Category Archives: Musings

Writing Basics: Bringing Your Publisher Concerns

In part one of my recent ongoing series of articles looking at converting every feat from the PF Core Rulebook that doesn’t already have a namesake in Starfinder to the Starfinder game system, I mention that if you think a project you are being hired for has bad decisions behind it, you should bring those to your publisher. I also mention that once you agree to do the job you should do it, without offering any exceptions for cases where you have moral or ethical concerns about completing the work. these can be tricky waters to navigate, but it’s worth discussing some best practices for bring your concerns to your publisher/editor/developer/producer.

Some of the following examples are going to sound extreme, and I don’t want to give the impression that every project is filled with objectionable, harmful, short-sighted material you have to fight back against. But I can’t pretend it never happens, and obviously it’s when the stakes are highest that this is both the most important, and the most nerve-wracking.

Also, I am aware of my own shortcomings enough to know I don;t always see the ways in which material can be harmful. So if you are writing for me, and you have concerns? LET ME KNOW. Push back. Point to this article if you want some back-up. I ASKED you to tell me if I’m requesting bad ideas from you.

As always, I’ll also note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. Also, I come at this as a writer, developer, and publisher, as those are the kinds of roles I have filled for RPG creation. Artists, graphic designers, editors, and layout artists face similar challenges at least as great, but my advice may not work as well for them.

Try Not To Create Any Surprises

Ideally when working on a project you’ll have access to an outline and a general vision of the project prior to agreeing to write for it, so if you have any concerns you can bring them up early on. For example, if a project’s outline suggests covering topics you don’t feel are appropriate for an RPG, you can discuss that at the beginning with your contact. Even if that means you backing out of the project because you just can’t get on the same page as the publisher, it’s much better for all concerned if you do that early.

If your project is going to involve a lot of discrete bits, it’s worth scanning those for potential trouble spots extremely early in the process. For example if you are asked to do expanded write-ups on six cities, go through the existing material at least briefly as soon as you can. If one of the cities is mired in material you see issues with (whether those are as simple as it having a stupid name or as complex as having an explicit social set-up filled with stereotypes you find harmful), bringing those to your contact as soon as possible both allows everyone plenty of time to try to figure out a solution (while the rest of the project moves forward), and proves you’re taking your responsibilities seriously.

The closer you are to deadline, the less flexible your publisher is likely to be. While that is often because the publisher places money over your concerns, it’s worth remembering they have mouths to feed as well, and people counting on them. That doesn’t excuse making money on harmful material, but it is worth remembering if you’re trying to build a working relationship.

Of course sometimes things develop you could not have foreseen. You may only be contracted to write part of a project, and when you see someone else’s section it’s full of material you have issues with or, worse, it changes the context of your own material in harmful ways. Or you might be shown cover art you dislike so much you don’t want your name associated with it. Or you might get developer feedback that explicitly asks you to alter things in a way you have problems with. The point is that the sooner you can raise a flag, the easier the process is likely to be for all concerned.

There’s A Thing Line Between Asking for Clarification and Passive-Aggressive

A great first step when something from the publisher seems like a bad idea is to ask for clarification. Going back to my series of articles as an example, if a publisher told me to convert *every* missing PF feat from the core rulebook to Starfinder, I’d pretty quickly ask if they meant even feats that refer to rules that don’t exist in Starfinder and already have their basic concept covered, like Exotic Weapon Proficiency. The publisher might come back and agree that some feats don’t need conversion.

However, once I get told that yes, EVERY feat needs to be converted, constantly asking if that’s the case even if the end result is dumb, or even if that means confusing people, or any other objections, I’m moving beyond just asking for clarification. Once you have your answer work with it, for better or worse.

If the answer means you can’t work on a project for personal or ethical or legal reasons, at that point just say so.

Be As Polite As The Situation Allows

Ideally, you’ll always be in a place where you can be polite and considerate to your publisher. If nothing else, with luck you’ll have some idea what kind of material the publisher produces before working for them (or even pitching them ideas) and will have just avoided anyone who is going to ask for things you think are stupid or problematic.

Even just five years ago, I’d have made this advice to ALWAYS be polite. And, honestly, my privileged and luck have meant I have always had that choice (though I haven’t always used it, to my regret). But I have seen other writers put in situations where I confess, polite might not convey how serious an objection is.

I strongly recommend defaulting to as polite as you think you can possibly be, and reserving more stringent language and complaints for serious legal or ethical objections, but that has to be your call.

Explain Your Concerns

Saying “this piece of art is terrible” isn’t helpful to a publisher. Be as specific, and as nonjudgmental, as the situation allows for. Does the art depict the 8-armed Klyzon species as having 6 arms? Are the colors so muted and fuzzy that from 2 feet back it just looks like mud? Does the Klyzon look EXACTLY like a character from the Trek Wars animated series? It it’s tattoo of a symbol with real-world religious or political meaning? Is the Klyzon man a horrific monster in full armor, and the Klyzon woman a near-human with tiny horns wearing sexualized attire?

Specific details on what is your concern, and why it concerns you, helps move quickly to seeing if improvements or resolution can be found.

If there is a broader social issue in play, it may help to link to resources education on that issue. Yes, this is asking you to do extra work, and that’s both unfair and not your ethical duty. I offer the suggestion because I have found it effective, but you have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into any issue.

Offer Solutions

If you can think of an easy way to address your concern, pitch it. Publishers love solutions to problems, especially compared to problems they have to spend time working on themselves.

In fact if approving your solution is less work than figuring out some way to get what the publisher originally asked for, the publisher may just agree to save time and effort.

