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.
 

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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

TheSword

Legend
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.)

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.

GEORGE R. R. MARTIN IS NOT YOUR FEMALE DOG!
That’s not what the phrase means in modern use... it’s that specific case exceptions show that a general rule exists. Otherwise he wouldn’t be an exception.

The way you wrote that I thought you said George R R Martini. 🍸
 

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Ace

Adventurer
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.

Very true.

In order to make a precarious basic living you need to create a decently selling (take home of $300 US) RPG supplement every two days or so after year and even than you can afford an apartment and food and that is about it.

Better not get sick unless you have health insurance from another source and forget having children.

On top of that unless you are really into 5E and/or Pathfinder you'll be writing for a game that isn't your main cuppa Joe. And yeah sure many games offer various community licenses or like Steve Jackson have freelance opportunities , the fact is most PDF's sold are D&D or Pathfinder 2E these days.

It's simple not possible for most.

However even a few modest sales can basically pay for your gaming hobby and it night be worth doing on those grounds.
 

I've tried to do my part by supporting some people on Patreon since I can afford it.

The amount VTT's get or Mapmakers get on Patreon versus the actual guys who made the system we play with is staggering.

Some Mapmakers are getting in excess of 5000$ monthly. The people at GCP last time I checked was 70K a month but some of the Paizo people who have a Patreon lucky to see 100-200$.

Fact is most RPG writers I've conversated with spend alot of time in their free time doing work unpaid and barely get by financially.
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I've tried to do my part by supporting some people on Patreon since I can afford it.

The amount VTT's get or Mapmakers get on Patreon versus the actual guys who made the system we play with is staggering.
Mike Mearls and co. have pretty decent salaries and other benefits.
 



Ace

Adventurer
Religion/politics
Really? Concerns about racism have been met with reactions of anger? Shock and surprise. :erm:

Understandable. The political situation in the US is very unstable and has lead to violence some of it armed against people thought to be racist and massive amounts of property damage. Call it protest or insurrection or whatever but this is not appropriate behavior.

If you want laws prohibiting those ideas and thoughts in the public square than you need to change the laws in your country in accordance to the Democratic or Republican process of that country. I'll also note that for the most part its not legal to do such in the US and if you want to change that you have to change the system itself. Expect push back from people for a lot of reasons and from a lot of people who are in fact civic nationalist and eschew racism in any form.
 

Understandable. The political situation in the US is very unstable and has lead to violence some of it armed against people thought to be racist and massive amounts of property damage. Call it protest or insurrection or whatever but this is not appropriate behavior.

If you want laws prohibiting those ideas and thoughts in the public square than you need to change the laws in your country in accordance to the Democratic or Republican process of that country. I'll also note that for the most part its not legal to do such in the US and if you want to change that you have to change the system itself. Expect push back from people for a lot of reasons and from a lot of people who are in fact civic nationalist and eschew racism in any form.

Glad I live in Canada. We aren't perfect and we have issues as well but what the USA is going through is scary.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Understandable. The political situation in the US is very unstable and has lead to violence some of it armed against people thought to be racist and massive amounts of property damage. Call it protest or insurrection or whatever but this is not appropriate behavior.

If you want laws prohibiting those ideas and thoughts in the public square than you need to change the laws in your country in accordance to the Democratic or Republican process of that country. I'll also note that for the most part its not legal to do such in the US and if you want to change that you have to change the system itself. Expect push back from people for a lot of reasons and from a lot of people who are in fact civic nationalist and eschew racism in any form.
Let's not turn ENW into an American Politics forum, please.
 

I do OK, and I run like the smallest RPG company ever. I assume I'm not alone.

I think in your case you have a decent base here and people that choose to support you even if they don't play your games. There is a big difference IMO between doing ok and prospering. I know nothing of the actual wages or what you make personally but I know from Owen and other developers that they truly struggle financially in the industry they are in.

I work in construction and am very lucky that my industry pays extremely well even though the work can be hard. I couldn't imagine pouring my soul into products and having to do so after work as well and barely getting by.
 

Ace

Adventurer
I do OK, and I run like the smallest RPG company ever. I assume I'm not alone.

Edited as per request on politics. This is much harder than you might think and building up from what was once Eric Noah World (yes I was here near the start) to what is today and being able to give one person or so at least a bit of living took quite a few decades and a lot of talent.

