Category Archives: Musings

Partial List of Very Fantasy Words (Update!)

As I do from time to time, I’ve updated the Revised, Partial List of Very Fantasy Words (which can be found here)!

So if you want to have a banneret use axinomancy to gird himself against a spadassin’s gainpain, these are the words for you!

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The Limits of My Advice

People often seem to value my advice. From game design to life as a ttRPG freelancer to gmae buisness to destigmatizing mental health issues to being an ally, I am often asked to give my opion, offer context, brainstorm options and solutions. It seems weird to me, but people I trust tell me the advice is often useful, so I believe them. I am even so arrogant as to charge a (to my mind, extremely high) amount of money for a solid hour of professional advice.

But, there are significant limits to the value of my advice, and I would not want to present it in a way that suggests otherwise.

Firstly, all of my advice is born of my experiences, and as a hetero cis white man there are a lot of things I haven’t personally experienced. I do listen to people who are marginalized by the industry as much as I can, and tried to learn from what I see happen to them and what they tell me, but that’s still different than knowing from direct experience of what living through and dealing with those events are like. I have to guess how they may make people with different backgrounds and circumstances, and that’s always going to color how my advice applies to them.

I make an effort to be aware of this in various ways. First, there are numerous issues about which I know it’s more important for me to listen than to talk. Booting the voices of those directly affected is often appropriate in ways that given my own experience isn’t. And a big part of that is that I may not understand what the real issue is. If a woman is talking about having her name as author not be put on the front cover of a book, and I might feel it’s could be helpful to talk about times in which I fought to put my name on the front cover as author, and failed. But, due to context, there’s every chance it’s not the same. I’m on the front cover of tons of books, and there’s no systemic negative reaction to me being presented as a noteworthy game designer. I’ve seen co-workers, with the same job title I have, who don’t happen to be hetero cis white man, get announced as guests at game conventions only for multiple people to being casting aspersions that they’re only there as “woke virtue-signaling” or “diversity hires.”

That’s never happened to me. Not when i was first a guest at Gen Con, in 2000, with no solo book credits to my name. Not when I was a guest multiple times at SoonerCon, with nothing but magazine credits. Not when I was a guest at Comicpalooza in 2014 and being treated to the same level of green room care as James Marsters and Tricia Helfer. Anytime I am presented as an expert or noteworthy, people who have never heard of my before simply nod and accept it must be true. I have witnessed that absolutely not be the way people react when people of different backgrounds are presented as folks worth listening to and treating with respect.

Put another way, if I ask someone not to put something on the top shelf and they do, I can still reach it. If someone 5’2″ tall asks people not to put things on the top shelf and they do, they are NOT having the same experience I did.

Secondly (yeah, firstly was a long one), my advice tends to assume everyone you are dealing with is acting in good faith. Often when I talk about being kind, helping others, trying to build networks of allies, fans, and colleagues, someone will comment with a note “But also protect yourself!”

And they’re right.

I rarely have to protect myself from bad-faith actors trying to take advantage of me. It happens, but a lot of it is so obvious I easily sidestep it, and a lot of the ways it used to happen when I was less well-established just isn’t an issue anymore (due to changing technologies, changing industry norms, and so on). I’m more than 20 years into my career, and generally consider myself bulletproof in regards to reputation and recognition. That is NOT the case for everyone, and I’ve pretty well proven that if I am not explicitly discussing how to deal with bad actors, I’ll forget it can be critical context to add.

Thirdly… am more than 20 years into my careers. I am fairly well known in the small pool I wallow in. My advice may not be the best, most current look at how to get started, get better known, make contacts, build a following from the ground up, get paid more, and so on. I am often extended benefit-of-the-doubt, friends-and-family options, and professional courtesies other people aren’t. And I may not even know when that’s the case, causing my to blithely overlook how hard certain kinds of accommodations might be to get.

Fourthly, I tend to approach all industry-related questions from the point of view of a designer, developer, and publisher. I have much less experience as an artist, or editor, or sensitivity of cultural consultant. I also tend to focus on a specific kind of ttRPG game–much more d20 and Green Ronin’s AGE than Dread or Blades in the Dark, and even further from miniatures games, boardgames, cardgames, and even FURTHER from video games and novels. If you want to get the kind of work I do, I may have valuable suggestions and insights. If you want to become a big Hollywood movie script writer, I recommend finding more-closely-linked-in advisors. 🙂

Same thing applies to residence. My advise is U.S.A. focused.

