Category Archives: Musings

Fire Elementals Shouldn’t Be Immune to Fire

In a lot of ttRPGs, a whole slew of creatures are immune to fire damage. Most commonly, demons/devils, and things from the elemental plane of fire.

The logic goes, demons and devils live in some kind of fiery hell. But most fantasy mythologies have them put there as punishment. Why put them someplace they are immune to?

Similarly, a fire elemental is said to be immune to fire because is it made of fire. But I’m made of flesh and bone, and a leather-wrapped femur slapped upside my head damages me just fine. Slap me with a side of beef and I show no sign of being immune to it.

Now, you DO want these creatures to be able to exist in their environments, but that need not make them immune to a common form of damage, and classically one of the things you CAN use against monsters in fantasy fiction. Demons and devil may be immune to being destroyed in Hell because they are immortal spirits, but they can still burn and suffer, making their existence damnation, Fire elementals can be given an ability to see the routes through the plane of fire, escaping burning not because they are made of fire, but because they are adapted to their environment.

So, since people aren’t immune to damage from being hit by the things they are made of:

Fire elementals should not be immune to fire.

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Guest Blog: Alex Augunas Talks Breaking In to the ttRPG Industry

Heya folks!

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Alex Augunas, a friend and business partner of mine, and talks about how he broke into ttRPG writing, and eventually publishing.

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

Hello, I’m Alex Augunas. You might know me as Alexander Augunas, the Know Direction Network’s Everyman Gamer and the voice of Xvi on Stellar, a Starfinder Actual Play Podcast. Or Alexander Augunas, a Paizo freelance author responsible for creating insane amounts of content in various Core Rulebooks, Player Companions, Organized Play scenarios, and more. Maybe Alexander Augunas, owner of Everybody Games LLC. Probably Alexander Augunas, “That guy who likes foxes too much.”

Owen and I have been friends for a long time. While everyone who is even remotely in a sector of the Tabletop RPG Industry that’s adjacent to 3.5 D&D knows Owen K.C. Stephens, I think we first met professionally in when he first took over Paizo’s Player Companion with Monster Summoner’s Handbook. At the time, Patrick Renie had just left Paizo, leaving Owen to transition over from being in charge of the old Pathfinder Modules line to the Pathfinder Player Companion line, and he liked my spell work in Monster Summoner’s Handbook so we started working together more closely. (I’m the madlad who wrote the spell that lets you blow up your summoned monsters from that book.) That ended up leading me to getting an offer from Owen to work on the Weaponmaster’s Handbook alongside David N. Ross, and Paizo fans adored my advanced armor trainings so much that whenever Owen needed someone to write some wild and brand-new alternate class feature for Pathfinder 1E, he often had me do it. I penned the only bloodline mutations for sorcerers and bloodragers, advanced versatile performances for bards, advanced armor trainings for fighters, and a few things I’m probably forgetting. Then when Owen transitioned from overseeing Player Companions to being Design Lead of what would become the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, he had me pen significant chunks of Blood of the Beasts (literally my dream assignment) and outline Psychic Anthology.

So, how did I get there? Honestly, if you’ve heard one designer’s story about how they broke into the Tabletop RPG industry, then you’ve heard one story. Everyone’s got a unique tale to tell, and mine is basically about me getting duped into writing several hundred pages of Pact Magic content. Imagine, if you will, a younger me (I emphasize “younger” because Owen likes to remind me that compared to “an old fart” like him, I’m a “young’un”). I’m fresh from College, trying to make my way in the world as a substitute teacher (that literally went nowhere) with a lot of time on my hands to kill. I’m what you call an extroverted introvert, i.e. an introvert that learned how to fake being extroverted fairly well in order to be a teacher. So I would get come from work and just not want to be around anyone after having to manage a classroom of screaming kids all day, aged 5 through 12 or so. One day while I was crashed at home, I got an e-mail from one of my College gaming bodies; this was the group that originally introduced me to Pathfinder. He knew I was a huge fan of 3.5’s Secrets of Magic (I actually wrote a pair of pretty sick Prestige Classes involving Pact Magic on the Giant in the Playground Forums for a Prestige Class content back in the day), so he passed along this pact magic supplement written by Dario Nardi for 3.5 called Secrets of Pact Magic. I was instantly hooked; Dario took the core concept Wizards of the Coast published and took it a few steps further, adding style and panache that I became instantly obsessed with. But I had left that 3.5 lifestyle behind; I was a Pathfinder fan now, and I wanted Secrets of Pact Magic for Pathfinder. So I did what any normal person would do and translated a few pages of Dario’s initial work into Pathfinder-compatible designs and e-mailed them to him.

“Hey Mr.! You should update your book to Pathfinder. Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing!”

Now, most people don’t know Dario Nardi. He’s a neuropsychologist by trade, and man he neuro-played me.

