Many of you have heard me say that, upon retirement, I promised myself to never again write work for hire. That I was done selling all rights to my creative labor. Consequently, for the past few years, as tempting as some offers have been, I’ve turned them all down.
TLDR: I’ve changed my mind somewhat. Although I currently have zero time free from existing bucket-list commitments, I’ve accepted some future work-for-hire again for sheer love of the properties. And truth be told, to stay relevant.
Now for the longer confession.
Several of you have heard me kvetch in private of a painful feeling of having sold my children. That every fiber of my being went into Dark Conspiracy, Minion Hunter, Bughunters, Dragon Dice, and Zero, and it hurt to have no further connection with them. Later, in educational publishing, much the same often happened, with an artificial division between “authors” and “writers,” and my love poured into work that someone else now owned, including an item with “author” credit to someone who wrote not a single word.
Part of the problem is that, though ideas are not copyrightable, only words, I’m uncomfortable reusing terms and concepts from those projects–things like “protodimension” or “synner.”
Another part of the problem is that, frankly, tabletop game design has historically paid poorly for most work-for-hire. And publishers have often treated staffers as disposable commodities.
A final part of the problem is that in general, fans follow properties more than they do designers or even publishers. Case in point: D&D/AD&D’s journey from TSR’s Gygax/Arneson (e1) to Cook (e2), to WotC’s Cook/Tweet/Williams (e3 & 3.5) to “Team” (e4 & e5).
A caveat: Some high-profile designers do develop a following. (I’m grateful that, though middling-profile myself, I have some wonderfully supportive backers. And I hope it’s always evident just how honored by and appreciative of you I am.)
An aside: Ghostwriting is a different kettle of fish, one that pays so extravagently, and that builds such an industry reputation, the money alone is worth it. Except I’ve never been much motivated by money beyond my family’s needs. Sorry family. 🙂
A second aside: I mean no offense to the amazing talents of those who have made a career of work-for-hire, to the love they have poured into that work, and the path of success so many have followed to ever more high-profile projects. I often envy you the well-deserved esteem.
A second caveat: I’m not casting shade on work-for-hire itself. It’s how I got involved in publishing in the first place. And I realize that I did much pleasurable work-for-hire over the years for properties other people created.
Which brings me to my original TLDR. My pain at “giving up my babies” blinded me for awhile to the joy of having contributed to other properties—often having courted those opportunities intentionally just to feel the connection with things like Star Wars, Serenity, D&D, TFT, MechWarrior, City Books, Aquelarre, and others, or to be in the company of other creatives I admire. I hope to do so again in the future, as breaks between items in my own bucket list. Assuming this little essay hasn’t stepped on toes or painted me as a prima donna.
This is just part of my opening up as I age, hopefully like a wine allowed to breathe, and not having turned to vinegar. 🙂
2 thoughts on “Work for Hire: A Confession and Re-Examination”
As I get older, I am understanding Karl Marx’s alienation from labor even more and your post drives his point home.
I’m curious about the legalistic yoga that publisher pulled (or what the rest of us call bullshit) to define someone as an author without actually writing. Was it like how Tom Clancy can still write books from the grave?
It’s also a shame that there was such avarice in the RPG business. People screwing each other over for nickels compared to how much video games make, the current fight is getting the voice actors paid properly, contractors getting their due and of course, the obvious toxicity of male gamers at the top.
But in the end, it’s an old story. Numerous “heroes” stealing the credit for thousands of others’ labor and being lionized by the So-Called Liberal Media as champions of Progress and getting to be on SNL: Roddenberry, Jobs, Edison, Bezos, Musk, Chase, Gates, MLK, Martin Luther and the list goes on. Thankfully, we have the means to fight back and their facades of sainthood is destroyed while they’re alive: Gates’ association with Epstein and reasons for the divorce may put an end to his fake charity; Roddenberry was an HR nightmare would’ve been on the #metoo list today; Henry Ford loved Hitler, etc.
Les, I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but as a gamer, writer, fan, and general enthusiast, I have always looked up to and forward to your writing, your ideas, and your creativity. I hope I join the rest of the community in wishing you nothing but the best in however you choose to continue engaging the community. We’re just happy you’re engaged!
Please keep us in the loop for any future projects you choose to involve yourself in. You’ve already left quite a legacy.
Dark Conspiracy launched me and my best friends from gaming into design. It was probably the first system we used for critical thinking beyond “kick in the door, fight the monster” because here, such a strategy will get you killed. Characters were complex as were the strategies, and most of us spent 90% of the time planning for as short a fire fight as possible. And as you well know, this paved the way for some of us to begin writing.
Minion Hunter was somehow a light version of DC with a Monopoly meets Cthulhu element, but with choices that made some sense and perhaps with a few weapons to help you hold your own a little while, and we love the replay of it at our annual barbecues.
Core d6 is a light, fun, hit the ground running game which I’ve enjoyed as player and gamemaster, particularly the one you ran for a few lucky contributors several years ago online!
And on and on… Traveller 2300, d13, your contributions to Space 1889, Sovereign Stone and I even saw you involved in Dungeonworld from Fast Forward which we used as an extremely fun way to call out to PCs who, for one reason or another, have left the Prime Material.
Thank you for everything, Les. We can’t wait for your next work.