What You Should Know Before Applying for a Limited License

TM and © 2014 Monte Cook Games, LLC

As gamemasters and players we are, by definition, creative people. It’s only natural when we find a game we love as much as we do Numenera or The Strange that we should wish to contribute to it. It’s also only natural when one puts in the time required to come up with an adventure, foci, descriptors, creatures, etc., that one would want to share it with other gamers. And once one has gone that far, why not make a little money for all your hard work? Because of all this, it should come as no surprise that there are so many of us considering the Numenera or The Strange Limited License.

Ultimately this comes down to a personal and business decision that each person must make for himself. I’m not going to try to tell you what you should do. What I will do, however, is present you with some facts you may not have considered.

When I first conceived of the idea of The Obsidian Monolith, I went through a thought process that may be familiar to you—a process that led to me believing that applying for a limited license would be a “good idea”. I now realize I didn’t have all the facts, and my decision wasn’t as informed as it should’ve been.

My goal is to give you those facts now, so if you’re considering a limited license, you can make as informed a decision as possible. As we go forward, consider one thing—why do you want to put out a supplement? If it is simply for the love of the game and to share your work, and if thoughts of profit or “breaking even” don’t concern you, then this discussion may not be entirely relevant to you. However, if you would like to make a small profit or break even, then this article is for you.

The fee to acquire a limited license is currently $100. The license limits you to $2000 in sales. That’s not $2000 in profit, that’s $2000 in sales.

Writing a supplement, of course, isn’t enough. You need a way for those who might be interested in your supplement to be able to find it and purchase it. For most of us that means using DriveThruRPG for sale and distribution of PDF documents and/or POD (print-on-demand) documents. One thing I didn’t know when I made my decision is that DriveThruRPG charges you 30% to use their service. That means if you max out your sales at $2000, you will end up paying DriveThruRPG $600. Already, your maximum possible profit is capped at $1300 for the project, and we’re just getting started.

The supplement must be written, edited, designed and laid out. You will most likely want art and maps in your supplement. You will definitely want a cover. You will most likely need to license at least one font (probably two). You must also factor in the value of the time you will devote to the project.

All of these things cost you money. Even if you do the writing, editing, layout, art and cartography yourself, it all takes time, and time is money. If you happen to be an excellent writer, artist, cartographer, and designer, at the very least you will want to hire an editor, as writing your own supplement without a second pair of eyes to edit is not advised, even if you’re the best writer and editor on the planet. Chances are good that you will have to pay someone else to do a few, or even most of these other things.

With aspects of the project you’re going to farm out, the question becomes, “Who is going to do the work for you?” For instance, to have a professional do the layout for your supplement would cost far more than the $2000 maximum of the limited license. You will need to do it yourself if you know how, which is a lengthy process even using professional software like Adobe InDesign, and will take much more time with other software. Adobe InDesign is not cheap ($20 per month for a minimum of one year). If you don’t already know how to do layout in InDesign, you can learn to do it yourself (which will add a great deal of time to the project, as well as costs for training), or try to find someone who will do it for a price you can afford. Such a person will either be a professional willing to work on the cheap because she loves you or the project (and even then you could easily pay $200 or more), or will be someone who is not a professional.

You will face similar decisions with editing and art. If you pay for quality, professional work, you will quickly go beyond the bounds of sales limited by the license. If you are able to find a cheap alternative, you will likely either owe a professional a huge favor, or you will end up with sub-par work, which will, of course, affect sales. You will also want to license two fonts, which would run around $65 each, for a total of $130. The choice of fonts you can use in a for-profit product without licensing are limited. Editing can be very pricey as well for quality work, but even if you find someone who will do it for cheap (or is inexperienced), you could easily pay $250 or more for a 60 page supplement.

These are all expenses you need to consider. Every corner you cut will diminish the quality of the finished product and will impact sales (which again, are capped at $2000).

For every project, the math looks like this:

$2000 maximum sales
   - $100 cost of the license
   - $600 DriveThruRPG’s 30% cut (assuming $2000 sales)
= $1300 maximum profit

Now, here is an estimate of what some of the other costs may be (and these are very conservative estimates, unless you have connections you won’t likely be able to find quality work at these prices).

$1300
  -$130 license of two fonts
  -$250 editing
= $920 maximum profit

At this point we still need a layout done as well as cover design and art, interior art and maps. These things can (and likely will) end up costing more than the fonts, editing, license and DriveThruRPG cut combined.

Also, I should point out that if you’d like to have a hardcopy of your supplement available for print-on-demand, that requires a separate layout, which you will have to either do yourself or pay someone else to do.

Even if you can do some or all of these things yourself, it’s easy to see that you will be lucky to recoup your costs, and that’s without factoring the cost of your time.

Also, I should point out that relatively few independent pdfs on DriveThruRPG generate $2000 in sales, so you shouldn’t take it for granted that you will do so well. To be considered a Copper Bestseller on DriveThruRPG, you only need to sell 100 copies, so that should give you an idea of how many copies the majority of projects sell.

In a best case scenario, you may recoup your costs if you max out your sales at $2000, if you’re lucky you may even make a little, but you’ll be making cents per hour once you figure in the time you’ve put into the product. If you don’t max out sales, you most likely will lose money on the project.

As a caveat, it does seem that once you get to $2000 in sales you can get another limited license for $100 to add another $2000 in sales on that product. However it really doesn’t change the math that much, and few products will get there anyway.

We have now reached the point of this essay, which is this: If you want to write and publish a supplement because of your love of the game and desire to share you work, and if you don’t care if it ends up costing you a lot of money and time, then by all means go for it.

However, if you want to write a supplement as a way to generate some supplemental income doing what you love, then I suggest you give it a lot of thought. Look over the figures I’ve given here, and fill in the blanks for your project. You know right out the gate you will have $700 in costs between the license fee and DriveThruRPG’s fees.

To fill in the blanks, you’ll want to figure out which of the below things you can realistically do yourself (and how long that will take), and which you’ll have to hire someone to do. Then start researching what that will actually cost you. Find out who will do these things for you, and how they will charge you.

Other costs:

Licensing two fonts Editing (could be $250 or more)

PDF Layout (or software if you're doing it yourself, $240 or more)

Print Layout (if you want POD hard copies)

Cover Design

Interior Art

Maps

If you have published a supplement under one of the limited licenses and you have anything to add to this discussion to help those considering it to make an informed decision, please leave a comment below.