(Image by Jessica Dale)
For about a month now, I’ve been talking about the realities of the U.S. tabletop RPG industry, as I see them. I’ve posted thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, including under the hashtags #RealGameIndustry and #NotesFromAnRPGDev. ENWorld also created threads to discuss many of these shortly after I started, and again a week or so later. (And, I just discovered, a third time on July 4th).
And a lot of those observations paint a pretty grim picture. Poor pay. No security. No prospects for retirement. Regular harassment from fans and pop culture commentators. A fairly wide spectrum of people who think what you do requires no special talents, and that’s why you can’t make a living at it, and if you wanted to be able to live in moderate safety you shouldn’t picked a “fun” job like making games. These, of course, are intermixed with people who feel the need to interject about how common these problems are in all industries–which certainly suggests picking a different career might not be as helpful as the first group wants to claim.
Of course, my experiences aren’t objective or somehow universal of course, but I have been involved in the industry for 23 years, as a freelance writer (full and part time), contract worker, staff designer, staff developer, freelance developer, producer, line editor, publisher, and consultant. But even then, it’s one narrow slice of the ttRPG industry. A number of other professionals have opined about what they agree with, and what they feel like need qualifiers, but there’s been little real disagreement that I have seen.
So, if it’s a terrible way to make a living—why do I? Why stick with an industry for decades if even the “success” of getting hired on-staff by the two biggest RPG companies in North America isn’t enough to leave me able to pay the bills without having to scramble every month?
I was writing the headline of this article, and my wife leaned over, and in all seriousness asked me “So, why DO you do it?”
I confess that in the past 6 months, I have begun to think maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s time to hang up the dice, at least professionally, and switch to a “normal” job. I still may. But not this week, which brings us back to “why?”
There are two big reasons.
1. I Want To Help
And I think I can, but only from the inside.
So, what do I mean by help?
I mean help gaming, as a hobby, and game professionals, as a group. I want to work to make the ttRPG industry create the most good situations for the most people. That means working to improve conditions and stability, trying new things and seeing if any of them work better, answering questions, tutoring people, putting folks in touch with other folks for mutual benefit, and publicly fighting for diversity, inclusion, and ethical game designs.
And while it may be hubris to think I can make a difference, I’d rather struggle so survive if it means there is a chance I can make other people’s struggles easier. I’ll never be the person who determines if I have succeeded at this, of course. And I may never know if I really improve things. But I do get feedback that convinces me the effort is worth making.
It looks to me like there will be people trying to be full-time RPG professionals for the foreseeable future. I want to help them, and at the same time help the industry, hobby, and fans of gaming be the best they can.
2. I Think RPGs Are Important
I think ALL games are important, but especially ttRPGs. Roleplaying Games brought me most of the good things in my life.
High school was harsh for me, and I can honestly say I was miserable most of the time and considered suicide more than once. But RPGs let me explore ideas I was too afraid to discuss, helped me form a strong social support group, and let me make friends I am still playing with 25 and 30 years later. Nothing else came close to letting me deal with my pain, and learn something about bravery.
I learned empathy through RPGs, and regret, and problem solving. It encouraged me to learn about history, grammar, math, probability, tactics, risk-taking and analysis, even a theory of fun. I doubt there is any positive aspect of my personality I can’t trace back to RPGs. And a lot of things I know were terrible parts of who I was growing up I overcame through interactions with RPGs, and the people I met through them.
My tightest bonds outside my immediately family came from ttRPGs. I met my wife through roleplaying. My best friends, from people I have known for more than 35 years to people I just got to know in the past year, through roleplaying. I have gotten to learn from geniuses, and help put folks much more creative than me on easier paths, through roleplaying games.
Further, I believe the influence of ttRPGs has much bigger ripples than people realize. And I want to have a small hand in what those ripples look like, and what messages they send out.
So yes, even when some person or persons leaves comments on videos claiming I am so fat and disgusting no-one should ever look at me or trust me, even in weeks when I have to spend 60-70 hours scrambling to pay the bills and arrange for opportunities to do the same thing next month, even when groups of people claim my ethics and morals are just schemes to draw attention, even when people smarter and more creative than me throw in the towel and leave the industry — or maybe especially those times — I feel the drive to keep doing this.
I know I cannot make a huge difference, but I feel this is the tool I can best use to do the most good, for the most people.
If you feel like supporting me in those efforts, you can make a huge difference by supporting my Patreon.
Hey, creative person.
I get it. You have deadlines, and responsibilities, and bills, and people counting on you. People tell you to be kind to yourself, to take a break, to ease up… and you can’t.
I understand. I promise.
Only you can know what can be back-burnered, and what can’t. I won’t pretend to be able to give you advice on that front.
I also want to assure you, the trouble you are having now focusing on things? The lack of spoons, or inspiration, or concentration?
That’s the new normal. I can’t say we are ALL dealing with it. Maybe there are some folks who aren’t having trouble right now. But I haven’t talked to any creative that isn’t.
There’s an additional cognitive load on all of us. Worry, planning, concern, frustration, fear… those things take a toll. that toll comes directly from your brain.
The brain you use to be creative.
So, while I can’t tell you to take a break, or take it easy (because I don’t know if you are in a place where you CAN do that), I do want to encourage you to remember things are not normal.
Whatever you would do if you had something dragging down — illness, technical problems, jury duty, whatever?
