One of the most exciting things I do is creating new worlds, systems, and mechanical designs. While it doesn’t look exciting from the outside (since it’s a lot of time looking out windows silently and then hours and hours of writing), it is without a doubt one of the best things about being a content creator and game designer. Being able to create new worlds, stories, and creating the building blocks for thousands of people to play with is without a doubt summarized as “the tits”.
Seeing thousands of people working on costumes, creating stories, and building their own experience using the world that you invented is incredible. Part of the reason you never see me stand up in front of everyone when I visit a DR game is because I love standing at the back of the crowd and seeing all of it in the picture. The Directors. The writers. The team of players. All of it. Seeing the costumes and the friendships that were brought together with your imagination is enough to make nearly any weight that comes with it so much lighter.
Recently the DR Network announced that we would be paying plot producers as writers instead of following the hobby standard of “story teller” at games. A ton of people loved this. Some people were scared. A small handful were angry.
Hiring Story Writers is something that needs to be done as part of the culture of LARP. With the way things are with companies reviewing how CCG tournaments and how conventions operate, it made us wonder about the standards of LARP. So many months ago we had a team of lawyers advise us on what changes should be made to not only do the ethical thing for the hobby, but also to be ahead of what potential issues could come down the line in the future.
Understand I’m not a lawyer, and I hire them and listen to them instead of making my own guesses and conclusions. So, what I’m putting out there is a distilled thought process based on what information we got in a rundown. Marshaling for your NPC shift isn’t defined as “work” if it replaces your NPC shift. NPC shifts are a part of the experience offered and sold as a LARP, and with that having a higher level of trust for an NPC shift and a higher level of trust for adjudication during a game isn’t work. Was it right for us to ask for an extra two hours? Arguable one way or the other. What we did when we wanted to find the best set of practices was that we reduced the marshal shift from six hours to four hours, which is a standard NPC shift.
Then came Story Tellers. Story Telling as it has been traditionally defined by LARP is really two different gigs. One is doing a NPC shift and organizing stuff like a marshal does and the other part is writing stories. While running a shift at an event isn’t defined as work (again, replaces NPC shift) we cut the two hours down just like marshals and made it 4 hours.
But then there is the part of getting a game for free in exchange for writing stories.
Writing can be, without a doubt, a job. Myself and many other people are freelance writers that literally write content for a living. Is every time someone writes considered “work”? That is an area that is incredibly murky in the courts. The same way that the idea of every time someone creates art, is it work (even if not done professionally, and done for the love of it) writing falls under the same category. What makes it even murkier is the idea that people who were doing the role of Story Teller in Dystopia Rising were effectively being compensated by their local hired companies to write for them.
For the most part, everyone is happy. Story Tellers were getting hundreds of dollars’ worth of free experience in exchange for doing something they loved doing as a hobby and everyone wins. The only person who doesn’t win in that scenario is the government.
The government loves its taxes. No matter what your opinion on taxation laws in the US, the fact remains that if there is a transaction of goods or services rendered for materials of value that could be measured in financial means, the government wants a cut. So while Story Tellers were getting over $100 of value each month, and there is a legal argument in regards to it being defined as “work” or not due to the unpublished nature of the writing relating to it being a component of the experience provided, the decision was made that we needed to get ahead of this.
Now if we left it as is, the Network as a whole would be fine. Our franchise contracts with the individual branches state that at any point the legal standard of the united states overrides any portion of organization and design of the network, and it is the accepted responsibility of the franchisee to operate within federal and state legal guidelines.
But we don’t leave our people hanging out in the wind, and instead decided on best practices for moving forward.
The other issue is that if it is defined as work, then the Story Tellers should have to declare their cost of entrance on a 1099 tax form, because even bartering is required to be filled out on a 1099. This means the Story Tellers who don’t know how to handle taxes, due to no fault of anyone involved, could also not have been filing their taxes correctly.
So with as much love as I have for making things people enjoy, we needed to find a way to be able to provide that opportunity to the players without endangering the individual chapters legal status (and there are dozens of different options local branches could take to address this). So we broke down the idea of what a Story Teller is into its components, took the portions that are arguably work, and made that a paid job.
Now people have an easier way into the industry, finances get to the people who are working, and the government gets its taxes according to freelance standards. The next problem was finding what the “standard rate” for a writer is. As a writer I can tell you straight out that I have had a wide array of pay for a wide array of projects. I know what I have been paid as a writer, I have references for what average standard pay rates are for many different sort of writers, but no standard could be found for what to write someone who is creating derivative module descriptions in roughly 400 word blocks. The closest we could find was current standard rates for original armature fiction writers for magazines and anthologies, which came down to $.02 cents a word for new writers. AGNI pays 1-4.9 cents per word. Fiction writers for Asia Literary Review receive 5 cents per word.
And all of these ranges were for established writers and new professionals producing completely new content for publication. These writers create the source, the world, the base IP, and original ideas. There wasn't a standard for what boiled down to fan fiction.
The other issue is that the contract that the writer has isn’t with Dystopia Rising LARP Network. The contract is with the individual franchise where the franchise is hiring writers to produce materials that are only used at their game. What story gets run at a local game has no influence on the publication company or the franchise production company unless the franchise company directly hires to produce ongoing long-term over-arcs for the entire network.
So how do you handle it?
Best answer? You let the individual franchise owners define their own contracts of hire and just institute a bottom line of fair and acceptable pay that is higher than some of the standards and lower than some of the higher end publication ranges. Since hiring writers is directly between the people hiring them and the people being hired, it ends up being a conversation that they have to have and not us. The only thing that we provide is a standard suggested minimum for contract so that people who are not used to hiring writers have some sort of idea of what the bottom floor should be. Writers can be hired by the word, by the project, for multiple month over-arcs, for guest writing spots, and a whole lot more… all defined by the local franchise.
Does it work for everyone?
Hell no. There are people who currently have jobs that say they can’t do work for other people. It sucks, but the definition of work and income is so squirrely state by state that it needs to be researched and engaged by a local franchise. Hell, we won’t even touch that (or want to).
Is it the best practice we have to date?
Yup. And once a better practice that works for the government and also games is found, we’ll use that.