Op-Ed: Don’t Screw Freelancers – Ever

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Jamison Stone & Satine Phoenix’s reveal came courtesy of Freelancers, the next generation of our enthusiasts and creators.

One of the biggest TTRPG scandals of 2022 involves two celebrities and misconduct allegations. The couple has hired several freelancers for various purposes like tattoo art and writing etc. In case you didn’t know, the two celebrities in question are Jamison Stone and Satine Phoenix. The allegations themselves are covered fairly fully elsewhere, so this article isn’t explicitly about Jamison and Satine. Instead, this article is about the conversation about how to deal with freelancers themselves.

Freelancing is where new creators get their start

I got my start in the world of tabletop RPGs as a freelancer over 22 years ago. I worked for Knights of the dinner table magazine, Atlas Games and Wizards of the Coast, to name a few. Freelancing helped me pay a few bills and most importantly helped me get my foot in the industry.

I tried very hard never to forget where I came from. Later, I hired a lot of freelancers to work on projects that I managed, including the Warhammer 40,000 role play lines. I tried to put myself in their shoes and I feel overall I was pretty good at making sure the freelancers I worked with were paid on time and given credit appropriate for their work.

Honestly, freelancing for tabletop RPGs doesn’t pay well. The standard rate was $0.05/word for almost two decades, and I think it’s only increased slightly since then. Keep in mind that writing in other mediums usually pays 5-10 times more! Most freelancers don’t work on RPGs for the money…they do it because they enjoy it. to be clear, I’m 100% in favor of freelancers earning a living wage for their efforts. I should point out that, in my experience, the salary is generally low.

The expectations of a freelancer are few. A freelancer should generally expect to receive:

  1. The agreed payment.
  2. A copy of the artwork (if possible, most of the time this is intended for printed RPG products rather than digital artwork or art)
  3. Credit in the finished work (and their name must be spelled correctly!)

The myth of “exposure”

Some of the allegations regarding Jamison and Satine involve promises of promotion and access to celebrity projects. This concept is often referred to as “exposure,” and it’s often touted as an incentive (or, more rarely, full compensation) for freelancers. The truth is that “exposure”, even if framed as promotion, marketing, etc., is something that is mercurial at best and difficult to quantify as a benefit. If I was a freelancer, for example, and a big outlet like critical role offered to help promote my work, that could be a great advantage. However, I would have no guarantee that the client would promote me effectively (note that I am NOT accusing critical role to have bad marketing), and I would have no assurance that the promotion would actually help me get bigger and better gigs in the future.

Exposure, in simple terms, is bullshit. Freelancers get paid, they get a copy of what they worked on, and they get proper credit. The dangling “promotion” as a reward is just so whimsical. Fine if it works, but absolutely nothing you can count on.

In my experience, most issues and concerns with freelancers can be handled with good communication. Checking in with freelancers regularly is a great way to avoid neck issues. Honestly, as a freelancer myself, nothing makes me worry about a project more than when there are long periods of silence from a client.

predators and prey

Something that isn’t talked about much is that freelancing is inherently somewhat predatory. As a freelancer, you are at the client’s mercy. The contract becomes your only leverage, but most freelancers can’t afford to sue the client in case the client is a bad actor. It can be scary to be independent and realize that your livelihood is entirely dependent on people not being assholes.

How people treat freelancers should be seen as how you treat anyone in the service industry, and they should be judged accordingly. Yell at the waiters? You are a fiery asshole. Bullying a freelancer you hired to get you a tattoo? Equally condemnable.

Freelancers are the future; Treat ’em right and let ’em lead the way

If you cultivate a freelancer who works for you, they can become a colleague, who will then turn into a teammate. I know this is true for a fact. Freelancers I’ve hired in the past are now online developers, marketers, and content managers for other tabletop RPG companies. They are part of my own professional network and I am part of theirs. To treat a freelancer like crap is to slam the door on any future interaction. I’m not here to say that every freelancer is a great person you’ll want to keep in touch with…but there are plenty of freelancers who have become big names in the industry over time.

It’s important to remember that freelancing is the number of people starting to become pros in the world of tabletop RPGs. This means that freelancers are often the future of our hobby. They are the ones who will design the games of the next ten, twenty or thirty years. They are the ones who will remember how they were treated, and it will indicate how they treat the freelancers they hire, etc.

Don’t rush the next generation of creatives fueling the hobby we all love. If you do, then you deserve to live with the consequences. As for me, I will be delighted to see what awaits us. And I will continue to encourage those who remember how to treat freelancers well.

Ross Watson is an award-winning game designer and author with over 20 years of experience. Ross has worked for Games Workshop, Fantasy Flight Games and many others. Check out his patreon for more.

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