Freelancing is a fickle mistress.
On the one hand, you have lots of flexibility. You can work when you want. You can pick who you work for. You can stay at home. You can travel.
At the same time, you often lack financial security. You’re almost always on the hunt for new projects and new clients. The oft-vaunted, desperately sought Long-Term Recurring Gig is a beast rarer than a bicorn (a unicorn with two horns, which some would say is an antelope and not terribly rare if you know where to look).
In the digital era, platforms like Upwork and Fiverr help you connect to a huge roster of potential clients. But they also do the same for your competitors. The accessibility of the freelance labor pool has exploded in the past decade, and as a result, wages are driven down.
It doesn’t matter if you are at the top of your game. You can have experience, education, and credentials out the wazoo—the typical client will almost always go with the cheaper freelancer who has few to none of these.
And in most cases, that client won’t know the difference between premium and subpar work. That’s because they don’t know jack about whatever task they’re hiring someone to do, which is exactly why they’re hiring someone to do it rather than doing it themselves.
As a result, you often have to lower your fee just to compete. And if you’re just starting out? Forget about it. You will be working for pennies on the dollar just so you can get some good reviews and raise your profile in hopes that someday someone will pay you what you’re worth.
But after all of that, finally getting your paycheck—any paycheck—that’s a nice feeling.
If you can get it.
And that’s what’s at stake in Freelance, a mini-RPG by Chris Bissette (Loot the Room). I’ve written before about Chris’s A Dragon Game, which is a subtle, thoughtful, and extremely well-crafted satire of D&D. So when Tragos Games (unwittingly) brought Freelance to my attention, I knew I needed to read it.
Freelance is, unfortunately, an extremely accurate simulation of trying to get paid for freelance work. This situation is not universal—I’ve had plenty of great clients, especially in the RPG space, who are conscientious, respectful, diligent, and a true pleasure to work with—but the problems you’ll encounter in Freelance are all too common.
The core conflict is this: the freelancer has completed their work, and the client has decided not to pay for that work. The freelancer’s objective is to get paid. The client’s is to continue not paying. You see where this is going, right?
To facilitate just compensation, the freelancer possesses two stats: FUCK YOU and PAY ME. These are extremely important components of any freelancer’s professional vocabulary. If you plan on ever pursuing gig work, write these words on a note card and superglue it to your monitor. You will need them.
FUCK YOU begins at 6, and PAY ME at 1. Each round, one of those stats will rise and the other will fall. If PAY ME reaches 6, the freelancer wins and gets to eat that night; if FUCK YOU rises to 8, the client unapologetically, gleefully steals the work and leaves the freelancer with naught but seething rage. The odds are obviously stacked against the freelancer—just like in real life.
Gameplay is extremely simple. Freelancer and client present arguments and excuses, respectively, and then make rolls that are at best tangentially related to the discussion. The highest roll wins that round. Bissette’s exposition of this CRM includes what is probably the single greatest, most true-to-life statement in all of RPG literature: “The freelancer adds their FUCK YOU score to their roll, the client adds nothing.”
The vast majority of us probably have experienced grossly unjust treatment before, so stepping into the role of the freelancer will be an easy fit. If the freelancer ever feels their bile flagging, they can consult the Impotent Rage table to inspire new heights of vein-popping, eyeball-rupturing ire.
But many of us may not have much experience being a “piece-of-shit, waste-of-human-organs person”—AKA the client. For these pure souls, Freelance includes a pair of tables you can use to invent excuses for blowing off your freelancer and refusing to give them their due.
In these resources and in the rest of the text, Bissette strikes an incredible balance of throat-wracking humor and soul-crushing realism. Freelance truly captures the abject agony of dealing with a shiftless client, making it a unique blend of fun and frustration.
Such a game could come only from a person who’s experienced this situation firsthand. Bissette tweeted:
Ah, the Eternal Return of the same. As you can see, this is in response to me announcing my discovery of the game. And I was in such a state that I didn’t proofread my tweet, and now my typo is forever emblazoned on the face of Bird App (and my own blog).
I digress. In solidarity with all my fellow freelancers—but more in pursuit of petty catharsis—I’ve decided to follow Chris’s lead. Below, you’ll find my own “expansion” for Freelance that escalates the experience to negotiating your fee for recurring work. It is not officially affiliated with the Freelance RPG, Loot the Room, or Chris Bissette (though he did give me permission to make and post it here).
Consider this another sneak peek into the grueling Thunderdome of freelancing—and a stern warning to you shit heels who think you can get away with screwing your workers. Fuck you. Pay your freelancer.
Negotiation Massacre: An (unofficial) Expansion for Freelance
This supplement uses Freelance’s FUCK YOU and PAY ME stats and the same CRM. The client still contributes absolutely nothing to anything.
You’ve done it—you’ve landed a recurring, steady freelance gig. You deliver quality work, and the client never has any notes or requires any revisions. Your articles are consistently the most popular content on their vertical. The dream has been made reality! … right?
No. It hasn’t. Because now, in the client’s eyes, you’re merely another employee, but one they’re not obligated to give benefits to. Hell, they don’t even have to give you a formal contract or adequate compensation. Nothing you say or do will change their mind.
Why not? Because they’re exploitative assholes and they think you’re an idiot. But you can still roll on this handy table to find out what patently bullshit excuse they expect you to believe.
Recurring Client Bullshit*
- “We overbudgeted last month, so we have to reduce your fee. Don’t worry. It’s only temporary.” That was 12 months ago. You’re still making less than when you started.
- “We don’t like your proposed terms, so our counteroffer is even worse terms than those you are currently working under.” Whatcha gon’ do ’bout it? Stand on principal and walk away from steady work? [sadistic laughter ensues]
- “Annual revenue is down, so we can’t afford to pay you a higher fee at this time.” You’re also not invited to the $20,000 Christmas party—featuring a live concert by Less Than Jake—that the CEO is throwing for the full-time employees, their friends and extended families, their pets, and that guy they met at a bar that one time.
- “We’re starting summer vacation tomorrow, so we’ll have to continue this discussion when I get back.” Attached are some assignments to work on while the client is at the beach. The due date is in two days. The client won’t be anywhere near a computer for another five.
- “I know we offered you a byline, but having too many contributors is bad for our Google algorithm, so we need you to be a ghostwriter.” You get no credit, and they’re not going to pay you a ghostwriter’s fee either.
- “We’ll talk further after our team returns to working in-office.” They’re cancelling the lease and working remotely from now on.
*These are all paraphrases of real, personal experiences. Some are slightly exaggerated. The rest are not.
Freelance is available at itch.io for a minimum price of $3.00. Despite the name, Freelance is not free. You must pay for the work. That’s one of the few unrealistic things about this game.
In space, no on can hear you yawn.
For partygoers who want to kill some time and themselves
A summary & discussion of my paper about RPGs and art