Monthly Archives: June 2021

Your Developer as a Resource, 1. Running Short

If you are a freelance writer working on a ttRPG assignment, your developer (or editor, publisher, producer — whatever title the contact person you have for the assignment uses) can be a valuable resource. After all, they want you to produce something that meets their needs, so they are motivated to help you give them the text they want.

So if you are having problems with a project, it’s a good idea to write to your developer and see if they can offer advice or guidance. If you think you need to deviate from your outline, it’s absolutely crucial you talk to your developer first. You don’t want to be constantly bothering your developer with issues (they’re paying you to do work for them), but when you are having trouble that is going to impact the quality of your project, better to ask than not.

One common issue that can come up is feeling you have been asked to provide more words on a given subject than the subject needs, or can even support. If you are “running short” on a section, there are better and worse ways to rach out to your developer about it.

Here are some examples:

Good: “I’m having trouble finding enough material to fill out 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast. I could use some guidance.”

Better: “I’m having trouble coming up with enough material to fill out 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast without just padding it out in obvious and unhelpful ways. If we could expand the topic to cover all halfling war-based baked goods, that would give me a wider range of things to cover. Alternatively, I could do 2,500 words on this, and add 2,500 words to the section on Dwarven Axe-Beer. Or if you have ideas for what I am missing in the Battle Toast section (current draft attached), I can fill that out. How would you like me to proceed?”

Bad: “It is not possible to write 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast, so you need to tell me if I am just turning it in short, or if I can use those words elsewhere.”

Worse: “Here is the turnover. I took 2,500 words from Halfling Battle Toast, which didn’t need that much, and used them in other sections.”

Worst: “Since you assigned my more words than needed for Halfling Battle Toast, I moved 1,500 of them to the Monsters of the Bakery section, and contacted your CFO to have my contract reissued for 1,000 fewer words.”

And, yeah, all of those examples are fictional, but they are based on actual ways I have seen different freelance writers handle the issue of being short on wordcount.

Also, sooner is better for something like this. Don’t wait to tell your developer you are short on a section 2 days before the due date. The more time you give them, the more flexible they may be to help you get your section done, and get paid for it.

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Writing Basics. Keeping it Short

A LOT of freelance ttRPG writing is paid by the word… sort of. Generally a per-word rate is capped at the assigned wordcount. It’s not really “5 cents a word,” it’s “$50 for 1,000 words, and don’t go too far over or under 1,000 words.” That means that if you overwrite a project, you are getting paid less for your labor, and you’re not doing your developer a favor.

Of course, you can overwrite a project, then trim your writing to come in under wordcount. But then you are doing even MORE labor–both writing more than you need, AND spending additional time trimming it back. While this can potentially lead to more work at higher pay rates in the future if you end up with a really well-written final draft that’s extremely close to wordcount (I prefer to be within 1% of my assigned wordcount), that’s an at-best “maybe,” and there’s no reason you can’t have that same end result by hitting your assigned wordcount in your first draft.
For a lot of people, this is something that gets easier with experience. It can be amazing how fast wordcount goes by sometimes—I know nowadays that if something is supposed to be 100 words long, I have very little room for asides or flowery language to boost the poetry of a phrase. But there are also things you can do to help hitting wordcount on the first draft easier and smoother.

Decide On Your Topics and Their Wordcounts

There’s very little as frustrating as checking to see you’ve used 80% of a project’s wordcount, but only hit 20% of the topics you need to cover. While you may not know everything you need to cover when you start a project, pretty early in the process you should sit down and list out everything you believe you need to spend words on for a given project.

For example, if you are writing up a nation, think about every general description, city, region, ecology, point of interest, and adventure seed you want to cover. You don’t need to go into detail about them at this point, just breakdown what subjects you’ll be writing about, so you can estimate each section’s wordcount. I often find it useful to organize this information by thinking about the headers I’ll use.

This can also be a useful way to decide what’s important. If you have 300 words to describe 6 cities, maybe you want to spend 100 words on the capitol, and just 40 each on the smaller settlements.

Monitor Your Progress

Monitor your total wordcount as your write, as well as how closely you are hitting the wordcount of each topic. If something goes long, you can decide to cut it down immediately, adjust other estimated wordcounts per topic, or even cut topics maybe you didn’t need, adjusting as you go.

Just remember to leave wordcount for an introduction and a wrap-up, if your project needs them. Otherwise, the start and stop can feel very abrupt.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 5. The Polite Inquiry about Work.

