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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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The Performative End of Being a Creator

You can think of this as an unusually long #RealGameIndustry entry.

If you are depending on the game industry for your full income, and you do not have a full-time job with benefits, necessity means at least part of what you are doing to performative.

Performing to build a community. Performing to gain name recognition. Performing to seem more fun and interesting, on the assumption that makes your products seem more fun and interesting.

Given how many of us came into gaming to escape what we saw as societal and clique-based requirements for shallow performative interactions, this is often a bitter irony. Indeed, while most of us are too smart to complain publicly, this can result in annoyance or anger as what we see as the “pretty popular people” being successful in their performance to a degree we cannot match (often directly measurable in how much money those people can raise compared to how much experience they have or how much content they have created.)

Especially as a mentally ill, socially-awkward, depressive introvert, it often strains my coping mechanisms and ability to put on a false face to their absolute limits. Social media is both a blessing and a curse in this regard. The ability to use text to put forth an idealized, entertaining self helps create a buffer between my depression and my need to be a performative creator. However, those very tools also demand constant attention to remain an effective part of my mandatory performance.

And at that, I have a much easier time as a cis white hetero male, because there are faults and failings I can have which are seen as quirky, or the stereotype of the grumpy writer. Creators in more marginalized groups often don’t get that slack. They both have much more cause to be scarred by social interaction, and must maintain a more perfect performance to reap the same benefits I do.

Even my ability to make discussions of my illnesses, failings, and annoyances part of my public persona is made easier by my role as an elder whitebeard. I have seen women, and minorities, and LGBT creators all with as much or more experience as I have been shouted down as clearly unstable for daring to say the same things I am allowed to state largely without consequence.

Nor do I foresee anything of this changing in a major way. The need to be performative to be successful as an independent appears to be baked into the industry (and full time jobs that pay something like the median income for their area are so rare as to be unicorns). That means the only part of this likely to change is the unfairness that performative need puts on marginalized creatives.

That fight is worth fighting. But it’s going to take hard work and time to make significant progress.
Meanwhile, the demands for performance keep changing and increasing, as technology drops the barriers between creator and consumer.

I work hard to remain relevant. And I see no time when I’ll be able to stop working at that without falling into an at-best-niche position. Which means my coping mechanisms for my trauma, depression, and other issues must include being able to maintain the performance–at least for regular, short bursts– even when I am fighting to not just curl up under the covers and give up on it all.

This is like climbing a wall, endlessly. If you ever fully give up you don’t just fail to make progress. You may be able to rest in a cradle for a time, or depend on your ropes. But those things can only hold you for a brief time. Eventually you’ll fall, and then you don’t just drop a little. You lose a huge percentage of your progress, and can damage yourself and your career, even kill it, as you smash things on the way down.

Keeping yourself in a place where people will see you and your work so they even might buy it is a grind, on top of the grind of creating enough work to survive even if people see enough of it.

You don’t have to have answers for all of this as you start. But to rise above a certain level, you must begin to work it out eventually.

When people sometimes suggest I take on too much, I want to yell at them that if I only do 75% as much work, I won’t get 75% of the result. I’ll get 50%, or less. If you try to microwave popcorn and you put it in for 60 seconds, you don’t get half the popcorn you’d get if you microwaved it for 2 minutes. Your work is all at least partially wasted if you can’t back it up with enough PR, backstock, and previews to maintain brainshare in an audience with tons of other, better-funded, better-advertised options.

I don’t have solutions for many of the problems these issues bring up. But it’s better for newer creators to be aware of the potential minefield and prepare for it, than have it come as a surprise for them. If you just want to create on your own terms and enjoy whatever success happens to come your way, and not try to pay the rent, cover medical insurance, and put food on the table purely through ttRPG efforts, you can largely ignore this. And if you find a way around it, I heartily congratulate you. And there are different levels of this performative need, with some folks managing much more success than I with much less performance put in.

But be aware of the potential drain on your time and energy.

