle of fish though as I’d like to release a playset for Fiasco. I’ve started putting it together but am finding it a surprisingly difficult task. On the surface it should be simple, a playset is merely a series of lists but ensuring that they all work, are thematically useful and help build the type of story fiasco strives for is a challenge.

2018 – Reflecting on the Year

2018 has come and gone. It was quite a year for me, both away from the hobby and at the gaming table. Coming out of 2017 my engagement with the hobby was nearing an all-time low. My actual gaming was limited to a game of Deadlands Noir that was cancelled more often than it was actually run and I was largely limited to keeping my interest alive through online interactions with the community.

After moving to Liverpool in April I decided to make an active effort to re-engage with gaming. This started with a decision to not rant about D&D and how it was the only system being advertised across the multiple gaming cafes in the city. It’s a decision that has served me well, to the point that this year I’ll be running my first campaign of 5th Edition for colleagues at work. I haven’t been this excited about D&D since 4th Edition launched, which I enjoyed from the tactical side but couldn’t really get into on the RP side.

Related to this I made the decision that if the games I wanted to see weren’t being offered then I would run them myself in my ongoing series of Monthly OneShots. They’ve been a moderate success but have suffered from the curse of last-minute player drop out. My aim for these going forward is to widen the breadth of games on offer and to burn through my stack of unplayed games. Ideally, I would like to take one and turn it into a campaign but that’ll have to wait for now as I’m not sure I have the time for two active campaigns.

On a publishing front, 2018 was a mixed year. I made close to zero progress on Project Cassandra and it has now been over a year since my last State of the Conspiracy update. The game isn’t dead, I just need to find the motivation to pull it off of the back burner and get it finished.

I was slightly more successful with releasing material for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG. I debuted a Victorian-inspired team, The Undesirables, the first step towards an epic adventure that I have been thinking about for a few years. 2018 also saw the release of Lockdown, the second of my Slice of Life adventure starters. I had hoped to release the remainder of the adventures last year, which clearly didn’t happen but I remain committed to doing so within the first few months of 2019. The release of Lockdown also saw my first few paid sales over on drivethruRPG. My total sales may only amount to < £10 but it was a big step forward as an indie publisher putting together material in my spare time.

Finally, here on my blog, I had what I’m going to class as a successful year. Thirty-eight blog posts pushed the blog to the most views and visitors I’ve ever had in a year. My review of the Savage Worlds GM Screen remains my most popular post. Going into 2019 my aim is to publish more reviews, with a mix of in-depth and quick, single paragraph posts to ensure I get them out promptly. If I can carry the momentum that I built in the latter half of 2018 then 2019 should be a great year in gaming.