Steps to Demonetize the TTRPG Hobby

You can quit playing your pretend games wholesale and go back to living an undisturbed life not worrying about what a lyric game is or whether indie creators are more or less oppressed than Minecraft youtubers. However, I myself began following TTRPG hobbyists on Twitter because I liked being part of the discussion and learning how to have more fun with my friends. I had even been lurking for years earlier, reading blogs and threads and archived G+ posts. By the time I decided to join the conversation, the predominant mode of interacting with everyone else was selling PDFs on the internet. It took me a while to realize that none of that was necessary or desirable for myself. It took me until more recently to realize I didn’t have to put up with others doing it either. I want an exit from what has been sold to me and others as normal.

Something we can do, on an individual and a collective basis, is to reject the predominant culture of the hobby and to strive for a community with non-commercial interactions between members. This is not to say that the issue is grounded in the culture of the hobby, but that the culture of the hobby has developed to reproduce the sorts of relationships we have with each other. No more indie publisher guilds masquerading as unions (?) and misappropriating the language of anticapitalist critique (!) to convince you to buy their zines. No more Twitter pseudo-personalities taking offense at people pirating their work. No more snake oilers arguing with walls that Wizards of the Coast is selling trash, and therefore you should instead buy their trash. None of this makes anyone’s lives better, except for those fortunate enough to profit off of everyone else. Fortune here is mostly a function of being early to the chase and having a strong force of personality directed towards marketing. I want an exit.

This involves a rejection of the critiques and solutions put forward by the capitalist aspirants, including the proposed creation of alternative marketplaces or crowdfunding platforms or content aggregators or publisher cooperatives. Market solutions seek market problems. That is to say that we have quite a bit of existing infrastructure to undo the annoying relationships we have with our hobby and with each other, and that these proposals often try to solve problems that need not exist, seeking an entrance into the market to fulfill a yet undiscovered demand. If this sounds like I’m taking all this too seriously, I want to point out that we are all already taking this too seriously if we’re treating our hobbies like potential career paths. We can have fun with being little devils if we try.

Actionable Strategies on an Individual Basis

These strategies are ultimately for your own convenience and mental health. They probably won’t make a big difference in the larger scheme of things, but I don’t think that should be asked of anyone when it comes to participating in a niche and inconsequential hobby.

The first strategy I can think of, and the most foundational, is to stop selling products. In a poll of 94 users I conducted on Twitter this past October, 56% of people said that they were employed by a firm. 23% were self-employed, and 21% were unemployed (with a third not seeking work). It would not be a stretch to say that at least half of us, if not more, sell our time to make a living. A more detailed survey would have been helpful, but we can still do some mental math. What percentage of us sell products on itch or some other digital marketplace? How much revenue does one have to make for selling products to be a worthwhile source of income? How many buyers are necessary to ensure that income? What is the ratio of consumers to producers, and what overlap is there? What percentage of producers can hope to make a decent amount of money [1]? I’d wager that this hobby is not a very prosperous career unless you really pull yourself up by the bootstraps, spending much more time working for sale than you ever would do for free, and even medium-sized firms report low margins. Ian Yusem, a relatively successful independent creator and publisher of game materials, posted an article today analyzing his gains in a second year of working full time to self-publish tabletop role-playing games [2]. He profited 16,500 USD in 2021 on a 50-60 hour work week, the equivalent of 6.50 USD/hour or half the minimum wage in his region. About half of all his revenue (40,500 USD) came from physical sales as opposed to digital ones, which contributed only an eighth. Of course, there is a higher cost to producing physical books, but digital books alone do not recuperate the costs of even commissioning other creatives.

Selling game materials is already so often an unprofitable venture that it is almost not worth echoing the all-too-common complaints of creators that having a commercial relationship to your hobby sucks the enjoyment out of it. Nevertheless, Yusem says in the same article as above, "My hobby fully metamorphosed into a job and now threatens to become a career. I gambled on a massive project that will ultimately consume two years of my life. I played almost no games for fun." The adage “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”, attributed variously to Marc Anthony [3] or Mark Twain or Winston Churchill, has been widely recognized now as a farce. Work is work. When your livelihood depends on grinding at a particular task, or more broadly when you produce something to sell, it is optimal with respect to these goals to maximize sales and minimize costs. When your product approaches the market, it is compared to all other products on the market in terms of bang for buck. Consumers decide to purchase your product if they find it valuable.

