Category Archives: Game Design
The most recent update to the Revised, Partial List of Very Fantasy Words can be found here!
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Gambling, and being a professional gambler, are common Wild West tropes, so the ideas ought to be supported in the Really Wild West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game (which, after a long rest, is going to start getting regular support from me again!).
On the one hand, those rules ought to include some way to have dramatic gambling scenes for when a game of chance has become crucial to the plot. On the other hand, most people don’t want to have to be good gamblers to play the gambler character (any more than they want to have to be sharpshooters to play gunslingers).
So the rules should be simple, and play to the character sheet as much as the player, while retaining some dramatic tension.
Step one is to explicitly allow “gambler” as an option for the Profession skill. In most cases, a character who wants to make money gambling just uses Profession (gambler). While all professional gamblers can pull from a broad toolbox to make money, the emphasis of their gambling style is determined by what ability score it’s based on. If the skill is Intelligence-based, the gambler depends primarily on knowing the odds and rules of the games, calculating the smart bet and using betting schemes to maximize wins and minimize losses. If the skill is Wisdom-based, the gambler depends more on reading other gamblers and trusting instinctive gut feelings on how to bet. If the skill is Charisma-based, the gambler depends more on bluffing, faking out other gamblers, or using a distraction to cover cheating.
Unlike most Profession skills, a character can make Profession (gambler) checks untrained *thought they cannot use it for the earn a living task if untrained). A player decides what ability score Profession (gambler) is based on when they take their first rank it in (and may choose any ability score if using it untrained).
To make things slightly more interesting, a character with Profession (gambling) can use casual betting when making the skill check for the Earn a Living task. The player bets a number of credits equal to their Profession (gambler) skill +10. Then if their skill check for the task (which they may not take 10 on) results in a d20 roll of 2-5, their bet is lost and no money is earned. On a 6-10, they win back their bet, but do not earn any additional income. On an 11-15, they win back their bet and earn credits normally. On a 16 or higher, they win back their bet and earn twice as much as normal for a week’s work. On a natural 1, they lose the bet and lose the same amount of additional credits. (Overall this option is good deal for the player.)
Once a character has used this option for a week in a settlement and made money doing so, it’s not normally available again for at least a month (as locals have learned better than to play with the character). A GM may modify this rule for cities with lots of gambling, very large settlements, and times when numerous new potential gambling partners are appearing regularly.
Dramatic gambling is only used when the GM calls for it, and normally only when there’s more on the line than just credits. This is the option when the master villain insists on playing poker to see who wins the blood-soaked contract that sells a soul to a devil, or a neutral third party won’t sell the crucial material for a required ritual, but will gamble for it. Unless all the players are gamblers (or find interacting with the dramatic betting rules interesting), this should be as rare as any other focus most players can’t interact with—it’s fine as a spotlight scene or a change of pace, but you shouldn’t build regular encounters out of these rules unless your players know the campaign is going to have a gambling focus.
Dramatic gambling can be done with Bluff, Culture, Diplomacy, Profession (gambling), or Sleight of Hand (with potential consequences). Characters must make multiple checks during a dramatic gambling event, usually using at least two different skills. Most of these skills cannot be used more than once during a dramatic gambling event. The exceptions to this are Profession (gambling) and Sleight of hand, which may always be used. If a character decides to use Sleight of Hand they are choosing to cheat, and all participants and bystanders are allowed to make an opposed Perception check with a -5 penalty and, with a successful check, spot the character cheating.
Before any rolls are made, the gambling event’s stakes must be determined. This can be as simple as an amount of money risked by each participant, but for dramatic gambling events it’s equally likely to be some sort of plot point. For example, if the PCs are trying to convince the Cattle Duke of Montana to allow them to lay train tracks through his grazing lands, the Duke might decide the issue is settled by a high-stakes game of Red Dog, as represented by a dramatic gambling event. Similarly, if the specific player is trying to pick up a legendary item using renown, a GM might decide the final task needed to do so is a throw of the dice with Death herself… again, as a dramatic gambling event.
If the stakes are money, the winner gets to double their stake, and everyone else loses their stake (any “unwon” money goes to the house, which is never a PC). If the stakes are more plot driven the GM should be clear about the consequences of winning and losing. The PCs convince the Cattle Duke to allow their train through his territory if they win, and lose any chance of a peaceful settlement of the problem if they lose. The PC wins a legendary weapon from Death with a win, and gains a temporary negative level with a loss.
Stakes should also include the cost of folding. A character can fold until the Final Reveal. Normally folding costs you half your stakes, though for dramatic gambling where the stakes are more conceptual, the GM should just establish stakes that are half as bad as loosing (the Duke won’t work with you, but will allow you to keep trying to find a new deal he likes better. Death doesn’t give you the legendary item, but the negative level only lasts 1d6 days.)
The First Deal
Once stakes are set, the First Deal is made. This represents how good a position each participant begins with in the gambling. This need not be one hand of cards, or even cards at all. It could represent luck in the first spin of a roulette wheel, how good information about a horse is, or the value of an initial die roll in a gambling dice game.
Each participant in the event rolls a d20 in secret. The die is set aside for the moment. The First Deal is used to determine the final winner of the dramatic gambling event, but not yet.
No abilities that affect d20 reroll can be used on another character’s First Deal, including things like rerolls, unless the character using the ability has successfully Read the d20 result first. Any participant can attempt to Read another participant’s First Deal with a successful use of the detect deception task of Sense Motive check. This can be attempted once after the First Deal, once after the First Deal, and once after the Raise Round, each time looking at a single participant’s First Deal. On a successful check, the raw d20 result of the First Deal is revealed. Once you use Sense Motive to attempt to Read a First Deal you can’t use Sense Motive for any other purpose during the dramatic gambling event.
The GM can ask to see anyone’s First Deal die result, but can’t have NPCs act based on that knowledge without successfully using an ability to Read it.
After the First Deal, comes the Raise Round. Each player makes one d20 roll in the open. Then, from lowest die result to highest, each participant chooses a skill to add the bonus of to d20 roll. Characters can only use their ranks + ability score for this bonus, unless they state they are using some other rule that affects it, such as a class feature, feat, racial ability, spell, or item. (Using spells or items is always considered cheating, and requires a Stealth check opposed by all bystander’s and participant’s Perception checks, to do so without being noticed). Any such ability that affects a die roll or skill bonus can only be used once at any point in the dramatic gambling event. If an operative decides to add operative’s edge to a skill check for the Raise Round, it cannot be used again in the Final Round, even for a different skill.
Once each participant has done this, and the current result of all the raise Round skill checks are known, in the same order characters may choose if they wish to change to a new skill (perhaps one with a higher bonus), or to add an ability that can impact the Raise Round skill check. If anyone does so, another round of potential chances to skills used and class features is taken, repeating until all players pass.
Any skill or ability used in this process cannot be used again in the Final Round.
The winner of the Raise Round is allowed to roll an additional d20, in the open. In the Final Round, that player can use his original First Deal d20 check, or the new d20 roll. This decision need not be made until all the Final Round actions are completed, and everyone’s First Deal is revealed.
If two or more character’s Raise Round skill check totals are tied for the highest total at the end of the Raise Round, whichever character got to that total first wins the round.
At any point in the Raise Round, a participant may Fold, in which case they lose half their stakes (or suffer the more minor penalty, for dramatic gambling events with nonmonetary stakes.)
In the Final Round, participants go in reverse order of the order used in the Raise Round. Each participant chooses a skill and declares what their total bonus for that skill is, but do NOT yet reveal what their total is with their First Deal die.
As with the Raise Round, after every participant has declared a skill and any abilities they wish to use to boost it, another round is held where characters may swap to new skills or add new abilities. After each round, characters may Fold, as with the Raise Round.
After everyone passes, everyone in the same order decides to Fold or Call.
Everyone who Calls reveals their First Deal d20 roll, adds their total bonus, and the highest total wins. Whoever won the Raise Round may swap to their second d20 roll in place of their First Deal roll after seeing everyone else’s total. In case of a tie, the character with the highest number of ranks in their chosen skill wins (better good than lucky). If there is still a tie, everyone tied rolls a d20 and the highest result wins.
Example of Play
Alex (a soldier), Janye (an operative), and Stan (an envoy) are playing out a dramatic gambling event. They establish stakes, 100 credits each.
Each of them makes a First Deal roll. Alex gets a 4, Jayne a 7, and Stan a 17, but none of those die results are revealed.
Alex decides to attempt to Read Stan’s First Deal die roll. Alex makes a Sense Motive check, opposed by Stan’s Bluff check. Alex succeeds, and learns Stan’s hidden die roll is a 17. Alex now can’t use Sense Motive for any purpose in this dramatic gambling event other than attempting another Read check after the Raise Round.
For the Raise Round, Alex, Jayne, and Stan each make another d20 roll this time in the open. Alex gets a 15, Jayne an 11, and Stan a 10. Since Stan rolled the lowest, he is the first to declare a skill total. Since he knows he has a 17 as his First Deal, he decides to use a lower skill here and states his using Diplomacy, which is +8, for a Raise Round total of (d20 roll 10 + 8) 18.
Jayne goes next. She has Profession (gambling) at +12, and is an operative with another +2 from operative’s edge. She can use Profession for both her die rolls, but can only apply her operative’s edge to one of them. Knowing she has a First Deal roll of 7, she’d like to win the Raise Round to get a reroll, but hopes she won’t have to use operative’s edge to do it. So she uses her Profession skill without her+2 operative’s edge, getting a total of (d20 roll 11 +12) 23.
Alex has a Raise Round result of 15, and knows his First Deal result is 4 and Stan’s is 17. His best skill is Culture, which is +12, and his second-best is Diplomacy, which is +9. He feels he must get the reroll in the Raise Round to have any hope of winning, and isn’t sure using Diplomacy is good enough. It would get him a 24, better than Jayne’s current total, but if she has any abilities to boost her result she could beat him. Alex decides to use his Culture to get a total of (d20 roll 15 +12) 27.
Everyone has a chance to change their skills now, again beginning with Stan. Stan decided he wants to prevent Alex or Jayne from getting the reroll from winning the Raise Round, even if he doesn’t need it, so he switches to his Bluff, which has a +12 bonus and gives him the option of adding a +1d6+1 expertise die. Stan decided to use the expertise die now, and rolls a (1d6 roll 4 +1) 5, giving him a +17 bonus for this skill check. That gives him a (d20 roll 10 +17) 27 total as well. However since Alex got that result first, he wins the tie.
No one else wants to use any other skills, so Alex wins the Raise Round. He makes a d20 Raise Roll in the open, getting a 12. Now he can use either his original First Deal result of 4, or his Raise Roll of 12, for the Final Round.
On the Final Round, participants go in reverse order of their Raise Round totals (Jayne 23, Stan 27, Alex 27). Each announced their skill total, but does not yet reveal their First Deal die. Jayne knows Alex has a Raise Roll result of 12 he can use, and she knows her own First Deal roll is a 7. She declares she is using Profession (gambling) again, which gives her a +12 bonus, and that she is using operative’s edge (there’s no reason not to), for a total of a +14 bonus.
Stan used his best skills (Bluff and Diplomacy) and his skill expertise class feature, so his best remaining option is to use his weaker Sense Motive skill, at +7.
Alex knows he has a Raise Roll of 12, but his best remaining skill is diplomacy at +9.
No one has any additional abilities to add or better skills to switch to, the everyone passes.
Jayne then must decide to Fold or Call. She has a skill bonus of +14 and a First Deal die roll of 7, so she knows her total is 21. She also knows Alex has at least a 12 (his visible Raise Roll) and a bonus of +7, also a 21. She thinks she has more ranks in Profession (gambling) than Alex has in Diplomacy, so she calls.
Stan has a skill bonus of +7, and a First Deal die roll of 17, for a total of 24. But he is afraid Jayne’s much higher skill bonus makes her more likely to win. He folds, and loses half his stakes (50 credits).
Alex thinks Jayne must have a really bad First Deal die roll, so he Calls.
Jayne and Alex then reveal their totals. They are tied at 21, but Jayne DOES have more ranks in her skill than Alex has in his, so she wins. Alex loses all his stake, and Jayne doubles her stake.
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Quick Starfinder developer note.
In Starfinder? The names of classes, archetypes, bonus types, magic items, class features, hybrid items, technological items, equipment, the word level, and spells ARE NOT CAPITALIZED the way feats, skills, and HP/RP/SP are.
It’s not “The Gramarthurge is an Archetype exclusive to Technomancers that gains Word Abuse at 2nd Level, which boosts the utility of Spell Cache.”
It’s “The gramarthurge is an archetype exclusive to technomancers that gains word abuse at 2nd level, which boosts the utility of spell cache.”
But it’s still “The gramarthurge gains Toughness as a bonus feat, and a +2 insight bonus to Diplomacy when speaking or writing.”
As for why?
Well for every game, that’s a house style call, generally lead up by the editors and publisher, and possibly creative directors and designers.
It’s a process that involves a lot of smart people with a lot of opinions, and I am far from the most important (or most informed) member of that group, but as general guidelines:
If a detect magic spell will cause it to ping, it get italicized. So spells, magic items, hybrid items. This makes it easy for a GM to know what is magic without always looking it up.
If the term has been capitalized in every version of the d20 rules in our ancestry for 19 years (skills, feats), it gets capitalized. The original logic (IIRC) was that if we didn’t capitalize skill and feat names, they would get lost as game terms, and they were each their own highest-level header independent of any other game element. For example, you don’t capitalize class features because they are elements of a larger sub-category, the class. But each feat is all of that feat, and same with skills.
If the abbreviation of a multi-word game term is capitalized so it won’t be lost, and uses the first letters of the game term, the full term is capitalized. So HP leads to both Hit Poitns and Hull Points, but XP does not lead to experience points being capitalized. This isn’t true for all d20 games.
Otherwise normal rules of grammar apply, so elebrian isn’t capitalized for the same reason human isn’t, but Deoxian (as in a resident of the undead world of Deox) would be for the same reason American is.
And you can always check a game’s glossary and/or index, and always ask your editor/developer if they have a style guide.
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When people ask how to break into, or expand their visibility within, the RPG industry I often mention working for small pdf publishers as an option, or becoming one to self-publish your work. But, how realistic is that latter choice?
I have been deeply involved in small, mostly pdf, mostly third-party RPG game publishing for a decade. Despite looking a lot like the same kind of work as mid-sized companies (to be be fare, many of the same skills and challenged DO apply), being a basically one-man RPG shop is possible, and the barrier to entry can be quite low.
But… how low? How much should you spend on your first RPG release? How little CAN you spend?
Well, let’s look at some actual numbers.
Let’s say I want to release a 10-page RPG supplement for a licensed game, but that some OGL game or something with a separate license. How cheap can I make that?
Well, at a guess, that’ll be 7,500 words of writing. Let’s assume I do all the writing myself.
Then I want it to be edited. I can, possibly, get a friend or family member to edit it for free, but let’s assume I don’t do that. You can find editors for 1 cent/word. That’s my first real expense, and it’s $75.
Then I need a cover, and some interior illustrations. And they have to be things I have the rights to. Stock art is clearly the way to go with this, if we are trying to keep things cheap. I want one big piece for the cover, and five 1/4-page or character illos pieces to have one every 2 pages for the interior. That’s six total pieces of art. There’s a wide, wide range of stock art available, including a lot from Rogue Genius Games. I’ll likely spend more on the cover art than the interiors (although you could also go the brilliant route Raging Swam Press did, and create a style that uses no art on its covers. That’s a savings now AND in the future.) Let’s say you average $5 per illo for stock art, so that’s $30.
You need someone to do graphic design, and layout. Ideally you’d pay a graphic designer to design the look for your line and create templates, which your layout artist would then use to put all your text and illustrations in place to make a final book. But you’re trying to go cheap. So you find someone to do a basic graphic design and layout in one go, and pay $2/page. That’s another $20.
It’s smart to get a lawyer to go over licenses with you, get yourself an LLC and a company bank account, and lots of other steps… but you don’t HAVE to.
It’s also smart to pay people what they are worth, and you often get what you pay for. I’m not claiming the prices I list here are standard, or reasonable. I’m just saying you can find professional people to do the listed work for the listed price.
Okay, so you are now out $125. You don’t want to pay for print runs or advertising, so you put up a pdf on DriveThruRPG, and the Open Gaming Store, and maybe Paizo, and maybe Warehouse23. What makes sense depends on the product. Those all have different terms, but let’s assume you’re going to get 65% of cover price, on average.
How many copies will you sell? Who knows. Let’s assume you’ll do 50 copies in the first 90 days. So you need to make $125 over 50 copies, or $2.50 per sale to break even. Since you only get 65% of each sale (the rest going to your online distributor), you set the sale price at $3.95 for the pdf.
If you sell your 50 copies, you’ll bring in $128.37… a $3.37 profit!
Of course, taxes will take some of that.
And if you had paid even 3 cents/word for the writing, you’d have another $225 in costs, which would require you to sell nearly another 100 copies to break even.
And if that writing is going to earn as much as $15/hour at 3 cents/word, the 7,500 words need to take no more than 15 hours–a writing rate (including outlines, formatting, brainstorming, approvals, revisions, and so forth) of at least 500 words an hour.
But if you at LEAST break even, you can learn and improve, and make more sales (and produce the material faster) on your NEXT pdf…
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Very soon, RGG will be releasing Starfarer’s Codex: Horrifically Overpowered Feats.
And it’s my fault.
This is, obviously, a new entry in the Horrifically Overpowered line of game supplements, bringing the world of OP to Starfinder-compatible games. And while it WILL update many of the old Pf-edition OP feats, that’s not all the book has.
Oh heavens no.
It is SO much worse than that.
“How bad could it be?” you ask. Pretty bad. game-breakingly bad. You should never allow ANY of these into your campaign.
Seriously, let me show you.
Here’s just a few examples of Horrifically Overpowered Star Feats.
Ain’t Got Time To Bleed (Horrifically Overpowered)
You can rest when you’re dead.
Benefit: As a full action, you can use any option available to you that normally takes 10 minutes. You are subject to all the other restrictions of the action (it’s fast not free, get real).
Ancestral Plasma Canon
You have an item your family has carried into star battle with star demons for star centuries.
Benefit: Select one category of item that is not consumed when it is used, such as a small arm, heavy weapon, light armor, an armor upgrade, or a technological, hybrid, or magic item. Each time you gain a new character level, this item is upgraded to any item of the same category you wish with an item level no greater than your character level +2. If the item is lost or destroyed, it or a replacement returns to you no later than the next time you gain a character level.
Resolved (Horrifically Overpowered)
No one is more resolved than you are.
Benefit: The Resolve Point cost of any ability or option that requires Resolve Points is one lower than normal for you. If that makes the Resolve Point cost 0 or less (yeah, or less—if you are allowing THIS option, who KNOWS what you’ve allowed into your campaign?!) you can still only use the ability if you have at least 1 Resolve Point remaining in your Resolve Pool.
If you want to make me stop writing such ridiculous pandering products which appeal only to power gamers and bring shame on my reputation as a professional, feel free to join my Patreon, in the hopes the money will distract me and put an end to this terrible idea.
Or… I mean back me and tell me to write more. As long as you give me money, I don;t care what you ask me to do.
A template for 1st ed Pathfinder, to turn a foe into a Boss Monster.
Initiative: If a boss’s total initiative is less than 15, it changes to 15. If that would cause it to go last in the first full round of combat, it’s initiative improves until it goes next-to-last.
HP: Double total HP
Boss Action: At the end of each round, the Boss gains an additional full-round action. It cannot use this to run, charge, or double-move if it has already done any of those things this turn.
Boss Bash: As a full-round action, a Boss can move itself up to its move and damage all creatures adjacent to it at any point as if it had hit them with a melee attack. If the boss had some kind of limitations on its movement they do not affect this action, but are still in place after it takes this action. This movement does not provoke an attack of opportunity. Alternatively, it can expend a spell or spell-like ability to damage these creatures equal to 1d6 per spell level +1d6 per 2 caster levels.
This ability looks and is described differently based on what the boss is, and does damage of a type the boss can normally do.
Boss Options: Anything other than boss bash that the boss can do a limited number of times per day, or per minute, or per round, it can do twice as often.
Boss Resilience: If a failed saving throw would normally cause a boss to be helpless, unconscious, dead, or paralyzed, and the boss still has the boss action ability, the failed saving throw instead just strips the boss of its boss action for 1d4+6 rounds.
Treasure: Give double treasure.
There you go! All the boss’s numbers and abilities are in the range PCs can deal with, but it’s twice as tough and dangerous, and harder to pin down or isolate!
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The “Writing Basics” line of articles is my effort to codify some things that are fairly fundamental to writing in the tabletop RPG industry, but which aren’t generally taught in schools or discussed much in how-to forums and convention panels. These are things I’ve mostly had to pick up over the years, which I would have loved a short primer on when I was getting started (or, in some cases, even ten years into my RPG writing career).
As this line of articles grows, some folks have asked me if I will cover a topic that… I already covered!
Right. Social media is NOT a steady, reliable, or easily searched information distribution mechanism.
So, to help anyone who might wonder what topics I have already cover, here’s the Writing Basics Index Page, with a short description and link to each article in this series. I’ll update this page as I keep writing these.
From Nothing to a Game Book: What is the process that leads from nothing to a company publishing a finished book? This is my best stab at a high-level, rough overview. It is, at best, a sketch that covers a lot of different ways this happens, but there are companies that add steps, or skip steps, or do things in a totally different order.
Paginations and Wordcounts: In this installment of Writing Basics I take a brief look at two related subjects that freelance writers often don’t need to worry too much about, but that are extremely important to the RPG industry overall—paginations and wordcounts.
Introductions: This covers the topic of “Introductions,” by which I specifically mean the text at the beginning of a product, book, chapter, or section (likely with its own header—these things are often interconnected), that explains what’s actually in that section of text. Ideally, it’s interesting to read, gives the reader some idea of what information is coming and why, and gives some context how that material connects to other books/products/chapters/ or sections of text.
Headers: Headers are the big titles of sections of books that tell you (roughly) what content is in that section. If you want a quick overview of what headers are, how to mark them in a manuscript (which, I should note, is actually “however your publisher tells you to,” though the [H1]- and [H2]-style designations are pretty common if not universal), go check out Rogue Genius Games’ “RGG Writer Guidelines,” which discuss headers and how to let your editor and layout artist know where they should in your manuscript.
Final Checks for RPG Manuscripts: In this entry, I going to talk about the all the work you should be doing after you are done writing, but before you turn over the manuscript. These last checks are often the difference between a polished manuscript that gets people’s attention, and a barely-useful mess that requires significant work from your developer/editor/producer/publisher to bring up to their standards.
Check the Rights to Anything You Use in Publishing: This is SUPER basic, but I see smart people get it wrong all the time.
Impostor Syndrome: A lot of creatives have it. I have it. Here are some of my coping mechanisms, in case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about).
Got a Writing Basic you’d like to see covered? Want to support the time it takes me to write things like this? You can request the first and help with the second by joining my Patreon, for as little as a few bucks a month!
In this installment of Writing Basics I’ll take a brief look at two related subjects that freelance writers often don’t need to worry too much about, but that are extremely important to the RPG industry overall—paginations and wordcounts.
These are good examples of the kinds of topics I never got much training about in school, and had to pick up as I went through my career. While early on I didn’t ever need to work with these much, the time came when I was trusted enough to begin to get jobs that DID require me to make calculations based on these elements, and I was woefully under-prepared for it. Luckily I managed to find some people willing to explain the core skills to me before I messed anything up too badly, but it would have been useful (to me, and my developers and editors) if I’d understood how these tools are used, and connected, long before I had to be able to create them myself.
In concept a wordcount is extremely simple—it’s the number of words a project needs to fill. There used to be lots of ways commonly used to calculate the word count of work you’ve finished, but nowadays most people just use the wordcount in their word processor program of choice. That’s fine… as far as it goes. I’ll note that since the industry standard in my experience is Office Word, you want to make sure your program of choice calculates a file’s word count in roughly the same was Word does, so if you developer asks for 1,500 words, your computer agrees with their computer on how close you are to hitting that.
Calculating what wordcounts should be in advance is more complicated, and we’ll get to that after we briefly discuss paginations.
A pagination is a document that lays out the specific pages of a book. It is used to determine what content goes on what page. The most common form I am used to is usually an Excel file or similar document that actually has a cell for each page, in which you list what’s on that page. Let’s do a super simple example, for an 8-page book on halfling war baking, as a table.
Table of Contents
½ page art
|Halfling War Baking History
|War Baker Archetype
¼ page art
|Equipment: Battle Muffins
¼ page art
|½ page ad
Page 1 is the first page of the book separate from the cover, and is therefore a right-hand page. That’s why there is a blank entry to the left of it—when I open this 8-page book, the first thing I’ll see (after endpaper, which doesn’t count for our purposes but is sometimes printed on and would be listed as “front inside cover” in that case) is the inside of the front cover on the left, and the titles page on the right.
After that everything is 2-page “spreads.” Pages 2 and 3 will open with 2 on the left and 3 on the right. That means by looking at my pagination, I know that when reading the book you can see those two pages at the same time. This is extremely useful when determining where art goes—you don’t need art on every page. You don’t even need art on every 2-page spread. But you do want art fairly evenly distributed throughout an RPG book, or it becomes a dreaded “wall of text.”
Now obviously you don’t need a table of contents AND a glossary AND an index AND an appendix in an 8-page product. But when planning a physical book, you need to know how many pages your final product will be, and things like this take up space, and often can’t be written until so late in the process there’s no way to just flow them into a layout program and see how much room they eat up. By creating a pagination, you can leave room for these before they are written. Of course that means you need to know how much room you need for them, and that’s often a guessing game based on experience. But at least with a pagination, you have a chance to allot space for these things.
Now that we have a basic pagination, we can look at word count. While this is also a bit of a guessing game, there are factors we can depend on to get much closer than if we just use some generic round number. (That said, I use 22,000 words per 32 8.5×11 page of a 32-page or larger book when I can’t do a pagination for some reason, and while it’s not perfect, it’s often close enough for back-of-napkin calculations).
One of the things you need for an accurate wordcount is a finalized layout style. This is one of the reasons freelancers often don’t have to worry about figuring out their own wordcount—they would have to work with the layout artist to know the book’s fonts, styles, headers, and so on. But once you know how words are going fit onto a page, you can just count the words in 20 or so pages using those layout parameters (with no art or tables), and divide by 20, and that’s your rough per-page wordcount. Let’s say a page of nothing but normal words turns out to be 900 words per page for your graphic design. That means an 8-page book would be 7200 words, right?
Again, go to our pagination. We know the title page is just going to be the title of the book. The credits and table of contents are going to take up some words, but those aren’t part of the wordcount we need a freelancer to provide. Same with the glossary, index, and appendix—we need to remember those need to be done, but they aren’t the same as the halfling war baker material. The OGL is a bunch of words, and it’s super-important the writer work with us to make it accurate, but that’s not part of a project’s normal wordcount either.
The actual meat of this book is pages 3, 4, 5, and 6. That would mean a wordcount of 3600… except we already know there’s going to be art on those pages. A half page of art will reduce a page’s wordcount by, well, half… approximately. (This is all just an effort to get the best approximations we can—someday I may get into developing to fit, copyfit, layout to fit, and so on.) So with one ½-page piece of art and two ¼-page pieces of art, I lose a whole page worth of wordcount.
That means if I want to assign this to a freelancer to write, or I want to have a good idea how long it’ll take me to write, the core part of this book is 2700 words. Specifically, the introduction is 450 words, the history is 900, the archetype is 450 (and that ½ page art had better be a visual of that archetype), and the battle muffins take up 675.
There are also lots of other problems a pagination can help you avoid. Let’s say, for example, that my freelancer comes back to me and says they want to take 150 words from the introduction, 150 from the history and 150 from the muffins, to add 450 words on dwarven war baking. That’s easy in a word-processor, but with the pagination I can see if I think I’d have any place to put that. Now I could just have the introduction end a paragraph before the bottom of that page, then begin the history, and have a tiny bit of it on page 3, and have it run most of the way (but not all the way) through page 4… but everything is becoming a mess.
There are good reasons a lot of publishers won’t let you do this. That’s outside the scope of this article, but you can see how knowing what goes on each page helps plan out any changes that get proposed as the writing progresses.
It’s also useful for placing art, ordering art if you need to do that before the text is done, keeping track of tasks like creating tables of content, and so on.
And, hopefully, it helps show why developers and editors love writers who can get within 2-3% of their exact wordcount. If I ask someone for 1500 words on war muffins, giving me 1800 words isn’t really doing me any favors. In fact, it makes work for me. That’s often less work than if someone only gives me 1350 words out of 1500, but I am still happier if I get 1475 to 1550.
With things designed only for a web blog post or an e-book, these hard wordcounts are often much less important. But paginations and the wordcounts they generate remain common tools of the industry, and even if you aren’t working with them yet it’s useful to know how they function.
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