Basic Budgeting for Developing Indie Tabletop RPGs

The Price of Publishing

The independent roleplaying game scene is fantastically accessible, relative to other forms of game publishing. One of the challenges for a new game publisher is in determining an initial budget for their projects. I’m here to help you with some advice on how to allocate your scare resources.

Before we get started, I recommend you check out the excellent article on publishing costs that Fred Hicks published a couple years back. When you are done with Fred’s article, come on back and we will get started.

Set-up Costs

There are a ton of potential expenses in the world of publishing, but here is the basic set of affordable tools that have served me well in my publishing career. Grab these as early as your career as possible, and allocate some time for learning.

  • A word processing program. The free options are the open-source LibreOffice, or potentially Google Docs. When you have the resources down the line, Microsoft Office is pretty commonly used.
  • A photo-manipulation program. I personally love the free, open-source program known as The GIMP and use it to this day. Adobe Photoshop is another option for this role, though it’s costly.
  • A vector illustration program. I use the free, open-source program Inkscape, and it will serve you well. Adobe Illustrator is another commercial option, though it is costly.
  • A layout program, such as the free, open source program Scribus or the more expensive and professional Adobe InDesign.
  • An ebook format program, specifically the open source program Calibre.
  • The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by Robin Williams. This should cost you about $25 USD, and it’s worth every penny.
  • A copy of Scrivener, by Literature and Latte. This should cost you about $40 USD, and I have found it to be an invaluable tool for outlining and initial drafting of RPG texts.
  • A variety of free or pay-what-you-want RPG texts, including Fate Core ( , Dungeon World ( ) , Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition ( ) and Lady Blackbird (

For those who have been counting, the baseline costs for those items above is about $65 USD or $100 CAD. For publishers with some additional resources, an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription will let you get the tools for #2, #3 and #4 for relatively cheap.


General Publishing Expenses

Expenses for game publishing tend to fall in a few categories. When I say “Day”, I mean a morning writing sprint or an evening after work. Most of my weekends tend to have 3-4 “Days” worth of writing when I’m productive.

  • Writing, both mechanics and fiction. I tend to assume I can produce about 500 words of high-quality text in a day, for budgeting purposes. If I hire freelance writers to do this work, the baseline rate of pay is 5 cents per word.
  • Playtesting. I tend to give myself a playtesting budget of 1 playtest per 1000 words of text as a rule of thumb.  I call each playtest about a day worth of effort, both for the day itself and for the revision process afterwards.
  • Editing, both developmental editing (structural) and copy editing (grammar). Since it is impossible to effectively edit your own work, I budget 2-3 cents a word for freelance editors.
  • Art is extremely variable, and can be a place where you save or invest a great deal of money. Fred’s blog gives some great numbers for planning purposes. Don’t forget to consider public domain images, creative commons, and icons ( or
  • Layout can be done affordably with some skill, patience and time. If you do it yourself, allocate about a day per 1000 words of text you are laying out. This assumes that you don’t have the necessary skill-set and you are learning the tools. If you want to hire it out, decent baseline prices are in the $500 to $1500 range.  
  • Production is highly variable, and will be discounted from this. For the purposes of this budgeting exercise, I assume that any print products are produced via DrivethruRPG Print on Demand service, which has no up-front cost and thus can be excluded from these discussions.

Books are Beautiful


Microgame Budget

This category of games are the smallest in scope, usually associated with game design competitions such as Game Chef. These are the thought-pieces, experimental works, and highly focussed designs. My own (award-winning) game Posthuman Pathways falls in this category, for example, as would Lady Blackbird.

For a project this size, your wordcount tends to be 4000-6000 words. A bare-bones budget for a microgame assumes that most of the investment is in time. I will use 5000 as the baseline, which tends to come to about 20 pages of a digest-size book.

  • Writing: Approximately 10 days of solid writing.
  • Playtesting: 5 playtests, which includes another 5 days for revision.
  • Editing: For a bare-bones editing, hiring an editor at 2 cents/word will cost you $100 for this.
  • Art: If your text is minimal and you use free sources of art, you will only really need a cover. You may be able to secure re-use rights for ~$150, if you can find a suitable piece in an artist’s portfolio.
  • Layout: By doing this yourself, it will take approximately 5 days of work to lay-out the work.Posthuman Pathways

Total Resources: 20 days of work, $250

Adding Extras: If you want to add additional resources to a microgame, commission additional art; 2 half-page images and 2 spot-images, which would run you about $150 according to Fred’s numbers. I would also recommend another 5 days, dedicated to playtesting the text (to ensure clarity) and polishing the prose. Microgames often have less tolerance for unclear language, so your game would benefit from the additional time.

