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"Tabletop RPG Workers Say Their Jobs Are No Fantasy" (article from WIRED)

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I didn't see anyone share this. I knew about Paizo trying to unionize (go union!) and I knew that the industry was low paying, but it seems like that is just one of the workplace issues - and that TTRPGs at least at the bigger companies where people work full-time but there is also a dependence on freelancers with abysmal rates, suffers some of the unreasonable expectations of the video game industry.


Some quoted bits below, but it is a longish article.

WIRED said:
Like the video game industry, the tabletop RPG industry is built on the passion of hobbyists starry-eyed about receiving W-2s from their favorite escapist outlet. Sixteen current and former workers across several TTRPG publishers who spoke to WIRED say that, in the industry of fantasy games, signing your contract might be where the fantasy ends. Many of these sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions in an industry they describe as small, tight-knit, and prone to retaliation. While some people said they were happy in their jobs, many others—especially those at bigger publishers—had a different experience.

WIRED said:
With few big employers, full-time jobs in the industry are rare—and that scarcity, sources say, encourages people to accept poor working conditions. One worker said getting hired at Wizards of the Coast felt like “winning the lottery,” but now, after years of low pay and long hours, they view that initial enthusiasm as “naive.” Three sources recall Lisa Stevens, the CEO and cofounder of Paizo, saying she didn’t understand why employees complained about poor working conditions. In fact, they recall her saying, they should be honored to work on Pathfinder because there are others out there who would do it for free.

WIRED said:
[Gendered] dynamics are particularly pronounced at conventions—a mainstay of the TTRPG industry that brings together tens of thousands of fans, mostly men. Sexual harassment at gaming conventions is a longtime issue. But when women at Paizo spoke up about the problem, former employees say, the company didn’t provide the support they wanted. “Every year we had harassers at PaizoCon (often against female staff), and the next year when we brought it up we were told ‘Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations’ and ‘Make sure they [convention-goers] have a good time!’” Crystal Frasier wrote on Twitter. (Two sources present at those discussions corroborate Paizo’s response.)

WIRED said:
Workers are pushing the TTRPG industry out of its 50-year-old roots and into modernity. As the content of these fantasy adventures changes, they argue, so should the demographics of their publishers and their working conditions. “There are a lot of very old narratives and very old ideas about how the industry should run, which have become detrimental to it,” says Barber.
 

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Argyle King

Legend
One of the things which sticks out from the article is how a lot of companies promote diversity in their products, but the company culture is largely the same.

That's (unfortunately) not unique to RPG companies. You can see that every year during Pride Month. Companies will throw rainbows and LGTBQ+ characters into a product just to sell it. Heck, sometimes they'll charge extra for those products.

Sadly, that's made me wary of buying products which use "diversity" as a primary advertising point.

One of the people interviewed for the article criticized tokenization...

I fully believe that there's probably a company out there somewhere who would sell actual physical diversity tokens (with each token featuring a different minority) if they could make money on it.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
One of the things which sticks out from the article is how a lot of companies promote diversity in their products, but the company culture is largely the same.

That's (unfortunately) not unique to RPG companies. You can see that every year during Pride Month. Companies will throw rainbows and LGTBQ+ characters into a product just to sell it. Heck, sometimes they'll charge extra for those products.

Sadly, that's made me wary of buying products which use "diversity" as a primary advertising point.
To put a different perspective on this, even if a company is diversity-baiting with their products in a cynical manner - just trying to boost their marketing without changing their culture - think of how this looks to someone in the targeted community compared to 70s and 80s when a lot of us were kids. There was virtually nothing that positively acknowledged a LGBT+ person's existence. Now, my kids have been growing up in an environment where their existence is not only acknowledged by major companies but is considered important enough to devote product their way. Even if the culture at the company hasn't fully changed, it's changing, even if slowly. You aren't going to get acceptance without acknowledgement. Their foot is in the door in a way it wasn't 30-40 years ago. Their existence is recognized like it wasn't 30-40 years ago.

The progress may be painfully slow, particularly to individuals in the middle of it. It may be fought constantly by other elements in society who think this is something they should start a culture war over. But it's happening.
 

