When does it make sense for a hobbyist to publish?

If you’re making RPGs as a hobbyist, with no expectation of making significant income from it, what are the upsides of spending any more time, effort, or expense on print or PDF publication (versus, say, just posting unpolished stuff to your blog)? I realize it’s a very personal question with no one-size-fits-all answer, but I feel like I could benefit from hearing other perspectives, and I suspect I’m not the only one around here wondering about this kind of thing.

To offer a bit more context about where this question comes from: I love making games, and I’ve enjoyed it more and been more productive since realizing it’s “just” a hobby for me. This leaves me feeling a bit confused about what the end goal is of all my hobbyist design work, though. Back when I assumed I would sell my games, it seemed self-evident that I’d spend considerable time and/or money on artwork (at the very least). As I near the end of a couple hobbyist projects, though, I’m suddenly wondering if I’d be better off just sticking stuff on my website, or the occasional “pay what you want” digital file on Drivethru and/or Itch.io.

Now, I love the idea of turning (some of) my games into actual books just because I love books, I enjoy book design, and I’d increase the odds of other people enjoying my games (which would make me feel good!) if I made more physically attractive and professional-looking games. But I am also well aware of how much work goes into publishing a book, and my leisure time is extremely limited since becoming a parent. Digital and POD publishing reduce potential headaches considerably, but I still can’t help but wonder if I’m going to suck all the fun out of my hobby by turning it into a job I really don’t need.

So, if you’re publishing games as a hobbyist, I’d love to know: How do you publish? Digital-only? POD? Crowdfunding? Why do you do it the way you do, and do you wish you were doing it differently? How do you decide when a game is “done”? Thanks in advance for anything you’re able to share!

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I think publish as pdf since it’s not hard, then if people show interest, give feedback, ask about POD etc, then go into printing side of things.

There’s nothing wrong with getting some stock art, or getting someone to check the layout and having some pride in you work.

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Similar questions have been asked in the fiction world for about a decade or more now. With technology at the point where anyone can write a short story or book and publish it with minimal effort, it’s possible to make a little money even as a hobbyist. There are millions of readers and potential gamers out there, you just need to make the thing and then get it out there.

Marketing is a whole 'nother issue, but one of the early steps has to be pulling the thing out of your head, into a sharable format, and then getting it up on a site that people can reach.

You can certainly create a thing cheap and just post it to a blog or a website for free, but there are people out there who will buy stuff from anyone, and a number of means of getting it to them.

So why not publish and see if you can make a little side money? As long as you go in with eyes open, mind open to learn, and your expectations in check, you should be able to enjoy the effort.

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I haven’t gotten far enough down the RPG design road to grapple with the reality of publishing, but that’s definitely the end-goal for me, no question. So a book (physical or otherwise) that’s cleanly and beautifully written, well-formatted, and filled with evocative art is something I definitely want to create at least once in my life. But I tend to invest a lot of myself in my creative endeavors in general (mostly because I have the privilege to do so). For me, seeing one of my designs going out into the world in its best possible form would be a life-affirming experience. It’d be a indication that I’m capable of making meaningful and important contributions to the world. Plus RPGs in general are an enormously important part of my life. So I’d be willing to put up with a lot of bullshit to publish a fully-illustrated RPG, even if it cost me hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars beyond the burdens of the design itself.

Whether that’s worth it to you depends, I think, on what you want out of it. If you find the process of design fascinating in and of itself, or you like making games for your friends or for the Gauntlet, then a Google doc filled with 11-point Arial might be sufficient. If you enjoy the process of designing layouts, or if you’re an illustrator, creating a clean and elegant PDF with some drawings that you drop on the Internet somewhere might be sufficient. If 30 people reading and playing and enjoying your game sounds like a success, well…there’s plenty of folks who’ll put up with rough edges or text-heavy layouts.

I could be well off-base here; this is not an area I’m well-versed in. So if there’s folks who’ve actually gone through this process, feel free to contradict. Maybe the process of getting a full book like this is only a moderate hassle. But if publishing a professional product is as difficult as it seems to be, I’d imagine you’d only go through the process if there was something deeply fulfilling to you about giving your game not just a good life, but its best possible life. Perhaps not just “this is nice” but “this is important”; or “this is who I want to be.” I mean, what would the best-case scenario look like here? Let’s just say you were holding the first book of the first printing of your pet project in your hands, glossy-covered, filled with amazing illustrations, with not a single misplaced word or misaligned table in the entire thing. Or if you saw some GM holding that book in their hands at the front of their table, everyone enraptured by the narrative they were telling? How would that feel? Would it feel nice? Or would it feel powerful?

