Sunday, 17 October 2021

A Full-Time RPG Income

What does it take to earn a full-time income from RPGs? This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation to illustrate one way of looking at this.

The RPG market is growing (rapidly, apparently!) Every year, more and more RPG gamer dollars are spent on new and classic products.

At the same time, the barrier to entry to make RPG products has never been lower. There are countless free SRDs to use as the spine of the game, the tools to produce are cheaper than ever, the publishing routes (e.g. POD) are wide open, and the knowledge to use all of this stuff is splattered all over the internet.

What was once a sheaf of hand-typed homegrown rules can now become a 'product', and tens of thousands do every year. The money brought in by the growing RPG audience is spread across more and more products all the time.

So, for a designer to go full time, they need to capture enough of that audience to support them. This brings me to the key point of this little model:

How many RPG fans does it take to support one designer?

Let's say, for you, a full-time income in RPGs means $50,000 annually. (Like all the other numbers in this model, we can tweak this to be whatever we want.)

Now, how many RPG buyers does this money come from?

Let's say the typical RPG buyers spend $100 on RPG-related products each year. This means it takes the combined purchases of 500 buyers to produce the $50,000/yr income. That's fine, except for a few assumptions that we can adjust for:

  • Those buyers don't only buy your stuff
  • You probably need help making the products, so the revenue is shared among a group of designers, illustrators, and so on
  • You certainly need help printing and shipping the products to people

Adjusting for these assumptions increases the number of RPG buyers required to make up that income. Let's assume that:

  • Each buyer buys 6 products from different indie publishers annually, dividing that $100 among six indie publishers
  • Half the retail price goes to printing, shipping, logistics, and processing fees that have nothing to do with the creative team, dividing the creative team's share in half
  • You're doing a fifth of the work of the product team (design, writing, illustration, editing, layout, marketing), so you get a fifth of the remaining proceeds
This means it actually takes 60 buyers (6 x 2 x 5) to make up each $100 that makes it into your pocket, or 30,000 buyers overall.

So, there's your target: you need to get a 20% profit share* of one or more RPG products that collectively reach 30,000 buyers every year.

* * *

For perspective, the Trilemma Compendium had 2,248 backers on Kickstarter, and is on track to become a Mithral-selling product (2501+ sales) on DriveThruRPG by the end of this year, about 1400 sales/year. In isolation, that sounds great, but it's not even remotely close to the target this model requires.

Going by this model, for a full-time income in RPGs, I'd need to:

  • Make several such books every year 
  • Vastly increase the audience that each one reaches
This still doesn't get me anywhere near the target in year 1, but in a few years, the majority of sales are actually out of the back catalog.

* * *

I don't have any special wisdom about this, but a few observations:

More buyers means higher $/hr. This might be obvious, but the more people that benefit from the time you put in, the easier it is to make some money at it. Making something for a hundred people isn't remotely as useful as making something for a thousand if they both take you the same time.

Having said that, more buyers is only better if the rest of the factors hold up. Projects that do truly vast numbers (e.g. WOTC hard covers) may be the big leagues, but they might not be the sweet spot. The product revenue is shared among a big team, and I think a lot of it is work for hire. My unsubstantiated hunch is that Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine is doing better than the typical WOTC hardcover contributor: very small team, majority profit share, substantial back catalog sales.

Getting a share of profits looks even more important now. Most of a product's sales are in years 2+. Kickstarters are flashy and great, but by year three, the compendium will have sold more on DTRPG than it did during its Kickstarter. The only way to benefit from those sales is to have a share of the ongoing profits.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Coming Apart v0.4

Without further ado, here's version 0.4 of Coming Apart. This is very much a design in motion, but some major changes are most of the way through.