Argyle King

Legend
To put a different perspective on this, even if a company is diversity-baiting with their products in a cynical manner - just trying to boost their marketing without changing their culture - think of how this looks to someone in the targeted community compared to 70s and 80s when a lot of us were kids. There was virtually nothing that positively acknowledged a LGBT+ person's existence. Now, my kids have been growing up in an environment where their existence is not only acknowledged by major companies but is considered important enough to devote product their way. Even if the culture at the company hasn't fully changed, it's changing, even if slowly. You aren't going to get acceptance without acknowledgement. Their foot is in the door in a way it wasn't 30-40 years ago. Their existence is recognized like it wasn't 30-40 years ago.

The progress may be painfully slow, particularly to individuals in the middle of it. It may be fought constantly by other elements in society who think this is something they should start a culture war over. But it's happening.

I think acknowledgement and representation is good.

I also think that some (but certainly not all) companies have efforts which are very hollow.

I'm not sure that the disingenuous efforts are an overall net positive, especially when actual real people working at a company are treated poorly.

To me, it's kinda like a couple who has an awesome Instagram -showing fun vacations, romantic dinners, and a great life; but then you find out that the relationship was abusive when the cameras were off.

...or maybe a better example would be seeing everyone change the frame around their social media profile picture to support a cause but then not doing any of the actual work to fix a problem.

I dunno. I get what you're saying. Certainly, having some representation is better than none. There are aspects about it which rub me the wrong way though.
 

It's possible that people in "creative director" positions want more inclusive products, and maybe a more diverse staff, but don't have the authority to make that happen or won't use their voice to push for it in tangible ways. This quote struck me "This worker adds that, even at some of the most inclusive and forward-thinking publishers in the industry, 'almost all those who make hiring decisions that impact the makeup of industry professionals don't want to risk their own capital to diversify their organizations.' " Imagine being a person of color on a short term contract trying to explain to someone with a much more long standing position than you that there are certain problems with the source material from the 70s and 80s. Internet arguments blow up over such a suggestion; imagine if that was your boss.

Paizo has been the recent focus for good reason, but I think wotc is really getting a pass, especially considering they are a legit big corporation and drive profit at Hasbro. I'm not sure what their pay is like, but from the article it doesn't sound that great, and we know they rely on freelancers. Moreover, I don't think relying on freelancers makes for better products.
 

I think acknowledgement and representation is good.

I also think that some (but certainly not all) companies have efforts which are very hollow.

I'm not sure that the disingenuous efforts are an overall net positive, especially when actual real people working at a company are treated poorly.

To me, it's kinda like a couple who has an awesome Instagram -showing fun vacations, romantic dinners, and a great life; but then you find out that the relationship was abusive when the cameras were off.

...or maybe a better example would be seeing everyone change the frame around their social media profile picture to support a cause but then not doing any of the actual work to fix a problem.

I dunno. I get what you're saying. Certainly, having some representation is better than none. There are aspects about it which rub me the wrong way though.

You're talking about "virtue signaling", but the actual proper usage and not just the right-wing epithet for being progressive. In this case, it's about looking progressive, putting up the hashtag without actually acting on such values where you can. Corporate pride flags are a great example.

This isn't to say that representation, even stuff that is not backed up by what's going on in the office, is necessarily bad. It's good to have more diversity, certainly, and it's good to recognize at least that advancement. But more than that, we have to fight for the real stuff. It's good that Paizo has great representation in their books and did a great Fantasy Africa book... but if their actual office culture doesn't reflect that, then there's a problem. It's great if Wizards is doing what they can to improve the problematic parts of their game, doing better with stuff like character race... but if they are allowing a black employee to beg for jobs and only get two in five months, then there is a problem.

So the in-game diversity does have value, but it definitely doesn't negate the problems these companies (and really, the industry as a whole) has.

Edit: Damn autocorrect
 
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MGibster

Legend
Many years ago, I worked for a comic book shop in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that also sold a great deal of gaming material. And tons of A Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise for some reason. While I wouldn't say this was a dream job of mine, it was certainly preferable to working retail at Sears or something (Do kids today remember Sears?). And the application process was somewhat competitive because there were a lot of other young (mostly) men who wanted to work at the comic book shop as well. The owner actually required us to read comic books in our down time in order to keep up with the story lines of various titles. During meetings, he would randomly ask employees questions like, "What's happening in Spider-Man right now?" So it was actually a pretty cool job.