“Oh, this is fascinating! Care to show me more?”

Five months later and I had written a 100-page manuscript that became Pact Magic Unbound, Vol. 1. I still remember calling a family meeting where I pulled my parents into the room.

“H-Hey. I know you don’t like that I don’t go out and socialize more and I don’t hang out with my friends as much, but now that my book’s done I thought I should probably tell you that I’m going to be a published author in like five weeks when the print proof of the book arrives at our house.”

Needless to say, my parents were stunned. Here they thought they just had a shut-in son when in reality, their boy had gone and made a book! Cheers all around, and no one ever yelled at me for staying inside all the time again. Hooray! From there, my career can be described succinctly by a quote from Jerry Smith of Rick and Morty.

Someone way smarter than me once said, “There is no confidence like that of a mediocre white man,” and in my case that’s absolutely true. Because literally, I saw companies I liked and wanted to write for, asked them to pay me to write for them, and while some said no, others said yes. That is literally all I did. My first Not-Dario assignment was for a now-defunct company where I wrote Amazing Races! Kitsune. (That product line got bought by another company, and I’m no longer credited for my work there. That happens sometimes.) After that, I asked the absolutely sublime Creighton Broadhurst if I could write villages and other rules content for him, and he said yes! My absolute favorite things to write for Raging Swan Press were villages; I wrote a half-dozen of those easily. They were all interconnected and there was a kitsune hiding in every village. And Creighton, bless the man, who normally puts himself out there as this old-school traditionalist let me publish each and every kitsune I asked for.

From there, I built myself up to the point where I was ready to write for Paizo, and my time came when then-Editor-in-Chief Wes Schneider posted a comment on the forums about always wanting new freelancers and I jumped on it! Only remember, I was/am a mediocre white man with absolutely no sense for how professionalism in an industry I literally wandered into by accident works, so instead of doing something intelligent like writing an e-mail or preparing a cover letter, I literally just messaged poor Wes Schneider on the Paizo website, at his Paizo forum address, and asked him for work.

DO NOT DO THIS. I AM DUMB QUITE OFTEN.

Wes, being the wonderful man he is, politely redirected me to his e-mail where we could chat. He asked for some references, I sent him some rules and some villages and my favorite short story that I wrote for Pact Magic Unbound, Grimoire of Lost Souls Vol 2 (yeah that happened between Vol 1 and this). I don’t know which of those things made him design to gift a plebian of a freelance author such as myself with a chance to write in a Pathfinder Player Companion, but he did and now I’m here, hooray!

So, here’s what’s what.

Let’s say you’re someone new, someone who really wants to break into the Tabletop RPG Industry. That’s cool, yo! Let’s say you think you can’t. That’s wrong, yo! The wonderful thing about writing is that, given time to find and perfect one’s voice, literally anyone can do it. Writing is a craft that one hones and improves over time, and while one might have a predisposition for the pen and paper (or for the keyboard and Microsoft Word as it were nowadays), it’s certainly not a divinely bestowed talent that only those who rolled a 46 on life’s Random Talent Generator table at birth receive. Study other people’s writing and design, practice making your own, and allow yourself the time to learn and grow, and you can do it too! I guarantee it.

 So hey, maybe you kinda liked me and my writing from this article and want to show me some support. (Or maybe you hate me now and really want to make me feel badly about myself by giving me MONEY, as if I would know what to do with such niceties!) You can follow me on Twitter @AlJAug, or my company, Everybody Games, @EBGamesLLC. I SWEAR I’m not related to the old EB Games chain (although I DID get one angry Tweet from someone who thought I was). I have a Patreon, where I’m working on designing my own Roleplaying Game, Eversaga, at a glacial pace. You can learn more at https://www.patreon.com/eversagarpg. I also have a website for my company, http://www.everybodygames.net, where you can find links to all my TTRPG products. And hey, since this is Owen’s blog, did you know that Owen and I are partners, so every product of mine that you buy Owen gets some money too? It’s pretty nifty, so you can support us BOTH by buying neat game products from me!

Thanks for listening to me ramble, and I’ll chat with y’all again soon. I have a Kickstarter project in the works, and Owen’s given me the okay to write an article about it! Until then, Ciao!

Alexander Augunas

The Everyman Gamer and Publisher of Everybody Games

As always, you can support this blog by joining it’s Patreon!

Letters to a Dev from various Publishers. 1. Post-Development Developer Checklist

This post is part of the “Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer” line of articles, but in this case it’s taken from letters I have received from publishers and producers in my role as game developer. Since many freelance writers hope to become on-staff ttRPG game developers someday in their career, I thought looking at some less talked-about parts of that job might be useful.

