In this fascinating post on the blog, Uncanny Spheres, indie RPG designer, Ian Yusem, describes his first year producing materials for such games as (the wonderful) Mothership and Troika RPGs. He wanted to show what he published through the year, what it cost to produce, and how much he made to benefit others who might want to break into the indie publishing game biz.
Tl:Dr: Keep your day job, at least for the first few years. Even though he had some significant successes (like having one of his Mothership adventures, Moonbase Blues, become a #1 category bestseller on Drive-Thru RPG), he still only made around $4/hr for his efforts. But he is feeling much better about 2021 and already has a Kickstarter for another Mothership adventure, The Drain, that's taken in close to $12,000 (with 4 days left). But as Ian points out, indie game publishing is a long game.
A Long Road
RPG self-publishing is a long game. Don't expect to show up on the scene and immediately carve out a livable income with your first publication. Building a sustainable income in RPGs takes time, luck, and a willingness to wrestle with the dark financial/logistical/marketing side of things. There's a good reason the vast majority of game designers—even some of the ones you've heard of—keep a day job. All that said, there is a real possibility of carving out a livable niche if you work hard at it.
Attaching yourself to a popular indie RPG system and focusing on making content for that game alone is a great way to establish yourself as a brand new creator. Mothership, Troika, Trophy, and Mörk Borg for example are all seeing fantastic 3rd party support from independent creators thanks in no small part to the eager, growing communities and fans each game has. What this doesn't mean is go churn out content for the most popular game you can find. You should genuinely enjoy and regularly play games you write content for, otherwise you'll be miserable and your work will suffer.
Finding a Home
Making friends with RPG creators and being active in RPG communities is all-important. All of the jobs I did took year came from friends or contacts, or involved me commissioning friends and contacts from communities I engage with. Find people who know what they're doing and let them help and mentor you. Once you've got your footing, turn back around and start mentoring others.
Building Your Community
Think collectively. Share knowledge, break down barriers of accessibility, and uplift your community. These might sound like lofty but intangible ideals, but they can have a very real positive impact on your livelihood. One of the most successful endeavors I accomplished last year came from collective action via a group promotional bundle. Even beyond specific group projects, the work you put into your community will get back to you in one way or another. Someone you hire today is someone who can hire you tomorrow. We as indie creators are stronger together.
[H/t Michael Hughes]
Image: Promo image