Monthly Archives: January 2021

Q & A Week, Pt 4

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: What’s an rpg mechanic you saw and wish you had come up with?
A: The Hero Point reroll mechanism in Mutants and Masterminds. It lets you reroll a failed d20 check, but it also gives you a major protection against getting another bad roll — if your d20 reroll is a 1-10, you add 10 to the result.
This is now my go-to standard for reroll rules.

Q: What’s one thing missing, in your opinion, from White Wolf’s classic World of Darkness? For example, let’s say you’re hired to do ONE book for White Wolf’s original, classic World of Darkness, and you can do this book on literally any aspect of the (sprawling) mega-setting.
What book is it, and why?

A: “Kevin Matchstick: The Pendragon.”
Because a “Mage: The Hero Discovered/Defined/Denied” RPG would rock, and work SO well with WoD.

Q: Who is your favorite game writer? Who do you think is the most underrated one?
A: I know so MANY really good ones. I’d have to say either Crystal Frasier or Steve Kenson are my favorite.
And they are both massively under-rated for their true genius, MacArthur-Fellows-Program-worthy skill, talent, and vision.
But I gotta call out Eleanor Ferron as the MOST underrated. That woman is spectacular, and no one seems to know it outside the industry and a small group of super-fans.

Q: What genre of game have you not worked on that you would like to?
A: Modern Urban Fantasy

Q: What is the very first rpg you played, and which one got you into the business?
A: 1st edition AD&D.
Also, 1st edition AD&D.

Q: I see posts about game night quotes, but have no idea who utters these gems. Is is a local group in OK? An online group? Is there anyone in it we would know?
A: I do game night quotes from any game group I am in who give permission, and I intentionally don’t attribute them so no one gets mocked or called out for saying something wrong.
So over the years they have included quotes from lots of Paizo and Green Ronin folks, some Wotc alumni, and even sometimes random brilliant designers at places like Gen Con.
But right now (since June) they are all from my social bubble, made up of close friends I have been gaming with for 30-37 years.

Q: Why do you think people are so opposed/hateful towards not only 3pp companies but the people who work for them as well?
A: Lucky, I don’t think most people are hatefully toward 3pp and the people who work at them.
But yeah, there are some loud exceptions.
For those few who are truly hateful, I personally think they don’t want to accept that there are people who are BETTER than them at game creation, without the seal of approval of 1st publisher employment.

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Q & A Week, Pt 3

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: Do you think we, as a creative force, have hit a dead end? Can we still produce New and Original material at a time when everything seems to be derived from something recent or a Reboot or Remake? Do we need a Renaissance of the Human Spirit to bring a new Age of Inspiration? Can we still make New works?

A: I think we CAN, and WILL, and ARE.
I also think 90% of everything creative is crap, and always has been, and sometimes the crap is the most popular/successful.
But it’s still worth striving to make New Art.

Q: What would you guess are the 5 best selling ttrpgs right now? What game isn’t on that list that you think more people should know about?

A: My guesses (and they are JUST guesses) are, in order:
D&D 5e
Cyberpunk (Right now, though maybe not a year ago or a year from now)
Pathfinder 2e
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Starfinder

And I think the entire AGE game system from Green Ronin is something more people should know about, but especially The Expanse.
https://greenroninstore.com/collections/the-expanse-rpg

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Q & A Week, Pt 2

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: If you had 3 do’s, 2 don’t, and 1 always to tell an aspiring free lancer what would they be?

A: DO write every day, even if no one has given you a job yet.
DO read what your favorite writers say about how they write and work.
DO keep work/life balance.

DON’T quit your day job.
DON’T change your assignment from what is assigned or in the outline without getting the developer/editor’s approval.
DON’T forget that as you get better, you’ll see the flaws in your own work more readily, but it also means that work is improving.

