In the discussion following a fascinating roundup of the state of the RPG business at the nerdNYC forums, deliverator asked:
Isn’t it bad for the hobby if the business side can’t support full-time, professional game designers?
I think full-time professional game designers are bad for the hobby, from my limited experience of playing with some of them and having done some professional design work myself.
The problem is that, at least given the current financial difficulties of the product-based RPG business, if you are supporting yourself solely by writing RPG material there is a real financial disincentive to play. During the development of a new core system you might have a R&D budget that supports just sitting around trying things out and figuring out what’s fun, but the limited profitability of each supplemental release means that you really ought to be spending all your time cranking out more words.
Sure, maybe you play RPGs in your leisure time, but probably with people who have the same narrow focus on the particular thing you’re all working on, and who could blame you if when you finish a long day of RPG writing what you want to do is passively kill orcs playing WoW instead of going back to the same well of creativity you use during your day job? The strong temptation when you play is to make it a playtest of whatever your current assignment is, and those assignments usually have a distant relationship to the things you’re getting into with any independently existing actual play.
Doing the stuff that would refill the creative well – going and playing different games with different groups and experiencing the full diversity of styles and approaches – is something I generally don’t see full-time professionals doing. Mostly this is just due to lack of time. Sometimes it’s because the personality types that want to delve deeply into rules design are kind of autistic, and/or eager for the authority and in-group status you can claim from being a RPG pro as ways to compensate for being poorly paid and not respected by anyone outside the subculture – neither of which is a recipe for happy experiences with lots of different groups and their variant playstyles!
My interest in finding ways to professionalize playing RPGs instead of writing them is in part to counteract this trend. I think it’d be good for the hobby if the people who were most deeply involved in it could financially justify spending time on the performance art side of things as well as generating products to support others’ performance.
Note that I have heard that some of the more famous mainstream designers of the last decade do run games for fans who have approached them with offers to pay e.g. $100 an hour for their GMing. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are people whose writing I really respect. They’re not eager to talk about this publicly because there is a stigma against “pay to play”, but I think the desire to live up to their self-imposed professional standards when running a game – to engage with play with the same commitment they bring to design – makes them better writers as well as better GMs.
Thanks to Matt for setting me up with this strawman – you’ve heard me do this rant before; to Chris for suggesting it’d be a useful addition to the conversation over here; and to John for the confirmation and pointer to alternate publishing strategies.