Indie role-playing game

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An indie role-playing game is a role-playing game published outside traditional, "mainstream" means.[1][2] Varying definitions require that commercial, design, or conceptual elements of the game stay under the control of the creator, or that the game should just be produced outside a corporate environment.[3] Indie role-playing game designers participate in several development communities and game distribution networks. Indie games also grant their own awards committees.

Independent publication of role-playing games[edit]

Indie role-playing games (RPGs) can be self-published by one or a few people who themselves control all aspects of design, promotion and distribution of the game.[3] An independent role-playing game publisher usually lacks the financial backing of large company. This has made forms of publishing other than the traditional three-tier model more desirable to the independent publisher.[4] Indie games are often conflated with small press games, because of the great overlap between creator ownership and small press publishing.


Independent publishers may offer games only in digital format, only in print, or they may offer the same game in a variety of formats. Common digital formats include HTML, text, blog, or PDF form. Desktop publishing technologies have allowed indie designers to publish their games as bound books. The advent of print on demand (POD) publishing lowered the costs of producing an RPG to the point at which role-playing games can be produced and distributed with minimal financial investment.

Distribution methods[edit]

Disintermediation is a key concept in indie game distribution;[citation needed] independent publishers typically lack established business relationships with distributors and retailers. Indie distribution is often achieved directly by the game's creator via e-commerce or in-person sales at gaming conventions. However, some fulfillment houses and small-scale distributors do handle indie products using the traditional three tier system of publisher, distributor and retailer.

Several organizations specialize in sales of indie games using a two-tier system of publisher and retail outlet. Indie Press Revolution distributes games that it labels as independent.[5] RPGNow and DriveThruRPG were two companies that sold such small press offerings (as well as mainstream products) as downloadable PDFs. RPGNow created a separate storefront for low-selling or new entries to this market. Initial plans called for this storefront to use the "indie" moniker, but it was eventually decided to call the storefront RPGNow Edge instead. As of 2007, RPGNow Edge is not operating. RPGNow and DriveThruRPG were consolidated into a single company, OneBookShelf, which maintained both sites initially.[6] In August 2007, the two sites were rebranded, with RPGNow bearing the subtitle: "The leading source for indie rpgs". By February 2019, all elements of RPGNow (including purchase library) redirect to similar pages on DriveThruRPG.[7] Starting in 2018, became a significant digital distributor of indie rpgs, primarily in PDF form.[8][9] Indie game designers also use to host game jams as inspiration for the development of new games using specific themes or game mechanics, and to sell games together with other indie designers as "bundles,"[10] sometimes in support of political or charitable causes.[11] All of the above sites include creator-owned content, as well as other products that are not readily identified with the role-playing game industry mainstream.

Business models[edit]

Some publishers have no interest in financial success; others define it differently than most mainstream companies by emphasizing artistic fulfillment as a primary goal.[5] The division between what is technically profitable and what would be considered financially viable for a business is another oft-debated element of independent role-playing publishing. Some independent publishers offer free downloads of games in digital form, while others charge a fee for digital download.


There are several annual awards given to indie games for excellence in multiple categories of design. IndieCade offers awards for indie role-playing games in addition to video games.[12] The Indie Game Developer Network grants the Indie Groundbreaker Award in the categories of Most Innovative, Best Rules, Best Setting, Best Art, and Game of the Year.[13][14] The Indie RPG Awards were presented to indie games from 2002 to 2018, with the main category of Indie RPG of the Year and sub-categories Best RPG Supplement, Best Free Game, Best Production, Most Innovative Game, and Best Support.[15]

The Golden Cobra Challenge grants the Golden Cobra Award for freeform larps.[16] The 200 Word RPG Challenge also grants awards.[17]

Disputed definitions[edit]

Some contend that the term "indie" applies only to members of a self-defined "indie" RPG community. The definition of indie in the context of role-playing games is difficult, because the role-playing game industry operates with a different organization and smaller scale than the video games, publishing or music industries. The dynamics that inspired well-known independent movements in these industries, such as the independent film movement, are not necessarily present in the role-playing game industry. Even prominent role-playing game companies often publish on a comparatively small scale. Thus, the RPG industry is unlike larger creative industries, whose indie communities formed to react to elaborate bureaucracies and corporate control of content. The question of whether indie role-playing games can be defined precisely, abstractly or not at all sparks ongoing discussion among RPG hobbyists and creators.

Indie communities[edit]

As indie roleplaying game publishers are often not professionally trained or experienced publishers, a number of communities have developed over time where designers and publishers can share experiences, collaborate, and support each other.

The Forge[edit]

One self-identified indie RPG community was centered on The Forge. Overseen by Ron Edwards, this community generally defined indie games as those where the creator maintains control of his or her work[18] and eschews the traditional publishing and sales model, though there are exceptions. The Forge was strongly influenced by Ron Edwards' essay "System Does Matter".[19] The Forge was started in 1999 by Ed Healy[20] as an information site,[21] with Ron Edwards serving as the editorial lead. In 2001, Ron and Clinton R. Nixon recast the site, centered on the community forum that existed until 2012.

