Category Archives: Musings

On Being A Freelance Content Provider

I have often described my freelancing career as being a “Content Provider.” Because for some of the things I have written for 1 to 29 cents/word, “writer” sounds too pretentious. My job is to give the people paying the bill the content they want/need, not to create my vision of high art and argue with the client that they should appreciate it.

Now, that doesn’t mean I keep my opinion on what is good a secret. When someone is paying me a contract rate to give my best effort, that includes letting them know when I think they are wrong on something. And I do–once per wrongness. After that, I give them their money’s worth with my best efforts applied to the way they want it done.

Writing exclusively the way I think it should be done is reserved for when I am in charge of the project, and even then I keep an eagle eye on whether I’m the one out of step with the target audience. Generally speaking I am working with smart, experienced people. I don’t want to dismiss their opinions even if the ultimate call is mine. And, to be clear, that is very much the exception in this business.

Obviously there’s an exception if I feel the content I am being asked for violates my ethics or is damaging for me to work on. That’s happened maybe once over 20 years, but I certainly have decline jobs for fear one of those two things would be true. And in that case, it’s time to refund any monies paid, apologize, and move on.

And as I noted this is for freelance contract work. If I am a staff writer or the publisher, my relationship, and responsibilities to my employer, changes.

So I don’t think anyone should be burning bridges or tearing their hair out over disagreeing with what the best game mechanic or writing style is with freelance writing. I DO think a polite note on when you think your idea is better (along with acknowledgement you are happy to do it there way if they don’t agree) is worthwhile.

But at least in my case after that? You provide the desired content.

Patreon

If you enjoy my posts on working in the game industry, please consider supporting my writing by become a patron!

Advertisements

In The Long Run, Is The Real Money in the Games Industry Not Going to Come From Making The Games?

Gridiron football grew out of older games, and became a hobby sport. At that point, the money in the game was in producing the materials (equipment) for it, and to a lesser extent selling books with the rules.

Now, far more people watch football than play it, and the money is made by forming professional-level exhibitions and controlling the viewing of such, and related licensing. Making generic football equipment and rulebooks for it is a far, far less lucrative business.

This may just be the natural progression for all games.

In which case, adventure game companies are looking at the hobby they largely created giving someone else most of the money generated by the game.

(And hey, speaking of making money elsewise, please sign up to my Patreon so I can afford to keep making posts like this!)

Responding as a Professional in Public

A lot of creatives are very engaged with the public nowadays, myself included (to the degree I can manage it). That can have lots of rewarding interactions, but it can also lead to people giving you very public feedback. That feedback may be valuable to your work, or it may miss the point entirely, or it may actually cause you problems in being seen as open, or competent, or paying attention. If you want to be a public professional creative, in my opinion you need to respond to your viewer’s feedback professionally.

And here, I am specifically talking about responding to true feedback. If someone is trying to threaten you, or your right to exist, or your livelihood in a comment disguised as feedback, you are in a much more serious situation that’s flatly outside the scope of this essay—take steps appropriate to their intent, not steps designed to respond to a normal comment that’s well within the reasonable back-and-forth of the public creative.

My most recent public feedback? So, my mother (Empress of the Geeks) called me out on twitter about my Laser Dress design. “If laser dresses are weapons. aren’t they forbidden at all important (diplomatic etc) parties? What use is that?”

First, let me say how much I love that I live a life where I can do a fairly silly, opening-of-an-80’s-animated-series-inspired, a co-worker threw the idea over a cubical wall and I ran with it, off-the-cuff design for a piece of armed formalwear for a roleplaying game… and my mother can (and will) critique it online. Most of my fellow game designers have to mourn that their families don’t really get RPGs, or what they do for a living. My mother’s connected enough to tell me if she thinks I’ve missed a bet. ❤

Regardless, that’s feedback in a public venue. Now, how to respond?

