Category Archives: Business of Games

Tales of the Intrepideurs’ Guild, Pt 1

It should come as no shock that, as Green Ronin’s developer for the Fantasy AGE RPG, I want to run a Fantasy AGE campaign. Running (and playing) the games I write and develop for is an important part of being connected to the material as-played for me when I can arrange it, and it helps me build and maintain system mastery.

I have been *meaning* to start a Fantasy Age game for months, but (waves hands at… everything).

However, since I’m only going to be able to run a single campaign at the moment, I want to set up its framework to maximize its benefits to me. That means organizing it so I can run no matter how many of my players can show up, maximizing the amount of time the campaign focuses on game mechanics, and having a framework lose enough I can experiment with and playtest new material without having to spend a lot of effort working it into the game.

My players are, of course, aware that these are goals of mine. I’m currently only able to play in-person with the very small group in my social bubble, all of whom are folks I’ve been playing RPGs with for 20 years or more, so that’s not an issue.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want ANY framing device for the campaign. I just want one with a great deal of flexibility and a focus on small, variable groups going and doing dangerous or difficult things.

And for this game, that’s going to come in the form of the Intrepideurs’ Guild. Which immediately leads to the question, what the heck is an Intrepideur?

(Art by Luca Oleastri)

The word is a portmanteau of Intrepid and Entrepreneur that I am intentionally creating for its slightly cheesy flavor. It will, in-world, be used the way “adventurer” might be in a lot of fantasy game settings. Within the context of the fictional world I am creating, an Intrepideur is someone who makes a career out of being brave and bold, and facing things most people don’t want to.

So in our fictional world (which, for the moment, I am naming Fage), its considered normal to have your day-job be facing dangerous things to make money. In many cases, someone will pay you to do this, because the dangerous things make their lives difficult. In other cases, a group might decide to seek out and face a danger because they think there’s money to be made in doing so. Folks of Fage treat Intrepideurs the way our current world treats first responders, extreme sports athletes and mountain climbers, and entrepreneurs. It’s not for everyone and it’s a bit off the norm, but in general it’s seen as a reasonable choice for people drawn to such work.

Now some of this work is pretty intermittent stuff — if bandits have taken to preying on a road between countries, you can hire Intrepideurs to guard you as you travel it or even to clear off the bandits entirely. Need someone to hunt down and stop an arsonist? Protect your sheep from wolves? Hunt down giant crabs suddenly tearing up fishing nets? Gather the prophetic and altering spice Mordant from the Shifting Desert? Intripdeurs are your best bet.

But there are also some things that happen at least as often as severe weather, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires, and that really do call for a society to maintain an entire class of people trained to deal with them. Here are some common sources of ongoing Intrepideur work.

Bone Stars — It’s well known that the night sky is the inside of the skull of the giant that was slain by the First Gods to make the world (though there is significant disagreement on which giant, and which gods). Sometimes, the long-dead giant forms a wicked thought in its skull, which flakes off a bit of the bone from the skull and plummets to Fage in a bolt of colored fire. Bone Stars can be seen for days before landing, and are often signs of misfortune or the death of a ruler.

But they also often have actual… things… on them. Screaming, mobile fungi that consume all they come across. Metal spiders that build webs of crystal that drink sunlight. Evil, psychic rats. And whatever it is? It does not belong on Fage. it does not seek balance with its environment. The things from Bone Stars was plagues on the land that, if not dealt with, can eventually scrub whole kingdoms clean of life.

And if one of those Bone Stars lands near your town? You want some Intrepideurs to show up and take care of it. Quick, while it’s small.

(Art by Dominick)

Catacairns — There have been waves of evil spirits, demigods, and demons that have attacked the World of Fage in the past, sometimes swarming over entire continents. When those things are defeated, it turns out they mostly can’t be “killed” in the mortal sense of the word. But they can be placed within massive underground tomb complexes, which are filled with puzzles and traps and hazards to keep the spirits from ever finding their way to their physical remains, or out into the world. these tomb-prison complexes are known as Catacairns. Some are centuries old, built by fallen empires or lone genius/hermit mages, marked by weird mehirs and monuments.

Mostly, they are pretty stable prisons. Mostly.

But sometimes some energy leaks out of an abandoned Catacairn into the nearby wilderness or town and… CHANGES things. That usually mean a seal or lock has cracked, and SOMEONE has to both deal with the twisted “cairnite” abominations it creates, and go fix the thing. And sometimes cultists or power-mad idiots crack into a catacairn intentionally, to siphon such power, or even release what is within in hopes of being rewarded with vast power. Sometimes the outer locks and traps fail after centuries of disuse, and minor spirits even escape outward, and have to be put down and trapped again.

And sometimes? Sometimes the worst things, at the lowest levels, wake up and start to tear down their whole prison, block by block.

(Art by info@nextmars)

Prismatic Mountains — There are multiple ranges of Prismatic Mountains throughout the World of Fage, and they… shift. Not all the time, but always during the winter. A pass found one year is likely useless by the next. Residents, animals, monsters, even weather shifts from year to year. And Prismatic Mountains are almost always right where you want to take caravans of trade goods through.

So, every year, there’s a huge demand for Intrepideurs to go into the nearest Prismatic Mountain range, and map what they can, learn what they can and, if possible, find a route through. With trade routes cut off nearly all winter, the first group who can prove they can get a caravan through can command steep prices of their route, and some small traders will risk heading into the mountains before a pass is established, with many escorts, hoping to be the first to reach the trade routes on the far side so they can charge premium prices for their wares.