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer I had a good relationship with, when they asked how to contact other developers and ask them for work.

They hadn’t needed to contact me for work through formal written channels, because we had arranged the first freelance writing they did for me at a convention when they were introduced to me by a mutual friend and had since then discussed the next thing they’d do each time they finished the last one. We also became friends, and often chatted in nonformal online venues, so it was easy for them to ask me if there was anything upcoming they might get to work on.

But given it is best to have multiple venues to get work from when you want to be a full-time freelancer, and the relatively high turnover in the ttRPG industry, it’s a good idea to branch outfrom just one person who may assign you projects. That left this freelancer wondering –if they wanted to contact someone OTHER than me for work, what were best practices for doing so?

My response, in a Facebook Messenger window, form the basis for the following:

“First, do NOT contact people on Facebook or Twitter for ttRPG work unless they specifically say somewhere that is okay. I’m fine with it, but many other developers and publishers are not. And if someone has said they want all inquires to come in from some official email, or follow a specific format, and you don’t do that you;ve already not put your best foot forward. If you can’t follow those instructions, why should the developer think you’ll follow the instructions of a writing assignment.

That goes with the next important point, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. If you want to contact someone at Paizo about writing or them, read their forums first. Look for the “about us” section to see if there are emails you should use, specific people you should write to, open calls you should try for first, and so on.

After that, do not use form messages. Customize for each developer. If you are on good, friendly terms with them, you can keep it super short and informal, but still on-point and professional. For example:

“Hi Owen!

Hope you are doing well.

I just finished a Project for another developer at Paizo, and wanted to let you know I have availability if you have anything coming up to be assigned. I’d especially love to get to work on some worldbuilding or adventures, but am happy to take any project that could use another writer.

Thanks!

Freelancer Name
Freelancer Email
Freelancer Web Site or Other Social media Link if you have it”

If you don’t already know the developer quite well, especially if you have never worked for them or anyone else at their company of on their game line, you should be both more formal, and more informative. Such as:

“Dear Mr. Stephens,

My name if Freelancer McFreelanceface, and I am a freelance ttRPG writer. I have worked on numerous d20-based games, and the Halfling War Cheese boardgame. I’m a fan of Pathfinder, especially the Player Companion line, and wanted to reach out and see if there was any projects coming up you might be interested in having be write some part of. I am especially skilled with adventures and worldbuilding, and am familiar with your formats for both, but am also happy to take on any part of any project.

If there is an open call or tryout procedure coming up you think might be a better place for me to start doing things for Paizo, I’d be happy to do that first.

Thanks for your time,

Freelancer Name
Freelancer Email
Freelancer Web Site or Other Social media Link if you have it”

Also, make sure all those things are true! If you haven’t cracked open a lot more than one game book from a company, you likely shouldn’t be reaching out to them for freelance work.

Also, if you have other devs or editors or publishers you are on good terms with, or other freelancers, hit them up for suggestions, recommendations, and even references. Always keep the ask at a level appropriate with your actual connection and level of experience with them, but it’s generally cool to ask if someone knows if a publisher is looking to hire freelancers, and if anyone knows who to get in touch there and how. (And, sadly, to learn if anyone has had bad experiences with anyone you should watch out for, though as with anything, you have to decide how to weigh such concerns.)”

My personal rule of thumb is once you ping someone, if you don’t hear from them or they seem open to the idea of you working for them but note they don’t have anything at the moment, it is appropriate to drop them a note again in 90 days. Some people are okay with more frequent pokes (I have people prod me about things I have said I’d LIKE to get around to doing with them once or twice a week, and if done politely that doesn’t bother *me* at all), and if anyone ever replies with something like ‘I’ll contact you when I have something,” that’s a good sign to politely reply that you look forward to it, then stop cold contacting them.”

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My Evolution as a Tabletop RPG Player, Part 1. The Beginning

The idea of a tabletop roleplaying game was so unbelievably powerful and alluring when I first encountered it in 1982, it did not matter how good or bad the rules were. In fact, it didn’t matter if we even had the rules–the group I first played with (myself, my sister, and my uncle Lucien) literally only had the hardback 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide available to us. But the very idea of a game where you took on the role of a heroic character and played through your own adventures was so seductive that I crafted (terrible) rules to replace the Player’s Handbook, and we managed two game sessions.

I was hooked forever. To the best of my knowledge, neither my uncle or sister ever played again.

