Category Archives: Con Season
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.
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.
I had a chance to sit down with the awesome folks of Nerdarchy at Gen Con 2018, and talk a bit about tabletop gaming, content creation, and the evolution of RPGs!
(And some thoughts on Starfinder RPG, Paizo Inc., 5th Edition D&D, Green Ronin, crowdsourcing, and more!)
If you enjoy any of the content on this blog, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!
We covered some of the work you need to do well before you actually make a pitch to a game company in Writing Basics: RPG Pitches (Part One). Now we can go on to What to Pitch and When to Pitch It.
What to Pitch
Okay, so if you’ve gone and done the work we outlined in Part One, you have a number of game companies you know are publishing work for the game system you want to write for, and you know what kinds of projects they publish.
So, now it is time to pitch some things very similar to what they already do. Hopefully, there are projects you are excited about that are a good fit for one or more game companies.
If no-one is publishing the kinds of things you want to write, you have some tough decisions to make. Pragmatically, I recommend you get experience and contacts and a good reputation by pitching the sorts of things publishers are already interested in before you try to pitch unique projects no one else has ever thought of. The latter is amazingly useful if done well—but most publishers are going to be dubious about your ability to do something so nonstandard well until they have some idea of who you are and the quality and tenor of your work.
The best way to earn trust to do something outside the box is to prove you understand what the box is and why it’s there. Publishers gets weird and unusual pitches fairly often—everything from people who don’t understand the legal limitations of publishing (it’s hard to lose my interest faster than by pitching a project I legally can’t do, or that required me to do a lot of work on my end to get the legal rights so you can write a thing).
Once you have written a few things for a company that have turned out well, you can begin pitching more out-there ideas.
If you happen to have any special advantages or skills that make you the perfect person to write a pitch, be sure to include that info. For example, if you DO have the legal rights to do a licensed project that seems similar to what a game company is already doing, that’s something to mention early in a pitch. Make sure you’re actually right about that—for example if you have to have a friend who is a best-selling author and casually said they’d be fine with you writing game material set in their universe get that in writing (preferably with some details on timeframe, rights, royalty needs, and so on).
Or if you are pitching an adventure set in a sewer, and you have a professional wastewater civil engineering job, that’s worth mentioning.
When developing your pitches to suggest to a company you have never worked with before, come up with projects at the shortest end of the things that publisher does. You can include one longer one in a set of pitches, but in general something short is a great first project. It’s not asking the publisher to take as big a risk, and it’s not eating up as much of your time to create. Once you and the publish have a project or two together under your belts, you’re both in a better position to know if you want to work on longer projects together.
(Also, you can make sure the publisher is fulfilling their end of the contract before you get more work tied up with them. Do. Not. Work. Without. A. Contract.)
When to Pitch
Well, as soon as you have done your homework, and know your own schedule, and have a pitch written.
“But… but… gen Con and the GAMA Trade Show and the publisher’s announced schedule and my school year…”
Yep. Pitch now anyway.
Look, there is no “perfect” time to pitch. Your schedule, the publisher’s schedule, both of your sets of needs—those things are in constant flux. Shoot pitches out there asap, and then begin scheduling when you get replies back. If you have enough work booked for 6 months you can pause, but in general even if you have some work lined up it’s worth pitching new things—just be clear in your pitch what your timeframe likely is. Chances are you won’t hear back about your pitch for weeks anyway, and if your availability is different by then, just be honest.
I only included a When to Pitch section because people have asked me tons of questions about getting the timing of this right.
You can’t. Just do it. The time is now.
The Things You’ve Wanted Me To Tell You For 2,000 Words Now
Your success is going to depend a lot on how much you have read and absorbed all the notes and processes I’ve outlined up to this point, and on being persistent and not getting discouraged when the first company you contact turns you down. And the second. And the next ten.
But yes, there are some basic things you should do once you are actually writing and sending the pitch, and for those of you who have been wanting that list, you’ve finally reached that point in my advice. For all of these steps, remember what I’ve said about doing your homework, pitching things similar to what a company already does, and being ready to actually produce once you get a green light.
If at all possible, find the company’s “Contact Us” page, and use the appropriate email to send your pitch. If you can’t find that, contact them through other (public, professional) means and ask what their process is for accepting pitches. Read their whole website and Facebook page before you do that though—getting this right the first time is a much better impression on your ability to get details right.
Begin with an at-most 2-sentence introduction. If you have any connection at all to the publisher or company, mention it here but keep is SHORT, and don’t suck-up.
