Can anyone make a living in tabletop and actual play?

A study by Dr. Emily Friedman and Carson Barnes wants to pull back the curtain on labor in TTRPGs

Can anyone make a living in tabletop and actual play?
Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash

As tabletop gaming and actual play continues its evolution from niche folk art into a rapidly expanding financial sector, the distinctions between the professional tabletop industry and its related, amorphous hobbyist community become more difficult to parse. “We are perpetually talking in circles around ideas of professionalization and what the [TTRPG] industry is,” said Dr. Emily Friedman on a call with Rascal. “And we don't, generally speaking, have a lot of data to back that up.” 

To better understand the landscape of the largely decentralized TTRPG ecosystem, Friedman (a professor at Auburn University and a regular contributor to Polygon) and her research student Carson Barnes are currently conducting an academic survey of the industry. Building off data Friedman collected in a previous survey, she and Barnes are trying to understand who is creating TTRPG-related media, who is consuming it, and what their respective relationships are to the tabletop and actual play space. 

"It's very different when we're having active conversations within the TTRPG, [and] actual play field in particular, about how many full-time working lives this can sustain."

The larger tabletop ecosystem (an umbrella term adopted by TTRPG practitioners, academics, and journalists to more accurately describe the semi-social, semi-professional field) is a loose network of creators and consumers. At the top of the hierarchy is Hasbro, a massive, multinational corporation whose game and subsequent lifestyle brand has become the cultural touchstone for the entire medium. Beneath them sit a handful of multimillion dollar companies who make games, actual plays, and/or peripheral products, followed by a (shrinking) handful of media outlets, dozens of small publishers, thousands of micro publishers, a rotating stable of freelancers, performers, and influencers. This professional network exists alongside millions of casual gamers who likely know little else about the industry outside of Dungeons & Dragons—and may not particularly want to learn more. “This is a fascinating [field] to do research in, precisely because its origins are in a hobbyist space,” said Friedman, referencing the work of fellow academic Evan Torner. “It has all of these ties to different parts of the creative economy; you've got all these different subjects and ways of being.”

The professional industry of TTRPGs is somewhat easy to define: it exists as an extension of our capitalist system via people who create products that are intended for sale and distribution. The often alluded to, but rarely defined, tabletop community is less clear cut. It is a fractal series of overlapping groups of people with their single unifying factor being a shared interest in some facet of tabletop gaming. There are few hallmarks of a traditional “community,” such as a shared set of values, a common mission, or networks of mutual care. When you begin to look beyond the initial vague intersection, people’s relationship to tabletop gaming varies wildly from a passing interest in big properties like D&D and Critical Role to individuals who have built a career on game design and actual play—or are at least attempting to.

The concept of a full-time job in tabletop or actual play is a relatively new phenomenon. AP’s as they currently exist are less than two decades old—with the most popular among them (Critical Role, Dimension 20, and The Adventure Zone; to name a few) having evolved from artistic experimentation by professionals with established careers in other mediums. Initially, their creators had little expectation that they’d ever profit from this work, let alone make a career from it. Many who have achieved exceptional success, such as Critical Role’s Matt Mercer, rarely have “Actual Play performer” as their exclusive full-time job. In addition to his weekly DMing gig, Mercer still works as a voice actor in film and video games—and as the chief creative officer of the multi-media company he and his castmates formed to claim ownership of the Critical Role IP.

This is far from the only example. Much of the cast of Dimension 20 have other jobs as actors, writers, and even Late Night Talk Show announcer (here’s looking at you, Lou Wilson). That the most successful performers have additional jobs highlights a strong disconnect between the actual state of the industry and the imagined reality of aspirants looking to exclusively work in tabletop or AP.