Category Archives: Business of Games

This is What Victory Looks Like

So, WotC has announced they are leaving OGL 1.0a completely alone.

https://www.dndbeyond.com/posts/1439-ogl-1-0a-creative-commons

AND releasing the 5.1 SRD under CC.

YOU did this. Congratulations!

There’s a lot to talk about in “Now what” territory, but I’ll get to that later this weekend, after I have had some time to process.

For now, I thank WotC for listening to the fans and industry as a whole. A lot of people said this would never happen. It’s to WotC’s credit that they decided not to keep pushing this.

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WotC Cannot Deauthorize the OGL 1.0a, and That Matters

There’s a new OGL draft, 1.2, which WotC has released for discussion.

It still claims WotC has the power to stop people from using the OGL 1.0a by “de-authorizing” it. That’s not a term acknowledged by the OGL 1.0a, and it’s not one with a legal meaning.

WotC is still trying to take away the promises of the OGL 1.0a, and that is 100% unacceptable. (The short version of why is if someone gives you 20 things for you to use however you want, and promise never to take any away, then they say they are taking back 18 of them anyway, it is NOT a victory if they decide to only take 12, or even only take 1. And WotC should be well aware of this.)

First, while some base set of rules is supposedly going to be released on a Creative Commons license, that explicitly does not cover things like Magic Missile and Owlbears. WotC opted to release those concepts under the OGL 1.0a, and did so multiple times over the years. They don’t now get to claim can force you to use a new license rather than follow the old one.

Second, their claim they “have to” to prevent “harmful, discriminatory, or illegal” is spurious at best. If you publish *illegal* content, obviously they have legal options to stop you. As far as “harmful” and “discriminatory” go, a huge part of making something Open is to prevent a corporation from getting to decide what is in good taste.

The license specifically forbids “obscene” material, without defining it. If you decide to include a happy gay owlbear couple, Wotc can say that it’s obscene under OGL 1.2 and cancel your license. That’s not a power they reserved for themselves under 1.0a, and given big corporations’ track records, there’s no guarantee they won’t abuse the power if it is given to them.

Third, they restrict the OGL 1.2 to “any content in the SRD 5.1 (or any subsequent version of the SRD we release under this license) that is not licensed to you under Creative Commons.”

So WotC is claiming you can’t do *anything* with the 3.0. 3.5, and d20 Modern SRDs. They are not part of the CC release. They are not allowed under OGL 1.2. Also, of course, they’re shutting off OGL products built off Open d6, Fate, Fudge, and other game systems released under OGL 1.0a that WotC had absolutely no hand in creating.

So when the survey opens? If you can fill it out without making a D&D Beyond account, do so and tell them this is 100% unacceptable. The only reason to attempt to invalidate the OGL is to steal back rights that were openly and freely given, which WotC has significantly benefited from, and which entire careers were built in reliance on.

That bad faith effort must be refused and fought.

And if you can’t fill the survey without making an account? That’s also a bad faith measure, and will call for strenuous protest to keep this debate in the public.

And ALL of those efforts must focus on the actions of WotC itself, NOT on attacking WotC staff or spreading rumors. At this point, WotC is telling use exactly what they are planning to do, and that’s the ground to fight them on.

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Because I need to encourage people to sign up for my Patreon to pay for the time I take to write the material in this blog, I have taken to making Tuesday and Thursday posts Patreon-exclusive. But the issue of the safe continuance of the OGL 1.0a is too important to paywall my thoughts, so I’m breaking my own rules and making this freely and publicly available.

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Now On Patreon: “In Times of Wars,” The Pros and Cons of Being on the Outside

My Tuesday posts are currently Patreon-exclusive. That’s an intentional carrot to get more people to join my Patreon, and once it’s risen to $1,500/month, I’ll both go back to posting Tuesday posts for free here on my blog as well as on my Patreon, and I’ll make and maintain some article index for my Patreons (the carrot to encourage Patrons to see if their friends want to join).

So when I do Tuesday posts at the moment, I try to give enough information on what it is about and where it’s going that people who read my free blog can decide if they want join up for a few bucks a month to read the end.

I’m doing the reverse, this time. The premise on why and how I can to the following conclusion is the meat of today’s Patreon-exclusive article. The tl;dr I ended with I’m going to post here, for everyone to read if they wish.

TL;DR –

War is messy, and people are going to get hurt. Consider that very carefully before taking the first shot, or joining some brigade.

But not opposing wrongdoing when your best analysis of a situation says it’s coming allows bullies to win.

I don’t believe there’s a perfect answer here.

OGLpocalypse: WotC’s Response To The Public Wrath At Their Bad Faith Is Not NEARLY Enough

I have talked about OGL facts before, but not previously written an opinion piece here on my blog about the bad faith efforts WotC prepared to try to force people to give up the OGL 1.0s, which has driven the creation of tens of thousands of products over 23 years, in favor of a draconian “OGL 1.1” which would bad for anyone who agreed to it.