First, personally, I believe in staying polite. Don’t ever be the one to escalate, it doesn’t help anything. If you think someone isn’t worth responding to, just don’t respond to them. You can try ignoring them – most people lack the time to hunt down and pester every creative they question, so this often works. However, it’s not universally effective. If you feel you need to be clear you are disengaging, I recommend not beating around the bush but not being rude. “I appreciate the question, but that’s not something I am going to go into.” or “That’s outside the scope I of what I want to get into.” Have both worked pretty well for me. The point is to be clear to someone who doesn’t want to let something go that you don’t want to get into—just tell them you don’t want to get into it. They don’t get to decide what conversations you have unless they are paying you directly under some kind of contract. (And no, buying your stuff doesn’t count for this purpose—they are a customer, not an employer.)

In this case, I’m happy to engage and respond with my mother, so I wrote a response.

“First, that assumes that they aren’t designed for diplomatic parties among races where going unarmed would be an insult. Judge not aliens by our own cultural norms, Mom. :)”

So let’s be clear, my mother has a point. The main reason I didn’t address her point in the original write-up is that it’s as much a joke as it is a serious piece of equipment… and my mother isn’t the right audience for that joke. But I did go to all the trouble of writing it up as useable equipment so… why? Why did I bother?

My unofficial material for Starfinder is very much third-party publisher material, and in general I trust GMs to figure out what they want to use that material for. Maybe laser dresses are rare, and no one normally knows what they are. Of course if that’s the idea, the rules should have covered how to identify them, so listing that invites a further debate, which isn’t what I am looking to do here. I want to respond, in an engaging and friendly way, without leaving a huge opening for other people to jump into.

Now, in this case I have an advantage of knowing my audience. She raised me, after all, and introduced me to science fiction (and fandom, and cons, and her brother introduced me to RPGs, and she was my DM for many years when I was a kid – we’re a pretty geeky family). So I know she’s read a ton of classic science fiction, which often asks questions like, “what would it be like if an alien culture was radically different than our own?”

So, I can use that to craft a response that notes she has a point (“Yeah, laser dresses aren’t going to be legal in most high-end parties based on our culture”), while pointing out that doesn’t mean it’s not a reasonable item (“Starfinder is set in a whole galaxy of adventure—there are tons of cultures not based on ours!”).

But, I made a mistake.

It being my mother, I ripped off a response on-the-quick, and didn’t think about it again until this morning. When I re-read it, it felt… a tad patronizing. I didn’t INTEND to be patronizing, but the tone and wording are more dismissive than I meant them to be. And that’s one of the risks of communications online. All you have is the words, cold and hard on the screen, and missed tone is all too easy. I included a smiley face, which has become the punctuation of emotion in e-missives, but I don’t think that’s good enough. I should have carefully reread my repost, as I often do when talking to new folks, and made sure the tone was friendly and polite.

Sorry, mom. I’ll try to do better. 🙂

Speaking of Being a Professional: Patreon!

I have a Patreon, and if you join you can help get me the time to write and post my thoughts on being a professional creative!

Sometimes It’s a Hobby. It’s Always a Job.

I have spoken to many creatives about how they interact with the media they create for, and gotten a lot of different responses. Many novelists have told me they can’t help but dissect the story elements of all fiction they absorb, and the word structure of everything they read. They can’t help themselves, and it makes the process of enjoying fiction different. Not necessarily worse, but different. On the other hand, some have a specific type of fiction or writing they carefully keep separate from their professional analysis, such as romance novels, or pulp adventure, or biographies, so they have something they can enjoy without feeling like it’s work.

But even then, they confess, it’s always a little bit work.

I’ve had the privilege to talk to more than one movie and television screenwriter. Most of them seem to have a different process—they try to be in the moment the first time they watch anything, with just a running checklist of the moments that get a big reaction from them. It’s later that they break things down for analysis. The second viewing. The fourth. The twentieth.

I found myself thinking about that a lot when I was going frame-by-frame through Star Wars space battle scenes, looking to see if there was any starship that had never received game stats before, in any video game, board game, RPG, card game, or miniatures game. I was not, at that moment, enjoying Star Wars. I was far from my hobby, while staring elements of it in the face.

Some game designers I know can’t play the games they work on. It’s always workfor them, even if they are surrounded by friends and laughing and bouncing dice. The rules and layout and themes have come to be associated with their career and employment to a degree they can’t let go, relax, and enjoy themselves. Other game designers (myself included) have a hard time imagining working on a game they don’t play. I certainly have written for games I didn’t particularly enjoy, but even then having a real-world feel for how the elements all came together was crucial to my understanding of how to expand, adjust, or develop the game.

