Category Archives: Con Season

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 5:Jason Eric Nelson and Joseph Blomquist

Origins Game Fair is this weekend, and sadly I won’t be there. Interstate travel and big in-person gatherings just aren’t on my docket for the foreseeable future. So, I’m going to keep posting #OwenOnTheCouch content to try to do some good by remote, since I can’t sit with folks in person.

This time, let’s talk to Jason Eric Nelson, of Legendary Games (@LegendaryGamesJ on Twitter), and prolific freelance creator Joseph Blomquist (@DoctorMono on Twitter).

Owen: So, Jason: how do freelancers get work from Legendary? What’s the process?

Jason: Usually it’s a recommendation from someone who’s already worked with us, often from another collaboration they’ve done or being an active commenter on a playtest on one of our books. Sometimes it’s a recommendation from someone at Paizo or Wayfinder or Freelance Forge, etc. Having something to point to in the past to show your work or to talk about working with you.

Usually we start on one of our many collaborative books, doing a chunk of something working together with one or more other authors so we each get a feel for working with the other. If everything feels like a fit, we keep going from there. I’ll throw out project ideas or send things to jump on, and freelancers pitch things they’d like to do, and if it sounds like something that’s right for Legendary, we’ll roll with it and you might end up the lead or even some author on a book once you’ve shown your reliability.

Owen: Okay Jospeh, I know you’ve done game writing, reviews, art, and graphic design work; but if we’re just focusing on tabletop game design, what are some credits people might know you from?

Jospeh: I have a list, but just hitting some highlights I have credits for Margaret Weis Productions (Smallvile Roleplaying Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War – X-men and Annihilation), Paizo (several Pathfinder Society and Starfinder Society scenarios, including #2-10: Corporate Interests; and the Pathfinder 2e Bestiary 2 entries for the Blink Dog, Hippogriff, and Sandpoint Devil) (PF2), Saturday Morning Games (Dime Stories Roleplaying Game Rulebook, Easy Money- a 10 Cent Tale, and Among the Living- a 10 Cent Tale), Slugfest Games (Red Dragon Inn — Adventures Series: Appetizer and The Guide to Inns and Taverns).

Owen: So, lots of stuff for Pathfinder, Starfinder, Cortex, and Dime Stories! What other game systems are you comfortable writing for?

Joseph: I’ve done a bunch of writing in the industry, but any incarnation of the venerable d20 system- especially Pathfinder 2e, Starfinder, and 5e are all easy choices. I cut my teeth writing for Cortex and have a lot of familiarity with Modiphius’ 2D20 system (especially Star Trek Adventures), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and FATE systems. And of course, most of my early conversion work was in classic systems like DnD 2nd edition, Marvel FASERIP, West End Games’ D6 system, and Shadowrun. All of those systems are well within my wheelhouse.

Pathfinder Society Scenario #3-04: The Devil-Wrought Disappearance (PF2)

Starfinder Society Scenario #4-13: Hard Reset (Starfinder)

Pathfinder Society Scenario #4-02: Return to the Grave (PF2)

Paizo Fans United

Wayfinder # 20 (The Boomrock Run) (Starfinder)

Wayfinder #21 (Knights of Everstand, Knighthaunt) (PF2)

Saturday Morning Games

(Dime Stories Roleplaying Game Rulebook, Easy Money- a 10 Cent Tale, and Among the Living- a 10 Cent Tale)

Slugfest Games

Red Dragon Inn—Adventure Series: Appetizer (PF1)

Red Dragon Inn: The Guide to Inns and Taverns (PF1)

What other systems are you comfortable writing for?

I’ve done a bunch of writing in the industry, but any incarnation of the venerable d20 system- especially Pathfinder 2e, Starfinder, and 5e are all easy choices. I cut my teeth writing for Cortex and have a lot of familiarity with Modiphius’ 2D20 system (especially Star Trek Adventures), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and FATE systems. And of course, most of my early conversion work was in classic systems like DnD 2nd edition, Marvel FASERIP, West End Games’ D6 system, and Shadowrun. All of those systems are well within my wheelhouse.

Owen: With such a broad range of experience, have you discovered you prefer one kind of writing assignment over another?

Joseph: I think my interests here are mostly common fare. I love writing background, giving a world or setting life. I love the challenge of coming up with a neat mechanic to act as an interesting sub system in a game. I love to challenge my players and my GMs. After three decades of GMming multiple systems, I am pretty proud of my abilities in that role. I try to be characterful and dive deep into my NPCs and the general feeling of the world I’m trying to lose my players into. That comes out in my writing where I try to incorporate mood pieces to help GMS set the scene and memorable characters that chew scenery.

