Writing for Roleplaying Games: Publishing Your Own Game
First published 3/12/2002; last edited 12/21/2004
It seems like I'm getting more and more emails these days asking how someone can go about getting their own, home-brewed roleplaying game published. Which, as usual, is a sign that it's time to turn the answers I keep handing out into an article.
I feel it necessary to issue the disclaimer that as of the writing of this article I haven't gotten my own game system published, so I have no hard-and-fast from-experience answers. All of this comes from things I've heard and been told and things that make sense to me. In addition, the RPG market changes from year to year, sometimes drastically. So what is true one year won't work the next. I'll do my best to provide suggestions that will be useful on as many occasions as possible.
So Many Games!
Contrary to the apparent beliefs of the people who keep saying that the industry is dying, there are a lot of games out there. And I do mean a lot. You should see the preliminary ballot for the Origins Awards--if you needed any proof that the industry is doing as well as ever, that's it. The number of roleplaying games published in 2001 alone is astonishing to me.
In a way, this is bad news for you. It means that there are an awful lot of good games out there. The standard has been raised. It's getting harder and harder to just walk onto the scene with your own game and have people say, "wow!"
On the other hand, people are publishing lots and lots of games. So there's no reason why you can't publish yours, in theory. Here are a few suggestions to help you figure out what you want to do with your game and how to go about it.
Expectations and Quality
Remember that people's expectations are higher now. You don't want to write a game and then find that you've failed to account for a bunch of things that other games have already handily solved. But there are ways to deal with this.
Research Your Field
In another article I explained that you need to research the other games out there. You don't want to shop your game around only to find out that someone's already done your ideas before. Or worse, to find out that some of the things you thought of as problems inherent to roleplaying are things that other games have already solved. So make sure you look around, read gaming books, and play a wide variety of games before you consider your game ready to publish.
In addition, read lots of reviews of roleplaying games from various sites. Listen to the issues that reviewers laud or complain about. Make a list of things that many reviewers dislike or like in the games they review. How does your game measure up? Here are a few sites that do reviews to get you started:
Experience is often the best teacher. If you want to learn more about the writing of RPG games, you could get your feet wet as a freelancer. Write under contract for other companies.
You learn a lot from the responses to your work. Your editors will tell you what you've done wrong (and hopefully what you've done right); your reviewers will catch your mistakes and problems. This can be a great (if somewhat painful) way to learn better ways of writing RPG material.
You also learn a lot from the people around you. By freelancing you have a chance to meet and talk shop with professionals. Your developer will probably make comments in your outlines that explain why certain choices were made, and that will teach you something. Your co-authors might make comments about why they choose to do certain things, and that will teach you something. There's a lot to learn from your peers; take advantage of that.
As a caveat to this suggestion, only work as a freelancer if you're interested in the field. Freelancing just to network will probably result in your doing inferior work due to a lack of interest in what you're doing. No one will appreciate that.
Don't design your game in a vacuum. Talk with other writers and game designers. There are web sites that carry forums specifically for the purpose of discussing issues of game design. A couple of the more popular that I know of are RPGNet's forums and The Forge's forums. Take shameless advantage of such resources.
A quick hint though: lurk for a while before jumping in with your opinions and questions. This is a valuable tactic on any internet forum or mailing list. You need to get a good handle on the issues, the opinions, the expected behavior, and so on. Besides, you can learn a lot just by listening! Read old posts; you might find that someone has already answered your questions.
And remember: each web site has its own unique audience, with its own unique likes and dislikes in a roleplaying system and its own popular style of play. If you're trying to design a great hack-and-slash game, you might not get everything you want out of a forum frequented by folk who prefer diceless roleplaying, and vice versa. Again, lurking for a bit before posting can help you to find the right forum for you.
It isn't enough to know how to design a good system. It has to be well-written or it won't get your great ideas across. It also won't come across as professional if it has lots of misspellings and confusing wordings.
You shouldn't get into RPG-writing because you like roleplaying--you should get into it because you like writing and roleplaying. Study writing. Make sure you know how to write well. Take classes and get involved in workshops. Get things published besides your roleplaying work. To give you a hand, here's a list of some of my favorite writing books:
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers for all the details that will make your writing look professional.
- Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury, for sheer inspiration.
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, for genre tricks and hints, as well as practical writing advice.
- Writing in Flow, by Susan Perry, to help you get the most out of your writing experience.
