Category Archives: Musings

Freelancer Life: Time Sinks That Aren’t Writing or Playing

I once had a manager in the game industry tell me there were three things that always made him accept that a designer, developer, or editor was going to be less productive for weeks or maybe months and that there was just nothing the manager could do about it.

One was getting married.

One was moving.

I’ve moved six times in the past six years, and I’m not quite done with the most recent one.

Sometimes, things come along that suck up a lot of your time and energy, and there’s not much you can do other than get through them as quickly and professionally as possible. Sometimes you can plan breaks or lower-workloads to coincide with these time sinks.

Sometimes you can’t.

And sometimes, you just have no idea how much of you time and energy a life event is going to take up. you can plan, and hope, and make contingencies… but in the end you’ll just have to deal with the cards you get dealt.

So, Lj and I are now in our for-the-foreseeable-future digs. We’re not OUT of the other place yet, but most of what is left is cleaning and putting things in storage. The worst part of the actual act of moving is over.

So now, we get to deal with the pets.

We have a cat, Maeb.

Maeb 02

Our roommate has a cat, Alphonse Lord Tubbington of Sausage-On-Chonk.

Alphonse 01

They are both indoor-only cats (though Lord Alphonse used to be a street cat, years and years ago). they are both used to being the only pet in the house (though Maeb used to live with her sister, and spend many months in a group PetSmart adaption center).

If this process goes well, it won’t impact my (still-wecked and horribly behind) writing schedule at all.

If it doesn’t, I may have a lot of low-sleep nights ahead.

We’ve done a lot of research, and we have a plan built up.

We’ve been introducing Maeb and Alphonse Lord Tubbington of Sausage-On-Chonk to each other’s scents for weeks. We spent the night letting Alphonse get used to us being in the house, and he adjusted to THAT just fine.

We just brought Maeb over. She is quarantined in the Underground Bunker with us, which is a 400-foot area we use as bedroom and offices, while Alphonse is currently banned from it (he gets the rest of the house).

They can hear each other, and are pretty vocal about it, but neither is doing more than meowing. … It’s a LOT of meowing, but that’s it.

Over the next few days we’ll block small sections of the house from Alphone at a time, and let Maeb explore them, then bring her back to the Bunker to feel safe with her stuff.In a few days to a week, when they don’t meow as much, we’ll bring them to areas connected by glass doors so they can see each other, but that’s it. Once THAT seems okay, we’ll try held introductions.

Hopefully in a few weeks, we’ll all be one vaguely tolerant family.

If not, you may start to get some WEIRD blog posts from me…

Patreon

Want to help me keep the lovely Maeb maintained in the style to which she has become accustomed? Join my Patreon for just a few bucks a month, and we’ll keep the catnip and cream flowing!

Marvel Movie Pitch: DOOM

Marvel Movie Pitch

DOOM

Victor Von Doom is a young rebel fighting against the petty warlordwho rules the small nation of Latveria, The Baron. Victor is not a hero, but a rebel leader fighting a war, and he knows it. He uses sorcery learned from his parents and science he gleans from constantly reading tech specs from AIM, Stark Industries, and Roxxon.

(Get Roma writers, actors, and directors to include good Roma depiction and representation as one of the groups within Latveria)

Victor deposes the Baron, and steps back to allow the people of Latveria to create a democracy. Now free from war, he receives a scholarship to Empire State University in New York. Here he meets Reed Richards, who becomes his natural rival, and Ben Grimm, who thinks Victor is a bully and war criminal.

Reed is working to build a rocket to examine cosmic rays well beyond the atmosphere. Victor is building a machine to allow him to speak with the dead, in the hopes of using it to help Latvarians recover from war losses. each sees a flaw in the design of the other, and neither believes THEIR calculations are wrong.

Afraid Victor is the one who is right, Ben Grimm sabotages the Doom Projector, expecting it to just short circuit. Instead it explodes, badly damaging Victor’s face. Victor is expelled from the school and, no longer a student, his visa to stay in the U.S. is pulled.

Angry and scarred, victor goes to Tibet to find the Ancient One, who he has heard can heal him. He fails, collapsing on a mountainside, and is rescued by a secretive group of sages who strive to blend magic and technology, but wish to do so without the rest of the world finding out. Victor joins their order, and becomes a master of this technomancy. he begins working on a suit of armor he claims will be the “mystic equivalent of Iron Man,” thought the process takes a long time and the armor takes days to cool. The sages, impressed by his acumen, grant him the doctorate degree he was denied by ESU.

