TTRPG Design Mastery — The Impossible Road

Welcome to a guest post, here on Rising Phoenix Games. Kim Frandsen is here to talk about the difficult road TTRPG designers have to walk to becoming masters of the craft. Enjoy.

Hi everyone! Rodney asked me to share some thoughts that I’d been having recently about the TTRPG industry.

In most creative industries, such as tabletop roleplaying game publishing, there are — at least to me — seemingly three levels of “achievement” a creator can reach:

  1. Apprentice
  2. Journeyman
  3. Master

Cruel Trinkets

The Road to Mastering RPG Design

To give an example of what I mean, let’s compare the TTRPG industry to the film industry. Hollywood’s movie business is well known and has similar requirements to our own, in that it requires a lot of creative input and technical knowledge to achieve a coherent and appealing final product.

So an apprentice within the TTRPG world is someone who is just starting out. They may be self-publishing or they may have a few years of experience working as a freelancer for smaller publishers. In the film world, these are the folks putting out their first films, or who are just out of film school. They may have acquired some technical knowledge along the way, and they may have great creative ideas, but they still need a lot of help executing their ideas to a level where an audience can understand their work.

Masters are of course at the other end of the craft. They’re the ones who do the work that you always hear about. Within the gaming world, they’ll be people like Chris Perkins, Owens KC Stephens, Jason Buhlmann, and Skip Williams. They’re exceptionally capable and experienced designers who have had their hands in hundreds of projects. They not only have creative vision but also the technical know-how to realize that vision.
In the film world, these are people like Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola for direction. They may be the Chris Evanses, Ryan Reynolds, and Scarlett Johansson for actors. They could also be the “invisible” people like John Williams, known for the soundscapes that complete the film experience. These are the creators that everyone has heard of,  and who have staying power.

In between these two, you find the journeyman level. For films, these are the people who can live off their work but haven’t become famous. They might be the supporting actors on big-budget films, they may be the camera or sound crews, or they may be the director that does documentaries for the BBC — people that those in the business have potentially heard of, but who aren’t well known to the public.

And here comes the question: where is the journeyman level in the TTRPG Industry?

Making a living off your work in this business, even if you have multiple years of experience and projects behind you, is tough. In my case, I started in 2016 and at this point, I have more than 100 projects behind me as both author and editor, and I’ve started dabbling in layout, but I cannot make a living off what I do — even though I’d love to. (Editors Note: Kim has multiple credits for Paizo, including Pathfinder and Starfinder work. He was also an alternate in the top 32 for RPG Superstar, Season 9. Kim also wrote Heaven & Hell for Pathfinder Second Edition.)

DriveThruRPG.com

The figure that you need to take home to live (please note I said “live”, not “survive” — there is a difference) varies by where you live of course. Generally, if you live in the West, things cost more. That’s just how it is.

But how big does the RPG industry have to be to support the Journeyman level folks? Nobody knows how much money is in the business, and the few who have an insight into that are really not interested in sharing that information. The fact is though that there are only a few companies out there that are big enough to supply more than a handful (5) employees full-time. This includes the juggernaut Wizards of the Coast and all the way down to smaller companies with permanent staff. Even just finding out who belongs in that category is difficult. (Truth be told, the industry really isn’t doing itself any favors on this, by being so opaque, but I digress).
Unfortunately, until we know what the business is worth in total, and where it has been in the past, it’ll be difficult to say where the “break” point in size is for the RPG industry, but there is one factor that we can comment on.
We’d like to see more people make a living by making TTRPGs, wouldn’t we? After all, it allows us to see more people progress to the master level, so we’ll eventually enjoy the stuff they put out. And it’d allow others who have the skill and knowledge to live off their earnings from roleplaying games too.

Do I have a personal stake in this? Yes. Of course, I do, and I’m obviously one who’d like to reach the Journeyman level. But more than that: I’d like to see my friends remain in the business. I started at a time where I was connected with something like 20 or 30 other people. Today, only 2 of them are left, with a 3rd on hiatus and a 4th mostly being too busy with his day job to work away at game design. So many people have fallen by the wayside that I know had the ability to make it, if there had been a future for them. For all of us, it wears us down. And while those who survive the first 3-4 years tend to stick around, I’d really like to see more of the talented newcomers staying with us.

Thanks for listening to my rant.
Catch you on the flip side.
Kim Frandsen
You can find Kim on Beyond the Horizon.


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