Though the role of developer is often not well understood (or well defined), and varies from company to company, generally a ttRPG developer is seen as being responsible for conceiving, outlining, assigning, overseeing, and gathering the text for a ttRPG game book, and adjusting (or sometimes replacing) that text as needed to make sure is is uniform in tone, voice, wordcount, and theme; and meets the publisher’s standards for writing guidelines, rules language, and rule design. A developer is also generally the topic expert on question about that book for any questions about it that must be answered before some other person in the company to do their job (such as a marketing person, or customer service).

But there are more jobs that developers often have to do above and beyond anything involving just the text of the book.

This checklist is far from complete, nor does every company need every developer to do this for every project. But all of these are drawn from checklists I have been asked to follow in my duties as a developer for various published game books, taken from emails and physical checklists I have received from publishers. I’ve removed any identifying information, collated similar tasks described differently by different publishers, and added a touch of context where appropriate.

The Checklist

*Is the art order done? (Art directors generally actually assign the actual creation of the art, but the art director can’t know what art is needed without either the developer creating an art order, or reading through the manuscript themselves, and they rarely have time for that. Also, the developer often has to look at sketches to make sure they’ll meet the text and needs of the game.)

*Are the maps done. (As above, someone else usually orders them from cartographers, but a developer must make sure sketches for the cartographer are accurate, match the style of the company, and have all the needed text, things like a rose compass, scale, room markers, colors, and so on).

*Are the contracts handled? (The developer is often supposed to track that all freelancers get their contracts, and/or that all freelancers return their contracts, and/or that all freelancers have fulfilled the terms of their contract.)

*Is there back cover copy? (If the developer doesn’t write this themselves, they may be asked to give whoever is writing it bullet points of things to hit, and check the final for accuracy with what is in the book.)

*Is there a foreword/introduction/etc? (Just like back cover copy, sometimes the developer is supposed to do this, sometimes they just give info and check the end result.)

*Are the internal marketing text, ad text, catalog text, and solicitation text all written. (As with back cover and forwards.)

*Are the inside covers handled? (If they are supposed to be blank, great. If not… )

*Is any needed legal text done? (For example, if it’s an OGL product, a completed section 15 must be completed by someone.)

*Is the entire Table of Contents page updated (including the cover blurb, etc.)?

*Have any problems discovered during layout been addressed? (Sometimes, even if you make the wordcount right, a book solicited for 160 page pages turns out to be 150 or 170 once it’s laid out. Or monster entries designed to fill exactly one or exactly two pages go way short… or way long. Layout often does what they can, but if the text cannot be made to fit, it’s the developer who has to fix it by adding or cutting.)

*Are all credits correct? (Often books are done in text templates, and old credits may sit around and look “done” even if they are for a different book. Or someone may want their name listed in a specific way. It’s often the developers’ jobs to make sure the credits are correct and current.)

*Have supporting articles been written? (Not always, nor for every product, but it’s often the developers job. Same with interviews, podcast appearances, and so on.)

*Is the budget correct? (On-staff developers often have a specific budget, for both time and money, for the cover, the interior art, all text, all editing, and so on. Meeting that budget is then usually the developers job.)

There’s more, of course, depending on the product line, specific project, venue, publisher, company, and so on. But these are a big part of the most typical beyond-the-book’s text workload.

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Unused Starfinder Monster Pitches

These are ideas I was pitching to various publishers/producers in 2017, which never got picked up by anyone. These are taken directly from my pitches, when I was asked to come up with examples, or a set number of ideas, for an article or book.

Bybbin—A long, flat, ribbon-shaped creature like a very flat snake. Uses loops of itself as its arms and hands. Has a single featureless eye at the front and back of it’s form, and “eats” by using a few loops to engulf and crush something that is then absorbed through its skin. Secretes acid, can spray it, and can hear (its whole body is able to pick up vibrations), but needs a mechanical aid to speak.
Envisioned as a sentient and sapient species. Could be a playable species. Could have multiple stat blocks.

Fundamental Dragons — Following the presentation format of chromatic dragons in Alien Archive, but the dragons are spacefaring creatures linked to fundamental forces. Thus there would be electromagnetic dragons, gravity dragons, strong atomic dragons, and weak atomic dragons. Could also add a dark energy/quintessence dragon, or quantum dragon, to get to the traditional 5 dragon within one category. Opportunity for dragons to interact with solarion and vanguard abilities and themes.
Can do any range of CRs.

Ruhnk—A creature shaped like an inner tube, with dozens of tiny tentacles spouting from the “sidewall” of its ring, eyes along its outer wheel (hard crystal eyes that it can roll over), and mouths lining the inner ring. A sentient scavenger that eats whatever it finds off the floor nonstop, the way other races breathe, and has no sense of shame or humiliation—to exist is its own justification. Moves by rolling.
Can work at any CR up to 9 or so. Could be a playable species, or be more monstrous. Could have multiple stat blocks.

