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Nerdy Jobs: Freelance fans who write new monsters for Dungeons & Dragons
In 2016, Wizards of the Coast rang in the new year by announcing the Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guild. The DMs Guild, as it's often shortened to, is a platform where content produced by fans can be published with the express consent of Wizard of the Coasts, including monsters, settings, and trade dress, to produce unique adventures, character options, and fantastical items for other fans to purchase and download. It was a game-changer, to say the least.
Prior to its release in January 2016, fans who wanted to publish content for D&D in order to fill in the gaps where official playbooks lacked content were restricted to using what was made available through an Open Gaming License; Wizards of the Coast released a System Reference Document that provided guidelines for creating content that could be sold commercially.
In contrast, the DMs Guild invites freelancers who love D&D to create content and publish. At any given time, creators upload new content ranging from Pay-What-You-Want (which includes free) to whatever price their heart desires.
On March 12, 2019, the DMs Guild exploded when Uncaged Vol. 1 premiered. The tagline from the project website, "Every creature in the multiverse has a story to tell. Even the monsters," only scratches the surface of what a monumental undertaking the project was for the over 100 artists, writers, and editors involved under the direction of the project manager, Ashley Warren.
The book features 26 adventures, all of which "subvert tropes around a female mythological creature or monster including hags, harpies, medusas, and much, much more." The book has its own hashtag, #UncagedAnthology, chock full of reviews and pictures of people with their hardcover copies praising the aesthetic and narrative qualities. In just two months, the book sold 2,500 copies as a self-published work on a platform dedicated to selling products for D&D. That was just the first in an anthology of four books to be released this year, with several spin-off projects already in the works.
SYFY WIRE spoke to a few of the artists and writers who contributed to Uncaged Vol. 1 to get a better understanding of what it's like to be a freelance creator for tabletop role-playing games (TTRPG).
Perhaps the most universally agreed upon aspect of the community is the supportive and diverse voices brought to the fore. David Markiwsky, one of the artists for Uncaged and project manager for one of the spin-off projects, told SYFY WIRE: "When the inevitable imposter syndrome creeps in, everyone is always there to tell you [you] aren't alone in feeling that way and to offer encouragement."
Liz Hurst, another artist for Uncaged agreed, saying, "I think a majority of us all know that we're all in this community together and that we benefit from being friendly, encouraging, and championing each other's projects."
Even when naysayers and old guard try to get in the way, the rest of the community steps up with open arms, according to Jessica Marcrum, who was a writer on the anthology. "Of course, there are gatekeepers and people who don't want to support content by women, LGBTQ creators, and minorities, but by and large, the community has been incredibly supportive," she says. "Other creators are constantly reaching out to collaborate with and support their fellow creators. It's beautiful and inspiring. I feel so welcomed."
When asked about the challenges that face freelancers, writer Masha Lepire says, "One of my greatest challenges as a freelance creator in the TTRPG community has been finding contract work. Most of the opportunities I've come across have been through my friends and colleagues since it is difficult to find work that is paid."
Marcrum adds that not everyone in the community is looking out for each other. "There are occasionally predatory calls for writers who are looking to profit off the hard work of up-and-coming creatives," she says. "These can be quickly spotted by the fact that they either don't pay at all or offer to pay in 'exposure,' while the finished product will be sold for profit."
Wizards of the Coast and OneBookShelf take a 50 percent cut of the profits off the top. In justifying the split, Senior Manager of Development for Dungeons & Dragons Mike Mearls said in a Reddit AMA: "The big thing comes down to the use of Forgotten Realms, which we feel has some real value. However, that percentage also allows us to fund new content for the Guild, host events, and so on. We don't have anything to announce yet, but building the community is definitely part of our thinking."
According to those involved with Uncaged, the DMs Guild is different from other TTRPG platforms in that it offers greater exposure.
"It seems that selling products on the DMs Guild allows you to have the benefit of your product potentially reaching a wide audience," Lepire says. In addition to whatever social media marketing creators do to promote their projects, the DMs Guild spotlights newly published content for approximately a week, depending on how much new content is published in that given week.
Some of the contributing artists, writers, and editors on Uncaged Vol. 1 wear multiple hats and their work will be featured in the upcoming volumes. Uncaged Vol. 2 is scheduled to be released later this month with Vol. 3 and 4 released in June and July, respectively.