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...

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

starfinder.jpg

  • 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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(NB: This is not an attack on people in the RPG "industry". This is not saying that working in RPGs is not a real job. This is simply saying that there is no logical reason, if you have legitimate skills that can translate into higher pay and better conditions, that you don't leave this "industry" for something more rewarding. After all, freelancing is still possible even if you have a job with a real income.)

The point of this particular hashtag is to inform people just getting started.
As for why i am still here? Among other things, I think there is still hope things can improve.
And one of the things needed for that improvement is a clear and open conversation about some of the problems.
 

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Oh My God Save Us From This Bigotry Disguised As Politically Correctness.

EDIT:

Oh My God Save Me From What I Humbly Consider An Hardly Credible As Sincere Expression Of Politically Correctness

Or, in other words, to show women skin is not to sexualize women. Sexualization depends upon what kind of connotation you give to the subject. Maybe is a matter of culture. In Italy we are sourrounded by art and many of this artistic expressions involves women body.
Would you say that this is "sexualized woman"?
View attachment 122677

I stop here 'cause I'm going off topic. I know. But I was very impressed by the "No skin should be exposed except on the face." statement.

You'll note I never said showing skin on a woman was sexualizing.
I said to to prevent artists from sending me art that DID sexualize woman, I had to tell them to show no skin.
Telling them not to sexualize the women, or to make them serious, or fierce, or realistic, never prevented the art I got from being sexualized.
To do that, to stop boob windows in full plate and fishnet on feudal noblewomen and stiletto heels on commoner women, and poses that catered purely to the cheesecake-at-best, I had to go so far as to say NO SKIN.
Nothing else got the message across.
But thanks for putting words in my mouth.
 

I do see that most of the top 10 rpg Patreon’s are producing maps, tokens and other resources. and that writers don’t feature highly - with yours as a noticeable exception.

However to look at even Owen KC Stephens page as an example it has two short videos a minute or two long and a short pdf.

My Patreon backs the writing of my blog articles, as the description notes. That's five posts a week. And higher backers get a collected pdf of all my monthly free content (blog posts, facebook posts, twitter, and so on, which runs between 10-25,000 words each month.

I'm quite satisfied with how my Patreon is growing.
 


The vast majority of people who work in RPGs (or fiction or comics), as side gigs or as careers, are well aware that they could make much better money elsewhere. At one time or another, they probably have, when the freelance creative work was slow or they were between company jobs. (As I mentioned on one of Owen's Facebook threads, a few years back I did some website writing for a big local law firm; they paid me more to watch a few hours of training videos than I have made on months-long RPG projects for big game companies.) As others have suggested, the reason people stay is that they value the creative work. They also value the best parts of the community, which can be amazing, and that's both the design/publishing community and the player/hobbyist community. Most of us are also aware of how fortunate we are to do the work we do.

Pointing out the harsher realities of the gig is not complaining so much as sharing the reality.

It's important for people in the design community to hear that others have the same or similar experiences. Many people who work in the hobby are isolated a lot of the time. Even in companies such as Green Ronin and Chaosium, staff are scattered around the U.S. or the world. Knowing that others in the TTRPG community go through some of the same trials helps diminish that isolation.

It's important for people considering creative work of any kind to realize that it's more glamorous from the outside. I wish this kind of resource had existed when I was starting out, because it would have helped me avoid some mistakes that cost me years of my professional life and brought me quite close to leaving the industry.

It's important for the player and hobbyist communities to hear these observations because they might help you keep some things about the products you buy and the people who put them together in perspective. 'Nuff said there, I think.

There are more perspectives, of course, and I hope those will be shared, too, but women or people of color who speak up the way Owen is here face very different pushback than just someone casting their comments as whinging about money when they could just quit and make more in a different profession.

Cheers,
Jim Lowder
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
And... we are supposed to accept the consequences quietly when they are unfair? Is that your point? (snip)

That's a positively Umbranesque conclusion that has nothing to do with what I wrote.

Price is a function of supply and demand. Demand for RPG writers is lower than the supply so the price has fallen. That's not unfair: That's a natural consequence of market forces. Until those market forces change, you cannot change the results.

RPGs are around USD50 million at a wholesale level based on anecdotal numbers (and that is all we have). That's tiny. That's not a number that can support a lot of properly-paid people when all the other costs are taken into account. Until that number changes by an order of magnitude, the money simply isn't there. It has nothing to do with fairness: The money is either there or it isn't.

Except, of course, for people like Monte Cook et al who have worked out a different and more successful model for their sections of the market.

(snip) Are you of the opinion that most folks even have the ability to really know the consequences when they make decisions on professional direction? As if we all have ready access to people who will lay it all out for us? Because... that isn't a thing. Most of us don't have a lot of information when we make a professional choice - we learn as we go. (snip)
Why not?

