Tabletop RPG (TTRPG) is an industry that's fairly notorious for low pay, even among creative professions, and a number of writers have tried to pull back the curtain on its economics because the first step to addressing an issue is understanding it. This article aims to further that goal while also sharing lessons learned specifically about writing for D&D and publishing on DMs Guild.
So first, who am I and what have I done? My name is Grady Wang and I'm the author of The Gray Merchant of Asphodel: 100+ Theros Magic Items.
This blog post was triggered by the fact that I just noticed today that the book broke 900 copies in sales, putting it within 100 sales of Platinum bestseller status!
A few other things to provide additional context for my experience:
I'm not a professional writer and I have a full-time job as an engineer.
I started playing D&D in 2017. I began considering writing for D&D when I participated in Ashley Warren's RPG Writer Workshop in 2019 and Gray Merchant is my first completed and published TTRPG product.
I co-run a YouTube review channel called The Gallant Goblin that we launched in 2018.
We didn't know anyone in the TTRPG industry when we started, and apart from a few wonderful friends we made at D&D Live 2019, almost everyone we know or work with in this space, we met virtually. Some we met through virtual games, others found us through our channel (big thank you to the folks at Minisgallery especially!), and we also reached out to many after seeing their work.
Publishing on Dungeon Masters Guild
Dungeon Masters Guild (DMs Guild) is a website with an official license from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) that makes it the only place you can sell works using Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property (IP) that isn't covered in the Open-Gaming License (OGL). If that sounds like gibberish to you, click here to see the comparison table Wizards provides showing what you can and can't do with each. The short version is that anything using D&D settings, including the Forgotten Realms, or just about anything outside the Dungeon Master's Guide, Player's Handbook, and Monster Manual, can only be sold on DMs Guild.
Some other stuff to know about DMs Guild:
Anyone can publish on there. You just create an account and start uploading titles. It couldn't be easier to get your work in front of people.
Authors set the price. Apart from occasional site-wide sales, you have full control over your product's pricing, and there's an option to opt out of the sales if you don't want anyone else messing with your price.
By default you get 50% of your sales. The other 50% goes to Wizards of the Coast and OneBookShelf, which runs the DMs Guild marketplace. You can further split your 50% among collaborators if you worked with others to produce the product. There have been rare promotional periods when DMs Guild pays out more than 50%, but that's at DMs Guild's discretion. You can also designate your product to have 0% go to you and 95% of its proceeds go to charity, with the remaining going toward OneBookShelf's operational costs.
DMs Guild only allows you to publish fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons content, and the content must be either setting-agnostic or in a published 5e setting (as of the writing of this blog, that means Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, Ravnica, and Theros). You CAN'T publish your own homebrew setting.
Additional information can be found by clicking here to see their author FAQ.
Show Me the Money!
Enough preamble, you say? OK, here we break down how much the project has made and how much it cost.
So first, how did The Gray Merchant perform? Here's a rough timeline:
June 1, 2020: Published. This was the digital release date of Mythic Odysseys of Theros, the first time D&D went to the Magic: The Gathering plane of Theros, and therefore the earliest date any Theros product could go live on DMs Guild.
June 1, 2020: First bestseller milestone achieved in under 24 hours: 51 sales for a Copper medal.
June 2, 2020: Second bestseller milestone achieved in under 48 hours: 101 sales for a Silver medal.
June 8, 2020: Third bestseller milestone achieved in 1 week: 251 sales for an Electrum medal.
July 21, 2020: Fourth bestseller milestone achieved right before Mythic Odysseys of Theros released in hardcover format, delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic: 501 sales for a Gold medal.
For the first week, a very prominent 25% discount link was placed at the top of the product page, cutting the price to $7.45. It got clicked 78 times, but DMs Guild metrics apparently track clicks and not sales, meaning at MOST 78 copies were sold at that price. There were a further ~40 click-throughs from the discount link on our YouTube video promoting it (same discounted price, different link for tracking purposes), but it was pretty clear not all of those converted to sales either.
In summary, LESS THAN 25% of the ~250 sales Gray Merchant got in the first week was at the discounted price. Over three-quarters of customers paid full price for it despite a discount being prominently advertised. That was really surprising to me.
That also means Gray Merchant made me over $1,000 in its first week. As you may have realized, though, the graphic I posted at the start shows Gray Merchant has made me over $4,000 in the three and a half months since it was published, meaning week 1 was under 25% of its total sales to date. Note that Gray Merchant is still pretty consistently selling 1-5 copies a day, hovering around #30 on the bestseller chart. You'll hear a lot of writers say DMs Guild has a long tail and this is exactly what they mean. DMs Guild titles continue to sell long after their release, and I'll expand on that in the Lessons Learned section further down.
