Category Archives: Musings

Fantasy Idioms

One way to add a little flavor to a person, city, or culture is to add a few useful phrases that take the same kind of place as “Who benefits?” and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Even just one phrase, introduced as part of a philosophy or something that’ll come up throughout a plotline, can help drive home a feel for a region,

There’s no need to overdo these, but I often find dropping in one or two can really boost player interest in a representative of a foreign or alien group. Here are some examples.

Gold sheds no tears.

The poison proves the plot.

Which god is thus glorified?

All accounts shall be balanced.

An arrow cannot recognize a king.

It need not be a dragon to burn you.

All who had the power to stop this are guilty of it.

All jackals scavenge, but even lions accept a free meal.

Those who pay the minstrel are the first to hear the song. (Yep, it’s a Patreon reference, snuck in as content. Mea culpa.)

Story Time: F. Wesley Schneider

Since Wes is leaving Paizo for new adventures, I have concluded it’s Wes story time!

Mooncalf

The very first “Ecology of” article I got to write for Dragon Magazine was “Ecology of the Mooncalf” in #340. It was also one of the very first article I wrote with Wes as my contact person (maybe the second one I’d done for him). Wes told me by email we “might” have room from a short narrative introduction at the beginning of the article.

So I wrote a super-short short story introduction. I sent in the article, which began with about 500 words of fiction.

Wes sent me a very polite email to let me know that the article was great, but the intro was, it turned out, too long to fit. Knowing what I know now about Wes, I can tell he was just trying to let me down gently.

But at the time? I just figured I needed to trim it.

So I sent him a 350 word version.

Ah, replied Wes, politely. No, the article and art has pretty much filled the page. We couldn’t even fit in a 100-word intro.

STILL not getting the hint, I sent a trimmed-down, 75 word version.

Realizing he was dealing with an idiot, Wes just flat told me there wasn’t room for anything more than 25-30 words.
I sent him a 28-word version and, rather than continue to try to drive home to me that the article would not open with fiction, Wes just put it as a caption over the article’s art.

It read:
“Tonight I witnessed a dread omen—something foul descending through the nighttime skies as through from the moon itself.

–Galiel the Astrologer, The Last Journal of Galiel

Which I have come to realize, is MUCH more cool than the 500 word version.

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On Screwing Up

I screwed up recently (not a new or rare occurrence), which lead me to begin running down my mental checklist for how to handle that fact. I realized I’ve never talked about that checklist, and that lead to:

Screwing Up. Next Steps.    

Congratulations, you screwed up. Now what?

This is my general guide for when you screw up on what to do AFTER the screw up. It is born of my professional experiences in the game industry, and personal experiences as an uneducated depressive introvert with confrontation, communication, and time management problems.

In short this comes from a LOT of experience screwing up, but they are all a specific set of screw-ups. Your massive personal failures may vary, and I am not a trained or expert screw up therapist.

Step One: Accept and Acknowledge

These are two separate things, but they are pretty tightly linked. Let’s start with acceptance.

This is specifically a guide for when YOU have screwed up. Not when someone screwed something else up and you catch the blame, or when the universe screws things up and you have to find ways to fix it. The built-in framework here is for when, yeah, you screwed up.

So, you have to accept that.

Acceptance is important for a lot of reasons. First, without your own buy in that you screwed up, you won’t be able to internalize the lesson that screw up contains. Second, acting like you screwed up when you don’t believe you did leads to resentment, among other things.

I’m not here to tell you when you screwed up. Just to say you have to take a long, hard look at major failures, and decide if that’s your own fault. If no, then you need to manage the disaster with an eye towards those factors that DID cause it. But if you screwed up, you need to accept that fact.

Acknowledgement in this case means acknowledging the screw up to those effected. If you fail to do something you said you’d do, or do something that causes problems for others, you need to let them know that YOU know.