Most recently, I seem to have found a niche I did not expect- one of an adventure designer. I guess I was always good at telling a tale, but most of my work – for Paizo especially – has been writing adventures. And let me tell you – I love it. It lets me do all the things I enjoy in setting a scene, writing characters, and challenging players. But it lets me do one thing else, help to create the kind of stories play groups still talk about years later.

Owen: What has the journey from gamer to game writer been like for you? How did you start?

Joseph: I’ve been gaming for 38 years or so, starting with the Mentzer Red Box one day, and TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes the next. By age 10, I was the regular GM for my friends- usually in Marvel Superheroes, but eventually introducing my closest friends to AD&D, Shadowrun, FASA’s Star Trek, GURPS, Mekton, and the World of Darkness games as the 90s came with a vengeance.

By the time I was 12, I was the ambassador of role-playing games for my group of friends- not all of which were prepared for the crunchy, rules heavy games of the late ‘80s. My answer was simple- make a game. I made a simple percentile system and wrote a 20-page rpg in my notebook with the amazingly clever name that was in no way derivative of Dungeons and Dragons, Sword and the Hand. This game was the intro for RPGs for our group of friends for years, until we dove headlong into Star Wars in the heyday of WEG’s license. At this point, I put my effort more into writing my own adventures, and plotting them out ahead of time for my players to enjoy in the systems we loved.

Eventually, I became a part owner in a local game store on Long Island, running games of MnM, Shadowrun, and D20 Star Wars in the back room nonstop with my prewritten adventures, to the delight of my players. But not knowing how to get my toe into the industry though I’d been freelancing for various video game, board game, and science fiction periodicals at this point, I did the next best thing – I wrote up my own superhero game. At the time, I conceived Superhuman as a skirmish level miniatures game (though the current incarnation coming to kickstarter soon-ish is a hybrid RPG/miniatures game) and I brought a mostly professional demo version of it with me to Origins in 2006 to show off to game designers I liked to ask for feedback. Luckily, one of the places I dropped a copy, Margaret Weis Productions, got me more than feedback – Cam Banks hired me a few weeks after the con to write super powers for Smallville. And a new leg of my career was born.

Owen: I’m always fascinated how people move into the tabletop writing industry. You mentioned not knowing how to get your toe in the industry: what other learning and experience prepared you for a game writing career once you found yourself in one?

Jospeh: So purely from an educational standpoint, my degree was in psychology and my minor was history. Most of my historical studies were centered around post-roman Britain through to the end of the Danelaw. One of my greatest passions is Arthurian legends, so diving into the deep end of the history and socio-political intricacies of the years Arthur would have lived as well as the years, centuries later, that his legend was truly born was more than just a passing interest. I suppose at some point I’ll seek out graduate studies on the subject or just do what most Arthurphiles do and write my own Arthurian novel.

I played in a touring metal band through my early 20s, and I try to bring my musical acumen into my work wherever possible. That being said, I was a piss poor songwriter- so don’t expect me to write you a jingle worth remembering. I could probably sing it though. Mixing that with the acting I did in college, I’ve increased my voice work to include not only A-list GMming, but voice overs for games and an audiobook on the horizon.

 Comics has been one of the few passions I have that rivals my love of gaming and all things Arthur. My vast comic collection has pushed my interest in games, writing, and allowed me to have a greatly informed perspective on the cycles, elements, successes, and failures of our most modern of mythologies. I’m a fan of B characters (Marv Wolfman’s Nova and Nightwing topping my list) and work well in every aspect of that medium- especially when it comes to games around the subject.

Owen: What’s the most recent project people can check out that you can talk about? 

Joseph: My most recent credit is Starfinder Society Scenario #4-13: Hard Reset. However, my next adventure will be released at Gencon, Pathfinder Society Scenario #4-02: Return to the Grave. Like all freelancers, my best work is under NDA, so I’ll just say – the best is yet to come.

Owen: Where can people find you if they want to reach out? 

Joseph: I can be found @DoctorMono on twitter, on kofi at https://ko-fi.com/doctormono, or in my rarely updated blog www.UnderwearOnTheOutside.com

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues. Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 4: Michael Sayre and Carlos Cabrera

Continuing with the #OwenOnTheCouch theme, let’s talk to Senior Designer at Paizo Michael Sayre (@MichaelJSayre1 on Twitter), and freelance Game Designer and Voice Actor Carlos Cabrera (https://carloscabrera.carrd.co/).