Try To Do It All At Once

This isn’t always an option, but a publisher can much more easily deal with a unified, concise list of 7 issues with a project, than getting a new issues brought up 7 different times during production.

Pick Your Battles

There’s nothing wrong with noting you think a sketch of a monster you are writing up is too goofy to convey the theme of menace and fear you have been asked to write… but that’s also not something I’d ever take beyond the bringing-it-up stage. The publisher has people they trust to make publication decisions, and they are unlikely to take your freelance opinion over that of their staff or trusted contract producers.

Even when mentioning concerns, it can be worth it to note when you are just bringing something up for consideration, (and will finish your work as agreed, on time, to a high standard of quality even if nothing changes), and when you think there is a serious issue you need to find clarification on before you can continue, or that you fear may impact the value of your work.

To Thine Own Self Be True

I wish I didn’t even have to cover this, but that’s not the world we live in. Your own sense of ethics, morality, and right and wrong should take precedence over giving a publisher what they want… to whatever degree you decide you’re willing to pay the price for making a stand.

It’d be nice to claim you’ll always be rewarded for doing the right thing but again, that’s not the world we live in. Only you can decide what to do when legal obligations (such as a contract), financial obligations (such as looming rent payments), and moral obligations (such as creating work you think might harm others) aren’t in alignment.

But I don’t personally think advancing your career, or getting one freelance paycheck, is worth feeling you have made the world a worse place. Be honest with yourself, and make the best call you cab.

Don’t Assume The Publisher Is Making a Change Until They Say So

Some freelancers will write in they have a concern, propose a solution, and then immediately continue their writing as if their proposal had been accepted. In some cases this has included things such as saying a topic can’t support 1500 words, so they are going to write 1100 words on it, and 400 words on some new topic.

Don’t. Do. This.

The project outline and remit hasn’t changed until the publish says it’s changed.

Be Clear On Your Position

I never recommend starting with ultimatums or even making threats, but especially once you have voiced a concern, if you are dissatisfied with the publisher’s solution, it’s worth talking about how you would like to proceed.

You may just note you won’t want to take similar projects in the future. You might ask that your name be taken off a project. You might need to ask for extra time because you feel the scope of the project has shifted or requires more research than you expect.

I personally have never, on ethical grounds, backed out of a project without the publisher’s approval once I had signed a contract. But I’m not going to claim there are never circumstances where that might be the moral choice. Myself I’d always finish wordcount and turn a project over by deadline, even if I had to write something that wasn’t exactly what was asked for because I have conscientious objections to what was asked for.

I have asked a publisher if they would approve of my walking away from a contract for various reasons, and had them agree to it. In general, that means I don’t get paid for work already done (which the publisher then cannot use), and that’s often the cost of doing business.

Don’t Freak Out

As a socially awkward introvert with depression, I know it can be overwhelming to tell a publisher you think they need to change their concept. But it happens, and most publishers are used to it, and many even appreciate it. By being prompt, polite, and specific, you can generally get a dialog going on issues without having to take on a huge emotional burden.

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Developing to Spec: Part 10d: Down the Rabbit Hole

This is the fourth section of Part Ten of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

While we were going through the PF core rulebook feats in order, we’ve once again hit a whole category of feats –item creation feats. And I had no plan for handling that. So I came up with what I thought was a clever item creation feat for Brew Potion and Craft Magic Arms and Armor. The I applied it to Craft Rod and Craft Staff, which was weird. Then Craft Wand and Craft Wondrous Items, which was weirder. Now we just have Forge Ring and Scribe Scroll left.

The further I go down their weird rabbit whole of having Craft Wands make hybrid items, Craft Staff make technological ones, and Craft Rods do augmentation, the more I doubt my choice to do things that way. But I’m already most of the way down the rabbit hole, so I’m going to tackle the last two of these feats, and think about how I like the full set as I move on with other feats next week.

FORGE RING
You’ve mastered the nearly lost art of magic ring forging, and can aply it to creating similarly useful objects of magical power.
Prerequisites: Mysticism 7 ranks.
Benefit: This feat interacts with magic items that do not use charges (see the rules on Charges in the Magic Item section of the Equipment Chapter of the Starfinder Core Rulebook). Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of such magic items with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of such magic items up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an arcane laboratory. Alternatively you can do this with nothing more than the UPBs and a relatively quite space to work in, but when you do so you are limited to objects with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

SCRIBE SCROLL
You are adept at taking magic energy and freezing it time, a process that was once done using ink and parchment, and now generally involves spell gems.
Prerequisites: Mysticism 1 rank.
Benefit: This feat interacts with magic items that have charges that never refresh (see the rules on Charges in the Magic Item section of the Equipment Chapter of the Starfinder Core Rulebook), except serums and spell ampules which fall under Brew Potion). Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of such magic items with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of such magic items up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an arcane laboratory. Alternatively you can do this with nothing more than the UPBs and a relatively quite space to work in, but when you do so you are limited to objects with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

PATREON
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! I’m happy to do this kind of Practical TTRPG Designer masterclass free to the public… but it’s only possible for me to take the time to do so if people join my Patreon and help me have the free time to write these things!

Developing to Spec: Part 10c: More Weird Design Choices

This is the third section of Part Ten of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

While we were going through the PF core rulebook feats in order, we’ve once again hit a whole category of feats –item creation feats. And I had no plan for handling that. So I came up with what I thought was a clever item creation feat for Brew Potion and Craft Magic Arms and Armor. The I applied it to Craft Rod and Craft Staff, which was weird. Now we go forward with Craft Wand and Craft Wondrous Items.

