Welcome to this week’s Industry Interview. Each week I take some time with someone from the RPG industry and get a look into their newest work, the things they’re passionate about, and we try to come up with some new advice for people trying to break into the scene.
Chris Bissette is the mind behind the incredible, ENnie nominated Loot the Room rpg blog, as well as many some spectacular adventures including Bulette Storm and Breaker of Chains. Chris has also published a whole compendium of trinket tables to help facilitate your treasure needs. Chris has experience publishing on DMsGuild, DTRPG and his own website, as well as having a facebook, twitter and patreon.
What first drew you into publishing, and what was your first published product?
I’ve been interested in RPG writing for a long, long time. I first started playing D&D back in 1994 and gravitated towards DMing, and like most DMs I produced a ton of my own content. In the 3rd Edition era I had submitted some pitches to Dragon Magazine but never managed to sell anything, and I self-produced (I’m loathe to use the word ‘published’) a DIY zine during my time at university in the early ‘00s, but all that work is lost to time now.
The first thing I published after coming back to D&D with 5e and starting Loot The Room was Dark Deeds, a small set of 6 new character backgrounds for dark and evil characters that I’m still very proud of. That was never meant to be the first thing, though; that was The Wheelhouse, and Dark Deeds came about because I realised the personality traits in the PHB didn’t work with the NPCs I was producing for that book. Rather than just writing new traits, I instead wrote a whole set of backgrounds. Feature creep has been a regular theme in my self publishing adventure thus far, and something I’ve had to learn to manage!
Where did you publish [Dark Deeds]? Why did you choose that platform?
For the first year or so of Loot The Room I published exclusively on the DMs Guild. Like many of us in this new wave of D&D content creators I came back to the game after discovering Critical Role, and when Matt Mercer released his Gunslinger class I obviously snapped it up. I had been aware of DriveThruRPG and RPGNow for a long time but had never dipped my toe in the waters, and the DMs Guild seemed more accessible to somebody relatively new to the game. Not having to worry about considerations like OGL compliance made it very easy to test the waters.
What do you feel are the major differences between publishing on DMsGuild versus DTRPG or your own site?
There are a few significant differences that I think all creators should be aware of. Being able to play in Wizards of the Coast’s sandbox – having access to the Forgotten Realms and Ravenloft, and being able to use anything out of the core rulebooks without having to worry about the SRD and the OGL – is a huge thing. It obviously comes at the cost of 50% of your royalties, but I think it’s worth it if you’re making full use of that licence. Because I’ve been running my own games in my own worlds for over 20 years I’ve never really utilised it fully – I don’t play in the official campaign worlds, and I don’t write content for them – so it seemed logical to me to step over to DTRPG once I had established myself and started to build a name for myself.
DTRPG is a much bigger playground. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond on the Guild, but it’s much harder to stand out on DTRPG. Moving over there felt like starting all over again. My work still performs better on the Guild, and DTRPG has been a real uphill battle. It’s nice to retain full ownership of my work, though, and with the recent changes to the rules about logos on the DMs Guild, DTRPG is an even more appealing proposition. I’ve built a strong brand with Loot The Room, and not being able to throw that logo on a cover definitely hurts my sales!
Getting away from the OBS sites, I want to talk about the concept of ‘Pay What You Want’ for a moment. PWYW is a model I’ve used successfully with music and fiction in other venues for years, and when I first started out on the Guild I embraced it fully. Unfortunately, as many of us have discovered, it isn’t really a viable option on the DMs Guild. PWYW titles get fewer overall downloads than purely free products, and make a fraction of the money of products with a set price attached. It seems, though, that this is a bizarre quirk of the OBS audience. Cities: Shadepoint is a PWYW product on DTRPG, as well as being available on itch.io and Loot The Room itself. Overall downloads on itch and LTR have been much lower than on DTRPG – surprising nobody – but in terms of money earned, Shadepoint has far surpassed any of the other products I’ve released on DTRPG or the DMs Guild. People are definitely willing to embrace PWYW, you just need to find the right venue!
Talk to me about Shadepoint. What made you decide to publish more setting based material? Are we going to see expansions or adventures set there in the future?
There are two things I’ve always been really passionate about – modular design, and building cool places. Shadepoint is really just me building on what I did with The Wheelhouse, which was the skeleton of a prison filled with characters, adventure hooks, and secrets, but with no pre-written adventure attached. The intention was to give DMs the tool to take that location and use it however they wanted to.