Finding a new route can make Intrepideurs reputation. Finding the FIRT route through in a given year also makes them temporary celebrities.

So there’s the campaign basic set-up. Players will be members of an Intrepideurs’ Guild, starting as Tin-ranked members, hoping to work their way up to Copper, Silver, Gold, and Mithral ranks. They get jobs dealing with problems, each one designed to be a single night of gaming. If a player isn’t free a given night, their Intrepideur can’t make it for the mission that time. Weird things and dangers are built into the campaign setting, so I can test things out and, if they don’t work, discard them never to be mentioned again.

Given the popularity of the Really Wild West session recaps, I may recap my Tales of the Intrepideurs’ Guild game sessions as well. And if there’s interest, I can go into more details on how the Guild is set up to speed play along.

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Freelancer Life: Time Sinks That Aren’t Writing or Playing

I once had a manager in the game industry tell me there were three things that always made him accept that a designer, developer, or editor was going to be less productive for weeks or maybe months and that there was just nothing the manager could do about it.

One was getting married.

One was moving.

I’ve moved six times in the past six years, and I’m not quite done with the most recent one.

Sometimes, things come along that suck up a lot of your time and energy, and there’s not much you can do other than get through them as quickly and professionally as possible. Sometimes you can plan breaks or lower-workloads to coincide with these time sinks.

Sometimes you can’t.

And sometimes, you just have no idea how much of you time and energy a life event is going to take up. you can plan, and hope, and make contingencies… but in the end you’ll just have to deal with the cards you get dealt.

So, Lj and I are now in our for-the-foreseeable-future digs. We’re not OUT of the other place yet, but most of what is left is cleaning and putting things in storage. The worst part of the actual act of moving is over.

So now, we get to deal with the pets.

We have a cat, Maeb.

Maeb 02

Our roommate has a cat, Alphonse Lord Tubbington of Sausage-On-Chonk.

Alphonse 01

They are both indoor-only cats (though Lord Alphonse used to be a street cat, years and years ago). they are both used to being the only pet in the house (though Maeb used to live with her sister, and spend many months in a group PetSmart adaption center).

If this process goes well, it won’t impact my (still-wecked and horribly behind) writing schedule at all.

If it doesn’t, I may have a lot of low-sleep nights ahead.

We’ve done a lot of research, and we have a plan built up.

We’ve been introducing Maeb and Alphonse Lord Tubbington of Sausage-On-Chonk to each other’s scents for weeks. We spent the night letting Alphonse get used to us being in the house, and he adjusted to THAT just fine.

We just brought Maeb over. She is quarantined in the Underground Bunker with us, which is a 400-foot area we use as bedroom and offices, while Alphonse is currently banned from it (he gets the rest of the house).

They can hear each other, and are pretty vocal about it, but neither is doing more than meowing. … It’s a LOT of meowing, but that’s it.

Over the next few days we’ll block small sections of the house from Alphone at a time, and let Maeb explore them, then bring her back to the Bunker to feel safe with her stuff.In a few days to a week, when they don’t meow as much, we’ll bring them to areas connected by glass doors so they can see each other, but that’s it. Once THAT seems okay, we’ll try held introductions.

Hopefully in a few weeks, we’ll all be one vaguely tolerant family.

If not, you may start to get some WEIRD blog posts from me…

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Bell Curves, Criticals, and the Odds of Doubles on 3 Expanse Dice.

The various AGE (Adventure Game Engine) games from Green Ronin all have the same core mechanic — to see if you succeed at something, roll 3d6, one of which is a “Stunt Die.” Add the 3d6 and any bonus you have, and compare to a target number.

If any two of your dice are doubles (they have the same value), you earn “stunt points,” equal to the value of the stunt die.

In this article, I want to talk a bit about bell curves, critical success systems in RPGs, and  what the odds are you’ll get doubles when your roll 3d6. And I’m using pictures of the Expanse RPG Dice Sets, since they are cool-looking and currently being crowdfunded on Kickstarter.

Expanse Dice

So, lemme start with three important notes.

I am NOT the developer for the Expanse RPG. That role is very ably handled by the extremely talented Ian Lemke.

Second, I AM biased in favor of Green Ronin, since they employ me to be the Fantasy AGE developer and I thus benefit (at least indirectly) if their projects make lots of money. So, yes, this post is happening at this time in part so I can highlight this Kickstarter. (But it’s also good game design analysis. 😀 )

Third, this is my own analysis, not an official AGE post which has been developed and edited. So any mistakes in the math or logic are entirely mine.

Okay, with those disclosures all disclosed, let’s look at bell curves. (We’ll get back to doubles, I promise.)

Many games use a single die to determine success, such as a d20. With this kind of resolution mechanic, you get a flat probability–that is, the chance you’ll roll a 4 on a d20 is the same as the change you’ll roll a 19, 5%. That means if you need to roll a 17 or better to succeed, you have a 20% chance of succeeding (5% for each number that could turn up that is a 17 or higher). This means that the best possible result (and the worst possible result) have the same probability of happening as an average result.

That also means that, barring some kind of automatic success system (such as saying rolling a 20 on the d20 always succeeds), any bonuses have a flat amount they add to your chance of success. When rolling 1d20, a +1 bonus is an additional 5% chance to succeed whether you need to roll a 3 or higher, or a 13 or higher.

And if you DO have an automatic-success or automatic-failure mechanic, the odds of that are also easy to calculate. if every time you roll a d20 on the d20 you succeed, or have a critical success, there’s a 5% chance of that happening with each roll.

