Author Archives: okcstephens
I love my editors.
I kinda have to. I need to treat them the way fighter pilots need to treat their ground crews. without them, I can’t do my job.
They are the only people in the world companies will pay to make me look smarter.
So, when they savagely rake me over the coals on something, I try to pay attention. To be a better writer, of course. And to show them I respect the effort I put into sending me feedback.
But, also, because I never want to know the savagery of a twice-spurned editor who finds the same mistake in a turnover of mine after pointing it out for me all special.
So that you can perhaps learn from my mistakes as well, here are the three two most savage pieces of editorial feedback I have ever received on my writing. I’m naming names.
One. Stilted Dialog.
Lj Stephens was editing a short piece of intro fiction I wrote for a game product. She asked for a revision noting:
“It’s great, except for when people are talking. That is all bad. Can you rewrite this so no one speaks?”
Yes. Yes I can.
Two. Passive Voice.
Louis Agresta sent me feedback on an adventure I wrote for him that said “Too much passive voice has been put in this adventure.”
Wow, that sentence is So awkward I wonder why…
Three. American Spelling.
I turned over a manuscript to Wes Schneider which, to be clear, was for an American publisher.
I spelled the word gray as “grey” throughout the text.
He gave the manuscript back to me with editorial comments. The first time that appeared, there was a correction.
The second? A bigger correction, with a star by it.
The third? The page bled red ink.
Wes said we fought a war for that ‘A.’ He mentioned I was making baby George Washington cry. He drew a sketch of a field of cut-up and dying E’s in red ink on the manuscript, and told me I had to enter all the corrections myself.
With apologies to baby George Washington.
Good luck out there. Be kind to your editors.
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This is a very small thing… and yet an important one.
When, as a freelancer, you turn your project over to the contact with the client (be that editor/developer/manager/producer/publisher), make sure you are giving it to them in the format they want.
If they have a style guide, READ AND FOLLOW IT.
If they DON’T have a style guide, ASK how they want it.
For many years, I VERY much preferred writing in WordPerfect, then exporting files as rtf or text, depending on what my client would take.
But over the years, more and more of them specifically wanted .doc, or .docx, or even styled Word documents using specific fonts and styles.
So, I had to give up my Beloved WordPerfect, more than a decade ago.
The vast majority of freelance work I do now is turned over in styled Word docs, as requested by the publisher.
Some publishers HATE styled Word docs. Some need things in google docs. I literally had one ask me to send the material in the body of an email… which would be anathema for everyone else I work for.
So the takeaway here is that it’s very little effort to ask, and it wins you a lot of goodwill to give publishers materials the way they want them.
I’m not saying this is a good version of this idea, or even that this is a good idea.
But it SHOULD be playable…
*There are three colors of pieces, white, black, and red.
*Black and white are both lines up on one side of the board, with the white pieces being the left half of each line, and the black pieces being the right half. There is no queen, instead both black and white have kings.
*Red pieces are set up normally on the opposing side.
*One player runs the white pieces, and one runs the black pieces. They work together, and are considered to be on the same side (for example, their pieces cannot capture one another).
*The red pieces represent the opposition, and their movements are determined randomly.
*White moves first. Then red. Then black. Then red. Repeat this sequence until a king is in checkmate, or normal rules of chess would indicate a draw.
*Number all of the Red pieces, 1-16, starting with the pawn on A7, running right to H7, then moving up to the rook on A8, and running along the back row to H8.
*On Red’s move, move it’s pieces by following these priorities:
1. If its Red’s King is in check, it takes a legal move to capture the piece placing its King in check (if this removes the King from being in check from any piece), block check, or remove the King from check. If multiple such moves are possible, Red prefers capturing a checking piece, then moving the King out of check, then using another piece or block the King. If multiple such moves exist determines which move it makes randomly.
2. If Priority 1 move does not occur, and a Red pieces is in a square where a black or white piece can capture it on the black/white’s next turn, and the piece can legally move to where that will not be true, it does so. If it can capture an opposing piece with this move, it does so (see Priority 3 if there are multiple pieces it can capture).
Otherwise it moves the fewest squares it legally can to move to a square where it cannot be captured on black/white’s next move. If multiple such squares exist, select which one it moves to randomly.
If multiple Red pieces can fulfill priority 2, move the one that is of the highest value. If multiple pieces of the highest value exist, move the one that can capture an opposing piece. If none can capture, determine which one moves randomly.
3. If a Priority 1-2 move does not occur, and Red has a piece that can legally capture a black or white piece, without exposing its king to check or ending in a square where a black or white piece can take it on their next move, it does. If there are multiple such legal captures, it takes the highest-value piece it can. If there are multiple such captures of pieces of the same value, determine which one it takes randomly.