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Unused Random Scifi Gear Ideas

These are ideas I was pitching to various publishers/producers in 2017, which never got picked up by anyone. These are taken directly from my pitches, when I was asked to come up with examples, or a set number of ideas, for an article or book.

Class It Up: A hood worn during travel that makes it appear you are in first class, with more room and better entertainment. Deluxe models include neurostimulents that let you think you are stretching your legs, while you hunker into a kind of low-footprint fetal position. This is standard for some air travel companies.

DyeNA: Injection that permanently alters your hair, skin, or eye pigmentation

Kill Fee: A creditstick that can loan you up to 1,000 credits when you press the button—and get a neurotoxin injected. the Kill Fee doesn’t add the money until it’s injector confirms you are you (through DNA) and that you are subject to the neurotoxin (not immune). Every 30 days you must make a payment to the company backing the Kill Fee equal to 5% of the amount loaned, or you lose 1 Constitution. If you manage to pay off the entire loan, you are given the antidote.

MoTats: Injected luminescent nannite tattoos that swim just beneath the skin, allowing your tattoos to moving in flowing patterns over your body, and chance their appearance.

Olfacticator: A device that records your brainwaves when you smell something, and can play that smell back to your or any other brain. Can also come with pre-programmed scents you can play at will, and even Odor Operas.

Self-Censor: A microchip implanted in the eye with a lead to the brain, that reads your response to anything you find gross or unpleasant or offensive, and covers your view of such things with a censor bar (or in some cases covers it with with cartoons, or cat memes, or even ads if you get a free one sponsored by an ad company)

SEPA: “Structural Engineering Pocket Analyzer” Hooked to any camera or smart communication device, it analyzed the objects in your environment and makes an educated guess about hardness, HP, and break DCs.

Walkaway: A small sphere the size of a golfball. Can make the sounds and vibrations equal to a person walking, with the speed of the walk automatically matching how quickly it is rolled along a surface.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 2. Feedback and Keeping Complexity Where It Belongs.

The No-Feedback Loop

One of the things I have never been good enough at as a developer was sending feedback to my freelancers. Yes, a great deal of that is the industry standard and driven by work conditions–if I am already at 50 hours in a workweek, I have to turn over finished text in the morning, and there is something in a freelancer’s turnover that has to be fixed, it’s faster and easier to just fix and send it to the next step (be that editing, approvals, layout, or whatever) than write to the freelancer explaining what needs change and hoping they give me a usable version in time. And that means that writing up and sending feedback becomes extra work I am doing that doesn’t directly help hit my next set of deadlines.

On the other hand, the more I can help freelancers become better writers, the better chance I have of not being in the same situation in the future. Sadly though, the decreased chance isn’t decreased by a lot. Firstly, people who stay in the industry tend to be the ones who figure out what they need to improve even if they don’t get specific feedback. Secondly, the percentage of freelancers who stay in the freelance-ttRPG-writing biz for more than a couple of years is pretty small compared to the fraction who dropout for whatever reason. Third, even if a freelancer gets feedback, sticks around, and gets better, there’s a good chance they’ll get grabbed up by someone else and not have time to do whatever projects I happen to be working on three years later.

Of course, all that doesn’t mean there’s no value in giving that feedback, however much extra work it is for me. If nothing else, it makes it more likely I’ll get to buy a good product later down the line. But more importantly to me, I care about games and gamers. I want to help if I possibly can, and feedback is a great way of doing that. However, in addition to lack of time, I’m not omnipotent. My feedback could be *wrong* for any number of reasons. I might lack the technical knowledge to understand why a freelancer is representing a specific real world event in a certain why. I might not have the cultural, social, or personal viewpoint to see why some inclusion or deletion is significant and important. I might just have a dumb opinion no one would agree with (it happens!). And when feedback is given privately in a professional setting, even if I am wrong, a freelancer might be intimidated by the imbalance of influence within the industry, and not feel safe to tell me I am wrong, or even suggest I am missing something.

(By the by, if you are ever working for me, and I am wrong in my feedback, let me know. I don’t promise to agree with you. I do promise to consider my own biases and limitations, and not punish you for having a differing opinion.)

So, now that I have begun looking at old emails and direct messages I have sent to freelancers over the years, I have concluded that scrubbing these of any specific details (to protect both the freelancer and whatever company I was working for when I wrote it, even if it was MY company), and posting it publicly may overcome a lot of these issues. Yes, the feedback isn’t going to be specific to the issues of everyone who reads it, but it can get into a lot of hands with a single post on my part, and if I’m wrong people are more likely to feel free to point out why (even if it’s just among themselves).

The Issue

Since I am redacting a lot of the details in the first part of this letter, I have to explain what the issue was in the freelancer’s handout, that I felt the need to both fix, and explain why I was fixing it.

