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

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.
Yep. A lot of it is just perception too. Lots of people think they could write good RPG material if they tried as they know English and can write. Whereas a lot of people feel like they can’t produce an RPG map because they’re not good at art.

In reality most people couldn’t write good RPG material (or create a good RPG map). The only difference is the fact that they write every day and draw very rarely is giving them a false perspective of their abilities.
 

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Ace

Adventurer
Yep. A lot of it is just perception too. Lots of people think they could write good RPG material if they tried as they know English and can write. Whereas a lot of people feel like they can’t produce an RPG map because they’re not good at art.

In reality most people couldn’t write good RPG material (or create a good RPG map). The only difference is the fact that they write every day and draw very rarely is giving them a false perspective of their abilities.

I've written published RPG material and countless reviews back in the D20 days. Its far easier than making a good map and far more people have the talent. This is why there are hundreds of publishers of 5E material and why back when the D20 print book fad ended there were so many I could and did buy books from my FLGS literally "cheaper by the inch." even with the higher barrier of entry.

Now JMO here for most people publishing a game world or game system is just vanity. Odds are no one outside your group if even there cares about your world and your rules are no better than what is out there.

There are exceptions, people like Tal Dorei because of Matt Mercer's well earned fame and I personally think WOIN is a rather good system as is Castles and Crusades but on the whole? Nah. It doesn't matter.

As I noted way back, there is little money in game writing or increasingly do to tech these days media. Heck its trickled down to writers and bands as well, Kindle Unlimited is poor for authors and without touring many bands probably won't make it. Royalties are bad for many right now and it may not be possible to live or at least live well on patronage. This means a kind of hobbyist economy with a tiny handful of professionals.

As for our little hobby, this means basically nothing. Other than the Halcyon days before the internet, its always been this way

Let me quote Stephan Michael Sechi creator of Talilanta, all of whose books are free and legal to DL now at Talislanta | Still No Elves!

Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can afford to put out pen & paper RPGs these days. From what I hear, sales for small games average about 20% of what they were back in the mid-late 1980’s. For example, I was able to get advance orders of about 1800-2000 copies for each of the main Talislanta books. Many small game companies are lucky if they can sell 200 advance copies. That’s pretty tough. But if you’re someone who loves creating games, and you can afford the time and expense involved, it’s still a pretty cool thing to do.

Even the lower costs, this means less money.

As Mr Sechi noted, its still cool to do and this hobbyist effort willkeep our pipeline full even if mostly have other jobs.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I've written published RPG material and countless reviews back in the D20 days. Its far easier than making a good map

The word "good" appears in the second half of this sentence, but not the first half. This is the point.
 

Ace

Adventurer
The word "good" appears in the second half of this sentence, but not the first half. This is the point.

I agree with you.

its just we are as they say separated by a common language.

Being paid by a company or a person implies that the material is good.

The fact that many people like me have done this and few have been paid for maps and they get paid more though there is plenty of demand for both suggest that map making is harder.

Sorry about the confusion but a couple of centuries of linguistic drift will do that ;)
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I agree with you.

its just we are as they say separated by a common language.

Being paid by a company or a person implies that the material is good.

The fact that many people like me have done this and few have been paid for maps and they get paid more though there is plenty of demand for both suggest that map making is harder.

Sorry about the confusion but a couple of centuries of linguistic drift will do that ;)
It's not linguistic drift. It's that the the barrier to entry for writing is lower than for art (almost everybody can write; far fewer people can draw). But good writing is really hard, as is good art.
 

Ace

Adventurer
It's not linguistic drift. It's that the the barrier to entry for writing is lower than for art (almost everybody can write; far fewer people can draw). But good writing is really hard, as is good art.

OK I see what you mean.

Still while I am far too much of a Philistine to judge art, I do see what you mean in that truly good art or writing is rare.
 

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.

I don't see how; I've been using a VTT (LAN at f2f) for over a decade, and I've never paid more than $20 for a large collection of excellent maps. The Net is full of free maps, and companies like Oones are selling extremely good maps at $1.95 a pop, $20 for incredible boxed sets of large areas.
 


Hussar

Legend
I don't see how; I've been using a VTT (LAN at f2f) for over a decade, and I've never paid more than $20 for a large collection of excellent maps. The Net is full of free maps, and companies like Oones are selling extremely good maps at $1.95 a pop, $20 for incredible boxed sets of large areas.