Ideally, I DO like the games I’m working on. And thankfully, that’s usually the case. And yes, I have a constant background awareness that the things I am learning have a relevance beyond me having a good time. They are a form of professional development, and that changes how I respond to them, and sometimes even how I interact with the players around me. Especially just after a game, I sometimes want to know why people did what they did, because I want to understand how THEY are interacting with the game.

But for me, it’s when I am playing a game I’m NOT working on I find myself the most in my job-headspace rather than my hobby-headspace. That lessens significantly once I am familiar with a game, but whenever it has a new twist or interaction, I’m right back to analyzing it for it’s engine, rather than enjoying the ride.

That fine, honestly. I was analyzing game mechanics long before it was my job. Indeed, it largely became my job because it was such an all-consuming hobby for me. While my friends and class mates were learning life skills, I was learning when a die pool could accidentally make massive failure more likely for highly skilled characters that got more dice.

In the end they had saleable talents and experiences, and I had Dragon magazine articles.

I DO think it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t make your whole life your job. And over twenty years of having a professional game design career, I have tried to distinguish between leisure writing and creative writing. On the other hand since I support myself and my family with the work of creating games, I am well aware it’s never just a game when it’s your career.

Since I am generally creating entire fictional universes for people to play in, my job touches on all the geek media I can get my hands on. Popular tropes, characters and ideas people may want to model, and things I might accidentally duplicate in parallel development are all things I need to be aware of, and that touches on everything I consume in all aspects of my leisure time.

Sometimes it’s a hobby. But it’s always a job.

And Patreon is part of My Job

Or at least, an important part of my career. If you find any of my posts useful, be they game industry essays, game material, or just assorting musings, please consider supporting their creation by becoming a patron.

Working Sick

Generally speaking as a writer, if you get a cold, or get the flu, you write as you are able while sick, and depend on being able to catch up in a crunch when you;re better to still hit deadlines.

If you’re going to be sick for longer than a few days or a week, things change.

I have a medical issue causing severe fatigue. We know at least part of what is going on, but don’t know yet if we have identified the root cause, or just found a symptom of something more serious. And, it may be months before the testing finds a conclusive answer to that question.

And that means, I have to consider how I am going to manage if my energy levels crashed for weeks, or months to come.

I have, for the past month or so, been more exhausted every day than the day before. Since the issue causing my fatigue is at least potentially progressive, I began to despair that I was on a downward arc that might actually incapacitate me sometime before it gets addressed up to 3-4 months from now.

Of course I *also* had two conventions nearly back-to-back in the past month, and am under pressure from a number of major deadlines. That can be exhausting under the best of circumstances.

So I have maintain the best self-care I could, and attempted to employ new coping techniques suggested by some research.

Today, for the first time in 4 or 5 weeks, I’m not immediately more fatigued than I was yesterday. Indeed, I haven’t been this functional for a week or more.

Any medical condition is likely to have ups and downs so I don’t plan to read too much into this, but it’s nice that I might not exclusively be looking at a downward spiral for personal energy.

That said, as I know out short- and mid-term projects, I’m not replacing them with anything. Hopefully that’ll leave me with time and energy to tackle my long-term things (especially those that are months behind schedule) even if my energy level doesn’t recover any more than this in the foreseeable future.

That’s the only way I can see to keep my career on-track, and not let down anyone who is depending on me.

And I’ll monitor my progress, both medical and wordcount-wise, and see if the steps I’m taking are good enough. If not, I may begin to consider backing out of some long-term commitments, as much as I hate doing that.

We’ll see.

No Convention Owes Me Anything

No convention owes me anything unless I pay them cash for it.

I am not owed any specific person be selected to be a speaker until they are announced as such. I am not owed any specific theme or topic or program track, unless they’ve already been announced (AND I’ve bought a membership on that basis).

I am not owed a guest spot. Not the platform, not the increased awareness, and absolutely not a free membership, or room, or transport.

Many conventions *have* offered me such things, but the only one to ever do so *twice* was SoonerCon, and even they have never offered to fly me out or put my up in a hotel.