There are, I am sure, other blind spots in my advice that I am, well, blind to. So, please, take anything I say with a grain of salt. Listen to people who come at these questions from different places in time and origin. Be aware that the game industry is a constantly-changing knot of interconnected companies, events, business needs, cultural trends, and changing best practices. I try hard to not be a dinosaur… but even if I know a giant comet is a risk, I’m often going to miss how non-dinosaur concerns could color the utility of my advice.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 6. When The Publisher Ruins Your Turnover

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer who I had offered to help get some 3pp material published for, and who then had some other opportunities pop up that (quite rightly) they pursued first. But we kept in touch, and I was happy to give guidance and advice when they wanted it.

Recently, they had some material in something published professionally… and the product was not great. I won’t go into details, other than to say the final text is pretty clearly worse than the original turnover the freelancer sent in. Now, that happens sometimes. It’s much, much rarer than things being significantly improved, in my experience. It’s even rarer than a freelancer thinking something has been ruined, when in fact the publisher has made improvements the freelancer simply isn’t fond of. But a publisher ruining a good draft does occasionally happen. And, when it does, it can be a shock, and a real emotional gut-punch.

Especially if the product was something you were excited about, seeing it’s final form be less clear, more typo-ridden, and riddled with worse rule implementation can be spectacularly disheartening. Given how tough ttRPG creation work is, how poorly it generally pays, and how little respect the work earns from the general public, often the joy in seeing the final product–with all its polish and improvement–is the biggest reward for the labor you put into it. When that is not just worse than you expected, but worse than you handed over, it can feel like you wasted your time and have been treated with disrespect.

In this case, the freelancer asked if I was willing to offer any suggestions on how to handle both the professional issue, and the emotional toll it takes. My adapted response is below.

“First, know that this is rare. Also, that’s always hard when it does happen. As a socially awkward depressive, I have had some projects changes and/or cancellations send me into deep negative states. It’s rough.

So, what to do about it.

Assuming the whole book isn’t a shitshow, it’s totally worth celebrating it as a project you contributed to. Credits are important, and even if they take away your joy, they shouldn’t also get to take away your stepping stone. You worked hard for this, and if you decide to move forward with freelance work, it’s worth having a professional credit from a recognizable company name on your resume. As long as the issue isn’t a moral or legal failing, even if you aren’t a fan of the final form, the very fact you did the work and it got published can help you get more opportunities in the future. The best way to clean a bad project taste out of your mouth is with a better project.

Even if you claim the project credit, since you earned it, feel free not to talk about what specifically you wrote for it. Usually, people don’t ask. If the DO ask, just say “Since the developer made changes, I don’t want to claim anything specific without the developer weighing in first.” If someone notes the project has a lot of errors, it’s fair to say you are not the developer or the editor, but don’t go farther than that. As a freelancer looking for more gigs, there’s no upside to making a stink about the quality of other people’s work if it’s not an ethical or legal issue.

It can be worthwhile to reach out to your developer and (politely) ask about specific changes that seem to be errors or violate the guidelines you were given. Don’t say it’s wrong and they messed it up – just say something like “I note that I wrote the Thingamabob gives a +2 bonus, in keeping with the design document I had, and the final version gives a +5. Is there a design consideration I should be aware of, so I can create material closer to what you need?” This kind of request-for-feedback is fairly common, and even if it the change to what your wrote just a big fuckup on their part, bringing it to their notice at least means they can start more quickly to work on errata, if any.

Those are practical concerns. Emotionally? That’s harder.

Bitch to friends you trust to keep it quiet. Play a game as different from what you worked on as you can. Pet a cat. Do an internet search for “TSR DaWizard,” and when you read the stories remember a BIG company got that one wrong on a huge scale. Drink some hot cocoa (or whatever fills that role for you). Let some time pass.

Know that this is a moment in your career, not an omen about the entirety of it.

Also… the pandemic has been hard on every creative I know. This both makes projects more likely to get botched, AND makes the impact of having your work be mangled so much more impactful. We have no idea the circumstances under which the developers/editors got their work done on this project. It may be an outlier that just suffered from massive internal problems with the company. It sucks for you, but it isn’t personal. And it isn’t going to happen every time.

