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A Black knight lies in wait behind a tree, a sword at the ready. Image: Gauntlet Publishing

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Small but mighty: Independent TTRPG presses work toward equity in game design

How The Gauntlet, Possum Creek, and Exalted Funeral are establishing new publishing models for independent authors

As tabletop games continue to grow in popularity, it’s to be expected that more and more people try their hand at designing their own games. Marketplaces like itch.io, DriveThruRPG, and even Dungeon Master’s Guild allow for individual designers to showcase and promote their own works, but many are hampered by a lack of name recognition. It’s not easy to make a game, but it can be even more tough to sell it.

While big name publishers stick to producing content for marquee titles, small, independent publishing houses have more freedom to experiment. Across the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) industry, small presses are promoting marginalized perspectives, niche games, and generally pushing the envelope of what’s viable.

Three places that are working to support independent designers and provide a more equitable publishing model are Gauntlet Publishing, Exalted Funeral, and Possum Creek Games. Unlike publicly-traded companies such as Hasbro, which publishes Dungeons & Dragons via its subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, the indie scene is primarily focused on putting money into the hands of the creators, not shareholders. If the hundreds of millions of dollars in profit earned by Hasbro’s efforts are any indication, fans of the hobby have money to spend. Small presses want to make sure their products get seen, too.

Gauntlet Publishing is one of the older publishing presses to champion independent and underprivileged voices. Codex Magazine was established in 2016, and for many years featured small games, modules, settings, and lists in each themed issue. Codex was a place where designers could be experimental and get paid for their work and see it in print in a professionally designed and illustrated journal. Led by editor-in-chief, Jason Cordova, the press now works with members of its thriving gaming community to bring innovative and adaptable games to life.

Like many publishers, both large and small, Gauntlet Publishing uses Kickstarter to fund its projects. Trophy Dark, written by Jesse Ross, had a massive success on the crowdfunding platform, raising more than $210,000 in 2020. The game’s mechanics allow for an approachable grimdark, swords-and-sorcery fantasy where players often find their characters destroyed far before they reach the treasure embedded at the heart of each adventure (called an incursion). Trophy started as a game in Codex, and for six months a new themed incursion was released via the serial, many of them authored by guest writers. By creating a tentpole game of its own, Gauntlet Publishing allowed marginalized authors the opportunity to write for a larger game without compromising on their visions or asking them to write for less than their idea’s worth.

Recently-incorporated Possum Creek Games is an indie darling led by writer/designer Jay Dragon and art director Ruby Lavin, best known for its critically-acclaimed Wanderhome. While Possum Creek started out as a way to publish Dragon’s writing under a more unified umbrella, the scope quickly expanded to help other authors, like Riley Rethal and M Veselak coming into the fold. Veselak’s Wickedness was kickstarted last year, and the delicate, three-person game spans three soft trade-sized volumes.

Kickstarter is often viewed as an equalizer in the tabletop world. Case in point is a recent, wildly successful project by Magpie Games. Its Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game campaign raised more than $9.5 million earlier this year, a record for a TTRPG on that platform. Of course, Kickstarter can’t help everyone since it doesn’t allow residents of certain countries to use its service. Many indie presses recognize this limitation, and Possum Creek in particular has taken steps to help bring games from out-of-residency designers to the big stage.

A spectral cat flies up to the second floor of an inn to join the other spirits living there. Image: Possum Creek

Rae Nedjadi’s tenderly haunted ghost TTRPG, Our Haunt, is Possum Creek’s newest project. Nedjadi, who lives in the Philippines, is outside of the countries of residence that Kickstarter allows. Possum Creek is using its platform to directly uplift marginalized creators in specific and positive ways, stepping up to create a more equitable industry while also publishing fantastic, deserving work.

Exalted Funeral is another press that does not merely bill itself as indie-focused. Working with a roster of writers, Exalted Funeral is a full-service press that also maintains an online storefront, allowing for a greater distribution of physical copies of indie games. By selling larger (by indie standards) games like Mörk Borg and Mothership, Exalted Funeral gains an audience to release its own unique Kickstarters while also supporting authors like momatoes and Anna Urbanek.

ARC, written by momatoes, is a post-apocalyptic adventure where players take on the end of the world. It’s one of many Kickstarter projects by Exalted Funeral. This partnership again allowed an author access to Kickstarter who would not have been able to use the service otherwise, because momatoes lives and works in the Philippines. Herbalist’s Primer is another example. The system-agnostic book details real plants and their traditional folkloric uses, making it practical for both real-world plant magic practitioners and fantasy games. It earned more than $814,000 on Kickstarter, an amount that puts Exalted Funeral on par with more widely known publishers.

A copy of Herbalist’s Primer by Anna Urbanik in a field of flowers. Image: Exalted Funeral

All these presses are striving to establish publishing alternative publishing partners to big-name game companies. But, in addition to the economic benefits for creators, they also provide potentially more ethical options for picky consumers. Many of those angered by the allegedly hostile work environments reported by some workers at Wizards of the Coast and Pathfinder publisher Paizo now have smaller, more nimble companies to spend their money with.

Independent presses like Gauntlet Publishing, Exalted Funeral, and Possum Creek Games are centered on the authors and artists that they work with, allowing them to retain control of their work. And, perhaps most importantly, they are keeping money flowing into and through a growing community of game creators. As the scene becomes more diverse it needs to also become more equitable, and small presses are leading the way towards a more sustainable TTRPG ecosystem.

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