For me, it’s not even a debate. If I was holding my pet project, Apoapsis, fully-formed and beautifully illustrated exactly as it ought to be, in my hands, it would probably bring me to tears. So of course I’d put up with the hassle.

But there’s nothing better or worse about approaching the craft from a more casual standpoint. Nor is it, I think, a matter of quality. Whatever designs you create will deserve as elaborate a treatment as you opt to provide them. The polish of your products isn’t an indication of your value as a designer, or even the value of the design. Beautiful things are often rough and unrefined. And professional publishing isn’t the endgame of this endeavor. Happiness is.

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This is me. I love playing games. I personally try to analyze my own play and get better at it. This, as a by product, has me looking closely at games. One of the consequences of looking closely at games is thinking about new game designs or components of game design. I also want to keep my fun hobby a fun hobby and not add the stress of trying to make it a significant portion of my income.

For me, there are a few things.

  1. Learning new skills, well because I like learning new things.
  2. Becoming a better player through insight of trying to design. I might be able to understand why designers chose to make some decisions which baffled me before (I might still disagree, but I might have a better understanding of where they were coming from). It will help analyze text, tables, information presented to me. Understanding how layout works, how to index, how to arrange instructions, will give me insight when parsing games I want to play.
  3. I might be able to make enough money to supplement my hobby.
  4. I might be able to make enough money to pay some rad people help me make some games.

There might be more, but that’s what I got so far.

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Publishing has never been easier.

I started working in RPG Publishing in 1995, at the end of the physical paste-up era. The first books I worked on were still printed out and submitted as flats to printers. Printing used to be hard.

Now days it is easy to do, but still not easy to do well. That said, there is no reason a person can’t create their own brand and imprint, and publish their own products. But you don’t have to start there. Do the blog thing, build your ideas, create a framework to flesh out in a fully fledged product.

I really feel the gaming world is better the more perspectives are being added to the overall body of work. Even if you see only a modest success, or none, you might inspire someone else to make the effort to change the world.

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I think I fall into this category. I publish a few larps and Uncharted Worlds supplements via DriveThru. I started publishing PDF-only, because it matched the tools I had available (OpenOffice. Yes, really), and moved into POD for a few things primarily as a way to learn how to do it. I don’t use art apart from the covers (which are free / PDF / CC-licensed stuff) because I don’t expect to make enough from anything to pay an artist.

I started doing it for larps as a way of disciplining myself to write for publication, with all the required GM notes, and also to see if formal publication would expose my work to a wider audiance. It turns out there’s no real market for prewritten theatreform scenarios, but a couple of people bought it, so that was nice. I’ve since shifted focus for larps to a Patreon, with prettied-up games (as opposed to the usual GDrive folder) as a reward. I thought about doing a kickstarter for one game (because it seemed like the sort of thing people might like), but in the end I couldn’t stomach actively asking people for money (as opposed to putting something passively on sale), let alone making a video (which is beyond my skillset and my desire to learn).

For the Uncharted Worlds stuff, it was more opportunistic: I’d written up some extra rules for my group, realised they might be useful to others and that they would be enough for a nice little PWYW product (which would be permitted by the game’s CC licence). People bought it, so that encouraged me to try a second product, and a third, and to play around with POD. Which meant also learning about ISBNs (free in NZ fortunately) and legal deposit rules, but that was a good way to dispose of extra proof copies.

I approach it as a hobbyist. It makes a few dollars, which nicely lets me pay for anything interesting I see on DriveThru, and to pay it forward to people doing PWYW products. But its not Real Money, and I wouldn’t want it to be - because then it would be work rather than play.

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Okay, so one more that is a little harder to encapsulate nicely.

To help you believe your work is worth monetary compensation. I’m not saying the blog post isn’t worth monetary compensation, it very well might be. I’m saying that I (or you) might not feel like I should charge for it. I think if you make a thing, and you think it should deserve monetary compensation, then you should charge for it. Maybe those additional bits and extra effort will get you to actually put a reasonable price on your thing.

I think:

  • If you want to put something up for free, you should.
  • If you want to put something up and charge for it, you should.
  • If you want to put something that is raw, unedited, and in no way a “finished” product, you should.
  • If you want to put something up that is polished, playtested, edited and full of beautiful art, you should.
  • If you want to put something up that is any combination of in the sliding scales of things above, you should.