News arrives that suggests Latveria is collapsing into near civil war, unable to cover its international debts and having no institutions to support democracy. (In the background, another news piece suggest Reed Richards is lost in space with friends during an unauthorized spaceflight.) Victor begins a grassroots movement over the internet and via astral projection to bring peace to Latveria anonymously.

His efforts are stymied by Prince Rudolf, who claims to be the rightful monarch of Latveria, and who controls the sorcerous Mephistopheles Guard. In a techno-crystal ball conversation between the two, Victor warns Rudolf he will not allow some faker to take over the country. Rudolf warns Victor he is not as safely secluded as he thinks.

Then the Mephistopheles Guard attacks the Tibetan sages, their sorcery and modern weapons firing magic bullets too much for the sages’ defenses. Victor rushes to put on his technomagic armor to save the sages… but the last piece, the control system mask, has not yet cooled. Gritting his teeth, Victor puts it on anyway, and we hear searing and smoke, but no cry of pain.

Victor defeats the remaining attackers, but nearly all the sages are dead. the few that remain thank Victor for saving them, and pledge their loyalty to him.

Victor goes to Latveria, where he blasts his way into the Royal palace, and confronts Rudolf. Rudolf promises that defeating him is pointless, his diabolical master will just recruit another pawn to take control of the country.

“Let them come.” says victor. “And they, too, can meet their Doom.”

Von Doom sits on the throne. He orders Rudolf’s political prisoners released. They come to the throne room, and suggest Von Doom should step down and let them establish an autonomous collective. The politicos begin to should louder and louder, until Von Doom silences them.

They have clearly failed Latveria, Von Doom notes. He shall not. He will modernize, protect, and get to the root of who was behind Rudolf and possibly the baron’s, supernatural plots.

And no-one, notes Doctor Doom, shall stop me.

Credits.

End Credit Scene. We see the last few seconds of Doctor Doom’s taking over speech on a TV, which is surrounded in Egyptian iconography. There’s a date listed (day the movie is released).

There are two voices.

“So, we jump to before this moment, and stop him?”

“No, too risky, We’ll have to travel to just after this, and see if we con convince him to see things out way.”

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.

Patreon
If you found this useful or entertaining, and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

 

If the RPG Industry is So Terrible, Why Do I Do This?

Dice(Image by Jessica Dale)

For about a month now, I’ve been talking about the realities of the U.S. tabletop RPG industry, as I see them. I’ve posted thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, including under the hashtags #RealGameIndustry and #NotesFromAnRPGDev. ENWorld also created threads to discuss many of these shortly after I started, and again a week or so later. (And, I just discovered, a third time on July 4th).

And a lot of those observations paint a pretty grim picture. Poor pay. No security. No prospects for retirement. Regular harassment from fans and pop culture commentators. A fairly wide spectrum of people who think what you do requires no special talents, and that’s why you can’t make a living at it, and if you wanted to be able to live in moderate safety you shouldn’t picked a “fun” job like making games. These, of course, are intermixed with people who feel the need to interject about how common these problems are in all industries–which certainly suggests picking a different career might not be as helpful as the first group wants to claim.

Of course, my experiences aren’t objective or somehow universal of course, but I have been involved in the industry for 23 years, as a freelance writer (full and part time), contract worker, staff designer, staff developer, freelance developer, producer, line editor, publisher, and consultant. But even then, it’s one narrow slice of the ttRPG industry. A number of other professionals have opined about what they agree with, and what they feel like need qualifiers, but there’s been little real disagreement that I have seen.

So, if it’s a terrible way to make a living—why do I? Why stick with an industry for decades if even the “success” of getting hired on-staff by the two biggest RPG companies in North America isn’t enough to leave me able to pay the bills without having to scramble every month?

I was writing the headline of this article, and my wife leaned over, and in all seriousness asked me “So, why DO you do it?”

I confess that in the past 6 months, I have begun to think maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s time to hang up the dice, at least professionally, and switch to a “normal” job. I still may. But not this week, which brings us back to “why?”

There are two big reasons.

1. I Want To Help

And I think I can, but only from the inside.

So, what do I mean by help?

