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Originally prompted by some of the ideas thrown around on the SomethingAwful Traditional Games forum (registration possibly required), I’ve fallen in love with hacking John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings. It’s a very nice, very light system that’s I’m using as the basis for a rough sketch of an urban-fantasy game with possibly-obvious inspirations (currently a pre-alpha; I’ll write about it here when it’s done).
But that’s not all I’ve done. I have committed hackery1, to tune Lasers & Feelings to different styles of game.
Sanity & Sorcery — Lovecraftian horror
Shaken & Stirred — Stealth action
Power & Responsibility — Silver-age superheroics
Swashbucklers & Scoundrels — Pirate adventures
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As Rich Thomas revealed at GenCon, I stepped back as developer of Werewolf: The Forsaken and Werewolf: The Apocalypse developer at Onyx Path a year and a half ago.
I didn’t say anything at the time as I was finishing the books I’d started — W20: Changing Ways and the Pentex Employee Handbook — but I have not started work on any new projects.
It was my decision as the amount of work at my day-job has stepped up considerably, and I am no longer able to give the lines the attention and time that they deserve. I’m not leaving the industry, but I’m back to doing writing and game design under the guidance and development of others. I’m also going to keep working on my own games, as I can take them at my own pace. I have nothing but respect for Rich and Rose and look forwards to the chance to write on Onyx Path books in the future.
As you may remember, I pledged that proceeds from my November and December sales would go to The Trevor Project, an American charity supporting LGBTQ youth. Because 2016 was a shitshow, and the results of the November election the icing on the cake.
Thing is, right now I’m on the long tail. My last two months’ proceeds are $15. That looks a bit anaemic, so fuck it. Over the last six months, my self-published games have made me $42. That’s more like it.
2016 is a shit of a year. Life has got worse for a tremendous number of people.
If I can make it better, even in a small way, I shall do.
A cyberpunk roleplaying game about having the best stuff
This is very unapologetically 80’s cyberpunk — cybernetics rather than gene-tailoring and shit like that. All money is in Euro, and all numbers are written in European notation; one hundred thousand Euro is €100.000,00 but nobody cares about cents. Cash is good. Stuff is better. Meat is worthless.
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RPG books are ridiculously fucking cheap compared to books of similar production values in other areas. The price of the book has not risen in any significant proportion to the increase in costs. Instead, the increase in production price has eaten in to the margins, the amount of money that the publisher gets and uses to pay for writers and artists and game designers.
This has two drivers:
- A lot of people who start gaming are in university or younger, and don’t have a significant amount of disposable income.
- Old gamers have ossified to the point that they refuse to believe that production costs have increased by anywhere near as much as they have, and believe that a 300-page full-colour glossy hardback rulebook should cost as much as the 200-page black and white softcover that they remember from when they got started.
The target market of trad RPGs thus can’t (point 1) or can but won’t (point 2) pay a reasonable price for the books that they’re getting.
In order to pay people fairly for their labour, publishers need more available cash. One of the ways to do this is to increase prices of the premium end. Full-colour glossy hardbacks should be priced as what they are. Not even commesurate with said books of equivalent publication values in other areas, just enough to reflect the actual cost of making such a book and paying a publisher enough that they can continue putting the books out without ridiculous financial pressure.
Another way is to present rulebooks as they used to be — black and white softcovers, shorter and with less art. These days the market will happily bear them at 6×9 rather than “full” size. Those can be priced at the entry level, giving people enough to play the game without being overwhelming.
So let’s talk about an elephant in the room: if you want to get involved with new projects and new companies as a freelancer, you have to go to GenCon.
GenCon is the biggest tradgames convention. It is the only one, as far as most of the work goes. And if you don’t go, you don’t exist.
I am a professional writer and game designer. As I may have mentioned, I have eleven years' experience as a professional game designer. That doesn’t count the years I spent beforehand doing fan-work and building up my skills, just the amount of time I’ve been paid for doing the job. I have a million and a half words in print. I have done work for publishers set up by people I’ve worked with at White Wolf/Onyx Path because they know my output even if they’ve not met me in person.
Yet to the wider industry, I don’t exist.