Coming Apart v0.4 Rules

Coming Apart v0.4 Playbooks

Here's a partial change log of the v0.3 to v0.4 changes

  • Basic moves completely reworked
  • Weapon accuracy/damage table removed
  • Hazard damage revised
  • Mission clock ticks are coarser scale, O2/radiation every 3
  • Ship combat rewritten
  • Revised how ship quirks cause trouble
  • Added section on threats
  • Restructured the flow of the initial sections, started a GM section
  • Clarified unusual fold types
  • Catching a break is now on a 10+ not 12+

Basic Moves Reworked

The biggie is that this is no longer quite so obviously Powered by the Apocalypse. I find it quite challenging to not have an explicit measure of how difficult a task is in action genres, and that kept coming up for me.

What I do love is the move notation (if not the name), so that stays; there's now a core resolution mechanic that's very much like Blades in the Dark's three levels of difficulty (controlled, risky, desperate), and other specialized moves elaborate this.

(This relationship between the core move and the specialized moves is still in the pimply teen phase, but it will be clearer in the next revision.)

There is still an intermediate terminology problem at the seam - rolling 2d6 6-/7-9/10+ is a miss/hit/break, but then there are special names for the things that happen based on the degree of difficulty (succeed, fail, a cost, a disaster). In this design, 'hit/miss/break' is intermediate terminology that should be removed, and the specialized moves should be rewritten in terms of success, failure, costs, disasters, and so on.

Weapon Accuracy Removed

At the same time, I've pruned off one of the signature elements of The Regiment, the 'accuracy of fire' table. This makes sense in a battlefield context, but it was feeling more and more like complexity that wasn't paying for itself here.

Hazard Damage Revised

In its place is simplified weapon and hazard damage, all weapon dice just have a 50/50 chance of causing harm.

Ship Combat Rewritten

Ship weapons now use a different mechanic than the rest of the game, but I think it's simpler than fiddling with AOC. I'm going with the AD&D philosophy here that subsystems can be their own thing mechanically, and this is definitely not primarily a game about ship-to-ship combat (certainly not in the alpha/beta danger levels).

Mission Clock Ticks are Coarser

I like the mission clock, but I'm experimenting with making it coarser. Rather than tracking every few minutes, now the GM just tracks things that take a long time. This makes the bookkeeping chunkier, but I'm curious if this will lead to more GM cognitive load during play, having to decide what is or isn't worth a tick.

Section on Threats

There's now a short section that describes some of the shipboard threats. I think most people probably know what an anaconda is, but I was overdue for fuller descriptions of glass, dut-e-ful zombies, and SKULs.

What to Do With This?

Like v0.3 this is nominally playable, if you're okay with papering over a few cracks in realtime. If you do, or if you feel up for giving it a read, any comments in the PDFs in Google Drive are very welcome!

Saturday, 14 August 2021

Wilderness Paths

Here are some lightweight rules for finding paths through the wilderness. There are lots of different wilderness exploration rules, focusing on all sorts of things like weather, food, or getting lost, but these rules focus on finding better paths over time.

For these rules to be useful, you need three things:

  • a wilderness map divided into regions
  • reason for the adventurers to cross through the same area many times
  • resource constraints that make shorter, safer paths worth finding

An ideal situation would a West Marches game where the party is heading out from a central point over and over again. Finding better routes through the familiar areas close to home pays off in the long run, enabling them to speed past problems they faced early on.

Divide the Map into Regions

The regions on your map could be hexes, or just named areas of a more freeform wilderness map. It doesn't really matter, as long as they're big enough that there are several paths through it.

This doesn't take a large region, even the classic six-mile hex of forest or other rough terrain is large enough that you could cross it many times and still miss points of interest.

When you blaze a trail..

