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This is What Victory Looks Like

So, WotC has announced they are leaving OGL 1.0a completely alone.

https://www.dndbeyond.com/posts/1439-ogl-1-0a-creative-commons

AND releasing the 5.1 SRD under CC.

YOU did this. Congratulations!

There’s a lot to talk about in “Now what” territory, but I’ll get to that later this weekend, after I have had some time to process.

For now, I thank WotC for listening to the fans and industry as a whole. A lot of people said this would never happen. It’s to WotC’s credit that they decided not to keep pushing this.

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WotC Cannot Deauthorize the OGL 1.0a, and That Matters

There’s a new OGL draft, 1.2, which WotC has released for discussion.

It still claims WotC has the power to stop people from using the OGL 1.0a by “de-authorizing” it. That’s not a term acknowledged by the OGL 1.0a, and it’s not one with a legal meaning.

WotC is still trying to take away the promises of the OGL 1.0a, and that is 100% unacceptable. (The short version of why is if someone gives you 20 things for you to use however you want, and promise never to take any away, then they say they are taking back 18 of them anyway, it is NOT a victory if they decide to only take 12, or even only take 1. And WotC should be well aware of this.)

First, while some base set of rules is supposedly going to be released on a Creative Commons license, that explicitly does not cover things like Magic Missile and Owlbears. WotC opted to release those concepts under the OGL 1.0a, and did so multiple times over the years. They don’t now get to claim can force you to use a new license rather than follow the old one.

Second, their claim they “have to” to prevent “harmful, discriminatory, or illegal” is spurious at best. If you publish *illegal* content, obviously they have legal options to stop you. As far as “harmful” and “discriminatory” go, a huge part of making something Open is to prevent a corporation from getting to decide what is in good taste.

The license specifically forbids “obscene” material, without defining it. If you decide to include a happy gay owlbear couple, Wotc can say that it’s obscene under OGL 1.2 and cancel your license. That’s not a power they reserved for themselves under 1.0a, and given big corporations’ track records, there’s no guarantee they won’t abuse the power if it is given to them.

Third, they restrict the OGL 1.2 to “any content in the SRD 5.1 (or any subsequent version of the SRD we release under this license) that is not licensed to you under Creative Commons.”

So WotC is claiming you can’t do *anything* with the 3.0. 3.5, and d20 Modern SRDs. They are not part of the CC release. They are not allowed under OGL 1.2. Also, of course, they’re shutting off OGL products built off Open d6, Fate, Fudge, and other game systems released under OGL 1.0a that WotC had absolutely no hand in creating.

So when the survey opens? If you can fill it out without making a D&D Beyond account, do so and tell them this is 100% unacceptable. The only reason to attempt to invalidate the OGL is to steal back rights that were openly and freely given, which WotC has significantly benefited from, and which entire careers were built in reliance on.

That bad faith effort must be refused and fought.

And if you can’t fill the survey without making an account? That’s also a bad faith measure, and will call for strenuous protest to keep this debate in the public.

And ALL of those efforts must focus on the actions of WotC itself, NOT on attacking WotC staff or spreading rumors. At this point, WotC is telling use exactly what they are planning to do, and that’s the ground to fight them on.

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Because I need to encourage people to sign up for my Patreon to pay for the time I take to write the material in this blog, I have taken to making Tuesday and Thursday posts Patreon-exclusive. But the issue of the safe continuance of the OGL 1.0a is too important to paywall my thoughts, so I’m breaking my own rules and making this freely and publicly available.

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Now On Patreon: “In Times of Wars,” The Pros and Cons of Being on the Outside

My Tuesday posts are currently Patreon-exclusive. That’s an intentional carrot to get more people to join my Patreon, and once it’s risen to $1,500/month, I’ll both go back to posting Tuesday posts for free here on my blog as well as on my Patreon, and I’ll make and maintain some article index for my Patreons (the carrot to encourage Patrons to see if their friends want to join).

So when I do Tuesday posts at the moment, I try to give enough information on what it is about and where it’s going that people who read my free blog can decide if they want join up for a few bucks a month to read the end.

I’m doing the reverse, this time. The premise on why and how I can to the following conclusion is the meat of today’s Patreon-exclusive article. The tl;dr I ended with I’m going to post here, for everyone to read if they wish.

TL;DR –

War is messy, and people are going to get hurt. Consider that very carefully before taking the first shot, or joining some brigade.