(#OwenontheCouch 2015)

Owen: Hey Michael Sayre, if someone wanted to write for the Pathfinder Rules Team, what’s their best bet for getting started? By the time they dare to reach out to you, want do you want to see them have done already?

Michael: So, the things I look for are-

A) An established portfolio of published work. Show me you’ve done the thing you’re looking to do for me at a professional level.

B) A professional online presence. Big rulebooks are a collaborative effort and I need people who can be respectful and work well with others.

C) Passion for and experience playing the game you’re looking to write for. I can almost always tell the difference between someone who’s just churning the formula and templates and someone who’s really finding under-supported pieces of the game that can be embellished to enhance the play experience.

D) Some evidence that you know how to read and follow an outline or similar kind of professional collaborative project instructions. With the kind of publishing we do, I already know what kinds of pieces I need and where I need them to make my book happen, so it’s critical that freelancers read and follow their assignment e-mail, outline, and milestone feedback.

Owen: Thanks, that’s a great response!

Would you recommend people doing their own projects, or working for other publishers, before they approach you? Is having a lot of smaller Paizo credits good? A few bigger 3pp or self-published projects? Both?

Michael: A diverse portfolio with a broader array of experiences is probably more appealing to me, personally, than having your entire portfolio exist within a single bucket (whether that be self-publishing, writing for a specific 3pp, etc.)

I think the broader your perspective is coming in the quicker you’ll be able to master “entry level” tasks and get entrusted with some larger or weightier pieces of content. Learning the industry through a few different vectors can help you avoid some of the more common stumbling blocks I see, especially when it comes to learning the best habits for good contract work and avoiding inheriting someone else’s bad habits.

That being said, everyone’s paths to improvement are different, and there’s nothing wrong with essentially “apprenticing” yourself to e.g. a 3pp while you learn the ropes, and as long as you’re still coming in with an open mind and a willingness to broaden your perspective and learn, having experience with one publisher instead of five or the like isn’t a deal-breaker and can have its own advantages.

Owen: Thanks, Mike! And here comes Carlos Cabrera! Heya Carlos. Lemme ask since you are here: I know you do freelance game writing and vice work. What published credits do you have, and for what game systems?

Carlos: I have worked on Pathfinder for both 1st and 2nd editions. My 1st edition work with 3PP is in Pathways #78, the Aethera Field Guide, the Mythic Character Codex, and the upcoming Kingmaker Anniversary Edition. For both systems and with Paizo directly I have worked on Borne by the Sun’s Grace, Lost Omens: Legends, the 2nd edition Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Society Quest #11: A Parchment Tree, and Ruins of the Radiant Siege. I have also done voicework in Starr Mazer DSP on Steam, Ashasar in the Pathfinder Society Special #3-99: Fate of the Future, and my likeness was used as a playable zombie survivor in State of Decay 2.

Owen: Neat! I’ve never gotten to be a zombie! What other systems are you comfortable writing for?

Carlos: If you’re listening @FFGames I would love to write something for your Star Wars RPG or Imperial Assault! I have already designed content for a home game of IA so I’m familiar with your incredible new dice system. I also have two different board game projects in development and one of them has been picked up by a publisher!

Owen: When you have your druthers, what kind of game content do you prefer to create?

Carlos: I like designing rules that can really expand the worldbuilding of a setting. Adventures or scenarios in new locations, NPCs and player options that can interact with the world in new and interesting ways, deities and the planes… really lore-defining things. In board games you generally have to keep it brief, but all of that is really up to you.

Owen: So, how did you get into games? And then into game writing?

My father got my two closest brothers and I into games at an early age with video games. I had an Intellivision system, one of my brothers a Colecovision, the other a Vectrex. After I had graduated to the NES and then the Sega Genesis, the game that made me want to be a designer at the impressionable age of 10 was Flashback: The Quest for Identity (womp womp). It was a birthday gift from my mother, so both my parents really had a hand in my chosen career.

Even though I wanted to get into video games, I broke into the industry first with writing for tabletop RPGs. I loved playing them and my imagination just didn’t stop after making characters. It took me a good 5 years of networking before my first freelance assignment. I filed Something Clever Games an LLC in 2015 and started work in 2017, so I was trying to break into the industry even before then. I haven’t given up on video games though. When I’m between assignments, I pivot back to a turn-based mobile RPG that I’ve been working on for a while.