Of course, this results in a different relationship to whatever you do than when you do it for direct use or enjoyment (and enjoyment is a use). Producers complain that they have to make less artistically satisfying products, and that they have to annoyingly advertise their products for anyone to buy them. Is it really up to consumers to have a stronger stomach for the unfamiliar or downright off-putting, or to seek out products on their own volition to give the hard-working producers a break? It doesn't matter if you publish the most avant garde art pieces or the most middling crowd pleasers. You are not entitled to anyone’s attention or money. Prove your worth or you are not fit for the market. If this proves difficult, ask yourself if the market is worth it. This is to say that whoever makes a sizable income from this niche market, regardless of whether you personally consider their work to have artistic merit or not, has proved the social value of their product and thus has command over a significant fraction of this market’s relatively small total potential revenue. If you are tired of grinding on this game and have seen nothing for it, you don’t have to keep playing. If you would say that you cannot afford not to monetize your hobbies, I sincerely hope that you find a more profitable hobby than this. Besides, how much time and resources are you spending on this hobby that it is unaffordable to do without monetizing it? I might just be a less dedicated gamer.

You can do things for yourself if you enjoy it enough. You can share your products with others freely, because you are interested in each other’s work. You would not have to meet what social value demands of you in terms of time, quality, or results. You would not have to worry about whether or not your products perform well on the market. This, of course, means that you will likely not make products with the same level of quality. I say this to soothe commercial publishers: you will likely not be outcompeted by free products, though that would be fantastic, if only by virtue of how much social input you have at your disposal. Nevertheless, it is not an uncommon complaint that commercial game materials such as rulebooks and adventures do a poor job at conveying use, and that it is indeed conversations surrounding the materials or simply the activity of playing a game that do most of the teaching. A shift towards non-commercial material would then likely correspond to a shift towards smaller centers of activity (in this case, playing games) and reproducing those centers of activity by members interacting with and teaching each other. These relationships already exist as does the infrastructure to maintain them.

Before moving onto collective strategies, however, it is worth discussing how materials made without commercial aim or infrastructure have the opportunity to be more accessible for users. Blogs are useful to reproduce play culture in long form, and are freely available to view for anyone with an internet connection [4]. Table materials can be made to print at home, perhaps in the form of digest/A5 booklets or three-ring binders. Besides meeting in real life, which is not really possible given the ongoing pandemic, there are many free online communication services where you can keep in touch with friends and hold conversations [5]. All these avenues already exist and are already being used by most of us. The trick is realizing that these avenues have much more potential for engaging with each other and our play than do any official publications.

Here we also turn a common indie criticism of Wizards of the Coast on its head. It is said often enough that the official publications for Dungeons & Dragons do not offer good material for use. The rules given are wishy-washy, the guidelines unhelpful, and the adventures uncreative. Wizards of the Coast relies instead on building a brand surrounding the game, encouraging players to play however they like and to share in common D&D as an aesthetic and pretense of play. It is obvious then that most of the products sold for the game have no inherent quality to them besides the social value ascribed to them due to their branding. Indie publishers know this. Therefore they may advertise their works as a foil to D&D, that their rules as written actually work and that their texts are written with fuller intent. Their rules are authoritative, their guidelines helpful, and their adventures pushing the edge of creativity.

This has sometimes led to an overemphasis of authorial authority among indie publishers, that if you are not playing the game how the author of its rulebook intended, then you are playing incorrectly. Players of D&D thus have a much more flexible relationship to the game they play, even if this is a calculated move by Wizards of the Coast [6]. Who cares what people do with rulebooks or adventures or other materials? Of course, we can read and interpret any text, but these so-called game designers have no reason to expect fidelity to their material in practice. Their emphasis of authorial intent serves mostly to assert the value of their products in the face of a monopoly that openly flaunts its promiscuous interpretability. The stronger answer to both parties is that we shall freely take and use whatever we wish, irrespective of stated intent, and we shall not buy anything if we don’t want to.