Jobs at game companies are kind of like that. They're positions that a lot of people want because they just love gaming that much. And when you have an industry, insofar as we can call gaming an industry, like that, it's real easy to take advantage of your labor force's love for the work.
 

In most industries, seeing how the proverbial sausage is made is an eye-opener, that's for sure. I hope that these sorts of peaks behind the curtain help lead to better working conditions.

As for representation, even if it's not reflected in the workplace culture, it's important to recognize that a company still decided that it was more profitable to be inclusive in their marketing than to just continue selling to cishet white people. That alone means something. Granted, ideally you have both an inclusive work environment and product, but it's still a step forward...
 


When you have countless people who want the job, and only a few jobs to go around, the job will remain low-paying. Nothing will change that economic reality.

Lip service to change is the norm. Any seller of goods will say whatever sells their goods more efficiently, but in the end, their only goal is to sell their goods. Expecting commercial enterprises to stand on principle is foolish at best.
 

This makes me remember the comic industry decades ago when writters created new characters and now these are popular and cash-cow to sell toys and other merchandiscing products.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Sean Reynolds said he'd tweet out all that he told them after he's back from the con he's at...
 

CapnZapp

Legend
I didn't see anyone share this. I knew about Paizo trying to unionize (go union!) and I knew that the industry was low paying, but it seems like that is just one of the workplace issues - and that TTRPGs at least at the bigger companies where people work full-time but there is also a dependence on freelancers with abysmal rates, suffers some of the unreasonable expectations of the video game industry.
First: this is decidedly not the video game industry. This is arguably not even an industry.

Then "abysmal rates" suggests there's something wrong. But when you have an almost endless queue of fans willing to write for basically nothing, yet reach comparable quality levels, why expect higher rates?

There just is no money in this "industry". I'm not sure there's any monetary improvements for the union to make. (Getting rid of harassment, poor workplace issues, inclusivity, abusive bosses, et al, definitely!)

...but monetary recompense? Why is this article pretending table-top role-playing games is like a regular job sector? You could probably crowd-source a completely free and open ttrpg for no labor cost at all, everything from professional layout to art being just given to you from fans entirely for free. I mean, creating a VTT or a show like Legend of Vox Machina, there you need more than just free willing labor. Publishing a fantasy rulebook or adventure? Not so much.

There just isn't any money here to support your usual demands and expectations on companies. (Again not talking discrimination issues, just money) Force anyone to pay "video game industry"-standard wages except probably WotC and the commercial side of the hobby will just evaporate; with only D&D left behind. Yes, the only way to turn a profit is to monetize the creativity of your fans. (Actually, the only reason WotC is a "real" company is that for some reason Americans choose to play basically one game only. Yes, if you have half the market, said market does support one (1) company. So basically the market supports zero companies.)

The Paizo union should definitely try improving the workplace of their members. Just don't expect too much.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
As for representation, even if it's not reflected in the workplace culture, it's important to recognize that a company still decided that it was more profitable to be inclusive in their marketing than to just continue selling to cishet white people. That alone means something. Granted, ideally you have both an inclusive work environment and product, but it's still a step forward...
Not sure.

Could also result in a bigger backlash. If Paizo were your garden-variety reactionary stuck-in-the-sixties company, nobody would bat an eye on reports they, say, mistreated women, or people of color. More importantly, that company would not risk losing any customers, because any modern-thinking human would already be not purchasing their stuff.

Paizo, on the other hand, likely has a significant amount of customers attracted to their forward-thinking signaling. Realizing that was merely marketing might make them reconsider their product loyalty.
 

Mongoose_Matt

Adventurer
Publisher
First: this is decidedly not the video game industry. This is arguably not even an industry.

Not sure how we would measure that qualification. However, I can say that if you are working full-time in an office with staff doing these games, it certainly feels like an industry. Money comes in, money goes out, people buy stuff we make...

Then "abysmal rates" suggests there's something wrong. But when you have an almost endless queue of fans willing to write for basically nothing, yet reach comparable quality levels, why expect higher rates?

