2020-02-14 Unprofessional

Eldrad Wolfsbane recently wrote Reevaluating My RPG Gamer (NON) Life. It’s an angry and melancholy story about work sucking the hours out of your life, at least that’s how I read it. Also, termites. But also soul and sweat poured into a thing that nobody uses. It breaks my heart.

The rest of this blog post is not about Eldrad Wolfbane’s decision to go back to his gaming roots: “All on paper, scratchy drawings and maps on graph paper. All hand written dice rolled stuff. I am just going to create stuff for my own personal games.” The rest of this blog post is about capitalism and how not to be professional, i.e. how not to “prosecute anything for a livelihood”, as Webster had it in 1913.

I’m only doing the stuff I want for my own games. The amount of effort I put into the Caverns of Slime for Fight On! #15 which never got published showed me that every step of the process has to be enjoyable. If it is not, if it is premised on some later reward and recognition, what happens when the reward does not manifest? Time is wasted and life passes and then we grow and then we die, that’s what.

It’s why I decided to only do the things I like doing. I don’t believe in “when you build it they will come” because in today’s society we have a “winner takes all” setup: we can produce PDFs in infinite numbers, we can send physical books all over the world, we can reach a global readership, we have ways to fund projects... everything is possible! It’s exciting! It’s liberating! But it’s also possible for everybody else. That includes the people who know how to play the Marketing Organ, that know how to blow the Trumpet of Hype, that have the experience. And when somebody wins, they win globally. Everybody knows them and second place is first loser.

Ah, now we’re back where we began: how much are you willing to sacrifice in this time and age of capitalism when you don’t have the capital? How much work will you do upfront, exploiting yourself, working in the great lottery of life hoping for a big break? It’s dreams and fantasies, and we are as prone to them as everybody else. And the big machine will eat us up and spit us out, thoroughly chewed and maybe even spit upon. Just look at show business, at the music industry, anything where capital and fame is important. The winner takes it all. How much are you willing to sacrifice in order to be a winner? You life? Your relationship? Your family? Your hobbies? How about: None of the above! 😁

A year ago, I read this great blog post by Molly Conway, The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies Into Hustles. I recommend you read it. It starts with the author meeting a friend who made herself a wonderful dress and is dejected when asked about an Etsy shop. The tension dissolves when the author says the magic words: “You don’t have to monetize your joy.”

I feel this pressure to publish in the RPG design sphere, and I don’t think it’s healthy or good. Some people enjoy making these products. And some people like buying products. And capitalism is made for this: capital allows people to make products that satisfy demand. As the capital flows, it creates incentives of its own. I’m not Karl Marx but even I understand that the people involved in this trade have an urge to communicate their joy, and the incentives are in their favour. For some, it’s marketing. For some, it’s unboxing videos. For others, it’s reviews. But for all of us, it’s capitalism at its best: creating demand, and satisfying demand by producing things.

But here’s the rub: if you’re strapped for capital, then it doesn’t work that way. That’s why when we work for money, we often feel bad about it, disenfranchised. Because if we were doing it for fun, then somebody else would be doing it for free. That’s why fun isn’t something you’re getting money for. It’s work. Of course, some people try to tell us that work should be fun, and that we should enjoy it, and love it, and pour our soul into it. But remember: all they’re saying is that they’d like us to do the work for free. That’s not how it works, but if enough of us believe it, then wages go down. Work is not about having fun, and having fun should not turn into work.

I’m not poor, so I don’t know anything about the realities of hustling. But it seems to me that if you’re poor, you need to work and make money. But for the love all the things you love, don’t turn the thing you love into a hustle. Flip burgers or something. Keep work and play separate. Don’t turn your game into a poorly paid job.

Instead, consider how the act of playing our beloved games is fundamentally anti-capitalistic: you don’t need to buy much of anything to play. Pen, paper, dice, maybe a book or two. And then: no money required for years and years. You can’t grow a global reach by playing at a table. I guess you can grow a global audience with YouTube and Twitch and all that, and maybe monetise it, but mostly the providers of these services are going to monetise you. The actual game needs no money. You talk and laugh, and scribble and dabble, howl and haggle, and a good time is had. There is no “growth.” There is no “increased productivity.” It’s about the basic joys of being alive: talking to people, imagining things and telling others about it.

Focus on the things that you love doing.

If you want to put that thing you loved making out for other people to see, write a blog post, create a PDF using the means of production you have at your disposal, and do it, for the joy of it. Don’t expect a reward or later recognition. That’s not how it works for the great majority of us. Make it free and keep capitalism out of your hobbies.