For Reference: Real-world budget of a microgame: Posthuman Pathways (


Indie Game Budget

The story game community has a long history of producing games that are full of narrative complexity, but relatively small in size relative to the traditional RPG products. These tend to be commercially viable products that can be sold in stores easily and often amass a following.

For a project this size, your wordcount tends to be 20k-40k words. Producing a professional quality product at this scale is not an easy task, but it’s often worth it. I will use 30,000 words as the baseline, and assume this is about 120 pages.

  • Writing: Approximately 60 days of writing and revising.
  • Playtesting: 15 playtests if it’s based on an established system, 30 if it’s a brand-new resolution system. About 20 more days of additional revision work.
  • Editing: Hiring an editor at the minimum of 2 cents/word will cost you $600 for this. If you expect multiple revision passes or significant developmental editing work, allocate another cent/word for the additional work by that editor or another one.
  • Art: For a piece this size, you are likely going to need a new custom cover (~$400), at least six half-page pieces ($300), and at least 8 quarter page pieces ($200). I tend to go very light on commissioned art in my work and have had to be creative, but that will only go so far. These numbers will allow you to put in one piece of art for every 10 pages, which is light in terms of art, but some layout tricks can help minimize this.
  • Layout: Layout for a project like this is a big task. By doing this yourself, it will take approximately 60 days of work, assuming you have already learned the basic skills and have all the resources necessary.  You may be able to get someone to lay this out for you for $1500, and that’s a _fantastic_ use of kickstarter funds, but I will assume you do it yourself.

Total Resources: 140 days of work, $1500

Adding Extras: If you have extra resources, I would strongly recommend paying the additional amount for editing ($300), adding some full-page art pieces ($400) and another $300 worth of smaller pieces. Hiring someone someone to do professional layout (~$1500) is expensive, but also shaves two months of your own work off the timeline and will get you a much better product while you are at it. You could spend some of that additional time playtesting the text, demonstrating the game at conventions and preparing additional material.


For Reference: Sig: The City BetweenKickstarterCover

My latest kickstarter project was in this category although with a smaller wordcount and with full colour interiors. I allocated $750 to editing, $750 to art, and about $200 for indexing work. I cheated heavily on the art budget by reusing parts of the cover, and intentionally making the text align with some of Gustave Dore’s public domain work.




Major Game Budget

This is for the Fate Cores, Dungeon Worlds or Urban Shadows of the world; hefty and impressive games that usually hit about 60K-100K. I have yet to produce a game of this size, but here is how I would roughly budget for a project of this scope based on my current knowledge set.

Games of this size depend on kickstarter for development/production costs, and offset print runs. These tend to be about 300 pages of digest sized text, or 200 of a larger, letter-sized book. All of these prices are based on a 75K book.

  • Writing: This would take about 5 months of dedicated writing time. Even if the publisher is the lead on the project, I would recommend hiring freelance writers for at least a third of the book. (~$1,250)
  • Playtesting: Of all of the elements, playtesting needs to be scaled up the least. I would still recommend about 50-75 playtests if possible. About 2 months of additional revision work would be needed.
  • Editing: Hiring a pair of editors; one developmental and one for copyediting will cost you at least $2000 for this, and likely closer to $3000.
  • Art: I don’t honestly know where to start. A stunning cover (~$750) and at least $2000 of additional art would probably do the trick, but this would depend heavily on your specific needs. By reference, my quick count for Urban Shadows (at my side) had at least 25 full-page greyscale pieces, which would run $2,500 when using Fred’s numbers.
  • Layout: You are paying for a professional for this, unless your name happens to be John Harper or Daniel Solis. Budget $2000-2500 for this.

Total Resources: ~6 months of work, ~$9000



I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Did I over-allocate funding in any given category? Skimping too much on editing? This is all more art than science, and I would love your wisdom. I’m especially interested in additional information to revise the Major Game budget numbers.