If you aren’t up to speed on this, check out Linda Codega’s articles here, here, here, and here. They are at the front of this developing story.

So, here’s the big kicker on why today’s official WotC response is unacceptable. A non-starter that even with the tiny concession they want to use to turn down the heat of anger directed at them by the community doesn’t even begin to address the root of the real problem with what they are trying to do. Taken from the very first paragraph of their response today.

“And third, we wanted to ensure that the OGL is for the content creator, the homebrewer, the aspiring designer, our players, and the community—not major corporations to use for their own commercial and promotional purpose.”

No.

Fuck you, WotC corporate. You DON’T get to ensure that, and the fact you want to means you still think you can change the rules on how people interact with and use the OGL.

You released SRDs for 3.5, d20 Modern, and 5.1 under OGL 1.0a. That license was NOT released with any restrictions on who could use it, and you know it.

The OGL 1.0a was designed to be something you couldn’t force people away from — could NOT force them to used a changed version of it — and you know it.

The OGL doesn’t allow anyone to make “D&D” products with content you object to, as they can’t even mention the name of your game, much less use its logo, and you know it.

You’ve benefited from the ubiquity of each edition of D&D you released an SRD for, reaped profits as a result, and you know it.

You don’t get to bully or bamboozle people into changes now, because you don’t like what the OGL 1.0a means for your current business plans.

[EDIT]

I feel it would intellectually dishonest not to include this, written 12 or so hours later. I’m not walking back anything I said above, but I have to acknowledge that writing the above happened on the same day I wrote the below.

“The ttRPG industry is small.

One thing that means is that dozens of people asked me to be one shows, consult on the future, or lead on the OGL issue. I have done my best.

But ANOTHER thing it means is I have hurt friends and family-of-choice in the process.

That was never my intent, but some soul-searching tells me I didn’t give that possibility the weight of consideration I should have.
Would I have done things differently? I don’t know, but I should have given it more thought.

Apologies don’t undo harm, but I’m sorry folks.

That said, I need to step back and ponder the current reality very, very carefully.

So, I’m taking the next few days off from any OGL-related news, links, or posts. I’ll wake up Tuesday, and see what I think I need to do for my career, industry… and friends.

ALL my friends.”

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Writing the things that appear on this blog, be they game material, worldbuilding, thought experiments, or insight into the game industry, takes time. That time is solely paid for with the support of people who join my Patreon, or buy a cup of funding for me through my Ko-fi. If you find any of my content useful or entertaining, please consider adding your support so I can keep doing this.

Some Facts About the OGL (1.0 and 1.0a)

With the excellent article written by Linda Codega, and the video released by Roll For Combat that brought in a contract lawyer, there is a lot of news about WotC’s (Wizards of the Coast) plans for a “OGL 1.1” and why it is an act of bad faith on the part of WotC if they go forward with it.

So I’m not going over all that again here.

What I DO want to do is present some groundwork for what the OGL is, and isn’t, and what WotC have said about it in the past. This is an editorial by me, based in factual information, and is not itself part of the OGL content on this blog.

1. WotC themselves wrote an FAQ about how the OGL was to be used, back in 2004. This is important, because it shows (for example) that they were of the opinion if they changed the OGL publishers could ignore their new version, and that the OGL could be used for software. Obviously WotC doesn’t host that FAQ anymore, but the Wayback Machine has the original archived for us to all read and draw out own conclusions.

2. There is a huge difference between the OGL and the various SRDs (System Resource Documents). The OGL is not tied to any one game system or product release (see Point 3, below). For example, none of the D&D core rulebooks has ever been released under the OGL. Instead, pared-down versions of the rules for D&D 3.0. 35, D20 Modern, and 5e had SRDs released (and the Psionics handbooks back in 3.x days).

3. The OGL does not just cover products that are designed for use with D&D. For one thing, there are game systems that have been released under the OGL that were not created by WotC, and have no ties to any edition of D&D, including d6 Adventures, Fudge, and Fate.
There are also numerous complete RPGs that are their own things, separate from D&D, including Pathfinder, Starfinder, Mutants & Masterminds, and 13th Age, just to name a few.

4. It’s entirely up to WotC whether or not they release a One D&D SRD. If they don’t, those rules aren’t open. And they could release it under a totally separate license, unrelated to the OGL 1.0a. So, WotC is not under any threat from people using genuinely new rules from One D&D using the existing OGL. (Of course they have said One D&D will be compatible with 5e, so that raises a question if they are *new* rules, and if there aren’t, that might speak to motive on their part.)

5. The OGL does not allow anyone to mention D&D, WotC, the Forgotten Realms, or any other trademarks, or emulate any trade dress. So WotC does not need to worry about the OGL allowing people to associate repugnant material with D&D — all the brands trademarks, characters, and stories, of D&D are off-limits to OGL users, as are many even iconic creatures such as beholders and mind flayers.

