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A Guide to RPG Freelance Rates: Part 2 (Layout, Illustration, and Cartography)

I’ve created this guide to help RPG creators understand the current market rates for freelancers across a range of activities. I recall how hard it was to find this information when I was starting out, so I think there is clearly a need for this sort of a guide. In this installment, I include rate information for layout, illustration, and cartography.

View attachment 105343
Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Where available, I’ve provided mainstream rates for each activity, as these give interesting context. I then share the actual rates I’ve seen in the tabletop RPG industry. Where I can, I’ve included my sources, but a lot of this information is simply gleaned through experience and word of mouth.

Layout Rates

Layout rates can be tricky, with some freelancers using complex formulas to calculate their quotes. The EFA suggests layout designers should charge from $4 to $14 per page for book layout, although this is for print books. My experience is that you are looking at between $1 and $5 per page for PDF layout in the RPG industry. But it is hard to generalise, and this is an area where it is good to get a few quotes before proceeding.

Illustration Rates

If layout rates are hard to nail down, then illustration rates are downright diabolical. The following numbers were taken from an article on Format.com. Let’s think about a full page color illustration for a book or magazine cover. Someone like HarperCollins or Time might pay $3000 or more for that image! By contrast, Archie comics pay about $500 for their covers.

What about interior illustrations? There is strong demand for these in children’s books. IllustratorsOnline.com suggests that children’s book illustrations vary between $250 and $1500 per piece, with the variability driven by size, style, color, and the fame of the artist.

Those are mainstream rates, of course. For a relevant comparison within the tabletop gaming industry, a reddit thread reports that the average Magic: The Gathering artist makes $400 to $600 per card. The same thread suggests “name” artists make up to triple that amount.

The major science fiction and fantasy magazines are another good touch point. Analog pays $1200 for a cover, Asimov’s pays $600-$1200, while Clarkesworld pays $250. These rates were sourced from the Artists Market 2018 and the magazine websites.
Given this, how much will you pay for your RPG artwork? For a full page color illustration, I typically see quotes in the vicinity of $200 to $500. The half page rate is 50-60% of the full page rate, while the quarter page rate is 25-35% of the full page rate. For black and white images, you halve the color rate.

But this is only a very rough guide as the complexity of the requested piece makes a huge difference to the price. You really need to contact the artist with your commission and get a quote.

For a concrete example, the following price guidelines are given by Dean Spencer, an experienced professional RPG artist, on his website:

  • Full page color: $380+
  • Half page color: $255+
  • Quarter page color: $190+
  • Spot filler color: $60+
  • Full page b/w: $255+
  • Half page b/w: $190+
  • Quarter page b/w: $130+
  • Spot filler b/w: $40+

Cartography Rates

Cartography is another area where things vary massively. A map could be a simple affair drawn using a dungeon mapping tool, or it could be a hand-painted work of art that is as sophisticated and beautiful as the cover.

For someone to put together a map for you in CCC3 (a popular tool), you are probably looking at something up to about $50 per page, depending on complexity. For hand drawn maps, I’ve seen full page rates start at $50/page (note that is quite low as it is for non-exclusive rights with the map released to the artists patreon backers). One of the top cartographers in the field, Dyson Logos, charges $250/page for his distinctive b/w maps (the rate is sourced from his website).

Professional cartographer Thomas Rey recently published his rates on the Cartographer’s Guild forums:

  • B/W map: $170
  • Parchment with a few colors: $280
  • Full color map: $400
As always, the rate will vary with complexity.

Finding Freelancers, Finding Work

In my experience, the best way to find a freelancer is to find work you like and then look at the credits! There is a high probability that the person responsible is looking for new commissions, so you can reach out to them on twitter or their website or Facebook. People who are open to new work usually maintain an active social media presence.

If you are a new freelancer looking for work, it is pretty much mandatory these days that you build up a portfolio of self-published titles first. Once you have a few really good books under your belt, you can reach out to publishers confidently with your portfolio. They won’t be offended so long as you are polite!