Making stuff can be fun and rewarding, it can also be a lot of hard work. There are lots of reasons people can be making TTRPG things. Some folks can do it just because they have fun making it and sharing it with the world. Some folks can do it because they are trying to make a living. To me, one does not invalidate the other.

… but to get back to the topic… if you have a little voice in your head that is telling you, “you should charge for this”, maybe these bits of extra effort can help rationalize it to yourself that, “yes, I can charge for this.”

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When I publish, I don’t expect to make any profit off it (and so far, I’ve been succeeding at that goal!). What publishing really does for me is two things.

  1. I find the process of laying out and polishing a piece of work intrinsically satisfying. For me personally, doing layout is as fun as designing mechanics.
  2. Published games have more reach. If I post something on social media or throw it up on itch, maybe a handful of people will ever look at it. But if I run a KS, and have it for sale on DriveThru and IPR and at cons, then lots more people get their hands on it. My favorite thing is when I hear about total strangers playing Laser Kittens.

I’ll also say that self-publishing is not the only form of publishing. If you’ve got something that you think deserves more attention, see if there’s someone who would be willing to publish it for you. The Gauntlet’s publishing model, e.g. Codex, is something that I think the RPG ecosystem needs more of.

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Publishing it means chumps like me will do your marketing for you at a few dozen conventions a year (he said, having sold well into the triple digits of Laser Kittens in the last couple years…)

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I don’t think there’s a point at which it ‘makes sense’. For me writing Amazing Tales was a chance to learn some new skills, make good use of a sabbatical from work, and capture something I’d written for my kids that had turned out well.

After I got it out there it was a chance to continue learning things about digital marketing and ultimately retail and distribution. Now I’m lucky enough that I can afford to try and do this full time, which is a chance to learn about accounting and marketing and all that stuff.

If you’ve got any expectations of even a modest income from something you publish then you need to accept you’ll be spending time on marketing. Probably more time than you spend writing and producing whatever it is.

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I’m definitely in the hobbyist creator category. Here’s my take:

I do DriveThru, PDF and POD, because I don’t want to deal with the financial risks of printing, storing, shipping inventory that no one buys. DriveThru’s distribution network hits nearly the entire world for reasonable prices, so I avoid a lot of uncertainty there, too. Going POD, instead of offset, makes a slightly inferior physical product, and at worse margins, but game design is not, and will never be, my full time or even part time gig. So I opt for sub-optimal at times to protect my finances, my time, my mental health, and my love for the hobby.

I’m currently working on 3 projects over the next two years. Two full games (Cryptomancer 2.0, Embarker) and a sourcebook for SIGMATA). Embarker is going to be PDF only because it is an environmental game. But I’m starting to suspect that is how I will do everything going forward… because doing or playing for layout for multiple versions of the same product is time consuming, expensive, and hard. Also, I feel that’s where game books are going as more people adopt technology, clear out their bookshelfs, and are just generally poor :frowning:

As to “when” to finally press the “publish” button, that’s definitely a personal one. So if you have external pressures to publish (e.g. you told your KS backers that the game would be out by X date), that helps you get over the hard truth that you’ll never, ever publish the perfect game and you just have to settle with what you have at some point, knowing there will be warts and all, and some people will really hate your guts for that. Once its out there, there’s no take-backsies… and you’re vulnerable (and deserving) of all (non-bad-faith) criticism. It’s scary.

Lastly, and this one can be contentious, but I’d continue to use either itch or drivethru or whatnot as a space to float your game ideas. If it’s on a blog, no one will find it, or know about it. If you put it on drivethru or itch for free, people will stumble on it while looking for similar content. There’s definitely contentiousness about pricing… there are both indies and established folk who think the market is flooded with too much free or cheap (or bad) stuff that is bringing down all costs I think we’re definitely in a growing pains and transformation era… sort of like how Napster changed the way people listen to, consume, and buy (or steal) music. There’s obviously going to be takes on how we should conduct our-self as designers, individually and collectively. We all have to figure that one out for ourselves.

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I don’t know about your background, but it’s not that hard to publish something as a pdf or print on demand.

