Owen KC Stephens' Tabletop RPG Truths

Multi-award winning game designer Owen Stephens (Starfinder, Pathfinder, Star Wars) has been posting a series he calls #RealGameIndustry on social media.


  • Most TTRPG game company's art archives are not well indexed... Or indexed.
  • Yes, the RPG book could have had ONE more editing pass. There would still be errors, you'd still complain, it would cost more and take longer, and not sell any better. And people would download it for free illegally because "it's too expensive."
  • Tabletop RPG books are not overpriced. They are specialty technical creative writing social interaction manuals. At double the current prices, they would not be overpriced. This is why most TTRPG creators leave the industry. Along with constant fan harassment.
  • Quality, effort, marketing, and fan fervor cannot change this. Ever. That's not to knock, or praise, D&D. It's just a fact.
  • Impostor syndrome is hugely common in the TTRPG industry for two reasons. One: Studying and modifying RPGs often appeals to socially awkward shut ins who become broken professionals. Two: There's a sense that if you were a REAL professional you could afford a house, and insurance, and a retirement account, but that's not true for 99.9% of TTRPG professionals.
  • People who are passionate about making games for other people, people who are good at making games, and people who are good at the business of game sales and marketing don't overlap much in a Venn diagram. Most game company failures can be attributed to this.
  • A TTRPG professional with enough experience and credibility to criticize the industry as a whole is normally tied to one company so closely that the criticism is seen as biased, or unwilling to do it for free, or too naughty word tired to care anymore. Many are all 3.
  • If you are a TTRPG creative, you aren't paid enough. Thus, if you find people listening to you and apparently valuing your words you owe it to yourself to make sure they know there is an option to pay you for them. Also, I have a Patreon. https://patreon.com/OwenKCStephens
  • There are beloved, award-winning, renowned, well-known TTRPG books with total print runs of 2000 or fewer copies. That did not sell out.
  • Most RPG creators cannot afford the upper-tier of RPG accessories. Colossal dragons, scale sailing ships, and custom-built gaming tables are not for those of us who create the hobby. We are too poor to enjoy even a fraction of the things our creativity sparks.
  • The ability to master a game's rules has no correlation to the ability to write clear or interesting rules or adventures. Neither has any correlation to being able to produce 22,000 words of focused, usable content about a specific topic on a set deadline.
  • There are 65 people in the Origins Hall of Fame. Most fans can't name 5 of them. Most creators can't name 10. They are overwhelmingly (though not quite entirely) white men.
  • TTRPG companies generally have no interest in your ideas for products. They went to all the trouble of starting, or staying at, an RPG company to publish their ideas, even if they need you to write them. They certainly didn't stay for the money or respect.
  • Asking RPG freelancers to publicly call out a publisher is asking them to reduce their tiny chance of making enough money in RPGs to survive. Sometimes it's a moral imperative. But it's always painful and dangerous. It's more dangerous for women and minorities.
  • Occasionally, male game designers who do streams or vlogs or podcasts find themselves disconcerted receiving unsolicited commentary about their appearance. It happened to me. Or, in other words, they get a tiny taste of what women in every field face every day.
  • Freelancers aren't paid enough by game company employees and managers, who themselves aren't paid enough by their companies, which don't make enough from distributors and stores, that don't make enough from customers. This never improves. It can get worse.
  • Fantasy and scifi art has sexualized women for decades, so many pro artists assume that's what you want. Explaining otherwise takes more words that describing the art piece. I had to go with "No skin should be exposed except on the face." It was 75% effective.
  • Most RPG work is "work-for-hire," This includes most work I commission from freelancers myself. This means that, legally, the writer isn't the author. They have no rights to it. No royalties. No say in how (or if) it is used. It never reverts to them.
  • I have received 3 death threats in my 21+ RPG career. One for not listing the fans preferred length for the Executor SSD. One of having a male succubus (not an incubus, with that game system) drawn in a seductive pose. And one for being fat and on video streams.
  • Once, at Gen Con, a fan interrupted [Amanda Hamon] at the Paizo booth to ask her to point me out. She kindly did so. They came and asked me if I was the Starfinder boss. I pointed them back to Amanda, and noted she was my Managing Developer, and direct superior. I followed that by pointing out Lisa Stevens was an owner of Paizo but that I also worked for Nicole Lindroos and Miranda Russell at other companies, and that Lj Stephens was my project manager for my own company who kept me on schedule, The fan seemed upset.
  • 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.

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Wow. In the states surrounding me you start at around $35k or more if you teach Math or Science.

If you get full time, and which 35k still isn't that great. I have a friend with his PhD in physics, tried for full time at local schools, and was only offered part time. They advertise full time positions, only to get you to apply, and receive an offer of part time; that way they don't have to offer you any benefits, and you are barred from joining the union. Meanwhile at local factories, a friend with a masters in chemistry, found employment in the paint dept of auto plant for 68k starting.

