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Revolutions are Always Verbose: Effecting Change in the TTRPG Industry

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Q. How do you make a small fortune in the TTRPG industry?

A. Start with a large fortune!


Hi Everybody!
(Hi, Dr. Nick!)

After my long sabbatical (it was real, and it was spectacular), I came back to find TSR resurrected and (mostly) killed off since I was gone. Woah! But a few recent comments had me thinking about a more fundamental topic in the TTRPG (hereafter, shortened to RPG) industry. Specifically, I was thinking about two recent conversations, one in which someone was defending the honor of Hasbro, and another involving the financial issues of an industry giant. It reminded me of issues I had with an earlier series of posts-
Selling Out
Selling Out for Dummies, the First Post Explained

One commenter on those threads said that, fundamentally, people who were ever concerned about "selling out" just don't get it because blah blah blah wealth inequality yada yada yada people have it hard now. Which I didn't really address, because that wasn't what I was writing about then. But that is a topic I think about quite a bit when it comes to the RPG industry in particular, and I think it's particularly relevant in light of the whole TSR-cubed fiasco.


1. Sometime I feel like I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me, and now it's all gone.

One thing that has been truly heartening, recently, is seeing the ways in which companies in general, and the RPG industry specifically, has become more inclusive. That said, I don't find this to be a profile in courage, exactly. Companies do not exist to make the world a better place in general. They are lagging indicators. If a company was acknowledging LGBTQ+ rights in the 70s, that was daring (I mean, we didn't even have an acronym back then). If they are doing it in 2021, it should be expected. I'm not saying that anything is won, or over, but that's pretty much a minimal standard.

When companies in the RPG sphere (such as TSR-cubed) receive backlash for comments that demean our fellow gamers, they rightfully deserve that. Our actions and words- whether it's our decisions to speak up, or our decisions with our wallets as to what products to buy, should have a salutary effect on the RPG industry and promote good games. But then I think to myself- why aren't we doing more to address the fundamental issues with the RPG industry. And that's the reason for this post; a discussion of industry practices. A discussion of why people aren't focused on the economic issues in the industry.

But before going into that, I wanted to make sure I address one thing - this is not a thread about the "hypocrisy argument." The perfect is the enemy of the good. Just because you support one good thing (inclusive gaming, for example) doesn't mean that you are a hypocrite if there is some other important thing out there. If you support an animal shelter, or clean water initiatives, or a local art museum, it just means that you happen to support that, not that you're a bad person for not devoting your time and money to X MOAR IMPORTANT THING.


2. The universe is a cruel, uncaring void, The key to being happy isn't a search for meaning. It's to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you'll be dead.

It's somewhat necessary to talk about corporations (and work) in general before applying it to the RPG industry in America specifically. I will do my best to avoid anything political, and keep this to sketching out the thoughts before moving to RPGs. There are basically two separate thoughts going on in my head, which tend to war:

First is the idea that we all care, in the abstract, about how companies treat their employees. But in reality, we don't act upon that- but we will act upon consumer-facing issues. I call this the Amazon Paradox. Let me make this more explicit-

As a general rule, most people will say that they want companies to do the right thing- have employees (not independent contractors) that are paid well, treated well, with decent vacations and generous benefits and the ability to retire at some time. But given the choice, they'll just go on Amazon and pay the lowest price they see for a non-sketchy product.

Of course, another factor that can't be ignored is that it is fundamentally unfair to make all of this the consumer's fault. We have seen this emerging argument in a number of areas- that, in fact, companies are more than happy to make us blame ourselves for our consuming decisions at the micro-level, when effective change is best done through collective action (regulation at the macro level). How can we research the companies and supply chains of every product we buy? Why not just have better wages and benefits in general?

At the end of the day, it is exhausting to look at company's ethics reports (which can be easily greenwashed and are often misleading) and try to balance factors- Does Apple's policies on privacy make up for their questionable use of Chinese labor? Does In 'n Out's great employee compensation and policies somehow mitigate the ... strong beliefs of the owners? If I really want a bitchin' Camaro, how concerned do I have to be about the gas mileage? It's exhausting.