4. If a Priority 1-3 move does not occur, and Red has a piece that can legally capture a black or white piece, without exposing its king to check, but doing so leaves it in a square that can be immediately taken by a black or white piece on its next move, roll 1 six-sided die. On a 1-3, the Red pieces makes the capture. On a 4-6, it does not. If there are multiple such captures possible, roll once to see if Red makes any such capture, and if it does use the rules from Priority 3.
5. If a Priority 1-4 move does not occur, and Red has only a single legal move, it takes it. This is true even if it is a move that was ignored during Priority 3.
6. If a Priority 1-5 move does not occur, roll three dice, total them, and subtract 2 from the sum. If the result is 1-16, and that Red piece is still on the board, move the piece matching that number. If that Red piece is no longer on the board, go to Priority 7.
6a. If the piece is a Red pawn, and it can move to the Black/White home row without ending in a square where it can be captured by a black/white piece on its next turn, the pawn takes the move and is promoted to a Queen. It retains its original numbering.
6b. If the piece can move to a square where it could take a black or white piece on its next move, it does so. If there are multiple such squares, it selects the one with the fewest black or white pieces able to take it on their next move. If multiple such squares exist, determine which one it selects randomly.
6c. If no move is indicated by Priority 5a, make a legal move that goes as far as that piece can go, in a randomly determined direction, that does not end with it in a square where it could be captured on black or white’s next move.
7. If the Red piece indicated by the die roll is no longer on the table, instead move the remaining Red piece with the closest number. If two remaining Red pieces are equidistant in numbering, go with the lower number if the result was odd, and with the higher number if the result is even.
7a. If the newly-selected Red piece can legally capture a black or white piece, it does. If this would expose its King to check, the King is moved in a randomly determined direction however many squares are needed to keep it out of check, in ADDITION to the Red piece making a capture. If there are multiple black/white pieces the Red piece could capture, use the preferences from Priority 3.
7b. If the newly-selected Red piece cannot capture a black./white piece with a legal move, it is moved in the following manner. Roll 1d6 and add one. This is the numbered row the piece moves to. Roll 1d6, with 1 being B, 2 C, 3 D, 4 E, 5 F, and 6 G. This is the column in that row the piece moves to.
If there is a black or white piece in that space that is not a King, it is captured, if there is a black or white King in that space, the Red pieces is captured. If there is a Red piece in that square, the higher value of the two Red pieces takes the square, and the other is capture. If the two red pieces are of the same value, determine randomly which one gets the square.
*If either the Black or White king is placed in Checkmate, or if both are ever in Check, Red wins. If the Red King is ever in Checkmate, black and white win.
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Okay, for gameplay reasons I am totally down with a “Common” tongue, as is frequently presented in RPG campaigns, especially fantasy RPGs.
But what IS it?
Without changing any rules at all, you can help give a campaign world some interesting backstory by explaining why there is a “common language.”
Here are 20 examples, built on tropes common to d20 fantasy games.
“When the mighty empire of Te Essar collapsed, its official language was already known to most of the world, and became the common language of trade and diplomacy.”
“The deity Commonos wished all people to trade stories, and gave them a single language in which to do so.”
“The eldritch Power Words, Glyphs, and Sigils used in so many spells require significantly study to use to their full mystic potential, but their common forms are easy enough to learn, and taught to populations worldwide as a method for seeking those with a spark of spellcasting talent.”
“The Plane of Shadow is a reflection of all that occurs on the Material Plane, including all language. The Shadow Tongue is a simplified amalgam of all mortal tongues, and can be vaguely understood by any literate person.”
“The Logos Prima was invented by a travelling bard centuries ago, and carefully designed to be easily learned by anyone, from any culture. It has a single, unified spelling and sentence structure, and avoids elements that make some languages more difficult to learn, such as tonality and gendered nouns, and has a simplified structure to allow it to be picked up quickly.”
“It’s a virus. Exposure to the sound, or the sight of it, allows it to creep into your mind, and infect your thoughts with its syntax, and vocabulary.”
“They come once in each generation, to every library and school above a given size. The Solresolut, the Inevitables of Communication. Immortal teaching machines, they offer the language of the Law of the Spheres to any who will learn it, then leave the laws themselves behind. Ignorance of the law is no defense, but every mortal is given a fair chance to learn them.”
“When the world was young, the Cyclops discovered art, and architecture, and language. They built mighty fortresses and huge henge that could predict the seasons. No one knows why these cyclopean ruins were abandoned, but their uses to ancient cultures to know when to plant, when to migrate, when the moon would eat the sun ensured that the basics of what was written upon them would be learned worldwide.”