Give yourself permission to be angry right now, and to need some time to shake it off. Usually, after a few weeks, it won’t be quite so raw a wound.

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Quick Tips: GMing with Taste, Touch, and Smell

One of the most challenging jobs of a GM is to serve as the describer of everything the PCs experience in the fictional game world. This is especially true when the GM wants to convey information through those descriptions–it’s one thing to say a tavern smells stale, and another to say the stale mix of herbal sachets on the walls and sawdust and straw scattered across the floor can’t quite cover the lingering coppery scent of spilled blood, watered-down mead, and urine that permeates the main room.

Lots of advances in gaming have been made with visuals and soundboards. Between being able to do internet searches for interesting visuals and great sound-effect programs designed specifically for ttRPGs (such as Syrinscape, who I love but have no association with), it’s pretty easy for a GM to be able to skip needing to describe sights and sounds. But what about taste, touch, and smell? Just a single extra description for each major element of an encounter can go a long way to both adding immersion, and conveying clues the PCs have a chance to pick up on. If you link any unusual sensation to a specific element within your game, players will often pick up on it and use it as another clue to use to experience and understand your world.

Taste: The most obvious time to describe taste is when PCs eat or drink something, and many ttRPGs have more than enough potions, oils, and magic cupcakes to make this a useful sense to think about in advance. A GM can make the identification of some potent potables easy by deciding healing potions all smell like honeysuckle and mint, or that ungol dust has a distinctive acidic bite in the back of the throat. If the GM doesn’t want to be that easy and consistent, it can still be fun to add taste elements to specific kinds of potion — perhaps potions made by clerics tend to have a strong medicine taste, those made by druids are usually overwhelmingly herb-flavored, and those made by alchemists tend to have a powerful saccharine-sweetness to them. That doesn’t tell PCs exactly what a potion does, but it does become an interesting piece of information that can help the game world feel more well-rounded.

The other fun use for taste is for things that impact the PCs to impact their sense of taste without being directly connected to eating or drinking. Maybe a mummy’s curse makes you constantly get a taste of dust in your mouth, or getting a serum of invulnerability injected into your system causes you to feel like you are licking oiled steel. Powerful smells can be tasted as well, so the rotting meat scent of the zombie bloom may also cause those near it to taste raw mushroom flavors in the air, or the choking smokebomb actually tastes like black pepper.

Touch: PCs don’t often rub their bare skin against adventure site walls and monster hides, so things like smooth, rough, sharp, fluffy, and sticky may not come into play often. But touch can also express things like temperature, and feedback from hitting things with weapons. One of the most successful descriptions of a foe I ever gave noted that while the creature seemed to be a hunched humanoid under a ragged veil and cloak, when a PC hit it with their sword, it felt like chopping into green woo. There was give as the blade chopped into the creature’s flesh, but it was far tougher than any human or even monstrous skin, muscles,and tendons.

Similarly, if touching a glowing sword makes a chill run down a character’s spine, or grabbing a Xorarcan plasma-lance makes any other humanoid’s fingertips tingle, that can be great descriptive information. If a character makes a saving throw against a gaze attack that makes their eyes itch, the player has reason to suspect a failed save results in blindness. If even approaching the stone archway covered in glowing runs makes it seem like the ground it tilting away from you, it suggests the gate may be tied to movement of some kind.

Smell: In many ways smell is just taste at a greater range, so all the taste notes apply here as well. But smell is also one of the most powerful senses for evoking primal fears–we evolved to know that the smell or rot is bad, the smell of blood is dangerous, and the smell of smoke calls for caution. Smell can be used to give clues to some kinds of deception–the high ghoul illusionist can make herself look like a human, but needs to use heavy perfume to cover the scent of the grave; the stench coming from the locally feared Troglodyte Clans Cave is bad, but not THAT bad; the bandits in the tavern smell like chili peppers, ebcause they infuse their boots with pepper oil so guard dogs can’t follow their scent.

Smells can also be fun because they can carry varying distances depending on local conditions, and what they promise is not always what they deliver. If the scent of fresh-backed pastries wafts tantalizingly through the woods, are the PCs about to stumble on a halfling village, or a giant baker that literally grinds human bones to make his bread? Is the smell of honey just a pleasant spring scent, a warning sign of giant paper wasps moving into the dense wilderness, or the smell of an undead mellified man about to round the corner and attack?