This isn’t the place for self-flagellation. The object here is not to garner sympathy, or make yourself feel worse, or make the people who are negatively impacted by your screw up feel worse. It’s just a heads-up that yes, there’s a problem, you caused it, and you know it. Doing this right is tricky. I find efforts to spin why or how you screwed up often get in the way of a clean and useful acknowledgement. Sometimes people need to know why or how, or ask for their own purposes, and that’s fine (if it’s not private, which it can be). But the idea in this acknowledgement isn’t to cover your ass against the consequences (but in some environments you might have to do that, and only you can make that call). The idea here is to bring the other people involved up to your level of information in a polite, professional, and straightforward way.

Step Two: Assess

Okay, this entire article assumes you have screwed up. That’s the premise. This is about finding out how BADLY you screwed up, and what led to the screw up.

Step two is really about baring down on step one as many times as you need to. I personally think accepting and acknowledging at least begin before assessing—admit you screwed up and let people know there’s an issue as soon as you are sure there is one. But right after that, figure out how big a problem you caused. If that calls for accepting that things are worse than you thought (or realizing it’s not that big a deal), and updating anyone else affected, then do that. You need the information to continue this checklist.

Step Three: Mitigate

Nope, the steps aren’t all A words.

Now that you have an idea how big a problem you caused and how you caused it, see if there’s anything reasonable you can do to fix it. What’s reasonable is going to vary, and I can’t really give you hard rules for that. Small problems, or screw ups that it is easier for someone else to fix, or screw ups so massive or personal that anything you try only makes things worse, certainly do happen. You need to see if you can fix it, and if not can you make things better, and if not what can you do to minimizing making things even worse.

Those are of course, all super vague. Lemme give some examples.

If you are working on a project for someone and you know for certain you are going to miss a deadline, you have likely screwed up. If you accept and acknowledge that fact, and assessed the screw up, you should have contacted the person you are to turn it over to and let them know you are going to miss the deadline.

The next question is, now what?

If you are only going to be a little late and the person you are working with can handle that, then mitigating is making sure you hit your new deadline. If you can’t finish the thing at all, you may need to figure out what you can do, and see if that’s helpful. And certainly, you don’t keep hiding or obfuscating that the project is going to be late in the hope you can finish it before you get pinned down. That’s not mitigation.

This may include some hard conversations with people you have let down. Again, straightforward and professional behavior is, in my experience, your best option. But you need to mitigate your screw up with appropriate levels of effort. Don’t cause more problems or become obsessed over the great lengths needed to fix a minor screw up. You can’t let even moderate screw ups take over your life. And if you can’t mitigate the damage you have done, you need to accept AND ACKNOWLEDGE for that too. People may be disappointed or even angry, but they deserve the truth.

Step Four: Learning

Most of my own screw up result from behavior I could have avoided if I had been smart or forethoughtful enough. As a result, after I realize I have screwed something up and done what I can to fix it, I want to examine what I did wrong. Making mistakes is human. Making the same mistake over and over is dumb.

Keep in mind, you often won’t get this right. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson away from an issue, or think your error was unique to a specific circumstance without recognize an underlying behavior that applies in a broader context than you think. Making a mistake about how you made a mistake is frustration, but it’s going to happen. So when you screw up, be sure to examine not only that specific calamity, but anything similar that you’ve screwed up before. In some cases, you’ll find you missed a larger lesson, and that’s your opportunity to finally learn it.

Take Away

None of this can fix the fact you screwed up, and while that’s unfortunate it’s also okay. Everyone screws up from time to time. Hopefully you’ll screw up less often than I do, and you won’t need a mental checklist of how to handle such situations. But because everyone screws up occasionally, I have found that when you tackle you own screw ups with honesty, clear communication, and an effort to fix both the issues you cause and the underlying problems that lead to the screw up, people are generally understanding. Not everyone, of course, but you can never control the behavior of other people. You can only control what you do, and imperfectly at that. Which is what makes handling your own screw ups in an adult and reasonable manner so important.

