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Owen Stephens Continues 'Real Game Industry' Posts

I've been collecting together the Real Game Industry posts that game designer Owen KC Stephens has been posting on social media. You can see Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

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  • Full-time writing, developing, or producing in the TTRPG field means regularly having to create great, creative ideas, that fit specific pre-determined parameters, on command, whether you feel like it or not. This can be awesome and fulfilling... or awful.
  • The board of GAMA, the Game Manufacturers Association, (the big non-profit trade organization for the hobby games industry) are unpaid volunteers with what time they can spare from trying to survive the harsh industry itself.
  • Most TTrpg professionals get a lot more hate mail than praise or notes that their work is appreciated. BUT Those few notes hold a LOT more weight, per-word, than the ranting and whining. One person letting me they enjoyed a thing gets through 2-3 weeks of bile.
  • No one, not any analyst, not any company, knows how many total copies of ttRPGs are actually selling in a given week, month, or year. Some big companies don't know the numbers for their OWN ttRPGs. Popular "rankings" are a compilation of unverified impressions.
  • Even when I just had a couple of Dragon credits and no one knew me; at game pro gatherings I was NEVER asked if my girlfriend got me into gaming. Or if I was just there with a date. Which has repeatedly happened to women colleagues with decades of experience.
  • When ttRPG professionals get to play RPGs together entirely for fun, the level of Ghostbusters and LotR quotes, bad puns, digressions to discuss recent movies and look at pet pictures, and fart jokes... is EXACTLY the same as when it's just fans playing. :D
  • When a ttRPG professional makes a statement that is unpopular with a segment of fans there is always a group who, with no evidence, begin discussions to claim A: The pro is incompetent, B: the pro is lying to gain attention or sympathy, or C: all of the above.
  • It is not unusual for ttRPG professional who like each other, and enjoy hanging out together, and live no more than 20 miles apart, to only see each other 1-2 times a year and only at after-hours gatherings during major conventions.
  • The most common retirement plan among full-time ttRPG professionals, freelance and on-staff both, is "Work until you die."
  • People who constantly struggle to have enough money to cover basic needs, with no job security, while being bombarded with community demands to do more, be better, and make games just for love and not money... are generally too stressed to make their best games.
  • In ttRPG industry, you will find both employees who think the very games that cover their paycheck are "dumb," and CEOs who will move a meeting out of the executive boardroom so you can play a game there. But I've met many more of the latter than the former.
  • Amazon sometimes sells ttRPG items cheaper than retailers can get from distributors. No one admits to selling them to Amazon at this price. Either Amazon is taking a loss (perfectly possible), or there's a hole in a distribution tier. This pisses off retailers.
  • When a ttRPG pro makes a change or comment regarding the real-world impact of game themes or ideas, people come out of the woodwork to strongly present their view (in the real world) that real-world concerns (presumably like theirs) should not impact the game.
  • Some ttRPG storylines, setting, themes, & even rules concepts are so tainted by racism, bigotry, and sexism that they cannot be redeemed. Even revised versions serve as a dogwhistle to toxic fans. There's no broad agreement about for which concepts this is true.
  • Much less professional material from the big and well-known ttRPG companies is playtested than you thought, and playtesting takes more time and effort than you thought. Much more material from tiny 3pp- and Indy ttRPG companies is playtested than you thought.
  • One advantage of being an established ttRPG freelancer is you can get as much work as you want. Of course most of it doesn't pay enough, so you now have the option of working 60-70-80 hour weeks to make ends meet. But unlike some folks, you DO have that option.
  • You don't HAVE to have a spouse with good benefits and insurance to be a full-time freelancer in the ttRPG industry. But it's the most common answer on how to survive doing so.
  • If you write work-for-hire on a ttRPG in the US, you can expected your work to be edited. Usually with no consultation or warning. You'll find out when the book is published. That's normal. For everyone.
  • The more mainstream a ttRPG is, the more competition there is for jobs to design for it. For staff jobs, you're often one of several hundred applicants. Sometimes one of thousands. Of course, this also means you seem easily replaceable, even if it's not true.
  • While doing contract work for a ttRPG company occasionally leads to a staff position, this is very much the exception rather than the norm. Especially if you don't already have many years of experience. It's normally a stepping stone, not a quick route in.
 
