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What is an Adventure Worth?

Sage 5

Recently I talked about the Dungeon Masters Guild, a way that anyone can self-publish D&D material. The site has been loaded with offerings from gamers and seems to be doing very well. As with 5E itself, it seems to be exceeding WotC’s expectations.

Howling Void cover 170488My first offering was Howling Void, published on the Guild’s opening day through the Adventurers League. My second offering was the adventure Adamantine Chef: Supreme Challengewhich I published to try and learn what the Guild could do for me as an author. I want to share how the Guild has worked for me. I also want to share the thinking I have gone through as I spoke to authors and customers about these numbers and what it says about the RPG market.

 

 

How Well is it Working for Me?

Here are my total sales for Howling Void. It has a $2.50 list price (which is strangely lower than other 4-hour AL adventures). It is also in a bundle, which provides a discounted price of $1.50):

Date Total Units Total Royalties (50% of total)
1/12/2016 13 $10.25 (opening day for Guild)
1/31/2016 109 $85.75
2/9/2016 134 $106

My sales for Adamantine Chef (List price $4.99):

Date Total Units Total Royalties (50% of total)
1/21/2016 3 $7.49 (first day of sale)
1/31/2016 23 $57.39
2/9/2016 33 $82.34

(Updated numbers over time will be shared at the end of this blog post. These are running totals.)

I’m particularly interested in Adamantine Chef, because I have a number of potential non-AL adventures and other creative products I could offer on the Guild. Are those good numbers?

 

What Does the Market Think?

I asked folks on Twitter what they thought of the sales.

Should it disappear, the results were:
– 0 % said the sales as of 2/9/16 seemed high
– 59% said the sales as of 2/9/16 seemed about right
– 41% said the sales as of 2/9/16 seemed low

That’s interesting. More than half feel the sales level is pretty solid. Is it? It depends on the payout vs the effort, right? While this hobby is often said to be a labor of love (because it pays poorly), we still all want to be efficient in what we choose to do. There are different ways to approach the market – the Guild is just one of them. More than half of people see 33 sales and royalties of $82 as good for a 4-hour adventure… what drives that perception, and is that perception valid?

 

What Does it Take to Author?

119444As an organized play admin I saw it time and time again – volunteers underestimated the effort required to write a 4-hour adventure. One out of every seven Ashes of Athas authors quit early in the process without delivering a complete adventure and several others weren’t willing to make the changes we recommended – the effort wore them out and they asked us to finish the work.

The skills are many and diverse, from creativity, to grammar, to understanding the game’s math. But as fellow authors shared in talent vs experience, the biggest “skill” may be the willingness to put in the effort to create a great adventure. How long does it take?

I asked what gamers thought it takes me to write a 4-hour adventure.

Should it disappear, the results were:
– 9 % said less than 10 hours
– 27% said 10-25 hours
35% said 26-40 hours
– 29% said more than 40 hours

The answer: it took me significantly more than 40 hours to write Adamantine Chef. Nearly one in ten gamers think I could write Adamantine Chef in under 10 hours. A full third thought I could do it in less than 25 hours. And a total of 71% of gamers thought I could do it in 40 hours or less. 

I had a few authors send me tweets that they couldn’t believe the poll results (seeing them as low). At the same time, I think of myself as an inefficient author. I’m wordy, tend to overthink things, and spend a lot of time refining and perfecting. What is the level of effort for other authors who have done professional work?

Should it disappear, the results were:
– 11 % said less than 10 hours
– 11% said 10-25 hours
22% said 26-40 hours
– 56% said more than 40 hours

More than half of the authors are, like me, spending more than 40 hours writing a 4-hour adventure. And 78% are above 26 hours.