I mean help gaming, as a hobby, and game professionals, as a group. I want to work to make the ttRPG industry create the most good situations for the most people. That means working to improve conditions and stability, trying new things and seeing if any of them work better, answering questions, tutoring people, putting folks in touch with other folks for mutual benefit, and publicly fighting for diversity, inclusion, and ethical game designs.

And while it may be hubris to think I can make a difference, I’d rather struggle so survive if it means there is a chance I can make other people’s struggles easier. I’ll never be the person who determines if I have succeeded at this, of course. And I may never know if I really improve things. But I do get feedback that convinces me the effort is worth making.

It looks to me like there will be people trying to be full-time RPG professionals for the foreseeable future. I want to help them, and at the same time help the industry, hobby, and fans of gaming be the best they can.

2. I Think RPGs Are Important

I think ALL games are important, but especially ttRPGs. Roleplaying Games brought me most of the good things in my life.

High school was harsh for me, and I can honestly say I was miserable most of the time and considered suicide more than once. But RPGs let me explore ideas I was too afraid to discuss, helped me form a strong social support group, and let me make friends I am still playing with 25 and 30 years later. Nothing else came close to letting me deal with my pain, and learn something about bravery. 

I learned empathy through RPGs, and regret, and problem solving. It encouraged me to learn about history, grammar, math, probability, tactics, risk-taking and analysis, even a theory of fun. I doubt there is any positive aspect of my personality I can’t trace back to RPGs. And a lot of things I know were terrible parts of who I was growing up I overcame through interactions with RPGs, and the people I met through them.

My tightest bonds outside my immediately family came from ttRPGs. I met my wife through roleplaying. My best friends, from people I have known for more than 35 years to people I just got to know in the past year, through roleplaying. I have gotten to learn from geniuses, and help put folks much more creative than me on easier paths, through roleplaying games.

Further, I believe the influence of ttRPGs has much bigger ripples than people realize. And I want to have a small hand in what those ripples look like, and what messages they send out.

So yes, even when some person or persons leaves comments on videos claiming I am so fat and disgusting no-one should ever look at me or trust me, even in weeks when I have to spend 60-70 hours scrambling to pay the bills and arrange for opportunities to do the same thing next month, even when groups of people claim my ethics and morals are just schemes to draw attention, even when people smarter and more creative than me throw in the towel and leave the industry — or maybe especially those times — I feel the drive to keep doing this.

I know I cannot make a huge difference, but I feel this is the tool I can best use to do the most good, for the most people.

If you feel like supporting me in those efforts, you can make a huge difference by supporting my Patreon.

 

The Game Industry “In These Uncertain Times”

RPG illo
(Photo by Tab10)

I’m interrupting this week’s at-your-table game content to discuss the state of the industry. We’ll get back to fund stuff, but this is important.

I’ll start with some recent history.

The 2016 U.S. east coast blizzard made a noticeable negative impact on print RPG sales. Stores were shut down, people did not go out. It hurt. Companies suddenly were not selling like they had been, but expenses didn’t go down at all. While it didn’t drive anyone major into bankruptcy, it did have serious impacts. Budgets were slashed. Plans for new hires were axed. Raises were cancelled. Projects were scaled back. Not necessarily at every game company–some had very deep pockets from parent companies or investors and could just take the hit — but more companies than not had to change plans to survive.

Sales of PDFs did not see a significant uptick. Sales did not spike to higher-than normal levels after the snow melted and life got back to normal. Inventory for products created just before the blizzard did sit around longer. Some never sold. The expected money that would have been made that season was just gone.

Obviously the past few months have been worse. Worse for publishers, worse for companies, distributors, and individual creators.

But if the current upward pandemic infection trends continue and/or a second wave is bad? It doesn’t have to be the whole country to kill already struggling companies. The 2016 blizzard was a bit less than 1/3 of the US population, and everyone knew it couldn’t last. But it’s economic impact on gaming was widespread and serious.

There’s a reason so many ads currently begin with “In these uncertain times.” No one knows when a vaccine is coming. No one knows how bad the current rising numbers are going to get, or if they will spike again in the fall. In the US, there does not seem to be any national plan to handle this pandemic. Some places are depending on voluntary steps. Others are mandating masks.

Unlike 2016, there’s could reason to fear the impacts could keep going, or get worse, for a year. I hope a vaccine comes out before that, but I can’t depend on it. Not as a writer, and not as a citizen trying to pay the bills.