In a d20-based fantasy ttRPG adventure, the Freelanced has included a room with a treasure chest. This was not a major villain’s cache, nor even the main focus of the room. There was nothing in the chest relevent to the adventure’s plot, nor tightly linked to the themes of the adventure. It was just one element of a typical encounter within the adventure.

And it had a fire trap.

Now, an occasional trapped chest is a good idea. There was no note as to who had the keys for the chest (after all, whoever trapped it wants to be able to open it safely), but that’s a minor issue. But more importantly, the trap did a variable amount of damage based on how much you failed to disarm it by, and by how far away from it you were, and by how much you failed to pick the lock (if you didn’t even try to disarm it), and special rules for determining how much damage each thing in the chest took depending on which of the above conditions happened.

It, by itself, took up more wordcount than any other part of the encounter, and more than most complete encounters within the adventure. And, weirdly, it’s not the ONLY time I got a overly-complex-random-fire-trap in a freelancer adventure turnover, nor the only time I’ve given feedback about it.

So, I wrote a short note of feedback to the freelancer. letter in response. I have copied it here, minus any identifying information and with a dab of editorial clean-up, as the second “Letter from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer.”

After a polite intro, and some minor notes on lesser matters, I wrote:

“About the fire-trapped chest. In the final version, you’ll find it just does flat damage in an area (Reflex save for half), and goes off if you fail the roll to pick the lock, or smash the chest, or fail the roll to disarm the trap by 5 or more. I wanted to explain why, and it’s not because the rules you wrote are wrong, or don’t work, or that they don’t make sense.

It’s just because, the rules eat up a lot of space, they are a lot for the GM to absorb and run correctly, and the players have no way to know how detailed the rules they are interacting with are. Even if the GM knows that the trap could have done more damage, or could have done less damage, or could have eliminated more items, all the players will ever hear is that it goes boom and does some damage.

So, the play experience for the players is nearly the same, and the cognitive load on the GM is much lower, if the trap just has a simple trigger, and does set damage. The very fact that damage is rolled already creates a wider range of possibilities, and does so in a way the players and GM are used to an expect. While the players aren’t likely to find out that a trap that ends up doing 4d6 fire damage to them could have done 8d6 fire damage, they will know if they made or failed their save, and are likely to know if the GM rolls 12 damage on 6d6.

That’s not to say a trap should never have this level of complexity, but the ‘weight’ of these rules is so great, the chest or trap would need to have a bigger narrative role within the adventure to justify the number of words on the page, and the amount of time the GM needs to figure out how to run it, and how much time it would take at the game table in play.

For example, if an important part of the adventure was getting a MacGuffin, famously locked in the Cask of Conflagrations, you could build up to this complex and detailed trap as part of the adventure leading up to that moment. Players could have chances to speak to people who failed to get past the trap, or find scraps of ancient descriptions of it. They could have a side quest to get some anti-fire salve to help survive it, and be aware that it was an especially devious and complex mechanism that would take more effort and carry heavier consequences than ususal.

Ultimately, this is an issue of thinking about the end play experience for the GM and players. (Note that there certainly ARE people who primarily engaging with adventures by reading them, which may react to something like this differently, but in my experience those people enjoy any well-written encounters, so there’s no actual benefit of having any rules section be longer and more complex than is justified by the narrative value the players will experience.) Every unusual exception to how rules elements are used is one more thing the GM has to spend mental energy understanding before they can run an adventure. Asking GMs to do so isn’t inherently bad, but the extra effort should be linked to extra fun for GM and players both.

There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to do something out of the ordinary with a trap, but being creative and being complex aren’t always linked. If the trap did fire damage, and sprayed alchemical materials that attracted more wandering monsters to attack the PCs as an additional effect that would be unusual, but could be explained in 1-2 more sentences. If it triggered a wand of magic missiles from inside that had just a few charges left, which the PCs could then recover as treasure, that would be unusual, and the end experience for the players would be something fun and new linked to loot, which means that wand then has a story connected to it, which can boost roleplaying opportunities.

I also want to make clear that the overall encounter was good, and this was a pretty easy fix for me as developer. But while I think the extra design work you did here doesn’t serve the adventure well, it was mechanically sound and an interesting read. I want to make sure the end message you get is not just “this was bad” or “this is too long,” but “this didn’t work well where and how it was–but keeping thinking about how to deliver unexpected things for GMs and players to enjoy, and know that if used a different way, these well-done game mechanics could work great.”

