Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Biggest Scandal In The History of RPGs

Let's talk about exploitation

Some Basic Math

I write a column for an art magazine.

It's like 700 words. Functionally speaking (including talking to my editor and looking stuff up and rewriting) it takes me about one work day (8 hours) to write.

So, like, let's say most writers could do 500-1000 words per day of decent, usable prose if they were writing something requiring some original thought, like an RPG. Especially if they were doing it every day. That's where I ballpark myself when I do game gigs for people.

Now let's pay our imaginary writer the rates that popular indie RPG publishers Evil Hat (which has the popular Dresden Files game) and Green Ronin (which has its DC Adventures game on the shelves of every local game store I've ever seen) pay their authors:

5 cents a word.

$0.05 a word x 500-1000 words a day. That's 25-50$ a day. Quite a bit south of minimum wage.

261 work days in a year x 50 = 13,050$ a year.

The US poverty line for a single person with no kids is $13,860.

And that's our best case scenario, with the writer writing at the bleeding edge of what they could reasonably write per day, as if they had a project for one of these companies every day, with no spouse or kid to feed.

And yet somehow the people at the top of these companies (Fred Hicks and Chris Pramas respectively) live full-time off publishing games and support kids.


James Edward Raggi, one of my publishers, aka Lamentations of the Flame Princess--who:

1. Does not have any licensed media like Dresden Files or DC Comics

2. Whose books are most definitely not on the shelves in every local game store

3. Yet also lives exclusively off RPG publishing

...has run the math on the various deals he offers his creators. These vary. One deal he offers is an upfront payment plus, if a book earns out this upfront payment, royalties on top of that.

The math turns out to be (advance plus royalties)--LotFP's 21st best selling book (that is 20 books sell better than this one) is still making its creator 26 cents a word (which is 21 in eurocents).

If you're wondering: he also pays quarterly and scrupulously on time.

So, A Question

Let's say you do not think that the blood, gore, fancy prose, player-challengey mechanics, high death toll and weird art of LotFP is better than what Evil Hat and Green Ronin are putting out.

Let's say it does not bother you that Evil Hat has had major business ties to rape-scandal-riddled RPG forum RPGnet (and the sexist "For Men Only" ads that run on it).

Let's say it does not bother you that Green Ronin is similarly linked to poor handling of possible sexual improprieties 1.

Let's say it does not bother you that Evil Hat's head Fred Hicks has a record of harassing other creators2 and then, when questioned, claiming he can't discuss the accusations he makes for mental health reasons.

Let's say it does not bother you that Green Ronin cheats the LGBT creators 3 it is using to try to market itself as woke.

Let's say it does not bother you that they do these things while continuously and aggressively paying lipservice to supposedly progressive ideals and using supposed devotion to equality and diversity to market their products.

Let's say it does not bother you that these publishers run the other way as soon as anyone even seeks to engage them critically about any of this.

Let's say you hate me and have some conspiracy theory take where all these well-documented things didn't actually happen.

Let's say these companies make your favorite games ever.

Let's assume all that is true:

Why, though, even with all that, are freelancers ok with these dudes exploiting every creator they work with on this level for the sake of their straight white cis profits?

Why don't you leave and go make your own stuff--or hook up with a company that will give you the kind of profit-split deal that LotFP and the companies that follow its model have been able to give their creators?

1 Green Ronin's flubbing of alleged sex pestery here
2 Fred's Harassment rap sheet
3 Bad business here


littlemute said...

Raggi pays promptly also. For freelancers that’s ‘UGE.

Hildissent said...

Thanks for the information. Good to know Raggi values talent. I certainly value his game. (and I don't even use it for very weird games.) I abandoned Catalyst Game Labs after the whole co-mingled funds debacle. I refused to support a game company that wouldn't pay content creators (or printers!) and squandered core-rulebook earnings that should have been used to support the product line.

Zak Sabbath said...

your comment’s been deleted since i don’t host libel on the blog.

if you believe the quoted rates are inaccurate, say what they are and cite your sources.

Tedankhamen said...

And I thought academic publishing was bad...

R.J. Thompson said...

You could not have posted this at a better time for me. All of this shit in the industry has driven me to start my own company and begin to produce my own "near clone" of OD&D, with diversity as a major mission statement. This was originally intended to be a supplement with my house rules to be bolted on to Swords & Wizardry, moreover after the print that Stacy worked on to make the game have an appeal to a diverse crowd. Since then some things have happened that have driven me away from that. I don't always agree with you, but kudos on this Zak.

Jay Murphy said...

"Why, though, even with all that, are freelancers ok with these dudes exploiting every creator they work with on this level for the sake of their straight white cis profits?"

Spot on question, alas I do not think an honest answer would be forthcoming. Really the only one which would fly... nah not even that. But I want to know why people would sign lousy deals for no money. If you got paid well there is a reason to work. But crap money? And it seems the only business outside of construction where the general/developer routinely attempt to stiff the subs as a matter of practice appears to be the freelance RPG industry. And there is way less dollars here.

Yes, please someone explain why working for this drek is acceptable.

Ruprecht said...

"RPGnet (and the sexist "For Men Only" ads that run on it)."
I thought ads were generally chosen from many based on your browser history. I know that's how Facebook and Amazon do it.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Rob Schwarz

Nah, the "For Men Only" ads are (according to them) the result of that ad server getting hacked over and over even after its been reported.