Some people love the simplicity of a flat probability. Other people hate that “average” results are no more likely than high and low extremes.

So, enter the bell curve.

Rather than a single die with flat probability, AGE uses 3d6. While the average result on 3d6 is the same as on 1d20 (10.5), on 3d6 you are much more likely to roll something close to that average than either the high or low extreme. Despite having a small total range of numbers (3-18, rater than 1-20), the chances of getting that highest result on 3d6 is only 1 in 216, or a little less than one-half of one percent. On the other hand since there are 27 possible combination that can add to 11, the odds of rolling an 11 are 12.5%. The odds of rolling a 10 are also 12.5%. So, 1 out of every 4 rolls with 3d6 is a 10 or 11.

(This means that if you get a +1 bonus to your roll in AGE, rather than giving you a flat +5% to your chance of success, the value of the bonus depends on what your target number is. If you need a 17 or higher to succeed, your bonus only matters if you roll a 16. Your odds of rolling a 16 are 2.778%, and your odds of rolling a 17 or 18 are 1.852%, So the +1 bonus has increased your total chance of success from 1.852% to 4.63%. )

One of the drawbacks of a bell curve is that since it skews strongly towards the average, using it for task resolution can get boring. Even gamers who dislike a natural 20 being just as likely as rolling a 13 on a d20 tend to enjoy the chance of something *interesting* happening when you roll a 20.

The AGE system overcomes this with the stunt rules.

While success or failure of a task in AGE is determined by rolling 3d6, each roll also has a chance of producing stunt points. You can then use those stunts to perform special maneuvers  and neat tricks. This adds some variety to task resolution, while still maintaining a bell curve so average-difficult tasks can be accomplished dependably.

In AGE, if any 2 dice in your 3d6 roll are doubles, you get a number of stunt points equal to the value shown on your stunt die. Which naturally leads to the question– what are the odds that when I roll 3d6, at least two of them are doubles?

So, to calculate this we need to know the chance the first two dice will match (which is 6 in 36). We then add the chance that if the first two don’t match (5/6 of the time), with the first and third or second and third match (2 in 6), or 10 in 36. That means we get at least one set of doubles in 16 our of 36 possible combination, or  about 44% of the time (44.4 repeating, to be precise).

Of course if we DO get doubles, it’s the stunt die that determines how many stunt points we get. That’s a flat 1-in-6 chance of each possibility, so while we get SOME stunt points 44% of the time it’s about a 7.5% chance for each possible value of stunt points 1-6.

That’s important, because in AGE more powerful stunts cost more stunt points. This lets us have*something* interesting happen in nearly half of all important 3d6 rolls, but it isn’t always the maximum 6-point stunt result. We get the benefit of the bell curve leaning towards average results, while adding a good chance of some stunt points being generated, but only a relatively small chance of getting the best possible 6-stunt-point result.

To be clear, you DON’T have to understand these probabilities to play the game. It’s a useful analysis for game designers and GMs who want to know how likely stint points are, but the system is clean and simple enough you can just roll your dice, check for doubles, and enjoy the dice giving you fun things to do.

[PromotionModeON]Especially if you have a shiny new set of Expanse dice![PromotionModeOff]

Expanse Dice Packs

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Don’t Hire Me

While it is true I am looking for a good full-time work position, and failing that making sure I have enough freelance to pay the bills, if you have such work you should not hire me.

That’s right. I am literally telling you, don’t hire me. There are better choices for you. Better game designer options you should take. People who are from minority or marginalized groups, or who are actively oppressed, and who you should hire in place of me, largely regardless of what your project is.

I have danced around this post for months, but it’s time to just say it. I will happily take what work comes my way–this is my career, and I need it. But if you value my opinion on who you should hire, please strongly consider hiring women, BIPOC folk, and LGBTQ people as designers, developers, and consultants instead.

And I am going to explain why, point by point.

