Writing for Roleplaying Games: Surviving the Industry

The RPG Industry is fraught with pitfalls and problems, some of which I’ve already mentioned in previous articles. Here are a few hints for avoiding the pitfalls, skipping over the traps, and getting paid for your work.

Get a Contract First

Always get a contract, in writing, signed by both parties, before you start writing. That piece of paper is one of the few ways you have of making sure you get paid, so never ever write without it. Believe it or not, even industry pros get burned by this one all the time. A company will approach them saying, “we’re on a short deadline, so if you could just write it now, and we’ll get you a contract soon…” Don’t buy it. Never work without a contract. Mind you, if the contract isn’t for a large amount of money then it might not be worth your time to sue if the company doesn’t pay you, which means you might not get paid anyway despite the contract. Unfortunately, sometimesyou just get screwed in the writing industry.

Note: With the advent of all the d20 companies and “open call” books where companies just ask people to submit short pieces of work that they collect together, this item isn’t always true any more. One of the guidelines I’ve heard bandied about is that you probably shouldn’t expect a contract if you’re doing less than 5,000 words.

Also, some companies will allow first-time RPG writers to submit manuscripts that they won’t contract for because they have no way of knowing if the first-time writer is actually any good, and don’t want to risk having to pay for inferior work. There are several ways to deal with this:

  • Write for some of those “open call” projects–it will give you sample work without your having to risk as much.
  • Get publication credits in other places: other writing industries, web sites, etc. That way you have work to show the company. This might make them more willing to contract you.
  • Be careful when you do this. Ask around among other RPG writers to be sure that the company in question doesn’t have a reputation of stiffing its writers.

Read Your Contract

I know it sounds like such obvious advice, but a lot of those contracts get thick with legalese and people start skimming. Don’t. Read it all. Worst case, get a friend who has a good head for legalese (or a lawyer!) to explain it all to you. You need to know what you’re agreeing to. Is there a kill fee in case the project gets canceled? Does the contract state when the company is supposed to pay you? Which rights are you signing away? When are your deadlines? Can you be financially penalized for turning things in late? Do you get any comp copies? If you don’t know the answers to these questions then you need to give your contract another read-through.


Do a web search for some of the authors who’ve done work for the company you’d like to work for. Ask them whether or not they got paid, and how quickly. Remember that you’re asking them to donate their time to help you, so be polite and ask nicely or you probably won’t hear back.

Always Know What You’re Signing

…And think carefully about it. To use a true example a friend of mine told me about: never ever sign a piece of paper saying you’ve been paid when you haven’t, even if it’s “a formality.” Never sign something you aren’t willing to agree to.

Don’t Count on the Money

Never count on a check from an RPG company arriving by a specific date. Don’t count on those checks for your rent. Far too many companies pay late or irregularly for you to count on that check schedule. Besides, if a project gets canceled, the most you’ll get is a kill fee (a small percentage of your agreed-upon pay). Late checks are arguably the most notorious problem in the industry, so never spend the money until the check is cashed.

Get a Lawyer… Or be Willing to Get One

Be willing to contract a lawyer if you have to. Sometimes just telling a company “I have a lawyer already, and if I don’t hear from you by next Friday I’ll start proceedings against you” can be enough, but you have to be willing to back it up with action if it doesn’t work.

Start Small

The first time you work for a company, start with a small amount of work. That way, if it turns out that they don’t pay, you won’t lose out on too much money.

Get Contact Information

Always get contact information for the company’s main office, not just your developer. Make sure it includes both phone and physical address, and preferably FAX. Try to find out who the head of the company is. After all, if you do have to start proceedings against the company, this will make things easier. (You shouldn’t need this information, but it’s good to have.)

Also try to get contact information for the person who physically sends out the checks. If you move around at all you’ll probably have to make sure this person gets your new address yourself. It’s all well and good for the developer to give the person your address with the pay schedule, or for there to be some spiffy company-wide database so they always have your correct address. But in my experience, the folks who mail out the checks always have their own database, and they always rely on it rather than the addresses they get from the developers.

Be Wary

Be wary of any company that offers you something that sounds too good to be true. If you’ve never had anything published before, then beware the company that offers you a large contract to start out with. It’s in an RPG company’s best interest to be careful who they hire and what they offer, and most start slowly with a new, unknown author. So if things aren’t working out that way, it might indicate a problem.

Keep Records

Keep records of all contracts and other communications between you and the company in a convenient and easy-to-locate file. Keep all email. Keep notes on important phone calls. Date everything. If the company agrees to do something different than what the contract says, then get it in writing; otherwise it’s your word against theirs in court. If there are any papers that you need to send back to the company then make a photocopy, even if it means a trip out and some pocket change. It’ll be well worth the expense.

Don’t Panic

I know this makes it sound like every company is out to get you. They aren’t. I’ve only had problems with one check out of my handful of RPG books, and that was resolved to my satisfaction. But the bad things do happen. I know someone who really did go through that “it’s just a formality… sign here to say we paid you” thing, and he never did get his check.

When it comes down to it all writing is like this, and all jobs for which you work by contract and at a distance are like this. Too many employers just don’t feel a sense of responsibility to contract workers they’ll never even meet, in the RPG industry or anywhere else. You have to pick and choose who you work for. Always research your prospective employer — it’s common sense, no matter what your profession.

Posted in Gaming, Writing

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