Global pandemic qualifies for the same measures.
And everyone gets that.
This is less Writing Basics than it is Freelancing Basics, but I suspect it’s going to have the same audience, so I don’t want to make a whole new tag. 🙂
I’ve spoken and written many times about how useful it is when building a game industry career to go meet other professionals in person. You can do this at conventions, game days, trade shows, and sometimes smaller open-invitation get-togethers. And I stand by all of that.
But, let’s face it, for a lot of people going to meet professionals who live in Seattle (or anywhere really) isn’t a viable option. If you don’t live right near an event they are attending, or very close to their home base, it’s expensive to get to any such opportunity. Even if you do live nearby, you may not be able to take time off work as needed. Or you may be a person with disabilities, or have family you have to take care of, or face crippling anxiety in crowds.
My first Gen Con nearly drove me out of the industry, I was so overwhelmed by the massive crowds. The first Gen Con I attended as a Paizo employee nearly killed me because I’m just not up to doing as much walking as it called for. I’ve worked very hard on overcoming those issues of mine, and many others, but that’s not an option for everyone.
What is available to everyone reading this on my blog is – online schmoozing.
No, it’s not as effective as meeting people in-person. But it’s also much less restrictive on when and with who you can try it. And human psyches being what they are, it can still be extremely effective, especially over the long run. Familiarity, gratitude, and humor can help build relationships.
So, some basics.
Follow Them. Like and Share Their Stuff
The beginning step is just to find places where these professionals are being visible in a professional capacity, and engaging with them there in basic and helpful ways. Do they have a professional Facebook page (and that likely includes anyplace they advertise their work)? Follow them, interact with and SHARE their posts. If you thought a post was neat, reply saying you thought it was neat. Retweet their Twitter announcements. Subscribe to their Twitch shows. This will begin to be noticed, over time, in a positive light.
Don’t Take Rejection Personally
Seriously, a declined friend request with no explanation is not an insult. Just take these things in stride, and look for more professional, less intimidate places to follow that game creative. Many creatives keep separate presences for their role as authors or artists an their personal social media, so try to find their professional account. (I don’t do this, but I’m a weird exception in that regard.)
And if they block you? Take the hint, and walk away. Full stop.
Remember They Don’t Owe You Anything
Online schmoozing is not transactional. Watching 400 hours of a Twitch stream does not obligate that broadcaster to do you favors, boost your stuff, or even talk to you. Over time you can see who does seem interested in talking to you, or even helping you, but accept that is their choice and you cannot and should not push for or expect anything.
In general, I think it’s most effective for you to use your real name and face as your tag and icon when you want to benefit from online schmoozing. But that’s obviously secondary to you being happy, and you being safe. If there are reasons not to use your real name or face, see if you can at least use recognizable names and icons over multiple platforms. I can’t begin to guess how many people I recognize on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on paizo.com, without having any idea they are all the same person. If someone wants to benefit from my getting to know them virtually, there’s a much bigger impact if I know those interactions are all with one person.
It’s the internet. Some creators are creeps. Some are secretly vile. Don’t do anything that feels scummy, invasive, or not in the nature of the professional contact level you are trying to build. Keeping communication in public spaces can help with this.
Respect Their Space
Different online spaces call for different kinds of interaction. For example, if a professional is streaming to promote their new book and have a live chat, and opens a question-and-answer period, that’s a bad time to ask their advice for how to break into the industry. They are there to promote something, so a much better interaction is to ask them about that project, or something closely related. If, after a few questions, there don’t seem to be more folks wanting to talk on that subject you can inquire about asking a less-related question. But if the answer is no, don’t push it.
Similarly, if you get invited to a social online space that includes professional, don’t pester them about professional issues without some sign it’s appropriate and welcome. I’ve heard stories about game company owners having people pitch them freelance projects during online gameplay with MMORPG guilds. That’s the wrong time and place.
Here I’m specifically talking about your interactions with professionals you WANT to get to know better. And, remember to think about how what you write could be taken in harsh text form, with no smile or human inflection or context to soften it. There are people I have known for decades who can reference old in-jokes with me online that make me smile, but that from the outside must look like some harsh insults. Someone who thought that was just how I interacted with folks online and tried to emulate similar language might well tick me off, and I’d have no idea they through they were joining in on the fun.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time On It
The idea here is to become part of an easily-accessed online community that includes professionals you hope to learn from, and someday be recognized by. It’s not to have a part-time job clicking likes and boosting tweets.
If your online schmoozing prevents you from doing anything fun or important? You’re doing it too much.
Shamelessly Linking This To My Patreon
Giving someone money actually isn’t generally the best way to build an online relationship… but being a patron of mine DOES help me have time to write advice posts like this one!
In part one of my recent ongoing series of articles looking at converting every feat from the PF Core Rulebook that doesn’t already have a namesake in Starfinder to the Starfinder game system, I mention that if you think a project you are being hired for has bad decisions behind it, you should bring those to your publisher. I also mention that once you agree to do the job you should do it, without offering any exceptions for cases where you have moral or ethical concerns about completing the work. these can be tricky waters to navigate, but it’s worth discussing some best practices for bring your concerns to your publisher/editor/developer/producer.
Some of the following examples are going to sound extreme, and I don’t want to give the impression that every project is filled with objectionable, harmful, short-sighted material you have to fight back against. But I can’t pretend it never happens, and obviously it’s when the stakes are highest that this is both the most important, and the most nerve-wracking.