So, there’s some of the advice you might get from me, if I was contracting you to write for me.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 1

I recently moved toward the contract stage of a small project (1,500-2,500 words) with a new freelancer, and asked them what timeframe they thought would work for them as a deadline (so I could put it in the contract). Quite reasonably (especially given I had told the freelancer I was available for general industry questions), the freelancer wanted to know what kind of turnaround time was reasonable and typical in the industry. Also, how much back-and-forth was their going to be between the freelancer and myself, as that would impact their thinking on a deadline.

So, I wrote a short letter in response. It then occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of drill-down detail prospective and relatively new freelance ttRPG writers often ask about in seminars and such.

So I have copied it here, minus any identifying information and with a dab of editorial clean-up, as a generic “Letter from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer.” I might do more of these in the future, or this might just be a 1-off.

After a polite intro, I wrote:

“So, turnaround can vary wildly. At the “experienced freelancer” level, I normally expect someone to be able to produce a finished draft of 10,000 words per month, starting from the time they have a full outline (if needed) and contract. That’s assuming they aren’t doing this full time, and don’t have any other freelance assignments.

However, when I am working with a freelancer, it’s not really any of my business if they are doing it full time or have other contracts. I just offer a contact with a deadline, and see if they agree they can hit that.

There are freelancers I know quite well who can product 20k, 30k, or even 45k words in a month… but I try to never plan to need that. And, even those who can aren’t always free to do so when I have an emergency project. I also work with some people who can only manage 5k in a month, and only if the timing is right. But as long as they produce good work when they do take a contract, I can work around that.

When I personally began ttRPG writing in the mid-1990s, I averaged a mere 1,000 words in a month Luckily, I just did magazine articles at first, often with no set deadline. However, by the time I left Wizards of the Coast in 2001, after more than a year of full-time, in-house game writing, I was producing 40k-50k words per month as a freelancer. Now that I’m in my 50s, I can’t really keep that up anymore. 😛

Most developers/editors/producers assume newer writers need more time, and try to work around that. In this case, I *could* perfectly well give you 90 days to write this. Given it’s short length, I’d expect an experienced freelancer to be able to do it in 1-2 weeks, and a veteran to be able to do it in one day (if the timing is right  and they can spare a day when I need it written).

I would expect anywhere up to 30 days for someone with very little experience, but honestly in my dealings it often seems most people who can’t do it in 2 weeks just can’t do it. That’s not being judgmental — some people just have too much going on in their lives to spend much time writing about imaginary magic creatures. And there ARE exceptions. So if you wanted to pad your time with this first project because it made you more comfortable, I’d be okay with that.

As a side note, never be afraid to tell someone offering you a freelance writing project up-front you can’t do it in the timeframe suggested. Also, if you want the job, feel free to tell them when you COULD have it done by. Something like “I love this idea, but my schedule wouldn’t allow me to get it back to you in 6 weeks. However, if you could extend the deadline to 9 weeks, I could accomplish that.” Missing a deadline after you say you can do it is bad, but telling people you can’t meet a deadline when turning down work is never seen as a bad thing. It’s usually taken as a sign you know your limits, and are thus more likely to be reliable.

(And missing a deadline after you agree to a job isn’t the end of the world, especially if there are extenuating circumstances. The most important things are to communicate with your developer early, and let them know if problems are growing. If you have 4 weeks for a project, and 2 weeks in you tell them “This is going slower than expected, can I have an extra week to get it done?” they may be free to give it to you. But if you tell them that the day before it is due, it both gives them much less leeway, and shows you haven;t been working on it throughout, or haven’t been tracking your progress. Even then, exigent circumstances CAN arise. I once had a freelancer tell me the day before their deadline they were going to be weeks late–because their home had been hit by a Category 4 hurricane. And, yeah, I could see how that would make delivery nearly impossible even if they were mostly done.)

(As a second aside, communication is important. Telling someone on the last day that you are giving up on a project and won’t be turning over any work for it at all is BAD, but not telling them that and not replying to their inquiries is still much worse.)

As for how much back-and-forth is needed, it’s a fine line. Especially for something short, if everything goes smoothly, you may do your work and send it to me without ever needing any other advice or input. However, if you aren’t sure if you are doing it right, or aren’t sure if an idea you have had fits what the person paying you wants, or want to change something from the pitch that was already agreed to, or can’t figure out how to write a rule or describe an issue or fix a plot hole, those are all great reasons to reach out to your developer and explain the issue and ask for feedback.

For bigger projects, there are often “milestones” where you are asked 1/2-way through the project’s writing time to show you have done 1/2 the work. And some projects later on where you are asked to work with multiple writers may have some forum or Discord channel set up where writers can brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other.

OTOH, the person paying you to write something normally doesn’t want to spend as much time answering your questions as it would take them to write it themselves.”

So, there’s some of the advice you might get from me, if I was contracting you to write for me.

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Are People REALLY Trying to Break Into ttRPG Writing? In This Economy?!