Actionable Strategies on a Collective Basis

NB: I had to rewrite this section from scratch after accidentally deleting all of it on Blogger. Oops!

I’d like to discuss now the advantages of making a collective effort to distance ourselves from the indie marketplace. There is no reason here to compare different platforms to help you decide what is best for your friend group et cetera. You are likely part of one or multiple small groups that exist for all y’all to hang out and talk about the hobby or other things. I’m part of at least three. Being part of a small close-knit community is its own reward in that you are able to socialize with and support each other. Thus they are immediately relevant to the project of distancing from the larger commercial community and establishing alternate points of contact for common support of members, the distribution of materials, and the cooperation of activity. The relationships already exist as does the infrastructure to foster them. What benefit is there to pursuing stronger associations than already tend to exist? The first is being able to materially support members of your small community.

There is not a single market that uplifts all its vendors like ships in a high tide. Thankfully, the online tabletop role-playing game market does not have the same barrier to entry in terms of capital investment as do other markets. All of the products on itch, for example, are wholly digital, and many of them took only a couple of hours to produce, often while using free or easily accessible software. The market for these niche, low-value products is small. It is difficult to turn a profit unless one spends a decent amount of time making higher quality products or advertising their wares and building a consumerbase. The generated revenue is, for the majority of hopeful vendors, insignificant compared to the cost of not only time itself but time spent outside of work. A more reliable and transparent method of supporting fellow hobbyists is to give to each other, not just to purchase each other’s goods on the market. With small communities of members who know and trust one another, it becomes possible to pool resources and respond to each other’s emergencies when need arises. To make money from sales is to put products on the market and to meet enough expected social demand to recuperate or exceed what was spent; this is a gamble. Resource pools are predicted instead on materially supporting one another, not on the anticipated exchange of commodities on the market. If we already agree to support one another when someone does a sale on itch as a pretense for a GoFundMe-esque charity operation, why not drop the pretense that we are doing anything but supporting each other, and build stronger networks to facilitate that support directly? Small groups are an effective way of building that support network; one of the groups I'm in has already done this to decent success with a pool of funds.

Small groups of hobbyists also serve as a reliable defense against the loss of hobby culture. This is not only insofar as hobbyists talk to each other and learn from each other, but because hobbyists can share materials with each other in private. The community had previously built a sizable database called The Trove, full of digital materials both recent and obscure. This website was taken down, likely due to copyright infringement notices from any number of publishers. Who or what was at fault for this? I suspect not Wizards of the Coast. By nature of their current marketing strategy, Wizards of the Coast does not have to rely on book sales from a general online audience to generate revenue. Indeed, they have a reliable fanbase willing to purchase DRM-restricted digital copies of their books on their proprietary game companion website. These are the same books that you can find free for grabs online by googling “dnd 5e pdf” and looking at only the first couple of search results. Dungeons & Dragons is also the most visible tabletop role-playing game brand, and so Wizards of the Coast has a significantly larger audience outside of the internet that is less likely to pirate things. Perhaps they are even unthreatened by piracy, and figure it’s more beneficial to let it be than to eliminate an entryway into the brand. Neither is it amateur small vendors on itch either who might feel the most compelled to seek legal action against piracy. Even if they have relatively the most to lose from lost sales, they make so little in total that it would not make a difference, and they likely lack the resources to pursue any action. How many of their works would have even made it to The Trove, anyway?