Also, I am aware of my own shortcomings enough to know I don;t always see the ways in which material can be harmful. So if you are writing for me, and you have concerns? LET ME KNOW. Push back. Point to this article if you want some back-up. I ASKED you to tell me if I’m requesting bad ideas from you.
As always, I’ll also note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. Also, I come at this as a writer, developer, and publisher, as those are the kinds of roles I have filled for RPG creation. Artists, graphic designers, editors, and layout artists face similar challenges at least as great, but my advice may not work as well for them.
Try Not To Create Any Surprises
Ideally when working on a project you’ll have access to an outline and a general vision of the project prior to agreeing to write for it, so if you have any concerns you can bring them up early on. For example, if a project’s outline suggests covering topics you don’t feel are appropriate for an RPG, you can discuss that at the beginning with your contact. Even if that means you backing out of the project because you just can’t get on the same page as the publisher, it’s much better for all concerned if you do that early.
If your project is going to involve a lot of discrete bits, it’s worth scanning those for potential trouble spots extremely early in the process. For example if you are asked to do expanded write-ups on six cities, go through the existing material at least briefly as soon as you can. If one of the cities is mired in material you see issues with (whether those are as simple as it having a stupid name or as complex as having an explicit social set-up filled with stereotypes you find harmful), bringing those to your contact as soon as possible both allows everyone plenty of time to try to figure out a solution (while the rest of the project moves forward), and proves you’re taking your responsibilities seriously.
The closer you are to deadline, the less flexible your publisher is likely to be. While that is often because the publisher places money over your concerns, it’s worth remembering they have mouths to feed as well, and people counting on them. That doesn’t excuse making money on harmful material, but it is worth remembering if you’re trying to build a working relationship.
Of course sometimes things develop you could not have foreseen. You may only be contracted to write part of a project, and when you see someone else’s section it’s full of material you have issues with or, worse, it changes the context of your own material in harmful ways. Or you might be shown cover art you dislike so much you don’t want your name associated with it. Or you might get developer feedback that explicitly asks you to alter things in a way you have problems with. The point is that the sooner you can raise a flag, the easier the process is likely to be for all concerned.
There’s A Thing Line Between Asking for Clarification and Passive-Aggressive
A great first step when something from the publisher seems like a bad idea is to ask for clarification. Going back to my series of articles as an example, if a publisher told me to convert *every* missing PF feat from the core rulebook to Starfinder, I’d pretty quickly ask if they meant even feats that refer to rules that don’t exist in Starfinder and already have their basic concept covered, like Exotic Weapon Proficiency. The publisher might come back and agree that some feats don’t need conversion.
However, once I get told that yes, EVERY feat needs to be converted, constantly asking if that’s the case even if the end result is dumb, or even if that means confusing people, or any other objections, I’m moving beyond just asking for clarification. Once you have your answer work with it, for better or worse.
If the answer means you can’t work on a project for personal or ethical or legal reasons, at that point just say so.
Be As Polite As The Situation Allows
Ideally, you’ll always be in a place where you can be polite and considerate to your publisher. If nothing else, with luck you’ll have some idea what kind of material the publisher produces before working for them (or even pitching them ideas) and will have just avoided anyone who is going to ask for things you think are stupid or problematic.
Even just five years ago, I’d have made this advice to ALWAYS be polite. And, honestly, my privileged and luck have meant I have always had that choice (though I haven’t always used it, to my regret). But I have seen other writers put in situations where I confess, polite might not convey how serious an objection is.
I strongly recommend defaulting to as polite as you think you can possibly be, and reserving more stringent language and complaints for serious legal or ethical objections, but that has to be your call.
Explain Your Concerns
Saying “this piece of art is terrible” isn’t helpful to a publisher. Be as specific, and as nonjudgmental, as the situation allows for. Does the art depict the 8-armed Klyzon species as having 6 arms? Are the colors so muted and fuzzy that from 2 feet back it just looks like mud? Does the Klyzon look EXACTLY like a character from the Trek Wars animated series? It it’s tattoo of a symbol with real-world religious or political meaning? Is the Klyzon man a horrific monster in full armor, and the Klyzon woman a near-human with tiny horns wearing sexualized attire?
Specific details on what is your concern, and why it concerns you, helps move quickly to seeing if improvements or resolution can be found.
If there is a broader social issue in play, it may help to link to resources education on that issue. Yes, this is asking you to do extra work, and that’s both unfair and not your ethical duty. I offer the suggestion because I have found it effective, but you have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into any issue.
If you can think of an easy way to address your concern, pitch it. Publishers love solutions to problems, especially compared to problems they have to spend time working on themselves.
In fact if approving your solution is less work than figuring out some way to get what the publisher originally asked for, the publisher may just agree to save time and effort.
Try To Do It All At Once
This isn’t always an option, but a publisher can much more easily deal with a unified, concise list of 7 issues with a project, than getting a new issues brought up 7 different times during production.
Pick Your Battles
There’s nothing wrong with noting you think a sketch of a monster you are writing up is too goofy to convey the theme of menace and fear you have been asked to write… but that’s also not something I’d ever take beyond the bringing-it-up stage. The publisher has people they trust to make publication decisions, and they are unlikely to take your freelance opinion over that of their staff or trusted contract producers.