You need to:

  1. Create the game
  2. Proofread
  3. Get art, if you want any
  4. Put it into layout

If you can do 3 and 4 yourself, it’s not that hard to publish. Honestly, it’s not. It can drain energy though, but I used Lulu and it wasn’t a hassle at all. I got a background in graphic design and I managed to do some of the art myself and got hold of free art from others. If you want to order art, do that as soon as possible. It takes a lot of time to draw something, and there is going to be back and forth with the artist. Estimate a year to get all art done, no matter what kind of game you do.

I learned a lot along the way publishing my first book, and I used lots of shortcuts the second time I published anything. I playtested the second game for a year, and then wrote fifty pages, took in proofread while setting the pages in two weeks, and uploaded everything to Lulu to print it.

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I have ten+ games to my name by now, after putting out on average one game per year for a decade, some in multiple languages. Yet I don’t really make any money off it all, so I suppose I have something to contribute on the matter.

As a teen I read Gary Gygax’s Role-Playing Mastery, which promotes game design as the highest level of GM mastery, to make/run not only an adventure, but a system to fit an idea. I think that there’s some merit to that thought. To not let what already is known limit the story telling, but to advance beyond it, contribute something to the hobby.

But as you say, just writing it as a blog post would serve that purpose, at a significantly lower investment of time, effort and possibly money.

My first game was pretty much a ‘bucket list’ thing. I wanted to have made a game of my own at least once in my life. And the idea for a game came at an opportune time in my life - I had just published my thesis, so I had learned some basic typesetting. So my thought was that if I only wrote it, I would already know how to the remaining steps. But when I after several years of writing and playtesting started selling the completed game to my gamer friends, the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction was a huge rush.

I wanted to share the feeling with others so I ran a workshop/study group on how to publish a game, during which I released my second game, using it as an example at each stage. And by that time I was really starting to get the ‘short cuts’ that @Rickard mentions above in place. Once the text was in place it was starting to take less and less time to get it all laid out and pretty. So the barrier to publishing shifted into little more than a road bump. And with every game I released I reached a larger audience, which made the reward of recognition even larger.

So I became a recognition junkie of sorts (while still managing to keep things in check, I hope. I publish the stuff I want to write, and it then finds an audience. Rather than finding an audience to write for.)

And the writing is ‘free’, I lost my gaming group when they completed their studies and were spread across the country, but designing and writing games is a way to keep in touch with the hobby. And every time something gets done I publish it. Typesetting a hundred-page-game is done in a weekend, publishing to DriveThruRPG and Lulu takes less than an hour. I get enough money from selling my games that I can afford to buy the art I need for the next one, the whole thing hasn’t turned an actual profit during any of the years I’ve been doing it, but it pays for itself, something few hobbies do.

And with time it has become quite a little collection of games, each being another small step on the way to role-playing mastery. :wink:

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Thanks, everybody, for your thoughtful responses. Themes I’m seeing emerge from these responses and from folks I’ve spoken to elsewhere include…

  1. Creative fulfillment: Making your game as good as it can be feels good in its own right, and the tasks involved in publishing (editing, layout, etc.) can be just as personally rewarding as game design.

  2. External validation: Knowing people are willing to spend money on your games signals you are doing something right.

  3. Visibility: If you want people to see and play your games (perhaps for points 1 or 2, above), that’s a lot more likely to happen if you put in that extra effort than if you just blog into the void.

  4. Spending money: Even if other sources provide enough income to support your lifestyle, having a little extra to spend can be nice.

  5. Skill building: Going through the publication process demands learning new things—professional skills, personal skills, and creative skills alike.

  6. Creative contributions: More broadly distributing your material makes it easier to inspire others and add to the collective corpus of work, which in turn elevates the whole hobby.

  7. Industry support: You help keep others in business by earmarking your hobbyist income for artists and other RPGs, normalizing the idea that RPGs are worth paying for at all, and providing products for retailers to sell.

  8. Delegating unwanted tasks: If you hate marketing or selling your game, but really want it to reach a wider audience than your personal blog, there are folks who are happy to do that for you.

  9. Providing motivation: When you know others want to pay you for something (or have already paid you, e.g., via Kickstarter or Patreon), it can inspire accountability, productivity, and decisiveness.

I’m probably missing some, but I think that captures the bulk of what I’ve read.

Folks, your responses are very much appreciated, and I’m confident I’m not the only one who will find them valuable. Thanks again so much!

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I love recaps like this on a thread.

I want to add one more point, because this is one of the reasons I published my games.

  1. Portfolio. Perhaps you finished your studies or seeking a new carrier. To be able to bring your published games on an interview is a real confidence boost.
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