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Owen KC Stephens' Tabletop RPG Truths #4

A few weeks ago I posted about Owen KC Stephens posting about the 'Real Game Industry' on Twitter, and then a followup a little later, and a third here. This is the fourth installment, as Owen is continuing to share his experiences of the tabletop RPG industry. You can follow along with the #RealGameIndustry tag on Twitter.

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  • Many ttRPG writers think overwriting an assignment by up to 50% is doing developers a favor. Most developers prefer turnovers be within 5-10%. Developers rarely have time to give feedback, and writers rarely have time to read pages of instructions in advance.
  • Even within a company, many developers handle very basic things differently. No one has time to figure out which of these methods is best. This is one reason companies don't have a public set of universal rules for how freelancers should handle basic issues.
  • It' not that the US ttRPG industry has no norms and standards. It's just that the standards include "For w-f-h, you'll have no idea what changes were made to your draft until you get a copy," and "There's no job security or clear path to advancement."
  • Even though I have known how it works for decades, it still hits me how MUCH more money RPGs could make creators (without even changing prices) if they sold 2k-3k more copies per SKU.
  • Social media makes it easy for trolls to magnify their voices and target harassment at creators. Dealing with them is depressing and tiring. It's also worth doing. Block. Ignore. Deplatform. And support your creators so loudly the trolls are drowned out.
  • Being able to write up enough about an idea or homebrew to have a rough draft you can explain to people is not only different from producing to-spec ttRPG material people can understand without you being around to explain, it's almost entirely unrelated.
  • The bigger the ttRPG company, the more it can and should consider how to acquire new ttRPG players. WotC produced D&D-branded children's books. Paizo has done boxed beginner sets. Smaller companies can't go that far, and mostly just target existing markets.
  • There are skills for ttRPG freelance writing that're invisible in the end product (e.g. writing a 110k word book of your ideas at your own pace is totally different from writing 110k words with a 90-day deadline while sticking to a publisher's project outline).
  • There are both people who can produce great ttRPG material but only when writing their ideas on their schedule, and those who can only finish things if a company gives them the outline and deadline. Some can do both, but it's not universal.
  • There are things that are going to be seismic shifts for how ttRPG business is done. In many cases, the shift has begun, it's just about how common the tools are. Cheap 3D printers. Smart speakers. VTTs. And factors such as pandemics and calls for equity.
  • In Aug 2000 I was at WotC's RPG R&D Gen Con dinner at Mader's. A more senior staffer noted it's wasn't what you knew that got you a WotC job, but WHO you knew. I said I hadn't known anyone. Smiling she said "Yes, Owen. You're the exception that proves the rule."
  • It seems totally reasonable for ttRPG companies to want to hire people with more credits and experience. OTOH, that reinforces the advantages of non-marginalized people who had an easier time getting into the industry. And that becomes self-perpetuating.
  • To be clear, that was 20 years ago, and I don't have the sense that's it's nearly as true nowadays. But it absolutely impacted who had access to that experience back when it was more true.
  • There are more people making a living through small ttRPG publishers, including 3pp, than with the big, well-known companies. Small publishing ttRPGs are most of the industry by participants, even if not by sales.
  • Anyone who claims creating good ttRPGs takes neither any skill nor experience has never tried to play a ttRPG written by someone with neither skill nor experience. There are people who do great with one or the other, but no one does well with neither.
  • Creating a brand-new RPG connected to nothing is a very different skillset than expanding an existing game, or making one as a tie-in to existing IP. There's overlap, of course. Some folks are good at both. Lots aren't.
  • It is obviously difficult for any one company or person to tackle systemic ttRPG industry issues, as they are systemic. Not making thing worse won't do it. Companies and leaders must actively work to make things better, even if there is risk and cost involved.
  • Over 20 years and multiple companies, when I have come to a manager with a concern about racism in ttRPGs I have sometimes been met with anger. Managers who reply with anger are training people not to trust them with issues, and therefor not trust them at all.
  • Sometimes my concerns about racism have been met with deference for tradition. Such as the title of the 3.0 D&D book 'Oriental Adventures,' which I voiced problems with. Not everything changes if you confront it, but almost nothing changes without confrontation.
  • Writing for leisure is very different from writing for work. A creator can be burned out on a project or even the whole concept of writing for someone else and still have plenty of capacity to write lots of other things. This has nothing to do with"Discipline."
  • If a writer is burned out on a project and can't work on it atm, fans being insulting or demanding has a 0% chance of causing the work to get done sooner. But in 100% of cases, anything but calm and polite feedback reduces the chances you'll see the thing.
  • Though it's NOT 100% true, I've noticed over more than 23 years in the ttRPG industry that extremely confident & haughty designers impressed by their own their talent, skill, and genius, often shouldn't be. Many of the geniuses are humble, doubtful, & cautious.
 
Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey


malcolm_n

Adventurer
There don't seem to be a lot of happy stories in the RPG writer field.
There certainly are happy stories, but Owen's posts are more informational and realistic. That they also happen to be negatively viewed in some cases is indicative of the industry and the environment it fosters at times. I don't remember where now, but one of his replies to a similar question on Facebook was that hopefully by pointing these things out, the industry could start to address them and make it better for everybody overall.
 


malcolm_n

Adventurer
Cannot wait for tabletop truths #47. Seriously though, almost anyone could do the same thing with the industry they work in.

While the first one was interesting, this does get a little old after a while.
I find them useful and interesting still. I've read the replies on Twitter and Facebook that say much the same. Maybe they're not for everybody, or feel "squeaky wheel," but they're helpful in getting to the truth that prior to these posts has been something most of us had to learn the hard way by experiencing them firsthand.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I find them useful and interesting still. I've read the replies on Twitter and Facebook that say much the same. Maybe they're not for everybody, or feel "squeaky wheel," but they're helpful in getting to the truth that prior to these posts has been something most of us had to learn the hard way by experiencing them firsthand.

Yes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I find them interesting as well, even if they are similar to what goes on in other industries.
 

In Aug 2000 I was at WotC's RPG R&D Gen Con dinner at Mader's. A more senior staffer noted it's wasn't what you knew that got you a WotC job, but WHO you knew. I said I hadn't known anyone. Smiling she said "Yes, Owen. You're the exception that proves the rule."
It pains me that the senior staffer was almost certainly a writer (or editor) who regurgitated this nonsense. (Exceptions don't prove rules. If you'd like to test this, try it with gravity.)
Though it's NOT 100% true, I've noticed over more than 23 years in the ttRPG industry that extremely confident & haughty designers impressed by their own their talent, skill, and genius, often shouldn't be. Many of the geniuses are humble, doubtful, & cautious.
I've known a lot of smart people over the years, including a fair number of geniuses. They were never the ones telling you how smart they were.
If a writer is burned out on a project and can't work on it atm, fans being insulting or demanding has a 0% chance of causing the work to get done sooner. But in 100% of cases, anything but calm and polite feedback reduces the chances you'll see the thing.
GEORGE R. R. MARTIN IS NOT YOUR FEMALE DOG!
 
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DaveMage

Slumbering in Tsar
  • Writing for leisure is very different from writing for work. A creator can be burned out on a project or even the whole concept of writing for someone else and still have plenty of capacity to write lots of other things. This has nothing to do with"Discipline."

I'm guessing this is why we sometimes see creatives leave one RFP company (with no hard feelings) and then resurface with a new RPG company a while later.
 

I'm guessing this is why we sometimes see creatives leave one RFP company (with no hard feelings) and then resurface with a new RPG company a while later.
I actually disagree with him on this point. I find that writing professionally tends to use up my well for writing for personal enjoyment. It has been literal decades since I've written fiction, other than play by post D&D stuff, because after doing it all day for work, my word-hoard, to quote Beowulf, is empty.
 


I actually disagree with him on this point. I find that writing professionally tends to use up my well for writing for personal enjoyment. It has been literal decades since I've written fiction, other than play by post D&D stuff, because after doing it all day for work, my word-hoard, to quote Beowulf, is empty.

I certainly did not mean to imply this trend is universal. I completely accept your experience.
 




Ace

Adventurer
There don't seem to be a lot of happy stories in the RPG writer field.

Its a PPCOC business for the most part (that is pretty poor clean out of cash or something a little saltier if you don't know) with a low barrier of entry, a lot of outcasts and these days huge cultural and political divisions. Its made for unhappiness.

The easiest thing to help navigate the mess is to just understand is odds are near certain that you'll never make any living at it and even if you can get by , some people do unless a big company hires you full time or you get very lucky you have no benefits. Folks that do pretty well like Owen are unicorns.

From experience you can make a hobby of it though and maybe pay for your expenses and some pizza.

Approaching it on these terms, as cold as they are saves one a lot of misery.
 


Olaf the Stout

Adventurer
Its a PPCOC business for the most part (that is pretty poor clean out of cash or something a little saltier if you don't know) with a low barrier of entry, a lot of outcasts and these days huge cultural and political divisions. Its made for unhappiness.

The easiest thing to help navigate the mess is to just understand is odds are near certain that you'll never make any living at it and even if you can get by , some people do unless a big company hires you full time or you get very lucky you have no benefits. Folks that do pretty well like Owen are unicorns.

From experience you can make a hobby of it though and maybe pay for your expenses and some pizza.

Approaching it on these terms, as cold as they are saves one a lot of misery.
Even then, pretty well is still only earning enough to not have to take a second job on the side. There aren’t many people earning even a middling income in RPGs, let alone a good income.
 

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