Getting a Job in the RPG Industry
There must be something in the air. After the last two posts on breaking into video games and getting your game published, today one of my LinkedIn groups had a question from someone who wants to get a job in the tabletop RPG industry. Here’s what I told him. I think it’s realistic, but others may think I’m being too negative. If he’s really committed to tabletop RPGs as a career, he won’t be put off by what I say anyway.
All my tabletop RPG pals out there, please weigh in with your own advice and experiences – either here or on the LinkedIn discussion.
There’s barely an industry to break into. With very few exceptions (WotC, Paizo, Fantasy Flight), the industry is made up of garage operations doing it for love rather than money. Almost no one makes a living at it: I don’t. A little while ago I wrote a blog entry on the reasons for this.
If this doesn’t discourage you, start by freelancing. Pick your favorite 2-3 game systems and become an expert. Write a few pieces for each one and send them to the appropriate line editor. Don’t expect these to get published: they are just samples. If and when you get paying gigs, use the published work build up a portfolio.
Look at Kickstarter and Indiegogo for RPG projects. If you see anything you like, contribute cash (this establishes good faith) and write to the project’s owner and offer to create something for a stretch goal. Don’t expect payment for this until your name carries some weight.
Review games for sites like DriveThruRPG, RPGGeek, and Roleplayers Chronicle. Start a blog and post your work there alongside intelligent discussion of issues and market developments. Be active on the forums for your favorite 2-3 games. Go to GenCon and other major shows, visit the booths of your favorite publishers, and find someone to talk to about their needs.
Give this process 5-10 years (seriously). With a little luck and a lot of hard work your name will become sufficiently established that you can get regular freelance work. No matter how much you get, though, you will still need a “day job” to pay the bills. You will always be competing with an unlimited number of fans who write or draw as a hobby, and this keeps payment rates too low to sustain anyone as a career.
Keep an eye on publishers’ web sites, looking for vacancy announcements. Develop skills in graphic design, layout, and web site development that will set you apart from the mass of writers and/or artists. Consider acquiring business skills as well. Take your cue from the vacancies you see advertised: in my experience business and production vacancies are the hardest to fill. Writing vacancies, when they exist, are almost never advertised, for two reasons:
a) Any ad for RPG writers produces an unmanageable flood of applications. Picking out usable candidates from the mass of semi-literates and enthusiastic schoolkids takes too long. True story: when I worked for Games Workshop, an ad for a game writer produced multiple applications from 12-13 year olds (and a touching one from a 9-year-old, written in black crayon and accompanied by a sketch of his character) asking us to keep the vacancy open until they finished school.
b) All RPG companies use freelancers extensively to keep costs down. Therefore when a vacancy arises, hiring managers usually approach their best freelancers, filling the vacancy without needing to advertise.
Or, you can do what most people do and found your own company.
Set up a blog and post regularly, including free samples (skeleton rules in the GURPS light mode, free adventures) to give people a taste and make them want to spend cash on your products.
Use Facebook and game forums to develop a fan base. Send electronic samples to every review site you can find.
Once you have a base and some good reviews for your initial products, use Kickstarter to fund more. Look at current Kickstarter campaigns to see what works and what doesn’t.
Using print-on-demand and electronic distribution, you can avoid tying up too much cash in stock, but you have to do everything yourself because it will be years (if ever) before you have enough money to hire any help.
You’ll have to keep a day job, and free time will become an unknown concept, but you’ll be working in the industry you love and for some people that is enough.
I’m sorry if this sounds negative, but the reality is that the tabletop RPG industry is (and looks to remain) idea-rich but cash-poor, with writers in particular being a heavily oversupplied commodity.