In this day and age, information is available about almost everything. Even when I finished high school in 1985, I had access to the average salaries of graduates for the degrees I was interested in undertaking and made my choices accordingly - before the internet made that data even more accessible.

We do learn as we go - self-evidently - and especially as technological advances remove some jobs and create others. And this happens in almost every industry.

Anyway, we're not talking about neophytes trying to get into this tiny "industry". The low pay and poor conditions have been known about RPGs for decades, ever since the OGL spambot years created a massive surplus of writers thus driving down the price they could command. I recall one of Paizo's new hires a few years ago admitting publicly that his salary was a third of what it had been when he had a job outside of RPGs - and that was a guy in his 20s.

[quote[] (snip) You are abusing the term "logic".

Money is a human construct, not a natural law. How people get paid is a human decision, not some aspect of physics. Thus, the flow of money to game designers and teachers and everyone else is driven not by "logic" but by human decisions, which are not all that logic-driven most of the time.

No, I am showing you that there is an underlying logic which you have missed. Money is a human construct. Indeed. But it follows, to borrow your phrase, its own natural law. Supply and demand combine to produce price. Of course, price can also affect supply and demand. (By the way, I wish you would stop referring to teachers - your country may be alone in its failure to pay them properly.) The "human decisions" you refer to are, indeed, driven by economic logic. Your inability to see that logic doesn't mean it is not there.

And that logic is inexorable when it comes to consequences: If you choose a "career" in this "industry", understand you will never be financially comfortable from the income you earn. And no amount of well-meaning commentary on sites such as this will change this, no matter how many people bleat about "fairness", while this "industry" generates such tiny numbers at the wholesale level.
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
The point of this particular hashtag is to inform people just getting started.
As for why i am still here? Among other things, I think there is still hope things can improve.
And one of the things needed for that improvement is a clear and open conversation about some of the problems.
I'm glad you are doing it.

Others have over the years but maybe your more blunt outline of the consequences of choosing to work in game design will help more people realise that this is not a wise career choice.

As for things improving, until sales multiply at the wholesale level, there simply isn't enough money to pay people well - especially when people are prepared to work cheaply simply because they want to work in game design.
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
As someone who has done "work for hire" for an RPG company in the past, it still hasn't stopped me from wanting to design and write. However, it's not my main job. It's a hobby, like a guy who plays dive bars for free beer (which I've also done). I don't envy those who try to do it professionally and make a living from it. (snip)

Well said.

That's the wisest response to the reality of the game design market.

(snip) Honestly, I'd be fine going in the opposite direction. While I can appreciate high production values, I don't need them. Cut the full color art. Cut the glossy pages and incredibly padded word count. You're not trying to appeal to casual buyers on the shelf of a Waldenbooks or Sears anymore.

Personally, I would be happy to a return to the 2E era of B&W interiors with pencil art by Arnie Swekel and Glen Angus. I like, for example, the current use of B&W maps by Dyson Logos in the WotC products. They're so easy to reproduce at the table as a DM and, obviously, they're so much cheaper than the colour maps of so many other cartographers (that said, I love Mike Schley's colour work).

Of course, I am very likely in a small minority in terms of what I would like to see.
 

TheSword

Legend
I’ll admit now I am confused after reading Owen’s responses.

If these facts (and based on the experience I don’t think anyone disputes they are facts) were laid out to let consumers know that writers are having a tough time and to cut them some slack and start being more supportive then that makes a lot of sense. It may be the eye opener we need.

However if these are supposed to be words of wisdom from an experienced writer to budding new blood then the unrelentingly bleak outlook with zero constructive suggestions is fairly depressing. I would have thought this would have been an excellent opportunity to make some suggestions on how to get through it or improve rather than just try to put people off.

Don’t get me wrong we want people to go into a career with their eyes open, but if this is the approach to bringing new talent into the industry then how on earth is it supposed to grow, develop and improve. I would put money on the fact that the sexist attitudes aren’t coming from the new generation of writers we need to come through the ranks.

Let’s have a bit more optimism.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
However if these are supposed to be words of wisdom from an experienced writer to budding new blood then the unrelentingly bleak outlook with zero constructive suggestions is fairly depressing. I would have thought this would have been an excellent opportunity to make some suggestions on how to get through it or improve rather than just try to put people off.

Don’t get me wrong we want people to go into a career with their eyes open, but if this is the approach to bringing new talent into the industry then how on earth is it supposed to grow, develop and improve. I would put money on the fact that the sexist attitudes aren’t coming from the new generation of writers we need to come through the ranks.
The intent came across to me more like your second comment, i.e. it is not aimed at discouraging new writers. Only forewarning them of some of the negatives so that they are more capable of navigating their profession, with some idea of the costs.

One could equally read many of his comments as critiques of capitalism in its relationship with culture.
 

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