But how much did it cost to produce? Well... that answer is a tad complicated, but let's first look at actual money out-of-pocket. If the numbers are a bit shell-shocking, please jump to the "Could it have been made cheaper?" section further down:
Cover art: $450. This was a fully custom commission by Victor Tan and the price was for a commercial license to use in Gray Merchant and corresponding advertising. All other rights stayed with Victor. There are obviously other artists who charge less for custom commercial art, and price varies by complexity (number of characters, number of background elements, level of detail and shading, etc.), but full-time artists contracted by folks like Wizards of the Coast can charge much more, $2,000-$5,000 per piece or maybe even more. Never try to negotiate an artist's rates down. Many artists already struggle to get by, and even those doing it as a side-hustle still deserve to be compensated for their time and skill. You can ask artists if they're open to other payment options, like a royalty percentage, but otherwise respect their pricing. If you're not sure about an author's rates, query politely and share your budget, but don't expect them to come down to your budget if they say that doesn't work for them. Above all, be nice, and that's not just because it's the right thing to do—this is a small community and word gets around.
Advertising: $100 in Facebook and Twitter ads.
Application: Photoshop: $21/month
Application: ZBrush: $750. I actually waited for a sale to get this, which is why the price is lower than its store price. Now the full price of this and the other items below probably shouldn't be fully associated with Gray Merchant because I plan to use them for other projects and they're tools that'll be essentially evergreen, but I did buy them to do this project.
Application: Substance Painter: $150. I actually got this slightly cheaper during a holiday sale on Steam but that's what it's generally priced at.
Application: Affinity Publisher: $50 for a perpetual license for a nice layout application with a modern interface. Way better deal than Adobe's stupid subscription-only InDesign.
Miscellaneous Costs: $450 for a 1 month trial of Penji (see "Penji" section below).
So total sunk cost at the start of the project for everything I used was about $2,000 but the applications will last me FOREVER and the 1 month trial of Penji got me ~20 art assets that were used across a range of things, only 1 of which was used for Gray Merchant. Therefore, I went into the project treating $1,000 as my break-even point and was thrilled I made that back in the first week. And obviously, the project has made much more than the total cost at this point, which gives me more wiggle room for future projects.
It's also noteworthy that I didn't have to pay my editor, who was my partner, Theo. Properly paying an independent editor would be at least a 10% royalty split or, for a product of Gray Merchant's length, at least another $1,000-$2,000 if they're editing your rules and mechanics and not just proofreading for typos. Note that I fully support getting an independent editor, especially if you don't have a forever-DM partner-in-crime, but this is why a lot of projects go by royalty-share for collaborators.
If I didn't have a good day job, paying all this upfront would be extremely daunting even if I was confident I could make the money back, and a project selling above Silver or Electrum is never a sure thing. But more on whether all of the costs were necessary in a bit...
HOLD ON. WHAT ABOUT PAYING MYSELF?
This is where so many TTRPG creators short-change themselves. Our labor isn't free. Let's use my more generous break-even point of $1,000 as a benchmark and say I've made $3,000 profit on Gray Merchant so far.
Gray Merchant is about 25,000 words long. A lot of TTRPG projects pay by word. That means I've earned 12 cents a word to date. Wow, that's actually really good for this project. Anything over 10 cents a word is generally considered decent, keeping in mind again that this industry is horribly low-paying and needs to get way above that rate to be properly compensating its writers. But reality is reality and a solo side-hustle project yielding rates like that is great.
But WAIT, I also did the layout and art, which took over a month of my free time, totaling probably around 180 hours of work. Writing and revising took a similar amount of time so double that if you want to go by hourly rates. I sank an additional 40-some hours into generating supporting assets (the magic item handouts and print-friendly options) and probably at least 20 hours into marketing. Divide $3,000 by 420 (that number wasn't on purpose, I swear) and it comes out to $7.15/hour of work, which is below even the United States' abysmal minimum wage.
Now I'm obviously not trying to discourage anyone with these numbers, nor am I complaining about them. Gray Merchant has FAR outperformed my expectations, and I went into it knowing that. But if you're wondering about project economics, these are all factors you have to consider.
Could it have been made cheaper?
The answer is complicated but essentially yes. You'll notice that most of the cost went into applications to produce art assets.
The VAST majority of the art in Gray Merchant were made using royalty-free images from Pixabay that were then modified in Adobe Photoshop. I'd consider that $21/month Photoshop subscription 100% essential, but it's the only paid application I'd say was necessary and I will say that for all I gripe about Adobe's subscription program, I do appreciate that it offers a low barrier to entry. I just wish they offered a perpetual license OPTION.