Conclusion: You don’t have to go crazy with secondary senses, but adding the description of a single noteworthy taste, touch, or smell in each major encounter can help round out the sense of what your game world is like.

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Tabletop Gaming Space

People talk about game rules and social contracts and spotlight time and a dozen other interaction-facing things much, much more often than they talk about having an actual space to play tabletop game.

So, as I sit here in a 20×21 dedicated gaming room, with two 5-foot-long, 2.5-foot wide tables in the middle, several office chairs, a slew of stacking padded church chairs, ceiling fans, led lights bright enough to power solar calculators (which mattered when we designed the room 24 years ago), it’s own refrigerator, a computer hooked to a sound system, and bookcases on every wall, I wanted to talk a little about what I find useful in a physical gaming space.

This isn’t a must-have list or some professionally surveyed best answer. It’s just what I have found over my 40 years of playing tabletop games, as game to me today in no particular order, and generally using my current main gaming space–a dedicated gaming room in the house I’m living in–as a point of comparison.

Comfortable Seating

This may seem obvious, but it’s still worth thinking about. Especially if you have people with disabilities, what may work for you for 4-6 hours or more of sitting might be torture for other members of your group. Also, think about sturdiness. Not just for regular use (our gaming chairs see many more hours per week of sitting than the dining room chairs of my childhood home ever did), but for the people you want to have over. I’m a heavy guy — more than 450 lbs. on average — and I’ve lost track of the number of times I have been invited by people to hang out at their place where all they have are thin folding wood frame or aluminum tubing chairs. Those do not safely hold me. Consider who you want to make accommodations for, and give people an opportunity to tell you if they need something nonstandard.

Accessibility

Our game room is 3 steps down from the rest of the house. We have railings, and happily pass things up and down for folks having issues with the balance or steadiness, but I still wish our space wasn’t sunken in that much.

We’re pretty central to our town, which is a plus, but not particularly close to public transit. Some people walk here for gaming. Some carpool. But an easier way for people to arrive would be a help.

We have the game table in the middle of a big room with two ways in and out, so mostly people can walk around without bumping into people. But when we cram 9 people in for the big Tuesday Night game, it’s cramped. We can’t even get everyone at the table if the whole crew shows up.

Tablespace

How much tablespace you need depends a lot on the needs of the game you play. If you are wanting to have Starfinder games where sniper rifle ranges are relevant, you may need a ton of space for miniatures and terrain. If you’re playing Dread, everyone needs to be able to reach the tumbling tower, and it (probably) ought to be on stable level surface.

We have a table-topper that puts a 2 ft. x 3 ft. space up about 4 inches off the center of the table and can slide and spin. that’s great for letting people pull the map closer to them and turn it to see what is going on behind a shack or hill, but also means we can’t really have many drinks on the main table, and laptops often have to be closed as the table topper is spun. We also have TV trays, which people can use as additional space for books, dice, water bottles, and so on.

Climate

Our space is large enough that even with 9 people rammed in, the AC and ceiling fans and tower fan can keep us pretty cool, even in summer. But it takes 4 AC ducts, 2 returns, two ceiling fans, and 1 tower fan to do it. If a space is likely to get too cold, it can be worthwhile to have blankets and fingerless gloves as options. If it’s going to get too hot, plenty of water, and be understanding if folks decide they are just unwilling to get too hot while trying to have fun.

Atmosphere

Once of the nice things about a dedicated game space is that it serves as the geeky visual center of the house as well. There are miniatures and maps and game books on shelves, light sabers and swords and starships hanging on the walls, a fleet of sailing ships on top of one bookcase, plastic towers, mountains, and a 3-foot wire-frame oil derrick on other furniture. The walls have framed posters of comic books, movies, and game magazine covers. Overall, it helps put people in the mood to play games.

You often can’t go this far–kitchen tables and living room coffee tables are much more common as play spaces, and those often need to serve aesthetic desires beyond “look geeky.” On the other hand, some people go much further, with faux-stone walls, stuffed dragon heads, and wallscapes of fantasy forests with distant castles.

