Apotheosis Studios: The Culmination of Unprofessionalism

(Brent here! There are ongoing updates with links to the accounts from other folks coming forward at the end of the article.)

If you are in the TTRPG community on Twitter today, chances are good you have already seen some of the threads talking about the deplorable conduct of Satine Phoenix and Jamison Stone, the co-leads of Apotheosis Studios. I retweeted one of those threads myself. But as more freelancers come forward about their treatment by Jamison and Satine I thought it important to document this information in a slightly more permanent location. Too often these incidents crest a wave on Twitter and are then lost in the swell of the next wave. But I think this is too important a warning to creators in our space, especially new creators who might not be familiar with all the bad actors, to let it be rolled under.

The first I became aware of today’s bad news was this thread by tattoo artist Chad Rowe. In it he talks about his experience dealing with Jamison and Satine, both before and after doing some tattoo work for Jamison. I’m not going to dig too deep into it here. The tattoo world is not my area of expertise and there are folks better suited to discuss it in that context. But read the exchanges and keep Jamison’s responses in mind for later. It establishes a pattern on condescension and gaslighting that is important.

Sadly, today was not the first day I became aware how badly Apotheosis Studios treats their freelancers. Several friends in the TTRPG freelance community told me about their awful treatment at the hands of both Satine and Jamison regarding work done on Sirens: Battle of the Bards and other projects. One friend, Jessica Marcrum, was brave enough to come forward about her treatment as a writer on Sirens, treatment confirmed by another writer on the project, Pat Edwards. That’s where I’ll be focusing my attention in this post.

Some context is important. Sirens: Battle of the Bards was a successfully Kickstarted project which raised just shy of $300,000. If you check out the campaign page it is all very slick and pretty, filled with beautiful art and littered with the dropped names of TTRPG “luminaries”. If you scroll way, way down near the bottom of the page, past the shiny promises of stretch goals and events packed with Satine’s/Jamison’s industry friends, you’ll find the list of folks actually doing the bulk of the work on the project. Okay, no, put a thumb over Satine and Jamison’s photos. There you go, everyone else there.

Let’s pop back up and talk about stretch goals for a second. I’m a little leery of projects that use stretch goals to reward the writers/editors/artists on a project. Done correctly they’re great, but too often they are used as a way to pay the people involved what they should have been paid from the start, while giving the appearance of a bonus. But good or bad, they are at least an acknowledgement of the work that goes into a project and who deserves some extra kudos.

Saying that, take a look at the stretch goals on Sirens. Notice anything missing? Yep, nothing in there benefits the folks doing the yeoman work of bringing this book into the world. Which shouldn’t be a big deal, right? After all, the project raised nearly $300,000, and with none of the writers/editors/artists relying on stretch goals to get their proper due, they must be getting their fair share of that money. Right? Right?

Let’s pop back to my friend Jessica’s thread. With her permission I’m sharing some of her screenshotsTweet One. This first pic, right, is the start of a conversation well after writing had been turned in and Apotheosis Studio had been invoiced for the work. After waiting for any response on her invoice and getting none, Jessica flat out asks about payment, which seems reasonable. So reasonable that Satine acknowledges it as a good question and thanks Jess for asking it. And then (to borrow a hockey term) tips the puck to Jamison, thus allowing her to maintain that veneer of positivity so important to her brand. Now Jamison has the puck and starts giving the bad news: instead of paying writers as they turn over, everyone gets to wait until the last writer is over the finish line. Which makes this the fault of those pesky, slow writers, not the person in charge (Jamison).

Another person in the conversation mentions “30 days” and the assumption that it meant 30 days from invoicing. This is important because “net30” or getting paid within 30 days of invoicing is pretty standard. It isn’t a term which has a lot of room for interpretation, either. Anyone who deals with invoicing in any capacity should be familiar with it. Say, the person in charge of a large, well funded publishing project, as an example.

Tweet TwoBut that’s okay, Jamison has the screenshots of the appropriate parts of the contract handy (which is a little weird, unless he somehow anticipated a poor reaction and the need to defend himself). But this is where we climb aboard Condescension Express, as Jamison’s tone quickly shifts from a reasonably professional one to, “Hey dummies, read your contracts!” I’m not going to comment on the language in that contract snippet except to say that if you ever encounter it in a contract you are asked to sign, walk away. I find it hard to assign much blame to the writers who did sign it, I would likely have misread it as they did and assumed the standard net30 was in play.

Again, the important thing here is Jamison’s tone. There were any number of ways he could have more constructively carried on this conversation. Ways which would have sounded a lot more like he knew he was talking to real live people, writers who had contributed materially to the success of this project. And ways that would have sounded a lot less like he was scolding children, to be sure.