Owen: You’ve obviously put a lot of thought and effort into your career. What expertise and study have you undertaken as part of that? 

Carlos: I made the decision to get a degree in multimedia/graphic design instead of using my mechanical drawing and architecture skills to go that route (there were also no video game schools until about halfway through). This has served me well in making maps for encounters and running campaigns, and I still enjoy making art and accessories like custom card sleeves for my games.

Owen: So, if someone is wanting to look at your work, what’s the most recent project people can check out?

Carlos: You still have a reliable couple of months to hear my voice in Pathfinder Society Special #3-99 before season 4 launches at GenCon this year. I will also be a recurring cast member for a Pathfinder 2e podcast this summer, so for that and any future announcements be sure to check out my website! (http://somethingclevergames.com)

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 3: Jason Keeley and Mark Seifter

Continuing this week’s #OwenOnTheCouchTheme, let’s talk to Development Manager of Starfinder at Paizo Jason Keeley (@herzwesten on Twitter), and BattleZoo Director of Games Mark Seifter (@MarkSeifter on Twitter). This is a great chance to listen and learn from industry pros!

(#OwenontheCouch, 2013)

Jason Keeley

Owen: So, Jason, if someone wants to write Starfinder content for you at @Paizo, how do they get your attention? What are you looking for in a freelancer?

Jason: *is walking by* Oh hi there! Well, for adventures, I’m generally looking for someone who has proven they can handle larger assignments (ie, being timely and the ability to inject a bit of their own ideas into a sometimes rigid outline) or has done something equally impressive.

I’m willing to try out newer freelancers for smaller assignments, though! It all depends on what the particular project needs.

Mark Seifter

Owen: Hey Mark, if someone wanted to get your attention as Director of Game Design, and maybe get work from you, what’s their best option?

Mark: So, find the Arcane Mark Discord server, join, then you can PM me on discord and I’ll add you to the list. We’re small so I don’t have a lot of opportunities at any given time, but I love to hear from freelancers.

Plus, now we have this!

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 2: Andrew Geels

Continuing this week’s #OwenOnTheCouchTheme, let’s talk to a freelancer, Andrew Geels (@PinBarbarian on twitter). Pretend I’m on the Couch, introducing Andrew to you, and suggesting you give him/them work. Come say hi. Ask him questions.

(Insert picture of me here)

Owen: So, @PinBarbarian, what kinds of things do you like working on the most?

@PinBarbarian: Hey Owen, thanks for asking! I love working in all sorts of gaming spaces, but I think my favorite is designing character options like feats, spells, etc. Monsters and items are fun to make, but it feels amazing when someone chooses your work to use for their whole career.

Owen: I very much made a career of doing those kinds of things from about 2001 to 2012. 🙂 What game systems are you published in? Which ones would you like to work on?

@PinBarbarian: I have published work in Pathfinder first and second edition, and there’s some Starfinder stuff that hasn’t been announced yet (though it might be this weekend!) I’ve written for. I also have lots of d&d stuff from all the way back in college, but that’s not published.

I personally really like anything fantasy, sci-fi, and steampunk/cyberpunk related. Pathfinder 2e is definitely my current favorite system, but I enjoy thinking up stuff for all sorts of games, from 5e to Iron Kingdoms to Savage Worlds!

I’m very much a crunchy-gamer, so systems with deep rulesets (e.g. Pathfinder) fit my brainspace best.

Owen

If anyone wants to get in touch with Andrew Geels, or ask him more questions, you can get hold of him on Twitter, or drop me a line (owen.stephens@gmail.com), and I’ll put you in contact.

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 1: J Gray

This past weekend was PaizoCon, an event I attended in person from 2014-2019, and would very much like to go to again someday in the future. For a long time it was the kickoff of Convention Season for me, and missing one held in-person whole hearing how much fun other folks were having was bittersweet.

One of the things I commonly did at conventions was sit on a couch in a hotel lobby and talk to folks. A lot of these were fans, friends, co-workers, and colleagues, of course… but a big chunk were less-experienced or just-breaking-in freelancers, and (though they were often also friends or co-workers) work-giving publishers, editors, and developers.

A lot of people told me this year both that they miss that opportunity in general, and the chance to network in particular. So, I’m going to see if I can create a virtual version of #OwenontheCouch in social media, posting results on my blog and perhaps even holding a virtual event sometime during Origins and/or Gen Con. This week will mostly be Couch content, as I am still recovering from the flu.