Even when mentioning concerns, it can be worth it to note when you are just bringing something up for consideration, (and will finish your work as agreed, on time, to a high standard of quality even if nothing changes), and when you think there is a serious issue you need to find clarification on before you can continue, or that you fear may impact the value of your work.
To Thine Own Self Be True
I wish I didn’t even have to cover this, but that’s not the world we live in. Your own sense of ethics, morality, and right and wrong should take precedence over giving a publisher what they want… to whatever degree you decide you’re willing to pay the price for making a stand.
It’d be nice to claim you’ll always be rewarded for doing the right thing but again, that’s not the world we live in. Only you can decide what to do when legal obligations (such as a contract), financial obligations (such as looming rent payments), and moral obligations (such as creating work you think might harm others) aren’t in alignment.
But I don’t personally think advancing your career, or getting one freelance paycheck, is worth feeling you have made the world a worse place. Be honest with yourself, and make the best call you cab.
Don’t Assume The Publisher Is Making a Change Until They Say So
Some freelancers will write in they have a concern, propose a solution, and then immediately continue their writing as if their proposal had been accepted. In some cases this has included things such as saying a topic can’t support 1500 words, so they are going to write 1100 words on it, and 400 words on some new topic.
Don’t. Do. This.
The project outline and remit hasn’t changed until the publish says it’s changed.
Be Clear On Your Position
I never recommend starting with ultimatums or even making threats, but especially once you have voiced a concern, if you are dissatisfied with the publisher’s solution, it’s worth talking about how you would like to proceed.
You may just note you won’t want to take similar projects in the future. You might ask that your name be taken off a project. You might need to ask for extra time because you feel the scope of the project has shifted or requires more research than you expect.
I personally have never, on ethical grounds, backed out of a project without the publisher’s approval once I had signed a contract. But I’m not going to claim there are never circumstances where that might be the moral choice. Myself I’d always finish wordcount and turn a project over by deadline, even if I had to write something that wasn’t exactly what was asked for because I have conscientious objections to what was asked for.
I have asked a publisher if they would approve of my walking away from a contract for various reasons, and had them agree to it. In general, that means I don’t get paid for work already done (which the publisher then cannot use), and that’s often the cost of doing business.
Don’t Freak Out
As a socially awkward introvert with depression, I know it can be overwhelming to tell a publisher you think they need to change their concept. But it happens, and most publishers are used to it, and many even appreciate it. By being prompt, polite, and specific, you can generally get a dialog going on issues without having to take on a huge emotional burden.
New freelancers often wonder how much money they can make writing tabletop game material (or editing, or art, though those are different fields than where my primary experience lies). They’ll ask how they get paid, maybe inquire about a per-word rate, or flat fee, and think they are done, But knowing the per-word rate of a project is the beginning of figuring out how much you’ll make doing it, not the end.
And let me start by saying not everyone cares how much they make, and not everyone is going to depend on this money for their livelihood even if they do, and none of that matters when discussing what is reasonable to pay. Work deserves to be compensated, and you deserve to know how hard you are working for the money you make.
I don’t know that there is an “industry standard” for tabletop RPG writing. At this point in my career I am usually writing for 10 cents/word or a goodly cut of all income from a project. Over the past 20 years I have written for as little as 1 cent/word (counting only things that were non-charity, paid projects), and as much as 35 cents/word, but those are both outliers. (Before that I once took a project for 0.1 cents/word… I didn’t know any better. And that’s not my worst experience, to boot.)
Most people I am willing to work with pay no less than 3 cents a word, even to new writers. So, for purposes of this article, that’s the number I am going to go with.
But even knowing a project pays ‘3 cents a word’ doesn’t tell you how much you are making, until you know how many words it is, and how long that will take you, how many revisions you’ll be asked to make, and how long you have to wait to get paid.
If you can do 2,000 words in a 2-hour evening run? That’s $30/hour.
If it’s 1,000 words over 4 hours? That’s $7.50/hour.
But if revisions take just as long as the writing? Your hourly rate just got cut in half. And you’ll likely be paying self-employment tax (in the U.S. anyway, basically another 15% cut out of your income), and you won’t get any benefits as you would for a full-time hourly staff job, and if you have to wait until it’s published to get paid you may miss out on the potential for months of interest (whether by putting it in savings or paying off a credit card cost), or both.
Some of those answers you won’t know until the project is done. You can ask a company if they expect to request revisions (and definitely check your contract to see if it asks for revisions), and you can ask other freelancers what their experience with that company is in that regard (and on other issues too — it’s worth knowing if a company has a reputation for paying late, or killing projects, or changing the remit partway through… if you can, find fellow freelancers you trust and talk to them). But ultimately, any given project may be the exception to the general rule.
It’s also worth finding out HOW you are getting the money. By check? By PayPal (in which case, is a fee coming out of it, and if so who is paying that fee?) By international wire transfer from a different currency? Find out, and get it in writing. It can make a huge difference, especially if different currencies get involved.
The math is even more variable for things that pay your a percentage, and there are even more elements that can change things. Is your percentage of the cover price, or the cut the publishing company gets? this is a huge difference. for example, if it’s a $5 pdf on DriveThruRPG, and you are getting 25%, you need to know if that is 25% of the $5 cover, or 25% of the $3.25 the publishing company gets after DriveThru takes their 35% cut? Also, are you being paid off gross (all the money that comes in) or net (the profit, after all other expenses are paid), or some hybrid number (such as all the money the company takes in for sale price, but none of the money it takes in for printing POD copies or for shipping)? Are you paid monthly? Quarterly? For the life of the product, or just for the first year of sales?