  1. I’ll be Fine.
    In my original rough draft of this essay, this was my last point, a cap on the list to reassure anyone who was sincerely worried I was harming my career by recommending other people. But, I realized, that misses a big chunk of the point. This is, in many ways, the crux of why you should hire other people.
    The whole reason I’ll be fine is that the playing field isn’t tilted against me. As a white, cis, hetero, male, bearded grognard, I am assumed to be competent in my field without having to prove it. When I was an Industry Insider Guest of Honor at Gen Con in the mid 00s, there were tons of people who had never heard of me. I know, because I’d talk to them after my panels, and they’d cheerfully tell me they’d never heard of me.
    What there *wasn’t* was a backlash by people claiming that I didn’t belong. Not at Gen Con, and not at any other convention I have attended as a guest, going back to the 1990s. I mention that, because I have seen such backlashes against numerous women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ quests at Gen Con and other venues. People ask from the audience why they should listen to those guests, or actively rant on messageboards about “lowering standards” to score political points with “Social Justice Warriors” or engage in “Virtue Signaling.”
    Convention guest spots are a great boost to a creators career. No one guest spot may make a big difference, but going to multiple conventions over years makes you more visible. Lets to travel and talk to fans, and creators, and even potential employers, in other regions at the convention’s dime (at least when the con is doing it right).
    The same is true of invitations to be on podcasts or write introductions for books, or participate in special streaming programs. Each of these gives a small but real boost to your career, and I have had tons of such opportunities.
    Does that mean I didn’t deserve the opportunities I was given? Not necessarily. But I have seen marginalized creators I work with closely have to work harder to get the same recognition than I do. Harder than I ever had to. I have seen the chilling effect a lack of boosting and recognition has on their careers.
    So yeah, chances are that while I can defend every guest spot, job, opportunity, consultation fee, and ongoing series I have ever been given, at least some of those were things that would have been offered to someone else — someone with more artificial social roadbocks — if the world, or the industry, were a level playing field.
    So I can actually write a post literally entitled “Don’t Hire Me,” and it’s not going to end my opportunities.
  2. It’s Time to be Anti-Bigoted
    I know a lot of people in the industry who are very comfortable saying they are not racist, are not misogynist, and are not bigoted against LGBTQ+ professionals. The problem with that stance is, even if true, it’s not enough. The industry is skewed by its composition to channel people who benefit from its design into its key roles. Even if no one has ill intent or biases of any kind, the system itself is biased now.
    You can’t just be not bigoted. You have to be anti-bigoted.
    Not being racist is not the same as being anti-racist.
    Not being misogynistic is not the same as being anti-misogynistic.
    Not being biased against LGBTQ+ folks is not the same as being intentionally and mindfully opposed to such bigotry, and actively working against it.
    There are lots of reasons someone might talk themselves into hiring me for a game-related professional position. But many of those reasons are taking the path of least resistance, which is also taking the path of least active fight for change and improvement.
    Put in the extra effort. Making hiring decisions that change the very nature of the industry, so that the industry can improve. If we keep doing what we have done, we’ll keep getting what we have gotten… and in too many cases, that’s just not good enough.
  3. On Average, Marginalized Creators You’ve Heard of Will Be Better than Me
    This is not just the conclusion game theory teaches me (though it IS also that — logically given the bias and harassment and lack of opportunity i have actively seen marginalized creators face, any of them that overcome those hurdles have already proven that can produce at a higher level than I, who did not have to overcome the same difficulties), but it’s also something I have personal experience with. Many of the smartest, most talented, most multitalented professionals I have learned from are gay, trans, POC, and nonbinary.
    And in MANY cases, a good part of what makes them so much better than me is an awareness grown from their different life experiences.
    It’s extremely common for both companies and fans to note they’d like to see more stuff that aren’t just rehashes of Tolkien, Lucas, Howard, Azimov, Disney, King, and so on. The further you get from the life experiences of those men, and the people they inspired for generations, the easier it is to have new, creative, cohesive, original content that draws from different wells for inspiration.
  4. Diversity is Gold
    Look, if you don’t HAVE a white, cis, hetero, male professional on your game team, it might make sense to add one, and I could be a great choice. But my guess is, you already do.
    In fact, my guess is this one demographic is already the best-represented group on your team, outnumbering any other group (and maybe outnumbering everyone else put together). So why add one more?
    There is SO much more that a hire can bring tot he table than the ability to produce words that fall in line with the most common existing material. Diversity in games brings innovation, the potential to access new customer markets, and a fresh outlook that increases the chances of making the Next New Thing no one saw coming.
    I believe the cold, hard, cash-driven business case for having as diverse a set of voices as possible in your creative team is extremely strong. This isn’t an argument about social justice. It’s one about maximizing the chances you’ll do something innovative and profitable.

Now I will be the first to admit I am far from a scholarly expert on questions of women’s experiences, or BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creators. I am very much trying to listen more than I talk, and I learn something amazing and new every week by doing so.

But this is not a modest proposal. I’m serious.

You are better off hiring someone with a different background than mine.

You may want to check out:

GaymerX

https://ineeddiversegames.org/

 

 

Some Fictional RPGs

Look, sometimes you need to reference a tabletop RPG (or similar game, like a MMORPG or video game) in your real ttRPGs. So here’s a list to use for that.

Or maybe I just wanted to talk briefly about all the games I WANT to make, but don’t have time to work on right now. Either way, at least I have these names written down in public now. 🙂

Adventures of the Ladies’ Spelunking League
No Man can Survive these Perils!
Set in three time periods (Late 1800s, early 1900s, and Nowish), this math-free, dice-based, story-oriented ttRPG sets the members of the Ladies’ Spelunking League against horrors found beneath the Earth’s crust… and in the inherent biases of the patriarchy we all live in.

Blades Against Cthulhu!
A Barbaric Horror Fantasy rpg.
It’s swords and sorcery against unspeakable things, with two themes. One, all humans have much more in common with each other than they do with eldritch horrors. Two, there are lines even mecriless killers won’t cross.
And a lot of severed tendrils of indescribable ichor.

Blades Against Cthulhu

Checked Out
You can’t win, but you can choose to keep playing.
A zombie apocalypse game where the most important attribute is your Humanity. Survival requires accomplishing difficult tasks. Difficult tasks are made easier if you choose to do things that reduce your Humanity. Your Humanity is also what lets you form alliances, earn trust, and keep going. If it gets too low, you Check Out.

Eye of Argon, the RPG
No horror can match it
Bad pastiche fantasy, with the resolution mechanic being based on how many pages of Eye of Argon you can read without laughing, groaning, or rolling your eyes.

Persuade. Ponder. Prepare. Punch.
You Only Do One Thing Well
The game has exactly four attributes — Persuade (all social interactions), Ponder (for all investigation, knowledge, and thinking), Prepare (for all crafting, planning, leading, and equipping), and Punch (for all fighting).
You can Master one of those categories (automatically succeeding at all related tasks), and be bad at all the others, or you can be Great at two and Okay at two, or you can be Good at all four.
But no two characters can have the same selections.

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The Game Industry’s Insanity

There’s a famous quote about insanity — “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So, in that regard, I am afraid the tabletop game industry is insane. There are lots and lots of things the industry keeps doing, over and over, and being surprised when it gets the same results.

