In the magical worlds of pen-and-paper RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, players are empowered to be and do whatever they please, with the help of rulebooks, campaign settings, and other products released by companies like Wizards of the Coast and Paizo. Although many fans dream of contributing to their favorite franchise, the reality of the industry can be harsh, with low pay, endemic overwork, and an enormous reliance on freelance labor. And while there have been efforts to be more inclusive, some say the industry is still tough for women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color to thrive in.
Like the video game industry, the tabletop RPG industry is built on the passion of hobbyists starry-eyed about receiving W-2s from their favorite escapist outlet. Sixteen current and former workers across several TTRPG publishers who spoke to WIRED say that, in the industry of fantasy games, signing your contract might be where the fantasy ends. Many of these sources asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions in an industry they describe as small, tight-knit, and prone to retaliation. While some people said they were happy in their jobs, many others—especially those at bigger publishers—had a different experience.
“It’s soul-sucking. It’s draining. It never stops,” says one former employee of Paizo, the Seattle-based publisher behind popular titles Pathfinder and Starfinder. She says she worked until 10 pm on Fridays and over weekends for much of her years-long tenure.
Another former Paizo employee says he left because of “moral compunctions” over the working conditions. “It wasn't so much shock as it was just a growing sense of disappointment,” he says. “There were so many different isolated incidents that happened; it was kind of like death by a thousand cuts.”
Last week, Paizo employees announced they had formed a union with the Communication Workers of America—the first of its kind for the TTRPG industry. “Paizo’s workers are underpaid for their labor, required to live in one of the most expensive cities in the United States, and subjected to untenable crunch conditions on a regular basis,” union representatives said in a statement. A group of 40 Paizo freelancers are also refusing to accept Paizo contracts. The actions come after a wave of allegations against the company made by former employees last month on Twitter, involving below-living-wage pay, overwork, and abuse.
Paizo employees say they are waiting for the company to voluntarily recognize the union. One freelancer says she will go back to working with Paizo if they do so. The company has not publicly responded to its employees’ union drive, nor has it directly addressed any of the allegations made on Twitter. Paizo did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment on this article.
Born out of the predominantly white and male 1960s Midwestern war-gaming community, TTRPG culture has long been accompanied by cultish fandom. In the last few decades, particularly after Hasbro purchased Wizards of the Coast in 1999, the TTRPG hobby has solidified into a scrappy but prominent industry. Wizards of the Coast, which publishes Dungeons & Dragons, has seen sales of the game grow every year for the past six years; its overall revenue reached $816 million in 2020.
Wizards of the Coast is the exception, not the norm. In fact, Wizards of the Coast and Paizo are among the few, if not the only, companies employing over 50 full-time workers devoted to TTRPGs, current employees of those companies say. The rest of the industry is mostly composed of several midsize or small publishers of indie pen-and-paper games. Others in the industry make a living as one- or two-person businesses crowdfunding games on sites like Kickstarter or self-publishing adventure books.
It’s also a challenging industry in which to consistently make money. High-quality, hardcover TTRPG adventure books rely on teams of professionals including writers, editors, illustrators, designers, play testers and, of course, people who can advise on the business side of things. Once produced, physical copies of the books go through a distributor, which skims off a percentage. And not everyone who plays TTRPGs is a paying customer. Out of six or seven people playing a game like D&D together, it’s possible just one will have purchased official materials. Then, of course, there’s piracy.
“It’s much more difficult for publishers to make money, which means it's much more difficult for them to stay in business and give everybody what they deserve,” says Hal Greenberg, who runs the RPG Creators Relief Fund, a charity for TTRPG workers. “It’s extremely difficult to both make a quality product and make a profit.”
With few big employers, full-time jobs in the industry are rare—and that scarcity, sources say, encourages people to accept poor working conditions. One worker said getting hired at Wizards of the Coast felt like “winning the lottery,” but now, after years of low pay and long hours, they view that initial enthusiasm as “naive.” Three sources recall Lisa Stevens, the CEO and cofounder of Paizo, saying she didn’t understand why employees complained about poor working conditions. In fact, they recall her saying, they should be honored to work on Pathfinder because there are others out there who would do it for free.
