Monthly Archives: July 2017
Burnout, and the Rent
This industry eats people alive. That’s because it’s extremely demanding, draws in those who are passionate, but doesn’t pay well. I’ve been a full time game writer for most of the past 20 years, and more than a decade of that was freelance. A lot of people who began when I did have left, for computer games, novels, or in some cases security guard gigs or farming. They leave because the time demands, creativity demands, occasional unprofessional ruining either your projected income or something you love, and the pay is, compared to other things with similar demands, low. And often, they leave broken, vowing to never return.
To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for those facts. That’s the way the industry is. I work for, and with, a lot of great people who do their absolute best to take care of everyone they can. I’m not railing against some corporate greed, or claiming I could do better. heck, I’m a publisher as well as a writer and developer. I know what the economic realities are. I am very fortunate to have as many great employers as I do. It’s just a rough business, and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to do well by only putting in 40 hours a week.
So, I do more than that. But that’s not a universally good thing. I know I take on a lot, and I try to give everyone what is expected. And, I fail sometimes. Sometimes very publicly. I’m in my late 40s, I have two decades under my belt, and I still feel like this is all a learning experience.
And like a lot of game designers, I live locked in battle with two extremes—burnout, and the rent.
Burnout is real, and if you fully burn out you are done. There are lots of signs of burnout—never enjoying the work instead of only not liking some parts of it; not being able to force yourself to work on a specific project; depression; panic; confusion, as to why what used to work to get projects finished doesn’t anymore; apathy; slowing of new ideas; reduced quality; a willingness to cut corners in ways you know aren’t right (be that ethically, legally, or just not the kind of work you like to produce, depending on who you are and how badly you burned out).
But just because you can see potential burnout, doesn’t mean you can walk away. Everyone will tell you to… but they don’t know your budget, your needs, your situation overall. If you have people depending on your to provide for them, if you know you can’t survive a loss of income, if you’re going to be homeless if a project falls through, “taking a break” may not be a realistic option for you.
I have flirted with burnout more than once over the years. Sometimes I’d love to have walked away, but at that moment it wasn’t financially practical. Other times I knew if I could push through some specific project, I’d be fine. It isn’t always the big projects, either. Sometimes something small will suck up hundreds of hours of time, because you just can’t get it right.
On the other hand, you also can’t just ignore signs of burnout. If you see it coming, you need to do something. Stepping back from even one big responsibility can make a huge difference. So can powering through something to see the results of your hard work. So can assign for help, if you have people you can ask.
In my experience, those things don’t fix problems immediately. But if you don’t take steps like that, and burnout gets worse, you are traveling a dark path. One that has taken out better designers than I.
Big and important projects—new core rulebooks, connected series of adventures, new jobs that have extremely steep learning curves, ventures with partners counting on you—can be particularly brutal. And if you do more than one of those at a time, the effects multiply, rather than add.
But such projects also, eventually, smooth out. Either you finish them, or you learn the ropes.
It’s all too easy to end up in a position that is unsustainable, caught between burnout and the rent. But small changes do, eventually, make a different. Not everything must be sustained forever.
Also, know what helps. Or if you don’t know, look. I’ve been very public with a lot of my mental issues, and I have posted a lot of retrospectives, like this. These are both a release valve for me–a cheap and useful form of stress relief–and something I do because I would have loved to have this information in 1997, when I was writing freelance material but nothing had been published yet. It helps me, and I hope it helps someone else.
Each person must navigate their own path between these creative and financial Scylla and Charybdis. And sometimes you just have to strap yourself to the tiller, lay on sail, and hope you are still above water when you reach the far side.
But if you do that…keep those navigational charts, and try to avoid those waters in the future. Most people, myself included, bring burnout down on themselves. Try to learn from it.
You’ll keep making mistakes, of course. Just try not to make the same mistakes over and over.
I have a patreon. It’s one way I try to navigate between burnout and the rent, and it has some exclusive content.
If you ever find my posts to be entertaining or useful, consider offering a dollar or two a month of support.
Return of the Fighter/Magic-User/Thief
Older editions of the game handled multiclassing much differently, and as a result triple-class characters were not only viable, in many cases they were significantly stronger than single-class characters. There’s good reason to move away from the way that rules edition handled the concept, but it does mean the fighter/magic-user/thief (a staple, especially for elves and half-elves) ceases to be an effective, easy class to build, and that’s kind of a shame.
