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Owen KC Stephens' Tabletop RPG Truths #2

Last week I posted about Owen KC Stephens posting about the 'Real Game Industry' on Twitter. He didn't stop there though! Here are some more of his thoughts.

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  • While there are absolutely exceptions, there are two common paths to becoming a manager in the TTRPG world.
    One is to be a game creator who does that so well, that you are promoted to the entirely-unrelated field of managing people, with no management training.
  • I have been extraordinary lucky and well-treated in my RPG career. I love most of the companies and people I have worked with. It's just a harsh industry. This hashtag isn't intended as complaints. They're facts and alerts I wish I had gotten 20 years ago.
  • Someone having tons of RPG writing credits is no guarantee they'll do a good job on the project you hire them for. They might have had amazing editors. Their day job may go into crisis during your deadline. They might burn out. Especially that last one.
  • A freelancer absolutely mustn't cease communicating with their developer/producer or conceal how far behind they are on a project. When things go south as a freelancer, there is a huge urge to cease communication and conceal how far behind you are on a project.
  • It is clearly unreasonable, and potentially inappropriate, to suggest freelancers make friends in the game industry to get more work and be treated better. People in the game industry tend to give their friends more work, and often treat them better.
  • On some projects, the writing is easy but the research is hard. On some the reverse is true. For the other 80%, it's all hard. Some need new rules systems. Some need playtesting. Some need map sketches. Others don't. None of this normally impacts your pay rate.
  • It is extremely common for gamers to offer to give professionals an idea, and offer to "let" the pro "finish" the work and the "split the profits." They rarely like being told coming up with an idea or starting a project is not the hard part of writing.
  • There is a crucial difference between collaborating with someone on a project, and being their assistant. Either can be reasonable, legit work, but not everyone in the industry understands the difference (and how to say which of those a project is going to be).
  • Editors are the most unsung heroes of the industry. The better they do their job, the less people notice. but without them, I'd be posting under @RealGameInustrya and $RealGameIndustry as often as #RealGameIndustry
  • It's impossible for backers to tell from funds raised by a crowdfunding campaign raises how much profit it earns. Huge numbers can mean a minor miscalculation or change on the ground becomes a huge loss. Companies don't even always know until its all fulfilled.
  • The majority of TTRPG professionals--staffers, freelancers, owners, et al., are substantially underpaid for their skills. Saying "they shouldn't be in this industry if they want to be paid more" is saying "I don't want any professional RPG content to be made."
  • The reason you don't know how you are supposed to get your first gig, climb the ladder of TTRPG freelance, get the attention of developers and producers without annoying them, or improve your craft, is that game companies mostly don't know those things either.
  • Many TTRPG fans are lovely to interact with. Some are so awful that many companies who brought me to cons told me their secret signs to indicate when you needed another staffer to pull you away from a horrible interaction. It is, of course, worse for women.
  • TTRPG careers are advanced the most during after-hours bar gatherings at big cons. Nothing else is as effective. By not going to drinks early in my career, I set it back 5-8 years. Club soda would have been fine, though the industry does drives folks to drink.
  • Though it is far from universal, many TTRPG creators have all the fun of playing games removed by deadlines, toxic fans, and an endless grind of monetizing their creativity. "Do what you love for work, and you can no longer escape work with the thing you love"
  • Many RPG companies depend on "Institutional Knowledge," which means there are things done by people who know, but none of it is written down anywhere. Largely because budgets are so tight staff is always overworked, leaving no time for things like documentation.
  • It is common for TTRPG professionals to think various other people in the industry are asshats. It is rare to say so outside of tightly-controlled comments to groups of trusted friends. This reticence can unintentionally spill over to not calling out bad actors.
  • While there are absolutely exceptions, there are two common paths to becoming a manager in the TTRPG world. One is to be a an experienced manager from another field that is hired to be a TTRPG manager, with no prior experience in the TTRPG publishing industry.
  • There are great managers in the TTRPG industry... and awful ones. Many TTRPG employees have such little experience working under a manager, they often can't tell the difference between the good ones and bad ones. Occasionally, company owners can't either.
  • An example of how small, but important, things can be overlooked in the #RealGameIndustry.

Follow the Twitter hashtag here.
 
