Yeah, I didn’t add an extra zero, or forget a decimal point.
Come July 2021, I will have been publishing on the DMs Guild for three years. In these last two-and-a-half years, I’ve released over fifty D&D products, and the royalties I earn seem promising enough that I can return from teaching abroad to live skinny as a starving writer. This post is not a boast, nor is it an invitation for the IRS to audit me (pls no, I pay my taxes), but a simple sharing of my experience self-publishing Dungeons & Dragons products. Hopefully some other nerd reads this blog post and realizes that they too can fulfill their dreams of being a TTRPG designer or writer even while holding down a full-time job. In the year 2020 alone, I earned $25,835.28 from publishing on the DMs Guild (after having to give away half—yes, half—of my earnings to the website and WOTC). As an English teacher in South Korea, I make about $23,000 a year (after factoring in taxes and converting to USD). You read that right: I am making more than my actual salary.
As I said, this post is not a boast. I’ve worked hard and written good products; I’m proud of my efforts. While others may think it gauche for me to reveal my earnings, I instead believe this transparency might lead others to pursuing their passions as well. So, read along if you want to hear how I stopped putting off my dreams. You can also skip to the TL; DR at the bottom.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
It all started with, I kid you not, a flowchart.
It was March of 2018. I was teaching in a small town an hour north of Tokyo. My friends were likewise scattered across the Kanto countryside. With little to do during the week, we started a Curse of Strahd campaign online shortly after arriving to Japan. We had been playing for about nine-months by now and they were about to enter Castle Ravenloft. Look, anyone who’s ever seen a map of Castle Ravenloft knows it’s an absolute nightmare. No other map in the entire campaign is isometric, except Castle Ravenloft’s. It’s beautiful, but it’s incredibly difficult to analyze. To make matters worse, the castle consists of several floors, several towers, secret passages, and even teleporters. As the Dungeon Master, I had a helluvah time just figuring out which staircases led where.
Time was tight; I had to know Castle Ravenloft in-and-out. See, my players and I were all expats, and most of us were only doing a year in Japan. Our contracts would end March 22nd, giving me only two weeks to really finish the campaign. Stressed beyond belief, I resorted to my usual remedies: drawing charts, making Excel tables, and reminding myself I actually had the chops to be a DM. Somehow, over a whiskey-fueled weekend, I devised a single-page, color-coded flowchart depicting Castle Ravenloft. That map made me a regular Magellan—it was a gamechanger. With but a glance, I knew exactly where the party would end up if they took a particular staircase, fell off a balcony, took the elevator, or hopped into a teleporter. It was gangbusters, man.
The campaign ended with a bang. The flowchart proved invaluable and I was given all the time I needed to devise and run a wedding between Strahd von Zarovich and his captured beloved.
Okay, but what about the DMs Guild?
Yeah, yeah, I’m getting there. I returned to the States on March 24th and was soon obliterated by reverse culture shock. I was pretty lost; I knew I wanted to be a writer but had yet to finish anything but two short stories set in some fantasy-cowboy-frontier. I later learned of the DMs Guild, and although I was amazed that independent writers could publish their own work—and get paid—I was suffering from imposter syndrome. After a few weeks of moaning (“Man, I wish I could publish on that site…”), a worn-out friend just asked me, “Well, why can’t you?”
If it weren’t for this friend, I would’ve never tried my hand at publishing. Instead of bitching, I was challenged to actually work for once in my life. Later that night, I looked through all the stories, subclasses, and encounters I had made for my own homebrew games over the years and realized I already had something worthwhile: the flowchart. Every DM has to grapple with Castle Ravenloft’s labyrinthine maps, right? Every DM faces the same problem I did. Why not try and sell that?
Anyone familiar with my work, or the Curse of Strahd subreddit, might recognize this product as the Castle Ravenloft Map Flowchart. As of January 2021, it has sold over a thousand copies at the price of $2 a download. As a DMs Guild writer, I must surrender half my royalties to the brass, but that still leaves me with a thousand dollars off a f***ing flowchart. If I can get away with that, imagine what someone with more than half a brain and actual experience with graphic design could achieve?
With the flowchart published, I had found my niche: writing aids to help DMs run my favorite campaign. I wrote the Death House Script, the Escaping Death House skill challenge, Destined Allies, and, finally, The Wedding at Ravenloft, which, to this day, is one of my proudest products. I had already written and ran the Wedding in my own campaign, so I knew it was solid. All I had to do was commit to publishing it. As of January 2021, it’s sold over 2000 copies at $3 apiece, for a net total of three grand into my bank account.