And if some convention that has limited slots selects someone I consider less qualified than me to speak on their theme or topic (or less qualified than my close circle of friends, colleagues, and pro-crushes)… then they still don’t owe me anything.

A convention is never going to be an absolute arbiter of who is “best” at anything. Their main goal is to have interesting guests who will encourage people to come and listen, and talk about their choice (to reach others who will come and listen, even if the original commentator won’t).

And if they only picked the “most qualified” every year… then we’d hear the same voices over and over and over.

That’s boring. Screw that.

Further, if a convention makes a selection I think is under-qualified… I would consider it the height of unprofessionalism to bitch about it. I am, by definition, biased if I think anyone I like better is a better choice; and likely not qualified to have an opinion if there *isn’t* anyone I like I think is more qualified.

That’s just shitty gatekeeping, and it helps nothing.

If you feel someone is dangerous, including the kinds of dangerous that being racist or bigoted or someone who makes threats qualifies as, that’s a totally unrelated issue to this.

Beyond that, celebrate those who have gotten one of the tiny motes of recognition this industry offers. Tearing them down (and suggesting they don’t *deserve* their guest spot is both tearing them down and insulting them) is shitty.

Besides, they are obviously more qualified than you in at least one way.

They lead their career in such a way as to get the invitation.

In Seattle. Sleepless.

“So, Owen, what DO you do if you seriously need rest to fulfill your professional obligations, such as an early morning at PaizoCon, but your insomnia kicks in?”
I’m so glad you asked!
I have numerous mechanisms designed to help me cope. One is to get up and do something uninteresting for 30 minutes. this increases the chance I’ll go back to sleep (rather than watching anime, or writing on a project that excites me, which is likely to make me even more awake).
Drink some water or a bout a cup of cold milk. Spend 5-10 minutes being restful and aware of my surroundings.
Then I change the conditions I am trying to sleep in. If I am using white noise, I alter what it is. If I have a nightlight, I turn it off, or use a different one. Anything to trick my brain into thinking it’s a different night and a different bed. (If a different bed is actually an option, I sometimes take that.)
Then, it’s time to try to sleep again.
If about two cycles of that still doesn’t do it, (or three or four if I have more time) I “give up.” If I can manage it, I stay in bed and rest, because quiet rest can leave me in better shape than being twitchy all night, even if I get no sleep. If that’s psychologically off the table, I get up, shower, dress, and begin my day.
“So, do you find writing about not sleeping boring? Because, it’s almost midnight, and you need to be up early…”
Nope, this definitely qualifies as too interesting for my above coping mechanisms. But sometimes I need to do some therapeutic writing to quiet my mind enough to try the other stuff.
And this has been that writing.
Now, to pull up a waterfall video on my cell phone…

Sick and Tired of Being Tired, But At Least I’m Not That Sick

For a couple of weeks now, I have dealt with the specter of possibly having cancer hanging over my head.
To cut to the chase—that doesn’t seem to be the case. Thank goodness.
The full version of the story isn’t a whole lot longer.

But please, only read this if you can resist giving me any medical advice. I have a good relationship with my medical team and a few folks I turn to if I need advice. I prefer not to get advice from the general public, and ask you not offer me any.

For months now, I’ve had much less energy than normal. Given the number of enormous projects and drains on my serenity I’ve had in the past couple of years—from helping design the Starfinder RPG to moving to overextending myself on other game-industry matters—for quite some time I assumed I was just exhausted.

But when that didn’t seem to be getting better, I decided to talk to my doctor about it, and that brought on a series of tests.

One of those tests did point to a potential cause… which can itself be a sign of cancer. So, that lead to a whole new round of tests.

These tests are, apparently, not completely definitive. There isn’t an absolute yes/no about having cancer of the type I might have had. But all the test results are giving the results you’d most likely expect if there was no cancer. Having no other symptoms, that’s what we are assuming for now, though it’ll change the context with which we’d look at certain other changes should they come along.

Now, I can see about trying to fix the energy level thing with my doctor. That’s still going to take some more tests and maybe trial-and-error, but it’s still ncie to be at the stage that largely rules out worse possibilities.

On Playing Games With Strangers

I’m at a gaming convention this weekend, and that means I have played a bunch of games with total strangers. Nor were all of them any form of D20 game, or even RPGs. I played, and observed the play, of a broad range of people of different ages and backgrounds.