I can spend 5 hours on an outline on some projects. For example, my current project went past the outline stage and into writing before I learned that my location appears in an upcoming product… so I had to go back and revise my writing to this new reality. Here is how I would calculate I spend my time, at a minimum, on a typical 4-hour adventure:

Research/ideas/organize 5-15 hours
Formal outline 2-3 hours
Combat encounter planning 5-10 hours
Write document shell/skeleton 2 hours
Write first draft 10-25 hours
playtest 5 hours
second draft 3-8 hours
final touches 2-4 hours
publish 2-4 hours

14For example, with Five Deadly Shadows I spent about two hours writing just the tea ceremony encounter, including researching how a tea ceremony works. For several adventures I’ve had 3-10 books open around my desk as I write. Before I wrote Howling Void I read or skimmed nearly every relevant adventure (such as Temple of Elemental Evil and Return to ToEE), in addition to reading the previous two adventures in the trilogy. For the Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventure Scout’s Honor I rewrote an encounter three times and worked with the map for hours to get the distances between PCs and different monsters just right so the tactical challenge would really work well.

 

Revenue vs Profit

I’m very happy with the Howling Void sales, as I was already paid an author fee by WotC to create the work. This added income makes it an unexpectedly better authoring opportunity. With the addition of the Guild income, only one other authoring assignment has paid more on a per-word basis, but it is clear that this will end up higher. A big reason: the AL adventures stay visible! Had I not received an up-front payment, this would so far be well below the per-word WotC fee. However, the Guild should work out as a net-positive for organized play authors. I should be above my normal per-word fee before 2016 ends. In theory, the sales could go on for several years if not longer. We will really know the benefits when the next season (Strahd) is on the Guild, because the current adventures were free for some time.

Still, this isn’t great money. I could never live off of this. I write as a hobby (taxable income, but small numbers). let’s look at Adamantine Chef, where I didn’t receive that up-front authoring fee and I don’t have the AL name to power sales.

Adamantine-Chef-preview-1wAdamantine Chef is currently well below my sales expectations. I thought there would be greater interest in a well-crafted adventure providing a unique (or at least different) experience for the DM and players. It takes me many hours to create a unique adventure like this.

If we pretend I spent just 40 hours writing, the current revenue royalties of $82 come out to be $2.05 an hour for my work. Even for the 22% that reported they can write a 4-hour adventure in 26-40 hours, the most efficient lower end of 26 hours provides an hourly rate of $3.15 an hour. Even if sales double, it would be below minimum wage. Is that what good adventure writers should earn?

It was pointed out that the price may be an issue. $4.99 is higher than most AL adventures. A quick scan of the Guild shows that most of the top-selling products are Pay What You Want or $1.00 or less. It would take a lot of sales to make up for a lower price. And, fundamentally, I object to the idea that gamers place such a low value on their entertainment when it comes from RPGsGamers that love RPGs want to pay .20 for an adventure, yet they spend far more on movies/Netflix/video games/board games… despite professing to like RPGs far more. At $5, a 4-hour adventure provides an insane value, and for up to 7 people!

Update: Fred Hicks reminded me of this excellent article where he explains Evil Hat’s PWYW strategy and why it works for them. Providing the perspective of a more typical Guild author, Derick Lawson writes about how little PWYW has returned for his efforts: just $1.03 on 184 sales! PWYW is great as a strategy for an entity wanting to draw attention to more profitable offerings. It isn’t a good strategy for the typical Guild author.

Sales may increase over time, while the effort is already done. But, there is also a danger that the product will be lost in the sea of offerings and sales may really weaken over time. That doesn’t mean I regret doing the work or placing it on the Guild. It was a lot of fun to write and playtest. It has been nice to see the reviews. Here are some very awesome quotes:

  • “an excellent example of what a 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons adventure can achieve”
  • “probably the most fun we’ve had with a single-shot session in a long time”
  • “an amazing ride from start to finish”
  • “probably one of the best purchases I have made thus far”
  • “fun is practically written into every scene”
  • “a beautifully designed adventure”
  • “a brilliant adventure”
  • “one of the early gems of the DMs Guild site”

I can’t properly explain how much each of those quotes means to me. This encouragement is why I keep writing. However, current sales also have an effect on me. Writing more for the Guild will be low on my priority list, beyond something I already have begun writing and will therefore finish. If sales pick up I may try a few more offerings, but the last six days saw just 2 additional sales.