However, with the advent of hybrid classes (from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Class Guide), there’s no reason a balanced, fun and effective f/m-u/t can’t be re-introduced into the game. It just needs some creative application of the design rules, some way to avoid the pitfalls such multi-focus characters often suffer, and some careful balancing. Such an effort is presented below. (And I did something similar with the cavalier-paladin, some time ago, if you want to look at that.)
For extra flavor, a GM might consider limiting the class to half-elves. 😀
A hybrid class.
Hit Die: d8
Parent Classes: Fighter, Rogue, Wizard
Starting Wealth: 5d6 × 10 gp (average 175 gp.) In addition, each character begins play with an outfit worth 10 gp or less.
Class Skills: The fighter/magic-user/thief’s class skills are Acrobatics (Dex), Appraise (Int), Bluff (Cha), Climb (Str), Craft (Int), Disable Device (Dex), Disguise (Cha), Handle Animal (Cha), Intimidate (Cha), Knowledge (all, each taken individually) (Int), Profession (Wis), Perception (Wis), Ride (Dex), Sense Motive (Wis), Sleight of Hand (Dex), Spellcraft (Int), Stealth (Dex), and Swim (Str).
Skill Ranks per Level: 6 + Int modifier.
Level BaB Fort Ref Will 0th 1st 2nd 3rd Special
1 +0 +1 +1 +1 2 – – – Broad training
2 +1 +1 +1 +1 2 – – – Sneak attack +1 point, trapfinding
3 +2 +2 +2 +2 2 – – – Knack
4 +3 +2 +2 +2 2 0 – – School (1st)
5 +3 +3 +3 +3 3 1 – – Sneak attack +1d4
6 +4 +3 +3 +3 3 1 – – Knack
7 +5 +3 +3 +3 3 1 0 – Evasion
8 +6* +4 +4 +4 3 1 1 – Sneak attack +2d4
9 +6* +4 +4 +4 4 2 1 – Knack
10 +7* +5 +5 +5 4 2 1 0 Uncanny dodge
11 +8* +5 +5 +5 4 2 1 1 Sneak attack +3d4
12 +9* +5 +5 +5 4 2 2 1 Knack
13 +9* +6 +6 +6 4 3 2 1 Bravery +2
14 +10* +6 +6 +6 4 3 2 1 Sneak attack +4d4
15 +11* +7 +7 +7 4 3 2 2 Knack
16 +12* +7 +7 +7 4 3 3 2 School (6th/8th)
17 +12* +7 +7 +7 4 4 3 2 Sneak attack +5d4
18 +13* +8 +8 +8 4 4 3 2 Knack
19 +14* +8 +8 +8 4 4 3 3 Improved uncanny dodge
20 +15* +9 +9 +9 4 4 4 3 Sneak attack +6d4
*The fighter/magic-user/thief receives iterative attacks as normal, the chart does not show them to simply presentation
Proficiency: You are proficient with all simple and martial weapons, and light and medium armor. Because all your fighter/magic-user/thief spells are considered to have the Still Spell feat (see “Spells,” below), you can ignore arcane spell failure.
Spells: You casts spells drawn from the wizard spells list, and keep a spellbook, learn and prepare spells like a wizard, and gains 2 new spells known of a level you can cast at each new class level . Your caster level is equal to your class level. All your spells automatically gain the benefit of the Still Spell feat, allowing you to cast spells in armor without dealing with arcane spell failure and while wielding 2-handed weapons.
Because of your training in methods of combat and the ways of stealth and subterfuge, your spells are powered less by how smart you are than by how nimble you are. You use Dexterity to determine what level spell you can cast, your spells’ save DCs and bonus spells, and any calculation that uses Intelligence in a spell (or your school, see below) is instead calculated using your Dexterity.
Broad Training: You are considered to have a base attack bonus of +1, the ability to cast 1st level spells, and 1d6 of sneak attack, for purposes of meeting prerequisites and drawing a weapon as part of a move action when moving. You treat your class level as your fighter level, rogue level, and wizard level when meeting prerequisites including feat prerequisites). If this is your favored class, you can take a racial favored class bonus for fighter, rogue, or wizard at each level. Although you do not have the armor training or weapon training class features, for purposes of prerequisites you are treated as having them if a fighter with a level equal to your class level had them (and of having them with the same bonus as a fighter of your class level when calculations use that information). For weapon training, you also select weapon groups it would have applied to, if you had it, for use with the Advanced Weapon Training feat, even though you do not actually gain the normal bonuses from weapon training with those groups.