Part of the appeal was that I was an voracious reader, and always got through series I loved faster than they were produced. And, in many cases, the pulp novels that lined the hallway to my bedroom in my childhood home stopped having new entries before I was even born. I hated getting invested in a character and having the stories about them just… stop.

But here was an opportunity to make my OWN stories. To my 11-year-old self, it had all the exciting appeal of playing cops & robbers, but with RULES and a simulated semi-objective reality attached so everything didn’t just devolve into yelling “Bang! Bang!” “You’re Dead!” “Am Not!” “Are Too!” (or, at least, that happened less often).

I was a child with a new toy, and it was better than any toy I had ever had previously. I was already dipping my hand into game design, on an ad-hoc, houserule basis, but I wasn’t really questioning the basis of the games I played, or the stories they encouraged me to tell. In the first few years I played a lot of Tunnels & Trolls solo modules, played a massive amount of D&D hybrids (blending AD&D 1st ed, OD&D, and Basic D&D however made sense at a given session),played a little Car Wars (but made a LOT of Car Wars designs), and played a surprising amount of Secret Gamma Hill World Busters Alpha (smooshing Gamma World, Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, and Metamorphosis Alpha into one reality-hopping, post-apocalypse-retro-Saturday-Afternoon-B-Movie mess, which only worked because no one questioned it much).

I had only two regular groups early on — the School Recess Crowd, and the game my mother ran for I and several friends every Sunday (in which she discovered young boys would shut up, listen to her, and tackle math, history, geography and logic puzzles if she made it needful for the solution of a dungeon room). Everything was fair game. We all borrowed from movies, books, comics, and other games. I grabbed every RPG I could, even ones I never got to play or only played 1ce or 2ce, and Traveller, Space Opera, Champions, Empire of the Pedal Throne, the Morrow Project, and Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game, all took up more and more space in my room, as action figures, brick-building sets, and plastic army men slowly lost their appeal.

But I was generally still only playing with people I knew from other walks of life in 1982 and 1983. A few school friends, family, and people my family arranged for me to meet. I wasn’t developing a circle of friends FROM gaming yet, nor expanding into all the wide and various other forms of tabletop games. I wasn’t questioning HOW to play games, or even WHY, or considering there might be good ways, bad ways, and even damaging ways.

Not yet.

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Writing Basics: Saying No

Early in my ttRPG writing career, I never wanted to say no to any project I was offered. Add free content to the “Netbook of Spells” for AD&D? Sure. Do unpaid reviews of multiple Alternity supplements? Of course. Read over a friend’s 75,000 word manuscript and offer edits and critiques? Always. Write a 128 page book on super-spies in WWII at 1/10th of one cent per word? On it.

While that method did work for me, eventually, I can’t recommend it. Looking back, I see so many times when saying yes pushed me away from being a successful game industry pro. And eventually, I discovered I had more projects offered to me than I could possibly complete.

Even after I knew I was at least marginally established within the industry, for a long time I used to say yes when I shouldn’t because I was afraid if I tuned someone down when they offered me work, they’d never offer me work again. Not only has that turned out not to be the case, I have had many more people tell me how much the appreciate my knowing my own limits to what I can produce in time (when I do know — it’s not like I don’t still get that wrong all too often), but agreeing to too many things makes it more likely I’ll do a bad job, or be late, or worse, and that will harm your chances of getting more work from the same people.

So whether you are fully booked, not interested, have ethical issues, or are just smarter than me, as your creator career takes off eventually you’re going to have to say no to someone.

For some people, that’s easy and natural. For me, it’s a source of social anxiety and worry. So, I have kept track of what refusals seem to have been taken well, and considered how I felt with rejections sent to me when I offered work to others. These are my best practice pointers on how to say no without creating confusion or bad feelings.

These are all keyed to assuming you are saying no in a written form, be that email, Discord, or direct message. Generally if I am offered work in person and I need to say no I’ll use similar structure, but I also often have to say “Ah… I am honestly not sure. Can you email me about it and I’ll get back to you?” (Because without my schedule and some time to think about it, I often am NOT sure. If I am certain it’s a no, I’ll say no. And unless I am 100% sure I can do it, I never, ever say something that might sound like a yes if it’s not written down. I prefer to go to email asap, because then there is a written record of what was and was not agreed to. And then, of course, to contract.)

Be Polite and Maybe Formal

I never want to be rude or abrupt in business communications, even with people I don’t like or plan to ever work with. This isn’t about obsequiousness, just clear, professional behavior. If I want someone to keep me in mind for the future, this helps make sure I don’t seem to be given a brush-off. If I don’t want to ever work with someone in the future, or actively dislike them, this helps make sure I don’t say something I would regret becoming public.