Pitch 3-4 projects each time you contact a company to see if they are interested in publishing something of yours. Try to make these different enough that if the company has a gap on its schedule, at least one of your ideas is a good match for their needs. Make sure the projects are all things you are actually interested in and able to write. (Some people try to have one “real” pitch and 2-3 terrible ideas they presume no one will choose to publish. Don’t do this.)
Your pitch should include the following information about each project:
A proposed title. This can be a great chance to prove you know their game product lines.
An elevator pitch description. (That is: if you found yourself sharing an elevator with a publisher and you mentioned you were a writer, and they said “Oh yeah? Got a project you’d like to write for us?,” the description of your idea that is complete but short enough to get out before the elevator finishes it’s ride is your “elevator pitch.” 2-3 sentences, top, and one is better.)
A length, in words. (Doing your homework on the company’s project should held you estimate wordcount based on the words in similar projects.)
A timeframe when you could complete it by, in weeks. If your timeframe has other limitations (“if I don’t get started by August I’ll have school, so writing will take long”) include that information.
Your flexibility on any of these points—but only promise what you can deliver.
Anything that is likely to convince the publisher that you are a particularly good choice to write the product in question. Again, be short.
Here’s a sample pitch, though in a real message I’d add 1-2 more project pitches.
Dear Rogue Genius Games,
I read your publisher’s blog article about game product pitches, and it inspired me to write to you to see if you had interest in some projects I’d love to write for you.
Title: Bullet Points: Halfling War Muffin Recipes.
Length: 600-1,500 words.
A 1st edition Pathfinder RPG rules guide that gives options for adding combat-effective and game-balanced baking-related abilities for players and GMs who want cooking-themed character abilities. Similar in size and scope to your existing Bullet Point projects that add rules for one theme, such as 3 Things Made From Crabmen. (This could also be expanded to be a longer Genius Guide-style project, more like the Genius Guide to name Traits.)
With my current workload I expect this would take two weeks to write once we decided to proceed, although if other freelance projects get greenlit first I might need to schedule more like 4 weeks.
I’ve written numerous OGL products for Pathfinder, and worked on Gingerbread Kaiju (an edible boardgame that included a gingerbread recipe in it), and have insights on how to make this both a useful game supplement and something that appeals to foodie gamers.
Thanks for your consideration,
Owen K.C. Stephens
(You can also put your phone number here, if you actually answer your phone. I don’t.)
And that’s it!
Now, go make a dozen more pitches, and while you wait to hear back about those, write for your Blog, Patreon, social media, make some videos… throw your creative spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks.
Then make more pitches.
Also, Back My Patreon
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Sometimes, it’s useful to know how a given RPG is doing, both in absolute terms (how many units sold total, how many this month), and relatively (what is it doing better than? What is it doing worse than? Are it’s numbers trending up, or down?)
Especially if you are a 3pp and you are considering doing a licensed product linked to a core game, it can be useful to know how those core games are doing.
But, game companies don’t normally release numbers like that. And even if you want to compare a game to something you publish, you only have one set of those number (your units sold). (And sometimes you don’t even know that if you have things out to distributors with a returnability clause, meaning things you think you have sold might still come back to you and require a refund–but that’s another post).
So the best you can do is gather what little information the industry has, much of which is vague and anecdotal, and then make you best guess.
Since the Starfinder Roleplaying Game is a system covered by the Open Gaming License, and my blog does OGL things compatible with it, let’s see if we can figure out any sources of info to help pin down the game’s popularity.
When released at Gen Con in 2017, the Starfinder Core Rulebook sold out in 5 hours. That’s a fine start, but it doesn’t tell us much about sales now, or how many total units moved.
The Starfinder Core Rulebook is #69 for RPG gaming books on Amazon for gaming books. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook at 66. Other Starfinder books are also in the Top 100–Armory at #52, Alien Archive at #48, Armory #52, and Pact Worlds #93.
Pathfinder has one other entry, the GameMastery Guide at 94.
Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Savage Worlds, Shadowrun, Cortex, FATE, 13th Age, World of Darkness, Mutants and Masterminds and for that matter most other non-D&D tabletop rpgs don’t have any books that make the top 100. That’s only one seller, but it’s a big seller.
Now that’s all relative information only, but it does tell you something about whether new Starfinder books are still moving well, and how they do in physical, online sales compared to other RPGs. You can also try to use that information to guesstimate sales per month, though again you can’t really trust the quality of that data. Still, that data, iffy as it is, says the Core Rulebook is moving 290 units per month on Amazon alone.
You can also look at ICv2‘s ranking of Top 5 RPGs, keepign in mind again that the data is from just one set of courses and not gathered scientifically. ICv2 listed Starfinder at #2 for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, (behind D&D in both cases).