And it wouldn’t be fair not to mention here that some publishers, writers, and pundits think percentage payments are unethical. I’m not one of them, as long as the freelancer is well-informed when making their decision. But I WILL say that since a percentage asks the freelancer to take more of the risk on the project (since sales could be dismal), I recommend only taking a percentage that you believe, based on your own market research, will on average pay more than the flat rate you would accept for the project. I take percentage projects myself fairly often, but am most likely to do so when I have more creative control. If I pitched the idea, or I am developing it to my taste, or it’s a case where a publisher has told me they’ll pay me for anything I ant to write (rare, but it has happened from time to time in my career), I am more willing to take the risk with the publisher, as opposed to when I am given a hard outline and have fewer creative choices to give input on.
On the question of how fast you write, that answer may not be the same for you for every kind of project. I can write new rules content and essays (like this one) MUCH faster than I can write long adventures. Short adventures seem to be an average between those two. Worldbuilding varies for me wildly–sometimes the ideas and descriptions flow easily, and sometimes it’s a grind. And the better I know a game system, the easier and faster all the writing is for it.
You should also make sure you aren’t having to spend money in order to do the writing for a project. Nowadays every company I work with will at least give a freelancer free pdfs of their material that is related to a project. but for licensed properties, this isn’t always as clear. I have had licensed projects I worked on that required me to have some geek encyclopedia not published by the company I was working for, and which they could not get me free copies of. I always increased my asking price by the amount buying such things would cost me, or made sure they were things I could borrow off a friend, or get from the library. If there are free resources, such as fan wikis, make sure your publisher considers them authoritative before depending on them.
You also have t consider if your writing project requires you to do any non-writing work that doesn’t pay any extra above the per-word rate. It’s extremely common for adventure writers to have to do sketches of maps of the locations within their adventures. Not final cartography, but maps with enough detail that the cartographer doesn’t have to make any decisions when rendering final version. This generally doesn’t result in any additional pay above the per-word rate, so if it’s 3 cents per word for 10,000 words plus three full-page map sketches, you are doing more work for the money than if you got 3 cents per word for 10,000 words with no sketches. You may also have to provide an outline, or multiple outlines, which create additional words you are writing you don’t get directly paid for. If the outlines are part of your normal process of writing that’s fine, but if they aren’t be sure to think about how long they took you when considering how much you earned.
It’s much less common, but sometimes publishers also want writers to do interviews, blog posts, marketing text, and so on. Some of those things you may see as career opportunities (the publisher likely isn’t making any money off you doing an interview with someone, and it can be good for your own visibility), but it’s worth knowing if those things are optional opportunities for you, or considered mandatory part of your job, which you should then count against the time it takes you to earn that assignment’s money. (Of course you don’t count any promotion you arrange for and do on your own against the money the publisher pays you — that kind of self-promotion is just part of being an active freelancer.)
Only when you know how much money you’ll get, how long it’ll take to get it, how long it took you to write a draft, how long you spent on revisions or outlining or mapping or art orders, and how long any mandatory promotions you engage in took, can you figure out how many hours you spent earning your per-word, royalty, or flat rate. You may not want to bother to do this with every project, but it IS worth tracking from time to time so you know if there are things that earn you more per hour, even if they have a similar or lower rate for the whole project.
And, of course, when talking about how much you can earn as a freelancer on top of knowing how much you make per hour, you have to figure out how many hours you can spend on it in a month, and then if you can fill all those hours with work at a rate worth your time.
But those are sub-topics for another week.
Sponsored By: The Know Direction Network!
Like all my blog posts, this one is supported by the backers of my patreon! In this case this post is specifically sponsored by the fine folks at the Know Direction network, who have podcasts, articles, news, and convention recordings about the game industry and general, and Paizo, Pathfinder and Starfinder in particular! “Pathfinder News, Reviews, & Interviews!”
This grew out of a response I wrote to someone considering full-time freelancing on Facebook. It comes with some provisos.
I haven’t been a full-time freelancer for nearly 4 years now. Things change fast, and no one still freelancing is going to bother to keep me in the loops, so while I stand by the generalities and warnings, the specifics may well be different nowadays.
I had a spectacular set of advantages when my freelance career really took off. While I went to full-time freelance sometime in 1997, at the time my wife made enough money, and got enough insurance, that my miserable first few years didn’t need to be self-sufficient. It’s when I restarted full-time freelance in 2001, after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast, that I had to cover my share of buying houses, paying all the bills, cover insurance, and paying college expenses based purely on what I could earn as a freelancer. And at that point, I was a d20-proficient writer during the d20 boom, multiple people who left WotC to start their own businesses or work as editors and developers for bigger companies knew and liked me, and I already had some major game titles under my belt thanks to 14 months as a WotC designer.
That made things much, much easier.
I was a full-time freelance RPG content provider from 2001 to 2014. So it can be done. But it’s hard.
I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, one of the cheapest places in the US to live and, thanks to being a college town, one that still had a fair number of modern amenities. I recommend finding cheap living options, whatever that can mean for you.