A number of key pieces of art used 3D assets though. I'm essentially self-taught for both Photoshop and 3D art, making use of free tutorials on the Internet. It's time-consuming but it's possible.
So why did I dump $1,000 into ZBrush and Substance Painter? Let me point out that they are NOT NEEDED. If you're skilled in Blender, there is very little you can do in ZBrush and Substance Painter that you can't accomplish in Blender, but it DOES take more TIME. And for an amateur like me, it takes a prohibitive amount of time. ZBrush lets you adjust 3D models like you're sculpting in clay, while Substance Painter lets you paint textures onto 3D models like you're using a spray can. They're much more intuitive than 3D modeling and UV unwrapping. But it can be done, and if I'd really wanted to save the money, I also could've managed it with only a somewhat worse-looking result. Here's what the Gray Merchant mask used heavily in my advertising looked like as raw polygons in just Blender:
And this is what it looked like after being refined in ZBrush and painted in Substance Painter:
You can tell from the wireframe that it was a lot uglier than the refined version, but I could've done a bit more cleanup in Blender, put some free textures.com gold texturing on it, done some clean-up in Photoshop, and gotten a reasonable result.
It's worth noting that, ironically, the art asset I was most proud of never touched ZBrush. Meet the anvilwrought raptor, modeled entirely in Blender over the course of 4 days:
I also didn't need to buy Affinity Publisher. Scribus is an open-source and free layout tool that can do basically everything you need, but as you might expect from open-source tools, it's not the easiest or most intuitive to use. For a beginner who was trying to learn all sorts of other skillsets for this project already, spending $50 for Affinity Publisher to get an interface similar to Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word—programs I already understood—was a life-saver. Having since gotten Adobe InDesign, I still prefer Affinity Publisher to InDesign. InDesign is more powerful, but its learning curve and usability is awful so far.
Oh Penji... this is something I discovered partway through Gray Merchant and it changed my life. If you want to try Penji, you can use our affiliate coupon code of 27HIIFRTA1261503 at checkout or click this link to get 15% off your first-month trial. If you sign up with them, you can also get your own affiliate link, and you get a monthly discount on your own subscription each month someone else is signed up using your code.
But what is Penji? Penji is a subscription graphic design firm. You can cancel anytime, and you pay month-by-month. They have several pricing tiers. At the lowest, you only get graphic design services where they'll throw together all sorts of graphics for you using either your provided art assets or royalty-free assets. Starting at the tier above that, though, they'll also do custom illustrations for you. You submit projects and their designers (mostly offshore in the Philippines but some in the States and other countries as well) return you a draft or a full product overnight. From everything I can tell, the company tries to give back to the communities it's in—I spent a couple weeks before signing up for the trial trying to make sure everything seemed ethical and found no red flags. Once you get the art back, you can then accept the project and move on or request revisions, but you'll typically see one update every 24 hours.
I'll do a separate post at some point highlighting everything Penji can do, but I do think they're AMAZING and worth every cent and I'm having a little bit of heartburn talking about them here because I feel like I'm giving away a secret weapon. They typically turn around full custom illustrations for us in two days and they're friendly and largely deliver things to spec with minimal handholding. This was one situation where something that sounded too good to be true actually was real.
That said, Penji is not a replacement for commissioning artists. While a monthly price of $450 is steep, being able to get 10-20 designs from them makes the per design price lower than anything you can get through custom commissions, and they transfer full ownership rights to you. However, the art you get is generally low complexity due to how quickly they turn them around, and they're limited in the styles they can deliver, so unless the designers you get paired with happen to gel with your aesthetic perfectly, you may feel a bit constrained.
I personally consider Penji to fall between using royalty-free/public domain art and commissioning custom pieces from artists. It fills a need for cheap, custom art, but it won't replace someone with exactly the style you want or with whom you can build a long-term collaborative relationship.
For Gray Merchant, the only piece of art they contributed was the footer graphic, which was giving me endless headaches. Their designer provided two options:
I picked the first one but asked for an extra line along the bottom to close it off, resulting in the version you see in the final product.
I could've made The Gray Merchant spending under $200 if I'd used the Gray Merchant mask on a starry field background as the cover, or for around $600 with Victor's custom cover. Some of the art in the book would've looked a bit worse, but there would've been few other differences.
However, it would've required a lot more time. Probably another 50-100 hours of work learning and practicing the skills I'd need to do what I quickly accomplished with the applications I bought.
I also benefited from coming into this project with over 10 years of hobby experience dabbling in 3D modeling, Photoshop, video editing, and fiction writing that enabled me to pick up new skills specifically for TTRPG books faster than if starting from scratch. I did learn those skills for free online, in my personal time, but it's still time and experience.