Most people don't have that capacity alas and as such this remains strictly a hobby.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I think in your case you have a decent base here and people that choose to support you even if they don't play your games. There is a big difference IMO between doing ok and prospering. I know nothing of the actual wages or what you make personally but I know from Owen and other developers that they truly struggle financially in the industry they are in.

I work in construction and am very lucky that my industry pays extremely well even though the work can be hard. I couldn't imagine pouring my soul into products and having to do so after work as well and barely getting by.
My point was that if I do OK, it's not just 5 people at WotC as claimed. It's others, too.
 

malcolm_n

Adventurer
I do OK, and I run like the smallest RPG company ever. I assume I'm not alone.
It's taken me about 10 years, but I make enough regularly now to fund my next project each time I begin a new one. Influxes from Kickstarters like the one we're hosting now help me get multiple projects complete, which themselves feed more. And, even on occasion I can take the wife and kids out to a reasonable dinner (when we're not quarantined). I'm happy with my lot in RPG design work, but I couldn't live on it, so I do it outside of my 8 to 5 work.
 

There are a of of factors about who is doing how well.
For example, anyone in the US has concerns paying for health insurance and heath care that are far from universal, and that can make the difference between "pretty happy with how things are going" and "three sicks days in a row and we'll get kicked out of our apartment."
(Though, Morrus? You do NOT run anything close to the smallest RPG company ever. There are tons and tons and tons of literal 1-man shops with no one "on salary" or receiving benefits of any kind, as Mike & Co. do).
I have had some really rood runs of years. I have also had some terrible ones. The past year has been particularly terrible, on-par with 2001 for me.
I strongly beelive that doing "well," for any reaosnable definition of well, is rare.
But it's not limited to just WotC.
 

There are a of of factors about who is doing how well.
For example, anyone in the US has concerns paying for health insurance and heath care that are far from universal, and that can make the difference between "pretty happy with how things are going" and "three sicks days in a row and we'll get kicked out of our apartment."
(Though, Morrus? You do NOT run anything close to the smallest RPG company ever. There are tons and tons and tons of literal 1-man shops with no one "on salary" or receiving benefits of any kind, as Mike & Co. do).
I have had some really rood runs of years. I have also had some terrible ones. The past year has been particularly terrible, on-par with 2001 for me.
I strongly beelive that doing "well," for any reaosnable definition of well, is rare.
But it's not limited to just WotC.

That sucks Owen that it is so taxing on some people to make ends meet. I think the plight of the average working person not coming anywhere near a living wage in alot of industries is just the norm now.
 

I've tried to do my part by supporting some people on Patreon since I can afford it.

The amount VTT's get or Mapmakers get on Patreon versus the actual guys who made the system we play with is staggering.

Some Mapmakers are getting in excess of 5000$ monthly. The people at GCP last time I checked was 70K a month but some of the Paizo people who have a Patreon lucky to see 100-200$.

Fact is most RPG writers I've conversated with spend alot of time in their free time doing work unpaid and barely get by financially.
I’m guessing it’s because the barrier to entry for map making is higher than the barrier to entry for writing RPG material.

Many of those map makers are creating their own unique symbols (I.e. beds, tents, houses, hills, chests, etc) for their maps, which you can also get as part of the Patreon.

I can write an RPG adventure or, at the very least, adapt one already written for my group. It might not be a work of art, but it will be good enough. I can’t draw a map myself that I’d consider decent, but I could create one using map-making software and symbols that other artists have created. So that may be why map making Patreons are doing well.
 


I’m guessing it’s because the barrier to entry for map making is higher than the barrier to entry for writing RPG material.

Many of those map makers are creating their own unique symbols (I.e. beds, tents, houses, hills, chests, etc) for their maps, which you can also get as part of the Patreon.

I can write an RPG adventure or, at the very least, adapt one already written for my group. It might not be a work of art, but it will be good enough. I can’t draw a map myself that I’d consider decent, but I could create one using map-making software and symbols that other artists have created. So that may be why map making Patreons are doing well.

I think its the same reason we will spend 150$ at some home store for some crappy piece of wall art but only spend 20$ for a best selling novel. The visual is perceived as having a higher value than the written.
 

It’s also likely that COVID has shifted a lot of play online and many RPGers feel like a map is a must for online play, so demand for VTT maps has likely increased.

That is very true. However quite a few of the mapmakers out there were making 5K+ way before COVID. DungeonDraft has also done pretty good for the mapmakers who do their own assets for use in it.
 

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