Let me end on an important note. I’m okay. I don’t require these sales to make ends meet. At worst, it just means I can’t reduce my normal work to do more creative RPG work. There are many talented hard-working authors who could really use a great source of supplemental income. If you can, please support them. They deserve us being willing to pay more for the products they make. Similarly, many companies are really a group of people who work second jobs to create RPGs. And, even at the “big” companies, their future is never secure. All of these companies could benefit from a change in how we view the work involved to create our games and the true value of RPG products.

Here are a few great products to support:

Shawn Merwin has written amazing adventures for every AL organized play season and for every organized play D&D campaign over the past 2 decades! Along with organized play author Chris Sniezak, he records the Down With D&D Podcast covering D&D. They have written The Five Temples of the Earth Mother, which clearly is an experiment to see whether they should publish more on the guild. They invested in art, layout, and more with several team members.

Robert Adducci frequented Dark Sun forums ages ago, and together we volunteered on many old projects. He created the Athas.org Dark Sun site, which may have been the key reason why WotC saw continued support for the setting and decided to bring it back for 4E! Now he lends an incredible amount of time and passion to Adventurers League as an admin. He is responsible for most of the communications efforts and spends a lot of time helping DMs and players. He has published Monster Codex: Underdark Enemies.

James Introcaso has helped revitalize the Tome Show podcast and with a team of knowledgeable regulars and great guests he covers D&D from many different thought-provoking angles. He has published several Pay-What-You-Want items, including 20 New Traps.

Portland artist and gamer Jason Behnke has drow priestess art up for noncommercial use. Now he has made a Flumph!

Kobold Press has a short adventure, Frozen Castle, expanding on Tyranny of Dragons (which they wrote with WotC) with an adventure about the Cult of the Dragon retaking a fallen cloud castle.

David Gibson (The Jester) has made some great contributions to D&D across several forums. I wrote about using his cool 4E tavern brawl ideas. He has several absurdly cheap supplements, including traps, diseases and poisons, and feats.

Derick Larson (@wookieedaddiee) has been one of my favorite Gen Con DMs. He has published several low cost products (including cool Cleric domains) and has written about how PWYW is not working for him.

Merric Blackman has an awesome blog and has reviewed an insane number of 5E adventures. So, of course I purchased his short Ravenloft side trek, Death in the Cornfields!

 

 

Updated Numbers 

Howling Void ($2.50 list price, also in a bundle, which provides a discounted price of $1.50. Currently an Electrum seller.):

Date Total Units Total Royalties (50% of total)
1/12/2016 13 $10.25 (opening day for Guild)
1/31/2016 109 $85.75
2/9/2016 134 $106
2/15/2016 145 $114.25
2/29/2016 187 $146.75
3/15/2016 213 $167.25
3/31/2016 245 $193.25
4/15/2016 254 $201.00
4/30/2016 276 $193.25

Adamantine Chef (List price $4.99):

Date Total Units Total Royalties (50% of total)
1/21/2016 3 $7.49 (first day of sale)
1/31/2016 23 $57.39
2/9/2016 33 $82.34
2/15/2016 35 $87.33
2/29/2016 47 $117.27
3/15/2016 55 $137.23
3/31/2016 58 $144.71
4/15/2016 62 $154.69
4/30/2016 71 $177.15

Adamantine Chef hit the Copper Best-Seller level on March 7th (50+ sales).
(All figures are total lifetime sales at that point in time.)
Hourly wage for Adamantine Chef, based on total sales and 60 hours of work: $2.95/hr.

58

 

29 comments on “What is an Adventure Worth?

  1. DreadGazeebo
    February 16, 2016

    Thanks for writing this Teos. It’s really useful, and has made me contemplate quite a few things regarding my own writing process and my own perceived value of my work.

    • Alphastream
      February 16, 2016

      Thanks! It really makes me want to be more efficient, without sacrificing quality. It also makes me consider lighter releases, where my time wouldn’t be much, but I’m not as interested in those kinds of products.

  2. ArtificerAlf
    February 16, 2016

    Having purchased (but not ran) Adamantine Chef, I can say that the lessons learned from and structure of Ashes of Athas is quite apparent. There’s roleplaying, combat encounters, and a unique finale that gives players something completely unexpected. I fully intend to run it for my group, but since we rotate DM’s, we have one session to go before I’m up again. I’m saving my official review until after running it, because players can bring more life to an adventure than reading it on my own ever will. So fear not in that regard!