But not opposing wrongdoing when your best analysis of a situation says it’s coming allows bullies to win.

I don’t believe there’s a perfect answer here.

Some Facts About the OGL (1.0 and 1.0a)

With the excellent article written by Linda Codega, and the video released by Roll For Combat that brought in a contract lawyer, there is a lot of news about WotC’s (Wizards of the Coast) plans for a “OGL 1.1” and why it is an act of bad faith on the part of WotC if they go forward with it.

So I’m not going over all that again here.

What I DO want to do is present some groundwork for what the OGL is, and isn’t, and what WotC have said about it in the past. This is an editorial by me, based in factual information, and is not itself part of the OGL content on this blog.

1. WotC themselves wrote an FAQ about how the OGL was to be used, back in 2004. This is important, because it shows (for example) that they were of the opinion if they changed the OGL publishers could ignore their new version, and that the OGL could be used for software. Obviously WotC doesn’t host that FAQ anymore, but the Wayback Machine has the original archived for us to all read and draw out own conclusions.

2. There is a huge difference between the OGL and the various SRDs (System Resource Documents). The OGL is not tied to any one game system or product release (see Point 3, below). For example, none of the D&D core rulebooks has ever been released under the OGL. Instead, pared-down versions of the rules for D&D 3.0. 35, D20 Modern, and 5e had SRDs released (and the Psionics handbooks back in 3.x days).

3. The OGL does not just cover products that are designed for use with D&D. For one thing, there are game systems that have been released under the OGL that were not created by WotC, and have no ties to any edition of D&D, including d6 Adventures, Fudge, and Fate.
There are also numerous complete RPGs that are their own things, separate from D&D, including Pathfinder, Starfinder, Mutants & Masterminds, and 13th Age, just to name a few.

4. It’s entirely up to WotC whether or not they release a One D&D SRD. If they don’t, those rules aren’t open. And they could release it under a totally separate license, unrelated to the OGL 1.0a. So, WotC is not under any threat from people using genuinely new rules from One D&D using the existing OGL. (Of course they have said One D&D will be compatible with 5e, so that raises a question if they are *new* rules, and if there aren’t, that might speak to motive on their part.)

5. The OGL does not allow anyone to mention D&D, WotC, the Forgotten Realms, or any other trademarks, or emulate any trade dress. So WotC does not need to worry about the OGL allowing people to associate repugnant material with D&D — all the brands trademarks, characters, and stories, of D&D are off-limits to OGL users, as are many even iconic creatures such as beholders and mind flayers.

6. WotC always knew the OGL would be used by their major competitors to make big profits. The OGL was shared with numerous representatives of various companies before it was made public. I was part of the email chain that was used by Ryan Dancey to do that. And it’s why Sword & Sorcery Studios (a newly-created division of White Wolf, a major ttRPG publisher at the time) was able to put out the Creature Collection in October of 2000, *before* the official 3.0 Monster Manual got published.

7. WotC benefitted from the existence of the OGL. They crafted it, with the knowing intent it would last forever, as part of their D&D relaunch business plan.

But don’t believe me. Believe Keith Strohm (and learn about why you care about his opinion on it in this fireside chat with Peter Adkison, president of WotC when the OGL was created). This is from a comment Keith made on Facebook, and is shared with his permission.

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The Print Run Crunch

(My blog post opinions are my own, and do not represent any of the companies I work, write, or freelance for.)

Tabletop RPG products that are part of an ongoing line and need a big, traditional print run (and here I’m going to go with 2,000 or more copies as “big” sadly, though that’s basically the minimum low end of big and 10k or 50k fits more strongly into this category) that goes into the distribution channel in order to make an acceptable Return On Investment have scheduling pressures that books that aren’t reliant on those factors get to avoid.

For that plan to work, distributors want to know your release date months in advance. Always well before a book is anything like ready to go to the printer. So, you do your best to write a schedule that makes sense to do that, and then you make arrangements with people like printers, warehouses, shippers, advertisers, freelancers, licensors… it’s a whole thing.

And because it is “a whole thing,” it is much, much more impactful if you miss that series of dates. Now, yes, it happens. Even the biggest companies sometimes miss a ship date. Sometimes it’s their fault. Other times, your normal printer can’t ship your product on time because they are shut down with too many employees out with Covid. (Yes, Covid. Yes, now in November 2022. This is not a random example, it’s something a tabletop-related company reported and is dealing with as we speak.)