“The angels spoke Enochian, the tongue of the heavens. Devils taught it to man, to ensure they would be ready to bargain for even more knowledge.”
“It turns out if a demigod archmage genie gets annoyed enough with translation errors in her mail order service, she’ll wish ‘there was one Common language almost everyone knows’.”
“The self-replicating Printing Press Golems nearly destroyed the world. But from their ruined movable type, a single common alphabet was born… ”
“Look, humans can interbreed with almost anything. If it;’s a less common or less popular combination, we just call it a half-whatever. half-dragon. half-angle. half-orc. If it’s happened enough to develop its own culture, it gets a new name. Minotaur. Centaur. Harpy. As a result, the most popular human languages are taught to a LOT of wondering offspring…”
“The first Riddle of the Sphinx was a grand mystery for centuries. It was taught in every academy, studied by every sage. Given how crucial context is to understanding and solving riddles, it’s native tongue was taught alongside it, to ensure no nuance was lost in translation.”
“When madmen worldwide all babble and scream in the same language, it’s worth knowing what that language is, and what they are saying.”
“The Grand Trickster demanded that all understand his jests, and the skalds sought out to ensure this could be so, though it take carrying his words to every corner of the world.”
“When the gods made mortals, they gave them language. That which best spoke of rock was adopted by the dwarves. That which best spoke of wealth was adopted by the dragons. And that which best spoke of toil was adopted by the workers, crafters, and servants of the world.”
“They come to every port and trading post, in creaking ships and caravans of twisted beast. They are known by their brightly painted masks they never remove, and overly-sweet perfume scents masking a hint of rotting flesh beneath their faded robes. They buy, and sell, and trade, and make many wealthy, but they do it all in just one language. If you wish to do business with the Traders, you must learn this common trade tongue.”
“In the first seasons, the beasts all knew two languages, which gave them dominion over the material world and the spirit realm. The tool-makers stole the common words of material dominion from the beasts, and became ascendant. Now druids guard the spirit dominion language closely, and forbid that it be taught to any but those of their own order.”
“The wind whispers, the river mutters. Fires spit and curse, and the earth groans. Early people could rarely master all of any elemental tongue, but ususally learned a few key phrases from each, forming them into a set of common words and phrases that were almost universal.”
“Common? You mean Khelvish? Sure, it’s common where you are from, in the lands between the Basalt Mountains and Shallow Sea. A few folks ’round these parts know it, too. But if you want to be able to talk to everyone in these parts, you’d best learn Fworven, or at least Low Glett.”
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I hate being in situations where I don;t understand the social expectations.
This includes nearly all forms of confrontation.
Not knowing how things are supposed to go, not having a clear grasp of the rules of any interaction with people, makes me extremely nervous. Sometimes it makes me puke. I am not kidding when I say it’s among the hardest things I have to deal with.
For some things, my career of choice has made such interaction unavoidable. I have spent decades trying to get used to those specific interactions, both so I can fake them when they go off the rails of what I am used to, and so I just feel I have a stronger grasp on what their (generally unstated, often poorly understood) rules are.
When I don’t HAVE to interact in a way that makes me uncomfortable, I generally don’t. If I have spare spoons I might dip a toe in just to remind myself that fire won;t actually fall from the sky, but I rarely have the spare spoons.
Sometimes, however, I don’t feel I have a choice. Sometimes it’s about something more important than my comfort level.
My current apartment complex has a pond in the open area behind our building. It’s not huge, but at the center it is 4-5 feet deep. And, of course, as a result of the week+ of snow and sub-zero temperatures, it’s mostly frozen over.
But only mostly. And, that surface ice can’t be depended on.
Yesterday, I happened to glance out a window and see three boys playing on that ice. Throwing rocks to try to break through the ice… that they were standing on. Stomping on it to see if they could crack it.
I froze for a second. I did NOT want to have to interact with youngsters, age unknown, attitude unknown, and try to convince them (with no real authority) to stop paying on the ice.
In shock, I mentioned to my wife what I was seeing. She confirmed what I knew, but did not want to admit.
“Oh, lord, you need to tell them to cut it out!”
Yeah, I did need to. My discomfort, even if it was going to be extreme, was not as important as the safety of these boys. Yes, they were being stupid. But that doesn’t reduce the value of their lives.
So I stepped outside, and called out to them. I asked them to PLEASE not play on the ice. The ice could be thing, the water is dangerously cold, and if they slipped UNDER the ice it could be hard to get them out.
Oh, they said. Really?
Yeah, I promised. Really.
Okay, sir. Thanks!
And they got off the ice. And have not gotten back on it.
Objectively, this was an incredibly minor interaction.