Sources say Paizo has offered $35,000 for full-time jobs based in the Seattle suburb of Redmond within the last three years, where the average monthly rent for an apartment is $1,768. (MIT calculates that the living wage for a single adult with no children in King County, Washington, is $40,705.) One person says he recently left the company in a leadership role after seven years making the equivalent of $39,000 a year on hourly wages. Other people who spoke to WIRED described making similar amounts over the past decade, and two sources say that the company’s benefits have gotten worse in that time.
The low salaries at Paizo led a number of employees to take freelance jobs from the company, too, just to make ends meet. “One of the jokes about Paizo is that the real benefit is first pick of all the freelance contracts,” says Crystal Frasier, who made less than $40,000 when she left in 2018 after nine years at the company. “You couldn't really afford to work there if you weren't going home after work and writing 5,000 to 10,000 words a week freelance, just to make rent.” During his first year at the company, says Jason Tondro, a senior developer at Paizo, “if I didn’t get freelance gigs, I didn’t have a food budget.”
Freelancers and contractors form the backbone of the industry and are regularly tapped to write, illustrate, and design products for top publishers. Current employees at Paizo and Wizards of the Coast say many, if not most, of their products are written by freelancers, and then developed into books in-house by staffers or contractors. Their rates, according to over a dozen sources, are abysmal. Freelancer TTRPG adventure writers said 5 to 12 cents a word is a common rate, which, depending on the project and the writer’s speed, can amount to anything from $10 to $50 an hour of work.
“You'll see somebody come out of the woodwork to talk about how we have to accept subpar pay as the cost of being involved in the industry we want,” says Graeme Barber, a TTRPG designer and writer who runs the blog POCGamer. “Equally, you'll see people come out swinging about how ‘you're just writing. That's not as hard as other things.’”
TTRPG publishers have taken steps to diversify their workplaces, but the financial reality of breaking into the industry kneecaps those efforts, two sources at different TTRPG publishers say. “They want experience and a proven track record,” one worker says about the companies. “Most people can only get experience and exposure if they're privileged, because they can afford to write for free, spend hours self-publishing their own work, or so on.” This worker adds that, even at some of the most inclusive and forward-thinking publishers in the industry, “almost all those who make hiring decisions that impact the makeup of industry professionals don't want to risk their own capital to diversify their organizations.”
TTRPG publishers have struggled to hire and retain people of color, as well as women and LGBTQ individuals, say current employees at multiple TTRPG companies. “It was very white and very male,” says one former Wizards of the Coast employee. “I found it kind of hard to break into that sort of inner circle vibe.” One current Wizards employee was warned going in that it was a “boys club, but that was something they wanted to change.” But as someone who doesn’t look like a Midwestern war-gamer, that person still feels like an outsider at work.
Last year, tabletop designer Orion Black, a former contract worker for D&D, wrote a blog post describing the tokenization they faced at the publisher. “I firmly believe that I was a diversity hire,” they wrote. “There was no expectation for me to do much of anything. I probably disrupted them by being vocal and following up … I think genuine people proposed me as an option and it was accepted because it would look like a radical positive change.” Wizards of the Coast would later apologize to Black on Twitter, adding that the call-out presented “an opportunity for us to improve the experiences of all those who contribute to our company and community.”
These criticisms run directly against the companies’ professed progressive stances on inclusivity. Wizards of the Coast has taken steps in recent years to scrub their fantasy worlds of offensive material. (In the past, games like D&D have relied on fantasy genre tropes many consider racially insensitive or offensive). In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year, the publisher put out a strong statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and announced changes to the game’s “descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.” Paizo employs several LGBTQ staffers and proudly puts out RPG books including nonwhite, nonmale characters, settings, and story lines. “We have a book on fantasy Africa. One of our recent books has a trans woman paladin on the cover. We’re very outspoken about progressive issues and progressive values,” says Tondro, who adds that inclusivity in the company’s books has not translated to inclusivity in its workplace.