But the consequences of it happening can be pretty severe, in both the short term and the long term. Distributors may push your product less if it doesn’t come out on time, or it may miss marketing windows you’ve set up in advance. Printing and shipping costs can go up precipitously (the Kickstarter Killer problem). Stores can end up not having the budget they set aside to get your book on their shelves because you don’t show up in the month they expect, and they reserve the money to spend on products with more reliable schedules. Printers and magazines may become less willing to reserve times for you in advance. And, retailers and customers may lose interest if they decide your release schedule isn’t stable.

No matter how hard companies try, sometimes their best effort at a reasonable schedule doesn’t allow for unexpected problems. Over 25 years in the industry I have had books get delayed because cover art was late, writers were late, editors were late, licensing approvals took longer than planned, licensing issues are found, files got corrupted, key team members became sick (or, sadly, even died), freelancers became unavailable due to things as serious as hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or war, and, of course, an international pandemic.

So when something you cannot predict or control goes wrong, and it goes wrong enough that the slack you built into your schedule can’t cover it, there is often a strong pressure to throw more hours at the project so you hit your printing/shipping deadlines anyway. Sometimes you can do this by adding more people, but that doesn’t always speed things on projects that require coordination between sections(especially core rulebooks). So, you look to have the staff working on it put in more hours… “Crunch Time.”

And, of course, the bigger and more expensive the book, the more pressure there is to get it done on time. Nor is this unfounded concern. A lot of game companies work on very thin margins. A major release going from a big moneymaker to just-above-break-even-or-worse can lead to cost-cutting that causes its own problems (you can have layoffs or do less marketing for one quarter, but you will suffer later), or even kill a game line or an entire company. This isn’t theory-crafting on my part. I have seen it happen.

Nor, in my experience, when a tabletop company has to go into Crunch Time, is it a matter of executives and managers airily commanding rank-and-file employees to work harder, do more with less, and stay late. At least with the companies I have been lucky enough to see the inner workings of, it’s much more likely that directors and department heads and publishers are among the hands for “all-hands-on-deck” emergencies. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but at least it’s shared pain.

And this, by the way, is one reason game creators can get pretty annoyed when someone claims something was just a cash grab, or the creators clearly didn’t care about quality, or it “just needed someone to read through it once to catch all the dumb stuff.” Because the bigger the book, the more likely it is everyone working on it put blood, sweat, and tears into it, and only caring about the quality kept them going at 2am, or when working 12-hour days for 20 days in a row, or pulling an all-nighter.

(This is actually one of the reasons the crowdfunding campaigns I run never include traditional print runs. I stick to pdf and print-on-demand, so that I can dodge some of these issues. And if something does get badly delayed, the fallout is less complicated. That does mean I am forgoing the possibility of a big retail hit, which limits my possible reach and income, but for me it’s worth it for my private projects. And given how many 6-digit Kickstarters I am aware of that ended up losing money, I’m happy to stick to my smaller-risk, smaller reward model.)

Now, none of this is an excuse to mistreat people or not keep striving to find ways to avoid Crunch Time. This kind of relentless deadline grind that still sometimes fails to hit the mark is one of the things that lead to burnout among creatives, and financial loss among companies. Nor is this an issue that only impacts some companies, or that has only come up in recent years. It’s hard to avoid, and happens often, to companies of different sizes, different structures, and different locations. It *can* happen as a result of negligence or bad decisions. But the vast majority of times I run into it (and end up Crunching for a project), it’s just an unfortunate consequence of how the industry and technology and retail have evolved. Those forces may not be insurmountable, but they are powerful. And a company may not crash if no one pulls crunch, but it’s a risk.

And often, it’s a risk even the rank-and-file employees and freelancers want to avoid if they can, even if that means Crunch Time.

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To Be Frank and Honest About the Downside of ttRPG Industry

I love ttRPGs, I love being a full-time professional I love all the fantastic amazing people I have met doing this for decades. But it’s not *all* Bifrosts and Buddy Moments. There are things that may not get talked about enough and, without wanting to be a downer, I want people considering being more involved to know what some of them are.

The number of salaried positions with benefits in the ttRPG industry are extremely small. While some are highly-paid jobs with security and clear opportunities for advancement and career growth (and things seem to be trending that direction for more), that’s not the norm.