Whatever your options, think about little things that can help put people in the right frame of mind for the game you want to run. Even just having a GM Screen for a specific adventure or game system, or a single small prop tied to a game’s theme (like a model of the PC’s starship, or miniatures of the allied royal court, or a picture of the fungal ghouls destroying civilization) can help make a game space feel tied to specific campaigns, even if those props have to be put away between games.

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In Historic Moment, Paizo Voluntarily Recognize “United Paizo Workers.” … Now What?

So, if anyone hasn’t been keeping up (and a lot has happened amazingly quickly), last week the workers of Paizo announced they had formed a Union, the United Paizo Workers, in conjunction with the CWA, and called on the Paizo onwership and Executive Team to voluntarily recognize it, rather than wait for the legally binding vote UPW seemed sure to win.

Just last week, I was on the BAMF podcast with Jake Tondro, discussing how and why this had happened, and what to expect next.

You can read the statements from the UPW itself on their website. You can read Paizo’s statement on their website.

I’m not kidding when I say this is a historic moment. there may have been a Union in the tabletop game industry before, but I’m not aware of one. Paizo and their staff have been leaders in change and new ways of doing things for more than a decade, so it’s no shock to me to see the workers take on the amazingly complex task of getting a union organized and union cards signed, nor am I shocked to see Paizo’s ownership and executive team voluntarily recognize that union, given how clear it was a supermajority of eligible employees were members.

I also want to hoist a glass to the Pathfinder and Starfinder communities of freelancer and fans. A group of freelancers came together to put their careers on the line to support Paizo staff, and as soon as the staff formed a union, that support pivoted to asking for the union to be recognized. It’s something I have never seen before, and it made my heart full to witness the real care and compassion with which the freelancers fought for the better treatment of their colleagues within the company. I talked a little but about why I consider that to be entirely professional behavior on my post Wednesday.

I’ve long discussed systemic, serious, complicated problems that have plagued the tabletop industry for as long as I have been involved, sometimes under the hashtag #RealGameIndustry. I’ve had no suggestions on how to fix these issues, much more often than not. But I truly believe that collective action–definitely of the UPW, but also of the freelancers who have self-organized and found power and support among themselves in doing so, is much more likely to produce answers than any previous approach.

There are many, many more freelancers and independent creatives producing work in the tabletop industry than their are companies with multiple full-time employees. I know from experience that can be a lonely life, not just because you often end up working along typing (or drawing, or outlining, or laying out) for hours, but also because there’s no informed, connected support structure to lean on.

My first “professional” writing project was 100,000 words… for $50. I signed a contract, I had a deadline, and I delivered. And I was exhausted, and shocked how hard that took (and I didn’t think it would be easy). Now admittedly this was the mid 1990s, but there was really no where I could turn to when I had questions or concerns. That project never saw print (though I did get paid for it, in accordance with the contract), and if I had not ended up with Dave Gross accepting some Dragon magazine pitches I sent to him, I suspect I would have dropped out of game creation entirely. I didn’t know any better, and I didn’t know where to go to learn more.

There’s now a group of freelancers who have discovered they have power, and that they can work together and support others. I hope they continue to evolve that collaboration to support one another and, in time, support newer freelancers who otherwise might have no place to go. Maybe it’ll just be a casual group, keeping in touch in case they ever feel the need to take massed action again. Maybe they’ll form something more formal, and overcome the many, many hurdles so many RPG writer’s guilds failed to clear.

But they have already done more than I ever did when I was first freelancing, and I stand in awe of their vision, dedication, organization, and compassion.

