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Annals of RPGs: Self-Publishing Scare the Hell Out of Me

posted Nov 6, 2016, 2:18 PM by Douglas Sun

A friend who has published his own fiction recently assured me that self-publishing is not that difficult. I understand that the physical and logistical obstacles to getting your own work into the marketplace are surmountable. But as I prepare to launch Ramen Sandwich Press and a Kickstarter to support my forthcoming line of modules for D&D 5th Edition, it’s not the logistics that worry me. It’s what happens ice my work has entered the public arena.

When I broke into writing for roleplaying games around the turn of the century, most RPG publishing (if not all of it of note) followed a model taken from periodicals. That is to say, publishers thought of RPGs as product lines that required a new product release at regular intervals. To that end, they employed a full-time line developer, who rode herd over a writing staff (some in-house, but mostly freelance) to make it so. Like spice in the Dune universe, the new product had to flow.

I spent about a decade as one such freelancer. I worked on dozens of RPG books, for Last Unicorn Games, AEG, Decipher, Eden, Guardians of Order and I.C.E. As such, I had remarkably little contact with the public who used those products. Indeed, I realized pretty quickly that my true audience was not the RPG-playing public, but my line developer. It was the developer who would vet my work and verify that I had earned my pay. The burden of satisfying the public fell on the publisher that employed him. not me. 

I found this a comfortable arrangement. I could focus on writing for an audience of one instead of worrying about everyone in an audience of many, and over time I got to know some of my developers well enough to predict what would and would not play well with them. Little glory would accrue to me if the book was a hit. But if it failed, I would still be paid according to my contract and my name was buried in the credits so no one would throw rotten fruit at me if I showed my face at GenCon.

As an example, I’ll share with you the case of World’s Largest City, a D&D 3rd Edition campaign setting that I co-developed and co-wrote for AEG as a conceptual sequel to their successful World’s Largest Dungeon. Over the last few years, World’s Largest City has undergone something of a revival despite being out of date. It has sold well on DTRPG and it has received positive reviews on Amazon from readers who probably found print copies in the remainder bin.

But the book did not sell well initially. And for years, its first and only Amazon review was a 1-star from someone who didn’t quite seem to get the point. Now, I’m not placing the entire blame for World’s Largest City’s initial failure on one negative review. But let’s face it: When your one and only review on the world’s leading retail website is a 1 on a scale of 1-5, it marks you like a huge “L” branded on your forehead.

The burden of World’s Largest City’s lack of success fell on AEG. I got paid all the same and moved on. But when I self-publish under the Ramen Sandwich Press name, I assume all responsibility for the final product. all liability for its financial performance, all praise or blame in public fora. A trade name offers only partial concealment. If I can't create Douglas Sun as a viable brand, this whole enterprise will fail.

Assume along with me that only a certain percentage of a product’s users will leave reviews of it in public fora. Assume also that this percentage is pretty much the same, whether you’re talking about dish soap or SUVs or RPG books.  With a mass market product, this percentage yields a large enough sample size of users that — if your product is good — you will generate enough positive reviews to drown out the negative outliers. The power of averaging works in your favor. With niche products like roleplaying games, the sample size is much smaller, and an early negative review may be the only review that you get, at least for a while. In other words, all it takes to put you down for good is one asshole aiming at your center of mass.

And that scares the hell out of me.