Even for well-known companies with name recognition, awards, large fanbases, and decades of business, the number of them run largely (or even entirely) by freelance and contract work would shock a vast number of gamers.

So while it is possible to make ttRPG work your full-time job (I’ve done it since the late1990s), it’s rare, difficult and stressful. And you have to set your own definition of success. I know many designers, developers, and writers end up happier with the ttRPG work being a hobby that pays for itself, or a side-gig that gives them both satisfaction and some extra money.

But that’s not me. And, maybe, it’s not you.

If so, here are a few tiny bits of hard-won advice, distilled from decades of experience but all obviously colored by my own life experiences, which include a lot of privilege and luck.

*Don’t work yourself to death. It may seem like just this once you need to put in 80 hours, or pull an all-nighter, or self-medicate to get through writer’s block. And, you know, I get it. that has to be your call. But the industry is build on the burned-out careers of people better than me who pulled off the impossible, and were rewarded with the expectation they’d keep doing it over and over, and who eventually discovered when burning the candle at both ends isn’t enough, you set fire to your own flesh without even realizing the extra heat and light is killing you.

*This industry remains disproportionately white and male. No, it’s not universal. But it is still the case, and not only is that a self-perpetuating issue, it reinforces an environment where anyone who doesn’t meet the expected traits of a “game designer” is likely subject to fewer opportunities, greater challenges, and more prolific abuse. We can’t shrug and just accept that this is the way things are, but we also need to face the current reality.

*Be safe. I wish I didn’t have to say that. But there are absolutely people who will take advantage of you in all sorts of ways, from underpaying you to gaslighting you abut what was agreed to, to being abusive to make them feel better about their hobbies. And, let’s be honest, sexual misconduct is not unknown. Look, I’m a 475 lb. cis white bearded male, and I’ve had my ass grabbed nonconsensually and inappropriately at events. More than once. Alcohol on the part of the grabber was usually involved. Never go anyplace you’re uncomfortable or with anyone who makes you feel unsafe.

*If you are someone who has ever or you think could ever send someone sexual pictures or texts without clear and ongoing consent, or pressure someone to kiss, or grab their ass, or make lewd remarks, or worse, be that at a bar, or the office, or a game, or an event, drunk or sober, fucking cut it out. I know a lot of us were powerless and mocked growing up, and I have seen what a little taste of power, prestige, and popularity can do. It’s not acceptable, it never has been, and it has to stop. And if you are aware of people doing it, take steps to stop it.

*If money, ideas, rights, graphics, art, or effort is being exchanged, commissioned, or transferred, don’t work without a contract. That contract needs to say what is being done, who gets the final rights for it, what the remuneration is, what happens if the project never happens, when it is due, and what happens if any element of that doesn’t go as laid out. Without that, don’t start working. Not for well-known companies. Not for me. Not for anyone.

There are lots of wonderful, amazing, caring, creative, fun, interesting people in this industry. In fact in my experience, that’s the MAJORITY of people in this industry. Most of my best friends are ttRPG professionals, and will move heaven and earth to make the world a better place.

But 1 oz of raw sewage can spoil a very, very large bottle of Mtn Dew even if most of it is fine. (Well, assuming you are okay with Mtn Dew to begin with — but you see my point). Nothing a ttRPG career can bring you is worth your security, safety, sanity, or serenity. By all means enjoy the great parts of this community — but also take care of yourself.

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The Current OneBookShelf AI Art Policy

Anyone selling anything on DriveThruRPG.com should read their whole page of policies, but relevantly for AI art, the currently-final policy is in place regarding using Tool- and AI- art in products and how they need to be notated.

I like this version much better than previous draft.

You can find the full text at the link (https://onebookshelfpublisherservice.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/227866467-Product-Standards-Guidelines), but I’ve copied the bit crucial for this issue below.

Tool- and AI-Generated Images

The following policy applies only to titles listed by publishers on DriveThruRPG. Other sites and community programs are, for now, exempt from these rules. 

3rd Party Tool-Generated Images

All product listings that feature art or maps generated using a tool or service designed to reduce or offset the artistic process (such as donjon, Inkarnate, or Dungeondraft) are required to utilize the Format > Creation Method > 3rd Party Tool-Made title filter, except in the following instances:

  1. the tool uses only art assets that you have created by hand;
  2. the art has undergone additional processing or modification post-generation (such as animating generated maps or tokens, painting and compositing over content, etc.); or
  3. the product is expressly approved by OneBookShelf.