In response to yesterday’s guest blog post by Luis Loza, a number of people have been asking me, a bit incredulously, if there are really people trying to break into writing for the tabletop game industry. At least some of that incredulity seems rooted in my description of what working in the industry is like, in such venues as the #RealGameIndustry hashtag on Twitter, and my blog posts on the business of games and freelancer life.

And, yes, there absolutely are. But many of them aren’t looking to make it a full-time job and long-term career.

For those who see it as a hobbytime activity, like building ships in bottles or collecting commemorative sneakers, it can be extremely fulfilling. But you don’t expect your hobbies to be profitable, so even a revenue-neutral one can be extremely appealing.

Those who see it as a side-gig are, at least, unlikely to suffer significant economic hardship as a result. Many more will find it a bad source of income than will make more than minimum wage, but some will thrive.

For full-timers dedicated to this being their primary source of income, it’s rough. And for the industry to thrive, it needs full-timers. But there are other reasons do a job than security and money.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to improve things.

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Game Design: First Thing on a Blank Page (Cultsmasher RPG)

So, I’m having trouble focusing on my tasks today. This idea for an entire RPG that would look a lot like a weird hybrid of Starfinder, AGE, PF2, 5e, 4e, and… like… Fudge beginning to form in my head.

It wants out, and I do NOT have time today. 😛

Historically, my best bet is to write down just enough of the idea that it feels like I won’t lose it over time, and I can convince my muse/subconscious it’s safe to move on. So, you get a peak behind the curtain at some of my design musings.

Often the hardest part for starting a whole new RPG, or a new subsystem, or even just something like a class, is to get the very first thing down on the blank page. I can expand, and build, and riff, and iterate MUCH more easily than I can craft from a starting point of absolutely nothing.

So, just to have a textual jumping-off point, I often create concept pieces that I know may have nothing to do with final text. These are visualizations of how rule interactions might be described eventually, starting life along–hanging in midair with no surrounding game infrastructure to connect to. But I have to start SOMEWHERE, and writing a new-ish idea as if it was final text linked to a whole game often helps spark potential opportunities, pitfalls, and complications in my head, often in real time as I write down the tiny seed of thought I started with.

So, here’s a game mechanic, currently with nothing else tied to it.

Focus: Your character’s focus represents making a concentrated effort. Doing so is physically, mentally, and even spiritually taxing. As a result, your character has a limited number of Focus Points, which fuel Focus Abilities. If a Focus Ability is tied to an Attribute which is a Primary Attribute for your character, using it costs 1 Focus Point. If it has no Attribute, using it costs 2 Focus Points. If it is tied to a Secondary Attribute, using it costs 3 points.

Every character begins with the Reroll power. If you fail an Attribute roll, you may expend Focus Points to reroll it. This decision must be made immediately after seeing the result of the roll. When you reroll, rather than roll 2d10 and add your bonuses, you roll 1d10 + 10, and add your bonuses.

Characters gain Focus Powers from their Descriptor Paths. Any character may take any Focus Power they qualify for, but some Focus Powers are more effective for certain types of characters. For example, a character with the Fighter path can take Mighty Blow, and since it is tied to Might, a Primary Attribute for the Fighter, it costs him only 1 Focus Point to use. A character with the Occultist path could also gain access to Mighty Blow, but since Might is a Secondary Attribute for that path, the Occultist would have to expend 3 Focus Points to use that power.

A character regains all their Focus Points when they Recuperate.”

(Art by 9’63 Creation)

I mean no, that’s not anything like a whole mechanic, it it already assumes this that very well might not be how any final game came together. But it’s a good verbal description of this vague IDEA I had in my head.

I also like to label these things as if they were part of an existing RPG framework. Again, these are placeholders, and mental tags to let me organize snippets and file them where I can find them again. So, and just for now, I’ll decide this is part of the CULTSMASHER RPG.

Now, maybe I can get back to working on today’s deadlines.

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My Early Animation Fandoms

I find it fascinating when I talk to other game creators, about what they do and don’t consider strongly influential to their love of speculative fiction and their foundational fandoms. For me, fandom and animation have always gone hand-in-hand, and while there are numerous fandoms I am part of that are primarily consumed in other formats, I can trace easy throughlines from the earliest animation I consumed to a lot of my current preferences. I’m especially bemused when I mentions something I think of as iconic and core to the geek zeitgeist, and discover some of the people I am talking to have never heard of it.

Like a lot of Gen x-ers, I grew up with cartoons that were strongly tied to toy lines — G.I. Joe, Transformers, Masters of the Universe, and so on. But before those, I got exposed to a lot of content that drew from varied sources and traditions. It’s impossible to understand my creative influences and impulses without knowing where it started, which had two primary sources — pulp novels, and animated tv shows. I’ll look at pulps later, so for today it’s a quick rundown of some of my earliest animation fandoms.