3. Not understanding that you’re a horrible person doesn’t make you less of a horrible person.

So this gets us to the core issue of the RPG industry. Now, to its credit, enworld has covered this problem multiple times- here's one good example:


TLDR; older designers need to crowdfund their healthcare. Being an RPG designer, as a profession, sucks. But it's not just the prevalence of the independent contractor relationship (and concomitant issues with health care coverage), it's also just the straight-up pay. It is not uncommon for places to advertise ... 1 cent per word. Unless you're me (and just write long diatribes for free), that's not enough. Even 3 cents/word is insanely low. I know that Morrus compiled a list way back (2015) with rates here:

Ugh. The scary thing is that if you look at the rates, and assume that back then you were working at the flagship of the hobby (WoTC), then you were making the equivalent of $120/day assuming 8 hours of work. $15 an hour. Bare minimum livable salary without benefits- and that's at Wizards/Hasbro.

This problem is repeated throughout the industry; you do not get rich in RPGs. Arguably, for many people, you don't get middle class.


4. Fool me once, shame on you. But teach a man to fool me and I’ll be fooled for the rest of my life.

I don't have particular suggestions or exhortations. But I do think it's important to keep in mind that a lot of people- some of whom produced the art, the text ... the games that you love, well, they aren't getting rich off of this. We live in the world that we create. If you don't shop at the FLGS because you want to save money by going to Amazon, don't be surprised when it's no longer in business. If you aren't willing to pay more for your product, don't be surprised when you find out the creators aren't doing that well.

And finally, it's important to hold the feet of the big players to the fire. Hasbro (home of fine Transformers products) shouldn't be paying the same rate per word as Mom & Pop's Home of Indie Games and Sarsaparilla. We should be expecting and demanding more. It's great that games are more inclusive! We need to keep that up. But we also should be ensuring that the people that are responsible for the games that we love don't have to crowdfund their healthcare.

IMO, etc.
 
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Professor Murder

Adventurer
Bare with me as I think of this a good deal and I am still working out how I feel about the concepts.
I try to avoid "smoke fighting." Going after easy targets that are symptoms of issues rather than contributors to said issue. Sometimes people say completely bone headed things, get called out, and instead of listening and retracting, they double down. They clarify that not only their words are bone headed, but their views are also lacking. The words are smoke. The views are fire. But this is not a universal view. Words can and do harm people. When they are in sufficient density. A soloist is only as loud as their individual voice, but a chorus is many voices acting as one. It can be satisfying to pile onto people who say bone headed things. It is tiresome to politely correct people with regressive takes and statements. I don't think there are easy answers and I don't think people who say cruel things "accidently" should get a pass. But I do lament the laziness of the eagerness to fight smoke and not put in the social and emotional labor to fight fire. I know this isn't easy, and sometimes we want the easy win of dunking on someone online. It feels good. The hard work of actual social justice is just that: Work. And work sucks. But it is more rewarding in the long run. So dunk away. But don't shirk the responsibility to build a better way.
 





dragoner

Dying in Chargen
There are many words that do, often multiple in any given language.

Most of them would turn this political, so I shan't list the ones coming to mind.
They can police the speech, but not the thoughts! Or can they ...

Nevertheless, imo the answer to the op seems to be a writers guild similar to Hollywood, or another sort of union. At the same time, it becomes a bottleneck, where only writers can only make it through established channels. I have been following J Michael Straczynski from Babylon 5 and other works, for a while, and he recently published Becoming A Writer, Staying A Writer and he has talked about the lack of independent writers in Hollywood.
 



MGibster

Legend
As a consumer, it's tough to keep track of everyone involved in creating a game. When 5th edition was released, there was a lot of online hate going around for one of the contributors. I had never heard this guy's name before, I wasn't sure exactly what he had done to piss so many people off, and I wasn't inclined to do a lot of research to figure out what the hubub was about. I haven't heard a peep about Ernie Gygax anywhere but here. If I had just gone away for a few weeks I likely never would have heard about TSR(3) or ThreeSR or whatever it's called.
 

They can police the speech, but not the thoughts! Or can they ...