AI-Generated Images

All product listings that feature art created automatically by an AI-generation tool meant to bypass or replace human artistry, such as ArtBreeder, MidJourney, NightCafe, etc. are required to utilize the Format > Creation Method > AI-Generated title filter, except in the following instances:

  1. the art has undergone significant processing/modification post-generation; or
  2. the product is expressly approved by OneBookShelf.

Note for AI-Generated Stock Art

Titles containing any art rendered by AI-generated tools that are sold as “Stock Art” (under the Product Type > Publisher Resources filter) must also display the following statement in their product description:

This product contains assets that were, wholly or in part, procedurally generated with the aid of creative software(s) powered by machine learning.

Titles that do not comply are subject to removal from the marketplace. Repeat offenders may have their publishing permissions revoked.”

Given the unsettled nature of the legal status of copyright on art made with AI, it makes perfect sense to me to want to make sure customers buying stock art (which they will presumably use in their own products), be aware of the nature of the product they are purchasing.

As with all things AI art I’m keeping an open mind and continuing to research and consider, but overall I support this policy given where we are in the cycle of AI art and legalities, and how it focuses on stock art a customer may use in their own products.

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Is A Freelance Work Stoppage “Professional”?

So, today I’m responding specifically to comments made by Ron Lundeen, who I consider and friend and have nothing but respect for, in his role as cohost of Digital Divination, a podcast that is part of the Know Direction network.

Specifically, something he said in Digital Divination 041 – Mechs! The relevant section begins at about 5 minutes, so feel free to go listen.

Ron specifically said (as best as I can transcribe the punctuation of this statement): “I can speak about the freelancers who have elected not to not to work with us as a statement. I respect that statement that they’re making, and, saying ‘We’re not going to take any more work’ is one of the most powerful statements that they can make. On the other hand I, in my mind I do deem it pretty unprofessional to have agreed to turn something in and then to withhold it.

So those freelancers that are saying, ‘As a matter of principle I am not going to sign any more contracts or take any more work,’ I both understand and support that. Freelancers who have contracted for work and are refusing to turn in something that they have contractually agreed to turn in, … ah I don’t consider that particularly professional. That’s… that’s… a.. in my mind, that’s kind of a black mark from the person’s professionalism.

He then goes on to talk about his background in contract law and the fact that he’s closer to 50 than to 40 being factors that influenced this opinion of his. As someone who turned 50 last year, and who has filled the roles of freelancer, Paizo Dev, WotC Dev, Green Ronin Dev, Designer, and Publisher over more than 20 years in the ttRPG industry, I wanted to respond to Ron’s statement. I also feel the need to note I am not one of the freelancers who withheld work from Paizo, and I was not part of the group that coordinated that decision. However, I will not be taking work from Paizo until the United Paizo Workers union is recognized.

I absolutely, positively, do not consider it unprofessional to refuse to turn over contracted work as part of a protest against the corporation you have a contract with. I think judging that as a “black mark” against freelancers who choose to do so is not only wrongheaded, it’s dangerous.

I consider withholding contracted work for moral reasons to be in the same category as civil disobedience. That there can be a higher ethical calling than to follow agreed-upon rules. And that, especially given the freelancers did this not to aid themselves, but to aid Paizo employees they had reasonable suspicion were being mistreated, makes it the moral choice. The freelancers very clearly have little other power to affect change and, much like a strike, have turned to this as a last resort.

That leads to the question of “professionalism.”

Common law imposes obligations on employers to provide a safe workplace, provide safe tools, give warnings of dangers, provide adequate co-worker assistance so that the worker is not overburdened, and promulgate and enforce safe work rules. I would consider calling it a “black mark” to refusing to assist in ongoing conditions that numerous past and current employees are saying fail to meet that standard to be actually dangerous, as it is a statement that contracts should be followed even if doing so may cause you to be assisting in creating unsafe conditions.

Now, I acknowledge suspension of contract to apply pressure for a better workplace is not recognized in ordinary contract law or in commercial contract law in particular. A party to a contract must perform its obligations under the contract (subject to the terms and conditions of the contract and the exception of unusual circumstances which may cause disruption to the contract). A party which reneges on its contractual obligations is in breach of contract and the injured party may sue for remedies such as performance or compensation for damages.