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Changing topics entirely, I want to let folks who haven;t read the end of one of my articles before know I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.

Empress of the Geeks Day and WorldCon 1984

Mother’s Day Story

Every year for the past many years, I have for Mother’s Day told a story about my mother, Empress of the Geeks. Most stories I have told more than once. About how she was a GM for a group of young boys not because she was a fan of RPGs, but because we wanted to play and no one else would run a game for us. About how she used those opportunities to sneak in educational missions at the end of each game, making us look up a definition of democracy to negotiate with lizardman tribes, or have to know all the States and their capitals to represent researching into ancient kingdoms.

Or the story of her saving Christmas by figuring out what to give an entitles little brat (that’s me) who refused to tell her what he wanted for Christmas other than “adventure.”

But I don’t think I have ever told the story of my mother and my first WorldCon.

I was introduced to D&D in 1982, and by 1984 I was buying D&D, Gamma World, Tunnels and Trolls, Arduin Grimoire, Boot Hill, Star Frontiers, Dragon Magazine, miniatures, dice, and so on. I was hooked.

My mother took me to my first science fiction convention in 1983. It was a tiny affair in my home town of Norman, OK. I’d guess attendance was 500 or so. It was a one-shot con that never took off.

And then in 1984, she took me to WorldCon, in Anaheim, CA. My sister didn’t want to go. My father didn’t want to go. But I did, and my mother did, and she set a financial goal for me (to be met mostly mowing yards, mostly for my grandparents) early in that year. I met it, and she booked flight and hotel rooms… and gave me half the money back as spending cash.

She set down ground rules… but they were amazingly lax given my age. And then she… trusted me.

This was a 4-day convention. Cell phones were not an option. I was barely a teenager. And she trusted me to set my own schedule, get my own meals, handle my money, and not do anything stupid.

Well, not do anything TOO stupid.

I listened to panels with Gordon R. Dickson and Jerry Pournelle. I shared a bus-ride to Disneyland with C.J. Cherryh. I saw Robert Heinlein. And I gamed.

Oh lord, how I gamed.

Homebrews. Boardgames. Card games. Miniature games. As I recall, my first introduction to Car Wars, Warhammer 40k, and Champions. I had my first TPK. I had my first game that ran past midnight. I played a Gamma World game where the PCs ended up going back in time, coming to the convention center, finding the room we were playing in and, under a cloak field, debated whether nor not to kill us, the players and GM, to prevent us from thinking up their cursed world—WHILE we roleplayed that event. And I won’t lie… at that age, with that much Mountain Dew in my system, at 2am… the idea my own PC was arguing to kill me freaked me right now.

I ordered my first steak dinner by myself. I took my first taxi ride by myself. I went to the release party for the last issue of the first series of ElfQuest comics, got into a drum circle, met an older girl, and had a puppy love weekend con romance with her as she made appointments to hit specific games with me.

I saw my mother every day, at least once. She made sure. She asked how I was doing, checked that I had money for food, made me tell her my approximate plans. We had a legal pad in the hotel room, and we each wrote down where we were going… at least roughly.

The freedom had a major impact on my ability to trust myself, and it all came from the fact my mother trusted me. But her main accomplishment in this regard wasn’t that weekend.

It came in the weeks and years before, when she raised me to be a child she felt she could trust. I didn’t make that easy. And I know she must have had reservations. In retrospect, I can see some of the slack-giving moments that came before, and at, that con.

And while yes, I did some stupid things, I survived just fine.

And it was a major watershed in my life.

And she made it all possible. She knew when to hold my hand… and when to let go.

Thanks, Mom.

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My mother’s also pretty pragmatic. She absolutely won’t mind that I use a story about her to boost my patreon, where you can support me in writing these stories, and my other geekly productions.

The Persistent Places in my Dreams

I have, since I was a child, had a few persistent places that show up repeatedly in my dreams.