Be Honest

If I’m not going to accept an offer or work, or pursue a opportunity, I want to make sure I’m honest about why… or say nothing. If the question is I am too busy, saying so can open discussions of being more free in the future. If a given system isn’t something I am familiar with, that leaves open the possibility I’ll learn it. If pay is too low, saying so puts it in the employers court to decide if they want to offer more. If I think I am a bad choice for a specific game system or type of project, that can both leave open options for different projects and possibly lead to the employer asking me who I think IS a good option, which can lead to good networking possibilities.

If, for whatever reason, I don’t want to go into why I am saying no to something, I just give no reason at all. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you are being polite and professional.

Open With Thanks

Again, assuming I can do so honestly, I like to open most rejections by thanking the potential employer for considering me. This is often a case of saying, “Hello [Person], thanks for thinking of me for this.” If there’s more to it and I have some real context I would like to add, I might go into that for a sentence or so. “I’m a big fan of what you are doing with [Game Line], and really enjoyed [Last Release].”

I like to build relationships where I can, and even saying no is an opportunity to open a dialog and get to know someone.

Be Clear

Make sure if you are saying no that you actually say no, and only connect it to why if changing the why might mean a yes.

“It’d be tough to fit this in” is waffling, not saying no.

“I can’t take on another project with that deadline at the moment.” is saying no, but if the deadline was later then maybe.

“I need to pass on this project” is saying no.

Sign Off

I don’t know why, but I just feel better if I use some kind of sign off, be that “Maybe next time” or just a “Sincerely” before signing my name to a rejection. Again, I make sure that sign-off is honest (I don’t say “Maybe Next Time” if I am sure that no, I won’t be taking a project like this in the future, either). There’s a good chance this is just for me–that saying no to work is so foreign to my instincts that having a definitive end to a message doing so helps me not ramble on.

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Designing ttRPGs with Optimizers in Mind

There are people who like to explore the rules of ttRPGs to see if they can make a character that is optimized–that is, if there is a set of choices they can make which is as powerful as a character can possibly be.

Sometimes, they find ways to make characters so powerful they make the game less fun for any other player who is not similarly optimized, because they can do everything better and faster than other characters, and thus gain all the spotlight time.

(Sometimes this is done through questionable readings of the rules, or throwing logic out the door for a literal reading of rules. Sometimes it isn’t.)

Some games are more prone to optimizers than others, some groups are more prone to optimizers than others, and different designers have different levels of concern and attitudes about the impact optimizers have on the value of the game. There are a few different ways designers of ttRPGs try to foresee these problems and design games while keeping the existence of optimizers in mind. As with most game design choices, they each have their pros and cons, and work better in some game styles, and with some groups, than others.

Here are some different common tacks designers take when designing with optimizers kept firmly in mind.

Just Say No

One option is to tell gamers to not do this kind of optimization, and then state if people DO do this, the problem is with the player, not the game. This has the advantage of not removing or limiting options for players and GMs who don’t have optimizing problems, and being easy for the designer. It has the drawback of being useless to many gaming groups. It’s reasonable to feel such groups should just play with different people, or play a different game, but that’s still a limitation of this method.

Warning Signs

Another option is to highlight options the designer feels are particularly open to unbalanced optimization, so the GM can decide whether or not to allow them, or at least look at their use with a skeptical eye. One huge drawback of this is that GMs and players may consider everything else explicitly “balanced,” and if a designer misses an option (or combination of options) that cause imbalances they may feel blindsided by it. It otherwise has a lot of the pros and cons of Just Say No.

Hard Limits

Hard limits are an effort to circumvent optimizer efforts by stating that there are values or levels of efficiency a character cannot exceed, no matter what combination of options a character has. This is sometimes expressed as a a maximum numeric value for specific bonuses or game stats, and sometimes as an express limit on what percentage of spotlight time a character can receive. Hard limits can be a straightforward way for a game designer to communicate what power level the game expects characters to achieve. They can also feel stifling to many players, who feel there is a logic or realism disconnect that a character who has hit a hard limit can’t exceed it by taking an option that would make anyone else who took it more powerful. It’s also possible for a game designer to fail to place a hard limit on some aspect of game play optimizers can use to still create more effective characters than other players.