So even as governments open for business, sales are still down. They are improved over total lockdown, obviously, but companies aren’t getting the lost money from the lockdown back. Ever. The blows taken in the next few months don’t have to be as bad as the lockdown in order to kill stores and companies, and drive creators out of the industry forever, because everyone already took several serious financial hits.

If you want professional ttRPG material in the future, there are things you can do, now and in coming months,

Support your local stores if you safely can. Some stores are doing curbside pickup, some are doing delivery.Some are allowing a small number of people wearing masks in at a time. I don’t want anyone to risk their health for games, but if your safety measures allow for contactless delivery, and you have the money, those stores are still hugely important. They sell more, total, than online places (yes, including Amazon). And they bring more new people into the industry.

Support game companies. Buying from a local store absolutely counts, but if that’snot an option for you for whatever reason, look to see if the publisher has their own online store. Look to sign up for mailing lists and get special offers. If you have to buy through online stories, try to find a game-specific store you like and buy through them. The huge distributors don;t care about RPGs, and they’ll survive or not with no regard to how many dice and game books they move.

Finally, support game creators directly if you can. Even those who have full-time on-staff positions with game companies often make ends meet by taking on additional freelance… and that freelance is greatly reduced right now because game companies are tightening their belts. If you have a creator you particularly like or enjoy the work of, find if they have a Patreon, of Ko-fi, or other means of receiving money.

Because if the stores go, the game companies will suffer. if the game companies go, the creators will suffer. And if the creators go?

Then there’s much less chance the game content YOU want will even be created.

And, yes, I have a Patreon. I am a full-time freelance and contract writer now. I pay for my own insurance, pay my own social security and self-employment taxes, have to make quarterly payments on income tax, and then try to pay all my bills with what’s left of the money made on words.

So if you found this article at all informative, or enjoy any of my content, or just want to toss a coin to your writer, please consider doing so at my Patreon. https://www.patreon.com/OwenKCStephens

Anti-Eugenics

Eugenics, as a concept, is evil. It does real harm.
Things that promote it are problematic-at-best.
That includes a lot of my very favorite entertainment options, from many RPGs to the Lensman series.
I need to do better in not just supporting it, but fighting it.

And, related.

The game balance of the Starfinder Roelplaying Game is perfectly maintained if EVERY character, regardless of playable species, gets to choose between +2 to one ability score, or +2 to two scores and -2 to one score.

I may just make that my default from now on.

GM Advice: Using Problems to Create Encounters

(This article was originally written in two parts, for Tuesday and Wednesday publication. It can been combined into a two-fer article for today.)

So, a member of the party died, and the characters aren’t in a position to raise them. Or they foolishly ignored all the warnings about the cursed artifact, and now have a lich hand slowly taking over their soul. Or they played tag with a vampire, and lost so many levels they can’t recover that the rest of the adventure you have planned is way over their head. As a GM, it looks like you have a problem.

But what you have is also an opportunity for a solution — new encounters!

Rather than handwave the negative consequences (which can remove the sense of risk and stakes many players need to enjoy rpg games), or enforce them mercilessly regardless of the reduction in fun, you can offer the players a change to earn the solution to their problems, with more encounters.

Often, this takes the form of an imperfect patron.

The Perfect Imperfect Patron

A patron is a great way to add new options to a campaign. Players know there are other powerful movers and shakers in a campaign setting, so someone with access to things they lack, and thus the solutions to their problems, are a reasonable part of the setting. And, obviously, if you want to be able to use a Patron to introduce ways for PCs to undergo encounters to buy the answers they need, you want your patron to be a fairly powerful entity. This is where your archwizards, angels of allied deities, cosmic heralds of fundamental forces of the universe, and tech billionaires can be handy.

But.

At the same time, you need the patron to be someone that both can’t just solve all their problems with the snap of a finger, and someone that can’t be relied upon to solve all the problems of the campaign (leaving the PCs with nothing to do). You need an imperfect patron.

You don’t want the PCs to be personal friends with Elmage the ArchEverything, because Elmage can likely just fix things without blinking. But if Elmage exists, and is nearly always in astral meditation protecting reality from cosmic horrors, it can be super-useful to know Elmage’s secretary. The secretary can’t just fix things, but DOES have access to the ArchEverything’s contacts and correspondence. Elmage himself can’t be awoken for something like this, but he has a lesser colleague who asked if Elmage knew any hearty heroes willing to undertake a weird journey, and that colleague An fix their problem… if they get their own help first.