I discovered being a full-time freelancer was actually three jobs.
>First, you have to get work. That means promoting yourself online, contacting potential clients, and going to conventions or similar events to make contacts and network.
>Second, you have to do the work. This is the only part anyone pays you for.
>Third, you had to get paid for the work. Most of my clients were great, but I *still* have a $2000 outstanding bill for a project that got published, and numerous pay-upon-publication projects that were never published, despite me doing my part, and thus never came due.
I strongly recommend spreading yourself around to as many kinds of writing as you can. I once traded writing copy for a repair shop’s website for $600 in repairs. which is good, because I did not have $600. In bad periods I worked for trade for food, yard work, clothes, and even editing or similar favors for other work of mine. Much of that work was not game-related.
I joined Super Genius Games, and when I left it began Rogue Genius Games, so I would always have a place to write, when other companies weren’t hiring. Of course that meant I only made money on those projects if people bought them, since it was all on royalties. Before that I wrote for d20 Weekly and later Pyramid magazine because they would publish whatever I wrote, without fail, every week. And they paid on time.
It isn’t always smart to start your own game company, but it is always smart to look for a place that will publish you regularly. They may pay less or pay only royalties. You DO need to get paid, but I found a mix of high-paying but rare work and lower-paying or royalty work that was always of often available was the way to make ends meet.
Magazine columns were great. Lines with regular releases and developers who liked me were great. One advantage of smaller projects is that you often do less work before you get paid. A 30,000 word project sounds great… but it’s 3-6 weeks of work you have to do before the clock even starts on getting paid.
Similarly, ongoing contract work is great. Especially if it pays by the month. This is rare, but there are companies who need a single developer or editor, or project manager (or, much less often, has a whole contract staff) that will pay you for a certain amount of time or a certain cut of what gets done, every month. This is a huge help, as it cuts down time spent getting work and tracking down payment for work. Even a small monthly amount can help balance the budget (and see Patreon thoughts, below.)
Don’t work without a contract. Look at the terms. An advance is best, but almost nonexistent nowadays. Pay-upon-acceptance, especially if it talks about when you’ll be accepted by and what happens if you’re not, is great. Pay upon publication kinda sucks, but is fairly standard. Flat rates are often better than royalties, but royalties are a legitimate business plan. I’ve made more money on freelance projects that paid royalties than I ever have on flat rates. of course, I’ve also had such projects end up paying nothing or nearly nothing. And, full disclosure, my own company (Rogue Genius Games) mostly pays royalties, so my opinion on this may be biased.
Your budget may be feast-or-famine. My wife and I were very cautious about spending money when a big check came it, because we literally did not know how long it had to last. We tried very hard to do nothing on credit, because credit can pile up and kill you, but even so after 13 years of freelancing I had tens of thousands of dollars of medical and educational debt that we still haven’t fully paid off.
The 80 hour work week because my norm. The 100 hour work week happened way too often. I pulled more than one 30-hour “all-nighter” shift, a feat I am physically no longer capable of pulling off.
I can’t recommend full-time freelance writing tabletop games as a career choice. In my case, because I had cared about games more than a career or education, I ended up with no other marketable skills.
But if you feel you must try it, I hope you get advice from lots of different people first, and I wish you well.
Things like Kickstarter and Patreon have change the potnetial freelance landscape. I recommend everyone have a Patreon-like subscription service and a blog or similar ongoing outlet you can ask people to pay you to continue.
And, of course, I’d appreciate it if you consider supporting mine. 🙂
Addendum the Third: There is no shame in being a part-time freelancer. You can do it as a second job, or as a hobby. You can also do it mostly, then with some little extra thing on the side to make sure you survive. I’ve known awesome freelancers who were fast food dishwashers, Uber drivers, substitute teachers, and temp workers. If that’s what you need to have a safety margin, or to live at least part of the life you want to live, do it with your head held high. If, someday, you feel secure in leaving the non-freelance part of your life, great. If not, your work is no less ‘real” or “professional.”
I used to send type-written article proposals to Dragon Magazine via US Postal Service, with a S.A.S.E. (That’s a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you who weren’t trying to get published in the 80s and 90s.)
Then I’d wait 4-6 weeks for a response. If there were things he’d like to see some different version of, I had to send ANOTHER written physical piece of mail. If something was approved, or approved with changes, I had to type that out, then mail in the typed article.
When then-Editor of Dragon Dave Gross sent me an email address (sent my US post) I could use to send in magazine proposals and submissions from that point on (with orders it Not Be Shared), around about my third article, it was a HUGE boost to my career. But I began with paper submissions.
By the time I was interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast, I could bring files with me on a 3.5″ floppy, in case I stayed someplace with a business center that had a computer I could work on. (A laptop, though they existed, was entirely outside my economic grasp.) So when I was flown out for a in-person interview, I managed to finish a Dragon article between when I left home and when I arrived at the old WotC building to wait an hour or so for my interview, so when a Dragon editor ran down and asked if I knew when the article would be ready, and I gave him the disk, he hugged me and ran back upstairs to begin editing it immediately.
Of course, that meant the people who were about to decide if they wanted to hire me heard about how I brought a much-needed article with me, just before my interview.
Paper. Stamps. Email. Floppy disks. It could be done before filesharing and blogs and Google Docs.
