By the Word Isn’t Working

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There has been a ton of talk on Twitter this week about creators in the tabletop roleplaying game world being undervalued (or sometimes undervaluing their own work). I want to thank everyone who participated in those discussions and shared thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Creators should make more money, and it is going to take consumers willing to pay more for products, publishers willing to increase paychecks, and creators increasing their rates. One blog post isn’t going to solve this issue, but I do have a thought I want to share.

It’s hard to make it as a freelancer in any industry let alone as a freelance RPG designer. In our industry 10 cents a word has been considered a premium rate for decades, whereas in many other industries it is the starting rate for new freelancers with the top of the scale being 1 dollar a word or more. I think payment for writers, editors, artists, and other freelancers who work in RPGs needs to increase (and consumers need to change the way they think of RPG products). I also think publishers need to stop paying RPG designers by the word and pay instead for their time.

There are few reasons publishers should budget time and not words for designers.

Work Beyond Words

Design work is so much more than putting down words. In addition to writing (which should include a healthy dose or editing and revising your own work) roleplaying game designers are expected to draw at least rough maps, create art orders, do research, attend meetings, pull together appendices from other resources (such as a list of monster stat blocks at the back of an adventure), playtesting, and review and comment on the work of other creators on the project. All of these activities take time, often days or weeks of work depending on the scope of a project. For instance, it can take me four or more hours to create a rough map for an adventure location, review another designer’s work to give feedback, or attend a month of hour-long meetings once a week.

A low word rate barely covers expenses when a designer is just writing. Asking a designer to do all the extras takes time and labor, which should be compensated.

Every Project is Different

Some projects require more work beyond words than others. Are you writing a few thousand words to give some flavor or alternate rules to an existing world or system? If so, a word rate is probably fine (but being compensated for your time works just as well). Are you writing a single chapter in a long adventure that requires two different maps and several art orders? If so, being compensated for your time is better. Are you creating an original roleplaying game from scratch that requires months of meetings, playtesting, creating rough maps, writing art orders, writing/rewriting/deleting/rerewriting, and more? If so, you should be compensated for your time (and likely receive royalties for your efforts). Compensating designers for time is fairer on large projects, especially since publishers often stand to make more money on bigger products.

Encourage Smaller Writing

Paying by the word has problems beyond fairness to designers. Asking for a minimum number of words usually means a publisher will get at least that many from a designer, since the designer wouldn’t want to turn in fewer words for fear of getting a smaller paycheck. This contradicts a writing adage that it is better to be brief. Seasoned designers can often say in one sentence what might take others a paragraph. I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to hit a word count goal after I feel I’ve achieved a writing project’s objective in fewer words, only to have my extra words cut from the final draft. It would have saved everyone time (and possibly the publisher some money) if I had just been paid for my time instead of words.

Publishers should still plan out products and provide word counts (because plans help publishers from going over budget), but freeing a designer’s pay from word count makes it easier for the designer to say, “I could make this section shorter.” The publisher can then say, “Great! We can put those words somewhere else they are needed,” or, “Now we can add more art to the book,” or, “Now the book is thinner, and my print costs are lower!” This approach also could save a publisher money, since a designer takes less time to write 10,000 words than they do 15,000.

How Do We Do This?

How do we pay freelancers for time? I can already see people saying, “Won’t freelancers lie about the number of hours they spend on a project to make more money? What if an honest freelancer works more hours or days than the publisher expects? Word counts are safer because they are quantifiable.” Have no fear. Many industries pay freelancers for time (like television, which is where I have my other freelance life). We have good, tested model for this.

The best way a freelance RPG designer can work for time is by arranging everything with the publisher before writing a single word on the project. Here’s how I see it happening. (Note this idea is not an original one. I’ve stolen it from other businesses that have worked the same way for many, many, many years.)

  1. The publisher reaches out to a freelancer and provides the full scope of a project. The publisher might even provide the budget they have for the freelancer’s work.
  2. The freelancer provides an estimate for their work to the publisher. This includes the amount of time the project will take the freelancer and the freelancer’s rate for the project.
  3. The publisher and freelancer agree or negotiate (then hopefully agree) on the terms of payment. They also outline what actions should be taken by both parties if the project expands beyond the original scope of work.
  4. If the publisher and freelancer agree on terms, they put those terms of the project into a contract and both sign it.
  5. Get to work!

To publishers, consumers, and my fellow freelance designers out there, what do you think of this model? Sound off in the comments below!

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