6. WotC always knew the OGL would be used by their major competitors to make big profits. The OGL was shared with numerous representatives of various companies before it was made public. I was part of the email chain that was used by Ryan Dancey to do that. And it’s why Sword & Sorcery Studios (a newly-created division of White Wolf, a major ttRPG publisher at the time) was able to put out the Creature Collection in October of 2000, *before* the official 3.0 Monster Manual got published.

7. WotC benefitted from the existence of the OGL. They crafted it, with the knowing intent it would last forever, as part of their D&D relaunch business plan.

But don’t believe me. Believe Keith Strohm (and learn about why you care about his opinion on it in this fireside chat with Peter Adkison, president of WotC when the OGL was created). This is from a comment Keith made on Facebook, and is shared with his permission.

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Root of the Problem (A Pathfinder 1e Mini-Adventure)

I recently applied for a full-time, remote, full-benefits, game writing position at Foundry. (One thing I have learned in this industry is that you need to keep up with changing needs and markets.) While I didn’t make the final cut, I did get far enough along to do a timed writing test. I was given instructions at 10am by email, and had to return my work by noon. The test called for an adventure in any game system I wished, that included a missing druid as part of the plot and at minimum one encounter that included investigation, one that included talking to an NPC, and one that was potentially a fight. The main prompt was “The wilderness surrounding a remote town has become perilous. Wildlife that previously avoided contact with humans is now overcome with some form of madness or disease, attacking townsfolk with reckless ferocity. A local druid and longtime protector of the region has gone missing. The protagonists are tasked with investigating the nature of this affliction and resolving it, if possible.”

Obviously, with just two hours for a complete adventure I just managed a “first draft” level of manuscript. But I thought people might be interested in what a produced. So, with Foundry’s express permission, here is “Root of the Problem,” a Pathfinder 1st -edition Mini-Adventure for 3-4 characters of 1st level. By Owen K.C. Stephens.

(Art by Chaotic Design Studio, and not part of the original writing test)

Adventure Background
The Crosstimbers are a dense and ancient forest, filled with towering evergreen trees that rise up to 300 feet tall, smaller trees that grow in clumps so tight that their limbs cross and weave together to form natural platforms, and dense, thorny underbrush that is often impassable to anything larger than a rabbit. They are also the site of an ancient battle thousands of years ago, between a powerful necromancer queen and a court of faeries. Though relics of this battle are mostly buried deep beneath the roots and moss of the forest, their influence can sometimes reach up to the surface level.

One such ancient power is the Grave of Lord Vaugir, also known as the Baron of Stakes. A powerful wight warrior who served the necromancer queen, Vaugir had a particular hatred of vampires (even those who were theoretically his allies), and carried a number of wooden stakes he used to both unsure those he killed would not raise as vampires naturally, and to destroy any vampire he could successfully accuse of treachery to their queen. Lord Vaugir was slain by a group of faerie Swan Knights, and buried in a stone tomb hundreds of feet below the surface. While Vaugir himself remains trapped in the tomb, a few roots of one redwood have cracked one corner of his burial vault, and been tainted by his undead powers.

This influence has not gone unnoticed, as the dwarven druid Ferron Ironbark has long known one of the Crosstimber’s mighty trees was fighting some dread infection. Ironbark has monitored the tree for decades, doing his best to heal and nurture it in the hopes it would overcome what ailment was attacking it. However, at the last new moon, the necromantic energy finally took control of one of the redwood’s roots right at the surface becoming the Grave Root and, when Ferron came to visit it, it impaled him through the heart. Ferron’s apprentice, a brownie named Rumpleridge, managed to drag Ferron back to the druid’s grove, and has watched over the body to ensure it won’t rise as some form of undead.

The Grave Root still does not control more than one short length of the redwood it is attached to. It cannot free itself, and cannot, yet, taint the entire massive tree it’s attached to. However, it can reach a spring adjacent to where the redwood grows, and has been tainting that water for a month now. The spring is a common watering hole for native fauna, which are also being tainted by the Grave Root’s power. This makes them ravenously hungry and much more aggressive than usual, but also causes them to work together and not attack one another regardless of the natural instincts.

Not far from Ferron’s grove is the town of Highmoss-On-The-Hill (often just referred to as “Highmoss”), a walled settlement just outside the Crosstimbers. The people of Highmoss have long been on good terms with Ferron, and work to maintain a sustainable relationship with the Crosstimbers. They gather herbs and wild mushrooms, hunt only as much food as they can eat, drag out dead timber for their own use, and make sure any foray into the forest is able to come home before nightfall. While an occasional attack by minor monsters or wild animals is not unknown, in the past month anyone who stays in the Crosstimbers for more than 2-3 hours has suffered an attack by wolves, wolverines, a bear, or even packs of apparently-rabid squirrels. No one has seen Ferron (and the town is unaware he has died), and in recent days some townsfolk have been attacked within sight of Highmoss’s walls, not even within the Crosstimbers.