Rather than an Angel, perhaps the PCs know an oracle, or medium, who can commune with powerful spirits but can’t guarantee the results. The tech billionaire is under investigation and can’t access most of her holdings, but she does have a friend in the right field she can put them in touch with. The Cosmic Herald has vast and ill-defined powers… but has also only had this job for 3 months and lost the manual. He’s sure he CAN just snap his fingers and fix the issue… but doesn’t know how. What he CAN do, though…

These kinds of imperfect patrons work best if you introduce them before you need them. Absent-minded demigods, long-retired and dottering high priests who just want to raise orchids. Lone bronze juggernauts of the God of Deals, who is left standing in the middle of a ruin where there was once a city, bound to wait there for ever for someone to need a deal badly enough to come talk to them. Folks who, when you first introduce them, clearly are not the end-all be all of the getting-things-done department, but have let slip to PCs that if things are ever REALLY bad, they might have… options.

So, what does an encounter to solve a problem look like? Some are obvious. The Cave of Wonders has this lamp, but is warded against Jafar, but if you go grab it, you can also have the Rod of Restoration you need.

Of course if a player is dead or unplayable, you may need to get more creative.

Planar Works Program

The Patron is more than happy to help the PCs with their problem… but in order to have the resources needed to do so, the PCs need to help out the Patron first.

Whatever Patron is working with the PCs has allies who often summon creatures for help. But there are cosmic threats afoot (as GM you can allude to whatever you have planned as a big plot point in 5 levels if you want, or you can hand-wave this by saying it’s all happening in adjacent realities, its just causing a shortage of resources) which leave the Patron short of souls/spirits/celestial badgers to send in answer to those summons.

So the Patron needs the PCs to fill in.

You can have the PCs (living and dead) be sent in lieu of whatever angels, demons, fey things or elementals would normally respond to a summons, or you can give the PCs NPC stat blocks for a few encounters. Regardless, you have them take the role of creatures summoned by heroes in other planes, planets, countries, or whatever. Once they cover 2-3 such events, they have bought their patron enough slack that the Probelem can be solved.

As GM you can have a lot of fun with this. First, since the PCs are being summoned, you can give them hints of plot elements normally off-screen. Planning for the Queen of Graves to be awakening in the Barrowmire, beyond the Shallow Sea? Well that may be 5,000 miles from the PCs bodies, but if a flumph cleric in the Barrowmire summons them to help fight the undead Regicidals who serve the Queen, the PCs can see part of the scene of things going badly, but without the time to do a whole lot about it.

You can also give PCs much different goals and challenges that usual. For example, a TPK isn’t a big deal if the PCs are summoned spirits who will return to their Patron rather than truly die. They may not speak the languages of their summoner, and have to quess what task they must perform. They might only be present for the duration of a single summoning spell–of if they can give the creature that summoned them enough aid, perhaps they can be re-summoned (with full health and daily abilities) multiple times during one fight. If any PC is looking for someone (a long-lost sister, the man who burned their town down), they could spot that individual at the summoned spot, but not know its exact location in the world.

Speaking of Patrons

This content is possible because of the awesome patrons backing me through My Patreon, which is an important part of my writing and game-creating income!

On Creatives During A Pandemic

Hey, creative person.

Yes, you.

I get it. You have deadlines, and responsibilities, and bills, and people counting on you. People tell you to be kind to yourself, to take a break, to ease up… and you can’t.

I understand. I promise.

Only you can know what can be back-burnered, and what can’t. I won’t pretend to be able to give you advice on that front.

I also want to assure you, the trouble you are having now focusing on things? The lack of spoons, or inspiration, or concentration?

That’s the new normal. I can’t say we are ALL dealing with it. Maybe there are some folks who aren’t having trouble right now. But I haven’t talked to any creative that isn’t.

There’s an additional cognitive load on all of us. Worry, planning, concern, frustration, fear… those things take a toll. that toll comes directly from your brain.

The brain you use to be creative.

So, while I can’t tell you to take a break, or take it easy (because I don’t know if you are in a place where you CAN do that), I do want to encourage you to remember things are not normal.

Whatever you would do if you had something dragging down — illness, technical problems, jury duty, whatever?

Global pandemic qualifies for the same measures.

And everyone gets that.