Last edited:
Russ Morrissey

Comments

talien

Community Supporter
I think it's worth noting that increasingly, the gig economy for creatives shifts from making "one" thing (tabletbop RPGs) to providing ancillary services that cover a wide variety of things people are willing to pay for. The 1,000 fan theory (1,000 superfans paying you $100/year, with no middleman to charge additional fees) achieves $100K/year for that creator.: RPGs Have a Health Problem

The problem is that it takes a lot of time and effort to build that type of fan base, much too late in many cases for older creatives who need the income for rising medical expenses.
 

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Their day job may go into crisis during your deadline.
My take-away from this is just the obvious statement that most RPG writer's do it on the side and not full-time.
starting a project is not the hard part of writing.
No doubt. True with every task/project; from writing to home improvement!
leaving no time for things like documentation.
This is not unique to RPG's, imo it's all due to bad management. How many managers have I encountered that allow time to do thing over (and over and over) than to build a process so you only have to do things once. Claiming budgets are too tight or their is not enough time is simply an excuse to delay costs/time to the future.
I thought the Peter Principle was about people being promoted until they reached a job at which they were incompetent. Sure, not training them doesn't help, but that's a different (or maybe tangential) error.
That's the Dilbert Principle.
 

I’d happily pay more for my RPG stuff from Paizo if the employees of that company would see more of that money directly go into their pockets and not just be an increased profit margin for the company.
IMO the trickle down theory, or resistance to it is awfully close to an excuse to pirate. 'Well, the corporate will just take the money anyway, it will never go to the people actually doing the work."

NOT saying that is what you are implying. But trying to justify a spending decision because you fear the money will not end up in the worker's bank account is... Well, I can say for certain, if you don't pay for a product, then none of your money will end up in the worker's pocket.
I know that this is and has been a thing, but I would love to let it die in a fire. Because this practice is highly exclusive towards people with a family....
Valid opinion and thought. But it's not reality. You can chose to wish the world was different, or you can work within. Or, you can work for change.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I know that this is and has been a thing, but I would love to let it die in a fire. Because this practice is highly exclusive towards people with a family (worse: single parents...) or introverts or people who simply don't like hanging out in a bar.
Or, indeed, simple geography. Most people couldn't hang round at that bar, even if they wanted to. Of course, that's common to most industries, many of which have geographical hubs.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
I know that this is and has been a thing, but I would love to let it die in a fire. Because this practice is highly exclusive towards people with a family (worse: single parents...) or introverts or people who simply don't like hanging out in a bar. If you got business to discuss, this should take place in an official, scheduled meeting, or else it should be just a cool chat with friends.
Networking through social drinking isn't about what should be or what is right . . . it simply is how the world turns. Ignore this lesson at your own peril. Well, maybe peril is a bit strong of a word. You're just likely to miss out on a lot of opportunities.

To be successful with networking, you don't have to become an alcoholic or a drunk (in fact, if you do, you're doing it wrong). And as Stephen pointed out, it's pretty easy to get away with ordering non-alcoholic drinks and still participate in the socializing and networking. You also don't have to necessarily meet in a smoky, noisy bar . . . . or be out drinking most nights of the week. Having a family life does not preclude anyone from participating. Being a non-drinker also doesn't really preclude anyone from participating (although, it's usually less fun being the only one not drinking).

And there's nothing wrong with trying to organize networking opportunities that aren't centered around having a few drinks . . . . professional organizations of various sorts do it all the time. Often with great success.

And certain cultural institutions replace having a few drinks, at least for specific subcultures, with something else. The Mormons, as a culture, have been very successful in business, life, and networking in Utah and surrounding areas, and most of them don't drink (none of them are supposed to). But sometimes these replacements can be just as, if not more so, exclusive and restricting if you not in the in-group.

Still, for most situations, if you want to maximize your networking and opportunity in most fields . . . . learn how to be successful at social drinking.
 


Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
The hard part for the whole "networking happens in bars culture" is if you're a introvert, surrounded by extroverts. Being in a noisy, crowded environment may seem like relaxation to many, but is utterly exhausting for others.
Heh, networking is hard for introverts period. Regardless of setting.

Just like it would behoove most folks to accept and embrace networking through social drinking . . . . . introverts need to work on, what I like to call, situational extroversion. Learn how to push past your introverted nature to be more social so that you can enjoy the benefits of extroversion in situations that warrant it.