(Note, article has have taken 3-4 days of writing time, no editing costs, and re-uses art. No layout costs. )

Spread the Spark

I love Spark, and I know that many of you share this love. I want to help foster a community of people who learn, play and appreciate the game as well. The best way to do this is to run games at local game stores and conventions.

The problem is that I have limited opportunities to travel and run games outside of my own city. That’s why I’m running a little promotion and would like to ask for your help. I would like to invite you to run demo session of Spark at conventions and friendly local gaming stores. The three Quickstart bundles Here do all the preparation for you might need, including pre-generated characters. Just print and play!

In thanks, I will offer you each a free copy of the beautiful new Spark Setting written by Brian Engard. Carriers is a cyberpunk zombie game, where cybernetically-enhanced runners travel between corporate arcologies while trying to avoid the zombie hordes. I am really excited to share this with you, but this setting won’t be available for sale.

All you need to do is email me at genesisoflegend at with “Carriers” in the subject line, telling me where and when the game is to be run. I will be happy to send you a pdf of the awesome new setting from Brian.

Help spread Spark among the masses.

Become a Carrier.


The Spark Kickstarter is complete!

The first part of the Kickstarter campaign has closed. In some ways, this was the most exciting part of the process, seeing tangible support for my “little” game. It’s also been a little tiring, as if I was attending a very subdued month-long game convention. Overall, it’s been a blast thanks to all of the backers.

Now to business. We raised a total of $11,668, which means that I will be producing a number of things for all 475 of you.

  • PDF’s of the final version of the Game, both in “display” and “print” formats.
  • Epub and Mobi versions
  • Physical printed copies of the game, delivered to backers and chosen libraries/schools. d. Halfling Burrow Dice Bags
  • Human Keep Die Bags
  • Dragon’s Hoard Dice Bags
  • Extra payments for my editors and artists (Partially complete)
  • New cover art
  • A Quickstart Bundle for each of the three settings
  • The Digital Campfire MP3
  • A Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (CC BY)
  • An expanded, revised and potentially art-filled version of the “Spark in Fate Core” article of collaborative World Building.

That is a lot of stuff and I want to deliver as quickly as I can possibly manage without allowing the quality to suffer. It will apparently take about 2 weeks before all of the payments clear and before I am able to send the surveys out. At the end of the month, I will begin sending out the surveys to collect information, and I plan to prepare the final revision to the text so I can start the layout process at the beginning of May.

Exciting times!

Jennisodes Interview!

I had a great time chatting with Jen of the Jennisodes, were we got a chance to discuss Spark in some detail. While I’m self-conscious about all my “ums” in the interview, I think it went well.

Check it out over here at The Jennisodes!

If you came here from the podcast and want to find the open beta versions of the game, you can find it right here.

The Status of Spark

I wanted to provide a bit of a status report for the Spark RPG project. I know that I have been relatively quiet on here, and thought that you might appreciate an update.

The Open Beta that I launched in 2012 taught me a great deal. Playtesting did an excellent job at pointing out what portions of the text required major overhauls though I feel badly for the players who suffered through the earlier iterations. The reworked collaboration and conflict mechanics are finally producing the game play experience I desire.

This fall, I observed a 4 session blind playtest from a local group, led by one of my assistant editors (Mark Richardson). This test showed me that the game did too good of a job encouraging conflict, without encouraging cooperation between characters. I reworked the relatively negative “baggage” questions into more positive ties between characters. It also highlighted the danger of vocal players drowning out the quieter ones during the collaborative process, so I added more guidance to counter that fact.

After that point, I sent the text to my editor (David Hill) for the revision first pass.  He did a masterful job, as expected, in pointing out problems with the text. I’m particularly thankful that he identified a piece of the text that was disrespectful of mental illness. I reworked that section to be far more inclusive because of his help, and the game will be better for it.  Beyond that, he showed me the places that required elaboration and example text.

Over the holidays, I threw myself into the task of incorporating all of the revisions and writing some additional setting content. This current version of the text comes to 32K words in length, including all three settings. I have it back in David’s hands so that he can do another editing pass for me.

I am presently working on organizing my kickstarter campaign, tentatively scheduled for March of 2013. With luck, I will be able to make at least my minimum goal and publish the thing.