Shadepoint – and the Shadepoint Cycle that we’re currently in the middle of – is really our attempt to do something a little differently to other publishers. This is the first in a long line of setting cycles that we have planned, and all will be released using the same basic model. The initial setting – be it Shadepoint, or one of the other weird and wonderful places we have planned – will always be free. You’ll get maps, history, locations, NPCs, and more adventure hooks than you can shake a flumph at, all designed to be easily dropped into your games with a minimum of effort. Then we’ll support that setting by publishing adventures, backgrounds, classes, monsters, and more, all designed to work thematically in that setting while being easily adaptable to your setting of choice. It’s an ambitious plan, but people seem to be responding well to it and we’re excited to see how it develops!
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention my partner in loot, Matt Sanders. He’s had a pivotal role in helping to develop this business model. I initially put out Shadepoint as a standalone work; it was Matt who recognised what we could do with it, and developed the Cycle model that we’re now using. Luckily we were also working on another product together at the same time that lends itself really well to this model of publishing, so once Shadepoint is done we’ve already completed a lot of the groundwork on the second Cycle, too!
Moving away from publishing, what inspired you to start Loot the Room?
Once again we go back to Critical Role. I got into it early, and I had spotted a call from Matt Abernathy and Kimmy Davies on Twitter seeking writers for their Critical Role fansite. I sent them a pitch, they liked it, and I wrote a couple of articles for them – one on running your first game as a DM, and one that was a primer on creating your first character. Unfortunately that site sort of fizzled out, as these things do, but by that point I had the bug. I registered Loot The Room, published those two articles, and started churning out content for it. The rest is history.
What do you think are the key aspects to creating such a popular blog?
Without a doubt, the key is consistency. When I started out I was studying for my Masters and only working 2 days a week, so I had a ton of free time to write and draw maps. For the first year-ish I was publishing new articles and maps three times a week. That kind of output gets attention, and my readership grew and grew.
The other thing that has been a huge boon to me is the response to my monthly (well, mostly monthly – I’m a little behind currently!) Best of DMs Guild posts. I’m a big believer in the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, and I’m passionate about drawing attention to the hidden gems on the DMs Guild. There’s a constantly growing deluge of new content on the Guild, and as a consumer it’s hard to know where to find the good stuff. And as a creator – as I’m sure you know – if you’re not on the front page of the Guild either as a new release or in the top 10, you aren’t going to sell many copies! I decided to do a one-off post of some of my favourite DMs Guild products, and the response to it was vociferous. There was immediate demand for more, and it very quickly became a staple of the site. I wear my biases on my sleeve, and I try to be transparent about both my criteria for review and about how much I pay for PWYW titles (because most of the titles I review tend to be PWYW simply due to the fact that most people seem to release under PWYW – I still believe that we can make that model work on the Guild if we just try, and I’m happy to lead the charge there). People seem to appreciate that, and those posts are still by far the most popular content on the site!
Have you got any advice for new authors or bloggers?
Embrace failure. Nothing you produce will ever be perfect, and if you focus on perfection you’ll never release anything. I’d say start small, too; don’t bite off more than you can chew. It’s more important to be constantly working and releasing, and if you take on too much you’ll get burned out fast. That’s something I struggle with a lot, and I still haven’t got the balance right, so I’d advise you to do what I say, not what I do!
Somebody who I really admire for his “small, fast, good” approach to releasing work is Alex Clippinger, and I think new DMs Guild creators would do well to look at his output. He often takes seemingly ridiculous ideas and turns out really stellar work. There’s no feature creep or bloat – he takes on idea, executes it well, releases it, and moves on. Frankly, I’m insanely jealous of him, and he deserves absolutely every success.
The other piece of advice I’d give is to network. That’s a bit of a dirty word, but really it just means talking to people producing work you admire, and be interested in what they have to say. I was very, very lucky to create friendships with people like Phil Beckwith (PB Publishing) and Jeff Stevens when I started out. The two of them not only gave me a lot of great advice and support, but they also pushed me to do better work and opened a lot of doors for me in the process. Bulette Storm wouldn’t exist if Jeff hadn’t approached me to write for his Encounters… books and told me that he really wanted to see me produce a full-length adventure of my own, and I wouldn’t have got half of the gigs producing maps that I’ve undertaken if it wasn’t for Phil taking a chance on me when I had no real work to show off outside of the blog. I’m very, very grateful to them both!
Make sure to check out Chris’ work on DTRPG, DMsGuild and LootTheRoom if you enjoyed this interview to show some support!