Sneak Attack: As the rogue class feature, except when you first gain this ability it deals only +1 point of damage (though it qualifies for any sneak attack talent you select with your knack). This increases to +1d4 at 5th level, and by an additional 1d4 every 3 levels thereafter.
Trapfinding: As the rogue class feature.
Knack: At 3rd level, and every 3 level thereafter, you gain a bonus combat feat, a bonus metamagic feat, a bonus item creation feat, or a rogue talent. You must meet the selection’s prerequisites, and have any relevant class feature it modifies. Each time you gain a new knack, you may choose to learn a new knack in place of a knack you have already learned. In effect, you lose the knack in exchange for the new one. The knack cannot be one that was used as a prerequisite for another feat, prestige class, or other ability. You can only change one knack at any given level and must choose whether or not to swap the knack at the time you gain a new knack for the level.
School: At 4th level, you select one wizard school. You are not considered specialized in the associated school, and you to not pick opposition schools—this has no effect on how many spells per day you can prepare or your chance to learn spells of various schools. You do, however, gain the abilities from this school that a wizard gains at 1st level. Your class level acts as your wizard level for any calculations of these abilities.
At 16th level, you also gain any abilities from the school that a wizard would have by 8th level (regardless of what level the wizard would have gained them, if it is before 8th level).
Evasion: At 7th level you gain evasion, as the rogue class feature. It functions if you are in no armor, light armor, or medium armor.
Uncanny Dodge: At 10th level you gain uncanny dodge, as the rogue class feature. At 19th level this upgrades to improved uncanny dodge. Both functions if you are in no armor, light armor, or medium armor.
Bravery: At 13th level your gain bravery, as the fighter class feature, with a flat +2 bonus.
Speaking of Old school Ideas
I can only take the time to write whole new classes because I have patrons, who support me. want more of this stuff? Check out my Patreon!
It’s interesting what people will latch onto.
I didn’t name “Owen’s Law.” I think that was Keith J Davies of Echelon Game Design, though someone might have done it before him I didn’t notice. And I certainly didn’t turn it into a hashtag. That was definitely Lucus Palosaari, project manager over at Fat Goblin Games. So I’m using their terms, because not doing so seems disrespectful, but I’d be just as happy to see the idea spread without having my name attached to it.
So whatever you call it, the rule is this. “If you mention a product you sell or make money from, link directly to where people can buy it.” The broader application of the rule can be stated as “Make it easy for people to give you money.” Though that one also a lot of other corollaries as well.
Now I am not the appointed keeper of Internet etiquette, and I know some folks don’t like to “hijack” threads or commercialize non-commercial discussions. I’ve been very clear that no one should worry about either of those in any online space I control. My Facebook page is there for gaming and gamers, and if a discussing makes you think, “WOW, that sounds like people involved in this idea might like to buy my Advanced Guide to Halfing War Baking!” then by all means, mention it AND post a link.
Really, once you are calling attention to a product, why make people actually interested in it do a Google search for it? I don’t see posting a link as any more intrusive than telling people talking about where their favorite burgers are not just that you like In and Out, but that there’s one down on Main Street. It’s additional, relevant information. And, in this case, it cuts barriers between people who want to give you money, and the actual act of you getting paid.
This is especially true of independent creatives. Your best advertising is word of mouth, but that has to start with you. Telling folks about your awesome stuff is good, but if they don’t take the steps to buy your stuff and then discover they love it, they can’t tell OTHER people how much they love it. And in my experience, people are much more likely to follow one click and then make a buy decisions, than they are to copy the name of your product (which I hope you got right), paste it into a search engine, choose and click on a link (that I hope is a sales site and not a review with no cart options), and THEN decide if they want to buy it. It doesn’t sound like much work… but what is the advantage to you of making them do that work?
Also, if you have fans, posting the link makes it easy for them to SHARE that link. Now you aren’t dependent on them getting the products name right, and your name right, AND for interested buyers to do the Google Search tango to get to a buy screen. If you paste the right links in when you talk about your products, your fans can easily share the exact link you want buyers to see and use.