I do it. I am, by nature, very introverted. But when dealing with others in various social situations, you might have a hard time telling that. I'm a teacher, an actor (or used to be), and often find myself in situations where extrovert skills come in handy. It isn't easy. I can't maintain it for long. On some days, I just can't. But my life has benefited greatly from the practice. I got my start taking acting classes in high school . . . in a sense, I act extroverted when needed.

Folks keep pushing back on this because social drinking (and being extroverted) is hard. They shouldn't have to do these things. They may feel it's not right. Too bad, none of that changes that this is how things work. Embrace it, or be the genius who finds a way around it (good luck), or accept that you're going to miss out on a lot of opportunities.
 

Xaelvaen

Stuck in the 90s
Heh, networking is hard for introverts period. Regardless of setting.

Just like it would behoove most folks to accept and embrace networking through social drinking . . . . . introverts need to work on, what I like to call, situational extroversion. Learn how to push past your introverted nature to be more social so that you can enjoy the benefits of extroversion in situations that warrant it.

I do it. I am, by nature, very introverted. But when dealing with others in various social situations, you might have a hard time telling that. I'm a teacher, an actor (or used to be), and often find myself in situations where extrovert skills come in handy. It isn't easy. I can't maintain it for long. On some days, I just can't. But my life has benefited greatly from the practice. I got my start taking acting classes in high school . . . in a sense, I act extroverted when needed.

Folks keep pushing back on this because social drinking (and being extroverted) is hard. They shouldn't have to do these things. They may feel it's not right. Too bad, none of that changes that this is how things work. Embrace it, or be the genius who finds a way around it (good luck), or accept that you're going to miss out on a lot of opportunities.
I can respect both sides of this issue, while respectfully disagreeing. I outright left the "ladder industry" when I felt the "need" to join the bar setting for personal gain, and went into small business for myself (and never looked back, once). In no way should an employee ever feel the need to go to an event outside of work just to maintain an 'equal chance' at advancing inside the workplace. I've always strongly adhered to "Work at Work, and Home at Home."

Obviously, the world isn't a perfect place, and each person has to decide what is right for them. Is your advancement worth the sacrifice to you? Better yet, does it even feel like a sacrifice? If it is worth it, or if it doesn't even feel like a sacrifice, then you've absolutely made the right decision. For me, the principle of what SHOULD be, drove me to seek a different direction in life.

To your other point, however, of avoiding being extroverted because it is hard - I do NOT disagree with that, in the slightest - I just do not necessarily agree with it because an employer demands it of you. Introverts should seek to do this for their emotional well-being, or because they choose to, sure. Doing it just so you can 'stay even with' other employees? That's a bit last century. (In my opinion, obviously).
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
imagine having to go to the bar with your hated enemies because if you didn't you know they would sabotage you. that is the reality, and as a father spending more time with my kids would have been great, but I could not afford to skip networking. there are a 1000 little rules to business
 

I think it's worth noting that increasingly, the gig economy for creatives shifts from making "one" thing (tabletbop RPGs) to providing ancillary services that cover a wide variety of things people are willing to pay for. The 1,000 fan theory (1,000 superfans paying you $100/year, with no middleman to charge additional fees) achieves $100K/year for that creator.: RPGs Have a Health Problem

The problem is that it takes a lot of time and effort to build that type of fan base, much too late in many cases for older creatives who need the income for rising medical expenses.
... and this should be a concern for anyone considering the tabletop game industry as their sole career. If you can do it on the side, hey, no worries right? But if you're going to depend on this as your main source of income, and that income ain't great ... putting some away for later is going to be challenging, to say the least. Very few people are going to develop the name recognition and reputation to achieve that 1000 fan level.

From a different post:

"The barriers to entry have been massively lowered ..."

