Today I shipped out the printed copies of the zine that I made for Zine Quest on Kickstarter this year. This is the first full RPG I've written, printed, and sold, as well as my first Kickstarter. There were a lot of firsts, and I thought I would write a post mortem of my experience.
I started writing the premise for the game that would be called Score back in 2016, but didn't really start putting proper rules to the bag for at least another year. The idea was to have a fast-paced RPG where players would rob a bank. I wanted it to be for one-shots, so no character advancement or even creation, just grab a pregen and get to stealing. I was playing a lot of Pay Day 2 around that time, and I think that shows in the design. That one-shot format was how Score (then called Heists & Dice...I know I know) was developed, with a few small tweaks here and there, but not a lot needed to change.
Fast forward a couple years and I've been doing RPG design on and off for a while, but never really put a full game out there. I had written a couple of one page designs and published them under WizBot Games with my friend Mike, but that was the extent of it. I was craving an opportunity to write a complete game. That's when I heard about Zine Quest 2. A zine seemed like a reasonable goal, I could come up with 20ish pages in a couple months right?
I got to work, giving Score its final name and writing the rules more formally than how I had them before (I mostly just shared it with friends before that). As I wrote more, I realized that I definitely had enough to fill a zine, and so decided I would submit for Zine Quest. The problem was, I am artistically challenged, to put it nicely. That meant I needed to go to outside help for some art assets, because nobody is going to click on a Kickstarter link with black text on a white background.
Thankfully I know Mike. My friend Mike knows graphic design (which would become incredibly helpful later in the process), and he knew two artists Kaleigh and his brother Jake who did commission work. I reached out to Kaleigh because she is a local artist, and she put together the drawing that would become the cover for score. I remember the night I got the art delivered, and how overwhelmed I was that this game I had in my head for years was starting to become a real thing. With a drawing in hand, I could post something on Kickstarter.
This was my first time creating a Kickstarter. I had backed dozens before so I knew the basic idea of the system, what made a good campaign vs. a bad one. Still, putting together things like a banner, a funding goal, promotion, all of that was new to me. I put in a reasonable funding goal, one that would cover the art Kaleigh did and a small print run of the zine, as well as other costs like postage and shipping materials. Not thinking it was going to blow up, I threw a couple stretch goals for more art and including a character advancement ruleset and hit launch. Well, I hit submit for approval, which happened within 5 minutes, and then I hit launch.
I'm not good at self-promotion, it's a foreign concept to me. I didn't run Facebook ad campaigns, or have a strong social media presence going into the campaign. But thankfully I had people willing to spread the word for me, and there were already a lot of eyes on the campaign because it happened during Zine Quest. I honestly think that if I had launched outside of Zine Quest that the campaign wouldn't have gone as well as it did. I settled on two tiers for the campaign: a cheaper PDF version and a physical print + PDF tier. I ended up making just over $1000 (a goal of $400) with just over 100 backers. I was blown away by the support. Then I looked at my stretch goals and realized I had a lot of work to do.
I want to say something about art. I got more art done by Jake Rieman, Mike's brother, and I couldn't be happier with the character art he did. Good art costs money, a lesson I learned, but it was worth every penny. Score wouldn't be the same if it didn't have those portraits in it.
Character advancement rules were the next step. Score was designed for one shots, but now I had the task of making it last longer. I knew the campaigns would still be shorter, ~5-6 sessions, but you had to have a reason to keep playing your criminal. A few weeks of tinkering and some really helpful game design chats with fellow designers Mike and Jordan and I had the rules on the page. Everything was written, but it lived on a 30ish page Google Doc. How was I going to turn this into an actual zine?
Enter Mike Rieman, graphic design extraordinaire. It just so happened Mike had launched a Zine Quest of his own, and a bargain was struck. I would help him right character advancement rules for his system which was originally designed for one-shots (good thing I just got that practice for Score), and he would do the layout work for Score. I wrote, Mike did his magic, and next thing you know Score existed in a digital format!
I got Score uploaded to itch.io and DriveThruRPG as soon as I could because I knew there was some waiting time between uploading and being able to distribute. Turns out that itch lets you upload right away, but you need admin approval to send emails to distribute download keys. And DriveThru takes 1-5 days to get your product approved. After an agonizing wait, I got approval from both sites and got the digital distribution taken care of.
For printing I used Mixam, which is a printing company that specializes in zines. I was nervous about trying to work with a printer but it couldn't have been easier. I uploaded the PDF, checked the proof they made, and hit "order." I got my printed zines about a week later, and couldn't believe it when I finally held a game I had written in my hands. After that I threw them in some bubble mailers, printed postage and shipping labels, and dropped them off at the post office, which leaves us to today.
Now I've started this thing called Gila RPGs, in an attempt to keep my game design going, and I thank you for joining me on that journey. I'm already working on a couple other zines, and some bite-size RPGs where I can get some graphic design practice. Hopefully I will be able to share them with you soon!
So what are my take away lessons from my first Kickstarter?
1. Build an online presence and following before you launch if you can
2. Art is expensive, but can be the thing that really makes your game stand out
3. Find people whose strength work well with yours
4. Self-promotion is hard, so connect with those closest with you and spread from there
5. Have fun. You aren't going to get rich off an RPG Kickstarter, so have a blast making it at least
That's enough writing for today, until next time.
-Spencer, aka Thegilaboy