Astro Boy: My first anime, in the super-early 1970s. I can’t remember any specific episode from that time, and I vaguely recall it was broadcast locally at like 6am weekday mornings.

Battle of the Planets: I encountered this before Star Blazers, and as a youth was a huge fan (though even a a child I knew there was something odd about the animation quality difference in the 7-Zark-7 sequences). As I grew, this fandom did not grow with me. I have seen the original Gatchaman and later iterations of it, and despite how much I loved many of the elements as a child, it just doesn’t speak to me anymore.

Fat Albert: This fandom did not last, and in fact became painful for me. But my conceptual love of protagonists working out of junkyards starts here. I was always obese, even as a pre-teen child, and Fat Albert was the only obese hero on TV who was shown as part of a powerful physicality rather than Nero Wolfe-like sitting genius, and was never mocked or belittled for his size, which he could use to his advantage.

The Herculoids: I think this is my earliest science-fantasy fandom — before Thundaar the Barbarian or He-Man, there were the Herculoids. I didn’t get to see them on first run, and their syndication schedule wasn’t something I ever managed to sync up with, but whenever I caught an episode, I was enrapt. This, of course, is another example of me loving pulp concepts in multiple formats.

Johnny Quest: Did I mention I love pulps?! Well, the original 1960s series is a big part of why. And while the show absolutely has flaws worthy of criticism, it was also formative in my love of action adventurers who face a weird world of hidden threats without superpowers, and while trying to make the world a better place. Also, dinosaurs and hurky robots.

Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies: Originally shorts shown before movies, these classic Bugs Bunny et al cartoons were staples on TV as I grew up… and were my introduction to classical music. The run from 1944 to 1969 still amuses me when i see them today, and I was enrapt when they came on TV in the 1970s and early 80s. I very much never had the same reaction to similar cartoons of the era, such as Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Yogi Bear, Droopy, or Mickey Mouse (though I would watch them when nothing else was on).

The Marvel Super Heroes: This was the first TV show based on Marvel comics characters, made in the 1960s. In a series of 7-minute segments, it told stories about Captain America, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, and the Sub-Mariner. My love of powered armor, which was bolstered by the Lensman and Starship Troopers novels, was absolutely influenced by the Iron Man segments of this show. At the time I also dug Thor and Hulk super-hard, but those faded as a grew to be more in keeping with my generic like of superheroes. For whatever reason, the Sub-Mariner never interested me. While I would watch the better-known SuperFriends later in life, it never held the same appeal for me.

Popeye: As a child, the B&W Popeye cartoons were something I looked forward to every afternoon, after school. Popeye felt like a modern Aladdin to me, and a pulp adventurer who could stand next to Tarzan, Thuvia, and Sherlock Holmes. I grew out of this fandom, with the 1980 live-action movie (which I did enjoy) pretty much serving as the capstone on my interest in the character, though i do still have a fondness for the squinty hero.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?: This is the original Scooby-Doo, in 1969 and 1970, and then in reruns forever. My first procedural fandom. Despite having a talking dog, there mystery in this was never, ever supernatural. This show literally taught me to be skeptical, and also got me interested in horror concepts (though it was not itself truly a horror show). It also taught me that the villain is often driven by pure greed, and evil can be pretty unimpressive, while trying to build its own reputation. these lessons have remained relevant my entire life.

Speed Racer: My first vehicle crush was the Mach 5, and I was watching this basically as soon as I could turn on the TV by myself. My love of Speed Racer lead directly to my love for the Car Wars line of games, and while I adored the US live-action movie, and have a huge nostalgia for the original anime, it’s not an active fandom for me these days.

Star Blazers: I watched this in the early 1980s, and was exposed to it just before I encountered ttRPGs. I became, and remain, a lifelong fan of nearly all versions of this. The Yamato/Argo was an obsession of mine for much of my life, and I can still be made to cry by watching some sequences from any of its iterations. More than Star Trek, more than Star Wars, equaled only by my Lensman fandom, this was my biggest early scifi mania.

Star Trek: The Animated Series: I watched these, either first-run or super-early syndication. I remember liking them better than TOS, which was in reruns, which is likely because I was stunningly young, and they were shorter–but maybe also because they could do more visually odd characters and creatures.

Thundaar the Barbarian: My first post-apocalypse fandom, and one of my earliest science-fantasy fandoms. I watched these first-run, and loved them. Yes, it’s a pretty obvious mash-up of Conan and Star Wars with nonsensical backgrounds of a ruined civilization, but what’s wrong with that? Thundarr is why I got into Gamma World, and it remains something I would love to see a good reboot of (and would hate to see a bad reboot of…). You can trace and interesting line from Thundaar to Blackstar to He-Man… and I liked each of those a bit less than the one before it. 😛

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