CRAFT WAND
Wands were one the magic tools of choice for spellcasters throughout the galaxy. No one knows what momentous shift changed how wands functioned, but you have studied all the rites and rituals that once created them. That knowledge turns out to apply well to the creation of advanced technology augmented with magic, despite the appearance of these “hybrid” devices often having little to do with what is often considered a ‘wand.”
Prerequisites: Engineering 5 ranks, Mysticism 5 ranks.
Benefit: Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of hybrid items with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of hybrid items up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an arcane laboratory or tech workshop. Alternatively you can do this with an appropriate toolkit, but are limited to objects with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

CRAFT WONDROUS ITEMS
You are well-versed in the creation of magic items that work off recharging pools of magic.
Prerequisites: Engineering 5 ranks, Mysticism 5 ranks.
Benefit: This feat interacts with magic items that have charges that refresh each day (see the rules on Charges in the Magic Item section of the Equipment Chapter of the Starfinder Core Rulebook). Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of such magic items with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of such magic items up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an arcane laboratory. Alternatively you can do this with nothing more than the UPBs and a relatively quite space to work in, but when you do so you are limited to objects with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

The reason I limited this to a specific subset of magic items is twofold. First, magic items can do nearly anything in Starfinder, so they are more flexible that technological items. Second, breaking them into different categories both gives me more space for Forge Ring and Scribe Scroll,and better models how Pf divides its categories of magic items.

That leaves just two more item creation feats, which we’ll tackle tomorrow!

PATREON
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! I’m happy to do this kind of Practical TTRPG Designer masterclass free to the public… but it’s only possible for me to take the time to do so if people join my Patreon and help me have the free time to write these things!

Developing to Spec: Part 10b: When The Easy Answer Is WEIRD

This is the second section of Part Ten of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

While we were going through the PF core rulebook feats in order, we’ve once again hit a whole category of feats –item creation feats. And I had no plan for handling that. So I came up with what I thought was a clever item creation feat for Brew Potion and Craft Magic Arms and Armor, and I can see how it’ll work well for Scribe Scroll and Craft Wondrous Item. Those are all well and good. Even Forge Ring is probably going to be okay.

But the NEXT feat I need to convert is Craft Rod. And there are Craft Staff and Craft Wand lurking out there, as well. So we need to get creative.

Looking at the types of equipment in Starfinder, I can map Scribe Scroll to spell gems, which serve the same function. I can map Forge Ring to magic rings, and Craft Wondrous Item to other classes of magic items. That still leaves augmentations, computers, technological items, hybrid items, vehicles, other purchases, and (if I got desperate) starships.

I’m going to discard computers, vehicles, and starships from the craft system immediately. Even ignoring how much those don’t feel like magic crafted items, the idea of letting someone make a computer in 10 minutes, which could then grant access to skills for example, seems clearly adventure-breaking.

I can see using Craft Staff for technological items (playing up that staves were, technically, weapons as well as magic items). Using Craft Wand for hybrid items is a stretch… but maybe I can find a way to have it make sense with the flavor text. That leaves me augmentations for Craft Rod, which again feels weird, but it IS a good game mechanical match.

This, by the way, is the point in a design process where if I was working in an office with other people employed by the same company, I’d lean over to whoever was next to me (for Starfinder, that was usually Rob McCreary or Joe Pasini), and ask them if this idea was TOO weird. failing that, if I had a developer or publisher to run it by, I’d ask for their input.

But since I am doing this project as a solo freelancer, I am on my own. It feels like it might be too weird… but it also works, so I’ll give it a go and see how I feel after the project is done. This is one of the things that can happen when you run into a major design challenge without having a solid plan to handle it, and just bull forward with the first thing that seems workable. (This is also one of the reasons a lot of game companies have developers — just because I decide this weird answer is okay doesn’t mean a publisher will agree with me. Developers help keep a game line;s tone consistent.)

CRAFT ROD
You have mastered the ancient art of using magic and sliding, interconnected rods and gears to make functioning, complex machines to accomplish specific tasks.
Prerequisites: Life Science 9 ranks, Physical Science 9 ranks.
Benefit: Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of unimplanted augmentations with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of augmentations up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level. They may be unimplanted, or you may create them automatically implanted in a willing target that is able to have an augmentation added to the appropriate system.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an arcane laboratory or medical bay. Alternatively you can do this with a medkit, but are limited to augmentations with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

CRAFT STAFF
You have mastered centuries of philosophy and techniques on using magic to create technological items. Though this ancient art began with just staffs, you can use it to produce the vast array of technology you are familiar with.
Prerequisites: Engineering 11 ranks, Physical Science 11 ranks.
Benefit: Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of technological items with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of technological items up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an tech workshop or vehicle bay. Alternatively you can do this with an appropriate toolkit, but are limited to objects with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

Yep, those are weird. But, at least right now, they also feel cool to me.

I’m keeping them for now, and moving on with this project!

PATREON
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! Want more of this content? Want to suggest specific game systems, topics, of kinds of articles? All of that is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

 

 

Developing to Spec: Part 10: When You Have No Plan

This is a Part Ten of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read along as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

While we were going through the PF core rulebook feats in order, we’ve once again hit a whole category of feats –item creation feats, beginning with Brew Potion–that play on game mechanics from PF that just don’t exist in Starfinder.

And, confession time, I have no plan for these.

I’ve known they were coming, in vague terms, since I began this project. And I’ve know they were the next thing to be tackled since last week, when I discovered I’d skipped a few things when I diverged from alphabetical order to tackle critical feats. So I have had lots of time to casually ponder this design issue. That often brings a number of ideas for how to work around some tricky bit of game design.

This time? Nothing.