Owen Bust

And, I don’t know that there’s much chance of that ever changing. Because the tabletop industry just isn’t big enough to bring in the kind of analysis and training it takes to properly analyze, iterate, redesign, and take risks about how the whole system is put together.

Here’s just one example — a single data point in a sea of oft-unexamined assumptions.

When my wife was earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, she took a class titled “The Business of Art.” In included how to promote yourself, write a resume, respond in an interview, create a portfolio, and so on. While there are more and more college-level classes about game design, they A: tend to focus on digital games (which represent a LOT more money as a market), and B: don’t have tabletop equivalents of “The Business of Games.”

So each new wave of people wanting to do professional ttRPG work have to cobble together best practices and a career path for themselves. Quite reasonably, they look to what was done by people who have the work they want to do and try to replicate, emulate, or adapt those steps. (Adapting is an important part — I came up through a series of magazine articles, from different tabletop-RPG-focused magazines, owned by different game companies. That’s not really an option anymore.)

So the same advice keeps going out, through the same venues… and keeps drawing in the same kinds of creators. Those of us who have ttRPG careers are asked how to get started–on social media, and at conventions, and in fan interviews– and we advise getting on social media, going to conventions, working with small presses and maybe fan projects.

So, the process that we found, and that appeals to us and is friendly to us, is the one we recommend to people (because, to be fair, it works), using the very venues we recommend newcomers depend on to move ahead, is held out as the best path for new talent.

On a larger scale, it’s similar with game companies. Open calls and contests (advertised in the same forums the people running the companies already use), and panels at conventions the company already have a presence at, and waiting for freelancers to drop pitches or ask how to get started at company forums or using company emails.

And, again, that’s reasonable.

But it does mean as long as the majority of elements in the game industry do what we have done, we’re going to get what we have gotten.

So, why is that a problem?

Because diversity is gold.

Because if we want to industry to grow beyond its roots, somehow there has to be an influx of new ideas, new creators, and thus new markets.

Of course some amazing and talented people DO manage to make their way into the industry. Some find the road that we take and use it despite it being harder for them. others forge whole new paths without any help from the existing system. Not only am I not claiming these folks don’t exist, I am specifically saying a bunch of them are BETTER than many of us who took the well-trod path.

But in terms of sheer numbers, creators from marginalized groups remain very much the minority. Which means their input remains a small fraction of the total amount of ttRPG content, and that most game companies don’t have a balance of different experiences and backgrounds among their creators.

A lot of ttRPG game companies are currently looking at the question of whether their products have been, or currently are, vehicles for racism, bigotry, and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. There are tools that can (and should) be brought in to try to do better, including more outreach to different creators, research of the cultural impact of aspects that inspire new games, and bringing in sensitivity readers.

But as for the origins of the material, the people deciding what book gets publisher, which creators get bigger budgets, who is seem as “qualified” to work on big IPs — if the industry as a whole keeps doing what it ha been doing, it’ll keep getting what it has gotten.

This past weekend was Digital Gen Con, and my friend and colleague Stan! had the idea of us trying to recreate some of the “Bar Con” hanging out that many pros love to do after  hours at a convention. So we did… and we saw a lot of people we would have seen in person.

But we also had some folks participate that couldn’t have made it to a physical Gen Con, and many who would find gen Con a terrible experience for any of a number of reasons. I was something different.

It’s far from a solution to the insanity. But it did make me think maybe there are more chances at improvement than I have normally thought.

That’s just one small part of the imperfect nature of the #RealGameIndustry I have seen over the years. But I hope shining a spotlight on it might convince one or two other people in the industry to look at new ways to getting information out. New ways ti tutor and mentor people. New ways to find creators.

New ways to change from insanity.

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Q&A with Owen for Digital Gen Con

Heya Folks!

I have an ear infection, which took me out Thursday and most of Friday. But I also did some AMA things to try to replicate the hanging out experiences of Gen Con for its digital equivalent. A lot of the good questions and answers are buried deep in threads, so I wanted to pull them together for you with simplified versions of the questions as a double-helping of blog post content!

So, just pretend this was all said while hanging out at a bar after-hours of a convention. 🙂

Image may contain: Owen KC Stephens

Q: What general advice would you give someone just starting to get into ttRPG game design?
A: Keep creating.
Seek work-life-balance.
Try new things. Write a new poker game. Do a chess variant. Look for the neat parts of games you dislike.
Listen to and read advice from everyone. Especially people with different backgrounds and life experiences.
Diversity is gold.

 

Q: Other than writing and creative writing, what skills should I develop to be a better tabletop Roleplaying Game designer?

A: I recommend looking at some game-specific skills. For example, what makes something fun? (And, I absolutely suggest A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster). Look at probability and averages and bell curves, with regards to dice. Especially if you use dice-based games.
Then, write some things for yourself. Doing it on a blog or appropriate form can help get some feedback, but the important thing is to write ALL of a few different kinds of game content.
For example, write an entire adventure.
That adventure can be just three encounters, but include the introduction, the instruction to the GM, descriptions of areas and NPC motivations, any monsters, treasure, wrap-up, and so on. For example for Pathfinder 2e: I’d say write a short adventure. Write a spell at each level, and make sure they are divided among the traditions. Write some feats. Write an archetype. Write items at different item levels. The best way to start is to *start*. You’ll learn from there.
If you want to write for a game that has multiple publishers supporting it, reach out to all of them. Find emails. Know what lines of products they publish. Make some pitches. I have some blog articles where I talk about pitches.
https://owenkcstephens.com/2018/12/10/writing-basics-rpg-pitches-part-one/
https://owenkcstephens.com/2019/01/23/writing-basics-rpg-pitches-part-two/
Also, follow and read every professional game designer, editor, and publisher you can on social media. Interact with them, politely and positively. Learn from them, both in the knowledge they offer, and how they comport themselves (you can learn from bad examples too).
Don’t just follow and interact with designers that fit one mold either. Learn from everyone. All games systems, all backgrounds, all life experiences. Diversity is golden. I

 

Q: I am often convinced my ttRPG project has no value. How do I push through and finish it?

