There’s been some talk on Twitter recently about pay in RPGs. It’s a topic that’s never far from my mind, but the recent discussions have me thinking about it even more than usual. It’s a topic with a lot of hard realities baked in and I feel like examining some of them. So, let’s go.

It’s Just a Job, Right?

We’ll start the meat of this post with a brief talk about jobs in general. A very basic look at work is that you’re trading your time and energy for money. Right? We’re all doing that in some for or fashion whether we’re working a fast-food joint, making art, or sitting in a corner office. Your time, your effort, someone pays you for those things. When we decide what we want to do for work, or what we can tolerate, we’re working the equation of what our time is worth.

This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, of course. We don’t get to just say “hey, my time is worth $45/hour” and get that. Not necessarily, anyway. Someone has to agree that’s the rate your time is worth and agree to pay you that rate. This is basic stuff, right? We, as people who work, have skills and we have to convince someone to pay us for those skills.

This is where things start to get messy. You can sit by yourself and decide what your time and energy is worth. It’s getting someone else to agree that’s the problem, usually. This is also where the conversation last night on Twitter comes in, and why it stuck with me.

Someone (avoiding names because fuck harassment) was talking about how Paizo doesn’t pay full-time people enough to make cost of living out in the Seattle area. The stated reasoning for that is because (paraphrasing) “there’s no end of people who would want to work for us because Pathfinder.” Whether or not that’s the case, it points to a huge imbalance in that conversation about what your time is worth. You can know without a doubt that you’re effort is worth a livable wage in your area and the company you want to work for can just not provide that because they don’t have to.

This is where it becomes more than “just a job.” There’s a huge supply of people who might want to write games full-time for a company. There’s no demand because the companies who could afford to hire full-time writers have already done so. And then, those that might don’t have to pay a competitive wage; there’s no competition.

Fine, Then. I’ll Do It On My Own

And that’s the way most full-timers in RPGs work. There are well under 10 companies in RPGs who have staffs larger than a handful of people. Freelance work or doing your own projects is a common route. Just because there’s not demand for full-time writers at big companies doesn’t mean the demand doesn’t exist elsewhere. We’re talking multiple revenue streams, marketing yourself, doing Kickstarters, becoming your own publisher, etc. Let’s start with talking about freelancing.

There are more companies who can hire freelancers than there are who can hire full-time, salaried writers. The equation of what your time is worth comes back into play here, but it’s a far damn cry from the $45/hour figure I tossed out up above. That rate is reasonable for some industries, but it’s not anywhere close to what RPGs pay contractors.

First off, for writing, most companies pay per-word, based on the final submitted wordcount of the document you’re writing. At this point, the highest pay rate I know of in RPGs is about $0.10/word. That’s a rare rate. That’s Wizards of the Coast or a really supportive independent publisher with a good Kickstarter plan. That’s also not for a large project, likely. Most companies aren’t contracting people to write full games (though that is changing, somewhat). Most are hiring out for supplements and smaller work.

Let’s do some quick math. Let’s say I land a gig writing for $0.06/word. That’s higher than most places pay, but it’s also what the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) calls a pro rate, so we’ll go with that. Let’s also say this gig has a 1-month deadline and a total of 4,000 words. It probably won’t take me a full month to complete, but let’s say it will.

That means, for a month of work, I’ve made *drumroll*

$240.

Yup. That $240 comes from a rarely attained rate for a small supplement which will take, honestly, probably a week for me to actually write if I spend 3 hours a day writing. Mathing some more, that’s 15 hours of work. In other terms, that’s $16/hour.

So, there are multiple ways of looking at that. $16/hour gives me enough money a month at 40 hours a week that, with the combined income from my partner, we could live.

That’s making a lot of assumptions, though. That means I need to have about 2.66 projects like that, per week, 52 weeks a year to maintain that rate. And this is all assuming I can get $0.06/word.

There are a lot of companies who can’t afford that rate. There are companies which can’t afford to even pay $0.01/word. That might seem ridiculous when you think about a PDF costing $10 to buy, but it’s the reality. We’ll get into that in a bit.

Well, what about…

Multiple Revenue Streams??

I mentioned this before, so let’s take a look. I did a breakdown on Twitter a bit ago, and it’s a useful illustration.

You can click on either one of those to see the full thread, but the point is, I put in a lot of effort for the Patreons I do, and I make not much for them. I love doing them, and that likely won’t change, but it’s not a lot.

I also have games on DriveThruRPG. I earn about $15/month from those. It turns out that putting forth a concerted effort for marketing the games I’ve made takes time and energy, too. There have been a lot of times in the last few years where I just didn’t have that. As well, when you sell a thing on DTRPG, you only make 65% of the sale price. I work in a partnership, so that’s remainder is split 50/50.

Lastly, I’m now getting some residuals from projects that I’ve done where I contracted to earn royalties. That amounts to about $75/month, so far.

So. If I can manage to get, say, one freelance writing gig a month ($240), plus the Patreon ($100), plus DTRPG royalties ($15), plus residuals ($75), I can reliably make $430 a month from RPG work.

And all of that, every single penny of it, is based on me working on writing, or marketing, or editing, or audio, or layout, or research, or generating leads, or pitching, every day. Pretty much seven days a week.

So… Why Try This?

Because I love it. And honestly, there’s not much else I’m good at. I’ve worked a number of jobs over the 37 years I’ve been alive. Most of them have lasted me two years or less because I get so dissatisfied so fast, or get in over my head, or any other number of things stemming from a combination of self-sabotage and bad work environments.

I’m good at making games. I’m decent at writing fiction. I’m getting decent at editing audio for actual play podcasts. I’m starting to learn how to do better graphical work in Photoshop. And all because of RPGs. This is home to me, in many real ways. It’s work that is satisfying and rewarding to me.

And yet, those realities remain. My passion could be exploited if I’m not careful in negotiating with companies who don’t have to pick me. I can lose time trying to do things I’m not good at (publishing) because my effort is better-spent working on things I’m more passionate about and better suited to.

I think I’ve found my way forward. I spend most of my time right now working part-time at two different convenience stores, earning $9/hour. I’m doing this to keep being able to pay rent because RPGs aren’t doing that, yet. I’m pitching projects to companies, working to fulfill obligations I’ve already signed, and working on projects.

I know what my time is worth. I know what my chosen industry can afford to pay. I’m working on finding ways to work within and around those limits.

Because this is what I love to do.