Roll20 periodically does a quarterly report showing how many games and players are using it for games of various systems. The latest report I can find (June 12, 2018) says “Starfinder is growing steadily, from #16 to #11 over the course of two quarters, and we anticipate that the release of the official Starfinder sheet, as well as some excellent Starfinder products, will break it into the top 10 in no time.”
For many games, you could also look at their relative sales position on DriveThruRPG (for a relative sense of recent sales compared to other games sold on the site), and the metallic best-seller values of specific products (for a feel of total sales over that product’s lifetime). However, Paizo does not sell the Starfinder pdfs or print books on DriveThru, so the best you could do is compare various Starfinder-compatible 3pp products to the 3pp products of other games. There might be times when that kind of comparison is useful, but they are going to be rare enough I’m not going to dig up sample data just for a blog article.
NONE of these sources of info are definitive. But they do give something slightly better than a wild guess, or asking people at a single game store of convention what they *think* is doing well. It seems clear that Starfinder’s sales are healthy, and so far that appears to be a steady or growing trend. There are other things you can look at, like what kinds of products has the publisher of the game announced? The fact that Paizo has a Starfinder Beginner’s Box coming at least suggests they are looking at new customer acquisition, which may help keep Starfinder sales robust.
You can sometimes augment the utility of such things with your own sales information–if you know how well a print book of yours is selling on Amazon, you know books rated about it are moving more units than that.
And sometimes you can tease out other trends as well–but that’s a practice for people who think there’s specific information they need, and I wish them the best of luck.
It’s not GREAT data for making business decisions, but in general I do find it better than nothing.
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No convention owes me anything unless I pay them cash for it.
I am not owed any specific person be selected to be a speaker until they are announced as such. I am not owed any specific theme or topic or program track, unless they’ve already been announced (AND I’ve bought a membership on that basis).
I am not owed a guest spot. Not the platform, not the increased awareness, and absolutely not a free membership, or room, or transport.
Many conventions *have* offered me such things, but the only one to ever do so *twice* was SoonerCon, and even they have never offered to fly me out or put my up in a hotel.
And if some convention that has limited slots selects someone I consider less qualified than me to speak on their theme or topic (or less qualified than my close circle of friends, colleagues, and pro-crushes)… then they still don’t owe me anything.
A convention is never going to be an absolute arbiter of who is “best” at anything. Their main goal is to have interesting guests who will encourage people to come and listen, and talk about their choice (to reach others who will come and listen, even if the original commentator won’t).
And if they only picked the “most qualified” every year… then we’d hear the same voices over and over and over.
That’s boring. Screw that.
Further, if a convention makes a selection I think is under-qualified… I would consider it the height of unprofessionalism to bitch about it. I am, by definition, biased if I think anyone I like better is a better choice; and likely not qualified to have an opinion if there *isn’t* anyone I like I think is more qualified.
That’s just shitty gatekeeping, and it helps nothing.
If you feel someone is dangerous, including the kinds of dangerous that being racist or bigoted or someone who makes threats qualifies as, that’s a totally unrelated issue to this.
Beyond that, celebrate those who have gotten one of the tiny motes of recognition this industry offers. Tearing them down (and suggesting they don’t *deserve* their guest spot is both tearing them down and insulting them) is shitty.
Besides, they are obviously more qualified than you in at least one way.
They lead their career in such a way as to get the invitation.
“So, Owen, what DO you do if you seriously need rest to fulfill your professional obligations, such as an early morning at PaizoCon, but your insomnia kicks in?”
I’m so glad you asked!
I have numerous mechanisms designed to help me cope. One is to get up and do something uninteresting for 30 minutes. this increases the chance I’ll go back to sleep (rather than watching anime, or writing on a project that excites me, which is likely to make me even more awake).
Drink some water or a bout a cup of cold milk. Spend 5-10 minutes being restful and aware of my surroundings.
Then I change the conditions I am trying to sleep in. If I am using white noise, I alter what it is. If I have a nightlight, I turn it off, or use a different one. Anything to trick my brain into thinking it’s a different night and a different bed. (If a different bed is actually an option, I sometimes take that.)
Then, it’s time to try to sleep again.
If about two cycles of that still doesn’t do it, (or three or four if I have more time) I “give up.” If I can manage it, I stay in bed and rest, because quiet rest can leave me in better shape than being twitchy all night, even if I get no sleep. If that’s psychologically off the table, I get up, shower, dress, and begin my day.
“So, do you find writing about not sleeping boring? Because, it’s almost midnight, and you need to be up early…”
Nope, this definitely qualifies as too interesting for my above coping mechanisms. But sometimes I need to do some therapeutic writing to quiet my mind enough to try the other stuff.
