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.


  • 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.
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Von Ether

It's worse than journalism or academic publishing which have internal quality control (like peer review) or writing standards (like the Chicago Manual) in place; or require writers to get certified, join a professional association, or what have you. Still a far cry from how lawyers and doctors get certified, etc., but it's there. Not so in RPGs.

There's GAMA, but it's a bit broad and includes all games and even retail.

SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association) has also tried to be more welcoming to game writers but it seems heavily slanted towards video games by dint of:
1. Minimum qualifying pay is $3k, which most TTRPG writers have told me that if they can repeatedly earn that much in a year, they're networked in enough to not need a professional organization
2. The last two years of Neb nominations only had one TTRPG selected.

And there's a unspoken hierarchy. So much so that a media tie-in fiction organization has popped up as competition.

But an organization could help on the retirement and benefits front.

As a side note, more and more TTRPG companies are following WotCs lead and are adopting the Chicago manual. Which kills me an old AP guy like me.
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In short, the industry's lack of internal and external regulation is hurting the very people who want to make a living in it.

No. What you are describing are market forces, competitive mechanisms to make the best survive. The surplus and low barrier to entry are a feature, not a bug. Changing it, would not necessarily make for better games, and would for the creatives, saw off the branch they sit on, because how did they get in? Things like the d20 glut are just how the system works, either work with the system or find something else? Innovate, even in the worst of situations there is opportunity. You are also going to hear more from the unsatisfied than satisfied, that is also how things work. "What place does bad art have in a free society?" Is the age old question.

I am for ubi, uhc, and programs to make society less cut throat; they are the right thing to do to lessen people's suffering, as well as pennywise and pound foolish not to do, except that is another discussion.


This is obviously and unarguably true. Especially because you wrote, "Designing RPGs" and not "Designing RPGs that sell well" or "Designig RPGs that win awards like the Ennies." You didn't, and yet that's the goal posts people moved to, to more easily dismiss your post.

The other point you made is "requires." You didn't say "RPG designers don't have skills" or "Published designers don't have skills." Yet that's the opinion you got attacked for.

I actually had no intention of returning to this thread (or this board, really), but I do feel the need to do so in order to say thank you. All too often "logic" on the Internet amounts to dog-piling; it's nice to see the occasional exception. (y)

I actually had no intention of returning to this thread (or this board, really), but I do feel the need to do so in order to say thank you. All too often "logic" on the Internet amounts to dog-piling; it's nice to see the occasional exception. (y)

To say what has been said very often, the internet lacks the context clues of either face to face or (even) voice communication. People will "define" (or interpret) what you say through their own lenses / bias. All you can do is offer further explanation and have patience. It's happened to many of us. This would all be easier if we were sitting around talking it out. But, this is what we have, and I would argue it's (considerably) better than nothing. So, hang in there. Or here. And relax.

Huh? No skills?!?!

That is a pretty absurd claim. Game design requires writing and design skills, which can be performed poorly or well. If the job required no skills, then there would be no quality difference between products.

There are actually a few programs on game design at various universities, although they don't focus on tabletop RPGs specifically. At nearly 50 years in, the hobby itself is still relatively "new" and there aren't standard qualifications to get a job at one of the few companies that hire designers full time.

But the idea that game design is essentially unskilled labor that any bloke off the street could do equally well . . .
The writing and design skills are fairly common. They're common enough that most gaming groups have someone in them that possesses the skills to at least a mediocre level.

I've seen SO many homebrew game systems that were at least as good as mediocre professionally published games, and I've seen plenty of homebrew game worlds and game settings that were at least comparable to the bulk of (not the best, but as good or better than at least some products on the shelves).

One big reason that tabletop gaming as a hobby has SO many people wanting to get into it as a business is because, quite bluntly, most gaming groups have at least one person in them that can cobble together a playable, passable setting, and people who can make a workable (if not exceptional) new game system aren't horribly rare either.

The best stuff out there is better than homebrew, but there's been a lot of junk on the shelves over the years that would definitely be of the same quality as decent homebrew (assuming it had a decent editors and production staff to polish it up).

Are there skills needed? Yes. Not horribly rare one though.


Luck counts more than skill, why the rich rule.

edit: There is some skill, that might not be immediately thought of, such as the skill in taking 50k of one's own money, writing a 80 page business plan, and getting 450k in grants and loans, then paying someone else to write out their ideas. They will go much farther at making a successful game rather than someone writing and starting from zero, or with limited resources; so luck is important there too.
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Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
RPGs are a "free for all." There's a reason we talk about the d20 glut. And that was 2001! Talk about 2020. With self-publishing PDFs, the RPG "industry" has become a quagmire as rudderless and unmoderated as Facebook. Ironically, this means we have greater diversity of content, but it's also completely out of control. My favorite recent work is Gene Weigel's self-published book on Amazon which you can buy for $40. Go ahead, click on Preview, and you'll see that the author is illiterate of even the most basic Word formatting functions. Even using bold font is too much. That's cool. It's still a better dungeon than a lot of other stuff people put up for sale.

I just went and pulled that one up... it actually doesn't look too bad, it just looks like he was purposefully trying to make the adventure look "OSR", like a D&D module from 40 years ago. The font, the formatting, everything screams that, and from what I saw flipping through the preview it's not too badly formatted once that's taken into account.

Have we moved beyond that, though? Well, yes. If you want to see the pinnacle of current quality, don't even look at WotC or Paizo - look at Monte Cook Games. Everything he publishes these days is a work of art. I'd leave them sitting on the coffeetable if I didn't think my five year old son might inadvertently rip them apart!

(And Broken Castle... looks like fun. I'd probably buy a copy if it was available in PDF; I generally don't buy modules in print as I run them from my laptop.)

None of that is a knock against authors like Owen. Quality in this hobby obviously does exist, but it fights an uphill battle against every last person who thinks they can publish their home brew and charge money out there.

This is where gatekeepers are helpful - one reason many people won't touch "third party content" is because they see being published by WotC or Paizo as being a clear mark that they're getting a quality product. There are smaller press that do just as good (or better) work - see Monte Cook or Kobold (all ex-WotC people, of course!), but it's an understandable prejudice.


Not to detract from Owen's statements, but this is true for any career in the arts. It's incredibly difficult to make enough money to live comfortably and responsibly prepare for retirement. On one hand, why should we consider artistic pursuits as full-time work rather than part-time interests? On the other, the products of artistic expression can generate a lot of money, which often gets claimed by those other than the artists themselves. Our society values art, but undervalues and takes advantage of artists. And yes, game design is art. Fight me.

This seems true. Creative industries are harsh. I wonder how many artists enter the field with different expectations?


Thank you @Morrus! Some great wisdom from Owen here. I've been a fan of his work since Green Ronin's Mythic Vistas line and WotC's Star Wars SAGA Edition.

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.

I'm unfamiliar with how distribution to retailers works. Can anyone explain what he means – or might mean – by "a hole in a distribution tier"?

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