Speaking of Performing

Part of the performative need is to drive people to platforms you can monetize, like my patreon. There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

TTRPG Retirement Plans, or Lack Thereof

There are, as far as I know, only six realistic retirement plans for full-time, ttRPG professionals in the United States–and calling them “realistic” is debatable. This is not a happy or upbeat list of options, and it doesn’t come with any problem-solving or brilliant insights on my part. This is just the state of the industry, as I know it.

You can think of this as an unusually long #RealGameIndustry entry.

Company Retirement Account

A few of the biggest ttRPG-producing companies have things like 401k programs, a few with some degree of matching funds. It can be tough to put much away in these, as in most cases pay barely covers living expenses, but if you can, and you manage to work at the same company for 30 years or so (which is also extremely rare), it may build up a big enough account to cover you in retirement.

Personal Retirement Account

You can, of course, create your own retirement account and put money in it, with or without some period of time when you have corporate matching funds. This is the “best” option for most full-time freelancers… who on average make even less money (and thanks to paying for their own health insurance and paying self-employment tax often have higher expenses), which makes it even harder to put anything away for the future. And, of course, no matching funds.

Build A Passive Income

Though royalty deals, maintaining ownership or partial ownership of the products you create, starting your own company, or some similar plan, you can try to set up passive income — that is, money you work for once that then keeps coming in. I have profit-share deals with more than 500 products sold as pdfs. Most older files sell only a few copies a year now, but that IS an income that keeps coming in even when I don’t do much or any work on maintaining it. I myself haven’t even gotten this near a level of retirement income, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or at least be part of a retirement plan.

Have a Spouse With A Real Retirement

Yep, this sounds like I am being glib, but I have had multiple ttRPG professionals tell me they only believe they have any hope of retirement because they have a spouse with a solid corporate retirement plan or the spare income to invest in their own retirement account. It would be dishonest not to include this as among the common plans within the industry.

Depend on State Benefits

Be that Medicare, Social Security, Disability, or some other program, I know many ttRPG professionals who just assume at some point they’ll only have whatever the government gives them, and will have to survive on whatever that allows. Most are not optimistic about the quality of life this will allow, and many have tried to make other arrangements, only to have them fall through.

Don’t

This is honestly the most common “retirement plan” ttRPG professionals have talked to me about – Don’t Retire. Work until they die. Assume that there will never be a time when we don’t have to put in 40-80 hours a week to earn enough to maintain an at-least marginal existence.

I personally call this the “Die at the keyboard” plan.

Speaking of Making a Living

There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

Are People REALLY Trying to Break Into ttRPG Writing? In This Economy?!

In response to yesterday’s guest blog post by Luis Loza, a number of people have been asking me, a bit incredulously, if there are really people trying to break into writing for the tabletop game industry. At least some of that incredulity seems rooted in my description of what working in the industry is like, in such venues as the #RealGameIndustry hashtag on Twitter, and my blog posts on the business of games and freelancer life.

And, yes, there absolutely are. But many of them aren’t looking to make it a full-time job and long-term career.

For those who see it as a hobbytime activity, like building ships in bottles or collecting commemorative sneakers, it can be extremely fulfilling. But you don’t expect your hobbies to be profitable, so even a revenue-neutral one can be extremely appealing.

Those who see it as a side-gig are, at least, unlikely to suffer significant economic hardship as a result. Many more will find it a bad source of income than will make more than minimum wage, but some will thrive.

For full-timers dedicated to this being their primary source of income, it’s rough. And for the industry to thrive, it needs full-timers. But there are other reasons do a job than security and money.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to improve things.

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Guest Blog – Luis Loza on How to Break Into Writing for the Tabletop Game Industry

This is advice from ttRPG writer, producer, podcast runner, and Paizo developer Luis Loza, responding to someone asking how to break into writing material for tabletop ROGS. It is collected from a Twitter thread, and posted here with his permission.

