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Creating Your RPG Supplement, Part 1: Where to Begin

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This article is the first in a series that aims to share the process that I use to bring a digital RPG supplement to market so that it might be easier for you to do the same. In my own experience, the biggest stumbling block newcomers face when attempting to create a product is simply knowing where to start and what steps to take. Now, not everyone is ready or even interested in taking their ideas onto the market, whether it’s out of anxiety about criticism or simply a lack of interest. That’s all well and good, but I would ask you to consider the fact that there are millions of players out there who simply don’t have the time or creative energy that you might be putting into your own gaming hobby and are willing to pay you for the efforts you’re already making. If you’ve spent the last several years creating your own adventures, campaigns, character classes, and worlds, you might be sitting on enough intellectual capital to fund your own hobbies at the very least.

Now, the process I’ll be outlining over the next few articles might not work for everyone, but it can give you a framework to draw upon in your own ventures. This is simply a guide that I’ve put into place for myself after years of trial and error both inside of the professional design world and in my own hobbies. It has saved me a lot of time and backtracking, frustration, and wasted time and effort. Hopefully, it will do the same for you.

The Brain Dump

Any new product begins with an idea. When I get inspired I’ve found that simply getting everything out as fast as possible is the best place to begin. This process is called “brain dumping” and it can be as messy as it sounds. The object is to just let your imagination run wild without regard for the organization or even consistency of the content. I generally keep a notebook or sketchpad handy when I’m not around a computer so that I don’t lose ideas as they come to me, but otherwise, I prefer something like Google docs so that I can copy and paste the content into a sensible order with ease later. It’s important not to filter yourself at this stage or even worry that your ideas might seem generic or uninteresting to others, if you’re inspired it’s important to just follow where your brain leads you until you’ve exhausted your imagination.

While the brain dump is an important place to start, but it’s also not a process that truly ends and as you move on to later steps that we’ll cover in future articles. As you move through development you’ll find that you become inspired to add more and more elements and nuance to your project. Allow yourself to get sidetracked by future brain dumps if you stumble across a great idea but further along, you’ll want to become more and more discerning about what you keep and what you discard. Are all of your ideas truly worth including, or can portions be archived and used in future projects?

Dealing With the Mess

So now you’ve got an idea down on paper and frankly, it is not pretty. It’s disorganized and contradictory, but don’t get discouraged. If it doesn’t look like a mess at this stage then you probably haven’t explored it thoroughly enough or you’re spending too much time filtering yourself during a brain dump. We are now at a crossroads. Is this mess worth cleaning up, or should we shelve it for later, or even toss it out entirely? Not every idea is worth following through on, so just be honest with yourself. Would you enjoy working on this project? Is it going to benefit you to complete it? Will it benefit anyone? If you aren’t sure that this idea is the one then possibly challenge yourself to come up with a better idea, or even a stable of ideas before you choose to commit to any one of them. Regardless of the way you go about this decision, just be sure that you have the drive necessary to see it through.

Exploring Your Audience, Venue, and Format

One huge consideration is the audience. Who is this product intended for? You don’t have to try to make a project that is appealing to everyone, because no such product has ever existed. But if you want to sell your product, be aware that the more problems it solves for others, or the broader its use, the more likely it is that will be successful. More than likely you are going to be creating something that is only appealing to a subset of the RPG market, but it’s important to identify and keep those people in mind while in development, otherwise, you run the risk of missing the mark completely. If you are the only target audience, that’s also fine, but keep in mind that you might be the only one interested in it.

Now consider where you will distribute this product. This always comes after identifying your audience, because your point of distribution is entirely dependent on who that audience is. Dog food isn’t typically sold in a hair salon, not because it’s a bad product, just that it’s not the right venue. Is your product best suited for a platform like Fantasy Grounds, or is it more of a Drivethru RPG sort of thing? Maybe a physical product would work better than a digital one so a retail store would be where your audience is. 

Once you’ve got your venue nailed down, that will determine the format the product is delivered in. Is it a digital pdf download or a physical book? Is it a boxed game or a digital tabletop experience? For the rest of this series, we’re going to assume it’s a pdf games supplement, but we’ll also explore physical print options as well.

Project Your Timeline

Now that you’ve got your idea, have identified your audience, and what format your product will take, it’s time to look ahead and try to get a sense of how much time and effort it will take. Breaking the project down into its components will give you the clearest sense of how this will need to come together. Most likely you’re going to need three elements to finish an RPG supplement: a manuscript, a layout, and artwork.

The Manuscript

You may or may not be a great writer but if you’re creating an RPG supplement you’re going to need a tightly crafted text document. It’s going to need to be clear, concise, approachable, and well-organized. Whether you draft this document yourself or find someone else to do it, it’s going to take a lot of editing and proofing to get right. How many pages do you imagine the product will be once it’s finished? Your final product will probably run about one page per every 450 words, generally speaking.

The Layout

This portion often gets skimped on, but a solid layout for your product can take it to an all-new level. A good designer who understands how to handle content is the difference between a document that is a chore to get through and navigate and one that is easy on the eyes and doesn’t fatigue the reader. Adobe Indesign is the industry standard for layout design and can be licensed for a reasonable monthly fee considering the work it does and it’s well worth learning if you plan on making more products like this in the future, but you can also get away with using Microsoft Word or a host of other free solutions if you’re willing to trade the time that becoming comfortable with Indesign would save you for a simpler or cheaper tool. There are also many free templates out on the internet for layout, which will save you a massive amount of setup time.

The Artwork

The quality of the illustrations and graphic work of your piece is crucial. If you look at the covers of products at any games market you will instantly see that the old axiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” is seriously antiquated. In this industry especially artwork does a huge amount of work in conveying the mood and tone of a product. Contrast the covers of the latest Dungeons & Dragons publication with a Vampire the Masquerade one and you’ll definitely understand not only what type of experience each one is offering at a glance but also which one is more appealing to you. Taking that a step further, contrast that same D&D cover with an Old School Essentials book and you’ll further see two different approaches to the same flavor of fantasy and again know which one is your cup of tea. 

Not everyone has the knack for drawing but there are loads and loads of talented individuals on Reddit and Deviant art who would be happy to do quality work for a reasonable price. Do some scouting and find someone on your wavelength who’s looking for a project they believe in. If you’re developing D&D products for dmsguild.com, Wizards of the Coast offers a huge catalog of free, high-quality fantasy art for use. The only drawback is that these illustrations might not fit what you have in mind.

Bonus Advice: The Chaos Tax

After you’ve talked to some people who might be helping with this project and really thought about how much time and effort you’re looking at you should have a good sense of how long it’s going to take to reach the finish line. Well, almost. I’m going to share a trick with you that has taken me decades of experience to realize. One that is deceptively simple yet makes all the difference when it comes to managing expectations: any amount of time you think a project will take, or any amount of money you think it will involve, add another 20% on top and you’ll begin to have a more realistic idea. I call this 20% the chaos tax. In my experience, it is simply the most realistic way to attempt to predict an uncertain future and all of the unforeseeable circumstances that will inevitably arise. There will always be some unknown event or expense that will crop up that you just simply could not anticipate, so I add 20% to everything I have to predict and so far it has kept me out of the fire.

The Next Step

Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far you have made it past the most uncertain and daunting portion of the entire process. From now on it’s down to simple grit, self-direction, and the joy of making something you love and believe in. 

Next up we’ll be tackling the bones of your product: the manuscript. I hope you’ve found some value here and look forward to seeing what you do with it! Drop me a line with your thoughts or questions at ryan@eternalrule.com.

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