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Industry Insider: Pragmatism, Personality, and Partnership

I talk a lot about how the best way to get work as a freelancer is to put your name, in a positive context, in front of people who can give you work as often as possible. That’s true in my experience, but it also just hints at another truth about the tabletop game industry in general.

It’s not just what you can do. It’s also about who you know, and who you are.

The tabletop game industry is stunningly small. Personal relationships, personality matches, and private opinions carry a lot of weight on who everyone does business with. At a pragmatic level, the bigger a company the more likely it is to try to just look at objective questions of what makes sense for a business, but those decisions are made by individual people, and their preferences and biases can impact everything from who gets a faster reply to an inquiry to who is trusted with big-dollar budgets.

Obviously it’s helpful to have friends in the industry, but equally obviously most people don’t start off with that advantage. It is absolutely possible to make friends, but more importantly it is possible to build relationships based on trust and respect. Friendship can cause problems as often as it gives an advantage, because people don’t like to give their friends bad news. And the tabletop game industry is all-too-often a place where business decisions are bad news.

Building relationships within the industry can happen organically just by being active in industry activities. Post regularly on messageboards. Write reviews. Engage in social media. Go to conventions. Volunteer to help with events, especially running games for organized play programs. None of those things generally gives you a direct payoff in “game industry friends earned per month,” but they do expose you to people who, like you, are building a network of people known.

Pragmatically, remember that with all these interactions being professional and honest and accurate is going to impact how people think of you. I absolutely do not recommend being a kiss-ass–most people aren’t actually very good at that, and yes-folks aren’t as useful as people who can give an honest, professional opinion. But you also don’t want to be an asshole. There are successful game industry professionals who use ‘asshole” or “grumpy curmudgeon” as their brand, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of talent, and in my opinion they often do themselves as much harm as good and are sometimes buoyed up by cults of personality who can give them bad feedback, false promises of support, or even turn on them.

The main point with this kind of industry engagement is to let people know who you are, and hopefully learn who you get along with. Tabletop game projects often involve a lot of interaction and back-and-forth among their participants, and a lot of us want to know we can get along with someone before we commit to working with them for weeks, months, or even years.

That means that all those things people want to keep out of business decisions–politics, sense of humor, debate style, even questions of spirituality–can impact who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. I know people in the industry who dislike being in long conversations with me because I am too likely to extensively engage in at-best-mid-quality puns. Obviously that limits my ability to get those people excited to work with me, even if they think I have the skills and connections to help a project along. Equally obviously, I’m not willing to change how I interact with them enough to remove that block to a working relationship. Sometimes we get over that hurdle (often by using middlemen or online-only communications, where I can regretfully delete clever wordplay that’s out-of-place). Sometimes we don’t. But by knowing each other well enough to foresee an issue, we can decide if the extra work is worth the payoff.

Especially early on, extra complements and support can help open doors to more opportunities to show people who you are. from Kickstarters to Patreon campaigns to pre-sales to social media posts about upcoming projects, people who make things happen in the industry often have ways you can show your support, and that is not the worst way to introduce yourself to someone. But don’t pander–it’s not a good basis for any long-term relationship, and it’s exhausting.

I’m not going to try to present this as reasonable or the way things “should” be, but the tabletop game industry is hard enough that many of its professionals just don’t have any interest in working with people they don’t get along with. Sometimes this results in people playing favorites, and that can be frustrating when you are the outside of a social circle. But it’s also something that can mostly only be overcome by developing your own social circle. You have to do the work, be available, put yourself out there, but you also have to remember that every interaction with everyone in the game industry is a preview of what you are like to talk to and hang around with.

Memories in the industry are often as long as the industry itself is small. If you insult someone, slight their work rudely, fail to uphold your end of a contract, or honestly do anything that seriously annoys them, it can impact their desire to work with you forever. I have friends and partners who avoid ever being on the same project because they can’t get along with one another. I don’t recommend trying to walk on eggshells–you have to live your life–but respect, consideration, politeness, and fulfilling obligations once you undertake them go a long way to build a reputation and network of people who appreciate your efforts.