The lobby couch I traditionally used during PaizoCon has apparently been removed during the pandemic, and my pals at Legendary Games were kind enough to create this memorial at the site of the original couch.

So please welcome J Gray to the couch! He wrote these observations back in 2016, and since has gone on to work for R. Talsorian Games. A number of industry professionals have noted how accurate these observations are, and I consider them well worth reading.

Five Things I’ve Learned As a 3pp Freelancer
I’ve been a freelance RPG professional, almost entirely for 3pp Pathfinder products, for over a year now. I’ve had the chance to work with several different companies and have written, developed, edited, beta read, or done layout on several books (some out for sale, some not yet out). While I haven’t been at this gig for as long as most of the folk I admire in the field, I think I’ve got enough experience under my belt to have learned a thing or five.

  1. THE WORK WON’T COME TO YOU
    While there are exceptions, if you’ve got few credits to your name and no real relationships with publishers no one is going to come to you and ask you to write Ultimate Splatfinder Adventures 5. You need to go out there and find the work. Enter the Paizo Superstar Contest for practice. Send articles to Wayfinder to build up a resume. Pay attention to the forums where publishers advertise for writers (such as the Paizo 3pp forum). And don’t be afraid to send in a query or a pitch to a publisher if you think you’ve got an idea that will work for them. You need to find your work. The work won’t find you.
  2. PUBLISHERS ARE BUSY PEOPLE
    Most 3pp publishers run their company as a hobby or a second job. They’ve already got a 9-5 of some kind. Those who are doing the gaming gig full time are probably running herd on a dozen projects (if not more!) at once for their own company AND working on something for other companies as well. Add to that family, friends, and the occasional social activity and they are probably sleep-deprived and busy as hell. If a publisher isn’t getting back to you right away, chances are it is because that person is busy not because they are rude. Have patience. If you haven’t gotten a response, wait a week or maybe even two and then send a polite follow-up email asking if they got your previous email. Don’t spam the hell out of them.
  3. YOU AREN’T THAT SPECIAL
    Or, put another way, use your freaking manners people! Here’s the truth. There are many, many 3pp writers out there and unless your name is Monte Cooke or Owen KC Stephens, chances are your desire to make RPG material is greater than a publisher’s need to have YOU, in specific, make RPG material. Confidence is awesome! You should totally have it but the best way to approach any publisher is to mind your Ps and Qs, say please and thank you, and follow any confidence cocktail with a nice chaser of humility. Go in thinking you’re the cat’s meow or believing that you can follow your rules instead of the publisher’s rules and chances are all you’ll get is a “No, thank you, we’re not interested in working with you.”
  4. KNOW THE RULES
    I don’t mean the game rules here. Obviously, any RPG writer should know the rules for the system being written for. Instead, I mean know the rules for writing for a publisher or system. Many publishers have guidelines that they will happily share with their writers. Read them. Follow them. Many publishers have specific workflow procedures. Ask about them. Follow them. I CANNOT STRESS HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS! If the publisher uses Google Docs on projects YOU use Google Docs on projects. You conform to the publisher’s guidelines and workflow and not the other way around. Respect their process. Also, know “system standard”. Fans of an RPG system get used to things being written in a certain way and when those things aren’t written in a certain way, it breaks their flow of reading and devalues their appreciation of a book. For example, if a system’s standard format is “Each character should make a Difficulty 20 Bagpipe skill check.” don’t write “Each character should make a bagpipe skill roll, DC 20.” Capitalize the terms that should be capitalized and use the right terms.
  5. WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED
    Based on my experience, here’s how workflow tends to go in RPG writing. First, you brainstorm the idea. Second, you write what you’re going to write using whatever process you use until it is done and submitted to the publisher. Third, the editor (or editors) edits and might ask you to make changes or just might make the changes themselves based on their experience, knowledge, and preference. Fourth, your work will be beta/playtested and further changes might be suggested. Fifth, the editor (or editors) might make further changes based on feedback from the previous stage. Sixth, there’s layout and production and all that jazz. So, let me reiterate here. WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED. This means fluff will be changed. This means crunch will be changed. It might only be a few words that change or it might seem like the item was entirely rewritten. Why? Because no one’s work is perfect. Because the editor’s job is to see the big picture and make sure your work fits into that big picture. Because the beta readers found a flaw or a loophole that needs to be closed. Because your cool magic doodad is too close to someone else’s magic doodad. Because they freaking felt like it and that’s their job and you need to live with it. If your first instinct upon finding out someone edited your precious baby is a burning sensation in your gut and the desire to post on Facebook about how much it sucks? Learn to check your damn ego or consider getting out of the business. Because that’s how it works.