So, I name them. To give me power over them.

Sadly several are where I have my worst nightmares. The Bad House. The Field of Discarded Things. Sometimes when I realize I am in one of these places in a dream, the name lets me identify it as unreal, and I can wake up. Some I have eliminated entirely, at least I think. I haven’t had a dream on the Storm Road in years.

Others are places where I have dreams that are more disturbing than frightening–rarely pleasant but not true nightmares. The Park Under the Moon. The Walking Garden.

But sometimes, and almost always only just before an alarm wakes me, I get to go to the Springlands.

And that makes the rest of it all worthwhile.

 

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The House the Jedi Bought

Storytime

Years and years ago, when applying for the mortgage on my previous house, the mortgage underwriters just kept not being sure that my 100% freelance income could be considered stable or reliable enough to give me a mortgage based on my previous decade of constantly having money and paying bills. This was exacerbated by the fact we had avoided debt, and thus avoided things like credit card and car payments that boost credit reports.

Our mortgage agent got increasingly frustrated (with the underwriters, not us), and after weeks of this back-and-forth, and asking for more documents, and unexpected delays, she just asked if I could provide ANYTHING else to suggest my freelance rpg career should be considered more than a hobby.

Flippantly, I said the underwriters could do a Google search on my name, with my middle initials included.

The mortgage agent raised an eyebrow, and I told her I was the first hit on Google with my full published name, and the first few results it would link me to official Star Wars products.

She did a search, sent an email to the underwriters, and we got approved within 24 hours.

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RPG Career Advice: Self Promotion

So… look. You have to promote yourself.

Yes, it’s a pain for a lot of people. And it can be uncomfortable or embarrassing, especially if you aren’t used to it. And doing it wrong can turn off some folks, especially early on, who may reply to your promotion with “Who the hell are you and why should I care?”

Those people are doing you a favor, though they don’t know it. They’re giving you a chance at more self-promotion.

Look, if you want an RPG career, you HAVE to self-promote. Because either you want other people to hire you to be part of their projects (in which case you need to get your name and work out there, so people know you are available to be hired and have some idea why they might want to hire you), OR you are doing your own projects (in which case you need to promote them, which if they are your projects is the same as promoting yourself).

Even if you currently have a stable industry job, you should promote yourself. This can increase your value to the company, increase the company’s awareness of your value, and give you options if a meteor strike that company and suddenly you don’t work there anymore.

I am not a social media guru or an example of vast success or riches, so take all my suggestions with a grain of salt. But I had significant problems with self-promotion for years, and these ideas are how I (partially) overcame them.

1. Promote Everyone Else

“Hey, I got to work on this neat project with Awesome Designer and Amazing Editor! They’re doing fantastic work, and I can’t wait to see the end project!”
“Neat Folks have a new Kickstarter, and it looks great to me! Check it out!”

Often the easiest ways to self-promote is to insert your promotion as part of promoting other people, and to simply talk about the things you find exciting even if you aren’t involved with them. Doing these things still puts your name out there, and when you promote other people you encourage them to promote you in return. For introverts, this can be much easier than talking up your own part in projects.

2. Just Do Stuff

Self-promotion doesn’t have to be about saying how great you are. If you put out a new short story, or a cool story hook, or a single feat designed to allow halfling war-bakers make potions out of muffins, you can just put it out, link to it, and make sure your name is easily associated with it.

One of the reason my blog is OwenKCStephens.com is that anything I put on there is easily tied to me.
One of the reasons I put a lot of stuff on there is so people see my name, associated with things they might like.
Creation is promotion, as long as you give everyone involved credit.

