Rise of the RPG Professional

As role-playing games continue to rise in popularity, the game is increasingly getting attention from professionals in other industries. What are the ramifications for the gaming community as it grapples with its evolution from a casual hobby to a professional industry? Picture courtesy of Pixabay. What's a RPG Professional Anyway? Much of the debate about what defines a professional any...

As role-playing games continue to rise in popularity, the game is increasingly getting attention from professionals in other industries. What are the ramifications for the gaming community as it grapples with its evolution from a casual hobby to a professional industry?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

What's a RPG Professional Anyway?​

Much of the debate about what defines a professional any field pivots on pay vs. conduct. Wikipedia's definition begins with the core assumption that professionals are paid:
A professional is a member of a profession or any person who earns their living from a specified professional activity. The term also describes the standards of education and training that prepare members of the profession with the particular knowledge and skills necessary to perform their specific role within that profession.
I covered the trials and tribulations of the professional game master in D&D Goes to Work Part II: Professional Game Masters. What co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons Gargy Gygax originally quantified as being the ultimate aspiration for a professional in Master of the Game now has a much lower barrier to entry. Thanks to the rise of the "pro-am" or "professional amateur," the new Open Game License, and publication channels like DriveThruRPG and the DM's Guild, earning money on a RPG product is more feasible than ever before.

Increasingly, the lower barrier to entry means that there is no longer a pay distinction between a professional and a hobbyist -- both can make money at producing RPGs. So what sets them apart? One possibility is a code of conduct, which Wikipedia also references as part of being a "professional":
In addition, most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct, enshrining rigorous ethical and moral obligations. Professional standards of practice and ethics for a particular field are typically agreed upon and maintained through widely recognized professional associations, such as the IEEE. Some definitions of "professional" limit this term to those professions that serve some important aspect of public interest and the general good of society.
The theory around this aspect of professionalism is not without controversy:
A key theoretical dispute arises from the observation that established professions (e.g. lawyers, medical doctors, architects, civil engineers) are subject to strict codes of conduct. Some have thus argued that these codes of conduct, agreed upon and maintained through widely recognized professional associations, are a key element of what constitutes any profession. Others have argued that strict codes of conduct and the professional associations that maintain them are merely a consequence of 'successful' professionalization, rather than an intrinsic element of the definition of professional(ism); this implies that a profession arises from the alignment between a shared purpose (connected to a 'greater good'), a body of knowledge, actual behavior in terms of actions and decisions, and expectations held by societal stakeholders.
By looking at the commercialization of the nascent role-playing game industry with this lens, we can see how being a RPG professional has morphed from a hobbyist who makes a living to an industry where a code of social conduct is enforced. And yet, even when business dollars, customers, and shareholders are involved, the personalities that owned the D&D brand struggled with their own codes of conduct.

The TSR Years​

Gygax outlined the elements of what might constitute a RPG professional in Master of the Game, ranging from mastery of rules and systems, to mastery of scenario and campaign creation, to creating a role-playing game from scratch. Two elements Gygax did not address were making an income full-time from gaming or any code of conduct:
Ironically, the group that is most active and desirous of attaining mastery happens to be the least economically able to handle the costs of doing so. RPG players are young students, by and large. The exception to this is the professional game designer, of course, but because such individuals are a minute portion of the RPG audience we won't consider them, other than to encourage all interested Game Masters toward mastery so they earn income, if not principal livelihood, from the design and authorship of role-playing games and supplementary game materials.
TSR later produced its own code of ethics for writers and published it online. It's a fascinating look at TSR's sensitivity to one of its most lucrative target markets: children, although it's notable there's no mention of kids in their Code of Ethics:
TSR, Inc., as a publisher of books, games, and game related products, recognizes the social responsibilities that a company such as TSR must assume. TSR has developed this CODE OF ETHICS for use in maintaining good taste, while providing beneficial products within all of its publishing and licensing endeavors. In developing each of its products, TSR strives to achieve peak entertainment value by providing consumers with a tool for developing social interaction skills and problem-solving capabilities by fostering group cooperation and the desire to learn. Every TSR product is designed to be enjoyed and is not intended to present a style of living for the players of TSR games.
The list is exhaustive. No satanic symbolism was allowed (shades of the Satanic Panic of the 80s); no detailed discussion of creating weapons or drugs; law enforcement was to be respected; criminals should be cast in a negative light; no profanity, narcotics or alcohol, excessive gore, or sexual themes; no disparaging the disabled or other "non-monster" races; slavery should be portrayed as evil; no disparaging real religions; no real-life rituals or activities of a "criminal or distasteful nature" should be presented.

TSR, sensitive to accusations that D&D caused kids to commit suicide by acting out their fantasies, also put a stake in the ground regarding the limits of one's imagination:
The distinction between players and player characters shall be strictly observed. It is standard TSR policy to not use 'you' in its advertising or role playing games to suggest that the users of the game systems are actually taking part in the adventure. It should always be clear that the player's imaginary character is taking part in whatever imaginary action happens during game play. For example, 'you' don't attack the orcs--'your character' Hrothgar attacks the orcs.
This extended to Live Action Role-Playing (LARPs):
It is TSR policy to not support any live action role-playing game system, no matter how nonviolent the style of gaming is said to be. TSR recognizes the physical dangers of live action role-playing that promotes its participants to do more than simply imagine in their minds what their characters are doing, and does not wish any game to be harmful.
Of course, many of these rules did not apply to the company's own products. Gygax himself would later grapple with the definition of professional conduct in the company he helped create.