Good to know that flipping burgers is better way to support yourself, and totally doesn’t suck the life and energy out folx, and totally doesn’t negatively impact creativity.

– Anonymous 2020-02-14 19:52 UTC

Let’s talk when the RPGs bring in as much money as flipping burgers. Flipping burgers is a job. Making RPGs for a living is winning the lottery. Telling people to pursue their dreams and work in RPGs is simply bad advice. Yes, flipping burgers is shite for life and energy and creativity. But so are most other jobs.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-14 20:46 UTC

Like how dare folx monetize their hobby

– Anonymous 2020-02-14 21:14 UTC

I guess I don’t understand the argument you are trying to make and it seems pretty clear that you don’t understand the point I’m trying to make. Move along, please. I don’t think this conversation is going anywhere. Feel free to write a longer reply elsewhere.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-14 21:46 UTC

(Un)Professional, on the Axes and Orcs blog argues that they know “more than a few folx who do [make a living]” (presumably from RPG product making).

Of course I would claim this is survivorship bias: they are not counting all the people who failed. It is only by comparing the two that we arrive at numbers that would help us decide who’s advice to heed. As I don’t know the numbers either, we are at an impasse. All we can do is list are anecdotes and critically examine the system.

Anecdotally, I have seen a small number of people selling a few books. Do they have day jobs? I think so; I haven’t ever heard of anybody getting rich from RPGs. So even at the top, the air is thin. That is to say, on the winning side, the rewards don’t seem to be great.

At the same time, the number of people I see begging on social media is heart breaking. I think we must all work for change but we must also survive. Looking at the amount of bad news from the US health care failure is crushing. Such an inhumane system is one of the main reasons to not drop your day job. Leaving the system is a mortal danger. That is to say, the price of failure is horrendous.

Based on that, I’d say that unless you’re living in a social system with safety nets for diseases and accidents, producing RPG products is almost always going to be a side job. I don’t know whether people like Sine Nomine Publishing’s Kevin Crawford have a day job. I assume they do? John M. Stater of Land of Nod does. In any case, I don’t see many people in their league.

So now we’re talking about “just do it as some extra cash”. Here, too, I see a lot of hardship – perhaps it is not as existential, But what I remember of people talking about how their games are doing financially is mostly that it is coffee money, or enough for them to support other creators, or simply some form of validation. To which I say: sure, if that’s the reward you are looking for, then this is fine. More power to you. It does look like a completely different hobby than running and playing the games, though.

Perhaps I’m simply confused (or we all are?) because we think the product authors share the same hobby when in fact on the one side there are the people running and playing the games, which involves a bit of writing, and on the other side we have authors of ergodic literature, as recently discussed by Robbie on Teaching Role-Playing Games, Part 1: The Justification:

The basic argument is that there is a type of literature—not a genre per se, but a kind of modality—that requires efforts which go beyond the direct understanding or reading of a text. This is what he means by ergodic literature.

Such as RPG products. We’re talking about how to become a successful author for a (no longer?) niche market. I think that culturally we know about how to become authors and thus we are better able to understand how it will work because we have seen enough movies and read enough books where authors make an appearance:

  • there is not a lot of money in it at first
  • there will be many rejections
  • many will quit before making a break through
  • the break through will be a matter of luck
  • the connections, the people you know are important
  • many authors rely on the financial support of others

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-15 07:14 UTC

AHAH! People do read my blog! Just a few musing to stir up some conversations. Explain “prosecute anything for a livelihood” as my meager Louisiana education (Ranked 62 in the Nation!) allows this term to elude me and frankly anyone else who has tried to discern the meaning of such.

EldradWolfsbane 2020-02-16 04:13 UTC

Webster 1913 app screenshot showing the entry for ‘professionally’ 😀 – as a non-native English speaker I often look up words in a thesaurus. Specifically, the Webster 1913 edition which is in the public domain. It’s my favourite!

I sort of knew that “professional” meant doing something “for a living” but I didn’t know what the exact definition was. And when I looked it up on Webster, I thought “prosecute anything for a livelihood” was funny as I associate “to prosecute something” with lawyers and so I decided to quote it. 🤷🏻

Also learning English as a 15 year old with AD&D 1st ed and Gary Gygax’ prose surely didn’t help, haha!