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Yep, It’s a Statement

Today, veteran creator and one-time WotC co-worker Keith Strohm said to me “Many industry pros and fans look to you because of who you are and how you communicate.”
Really?
Okay.
Then, I have something I have to say. Something difficult, and complex, and likely unsatisfying.
I believe Paizo Inc. as a company, has been a force for good in the game industry and in the world. This is why I have noted again and again they have my support.
Does this mean they are perfect?
No. It does not.
There are problems, both internally and with interactions outside.
Further, I accept that there are people I know, trust, and am impressed by who disagree with me about Paizo, as a company.
I understand where they are coming from.
I just think it can be improved, and does more good than harm. In my opinion, much more.
I try to take in the perspective of those who do not have my power and privileges. I acknowledge I need to listen more than I talk. I WANT people who think Paizo needs to be taken to task to make the effort to do so.
There absolutely are people who got a raw deal from Paizo.
I know people who left Paizo. I know people who still work there. I know managers, and creators, and people in other departments.
There are people in pain, right now, about how Paizo does some things. And, when/if those people give me permission to tell their stories, I will.
(CW: suicidal issues)
But I also know that if it were not for ttRPGs, I would have killed myself as a teen. And, I have had fans of work I helped with, that Paizo published, tell me that without Golarion and Path/Starfinder, they would have done the same.
At the same time, injustice happens, and those who are wronged have every right to be angry, and to lash out in their anger. I won’t tell people they only get to fight against wrongs done them if they are cool and calm. That’s automatically taking the side of the status quo.
So, yes, I support Jessica Price, even if I believe she characterizes things in ways I would not and assigns motives I doubt were present.
And I support Erik Mona, who does a job I would NOT want, and does it better than I could.
I consider both these people my friends.
I support holding Paizo accountable for any wrong it has committed.
I support working with Paizo to keep putting out products that give new creators voices, and allow many of the best, kindest, most genius writers I know weave a world of wonder.
I cannot tell anyone else how to feel.
I don’t consider the recent issues to be clear-cut, on any side. Jessica has done things I consider wrong and harmful. Erik has done things I consider wrong and harmful. I believe they are both trying to make the world better.
I suspect they would both roll their eyes at me, and let me know that, once again, I have been taken in by the other side.
Maybe they are right. Lords knows I am not perfect. I’m not even willing to say I’m particularly good.
I’m trying. I think they are too.
I haven’t mentioned anyone else in this thread, because if I do, people will try to parse what I REALLY mean from a sentence here, or a word there. I’m not getting into that space.
I don’t know everything that happened. Some I know, but took differently. Some I just missed.
If you feel hurt or betrayed, you have the right to that feeling.
If you want to stop supporting Paizo, you have the right to do that.
If you want to keep supporting them, you have the right to do that.
There are things I saw when I worked at Paizo I thought were problems. I told them so. Some got better. Some didn’t. Many, many issues didn’t impact me, and I cannot be the judge of how they went or are going.
And, in the end, I left.
What I feel sure of, is that Paizo has many of the best, most creative, most empathetic, most hard-working, world-changing writers, developers, and editors in the world.
And those people have my unwavering support.
And so, for now, Paizo does too.
And some people who left Paizo did so under much worse circumstances than I did. And I think many of them are trying to shine a light on the darkest places, and even if the light has a filter, I think that’s a thing that needs to be done.
So, we get back to my original position from a couple of days ago.
“It’s complicated.”
But the people who have the least power and reach here are most likely the most innocent. Editors and developers and writers who have to be on Gen Con panels, while they wonder if they’ll have a job tomorrow.
Or wonder if they’ll get death threats because they refuse to denounce their employers.
Or if they’ll get the internal cold shoulder if they fail to declare support.
To be a Paizo employee right now comes with a huge stress load.
If I can ask one thing, it’s that you keep these people in your mind, and ask yourself, “Does what I am about to do help them more than it hurts them?”
And, if you can, reach out and offer your support.
For my part, I will continue to support Paizo, Pathfinder, and Starfinder.
I plan, currently, to be part of the Infinities programs.
I plan to do freelance work, and point to the awesome products Paizo makes.
And, I’ll amplify those voices I think are important Especially ones with a different perspective and life experience than my own.
Some voices will praise Paizo. Others will damn it, or specific acts and people within in.
I especially want to be an advocate for, and aid to, people within the company with the least power. If any of them want something said and aren’t in a position to do so, with their permission I’ll say it.
Work needs to be done, but I believe it’s possible.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I am naive. Maybe I am being played the fool. It would not be the first time.
Don’t shut out other voices just because you heard mine.
But do consider a conversation over a shouting match.
I know I should have done more earlier, when I had more influence. And to everyone who had to suffer under conditions I both accepted and was quiet about, I’m sorry.
I’ve tried to educate about what the ttRPG industry is like, and it’s often brutal.
And I don’t have all the answers. I may not have any of them.
All I can do is try to listen, express my thoughts when appropriate, and try to help in any way I can.
I know that’s less satisfying that decrying anyone the villain.
It’s all I have right now.
To those who have been my friends and supporters, my sincere gratitude.
To the people I didn’t help when i could have, I am truly sorry.
This is where we are now.
Let’s work to make this place better.
Love you all.