But that doesn’t, to me, make it unprofessional to risk being sued in order to make every effort to aid people you believe to be in need, and lacking the power to affect such change themselves. To me, the question of professionalism is about how they did it. As a concerted action, having discussed it among themselves, and making sure their developers were aware of who was withholding work, and why, and then beginning discussions with Paizo management on how to fix those issues to a degree the work could be delivered, are the acts of professionals.

Which is why the freelancers have since changed from whatever their original concerns were straight to “Recognize the Union.” Because what they want is for their colleagues working at Paizo to have a voice to affect change.

I refuse to label that as unprofessional.

You can learn more about the events that lead to this freelancer decision and their desire to Support Unionization here: https://supportpaizoworkers.carrd.co/#summary

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The Biggest Secret of the ttRPG Industry

A lot of people are going to disagree with me, and that’s fine. But I firmly believe this is the most important secret within the ttRPG industry, as a whole. Obviously there are different secrets for any given company or game, but this is the one that you won’t hear about in reward ceremonies, podcasts, or social media acounts.

Ready?

You Never Hear About The Most Important People in the Industry.

But, you cry, I know all the streaming actors and GMs! I can quote 31 game writers’ names! I have memorized  Shannon Appelcline’s 4-volume “Designer’s & Dragons” history of the industry!

And that’s great. Seriously, thanks for paying attention.

But do you know who was the producer of your favorite show? Which editors were leading the team for that award-winning game line? Who tracked the budget of the company, making sure bills were paid and paychecks cleared? Heck who shipped those books from the warehouse? Who planned and built the Gen Con booth? Who made the arrangements with the printer, managed the schedule, figured out the cost/benefit factors of printing 2,000 vs 3,0000 copies? Who wrangled the new post-Brexit VAT laws, or YouTube children-appropriate content rules?

Who was taking customer service calls, handling people who might get pissed off about a game for reasons entirely unrelated to its content, fun, quality, or creator? Who wrote the community engagement rules, safety policy, and editorial standards?

When a game company goes under, the reason is rarely “The game wasn’t fun,” or “The Lead Designer Left.” No, companies collapse because they didn’t prepare for a change between the value of international currencies, or a book was massively overprinted, or they hired too many people-or not enough people-and the schedule and budget couldn’t be manipulated fast enough to deal with changing market conditions.

Or everyone burned out, and just walked away.

For the industry to be an industry, rather than a haphazard series of vanity hobby options, there are support professionals dealing with the things that all industries need. Sourcing. Shipping. Editing. Marketing. Warehousing. Customer service.

And even within the industry, most people can name 5 designers for every editor they know, and 5 editors for every print buyer, customer service manager, or warehouse director.

And yes, for a lot of companies, people have to wear many hat. But if you know the name of the writer who happens to also handle print runs, but you don’t know they are the person arranging for book printing, that’s still an unknown print buyer.

And most of these kinds of jobs can be done in other industries, for more money and less customer vitriol. So, if you have any opportunity to interact with these crucial people who make the ttRPG industry possible?

Be nice. Say thanks.

Without them, there is no industry.

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Guest Blog: Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Gaming veteran, artist, and writer Jacob Blackmon!

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

I Started Drawing Because I Can’t Spell Worth Shit…

OR…

My Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

By Jacob E Blackmon

Let’s just start by saying, I love my life. I love being an artist in the tabletop game community. This job has allowed me a freedom of living that I never imagined possible. I seriously cannot think of any job I would rather be doing right now.

As the same time, it has also been the occasional financial burden, when the art commissions slow down and money gets tight. That is something one has to learn as a freelancer in any market. There are highs and lows (or “feast and famine” as some say), and one never knows when they will come… so be sure to have a good savings account.

My name is Jacob Blackmon, and I have been a freelance artist in the tabletop rpg community since 2009. I’ve only been doing the gig as a full time thing since 2013. Given that I was born in 1977, this has been a very small – but significant – portion of my life. I’ve been gaming since 1989, and I never even considered using my art skills as a ttrpg artist.

For the longest time, I wanted to be a comic book artist, hence my distinctive style. This style has served me well… and also been a curse, as there are some companies that refuse to work with me, because I don’t have that traditional “painted fantasy” look. And that kind of rejection is certainly going to apply to the big-name companies (Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, etc.), who only use that “painted” style of art, so I know I will never get jobs with them. Which is too bad, because I would love to see my name in one of their books.

