Category Archives: Business of Games

When You Run The Company, Nothing Takes “Just 10 Minutes”

Just coming off Gen Con, which gave me an opportunity to talk shop and history with many of the titans of tabletop, I want to offer some insight on what it’s like to be a manager, owner, or major executive employee at a tabletop game company.

I’ve worked on staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo. I’ve freelanced for a dozen other companies, and know many of their owners and executives very well. I’ve helped start, run, and shut down game companies. I’ve been doing this in different roles for more than 20 years.

This insight isn’t about one company. Nor is it about my own time constraints (in general my role is game creation and NOT these kinds of tasks)

This is about the tabletop RPG industry as a whole, as it has been for decades, in many different capacities, for many different companies.

First–you never have free time, or enough time. There is always an event coming up. Sometimes people have to walk away from one almost-week-long event that took 2 months to plan for to get on a plane to fly overseas for another such even. Sometimes people work 5-6 weekends in a row at events, conventions, sales meetings, open houses, and so on. Sometimes you have to work 30 8-10 hour days in a row.

And the people who do that work also have things that have to be done every weekday, every week, every month. It’s 40 hours of work if you are lucky, AND weekends of work (especially during March-August, the half the year we refer to as con “Season”), AND THEN emergencies that are time-sensitive and cannot wait.

And it’s a rough industry. Most of the game companies I bought things from 20 years ago don’t exist anymore. A lot of the ones I bought from 10 years ago don’t exist anymore. Even those that are still around sometimes suffer layoffs, or long periods where things are so risky that a single bad decision about which license to sign, which partner to anger, which friend-of-a-friend you annoy, which print run to cut back, which book to publish, can sink a company.

It’s high-stakes, high-stress, high-time-consumption, all the time.

I absolutely am not telling anyone they are not allowed to ever feel like a company isn’t giving them enough attention. But when there are serious problems, it’s wrong to think the company owners or senior staff are showing disrespect or proving they “don’t care about customers” because they “won’t just take 10 minutes and discuss some information.”

The people who make the decisions who keep the doors open at a tabletop game company can’t do anything regarding major problems off-the-cuff.

It’s never “just 10 minutes.”

And, again, I’m not currently dealing with any of these huge issues in my role at any company right now.

But I have in the past.

I know when I have had issues with licenses with other companies, when I was in other positions, I have had to not just decide “What do I want to say,” but:

“Do I need to warn my partners, who are also partners of a company i am having issues with, before I make a statement about that company’s issues??”

“Do I need to run this by my company’s owner?”

“Do I need to run it through our legal council?”

“Do we need to have a meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page about what has happened, and what our plans are?”

“Do I need to have editors go over my statement so it is clear and concise?”

“Would I rather take the 2-3 hours of collective time it is going to take to do this, or to sleep at least 6 hours tonight?”

And when the people who run these companies are too harried to make the right business decisions? People lose their jobs.

It’s not just a game, or a badly produced entertainment product for the people who depend on these jobs for health insurance, retirement income, and rent.

The thing you claim will be easy to give you?

Done right, it’s never just 10 minutes.

Done wrong, it can tank someone’s job.

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New Job: LWD’s Game Design Expert

I am pleased to announce I am now the Game Design Expert at Lone Wolf Development. (Sometimes, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting at #GenCon.)

While I expect to still be doing many other things as well, including freelance and running RGG, this position is now a major part of my career.

More news when it’s fit to print. 🙂

“Three If By Air”

Okay, this is one run at “Three if By Air, the Game of Revolutionary War Air Combat.”
Written by Owen K.C. Stephens, Illustrated by Stan!

The final may play nothing like this.

MAP

Play on a hex grid at least 22 x 36. Each player sprinkles a handful of coins (no more than 20, no less than 5) across the grid for terrain. These represent things sticking up into the air–steeples, treetops, flagpoles, and so on. (Look it’s the 1700s, You are fighting HIGH in the air!) Center each coin in a hex. If an attack you be traced through a hex with a coin, you can’t make that attack unless an ability says otherwise.