Subjectively, I was exhausted and shaking for about 30 minutes.
But this wasn’t about me.
Sometimes, it isn’t about me.
Sometimes when looking to create superhero worlds or adventures, all you need is an idea to run with. It could be a jumping-off point, a villain, a dead hero to draw the protagonist’s interest… just something that feels like it comes from a comicbook sensibility but (and this is the hard part) without being a direct ripoff or sharing a name with any character from mainstream comics.
So, here are a bunch.
I can’t claim they are all entirely original–many are intentionally based on existing tropes–or even that the names aren’t used in any comic/supers stories. But I developed them independently of other sources, and casual searches didn’t show parallel development of note.
These are designed for you home games or to spark new ideas original to you (though if you have some potential commercial use, feel free to drop me a line).
Aberzombie & Glitch.
Annoying, immoral preppy necromancer and technomancer who manipulate magic they barely understand, while stylishly dressed. Note that being shallow doesn;t automatically make these villains. they could be the kind of allies you avoid… until you absolutely need their help. Or even neutral to greater conflicts, and just sometimes dragged in on one side or the other.
A heavy weapons vigilante, mercenary, or assassin who uses an AK.
A villain. A terrorist who takes the unscientific belief that vaccines are dangerous and to be avoided to extremes by killing those who perform/promote vaccines, and tries to prove they are ineffectual by spreading deadly contagious diseases among vaccinated communities.
A woman with classic “brick” powers (high strength and resistance to damage) and no fucks to give about other people’s opinions. She could be a dauntless hero, a bitter villain, a self-interested mercenary, or anything in-between.
A penal superhero unit of convicted criminals who can cut time off their sentences by performing high-risk missions for the government. Run by Captain Cannon, a hardass patriotic supersolider with a cybergun arm who does as he is told and rules over the ‘Fodder’ with iron discipline.
The Fodder are run by the Combine, and operate out of a mobile secret base ship called The Trough. Cannon’s Fodder are often B- and C-grade villains (and occasionally antiheroes, vigilantes, and heroes who ended up on the wrong side of something), but are quite a dangerous force combined with the gear the Combine can arrange for them, and Cannon’s tactical acumen and willingness to sacrifice the lives of his Fodder if that’s the only way to get the mission done.
Thus while you can use noteworthy villains for your campaign’s Cannon’s Fodder, you can also just grab any terms or names you think of to be the “current” team, repurposing any write-ups you already have to represent the B List. (For example, the Feb 2019 team might include Bear Man, Deadnought, Killer Kaiman, Layaway, Punching Judy, Sister Sirocco, Spotlight, and Tigerdrake.)
A highly trained spy and combatant, who has luck that increases as the chance of failure goes up.
A team of 5 teens who can transform into powered, color-coded versions of themselves. Anywhere from Power Rangers to Sailor Scouts. Could be heroes, villains, or just an annoyance.
A berserker who gains size, strength, and resilience (including to mental powers) as he becomes angry. Most likely an antihero.
A rogue genius pharmacologist who gains massive psychic powers when high. could be an antihero, a villain, or just an unreliable hero.
A pulp-era-style detective or hit man who is happy to pit his/her skills and a single common handgun (the “gat”) against whatever superpowers foes have.
What if the Punisher had Batman’s training, resources, and skills?
That would be Hardcore.
The Knackerman, or Knacker, is a supernatural force who clears corpses from roadways and public spaces, and repurposes them as revenants. Usually the Knacker just gives abused animals a chance to return and punish their abusers, or sometimes save a beloved human in trouble. But sometimes Knacker brings back cars, or toys… or people.
Can slow down anyone or anything, so all actions and reactions take longer.
A mastermind crime boss, who is known to also have powerful connections to legitimate political authorities such as mayors, judges, and law enforcement–though no one knows exactly what those connections are. the combination of ruthless underworld agents and corrupt politicians and agents and moles makes him (or her, regardless of the name), well, untouchable.
A massively overweight werebear. Might be a cuddly hero, but might also be a bitter villain jaded from years of mockery and abuse.
Psychic Stripling Samurai Snakes.
Five sibling anthropomorphic snakes with mental powers and samurai training.
(Some of these ideas are less original than others.)
The world’s best detective, an unassuming pulp-era style investigator in a trench coat and fedora. QED can take apparently unrelated facts and use them to describe events that must have occurred to cause the known facts, thus revealing things that seemed unknown or unknowable.
A feared, immortal assassin. When you truly need someone to suffer, you Get Rekt.
The Shark Brothers.
Card Shark, Loan Shark, and Pool Shark, three mobster brothers with bites that can sever gun barrels, each with their own specialty in crime.