The Town Council has decided someone must venture into the Crosstimbers are travel to Ferron’s Grove, a 6-hour trip down a well-known path, and speak to the druid. This group should confer with Ferron, determine what is going on, and if possible assist him in fixing it. The more experienced hunters in town who would normally undertake such a missing are missing or too injured from wildlife attacks to attempt it, so the PCs have been chosen to do so. It is the height of summer, and daylight lasts 15 hours from sunup to sundown. If the PCs hurry it is hoped they can enter the Crosstimbers at dawn, consult with Ferron, solve the issue, and return before sundown.

Random Encounters
Wandering around the Crosstimbers is genuinely much more dangerous than usual, and there’s a chance the PCs may encounter some of the fauna that has been affected by the water tainted by the Grave Root. Until the water source is cleaned, for each hour the PCs are exploring the Crosstimbers there is a 20% chance of the PCs being confronted by one of following random
encounters. That chance doubles at night, and is halved if the PCs have been confronted by an
encounter in the past hour.
[Insert CR ½-1 random animal encounters here]

The Dead Hunter
The trail is marred by the smell of blood and signs of a vicious fight. Torn leather and cloth are scattered about, and a few tufts of black fur sit matted in old pools of blood.

This is the location where a Highmoss senior hunter, Apaxus Longshank, was attacked and killed by a pack of black wolves tainted by the spring next to the Grave Root. His body was dragged off the trail when they ate him, and a DC 10 Survival check to track or DC 15 Perception check to spot signs of the drag marks can locate him.

Examining the body show bite marks that can be identified as wolves, but the more significant clues are on Longshank’s own weapons. He fought with a masterwork handaxe and shortsword, which are still clutched in what’s left of his hands. They are bloody from the fight, but the blood is streaked with dark, oily slime. A DC 10 Knowledge (religion) check reveals this is necroplasm, a material sometimes used in place of blood by undead creatures. Finding it mixed with actual blood suggests the attacking wolves had been tainted by undead energy, but not yet true undead.

The Grove of Ferron Ironbark
The dense canopy of leaves and branches above break open, and light shines down to reveals a small, neat grove just off the path. There is a round hut with neatly fitted stone walls, a low, wide wooden door, and a roof apparently made of interwoven tree leaves and needles. A firepit sits in the middle of the clearing, with a wooden framework holding a small iron cauldron and
kettle side-by-side above it, but there is no fire now.

To one side of the clearing a neat pile of rocks has been build in an elongated dome roughly five feet long and three feet high. Laying next to it is a short humanoid, no taller than a human’s knee, with a bulbous head topped with a pointed felt cap.

This is the grove of Ferron Ironbark, but now it is his burial place. The brownie Rumpleridge build a stone cairn for his teacher and friend Ferron, and guards it all day and night. Rumpleridge won’t notice or acknowledge the PCs unless they call out to him, and even then, he’s slow to realize who they are or what they want. But eventually his enormous tear-streaked eyes will focus on them, and he’ll answer their questions as best he can. Rumpleridge wants to honor his teacher’s alliance with Highmoss, but is unwilling to leave the cairn for any reason. He plans to stay here through the summer and fall, and only come winter will he consider moving on.

Rumpleridge knows the general backstory of the Crosstimbers, but not the details of Lord Vaugir’s tomb or creeping influence. He does know Ferron was convinced some ancient, deeply buried evil was tainting a specific redwood an hour from the grove, at a major watering hole, and that a root from that tree impaled the druid. He gets tearful when he admits he saw the event,
and that it took all his strength and cunning to drag Ferron back home, and bury him.

Rumpleridge knows animals are going rogue, and can confirm that behavior began when Ferron was killed. It doesn’t occur to Rumpleridge that the Grave Root is infecting the nearby watering hole, but he does mention the infected redwood is “By the main watering hole in this section of woods,” and if a PC asks if the watering hole could be the source of the problem, Rumpleridge agrees the animals becoming vicious are all ones that would periodically drink there. As Ferron had been checking on the tainted redwood for decades, there is a well-worn path leading from the clearing here to the watering hole.

If attacked or pushed too hard to render aid, Rumpleridge will use his brownie powers to harass and confuse the PCs, but he won’t risk harming them. If he must, he flees into the Crosstimbers, and only returns to the cairn after the PCs have left.

The Grave Root
A large pond sits in a low point in the forest, a short outcropping of rocks surrounding it to the north and west, and the roots of a mighty redwood bordering it to the south and east. The surface of the pond’s water seems oily and black, with dark swirls spinning within it though there seems to be no breeze or current to cause the movement. At the southern edge of the pond, one root among the masses is darker, wetter, and more gnarled than the others, it’s 10-15 foot length pulsing slightly. The tip of the root moves, dipping itself into the pool to release a black ooze that joins the oily darkness covering all the water. The root then curls up, rising like a wooden tentacle, and sways back and forth.

The Grave Root uses the stats for a Draugir (HP 19, Bestiary 2), but with the following changes.
It has 15 feet of reach. It is immobile. It can fire a hunk of its own rotting bark as a target as a ranged attack that uses its slam attack, but has a range increment of 20 feet.