Thing is, I pretty much can’t go to GenCon. Getting there costs more than I make in the industry. It is a financial drain, and no amount of extra work that I’d pick up from being there would push that into the positive. I have other things going on that mean even if I could fund it from gaming work, it probably still won’t happen.
I have tried to get freelance work with people & publishers I haven’t worked with at White Wolf/Onyx Path. I have pointed to my list of publications, I’ve provided references, and I’ve provided writing samples of both published and first-draft work. In return, I’ve been treated like I’m a total n00b, like I’m trying to break in to the industry and don’t know how things really work. Patronised, patted on the head, or just ignored. Because how could someone be in the industry if you haven’t met them at GenCon?
This isn’t just true of freelancers looking to work for other publishers. It’s sometimes true for people in the same company — no matter how many referrals you have from other folks, not having that in-person connection puts you at a significant disadvantage. It’s also true for indie designers and publishers. Not having a presence at GenCon means your game — hell, you as a writer/designer/publisher — don’t exist.
The unstated requirement of GenCon attendance is an issue because it acts as a barrier to the free movement of labour in the industry. Free movement is beneficial to creatives because they get more work, they get more experience with new systems, and they are better-known by people who buy games which in turn means that if they do want to go it alone they have a built-in fan base that people stuck working for one or two publishers don’t have. GenCon creates two classes of RPG pros. Those who have free movement, and those who don’t. In order to be a healthy place to work, the industry needs to do a hell of a lot better.
For people who can go, GenCon is great. For those of us who can’t, it poisons the industry and wider community against us.
A small but significant amount of commentary on the shitty situation for freelancers in the industry side of the TRPG industry is along the lines of “Well, just run a Kickstarter or Patreon for the games you want to design”.
This is bad advice. Kickstarter and Patreon are not the tools to free writers from the shackles of the game design industry.1
They are crowdfunding platforms, and crowdfunding works on a bunch of different assumptions. Primarily, if you want to run a successful Kickstarter or make an amount of money that isn’t a joke on Patreon, you need a pretty much constant stream of marketing and self-promotion.
The idea that “quality” will somehow attract money is bullshit; it was proven to be bullshit as soon as nerds started complaining that the only way Microsoft remained in a dominant position despite poor software was “marketing”, like that was some kind of black magic. Well no shit, Sherlock. Of course marketing is how Microsoft remained popular. Without marketing, nobody wants to use your shit.
That is a truism of doing business. “Quality” gets you dick. Marketing gets you popular. Anyone saying otherwise is a liar.
People point to small-press kickstarters and patreons that succeeded. Dungeon World, f'rex. They succeeded because marketing.2
The point of all of this is simple: marketing and self-promotion are not part of the writing and game design toolkit; they’re entirely orthogonal to it. Sometimes you can manage it in the short-term, say, during a KS. Even then, if you’re not good at it you end up promising things you can’t reasonably deliver. That’s not a factor of budgeting as much as it is self-promotion — you need people to get involved with what you’re doing. And so the KS crushes you.
I’ve been part of two Kickstarters so far: W20: Changing Breeds and W20 Book of the Wyrm. In neither case was I the main person on the project. Rich and Rose took point. And yet, it was a full-time job. While the Kickstarters were running, I straight-up could not do any design work. It was absolutely fucking exhausting. I know from that experience that I cannot do that with any regularity; I do not have the skills or the energy to run a successful KS.
Patreon is similar: you need to build the initial following to get enough money per-release (or per-month, but in the trad-games space that’s code for “fund my life”) that doing the work for that release is worth it. And to make enough to recoup the costs of the work involved, you’d need to be in the top 1% of trad-games Patreons. Otherwise, compared to freelancing — even as it is now, even with all the unpaid bullshit — you lose money.
If I had to self-promote to get paid, I’d be out of the industry in a New York second, and I know that I am not unusual in this.
The other factor of crowdfunding is cash. Because of a string of massive delays and total failures, one of the best ways to guarantee funding is to have at least the pre-release text ready to go when you launch. You also need a video and at least some art; text-only kickstarters don’t succeed.