When the party first crosses a region (perhaps en route to a more distant landmark), roll 4d6 in order. Each die represents a leg of the path through the region.

d6This part of your path is ..
Hazardous. Your path takes you to, over, or through a dangerous obstacle like a steep cliff, a swift river, a ravine, noxious plants, treacherous terrain (bogs, pits, sharp), and so on. Every time you come this way you must deal with it.
Circuitous. Switchbacks, curling pathways through dense forest, along the banks of a winding river. The path will take you there, but it takes extra time. Perhaps instead of only a day to cross this region, it takes two.
Occupied. Your path goes directly past a lair, through an often used hunting ground, within sight of watchful sentries, or along a regularly patrolled track. This may not be the only encounter you have in this area, but every time you come this way, you risk meeting whoever or whatever lives here.
Terrain-specific. Deserts expose you to the elements, forests confuse you or slow you, mountains force up steep climbs or across windblown glaciers. Wherever you are, this part of your path is quintessential of the terrain type.
Direct. This part of the path is straighter and easier going than usual. Save yourself some time. Perhaps instead of three days to cross the region, it takes only one.
Secluded. A sheltered gully, a disused trail, a hidden pass—whatever it is, nothing else seems to come this way and your progress is hidden from view.

Travel Time

Blazing a trail through tricky terrain takes twice as long as travelling along a previously used, known path. Depending on the scale of your regions, it might take four days to cross a region (eight while blazing the trail).

Example: Mossgrove

Two days from Fair Riot is a swampy wood the locals call Mossgrove. They had no advice on how to cross the swampy forest, and so the party must forge its own trail. The dice: 4,1,2,2. Terrain-specific, hazardous, and then a double result of circuitous.
  • The western edge of Mossgrove wood is knee-deep water over soft loam. Leeches and gnats harry you as you trudge aimlessly through the algae-streaked waters. There's absolutely nowhere to rest.
  • A half day from there, the water deepens and the bottom turns to soft, sucking mud. Everyone risks getting stuck; ponies and heavily laden adventurers risk sinking completely.
  • Beyond the quagmire is a labyrinth of dry mounds, riven by deep, muddy streams. Picking a path through here that keeps your boots dry is endlessly winding (you may even have looped a few times), taking 2 days longer than you'd expect.

There must be another way..

Each time the party cross a region, they can choose one of the paths they know, or blaze a new one. If they forge a new one, roll 4d6 again and interpret the result.

If the party just wants to detour around one part of a path roll two replacement dice to represent what they find on the detour. Maybe it's better, maybe it's worse!

Example: Avoiding Mossgrove Quagmire

On their return through Mossgrove, the party decides to see if they can find away around the quagmire. After two days of travelling through the maze (the eastern two legs of the original path), they roll two dice: 1, and 3. Hazard, Occupied!

This is even worse! On their third trip, they roll 1 and 3 again (I'm doing this as I write). It's not until their fourth trip, that their attempt to find a way around the quagmire pays off with a roll of 4 and 6. Their best path through mossgrove is now:
  • Knee-deep leechwater with nowhere to rest
  • {Detour}
    • Slow going between closely spaced, mossy trees
    • A secluded route around the edges of the quagmire (perhaps around a tar-smelling bog where few animals tend to come)
  • Two days of circuitous travel through the labyrinth of streams


If you have a guide who knows the area, randomly roll the path using 3d6 instead of 4d6. Not only is it shorter, but they will be able to warn you of any hazards or occupants ahead of time.

These rules are Mosaic Strict.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

More MOSAIC Strict Sets!

It's been a few months since I posted about MOSAIC Strict, but a bunch more rule sets have appeared. Too many for me to do justice to each one, but I've returned to keeping the Mosaic Strict Rule Sets spreadsheet up to date!

Last time around, there weren't any rules for making characters; a number of people have addressed this with new systems ranging from the very generic to the highly specific!

Here they are, 22 new modular rule sets to mash together with each other, or to add to existing games:


Character Creation

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Coming Apart v0.3

For a little while now I've been working on Coming Apart, a sci-fi PbtA game about scrappers in rust-bucket starships working their way to something better by doing high-stakes salvage missions nobody else will touch.

Mechanically, it's heavily inspired by The Regiment, which was John Harper's ashcan WWII game. Lots of lead flying at you (or in this case, shrapnel and fire) as you try to get your mission accomplished.