A: Sometimes, you just have to push through. I often promise myself I’ll send a thing out to be reviewed and, if the reviewers hate it, never publish it. Self-inflicted negativity is super common among gaming pros. I talk about it at bit in this blog article.
https://owenkcstephens.com/2018/08/13/imposter-syndrome-in-the-game-industry/

 

Q: How do your organize your projects?
A:  I generally start by working on an outline. Be it a huge book. tiny article, or even a whole game line, an outline of high points and sections is the best way for me to organize my thoughts and keep track of where I am.
I personally just organize my outlines in word, using various headers.
I talk a little about outlines in this blog article, which also links to my related article on headers/
https://owenkcstephens.com/2019/10/28/writing-basics-the-freelance-work-process/

 

Q: What are the most important elements of game lore and worldbuilding?
A: Creativity
Clarity
Relatability, balanced with originality.
Utility. If a GM or player can’t use it somehow — to describe a region or culture, to inspire adventures, to explain important bakground — then why are you including it?
And a few interesting touchstones of details that are just enough to catch GM and player’s interests.

 

Q: Is the twenty-sided die the best randomizer for ttRPG rules?
A: There is no ideal. Each randomizer had pros and cons. d20 is simple, easily understood, and has a nice range of results. But 2 is as likely as 20. For some things, bell curves are good. For some, die pools. For some, drawing cards. It depends on what the needs of your game are.

 

Q: How do I acknowledge the impact previous games have had on my game design?
A: Ignoring the question of specific licenses (such as the OGL) which can complete things– I like forewords, myself. “Many amazing games and designers helped guide me as I worked on Halfling & Haberdasheries. I was particularly inspired by the Kobold Caps “hat trick” mechanics.”

 

Q: How much should I budget for art in an RPG? How much do artists charge?

A: Most concept artists have rate sheets, so you know in advance what you need to budget for them. Which runs from dozens to hundreds of dollars per piece. Also, talk to them about how they handle sketches and revisions.
Here’s sample rates, for finished art from Jacob Blackmon.

Image

 

Q: I want to learn to play new RPGs. Other than dropping in on new groups at conventions, what else can I do?

A: When life gets back to normal, you can see if your Local Friendly Gaming Store has new game nights, or a board with people offering to teach games. 🙂

 

Q: I have a project I want to send to playtesters since I can’t safely playtest in person but… what if the people I send it to steal it?

A: Get signed Non-Disclosure agreements from everyone before sending them the files. And send them to folks you trust. That’s what big companies do. And if you can, get at least one session done digitally so you can watch, it can be super-insightful!

 

Q: What are good and bad ways for fans to approach you at a convention or event>

A: My favorite way is politely and directly. “Hi, I’m a Big Fan. Would you sign my book for me?”
If I seem to be at liberty, invite me to a meal (Monica is not wrong — I got some quality time with Aaron Allston by offering to buy him lunch), or a drink.
If I am in a group, just stand in it, and if the conversation goes that way, offer to say hi.
My least favorite is barging and demanding. I have had people interrupt whoever I am talking to, or interrupt me, to introduce themselves and gush out a question in the middle of someone else’s answer.
Also, don’t ask me for a lot of time to do you a favor when we first meet. “Hi, will you go over this adventure I printed and have with me and tell me what I need to do to it so you’ll publish it?” is a bad introduction.
Nothing wrong with letting me know you’d like to know if I do such things, but work up to it in stages, and don’t expect it to happen right here and now.
Also if I am on a panel, or heading to another panel, or manning a booth and trying to sell things, don’t plant yourself in front of me and monopolize my tine.
Also, introduce yourself, even if we’ve spoken before. I can be bad at connecting name and face. Let me know the context of why you want to talk to me.”I love your work on Star Wars Saga Edition” tell me you know who I am. “You’re a designer, right? You hire people?” makes me wonder if you are just an opportunist.
Being an opportunist can be fine, to be clear, but even then I recommend using something I just said as a jumping -off point to talk to me, rather than try to jerk the conversation to your topic.
Don’t hug without asking if it’s okay (I am generally fine with it, but I am also a big believer in enthusiastic, ongoing consent).
Also, I personally recommend attaching your name badge with two lanyards, one in each corner, so it is less likely to flip around backwards.

Patreon
If you found this useful or entertaining, and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

 

If the RPG Industry is So Terrible, Why Do I Do This?

Dice(Image by Jessica Dale)

For about a month now, I’ve been talking about the realities of the U.S. tabletop RPG industry, as I see them. I’ve posted thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, including under the hashtags #RealGameIndustry and #NotesFromAnRPGDev. ENWorld also created threads to discuss many of these shortly after I started, and again a week or so later. (And, I just discovered, a third time on July 4th).