The Wizards of the Coast Years​

Wizards of the Coast's online policy towards fans was very different from TSR's, in no small part due to then CEO Peter Adkison's uncomfortable experience with a Palladium lawsuit. As described in D&D Fandom Part III: The Golden Age, for a while the Open Game License -- greeted with initial skepticism -- brought fans back in droves to the game, not just as players but as co-creators. The D&D brand was now shared by all. That partnership wouldn't last.

The Open Game License allowed publishers to use much of D&D's sourcebooks without completely replicating the rules therein (experience points for leveling up, for example, were missing). Chad Perrin explains at TechRepublic:
WotC published 3E as normal, but also provided the core system and game mechanics from select expansion books under the terms of the Open Game License (OGL). Rather than sue third party publishers and fans producing materials for copyright infringement, WotC provided a framework for publishing such materials and profiting to the extent of their ability if they so desired, with legal guarantees of freedom from copyright infringement intimidation tactics. The result was a widespread growth of the D&D industry that pushed it back to the fore, to the point that the entire RPG industry outside of D&D was maybe equivalent in size to the D&D industry itself. Far from being one whole RPG industry of which D&D was the biggest part, it was as though there were now two parallel industries, D&D and the rest of the RPGs in the world.
The OGL was just the tip of the iceberg and included the D20 System Trademark License, which indicated compatibility with Dungeons & Dragons. That compatibility was tested with the arrival of the Book of Erotic Fantasy:
When gaming company The Valar Project, under former Wizards of the Coast brand manager Anthony Valtera, attempted to publish the d20 Book of Erotic Fantasy (BoEF), which focused on sexual content, Wizards of the Coast altered the d20 System Trademark License in advance of publication of BoEF by adding a "quality standards" provision that required publishers comply with "community standards of decency." This subsequently prevented the book's publication under the D20STL.Wizards of the Coast said this was done to protect its d20 System trademark.
WOTC's new quality standards were as follows:
In determining whether a product complies with community standards of decency, Wizards of the Coast uses, but is not limited to the following. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Wizards of the Coast reserves the right to determine, in its sole discretion, whether a product complies with community standards of decency. Violence and Gore – Descriptions of combat are acceptable in a Covered Product. However art or text depicting excessively graphic violence or gore is not acceptable. Sexual Themes - Sexual situations—including abuse and pornography—may not appear graphically in art or text. When depicting the human form—or creatures possessing humaniform features—gratuitous nudity, the depiction of genitalia, bare female nipples, and sexual or bathroom activity is not acceptable. While sensuality and sexuality may appear in a Covered Product, it must not be the focus nor can it be salacious in nature. Prejudice - Covered Products can not depict existing real-world minorities, nationalities, social castes, religious groups, genders, lifestyle preferences, or people with disabilities as a group inferior to any other group. Current, real-world religions and religious groups and/or practices will not be portrayed in any way that promotes disrespect for these religions or their participants. A Covered Product can not endorse or promote any specific religion or religious practice.
The OGL's success helped created an industry for RPG independent designers:
Another part of the recipe for success was the fact that the core game designers were not just employees slaving away at game development to serve corporate interests. Many of them (like new era game design legend Monte Cook), in fact, were not only personally invested in the new system; they were True Believers in the rightness and benefits of open game development. Intent on making its niche grow, however, WotC (now owned by Hasbro) essentially began directly competing with third party publishers by marketing niche expansion books. In some cases, the WotC books were superior to similar third party products; in others, the opposite was true. The result was growing troubles in the implicit partnership between WotC and the publishers that produced competing works. In an effort to differentiate their products from the WotC products that were eating into their markets, some of these publishers (e.g. Crafty Games and Green Ronin Publishing) started producing their own variations on the d20 System for fantasy RPGs, diluting the core game market for WotC in an attempt to remain solvent in the face of an invasion of the niches WotC had created for them by WotC itself.
The biggest success story is of course Paizo Publishing. In CEO Lisa Stevens' own words in Designers & Dragons -- The 00s:
My company, Paizo Publishing, was thrown a double whammy when Wizards didn’t renew the license for Dragon and Dungeon magazines, instead using that content to generate interest in their DDI online subscription service. Like the rest of the publishers in the industry, Paizo had to make a decision about whether to continue supporting 3.5 as the published core books slipped out of print; attempt to make it work with the challenging GSL; publish our own version of the OGL rules; or try to gain traction with an entirely new system altogether. Paizo decided to make our own game based on the 3.5 OGL rules, the Pathfinder RPG, and the rest is history.
Through WOTC's layoff of game designers, the OGL, and the rise of digital online retailers like DriveThruRPG, the company created an entire industry around role-playing that has since branched off to thrive on its own. The barrier to entry to the tabletop gaming industry is still relatively low, a boon for am-pro gamers but still fraught with challenges -- as the incident over the Book of Erotic Fantasy demonstrated.

But even the D&D brand holders, in both TSR and WOTC's stewardship of the game, discovered the line between professional and hobbyist the hard way. We'll discuss their travails in the next installment.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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