TSR Cutting Writers Rates (In 1994!)

Writer James Lowder posted about TSR (the company which created and owned D&D until WotC purchased them) cutting it’s writing rates back in the 1990s, along with restrictions on freelancing.

“1994. Facing brutal competition in the tabletop game market from Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, and others, and a potential design staff drain to the blossoming computer game industry, TSR management responds by cutting the rates the staff received for company freelance projects. Given that TSR would, within two years, start missing regular royalty payments to authors, I have to wonder if this ill-conceived cost control measure was an early warning sign.”

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Last edited:
Russ Morrissey

Comments

What astounds me (if I understood that correct) is, that some TSR employees worked also on a freelance basis for their company (see the remark for withheld taxes on their payroll)? Is something like this legal I wonder - being employed is one affair, but then processing freelance material through the same channel? I ask because over here in Krautland such things are (nowadays) illegal as hell. Being employed - okay you pay taxes according to your job contract/employment. Contributing material as an independent writer (at least that´s how I understand the term freelance) means you have to have your kind of own business = extra company that writes bill, pays extra taxes etc.
Perhaps some of the more eductaed ones on this subject can shed some light on the matter, since I am perplexed. Or did I understand something wrong (any corrections welcomed)?
 

Nagol

Unimportant
What astounds me (if I understood that correct) is, that some TSR employees worked also on a freelance basis for their company (see the remark for withheld taxes on their payroll)? Is something like this legal I wonder - being employed is one affair, but then processing freelance material through the same channel? I ask because over here in Krautland such things are (nowadays) illegal as hell. Being employed - okay you pay taxes according to your job contract/employment. Contributing material as an independent writer (at least that´s how I understand the term freelance) means you have to have your kind of own business = extra company that writes bill, pays extra taxes etc.
Perhaps some of the more eductaed ones on this subject can shed some light on the matter, since I am perplexed. Or did I understand something wrong (any corrections welcomed)?

It's entirely legal in Canada. Person has Accounting job, for example, and is paid for Accounting work, but has a creative writing sideline. Employer has creative writing need and contracts person A at their typical employer rate for creative writing. Person A pays taxes on their full time salary through the company and then pays taxes on independent earnings when taxes are filed.
 
@Nagol
Thanks for the clarification. Still strange to me, but laws differ. So basically just another boxed marked on your annual tax declaration with the approbate amount. understood. Thanks for the clarification.
 

aco175

Adventurer
The $1200.00 for a module unit in 1994 would be roughly $2650.00 now. I wonder is a unit is roughly a chapter or how many units do you need to write to get by.
 

kenmarable

Explorer
The $1200.00 for a module unit in 1994 would be roughly $2650.00 now. I wonder is a unit is roughly a chapter or how many units do you need to write to get by.
A “module unit” in TSRspeak is 32 pages, or about 24,000 words. It’s the length of an old adventure module, and I think they often even divided up larger books into “module unit” chunks for writers (which might be 1 or more chapters). I also recall for staff writers, I think the goal was 1 module unit minimum per month?
 

Ulfgeir

Explorer
Would also be interesting to see what other companies pay. How many actually has paid staff (doing writing), and not just freelancers who publish though the company.

Evil Hat, Onyx Path...

A friend of mine, who made the up-and-coming game The Troubleshooters, said that best way to get a small fortune making roleplaying games, was to start with a big fortune...
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
It's entirely legal in Canada. Person has Accounting job, for example, and is paid for Accounting work, but has a creative writing sideline. Employer has creative writing need and contracts person A at their typical employer rate for creative writing. Person A pays taxes on their full time salary through the company and then pays taxes on independent earnings when taxes are filed.
Well, like everything else in the world, it's complicated in America.

Primarily (but not entirely) due to issue of hourly wages and overtime.

So let's say that you're a properly-classified salaried employee. At that point, the main issue is that most employees are not going to want to pay you additional amounts for work that you do for them. They can, but they will often be able to assert that work that you do using their material (such as in the example, above, using TSR facilities) is their work product, full stop. That won't stop them from paying you more, but it's unusual.

The other common scenario is an hourly employee. In that scenario, you can't escape paying overtime by saying that the work they are doing for you is just independent work. Otherwise, you'd just say that anything under 40 hours a week is just their regular work, and you'd allow them to work for you even more at discounted rates .... ahem ... can't do that.

So no, this is somewhat unusual. It might happen very rarely if someone had a completely independent line of business (a person is an accountant for the company, and also is a plumber in their spare time) but it's fairly rare.

"Internal freelancers" is ... um .... not something you'd see much. If you're curious about more, google FLSA.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Yeah, this is super-sketch.

