So, you want to pursue your lifelong dream of being an RPG writer like I do?
True story, I’ve wanted to write for an RPG company like T$R or West End Games since I was in high school. Hey, that was the 1980’s. Those companies were huge back then. You hopefully get the idea.
Nowadays, we have this neat-o thing where a lot of companies use an Open Gaming License or OGL which means you can create content for someone else’s intellectual property as long as you follow their guidelines in the OGL. Their guidelines are usually referred to as a System Reference Document or SRD. (For example, if it’s in the Player’s Handbook, but not in the SRD, it’s best to leave it alone.)
What this translates to is the ability to make cool stuff and publish it on Itch.io or DriveThruRPG/DMsGuild, etc as long as you follow the rules set out in the OGL for whatever game you’re wanting to work with. We’ll call that the “New Age” way of doing it. The old way will be detailed in another article.
The major disadvantage to publishing your own work on someone else’s platform is:
They tend to take a percentage of the profits. More if you want to make use of any kind of Print On Demand services. POD is another headache in and of itself when you factor in formatting and shipping. It’s pricey on a good day. This means you have to up your prices or lose approximately 30% or more of your profit.
It makes it very difficult to produce quality Pay What you Want and resist the temptation not to just slap a flat fee onto it. I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years and my first couple of products might be PWW, but honestly if I’m producing everything on my own, I’d rather make money. PWW is oftentimes synonymous with “Free” in my experience.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen about publishing your own material to DriveThruRPG is, “Don’t do it for the money. Do it to have enough credit to buy your next gaming book.” I feel that’s sound and fair advice. Sell 50 copies of an rpg module at $.99 and get my new copy of Onyx Sky give or take shipping. Hope I didn’t put too much time into that module. Then again, it has to be good enough to sell 50+ copies.
Another deterrent to writing for the industry in any capacity is competition.
Yeah, I’m fond of the phrase in the Law of Attraction and coaching communities that “there is plenty for everyone.” It’s true, but the RPG industry is a vast sea of ideas. Unfortunately, when it comes to fantasy rpgs, there is a TON of overlap. I’m actually surprised there aren’t more copyright and intellectual property lawsuits than we hear about.
Competition is incredible enough as an independent publisher. Even after you jump through all the hurdles and hopefully haven’t committed plagiarism accidentally, chances are there are handfuls or even dozens of similar products on the market. We’re reinventing the wheel regularly in most common rpg subgenres such as fantasy, horror, superheroes, and science fiction.
I’ll talk more about the old paradigm of getting hired at WotC or Paizo in depth elsewhere. It might slowly be changing, but I’m not holding my breath just yet. Still, for every one of those good openings, there are probably tens if not hundreds of applicants in varying degrees of experience. It’s daunting, to say the least. I know people like to say it’s changing, but is it really? I’m not so sure yet.
So, if I don’t want to jump through all the hoops of running my own indie company and permanent, full time jobs in the industry are scarce; what does that leave? I guess there’s freelance writing. Even as a freelance writer, RPGs are still part of the publishing industry. Much like news and magazines, freelance writers are very much a dime-a-dozen. It’s very much an employer’s market.
Again, competition for jobs can be pretty stiff. On top of that, freelance writers are going to have to likely have to pitch new ideas to prospective employers or fit their work into a fairly tight box in terms of creativity. If that’s a problem, the age old answer is: start your own company. Otherwise, you’re locked into the mercenary world of freelance writing or art.
While it’s still easier than back in the day, it’s pretty daunting to start one’s own company. Many who start their own company will fail, sadly. Crowdfunding falls through. People have to work a “regular” job to pay the bills aside from rpg writing. Life happens after a company is born that takes away from writing/gaming efforts.
Art can be very difficult to come by. As a writer I regularly dream of finding that one mythical unicorn of an artist I could work with for a project or two just to get my work out there. Unfortunately, artists need to eat, too. Again, competition for artists in the RPG industry can be pretty stiff.
Back to the original question: What to charge?
I used to think $.03/word was reasonable for starting writers. Turns out three cents doesn’t go as far as it used to. To someone trying to break into the industry for the first time, I used to think FREE was reasonable. Now it turns out $.10/word is considered a workable wage for rpg writers.
I think it’s complicated. I’m not entirely sure ten cents per word really is the going rate. I’ve seen it work for life coaches. They go from charging $80 to $200 or more per session and suddenly their business takes off. But it can go the other way, too. Raise the rates too high and suddenly business goes to cheaper coaches. (Quality not withstanding.)
Stiff competition, a serious lack of fulltime permanent positions, and the veritable mountain of starting my own company makes me wonder, is it worth it? Do I charge the $.03 and get a job that could have paid triple or more? How much should the module/sourcebook sell for? $.99? Maybe $9.99? More? What percentage am I willing to accept? What about royalties? Will I just be adding to my mountain of flush letters? Gah! So many factors!
More on that in the third and final installment of this series. We’re going to jump in the Way Back machine and I’ll explain what it used to be like trying to get hired by RPG companies and how it really hasn’t changed all that much. I’ll also talk about what some of my friends on Twitter are doing to try to work around this mess.