Developer? Designer? Who is the What Now?

One of the things I think often causes confusions among fans, and consternation among those entering the industry (or trying to maximize the creative resources within it) it that RPG creation as a whole lacks a consistent and well-accepted set of terms to describe the tasks that occur prior to editing, layout, and marketing. Many game companies use terms like author, writer, developer, and designer, but they mean different things at different companies, and sometimes aren’t well-defined even within the companies using such titles.

Further, even when the terms are fairly well-defined within a specific context, I think they are often way too broad. In the same way the ability to diagnose what’s wrong with an existing car and fix it is different from the ability to design a car from scratch is different from the ability to refuel and change the tires on a car as fast as possible, despite those all being technical fields involving car parts and performance, the writing tasks associated with professional RPG production can be very different despite cursory similarities. Without a good way to describe the various word-related tasks professional RPG creators may be called upon to perform, and note how they are different from one another, it’s hard to talk about who is good at what tasks and how they might improve at others.

This essay is not an effort to present a definitive lexicon of game creating positions. This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it. These are my first blush thoughts on the subject, and I presume not only that I would evolve my opinions as the question is debated but that I’ll discover lots of people smarter and more experienced than I will have done a lot of this categorization already. But I want to produce a fixed from of my initial sense of the various roles that word creation can play in a professional RPG setting, and cast about for other versions after that.

I’ll also note that much as the job of writing RPGs is more complex that a single skill set, I am well aware of the differences between various forms of editing, many art and graphic design and layout tasks, financing, shipping, marketing, and so on. I am focusing here on the word creation not out of a claim that it’s the only part that’s important in creating RPGs, but simply because  it’s the thing I have done the most over my 20 years or being involved in professional RPGs, so it’s what I know best.
Also, these terms specifically avoid those I run into most often in the industry (such as designer and developer) because different companies that I work for use those terms differently, and no matter how I defined them I could be seen as criticizing the way one or more of my employers use them, which is not my intent. Ultimately we could name these jobs after the planets or all I care, as long as we all knew a Jupiter was the person who wrote background of a campaign setting, and a Saturn could expand on existing rule systems in interesting ways.

Many people I know in the industry fill many of these roles as needed, and some fill all of them with amazing dedication and creativity. These aren’t designed to be in any way excusive, just distinct enough that some people might be good and one and merely serviceable in another.

That said, here’s my first stab at this.

Adventure Architects
An adventure architect focuses on the overall plot and narrative arc of published adventures. The architect must be familiar enough with the game rules and themes to be able to know what kind of plots and events work well with the RPG and will be generally entertaining for it’s audience, but this is about big picture story arcs, pacing, and climaxes, no the details of how individual encounters work. The person who outlines an adventures (and even more so, a set of linked adventures) is an adventure architect.

Adventure Builder
An adventure builder can write a complete draft of an adventure from a rough outline. This requires a detailed understanding of the existing rules—how they work, what they do well, and how much of them a GM can be assumed to know vs what you need to explain (or at least give references in rulebooks for)—and be capable of producing text that is concise and interesting to read. But they also need to know how the fictional world the adventure is set in works, so the events and encounters they describe seem consistent with the continuity that has already been established. When an adventure builder is done, it should be possible for a GM and group of players to play the adventure without major problems or confusion.

Game Contractor
A game contractor knows how all the moving parts of the rules of a game work—the themes it supports, the math behind it, the tone of its text, the play experience it’s designed to provide and how the rules support that experience—and can use those systems to create new iterations of those rules, and subsystems that work with them. A game contractor should be able to write examples for how any rules is used in play, answer rules questions, check material for game balance, and create new rules options for players or GMs that support the existing play experience of the game or (if it is the intent of a product) show ways to get different play experiences using variants of current rules.

Game Inventor
A game inventor can create a new roleplaying game core engine, and the basic systems and subsystems needed to turn the core mechanics into a playable game. A game inventor has to create from scratch (or from a list of design goals) the things the game contractor later builds upon.

Ideally a game inventor needs to be able to outline the creation of a game, assign it to multiple writers, and collaborate with a team to see the final product is complete and comprehensive. Theoretically this might be a different job, but I really envision it as a natural extension of the core game inventor role, and thus include it here.

While I know a lot of people who are both game contractors and game inventors, I have also met a few people capable of one of these roles, but not the other.

Game Polisher
A game polisher can take text written by someone else, and make it fit with existing text in terms of tone, balance, continuity, and play experience. This involves having a strong grasp on all of those elements, interacting with rules, continuity, and theme. While most game polishers I know are also (at minimum) good adventure builders, game contractors, or worldbuilders (and some are all three and much more), the core ability of the game polisher job itself is to be able to take the work of numerous different writers who may not have spoken to each other or coordinated their efforts at all, and adjust them as needed so the end product is indistinguishable from one written by a single author who was also well-versed in all other game products in the same RPG line.

A worldbuilder can conceive of and describe imaginary places and their residents, from single buildings to entire galaxies depending on the RPG and it’s scale, in clear and compelling prose. A worldbuilder needs to understand the rules of an RPG well enough to know what it does and doesn’t support well, but even more importantly they need to know the continuity, themes, and scope of the campaign setting supporting the RPG. If an RPG has multiple campaign settings (or none), this may require a broad understanding of each of them as well as the tropes common to the fiction that inspired the RPG (and which of them are stereotypes or motifs that have become clichés). A worldbuilder should be able to create new settings whole cloth, or expand existing ones. (While in theory this might be two different tasks, I’ve never actually met someone who is good at one and not the other, and the roles in companies generally requires both in the same person.)

Okay, not really. But if you LIKE how I kibitz, feel free to support my Patreon so I’ll do more of it!


About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on December 6, 2017, in Adventure Design, Business of Games, Game Design, Musings, Pathfinder Development, Starfinder Development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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