Last edited:
Russ Morrissey

Comments

GrahamWills

Adventurer
The thing is, IMEO, RPG workers are at a much more difficult situation than those in the arts. Most of us will not (and should not) sing, draw, or act. We purchase to fill our needs in that realm.
As an editor and a director of musicals, I disagree. A choir consisting of, say, the top 10% of all amateurs can produce a compelling and highly enjoyable work. A book or other form of writing written by a top 10% amateur will be pretty bad. Even the top 1% will only be just passable. For solo singing, about 1 in 100 people can produce songs that move me. If I look at self-published books, i have yet to find a single one that is more than passable.

These days, with much greater financial assets and the east of Net purchasing, I'm more inclined towards making tweaks to existing products simply as a convenience. I want products that are high quality, readily available, and cheap. Otherwise, I'll just do it myself.
it is absolutely easy to consume cheap music, cheap art, cheap books, cheap RPGs — whatever — nowadays. Everything is readily available. I really see no difference between RPGs and other art forms here. In terms of quality, when I read books like the 13th Age Bestiary, and Apocalypse World and compare them to the average self-published work, it’s abundantly clear that quality comes at a price. Just like the other arts. Actually, more so, as the free music available on the internet is more than just passable.

It does not help that unlike the other arts, RPGs stay in use; you can purchase (or even get for free, legally) older settings and scenarios. So modern day RPG workers are still competing with writers who are are retired, dead, or just smell that way.
This again seems wrong. I play music I bought 30 years ago; I look at art that hangs in my walls that I bought at Gen Con in Milwaukee; I read books my family bought 50 years ago; I watch a DVD of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that was produced 20 years ago. Much of other art is out of copyright, especially books. All RPG material (except perhaps Little Wars) is in copyright. If anything RPGs have it easier
 

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Jd Smith1

Adventurer
As an editor and a director of musicals, I disagree. A choir consisting of, say, the top 10% of all amateurs can produce a compelling and highly enjoyable work. A book or other form of writing written by a top 10% amateur will be pretty bad. Even the top 1% will only be just passable. For solo singing, about 1 in 100 people can produce songs that move me. If I look at self-published books, i have yet to find a single one that is more than passable.
Millions (literally) of Amazon sales alone prove you wrong on that point.

This again seems wrong. I play music I bought 30 years ago; I look at art that hangs in my walls that I bought at Gen Con in Milwaukee; I read books my family bought 50 years ago; I watch a DVD of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that was produced 20 years ago. Much of other art is out of copyright, especially books. All RPG material (except perhaps Little Wars) is in copyright. If anything RPGs have it easier
I didn't say in copyright, I said legally free. There are masses of quality RPG material legally available for free.

And as the 'file-sharing' phenomenon has established, legal ownership is no barrier on the Net. (Not approving or supporting, just stating a fact).
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
Millions (literally) of Amazon sales alone prove you wrong on that point.
I didn't say in copyright, I said legally free. There are masses of quality RPG material legally available for free.
Millions of people, buying something means it must be high quality? I think you’re on your own with that argument, dude.

Your argument was that RPGs have it easier. My statement is that there is more free material for other arts. my evidence was copyright, which you concede is correct. If you want to argue that there are more legally free RPG products than, say, free songs, go ahead and make that case. You are wrong, but I’m happy to talk evidence with you.

I’m ignoring and deleting your final comment as you have shown no evidence that it applies more to RPGs than to, say, music or film. But I do not want to legitimize criminal behavior by discussing it.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
Millions of people, buying something means it must be high quality? I think you’re on your own with that argument, dude.
Well, 'dude', since selling is the metric involved in this discussion, it certainly applies, fer sher. Tubular.

Your argument was that RPGs have it easier. My statement is that there is more free material for other arts. my evidence was copyright, which you concede is correct.
I didn't concede anything. You seem to have difficulty separating your opinions with what is actually written. Time to place you on mute.
 


Jd Smith1

Adventurer
RPG's are definitely newer, right now I am reading The Good Soldier Schweik published almost a 100 years ago, and in my car I was listening to Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers; both older than the Classic Traveller game I am running.
Excellent book. If you can find Stefan Zweig's Buchmendel from the same period, it will likewise entertain.
 