But my success is not measured in what books I have not been in. It is measured in the books where I HAVE contributed my art. And those are MANY! The third-party ttrpg industry is a massive community of wonderful and passionate people. These are the folks I consider my peers… and quite, often… my friends. Despite this familiarity to which I speak of them, it is important to maintain a professional attitude when working with such people. They expect every bit as much professionalism from their freelancers – artists and writers includes – as any of the big name companies.

Deadlines are a serious thing, and can make or break a company, especially in the post-COVID days. During the CV19 days of 2020, the gaming community seriously suffered. If you were not Wizards of the Coast, you saw your finances drop significantly. This is why deadlines are so important to keep in mind as a freelancer. We need to make sure we get our work done in time, so the company can get their product out.

I have seriously lost count of many projects have come my way because another artist decided they didn’t want to work on a project and did not communicate this fact until after the deadline posted by the company. This is a serious breach of trust and of professionalism. If a freelancer can’t make their deadlines, the company will stop going to that person in favor of those that will. So, meet your deadlines. This is, seriously, THE MOST IMPORTANT ADVICE IS CAN GIVE ANYONE! Meet your deadlines!

I can count, on one hand, how many times I have failed to make a deadline. And, when it has happened I always let the company whom I am working for know that I will miss the deadline before it happens. That is the second key: communication. Just like in life, love, family, and relationships, one needs to maintain communication with the people they are working for. Let them know the progress of the art assignment. Have you started on it? Yes? Let them know that.

During the art process, I usually have several stages of communication with a client.

  1. Beginning – When first starting on the art.
  2. Early stages – When my first rough draft concept is ready, I send them a copy via email (sometimes through another PM service, if they prefer, but emails is always the true professional way to do it!). When a rough draft is approved, I move on to…
  3.  Line work – This stage shows the clean version of what had been the rough draft, giving the client an idea of what the final piece will look like. It is also the last time a client will really have to make any serious changes to the pieces. I mention this, because once we start to add color, shading, and highlighting to an illustration, it becomes MUCH harder to make alterations.
  4. Coloring – For me, this is both the base coloring stage, plus shading and highlights. This is often the final stage, as alterations after this stage are incredibly difficult.

Each of these stages has me sending the client an email of what is going on with the piece. Once the final piece is approved, that’s the best time to send an invoice and get paid! The best clients pay immediately (“I do the job, I get paid.” – Mal Reynolds, Firefly), but some clients may have to hold those payments until they themselves get paid through another venue. This is why it helps to make sure to have a steady stream of clients at the same time. That way, not only can an artist transition from one piece to another, while waiting for one client to respond to the latest email; but also so that the artist has a nice steady flow of income. One client may not be able to pay their bill immediately, but the other should be able to. And that keeps a bank account happy, bills paid, and food on the table.

There are a couple of suggestions I have to maintaining a steady supply of clients, as well as netting new clients in the future. These were things I had to learn along the way in my own freelance art career, and some were told to me by others. So I am teaching them to you, as well…

Get an online profile! Make sure you have a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure you have an online gallery where potential clients can see your art.

Have a rate sheet! Make sure you know how much to charge for your work, and make sure it is equal to how valuable your time is that you put towards your work. Don’t short-sell yourself, just to make clients happy. Save the price discounts for “friends and family.” Make sure to always charge your friends and family. Don’t give them free art, unless YOU choose to do so. This is your JOB!

THIS IS YOUR JOB! Be a professional. Meet your deadlines. But, at the same, time treat it like a job. Take time off, including regular breaks during the day (don’t sit in the chair and look at social media; stand up and move around… make yourself a light snack.. socialize with your roommates), break for lunch, and when you have put in your 8 hours…. STOP WORKING!

The last bit of advice I can give to a potential artist who wants to work in the ttrpg community is to also be a ttrpg gamer! You cannot imagine how much time it save a client to have an artist already be familiar with the various games and art associated with said games. No one has ever had to describe to me what a “peryton” is, as I already know what they are supposed to look like. This saves both you and the client a ton of time and descriptive text.

Go! Draw! Have fun and make money doing it!

Speaking of which, please support me on Patreon: patreon.com/jacobblackmon

Jacob Blackmon

Gallery: deviantart.com/prodigyduck

FB: facebook.com/jacob.blackmon.56

And as always, you can support this blog at Owen K.C. Stephens’ Patreon!