And a lot of those observations paint a pretty grim picture. Poor pay. No security. No prospects for retirement. Regular harassment from fans and pop culture commentators. A fairly wide spectrum of people who think what you do requires no special talents, and that’s why you can’t make a living at it, and if you wanted to be able to live in moderate safety you shouldn’t picked a “fun” job like making games. These, of course, are intermixed with people who feel the need to interject about how common these problems are in all industries–which certainly suggests picking a different career might not be as helpful as the first group wants to claim.

Of course, my experiences aren’t objective or somehow universal of course, but I have been involved in the industry for 23 years, as a freelance writer (full and part time), contract worker, staff designer, staff developer, freelance developer, producer, line editor, publisher, and consultant. But even then, it’s one narrow slice of the ttRPG industry. A number of other professionals have opined about what they agree with, and what they feel like need qualifiers, but there’s been little real disagreement that I have seen.

So, if it’s a terrible way to make a living—why do I? Why stick with an industry for decades if even the “success” of getting hired on-staff by the two biggest RPG companies in North America isn’t enough to leave me able to pay the bills without having to scramble every month?

I was writing the headline of this article, and my wife leaned over, and in all seriousness asked me “So, why DO you do it?”

I confess that in the past 6 months, I have begun to think maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s time to hang up the dice, at least professionally, and switch to a “normal” job. I still may. But not this week, which brings us back to “why?”

There are two big reasons.

1. I Want To Help

And I think I can, but only from the inside.

So, what do I mean by help?

I mean help gaming, as a hobby, and game professionals, as a group. I want to work to make the ttRPG industry create the most good situations for the most people. That means working to improve conditions and stability, trying new things and seeing if any of them work better, answering questions, tutoring people, putting folks in touch with other folks for mutual benefit, and publicly fighting for diversity, inclusion, and ethical game designs.

And while it may be hubris to think I can make a difference, I’d rather struggle so survive if it means there is a chance I can make other people’s struggles easier. I’ll never be the person who determines if I have succeeded at this, of course. And I may never know if I really improve things. But I do get feedback that convinces me the effort is worth making.

It looks to me like there will be people trying to be full-time RPG professionals for the foreseeable future. I want to help them, and at the same time help the industry, hobby, and fans of gaming be the best they can.

2. I Think RPGs Are Important

I think ALL games are important, but especially ttRPGs. Roleplaying Games brought me most of the good things in my life.

High school was harsh for me, and I can honestly say I was miserable most of the time and considered suicide more than once. But RPGs let me explore ideas I was too afraid to discuss, helped me form a strong social support group, and let me make friends I am still playing with 25 and 30 years later. Nothing else came close to letting me deal with my pain, and learn something about bravery. 

I learned empathy through RPGs, and regret, and problem solving. It encouraged me to learn about history, grammar, math, probability, tactics, risk-taking and analysis, even a theory of fun. I doubt there is any positive aspect of my personality I can’t trace back to RPGs. And a lot of things I know were terrible parts of who I was growing up I overcame through interactions with RPGs, and the people I met through them.

My tightest bonds outside my immediately family came from ttRPGs. I met my wife through roleplaying. My best friends, from people I have known for more than 35 years to people I just got to know in the past year, through roleplaying. I have gotten to learn from geniuses, and help put folks much more creative than me on easier paths, through roleplaying games.

Further, I believe the influence of ttRPGs has much bigger ripples than people realize. And I want to have a small hand in what those ripples look like, and what messages they send out.

So yes, even when some person or persons leaves comments on videos claiming I am so fat and disgusting no-one should ever look at me or trust me, even in weeks when I have to spend 60-70 hours scrambling to pay the bills and arrange for opportunities to do the same thing next month, even when groups of people claim my ethics and morals are just schemes to draw attention, even when people smarter and more creative than me throw in the towel and leave the industry — or maybe especially those times — I feel the drive to keep doing this.

I know I cannot make a huge difference, but I feel this is the tool I can best use to do the most good, for the most people.

If you feel like supporting me in those efforts, you can make a huge difference by supporting my Patreon.

 

The Game Industry “In These Uncertain Times”

RPG illo
(Photo by Tab10)

I’m interrupting this week’s at-your-table game content to discuss the state of the industry. We’ll get back to fund stuff, but this is important.

I’ll start with some recent history.

The 2016 U.S. east coast blizzard made a noticeable negative impact on print RPG sales. Stores were shut down, people did not go out. It hurt. Companies suddenly were not selling like they had been, but expenses didn’t go down at all. While it didn’t drive anyone major into bankruptcy, it did have serious impacts. Budgets were slashed. Plans for new hires were axed. Raises were cancelled. Projects were scaled back. Not necessarily at every game company–some had very deep pockets from parent companies or investors and could just take the hit — but more companies than not had to change plans to survive.

Sales of PDFs did not see a significant uptick. Sales did not spike to higher-than normal levels after the snow melted and life got back to normal. Inventory for products created just before the blizzard did sit around longer. Some never sold. The expected money that would have been made that season was just gone.

Obviously the past few months have been worse. Worse for publishers, worse for companies, distributors, and individual creators.

But if the current upward pandemic infection trends continue and/or a second wave is bad? It doesn’t have to be the whole country to kill already struggling companies. The 2016 blizzard was a bit less than 1/3 of the US population, and everyone knew it couldn’t last. But it’s economic impact on gaming was widespread and serious.

There’s a reason so many ads currently begin with “In these uncertain times.” No one knows when a vaccine is coming. No one knows how bad the current rising numbers are going to get, or if they will spike again in the fall. In the US, there does not seem to be any national plan to handle this pandemic. Some places are depending on voluntary steps. Others are mandating masks.