    As to the contents of this article, I think there a number of excellent points made. Despite all the articles about how to prep less for DMing and roll with things, I still enjoy plotting out my campaign sessions and doing things for players that make them go “wow” when they first see or encounter them in a game. It’s the same thing when being an author and creator. The final version of the product reflects the creativity and passion of the individual, and those are two traits we never want to seem lacking in. After DMing at Winter Fantasy, I have a deeper respect for the authors who create all the adventures, as there are so many variables in how their work is perceived. An average written adventure can become the pinnacle of a player’s gaming experience due to an amazing DM, while a poor DM can make that same player never want to see anything written by the author again. With these things in mind, it’s no wonder authors spend hours prepping and thinking about what they are writing and how to constantly improve on it. People have been dogging George R.R. Martin to come out with the next installment of his book, and in reality, the guy is probably second guessing every word and wondering how he can produce his best possible work.

    While the numbers and payout may not be entirely what you hoped to see, I think time is on your side in this regard for a few reasons. First, you’ve demonstrated numerous times already that you’re a capable author. Ashes of Athas, Vault of the Dracolich, Candlekeep and Howling Void prove that. Second, you’re also a very active member of the D&D community, both online and in person. That to me seems like it would push people in the direction of purchasing it, just to see your continued works. Lastly, I think your passion to write an adventure with a theme that is extremely uncommon in D&D is enough to garner interest in breaking away from the typical dungeon-crawling and epic confrontations. Had you been working on this a few years ago, it would have been a great inclusion for the Dragon/Dungeon food themed month that didn’t go entirely as WotC envisioned.

    To me, the most important thing to see about this was that it was a labor of love. I was quite surprised to read that some authors didn’t want to finish their Ashes of Athas adventures and asked for them to be completed by the team. I think that the fanbase thinks that adventure writing is a lot easier than it actually turns out to be, and self publishing these titles without help is already a much larger task than some may realize.

    Lastly, from my own personal perspective, I see the DMs Guild as a way for myself and other aspiring authors and creators to put ideas out there and share them with others. With this, I can take any idea I want and flesh it out, without having to pitch it to WotC and get it approved. While I was fortunate to the Trinket Lord pitch accepted, I spent many other submission periods getting rejections. It’s nice to now have a place to publish and let my idea stand on its own. I’m currently writing my own adventure, and have already spent countless hours brainstorming, outlining ideas, and revising to complete a first draft for playtesting. I’m already thinking I want to charge $2.00, as the length of the module (and the time) makes that seem like a reasonable price to pay in comparison with other Adventurer’s League options. While I don’t know what people will think of it overall, my only hope is that it can do what so many other adventures have done over the years: inspire players to take parts that they like, or turn the adventure on its head and adapt it in a new way for their own use. Like you said, one person raving about how much they love the finished product makes all the creative process worthwhile.

    Thanks for all you do and create!

    • Alphastream
      February 16, 2016

      Thanks for all the kind thoughts. I agree with you on how good the Guild is to give people a voice. It is really cool to let anyone create and share. I think the Guild will struggle with how to separate those out, especially in Pay-What-You-Want, where it can be a great offering but the person is trying to get more sales from cheap gamers, or a Pay-What-You-Want from someone who is just sharing a cool concept (which may not be fully fleshed out)

  3. James Introcaso
    February 16, 2016

    This is great. I agree with you that as gamers we need to value the hobby more. The only reason my products are Pay What You Want is because I released them in a crappy version on my blog first and promised they’d always be available for free. Your adventures rock! I would pay a lot more for them. I hope others start to feel the same. I think they see $50 for a book every 4 months and don’t realize they shell out that much for magic cards every month.

    Thanks for the shoutout about the adventure and the podcast! Very kind!!! I hope to have you on The Round Table soon.

    • Alphastream
      February 16, 2016

      Good thoughts, thanks! I might release my Halloween campy adventure (available on this site) as Pay-What-You-Want and see if that works. I’m curious what you find people are paying, on average, for Pay-What-You-Want.