“I tell everyone that’s interested in freelancing that the best thing they can do to get started is just get to writing. If you’ve done homebrew material, get a blog in place and start putting that stuff on there. One of the most important things you can share is a writing sample. If someone can’t see anything you’ve written, they can’t judge any of your work. It doesn’t matter if it’s been published or not, just as long as you have something to show.

From there, the most important thing you can do is try to replicate existing official material as much as you can. Take a note of when things are bolded or italicized or the order of listings in a monster stat block, for example. The more you can closely replicate the existing material, the more you’ll get a feel for the game’s specific style and it will go a long way to prove that it’s worth taking a shot on you. If your material uses language and formatting that matches 5E, but you want to work on PF2E, that material won’t do you any good. Write for the game you want to be paid to write for!

From there, find someone to contact about work. There are third party publishers like that are constantly producing material and they might be a good start. Maybe chat with @Owen_Stephens about publishing with Rogue Genius Games? If you’ve done the work of getting your work *somewhere*, you can reach out to them and provide your writing samples to show your skill.

Also, get to talking with other people interested in writing. I recommend checking out Freelance Forge for a community willing to look over your stuff, give you more tips, and get you some possible connections for work.”

Thanks for the shout-out, Luis!

People who are interested can also check out my thoughts on the game industry, business of games, writing basics, and the freelancer life here in this blog, if interested.

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The more support I get, the more time I can spend on writing things like this. 

If you enjoy any of my articles, please sign up, for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month!

Why Isn’t GAME COMPANY doing THE THING?

Gamers often wonder why a specific game company (hereafter GAME COMPANY) isn’t engaged in some specific act of licensing, marketing, broadcasting, podcasting, customer engagement, convention support, or new game production (hereafter THE THING).

And while I can’t give specific details on why GAME COMPANY isn’t doing THE THING even when I know them, there are a few generic answers that come up so often, I thought it would be useful to have this response ready to point to whenever I need it.

There are numerous possible reasons why GAME COMPANY is not doing THE THING.

First, it may be a terrible idea.

GAME COMPANY has information you do not. This includes details such as (but not limited to) historic sales of various form factors and product lines, cost to manufacture vs sell-through rates, marketing costs, debt load, budget projections, contractual obligations, warehousing cost, warehousing availability, shipping costs, unpaid obligations, work capacity, unannounced projects, scheduling, and whether or not there is anyone at GAME COMPANY who has any interest in working on the THE THING, given that if its employees get too unhappy, they leave.

Even if they decide to do THE THING, it takes time. Legal agreements must be forged. Asset packages have to be put together. Clear rules on what is and isn’t allowed must be decided on internally, written up, and reviewed. Schedules have to be designed. Outlines have to be created. Budgets need to be projected. Brainstorms need to roll in for the best way to do THE THING without burning out the entire staff or making the same mistakes that 1/4 of the staff know NOW BANKRUPT COMPANY made when they tried THE THING in the 1990s.

All of that that takes work from managers, legal departments, and marketing people. Work that comes in on top of their normal load needed to keep making books and put them out at the highest level of quality and profitability. If you try to do THE THING, and while working on it fail to keep the normal flow of products going to pay the bills, THE THING won’t do you much good even if it is a success.

Often it seems like planning for THE THING should doable in a couple of days, maybe a week or two. But when GAME COMPANY’s staff is already generally already working 45-60 hour weeks to keep food on the table (on top of any freelance work or side gigs they have to make up for the generally low recompense within the industry), and any extra planning/meeting/organizing/budgeting/outlining can only be tackled when there’s a work lull, or people have extra energy, it can stretch out to months or literally years.

GAME COMPANY might love to do THE THING. As the very smart Mike Selinker pointed out in a response to this post, they may even be WORKING on THE THING, and just not want to announce it yet.

But even if they are fast, efficient, brilliant, and focused, they may lack the time, resources, or energy to do THE THING quickly.

#RealGameIndustry

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