This is certainly an issue. I was talking to some people from another gaming company when they let slip how much they were paying their 'freelancers' (next to nothing if any payment was being made at all). I did sort of (very diplomatically) call them out on it, and they responded by saying that if the guys are happy to work for that why would they pay more?

It is quite frustrating. Quite aside from the idea of paying peanuts and getting monkeys, it does devalue everything the rest of us do and, more than that, you would hope we could move beyond this way of thinking. You can pay people next to nothing and not update the working space they are in, keeping those extra funds for yourself but, I mean... why would you? Just a few hundred extra Quid in someone's bank account at the end of the month can make a Big difference.

Trying not to sound all Marxist here - I am a capitalist, honestly!

There just is no money in this "industry".
Well... there is. I mean, obviously there is. You don't need to sell hundreds of thousands of books a year and support a three-figure full-time staff to do well for them or yourself. That there are more lucrative markets out there is beyond doubt but that does not make RPGs a desert. The problem, I suspect, has more to do with where that money goes. If you hear about companies that are paying their staff a miniscule amount and creating poor working conditions, the first thing I would do is take a look at how the people running the company live.

Of course, if they also share those conditions, it may be more a case of that company fitting in with your idea of the industry as a whole - that certainly happens too.

But otherwise... pay your employees what they are worth. If nothing else, in the long run it will create less problems for you.

...but monetary recompense? Why is this article pretending table-top role-playing games is like a regular job sector? You could probably crowd-source a completely free and open ttrpg for no labor cost at all, everything from professional layout to art being just given to you from fans entirely for free. I mean, creating a VTT or a show like Legend of Vox Machina, there you need more than just free willing labor. Publishing a fantasy rulebook or adventure? Not so much.
Because... there is no skill required to create an RPG book? :)

The open source idea you cite here is an intriguing one but there are obvious issues, from the overall vision of the project to support after the fact.

In a hobby built around imagination and creating your own material, there is a very good reason why RPG companies still exist after all this time.
There just isn't any money here to support your usual demands and expectations on companies. (Again not talking discrimination issues, just money) Force anyone to pay "video game industry"-standard wages except probably WotC and the commercial side of the hobby will just evaporate; with only D&D left behind. Yes, the only way to turn a profit is to monetize the creativity of your fans. (Actually, the only reason WotC is a "real" company is that for some reason Americans choose to play basically one game only. Yes, if you have half the market, said market does support one (1) company. So basically the market supports zero companies.)
What do you imagine 'video game industry' standard wages to be? That is highly variable and, at the lower end, I believe Mongoose at least exceeds them. Higher end no, and that may never be possible - but we have all heard of the horror stories coming out of the larger video games companies recently with regards to how they treat their staff.

There is a middle ground here - pay staff decent wages and treat them right.

Also, I would certainly consider Mongoose a 'real' company, and I would cite others too - Modiphius and Cubicle 7 come to mind immediately, for their physical proximity to us if nothing else.

And right at the end there, did you just argue that one is the same as zero? :)
 

CapnZapp

Legend
It is quite frustrating. Quite aside from the idea of paying peanuts and getting monkeys, it does devalue everything the rest of us do and, more than that, you would hope we could move beyond this way of thinking.
Thank you for responding Matt! I really appreciate that.

I definitely do not aim to start an argument, but I do want to think aloud regarding this part.

I would say there is little to no connection between what you're paid and the quality of your output - regarding rules and adventures. (Not maps, art, and web sites) There just are many fans out there with at least as good an understanding of rpg rules and cool scenarios as you professional guys.

I would therefore personally hesitate before using phrases like "paying peanuts and getting monkeys".

This is a hobby where you can* pay your fans simply by lifting their work, and get stellar results.
* obvs not saying you do that

(I do realize "paying peanuts and getting monkeys" refers to the quality of the worker and not their output. Paying your workers certainly means better results regarding consistent quality, upholding deadlines and such!)
 

Mongoose_Matt

Adventurer
Publisher
I definitely do not aim to start an argument, but I do want to think aloud regarding this part.
Me too, as it happens - not claiming I have all of this figured out (yet)!