      • James Introcaso
        February 16, 2016

        Well I can tell you that most people pay 0, which I would be fine with if they would leave a rating. For an example 15 New Backgrounds which is most popular product by far has had only 179 paying an average of $1.29 (suggested retail price by me is $2). However the total number of downloads the product actually has is 1132. So just shy of 1000 people have downloaded it for free.

        • Kenna
          February 17, 2016

          I would love if there was a tipping method! Pay what you think it’s worth. If it turns out to exceed your expectations – you can go back and pay more! I would do this if I was blown away by something I couldn’t determine the value of from description. OR when someone undervalues their own product!

          • James Introcaso
            February 17, 2016

            So that actually IS an option for PWYW on the DMs Guild. You can go back and pay more for the product. You can always purchase a product twice as well to pay for it a second time if the price isn’t too high.

      • Benoit
        February 16, 2016

        I have one title that is PWYW, (Hero Kids, not D&D) and over several hundred “sales” the PWYW contributions have been $5.50, total. In this case, I don’t mind as much because it’s the introductory adventure to the Bayhaven series, so the hope is that it drives sales of other adventures. But I don’t think I’d do PWYW on a product in the hopes that lots of people will contribute a little money each.

        • Alphastream
          February 16, 2016

          Wow.

  4. Kenna
    February 16, 2016

    I was surprised/disappointed that Adventurer’s League content was priced so modestly; as it sets the bar for other content. Hopefully, as more content floods the market, new price points will emerge for content with different amounts of material (ex: modules vs. items vs. character classes).

    Also, I look forward to dependency on reviews becoming more widespread, in order to filter based on quality. This will hopefully make content like yours more valuable and have a longer lifespan.

  5. Symatt
    February 16, 2016

    This is definitely an eye opening article. The creative design process of authors and artists is never really discussed. A product is either wanted or not.
    Making me think harder about the products I buy.
    This is always a good thing.
    Everyone should read this.

    • Alphastream
      February 16, 2016

      Thanks! I recall a similar feeling when I first started volunteering for organized play. I had no idea how much administrators did. It certainly changed my attitude towards them and the kinds of requests I made for their time!

  6. James J. Haeck
    February 16, 2016

    Your look at how gamers undervalue RPG content is so telling. I’m baffled by how stingy RPG gamers are! I can see it in myself, too—when I first started playing RPGs, I would always look for a free torrent before even thinking about buying the book.

    The impetus to devalue roleplaying games has to be the idea that “I can do it myself, if I had the time.” The D&D core books encourage community creations and homebrew, and that’s fantastic! But just as you noted with the Ashes of Athas volunteers, most gamers don’t understand how much effort it takes to create good game content.

    The biggest danger about all of this is that—as we can see on DMs Guild—it creates a race to the bottom. People who write for games as a second job, let a lone a first, can’t compete with a deluge of free/PWYW content.

  7. James Introcaso
    February 17, 2016

    Remember that the DMs Guild is also being pitched as THE place where Wizards is now more or less exclusively looking for new designers. If you’re unknown and have no following, one of the best ways to get eyes on something is to give it away for free. It’s an investment a new writer hopes pays off in the long run. It’s not necessarily people undervaluing their work. It’s folks who want to get noticed trying to make a small splash in an industry with few consumers, most who don’t want to spend money on the hobby.

    One big question I have is if all the publishers and indie designers decided at once, “Ok we’re going to raise our prices,” would consumers say, “Dang. You got us,” and pay more or would they say, “Go to heck,” and start stealing?

  8. Richard Green
    February 17, 2016

    Terrific post – thanks for sharing! Some very interesting comments too – I have long suspected that “pay what you want” for many gamers equates to $0 .
    $4.99 seems like a very reasonable price for a good quality adventure so I think you’ve made the right call. I’m working on a 12,000 word adventure at the moment which will take me well over 100 hours to write, revise, playtest etc and will be commissioning professional art. To break even I will need to sell 150+ copies at $4.99 which isn’t at all easy but I think will be doable. Writing and publishing D&D content is very much a labour of love for me too.