And nowadays I’d add: DON’T be afraid to turn down a project. If you don’t have time, or the expertise, or the interest, turn it down, and even say why. Some of my best business relationships in the industry have grown from my being honest about not being the right person for a project, or it not being the right time for me to take it on.
Related, DON’T be afraid to ask for what you need as a condition of taking a project. Clearer outline? Setting bible? PDFs of related books from the publisher? More money? Say so, and feel free to stick to your guns. Be polite, but also treat your own needs with respect.

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I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

Q & A Week, Pt 1

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: When you are writing lore for a new system, where do you go for inspiration?

A: Generally, the seething pool of psychic acid that is my brain.

Now, I feed my brain a lot of raw and distilled ideas. I read up on things like satrapies of the Achaemenid empire, the Trackless Tank Corporation, Mansa Musa (ruler of the Malian empire and arguable the richest man who has ever lived), quantum computing, the political history of the pocket, and whatever else catches my eye.

I read books from as many authors as I can find time for (recently The Shattered Queen, by Jaym Gates). I watch speculative fiction movies, ranging from Gojira and the black & white Spanish language Dracula (that was filmed at the same time and on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi version) to Cloud Atlas to Train to Busan to Lord of the Rings.

I watch a lot of Discovery channel, anime, procedurals, and televised contests.

All that stuff goes into the psychic acid, and becomes an idea soup that rarely lets me down.

And when an idea does slop out of the acid, I do some research on it. What are the real-world analogs? How did the idea turn out historically? What societal pressures arose from it, and how was it taxed?

Just enough to know that if I am reinventing the wheel, I’m not adding it to the Inca Empire without good cause.

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One Last Thought on Material from Other IPs in Game Products

What was originally just a few Facebook and Twitter posts grew into the Monday post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, which lead to Tuesday’s More About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, Wednesday’s About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, and yesterday’s On Writing With Licensed Game Rules. I hadn’t intended for this to be a weeklong series but… here we are.

So, I have one more semi-related topic I think bears mentioning.

In all the previous articles, I was talking about the complications, considerations, and connected issues when working with someone else’s intellectually property (IP) that you access through a license. But there are also times when you may find yourself tempted to work with other people’s IP without having legal access to it. You might feel you are within fair rights use, or think it’s fine because it’s an “Easter Egg,” or that no one will care, or it’s okay because you’re not charging money for the end product.

I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.

DON’T play with other people’s IP without a license unless you have paid a lawyer to tell you it’s okay.

I recommend even avoiding Easter Eggs, and be sure when drawing inspiration that your creation is not a carbon copy of the thing that inspired you. And if you do write Easter Eggs or draw major inspiration from a source, tell your developer/editor/publisher, so they can decide how much they are comfortable with that you have done.

And that’s the end of my thoughts for the week.

Stay safe, take care, be kind.

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On Writing With Licensed Game Rules

Another day, another follow-up post growing out of Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. In fact, another response brought on by a follow-up from Egg Embry, who asked about working on games with licensed game systems, and how those compared to working on games using licensed game systems.

While this week I have been focused on tabletop games that are based on a licensed IP, such as a Star Wars rpg, that’s not the only kind of licensed game material a game professional may get assigned to work with. There are also licensed game systems, such as when you use a system released under the Open Game License (OGL). While some of the research and approval process can be very similar, there are some very different concerns that can come up when working with licensed game systems, rather than licensed IPs. This is often the case when doing work for what are referred to as “third-party publishers,” (or 3pp), who publish adventures, supplements, and expansions for games by other publishers.

Of course who is a 3pp isn’t necessarily a clear-cut question. There are a number of games that have their origins in the OGL version of the d20 System, including 13th Age, Mutants & Masterminds, both editions of Pathfinder, and Starfinder. To most fans, that doesn’t make Pelgrane Press, Green Ronin Publishing, and Paizo 3pp… at least not for those game lines, where they are the publishers of the core rulebooks. (Of course some fans DO think of them as 3pp–which mostly doesn’t impact working on such projects, but is something a freelancer should be aware of if it comes up in conversation).