This article was contributed by M.T. Black as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. M.T. Black is a game designer and DMs Guild Adept. Please follow him on Twitter @mtblack2567 and sign up to his mailing list.
 
M.T. Black

Comments

lewpuls

Explorer
I've seen people suggest you look for student artists on large college campuses. They're not quite professionals yet, and need the credits. (But please, don't try to persuade them to do it for free "for the exposure".)

I understand that actually getting freelance artists to deliver what they've said they will do, is a bottleneck for publishers of board games. I don't see why RPGs would be any different.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I commissioned a map for my home campaign for USD 500.

While I have noodled around in Campaign Cartographer, Cityography, Dungeonographer, and two or three map programs I've backed on Kickstarter, my skills good only for functional maps for my home game.

I wanted a professional map that I could print out on a large format printer and put on the wall of my game room, which I could also print out on cloth for at table use, and which I up on my digital display during the game.

When looking for talent, I found the best responses from posting in the Cartographer's Guild "Mapmaking Requests" forum: https://www.cartographersguild.com/forumdisplay.php?f=51

It didn't start at $500.

The first quote was for $100 for a simple campaign map. The samples the cartographer gave were very stylized. The kinda cartoony, hand-drawn style that you commonly see in many RPG books. I wanted a more realistic and modern looking, topographically complete world map. He counter proposed, for the same price, a unique topographically-complete map, of at least 3500 by 3500 pixels that I would add the names and towns to as I saw fit. The expected turnaround was 4 days.

That didn't interest me because I could play around in Fractal Terrains until I got something I liked and export that to Campaign Cartographer. It would feel generic to me and I didn't need to pay 100 for that. Also, the text is a lot of the work in making a map. Especially if you want it to be both legible and look nice.

He said for USD 200 he could do all the cities and towns and have it done in a week.

I liked the guy's work, based on his portfolio, but didn't feel like we were on the same page, so I scheduled a scoping call and created a mock up in Campaign Cartographer, which showed the rough shape of the continents, major terrain elements, and political boundaries of the main realms.

His first draft deviated quite a bit from my mock up but was truer to what I expressed on the call than what I was able to mock up. This is something that I look for in an artist. Someone who can understand what you think you are looking for and take it further. Put their own creativity into it and show you something you didn't know you wanted.

But there were still some changes I wanted made. And this is where the additional 300 comes in.

First I wanted a large archipelago added that requires the entire map to be adjusted.

Then there was some back and forth on political boundaries. I would take his map and crudely draw in political boundaries, place names, and make comments about forests, deserts, mountain ranges, major roads, etc.

The area covered on the map is quite large: 8,000 miles wide (12,875 KM), so there was quite a bit of work involved in filling in the various place names.

He also helped come up with place names for some of the areas. I did the place names for all of the non-human locations and most of the human locations, but he helped with place names for Eastern European inspired areas as he spoke some Slavic languages.

There were a couple rounds of edits, mostly correcting, changing, or moving place names.

I realize that this is an indulgent splurge, but for me it was worth it. Given the amount of back and forth I don't think that the amount was unreasonable. I've paid $250 to $500 for logos, which usually involved one phone call and a limit of 3-5 concepts and 2-3 revisions.

Some people like to spend a lot of money on Dwarven Forge and other terrain pieces. I keep it cheap with digital battlemaps. Some people spend a lot of money on miniatures. I mostly use 2D paper and plastic standees or tokens.

But I love a nice map.
 

pogre

Adventurer
I realize that this is an indulgent splurge, but for me it was worth it. Given the amount of back and forth I don't think that the amount was unreasonable. I've paid $250 to $500 for logos, which usually involved one phone call and a limit of 3-5 concepts and 2-3 revisions.

Some people like to spend a lot of money on Dwarven Forge and other terrain pieces. I keep it cheap with digital battlemaps. Some people spend a lot of money on miniatures. I mostly use 2D paper and plastic standees or tokens.
As one of those minis and terrain guys I think you made a great purchase. If I ever had a more static homebrew campaign world I would be tempted to do the same thing. $500 seems quite reasonable.
 

jhilahd

Explorer
I've seen people suggest you look for student artists on large college campuses. They're not quite professionals yet, and need the credits. (But please, don't try to persuade them to do it for free "for the exposure".)