PLAYERS

Players — 2          Units — 6 each
Players — 3          Units — 4 each
Players — 4          Units — 3 each
Players — 5 or 6  Units — 2 each

Each player is British, or American. In 2, 4, and 6 player games, make teams of an even number of players. In 3 or 5 player games, it’s a free-for all (fog of war, and all that — the final game may include more factions such as Canadian Moose Dirigibles, Tidewater Steam Gliders, and Pogo-Armed Yetis, for all I know).

British players may have British or Hessian troops. American players may have American or French troops, but cannot have more French than American.

Make your units before play. You get 10 points. Divide them among these 5 attributes, which are used with combat characteristics, no more than 4 in any one attribute.

Attributes
Offense: Used with ATTACK.
Defense: Used with EVADE.
Toughness: Used with HEALTH.
Speed: Used with MOVE.
Accuracy: Used with RANGE.
.
COMBAT CHARACTERISTICS
ATTACK: For each attack, roll 1d6 and add your Offense. If the value exceeds your target’s Evade, the difference is the damage you do.
EVADE: Each time you are attacked, roll 1d6 an add your Defense to see if you are damaged.
HEALTH: You can take damage equal to 2 + double your Toughness value. If damage would reduce you below this number, that unit is removed from play.
MOVE: Determines both movement order and how far you can go. Each round you can move a number of hexes equal to 1d6 + your Speed, to a maximum of 7. If you choose not to ATTACK, you may move an additional 1d6 hexes in phase 2. You can always move less than your maximum (including moving 0).
RANGE: Each round at the beginning of Phase 2 you roll 1d6 -3, and add your Accuracy. On that Phase you can attack foes a number of hexes away equal to this number, to a minimum RANGE of 1.

UNITS

If you are AMERICAN, your units are Lightingrod Class War Kites. If on your first attack against a target your attack roll is a natural 6 (a 6 shows on the d6), you may also attack a second unit if it is within 6 hexes.

If you are BRITISH, your units as Beefeater Rocket Cavalry. You gain a +1 to attacks made against a target in an adjacent hex.

If you are FRENCH, your units are Hot Air Balloon Dragoons. When one of your units takes damage, it moves 1 hex in a direction of your choice.

If you are Hessian, your units are Trebuchet Infantry, lobbed into the air by ground forces each round. You may only move in a straight line each turn, and gain +1 ATTACk and +1 EVADE.

PLACEMENT

Each player picks one side of the map to begin on, in secret. All sides are then all revealed. If two or players pick the same side, and there is a side with fewer players having picked it, the players each roll a d6 (rerolling ties) and the one who rolls highest decides to stay or move 1 side clockwise to the nearest side with fewer players. After that, each other player in descending order of die rolls must  move 1 side clockwise to the nearest side with fewer players until there is not a side of the map with fewer players assigned to it.

The each player rolls 3d6 and totals them. In descending order of those die rolls, each player places 1 unit within 3 inches of their side of the map. Proceed through this order until all units are placed.

PLAY
Phase 1.
Everyone rolls their MOVE. The unit with the highest move may choose to go first, or wait and go last. If two units have a tied MOVE, they may defer to one another, or write down their movement and reveal them simultaneously to move simultaneously.

The unit with the next highest MOVE then decides to go immediately, or go last (or next-to-last if the highest MOVE is going last).
Proceed until everyone has moved.

Phase 2.

In order of MOVE, each unit rolls its RANGE, then attacks or moves another 1d6 hexes.
Proceed through all units, then the round is over, and go to Phase 1 of the next round.

RETREAT

If a player ever goes 3 rounds in a row without any unit making an ATTACK against a target in range, that player’s units are considered to have no taste for battle and retreat, and are removed from play.

VICTORY

If you have eliminated more than half of an opponent’s units, that opponent is eliminated and any remaining units are removed of play.

One side wins when all opposing sides have had all their units removed from play.

The Farewells Begin

Tonight, in about 25 minutes, is my “Farewell Diner” for Paizo.

I’ll be here for 2 more weeks, but this is my last chance to have all the remaining Starfinder team be present for what I see as a celebration of my time at Paizo, and Starfinder (and the people who worked on it) have been a crucial, defining part of that time.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but right now, as I face the first official memorial of 10% of my life, I wanted to express this.