However, a writer working on those game lines should be aware they are published under the OGL, and therefore have rules and restrictions that may not apply to other game projects. (And please note – I am not a lawyer. NONE of this article is legal advice.) This means that the writer should be aware of what license applies to the rules of the game, and what a publisher expects the writer to know. for example, when operating with the OGL, the end product needs to include the Section 15 entry (part of the OGL published in every OGL product) of any protect it draws material from. That means as a writer if you include material from another OGL product (which you shouldn’t do without talking to your editor/developer/producer), you need to tell your publisher what that product was so they can include the required information.

And that highlights on of the biggest issues that can crop up when dealing with licensed game systems — many of those licenses are open, and can be used by anyone who follows their restrictions. That means publishers, producers, developers, and freelancers may well decide to use such a license without properly understanding it. this is much less common when dealing with a license for an intellectual property, since those negotiations tend to involve an active discussion on the terms and helps insure a meeting of minds. But the lower barrier to entry for things such as the OCL or Creative Commons licenses, or the very-different Dungeon Master’s Guild and similar programs, means people may try to use them without truly understanding them.

Ideally, it would be the job of the publisher to ensure anyone they hire or contract to work on a licensed game line was aware of the terms and requirements of that license before assigning them work. Pragmatically, many companies (often even bigger ones) simply do not have the spare time (or in some cases the instructional expertise) to undertake that effort, and depend on professionals to know how to operate within such licenses. Practically, it means knowing how common licenses work can make it easier to get work with such publishers, and reduce the risk of stumbling over some legal landmine.

Of course many people will quite reasonably say that such legal landmines are risks exclusively for the publisher, not the hireling… which may or may not be true. Anyone working for a publisher operating under a licensed game system should read their contract (you all have contracts for all your freelance work, right?), and see what you are agreeing to in terms of your responsibility to get the legal niceties right. While I am not aware of a freelancer even getting hauled into court over such a contract (nor am I aware of any lawsuits that settle OGL enforceability or interpretation), I am personally risk-adverse when it comes to these things, and like to stick to both the letter and spirit of contracts and licenses I agree to by using, even as a freelancer.

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About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Apparently this is becoming Licensed games week on my blog, as I continue to respond to questions about Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. A number of people had questions and comments about the stresses, additional work, drawbacks, and benefits of working on licensed game projects. I could go on about those topics for hours, but instead here’s a few quick thought snapshots.

First, be aware that you almost certainly won’t own any of the work you do. Work-for-hire is the norm in tabletop game writing in any case, but when you are working on a licensed IP, the IP holder is sure to insist on owning anything related to the IP you come up with. Indeed, you likely won’t even be credited for the ideas you create when they are reused. I know I created the ILH-KK Citadel Cruiser, Hutt battle armor and the Kilian Lords for Star Wars, but when those have re-entered other Star Wars projects, my name is generally no-where to be found.

Publishers can (and should) contract to keep the rights to the game systems and mechanics they create for a licensed game, but any IP-related ideas outside pure mechanics is going to go to the IP-holder. And, honestly, that’s reasonable.

The research requirements can be heavy, but whether they are heavier than typical game writing depends very much on what kind of game writing you’ve gotten used to. If you have mostly been making up things whole-cloth for cartoon universes where revolutionary mice use psychic weapons to fight against an authoritarian spider aristocracy, you may not have had to do a significant amount of continuity research in your game writing. On the other hand, if you’ve been working on games that try to match historical periods, or that have significant game continuity (some game worlds go back more than 40 years at this point), the skills to learn about the setting, match existing continuity, and project ideas appropriate in tone and theme translate well to converting IP-concepts to game design.

The approval process can throw a monkey wench into the process, though that’s more likely to impact a publisher’s process than a writers. It’s essentially another level of editing and development. If you are exposed to it at all (many developers handle approvals themselves, rather than have writers do it), the largest issue is to not take it personally, and to try to learn what the IP owner wants by examining what gets approved, what doesn’t, and what gets approved with changes (and how they are changed). The IP holder is unlikely to have either time or interest in training licensees in how to write for the IP, so learning to train yourself on feedback is a useful skill. (It’s also one reason people who have successfully worked on multiple licensed projects are often sought out for new licenses–the publishers and project leads have reason to believe you have mastered the process of licensed project writing, rather than just having a good grasp of a single IP).