The idea of someone who neutralizes mutant/metahuman powers is fairly common. This idea puts a slight spin on that, as someone who neutralizes all forms of magic.
A “family” of superbeings who are evolved and sentient magic items from mythology. Some, such as the swords Durandal, Gram, and Nothung, and the rings Andvarinaut and Draupnir, were forged directly by the sorcerer/smith Weyland while others, such as Fragarach, Mjolnir, Nemean, and Tarnkappe, were reforged/rewoven by Weyland to grant them sapience, sentience, and human forms.
The Relics are reincarnated if slain, so while some have been active and alive for centuries, others are born as aparently normal humans, and then begin to gain powers of the reliquary nature sometime between their 12th and 18th years. Relics are not as a group entirely good or bad. Some, such as Durandal, appear to always be driven to work for justice. Others, such as Draupnir, seem to always seek power and wealth above all else.
And all sense that they exist to serve some great purpose in Weyland’s plans… which he refuses to talk about, though he calls them his “true children” and often aids them if they are in serious danger.
The ancient nordic sorcerer/smith of Germanic myth, though his origins are neolithic and he has survived to the modern era. Forged or reforged the Relics, causing them to be true living beings. Wayland is not evil, per se, and isn’t willing to see the world devastated, but his own plots and plans that take place over a scale of centuries, and mostly doesn’t care about “petty” issues like crime and justice.
Generally opposed by his equally immortal, but not quite as skilled, son Verlandsson, who mostly just hates his father and wants to stop the elder’s plans whatever they are, whatever the cost. Verlandsson is sometimes aided by his grandfather Vade, a giant and sorcerer/smith, who mostly just wants to be left alone.
Able to send and receive any broadcast signal. Makes an excellent “Overwatch/Quarterback/Ally in the chair” character, for good or ill, but could also be a badass in their own right with equipment and skills any superhero-level human can achieve, plus the WiFi power. Or, could have a swarm of drones. Or, all of the above.
In ancient Rome, someone who was banished from civilization was marked with the brand of the Wolf’s Head, meaning they could be hunted and killed as if a rogue wolf. One of those branded criminals turned it into a badge of honor, forming the Church of Crime and becoming the first popelike Wolfshead of All Crime.
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Writing for tabletop games, RPGs in general, doesn’t pay fabulously well. Especially as a freelancer. The pay rates range from about half-a-cent-a-word on the lower end, to a ceiling of about 10 cents/word. An average is about 4-5 cents a word… and has been for this entire millennium.
Most of that is work-for-hire as well, so there’s no royalties, no residuals, and no opportunity to get a big payday when a project is a smash hit.
So, if you write 1,000 finished words a day, every day (which in my experience means writing 2-3k total words a day, so you have time for dead ends, revisions, and second drafts), AND you sell it all, AND you get paid for everything on time you’ll make… $1,500 a month.
With no vacation, sick leave, or benefits.
So, how does anyone survive on that amount of money?
Sorry, this is going to be a bit grim.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
The fact of the matter is, most people who write for tabletop games don’t make enough money doing so to pay all their bills (and especially not to do that and pay their own health insurance, put money away for retirement, build an emergency fund, and so on).
I’m not saying it can’t be done. I AM saying don’t assume you can do it until you’re seeing evidence it’s true.
Especially as you first begin to write for money, I strongly recommend you make that a side gig. It can be a fun way to make extra money, and it can reduce the stress of knowing your nascent writing skills/fledgling career has to pay the bills.
When I first began freelance tabletop game writing, I just wanted to make enough money to pay for a Dragon Magazine subscription. That was a reasonable early goal, and it wasn’t until I was making more money writing than my 40-hour job I went full-time. I strongly recommend this path. Yes, it reduces the pressure to succeed, and some people thrive under that pressure, but it also gives you time to make contacts, build a reputation, and settle in to a new lifestyle.
Live Someplace Cheap
Telling someone the secret to surviving on a tiny amount of money is to move someplace cheap sounds like out-of-touch advice from someone who doesn’t have to do it, and I’ll happily acknowledge that it’s just not a realistic option for everyone.
It is, however, exactly what I did for the majority of my freelance career.
In 2001 I was laid off from a salaried position at Wizards of the Coast, just 14 months after I was hired, and just 3 months after I had sold my out-of-state house and bought a new one on the assurance my job was secure.
And, suddenly, I couldn’t afford to live in the Seattle area anymore.
Note that it wasn’t as expensive them, even relatively, as it is now. But I also wasn’t as well-established then, and looking at making it as a full-time freelancer my wife and I could see it just wouldn’t be possible if we stayed in our new home, hung out with our new friends… or kept our new house.