Soft Limits

Soft limits are in place when a game attempts to simply not make it possible to exceed the kinds of numerical values for powers and abilities the design expects characters to be at. There may be few or no options for raising the most important values of the game, or the game may not even have different values for different characters. in some cases soft limits games are extremely rules-light, and may depend on a GM to decide when abilities can be used and how effective they are. In other cases they are very much math- and option-driven games, but the designers have made an effort to ensure that no selection of choices can exceed the (often unstated) soft limit values.

Soft limit, rules-light games tend to be very dependent on a skilled GM, and may just end up giving players with the best ability to argue with the GM an edge in power. Some groups find they work extremely well for games with limited run times, from 1-shots to short campaigns, while others do well as long as they keep their heads in a more narrative frame of mind than game mechanical.

Soft limit, rules-heavy games take a lot of work on the part of designers to be flexible and interesting, and still not have combinations that exceed the soft limits. These kinds of games can also often frustrate players who find the soft limit keeps their characters less effective in areas that, narratively, they want to be able to improve, and may make players feel they never actually get better at anything. Also, if the soft limits are unstated and the game has extensive option supplements, later designers/developers/publishers may well introduce things that break the original design’s invisible guardrails.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 4. Post-Publication Activities.

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a letter about what is, and maybe isn’t, a good idea to do after a project you have a credit in gets published and is available to the public. I’ve given similar advice to numerous freelancers, and prospective freelancers over the years (and even have a file on my hard drive that has some snippets of those to borrow from when I am asked about this topic), but I don’t think I’ve ever publicly published any significant portion of the advice itself.

I *try* to always open such letters with congratulations for getting published–creatives in this industry see criticism SO much more than praise or well-wishing, so I like to celebrate those moments of success if possible. Then, I break down my main suggestions for things to do with a project, now that it’s out in the world in its (presumably) final state.

“First, let me say that all this advice comes with a huge proviso — never follow these suggestions if they conflict with your own ethics, morals, best practices, comfort level, or mental well-being. For example, I mention looking for opportunities to talk about your work, including podcasts, but if your mental health will suffer from doing that, don’t. Similarly I suggest keeping praise for your publisher public, and criticism private, but there I am talking about things like typos, or inferences the publisher may not have meant. If you feel you have an ethical mandate to call out a publisher publicly for things such as racism, bigotry, misogyny, and so on, I am in no way telling you not to do that. No one is paying you enough to sell out your ethical code, and I believe we all have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. Any such instance is going to be too complex for some general advice that doesn’t know all the nuances of that specific situation to apply in any more than the vaguest sense. You’ll need to take those actions you feel most appropriate and/or most effective. That might mean publicly raising your objections, at least eventually if private notes do not seem to be making any difference. It also might not.

I wish I could tell you that any criticism you make, publicly or privately, will be taken as a reasoned, well-intentioned, good-faith effort on your part to make the hobby as a whole better. And, some folks will take it that way. But at both the professional and consumer level, many may not. It’s a risk, and you need to be realistic with yourself about the impact of possibly blowback on your life. If you have specific concerns in this area, please feel free to ask me about them. If you want my private, confidential take on a specific situation I am happy to give it. I might even be able to help.

That huge caveat aside, my general advise for what to do when a product you have a credit in comes along is pretty simple.

Read It

Do this first. You never know what may change from your final turnover to the printed page, and there are two good reasons to find out. First, seeing how things you wrote have changed may give you a better idea what that publisher is looking for, which can help you get more work with them. It may even give you insight into haw to be a better writer. If you don’t understand why a change was made, a short, polite note to your contact who got you the contract for the gig and to who you turned over your draft isn’t a bad idea.

Second, if you begin talking about the book, you want to talk about what is actually in it, rather than what you turned over. You neither want to promise people something that has been removed, nor seem uninformed if people ask you questions about things you have no familiarity with.

I sometimes sit with a PDF of the final release on one screen, and my draft on the other, and look line-by-line at differences. Yes, it would be easier for a developer to send you feedback, but that’s all-too-rare in this industry.

Check your NDA

Assuming, of course, you have an NDA. (Check your contract.) Most likely once the book is out you are free to talk about it, but if it’s one part of a multipart project you may be surprised by what hasn’t been revealed yet. Again, if in doubt, a short note asking for clarification to you contact with the publisher normally goes well.

Promote Your Credit

This is a great chance to promote yourself. Make a post talking about having a credit. if there’s some interesting anecdote about the process, that may be worth including as long as it doesn’t put anyone in a bad light (though see the proviso, above). For most social media platforms, including a picture of the cover of the product is a good idea.