Unlike 2016, there’s could reason to fear the impacts could keep going, or get worse, for a year. I hope a vaccine comes out before that, but I can’t depend on it. Not as a writer, and not as a citizen trying to pay the bills.

So even as governments open for business, sales are still down. They are improved over total lockdown, obviously, but companies aren’t getting the lost money from the lockdown back. Ever. The blows taken in the next few months don’t have to be as bad as the lockdown in order to kill stores and companies, and drive creators out of the industry forever, because everyone already took several serious financial hits.

If you want professional ttRPG material in the future, there are things you can do, now and in coming months,

Support your local stores if you safely can. Some stores are doing curbside pickup, some are doing delivery.Some are allowing a small number of people wearing masks in at a time. I don’t want anyone to risk their health for games, but if your safety measures allow for contactless delivery, and you have the money, those stores are still hugely important. They sell more, total, than online places (yes, including Amazon). And they bring more new people into the industry.

Support game companies. Buying from a local store absolutely counts, but if that’snot an option for you for whatever reason, look to see if the publisher has their own online store. Look to sign up for mailing lists and get special offers. If you have to buy through online stories, try to find a game-specific store you like and buy through them. The huge distributors don;t care about RPGs, and they’ll survive or not with no regard to how many dice and game books they move.

Finally, support game creators directly if you can. Even those who have full-time on-staff positions with game companies often make ends meet by taking on additional freelance… and that freelance is greatly reduced right now because game companies are tightening their belts. If you have a creator you particularly like or enjoy the work of, find if they have a Patreon, of Ko-fi, or other means of receiving money.

Because if the stores go, the game companies will suffer. if the game companies go, the creators will suffer. And if the creators go?

Then there’s much less chance the game content YOU want will even be created.

And, yes, I have a Patreon. I am a full-time freelance and contract writer now. I pay for my own insurance, pay my own social security and self-employment taxes, have to make quarterly payments on income tax, and then try to pay all my bills with what’s left of the money made on words.

So if you found this article at all informative, or enjoy any of my content, or just want to toss a coin to your writer, please consider doing so at my Patreon. https://www.patreon.com/OwenKCStephens

How RGG and I are Impacted by the Global Pandemic

We are at a point where I am asked this enough, and need to refer to it often enough, that having a statement about how the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting both me personally and Rogue Genius Games, the company i am publisher for, seems warranted.

Put simply, while we are not shutting down and still plan to produce all the same content, the schedule is going to be less assured.

Some of this is a matter of expected resources being well below our normal projections. Sales of content are down in numerous venues, in some cases down by 80% or more. Numerous freelancers find themselves unable to spare time to take on projects they once would have happily accepted. Less money coming in and fewer people able to take on the work in any area of my mix of personal and professional ventures impact other areas.

Some is a matter of time requirements. There are new business concerns that require extensive research and paperwork. For example: can Rogue Genius Games benefit from the Payroll Protection Program, and/or Economic Injury Disaster Loan emergency advance? Can any of our staff or freelancers gain relief through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance?  Getting answers to these questions is not easy, and often requires going through a lengthy and tiring process.

And some is a matter of personal availability. As a high-risk individual in a household with other high-risk concerns, I have to spend more time and mental effort ensuring that daily activities don’t introduce unacceptable health risks. That has so far eaten at least a little into free time nearly every day.

So, here’s how those challenges are currently impacting my ongoing projects.

RGG Crowdfunding Projects: At least at the moment, we don’t expect any significant delays to any open campaigns. There are potential problems we need to keep an eye on (if our chosen print On Demand printers stopped operations, for example, we’d have to consider how to pivot).

RGG Products: There are a lot of exciting things RGG has been working on, from the Talented Class line of products to more solo adventures. Anything that we haven’t already promised by a given date is going to be at the back of the line for our time and attention. We are still putting things out regularly, but some bigger projects we had hoped to launch are just going to have to wait.

52-in-52: When I put together the schedule for this ambitious subscription, I just didn’t allow for the impact of something like a global pandemic. While it’s ongoing and has produced a ton of content, we’ve already slipped by a week, had to push one project back, and it looks like we may slip by another week.
Rest assured, every subscriber will receive every one of the 52 pdfs promised, each presented in 4 versions for the 4 supported game systems. But it’s possible it’ll take us a bit longer than 52 weeks to get all 52 projects out.
That said we are looking at ways to get caught up, and I’ll update folks here if we have any news on that front. Otherwise, we’ll just keep producing products and sending them out to subscribers regularly.

Patreon/Blog: So far whenever I fall behind on the 5 days/week posts my Patrons are making possible, I add the missing content within a week. That remains the plan.

Grimmerspace: I’m still going to be doing a lot of design work and running a playtest for Grimmerspace. They have made their own statement about how the pandemic is affecting them.

Conventions: Right now, with regret, I am not planning on attending any cons this year.

Other Projects: I still have outstanding freelance to fulfill, and work to do as a developer for Green Ronin. That work is being impacted, obviously, but not in a way that should delay or cancel anything announced by those companies.

For those who want to know how they can help, the easiest way to assist me directly is by backing my Patreon. Even just a few dollars a month of reliable, regular income is a huge boon. Also I depend on companies like Green Ronin to make ends meet, and they are currently being hammered by things like printers shutting down, game store closings, and distributors opting to not pay for products shipped for weeks or months at a time. Buy anything from Green Ronin’s own online store or DriveThruRPG store is a big help for them, and therefore to me.

Thanks for your understanding.
Stay safe out there.

Owen K.C. Stephens