But RPGnet refuses to just stop using that server because, contrary to the line they put out, they like money a lot more than they dislike sexism.

Also, and not to obscure the larger issue: Rape.

DazzleEngine said...

Why, though, even with all that, are freelancers ok with these dudes exploiting every creator they work with on this level for the sake of their straight white cis profits?

Why don't you leave and go make your own stuff--or hook up with a company that will give you the kind of profit-split deal that LotFP and the companies that follow its model have been able to give their creators?

Because it’s a free-market economy and contractors are free to choose who and for how much they will sell the products of their production. Barring government regulation, if someone wants to sell their output for a pittance, that’s up to them.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully in favour of regulation where the parties to a contract have unequal bargaining power that is being abused, however, that is not the case here. Creators are under no compulsion to sell to these publishers. I am also fully in favour of the rights of these creators to make whatever deals they want - even if they are objectively “badl. Freedom is the freedom to reap the consequences of your decision.

FM Geist said...

I mean this model for RPGs is like pulp presses in the 20s but without being adjusted for inflation. Without touching on all of the other problems with the presses built on that model. But it blows my mind that they haven’t gone under yet more than anything?

Zak Sabbath said...

@Dale Morrell

Explaining "One of the things on the menu is a sandwich made of shit" is NOT explaining why people choose to order it.

Please try not to write 101-level remedial stuff in my comments. Everyone reading knows all of what you wrote.

Adam Baulderstone said...

I'd say that their licensed products make it easier to pay less. On the freelancer side, writing official stuff for a favorite license is a dream job that people line up to do. It's easy to find people who find getting to work on a Batman game is a reward in itself, so they don't question the pay.

Plus these companies have to pay for their shiny licenses, so they are looking to cut corners elsewhere.

Zak Sabbath said...

@adam baulderstone many of the terrible things they're asked to write for terrible rates aren't the licensed products but random other crap. These companies put out way more things besides the licensed stuff

Verad Bellveil said...

Capitalizing on the perception that because RPGs have shrunk to a cottage industry, this is all they can afford?

Emphasis on perception here, not the reality.

FM Geist said...


That’s weird tho cause it’s like public knowledge D&D (admittedly not part of the conversation per se) is owned by Hasbro which has plenty of goddamn money; I go to Providence often enough that I get to see their enormous HQ & ads for Hasbrocon. And (to the best of my knowledge) their lower pay rate is attributed to how many hands they put on a project (maybe a corollary ismajor video game studios where there’s a big name maybe who gets paid, if they aren’t paying Merls* good money they’re fucking stupid—& then a lot of people treated as cogs to move product down the chute). But if we compare video games (let’s say they are similar industries but a different scale of money) mid tier developers tend to pay *better* because they have fewer hands and the fingerprints are more distinct. And the bottom in terms of size have the best pay and margins (look at the bricks of money some 2 or 8 guy games make; hell look at Doom which is maybe a corollary to TSR) but also utter failure (the total shovelware dreck on Steam or DriveThruRPG). But what that should teach people is making a quality product of unique vision that isn’t designed by committee and has the necessary capital to execute IS how the products that win awards and make money fucking get made.

I don’t think anyone thinks Green Ronin is a Mom and Pop business even if their [not insignificant managerial employee] *personally* went on the Facebook statuses of some of [accussed but not proven guilty employee] to call accusers sluts and claim they were trying to advance their careers which was a personal touch.

*Sp on the name and I assume he’s still nominally in charge of 5e even if they won’t let him abolish Bards.

Revenant said...


I am not sure your calculation that they are spending a day to crank out 500-1000 words is accurate for most of the industry.

Your products clearly have a lot of thought put into them and aren't padded out with a lot of useless filler. That's the exact opposite of what I find in most products. It wouldn't shock me if they made up for that 5 cents a word by typing four times as fast and cutting out the whole "quality check" part.

That aside, the OTHER reasons you list are more than enough to avoid doing business with these bozos.

Zak Sabbath said...

Even if they are writing 4000 words a day, that still results in less than LotFP's rate.

(And, of course, nobody wants to read books of filler.)

Soyweiser said...

Perhaps they (the publishers who screw people over) can do this for the same reason computer game developers can do stuff like unpaid overtime, crunchtime and other horrible practices? Because there is an endless supply of young people who have always dreamed of working for a games company? And malicious businessmen take advantage of young and naive people?

And part of it is also this: the sociopaths (or people who behave like sociopaths) who squeeze every ounce of value out of the creative/fanatical people, for their own gain.

Zak Sabbath said...


In those cases the people have no other options if they want to work in the field. And certainly don't go around praising the shit out of their overlords

Soyweiser said...

And I saw the comment about adservers being hacked. Normally Iirc when an adserver gets hacked it doesn't start spreading ads with a different message, it starts spreading malware, or links to malicious sites. A good virusscanner should start screaming bloody murder when this happens, so if you never got a viruswarning from the site, I would not really believe this.

Soyweiser said...

I'm certainly not saying it is good btw. I had no idea it was that bad in RPG publisher land.

Revenant said...

"Books of filler" is what most of the books on the game store shelves look like to me. I am probably just being a grumpy old man about it.

The only other explanation I can think of is the ego factor of having your name on something on the game store shelves, but that only makes sense as a motive for hobbyists, not full-timers.

Or maybe people just don't know any better because LotFP is less widely known?

josh said...

how much of their total output is freelanced out? if no one knows thats ok.