If the Grave Root notices the PCs, it immediately attacks. If destroyed, it breaks down into rotting mulch, and the oily blackness begins to clear from the water (taking 2-3 hours to be fully gone). If a PC drinks the water before it is clear, they are immediately confused and affected by the rage spell for 1d10 minutes.

The oily material on the pond is necroplasm, and PCs who found Longshank’s body can identify it as the same as was in the blood on his weapons. Without the Grave root, the water will run clear within hours, and the tainted animals return to normal within a few days.

Continuing the Adventure
Dealing with the Grave Root eliminated the immediate problem, but the risk presented by Lord Vaugir’s tomb remains. Striking up a friendship with Rumpleridge can help explore the region and safely travel further into the Crosstimbers. Seeking a senior member of the faerie court that claims rulership over the forest may reveal the true nature of the evils buried beneath it, and
lead to finding and dealing with Lord Vaugir, and other threats like him.

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Developer Basics: The Art Brief

I got asked by William Patrick Peña about Art Briefs on Twitter today, and I realized it’s a topic I’ve never talked about much. It falls in the same kind of category as my “Writing Basics” line of articles for ttRPG creators…except writers aren’t normally asked to write art briefs for their work. There are exceptions of course (ranging from one-person shops to small groups that want to divide the workload to companies that just do things differently), but in my experience most often an art brief is created by a developer, art director, graphic designer, publisher, producer, or content editor (depending a lot on how work is divided and what titles are used for what roles within a company).

So I’m calling this a “Developer Basics” article, though I’m still tagging it as Writing Basics in the blog categories and tags.

I don’t have a LOT of advice on this topic – it really is an area where doing is the best form of learning. But I do have a few, so here they are.

First, the what.

An art brief, also sometimes called an art order, art description, or graphics order, is a written description of non-text elements needed for a book. This is very likely to include the cover art, and interior illustrations of various sizes (often broken down as full-page, half-page, quarter-page, and spot art… but not always).

Second, WHOEVER you are doing art briefs for, ask how they write them, see if you can get some examples, and follow their lead. This may be as specific as format (I have done art orders in Word, Google Docs, Excel, Discord, Asana, Slack, Basecamp, and even a few forms of proprietary software designed specifically to receive art briefs). There may be rules about the budget, where are can come from (which is often handled by an art director rather than a developer… but not always), how much you can fit into a size of art (such as requiring quarter-pagers to be just a single figure with absolutely no background, or spot art to only be a single object such as one piece of equipment, or one distant shot of a simple building like a tower). There may be rules about orientation (landscape vs portrait, specific proportions, the need for a border that can potentially be cut or obscured, and so on). No one will thank you for deviating from a publisher’s format without prior approval.

Third, be aware an art brief may or may not include map sketches. While almost no one expects a writer or developer to be able to create a print-ready quality map (although some incredibly talents devs, myself very much not included, are capable of doing so), professional cartographers won’t put *anything* on a map unless it is clearly marked. If you want wrecked cars in a street, they need to be on the sketch and be clearly marked what they are. If you want them to be different types of cars, you need to say so. Trap doors, wood vs stone textures, rugs, chairs — it all needs to be clearly marked on a map sketch.

The timing of an art brief can also vary wildly by company. Some want art briefs done before writing is even finished on a manuscript, because art can take a lot of time to get in, and the publisher wants time for revisions. Others prefer for the final layout to be done or near-done, so it’s easy to see what pages need art, and what size and shape they need.

Be aware that not every artist has English as a first language, Avoid idioms and euphemisms if possible. These aren’t always obvious. I was once shown a piece of art that came from an art brief for a “man-eating tree.” It was a man, sitting in a forest, with a fork and knife, eating a tree.

Think about how posture, accessories, and form may impact the shape and space of a piece of art. A single figure in a quarter-page illustration of a woman with a rapier may seem simple enough, but if the woman is doing a drop-thrust with a rapier at full extension, she’s going to take up a lot more room.

Keep track in a written, searchable format of choices about gender representation, ethnicity, body type, age, and other factors. It’s up to you to decide if you want all your men to be heroic warriors and all your women to be scantily-dressed seductress witches (don’t do that, by the way), but it’s super-easy to not notice a trend unless you have these factors written down. And if you ever think you might have to fight for a decision that’s important to you, being able to point out that out of 27 character illos in a book you only made one obese, bespectacled, and bald can be useful ammunition.

Be aware that artists will generally default to what they are asked for most often if you don’t specify otherwise. If you don’t specify an ethnicity, they’ll be Caucasian. If you say they should be “brown,” they’ll be tan Caucasians. If you don’t specify body type, they’ll be fit and attractive. And if you don’t call out in the strongest terms that a woman should be illustrated with “no skin showing other than on her face, neck, and hands,” (and yes, I evolved that exact language to combat this trend), there’s a really good chance all women will be sexualized, with exposed cleavage and bare thighs.

Art references can help. If I want an estoc, specifically, I need to send the artist a visual example or link to the same. If you want a man to have strong African features and natural hair with a fade, you need to be clear on what that looks like.