    Now I’m going to go and buy Adamantine Chef

  9. Will Doyle
    February 17, 2016

    I have three AL modules up on the DMs Guild. After one month of sales, I’ve earned the same amount of cash as I received up-front for one module. Given that the modules were already released to stores for free, this is encouraging – and a lovely surprise for writers who’ve already been paid!

    Some observations:
    – My season 1 module outsells my season 2 modules almost 2-to-1. Is this because people are still playing Tyranny of Dragons, or do they just want to start at the beginning?
    – Almost all sales come from the bundle pack.
    – Sales peak dramatically at weekends (understandable), and naturally drop off over time. Today’s daily average is less than half what it was two weeks ago.

    Note that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t plan on paying authors upfront for future AL work, relying instead purely on DMs Guild revenues. That’s win-win for them, so I can see why they’re doing it! And assuming there are 350+ stores out there willing purchase a single copy for AL play, it’s of greater benefit to the author too. That seems like a lot of stores, but now modules are available for homeplay too it’s much more feasible.

    Regarding homebrew content, I think the Guild could improve their store no end by taking a leaf out of Steam and the App Store:

    – Award “Curator” status to star reviewers. They get a badge next to their name, and store credit for reviewing items.
    – With curators, the front page of the store could display a “featured” section of highest-rated products compiled from curator reviews.
    – Buyers could follow curators to receive email notifications every time they post a new review.

    Hopefully that would give people greater impetus to open their wallets for higher-priced products!

  10. Gary
    February 17, 2016

    As a new/no-name author I have one adventure, Troll Trouble, up on the site. It has been up since 1/20 and is PWYW. Of the 381 people who have picked it up, 12% (46) have payed for it with an average $1.20 price. If I was to calculate effort verses revenue it is roughly $1.81/hour. So for me this is clearly more about getting my name out there and seeing if people like my stuff rather than an income opportunity.

    I’m also seeing a trend where the effort required is going up due to competition. Nearly all of non-AL products that sell well have art and fancy covers which is a huge investment in time assuming authors have the skill to pull that off. Putting out an adventure as I did using just the standard template will struggle to stand out.

  11. Shane Plays
    February 17, 2016

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing… very helpful for someone considering contributing.

  12. Lironah
    February 17, 2016

    I only guessed right on the ‘how long’ poll because my DM gave me a glimpse of his writeup for the one-shot we playtested the week before last. Until I saw it, I’d had no idea how much of the material he’d written from scratch.

  13. Mark Knapik
    February 17, 2016

    I’m curious what kind of bump you will see in sales as a result of this article. If you can suss that out, let us know.

  14. Scotaire
    February 17, 2016

    Your tone and the numbers you provided are very insightful.
    This made me change the way I look at the online material as a whole.

  15. Clave Jones
    February 17, 2016

    Great post, and important. Thank you. I’m going to go buy a couple of adventures now to show my support

  16. Mijal
    February 22, 2016

    A great article overall. I do think, though, that your discussion of how much gamers value the hobby doesn’t completely cover the market impact. Many of us simply can’t play everything out there. Between family and jobs, I’ve had to work hard to set up a twice-monthly session. From an economics standpoint, viewed from the consumer side, the question is: What’s the cheapest high-quality adventure (that fits my group’s needs) available that I haven’t played yet? Whether the cost is high enough to justify the author’s effort isn’t relevant to the average consumer in the short term, as long as such adventures continue to be available.

    That said, I try to throw a little extra money to the authors of products I use and enjoy. But it seems to me that anything on the DM Guild site priced above the the AL adventures will have to struggle hard to prove that it’s “superior” in some way (before being purchased) or else limit its market to those who have played through all the AL adventures they think they would like and still have more play time.

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  19. Corbin Bogert
    April 8, 2016

    This was a very interesting read. I was thinking of writing an adventure for the DMs Guild and this has helped me understand what to expect.

    Also I want to say I’m happy to find this website. When the forums were still up I was a follower of your blog and insight on Dark Sun. Keep up the good work, Teos.

    • Alphastream
      April 8, 2016

      Thanks so much! I really appreciate that. If you publish for the Guild, let me know!

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