Category Archives: Retrospective
My father was an alcoholic. He went to rehab, once, in the 1990s and toward the end of that process we had ‘family week,’ where the whole family came in for group therapy and counseling. So the other members of my family and I went, and spent a week there. It was a bit like summer camp, but the activities were figuring out how badly screwed up you were and crying instead of archery and canoeing.
While there for family week, I met a young woman who had been badly abused. I did not get, and if I am honest did not at the time want, any details of what she had been through. She was there for her own addiction. I either never knew what she was addicted to, or I have long since forgotten. She wasn’t in any of the group or therapy sessions I was in with my father and family.
She saw some of my RPG books I had brought with me, and was fascinated by them. She understood the concept immediately but, faced with multiple books of hundreds of pages each for just a few games (I know I had Rolemaster with me, I may have also had some D&D and Champions), she claimed that she “wasn’t smart enough” to play RPGs.
I assured her she was. I promised I could show her how the concept worked and we could play a game, with just a few of sentences of explanation, and three sentences of rules. She agreed.
“Tell me about your character.”
She loved rabbits. She wanted to know if she could be a rabbit, I told her she could be anything she wanted. She decided she was an anthropomorphic rabbit scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world who hunted (and killed) carnivores, and defended herbivores.
I gave her a 3×5 index card.
“Write down one thing you are good at.”
She wrote down she was good at creeping.
“Write down one thing you’re bad at.”
She wrote she was bad at keeping calm.
“Write down one important thing you have.”
I had meant one object she possessed. She wrote she had ‘limitless determination.’ This game was for her. I was not about to tell her she’d done it wrong. Limitless determination it was.
“Write down one thing you want to accomplish.”
She wanted to find a safe place to bring orphan bunnies.
I gave her a penny.
“I’ll describe situations, and you tell me what you want your character to do. For anything you try you flip a coin – your action succeeds on heads and fails on tails. If you try something you are good at or have an important thing for you get to flip twice and succeed if either is heads, while if it’s the thing you are bad at you have to flip twice and get heads for both to succeed. That’s it.”
She asked if, since she was a rabbit, she could succeed on tails, and fail on heads. That seemed super-obvious, and I agreed.
And so the “Hares & Holocausts” game was born. Getting to flip twice and winning if either was tails was a bonus. Having to flip twice and winning only if both were tails was a trial.
We played 3-4 times over that week, mostly at lunch and once one morning after breakfast. I borrowed heavily from Gamma World, Rock & Rule, Watership Down, and Seven Samurai. Her character never got a name, and she didn’t seem to care. I thought of her as “The Rabbit Without a Name,” who wore a poncho, and assumed the setting used an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Each scene was clearly defined as casual or dangerous. Casual scenes had no consequences. In a dangerous scene, there were normally 3 chances for her to take an action. Actions weren’t blow-by blow things like “I stab a scorpion bandit,” but more like “I attack the bandits, trying to drive them back out of the mine shaft.” One successful action out of the three was a draw–she ended up neither better off nor worse at the end of the scene. Two successes was a win. Three was a BIG win, and she got some kind of permanent improvement.
Zero successes was a failure.
If she failed at a scene, she took a wound which meant she had to either give up one of her bonuses until she healed, or write down a new trial (which she got to pick) as a scar she kept until she succeeded at a task using that trial. I remember she choose a scar at least once, getting a cut through her left eye so she got the trial “Bad at seeing things to my left.”
She picked up a katana, with a BIG win, which she got as a bonus she could use once per combat, because I wanted to introduce the idea of equipment. She also gained a psychic mind-stare with a BIG win, which let her try to take out a foe before a scene began, with no penalty if she failed.
She crossed The Waste, and found a mine shaft, which had evil scorpion bandits in it. Driving them away, the mine shaft lead her to a valley with a ruined town which had some bunny orphans in it. She saved them from a spider sweat-shop owner (who forced the bunny orphans to weave designer webs for uptown spiders), then went to find them a safe home. That took her to an old observatory on top of a nearby mountain, where she had to convince the ancient security AI (that controlled a robotic sphinx guard) to allow the orphan bunnies to live there. She hunted down and imprisoned a skunk airship pirate who made clouds the observatory couldn’t see through, and promised shed talk the orphan bunnies into become astronomers, and the AI agreed to let them stay and protect them.
Then she took the stench-airship, and flew off. She wanted to find, and defeat, the Uptown Spiders who received the designer webs. End of campaign.
I did not realize for weeks that she never killed anyone. Drove off, defeated, jailed, convinced to change sides, yes. Never death.
She really seemed into it, and told me she would introduce that game to friends of hers. She still didn’t think she could play a “real” RPG. I tried to convince her there were lots of games, like there were lots of books and lots of movies, and all she needed was one that was a good fit for her. I was not convinced “Hares & Holocausts” could be played seriously, thought I didn’t tell her that.