Also, if you are doing any hairstyles outside your own personal experience, research them. A lot of hair styles mean something to the cultures they come from. Don’t assign them without some idea what statement you are making to people you are now representing in art.

Similarly, keep track of and think about the message your art sends. If all goblins are barefoot and have bones in their hair, you are presenting them as both uncivilized, and tied to racist caricatures of African natives. Don’t do that. Also, don’t pick an ethnicity or culture and make them exclusive to the visual style of your villains and evil cults. Yes, this is a lot of things to keep in mind while trying to describe the visuals for a imaginary world. but representation matters, normalization matters, and the message you are sending in visual form to people in different groups?

It matters.

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ADDED CONTENT!
The following are art brief tips by veteran developer AND artist, Stan!

Art Brief Tips:

• Come up with a CONCEPT for the piece rather than trying to imagine exactly what it should look like.

• A piece of art is a snapshot of a single moment, not a flowing scene of actions and results.

• Keep the description as short as possible. A sentence or two if possible.

• Include only the details that are NECESSARY. The artist can’t tell the difference between a key element and a “colorful addition.”

Guest Blog: Going Gray at the Table

From time to time I highlight opinion pieces written by other folks in the industry who are interested in having their thoughts hosted on my blog. This one is by gamer and writer Dan Gallo.

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

Twilight of the Old Gods: Going Gray at the Table

By Dan Gallo

“Oh cool, my dad plays that.” 

That was the horrifying response I got when I told a young man I used to play Vampire the Masquerade. 

I was sitting at a bar and talking about what it was like to LARP in the One World by Night organization back in the 90s and early 2000s. OWbN, as we used to call it, was this huge shared universe game that had hundreds of LARPs across the US, all playing stories connected to the Mind’s Eye Theatre system from White Wolf Games. You could play as a reality-hacking Mage, snarling Werewolf, angel-powered Hunters, and countless other kinds of supernatural beasts. Vampire the Masquerade was my poison at the time and it was my obsession. You will never understand how many hours I squandered in a black trenchcoat pretending to be a bloodsucking creature in student unions around the Midwest.

Then one of the people I was talking to suddenly decided to choose violence and drop that Dad line on me. It socked me in the gut as I realized that the person who said this to me was roughly the same age I did my LARPing. I turn forty this year and I never felt older than when I heard those words.

No one likes to think about getting older or talk about what happens when they become the “elder statesman” of their gaming group, but for many gamers, that’s something we’ve had to deal with. The first generation of table toppers and dice chuckers are now in their 80s and 90s  and our hobby, a thing that feels artificially youthful to many of us, predates the invention of the personal computer by about three years.

We, the OGs who remember when this stuff wasn’t cool, are all old now and our hobby looks nothing like I remember it. Celebrities play this game and being a DM is actually a thing that can make you cool in high school. People casually talk about what kind of halfling rogue they play and how neat it was that they adopted Boblin the Goblin. RPGs have podcasts and video blogs and it has turned one group of voice actors into celebrities. Do you know how many times I have heard that weird guy from Dimension20 do that “Laws are threats” monologue? I’ve actually lost count. 

That guy has his own subreddit, by the way. 

With aging comes anger and annoyance. You start to build these ad hominem attacks on things that were never supposed to be your enemy in the first place. Often I find myself reacting to newness with a knee-jerk sense of grumpy rage. It can feel like I’m indulging in these invisible anger fantasies that came straight out of an internet message board. 

Oh, yeah, says the voice in my head, 5e has really shiny books but they sucked every piece of crunch out of the damned thing because they don’t teach math in schools anymore! I’m a veteran of the Edition Wars and you’ll pry 3.5 out of my cold, dead hands! Everybody on Critical Role was already rich. I’ve been gaming for years and no one gave me a cartoon show. Grrr eat the young!

I swear that at times it’s like there’s an elderly Incredible Hulk living inside me who reacts with anger at other people who just want to learn what I already know. I look around my gaming store and get irrationally angry None of you knows how to fight a gazebo, I think, and I refuse to explain to you fetuses what that means. Google it, you cowards! 

When I find myself slipping into that line of thinking, I have to pull back and realize what I am doing. I feel like I am being overthrown in my own hobby, not because of anything that’s actually happening but because of how I feel about myself. It’s misplaced anger and it’s silly. 

The better reaction is to acknowledge that kids are different, their worldviews are different, and that I, as a grown-up, have the chance to save them from the mistakes I have made. My conversation in that bar sent me on a google spiral that ended in me reading the latest edition of VtM and discovering all of the racist garbage that they took out of the game and feeling a sense of pride. New players to the game I really loved won’t have to read about dark brown vampires who get darker with age or the fact that someone decided that the African vampires are all drug dealers. 

Yes, that was all in the original books, and thank god it is gone. 