Windjammer

Adventurer
Roth's Radetzky March is also a great book from the period, and area of Europe. Though my Great Grandfather was a Czech-Austrian dragoon in that war, so it is a little more relevant to me.
That's the exact book I'm re-reading these days. Wonderful coincidence to see it mentioned in this thread. Btw there's an excellent movie trilogy of if with Max von Sydow, strongly recommended.

Also, if you're interested in the period RPG-wise, I know of two supplements that deal with it. One is Pelgrane Press's Dulce et Decorum Est, the other is Pegasus Spiele's Niemandsland (only available in German though).
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
You seem to have difficulty separating your opinions with what is actually written. Time to place you on mute.
Yes, that does seem to be your best plan; you have no respose to my points except to make ad hominem attacks, no evidence to propose and apparently are completely unwilling to consider changing your mind. I'm sorry you are unwilling to engage in debate and resort to being rude, but hey, it's the internet.

I will iterate my point, just in case you do actually want to re-engage. Your statement "RPG workers are at a much more difficult situation than those in the arts" is wrong. I and others in this thread have experience of the arts and it's abundantly clear that the challenges you cite ("most of us should not [create]", ease of production of quality work, "unlike the other arts, RPGs stay in use") are actually more a problem for other art forms than for RPG.

The last point, in particular, is not even vaguely plausible. Your inability even to admit that one point makes it pretty clear you just want to win arguments at all costs and don't have a desire to learn or help others learn. So, I guess, thank you for bowing out!
 

Windjammer

Adventurer
That's interesting, I had not realized that legally free RPG content, like the d20 SRD, and now similar SRD's for Pathfinder, Swords & Wizardry, or what have you, have made it harder for RPG designers to charge good money. Makes sense though. Anyone writing a new RPG, and charging money for it, competes against an industry leader whose product is available, as a functional whole, in its entirety and free of charge. If you want to pay $ for that content, you do it for the artwork and layout, or because you're a bibliophile (like I am).

How much of this is true for the music or film industry today? Sure, we've moved away from a world that tried to shut down the sharing economy entirely (Napster) to one that facilitates low-cost micro-transactions (iTunes). But where's the analogue to an outright SRD where you obtain the one product you ever need, free of charge, and can forego all future purchases in that market sector entirely?
 

That's interesting, I had not realized that legally free RPG content, like the d20 SRD, and now similar SRD's for Pathfinder, Swords & Wizardry, or what have you, have made it harder for RPG designers to charge good money. Makes sense though. Anyone writing a new RPG, and charging money for it, competes against an industry leader whose product is available, as a functional whole, in its entirety and free of charge. If you want to pay $ for that content, you do it for the artwork and layout, or because you're a bibliophile (like I am).

How much of this is true for the music or film industry today? Sure, we've moved away from a world that tried to shut down the sharing economy entirely (Napster) to one that facilitates low-cost micro-transactions (iTunes). But where's the analogue to an outright SRD where you obtain the one product you ever need, free of charge, and can forego all future purchases in that market sector entirely?
You have the free Basic rules and the SRD for 5E D&D also. Probably why we see a lot more OGL settings for 5E than actual rules plus setting using the OGL. The companies/writers probably figure it is easier to sell something that adds to the free stuff, rather than replacing it. Unless you get the rare hit like with Adventures in Middle-Earth or Esper Genesis.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
You have the free Basic rules and the SRD for 5E D&D also. Probably why we see a lot more OGL settings for 5E than actual rules plus setting using the OGL. The companies/writers probably figure it is easier to sell something that adds to the free stuff, rather than replacing it. Unless you get the rare hit like with Adventures in Middle-Earth or Esper Genesis.
Don't forget all the free conversions of 5e for modern, Star Wars, and other settings available.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
How much of this is true for the music or film industry today? Sure, we've moved away from a world that tried to shut down the sharing economy entirely (Napster) to one that facilitates low-cost micro-transactions (iTunes). But where's the analogue to an outright SRD where you obtain the one product you ever need, free of charge, and can forego all future purchases in that market sector entirely?
Well, that presumes you are a “one system“ fan, and it also assumes you don’t want adventures, expansions, art, modules, character options, etc. So that’s totally not me.