And this has been that writing.
Now, to pull up a waterfall video on my cell phone…
I’m at a gaming convention this weekend, and that means I have played a bunch of games with total strangers. Nor were all of them any form of D20 game, or even RPGs. I played, and observed the play, of a broad range of people of different ages and backgrounds.
It was exhausting, but also amazing.
I think it’s really important for game designers to play games with people they don’t know at all, outside of a formal playtest, at least from time to time. Especially in a “fellow player” capacity, where you aren’t the facilitator or teacher of the game. You can learn things it’s hard to pick up with this kind of empirical experience.
This weekend, I have been reminded that if you have a game that *ever* requires someone to add three numbers, and the sum is going to be a double digit or higher number, there’s a segment of competent, reasonable adults you are excluding. Those people will never, ever, enjoy any activity that has that basic level of math as a requirement. And the more often you require that in the game, the bigger that segment of people is.
That doesn’t mean no game should do that math. It’s okay for a game not to be for everyone.
But it’s important to remember that our individual experiences and preferences are far, far from universal.
As a game design, I am adding “Play Games With Strangers” as one of the critical activities I need to make sure I engage in from time to time.
I ALSO have a list that tells me to Boost My Patreon” fairly regularly, so…
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Today is the four-year anniversary of Lj’s and my arriving in Seattle, and here I am again in a new apartment, surrounded by boxes. That makes it feel like I haven’t made much progress in four years, but that’s objectively not true.
In that time I have developed more words than in the ten years before, written about half as much as the two years leading up to it but finally gotten an Adventure Path adventure done, moved two more times, fallen in love with a restaurant that closed but took the friendships I made there with me, been to seven different conventions (a few of them many times), helped shepherd a brand new RPG into the world in Starfinder, been taken to the ER, visited friends in the ER, and acquired a cat.
I’ve learned a lot since my arrival, about myself, and Seattle, and game design, and challenges other professionals face that I don’t, and challenges I face that some other professionals don’t. I have created, and helped others create, and talked to a lot of colleagues and fans and friends about things that never would have come up in my original hometown. Of course I have also missed a lot of things from my old social group, who collectively still manage to play games with a frequency I can’t come close to matching.
It’s been a huge change and, four years later, I’m still adjusting to it. But I am also still looking forward to what happens next, with opportunities I knew I couldn’t guess at but that would come only with this huge risk continuing to pop up.
I can’t say I have no regrets. I am too introverted, and too trepidatious, and miss too many lifelong friends not to have regrets. But I can say that knowing what I know now, I’d still make the same decision. There’s no question this was a smart move for my career, but it’s up to me to make sure it’s a smart move for the rest of my life.
Lin to My Patreon
I’ll be at Gen Con! Here’s what my schedule looks light right now.
I come in before noon. I have a few informal things planned, but you might be able to catch me someplace (like the Omni hotel lobby) if you want to.
I’m open most of the day! I might try to Meet and greet hour someplace, if folks express interest (and yes, that would be a good time to have me sign stuff).
I mysterious disappear around 7pm, and likely for the rest of the night.
I’m on several seminar panels!
11am Location: ICC room 212
Introduction to the new Starfinder RPG. Learn the story of the Starfinder universe, what you need to start playing, & where to begin your own character’s legend.
Starfinder Rules Q&A
12pm Location: ICC room 212
An up-close look at the rules of Starfinder, including differences between the Starfinder & Pathfinder rules. Ask questions & discuss the philosophy behind the Starfinder game system.
I’ll be at the ENnie Awards! A great time to meet a lot of your favorite game designers, especially those with products up for awards!
Starfinder Rules Design workshop
10am Location: ICC room 212
Participate in a hands-on workshop focused on rules design in the Starfinder universe & assist in developing original rules from concept to execution.
Designing Starfinder Aliens
12pm Location: ICC room 212
Learn the secrets of monster making & everything that goes into creating a truly terrifying foe.
Secrets of the Pact Worlds
1pm Location: ICC room 212
Come explore the inner region of space in the Starfinder universe. Learn about Absalom Station & discover alien species.
Starfinder – The Digital Tools Horizon
2pm Location: Crowne Plaza Victoria Stn B
What does the digital destiny of Starfinder look like? Leading companies answer your questions & outline their visions of the future!
I mysteriously disappear again in the evening. 😀
Currently wide open!
This is the OTHER day I might schedule an open meet-and-greet, if there was interest.
I fly out in the afternoon, and I suspect I’ll watch the Moon eat the Sun from the airport.