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
A lot of this is true for writing in general, and I suspect for creative work as a category. In my experience, the more people like a career, the less pay and more naughty word you're expected to put up with along the way.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
And that's not even a high number. 17K is mind boggling. I love my job, but I wouldn't do it for 17K. Or actually for 35K at this point, but 35K to start is at least within sight of a living wage.
As a point of comparison, starting teacher salaries here in the UK are about £25K (a bit more in London). Nurses earn in the same region.


Teachers here get somewhere in the 50-77k range. 1 NZD is 0.68 USD. Issue here is the extra curricular work you end up doing. Universal healthcare, government pays about 70-80% of your degree costs.

Question with old boys club. There's a few authors whose work I like. James Jacobs is one for an example.

Most of them were in Dungeon magazine. Wolfgang Bauer is another one.

But yeah I guess I'm looking at established authors whose name I recognize. But that feeds into the old boys club as well.

Now when you do a Paizo AP or WotC hardcover I can't even tell you who writes it 95% of the time.

The demise of Dragon/Dungeon feeds into this. I did buy off DMG but ended up with so many PDFs I couldn't keep up so gave up. I'll never run, use, or even read half of them.


Are you willing to pay on hourly basis? Is RPG entertainment worth $2 per hour for you? Are you going to get 10 hours or 100 hours or more from the product?

This is the basis that I use to remind myself that RPGs and board games are astonishingly good values.

For comparison, I spend $12 for a movie that lasts two hours. Some people spend $100 for a 4 hour football game experience.

If I add up the amount of time that I plus family and friends spend enjoying a game, then games cost pennies per hour.

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Teachers in the United States get paid a wide range. In Southern California, they typically start from $35k to $45k, depending on the district (and the district's cost of living) and salaries can get $80k or more with 20+ years of work and a PhD picked up along the way.

In other states, especially rural and poorer ones, their salaries can start closer to $25k.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I do think Patreon is a very smart way of making sure creatives get properly rewarded in some fields. I support a couple of map designing artists for $2 - $8 dollars a month and these guys have thousands of followers. They must be taking $10k a month as a minimum and I’m happy to see the rewarded because they are doing something original and in demand. They also take it extremely seriously and have put the effort in and extra materials to make this a full time living. It is by no means easy.

It seems a shame that good writers don’t seem to be getting anywhere near this. Perhaps we just value the skill of writing less than the skill of drawing because it’s seen as more accessible. I’m constantly blown away by the work done by neutral party, two minute tabletop and heroic maps.

I find it easier to use maps than written content. The problem for me is that I just can't consume the amount of good content that is available. Because of some life changes I've had to cut back on my Patreon subscriptions, but I used to prefer backing something like EN World's EN5ider, which has a nice blend of materials, and which supported a diverse group of both writers and artists.

I also support some of those map makers you listed and they do take in excess of 5-10k a month in a few cases. Maybe we are valuing art more than the written word and doing a disservice to people like @Owen K.C. Stephens and others for their craft by not supporting them similarly. That said I’d love to see smaller official releases from Paizo employees personal patreons and maybe something similar could be a solution to at least a few of the woes these people face. It takes bold moves and off the wall ideas to have things like industries advance or change.


He sounds burnt out more than anything. Its exactly the same sentiments felt by 99% of public service jobs (especially healthcare) at any number of points in their career - ask any Dr or Nurse if they haven't felt the same about the criticisms of the general public and/or press (we have, we do, we cannot ever say it except between ourselves because of a) public duty and b) professional obligation). When you get like this it's time to step back for a bit because despite all the negatives there have to be positives (it's just hard to see them when you are burnt out) or else why choose to do what you choose to do?

Unfortunately the TTRPG industry is a very small pond with an over supply of producers vs consumers; further limited by the nature of the product (once - core rules- bought you really dont need to purchase any more products). This makes itself a very volatile market place - TSR's fall from grace is testament to that.

My advice is take comfort in the small victory's - for me it's the patient that says thank you for him it's the fan who appreciates the effort. Even if it's only 1 in a 100 - it's still a plus. Mental health days, or sabbaticals, help as well

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
He sounds burnt out more than anything. Its exactly the same sentiments felt by 99% of public service jobs (especially healthcare) at any number of points in their career - ask any Dr or Nurse if they haven't felt the same about the criticisms of the general public and/or press (we have, we do, we cannot ever say it except between ourselves because of a) public duty and b) professional obligation). When you get like this it's time to step back for a bit because despite all the negatives there have to be positives (it's just hard to see them when you are burnt out) or else why choose to do what you choose to do?
I find it hard to believe that there are many jobs where people don't feel unappreciated/misunderstood, feel they're grossly underpaid and think they're managed by people who don't have the skills to do so.

My colleagues certainly feel this way. That's why they pay us to come in.
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Its exactly the same sentiments felt by 99% of public service jobs...