Except that means writing the damn thing happens before you know if you can pay for it. Art-ing the damn thing likewise. As for the video? Sure, count it under “self-promotion” but even if you’re just doing voice-over, if you have the skill to do it as a pro that’s £100-£150 of work you’re doing for free.
Thing is, this whole thing came about because of the amount of work that we as writers & game designers already do for free. By the time you factor in art and video, a kickstarter for a 60-page game — say, if I’d kickstarted BLACK SEVEN — would have left me over £1000 out of pocket with no guarantee of recouping that cash.
Instead, I stuck it on DriveThru, where it has a chance of people noticing it without dedicating a month to doing nothing creative but using skills I don’t have. With the tiny bit of self-promotion I managed, it’s an electrum bestseller (top 3% of products on the site).
TL;DR: Crowdfunding works for people with the skills to crowdfund. Those are separate skills. Most creatives, especially those freelancing, do not have those skills. It is not a silver bullet, and attempts to claim that it is are disingenuous and insulting.
Because I don’t want it locked in a proprietary social network bubble, I’m going to revise and condense a lot of what I posted and what the discussion moved on to here.
As well as some really ardent defenders.2 Despite posts auto-truncating, a random algorithm deciding which posts to display in the first place because gød forbid you’d want to see what the people you followed posted, a UI that’s slow in everything but Chrome3, and a page design that actively hates wide monitors. ↩
Mention that all the evidence points to G+ dying sooner or later and you get walls-of-text “proving” that it won’t based on some loony’s anecdotal experience that totally ignores how Google treats its services. ↩
But that’s true of every Google tool. Docs in Firefox and Safari is a laggy sack of shit. ↩
Those of you who a) read me on Livejournal and b) I trust can see that I’ve had my own thoughts around this. I’m not making that post public as it’s tied in to my personal feelings of frustration in addition to the broader topic.
Fundamentally though, I agree with the others:
- Per-word rates do not reflect the work that game designers put in
- Pay-on-publication leaves writers hanging when publication is delayed
- Too much work is done in the background (reading, research, probability, systems design) that isn’t compensated at all
- People above “writer” in the game development chain should be treated (and paid) as consultants rather than just by the wordcount of a given book.
- If per-word won’t die, the rate needs a serious increase and a secondary revenue stream needs to come in to reflect the non-word related workload.
These issues have been in the back of my mind for quite a while — they’re hard to avoid when you’ve been doing the job for eleven years and have one and a half million words in print — but I’ve not generally talked about this before, even as compensation’s dropped (when I started with WW, we got 3 print comps, now it’s a voucher for a standard-color PoD at cost) and pay rates increased glacially if at all.
I’ve not talked about it because it feels like I’m calling out one publisher because 95% of my work is through them, but I’m really not. I repeat, this is not about any one publisher. It is about the industry as a whole. Freelancers talk. We know what goes on at other publishers, and we know that these problems are endemic across the traditional games space.
The tabletop gaming space operates on razor-thin margins. People say “the market pays what the market can bear”. But y’know what? If the market can’t afford good designers it doesn’t deserve good designers. If your market is shitty it deserves to die. That’s the point of markets, right? Unfortunately, it’s kept alive, artificially buoyed up by people willing to work for peanuts out of love.
If the non-indie side of the tradgames space doesn’t change, it won’t die but it might as well, as it suffers a sudden and significant dearth of talent.
I was somewhat reluctant to write this because I don’t have any solutions, no suggestions for how to make things better.1 Part of the problem-solver’s brain in me feels like a failure for not coming up with something better. Any solution has to be twofold. It needs to ensure that all of the work a designer does is fairly compensated, and it needs to ensure that publishers have the funds available to afford that compensation.
- Really, it comes down to a bunch of whining grognards who will spend from now until forever crying about how books aren’t priced the same as they were in nineteen-fuckety-five, rather than being priced equivalent to books of similar size and production values. It’s this sense of entitled bullshit that aritificially deflates prices and keeps margins thinner than a blue Rizla. ↩
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Stew Wilson is a writer, game designer, computational demonologist, and mathematician.
This blog covers his professional writing and game design work.
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