Creating With Mental illness: Prioritizing And Impossibilities

I’ve made no secret of the fact I have multiple mental health challenges, including civilian PTSD and depression. This has been true for my entire nearly-25-year career, and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties as a result. As a ttRPG writer and developer, I deal with deadlines a great deal. As someone who can suffer executive disfunction, the core tasks needed to hit deadlines are sometimes impossible for me. There are days I am literally unable to multitask, plan, organize, and, yeah, prioritize.

If I were smarter, I’d have gotten out of the deadline business. But I am stubborn and strongly, weirdly, dedicated to creating (and trying to promote and improve) tabletop roleplaying games.

Which means over a quarter-century, I have developed some coping mechanisms. None work all the time. Many make only a marginal difference. But deadlines, budgets, projects, and deadlines are often won or lost in the margins. If something lets you average 2,050 words per day rather than 2,000, over 52 five-day workweeks, that’s an extra 13,000-word project done every year.

One of the things I have to deal with is the conflict between prioritizing, and the things at the top of the priority list being impossible. I can’t fix that conflict, even though it happens over and over, but I can work to mitigate its impact. In no particular order (see #2), here are some coping mechanisms

1. Don’t Wait To the Last Moment

Your deadline is 4 weeks away and you think you need 2 weeks to do it? See if you can be done in the first 2 weeks. If yes, then you can get a jump on the next thing, and no mental health issues in that last two weeks can make you late. If not, you at least have a feel for what the project is really going to take, and two more weeks to try to get it done. If you wait until the time needed is the time left, a mental health issue sidelining (or even just slowing) you means you will be late.

It’s also helpful if some issue means you are radically wrong when you estimate how much time you need.

2. Don’t Get Sucked Into Doing Work You Don’t Need To

Making a list of coping mechanisms on your blog? You may be tempted to prioritize them to present them in the best possible order. But if that is taking more thought cycles that just tying them out in any order does, maybe you are making work for yourself when you don’t need to.

I have found myself making outlines longer than the final product is supposed to be, spending days researching something that is going to be relevant for just one line of text, and writing the same thing four different ways to see which one is better. If you have the time for that and are ahead on everything else and have no the projects you’d like to start, that’s fine. But in the real world, there are better ways to spend to your time.

3. Attack Any Task You Can From Any Angle You Can Whenever You Can

Sometimes my brain works best by carefully planning ahead, making lists, figuring out what I need to do when and for how long… and sometimes the only thing it can focus on is writing about halfling battle cheese. That’s fine if halfling battle cheese projects are my priority, but even when they aren’t, that may be the only thing I can work on. If I have multiple projects, and I simply cannot make my brain do any of the work three of them need, then I need to prioritize among those things I CAN do.

This is crucial, at least for me. Spending time psychically flagellating myself for not working on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd most important thing is NOT more useful than actually getting work done on the 4th, 5th, or 6th most important thing. Depending on how disastrously close to failure those 1st three projects are, I may ramp up the internal pressure to try to force myself to get them done — but if I can’t, then I can’t. Acknowledging what is impossible, and then still prioritizing among what isn’t impossible, is the best route forward for me.

Of course, this means I also must regularly re-assess what’s impossible for me. Just because I began work on a lower-priority task doesn’t mean I need to finish it before moving on to something else. Indeed, sometimes there mere act of accomplishing something gives me the strength and focus I need to tackle something harder and more important. My contribution to more than one award-winning game came not in one smooth run, but in jerks and jolts as I tackled some crucial part of it, then had to go away to work on less-important things until I could do the next difficult bit of writing.

4. Be Honest With Yourself

You can’t fix every shortcoming you acknowledge to yourself, but you can’t even try to fix any lie to yourself about. It hurts to say “I am going to miss this deadline, because my cPTSD won’t let me work on it, again, for the fifth day in a row.” But that’s still better than trying to believe you can write 15,000 words of quality work in 24 hours, with enough caffeine and snack food to keep you going the whole time.

And if you USED to be able to do that, in your 20s, 30s, and 4s, and now that you are in your 50s you can’t anymore? You need to be honest about that too.