This can help get your name out into the industry, remind people you are alive if you are already pretty well known (I still do this, for example), and convince publishers you are a good partner that will help advertise their product once it is out, driving engagement and interest.

Add It To Your Credits Sheet

Ideally, you have a list of all your credits already. If not, time to start! You want to be able to tell people what you worked on, and how you were credited, in case it ever comes up. Seriously, there is a big difference between having one credit, having ten, having 100, and having 1,000. Start keeping track now if you aren’t already, and make time to keep it up to date as things are published. I personally have all the print products I have worked on as a Facebook album, and people finding that has lead to things like consulting work.

Investigate Interviews

Often podcasts and blogs are looking for content related to new releases, and you helped make this one! You don’t want to steal the thunder from the publisher (again, looking like a good partner makes it more like both this publisher and others will want to work with you in the future… but yeah, see the proviso above), but in my experience if you send a note saying “The podcast ‘Second Level Spell’ wanted to interview me about the Battle Pie rules I wrote for the Orkenpie adventure,” they’ll be enthusiastic in their support, and may even boost that on their social media.

Move On

I’m bad at this one, so I include it here. You may have no issue with it at all. When I look at my old work I can… obsess over perceived failings. I want to figure out why I didn’t do what the developer did, make sure I learn all possible lessons from the project, and consider all the ways I could have done a better job.

A little of that is fine.

But then it’s time to put it down, and move on. Of course you can do a better job now than you did then–we are all learning and improving all the time. Instead of worrying about what past-you got wrong, turn to what current you is doing that you can apply those lessons to.

Don’t Take Reviews to Heart

For a lot of people, this may mean just don’t read the reviews. I personally am unable to do that, so instead I try to restrict myself to weighing their opinions against my own. Did they find something unclear? Fair enough, do I see their point or not? Is it full of typos? Well, that might mean my turnover was too error-ridden for even professional editors to save it, I can look at that. Do they not like it? Okay, but that’s, like, just their opinion man.

Dissatisfied people tend to be much more vocal than satisfied ones. So if you have to read the reviews, take them with a huge grain of salt. And never let them get you down.”

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 4

Fourth part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

You can find Part Three here.

Event

An Event kickoff begins with some big happening that has long-lasting consequences, and that the PCs are intentionally part of one way or another. If the PCs are all contestants in a bloodsport that determines the fate of the world (or just has prize money they all want), that’s an event set-up. If they are all arriving in the Big City for the World’s Fair, Queen’s Birthday, Anniversary of the End of the Z-Wars, Inauguration of the Jack of Graves, or Battle of the Planar Rock bands, and plan to partake of those happenings, that’s an Event setup.

An Event can often be tied to other setups, as a lead-in to a longer-lasting framework for the campaign. If the annual Demigod Trial Festival is a continent-wide celebration the PCs are all attending, with various chances to get up to mischief, and at the end of the first adventure the PCs are all going to be accepted in the Demigod Academy, then it’s an Event leading into an Organization.

An Event can be particularly useful for new players if you can have their participation in the events help showcase individual elements of the rules. If the PCs are all young adventurer-hopefuls attending the Adventure Academy Admittance Trials, those trials can highlight the game’s various systems (a mock combat, a lockpicking speed trial, tightrope walk, insult-duels, riddle contests, and so on) allowing the players to see how their PCs do in those situations and how the rules world while the stakes are fairly low.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time

The difference between an Event and Wrong Place/Wrong Time is largely intentionality of both attendance and what spawns the adventure. It can be on a large or small scale. If a dragon (or kaiju, alien starship, floating castle, demigod, zombie hordes, tank battalion–whatever is genre appropriate) attacks a city that is home to all the PCs, or is hosting a major festival the PCs are all attending, turning it into a ruin from which they must escape, that’s a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup. If the PCs are on a train headed west when it’s hijacked by teleporting snakemen, that’s also a Wrong Place/Wrong Time setup.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time is a great way to get quickly and directly into some action. All you need is to have all the PCs in one place, and then the adventure can come to them. This works best if the action that occurs naturally leads to more adventure, so the PCs don’t just go their separate ways when the first adventure ends. For example, if the PCs are all on a fantasy-themed roller coaster, and it warps them to an actual fantasy realm, not only do they have to deal with whatever is waiting for them when they arrive, they now have to figure out how to survive in this new realm, and make a living, or make it home.