Paizo has some of the greatest, most creative developers, writers, storytellers, and designers in the RPG industry. The art staff, customer service, warehouse staff, and project management all do amazing work trying to keep the actual company able to support those creative goals.

It is not easy. It is not painless. They work spectacularly hard, and emotions and investment in these products runs very high.

I Boomeranged back to Seattle, back into an RPG staff job, because I thought it would make me a better creator.

It has, by leaps and bounds that exceeded my wildest hopes.

But the people I work with, many who have gone on before me and many who are staying here after I am gone, have also made me a better person.

I’m going to have lots of conflicted feelings the first time I see the Paizo credits without my name listed among them.

But one of the strongest will be gratitude for what this time has meant for me.

Long after I am no longer an employee, I’ll remain a fan.

-Owen

Announcement: Change of Course

Well I don’t like TOO much preamble before getting to the point of the announcement, so here’s the tl;dr version.

My wife Lj has gotten a job in Indiana, working as an Executive Assistant for Lone Wolf’s vice-president. As a result, she and I are moving from WA to IN.

In fact, Lj is flying out to our new apartment (if you need our new address and don’t have it, drop me a line) on Saturday. June 15th. In 3 days.

I’ll be around for about a month in Redmond, and then go out to join her.

Inevitably some folks will have questions, so predicting them as best I can, and in no particular order:

Starfinder isn’t going anywhere. Paizo has lots of amazing, hard-working, and talented people on that game line, and they have known I was leaving for a bit now. We don’t know exactly how everything will get sorted out, but the game line and its products will continue.

I remain a huge fan of Paizo, Pathfinder (both editions), Starfinder, the Adventure Card Game, and even things I can’t talk about yet. I was a freelancer for Paizo for years before I was a full employee, and I expect to be freelancing for them again in the future.

While Lj getting a job is the reason for this change, yes, I have plans that involve other companies. But I’m not announcing any of them just yet. Rest assured, I am not leaving gaming behind.

Yes, this is why Rogue Genius Games is taking a short break. But in the long run, it’s not going anywhere. I have plans and plans, yet, for my tiny little gaming company, and its partners and allies.

Yes, that’s why I will be at Gen Con this year. I had decided not to do any out-of-state conventions in 2019. But that won’t be out-of-state by August.

If you have more questions, let them fly!

Five Years at Paizo

I have now been a full-time employee of Paizo for five years.

It both seems like it’s been much, much longer than that, and like it can’t possible have been that long.

I was hired to be a developer for the Pathfinder Modules line, and that lasted for all of a single module (Plunder & Peril), which was outlined and ordered before I showed up, written by awesome authors, and which both Paizo Editor-in-Chief at the time Wes Schneider and the entire Paizo editorial staff had to do a lot of hand-holding to get me through it. Then I moved over to help with the Player Companion line, which I eventually took over. The first book I was able to propose, outline, assign, develop, and shepherd through the whole process was Dirty Tactics Toolbox, and it remains something I am proud of. I developed or helped develop 24 titles in that line, covering a little more than two years. Again, it both feels like it was longer than that, and like I couldn’t possible have been doing that for two years.

During that time I was also the host for Paizo’s RPG Superstar contest, was the Freeport Developer for Green Ronin (and yes, that got complicated, and I appreciate more than I can ever express the trust both companies placed in me), a blogger, the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, a developer and then producer for Rite publishing, a freelance writers developer and consultant, the person who handled most of the development blogs for the Emerald Spire (leading to my “Into the Emerald Spire ongoing multi-year Con game, which will be played at the 6th PaizoCon in  row come next month), a seminar attendee, and as much as possible an advocate for the causes and people I thought needed allies.

(And as a ridiculously long parenthetical aside, I wish I had written something like this for my five-year anniversary with Green Ronin, who have been a loving and supportive family in ways I never would have predicted, and for Rogue Genius Games, which is still my baby. But those milestones hit at times when I didn’t have the words. I don’t want to take away from my main point, but nothing in the past five years has been simple, and I need some folks to know I love and appreciate them at a special level. Thanks Ronins. Thanks Stan! I would not have survived the past 60 months without you all.)

