Self-publishing 101 – Lessons being learned daily

So, my SRD-based RPG, Dragon Heresy, is getting closer and closer to reality. At this point, I can almost count on one hand the number of tasks required to get the written part of the manuscript finished.

By looking to create a finished, playable, “if I had to I could just put this in a crappy PDF and play the damn game” format, I hope to avoid one of what looks to be the classic mistakes of bringing a small-company RPG to market – not finishing it.

Just look at the projects that draw the ire of watchdogs like +Erik Tenkar and others. Mostly, someone seems to have an idea, they Kickstart it – and it frequently is a great idea – and the project doesn’t get finished. There can be an infinite number of reasons, many of them good, some of them not-so-good, and at least one has drawn criminal charges.

So I’ll avoid that one. But I’m ready to admit I’m probably going to walk into quite a few more.

I’m going to go stream-of-consciousness for a bit, mostly because I am writing this in fits and starts.

The GURPS Experience

Technically, this isn’t my first rodeo. Sort of. I’ve written for Steve Jackson Games something like thirteen Pyramid articles and one book. 

So I can write, at least theoretically. 

But do you know what that doesn’t prepare you for?

Everything else.

Don’t get me wrong. I have enjoyed working with SJG. Sean and Steven and PK are great to work with, and there’s a contingent of co-authors like +Peter V. Dell’Orto and +Christopher R. Rice  that make collaboration a pleasure, not to mention some folks like Hans and +Shawn Fisher who do work in areas I’m very fond of, and I help them out (and they help me) wherever I can.

One thing that’s great about SJG is that they’re professionals. They write good contracts, and they stick by them. They make it very clear what they’re looking for, have a painfully complete style guide, and only take your proposal if they’re sure that (a) you can finish it, and (b) they can sell it. And when they do, they pay, promptly and in full compliance with the contract. If you are straight with them about delays and difficulties, they will work with you to fix them.

As a result, as I’ve tried to set up my own workings for the Dragon Heresy RPG, I have very, very consciously modeled some of what my impressions are of their internal workings, plus some business practices that I have learned over fifteen years as a professional engineer, project manager, and personnel manager.

Some Take-aways

Things I’ve done and am doing?


I’m trying to write good contracts. This was a rocky start, because my attempts to be clear and also provide multiple points of contact with my creatives and myself (I like a four-payment model for contracting. A small amount down to prove I’m serious and make the contract binding, some more when agreement is reached on exactly what the work will be – a full rough draft, for example. A third payment when the first publishable draft is done, and then the remainder on final acceptance. The largest payments are the middle ones, with roughly 70% of the payment being in those two.

Why do it that way? Why not do differently? I’ve had good luck with that method, it gives people milestones to work for, and encourages contact with me as project manager. Plus, it’s more cash flow to the artist, which from what I can tell on the internet, can’t hurt.

The other part of that is to always be very, very, very clear as to what is in and out of the scope of work. Writing it down gives both parties recourse to engage in common ground as a discussion of expectations. And much like RPG campaigns themselves, unequal or unclear expectations is where things most often break down.

Get lots of help

Open up your favorite big-publisher RPG. Look at the credits page. See all those names?

Every single one of them had something important enough to do that (a) they were paid for it, and (b) they needed different people with different skill sets to do.

Know what’s still missing from that credits page? Marketing. Sales. Web design. Store-front maintenance. Your Favorite Local Gaming Store. Playtesters and the equivalent of the SJG MIBs to get the word out.

I have engaged +Rob Muadib to do layout for the game, and he’s kicking ass and taking names. He’s great to work with, he takes my suggestions and also knows when to say “no, trust me. Do it this way.”

We seem to work well together.

I am, for the moment, the project manager, writer, art director, editor, marketing executive, and . . . gah. Too much. I’m going to have to plan and execute my own crowd-funding, too.

I will be asking for lots of help from friends – mostly in the form of advice.

Make a budget. Make it real.

One of the big scary things that writing a 200,000 word game entails is that there are a lot of up-front costs. Especially if you want it to look like a pro game.

The biggest cost by far is art. I supect the game will wind up being clsoe to 300 pages. That means that I will need something like a minimum of one piece of artwork per four pages, through I’m planning on one piece per three pages. That’s about 100 pieces of artwork. I’m figuring fifteen full-page mural-style images, more or less, the facing-pages for each chapter. That will leave something like 95 pieces of artwork needed as a rough budget, and I’m figuring about 0.3 pages per art piece (three 1/4 page pieces and one 1/2 page piece per four pieces of required art). 

That means about 40-45 full pages of artwork, and the going rate per page seems to be about $100 for black and white, adn $200-250 for color. I will likely need different B/W art (because the baseline version of the book should be black and white so it comes up easily on eReaders and prints well) and color art. So I will budget $4500 for B/W art and $11,000 for color art.

Editing something like this game seems to clock in at about three cents per word, and a ballpark for indexing is about $10 per 1,000 words. So I might need as much as $6,000 for editing (yeek!) and another $2,000 for professional indexing. Those costs are going to be borne regardless of color and black and white. If you think you don’t need an editor, you’re wrong. And no book (or few books? I’ll go with no book) that is a reference book, which is what an RPG rules book is, a technical reference, can stand without a good index. That’s one area everyone can learn from SJG. Every reference will have a page number, too – no instances of “Frombotzer: see Widget.” It will be “Frombotzer 126, 130-131 (also see Widget).