Honestly I have found it’s a skill much like any other writing specialty. It’s stressful the first few times you do it, but once you have an idea of how to tackle it it’s much like following any other structured outline.

And while your name may not be directly attached to ideas you create for the setting of the IP, the increased visibility of a licensed game certainly can get you more attention based on your involvement. My work on the three d20 Star Wars RPG games remains one of the places people recognize my name from, and both fans and publishers have mentioned following my career after seeing my name on multiple Star Wars game books. And on a resume, having been involved with recognizable properties can impress people who may never have heard of The Genius Guide to the Dragonrider, but definitely know what Star Wars and Star Trek are.

And, often the money is better than usual for the writers and editors. Not always, by a long shot, but often enough to make it worth considering branching into licensed writing if you haven’t already.

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More About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

In response to yesterday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, some folks asked questions that resulted in some follow-up thoughts. One of the most important questions came from Egg Embry, who noted that some licenses are bigger than others, and asked if that influenced the amount of work involved (in terms of the approval process, etc.)?

And it very much can be an influence. But also, there are lots of factors that can influence that, and they aren’t all obvious.

For example, some IPs are just a massive amount of information, and going through it all can take time. Star Wars and Star Trek just have more data about their IPs than many properties, and not all of that info is considered canon. That increases the time needed to get up to speed, and the research any new idea may require.

But there are also just differences in what various licensors have as resources, and require for approvals. Some have highly detailed setting bibles they can send licensees to work off of, which are updated with new information and even note data that is no longer considered official. Others have nothing of note, and might require a licensee to annotate where every idea or supposition if drawn from. Some have entire departments dedicated to combing over submissions from licensees to ensure they meet the IP’s style, tone, and content, while others assign a single assistant to read it over and see if it seems okay.

Some creators don’t care what a licensed game says, because they’re just going to ignore it. Others care very much, since they want all their IP’s related products to be in agreement. Some authors don’t want to be bothered with licensed product questions, while (much more rarely, but delightfully when it happens) some creators are involved and engaged, seeing licensees as a resource to help ask questions and build their worlds.

It can be extremely difficult to know which is which IP in advance. Some is obvious–things with lots of sources and lots of other licensed properties is likely to take more research. others are luck of the draw–an I{ based on a series of books that also have a current hit TV show may be extremely protective and precious about their hard-wrought IP… or they may be happy to allow nearly anything. Some IP holders promptly send back comments, notes, and approvals, while others get so busy that even if they mean well, the approval process can hold up new released by months or even years.

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About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Often, ttRPGs and other tabletop games are based on an intellectual property (“IP”) not owned by the publisher of the game. These are games based on a license, where a deal is cut between the game publisher and the IP owner for a game based on that IP to exist. Many fans love licensed games, and often have a long list of “obvious” licensed games they feel should be made. Some fans think game publishers are stupid for not making such games. Some fans even make their own versions, without ever contacting either the game publisher or IP owner in advance, and are baffled when they are not able to publish their result.

In my more than 20-year tabletop game career, I have worked on numerous licensed games, from Star Wars to EverQuest, Wheel of Time, Black Company, Thieves World, Dragon AGE, Song of Ice and Fire, and more. I have learned this hard truth — licensed Games take MUCH more time and effort to make, contain major additional complications, and a game company has to pay for the privilege of undertaking that additional work and risk. It’s rarely worth it. Not never. But rarely. It varies wildly.

So, this leads to the question: if it’s so hard and expensive, why do game companies keep doing it? And the answers (like most placed where business. Reality, and games interesct) are varied.

