Find your Niche
By Aaron T. Huss
There are lots of reasons why people decide to become independent publishers. They may be attempting to break into the industry by demonstrating their writing, artistic, or publishing abilities so that someone will either pick them up as a freelancer or maybe a “regular employee” (whatever that means in this industry). They may be releasing simple products constructed for their own adventures and campaigns that may be desirable for a wider audience. They may be producing products for the sake of being a part of the industry. Or maybe they’re doing it for the love of the game, the thrill of publishing, and the solidification of their place in this industry as a publisher. Regardless of the reason why, there are some questions that you really need to ask yourself.
Before setting out to publish your first product or series of products, it’s very important to ask yourself: “How is my product different than what’s already out there?” For example, does the industry really need another publisher doing simple d100 charts that have already been done before? Does the industry really need a vanilla fantasy setting for Pathfinder? Does the industry really need another retro-clone? If you can answer this question by saying, “My product may be similar, but it is different enough or better than what’s already out there that it’s worth publishing.” then by all means move forward with your development and let the industry see what you’re capable of. If you follow some of the advice from other Letters to the Industry pieces, you may impress customers and do well. However, if your re-hashing the same ol’ thing, how will you prove to customers or potential customers that your products are worthy of their money?
There are many examples of publishers producing products similar to what’s available but different enough that they truly stand out and are desirable, landing in some type of niche that isn’t overwhelmed with publishers. One example is Avalon Games’ Arcana series. The Arcana world setting is essentially a vanilla fantasy setting, but it’s presented as a systemless world (such as a campaign setting) that can be inserted into your current game world (as a separate continent) or any number of settings from any number of publishers. You could either run this alongside your current world as an extension of it (just attach the continents), a completely new continent for adventures furthering your campaign, or as the groundwork for an entire campaign. The niche it fills is that Arcana makes no assumptions about where it’s placed, what system it resides in, or what genre you flavor it with. It can serve as a standalone game world, or be placed as a continent within your current world. Yes the core book is a world book, but it doesn’t need to be and as a systemless series, you can do many different things with it.
Another great example is Occult Moon and their Toys for the Sandbox series of fantasy supplements. These supplements introduce something major for use within any fantasy setting and system. They are independent of each other and any other setting requirements, allowing the GM to slot the supplements in as they please. You don’t have to be running a sandbox campaign, but the supplements are presented without any requirements, such as a sandbox campaign is. The GM can thus pick and choose what they need and slide them into their campaign world as needed.
A third and final great example is the recently released BareBones Fantasy. Yes there are plenty of OSR-like systems available now (not retro-clone or true OSR, but OSR-like). Yes there are plenty of rules-lite systems available now. Yes there are plenty of vanilla fantasy systems available now. However, there aren’t plenty of rules-lite OSR vanilla fantasy systems available, especially one that is receiving the reviews that BareBones Fantasy is. According to reviews, BareBones Fantasy focuses more on the simple side of fantasy gaming instead of the large collections of number-crunching tables and stat blocks that are quite common.
When it comes down to it, if you’re going to become an independent publisher, you need to find a way to stand-out amongst the throng of independent publishers already in the industry. In fact, you may notice that those who don’t stand-out usually fail or stop publishing after only 1 or 2 years. If you find your niche, you can carve out your own little home within the tabletop role-playing industry. If you choose to re-hash what’s already available, enjoy your 2 years of fun and quietly fizzle into the background.