(Looks around. Nods once. Trundles back to dinosaur cave.)
The Modern Era
Now, I can offer material directly to the end-users, with things like My Patreon!
So… look. You have to promote yourself.
Yes, it’s a pain for a lot of people. And it can be uncomfortable or embarrassing, especially if you aren’t used to it. And doing it wrong can turn off some folks, especially early on, who may reply to your promotion with “Who the hell are you and why should I care?”
Those people are doing you a favor, though they don’t know it. They’re giving you a chance at more self-promotion.
Look, if you want an RPG career, you HAVE to self-promote. Because either you want other people to hire you to be part of their projects (in which case you need to get your name and work out there, so people know you are available to be hired and have some idea why they might want to hire you), OR you are doing your own projects (in which case you need to promote them, which if they are your projects is the same as promoting yourself).
Even if you currently have a stable industry job, you should promote yourself. This can increase your value to the company, increase the company’s awareness of your value, and give you options if a meteor strike that company and suddenly you don’t work there anymore.
I am not a social media guru or an example of vast success or riches, so take all my suggestions with a grain of salt. But I had significant problems with self-promotion for years, and these ideas are how I (partially) overcame them.
1. Promote Everyone Else
“Hey, I got to work on this neat project with Awesome Designer and Amazing Editor! They’re doing fantastic work, and I can’t wait to see the end project!”
“Neat Folks have a new Kickstarter, and it looks great to me! Check it out!”
Often the easiest ways to self-promote is to insert your promotion as part of promoting other people, and to simply talk about the things you find exciting even if you aren’t involved with them. Doing these things still puts your name out there, and when you promote other people you encourage them to promote you in return. For introverts, this can be much easier than talking up your own part in projects.
2. Just Do Stuff
Self-promotion doesn’t have to be about saying how great you are. If you put out a new short story, or a cool story hook, or a single feat designed to allow halfling war-bakers make potions out of muffins, you can just put it out, link to it, and make sure your name is easily associated with it.
One of the reason my blog is OwenKCStephens.com is that anything I put on there is easily tied to me.
One of the reasons I put a lot of stuff on there is so people see my name, associated with things they might like.
Creation is promotion, as long as you give everyone involved credit.
3. Have a Way to be Contacted
My email is not hard to find. I let everyone ping me on Facebook. My Facebook and Twitter accounts are linked from my blog. I have a Paizo.com account that accepts private messages. If you want to get in touch with me, it’s easy.
Now, there are good and reasonable circumstances that might make any or all of those a bad idea for the security, safety, or sanity of someone other than me. But whatever method you choose, from a specific work-related email to a forum you can moderate yourself, if you want work in the industry, you need to make sure people know how to get hold of you.
4. If You Mention It, Make It Easy to Find
I have a Patreon campaign. And now, just by linking it, I have made it easy for anyone who wants to give me as little as $1-$3 a month to support these blog posts to do that.
I have both made my point, and self-promoted.
If a project of yours gets a review, link to it in a way that makes it easy to find both the review and a way to buy the product. Endzeitgeist, for example, links to where you can buy the products he reviews when he posts them on his website. That encourages me to use the links to his site when i mention the review, since people can then click-through and buy my stuff. Because he promoted me, I promote him.
If you are excited by your new project, link to where people can find more ifnrmation on it. That increases the chances people will get excited about it, and that helps drive that they found this neat thing because you mentioned it.
If you are going to go to all the effort to promote that you work for multiple companies (such as Paizo, Green Ronin, Rite Publishing, and Rogue Genius Games), promote that fact in a way that helps drive traffic to them.
Readers and fans and customers are often lazy. Make it as easy as possible for them to give you money, follow your posts, or read your thoughts.
This is something it took me a long time to figure out as a freelance writer and developer, and it’s a mistake I still make much too often.
You can’t let the whole world be your job.
What I mean by that is you can’t allow every place, every time, and every contact to be work-related. Yes, you may be someone who gets freelance work done at 7am, 9pm, or 3 am depending on how your insomnia impacts you. But you can’t let your expectation be that you should be working at all those times.
Similarly you may well need to have your home workspace overlap with your personal space (though the tax benefits of a home office are not to be underestimated), but you can’t allow ALL your home space to be a place where work often gets done.
It’s great to have friends in the industry… but you need to have conversations and activities and interactions with them beyond things you do for your career.
The reasons for needing to at the very least carve out SOME time and space that is kept separate from work concerns are many and varied, but they can be boiled down to one basic idea.
Sometimes you don’t want to go to work.
Now, whether you can spare the time off, get vacation time, can take a mental health day, or need to play hooky is beyond the scope of this article. The important thing is, if you don’t want to go to work, and you have allowed your entire life to be defined primarily by your work, then you don’t want to get up and engage with life.
And that’s a problem.
Burnout, depression, imposter syndrome, introversion, and even panic attacks are not uncommon in creative writing careers. To survive, you need to know there is a way to exist outside your job.
Yes, your email may be ubiquitous, and your editors may always have a question (or a panicked demand) asking about changes, availability, late projects, and so on. But you can decide there are hours when that isn’t your problem. Time when, even if everything is on fire, you get to read a book, or sit on the balcony and listen to the rain. Whatever works for you.
I can’t tell you how to achieve work/life balance. There’s no magic number of hours per day, or per week, you need to take away from being “on call” to your career. But you need to know you CAN take time away. Subconsciously, your brain needs to be able to grasp the idea that after this project, this crunch time, this weekend, you have a place you CAN get away.
