It’s also a challenging industry in which to consistently make money. High-quality, hardcover TTRPG adventure books rely on teams of professionals including writers, editors, illustrators, designers, play testers and, of course, people who can advise on the business side of things. Once produced, physical copies of the books go through a distributor, which skims off a percentage. And not everyone who plays TTRPGs is a paying customer. Out of six or seven people playing a game like D&D together, it’s possible just one will have purchased official materials. Then, of course, there’s piracy.
“It’s much more difficult for publishers to make money, which means it’s much more difficult for them to stay in business and give everybody what they deserve,” says Hal Greenberg, who runs the RPG Creators Relief Fund, a charity for TTRPG workers. “It’s extremely difficult to both make a quality product and make a profit.”
With few big employers, full-time jobs in the industry are rare—and that scarcity, sources say, encourages people to accept poor working conditions. One worker said getting hired at Wizards of the Coast felt like “winning the lottery,” but now, after years of low pay and long hours, they view that initial enthusiasm as “naive.” Three sources recall Lisa Stevens, the CEO and cofounder of Paizo, saying she didn’t understand why employees complained about poor working conditions. In fact, they recall her saying, they should be honored to work on Pathfinder because there are others out there who would do it for free.
Sources say Paizo has offered $35,000 for full-time jobs based in the Seattle suburb of Redmond within the last three years, where the average monthly rent for an apartment is $1,768. (MIT calculates that the living wage for a single adult with no children in King County, Washington, is $40,705.) One person says he recently left the company in a leadership role after seven years making the equivalent of $39,000 a year on hourly wages. Other people who spoke to WIRED described making similar amounts over the past decade, and two sources say that the company’s benefits have gotten worse in that time.
The low salaries at Paizo led a number of employees to take freelance jobs from the company, too, just to make ends meet. “One of the jokes about Paizo is that the real benefit is first pick of all the freelance contracts,” says Crystal Frasier, who made less than $40,000 when she left in 2018 after nine years at the company. “You couldn’t really afford to work there if you weren’t going home after work and writing 5,000 to 10,000 words a week freelance, just to make rent.” During his first year at the company, says Jason Tondro, a senior developer at Paizo, “if I didn’t get freelance gigs, I didn’t have a food budget.”
Freelancers and contractors form the backbone of the industry and are regularly tapped to write, illustrate, and design products for top publishers. Current employees at Paizo and Wizards of the Coast say many, if not most, of their products are written by freelancers, and then developed into books in-house by staffers or contractors. Their rates, according to over a dozen sources, are abysmal. Freelancer TTRPG adventure writers said 5 to 12 cents a word is a common rate, which, depending on the project and the writer’s speed, can amount to anything from $10 to $50 an hour of work.