As for blogs I read: these days I stopped subscribing to blogs and just skim the RPG Planet. And since your blog is listed, I read it. 😀

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-16 11:29 UTC

FWIW, Kevin of Sine Nomine Games does write RPGs full-time, but he’s definitely an exception rather than the rule. He does believe others could follow his suit, though, and he’s pretty open about his methods (e.g. free flagship game that lures in customers, offering cross-system tools to increase potential audience, pricing, and generally being a one-man show, except for art in his case).

Ynas Midgard 2020-02-16 20:39 UTC

Point taken. Kevin Crawford, and I’m guessing all the small scale businesses like Paizo or Monte Cook Games are a handful of people that manage to live off of RPG products. Maybe Wolfgang Baur and Kobold Press as well?

I’ll easily concede that it is possible to so. I’m not sure how much of concession that is, however. It still looks like a lottery to me.

I’m not sure what to make of it. I know, of course, that many people will try to win the lottery in life, be it writing their books at night, painting in their studios, following their dreams... But if these people were my kids, I’d hope that they also don’t have to beg for alms, for donations, for dollars on Patreon. I’d hope that they got a steady day job and pursued their dream while being safe. Perhaps it’s middle age that’s making me say this. I also want to say this to the people that have a hobby they enjoy: playing games with their friends. Begging for alms, tip jars, dollars on Patreon, telling me that the dollars they get allow them to justify the hours they spend... I don’t know. If they were my kids, I hope they’re all happy. I hope that they’re not setting themselves up for disappointment. If 9999 of them are unhappy and one of them wins the RPG lottery, that still is a lot of misery. How many RPG players are there? 10 million? How many people make a living writing RPG products? Let’s be generous: 100? That still leaves 100,000 of them. One in a hundred thousand. Now, you can counter that by saying who cares about the players of games, we need to compare them with the number of people trying to make a living making RPG products. Surely there are far fewer of them. I’ll concede that as well. If only one in 10,000 gamers wants to make a living making RPG products, then perhaps I’m wrong to be so negative: 1 in 10 would succeed. Nine unhappy stories of slow failure and grinding and nothing to show for it, and one of them makes it.

I don’t know. I’d still feel bad about it as a parent. Sure, follow your dream! But… be careful out there: Consider the nine who tried in vain, for years, they gave their all and still they failed. And consider the 9,999 gamers who decided no to make a living making RPG products. Perhaps they made better life choices.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-16 22:35 UTC

(Somebody also posted it on Reddit.)

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-16 22:43 UTC

If you want to be an author, you’re playing a different game. Good luck!

I just saw this on Mastodon, by @mwlucas:

I write books to pay the bills. No consulting, no leeching off family members, no teaching: only writing books.

How do I pull it off?

  1. Understand cashflow
  2. By treating it as a business

More on publishing, writing, etc at my FAQ.

The big secret: MAKE MOAR WORDS!

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-18 22:29 UTC

I liked this post by Noah S.: Chasing the Dragon.

I am growing disgruntled with the endless onslaught of prompts to buy things. I won’t go too much into it here, but it started with a couple of years ago as all these creative and talented people I love started and brought pet projects to fruition (which is great) and made them for sale (which is fine) but then turned to making things for sale (my perception) and became less focused on just sharing cool ideas (my possibly erroneous conclusion).

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-21 23:47 UTC

Alex et al. I believe this may be the version to use to look up Webser’s 1913. I just found it after the jsomers reference was not found:


I am totally bookmarking this!

PresGas 2020-02-23 21:16 UTC

Depending on your nerdiness, you can also install a dict server and install the appropriate dictionary... For Debian, that would be the package dict-gcide:

Comprehensive English Dictionary

This package contains the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English, formatted for use by the dictionary server in the dictd package. The GCIDE contains the full text of the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, supplemented by many definitions from WordNet, the Century Dictionary, 1906, and many additional definitions contributed by volunteers.

The definitions in the core of this dictionary are at least 85 years old, so they can not be expected to be politically correct by contemporary standards, and no attempt has been, or will be, made to make them so.

This package will be of limited use without the server found in the dictd package, or another RFC 2229 compliant server.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-02-23 23:54 UTC

Recently, @JasonT was wondering about this from a different angle. For him, compensation is important and he thinks that the solution is for “more privileged creators” to charge for their work so as to “fight the norm of undercutting struggling pros with free games.”

I don’t know.

I don’t like how the things we love are measured in money, how every labour of love is turned into a little freelancing job. Now, some people are poor and they’d like to do that for a living but the main problem here seems to be poverty and I think that poverty needs a political solution, not better ways of self exploitation. I don’t want to be complicit in a scheme were people do this.