TTRPG game design is not a public service job, though it has some things in common with a public service job given online accessibility.

Owen is highlighting the mismatches between the perception of a TTRPG job and the realities of the industry--which are significant, even within the ranks of designers. You could do that for any profession, though the mismatch between the perception and the reality of creative/arts jobs tends to be much higher than with other professions. There are a number of causes for this mismatch, such as the ways in which the mass media depicts creative jobs. Some of the mismatches will be familiar to people in other professions, some are unique to arts jobs or even working in tabletop publishing.

Jim Lowder


The Laughing One
What I DO feel is a need for the people stepping into the industry for the first time to be told some of what it's like, with a clarity I did not get from anyone in the 1990s when I started.
This issue/situation has come up regularly on the forums here at ENworld over the last 20 years. But I'm curious, you never peeked at the rates TSR was willing to pay for your freelance work for Dungeon/Dragon? Translating that to a hourly wage and then realizing that TSR was the big kid on the block in RPG land? I'm six years younger less old then you, but that idea was killed quickly when I saw those rates and did some creative writing as a test. I really wanted to design planes, did a year of aerospace engineering school and the only aerospace company in the country went belly up, that brought on a harsh reality check, would I want to emigrate to the US (I'm European and my German and French sucks). That was a big NO! A long story short, I'm now in IT as a freelancer. I did really well in art at school, even did a year of multimedia design after the aerospace engineering bit, so it's not as if I don't have a creative bone in my body. ;-) I suspect I can do better working half a year as a IT freelancer and then writing half a year for free then working a full year for freelance writer fees in the RPG gaming industry and I'm not even a top IT dog that's paid a huge hourly rate...

Some of the items on the 'list' didn't read like warnings for future RPG writers, but griping against (former) customers. I get venting a bit of frustration, that often helps, in the short run. But let me be blunt, are those 'realizations' not a bit late after 20-30 years in the industry at age 50? Let me be even more blunt, how many of the RPG writers would be able to cut it in a different industry? Would there be a place for them as a writer in another industry? Can they do anything else? Because people keep comparing what folks make between RPG writers and really good paying jobs (a few of us that got lucky), Not between RPG writers and really bad paying jobs like burger flipper, etc.

Imho the RPG industry has been making their own next generation writers by design, making your own adventures, worlds, etc. Makes the next generation of writers, that resultsin a slew of young fools that are willing to work for virtually nothing. That was true in the age of Dragon/Dungeon magazine, but with time it became even easier. For every RPG writer that stops 10 others are willing to work for less, just for the chance to get published. Many even pay others to publish themselves (vanitypress). The issue isn't that the books are too cheap, it's that they don't sell enough because the market isn't big enough and far to fragmented. Writers/publisher are part of the problem, want to fix this? Stop writing/publishing and competing with others in the same space. But that doesn't work, for every writer/publisher that stops, 10 start... Products aren't valued at what they cost to make, but at what the market will bear, if the price it sells for is less then it costs to make, no sane company would produce it. But in the RPG industry they just pay less and still find tons of fools to work for peanuts... Pay peanuts, get monkeys!

Fan culture is more toxic than the cultures you encounter in most other professions. There are exceptions, politics and education being the most obvious. (The most credible death threat I ever received was connected to a university teaching gig, not my work in publishing.) But lots of people will go their whole careers without receiving death threats or threats of abuse connected to their work. Those things are common for people working n the arts.

Jim Lowder
On top of that I can't think of any RPG company which hasn't tried to sweep issues of abuse and harassment under the rug.

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
This issue/situation has come up regularly on the forums here at ENworld over the last 20 years. But I'm curious, you never peeked at the rates TSR was willing to pay for your freelance work for Dungeon/Dragon? Translating that to a hourly wage and then realizing that TSR was the big kid on the block in RPG land?
So, the answer is, if you really are passionate about doing something, and it doesn't pay enough, you should go be an accountant or something lucrative that doesn't particularly speak to you instead? (Apologies to every accountant passionate about their job.)

His opinion isn't invalid because he made a different calculation than you did.


The Laughing One
But that goes against the current method of economy we've chosen, so, at the end of the day, there's no way to really change it.
That's because even as an artist => creative person your not as creative when it comes to other things or willing to learn other things. That costs, in this case money. This is not only true for your industry, but true for just about every industry. Workers that work for minimum wage, while management reaps the benefits by doing 'nothing'. The last 20 years have given writers/artists oodles of opportunities, the OGL/D20, pdf publishing, shared knowledge on these forums, crowdfunding, online collaboration, etc. And some people have done it by cutting out the middleman (publisher) and publishing themselves. Many have tried, many have failed, but most have never tried at all... Artists have for decades formed their own communities, this can easily be done online, virtually. Finding like minded individuals has never been so easy! But again, that is often out of the comfort zone of most people, so they keep slogging along at their 'old' job and complain. ;-)

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