I've looked at some of those Patreon's and yeah, they are very much worth the penny. I hate those guys with the power of a thousand jealous suns. :D There's some really fantastic fantasy cartographers out there that are doing spectacular stuff. And, often, with the patreons, you get multiple versions - day, night, gridded, ungridded, and frequently, they take requests.

I just wish I had that kind of skill. I can make a decent looking map, but, those guys? Arrggh, hates them. HATES them I says!!!!
 



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.

'We'?

I've never paid $20 for a novel in my life; nor is the art my wife chose for our house anything but original and antique. None of my gamers display art other than framed posters.

Other than Oones, and 0hr deckplans, I never pay for RPG maps; there are literally thousands available for free on the Net.

You have to be careful with broad assumptions.

On a related note, Stoneworker has all their maps available for free:


I've got their entire post-apoc line, and it is very good.

I still don't see how map makers are drawing any money at all.
 

'We'?

I've never paid $20 for a novel in my life; nor is the art my wife chose for our house anything but original and antique. None of my gamers display art other than framed posters.

Other than Oones, and 0hr deckplans, I never pay for RPG maps; there are literally thousands available for free on the Net.

You have to be careful with broad assumptions.

On a related note, Stoneworker has all their maps available for free:


I've got their entire post-apoc line, and it is very good.

I still don't see how map makers are drawing any money at all.

There is dozens of them taking in over 1000$ a month so they are definitely making money.
 

There is dozens of them taking in over 1000$ a month so they are definitely making money.

I'm not arguing that fact. What I am saying is, I don't see how they are, given the plethora of free and very inexpensive maps, and the fact that a lot of games and GMs don't use tactical combat, or just whiteboard it.
 

I'm not arguing that fact. What I am saying is, I don't see how they are, given the plethora of free and very inexpensive maps, and the fact that a lot of games and GMs don't use tactical combat, or just whiteboard it.

Maybe because people like there products and wanna support them and get the wonderful products they make?
 

Hussar

Legend
I'm not arguing that fact. What I am saying is, I don't see how they are, given the plethora of free and very inexpensive maps, and the fact that a lot of games and GMs don't use tactical combat, or just whiteboard it.

You may be underestimating the size of the online gaming community. How many groups are playing on some sort of VTT now? Or, rather, have been for quite a few years now? Roll 20 has bandied around 50000+ 5e gamers alone. Or, in some cases, some 50 000 (ish) games. And that's only 5e and only Roll 20. It's not too much of a stretch to estimate that there are over a hundred thousand VTT users out there. And, if you're on a VTT, you're going to want pretty maps. There's no point in having all that functionality if you're not going to use it.

Add to that the fact that now you can do animated maps in some VTT's as well, and that some of the cartographers are including images with the maps, not just a top down view, but, a scene image as well, and it's definitely worth the investment.
 


macd21

Adventurer
I'm not arguing that fact. What I am saying is, I don't see how they are, given the plethora of free and very inexpensive maps, and the fact that a lot of games and GMs don't use tactical combat, or just whiteboard it.

I think part of it is that while there are a lot of free/inexpensive maps, a lot of those are garbage (or at least there’s an assumption that they are). So rather than try to trawl through the free maps looking for something that meets the criteria a GM needs, some people go straight to the ‘quality’ stuff.
 

I think part of it is that while there are a lot of free/inexpensive maps, a lot of those are garbage (or at least there’s an assumption that they are). So rather than try to trawl through the free maps looking for something that meets the criteria a GM needs, some people go straight to the ‘quality’ stuff.

Hard to see how anyone, after one decent google search, could think that. There are countless great maps for free. And the best quality maps I've seen, bar none, are produced by Oones, mostly for $1.95 each.
 

Hussar

Legend
Hard to see how anyone, after one decent google search, could think that. There are countless great maps for free. And the best quality maps I've seen, bar none, are produced by Oones, mostly for $1.95 each.
Really?

I personally don't care for the Oones maps. Too basic. I tend to put them in the same category as the Dyson Logos maps. Which, for tabletop might be great, but, for online play, do not look good at all.

YMMV of course.
 

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