For info on the contractor vs. employee rules in the U.S.: Companies often mislabel employees as "freelancers" to cut costs. Workers are fighting back.

And then specifically about classifying an employee also as a contractor for the same type of work at the same company: How to Classify Independent Contractors vs. Employees | Paycor

And if you're really bored: When would I provide a form W 2 and a Form 1099 to the same person | Internal Revenue Service

Basically, if the work isn't within the scope of an employee's job, it's possible to have them freelance. So a writer could say, provide photography on a contract basis to the same company that employs her...if photography isn't part of her full-time job. But to have "existing budgeted freelance work within their own department" implies that it is indeed the same work the department already covers, and would likely not hold up to IRS scrutiny.

It's possible laws may have changed after the memo came out...
 

Alphastream

Adventurer
Now I'm curious to know WotC and Paizo's rates.
Current and recent rates for most authors have been shared at times, and are below 10 cents a word. There have been articles here on ENWorld and elsewhere that shared various rates for smaller companies, and those rates can be horribly low... I've been offered below 1 cent per word (and I turned down the work).

It is terrible. I've written on my blog about this. The problem links back not to evil companies, but to the model by which RPGs are sold and how consumers pay for them. Most home campaigns spend far more on snacks than they do for the adventures. Most RPG gamers claim to love RPGs more than anything else, but pay significantly less for the hobby than they do for video games, TV, or movies. Gamers are quick to show outrage when a publisher (regardless of size) tries to price a product at anything higher than current rates, even when every aging publisher seems to need a GoFundMe campaign for their health care.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Would also be interesting to see what other companies pay. How many actually has paid staff (doing writing), and not just freelancers who publish though the company.
Not many. And even the two biggest (WotC and Paizo) use freelancers extensively.
 

Ahrimon

Bourbon and Dice
I read this as we're going to cut your salary by 1/3 but give you the option to do extra work to make it up if you want.
 

Alphastream

Adventurer
I read this as we're going to cut your salary by 1/3 but give you the option to do extra work to make it up if you want.
No... they are saying that if you want to do extra work, you can't do it as a regular freelancer. Before, you could do your normal job, and then at night write a freelancer Dragon article for 10 cents an hour. With the change, they made it so you can take that, but you get 6 cents an hour and you get paid through payroll with all the job agreements you already had. They also clarify that you can't do the work on the job (no double-booking) and that deals such as book deals are at a mark-down as well (which could be a significant loss back then).
 

David Howery

Adventurer
Also interesting to see that these rates - which are even less than their normal freelancer rates back then - are still more than most companies pay now, 25 years later!
back in 2E days, when I was an active writer for their magazines, I can remember attending a panel discussion where TSR's editors and some from other magazines (White Wolf is the only one I recall) talked about submitting stuff and pay rates... and TSR paid more/word than all the others...
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
It is terrible. I've written on my blog about this. The problem links back not to evil companies, but to the model by which RPGs are sold and how consumers pay for them. Most home campaigns spend far more on snacks than they do for the adventures. Most RPG gamers claim to love RPGs more than anything else, but pay significantly less for the hobby than they do for video games, TV, or movies. Gamers are quick to show outrage when a publisher (regardless of size) tries to price a product at anything higher than current rates, even when every aging publisher seems to need a GoFundMe campaign for their health care.
You explain the result, not the problem. The problem is the hordes of writers willing to write for peanuts. If that pool dried up completely, you would have a shortage of adventures, people would be willing to pay more if they couldn't get it for less. Players/consumers aren't a charity. And if publishers need to GoFundMe, they were in the wrong profession.

But even then it wouldn't solve the problem, there is a huge amount of older adventures that fans keep converting to new editions of RPGs. And while spending $60 on an updated Adventure path would have a good cost/benefit analysis, upping that to $120 would just be painful for many who already spent that on the original AP. Especially when that would happen every few years when new editions show up. How many itterations of Rappan Athuk are there these days? I've lost track...

I suspect that many, many groups play homebrew adventures, upping the prices would just make that percentage larger, selling less adventures, thus negating any advantage a higher price would give for the publishers/writer. At the core of that is that people don't value their own time correctly in the first place. If I calculate the amount of time I spent on writing my own adventures, If I spent that time flipping burgers instead, I could probably buy a luxury car or even a house... The advantage was that I liked doing it (most of the time).

There are other ways of publishing where you'll earn more per word then just writing for someone else, that's business. Still, your better off doing another job then being in the RPG industry, but if your just passively accepting everything people offer you, you'll also not making as much money as you could.
 

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