Monthly Earnings: It’s All Exponential
I still remember earning my first dollar on the DMs Guild. I was at work and randomly checked my account from my phone—and I had made three sales on the flowchart. Three sales amounts to $3—a cup of coffee at the local Wawa. I was blown away—blown away! Someone in the world actually valued my work enough to pay me for it! I was on Cloud Nine all day.
I closed July 2018 having published five products and earning $136.56 (after losing half to the DMs Guild). I was ecstatic. For once I had proof that I was actually talented at writing. I felt validated in my work (and dream) for the first time ever in my life. If you told me that about two years later, I’d be averaging $2,000 a month (with a high of $3,700) I would spit out that 32 oz. Colombian-blend coffee I just bought at said Wawa.
These days, I typically make a minimum of $2,000 a month, and here’s why: it’s all exponential. I still earn money from the flowchart, just as I earn royalties from the other fifty products I’ve published. As I publish more products (and believe me, I’ve got a lot coming down the pike) this just compounds.
As you can see in the graph above, it wasn’t until January, a full six months after I began publishing, that I broke $1,000 in monthly revenue, and it was followed by a $834.18 paycheck in February. Disregarding spikes, my monthly earnings steadily increased, but were usually followed up with a 10-20% drop the next month.
Most spikes are attributed to the release of a front page product; the first true spike occured in July 2019 when I published Daerdan’s Class Feats, which was considered a revolutionary product (as no one had ever considered making class-specific feats). It also didn’t hurt that Christian Hoffer of Comicbook.com wrote an article on the product.
The second spike occurred in May 2020, due to two factors: the Pay it Forward event, in which DMs Guild graciously allowed writer’s to take home 100% of their earnings for the month of May; and the release of the Dungeon of the Mad Mage Companion: Complete Edition, the culmination of my 17-months-long series, which was priced at $20. These two bled together to give me my greatest month to date: $4,000 in cold hard cash. At the time, I believed I had hit the wage ceiling for someone with my meager social media presence. The month of October, in which I earned $3656.90 proved me wrong. This last spike has given me the faith that I can (as a 25-year-old without children) live off my writing if I continue to work hard and live frugally.
Defeat and the Inevitability of Success
I’ve released several flops over the years—products I had high expectations for that failed spectacularly. Urban Archetypes was one, 101 Seafaring Encounters was another, and my current “flop” is 101 Arctic Encounters. Each product failed to make the splash I expected. Simply put, each one had failed to give me the bang I needed for my buck. After all, each took over three months to write. In hindsight, some deserved it, as I knew too little of graphic design. Even if the content was great, the presentation was lacking.
Here’s the thing though: years later, Urban Archetypes has sold over 500 copies. 101 Seafaring Encounters is on its way to a thousand sales. The lesson to learn here is that things will earn money over time. Your life isn’t over just because you failed to make the front page on launch. You don’t need an earth-shattering release. Given time, you will earn the money you deserve for your hard work. Everything on the Guild is, therefore, an investment. Of course, when drafting a new product, I still weigh my investments against my potential payout, but I’m much more forgiving.
Takeaways and Advice
I hope through this post that any other prospective writers find the inspiration to publish that dungeon or subclass that’s been on their mind. I needed a push myself, and that push changed my very life. I consider myself a medium fish in the big pond that is DMs Guild and and a tiny fish TTRPG ocean, and I’m first to admit that I still have a lot to learn. Still, I’ve stumbled my way towards success and there are pieces of wisdom I can share with others:
Don’t Do it for Money
Like with all writing, you can’t do it for the money. You do it because you have something you need to share with the world; something that eats at you until you at last let it out. You can’t expect much money from DMs Guild, you can only have faith that the seeds you plant will reward you later. If the promise of cash is all that sustains your drive, you’re gonna have a bad time.
Love Your Work
If you aren’t proud of what you’ve written, it shows. All writers facing a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) must make cuts or edits to finish their product, but trimming the fat is different from vomiting out a product. It will haunt you otherwise. Impostor syndrome is a real issue amongst writers, so don’t let it gain a foothold.
Make Friends and Seek Advice
The help of friends like Vall Syrene, Trevor of Grim Press, and J. Valeur of Eventyr Games proved instrumental in my development of a writer in this industry. They were there to listen to my complaints and ideas. Likewise, folks like Justice Arman and Phil Beckwith were always very supportive and patient. I’ve learned a lot from their wisdom. When you start, find yourself a community. The DMs Guild writers hang out on a Discord that I can totally get you into if you join the Guild. The other writers offer an infinite amount of advice, jokes, and feedback.
