The first thing most people ask about, and the first thing most roleplaying book authors denounce, is the money. The popular quote is: “no one goes into RPG-writing for the money.” This is both true and false. Certainly no one writes RPGs to get wealthy; it just isn’t a big enough market for that. But neither do we write these books for free. What they really mean to say is, “you can’t get rich in this industry, so no one goes into it unless they love roleplaying so much that they don’t mind the low paychecks.”
Judging by what I’ve been paid and what I’ve seen in market listings, the RPG industry doesn’t pay that much less than the majority of the short story horror market. (You see, horror doesn’t really pay either.)
It is possible to make a living writing RPGs; it’s just extremely difficult. You have to be prolific and good, and you have to do a lot of networking. I only personally know of a few people who’ve made a living freelancing for the RPG industry, and I’ve met a lot of RPG writers. No one should jump into the industry expecting to pay all their bills through RPG-writing alone.
As for the actual pay rate? It’s hard to say. Every company is different. They’ll pay you differing amounts depending on their budget, your experience and how much work you’ve done for them. The Horror Writers’ Association defines “professional” rates as $.03/word or higher. The RPG industry does not always pay professional rates, and when they do, they’re rarely all that much higher than $.03/word.
Now, many RPG books are written by multiple authors. Apart from main rulebooks, most of them are not huge tomes of information. So say you get a contract for 50,000 words — a rather large contract. And say they offer you $.04/word — a pretty good rate in the RPG industry. You’d make $2,000 on that book. That may seem like a lot, but keep going. That’s pre-taxes, first of all, so that’ll take a chunk out of it. Unless you have a day job you aren’t getting benefits, so you need to take into account health insurance and a few little things like that.
Then take into account the fact that the RPG industry is notorious for problems like late checks. Even the best companies often have a several-month lag time. So it might be anywhere from six months to two years from the time of the writing to the time you get your check, and that’s assuming nothing goes wrong. There’s always the small chance that the company will go under, or the product will get canceled, thus resulting in a kill fee if you’re lucky (rarely larger than 10% of the full payment — you’re down to $200 for your 50,000 words now), or nothing at all if you aren’t.
So is it possible to write RPGs for a living? Yes. Are you likely to be the one who does it? Probably not. If you’re a good writer, you might be better off doing part-time RPG writing and finding some more lucrative writing jobs to fill in the gaps. Mind you, very little writing can be described as “lucrative,” but everything is relative.
It’s true that if you need a certain book in order to do your contract and you don’t have it, the company will sometimes send you a free copy. However, the company usually prefers that their writers be familiar with their games, so you should buy at least the main rulebooks on your own. And not everyone will send you product; some will insist that you buy the book yourself.
While that may seem unfair to the author who just wants to get her work done, you can at least usually take it as a tax deduction (I’m not a tax lawyer, though, so make sure you check your own tax laws). And it helps the companies weed out the people who aren’t serious about writing for them. I’ve heard of one or two companies that require you to buy your own books for the first contract, and will send you what you need for further contracts.
Yes, you usually need to network to get contracts. This just makes sense; developers are more likely to hire people they’ve heard of before, people they know they can get along with, people who have ideas that mesh with theirs, and people they know aren’t going to disappear after getting the free product. Giving contracts to people they’ve met is just smart. Luckily, thanks to the whole web and email thing, networking can often be as simple as sending a few well-thought-out emails.
As with most other things, there are two sides to the idea of fame and the roleplaying industry. If you’re good, you probably will get a handful of fan email, and someone will say something nice about you on a newsgroup or email list now and then (and yes, it really does feel nice). But you have to remember that most people are going to be much more vocal about the things they dislike than the things they like. You’ll probably get more negative reviews than positive ones, more flames than accolades, more complaints than fan letters. And because you’re An RPG Writer now, odds are you’ll find that the random comments about which company’s writers are lazy will look a whole lot more personal.
My advice? Try not to take it personally. People will inevitably mouth off about the things they don’t like, often with more vitriol than they intend. Getting angry about it just gives you ulcers, and doesn’t achieve anything other than putting those people on the defensive, which means they’ll say even nastier things about you. Just remember that the people who like your work are often home playing with it, not talking about it on the newsgroups.
I’m sure I’ve given you the impression now that RPG-writing isn’t worthwhile. If you aren’t a die-hard roleplayer then it might not be. If you are, it can be a great deal of fun. If you aren’t relying on RPG money to pay all of your bills, then there’s no reason not to take a contract now and then. It’s just a good idea to have another source of income in addition to RPG-writing.
Besides, most other writing industries have the same problems that the RPG industry has.