And next slide. Here we have more “correction” from Jamison and another admonishment to read the contract. The writers involved at this point are being veryTweet Three calm and polite, explaining their understanding of how things normally work. Jamison continues to be very angry about it all. I might almost say, suspiciously angry, especially for someone who purports to have done no wrong. In any case, Jamison now asserts dominance by reminding everyone of his very fancy job title, then broadens the discussion by bringing in all the writers (I feel like he should have waited to bring up the job title until after he brought everyone else in. But hey, he’s the Creative Director and I’m not).

Skilled leader that he is, Jamison simultaneously reassures everyone that he is happy to answer any and all questions, while mocking Jess (you remember Jess, the one who came to him with a question?) by quoting her words back to her and everyone else. Also adds the stipulation that folks bring their questions to him in private, because a lack of transparency just screams approachability. This is actually a pretty common tactic of poor leadership, demanding that your team members only discuss “negative” things in private. Good leaders? Good leaders want to talk about things out in the open and get input from the whole team, and are often consensus driven. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Tweet FourCarrying on, the last pic shows that not only is Jamison not really sure how publishing works, he isn’t even quite sure what the writers on this project are up to. Jessica has to remind him that she wrote three, not two, chapters. Seems like, if you’re going to talk to your writers about their work, you might pull up a spreadsheet or something so you know what you’re all talking about. Jessica then points out that she had been told the writing had been approved, rightfully making the point that if one person on the leadership team says something, the fair assumption is that they speak for the other leaders. Again, it’s a fair point. But Jamison again asserts his position and throws his co-lead under the bus, a pro move befitting his position as self-nominated Creative Director.

“But Brent,” I here you say, “You’ve shown us a lot of Jamison acting a complete nozzle. Where does Satine fit into all this?” A fair question. It seems difficult to believe that Satine would be unaware of Jamison’s behaviour, especially after the aforementioned passing of the puck at the beginning of the thread. So if she was unaware of his responses here, at the very least she was choosing to be unaware. Here’s the thing though. If you look at the KS page you’ll see they have each taken the title Creative Director. That means she is as responsible for the decisions made around this project as the other Creative Director. She doesn’t get to play the “I had no idea!” card, even if true, because quite simply it was her job to know.

Here’s another way to spot a bad leader, by the way. Bad leaders will talk a lot about their authority┬áand very little about their responsibility. That’s why the two most common reactions from bad leaders are “I didn’t know!” and “It’s not my fault, it was [X]!” Good leaders know that ignorance is not an excuse and so try to be aware of everything. Good leaders also follow the adage “Wins belong to the team, losses belong to the Leader.” Pay careful attention a company in our space screws up and see which reaction you hear.

This isn’t just Jessica’s experience on Sirens. Crystal M, another writer on the project, backs Jess up and talks about a similar experience. It’s also important to note that while they did eventually get paid, it was less than expected. And this behavior wasn’t limited to a single project; Ian E Muller talks about his treatment on The Red Opera, another Apotheosis Studio publication. He reveals that he was eventually paid, but by the creator of the project paying out of pocket, not Jamison or Apotheosis Studios.

So what’s the takeaway here? First and obviously, don’t work for Apotheosis Studios. That seems pretty straightforward. A little more broadly, be wary of working on projects run by “Industry Darlings” who promise all sorts of glamour and shine, backed up by very little in the way of knowing what the fuck they are doing. I will also add, read your contracts carefully before signing them. The best time to clarify contract details is before you are locked into them; there is no next best time.

But I think the biggest thing we need to face is the stratification of our hobby and the rise of a “star class” due to the popularity of actual play shows. Don’t get me wrong, there are any number of folks out there who put in a job of work to produce excellent AP programming in an ethical fashion, and they deserve all the acclaim they receive because of it. Unfortunately it allows people who are able to skillfully feign that integrity to draw creatives into their sphere and take advantage of them. Sometimes they get away with it for a good long time, hurting a lot of folks along the way. But as we’ve seen today, when that fa├žade cracks, when enough people are no longer invested in protecting that veneer of integrity, they are exposed for the grifters they really are. The sad thing is, everything I’ve seen in Jamison’s and Satine’s response to today’s revelations indicates they believe their own mask, that the first people they grifted were themselves.

In the end, though, I think Apotheosis Studios has reached the natural culmination of its Creative Directors’ actions, and a steep fall is at hand. Hopefully this makes folks take a good hard look at that stratification I mentioned earlier. But I have my doubts. We do so love our darlings, don’t we?

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Updates June 10, 2022: Several more folks have come forward about their treatment by Phoenix and Stone since I first wrote this a few days ago. I wanted to capture what I could find here to keep them all in one place, for ease of reference. If you see one that I missed, please reach out.