Still, you change as you get older, and not always for the better. There is a depressing sense that you are fading from view sometimes like you’re being colored into the background with gray paint. This meme is going around on Facebook about how we’ll all be tossing dice at the retirement home and how awesome that will be. It’s a nice idea but I know the truth: it won’t be as much fun. We won’t be using the newest systems, whatever that will be, we’ll be struggling with our dog-eared copies of books that have been out of print for forty years. We will vainly try to recapture our youth and the returns will be diminished every week. It’s hard to live in a fantasy world when everything is so painfully real and age robs you of fantasy each and every day. Playing a gray-haired old wizard is less fun when you’re an actual gray-haired old wizard. 

I know this is true because when I remembered my LARPing, I also remembered why I stopped. I was thirty-two years old and the game I was playing had dwindled from fifteen vampires to just six players. We had lost our last gaming location and we had to move to a park where we would have fake gunfights next to the jungle gym. At one point, we had a loud argument about a rule that the ST had misread. Then it hit me that I was arguing on a playground about who had died in our game of cops and robbers. 

That night I went home and did my taxes. 

Dan Gallo is the pen name of a former reporter and writer who lives in Louisiana. He currently writes the Strange Cases of Jimmy Bionel, a sci-fi detective series now available on Kindle.

And as always, you can support this blog at Owen K.C. Stephens’ Patreon!

The Print Run Crunch

(My blog post opinions are my own, and do not represent any of the companies I work, write, or freelance for.)

Tabletop RPG products that are part of an ongoing line and need a big, traditional print run (and here I’m going to go with 2,000 or more copies as “big” sadly, though that’s basically the minimum low end of big and 10k or 50k fits more strongly into this category) that goes into the distribution channel in order to make an acceptable Return On Investment have scheduling pressures that books that aren’t reliant on those factors get to avoid.

For that plan to work, distributors want to know your release date months in advance. Always well before a book is anything like ready to go to the printer. So, you do your best to write a schedule that makes sense to do that, and then you make arrangements with people like printers, warehouses, shippers, advertisers, freelancers, licensors… it’s a whole thing.

And because it is “a whole thing,” it is much, much more impactful if you miss that series of dates. Now, yes, it happens. Even the biggest companies sometimes miss a ship date. Sometimes it’s their fault. Other times, your normal printer can’t ship your product on time because they are shut down with too many employees out with Covid. (Yes, Covid. Yes, now in November 2022. This is not a random example, it’s something a tabletop-related company reported and is dealing with as we speak.)

But the consequences of it happening can be pretty severe, in both the short term and the long term. Distributors may push your product less if it doesn’t come out on time, or it may miss marketing windows you’ve set up in advance. Printing and shipping costs can go up precipitously (the Kickstarter Killer problem). Stores can end up not having the budget they set aside to get your book on their shelves because you don’t show up in the month they expect, and they reserve the money to spend on products with more reliable schedules. Printers and magazines may become less willing to reserve times for you in advance. And, retailers and customers may lose interest if they decide your release schedule isn’t stable.

No matter how hard companies try, sometimes their best effort at a reasonable schedule doesn’t allow for unexpected problems. Over 25 years in the industry I have had books get delayed because cover art was late, writers were late, editors were late, licensing approvals took longer than planned, licensing issues are found, files got corrupted, key team members became sick (or, sadly, even died), freelancers became unavailable due to things as serious as hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or war, and, of course, an international pandemic.

So when something you cannot predict or control goes wrong, and it goes wrong enough that the slack you built into your schedule can’t cover it, there is often a strong pressure to throw more hours at the project so you hit your printing/shipping deadlines anyway. Sometimes you can do this by adding more people, but that doesn’t always speed things on projects that require coordination between sections(especially core rulebooks). So, you look to have the staff working on it put in more hours… “Crunch Time.”

And, of course, the bigger and more expensive the book, the more pressure there is to get it done on time. Nor is this unfounded concern. A lot of game companies work on very thin margins. A major release going from a big moneymaker to just-above-break-even-or-worse can lead to cost-cutting that causes its own problems (you can have layoffs or do less marketing for one quarter, but you will suffer later), or even kill a game line or an entire company. This isn’t theory-crafting on my part. I have seen it happen.

Nor, in my experience, when a tabletop company has to go into Crunch Time, is it a matter of executives and managers airily commanding rank-and-file employees to work harder, do more with less, and stay late. At least with the companies I have been lucky enough to see the inner workings of, it’s much more likely that directors and department heads and publishers are among the hands for “all-hands-on-deck” emergencies. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but at least it’s shared pain.

And this, by the way, is one reason game creators can get pretty annoyed when someone claims something was just a cash grab, or the creators clearly didn’t care about quality, or it “just needed someone to read through it once to catch all the dumb stuff.” Because the bigger the book, the more likely it is everyone working on it put blood, sweat, and tears into it, and only caring about the quality kept them going at 2am, or when working 12-hour days for 20 days in a row, or pulling an all-nighter.