Wrong Place/Wrong Time can be a good addition to a longer campaign setup. Even if you are doing Family, Organization, Patron, or Tavern as on ongoing setup, you can start with a Wrong Place/Wrong Time to get the PCs into the action, together, quickly.

Right Place/Right Time

The difference between Wrong Place/Wrong Time and Right Place/Right Time is that while the former is about misfortune arriving wherever the PCs are, the latter is about something good (in the broad scheme of things) occurring and leading to adventure. If the PCs are all hanging out at the Taco King parking lot when a Dark matter meteorite bathes them in cosmic radiation turning them into superheroes, they have been thrust into a world of adventure by being in the Right Place/Right Time.

Right Place/Right Time can later be revealed to be Destiny, if you want. While it may seem the servants of Sir Gerginald got lucky by being present when he was slain by a dragon, bathing them all in martyr’s blood and anointing them with eldritch magics, that may in fact have been the fulfillment of the Blood Guild Prophecy. Or perhaps Mr. Cellophane has been injecting hospital patients with experimental super-serum, and the PCs as survivors of a train wreck were just the first recipients to survive his efforts (which, obviously, they find out when they see right through him).

Right Place/Right Time doesn’t automatically assume the PCs are going to agree to participate in the adventure those events open up for them, so it may be useful to combine it with anther setup. It’s easy to have Right Place/Wrong Time blends by having the triggering event be random and a mixed blessing. Perhaps the PCs were in the same hospital as the Ghoul Outbreak, forcing them to fight for their lives against bloodthirsty undead, but as a result they also have immunity to the ghoul virus, and develop various necromantic powers. The outbreak forces them to deal with the Wrong Place/Wrong Time survival threat, getting the campaign started, but it also gives them powers which are going to make survivors in the ensuing Ghoul Apocalypse turn to them for help and leadership.

Obviously there are LOTS more kickoff setups you can use, but hopefully this short list will give you some options and help get you creative juices flowing.

Game On!

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 3

Third part of a series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

You can find Part One here.

You can find Part Two here.

Organization

Using an Organization for the setup of your campaign kickoff can make things extremely easy at first, but may come with hidden work for you later-on. The simplest form of Organization setup is that the PCs are all members of the same Organization, and it sends them on missions that create adventures. This can be a military organization, a knighthood, an NGO, Star Fleet, a mercenary company, adventuring guild, thieves guild, wizards guild, the Honorable and Holy Order of Sewer Guardians, SpecterBusters, a newspaper, the FBI, a Lady’s Sewing Circle, insurance claim investigators, doctors without dimensional barriers, CDC field team, the Imperial Diplomatic Corps, starship crew, space trucker union, Lamplighter’s Guild, Library Overdue Asset Network and Interdiction Team (LOAN IT)– whatever fits the genre and tone of the campaign, and that the players are all willing to be members of.

Of course just because you start a game with players as part of an Organization (or even just trying to get in — a first session that is the Admission trials of the troubleshooter’s Union could be a lot of fun) doesn’t mean they have to stay in it. Here in my experience the two most important issues are player expectation and current player satisfaction. If you have proposed that a game is the adventures of the Stellar Alliance Battlecarrier Valorous, and you plan to have the characters all cashiered out over something that isn’t there fault by session 3, you may have a lot of unhappy players who were excited to be part of a big starship crew. OTOH, if the players end up hating how Stellar Alliance regulations hamper their desire to help non-member citizens and want to go it on their own, forcing them to stick with the organization they dislike can also be a big problem.

One good way to subvert expectations in an Organizations campaign is to have sub-organizations, perhaps secret ones, that the players can find out about and choose to join (or not). If the Lamplighter’s Guild has a secret “Bump in the Night” department that handles horrific things their lights sometimes illuminate (an awesome idea I am stealing here from my friend Carl), the players can work with that group, or look to join them, or even work against them if they think the Bit-N are actually traitorous vampire spawn.

Patron

The idea of a Patron setup is that the PCs are working for, or at least aided by, a powerful Patron who can direct them to adventures, and help them gain access to resources and/or people when it might otherwise be beyond the PCs’ reach. A Patron setup can be a nice mid-point between Organization and Wanted Posters — the PCs need not be as wantonly mercenary as an entirely Wanted Post campaign might suggest, nor as beholden to a set of rules as is common in an organization-style campaign.