3. Have a Way to be Contacted

My email is not hard to find. I let everyone ping me on Facebook. My Facebook and Twitter accounts are linked from my blog. I have a Paizo.com account that accepts private messages. If you want to get in touch with me, it’s easy.
Now, there are good and reasonable circumstances that might make any or all of those a bad idea for the security, safety, or sanity of someone other than me. But whatever method you choose, from a specific work-related email to a forum you can moderate yourself, if you want work in the industry, you need to make sure people know how to get hold of you.

4. If You Mention It, Make It Easy to Find

I have a Patreon campaign. And now, just by linking it, I have made it easy for anyone who wants to give me as little as $1-$3 a month to support these blog posts to do that.

I have both made my point, and self-promoted.

If a project of yours gets a review, link to it in a way that makes it easy to find both the review and a way to buy the product. Endzeitgeist, for example, links to where you can buy the products he reviews when he posts them on his website. That encourages me to use the links to his site when i mention the review, since people can then click-through and buy my stuff. Because he promoted me, I promote him.

If you are excited by your new project, link to where people can find more ifnrmation on it. That increases the chances people will get excited about it, and that helps drive that they found this neat thing because you mentioned it.

If you are going to go to all the effort to promote that you work for multiple companies (such as Paizo, Green Ronin, Rite Publishing, and Rogue Genius Games), promote that fact in a way that helps drive traffic to them.

Readers and fans and customers are often lazy. Make it as easy as possible for them to give you money, follow your posts, or read your thoughts.

You Can’t let the Whole World be Your Job

This is something it took me a long time to figure out as a freelance writer and developer, and it’s a mistake I still make much too often.

You can’t let the whole world be your job.

What I mean by that is you can’t allow every place, every time, and every contact to be work-related. Yes, you may be someone who gets freelance work done at 7am, 9pm, or 3 am depending on how your insomnia impacts you. But you can’t let your expectation be that you should be working at all those times.

Similarly you may well need to have your home workspace overlap with your personal space (though the tax benefits of a home office are not to be underestimated), but you can’t allow ALL your home space to be a place where work often gets done.

It’s great to have friends in the industry… but you need to have conversations and activities and interactions with them beyond things you do for your career.

The reasons for needed to at the very least carve out SOME time and space that is kept separate from work concerns are many and varied, but they can be boiled down to one basic idea.

Sometimes you don’t want to go to work.

Now, whether you can spare the time off, get vacation time, can take a mental health day, or need to play hooky is beyond the scope of this article. The important thing is, if you don’t want to go to work, and you have allowed your entire life to be defined primarily by your work, then you don’t want to get up and engage with life.

And that’s a problem.

Burnout, depression, imposter syndrome, introversion, and even panic attacks are not uncommon in creative writing careers. To survive, you need to know there is a way to exist outside your job.

Yes, your email may be ubiquitous, and your editors may always have a question, or a panicked demand, asking about changes, availability, late projects, and so on. But you can decide there are hours when that isn’t your problem. Time when, even if everything is on fire, you get to read a book, or sit on the balcony and listen to the rain. Whatever works for you.

I can’t tell you how to achieve work/life balance. There’s no magic number of hours per day, or per week, you need to take away from being “on call” to your career. But you need to know you CAN take time away. Subconsciously, your brain needs to be able to grasp the idea that after this project, this crunch time, this weekend, you have a place you CAN get away.

Because, to quote one of my editors, you are no use to anyone dead.

Speaking of My Career

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Anniversary of Upheaval

Lj and I arrived in the Great Northwest three years ago, today.

We are on our second apartment, our second vehicle, our second AFK, but still the same core jobs and circle of friends, which in many ways are the important bits. I saw core jobs because Lj lost her full-time gig 6 or so months after we moved, and switched to doing RGG bookkeeping and freelance layout full time, and I  have become the project manager at Rite since then. We have had two dear friends move nearby, lost another dear friend, and in many ways I still feel like we are finding our feet.

The only things I miss from our lives in Norman, Oklahoma are a few people, a few restaurants… and certainty.

