A warm coat may shield you from snow and wind, but steel and hearts can be colder yet.
Remember the D&D adventure I mentioned two posts back? I finished it! On time!
The Horrors of Frostbite Isle, a Wild West Survival oneshot set in the deep northern winter, is now available on DMsGuild. For more details, check out the project page I made for it, or watch this video, in which I sound slightly drunk while actually just being sleep-deprived.
Why did I make it?
Well, as you may recall, I’m doing a six-month sabbatical to explore the possibility of being a writer. After spending the first three months doing nothing much but visiting my friends and collaborating on an eventually-aborted film project, I was determined to finally finish something. I don’t want to return to my old life in February empty-handed.
Thus, I set aside the sparse notes I had made for my novels, and picked up those on something else I had done in the previous three months. I had distracted myself from the inefficacy of my other endeavours by going way overboard with the prep work for a D&D oneshot. Some of Art’s friends had asked me to DM for them, and I was happy to.
Since early November, I have been completely focused* on turning these session notes into a published adventure worth spending real money on. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot in the process, and definitely gained an awareness for how even small projects come with many facets.
I’ll try to give you an overview of these facets below. Don’t let yourself be scared by it though. If you want to make something of your own but are still hesitating to take the first step, I’d much rather push you than hold you back. And don’t aim for the ultimate success – I mean, sure, act like that’s what you’re working on – but go for an enriching experience. You’ll most certainly get that.
How did I make it?
I wrote most of the first draft in a vacation rental in a small village in the middle of nowhere. As I detailed in a previous post, this environment was very conducive to productivity.
I used LaTeX for typesetting because I knew of the existence of this free LaTeX template for D&D products by RPGTeX. It proved easy enough to work with, though re-learning the LaTeX syntax gave me some flashbacks to my university days.
I later found that there are (non-free) templates on DMsGuild that come closer to the official trade dress (which you should only be aiming for when you’re publishing on DMsGuild and thus allowed to). Most of them are for Microsoft Word, and seem user-friendly from afar. I reassure myself by assuming that they, too, must have their quirks. At least I’m fairly certain that the manual bookmarking and linking of the PDF is more of a struggle.**
The lovely Caran Alice edited the shit out of this project. It should now be 100% feces-free, and we have her to thank for that.*** She also conjured up this useful D&D style guide.
Considering Caran’s diligent feedback took me longer than expected. I guess I’ve gotten so used to giving advice to others that I forgot that applying it is usually more work. Also, my first draft was really messy, especially in the parts I’d had to force myself to write. I wrote a second draft before editing just to make it remotely readable.
Proofreading & Fact-Checking
It would have been nice to have yet another fresh pair of eyes for proofreading. I had Bulb in mind, but that didn’t work out, so Caran was at it again.
Meanwhile, one of the playtest DMs (see below) informed me that there is, in fact, no cow in the Monster Manual. I’d gotten the reference wrong. This reminded me that fact-checking is a thing. I went and checked all the references to external sources, finding quite a few errors.
Although I’m something of an artist myself, I wanted this to actually look good, so I brought in some collaborators.
The cover is the only thing about this project that didn’t come for free. I hadn’t expected a casual request on twitter to attract much attention, especially not the right kind; I stand corrected. I hired Anthony Moravian almost immediately after I saw his homepage.
As I don’t have a huge following, the cover is probably the most important marketing factor. Since the adventure combines so many themes (winter, western, magic, survival, intrigue, …), it was important to me that the artist be invested in the project and willing to work with me on finding a good scene for the cover. Thankfully, Anthony was an instant fan of the project.
These were his first sketches:
I like all three, so I went with the one I felt covered most of the themes. Here’s how it turned out:
Definitely worth it in my eyes; especially since Anthony is making it into an analog piece and a full cover spanning the front and back of a potential book:
I can’t wait for it. I mean, I can, and I will, but I can’t. If you’re remotely as hyped as me, you should follow Anthony’s instagram for updates and more cool fantasy art.
Speaking of not being able to wait, we got into a bit of a rush at the end to make my (self-imposed) deadline. This included the cover, which we might update slightly in the future. In terms of lessons for my next project, I’d probably start looking for an artist earlier in the process. Three to four weeks are a short time to turn strangers to colleagues and sketches to masterpieces.