I could have gotten a non-tabletop game industry job and made ends meet. But we decided nor to do that.
Instead, we moved to Norman, OK, one of the cheapest places in the US to live, and a place where we had an extensive support network. An there we stayed for the next 13 years, as I worked at being a full-time tabletop/RPG writer, up until I was hired by Paizo in 2014 and we moved back to the Seattle area.
So it wouldn’t be an honest or complete list of options from me, if I didn’t include one of the main coping methods I used.
We moved someplace cheap, and stayed there almost a decade and a half.
Ask For More
Don’t be a dick about it, but there’s nothing wrong (BEFORE agreeing to terms and signing a contract) with telling someone you want more money for a project. The difference between 4 cents and 5 cents a word may not seem like much, but it’s a 25% raise.
See if you can retain any rights. See if they can revert to you after 5 years. See if you can get profit sharing. Don’t come back with these over and over on the same project, but do feel free to ask for SOMETHING if you think you’ve earned it. If you are doing your 4th or 5th project with the same people, it’s worth seeing if you can get even a minor raise. It doesn’t have to be a cent a word– if they are offering $55 for 1,375 words and they won’t go for boosting it up to $68.75, ask if they’ll just do $60.
Every. Little. Bit. Helps.
And if you are someone who hates asking for more, or are afraid even one request for a raise will cause a potential client to immediately drop you?
The industry will be happy to never give you more… to your significant detriment.
People who pay you to write for them have a legitimate expectation you’ll do your best work for them, regardless of what they pay you. Once you agree to a pay rate, you are agreeing to do a good job for that amount of money.
Writing is, in my experience, a task where I can ALWAYS do a better job if I have more time. If I have a completely finished draft, ready to go to editing and layout, and a publisher asks me if I could make it better if I had a new deadline and they were going to pay me the per-word rate again to make it better?
The answer is always yes. That’s literally what developers do. And even with my own material, I can always find ways to make it better.
Which means, I can always find ways to take longer than I can afford to.
I’m absolutely not saying to rush through a job or delivery a crappy manuscript. Not only do I consider that unethical, it’s a bad way to build a reputation and a career.
But I AM saying that there’s is a reasonable level of effort to be expected from you, and if you constantly go above-and-beyond, you are going to make it hard to write enough to make a living. If doubling your time spend would give you a 5% boost in quality, then that would probably be spending too much time on that project.
The other end of “Write Fast” is to see what you are doing in your writing time that doesn’t put words on the page. Does every trip to Google to look up poisons used in ancient Rome end up with an hour spent looking at TVTropes? Then you may need to set yourself a research timer.
Did you spend more time watching videos of anime space battle that writing about space battles? Then you may need to set yourself some rules on what constitutes “writing time.”
Don’t make yourself miserable, but do remember that if you want freelance writing to reward you like a job, you need to treat it like a job.
Make Your Leisure Writing Work For You
I am assuming here that you DO leisure writing. That there’s SOMETHING you write for fun.
If not, I have no idea why you want to be a tabletop game writer, and you can just skip this one.
Whatever it is you write for fun — campaign histories, fan fiction, descriptions of fabulous gay taverns in Waterdeep — try to find a way to make money off it. Keep it legal — don’t violate copyright to make a buck — but do consider what your options are. If you are writing material for a campaign you don’t own, see if you can rewrite it to be generic and set it up as a Patreon. Post it to your blog and have a Ko-fi.com tip jar. Save it as material to raid if you get a writing gig you can repurpose it for (assuming you haven’t published it some other way at that point). Gather it together into it’s own product and pitch it to publishers… or get into self-publishing.
If you are a writer, all your writing has value. Don’t overlook ways to monetize anything you have written. If you wouldn’t have written it anyway and posting it gets you $10 a month? That means you can cover one more $100 expense once a year.
Recognize Feast and Famine, and Act Accordingly
As a freelancer, sometimes you’ll have a (relatively) large amount of money drop in your lap at the end of a project… and then nothing for months.
Try to prepare for that.
Hold back money for bills you can predict. Try to build an emergency fund. If you have extra money, that’s a great time to buy in bulk if it’ll actually save you money. But if you don’t know when your next payday is, it’s a good idea to spend as little a possible. You don’t want to get a great deal on 40 gallons of peanut butter, then not have money for any other groceries–or gas, or rent–for 3 months.
I am not the person to tell you when it’s time to take a big risk, or give up, or move on, or take a temporary gig to make ends meet. Only you can do that.
But you need good data to make that call accurately.
So keep track of it all. What you made, what you spent it on, how long it took.
Maybe you discover you can write adventures much faster than campaign settings. Or that you spend too much on pizza delivery when you are on deadline. Or that you can save money on taxes with business deductions.