Yes. Anyone can do it. That's one reason it doesn't pay well. Not everyone does it equally well, but almost anyone can put together some kind of game book (or re-edit an old one), put it out there on DTRPG, and call themselves a game writer/game designer/expert. That makes it a lot more difficult to "rise above" and put yourself in a position to be paid better or achieve that fan level mentioned above. Other fields typically require some level of training, experience, or talent to get in and get going, typically vetted by a third party, and that does make a difference. The open freedom of the RPG field is one of the things that holds it back in this way. Not saying I would change it - It's just something I see and it's been that way for quite a while.
 


dchart

Explorer
This is why I really don't believe that people writing TTRPGs (or doing anything else) must love what they're doing logically follows from the fact that they could easily get another higher-paying job.
I think we're actually a lot closer together than we initially appeared, but this may be the point of difference. It's not just about the money. Very, very few of the things that keep people in other jobs despite not liking the job apply to writing TTRPGs. Pay? No. Stability? No. Medical insurance? No. Inertia? No. Social prestige? No. Expectations of friends and family? No. Social interaction with your workmates? No. (Almost everyone is freelance, working alone.) More of them apply to the small minority who have jobs at TTRPG companies, but that's very few of the people working in the industry. This is why it matters that you have never worked in the TTRPG industry. Your experience elsewhere is, I think, leading you to make silent assumptions that don't apply here. I absolutely believe your grad school example, because I've been in grad school. It's totally different from writing TTRPG material.

Is it literally true that everybody loves it? No, that was rhetorical oversimplification. However, for the majority of people working in this industry, the only aspect that can be positive is the creation of the material itself. Most of the other explanations for why someone might stay in the business are not available, because of the way the business works. I wouldn't say this about any of the other fields I've worked in (mostly academia/teaching related); it really does depend on distinctive features of the TTRPG business.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Yes. Anyone can do it. That's one reason it doesn't pay well. Not everyone does it equally well, but almost anyone can put together some kind of game book (or re-edit an old one), put it out there on DTRPG, and call themselves a game writer/game designer/expert. That makes it a lot more difficult to "rise above" and put yourself in a position to be paid better or achieve that fan level mentioned above. Other fields typically require some level of training, experience, or talent to get in and get going, typically vetted by a third party, and that does make a difference. The open freedom of the RPG field is one of the things that holds it back in this way. Not saying I would change it - It's just something I see and it's been that way for quite a while.
This now applies to all knowledge on the Internet. Medical sites, legal advice, etc. has been "flattened" in that access no longer means relevance or accuracy. It's absolutely affecting RPGs, and book publishing too. The folks who are doing really well in this space are marketers first and foremost and I believe that's no coincidence.
 

TheSword

Hero
This now applies to all knowledge on the Internet. Medical sites, legal advice, etc. has been "flattened" in that access no longer means relevance or accuracy. It's absolutely affecting RPGs, and book publishing too. The folks who are doing really well in this space are marketers first and foremost and I believe that's no coincidence.
Is that fair to say they are marketeers first and foremost? I mean they have a product that presumably took no little effort to produce. So while we can acknowledge that successful marketing is important your comment kinda suggests they’re style before substance which is ungenerous.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
"Frat Boy Culture"? No.

Networking over drinks predates college fraternities by centuries, millennia even. Goes back to the invention of alcohol, which goes back pretty much to the invention of civilization.

If you want to get ahead in life, learn to be a social drinker. Or, like Owen suggested, order a club soda (or diet coke) and fake it till you make it.
Two of the most successful sales guys I know don't drink. They still go out to eat or the bar, etc. They just don't drink alcohol. In the USA at least, nobody really questions that. Besides, depending on what you are drinking, they probably wouldn't know.

But more importantly, it isn't just drinks. Meeting for breakfast before work or an event is often just as effective as can be meeting someone for coffee.

Depending on the culture of the organization or industry, not drinking alcohol may be an issue, but more often the issue is not being comfortable or interested in socializing. If you are generous with your time, but respectful of others time, and an enjoyable person to be around, and have something to offer--that's more important than the venue. As for the "something to offer", I don't just mean connections or potential business. One thing younger people need to know is that a lot of older, successful professionals like to help people. It feels good, even if just stroking the ego, to give advice, make an introduction, or give a job lead.

While I'm not shy or particularly socially awkward, I'm also not particularly gregarious. I tend to like to hang out with people I know and like. It can be hard to "be on" when an opportunity to presents itself to get to know someone who is important to you professionally. Like many things in life, you need to practice. Like bargaining and interviewing, you need to practice when it doesn't matter to you, so you get comfortable. One thing that really helped me was in college I got the idea to invite people I found interesting to lunch. For example, one guy was an ex-NASA engineer that was working with a non-profit focused on space colonization, another was a professor who was an expert on the Kashmir dispute. It surprised me how many people would say yes to lunch to someone who was interested in what they did. If the person turned out to be a jerk or if I found it difficult to keep up a conversation and things got awkward, well, no big deal. There was no job or potential business on the line.