Because, to quote one of my editors, you are no use to anyone dead.
Speaking of My Career
I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
So, assume for a moment that you have to pick from a range of projects available to you, and you can’t do them all. This isn’t necessarily a matter of being blessed with 7 companies all offering you too much freelance. You might be offered one or two simultaneous jobs by a long-time source of work. Or you might be asked to outline which of several lines you want to work on during an interview. Or you might have no work coming in from other sources, so you need to pick a project of your own to develop.
However it happened, you need to pit project outlines against each other, and decide which one you are going to do. So, how do your compare apples to cthulhupunk airship murder mysteries?
Here are some factors to consider.
How much are you getting paid, and WHEN are you getting paid. This is not the end-all be-all of these consideration, but you have to include it. How much, under what circumstances, starting when, and ending when, if the money? I have taking pay rates that were 20% of my normal take, because the publisher promised (and delivered) “Payment by PayPal within an hour of turning it over.” I’ve also had times where 10 cents/word in 13 months sounded better than 8 cents/word in 6 months. I’ve taken royalties for the life of a product over flat rates, and vice versa, based on my needs and hopes. (I almost never accept royalties for the first 1 or 2 years of sales, because that discounts things like compilations and rereleases, which have made me tens of thousands of dollars over my career, but even then the right terms would make me do it.)
Know what money you have, what money you are getting, how much you TRUST that you’ll get that money when you are supposed to, and what money you need. If you have regular payments coming in or a “day job” that means your writing/game industry money is all gravy, you can take bigger risks and wait longer periods than if you need $50 to make a care payment next month.
The less you need the money, the more you can worry about fun. I have honestly considered defining “professional game designers not as people who make enough money to cover their expenses with industry work, or people who get paid for anything game-related, but as people who get paid to do game work they don’t find interesting. (I then decided I’m not the fucking high poo-bah of who is a game industry professional and gave up on the idea of defining squat, but I DO think people who can and do make money on game projects that don’t excite them have a useful and rarer professional skill.)
Not every project needs to be fun, but learn what you like and what you don’t, AND how it impacts your speed, satisfaction, burn-out potential, and so forth. If I love a project, I can do it faster and be happier, and that absolutely gets considered in my choice of projects.
Do you want to be better at what you do? Then value those opportunities that will help you grow. I have taken jobs, and even worked at companies, specifically because of the quality of designer, editor, and producer that lets me interact with. Working with great creative in different task and different kinds of projects very much helps me grow my skills. While I have never worked with anyone without learning SOMETHING from them, there are certainly people I learn more from than others.
Where possible, convince these people to be part of your own game company and pay them a cut of all the money you make, so they feel encourages to just sit around and say smart things. J (This is an advanced technique… )
This is harder to define, and not everyone is going to have the same career goals, but it’s worth looking at what projects will position you to do the things you want to do later in life. This can include taking types of projects you don’t have a track record with. For example when I had developed a strong reputation as a specialized game mechanics “crunch’ guy, I began looking for more adventures and worldbuilding projects to work on. And then right after those got published, I find myself in a game company interview being asked if I had done any adventures recently. (Phew.)
You may also find it useful to work with new people. A small project that doesn’t much interest you may be entirely worth taking if it gets your foot in the door with a company, property, or person you want to work with more. DON’T let yourself get taken advantage of (and if they want to, reconsider if you want to work with them), but do consider the value of taking on things outside your normal schedule or preferences to prove you can do a good job for them. I have, for example, taken more than one assignment on a Friday that was an emergency that needed to be done by Monday. Those never paid extra, but they did still pay well, and they let me prove I was reliable, useful, and able to work under crunch-time conditions.
Visibility can also be important. I did, in fact, “work for exposure” early in my career, writing reviews for TSR’s AOL content for no pay, and contributing to pro-am netbooks that were sold for money, without receiving anything but a credit. Those were both useful and paid off for me. Nowadays I’d recommend you NEVER do what I did, but it can totally be worth it to write for a blog or Patreon or social media without a guaranteed paycheck, assuming you own the material and that when money comes in you get your cut. I’m also fine with doing free work for projects that no one makes money on, like fan sites and charity projects, but beware. Those rarely boost your visibility any more than a good blog of your own material that you can control and own the rights to.
THE SCALES OF CONSIDERATION
No one but you can decide which of these factors are most important to you, and there are lots of other things that might influence your thinking. If you find something morally or ethically objectionable, don’t do it. If a friend did you a favor and needs one in return, feel free to cut them the same kind of slack you would if they needed someone to watch their pet for a vacation or pick up soup when they were sick… as long as it isn’t an ongoing thing.
And always check your assumptions in the middle, and at the end of each project. If it turns out you find satisfaction more important than money, it’s worth knowing. If you love doing something as a hobby but hate doing it as a job, it’s good to know. If you find it easier to make money writing games you hate than your existing corporate job, it’s good to know.
Contemplate, weight, balance, reconsider, and be ready to do the whole dance again for your next project.
And always, always find a way to turn every job into an ad for other ways for you to make money.
For example: “If you actually found that worth reading, why not become a patron, and support my efforts to blog on various topics?”
(Seriously, if this was helpful to you, why not throw a few bucks my way?)