In an email, a Wizards of the Coast representative says the company employs 959 full-time employees, with contractors making up less than 4 percent of its workforce. The representative did not answer WIRED’s question about how many of those employees work on Dungeons & Dragons rather than Magic: The Gathering. Nor did they share a breakdown of those employees’ demographics. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital to our mission, and we are committed to Hasbro’s publicly stated goals to increase ethnically and racially diverse employee representation in the US to 25 percent by 2025 and underrepresented genders to 50 percent in that same time frame,” the representative added.
Sources say Paizo has proportionally more woman, nonbinary, and LGBTQ employees than other publishers. At the same time, former Paizo employees say they too felt tokenized when they didn’t fit into traditional concepts for who plays these tabletop role-playing games. “There was just some kind of explicit ‘Oh, we need to have a woman on our team for this charity event’ or ‘We need to have a woman on the stream, this panel, for optics reasons,’” says one former employee. “It was always made very apparent to you that you were not being invited to participate on the panel or on the stream or whatever because you were a competent professional who was contributing to the company, but because ‘we need a woman.’”
These dynamics are particularly pronounced at conventions—a mainstay of the TTRPG industry that brings together tens of thousands of fans, mostly men. Sexual harassment at gaming conventions is a longtime issue. But when women at Paizo spoke up about the problem, former employees say, the company didn’t provide the support they wanted. “Every year we had harassers at PaizoCon (often against female staff), and the next year when we brought it up we were told ‘Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations’ and ‘Make sure they [convention-goers] have a good time!’” Crystal Frasier wrote on Twitter. (Two sources present at those discussions corroborate Paizo’s response.)
Five sources describe Paizo’s managers as out of touch, even exploitative. Paizo’s cofounders, Lisa Stevens and Vic Wertz, respectively CEO and CTO, stepped back from “the day-to-day running of Paizo” to focus “primarily on the strategic aspects of the business” in 2020 to prepare for retirement. Before then, however, they took management of the company very personally, with Wertz occasionally screaming at employees behind closed doors, three former Paizo employees say. Stevens, for her part, “was convinced that somewhere, one of the employees must not be working as hard as they could,” says one former Paizo employee. The company set overly ambitious publishing goals, sources say, directly contributing to overwork and stress. Current employees say there is an enormous effort to change the culture of crunch scheduling at the company.
Workers organizing the Paizo union say it doesn’t have to be like this. “There’s a general feeling that ‘getting’ to work in gaming is supposed to be part of its own reward, so we should put up with getting paid less than other industries pay for the same jobs,” says a current Paizo employee. “I think people also accept this because there’s a general understanding that TTRPGs are kind of a niche industry with pretty small profit margins, so maybe the company can’t actually afford to pay more.” Financial transparency will help employees understand what the real situation is, he says, “both so that we have some idea how well the company is doing at any given time (it’s currently a complete black box) and so that we know how feasible requests for pay equity actually are.” But more than financial transparency, the employee believes there should be known ground rules for hiring and promotion practices, to promote accountability and diversity.
Workers are pushing the TTRPG industry out of its 50-year-old roots and into modernity. As the content of these fantasy adventures changes, they argue, so should the demographics of their publishers and their working conditions. “There are a lot of very old narratives and very old ideas about how the industry should run, which have become detrimental to it,” says Barber.
Updated 10-19-2021, 11:25 am ET: This story has been updated to correct the Seattle suburb where Paizo is located. It is in Redmond, not Renton as previously stated.
Updated 10-19-2021, 5:12 pm ET: Jason Tondro originally told WIRED that one of Paizo’s recent books has a trans man paladin on the cover. Tondro has since noted that the character is a trans woman. We have updated his quote.