Obviously I COULD just say I’ll do them later, and give myself more time. In some ways, that’d be the smart thing to do. But I want these articles to show how I tackle tricky development and design issues, so let’s pretend I don’t have any more time. I am on deadline. The project lead insists these be done, and I am out of time. So, since nothing else has sparked a good idea, it’s time to take an extreme measure.

It’s time to read messageboards.

I try to avoid this as a way to look for inspiration on specific questions, though I often do read game boards to get a feel for what players of a given game are thinking. But I am aware messageboards are not representative of all of a game’s players, and they can often have toxic elements I’d rather not dwell in. On top of that, when I am stumped on an issue I need to be careful not to plagiarize ideas I run into. Looking for inspiration is fine–taking someone else’s actual work and passing it off as my own isn’t.

So, reading through some Starfinder messagebaords today (there’s a reason this article got pasted so late in the day), I find the following common complaints about item creation in Starfinder.

It takes too long.
It doesn’t save you any money.
You have to have a big chunk of your wealth locked into UPBs instead of gear if you want to be able to craft while far from civilization.

Now I’m not going to play with costs at all. Equipment economy in -finder games is highly tuned for a reason, and adjusting it can lead to imbalances quickly, But there may be some room for solutions in the other issues.

BREW POTION
You have mastered ancient alchemical and magical arts of potable and potent liquids.
Prerequisites: Life Science 3 ranks, Medicine 3 ranks.
Benefit: Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of posions, medicinals, spell ampules, and serums with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of poisons, medicinals, spell ampules, and serums up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an arcane laboratory, medical bay, or synthesis bay. Alternatively you can do this with an advanced medkit or chemalyzer, but are limited to objects with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

Okay… that seems like a usable feat! It’s focused, but it fixes some of the problems people have with crafting. And it’s optional after all — if a player doesn’t think it’s worth it for them, they don’t have to take it.

Can we do the same with Craft Magic Arms and Armor?

CRAFT MAGIC ARMS AND ARMOR
You have mastered ancient magical techniques to create and adjust armor and weaponry.
Prerequisites: Engineering 5 ranks, Physical Science 5 ranks.
Benefit: Over the course of ten minutes you can break down a number of weapons, suits of armor, shields, or fusion seals with a total item level no greater than your character level. You receive half these item’s credit value in UPBs.
Additionally with one hour of work, you can turn UPBs into a number of weapons, suits of armor, shields, and fusion seals up to a total of item levels no greater than your character level. None of these items may have an item level greater than your character level.
Using this feat for either function requires you have access to an arcane laboratory, hangar bay, or tech workshop. Alternatively you can do this with an appropriate toolkit, but are limited to objects with an item level at least 2 below your character level.

Well, it sure is a feat. We’ll see if this concept survives going through all the item creation feats!

PATREON
This series of posts about my specific game writing and development process (along with concrete examples and Starfinder feats) is — like all my blog posts — is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

 

Developing to Spec: Part 9 (d) — My Mistakes Create A Teaching Moment

This is a continuation of Part Nine of a series of articles looking at creating a set of Starfinder feats under specific constraints.  You can read long as we convert every feat in the PF core rulebook to Starfinder (and  share my thoughts on that process, as a developer and writer)— or you can just look at the finished feats (as they are written) here.

While we were going through the PF core rulebook feats in order, we’ve hit a whole class of feats that play on rules that don’t exist in Starfinder — metamagic feats. Having developed a plan for converting those (and wanting to stay consistent with our development), it seems smart to tackle all the rest of the metamagic feats before we move on to the next in alphabetical order.

So, that brings us to Widen Spell. …. And Empower Spell and Enlarge Spell.

Wait, what? Shouldn’t those have been before Extend Spell, which we did in the first section of Part Nine?

Yes. Yes, they should have.

But when I did all the critical feats we got out of order, and instead of hopping back to Brew Potion (which would have sent us down a rabbit whole doing crafting feats this week), I somehow skipped ahead to Exotic Weapon Proficiency. I only caught the mistake earlier this week, when double checking I could get all the metamagic feats done by today, to move on to a new topic next week.

Now this isn’t a big deal. I can write these things in any order, so going back to Brew Potion next week is fine. But if I hadn’t double checked, I might have missed those skipped-over feats entirely. For purposes of a series of blog posts, that’s fine. But if this was actually a project I was developing for another publisher? A chunk of missing content would be a major failure on my part.

So, teaching moment. If your assignment is supposed to cover a specific list of items? Check from time to time, including when you think you are done, that you have covered all of them. And if you missed some? Fix it.

So, we’ll do three more metamagic feats today to get that line of design done, then hop to Brew Potion and crafting feats next week.

Since it’s always worthwhile to do things in alphabetical order unless you have a pressing reason not to, let’s look at Empower Spell. It has a lot of the same issues as Maximize Spell, so maybe we can use the same kind of solution. However, since it doesn’t add as much damage, we need it to be a smaller risk, and apply to a wider range of spells.

EMPOWER SPELL
You can get more effect out of your lower-level spells.
Prerequisites: Able to cast a spell at least 2 spell levels higher than your lowest-level spell.
Benefit: When you cast a spell with a casting time of 1 standard action, that is at least 2 spell levels lower than the highest-level spell you can cast, you may cast it with a casting time of 1 full action. The sp or hp damage done by the spell is increased by +50%.

That applies to a slightly higher level of spell, and takes a full action rather than 1 round. The payoff is much lower, but I could legitimately see a spellcaster wanting both these feats, and while they won’t work with each other (intentionally), they will stack with technomancer magic hacks.

