What to Charge Part 3

“Darn kids, get off my lawn!” (while shaking fist angrily.) Let’s talk about how bad it used to be trying to break into the RPG industry. “Wait, those are my kids…”

I used to want to work at a game company.

Remember T$R? Remember the RPGA? How about Dragon or Dungeon magazines? What about West End Games, Mayfair, Flying Buffalo Games, FASA, Alderac Entertainment Group, or GDW? While some of them may be around nominally, they are not the RPG powerhouses they were back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Some of them are gone entirely while others are back doing a fraction of what they did back then.

Time for me to tell a few stories of Ye Olden Times in the RPG Industry. See, back then, when I was a starry-eyed teenager growing up in small town Iowa, I really dreamt of working for a game company. That’s still my big dream. I’m not doing it to become a millionaire.

Some myths were shattered early on.

I asked around a lot during my college years about how to get started as a writer in the RPG industry. The most common answer I received back then was to put out submissions to anyone and everyone who would take them as much as possible (**FOR FREE**) until someone took notice. This usually meant writing modules for the RPGA for D&D and/or a small handful of other games, most of which were T$R properties. If one got a foot in the door for a small magazine or the RPGA’s publication, Polyhedron, one had a chance of getting printed in Dungeon (very rarely) or Dragon (More likely.) From those humble beginnings, one then had a vague chance of getting noticed by an established game company and a portfolio could be constructed. From there, real money could possibly be earned.

For those familiar, this is also the old tried-and-true formula for the publishing industry at large. Newspapers and magazines have functioned this way for decades, taking advantage of college students and freelancers having to “work their way up through the ranks.” What sucks is that it’s merely a system perpetuated by seniority. It worked that way for them, so obviously it has to work that way for everyone.

Gary Gygax had to start somewhere, right? I understand if you start a company and you want to keep making money, there have to be standards. A lot of hard work went into early game giants such as T$R, Games Workshop, and the Judge’s Guild. Many RPG companies went from a small family business in a cottage industry to major powerhouse with a few major successes. Then, many of them fell apart completely because of one or two poor selling products, bad investments, divorce, or selling canned beer in the office vending machine. (True story.)

Needless to say, a few things became apparent to my starry eyed younger game designer aspiring self. First, I probably wasn’t going to get rich selling RPGs. Second, it’s hard as heck to get a foot in the door in anyone else’s franchise. Third, no one’s hiring without a portfolio built on blood, sweat, and free tears. Last, starting one’s own company is fraught with peril and should be considered a last resort.

Things are changing?

Technology is scary for some, but not me.

Okay, I’m somewhat skeptical about this, but I’m told a couple of the authors of a major D&D supplement, Strixhaven, were hired straight out of college. Great for them. That’s not what I’m used to seeing in the industry. Maybe WotC/Hasbro has turned over a new leaf? I’m not holding my breath just yet.

I know. It’s the old Grognard coming out again. I could say, “By golly, we had to give a pound of flesh and a quart of blood just to get rejected again, so these kids should too. Everyone should be as miserable as we are.” Again, that’s how we’re used to the industry working, up until technology changed dramatically.

The RPGA is defunct last I heard. Polyhedron has definitely gone the way of the dodo. Dragon Magazine hasn’t been a thing in years. (Dragon+ looks like it might be going away, too.) Dungeon is pretty much gone except in back issues. Really, RPG magazines in general have defaulted to small time electronic publications. Then again, look at the magazine industry as a whole.

Maybe WotC, Paizo and a few others are hiring people off the street to write RPGs. I’ve seen more rise through the ranks of DMsGuild and have offers extended to them than I’ve ever seen a job ad posted anywhere, ever.

We’re not still living in the Stone Age, though. Websites like DriveThruRPG, Patreon, Ko-Fi and Itch.io have emerged that allow product to be sold or even donated usually in pdf or another electronic format.

Some friends on RPG Twitter have a good thing going.

Idea!

I’m new to Twitter. I avoided it for years, especially during a certain Republican’s administration. Some of my new friends on RPG Twitter seem to have quite a successful formula going.

They’re producing super short RPGs- a couple of pages with streamlined, light rules and selling them at Pay What you Want or extremely low prices on platforms that don’t take out huge fees. They’re also putting out a lot of free stuff and promoting themselves well. So far as I can tell, it seems to be working.

Once a foot is in the door using one of these small engines, the writer can then optionally move onto larger, even freelance writing projects or move up to larger sites. I love and admire some of these fine folks. It seems like a good way to go.

I may be following suit, but I’m not sure yet. At some point the freelance question is going to come up again. The RPG industry is more oversaturated with product and talent than ever. Competition for the coveted positions is tougher than ever. The industry is booming thanks to promotion from Critical Role and other actual play podcasts.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” –Snake Pliskin, Escape from LA.

Needless to say, I’m kind of still on the fence with this whole thing. Hey, it took me three articles to get here. I believe that writing job still exists. I may never get to write Star Wars RPG stuff for WEG, but it’s possible I can put out something fun for any number of other game systems, genres, or specific properties.

I ain’t getting any younger, but then again, the RPG industry was basically started by guys who more-or-less match my description. I ain’t giving up any time soon. They might be wheeling me into the old gamers home someday, dice, pencil, notebooks and whatever game we’re on in hand, but I ain’t giving up.

What to Charge Part 2

Stiff competition, a serious lack of fulltime permanent positions, and the veritable mountain of starting your 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? Will I just be adding to my mountain of flush letters?

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.

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.

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