You can’t compromise who you are or what your values are–there are people I won’t work with for moral and ethical reasons. You shouldn’t take risks you can’t afford even for friends–there are projects I have declined to get involved with because while I liked everyone working on it, I had no confidence in their ability to see it through. You can’t make people like you–there’s no one I know in this industry who doesn’t have a few serious detractors, deservedly or not. But you can be aware of the impact of your personality and behavior, and remember that it’s not divorced from your ability to make deals, get work, earn trust, and move forward with career goals.

This is a long-term concern. It takes years, often, for engagement to build any relationships that help you know who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. But those years are going to pass one way or another. I find it’s best to try to use them to increase my opportunities, rather than burn bridges.

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Writing Basics: What IS the Barrier to Entry?

When people ask how to break into, or expand their visibility within, the RPG industry I often mention working for small pdf publishers as an option, or becoming one to self-publish your work. But, how realistic is that latter choice?

I have been deeply involved in small, mostly pdf, mostly third-party RPG game publishing for a decade. Despite looking a lot like the same kind of work as mid-sized companies (to be be fare, many of the same skills and challenged DO apply), being a basically one-man RPG shop is possible, and the barrier to entry can be quite low.

But… how low? How much should you spend on your first RPG release? How little CAN you spend?

Well, let’s look at some actual numbers.

Let’s say I want to release a 10-page RPG supplement for a licensed game, but that some OGL game or something with a separate license. How cheap can I make that?

Well, at a guess, that’ll be 7,500 words of writing. Let’s assume I do all the writing myself.

Then I want it to be edited. I can, possibly, get a friend or family member to edit it for free, but let’s assume I don’t do that. You can find editors for 1 cent/word. That’s my first real expense, and it’s $75.

Then I need a cover, and some interior illustrations. And they have to be things I have the rights to. Stock art is clearly the way to go with this, if we are trying to keep things cheap. I want one big piece for the cover, and five 1/4-page or character illos pieces to have one every 2 pages for the interior. That’s six total pieces of art. There’s a wide, wide range of stock art available, including a lot from Rogue Genius Games. I’ll likely spend more on the cover art than the interiors (although you could also go the brilliant route Raging Swam Press did, and create a style that uses no art on its covers. That’s a savings now AND in the future.) Let’s say you average $5 per illo for stock art, so that’s $30.

You need someone to do graphic design, and layout.  Ideally you’d pay a graphic designer to design the look for your line and create templates, which your layout artist would then use to put all your text and illustrations in place to make a final book. But you’re trying to go cheap. So you find someone to do a basic graphic design and layout in one go, and pay $2/page. That’s another $20.

It’s smart to get a lawyer to go over licenses with you, get yourself an LLC and a company bank account, and lots of other steps… but you don’t HAVE to.

It’s also smart to pay people what they are worth, and you often get what you pay for. I’m not claiming the prices I list here are standard, or reasonable. I’m just saying you can find professional people to do the listed work for the listed price.

Okay, so you are now out $125. You don’t want to pay for print runs or advertising, so you put up a pdf on DriveThruRPG, and the Open Gaming Store, and maybe Paizo, and maybe Warehouse23. What makes sense depends on the product. Those all have different terms, but let’s assume you’re going to get 65% of cover price, on average.

How many copies will you sell? Who knows. Let’s assume you’ll do 50 copies in the first 90 days. So you need to make $125 over 50 copies, or $2.50 per sale to break even. Since you only get 65% of each sale (the rest going to your online distributor), you set the sale price at $3.95 for the pdf.

If you sell your 50 copies, you’ll bring in $128.37… a $3.37 profit!

Of course, taxes will take some of that.

And if you had paid even 3 cents/word for the writing, you’d have another $225 in costs, which would require you to sell nearly another 100 copies to break even.

And if that writing is going to earn as much as $15/hour at 3 cents/word, the 7,500 words need to take no more than 15 hours–a writing rate (including outlines, formatting, brainstorming, approvals, revisions, and so forth) of at least 500 words an hour.

But if you at LEAST break even, you can learn and improve, and make more sales (and produce the material faster) on your NEXT pdf…

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