(This is actually one of the reasons the crowdfunding campaigns I run never include traditional print runs. I stick to pdf and print-on-demand, so that I can dodge some of these issues. And if something does get badly delayed, the fallout is less complicated. That does mean I am forgoing the possibility of a big retail hit, which limits my possible reach and income, but for me it’s worth it for my private projects. And given how many 6-digit Kickstarters I am aware of that ended up losing money, I’m happy to stick to my smaller-risk, smaller reward model.)

Now, none of this is an excuse to mistreat people or not keep striving to find ways to avoid Crunch Time. This kind of relentless deadline grind that still sometimes fails to hit the mark is one of the things that lead to burnout among creatives, and financial loss among companies. Nor is this an issue that only impacts some companies, or that has only come up in recent years. It’s hard to avoid, and happens often, to companies of different sizes, different structures, and different locations. It *can* happen as a result of negligence or bad decisions. But the vast majority of times I run into it (and end up Crunching for a project), it’s just an unfortunate consequence of how the industry and technology and retail have evolved. Those forces may not be insurmountable, but they are powerful. And a company may not crash if no one pulls crunch, but it’s a risk.

And often, it’s a risk even the rank-and-file employees and freelancers want to avoid if they can, even if that means Crunch Time.

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To Be Frank and Honest About the Downside of ttRPG Industry

I love ttRPGs, I love being a full-time professional I love all the fantastic amazing people I have met doing this for decades. But it’s not *all* Bifrosts and Buddy Moments. There are things that may not get talked about enough and, without wanting to be a downer, I want people considering being more involved to know what some of them are.

The number of salaried positions with benefits in the ttRPG industry are extremely small. While some are highly-paid jobs with security and clear opportunities for advancement and career growth (and things seem to be trending that direction for more), that’s not the norm.

Even for well-known companies with name recognition, awards, large fanbases, and decades of business, the number of them run largely (or even entirely) by freelance and contract work would shock a vast number of gamers.

So while it is possible to make ttRPG work your full-time job (I’ve done it since the late1990s), it’s rare, difficult and stressful. And you have to set your own definition of success. I know many designers, developers, and writers end up happier with the ttRPG work being a hobby that pays for itself, or a side-gig that gives them both satisfaction and some extra money.

But that’s not me. And, maybe, it’s not you.

If so, here are a few tiny bits of hard-won advice, distilled from decades of experience but all obviously colored by my own life experiences, which include a lot of privilege and luck.

*Don’t work yourself to death. It may seem like just this once you need to put in 80 hours, or pull an all-nighter, or self-medicate to get through writer’s block. And, you know, I get it. that has to be your call. But the industry is build on the burned-out careers of people better than me who pulled off the impossible, and were rewarded with the expectation they’d keep doing it over and over, and who eventually discovered when burning the candle at both ends isn’t enough, you set fire to your own flesh without even realizing the extra heat and light is killing you.

*This industry remains disproportionately white and male. No, it’s not universal. But it is still the case, and not only is that a self-perpetuating issue, it reinforces an environment where anyone who doesn’t meet the expected traits of a “game designer” is likely subject to fewer opportunities, greater challenges, and more prolific abuse. We can’t shrug and just accept that this is the way things are, but we also need to face the current reality.

*Be safe. I wish I didn’t have to say that. But there are absolutely people who will take advantage of you in all sorts of ways, from underpaying you to gaslighting you abut what was agreed to, to being abusive to make them feel better about their hobbies. And, let’s be honest, sexual misconduct is not unknown. Look, I’m a 475 lb. cis white bearded male, and I’ve had my ass grabbed nonconsensually and inappropriately at events. More than once. Alcohol on the part of the grabber was usually involved. Never go anyplace you’re uncomfortable or with anyone who makes you feel unsafe.

*If you are someone who has ever or you think could ever send someone sexual pictures or texts without clear and ongoing consent, or pressure someone to kiss, or grab their ass, or make lewd remarks, or worse, be that at a bar, or the office, or a game, or an event, drunk or sober, fucking cut it out. I know a lot of us were powerless and mocked growing up, and I have seen what a little taste of power, prestige, and popularity can do. It’s not acceptable, it never has been, and it has to stop. And if you are aware of people doing it, take steps to stop it.

*If money, ideas, rights, graphics, art, or effort is being exchanged, commissioned, or transferred, don’t work without a contract. That contract needs to say what is being done, who gets the final rights for it, what the remuneration is, what happens if the project never happens, when it is due, and what happens if any element of that doesn’t go as laid out. Without that, don’t start working. Not for well-known companies. Not for me. Not for anyone.

There are lots of wonderful, amazing, caring, creative, fun, interesting people in this industry. In fact in my experience, that’s the MAJORITY of people in this industry. Most of my best friends are ttRPG professionals, and will move heaven and earth to make the world a better place.

But 1 oz of raw sewage can spoil a very, very large bottle of Mtn Dew even if most of it is fine. (Well, assuming you are okay with Mtn Dew to begin with — but you see my point). Nothing a ttRPG career can bring you is worth your security, safety, sanity, or serenity. By all means enjoy the great parts of this community — but also take care of yourself.

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