Of course, don’t be obnoxious about cramming a mention of your products in everywhere you can. People will tune you out. I prefer 3-4 social media posts about things other than my products for every 1 that has a buy link. But if you restrict yourself to announcements that actually seem like news and are posted in appropriate venues, and mentions of your material when and where it’s actually relevant to the topic at hand, you can boost your visibility, save members of the community some time, and “Make it easy for people to give you money.”
And as a final #OwensLaw note, this need not apply only to your stuff. It can just be a cheap, easy way to support other groups in your community. Obviously I didn’t have to post links to Echelon Game Design or Fat Goblin Games above… but it cost me nothing to do so, and if any reader finds even the company names interesting those links saves them the time and effort of looking the companies up. That increases the changes of more people having more fun, which I always see as a good thing. And, it may earn me or my blog goodwill, which is great.
Speaking of My Stuff
I couldn’t do an #OwensLaw post without some shameless self-promotion. I have a Patreon, and the money from it helps support this blog and it’s free content. And, today, I added a minor coda to how I use #OwensLaw to boost visibility and sales as Patreon-exclusive content.
Upcoming Starfinder-Compatible Products from RGG
Next month, Rogue Genius Games is going to be leaping into the Starfinder-compatible market, with what we hope are the first of a long line of exciting quality products. More details will be available as we get closer to release, but I did want to show off what we are planning, and how they are looking.
The Starfarer’s Companion has tons of material for players and GMs, including computers, starships, feats, races (Aasimar, Catfolk, Deoxyians, Dhampirs, Grippli, Ifrit, Kitsune, Kobolds, Mechanoi, Nagaji, Oreads, Samsarans, Suli, Sylphs, Tengu, Tieflings, Undine, Vanaras, Vishkanya, and Wayangs) and classes (Bard, Cleric, Magus, Paladin, Ranger, and Wizard).
We’re also releasing a 1st-level introductory adventure for 4-6 players, Blood Space & Moon Dust!
And of course it seems likely that once the game is out, some Starfinder material will find it’s way onto this blog, and into my Patreon. 😀
It’s exciting times!
On Game Industry Professionalism
I’m surprised how often this comes up, but there is often a sad lack of professionalism in the game industry. It’s not all one-way, and it’s not all intentional, and it’s not all unique to this industry… but some of it is, and that causes issues throughout the hobby. Especially as some big conventions are coming up, and those often mean new contacts and new work deals, I wanted to talk about it a bit.
I’m certainly not the gatekeeper of gaming professionalism, but there are some things that seem to be common among the industry folks I look up to who are better-known, smarter, and more graceful than I am, and I do my best to emulate the. This list isn’t comprehensive or absolute – there are important things I and missing and side cases that might be rare exceptions to these principals. But in general, this is a fair baseline for what I see as the start of game industry professionalism.
Oh, and I want it to be fun to read, so it’s broken into movie quote section.
Break a Deal, Face the Wheel
No, no one will actually put a fiberglass mask on your head and send you off to die in the desert… but if you get a reputation for not doing what you have contracted and agreed to, you may end up in an allegorical desert when all the available work dries up.
Look, the industry is often brutal. Pay is too low, deadlines too short, respect too uncommon (especially among some segments of fans). Some years not only would I have made more money spending the same amount of time doing minimum wage fast food jobs, but my main reward was to be called out and attacked by people with less experience and understanding of games than I have. It can suck.
But leaving people in a lurch makes it suck more.
If you agree to do a job, and the other side holds up their end, you need to do your best to hold up your end. I have had people I thought were promising freelancers, who I took a risk on, mentored, said nice things about and introduced to other publishers, take a contract, ask me to push back the deadline by months, then stop communicating at all, then tell me they can no longer do the project at all and give me some half-assed outline in way of recompense. All while continuing to do work for other companies.
If mental health issues has you down? Yes, that’s no different that backing out of a running job because you broke a leg. You need to be up-front and honest, and tell me as soon as possible, but I get it. But do it early, be frank, and don’t immediately prove it’s not about that by taking even more work from other people. If you need a break, take a break.