We knew, in broad terms, what every week, every holiday, and every season would bring. We had strong, long-established social systems that had gone on without major change for decades. Progress was difficult, but so was confusion. Our lives were a known factor, though it was kept at a set level we didn’t seem to be able to rise above.

There are many ways in which we have adjusted. We know more people, have local connections, and get invited to many more things. There are ways in which we haven’t. It turns out 20 years of freelance game writing habits don’t die easily, and I still get grumpy when I can’t take a nap in the middle of a workday at the office. But I AM adjusting.

When we first arrived out here, we also both started getting sick a lot. In 2016 alone I had two trips to the ER and nearly a dozen to urgent care, on top of regular doctor visits. But the last of those was last August, and I haven’t had a major illness since.

This move was a huge step outside of our comfort zone. We sold our house, the majority of our possessions,  and moved away from our most solid core of close family and friends. I’d lived in Norman for 43 or 44 years before I left. That one year exception was 2000-2001, when I was hired by WotC to work on the Star Wars game and that was still what I  was doing when they laid me off 14 months later.

Now I’ve been working for Paizo for 36 months. I began as the developer in charge of the module line, then transitioned over to the Player Companions, and then got to be one of the Design Leads for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. I have grown quite a bit as a game developer and designer in three years, and these are opportunities I would not have had back in Oklahoma.  We have also made some awesome new friends, strengthened existing friendships, and just barely begun to build some social momentum again.

I mentioned to my wife just yesterday that I haven’t adjusted yet. she snorted and pointed out it’s been three years. She’s right… but so am I. Not quickly do I become comfortable in a new environment.

Despite that, and seeing the financial and psychological havoc it’s played with our long-term plans, I am a bit amazed we took this huge leap. In many ways that’s not our style. But I continue to be convinced that this was a good move for me and my wife.

Being me, I also worry about it a lot. 🙂

Huge thanks to everyone who has pitched in, invited us over, helped out, and just shared a smile now and then to the transplants from OK.

ALSO

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Dystopian Factions: The Prags

These aren’t “for” anything yet, though I might incorporate them into some kind of Starfinder product at some point.

Prags

The Prags, or Pragmatics, believe that whatever produces the best end result, as defined by the self, is morally good. They consider ethics, philosophy, and religion to be flawed, though not useless, methods to measure how a given action will be viewed by individuals other than the self, which can be useful when determining if an otherwise-useful act carries too great a risk of backlash by those it does not benefit, reducing its value to the self.

Prags often support public governments and policies that support the poor and disabled, on the theory that it is impossible to know if the self will suffer some loss, and creating a safety net gives the Prags the opportunities to take greater risks to improve their own situation, knowing that failure will be mitigates by social programs. They rarely support anything designed only to benefit a specific ethnic group or class, because that either doesn’t apply to them if they are not part of the group, or it risks resentment to the entire class if the Prags are part of the group.

In personal interactions Prags strive to develop loyal friends and trustworthy reputations, as these things have proven long-term benefits. However Prags also openly admit they have an eye out for the U-B, or Ultimate Benefit, a thing that grants the self such an advantage that betrayal of ally and reputation is an acceptable cost to pay for it.

While it is clear that Prag belief in the potential of a U-B makes their allies slightly nervous, Prags see this as a benefit as well. An ally you are entirely loyal to is of more value if that ally is also aware that if the alliance proves to have much less value than expected, it may be suddenly and mercilessly jettisoned. This encourages allies to also keep a watchful eye on how much they consider a Prag’s benefits and needs. Many Prags also claim the the U-B is a theoretical construct — since it is impossible to know the total benefit gained by a complete betrayal until the betrayal is irreversible, some Prags claim no U-B could ever be so obviously worthwhile as to justify such a betrayal as pragmatic.

Such Prags often then wink.

Prags near the end of their lifespan, or stricken with an incurable disease, often arrange for a single final enjoyable event, which culminates in their suicide, to ensure their quality of life does not decline any further.

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