Then it’s Enlarge Spell, which looks like it’ll work much like Extend Spell did.

ENLARGE SPELL
Your spells often have much greater reach than most spellcasters’.
Prerequisites: Ability to cast a spell with a range based on level.
Benefit: When calculating the range of your spells, treat your caster level as being +4 levels higher.

Aaaand that brings us to Widen Spell. Starfinder doesn’t normally have areas based on level, but they do often have targets limited per level, so we can use that with the Enlarge/Extend paradigm.

WIDEN SPELL
Your spells often affect many more targets than most spellcasters’.
Prerequisites: Ability to cast a spell with a maximum number of targets based on level.
Benefit: When calculating the maximum number of targets of your spells, treat your caster level as being +4 levels higher.

PATREON
This series of posts about my specific game writing and development process (along with concrete examples and Starfinder feats) is — like all my blog posts — is only possible if people join my Patreon, help me have the free time to write these things, and let me know what you want to see!

 

 

Writing Basics: The Freelance Work Process

I’ve talked many times about ways I deal with writer’s block, burnout, and the hard work of creating game material professionally. What I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about is my normal writing process. Like, if I am feeling okay and tackling the day-to-day work of a writing career, what does that look like?

Today’s my birthday, and birthdays are a good time for some retrospection, so I want to look at how my full-time freelance process looks nowadays, especially after 5 years of going into the Paizo office 5 days a week. I’m talking here just about how I organize and tackle my writing–things like getting assignments, editing, and so on are outside the scope of this article. (Though if you want to hear more about those, let me know!)

Outlines

When I was first starting my writing career, I flat refused to use outlines. Outlines were, I felt, restrictive. Stifling. I didn’t know where my muse was going to take me, after all, so how could I outline it? Much better, I thought, to just begin at the beginning, and keep writing until I hit the end, and if that meant the project drifted all over the place, I could fix that in a second draft.

I was such a sweet, summer child.

Yes, you can fix things in a second draft. But the sooner you find problems, the easier they are to fix (and the less work you’ve done on things that are geing to get cut). So now I outline nearly everything. Often in very rough terms (maybe just listing out some potential headers), but enough for me to know where a piece is going to start, what it’ll cover, and how it will end.

I DO keep in mind my format, and this is a place where the years of being a developer for Paizo have really honed that skill. For example, if I know I want everything to break at the bottom of a page, I can do rough wordcounts to writing only as much as I need to do that. On the other hand, if something is going to be a 2-3 page pdf and never see print, i know it doesn’t matter nearly as much what my exact wordcounts are.

Prioritize, Schedule, Assess

Early in my career, I was often doing just fairly random magazine articles, and deadlines were pretty rough. I also usually worked on only one at a time, so I didn’t have to worry about priorities. Now I am often doing two-dozen things all at once, and some are for myself with loose deadlines, some are for myself with firm deadlines (like this article, since I promise Patreon readers a good-sized article every Monday), some are for other folks with loose deadlines (most of the things I produce for Rite are done when they are done… but they do need to get done!), and some are for other folks with hard deadlines (if Green Ronin or Paizo needs a thing by a set date, it’s crucial I adhere to that–there are lots of steps after mine that need time, and big books that go into the retail market get announced way before they are finished.

So I need to know what I need to work on TODAY to hit deadlines. I prefer to work on 2-3 different things per day, so i keep a running list of what deadlines are upcoming, how far along those things are, and I (ideally) check it every work day. I also have the free tacking program Asana, which I use to track projects so they don’t get totally forgotten if I put them on the back burner for a few days or weeks. That helps make sure that if Rogue Genius Games needs marketing text from me before a product can be made available for sale, I get that done in a timely manner.

If I have an idea I can;t begin yet, it gets noted so it’s not lost. i used to do that in physical notebooks. Then I moved to online files. Now, i use Asana.

Writing Time

The hope is to get 8 hours of writing done per day 5 days a week, and 4 hours 2 days a week. That actually usually takes me 12 and 6 hours, because when I find myself hitting a slowdown in my writing, I often take a short break to clear my mind. That may be 5 minutes on social media, or 15 minutes gluing bits of a model together, or 20 minutes on a computer game. Or a half-hour lunch break. The idea is to pause, rather than let my writing urge go completely cool, but distract my mind with something different enough that I can come back at it ‘fresh” in a bit.

But it’s important to keep a running track of how much work is actually getting done, and what is due soon. If I am producing plenty of words per day (I shoot for a minimum of 3,000 words/day, spread out over various projects) and everything is on-track to hit deadline, I don’t worry overmuch how many minutes I spend on non-work-writing. But if my production slows, or I have something behind schedule, I get much more serious about making breaks short and infrequent. I try to get up and do something else for at least a few minutes every hour, but if the muse has me head-down writing for 3 hours, I don’t interrupt that process.

The Space

I have a dedicated work space–a home office I share with my wife. It has my laptop, my reference books, chargers for phones, a place for my cat to sit within-reach but off my desktop, a few hobby-related items, and that’s it. No television. No chairs other than the office chairs. There IS a window, because getting some natural light is helpful to me. No microwave. When I look around, I see only things related one way or another to my writing, and that’s a big help for me.

Putting It All Together

For example, I began this article on Friday the 25th, based on an idea from my idea file I got from a friend on social media. I didn’t get much more done than outlining some headers. I took runs at it again on the 26th and 27th, but kept both short because I had a past-due project I needed to turn in on the 28th. OTOH I also took time out on the 27th to spend time hanging out at a friend’s house, because I had been working all week and the next day was my birthday.