- Word Painting, by Rebecca McClanahan, to help you learn how to use your words like an artist.
Then reread a few of your favorite roleplaying books and note the differences between rpg-writing and novel or short story writing. Take a look around the rest of our rpg-writers' articles for more on this.
Find people (other than your own gaming group!) to playtest your game. Otherwise, no matter how well your game works for your group, it's entirely possible that it'll be broken for groups that play a little differently than you do. RPGNet provides a forum on which you can issue an open call for playtesters.
What About Your Future?
Have you thought about what happens after your game is published? Will there be supplements? If so, how many? Of what kind? Do you have any idea how many you'd have to put out to keep your game alive or support yourself? Do you plan on writing them? Do you want someone else's company to hire freelancers to do it? Do you want to hire freelancers? How will you deal with them? What will you pay them? What will you charge for your game?
I'm drowning you in questions here, but hopefully I've gotten my point across. Don't just think about the here and now of your game--think about what you want from it. Think about where you want to go with it. This should help you to figure out how and where to publish it.
Where To Publish Your Game
You think your game is the very best it can be. You've done your research, polished your writing, and talked to people. Now what do you do?
Publishing With Other Companies
Most people seem to start out with the idea that some other company will publish their work (and thus, do all the hard business stuff for them). This is a tough one. Because there are so many good games on the market, most companies don't want to take a risk on someone unless that designer has a proven track record of designing great stuff. This is where having experience as a freelancer can come in handy. The contacts you made as a writer can help you now, and your reputation can open doors for you.
Check out the web sites of various RPG companies. Read their submission guidelines. If they're open to the submission of complete new game concepts, they'll say so. If they don't say so, you probably shouldn't bother. Pay close attention to those submission guidelines while you're there. The company will probably throw out any submission that doesn't conform to their posted guidelines. After all, if you can't be bothered to follow their guidelines, then how can they trust you to do good and careful work in other areas?
These days if you have a game world or adventure but not a game system you might have an easier time getting it published, simply because of the glut of d20 companies on the market. Write it up as a d20 supplement, then follow a d20 company's submission guidelines. This is one example of the fact that the industry can change dramatically from year to year.
Doing It Yourself
Of course, you could sell your game yourself. Even though some of the companies out there don't like to admit it, most of them started as little vanity companies selling the president's personal game creation. You can do that too.
Just be warned that it isn't easy. The market is small, and you'll probably never make much money at it even if your game is really good. This isn't an industry for people who want to be rich and famous. Folks at some mid-level companies still keep day jobs outside of the roleplaying industry to pay their rent. There are also a whole lot of aspects to the business that you might not have considered. Do you have a place to store books before shipping them out? If you're planning on doing this out of your house, is your area zoned for such commercial use? How do you know which printers to use and how to deal with them? What sort of legal forms do you have to file? These are just a few of the many questions you'll need to answer.
Unfortunately I'm not the right person to answer these questions for you, as I haven't experienced this side of the business. Instead, here are a few sources of information on the RPG publishing business. Make abundant use of them:
- RPG Publishing
- The Forge
- The Game Manufacturers' Association
- The Game Publishers' Association
Keep in mind that most of the people who start and run RPG companies don't end up writing and designing--they end up running the business. Is that what you want to do?
Another alternative is the smaller scale electronic self-publishing option. With the wonderful advent of pdf files and hosting services with built-in shopping carts and merchant account services, you can sell your own games. You can also sell games through places like RPG Now, which is a clearinghouse for electronic versions of RPGs and their supplements.
Electronic publishing has a distinct advantage over traditional publishing: very low overhead. You don't need a warehouse for your books. You don't need money to pay printers. You can't get screwed over by printing mistakes. It also does not remove the possibility of traditional publishing from your future. Some people have found it advantageous to use electronic publishing to build up an interest in their product. Then they use that interest to convince a traditional RPG publisher that their product is worth publishing.
The disadvantage of electronic publishing is obviously the lack of exposure in book stores; not everyone wants to print their own books or even buy them on the web. Also, there are still a few holdouts who consider electronic-only products to be unprofessional, although the holdouts seem to be fewer every day.
With luck this overview has given you an idea of some of the issues involved in publishing your roleplaying game. Maybe it's helped you to figure out which option would be best for you, and hopefully it's at least given you a few places to start your research. Best of luck to you.