I'm not an expert in the gaming industry, but I'm sure that as much as drinking is a part of the culture, so is eating and coffee. If you get comfortable with meeting and talking with new people, I don't think it matters so much what you're drinking.
 

dchart

Explorer
Yes, I would agree that they must love some aspect of it, but that's very different from loving it overall.
I've been thinking about this general point some more.

The point that I originally wanted to make was that most of the factors that keep people in jobs they do not like are not present in the TTRPG business. Thus, if someone is creating TTRPGs professionally, the probability that they enjoy it is much higher than the corresponding probabilities for other professions. In particular, someone who is pointing out problems with the business, but still creating, almost certainly enjoys creating.

On the other hand, those other factors are not completely absent from the TTRPG business, and people could certainly feel trapped in the short term. Older people (around my age…) who have been TTRPG-successful are, I suspect, particularly vulnerable to that. Still less vulnerable than in a lot of fields (no point sticking it out until you get the pension when there is no pension…), but you could get into a situation where you could make more per hour, and per week, writing RPGs than in a minimum-wage, unskilled job, and feel that, at your age, you would not be able to transition to any other field. We are only talking about the top people in the field, like Owen, because most people can't make that much money, but it could happen.

So, the oversimplification for rhetorical effect did have pernicious consequences, in that it assumes that a small group in a difficult situation does not exist, and you were right that I should have been a bit more careful in my phrasing.
 

dchart

Explorer
Is that fair to say they are marketeers first and foremost? I mean they have a product that presumably took no little effort to produce. So while we can acknowledge that successful marketing is important your comment kinda suggests they’re style before substance which is ungenerous.
Marketing is a real skill. I know this because I don't have it. While I understand the instinct that says that someone who is 70/30 marketing/creation is "inferior" to someone who is 30/70, because the first person's creations are inferior, and that it therefore seems wrong that the first person makes much more money, I'm not at all sure that we should think that way.

(I'm taking it as given that someone who is 70/30 marketing/creation is a "marketeer first and foremost". If that's not what you meant, then this may be off point.)
 

MGibster

Hero
I never used to drink the alcohol and never bothered following the team to bars . Then noticed several times at the office that all colleagues were aware of a new business decision that I did not know about. When I asked them when was that decision made, since our last office meeting did not mention it, they would say, last Friday at so and so bar. :-(
I think it's useful to recognize that a game convention is a very different environment from a place of employment. For most of these writers, they're freelancers so there's no employee/employer relationship. It's more akin to going to a professional conference than it is going out with your coworkers. And people at professional conferences network. I agree with you that it's inappropriate for people to make business decisions at a bar. But it's not inappropriate to network at a conference.
 

TheSword

Hero
Marketing is a real skill. I know this because I don't have it. While I understand the instinct that says that someone who is 70/30 marketing/creation is "inferior" to someone who is 30/70, because the first person's creations are inferior, and that it therefore seems wrong that the first person makes much more money, I'm not at all sure that we should think that way.

(I'm taking it as given that someone who is 70/30 marketing/creation is a "marketeer first and foremost". If that's not what you meant, then this may be off point.)
I’m saying that it is ungenerous to say that a person who has gone to all the trouble of producing products are mainly marketeers. That said it may well be that “First and foremost” could just mean that they do their market research before designing a product rather than after it refers to when marketing takes place rather than how much time is spent on it overall. In which case I totally agree. I was just interested in clarification.
 

TheSword

Hero
I think it's useful to recognize that a game convention is a very different environment from a place of employment. For most of these writers, they're freelancers so there's no employee/employer relationship. It's more akin to going to a professional conference than it is going out with your coworkers. And people at professional conferences network. I agree with you that it's inappropriate for people to make business decisions at a bar. But it's not inappropriate to network at a conference.
There are lots of other ways of being social, in my workplace we do a lot of fitness based group activities, walks, group classes etc and since lockdown zoom quizzes and socially distanced picnics (in the last few weeks). There is still a notable difference between people who get involved and those that don’t. I don’t judge those that can’t make it, but I recognize that they are missing a chance to forge stronger links.
 

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