After graduating into one of the worst recessions the global economy had yet seen, I cut short a fruitless job search to go to grad school. I ended up with a Master’s Degree in Innovation Management, a field which sounds like it was made up by the Business School industry but yet taught me a lot. While invention is the act of creating something new, innovation is the act of deriving value from new things, from inventions. According to the World Economic Forum 1.7 million patents were granted in 2021, which is a huge number. But even setting aside things like filing the same patent in multiple countries, a small fraction of those patents represent anything like tangible value to society at large. While invention can happen with a bit of creativity and some work, innovation is significantly more dependent on exogenous factors, on what happens to the invention after it comes into being. RPG designers are like inventors in that way; many many people are designing, are inventing, but the vast majority of games will never make an impact on the market at large.
While there are certainly forces contributing to a greater stagnation of the RPG hobby (D&D comes to mind), the low ‘hit rate’ for new RPGs when it comes to moving the needle in the greater marketplace is largely structural, and unlikely to change in the long run. On the creator side, making an RPG is relatively easy, requiring significantly less money and specific skill than making video, digital games, or visual art, and often less time than writing long-form fiction. This means that the number of entrants into the market will be relatively high. On the consumer side, RPGs have higher switching costs than virtually any other form of media; a consumer needs to find a minimum of 2-4 friends to play with them, with a play time of two hours on the low side. Beyond that, when the presumed norm of the medium involves campaigns of literally dozens of four-plus hour sessions and understanding at least one densely-written rulebook, the perceived switching costs are significantly worse than the already high actual switching costs. These things combined to make the number of consumers in the market relatively low, and the number of games they will consume lower still.
The structural impediments to RPG adoption are important to emphasize in this year of 2023, when the D&D monopoly is showing weakness. Many indie designers see broader indie RPG adoption in the wake of an OGL 1.1 (or whatever version number they end up using) alienating the D&D audience, but I really doubt this is going to happen. Even in a best-case scenario where the entire audience figures out that other RPGs are easier than they thought as soon as D&D collapses, indie RPGs are going to see the same slice of the market they always have: almost none. The RPG hobby is built around an implied experience which is best provided by traditional games, and even if you discount all the D&D-alikes like Pathfinder and the many retroclones, there are dozens of traditional games which are simply better positioned to absorb D&D expats. Just like in other forms of media, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of RPGs which will go nowhere, and figuring out the next game to build an audience is not easy to do.
The Pyramid of Media
All media released into the world can be plotted on a chart comparing number of items to number of sales. The resulting graph looks like a pyramid with a very fat base and a very skinny top. At the bottom is everything which outright fails: Every screenplay that never gets read or gets binned, every novel which is queried but never published, every self-published game or novel with 5 downloads. There are millions of these, an unceasing flood of material to which the world is utterly indifferent. As you get to the middle, you get works which made it to the market, but which will have no impact. Novels that don’t earn out their advances, RPGs that make $30,000 on Kickstarter but are never heard from again. There are fewer of these items than in the Eternal Slush Pile, but they still represent a flood of merely OK media which you could spend your entire life cataloging, let alone consuming. Finally, near the top, are the things which an average person will actually see. A movie that makes it to theaters, or at least Netflix. A novel which makes it to a slot on the New York Times Bestseller list, maybe even wins an award. An RPG which earns six figures on Kickstarter, and actually has people play it. And then we get to the tippy-top, culture drivers. Twilight. Marvel Movies. Dungeons and Dragons.
As you can see from my three examples, media that matters is not necessarily media that’s good. Gaining an audience comes from somewhere a bit more ephemeral than merit, but it does include leaning into what audiences already know they want. And just like the media itself, the impact may also not be good. Twilight helped normalize abusive relationships. Marvel as a whole is a harbinger of continued movie homogenization in order to extract money from the Chinese market. Dungeons and Dragons has held an innovation-stunting monopoly over the RPG market for roughly 25 years.
The problem with the pyramid of media is that even in the best of circumstances most creators will never succeed. As much as education and the proliferation of content creation tools is undoubtedly a good thing, continuing to lower the barriers to entry for creative vocations means that the creatives have a lower and lower probability of success; even for those who do find a market, ever making a living becomes a vanishing possibility as the competition is greater and greater. This is also why the guardians of the monopolies protect them so viciously; it’s literally the only way to make money in the field.
The pyramid of media is a formidable adversary, but it can never be truly defeated. If creatives leave the industry, the pyramid merely becomes smaller, not narrower. We can (and should) break down monopolies within our fields, but that just makes the top a bit less pointy. We can (and should) fight for things like universal basic income which make being a creative less dependent on overcoming the pyramid, but that is just a bit outside the scope of this article.
Selling versus Mattering
So there is the discouraging truism that most creatives aren’t going to make it, aren’t going to be noticed. What about creatives who do sell, who are making some money, but aren’t making an impact? In the RPG hobby I find this is best typified by the “post-Kickstarter Thud”. A hypothetical RPG designer makes a game, and thinks it could find a niche in the market. They put together a Kickstarter campaign, and the game funds at around $50,000. This is good! The designer is able to use the money to take a three month sabbatical from their day job, hire a freelancer and buy some art, and finish the game. The game is sent to backers, who are happy with it. Then, the game goes up on DriveThruRPG. It sells five copies. Within six months, nobody remembers what it even is; half of the backers haven’t even read it let alone played it. If the designer isn’t able to get that day job back, the only real recourse they have is to start another Kickstarter.