I don’t know. And if you don’t keep track, you won’t know either.
Yes, relationships with publishers, developers, and editors, in an effort to be kept in mind for work. But also other writers (to bounce ideas off of, commiserate, or in case they become publishers, developers, and editors). People in your community who do freelance work (you never know what resources are out there, and local folks are good contacts to find out). Even fans… sometimes.
Your career is more than your skill. It’s who is willing to pay you for that skill, which means who knows you. And who they think will pick something up because you wrote it, which means who they think knows you matters too.
As an introvert with social anxiety I found this one of the hardest things. But I discovered that when people at conventions invited me out for drinks, they didn’t care if I drank or not. I could get a club soda. It was just an opportunity to network, hang out, make connections. I set my career back at least a decade by avoiding those opportunities for most of my career.
Be smart, be safe. But when you are safe and comfortable, reach out to folks, and make connections.
A strong community will pay dividends in ways you can never predict.
Post Your Thoughts, Ask People to Pay You For Them.
There’s always SOMEONE who cares what you think, and who looks up to where you already are.
Some of them will pay you if you post to a blog, and have a link to some way to give you money.
If you found this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, (and/or if you want the best venue for suggesting more topics to me), check out my Patreon!
So, as with everything on this whole site: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.
And if you are at the stage where you’re writing contracts, you likely could do with some real legal advice. Yes, that costs money. But if you want a contract that’ll actually hold up to a legal challenge, you want a lawyer in your state to have looked at it. Preferably one with some understanding of publishing and trademark and copyright law, if not specifically gaming. Chances are you can find a generic contract online, make changes to it to fit your needs, and take it in for a review for a modest amount of money.
(Or, if you’ve signed some contracts with other companies for game content, you can use that as a template of what to include, though don’t copy the wording whole-cloth without permission.)
Of course heading off legal challenges are far from the only function of contracts. I have found the MOST common (and an extremely useful) purpose they serve is to make the scope and details of the responsibilities of all sides of a deal clear, and to preserve them against bad memories or misunderstandings. More than once, I have discovered at the contract stage that I was supposed to do more than I thought, or get paid less, or give up more rights—or had a freelancer tell me they got a similar surprise when looking over a contract I sent them.
((A note to freelancers: That’s okay, by the way. Until it is signed, a contract is a suggestion. Sure, most big companies won’t change most terms for you… but it’s both worth asking, and worth knowing what you are agreeing to if you go forward with a contract you’re not a huge fan of. And they MAY pay you more, or change a deadline, or make some other accommodation. It should never hurt to ask.
And if asking about the terms of a contract brings some major negative drama? That tells you something about working with those people too.
Also, never work without a contract.
Not even for me. Not even for your friends. (Especially not for your friends!)
If money, rights, intellectual property, work, credit, or anything that has or potentially will have value is exchanging hands or being used by anyone other than its creator, get a contract. It can be short. It can be basic.
But get one before ANY work gets done.
Okay, back to talking to publishers!))
So, with all that forward out of the way, what kind of information should a contract cover?
Yep, step one is who are the parties in the contract. It’s easiest of that’s two parties, such as a writer and a publisher, but you certainly can have multiple-party contracts. One useful thing I notice in a lot of contracts is that once the two parties are identified, they are then referred to by some other defined term, such as “This agreement is by and between Rogue Genius Games, a Washington company having a principle place of business at _[address]_ (hereafter “RGG”)…”
That’s useful, because you can then just use RGG in the rest of the contract. For contracts you want to use as a template, it also means you can have a place for the freelancer’s name and address, and then say (hereafter “Freelancer”), and not have to change the name everyplace you want to refer to the freelancer later in the contract.
While it’s usually obvious, who a contract is between can be surprisingly complex and important. For example, if I ask someone if they want to write a project for me in a casual conversation, it may get lost if I am asking them as a private individual, as the publisher of Rogue Genius Games, in my role as a developer for one of about three other game companies I work with, or some other role entirely. Any lack of clarity about that is my fault, but a contract makes sure that the person working for me knows who they are working for before they formally agree to do the work.
Also, some freelancers do work through an LLC or other legal entity, rather than as sole proprietors of their doing-business-as under their own name. That’s normally not an issue, but when it comes time to claim expenses or report income, it’s super-helpful if I tell the IRS that Freddy Freelancer earned money, and he wants to report it under Freelancer LLC, that out records line up.
It’s also a good idea to define who is getting what kind of credit, and maybe even where. Is the freelancer going to be listed as the author? A writer? As ‘additional content by’? Listed on the cover/ Not mentioned at all? Not every contract covers this, but they certainly could.