It was exhausting, but also amazing.

I think it’s really important for game designers to play games with people they don’t know at all, outside of a formal playtest, at least from time to time. Especially in a “fellow player” capacity, where you aren’t the facilitator or teacher of the game. You can learn things it’s hard to pick up with this kind of empirical experience.

This weekend, I have been reminded that if you have a game that *ever* requires someone to add three numbers, and the sum is going to be a double digit or higher number, there’s a segment of competent, reasonable adults you are excluding. Those people will never, ever, enjoy any activity that has that basic level of math as a requirement. And the more often you require that in the game, the bigger that segment of people is.

That doesn’t mean no game should do that math. It’s okay for a game not to be for everyone.

But it’s important to remember that our individual experiences and preferences are far, far from universal.

As a game design, I am adding “Play Games With Strangers” as one of the critical activities I need to make sure I engage in from time to time.

I ALSO have a list that tells me to Boost My Patreon” fairly regularly, so…
Support My Patreon!

36 Years of Thought on Alignment in 500 Words

So, here is my entirely personal and unofficial guideline to alignment, based not on any one game system within the D&D/D20 lineage, but my opinions evolving over 36 years of playing in games with systems using Lawful, Chaotic, Neutral, Good, and Evil to make 9 alignments.

Lawful characters believe orderly systems are most likely to achieve their goals and be most effective overall, and consider the faults of orderly systems to be more acceptable compared to the dangers of a system that is too lose and disorganized. They fear anarchy more than tyranny.

Chaotic characters believe loose, adaptable systems are most likely to achieve their goals and be most effective overall, and consider the faults of loose systems to be more acceptable compared to the dangers of a system that is too strict and rigid. They fear tyranny more than anarchy.

Characters who are neutral rather than Lawful or Chaotic see strengths and weaknesses to both ways of doing things, and tend to work with whatever seems best on a case by case.

Good characters are willing to suffer to save others from suffering, and generally think most people should feel the same way at least to some degree (and that those that don’t are amoral).

Evil characters are willing to make others suffer to avoid suffering themselves, and generally think most people should feel the same way (and that those who don’t are stupid).

Characters neutral rather than Good or Evil would rather no one suffer to save someone else from suffering, and think both extremes are based more on dogma or emotion than rationality or realism.

True Neutral characters either don’t have strong opinion on any of this, or actively strive towards a cosmic balance.

For characters without some supernatural element to their alignment, these are trends, not absolutes. A lawful good character can generally believe that orderly systems are the most effective and that everyone should be willing to suffer to prevent the suffering of others, but still have a prejudice against orcs and think laws protecting orcs are wrongheaded. They are, in those moments, neither lawful nor good, but as long as those moments are not common or major (or cause the character to act in a way majorly at odds with their alignment), that’s an aberration, rather than something that automatically changes their alignment.

Characters with supernatural alignment elements still feel the same way as those without, but as a result of their very essential nature rather than merely their experience and opinions.

And in the short form, that’s it. It’s a set of tendencies that express your characters attitudes and methodology in the broadest of terms. Except where constrained by class, a character that is 51% lawful and 49% chaotic can be described as of lawful alignment (as can a character that is 34% lawful, 33% on the fence, and 33% chaotic). Characters are not assumed to be paragons of one of nine possible ethos descriptions, just trending toward one of them.

Patreon

As always my posts are made possible by the support of my Patreon backers. Please consider joining them!

A Post Script

I have never understood wanting to use game rules to claim a fictional reality must conform to some very narrow view of how it’s cosmology or physics “work” because of how the game rules are written.,

Yes, those are the mechanism we use to have fictional characters interact with a fictional world. But the game rules are always a simplified expression of the complexity of a whole reality, even an imaginary one.

No one claims that in a d20 game, science will have determined that every creature in existence can only increase in lifting capacity by certain quanta of increased weight, even though by the game rules that’s true–when you go from a 17 Strength to an 18 your lifting capacity jumps by a set amount which is the same for everyone. But we all know that’s a granular simplification in order to have a playable game.

The same is true of absolutely every aspect of an RPG, from economy to ability scores to alignment to skills. Including alignment.