In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the core rules for the then-new third version of Dungeons & Dragons. They chose to allow other companies to create content under a license with very liberal terms called the Open Game License (OGL for short).
Third parties producing content for D&D was not a new concept, but releasing so much of the game under completely open licensing made creating and selling supplemental material for the biggest RPG kid on the block accessible and lucrative to anyone who was interested. There was a huge boom in small role playing game publishers, many of whom were creating adventures and other materials for D&D, but several of whom took the OGL and used it to create different games set in a wide variety of time periods and genres.
Not all of the companies that sprung up during that period are still around. However, those that were clever and produced interesting enough content have been getting a lot of attention through less conventional marketing and sales, most recently using crowdfunding and digital distribution.
Goodman Games was founded in 2001 and rose to fame producing high quality adventures for Dungeons & Dragons under their Dungeon Crawl Classics banner. These modules heavily referenced the trade dress and gonzo spirit of early D&D modules from the late 70’s and early 80’s. Over time, they published several of their own rulesets, but all the while they continued to produce Dungeon Crawl Classics modules which currently number in the eighties.
Two years ago, they spun the line out into its own game called, fittingly enough, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. They used the licensing of the OGL as their jumping-off point and fashioned a game that plays more like the Basic version of D&D published in 1981, with references to many of the original source materials that Gary Gygax used to develop the original game.
Goodman Games has had an extremely successful run of Kickstarter campaigns, but they have been running them in an unconventional way. The DCCRPG Kickstarters they have run have mostly been for adventure materials that are ready for publication. The fundraising is not to get the materials published, but to give people an opportunity to vote with their wallets and make possible additional, more expensive premium additions to the modules.
For example, with The Chained Coffin, the Kickstarter had stretch goals that started at funding a physical dial puzzle that players could hold and solve at the table, and went all the way up to creating a full boxed set with several books and a map of the setting region. Their latest crowdfunding venture appears to be on track to fund the highest stretch goal (at $38,000), which is a Dungeon Master Screen, an iconic symbol of the secrecy and power than divides DMs from the players.
Another smaller publisher, Evil Hat Productions, also ran an incredibly successful RPG Kickstarter campaign which managed to raise over $400,000, or 14,440% over their original goal. Their angle was also very clever: they were asking fans of their system, called Fate, to invest enough funds that Evil Hat could put the core rules of the game online as a pay-whatever-you-want PDF.
That means anyone who wants to can essentially download the rules for free, decreasing the barriers for people to try the game and increasing the likelihood that gaming groups will adopt their system and hopefully invest in other supporting products. Wizards of the Coast chose a similar strategy this summer by releasing a core ruleset for the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons as a freely downloadable PDF.
Kickstarter is not the only funding resource that small RPG publishers have successfully exploited. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, publisher of an OGL-based, adult-themed retro-clone roleplaying game, has used Indiegogo to fund several modules by a variety of well-known RPG authors and publish high quality hardcover books of their rules. Indiegogo allows funding to go to companies not located in the United States, which works well for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, as they publish out of Finland.
The OGL and the rules released as the d20 system brought life to a vibrant marketplace of small role playing game publishers. Some made their name supporting D&D, but many have since branched out. Digital distribution, print on demand services and now Kickstarter have all come in to keep these companies alive and profitable.
These companies are using crowdfunding very intelligently. They let their customers support the products that are most interesting, while minimizing the risk of printing big runs of books that may or may not sell well. They also build excitement and word-of-mouth as fans of the products push to smash through stretch goals. D&D may or may not be feeling the heat, but the clever tactics of small publishers seem to be keeping their businesses sustainable.