It’s also a good idea to give a name for the project, so everyone knows what you’re talking about. But a lot of contracts I see add “or such other title as [Publisher] shall decide to use,” which is obviously a potentially useful bit of CYA.
What laws govern this contract? Your home nation? Home state? Where your LLC is registered? Look into this, and have the contract spell it out.
After a contract covers who, it’s time to get to what—what work is being products. Is it writing? If so is it being figured in words? In pages? In what topics are being covered? It’s important to have a clear description of what the contract is covering. If you need a longer outline, it’s okay to note that there is an outline separate from the contract, or one as an “Exhibit A,” or however your lawyer tells you to set it up.
On top of what the end product is supposed to be, it’s worth calling out the expectations and duties of each side. Many contracts require the freelancer to note the material they turn over is original, never-before contracts, used, or bought, and absolutely not licensed or plagiarized material. Mostly, this is about the publisher having a documents stating they bought the material in good faith, believing it did not violate anyone else’s rights. But it also serves as a reminder for newer freelancers who may not realize that just because something is on Wikipedia or a fan page somewhere doesn’t mean it’s available for commercial use.
In addition to describing the work itself, it should describe the rights being transferred. Is it work-for-hire which (probably) means the author isn’t even considered the author for purpose of copyright law. Is it all rights transferred in perpetuity? Is it just first publishing rights? Can the freelancer still use it for purposes of personal promotion (especially important for visual art). Legal terms can have a lot of weight here, but clarity can also just be useful to set expectations among the parties involved.
The more rights the contract transfers, the more it should pay. I’ve done work for a much lower rate because it just granted exclusive right to use it for 90 days, and then I could reuse or resell it (though noting if I did sell it that it wasn’t new content, but previously published work). I’ve save tons of money on art buying things like second-use rights, or only licensing it to my exclusive use for a limited period of time.
But that all needs to be covered in the contract.
Can the freelancer subcontract? Send you the final manuscript by Facebook chat? Write in in crayon on coffee filters?
Define what format you want the work in, and how it should be sent to you. Email and ftp systems are pretty common now, but if you want it inscribed on vellum and shipped by carrier pigeon, you need to have that in the contract.
Deadlines are important. Include them in the contract.
If you want the freelancer to show you progress before the final deadline, put that in the contract as well. It’s perfectly reasonable for a contract to state that the freelancer needs to turn over a draft with half the work done by the halfway point of the work period. It’s not reasonable to not give any warning you want such advance peeks at how things are going, then get upset of the freelancer doesn’t do so after the contract is signed. They owe you want the contract says they owe you—if you want to be able to dictate when and how and where they do the work, you need to actually hire them.
Also cover if the deadline is when the work is to be done, or when it is to be in your hands. Cover what happens if the deadline is missed. Are you going to start deducting money from the end payment? Are you going to cancel the contract? Do you want to have the right to do either but not be required to?
Put it in the contract.
By ‘why,’ I mean what is the other side getting out of this. You get the freelancer’s work so they should get… paid.
There are lots of parts of that. How much are they getting paid? Is it per word, regardless of how many words they turn over, or is it a flat rate for an approximate wordcount? Is it per word, but only words you end up suing after editing and development? Is it a profit share arrangement? And if so, is it a percentage of the gross, the net, or some other number (such as the gross of the amount you get from distribution, rather than gross of cover price, but after any money for pod and shipping)?
When is the payment coming? Upon acceptance? If so, what qualifies as acceptance by you (and how long do you have to accept before the writer can take their work back)? Upon publication? (That sucks, btw, but if you do it you need to define what counts as publication, and how long after that you have to pay, and what happens if you haven’t published it 90 days, or 9 years, after getting the work in).
How much? And is that in US dollars? Canadian? Australian?
How are you sending the money? Check in the post? PayPal? If there are fees involved in the payment method, are those your responsibility, or the freelancers?
Does the freelancer get anything else? A free copy of the book? Three free copies? The right to buy more at a 50% discount?
When you are discussing this project, with the freelancer or anyone else, keep a notebook (paper or virtual), and take notes about anything important that comes up that people working on it need to keep in mind. Do you need map sketches to send to a cartographer? Well your contract with your writer had better say that. Do you need art descriptions of monsters? Or do you need three writers to work together so none of them duplicate each other’s work? Do you want everything playtested? If so, does the freelancer have your permission to disclose things to playtesters? Do they need to sign NDAs? Or is everything a secret, not to be discussed with anyone until the project is announced?
Think about what you need and who you need it from, then put that in the contracts.
If you found this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, (and/or if you want the best venue for suggesting more topics to me), check out my Patreon!