But if the job you are doing for me just got pushed back to the back of your queue so often because of better work coming along that you’ve decided it’s not fun anymore, or no longer a good use of your time? Tough. You agreed to do this project. We have a contract. Do it.
You’re not just making a publishers life more difficult when you just throw a project aside. You are boosting their missed opportunity cost, adding stress, and preventing them from paying everyone else who would be involved. It’s unprofessional, and it’s way too common among way too many freelancers.
The reverse of this is ALSO true. If you tell someone you’ll publish their work, and there’s no formal timeline, and five years alter you still haven’t? You are screwing with them. And, obviously, pay what you say you will pay, when you say you will or before. Giving feedback is optional, but smart to improve the whole industry. Bad-mouthing a freelancer to other publishers for some behavior you never told THEM was an issue/ Unprofessional. Cancelling a project and just never telling people working on turnovers? Unprofessional. Sitting on a manuscript for years? Unprofessional… and I’ve been guilty of that one.
Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.
We rarely have information as crucial as the location of the One Ring, but there certainly are things you shouldn’t let the (various) Dark Lords know.
What information is exchanged between company and employee or freelancer as part of a work arrangement should be kept between those two, unless there’s a crime involved or an agreement that says otherwise or it’s become common knowledge. If you get to work on Ultimate Sentient Weapons, a major book that hasn’t been announced yet, you SHOULD NOT then use that information to write a book that does the same thing but better, and sell it before USW comes out. That’s screwing over your partner who got you that info, and it’s not cool. Similarly if a freelancer tells a publisher the freelancer is already working on something similar, the publisher should not take steps to trademark names involved, or change publishing dates, or badmouth them to damage their reputation, or change the project to cover the idea the freelance admitted to having.
Even without an NDA, don’t do this.
Once things are all out in the open, normal intellectual property rights can apply. And if the publisher is giving the info to lots of folks to do associated projects, there’s no reason not to ask if you can be included in that set of folks. But you can’t use info you were given to do a job for A Corp, then leverage it to sell a tie-in to B Corp before anyone even knows it has happened. Similarly, don’t leak files, even just to your friend Josh. Because you may trust Josh… but Josh may trust Wilhelm, and Wilhelm may trust Jerry, and Jerry may be an asshole. Don’t take the risk.
It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
What you do and say as a representative of yourself is your business. But if you wrote for a company’s new book, and you go to that company’s forum, and you take sole credit for things that were developed, edited, and worked on by 7 folks? Not cool. And if you badmouth it as crap the developers ruined? Not professional. And if you attack and insult customers who are annoyed? Way unprofessional.
If you can at all help it, don’t escalate conversations people who work with you are going to have to deal with. It’s like leaving a dead fish on the counter. If it’s your counter that’s gross, but you have to deal with it. If you leave it on my counter, you are making my life harder as the reward for me working with you.
Also, you will build a reputation. It will get around. Consider what you want it to be.
Be Kind. Rewind.
This industry is a meat grinder all too often. People with great talent and love of games leave both for more money, and for less stress and grief from fans.
So, try to be nice.
Yes, this is a vague hand-wave at professionalism, but give it some thought. If it takes only a tiny bit more effort to be nice to folks, why not do that? Yes, sometimes people are attacking you, or actively damaging your company or your reputation, and “nice” may not be a reasonable reply.
But if we were all nice whenever we could be? That would fix a lot of issues too.
Give more credit that you take.
Tell people when they make a positive impact on your life. Thank them.
Consider if you are being needlessly cruel in feedback. Saying you hate a game mechanic is very different from saying it’s idiotic and you don’t understand how anyone could ever think it was a good idea, and even THAT is different from saying a game’s writers are idiots who clearly only have their jobs because they are friends with the developer and the boss is so checked out he doesn’t care what gets published.
We HAVE lost people from the industry from such behavior. We’ll never stop it all, but if I can have one rock thrown at me each day or twelve, I’ll pick just one.
Self-Promotion Done Right
You can build up yourself without tearing anyone down. For example, I have a Patreon, and I’d love if you backed it.
Clinton Boomer has a Patreon. It’s awesome. You should back it too.
Liz Courts has a couple of Patreons. All worthwhile.
So does Jacob Blackmon!
I’d rather talk about how awesome these all are, and let you decide where to spend your money.
This entire post was sponsored by the Open Gaming Store. It’s awesome, too.