The Gassy Gnoll: Oh, the Horror! Hard Lessons Learned from Self-Publishing (October RPG Blog Carnival)

Courtesy of the great folks at Troll in the Corner, the RPG Blog Carnival topic for October is downright horrible! No, the topic isn’t horrible (not like the time this Gassy Gnoll got too near the fire and singed his furry eyebrows!)… It’s about the horrible things that happen during gaming sessions or around gaming in general. Sometimes horrible is good (like working your players into a frightened frenzy during a Halloween horror session) and sometimes it’s not. I’m going to talk about one of the latter for me and the lessons learned along the way.

Many many moons ago now, I worked with my best friend – Sean Bindel – to create a universal role-playing gameMoebius Adventures – that combined some aspects of GURPS, Rolemaster, D&D, Palladium Fantasy (1st edition), and our own imaginations. This was the early 1990s and we were very passionate about the project, spinning it into a fun fantasy RPG that we had a traditional D&D setting for, then a near-future Cyberpunk-ish setting, with plans to move into horror, science fiction, and beyond. We cussed and discussed rules, settings, number crunching and so much more.

We even toyed a bit with self-publishing. And when I say “self-publishing” I mean it. I remember spending hours printing pages on an old laser printer, three-hole punching them, and putting them in a three-hole binder with a cover painted by a good friend of ours (Jaana Bykonich, wherever you are!). We did many drafts and even sold one copy and shipped it to the UK. This was way back in the heyday of d20 and before PDF had really taken off for our hobby.

Was it a great game? Probably not, but it was fun for us and we weren’t even that crushed by negative reviews at and other places.

The fun continued until Sean passed away in an auto accident in 2000. It was devastating. One day he was there and the next he was gone.

The next couple of years I spent getting married, having a daughter (and then another daughter), and moving to Phoenix, AZ. Little gaming was done, though I did try finding a gaming group down there with little success. My heart wasn’t in it, truth be told.

In 2006, I started working on the game again with the intention of publishing. I figured if I could reboot things and get the game out there for folks to see, perhaps I would honor my friend’s legacy and try to carry on what we started.

Over the next year and a half I worked on a draft, we moved from Phoenix back to Colorado, and I chugged towards publishing the core rulebook as PDF and in a hardcopy, softcover format. In November 2007, I thought I was ready to release the book back into the wild, so I did. I could sell my softcover book through Lulu and it looked awesome (still does to me). And DriveThruRPG had its “Thanks-giveaway” celebration, so I threw the Moebius Adventures Core Rules book into the giveaway pile. Hundreds of copies were downloaded that week. Huzzah!

Since 2006, I have sold 8 electronic copies of the book. So as you can see, my “Huzzah!” moment didn’t last long. I started pondering my mistake. And the burnout completely wiped me out after working so hard as one person writing and editing the text, handling layout, arranging art, creating PDFs, managing the Lulu printing…

Don’t get me wrong. This was a bumpy series of events, but I learned a TON from this experience. Let me lay out some of those lessons…

  • One person publishing is rough. Very rough. I needed more hands, input, and energy than I had.
  • I’m not a system guy. Even a year later when I was looking to revamp the system, streamlining things, I had a playtest with experienced designers (including JP Chapleau who manages the NeoExodus product line for LPJ Design) that raised a ton of issues and reinforced the fact that… I am not a system guy.
  • Giving away the cow instead of milking it was a horrible idea. A couple of years after this experience I went through the Gamer Lifestyle program with Johnn Four and Yax and learned many things that I should have done differently.
  • Playtest. Playtest. Playtest. Without playtesting, it’s just tossing things out and hoping they stick, which doesn’t always work the way you want it to.

So though there were some horrible moments throughout the history of Moebius Adventures, there were some great lessons learned. Plus, I felt like I honored the memory of my friend and that was a big win for me.

Since then I’ve regrouped and been pondering my publishing future. During that period I started Game Knight Reviews. And through that effort I’ve met many amazing people in the RPG industry and learned some new things to try. It hasn’t all been bad and we have to take the bad with the good or the accomplishments don’t mean as much. Maybe that’s just my realistic/pessimistic view but if things are too easy, it feels too much like you’re not earning the success.

And like a Phoenix from the ashes, I will eventually publish again.

Ultimately it boils down to this…

  1. If you want to become a published author, whether through your own publishing imprint or that of another company, it takes a lot of work and you probably won’t be as successful as you’d like the first time out. Keep plugging away at it.
  2. There will be bumps in the road. Don’t let that crush your dreams. Take the lessons you learn and start again, approaching things from new directions.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  4. And don’t give up. Remember… it’s always darkest before the dawn.

Thanks go to Troll in the Corner for a great blog carnival topic!

For previous RPG blog carnivals, be sure to check out the archive at the RPGBA site!

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