In Time of Pandemic, 1

Plague Doctor

Let me clearly open with this:

I am not in danger. I am not a threat to myself or others. I have a strong support network, which includes a lot of really good shoulders to cry on, ears to listen to me, and kind voices to give aid when asked.

I often write about the things I am going through in a way other professionals mostly don’t. Sometimes, the fact I do so worries friend and colleagues alike. That’s never my aim, and I sincerely apologize to anyone I have made uncomfortable. Online explanations of my mental state are part of my therapy process. Writing things gives me power over them, and helps me organize and contextualize my feelings.

And, I want other folks who are struggling to know they are not alone.

I also want now, in the front, to note I have a Patreon. If you find this writing useful, or just want to toss me some support, it’s a great way to help out.

So,

I am an aging, obese, depressive, introverted, socially-awkward independent creative with impostor syndrome, civilian PTSD, and a genuine fear of deadlines, disappointing people, and criticism.

If you are thinking to yourself “Wow, given all that it sounds like the ONE job you should avoid is freelance game writer,” you have a point.

In times of pandemic, you reassess your life choices.

But I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years now, and as much as I want to shrug and give up sometimes, it really is a defining part of my own self-image. Intellectually, I am well aware I have achieved success many people consider noteworthy. I am also aware that as a hetero cis white male I have had a lot of unearned advantages along the way.

I recently wrote online “One of the major advantages to doing business over social media is that I can literally be sobbing as I type smiley faces and multiple cheerful exclamation points.”

And I meant that it is, at face value, a useful advantage. I mean, when I was the manager of a parking garage in the 1990s, if I was sobbing not only could I not just go on with my day without people constantly asking me if I was okay, it would be considered unprofessional. It would interfere with my job function, the perception of me, and my own serenity. But when dealing with things in an entirely text-based format, as long as I am together enough to make the post look professional and upbeat, it is treated as professional and upbeat.

But of course, I only know that because sometimes I DO write marketing text and otherwise interact with fans and freelancers online while crying. Normally it’s a pretty rare thing, only happening when something is timing-critical. Like if there’s a one-day sale of a big product, or if a Kickstarter is ending. In those cases, even if I am depressed, or bereaved, it needs to get done right NOW, tears be damned.

The current situation, of course, is anything but normal.

Right now I am crying more than usual. I am also more often slumping into a mind-numb torpor where nothing gets done, more often ranting and yelling at the corner of the room, self-medicating a LOT more often, and walking away from everything in total disgust more often.

In times of pandemic, there are more tears.

That’s not to suggest I have it especially hard right now, compared to other people. While money is tightening, I am not totally unable to earn funds like some folks. My job hasn’t depended on my going anywhere but my home office since last July, and even before that it was work a company could (and in the case of my last full-time employer has) have people do from home. Even within my industry, the fact I have focused on digital products for my own projects is proving to insulate me slightly from the resounding crash of the physical product supply chain.

There are people under stay-at-home orders right now who, as a result of various factors often entirely beyond their control, have no home to stay at. I am in no way suffering more than average.

I’m not going it alone, either, thank goodness. I have an amazing support network. My wife of nearly 30 years is a constant source of comfort and aid. I have great friends, many of whom are going the extra mile to interact with me in video chats, discord forums, IMs, and so on. I have people paying me for my work, both in individual and direct ways and through companies and big projects, who are being understanding and patient with me, but also not letting me totally off the hook that I fall so far behind I can never catch up (thank god). I can get advice, or perspective, or sympathy in pretty much endless and instant supply. (Thank god.)

But I also acknowledge there are stresses in my life. I and my wife both fall into high-risk categories for the current pandemic. We’ve been self-isolating, and going out to places that are now closed (and spending money we currently don’t have) were among my best stress-relievers. And while I am not a fan of huge crowds anyway, I did love sitting with a small circle of close friends, and self-isolation for a month or so now has that off the table. I have some medical issues that cause severe fatigue, and it’s hard to differentiate those from depression or being overwhelmed by constant bad news and worry for friends and family.

Nearly every creative I have discussed it with agrees that it is HARD to get anything done right now. The fact that getting things done, and fast, is of even more importance as companies must pivot to deal with the new makes the failure to produce emotionally more challenging, but it doesn’t make it easier. And I completely support shutting down game stores and prioritizing crucial shipments from big vendors, but those things also put my entire industry at real, long-term, catastrophic risk.

In times of pandemic, my chosen career is not essential.