But that meant this wasn’t done today… and neither was the past-due project. But the past-due was ALMOST done, so finishing it clearly took priority. Then a quick break to spend a few minutes with my wife. Since it’s my birthday and I have a 3pm phone call that is industry-related, i WANTED to play a game for 15-20 minutes… but I couldn’t take the time for that when my Monday blog post wasn’t finished yet.

So this became the next major priority, and I hammered on it until it was done. Now I can take a break, and then start on the NEXT most-urgent thing on my list. 🙂

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Writing Basics: How Much Will You Make?

New freelancers often wonder how much money they can make writing tabletop game material (or editing, or art, though those are different fields than where my primary experience lies). They’ll ask how they get paid, maybe inquire about a per-word rate, or flat fee, and think they are done, But knowing the per-word rate of a project is the beginning of figuring out how much you’ll make doing it, not the end.

And let me start by saying not everyone cares how much they make, and not everyone is going to depend on this money for their livelihood even if they do, and none of that matters when discussing what is reasonable to pay. Work deserves to be compensated, and you deserve to know how hard you are working for the money you make.

I don’t know that there is an “industry standard” for tabletop RPG writing. At this point in my career I am usually writing for 10 cents/word or a goodly cut of all income from a project. Over the past 20 years I have written for as little as 1 cent/word (counting only things that were non-charity, paid projects), and as much as 35 cents/word, but those are both outliers. (Before that I once took a project for 0.1 cents/word… I didn’t know any better. And that’s not my worst experience, to boot.)

Most people I am willing to work with pay no less than 3 cents a word, even to new writers. So, for purposes of this article, that’s the number I am going to go with.

But even knowing a project pays ‘3 cents a word’ doesn’t tell you how much you are making, until you know how many words it is, and how long that will take you, how many revisions you’ll be asked to make, and how long you have to wait to get paid.

If you can do 2,000 words in a 2-hour evening run? That’s $30/hour.

If it’s 1,000 words over 4 hours? That’s $7.50/hour.

But if revisions take just as long as the writing? Your hourly rate just got cut in half. And you’ll likely be paying self-employment tax (in the U.S. anyway, basically another 15% cut out of your income), and you won’t get any benefits as you would for a full-time hourly staff job, and if you have to wait until it’s published to get paid you may miss out on the potential for months of interest (whether by putting it in savings or paying off a credit card cost), or both.

Some of those answers you won’t know until the project is done. You can ask a company if they expect to request revisions (and definitely check your contract to see if it asks for revisions), and you can ask other freelancers what their experience with that company is in that regard (and on other issues too — it’s worth knowing if a company has a reputation for paying late, or killing projects, or changing the remit partway through… if you can, find fellow freelancers you trust and talk to them). But ultimately, any given project may be the exception to the general rule.

It’s also worth finding out HOW you are getting the money. By check? By PayPal (in which case, is a fee coming out of it, and if so who is paying that fee?) By international wire transfer from a different currency? Find out, and get it in writing. It can make a huge difference, especially if different currencies get involved.

The math is even more variable for things that pay your a percentage, and there are even more elements that can change things. Is your percentage of the cover price, or the cut the publishing company gets? this is a huge difference. for example, if it’s a $5 pdf on DriveThruRPG, and you are getting 25%, you need to know if that is 25% of the $5 cover, or 25% of the $3.25 the publishing company gets after DriveThru takes their 35% cut? Also, are you being paid off gross (all the money that comes in) or net (the profit, after all other expenses are paid), or some hybrid number (such as all the money the company takes in for sale price, but none of the money it takes in for printing POD copies or for shipping)? Are you paid monthly? Quarterly? For the life of the product, or just for the first year of sales?

And it wouldn’t be fair not to mention here that some publishers, writers, and pundits think percentage payments are unethical. I’m not one of them, as long as the freelancer is well-informed when making their decision. But I WILL say that since a percentage asks the freelancer to take more of the risk on the project (since sales could be dismal), I recommend only taking a percentage that you believe, based on your own market research, will on average pay more than the flat rate you would accept for the project. I take percentage projects myself fairly often, but am most likely to do so when I have more creative control. If I pitched the idea, or I am developing it to my taste, or it’s a case where a publisher has told me they’ll pay me for anything I ant to write (rare, but it has happened from time to time in my career), I am more willing to take the risk with the publisher, as opposed to when I am given a hard outline and have fewer creative choices to give input on.

On the question of how fast you write, that answer may not be the same for you for every kind of project. I can write new rules content and essays (like this one) MUCH faster than I can write long adventures. Short adventures seem to be an average between those two. Worldbuilding varies for me wildly–sometimes the ideas and descriptions flow easily, and sometimes it’s a grind. And the better I know a game system, the easier and faster all the writing is for it.

You should also make sure you aren’t having to spend money in order to do the writing for a project. Nowadays every company I work with will at least give a freelancer free pdfs of their material that is related to a project. but for licensed properties, this isn’t always as clear. I have had licensed projects I worked on that required me to have some geek encyclopedia not published by the company I was working for, and which they could not get me free copies of. I always increased my asking price by the amount buying such things would cost me, or made sure they were things I could borrow off a friend, or get from the library. If there are free resources, such as fan wikis, make sure your publisher considers them authoritative before depending on them.

You also have t consider if your writing project requires you to do any non-writing work that doesn’t pay any extra above the per-word rate. It’s extremely common for adventure writers to have to do sketches of maps of the locations within their adventures. Not final cartography, but maps with enough detail that the cartographer doesn’t have to make any decisions when rendering final version. This generally doesn’t result in any additional pay above the per-word rate, so if it’s 3 cents per word for 10,000 words plus three full-page map sketches, you are doing more work for the money than if you got 3 cents per word for 10,000 words with no sketches. You may also have to provide an outline, or multiple outlines, which create additional words you are writing you don’t get directly paid for. If the outlines are part of your normal process of writing that’s fine, but if they aren’t be sure to think about how long they took you when considering how much you earned.