For part of the illustrations I enlisted the help of an old schoolmate I was in art class with. It was fun to reunite and see that we both still got it, despite not being professional artists.
I mainly focused on the game-relevant illustrations like graphs and riddles. I had a separate schedule for those since they needed to be ready in time for playtesting. The same is true for the maps, which I made with Inkarnate.****
Playtesting wasn’t the highest of my priorities, so I scheduled it for after the writing and layout, parallel to editing and illustrating. When the sessions were coming up, I was a bit worried that I might have to ignore valuable feedback in favor of keeping layout and the deadline.
Luckily, most feedback from the DMs related to small errors and minor balancing issues. The only larger issue was that of play time being too long for a oneshot. I added a section (that happened to fit snugly into the existing layout) with pointers on how to accelerate gameplay, and I made sure to talk about an “adventure” more often than a “oneshot”.
I’d advise you – and that includes my future self – to start playtesting earlier in the process. Sure, you need some sort of write-up of your rules, but don’t fine-tune the appearance before you finalize the content.
I’d also like to try online playtesting at some point. For this project, the playtest DMs were my friends, and I was pretty heavily involved in the preparation of some of the sessions. Having the creator of an adventure at your side is not an ideal test condition for understandability. Also, assisting in preparation and even character creation takes up time the creator (you) is gonna need for their work on other aspects of the game.*****
Since D&D is an existing game with a company behind it, there are some legal boundaries to consider when publishing an extension to that game. I won’t go into any of the details here. Instead, I’ll share an article by The Angry GM and a three-part piece by James from Bring Your Own Dragons. They overlap quite a bit, but they’re both valuable.
All proceeds from sales after subtraction of Wizards of the Coast’s licensing fee and some fee that I think OneBookShelf holds back to cover transaction costs, go to Child’s Play Charity.
Apart from being an absolute saint, I decided on this because withdrawing my 50% royalties from DMsGuild looked like more work than it was worth.****** There’s delays, transaction fees, and you can only do it via PayPal. Also, I didn’t feel ready to find out what earning royalties in the US would mean for my German tax report. Maybe next time.
Working with Child’s Play was the simplest thing ever. I shot them an e-mail, got a reply from Travis Eriksen – the Executive Director himself – a day later, and was good to go.
Aside from taking away the burden of money, the tactical marketing genius in me rejoiced at the idea of supporting a charity. I’m an aspiring writer, but I earn a steady income through my dayjob – therefore my current goal is to expand my platform, not increase my profit.*******
I went all-out on the marketing, even making my first YouTube video (I’ll link it as often as I like), simply because the DMsGuild product page allows embedding one. My respect for YouTubers has definitely increased in the making of it. As has my ambition to maybe someday make those 2D animations I’ve been pondering; I hadn’t touched Blender since a failed attempt at 3D modeling for a school project, and boy, has it changed. It took me less than an hour to learn how to do all the effects you can see in the video, and some more that I didn’t end up using. I did however fail to realize that webcams with varying frame rates make for bad film cameras before it was too late.
Apropos too late, I missed the statistically ideal post times for Twitter and reddit on release day, but hey, at least I researched them. I’m also still confused by Instagram.
There will be enough time to figure all that out though, as marketing goes far beyond the release date. This blog article is but another small step in my sinister plan; I will not stop promoting this project until everyone has played it and I win D&D.
If you are yourself planning to publish your first product on DMsGuild, check out this video by Bob World Builder, in which he provides a quick tutorial on the entire process. It sure would have saved me some time.
* I did take a short three-day break at the end of November to write and submit two short stories to two writing contests that both ended on November 30. Another case where small investments can yield big results. No luck with the first contest, but the second one is still pending (and will be until summer 2022). Who knows.
** The world of PDF editing is dark and full of terrors.
*** Seriously, thank you so much.
**** Technically, my Inkarnate subscription is another thing that wasn’t free, but I didn’t get it for this project, and you could definitely reach a similar quality using the free version.
***** That being said, it was fun witnessing a friend freestyling off my script.
****** If you donate your entire share to one of their registered charities, DMsGuild will donate their share as well, which is nice.
******* And if it was, publishing oneshots on DMsGuild would probably not be the best move.