The frustrating thing, to me at least, about the ‘post-Kickstarter Thud” is that this happens mostly to designers who have already proven they can move up the pyramid. We’re not talking about the shovelware heartbreaker that “funded” because the designer set the funding level to $100 and then got his Mom to tell her bridge club. We’re talking about campaigns where the funding level is set rationally to cover costs, and where the campaign still beats that funding level by at least a couple of multiples. Admittedly, some of the games don’t end up being very good. I’ve had a couple times where I received a game from a Kickstarter campaign, opened it excitedly, and then had my heart drop when I started to actually read. Even with that aside, though, most successful Kickstarters don’t turn into games of any import. Consider the year 2020: Start of the pandemic and the ensuing TTRPG boom, and since more than two years passed, most professional campaigns have finished fulfilling and we can look at where they landed. Among the biggest funded campaigns of the year were Twilight:2000 and Deadlands:Weird West, both successful follow-on games from existing publishers. Also funding at multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars were the Altered Carbon RPG, the Stargate SG-1 RPG, and the Hellboy RPG. From all I can tell, they aren’t doing so hot. Sure, they’re licensed games so they could just be bad, but I wouldn’t think all three of them would sputter out unless something else was going on. In contrast, Kevin Crawford’s Worlds Without Number, which also funded in 2020, earned less on Kickstarter but has since broken DriveThruRPG’s coveted Adamantine metal tier, making it the most successful game out of all six I’ve mentioned.
Kevin Crawford is a good example of a designer who knows how to make his games matter, through both aiming at a very specific segment of the market and also supporting games with extensive preview materials, multiple high-quality supplements, and interoperability. It is fair to point out, though, that all of those things are bundled with mechanics that are very close to D&D, both reducing the perceived switching costs and aiming directly at the heart of the extant self-identified roleplaying gamer market. Different and new games, indie games, can matter like this. The question is whether the designer is going to keep doing the work after the initial game is out in the world.
Can You Make Your Game Matter?
You can’t force your game, or any creative work you make, to matter, build an audience, or even sell. There are things you can do to improve your odds, though. In terms of what you actually create, you need to strike a balance between new and familiar. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but it’s also a way to escape any notice unless you surpass the already-popular original in key ways. Consider for a moment Mothership. Mothership uses decades-old mechanics that are simplified in comparison to its BRP and RuneQuest forbears. Then it aims at a couple genres which already have demonstrated popularity, cosmic horror and space sci-fi, and twists them together. Once you have all that, just add an element which makes the game stand out, its layout, and put it all together in a sub-50 page zine. Sell it cheap, set up a Discord server, and make it as easy as possible for fans to make their own stuff. Three years and well over a million dollars later, the formula works, right? I’m not going to claim it’s easy to replicate what Sean McCoy and Tuesday Knight Games did, even writing it out makes it clear how much work went into building Mothership into what it is now (and most of that work wasn’t game design). Still, it does provide a model.
Mothership and other grassroots successes, like Mork Borg, did make things easier for themselves by sticking with mechanics and genres which were already familiar. This also further increased the impact of another thing they did, encouraging community members to make stuff for the game (and therefore crowdsource the marketing efforts a bit). It doesn’t mean you can’t have success with a new game, though. When the first edition of Apocalypse World was released, The Forge was still a going concern, and Vincent Baker’s reputation within that community helped provide word of mouth for the game. Even though the rules were wild compared to most traditional RPGs, the genre and setting were both familiar and also in demand (if you don’t remember, post-apocalypse made a roaring comeback in nerd spaces in the aftermath of Fallout 3 and New Vegas; this was arguably why WotC released Gamma World 7e in 2010 as well). The game also had that permissive content policy working in its favor, which would result in a handful of PbtA games outselling Apocalypse World significantly. That said, PbtA certainly cemented the fact that Apocalypse World matters, more so than any other new game released last decade.
Ultimately, you’re going to sell your game if it appears to give buyers something they want. Your game will build a community (and sell yet more) if it actually gives buyers what they want. Your game matters, after all that, if it makes a change in how others make or play RPGs. Each of those items requires the previous one, and it’s more than just design that will make a game that matters. Marketing, the apparent bane of all RPG designers, is vitally important; while Coyote and Crow had good design and a needed perspective within its setting, it also made the right (and enough) ad buys for the Kickstarter to succeed. Once people know about your game, though, they need to want to play it. While there’s nothing wrong with being an RPG reader, readers don’t drive the market, players do, and for the most part only players drive more purchases beyond their initial one (a reality which at least partially explains the post-Kickstarter Thud). People need to play your game, have fun playing your game, and want to tell their friends about your game. That is the base prerequisite for making a game that matters, and thinking back to my table experiences over the last twenty years, it makes a whole bunch of sense that most games do not and will not matter.
Innovation is a numbers game. For the RPG medium (and any medium for that matter) to advance, we need as many eyeballs seeing as many games as possible. This is why yes, it will be beneficial to kick down the monopoly that’s been running the RPG world for the last couple decades. This is also why yes, marketing is a key skill for anyone to get anywhere with an RPG (or any creative work for that matter). But the root of it, the difficult truth of it all, is that even though most games don’t matter, some of them do, and we won’t know which ones until after it’s too late. That means, as rough as the industry is, and as daunting as the numbers are, the best way to get any games that matter is to encourage as many people as possible to make games. That means making games easier, through SRDs, easy licenses, and sharing enthusiasm. It means making a variety of games easier, fragmenting the hobby and disavowing the notion that we need a ‘market leader’, be that Wizards or anyone else. And it means, for those designers that have gotten somewhere good, making sure that people keep playing, thinking, and hacking, because then they’re going to become game designers too. It’s hard enough being a creative: I’m writing a novel and know that I have an uphill battle to getting any sort of audience. Being a game designer is much the same; doing it for money or validation is not a route to happiness. That said, there’s joy in having made something. There’s no way to know if you’ll make a game that matters. But the best way to have a shot is to make a game that matters to you.
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