I would say there is little to no connection between what you're paid and the quality of your output - regarding rules and adventures. (Not maps, art, and web sites) There just are many fans out there with at least as good an understanding of rpg rules and cool scenarios as you professional guys.
I think you answer this point here:

(I do realize "paying peanuts and getting monkeys" refers to the quality of the worker and not their output. Paying your workers certainly means better results regarding consistent quality, upholding deadlines and such!)

This is certainly a big difference - being in the position to do this full-time, each and every day, tends to get better and more consistent results.
 


CapnZapp

Legend
This is certainly a big difference - being in the position to do this full-time, each and every day, tends to get better and more consistent results.
Let's just not lose sight of the Point here: one company might decide they value this "consistency" (which I realize is selling employment short, but...) highly, and so they decide to compensate their employees relatively richly.

Another company might decide on another path, where the value of adding an employee is constantly weighed against the relatively more troublesome activity of managing free labor. (Where I mean "free" as in "freelancer" ;))

In a free capitalist marketplace, both approaches are equally valid. (It probably wouldn't fly in a "communist paradise" like the Nördic countries, but I digress :)). The reason we're having this discussion, I would say, is that many people thought Paizo was in the former category when it may be that they're in the latter. (Hopefully I have added enough conditionals to not make definite claims about businesses I know nothing about!)
 

Staffan

Legend
Then "abysmal rates" suggests there's something wrong. But when you have an almost endless queue of fans willing to write for basically nothing, yet reach comparable quality levels, why expect higher rates?

There just is no money in this "industry". I'm not sure there's any monetary improvements for the union to make. (Getting rid of harassment, poor workplace issues, inclusivity, abusive bosses, et al, definitely!)

...but monetary recompense? Why is this article pretending table-top role-playing games is like a regular job sector? You could probably crowd-source a completely free and open ttrpg for no labor cost at all, everything from professional layout to art being just given to you from fans entirely for free. I mean, creating a VTT or a show like Legend of Vox Machina, there you need more than just free willing labor. Publishing a fantasy rulebook or adventure? Not so much.

Because... there is no skill required to create an RPG book? :)

The open source idea you cite here is an intriguing one but there are obvious issues, from the overall vision of the project to support after the fact.

In a hobby built around imagination and creating your own material, there is a very good reason why RPG companies still exist after all this time.
My insight into the business side of RPGs is limited to what I have gleaned from various industry insiders here and in other places. I think there are two relevant things to consider here:

1. On one side, this is a hobby built on the creativity of its participants. DMs in particular are strongly encouraged to come up with their own worlds and adventures and maybe even rules bits. Some of us dream of actually getting that stuff published, which means there are large numbers of people one could tap to do some design and work for peanuts.

2. On the other side, the step from "Hey, here's a spell I came up with, what do y'all think?" to being able to produce stuff that's consistently good (or at least publishable) on a deadline is quite a big one. For complicated systems like Starfinder or Pathfinder 2, these people are fairly rare, particularly since there's probably more money in doing 5e stuff. And these are the kind of people you want working for you, either employed or as regular freelancers.

In other words, while there are certainly lots of hungry potential designers out there, they're not likely to be ones to produce consistent high-quality work.

There's another thing to consider, which is that a large portion of what happens in-house at Paizo isn't the actual writing of stuff. That's to a large degree done on a freelance basis (though in some cases done as freelance work by Paizo employees – apparently, one of the perks of working there have traditionally been getting the juiciest freelance stuff). The folks actually working at Paizo do the stuff around that: outlines, editing/development, layout, and so on. I think they keep heavy-duty design (e.g. class design) in-house as well, but things like adventure paths and books like the Mwangi Expanse? That's mostly freelance. That means that the people actually working there are the ones who do the planning and stuff for their books, and I reckon that's even harder to replace than primary design. Well, that and a lot of support staff (e.g. customer service or IT) who are also covered by the union.

And speaking of freelancers and the union, one of the reasons Paizo were so fast in recognizing the union was that they were told by many freelancers that they were withholding labor until the union was recognized. In other words, while Paizo employees didn't go on strike, freelancers did (or as close as you can get as a freelancer). So if Paizo wanted to replace truculent employees, these are the people they'd go to for replacements, and they don't seem particularly inclined to be scabs.
 

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