But if you are looking for a one stop, all-free, all the music you want across multiple genres, there are a fair number of options. I use Free Music Archive myself. I directed a play last year and had a very specific need for a dance song that mentioned time and preferably loss, and was able to find it there with a pretty short search. (Dangerous Corner was the play)

When I search for ”time” in the site, I get 1600 songs returned. Browsing there can be an all-day event ...
 

Windjammer

Adventurer
Well, that presumes you are a “one system“ fan, and it also assumes you don’t want adventures, expansions, art, modules, character options, etc. So that’s totally not me.
Me neither. In fact, buy rulebooks just for the art and improved lay-out - not to mention modules, like you do, because I want to see what other people do with the same rules. I know plenty of people who home-brew though and they don't. Others are happy to hop from one system to another and only use the preview PDFs for each of those systems, SRD or not. I tried that last year with 7th Sea 2e and it worked wonderfully (2 large core rulebook PDF excerpts, 80 pages each, plus tons of free mods) without paying a single $ except for the d10s. I wish this was the world we lived in back in the '90s when most new RPG stuff was unaffordable on a teenage budget. On that note, do we know if freelancers were better paid in the RPG industry back then?
Thank you! Great site. Just started browsing the Classics selection.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen

Same period, well-written, and truly immersed in the grand confusion that was the AHE.
Thanks, I'll keep an eye out for them. I picked up Schweik as I was in a Czech history group and someone mentioned that no Czech reads it anymore. I had read the original in Czech 30+ years ago, and this is my first time reading it in English, I can tell it is probably a translation of the German version, because some passages only work in a German and English manner.

Coming from a military family, I used to design wargames 20 years ago, one a Czech company made into a browser game recently, I did try to model realism. I have been giving away my military history books, I just gave away Lost Victories and Panzer Leader to a German friend who is reading his uncle's war diary, and who wanted to know background of the war.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
That's the exact book I'm re-reading these days. Wonderful coincidence to see it mentioned in this thread. Btw there's an excellent movie trilogy of if with Max von Sydow, strongly recommended.

Also, if you're interested in the period RPG-wise, I know of two supplements that deal with it. One is Pelgrane Press's Dulce et Decorum Est, the other is Pegasus Spiele's Niemandsland (only available in German though).
Owen's poem is a great name for a supplement, Sassoon was another great poet:

Suicide in the Trenches

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

S. Sassoon

Roth's whole trilogy is great, and it is difficult not to get totally fascinated by Fin-de-siecle Austrian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf said it best: "The Empire still stands, a mighty ruin, waiting for the next great storm to wash it away." Gustav Klimnt I think is still one of my favorite artists of all time.

I don't much go for mixing war games and rpg's though, like recently the players in my game were spanked by a light mortar and tactics from Napoleon at Ulm.

That said, the last CoC adventure I ran involved Mad Baron Ungern, poison whisky, and zombies in Mongolia; was a hit with the players.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
Thanks, I'll keep an eye out for them. I picked up Schweik as I was in a Czech history group and someone mentioned that no Czech reads it anymore. I had read the original in Czech 30+ years ago, and this is my first time reading it in English, I can tell it is probably a translation of the German version, because some passages only work in a German and English manner.

Coming from a military family, I used to design wargames 20 years ago, one a Czech company made into a browser game recently, I did try to model realism. I have been giving away my military history books, I just gave away Lost Victories and Panzer Leader to a German friend who is reading his uncle's war diary, and who wanted to know background of the war.
Those are excellent books. For a ground-level view, I would recommend Blood Red Snow by Gunter Koschorrek.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Those are excellent books. For a ground-level view, I would recommend Blood Red Snow by Gunter Koschorrek.
My dad fought in the war, was a tanker, wounded too. I have talked to a lot of people on each side. I think it was funny with making accurate war games, people from the west would say it is too hard to win as the Germans, and some of the games I had a lot of help from Czech, Polish, and Russian historians, where the west gets only the view from the Germans. Plus I have walked many of the battlefields, the best story was at Mamayev Kurgan overlooking Volgograd/Stalingrad, a groundskeeper who had fought there, said when they were digging for the monument, they found a Russian soldier who had broken the neck of a German soldier who had simultaneously stabbed the Russian in the heart.
 

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