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

Retrospective, The Past (Nearly) Decade

Roughly nine years ago, I began working with Green Ronin on-staff rather than as a freelancer. They very quickly became some of the people I trust most and love most fiercely in this industry. I’ve been a Ronin, on and off, ever since. I have learned more from them than I can ever explain, and if you enjoy anything I’ve made since 2013, no matter who published it, the Ronins get some of the credit.

Exactly eight years ago (to the hour), Lj and I packed up our household and moved to the Pacific Northwest, so I could work at Paizo Inc. I wanted to spend time with yet more of the greatest creatives in the world, and I have no regrets in that department. I wish I had handled some things differently, and that housing costs hadn’t grown at a rate I didn’t conceive of, but the people I got to know, friends and family-of-choice I made, and the projects I got to be part of are among my greatest joys even today.

Roughly three years ago, we left for Indiana, for a lower-stress, lower-cost-of-living career move. That didn’t go as planned, but given the friends I made, I can’t find it in me to regret it.

Roughly two years ago, during the pandemic, we moved back home to Oklahoma. That was never the plan, and in many ways it felt like total failure on my part. But it’s also where my family and the friends I’ve known for 40 years and more live, and being home as the world churns has helped keep me sane.

I don’t know what the next chapters will be. They won’t be anything I imagined 8 years ago. I’d love to find a full-time steady remote game industry job with benefits… but I’m not counting on unicorns.

If you’d like to help me make ends meet as I try to keep making games and helping people, you can join my Patreon, drop a cup of support in my Ko-Fi, or both. 🙂

The Biggest Secret of the ttRPG Industry

A lot of people are going to disagree with me, and that’s fine. But I firmly believe this is the most important secret within the ttRPG industry, as a whole. Obviously there are different secrets for any given company or game, but this is the one that you won’t hear about in reward ceremonies, podcasts, or social media acounts.

Ready?

You Never Hear About The Most Important People in the Industry.

But, you cry, I know all the streaming actors and GMs! I can quote 31 game writers’ names! I have memorized  Shannon Appelcline’s 4-volume “Designer’s & Dragons” history of the industry!

And that’s great. Seriously, thanks for paying attention.

But do you know who was the producer of your favorite show? Which editors were leading the team for that award-winning game line? Who tracked the budget of the company, making sure bills were paid and paychecks cleared? Heck who shipped those books from the warehouse? Who planned and built the Gen Con booth? Who made the arrangements with the printer, managed the schedule, figured out the cost/benefit factors of printing 2,000 vs 3,0000 copies? Who wrangled the new post-Brexit VAT laws, or YouTube children-appropriate content rules?

Who was taking customer service calls, handling people who might get pissed off about a game for reasons entirely unrelated to its content, fun, quality, or creator? Who wrote the community engagement rules, safety policy, and editorial standards?

When a game company goes under, the reason is rarely “The game wasn’t fun,” or “The Lead Designer Left.” No, companies collapse because they didn’t prepare for a change between the value of international currencies, or a book was massively overprinted, or they hired too many people-or not enough people-and the schedule and budget couldn’t be manipulated fast enough to deal with changing market conditions.

Or everyone burned out, and just walked away.

For the industry to be an industry, rather than a haphazard series of vanity hobby options, there are support professionals dealing with the things that all industries need. Sourcing. Shipping. Editing. Marketing. Warehousing. Customer service.

And even within the industry, most people can name 5 designers for every editor they know, and 5 editors for every print buyer, customer service manager, or warehouse director.

And yes, for a lot of companies, people have to wear many hat. But if you know the name of the writer who happens to also handle print runs, but you don’t know they are the person arranging for book printing, that’s still an unknown print buyer.

And most of these kinds of jobs can be done in other industries, for more money and less customer vitriol. So, if you have any opportunity to interact with these crucial people who make the ttRPG industry possible?

Be nice. Say thanks.

Without them, there is no industry.

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The Game Industry’s Insanity

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

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

Owen Bust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, again, that’s reasonable.

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

So, why is that a problem?

Because diversity is gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New ways to change from insanity.

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Q&A with Owen for Digital Gen Con

Heya Folks!

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

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

Image may contain: Owen KC Stephens

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Image

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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How RGG and I are Impacted by the Global Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your understanding.
Stay safe out there.

Owen K.C. Stephens