It's set in a 'post planet' era a few centuries after "Too Good to be True". Planet killing weapons have wrecked humanity's few good homes, but instantaneous interstellar travel has opened the universe. Now, a scattered humanity stretches across incredible distances, linked by delicate webs of trust.

Play wise, I was heavily inspired by the smash 'n' grab style of the Void Bastards video game, but with a base-building component: all the ships are modular (like the modern day ISS), so one of your options is to saw something off and weld it onto your own ship.

Before long, you get a shot at targets from higher danger classes, which opens up more modules, threats, but also new advancements.

Right now the game is at a very early stage; despite its length it's still very much in the middle of refinement. (When I design I seem to go through bloating/contracting phases as I explore a bit and then distill to the core of what I want.)

If any of this sounds like your thing, have a look at the v0.3 rules and playbooks.
There's only been a tiny bit of playtesting; there are marked holes but also undiscovered ones. If you squint a bit, it's playable, but not necessarily fun yet! All the numbers are uncalibrated, so death spirals, unwinnable missions and boring cake-walks are just as likely as thrilling action.

Still, happy to have feedback if you have any!

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Scorched Earth NPC Relationship Table

Integrating player-written character backgrounds into your campaign is real work. Sometimes they just write so much, who can keep all those names straight?

Why struggle? Let the dice be your friend! Every time they bring someone up from that dog-eared sheaf they keep bringing to game night, just roll d6:

d6Whatever happened to so-and-so?
Moments after you last saw them, they joined up with the enemy. Life as an entry level hobgoblin is hard, but it also has a kind of simplicity. They don't really think about the past. Cudgel, rusty helmet, raawr, you know?
They died, pretty much right away. Their surviving relatives and friends remember the PC as a bit of a dick to them in their final years.
One day, their home just fell into the earth, and they haven't been seen since. Coincidentally, the hole is the entrance to that dungeon you were planning on using next!
It was never reciprocal, and the NPC is honestly having trouble remembering the PC's name. I mean, it's great you thought we we were close or whatever, but I think you read too much into it. Please don't make it awkward.
Nobody can remember the NPC. Who? Are you sure? There's no magic at work, just an overactive imagination.
After a brief, high fever, they erupted into a brightly colored fungal mat. Nobody's been able to clean it up, the stench is unbelievable.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Some Mosaic Strict Sets Appear!

Forty eight days ago, I wrote up Mosaic Strict, a somewhat light-hearted set of compliance rules for making modular parts of RPGs. It asked, what if there were no mechanical interconnections between various parts of a game at all?

Since then, several folks have actually made Mosaic Strict rule sets!

EDIT: Since this post was published, more have appeared. I'll track them in a spreadsheet.

A Lovemaking

The first was Paul Czege, who wrote A Lovemaking, rules for how characters negotiate whether to get it on. Released March 1, 2021.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things in the Dungeon

Next was Alfred Valley, with what must be the shortest Mosaic rule set so far, a two-sided business card on how to decide whether to hang up the spurs and leave the dungeon. Released March 4, 2021.

Turn Up Your Nose

Third was Dan Maruschak with a one-pager on how to empathize with the snobbish upper classes when they're forced to deal with people 'beneath them'. I imagine this could be played inverted to good effect. Released March 9, 2021.

Matthias of Liche's Libram wrote this rule set about how to interpret the significance of characters' dreams. Released March 14, 2021.

Cook Off

Matt Bohnhoff's first rule set is about cooking under pressure! Whose dish will win the day? Released March 15, 2021.

The Magic of Names

I missed this one on Twitter when it was first announced, but there's now an Ursula K LeGuin-inspired freform magic system! By Thomas Manuel, March 30, 2021.

Quick Combat

Last on my list is this quick-play combat system, also by Matthias of Liche's Libram. Lose an eye in no time! Released March 31, 2011.

Fishing Trip

Matt Bohnhoff then made this chill mini-game about stepping aside from the adventure to catch some fish. Released April 1, 2021.

I'm aware of a few more cooking.. but to my knowledge they aren't released yet. Did I miss any?