It’s much less common, but sometimes publishers also want writers to do interviews, blog posts, marketing text, and so on. Some of those things you may see as career opportunities (the publisher likely isn’t making any money off you doing an interview with someone, and it can be good for your own visibility), but it’s worth knowing if those things are optional opportunities for you, or considered mandatory part of your job, which you should then count against the time it takes you to earn that assignment’s money. (Of course you don’t count any promotion you arrange for and do on your own against the money the publisher pays you — that kind of self-promotion is just part of being an active freelancer.)

Only when you know how much money you’ll get, how long it’ll take to get it, how long it took you to write a draft, how long you spent on revisions or outlining or mapping or art orders, and how long any mandatory promotions you engage in took, can you figure out how many hours you spent earning your per-word, royalty, or flat rate. You may not want to bother to do this with every project, but it IS worth tracking from time to time so you know if there are things that earn you more per hour, even if they have a similar or lower rate for the whole project.

And, of course, when talking about how much you can earn as a freelancer on top of knowing how much you make per hour, you have to figure out how many hours you can spend on it in a month, and then if you can fill all those hours with work at a rate worth your time.

But those are sub-topics for another week.

Sponsored By: The Know Direction Network!

Like all my blog posts, this one is supported by the backers of my patreon! In this case this post is specifically sponsored by the fine folks at the Know Direction network, who have podcasts, articles, news, and convention recordings about the game industry and general, and Paizo, Pathfinder and Starfinder in particular! “Pathfinder News, Reviews, & Interviews!”

 

Career Planning. “Now What?” (Part Two)

I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few weeks ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this second post of two on Career Planning (you can read Part One here).

We covered step 1, process your new reality, and step 2, review. So that brings us to:

3. Look Forward

I often open advice sessions with other people with “Where do you want to be in two years?” It is, for me, a perfect amount of time. Far enough ahead that you can discount immediate but temporary inconveniences such as a sprained ankle or massive looming deadline, close enough that you can visualize the time between now and then. For other people different timeframes might make more sense, but my 5-year plans very rarely go anything like as planned, and when looking forward 6 months or less I am often skewed towards immediate issues that aren’t necessarily representative of what I am going to face in general.

So, where do *I* want to be in 2 years? As I make a list of those things I find, unsurprisingly, that a lot of them involve money.

And money involves a budget.

Budgeting isn’t any fun, but it’s a crucial part of a freelance career. If I am going to successfully reach any of my goals, many of which involve things like buying a house and paying off student loans, I have to be able to account for more than just my immediate bills. Freelancing if often filled with feast-or-famine incomes, where you get paid for several things over the course of 2-3 weeks, and then nothing to speak of over 2-3 months. It’s important to do more than just cover the rent and groceries. You need to be able to sock away for emergencies, long-term needs, even retirement.

That just isn’t likely to happen without a budget.

You also need to consider what skills and contacts you should improve to meet your two-year goal, whatever it is. Do you want to have a published novel? Then you better both be writing is NOW, and talking to anyone you can about how to get it published. Want to have your own game company? I recommend working as an assistant to someone else who has one, so you can learn the ins and outs by watching and helping, before you have to figure it out by doing.

The review is also the time to have an honest talk with yourself about what your weaknesses are. Are you bad at adventure writing? You can either plan to just avoid having to do that, or to get better at it, but you won’t know that’s something to take into account unless you are aware of it as a weakness.

You also need to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Impostor syndrome is rife in this industry… as is the Dunning–Kruger effect. Combating those in yourself is tricky–it’s always easier to see bias in others rather than yourself. I recommend both trying to describe how you would expect someone who gets the kind of work and responses you do objectively to see at least ho you are seen by others, and to ask people you trust who are more successful than you to give you their honest assessment of your pros and cons.

The whole point here is to be able to look forward from a grounded place of information about yourself. You don’t need to beat yourself up or gild your own laurels, but if you don’t have a rough grasp of where you ARE in your career, it’s very tough to plan a course forward.

It may be worth considering what kinds of jobs you have already done and think about which ones you’d like to do more of. My article “Developer? Designer? Who is the What Now?” may be helpful for thinking about different kinds of tasks within the writer end of the TTRPG industry. If you are more focused on art, editing, or business and planning, those are still useful distinctions to know, but you should consider what kinds of sub-divisions your own career has revealed.

Try to boil all your “looking forward” ideas in 3-5 bullet-points of 1-2 sentences each. If two bullet points look similar, see if you can blend them into one slightly broader bullet point.

My first run at that list of ideas looked like this. I offer it only as an example — your list should definitely look different, based on where your career is, and where you want it to go.

*Make enough money to cover more than just the necessities, including health care, buying a house, retirement planning, and the occasional vacation.
*Expand my professional skillset to be able to take advantage of any text-based or business-related aspect of the game industry, including working in different game systems,  being a manager, and overseeing licenses.
*Build my online and social media presence to make it easier to directly reach fans and potential employers, possibly including doing more videos, streaming games, and redesigning my website to be more modern.
*Build income streams separate from per-word writing, possibly including growing RGG, doing more royalty-based projects, and patron support (such as my Patreon, which supports this blog and gives me time to write things like this article-Join Now!)