For five years, Paizo has been the focus of my social, professional, and financial life. I met new people. I made, and in a few cases lost to tragedy, close friends. I even had a “five year plan.” I thought I was on a specific path, and thought I knew where that would take me.

Then, Starfinder.

Which I never saw coming.

First the pre-game work, then the core rulebook, and now the work as Starfinder Design Lead. I’ve followed, collaborated, tried to lead, grown, and I hope helped others to grow. I am grateful for how amazing and talented all the people who work on Starfinder in all capacities are, and I am truly proud of a universe I have helped to begin. I look forward to seeing it evolve, especially watching the amazing things other people are doing to make it so much better than I imagined.

On the journey to be here, this arbitrary benchmark which has me writing passionately at 3:30am (and not at all for the first time), one moment sticks out in my mind.

In early 2014, on a phone call with Erik Mona about whether I would seriously give up the life of being a full-time freelancer in the extremely cheap and well-known environments of Oklahoma to take a full-time job for Paizo, he asked me why I wanted the job.

“I want to grow. I want to be around people who do work I admire. I want to meet new people, learn new skills, and do new things. I love Pathfinder, and I love Paizo. I want to help both of those things be better, and I can’t imagine a better place for me to be around successful people who can help me be better.”

It was, Erik said at the time, a great answer.

And, it has proven to be a great success in terms of making me a better person.

The past five years has certainly not been without its challenges, frustrations, pains, fights, and failures. But especially on the my year anniversary, I want to take special care to thank EVERYONE I have ever worked with since I joined Paizo, from managers and publishers and the warehouse crew and art department, editors, designers, developers, and owners, to freelancers and the community and Superstar contestants, for being so helpful, and welcoming, and awesome.

I look forward to the next five years, and all the challenges and opportunities they will bring.

Owen K.C. Stephens,

Starfinder Design Lead, Paizo, Inc.

What is the Secret of Social Media Engagement? The Answer May Surprise You!

Honestly, I don’t think clickbait titles (yes, like the one of this article) work that well anymore. At least, not at the few-thousand-followers level I am at. I suspect the rules are different both for people with fewer than 500 followers, and those with 100,000 or more.

In my experience, the secret to getting people to engage with you on social media (which is not the same as monetizing them, or getting them to respond to call to action, though it an be an element of those things) is twofold.

First, offer more content than requests or pitches. That makes people think of your primarily as a source, rather than an ad.

Second, when you want a high level of engagement, post something that both invites response, and that causes those responses to be more content. But that isn’t too difficult.

For example: “Change one word in a movie title to ‘fart.”

Yes, it’s juvenile. So, try to make your engagement posts on-brand. But a TON of people will happily post “Fart Wars!” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Fart!” and be amused.

That means people are reading, and liking, and posting, and then the social media platform is more likely to show it to other people, and THEY will engage, and…

Experiment with what your audience likes, and do more of those. But not too often.

Then, try to monetize your followers separately, with things like:

ENJOYED THIS? BACK MY PATREON!

Creating SuperMemes

Superhero/comic book worlds often build off their pasts with legacies and spin-offs. A good example of this are the X-Men, who have an X-Gene that gives them mutant powers, are trained by professor X, and have had groups such as X-Factor and eXcalibre.

It may all seem a bit eXcessive, but it also greats a throughline readers can use to quickly understand how these individuals and groups are related.

So if you are going to build something for a superhero setting, why not put in the thought on how to turn a single idea into a whole meme? A set of related concepts you, and readers and players, can expand on over time.

Here’s a particularly obvious example you can build an entire set of superhero groups and concepts around: AB-Humans

The rise of “Advanced Biology” Humans, or AB Humans, was troubling and unexpected. It lead to the rise of mega-geniuses, extreme mutations, and people with true superpowers.

And, of course, costumed heroes and villains.

Doctor Amanda Bryant, a powerful telepath sometimes called “Doctor AB” tried to train some of the most powerful ABs to control their abilities and use them for the benefit of mankind. In an effort to show that this could be the standard, she called them the Normal AB Example.