Sometimes, a licensed game is made in an effort to boost the visibility (and thus sales) or other games made by the same publisher, or to push some specific marketing strategy. For example, when the d20 System was being rolled out in 2000, there were some licensed books done specifically to prove that the d20 System could do more than just D&D.

Sometimes, the belief is that the property will be so popular that a game based on it will sell an order of magnitude more copies. So if you would sell 2,000 copies of Stellar Battles the RPG, and make $4 profit for each copy sold, but you believe you’d sell 20,000 copies of the Star Wars RPG at $1 profit for each copy sold, the fact you’ll make $20k on Star Wars vs the 8k on Stellar Battles would make the extra risk and effort worth it.

(This is also why licenses normally end–sales dip, renewals of contracts often call for more money to be outlayed, so even if a line made money for years, that calculation changes).

Sometimes it’s about breaking into new markets, or making new fans for the company. If you have only managed to get into hobby stores, but you have the John Wick — World of Assassins RPG to offer, you may be able to sell it in places like Barnes & Noble, or even Wal-Mart. Or if you haven’t even managed to get INTO hobby stores, you may be trying to get a major distributor to pick you up if you have a good license, and hope they’ll keep you when that license ends.

Sometimes it’s a desire to make a game IP look competitive with other IPs. If you can market the Stellar Battles RPG alongside licensed Battlestar Galactica and RoboCop RPGs using the same system from the same publisher, another company might decide that means Stellar Battles is popular enough that they want to pay YOU to make Stellar Battles comics or BIGHEADKO bobblehead dolls.

Similarly, some companies will take on a licensed game to build a relationship with the IP owner, in hopes of securing a different license owned by the same people. In general, the bigger the licensed IP, the more money stands to be made, but also the more cautious the IP owner is about allowing someone to make a game using it. If a game company wants to secure the license for Huge Pop Culture Phenom, the RPG, they may have to prove they can do quality work by first making Cult Almost-Classic, licensed from the same IP owner. This tactic is obviously fraught with additional costs and risks and isn’t common, but I am aware of at least a few cases where it worked, and the game profited well in the long run.

And, to be frank, sometimes the game company has people who love an IP so much they push to get it made as fans, whether it’s a good idea or not. That rarely goes well, but game creators and game company owners aren’t immune to fan enthusiasm. And working on a licensed game for a license you know well and enjoy is much easier and less stressful than working on one you don’t know or don’t care about, so employee enthusiasm is a legitimate element to consider, even if it can’t make a bad idea into a good one.

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Appendix O: Random Ideas 1.0

From my mind… to your mind, I guess. Maybe they’ll spark interesting ideas for you.

Benecurse: Since curses are longer lasting and harder to end than other kinds of magic, a cleric-wizard of the goddess of magic created beneficial curses that only help people.

Bite Stick: A popular weapon with the Black Brigands, a bite stick is an active undead head on a short pole. Not only is this frightening, undead heads on bite sticks can, well, bite. Skull and zombie heads are fairly typical elements for bite sticks, but more powerful villains sometimes manage ghoulhead bite sticks, or even lovelorn, sinspawn, or mummified viper heads.

Cloakbearer: Aids the the Lupus Dei, the holy werewolf warriors of God, cloakbearers follow their assigned werewolves and train, aid, and protect them. Their name comes from cloakbearer’s tradition of carrying extra clothing, to place on the exhausted werewolves when they return to a naked, human state after fighting evil in wolfform.

Ice Iron: A form of steel made with no magical influence, and while warded against forming connections to natural mystic energies. Like cold iron, but actually does additional damage to fey and spellcasters, and able to dissolve spells and magic effects when wielded skillfully.

Law Against Being Undead: Tired of having to argue about whether vampires are inherently evil, the kingdom just outlaws being undead. The punishment is Death by Adventurer.

Mojex: A mojex is a spell that grants you power as long as you don’t cast it. When cast it is extremely powerful, but then lost to you forever. Only one person can have a specific mojex at any time.

Tar Shield: It’s a shield. Covered in tar. Weapons get stuck to it and become less useful. Maybe.

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