And don’t forget that crowdfunding takes its cut too, so plus-up your goals to account for that.

Oh, and shipping. At-cost coupons are a good way to deal with that, but some people hate that with the fiery passion of 1,000 suns. I’ve seen others mention a second “escrow” account where each person kicks in their own shipping. Need to find out more about that. Because I’ve heard 1/3-2/5 of sales can be international, and shipment of books overseas can be a nightmare. Be aware, plan for it ahead of time, or at least have a plan to make a plan.

Play it once, play it loud

The other thing I’ve found, again and again, is there’s zero substitute for playing the game. None. I have thus far run four to six stand-alone sessions of the game, and have kicked off two campaigns and expect to run one more. 

I learn something every single time I play. Sometimes it’s positive – the rules work like they think. Even better when it’s a positive surprise – the rules work like they’re supposed to, and also produce a really cool other result. Sometimes, as in the recent orc dogpiling incident, things don’t go as planned, and nothing teaches thoughtful rules writing like a TPK. Had my players been less mature, I might have lost them. Fortunately, they’re all writers, bloggers, game designers, and willing to help out. So no worries there and the rules are better for it.

Listen to folks, but have your own voice

Part and parcel with playtesting is listening to your testers. Don’t just listen. Force them to talk to you. Ask questions. Be thoughtful about the answers.

But it’s not game design by committee. It’s my game. Mine. It has to be fun, but I define what that is, either explicitly or implicitly. And every player will have their own thing. I’ve got one player who loves fiddle and optional rules. The other gets angry when thieves have a d6, let alone d8, hit die (or whatever passes for hit dice in Dragon Heresy). 

That span of opinions is valuable, but it’s up to me where to set the dial. I don’t intend on changing the d8 hit dice of rogues to d4s, but I do intend on harmonizing the sneak attack feature with the new ruleset. I don’t intend on writing the optional rules that have been suggested into the core “play it this way” game. But I am including an Appendix XX or Vault or something with a selection of optional rules that have come up in play, or been suggested along the way, or were nifty ideas that I came up with that I want to try. 

But much like a movie, where very little is on screen that the director didn’t place there deliberately, the same should be true of the game. 

Have a project plan

At some point, and that point is Real Soon Now, I need a Gantt Chart of how this thing needs to come together. Now that I can see the end of the writing process, I can put down good time estimates for finishing the creative work. Then art plans, crowdfunding plans, more art, editing and indexing, layout, and a final round of revisions. 

Plan for success, plan for failure

The purpose of the basic black-and-white document my team is producing, with donated or public domain art, is to ensure that if you back the project you will walk away with a playable, tested product. I hope to make it better, but I hope that I can at least raise the $5,000-$8500 needed to pay for the editing and indexing (or whatever people come in with when I send those two things out for competitive bidding). Readable and usable first. Then pretty. 

But there will be at least two or three levels of “pretty.” First is recouping costs for already paid funds, then improving B/W art, then full-color, and then maybe if it goes gangbusters, an offset print run of high volume. 

But if it all goes into the tank, and doesn’t fund at all? I will still have a B/W PDF that looks good (because it does look good) and plays well (because I’ve run it enough to know it does play well), and can try and go to market with it. If I fund at a minimum level, the backers will at least get that, and any goals beyond it are bonuses for everyone, including me. But never, never, never gamble funds of your own that you can’t afford to never recoup. Ever. If you must overextend, you better darn well incorporate, so that if an angry dwarf mob files a lawsuit, you don’t risk your house as well as your game-design reputation. LLCs are cheap, relatively speaking. I think I can set one up for less than $200 here in Minnesota.

And if it really goes nuts? Raises a half-million bucks? I’ve already got a sequel in mind. So there’s that.

I’m sure I will have other thoughts. And I know I didn’t write down everything I have yet to do, know I have to do, or need to think about. But this is where I am here, and while I’m nervous about the prospects, I’m not drowning. 

At least not yet.

5 thoughts on “Self-publishing 101 – Lessons being learned daily

  1. I'm glad to hear how this is coming along! I am…skeptical…about Kickstarters, but I've seen your concept and I believe I'll be in for this one – an extraordinary rarity, as far as we're talking with me.

    Shipping. Thank goodness you're thinking about that. Many moons ago, there was a wargame that set up a kickstarter, got funded, actually produced, but fell flat on the shipping. It's been more than five years, but I believe shipping alone would have run him upwards of a half million. I may be inflating that a bit, but it was a substantial, six figure number for sure.

    I'm going to have to try and make time this weekend to get back reading on this project…

  2. I haven't published an RPG, only a few novels, so I don't know how much of what I learned would transfer, but a few major takeaways were:

    1. You actually can publish you own work without the help of a publisher. I know, this is probably obvious, but until I actually went through the process of getting ISBNs and formatting the thing for print and putting it up on CreateSpace, this wasn't obvious to me. I'm a little slow that way.

    2. (As noted…) Treating a production of the novel as a software development project turned out to be very useful. Backup things up regularly and tracking progress were pretty natural to me, as I'm rather familiar with the software development process.

    3. You can hire people to art, maybe even hire an artist you really admire. I learned how to do art, too. Not as good as I could hire, but workable.

    4. All the software you need to publish is available open source or free.

  3. Why wouldn't you automatically want to crowdfund or pre order in some way?

    A question arises of what you can guarantee and whether you refund if you don't deliver, but I can't see how anyone can take a $20,000+ risk without some investors or customers willing to share that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *