Category Archives: Musings

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 Performative End of Being a Creator

You can think of this as an unusually long #RealGameIndustry entry.

If you are depending on the game industry for your full income, and you do not have a full-time job with benefits, necessity means at least part of what you are doing to performative.

Performing to build a community. Performing to gain name recognition. Performing to seem more fun and interesting, on the assumption that makes your products seem more fun and interesting.

Given how many of us came into gaming to escape what we saw as societal and clique-based requirements for shallow performative interactions, this is often a bitter irony. Indeed, while most of us are too smart to complain publicly, this can result in annoyance or anger as what we see as the “pretty popular people” being successful in their performance to a degree we cannot match (often directly measurable in how much money those people can raise compared to how much experience they have or how much content they have created.)

Especially as a mentally ill, socially-awkward, depressive introvert, it often strains my coping mechanisms and ability to put on a false face to their absolute limits. Social media is both a blessing and a curse in this regard. The ability to use text to put forth an idealized, entertaining self helps create a buffer between my depression and my need to be a performative creator. However, those very tools also demand constant attention to remain an effective part of my mandatory performance.

And at that, I have a much easier time as a cis white hetero male, because there are faults and failings I can have which are seen as quirky, or the stereotype of the grumpy writer. Creators in more marginalized groups often don’t get that slack. They both have much more cause to be scarred by social interaction, and must maintain a more perfect performance to reap the same benefits I do.

Even my ability to make discussions of my illnesses, failings, and annoyances part of my public persona is made easier by my role as an elder whitebeard. I have seen women, and minorities, and LGBT creators all with as much or more experience as I have been shouted down as clearly unstable for daring to say the same things I am allowed to state largely without consequence.

Nor do I foresee anything of this changing in a major way. The need to be performative to be successful as an independent appears to be baked into the industry (and full time jobs that pay something like the median income for their area are so rare as to be unicorns). That means the only part of this likely to change is the unfairness that performative need puts on marginalized creatives.

That fight is worth fighting. But it’s going to take hard work and time to make significant progress.
Meanwhile, the demands for performance keep changing and increasing, as technology drops the barriers between creator and consumer.

I work hard to remain relevant. And I see no time when I’ll be able to stop working at that without falling into an at-best-niche position. Which means my coping mechanisms for my trauma, depression, and other issues must include being able to maintain the performance–at least for regular, short bursts– even when I am fighting to not just curl up under the covers and give up on it all.

This is like climbing a wall, endlessly. If you ever fully give up you don’t just fail to make progress. You may be able to rest in a cradle for a time, or depend on your ropes. But those things can only hold you for a brief time. Eventually you’ll fall, and then you don’t just drop a little. You lose a huge percentage of your progress, and can damage yourself and your career, even kill it, as you smash things on the way down.

Keeping yourself in a place where people will see you and your work so they even might buy it is a grind, on top of the grind of creating enough work to survive even if people see enough of it.

You don’t have to have answers for all of this as you start. But to rise above a certain level, you must begin to work it out eventually.

When people sometimes suggest I take on too much, I want to yell at them that if I only do 75% as much work, I won’t get 75% of the result. I’ll get 50%, or less. If you try to microwave popcorn and you put it in for 60 seconds, you don’t get half the popcorn you’d get if you microwaved it for 2 minutes. Your work is all at least partially wasted if you can’t back it up with enough PR, backstock, and previews to maintain brainshare in an audience with tons of other, better-funded, better-advertised options.

I don’t have solutions for many of the problems these issues bring up. But it’s better for newer creators to be aware of the potential minefield and prepare for it, than have it come as a surprise for them. If you just want to create on your own terms and enjoy whatever success happens to come your way, and not try to pay the rent, cover medical insurance, and put food on the table purely through ttRPG efforts, you can largely ignore this. And if you find a way around it, I heartily congratulate you. And there are different levels of this performative need, with some folks managing much more success than I with much less performance put in.

But be aware of the potential drain on your time and energy.

Speaking of Performing

Part of the performative need is to drive people to platforms you can monetize, like my patreon. There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

Guest Blog: Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Gaming veteran, artist, and writer Jacob Blackmon!

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

I Started Drawing Because I Can’t Spell Worth Shit…

OR…

My Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

By Jacob E Blackmon

Let’s just start by saying, I love my life. I love being an artist in the tabletop game community. This job has allowed me a freedom of living that I never imagined possible. I seriously cannot think of any job I would rather be doing right now.

As the same time, it has also been the occasional financial burden, when the art commissions slow down and money gets tight. That is something one has to learn as a freelancer in any market. There are highs and lows (or “feast and famine” as some say), and one never knows when they will come… so be sure to have a good savings account.

My name is Jacob Blackmon, and I have been a freelance artist in the tabletop rpg community since 2009. I’ve only been doing the gig as a full time thing since 2013. Given that I was born in 1977, this has been a very small – but significant – portion of my life. I’ve been gaming since 1989, and I never even considered using my art skills as a ttrpg artist.

For the longest time, I wanted to be a comic book artist, hence my distinctive style. This style has served me well… and also been a curse, as there are some companies that refuse to work with me, because I don’t have that traditional “painted fantasy” look. And that kind of rejection is certainly going to apply to the big-name companies (Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, etc.), who only use that “painted” style of art, so I know I will never get jobs with them. Which is too bad, because I would love to see my name in one of their books.

But my success is not measured in what books I have not been in. It is measured in the books where I HAVE contributed my art. And those are MANY! The third-party ttrpg industry is a massive community of wonderful and passionate people. These are the folks I consider my peers… and quite, often… my friends. Despite this familiarity to which I speak of them, it is important to maintain a professional attitude when working with such people. They expect every bit as much professionalism from their freelancers – artists and writers includes – as any of the big name companies.

Deadlines are a serious thing, and can make or break a company, especially in the post-COVID days. During the CV19 days of 2020, the gaming community seriously suffered. If you were not Wizards of the Coast, you saw your finances drop significantly. This is why deadlines are so important to keep in mind as a freelancer. We need to make sure we get our work done in time, so the company can get their product out.

I have seriously lost count of many projects have come my way because another artist decided they didn’t want to work on a project and did not communicate this fact until after the deadline posted by the company. This is a serious breach of trust and of professionalism. If a freelancer can’t make their deadlines, the company will stop going to that person in favor of those that will. So, meet your deadlines. This is, seriously, THE MOST IMPORTANT ADVICE IS CAN GIVE ANYONE! Meet your deadlines!

I can count, on one hand, how many times I have failed to make a deadline. And, when it has happened I always let the company whom I am working for know that I will miss the deadline before it happens. That is the second key: communication. Just like in life, love, family, and relationships, one needs to maintain communication with the people they are working for. Let them know the progress of the art assignment. Have you started on it? Yes? Let them know that.

During the art process, I usually have several stages of communication with a client.

  1. Beginning – When first starting on the art.
  2. Early stages – When my first rough draft concept is ready, I send them a copy via email (sometimes through another PM service, if they prefer, but emails is always the true professional way to do it!). When a rough draft is approved, I move on to…
  3.  Line work – This stage shows the clean version of what had been the rough draft, giving the client an idea of what the final piece will look like. It is also the last time a client will really have to make any serious changes to the pieces. I mention this, because once we start to add color, shading, and highlighting to an illustration, it becomes MUCH harder to make alterations.
  4. Coloring – For me, this is both the base coloring stage, plus shading and highlights. This is often the final stage, as alterations after this stage are incredibly difficult.

Each of these stages has me sending the client an email of what is going on with the piece. Once the final piece is approved, that’s the best time to send an invoice and get paid! The best clients pay immediately (“I do the job, I get paid.” – Mal Reynolds, Firefly), but some clients may have to hold those payments until they themselves get paid through another venue. This is why it helps to make sure to have a steady stream of clients at the same time. That way, not only can an artist transition from one piece to another, while waiting for one client to respond to the latest email; but also so that the artist has a nice steady flow of income. One client may not be able to pay their bill immediately, but the other should be able to. And that keeps a bank account happy, bills paid, and food on the table.

There are a couple of suggestions I have to maintaining a steady supply of clients, as well as netting new clients in the future. These were things I had to learn along the way in my own freelance art career, and some were told to me by others. So I am teaching them to you, as well…

Get an online profile! Make sure you have a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure you have an online gallery where potential clients can see your art.

Have a rate sheet! Make sure you know how much to charge for your work, and make sure it is equal to how valuable your time is that you put towards your work. Don’t short-sell yourself, just to make clients happy. Save the price discounts for “friends and family.” Make sure to always charge your friends and family. Don’t give them free art, unless YOU choose to do so. This is your JOB!

THIS IS YOUR JOB! Be a professional. Meet your deadlines. But, at the same, time treat it like a job. Take time off, including regular breaks during the day (don’t sit in the chair and look at social media; stand up and move around… make yourself a light snack.. socialize with your roommates), break for lunch, and when you have put in your 8 hours…. STOP WORKING!

The last bit of advice I can give to a potential artist who wants to work in the ttrpg community is to also be a ttrpg gamer! You cannot imagine how much time it save a client to have an artist already be familiar with the various games and art associated with said games. No one has ever had to describe to me what a “peryton” is, as I already know what they are supposed to look like. This saves both you and the client a ton of time and descriptive text.

Go! Draw! Have fun and make money doing it!

Speaking of which, please support me on Patreon: patreon.com/jacobblackmon

Jacob Blackmon

Gallery: deviantart.com/prodigyduck

FB: facebook.com/jacob.blackmon.56

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

Letting Dead PCs Die

I have had my fair share of dead PCs get returned to life in ttRPGs. Often they are dead so briefly, and with such little consequence, it doesn’t really feel like they died at all. Brought back by spells within 6 seconds of joining the choir invisible (not even enough time to see if they are an alto or soprano among the spirits), given reprieve by a GM retcon, or just having their life restored off-screen as part of treasure division, some characters’ deaths have no more impact on their narrative than tossing out the laser pistol they carried during the nightmare invasion of Ragesh III for a more expensive model that does 1d8 instead of 1d4.

Even among characters who needed more effort put in by friends and allies to return to the mortal coil, being temporarily dead is rarely an interesting enough part of their story than any of us sit around and recount when we are telling imaginary war stories. Being temporarily dead is mostly a hiccup, a plastered-over accident we erase because we’d all rather keep telling our parts of that character’s story.

It doesn’t have to be that way. When my wife’s cleric in IFGS (live-action foam-sword fantasy D&D-style larping) died, an entire game was written and produced for her closest friends to bring her back. Her soul wasn’t responding to normal resurrection magics, and we had to travel through her most vivid memories to find it and convince it to return. This meant playing through the biggest, most memorable encounters of her previous IFGS adventures, many of which some of us had gone through with her, and recreate he greatest victories (and, in the case of getting burned by one glyph she mis-named, we thought we needed to recreate her failure as well). All that lead to finally finding her in a kind of lesser heaven, happily keeping house, and somehow convincing her she was needed to keep fighting the forces of evil away from a world where the fire was always warm and the baked bread always fresh.

THAT return to life some of us still talk about.

But for my own characters, it’s much more often the ones who stay dead who get their stories told by other players. When the rarely heroic Pallinor flew across the chasm moat to take on 5 apprentice warlocks, keeping them from casting spells at any of his allies so they could fight their way across the bridge, his success ensuring their victory but at the cost of his own magic being snuffed out and plummeting to his death. When the Monitor overloaded the reactor in his powered armor to self-destruct and blow up himself and 7 Sentry war-bots, ensuring the young mutant girl Olivia could escape, and become the leader and heroine Emerald a generation later. Those deaths were never undone, and it made the character’s sacrifices mean more to me, and be notable enough that other people who were there sometimes tell their tales.

Because the ending for most of my characters is that the one-shot game was a one-shot, or the adventure path ended when someone moved rather than when we finished it, or the campaign’s GM lost interest, or schedules changed, or personal quarrels made a group not want to get together for that game anymore.

My fictional characters who lived are rarely as memorable as those who died… and stayed dead.

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TTRPG Retirement Plans, or Lack Thereof

There are, as far as I know, only six realistic retirement plans for full-time, ttRPG professionals in the United States–and calling them “realistic” is debatable. This is not a happy or upbeat list of options, and it doesn’t come with any problem-solving or brilliant insights on my part. This is just the state of the industry, as I know it.

You can think of this as an unusually long #RealGameIndustry entry.

Company Retirement Account

A few of the biggest ttRPG-producing companies have things like 401k programs, a few with some degree of matching funds. It can be tough to put much away in these, as in most cases pay barely covers living expenses, but if you can, and you manage to work at the same company for 30 years or so (which is also extremely rare), it may build up a big enough account to cover you in retirement.

Personal Retirement Account

You can, of course, create your own retirement account and put money in it, with or without some period of time when you have corporate matching funds. This is the “best” option for most full-time freelancers… who on average make even less money (and thanks to paying for their own health insurance and paying self-employment tax often have higher expenses), which makes it even harder to put anything away for the future. And, of course, no matching funds.

Build A Passive Income

Though royalty deals, maintaining ownership or partial ownership of the products you create, starting your own company, or some similar plan, you can try to set up passive income — that is, money you work for once that then keeps coming in. I have profit-share deals with more than 500 products sold as pdfs. Most older files sell only a few copies a year now, but that IS an income that keeps coming in even when I don’t do much or any work on maintaining it. I myself haven’t even gotten this near a level of retirement income, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or at least be part of a retirement plan.

Have a Spouse With A Real Retirement

Yep, this sounds like I am being glib, but I have had multiple ttRPG professionals tell me they only believe they have any hope of retirement because they have a spouse with a solid corporate retirement plan or the spare income to invest in their own retirement account. It would be dishonest not to include this as among the common plans within the industry.

Depend on State Benefits

Be that Medicare, Social Security, Disability, or some other program, I know many ttRPG professionals who just assume at some point they’ll only have whatever the government gives them, and will have to survive on whatever that allows. Most are not optimistic about the quality of life this will allow, and many have tried to make other arrangements, only to have them fall through.

Don’t

This is honestly the most common “retirement plan” ttRPG professionals have talked to me about – Don’t Retire. Work until they die. Assume that there will never be a time when we don’t have to put in 40-80 hours a week to earn enough to maintain an at-least marginal existence.

I personally call this the “Die at the keyboard” plan.

Speaking of Making a Living

There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 5. The Polite Inquiry about Work.

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer I had a good relationship with, when they asked how to contact other developers and ask them for work.

They hadn’t needed to contact me for work through formal written channels, because we had arranged the first freelance writing they did for me at a convention when they were introduced to me by a mutual friend and had since then discussed the next thing they’d do each time they finished the last one. We also became friends, and often chatted in nonformal online venues, so it was easy for them to ask me if there was anything upcoming they might get to work on.

But given it is best to have multiple venues to get work from when you want to be a full-time freelancer, and the relatively high turnover in the ttRPG industry, it’s a good idea to branch outfrom just one person who may assign you projects. That left this freelancer wondering –if they wanted to contact someone OTHER than me for work, what were best practices for doing so?

My response, in a Facebook Messenger window, form the basis for the following:

“First, do NOT contact people on Facebook or Twitter for ttRPG work unless they specifically say somewhere that is okay. I’m fine with it, but many other developers and publishers are not. And if someone has said they want all inquires to come in from some official email, or follow a specific format, and you don’t do that you;ve already not put your best foot forward. If you can’t follow those instructions, why should the developer think you’ll follow the instructions of a writing assignment.

That goes with the next important point, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. If you want to contact someone at Paizo about writing or them, read their forums first. Look for the “about us” section to see if there are emails you should use, specific people you should write to, open calls you should try for first, and so on.

After that, do not use form messages. Customize for each developer. If you are on good, friendly terms with them, you can keep it super short and informal, but still on-point and professional. For example:

“Hi Owen!

Hope you are doing well.

I just finished a Project for another developer at Paizo, and wanted to let you know I have availability if you have anything coming up to be assigned. I’d especially love to get to work on some worldbuilding or adventures, but am happy to take any project that could use another writer.

Thanks!

Freelancer Name
Freelancer Email
Freelancer Web Site or Other Social media Link if you have it”

If you don’t already know the developer quite well, especially if you have never worked for them or anyone else at their company of on their game line, you should be both more formal, and more informative. Such as:

“Dear Mr. Stephens,

My name if Freelancer McFreelanceface, and I am a freelance ttRPG writer. I have worked on numerous d20-based games, and the Halfling War Cheese boardgame. I’m a fan of Pathfinder, especially the Player Companion line, and wanted to reach out and see if there was any projects coming up you might be interested in having be write some part of. I am especially skilled with adventures and worldbuilding, and am familiar with your formats for both, but am also happy to take on any part of any project.

If there is an open call or tryout procedure coming up you think might be a better place for me to start doing things for Paizo, I’d be happy to do that first.

Thanks for your time,

Freelancer Name
Freelancer Email
Freelancer Web Site or Other Social media Link if you have it”

Also, make sure all those things are true! If you haven’t cracked open a lot more than one game book from a company, you likely shouldn’t be reaching out to them for freelance work.

Also, if you have other devs or editors or publishers you are on good terms with, or other freelancers, hit them up for suggestions, recommendations, and even references. Always keep the ask at a level appropriate with your actual connection and level of experience with them, but it’s generally cool to ask if someone knows if a publisher is looking to hire freelancers, and if anyone knows who to get in touch there and how. (And, sadly, to learn if anyone has had bad experiences with anyone you should watch out for, though as with anything, you have to decide how to weigh such concerns.)”

My personal rule of thumb is once you ping someone, if you don’t hear from them or they seem open to the idea of you working for them but note they don’t have anything at the moment, it is appropriate to drop them a note again in 90 days. Some people are okay with more frequent pokes (I have people prod me about things I have said I’d LIKE to get around to doing with them once or twice a week, and if done politely that doesn’t bother *me* at all), and if anyone ever replies with something like ‘I’ll contact you when I have something,” that’s a good sign to politely reply that you look forward to it, then stop cold contacting them.”

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My Evolution as a Tabletop RPG Player, Part 1. The Beginning

The idea of a tabletop roleplaying game was so unbelievably powerful and alluring when I first encountered it in 1982, it did not matter how good or bad the rules were. In fact, it didn’t matter if we even had the rules–the group I first played with (myself, my sister, and my uncle Lucien) literally only had the hardback 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide available to us. But the very idea of a game where you took on the role of a heroic character and played through your own adventures was so seductive that I crafted (terrible) rules to replace the Player’s Handbook, and we managed two game sessions.

I was hooked forever. To the best of my knowledge, neither my uncle or sister ever played again.

Part of the appeal was that I was an voracious reader, and always got through series I loved faster than they were produced. And, in many cases, the pulp novels that lined the hallway to my bedroom in my childhood home stopped having new entries before I was even born. I hated getting invested in a character and having the stories about them just… stop.

But here was an opportunity to make my OWN stories. To my 11-year-old self, it had all the exciting appeal of playing cops & robbers, but with RULES and a simulated semi-objective reality attached so everything didn’t just devolve into yelling “Bang! Bang!” “You’re Dead!” “Am Not!” “Are Too!” (or, at least, that happened less often).

I was a child with a new toy, and it was better than any toy I had ever had previously. I was already dipping my hand into game design, on an ad-hoc, houserule basis, but I wasn’t really questioning the basis of the games I played, or the stories they encouraged me to tell. In the first few years I played a lot of Tunnels & Trolls solo modules, played a massive amount of D&D hybrids (blending AD&D 1st ed, OD&D, and Basic D&D however made sense at a given session),played a little Car Wars (but made a LOT of Car Wars designs), and played a surprising amount of Secret Gamma Hill World Busters Alpha (smooshing Gamma World, Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, and Metamorphosis Alpha into one reality-hopping, post-apocalypse-retro-Saturday-Afternoon-B-Movie mess, which only worked because no one questioned it much).

I had only two regular groups early on — the School Recess Crowd, and the game my mother ran for I and several friends every Sunday (in which she discovered young boys would shut up, listen to her, and tackle math, history, geography and logic puzzles if she made it needful for the solution of a dungeon room). Everything was fair game. We all borrowed from movies, books, comics, and other games. I grabbed every RPG I could, even ones I never got to play or only played 1ce or 2ce, and Traveller, Space Opera, Champions, Empire of the Pedal Throne, the Morrow Project, and Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game, all took up more and more space in my room, as action figures, brick-building sets, and plastic army men slowly lost their appeal.

But I was generally still only playing with people I knew from other walks of life in 1982 and 1983. A few school friends, family, and people my family arranged for me to meet. I wasn’t developing a circle of friends FROM gaming yet, nor expanding into all the wide and various other forms of tabletop games. I wasn’t questioning HOW to play games, or even WHY, or considering there might be good ways, bad ways, and even damaging ways.

Not yet.

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Designing ttRPGs with Optimizers in Mind

There are people who like to explore the rules of ttRPGs to see if they can make a character that is optimized–that is, if there is a set of choices they can make which is as powerful as a character can possibly be.

Sometimes, they find ways to make characters so powerful they make the game less fun for any other player who is not similarly optimized, because they can do everything better and faster than other characters, and thus gain all the spotlight time.

(Sometimes this is done through questionable readings of the rules, or throwing logic out the door for a literal reading of rules. Sometimes it isn’t.)

Some games are more prone to optimizers than others, some groups are more prone to optimizers than others, and different designers have different levels of concern and attitudes about the impact optimizers have on the value of the game. There are a few different ways designers of ttRPGs try to foresee these problems and design games while keeping the existence of optimizers in mind. As with most game design choices, they each have their pros and cons, and work better in some game styles, and with some groups, than others.

Here are some different common tacks designers take when designing with optimizers kept firmly in mind.

Just Say No

One option is to tell gamers to not do this kind of optimization, and then state if people DO do this, the problem is with the player, not the game. This has the advantage of not removing or limiting options for players and GMs who don’t have optimizing problems, and being easy for the designer. It has the drawback of being useless to many gaming groups. It’s reasonable to feel such groups should just play with different people, or play a different game, but that’s still a limitation of this method.

Warning Signs

Another option is to highlight options the designer feels are particularly open to unbalanced optimization, so the GM can decide whether or not to allow them, or at least look at their use with a skeptical eye. One huge drawback of this is that GMs and players may consider everything else explicitly “balanced,” and if a designer misses an option (or combination of options) that cause imbalances they may feel blindsided by it. It otherwise has a lot of the pros and cons of Just Say No.

Hard Limits

Hard limits are an effort to circumvent optimizer efforts by stating that there are values or levels of efficiency a character cannot exceed, no matter what combination of options a character has. This is sometimes expressed as a a maximum numeric value for specific bonuses or game stats, and sometimes as an express limit on what percentage of spotlight time a character can receive. Hard limits can be a straightforward way for a game designer to communicate what power level the game expects characters to achieve. They can also feel stifling to many players, who feel there is a logic or realism disconnect that a character who has hit a hard limit can’t exceed it by taking an option that would make anyone else who took it more powerful. It’s also possible for a game designer to fail to place a hard limit on some aspect of game play optimizers can use to still create more effective characters than other players.

Soft Limits

Soft limits are in place when a game attempts to simply not make it possible to exceed the kinds of numerical values for powers and abilities the design expects characters to be at. There may be few or no options for raising the most important values of the game, or the game may not even have different values for different characters. in some cases soft limits games are extremely rules-light, and may depend on a GM to decide when abilities can be used and how effective they are. In other cases they are very much math- and option-driven games, but the designers have made an effort to ensure that no selection of choices can exceed the (often unstated) soft limit values.

Soft limit, rules-light games tend to be very dependent on a skilled GM, and may just end up giving players with the best ability to argue with the GM an edge in power. Some groups find they work extremely well for games with limited run times, from 1-shots to short campaigns, while others do well as long as they keep their heads in a more narrative frame of mind than game mechanical.

Soft limit, rules-heavy games take a lot of work on the part of designers to be flexible and interesting, and still not have combinations that exceed the soft limits. These kinds of games can also often frustrate players who find the soft limit keeps their characters less effective in areas that, narratively, they want to be able to improve, and may make players feel they never actually get better at anything. Also, if the soft limits are unstated and the game has extensive option supplements, later designers/developers/publishers may well introduce things that break the original design’s invisible guardrails.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 4. Post-Publication Activities.

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a letter about what is, and maybe isn’t, a good idea to do after a project you have a credit in gets published and is available to the public. I’ve given similar advice to numerous freelancers, and prospective freelancers over the years (and even have a file on my hard drive that has some snippets of those to borrow from when I am asked about this topic), but I don’t think I’ve ever publicly published any significant portion of the advice itself.

I *try* to always open such letters with congratulations for getting published–creatives in this industry see criticism SO much more than praise or well-wishing, so I like to celebrate those moments of success if possible. Then, I break down my main suggestions for things to do with a project, now that it’s out in the world in its (presumably) final state.

“First, let me say that all this advice comes with a huge proviso — never follow these suggestions if they conflict with your own ethics, morals, best practices, comfort level, or mental well-being. For example, I mention looking for opportunities to talk about your work, including podcasts, but if your mental health will suffer from doing that, don’t. Similarly I suggest keeping praise for your publisher public, and criticism private, but there I am talking about things like typos, or inferences the publisher may not have meant. If you feel you have an ethical mandate to call out a publisher publicly for things such as racism, bigotry, misogyny, and so on, I am in no way telling you not to do that. No one is paying you enough to sell out your ethical code, and I believe we all have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. Any such instance is going to be too complex for some general advice that doesn’t know all the nuances of that specific situation to apply in any more than the vaguest sense. You’ll need to take those actions you feel most appropriate and/or most effective. That might mean publicly raising your objections, at least eventually if private notes do not seem to be making any difference. It also might not.

I wish I could tell you that any criticism you make, publicly or privately, will be taken as a reasoned, well-intentioned, good-faith effort on your part to make the hobby as a whole better. And, some folks will take it that way. But at both the professional and consumer level, many may not. It’s a risk, and you need to be realistic with yourself about the impact of possibly blowback on your life. If you have specific concerns in this area, please feel free to ask me about them. If you want my private, confidential take on a specific situation I am happy to give it. I might even be able to help.

That huge caveat aside, my general advise for what to do when a product you have a credit in comes along is pretty simple.

Read It

Do this first. You never know what may change from your final turnover to the printed page, and there are two good reasons to find out. First, seeing how things you wrote have changed may give you a better idea what that publisher is looking for, which can help you get more work with them. It may even give you insight into haw to be a better writer. If you don’t understand why a change was made, a short, polite note to your contact who got you the contract for the gig and to who you turned over your draft isn’t a bad idea.

Second, if you begin talking about the book, you want to talk about what is actually in it, rather than what you turned over. You neither want to promise people something that has been removed, nor seem uninformed if people ask you questions about things you have no familiarity with.

I sometimes sit with a PDF of the final release on one screen, and my draft on the other, and look line-by-line at differences. Yes, it would be easier for a developer to send you feedback, but that’s all-too-rare in this industry.

Check your NDA

Assuming, of course, you have an NDA. (Check your contract.) Most likely once the book is out you are free to talk about it, but if it’s one part of a multipart project you may be surprised by what hasn’t been revealed yet. Again, if in doubt, a short note asking for clarification to you contact with the publisher normally goes well.

Promote Your Credit

This is a great chance to promote yourself. Make a post talking about having a credit. if there’s some interesting anecdote about the process, that may be worth including as long as it doesn’t put anyone in a bad light (though see the proviso, above). For most social media platforms, including a picture of the cover of the product is a good idea.

This can help get your name out into the industry, remind people you are alive if you are already pretty well known (I still do this, for example), and convince publishers you are a good partner that will help advertise their product once it is out, driving engagement and interest.

Add It To Your Credits Sheet

Ideally, you have a list of all your credits already. If not, time to start! You want to be able to tell people what you worked on, and how you were credited, in case it ever comes up. Seriously, there is a big difference between having one credit, having ten, having 100, and having 1,000. Start keeping track now if you aren’t already, and make time to keep it up to date as things are published. I personally have all the print products I have worked on as a Facebook album, and people finding that has lead to things like consulting work.

Investigate Interviews

Often podcasts and blogs are looking for content related to new releases, and you helped make this one! You don’t want to steal the thunder from the publisher (again, looking like a good partner makes it more like both this publisher and others will want to work with you in the future… but yeah, see the proviso above), but in my experience if you send a note saying “The podcast ‘Second Level Spell’ wanted to interview me about the Battle Pie rules I wrote for the Orkenpie adventure,” they’ll be enthusiastic in their support, and may even boost that on their social media.

Move On

I’m bad at this one, so I include it here. You may have no issue with it at all. When I look at my old work I can… obsess over perceived failings. I want to figure out why I didn’t do what the developer did, make sure I learn all possible lessons from the project, and consider all the ways I could have done a better job.

A little of that is fine.

But then it’s time to put it down, and move on. Of course you can do a better job now than you did then–we are all learning and improving all the time. Instead of worrying about what past-you got wrong, turn to what current you is doing that you can apply those lessons to.

Don’t Take Reviews to Heart

For a lot of people, this may mean just don’t read the reviews. I personally am unable to do that, so instead I try to restrict myself to weighing their opinions against my own. Did they find something unclear? Fair enough, do I see their point or not? Is it full of typos? Well, that might mean my turnover was too error-ridden for even professional editors to save it, I can look at that. Do they not like it? Okay, but that’s, like, just their opinion man.

Dissatisfied people tend to be much more vocal than satisfied ones. So if you have to read the reviews, take them with a huge grain of salt. And never let them get you down.”

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Random Idea Generation Methods. 1. The Reverse and Twist

Sometimes, I just need an idea to play with. I may need a starting point for a new project, or some color and side-thoughts for a bigger ongoing work. Often I just generate new random ideas as a palate-cleanser when I need a break from something I am grinding on. Other times I want to throw ideas out to other people, either for fun or to jump-start their creative processes.

Now if I am lucky, a random idea just comes to me when I need it. Or, if one comes when I don’t need it, I can jot it down with just enough detail to come pick it back up later.

But more often than not, i have to generate an idea, and when i have to come up with dozens at a time, I have verious methods I use to do that. Here’s one”

Reverse/Twist The Starting Point

This is one of my favorites, and it’s a good way to use inspiration without turning everything into a pastiche (or rip-off). The basic idea is to take the core premise of an existing setting or story you like, and make a major change to it. Then, you follow the permutations of your new set-up.

For example, take Moby Dick. It’s a captain’s obsession with getting revenge on a whale. It’s compelling, but it’s also been done and redone hundreds of times. So, what if we reverse a number of elements.

Our Captain is still a whale hunter, but he has not a care in the world. The Red Demon, which may or may not be a whale but is certainly a sea creature, seeks to destroy the captain as revenge for the captain slaying the Demon’s mother. We still have stories of obsession and revenge, but now our focal human point is ignoring the risks, his arrogance convincing him that even if the Red Demon is real, it’s a brute animal, and he has all the advantages of human civilization and intellect to overcome it if it ever finds him.

Now, the inspiration for that idea are pretty clear. That’s fine–the starting place of a story, setting, or even writing prompt is only a small part of the work of making something. But once you have that nugget, you can twist and add/alter as you see fit. Instead of a whale-hunting captain hunting you could have a famous ivory poacher, clearly a villain and an up-and-coming local warlord–who does worry about human threats (and perhaps kidnaps a journalist to tell “his side” of his story, giving us our narrator), but ignores local legends of a Red Demon elephant out to get him, even when other poachers are slain by it.

The further we get from the trappings of the original idea, the more our end product will be clearly its own thing.

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