So yes, I am worried, and weary, and worn. And ultimately I am safe, and privileged, and supported. And I really wrote all of this both to assure those who worry about me that I am no closer to any tipping point or brink than normal; and to let other people who feel like they aren’t coping well know they are not alone.

None of us know what the next few weeks, months, and even years will look like. That lack of certainty, and the need to change how we do everything–from ordering groceries to teaching children to talking with friends to playing and creating games–is exhausting. Every day is both the first day of school, and a stroll by the edge of a very sparse minefield. Stress is a constant companion, and uncertainty is a mist that conceals every road.

I am sure I’ll get through this. I’m sure we’ll collectively get through this. Maybe not unscathed or unchanged, but still whole at the far side.

And maybe, if we work at it, we can improve society with the things we learned in a time of pandemic.

Writing When Depressed

While I am personally a creative who suffers from mental health issues that include depression, and I know a lot of friends and colleagues who fall into that category, I don’t have scientifically valid statistics to prove that RPG creatives are often people struggling with depression. And that doesn’t really matter, because even if the numbers aren’t higher than for the baseline population, it still means that there are at least a few of us out there. I might just be talking to a tiny group today, but it’s something I am passionate about.

How do you write, draw, create, make things that are supposed to be fun for other people, when you are depressed? And I don’t mean down a bit because your favorite series ended or you can’t get that soda you like in your hometown anymore. I mean clinical depression, which can include loss of executive function, true hopelessness, sleep disruptions, and even thoughts of suicide.

I’ve talked before about how I get through my most serious depressions, but there’s one thing I haven’t touched on, or at least haven’t often enough.

Sometimes? You can’t. And that has to be okay.

Just as it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to run when your leg is broken, it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to create when your brain is broken.

If you are too far down the hole to reach any of your creative tools, please let that be, and instead seek help. That can be professional help, self-care, reaching out to a support network — whatever you can do. I’m not qualified to give professional advice on these things, but there are resources out there to find help if you don’t already have some in place. If you aren’t in a place where you can bring yourself to care about yourself, see if you can consider taking care of yourself as a way to help the people around you–sometimes I can only manage any degree of self-care out of guilt. That’s far from perfect, but sometimes I have to take what I can.

But then there’s the gray zone. Where you can try to work, but it’s terribly difficult and slow and you think everything you do is bad and pointless. Again, you have to be kind to yourself when you are here, but maybe there are ways to get a little more done if you find the hacks your brain responded to.

So, here are the hacks I use. They may not work for you, but if you try different things, and record the results, maybe you can find things to help you when work is possible, but damnably difficult.

For me some of it is habit. More than 21 years of it, at this point. If I’m not actively doing anything else, my brain naturally wonders if there is work I can do. When the thing that needs to be done FIRST is more than I can handle (sadly the project that is most important to finish often triggers the most anxiety which triggers the worst depression symptoms), I hop to something else if my brain is less opposed to it. No, that doesn’t help me get the most crucial thing done on time, but down the line it’s better to have worked on something, rather than nothing.

Some is desperation. This is how I pay the bills. Holding my own feet to the fire hurts, but it can also break through apathy sometimes. I don’t recommend this one unless you have already noticed a tendency of reviewing your situation to help you prioritize and take action. But if that is a tendency of yours, then it may be worth seeing if it can apply to creating.

A ton of it is therapy. I have learned to make my writing work for me in my battle with my brain. Often, that doesn’t actually produce anything that gets a deadline checked off. but sometimes, if produces a blog post when I need one, or at least helps me build my social media presence. And if nothing else, writing is a perishable skill. Writing privately helps me maintain the habit and edge I need to write for others.

My wife, Lj, is a HUGE help. In fact I have a lot of support group, including my public contacts. When I tell folks I am hurting, I get a lot of positive messages. People from lifelong close friends to social media connections I have never met in person also give me a lot of great private venting opportunities.

And sometimes? Sometimes I just have to melt down and give up for a bit. But Lj can hold me when I collapse and wail in great wracking sobs. When I am an inconsolable mess for an hour or two, convinced I have done so much damage to my reputation and career, that I’ll never work again. When it seems like I’ll never hit another deadline, that no one should ever trust me to get anything professional done. And that whole time, Lj tells me it’ll all be okay, and eventually I believe her.

Often, I pass out in exhaustion after that. Sleep, or at least oblivion, claims me for anything from a few minutes to a few hours.

And then, sometimes, I can write again.

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