I mean, we could do both, of course. But remember that my starting point is that I feel that money corrupts the things I love. I’m simply not convinced that turning my hobby into a little job is going to help me. Do I have to renounce part of my hobby, now?

If somebody wants to argue with me about capitalism instead of poverty, saying that I’m “destroying the market” for people, then I’d say that it is not my duty to maintain a viable market where none exists. Supply and demand: if enough of something is available, prices will drop. It’s a tragedy, but that’s how it is. If many people can serve a table, then servers are going to be paid badly. The solution to that is unions and better legal protection for works, though. The solution is not individual acts but collective action. This is a political problem.

But really, for me, it’s about money corrupting everything and I want no part in it. I want to draw a clear line between my money job and hobbies, and it’s going to take a lot of convincing for me to drop that part of the hobby.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-04-13 20:45 UTC

I saw a lot of backlash at you on Twitter for voicing these opinions a few days ago, and I have voiced similar views to these and I support your stance. I have been very very poor and in danger of homelessness at times in my life, with food scarcity and I am still in immense amounts of student loan and tax debt. That is to say, I am not good at managing money. I do not believe that setting up a small publishing business or authorship of RPG works would save my bacon. Or even provide a livable wage. I am a relative unknown, an independent, and frankly working to change that so that the scale of sales I have made or would make is not a job I relish or would gladly do.

I saw a Twitterer post some numbers of her good, but modest sales through her indie work on DTRPG and itch.io, and frankly I have survived on those numbers of dollars back in the early numbers but it was very close and very uncomfortable. I would not wish that life on anyone, and further I do not believe that income represents her sole income. It seems to me possible, slimly possible, that someone could convert a hobby writing RPG stuff into a full time job (of course it has happened and must happen again) but it’s sort of like a kid wishing they could be a basketball star with the NBA... How many kids are out there trying to get those skills and turn the game into a lucrative job? Millions? I would not tell that kid not to play ball. These days kids tell me they want to be Twitch or YouTube or (now) TikTok stars without even comprehending that once the modus is commoditized, the market for that money is gone and sucked up by other people who recognized the demand and changed the market forever.

Best wishes - thanks for stopping by my blog to start with. Yours humbly, Noah

Noah Stevens 2020-07-23 17:22 UTC

Cheers, Noah, and thanks for your comment. I recently read a long post on the slow crash of the United States and how making education more and more expensive, and enabling more self-exploitation by student loans, and protecting the entire scheme by making these loans exempt from bankruptcy... Yikes!

I found this story of somebody reducing their debt from 200,000 to 100,000 with that debt being at 1% – still a lot of money and there were lawyers to pay, and her credit rating is probably as bad can get, but it’s a start. Source: Turns Out Bankruptcy Can Wipe Out Student Loan Debt After All, by Chris Arnold, NPR.

Wishing you all the best dealing with the debt!

Yeah, kids wanting to be YouTube and TikTok stars makes me think back to a time of kids wanting to be supermodels, rock stars, national league soccer players, all – and me wanting to be an astronaut. The dreams people had in the seventies, I guess. Yeah, it’s going to happen for a handful of them, but a lot of the ugliness remains invisible and the terrible costs of all those who tried and failed, they’re not thinking about that. Those are huge gambles, not rational career choices.

As for Twitter, I wonder what you saw – was it Axes & “Fuck Alex Schroeder” Orcs, again? They sure like to keep that fire 🔥 🔥 burning! 😆 I think I prefer my little corner of the Internet where I don’t have to read what they write, haha.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-07-23 18:12 UTC

Most likely.

Ynas Midgard 2020-07-24 03:46 UTC

I see. They say “that reads to us that they don’t give a fuck as the best reading to actively want us to shut up and make free stuff for them.” Of course that makes them angry. But that isn’t what I’m trying to say. I’m saying: if my friend, if my child, if anybody makes bad career choices, I want to give them a warning. Watch out! You only have one life. This doesn’t seem like a good career. Perhaps I’m simply too old. I think and talk like a parent telling their child to paint as hobby, not to be a full time painter. Few artists get paid what they deserve. Our politics aren’t there, yet. There is not universal basic income. So when I read “small creators who are were or still are very poor, as in folx starving at the worst,” my heart bleeds. I want to tell them: don’t put yourself in a position where you’re starving. Work on that before you work on your art. “Do, or die trying” sounds cool until you realize that you only have one life, you only have these years.

But who am I talking to. They feel “an incandescent rage at [my] gross demonstration of a lack of empathy”. Better to move on.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-07-24 06:11 UTC

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