5. Be Honest With People You Are Working With

This is super-hard some days, but it is the ethical, practical, empathetic option. You can’t build a sustainable, long-lasting career on just not communicating when things go bad (it’s often called “going turtle” in the ttRPG industry, and it’s a well-known bad sign), or constantly claiming the dog ate your hard drive.

Things DO happen sometimes. If you got driven out of your home by a hurricane a day before a turnover was due, by all means tell the people you are working with what happened while you can. But honesty is always the best policy.

6. Track The Impact Different Kinds Of Projects have On Your Mental Health

For many creators, not all creative work is created equal. I, for example, can more easily write about my process and mental health and industry insights than I can write descriptions of fictional worlds and their societies. I can much, MUCH, more easily write crunchy player option game rules within an existing ruleset than I can write an encounter for a GM to run as part of a published adventure. And writing some things is more likely to leave me depressed, fatigued, or dysfunctional.

You often won’t know about these differences until you have done several different kinds of writing. But as you go through the career of a creator with mental health issues, keep track. Was the War Clans of the Half-Pint Bakery a nightmare because you were having a bad month and other factors in life impacted you? Or does any project focusing on warfare set off mental blocks you don’t get on other assignments?

7. Forgive Yourself

All the best intentions, your strongest efforts, and the smartest coping mechanisms may fail you from time to time. If you beat yourself up over that, it’s just more fuel for the next round of executive disfunction. There are plenty of other people ready to castigate you for every delay, dip in quality, shuffled schedule, and dropped ball. They don’t need your help to point out your flaws. Keep an eye on #4 and #5… but then forgive yourself.

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Being The Cruise Ship Singer of ttRPG Design

Years ago, I was watching a singing competition reality show tryout, when one of the judges told a singer they weren’t good enough for the show. They had no chance of being a pop star, or become famous. they were, the judge said, good enough to make a living being an act singer on cruise ships.

The contestant and other judges reacted as though this was a significant insult. The judge was annoyed by this reaction. “I just told them they were good enough to make a living as a singer. That’s not true for everyone. I’m not doing them any favors by suggesting they can be more successful than their talent allows!”

While that obviously simplifies a lot of factors–the ability to improve, a god producer or agent, luck, determination, changing public standards and genre preferences–I suspect there’s a grain of truth in that critique. Pre-pandemic, there were more than 300 cruise ships operating worldwide, each with one or more theaters offering various acts nearly daily. That’s a lot of stages to fill with singers, and while it doesn’t pay as well as being a hit singer, there is a paycheck involved along with travel, room, and board.

And a lot, a LOT of work. Some singers go on for hours every night, 6-days-a-week, with a few 15-minute breaks. Very few cruise singers do the job for their whole career and then retire. Most run contract-to-contract for a few years, and then move on to some other career, possibly coming back for short contracts between other gigs.

In this, I see a lot of similarities to ttRPG design.

Robin D. Laws famously said there are more professional astronauts in the U.S.A. than full-time ttRPG game designers. That’s especially true if you define full-time as making all the money needed to pay all your bills, and cover health insurance, and put away money for retirement. And of those full-timers, many are the equivalent of cruise-ship singers. Going from gig to gig, making ends meet by working hard, long hours and taking work better-known (better paid) designers don’t want. Most of them will put in a few years, often while younger, then go to part-time-at-most, or move on to other fields entirely.

But a few will stay with it for decades. Even fewer will manage the career alchemy to move into more sustainable positions. Some combination of getting better, changing preferences, good connections, and luck will propel them into full-time jobs with benefits.

That’s not a guarantee they’ll stay in those positions of course. My wife and I have moved cross-country for stable, full-benefit ttRPG industry jobs three times. Twice, that ended in a company layoff in less than a year. Once, the cost of living where the job was simply grew faster than the job’s salary. Even getting that rare unicorn of a full-time ttRPG job isn’t a sure thing, just another shot at maybe finding pop stardom… or at least paid insurance. Reaching the peak of the industry can end up being a visit, that raises your visibility, gives you a chance to improve, gets you more contacts… and then ends. So you need to look around for other ways to make it, just now with a better-looking resume.

And the more tourists might recognize your name, the easier it is to get a gig singing on a cruise ship.

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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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