Now that you have an idea of where you are, and where you want to go, it’s time to:

4. Make Plans

This is going to be one of the vaguest sections of this article, because your previous steps should already be leading you to a different destination than mine–possibly a different destination than I could even think of. So making plans to get you from where you are to where you want to go in your career should look very different than getting me where I want to go. But I do think there’s some high-level advice that can still be broadly useful for making plans.

The first is: schedule your time, then fill it.

It’s very temping to do this the other-way ’round: to find things to do, and then go looking for time to get it done in. And at a casual or hobby level, that’s fine. If you mostly want to just post a few articles on free sites and occasionally get paid for a bit of work that drops in your lap, you probably can just schedule things as they come along. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way–I strongly suspect more TTRPG words get written each year by people who enjoy it as a hobby than those who see it as a side-gig or want it to be a full-time career.

But in my experience, if you want to step beyond that, you’ll eventually need to do the hard work of carving out time from everything else, and then filling that time. If you don’t have enough work to fill the time you set aside? Then it’s time to use the spare time to work on some RPG Pitches. If you don’t have enough time set aside to do all the work you’ve gotten?

Then it’s time to take a hard look at whether you need to set aside more time, write faster, or work less. For any of those answers, you may end up trying to Survive on 5 Cents/Word (or Worse). Good luck, sincerely.

As you set aside time, make sure some of it is saved for making contacts, pitches, and seeking better opportunities, and that includes opportunities for self-improvement. Work and learning opportunities may just fall into your lap sometimes, but there’s almost always more work you can get if you go hunting for it, and that often includes better options. If you want regular income, for example, you may need a regular gig writing articles, or running a Patreon, or being a part-time contract employee of a game company. Some of those things you can set up yourself, but that takes time too.

This is often the hardest part of planning a career. While there are now formal education opportunities to get involved in gaming (and not all of them are focused on computer games, and many of the skills are fungible even so), nearly everything I know about being a game industry professional came from working with people smarter, more talented, and more experienced than I was. My time on-staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo taught me there is something I can learn from everybody in the industry, even people with much less experience than me. I needed to be open to the opportunities to learn from them, and that often required I take the time to consider why they wanted to do something differently than I planned to. Yes, deadlines are often tight and there is a time and a place to be a strong advocate for your own vision and experience, but never let that cheat you out of a chance to learn a new resource, skillset, hard-learned lesson, or even just a new point of view.

So, look not only at what work you can do, but what doing that work may mean in terms of advancing your career. There are people in this industry I will always work with if I can, because I always learn from them. I try to challenge myself to take on things that put me out of my comfort zone, and set aside extra time to get those uncomfortable things done.

Sometimes that means an opportunity doesn’t pan out, and that can be especially painful if you gave up something stable for it, and/or were depending on it for a major part of your income. It’s good to note these things (like in future rounds of processing and reviewing your new reality), but it’s not a reason to not try new things. You’ll need to balance potential risk with possible reward, and I can’t tell you how much risk to take for what reward level. Just be realistic with yourself, and never take a risk you can’t survive going badly if you don’t have to.

So, with those steps in mind, what am I looking at for plans to carry my career forward? I’m not going to go into ever deep detail, for obvious reasons, but I think it’d be a bit of a cheat not to wrap this up with some concrete examples of where this process has lead me. So:

I’m the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin. This is a part-time contract position, working with some of the smartest and most experienced people in the TTRPG industry, and it’s a stable source of some income every month. That hits a number of my goals, from working with new game systems to being around people who can help me be better at a wide range of TTRPG industry tasks. I’ll be looking for more similar opportunities, but I am super-stoked at making this part of my long-term success.

I’m focusing more on my Patreon, including posting a new goal promising videos and bonus content if it hits $1500/month. It was, to be honest, extremely scary for me to consider a $1500 goal, but my $700+ goal having been met, I have to take that risk. And if it turns out the public doesn’t want what I am offering for that level of patronage? I’ll re-assess, and try again. I see this as both a way to seek semi-regular income to help meet my financial goals, and to force me to learn and offer new things to stay connected and relevant to the ever-changing TTRPG market.

I’m setting aside more time for Rogue Genius Games. There are types of projects I have never dared tackle with my own little gaming company, and forcing myself to try them is another way to exp[and my skillset. And of course writing more of my own products also means having more royalty-based projects, which is a good way to build income streams that aren’t exclusively one-time per-word money.

Fiction. I am going to do it, this time. I am terrified.

More traditional freelance. I need the money in the short-term, and the contacts in the long-term. So I am throwing my doors open to new publishers, new projects, and new game systems. Time to prove I am more than a d20 game mechanic guy.

So, for the moment, in broad strokes, that’s it for me. I’ll compare my results to my needs and plans (especially my income vs my budget) every 90 days (and more frequently if things are obviously out of whack). And every 6 months or so, it’ll be time to do the whole process again — process, review, look forward, and plan.

It’s a never-ending process, but that’s okay. I never plan to stop having a career, so I can afford to take time to adjust and rethink as needed.

In fact, I can’t afford not to.

 

Writing Basics: The First Draft

Your first draft doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.

Yes, there’s a time and place where you need to be able to share your ideas with editors, developers, playtesters, and so on.

And, yes, it’s worth reading up on how other people draft and outline and process their work, to see if those techniques are useful to you.

But your FIRST draft doesn’t have to be anything more than a starting point. I, at least, never worry too much about what the final product is going to be when starting my first draft. I throw ideas at the page, and see what sticks. Often I have half-finished sentences I abandon because my brain finds something better.

Maybe you work that way. Maybe you don’t.

Just don’t let concern about your first draft being *right* sideline you from WRITING.

You can fix, change, revise anything you want in a second draft.

But only if the first draft happens.