Nevertheless, imo the answer to the op seems to be a writers guild similar to Hollywood, or another sort of union. At the same time, it becomes a bottleneck, where only writers can only make it through established channels. I have been following J Michael Straczynski from Babylon 5 and other works, for a while, and he recently published Becoming A Writer, Staying A Writer and he has talked about the lack of independent writers in Hollywood.
The issue is that one cannot limit the right to publish in the current market. TT RPG sales simply don't justify living wage based upon typical sales. Oh, and wizards is paying near local minimum wage. Seattle is currently $16 and change minimum.
 


MGibster

Legend
Fun fact- I managed to keep myself to one (1) Trotsky quote when I wrote this!
I mean, so long as we're taking digs at political/economic systems, the one Trotsky is famous for holds that all art is propaganda. Assuming you could even get the central planning committee to agree on an expenditure of labor to create a role playing game, you're going to have to make sure the game sends whatever message the state approves of.
 

I mean, so long as we're taking digs at political/economic systems, the one Trotsky is famous for holds that all art is propaganda.
Pretty much every economic system oppresses some for the benefit of others.
Assuming you could even get the central planning committee to agree on an expenditure of labor to create a role playing game, you're going to have to make sure the game sends whatever message the state approves of.
Oh, getting the game approved? No problem.
Not getting shot after the players get caught treating the "Bolshoi Irgi" as a nasty bit of sattire? Eto bolshoi problema! (Sorry, too lazy to actually put it in cyrillic today.)
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Pretty much every economic system oppresses some for the benefit of others.

Oh, getting the game approved? No problem.
Not getting shot after the players get caught treating the "Bolshoi Irgi" as a nasty bit of sattire? Eto balshoi problema! (Sorry, too lazy to actually put it in cyrillic today.)

5fskjo.jpg
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
I mean, so long as we're taking digs at political/economic systems, the one Trotsky is famous for holds that all art is propaganda. Assuming you could even get the central planning committee to agree on an expenditure of labor to create a role playing game, you're going to have to make sure the game sends whatever message the state approves of.

I'm sorry, but the central committee does not approve of this post.

On a more serious note - I worked in TV for years. About 13 of them as paid labour, another 2-3 as unpaid labour. Fun fact - while working as unpaid labour in TV jobs I worked in that other great, poorly unionised, and terminally underpaid industry - hospitality.

In the end I gave up on TV, I just couldn't justify doing work I enjoyed for little to no money. (And TV is better paid than game design.) The sad truth is the arts (be it film, TV, games, dance, painting, what ever) just don't pay. This is not fair. It will remain unfair as long as these industries can't organise in some way. I can't say what way that is. A freelance writer probably needs different mechanisms to, say, a dancer. But they are similar in that they are "gig economy." So my very broad and uncertain thoughts are along the lines of get rid of the gig economy.

The gig economy isn't new. I was getting screwed by the gig system as far back as the 80s' and I am far from the first generation to be worked over by it. The expansion of "gigging" into areas that have traditionally been more stable for employees is new. Maybe the broadening of the damage will encourage more people to oppose it, and by opposing end it.

@snarfzagyg - I assume the Trotsky quote was "Hi Dr. Nick, Hi Everybody!" I mean Trotsky and Dr. Nick do have the same facial hair...
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
If there had been a Soviet counterpart to DnD, it would have been like some Mork Borg-ish psychedelic sci-fi:

Back to the op, creatives often make very poor money versus the few who make a lot. This is where public policy is better than individual initiative, things like a functioning NHS in the US, and either higher minimum wage or expanded public assistance would help people, creatives in particular.
 

MGibster

Legend
In the end I gave up on TV, I just couldn't justify doing work I enjoyed for little to no money. (And TV is better paid than game design.) The sad truth is the arts (be it film, TV, games, dance, painting, what ever) just don't pay. This is not fair. It will remain unfair as long as these industries can't organise in some way. I can't say what way that is. A freelance writer probably needs different mechanisms to, say, a dancer. But they are similar in that they are "gig economy." So my very broad and uncertain thoughts are along the lines of get rid of the gig economy.
I think the fact that you were willing to put in thee year's of unpaid labor into television is indicative of why artists are often paid very little. Many of you are willing to do the work for peanuts because you love doing it. I suspect many game designers either do it as a side job or they move into other more lucrative industries once they get tired of scraping together the rent money month after month.
 

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