The press quickly dubbed them the AB-Normals, and bigotry and fear dogged them constantly.

Doctor AB’s old colleague, Erica Magus, saw that society would never trust ABs, and knew that only armed resistance could protect this minority. She took in ABs no one else would give a chance, even those who had turned to crime and rage to survive, and made them her Knight Errants.

The AB-Errants.

Since then both groups have spun off side teams, the AB-Solvers and AB-Stainers, and AB-used being the best known.

PATREON
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Writing Basics: Tell Publishers Why They Should Care

I did a two part article on RPG pitches, but there is always going to be associated information I think of later.

Like this.

If you are trying to get a publisher (or developer, editor, producer–anyone who could pay you for words) to accept a pitch of yours, tell them why they should care about it.

Compare the following pitches for “State of the Union,” a hypothetical Starfinder adventure.

Pitch One

I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. What appears at first to just be normal academic pranks turns out to be  the cover for a major organized crime operation, and only the PCs can stop it!

The adventure would be 32 pages long, and I could have it completed in 3 months.

Pitch Two

I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be  the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!

The adventure would be 32 pages long, have 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available.

Pitch Three

Among the projects I think might be a good match for your company is a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) titled “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be  the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!

I envision this as 32 pages long and needing 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available. It could also be adjusted to be longer or shorter, to fit your production needs. The core of this adventure comes from my experiences as the manager for the parking garage of the University of Oklahoma Student Union in the 1990s. During my 20-years as an RPG designer I have considered designing it for d20 Modern and Star Wars Saga Edition, but what has always been missing before are elements now available with the Starfinder RPG.

Pitch Four

So, this one is special. It was written in response to this article by Steven Marsh.

If you want to learn about RPGs and how they work, you should already know who Steven Marsh is. If you don’t, go look him up. But the main thing is that he was editor of Pyramid Magazine for 18 YEARS!

Steven has seen more RPG pitches than I will in a lifetime. If you ignore everything I wrote here, PAY ATTENTION to his much-better version (reprinted with his kind permission).

.

Dear Editor,

I’ve reviewed your submission guidelines and hope you’ll consider a new entry for your line of adventures under the Starfinder Compatibility License.

THE PITCH: Intrigued by seemingly mundane academic pranks, the heroes soon discover these deeds are cover for a major organized crime operation. With no one else taking this life-and-death threat seriously and the clock ticking down, only the spacefarers can infiltrate the multi-species student union and save the day . . . hopefully before the evening’s Zero-G-Pong Charity Fundraiser!

SPECIFICS: This is a lighthearted scenario close in tone to your adventures “Toastmaster Emperor” and “Pair of Dice Lost.” Designed as a combat-light standalone adventure for 4-6 low-level heroes, it can also serve as a followup to “Toastmaster Emperor.” It’s outlined at 31 non-title pages: 6 pages of background, 20 pages of encounters centered around two locales, and 5 pages of new gear and adversaries. It requires 2 maps; I could provide basic InDesign or JPG files, which can either be used as is or form the basis for more “professional” efforts.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to your thoughts!

The Takeaway

You CAN put in too much information, and Pitch Three is pushing what i consider to be the upper bounds. But letting a potential publisher know you have done your homework,  you have relevant real-world experience, and this isn’t your first rodeo are all useful additions to what you are pitching and why.

Waste Nothing

Also, as much as possible, reuse any work you have already done and still have the rights to (though clear that with your publisher, if it’s ever been seen by the public before) and write things you can use multiple ways.

For example, I WAS the manager of the OU Student Union parking garage in the 1990s, and I DO have an idea for an adventure called “State of the Union.” So, if a publisher asked me about this article, I could confirm those details.

(Though I DON’T have an outline. Yet…)

PATREON
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Writing Basics: Learn from Your Mistakes. Or Else.

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…

Oh.

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.

I did.

With apologies to baby George Washington.

Good luck out there. Be kind to your editors.

PATREON
If you get use out of or enjoy any of the content on this blog, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!