The strongest opposition against The Trove came from actual independent creators like Daniel D. Fox and Oliver Darkshire who took serious offense that anyone would freely distribute their works online. A similar thing took place in the literary world when author Chuck Wendig rallied on Twitter against the Internet Archive database for uploading free digital copies of book, as was publicized as a boon during the early pandemic [7]. These medium sized independent creators and publishers seem to act as if they have the most to lose from digital piracy, and maybe they do. It’s for their own reasons that the community as a whole suffers the loss of freely accessible collective knowledge and culture. Yet not all is lost to them. It does not mean that that same store of knowledge does not still exist among ourselves. One advantage of social networks, in the broadest literal sense, is that someone always knows someone else. It is possible to share files within and between small groups of hobbyists without catching the concentrated ire of publishers. It is less convenient than there being one website that everyone can access, but it is safer for any one person sharing files with others, and it does not require someone to pay to host all those files online. Of course, there is also the way of torrenting files, but that requires a baseline of technological literacy that not everyone has. Torrenting can also prove dangerous for users since with a lower number of potential torrent seeds (i.e. users who allow other users to download their copy of a file) it can be difficult to know which torrents are reliable and not malicious (since torrents with a great number of seeds have proved to be safe insofar as they are backed by many users). There is good reason to instead take the peer-to-peer distribution strategy in a literal direction.

Speaking of peer to peer, it is worth situating our discussion of digital ownership in the context of a controversial current topic. We are all familiar now with the forced rise of non-fungible tokens or NFTs, whose popularity has been spoken into existence by wealthy tech bros and financial speculators. An NFT is supposed to be a record of the ownership of some file hosted online. Each record is stored on a decentralized (peer-to-peer) digital ledger called a blockchain. We need not discuss the technicalities of the blockchain as a technology, but suffice it to say that it is wildly expensive in terms of processing power and thus electricity to put a new record onto the blockchain for each set of transactions that take place there. Even this, however, is not directly pertinent to the discussion of NFTs as a universal record of the ownership of digital things. Never mind that NFTs cannot actually store the digital objects they represent and can only store the URL of the object which is hosted by someone else and must be accessed by anyone else. Never mind that owning an NFT does not necessarily if ever correspond with owning the intellectual property of the content hosted at the URL indicated by the NFT. Never mind that NFTs share a blockchain with cryptocurrency, are bought with cryptocurrency, and thus exist to expand the market share for cryptocurrency. In the real world, NFTs are a costly scam. In an ideal world, the universally-recognized ownership of digital things is still unfeasible and, to us, undesirable. This is irrespective of how much electricity it costs to update a blockchain, or the extent to which digital ownership via NFTs is just an opportunity for financial speculation. The push for universally recognizable digital property speaks to publishers’ desire to build artificial fences with which to divide up the internet and sell access piecewise. I do not doubt that if there existed a more reliable way of objectively proving the ownership of digital things, publishers would pursue it. I don’t think we should give anyone an inch in complaining about people possessing digital files they don’t ‘own’. The opposite movement of the one to restrict free access is the one to embrace it [7]. Right click and hit save on anything you want.

Likewise, the movement opposite of the one to privatize online activity is the one to collectivize it. As long as the internet has enabled online users to communicate, it has allowed those same users to cooperate. Long-standing open source projects like Wikipedia rely on the combined efforts of vast numbers of users all contributing of their own volition, receiving nothing in return but the product of their time. Some websites like online etymology dictionary Etymonline are the products of individual effort, made freely available thanks to the support of users. There are communities of creatives who make things and publish them freely, such as those on DeviantArt and Archive of our Own and on any social network with a fanbase. These efforts also exist in the tabletop role-playing game hobby. Basic Fantasy RPG is an open-source rulebook freely accessible and open to community contributions. OSRIC and Delving Deeper are likewise freely available online and are only possible due to the applied effort of both individual and collective enthusiasm. On the internet, any level of organization is possible to produce things of any quality, not only for sale but for the community’s own use and satisfaction. Groups of people who freely associate with each other and have avenues of materially supporting each other are empowered to accomplish all these things and more, without exploiting themselves and being subjected to the alienating logic of capital in even their free time.