William J. White, a professor at Penn State Altoona, highlighted that the Forge went through several eras. During the Spring era (2001–2004), the Forge experienced massive growth; "by the end of 2004, there were eight general forums comprising 7,977 threads encompassing 94,733 individual posts—an expansion of almost 400% in thread volume since April 2001. The most active was the RPG Theory forum, with 28,322 posts in 1,639 threads, a thread density of 17.3 posts per thread. The next most active was the Indie Game Design thread, with 23,318 total posts and a thread density of 11.0".[22]: 89  However, a decline in the quality of posts and other moderation actions led many people to leave the Forge for other online communities and this collective group became known as the "Forge diaspora".[22]: 90  In 2005, Edwards closed the "two theoretical discussion forums [...] on the premise that the Big Model was fundamentally complete".[22]: 91  White states that the Autumn era (2007-2010) was impacted by disagreements between Edwards and others who ran the community, such as Nixon who at the time was the Forge's technical expert. In May 2010, there was a "major server crash" and the recovery split the site into a read-only archive (2001 to mid-2010) and active fourms (" beginning with January 2008").[22]: 93  The Winter era (2011–2012) featured a much "pared-down forum structure" and the five remaining forums had "relatively low thread densities for all but the Actual Play forum".[22]: 93  In 2012, Edwards announced the forthcoming closure of the community.[22]

In the Forge community, indie RPGs often represented a more narrativist school of game design, focusing on strong characters confronting difficult moral choices.[citation needed] These games were often strongly tied to a very specific setting; in this respect, they could be seen as the antithesis of generic role-playing game systems.[citation needed] This was not always true however, since many games from that community instead focused on play dynamics that can be transplanted to a number of settings.[citation needed] For example, a game might focus on the moral question "What will you do to get what you want?" but was not tied to playing the question out in any particular fictional world.[citation needed] No matter the strategy, tightly focused designs were a hallmark of this community.

Games of note from the Forge community include, in roughly chronological order:

White commented that the Forge "served to champion creator-owned 'indie RPGs' and game design innovation. After an initial surge of conceptual discussion and design experimentation on the forum itself from 2000 to 2004, [...] it inspired a panoply of blogs and forums where further discussion took place [...]. Thus a 'prominent member of the Forge' could be anyone who posted there frequently and so was regarded as an authoritative presence".[23]: 39 

Story Games[edit]

Story Games was a discussion forum dedicated to role-playing games that focused on shared story creation. A majority of the games discussed and created on Story Games were indie and/or small press games. While the site did not offer any games for sale, several creators used it to discuss design issues, report progress, and promote their games. Some games were hosted on the Story Games site. The wiki section hosted information on over 80 story games as well as a variety of related resources. The story-games forum ceased operation on August 15, 2019. The site intended to remain up in a read-only form until August 2020. Two sites that emerged to support the story-game community include The Gauntlet Forums and Fictioneers.

Other communities[edit]

Many other groups self-identify as producing games outside the mainstream. Many of these primarily sell PDFs, with some supplementary print sales at specific venues. One example is Wicked Dead Brewing Company. This imprint includes games by a number of designers. Game designer Greg Stolze has produced games using the Ransom model, without resorting to traditional publishing and sales. Others, such as the Free RPG Community, pursue self-publishing without any intent to make a profit. Self-publishing sites such as also have a number of RPGs available from publishers unaffiliated with any formal community.


  1. ^ Hernandez, Gab (2022-08-19). "The 10 Best Indie Tabletop RPGS, According To Reddit". ScreenRant. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  2. ^ "Indie Games Get the Spotlight During Zine Month". Yahoo News. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  3. ^ a b ""FAQ: 1a. What is an "Indie" Role Playing Game (RPG)?"". Indie RPG Awards. 2006. Retrieved 2010-04-11.
  4. ^ Hall, Charlie (2023-02-06). "D&D's OGL controversy turbocharges sales of virtually every other tabletop RPG". Polygon. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  5. ^ a b Cha, Ed; Taylor, Brennan. "Help Zone/About Our Site". Indie Press Revolution. Retrieved 2010-04-11.
  6. ^ "RPGNow & DriveThruRPG Merge". ICv2. October 26, 2006. Retrieved 2019-07-09.
  7. ^ Gerber, Meredith (2018-11-21). "OneBlogShelf: RPGNow Merging with DriveThruRPG on February 2019". OneBlogShelf. Retrieved 2019-07-09.
  8. ^ Birsner, Chris (2021-11-14). "30 Best Games On Itch.Io, Ranked". TheGamer. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  9. ^ Allen, Joseph (2022-11-25). " Black Friday Sale Gives Creators All The Revenue". TechRaptor. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  10. ^ Faulkner, Cheri (2022-06-06). "Queer Games Bundle is back for 2022 with 500 items for £47". NME. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  11. ^ "$10 Bundle Includes Hundreds Of Games, Helps Fund Access To Abortion". Kotaku. 2022-07-05. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  12. ^ "IndieCade – IndieCade is an international juried festival of independent games". Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  13. ^ "Indie Game Developer Network". Dicebreaker. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  14. ^ "Indie Groundbreakers Awards". Indie Game Developer Network. Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  15. ^ "Indie RPG Awards". Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  16. ^ "Golden Cobra Challenge". Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  17. ^ "200 Word RPG Challenge". Retrieved 2023-03-27.
  18. ^ About the Forge
  19. ^ "The Forge :: System Does Matter".
  20. ^ Shannon Appelcline (2011). Designers & Dragons. Mongoose Publishing. p. 406. ISBN 978-1-907702-58-7.
  21. ^ Forge'99
  22. ^ a b c d e f White, William J. (2015). "'Actual Play' and the Forge Tradition". In Bowman, Sarah Lynne (ed.). Wyrd Con Companion 2015 (PDF). Costa Mesa: Wyrd Con. pp. 94–99.
  23. ^ White, William J. (2020-09-21). "The Discourse of Player Safety in the Forge Diaspora, 2003-2013". Japanese Journal of Analog Role-Playing Game Studies. 1: 35–47. doi:10.14989/jarps_1_35. ISSN 2434-9682.