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.


  • 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


Memory is a fickle beast.

I do think it is worth noting that negative reactions stand out much more than calm, positive or subtle actions. It is the old universal truth that when the athlete or celebrity say: "My teacher(s) said I would never make it!" They mean one out of the hundreds. When they say, "When I was a senior in high school my coach told me I could do it... that was the first time I'd ever heard someone believe in me." They mean, they didn't hear it the other thousand times it was relayed to them. They weren't ready to believe in themselves, so therefore, it was dismissed. And when they say, "School was brutal. I was picked on relentlessly. The kids were so mean because I didn't fit in." What they mean is a small handful of kids were mean... 5 out of thousands.

Of course none of those things are acceptable. No one should be bullied, kids should be told they can be successful in whatever endeavor they attempt, and they should never be told they can't make it. But the point is clear - memory, particularly a memory that spans twenty years in a tough industry, might remember things from a very biased and skewed perspective when overall numbers are concerned. And rarely, I mean very rarely, do they ever take into account the other person's motives and state of mind at the time of said encounter.

It was more a commentary that every single time concerns about racism (or a fairly lengthy list of other issues) gets brought up, it is immediately responded to with anger. Every. Single. Time.

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It was more a commentary that every single time concerns about racism (or a fairly lengthy list of other issues) gets brought up, it is immediately responded to with anger. Every. Single. Time.
And it was me saying that is how Owen remembers it. We rarely remember the interactions where someone says: "Can we change the spelling of this name because people might read it and it'll sound like..." Then everyone says, "Oh yeah, didn't see that. Change it." Done. And also, forgotten. There are literally hundreds of ideas small tiny interactions like this, that may have been prompted from a person who thought is might be racist, so they want it changed. Then it gets changed without any fan-fair. Not everyone states outwardly their motive for change.
It goes back to what I said, rarely are motives from others taken into account. This is true for good or easy changes and interactions, and it is true for negative interactions. But rest assured, they are there, and the circumstances around those motives often drive the interaction. So "Every. Single. Time" is really, every single time that he remembers or knew about. There is a big difference.
I am not doubting Owen. I am not saying he didn't have these interactions. And I am not saying the industry doesn't have its problems. But I am saying, a broader and objective outlook might be one reasonable perspective when reading his lists.

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