Online communities have a drive to make things, share things, and support members. For a community with such a small market share and with such small potential margins, is it worth commodifying its time and products? The market is not an effective way to accomplish any of the community’s goals because it has its own goals that do not necessarily align with the others. For a community whose products are so niche and have such low margins, it is not very profitable either. Why pursue it then when other, more direct paths toward collective goals exist? This is not a pipe dream but a reality of online activity which already exists at large, has existed since the beginning, and exists in our own community. It is nevertheless one which should be embraced in the face of increasing commodification, to prevent capital logic and financial speculation from taking any more control of our lives than it already has.

Further Avenues of Critique

I’d like to close this by offering a list of possible topics that might be fruitful to investigate and then criticize existing discussions thereof.

  • The generic conventions of rulebooks and other game materials
  • Economic relationships in the commercial scene, including an investigation of the flow of value between consumers, producers, and platforms
  • Exploitation of social networks and conflict thereon to build brand identity

It is worth mentioning that this is not critique to help ‘game designers’ improve their works or help consumers know which products are best worth the cost. Instead, it is a critique of the so-called indie industry to demonstrate that none of the commercial activity which its members take for granted are necessary to engage in the actual activity of role-playing games. It is possible to do without any of it, and it is desirable to do so.

 

[1] Over a year and a half of selling products on itch, I made 367 USD. Most of this came from bundles with other vendors. I wasn’t the most productive creator or fervent advertiser, but on average my efforts amounted to less than a dollar a day; I spent most of this on takeout. I’d be curious to know whether the average vendor makes more or less than this.

[2] His equivalent hourly wage did jump from ~1 USD/hour from his first full-time year to ~6.50 USD/hour. Read: https://uncannyspheres.blogspot.com/2022/01/a-year-in-rpg-self-publishing-year-2.html

[3] The Roman statesman or the Nuyorican singer? Both, apparently.

[4] It is obvious that it is only with the privilege of the internet that we are able to organize ourselves on a large scale. None of this would be possible without it, though this holds also for much more serious things.

[5] The internet is also a curse insofar as we have to rely on software firms with monopolies on communication platforms etc., but we can make do and take advantage of these firms until we have an alternative.

[6] I have discussed these opposing marketing strategies elsewhere: https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/09/critique-4-catching-up-to-speed-forge.html

[7] Read: https://medium.com/nameless-aimless/the-assassination-of-the-internet-archive-by-the-coward-chuck-wendig-5ffb4677ee49

[8] This is, of course, with respect to purchasing the right to download digital files. It is important to keep data private over the internet as best we can, and this is one of the key premises of organizing into small groups to share files as opposed to distributing them on an open platform.

Comments

  1. First way to destroy an industry outright; stop selling products.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I gotta say, the observation that everyone is just selling pdfs to each other is really spot on. thanks for the thoughtful analysis!

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  3. This is a much needed critique. I've seen a lot of people hurt themselves because they buy in to the toxic positivity of the scene. I love the esoteric art this scene can produce, but the idea that a person can support themselves or their family with that art just isn't borne out by reality.

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  4. i've been thinking about this post ever since i read it last night and i feel like a large part of why i stopped publishing writing for a year plus is because it did honestly feel kind of pointless to me to all be passing around the same $5 for pdfs and desperately scrambling to market yourself in the indie rpg space. i recently got back into writing in a niche where i basically can't take money for it and it's been so refreshing that i'm strongly considering just making most or all my stuff on itch free.

    i feel like it also bears talking about that like... i want to say 2-3 years ago, there was a lot of conversation about how if you were publishing rpgs on itch, you not only owed it to yourself but owed it to *the community* to price it up, so that people trying to make a living off of it would have their price points taken seriously. which is logic taken from the artist commission space that i think makes sense there, but i think when applied to the indie rpg community got kind of... weird?

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  5. This is like such a breath of fresh air--im always surrounded by people online who insist on monetizing *everything* and ive always found it so suffocating.

    For my part, ive found that when i put a price tag on my games, no one touches them (which is actually useful for when i make something i want to put out in the world but i want to limit how many people see it lol)--and i'd rather make something that connects with people than make $$$ off my passion projects that i wouldve worked on either way.

    ReplyDelete

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