I understand that actually getting freelance artists to deliver what they've said they will do, is a bottleneck for publishers of board games. I don't see why RPGs would be any different.
This.
Don't have someone do work and then don't pay them for their time and talent, regardless of their experience level. It's one of the hardest concepts for many people to understand.
I've been a designer for almost 30 years, and worked print, digital, video and what-not, and I can't tell you the number of times someone wants to not pay you because of "reasons".
I present the below as reference.

I'll leave this video here, (WARNING: NSFW - language)


Good article, by the way.
I would use AIGA more than EFA for pricing, as AIGA covers more of the design aspect of the work you are referencing. But that's me.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
This.
Don't have someone do work and then don't pay them for their time and talent, regardless of their experience level.
On the flip side, of course, if you take a commission, do it.

Because somebody else didn’t get that job. And when that product is delayed, it rolls on to affect many people.
 

jhilahd

Explorer
On the flip side, of course, if you take a commission, do it.

Because somebody else didn’t get that job. And when that product is delayed, it rolls on to affect many people.
Exactly, Morrus. Be responsible, be an adult. If you agree to a project finish it. If you agree to a pay rate, honor it. If you wanted more, you should negotiate. And if they don't meet it, then don't agree to take it on. Nothing more frustrating than a freelancer/contractor who is super hot to help and then abandon's the project. :(
 

dave2008

Adventurer
Another good source for artist is Deviant Art (www.deviantart.com). I've been a member a long time and when I decided to finally publish something I reached out to about a dozen artists I follow. I got rates of $60-$120 per full page Black and White and a stable of artist to use. Its been great.
 

Shiv

Villager
Exactly, Morrus. Be responsible, be an adult. If you agree to a project finish it. If you agree to a pay rate, honor it. If you wanted more, you should negotiate. And if they don't meet it, then don't agree to take it on. Nothing more frustrating than a freelancer/contractor who is super hot to help and then abandon's the project. :(
And remember, the RPG industry is small. Publishers remember who flaked out on projects. And they tell stories about those people. Drop the ball a time or three and it becomes very possible you'll have a hard time finding more work later. Your reputation follows you.

That goes for publishers, too. Offer good pay. Pay what you owe, promptly. Communicate. Follow the contract you gave your freelancer. Writers/artists/layout people talk to each other, too.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
As Steve Jobs said, "real artists ship!"

A lot of artists have personalities that may help to make them creative but difficult to work with. Also, many of the more business minded have more "cookie cutter" approaches that leads to forgettable art. It is something special when you find someone who is both.

In my experience it helps to have someone who is staying on top of the freelancer, who knows how to work with artists and keep them on task. Ultimately, you want a good final product, even if you have to manage some challenging personalities to get there.

I had a Web designer that worked with at a prior company who had a fear of using bathrooms in public or other people's houses. He also once cancelled a meeting because he took a crap (at his own place) and needed to take a shower. He didn't even bother to make up another excuse. But folks liked his work.

You can get away with a lot if you are talented enough and ultimately deliver--not that I recommend anyone impose their quirks on others, lot's of business are not going to put up with that unless you are a top name.

As someone who has worked with a lot of freelancers (mostly for custom python scripts and Web development, and artists for marketing material), the most important thing, after actual skill, is communication. Often, the most sensitive aspect of a project is not cost but predictability and schedule. Be clear up front what changes will increase the cost. Be careful with ranges. Customers tend to remember the lower number.

I feel for artists. Most buyers don't have a lot of experience buying art and they often underestimate the work involved. Also, there is so much competition that it is easy be undercut. If you live in America or Western Europe, you can't really compete on cost and make a decent living. There are many excellent artists in other parts of the world willing to work for a much lower rate that still gives them a good quality of life. Your advantages will be ease of communication and legal protections, but that often isn't enough. You better work on a distinctive and marketable style and build a great network.
 

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