What to Charge? Freelance RPG Writers’ Dilemma Part 1.

I’ve become somewhat enmeshed in the discussion of how much a freelance rpg writer should charge. I’m not trying to get rich, but its a subject near and dear to my heart.


We recently had a major discussion on #ttrpgTwitter about what freelance writers should charge.

One company, name withheld, got in a heap of trouble because they insisted on keeping the rights (no royalties,) paying $.01/word, payment 30 days post publication, pdf or print copy, and apparently went off on the writer while in the editing phase. I can’t even begin to describe what all is wrong with this from a writer’s prospective. It’s a big ole kick in the pants.

Signing off the rights to something actually doesn’t upset me that much. It used to even be written into the OGL for D&D if I remember correctly. WotC could literally usurp something you wrote for their system and not give you a dime in royalties. I’d have to look to see if it’s still there, but I’m not worried about it.

One of the first things you learn in Journalism school is that once you submit an article as a freelancer, it’s gone. You can’t sell it to someone else unless you have permission from the first buyer. Yeah, you can still put it in your portfolio along with the publication and date, but you certainly won’t be selling the article to another publication and what are royalties, again?

Artists in the TTRPG sphere actually have it a bit rougher, if you ask me. Getting paid is tough. Getting paid a fair price for your work? Even tougher. Plenty of competition, though. Again, pretty much forced to sign the rights away and what are royalties? Yeah. Ouch.

It would seem being a corporate staff writer is the way to go.

I would like to remind everyone that Paizo’s writers did just form a union. Honestly, I’m not sure how much good it did anyone? I’ve seen a few pieces from/about union members that looked like, “Rah-rah, yay look at our shiny new releases. Ain’t it great.”

Which is not what I would expect from unionized workers necessarily? Like, I’m pretty sure UAW still has people who are angry as hell at “Da Man,” long after a favorable compromise is reached in any give negotiation. I might be wrong?

Union issues aside, it has been suggested by some that going to work for $20 or more per hour at a large game company such as WotC might be the best way to earn a fair wage and still get to produce cool stuff. Again, attention should probably be paid to one’s contract in terms of royalties, etc. Most corporations are weasel-y enough not to be paying one after work is submitted. That’s how big companies get big and stay big. But, hey, they can afford to hire kids straight out of college, too… (I might be just a touch jealous, but more on that later.)

Hasbro/WotC has a huge advantage when it comes to writers. They have a MASSIVE pool of writers for 5E in the form of DMsGuild. They can scoop someone up and keep them however long they want basically. Most of us would say “Heck YES” to that opportunity without negotiating terms too heavily. Yay money, right?

Working a steady job as a writer also has its advantages for both parties. Big companies can afford to print a few books that flop without losing the family farm. They also don’t usually have to rely on crowdfunding such as Kickstarter and all associated headaches when developing a new project. They can also kick a writer to the curb on a moment’s notice for whatever reason they want, basically. (Loosely put.) It’s pretty much an employer’s market, especially right now.

Competition used to be stiff for a decent job in RPGs back in ye olden days when Gygax was still at T$R. Has it changed? Yes! There’s way more competition for writing jobs now. Take one look on DriveThruRPG and DMsGuild. There are hundreds of writers nowadays.

Pay? pfft! I can spread peanut butter between two common MtG cards. Benefits? Willing to go pretty low on those just to get in the door. Overtime basically for free? Why not? Crappy work environment? “Can I still keep my job?” Street cred with all the gaming geeks of the world- PRICELESS!

So, you want to be a freelance RPG writer?

After all the sweetness that is working a corporate RPG job, unless you’re Mike Mearls, Tracy Hickman or Ed Greenwood for example, you probably won’t get to set your own terms. And that’s nowadays! I’m going to cover the old school version again in another article. So why not start your own company or become a freelance writer? Plenty of people have.

I’ve really been debating more about this by the day. Self publishing a regular book is tough enough. At least you really only need to produce, edit, find cover art, format, promote, advertise, and cut a deal with one or more publishing outlets. Easy, right?

RPGs require a few additional steps. Find a system you like or create your own. (Yes, you really can reinvent the wheel on this one.) Then, you need some degree of interior art and probably some cartography. Have you seen the 1st Ed AD&D line art and graph paper maps? That’s not going to cut it if you really want to make the big bucks. Then there’s playtesting, crowdfunding, publishing, possibly printing and doing all of the promotion/advertising.

How do I see fixing this situation? IFF you don’t want to publish your own TTRPG work of art, you’ve going to have to work out a deal with an indie publisher or a small company as a freelance writer.

More to come on this topic in Part 2. This rabbit hole runs a lot deeper than one might imagine. The #ttrpg industry is historically fraught with complications for indie publishers and freelance writers/artists.

Author: Jeff Craigmile

I'm a tabletop role-playing game writer and designer from Des Moines, Iowa always looking for more work. I'm the father of four boys and human to three cats.

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