A Patron might be just a wealthy or well-connected individual, but there can be other interesting options to. A Patron could be someone unable to operate in society easily on their own — a sentient magic item, or a strong AI, or a member of a marginalized group the culture won’t take serious or treat with respect. Or they could have legal or societal limitations based on standing and position — Commissioner Gauthier can’t be seen operating outside the law, but instead makes a deal with a group of vigilantes that as long as they play by his much looser rules, he’ll feed them intel and not pursue them himself.

One common trope is for a Patron to actual be evil, and planning to betray the PCs, and/or destroy them. While this is pretty well expected in some genres (noir detective stories especially, and things inspired by those tropes), I am personally not a fan of that “twist” unless it’s actually a stated part of the game’s assumptions. I find it much more interesting to do things like have the Patron trust the PCs more and more, in time setting them up to be independent or even take over the patrons wealth and power, because betrayal is no fun in real life, and when it comes in my entertainment, I like it to not be a huge surprise or have a big impact. YMMV.

Mysterious Patron

The big difference between a Patron and a Mysterious Patron is that there’s some big element of the Mysterious patron the PCs aren’t aware of. Perhaps they only communicate through a speaker in an office, send coded messages through the bottlecaps of daily milk deliveries, or meet the PCs in the back of an abandoned opera house while wearing a all-concealing cloak that suggests they have a massive hump… or maybe wings and horns. In my experience it’s much harder to get players to trust a Mysterious patron (which can be fun), and they almost always want to Solve the Mystery, which means only use this setup of dealing with those issues seems likely to be fun for you and your players.

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Kickoff Setups for ttRPG Campaigns, Pt. 2

Part two of the series on setups to kickoff ttRPG campaigns.

Family Ties

This setup is a lot like the Organization, but you may not have any choice about being part of it. The campaign is driven by PCs’ ties to a family, which they may all be members of, or may have some different connection to (such as all working for the same noble clan, or all having been infected as hosts to related strains of the same sentient fungus). At their simplest Family Ties can drive forward a campaign through familial connections, ranging from helping out other family members to working to expand and protect all family holdings.

Family ties can be little more than an excuse to be in the Wrong Place/Wrong Time, such as if the reading of a family scion’s will brings all the characters together into a haunted house (or onto a secret seabase, into an exclusive club, at the lost keep, in the big boardroom, or around the meadhall fire, depending on genre). They can also come with duties that are hard to refuse (such as being the nobles who oversee a territory, or being the only bloodline that can activate the planetary defense grid… or the bloodstone altar, or whatever). Family ties can also come with enemies who don’t care if the PCs want to be involved in family business or not, from demons sworn to end all descendants of a great champion (or great champions sworn to end all descendants of a given demon), to rivals for a familial claim to a throne–whether the PCs have any interest in claiming it, or not.

One great way to subvert this is to make it family of choice, rather than blood or marriage. In a session 0, players can all be asked to create one NPC that is close friend and beloved companion to them all, even if the PCs do not themselves know each other (or do, but don’t like each other much). This gives players power to help define their driving force, and no player will be a bit surprised if that group-generated NPC is kidnapped, or needs help dealing with blackmail from the wererat mafia.

Wanted Posters

At their simplest Wanted Posters are literal posters offering a reward for some deed to be accomplished, from bringing in known criminals to coming along on time travel expeditions. Players can all be told they are answering the same Wanted Poster, or get caught up on some NPC’s attempt to make good on on. The format can vary as needed, from the town crier to personals columns in newspapers, late-night public access shows, spraypainted messages on underpasses, online forums and electronic bulletin-boards, or Dark Curve InfoSphere Sites.

Many fantasy and scifi settings have formalized versions of Wanted Posters, and assume a self-employed persona can make a living answering one call after another. There may be a big Notice Board just outside the city’s biggest auction house where offers of rewards for quests are posted, or a Bounty Hunter’s Guild that passes out tracking fobs for specific freelance reacquisition jobs. If there are enough such tasks, an Organization may evolve to bond and insure the best adventurers to answer such offers, but it’s perfectly possible for individual middlemen, fixers, and “Agent Johansson” underworld figures to connect employers and for-pay-troubleshooters on an ad-hoc, if frequent basis.

The less common way to use Wanted Posters to drive a plot is for the faces of the PCs to appear on them, turning the mercenary community against the characters. This can be a subplot at any time, but if the PCs are all selected by some nefarious force to be blamed for a crime, it can kickoff a campaign to have the unknowning character all wonder into the new town on the same day, and discover they have a collective price on their heads, even though they’ve never met. This can become a variant of Wrong Place/Wrong Time.

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