Keep Costs Low
When you’re starting out, every dollar counts. Each product you publish requires art and layout; the latter, I skimped on much throughout my career, believing that customers and readers cared more for content than fonts and filigree. While I still believe that’s (mostly) true, presentation is everything. If you can afford it, find a layout artist, who will likely want 5-10% of the take for their expertise. As for art, I cannot recommend Dean Spencer enough, who offers amazing art for an affordable price. As a patron of his, I’ve earned enough credits to fund most of my projects for the foreseeable future.
Write in WOTC’s Domain
My most successful products are inherently tied to WOTC’s IP. Think about it: I got my start through Curse of Strahd supplements. If you’re going to give WOTC 20% of your earnings (the other 30% goes to DrivethruRPG/DMs Guild) you may as well use their IP. Customers are already paying for WOTC’s products; it’s lucrative to gear your products towards these customers. The vast majority of my products are tied to WOTC’s existing IP and it has worked. I stick to official 5th Edition campaigns, but many a writer has updated a piece of lore from earlier editions to 5e.
Identify your Niche
I got my start in Curse of Strahd supplements and learned the hard way that subclasses are a dime-a-dozen. When starting out, find your strength, stick to it, and experiment after you’ve got a hang on publishing in general. That niche might be adventures, encounters, dungeons, or even campaign supplements. Once you’ve gained a foothold, try your hand at other things. I personally don’t believe this is about brand recognition, but simply ensuring your success can roll over into future ventures.
I once saw someone post a single magic item on DMs Guild for eight dollars. Eight dollars, man. That level of audacity could fuel a dying star. Whenever you price your products, be conservative but don’t underestimate your worth. My first few products were all Pay What You Want, as I was afraid no one would trust my skill enough as a new writer to actually pay a set price. Looking back, some of my products definitely were worth a price tag, and many were priced too low. Don’t sell yourself short, but don’t be deluded. To give you some perspective, a single well-designed subclass could be priced at $1.95, but a compendium of twenty or more subclasses really isn’t worth more than $10 or $15. Ultimately, you must think of the consumer and try to find an equitable price. Don’t, however, work for free, as it sets a nasty expectation amongst the industry that only the proven writers deserve fair compensation.
This is the big one, and one I still struggle with each day. Much of the TTRPG industry is rooted in Twitter and Instagram. Reddit is hit or miss. Don’t wait to make your handle, get a logo (or a snazzy profile pic, if you’re comfortable with showing your beautiful face; I was for too long) and start posting. Only a fraction of people that know of you need your products or are willing to pay for them, so it behooves you to get your name out there. I can’t offer too much advice on this, as I only have a few followers on my Twitter and Instagram. Social media (and the thought that it might be what stops me from ever achieving true success) is actually a huge detriment to my mental health, so I often take breaks from posting. When you launch your social media, be sure to read Ashley May’s Self Promo Guide for the TTRPG Industry.
I debated on whether to include this, as the jury’s still out on whether I’m going to make it in this industry or if I even want to (I want to be Stephen King, not Chris Perkins). I can tell you that I struggle every day in the TTRPG industry—and I don’t have even half the responsibilities or burdens other writers do. I live on my own in a foreign country and work full-time; I have no children to take care of nor any family to tend to (so think of how other writers feel). Every day, I wonder if this is worth my time, if I’ll ever really succeed, or if this market is even sustainable for lesser known writers. I am given opportunities every day to wash my hands of this business and do something else with my time. It is so easy to be disheartened in this industry. Nothing, however, compares to the surge of pride I feel when I click “Set up my new title” on DMs Guild or see the reviews customers leave on my product. I could have quit a long time ago but I love what I do—even when I hate it—and I’m proud of what I produce, so I keep my faith that it will all be worth it one day. Hang onto that faith until evidence appears that it’s ruining your happiness.
This article has gone on for some time now, so here’s the skinny: through hard work and many mistakes, I managed to out-earn my full-time job through what began as a hobby. Perhaps with further hard work and support, I can turn it into a full-time gig. Anyone else can too—anyone. If you have a vision to share with this world, all it takes is one push—a push I am now offering you—to publish it and get paid for your hard work. All it takes is believing in your own creativity.
Interested in supporting my work? Want to keep up to date with my writing? Consider joining my patreon, buying me a coffee, or signing up for my newsletter. Any and all support goes towards fulfilling my dream of becoming a full-time writer.