I’m skipping over a lot of the weird, awkward, difficult parts of this experience. I was making it up as I went along, and it was not as polished as this short write-up makes it sound, especially for the first game or two. There were moments I was uncomfortable. There was at least one time she burst into tears. I used some Rolemaster critical hit tables for narrative inspiration once, and that was a big mistake on numerous levels. The councilors insisted all games take place in one of the public areas, and only between 7am and 6pm. No one else played with us.
At the end of my week, I gave her my contact info. She was going to be there for at least a few weeks longer. I did not ask for, and she did not offer, her contact information. I never heard from her.
I think that’s the only complete, totally original RPG I have ever designed by myself.
My father stayed sober for 90 days, because one of the councilors at rehab told him he couldn’t — that it would be impossible. Through sheer iron will, my father took not a single sip of alcohol for three months. They were a good time to know him. Then, convinced this meant he wasn’t an alcoholic, he drank himself to death over the next few years.
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I had a chance to sit down with the awesome folks of Nerdarchy at Gen Con 2018, and talk a bit about tabletop gaming, content creation, and the evolution of RPGs!
(And some thoughts on Starfinder RPG, Paizo Inc., 5th Edition D&D, Green Ronin, crowdsourcing, and more!)
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I think it’s helpful for the name of an RPG to tell you something about what the game is (supposed to be) like.
For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars (even if some folks will always claim it is just the Ghostbuster’s rules of D&D, “reskinned”).
Dungeons and Dragons does a good job of this–it’s a game about monsters and underground locations. Yes, it’s more than that, but it still tells you something. And it’s ubiquity allows you to show kinship with it easily enough — Tunnels and Trolls is clearly giving a similar feel as D&D. Mutants & Masterminds was brilliant.
Hero System and Champions are both pretty good.
Shadowrun was not as good as Cyberpunk, originally, but it is now. Gamma World was good, but Aftermath was better, and Marrow Project at least as good.
But Omega World was brilliant, because of Gamma World.
Both Vampire and World of Darkness did good jobs with this.
Star Frontiers was better than Traveller in this department, but Space Opera may have been better than either.
I’m not comparing the quality of these games as games. Just the ease of branding offered by their names.
I think about this, when I am working on things like Really Wild West, which I hope does a good job of immediately identifying itself as a kind of over-the-top Weird West setting.
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On my birthday, which is today, I tend to think about memories of previous birthdays.
I have a lot of great birthday memories.
I hold the first “OwenCon,” cutting up things like comics to make a flier, and pick an older friend to be toastmaster.
My mother has us all play a game where each kid has a balloon tied to one ankle, and you try to stomp out other kid’s balloons with your other foot.
My mother makes a pinata, which we bash the hell out of.
We stay up all night playing Dungeon, which a friend brought over.
We stay up all night playing Dark Tower, which a friend brought over.
We stay up all night watching the Thunderbirds anime, which is streaming on a pay channel we don’t normally get, but which is doing a free preview that weekend.
We stay up all night watching VHS movies.
I run a D&D game all weekend, as an adult, with friends coming and sleeping over.
My friend Carl rules a Rolemaster game all weekend. My character ends up with a magic tattoo which gives her dragon spells.
I discover my friends all went in together and got me a GameCube, so I can play Mario Sunshine. It becomes my favorite Mario game, to date.
My wife makes a pinata, which we bash the hell out of.
We go to see the B&W Dracula movie as a special theater event. The Spanish-language version filmed on the same sets plays afterward. We expect to just watch a little of it. We stay for the whole thing, fascinated at how much better a movie it is.
The common denominator for all of these, of course, is friends. (With games a close second)
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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 work for 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.
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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.
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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.
Today is the four-year anniversary of Lj’s and my arriving in Seattle, and here I am again in a new apartment, surrounded by boxes. That makes it feel like I haven’t made much progress in four years, but that’s objectively not true.
In that time I have developed more words than in the ten years before, written about half as much as the two years leading up to it but finally gotten an Adventure Path adventure done, moved two more times, fallen in love with a restaurant that closed but took the friendships I made there with me, been to seven different conventions (a few of them many times), helped shepherd a brand new RPG into the world in Starfinder, been taken to the ER, visited friends in the ER, and acquired a cat.
I’ve learned a lot since my arrival, about myself, and Seattle, and game design, and challenges other professionals face that I don’t, and challenges I face that some other professionals don’t. I have created, and helped others create, and talked to a lot of colleagues and fans and friends about things that never would have come up in my original hometown. Of course I have also missed a lot of things from my old social group, who collectively still manage to play games with a frequency I can’t come close to matching.
It’s been a huge change and, four years later, I’m still adjusting to it. But I am also still looking forward to what happens next, with opportunities I knew I couldn’t guess at but that would come only with this huge risk continuing to pop up.
I can’t say I have no regrets. I am too introverted, and too trepidatious, and miss too many lifelong friends not to have regrets. But I can say that knowing what I know now, I’d still make the same decision. There’s no question this was a smart move for my career, but it’s up to me to make sure it’s a smart move for the rest of my life.
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This is a retrospective, and it’s not one I wrote with any great point or theme. I try to not be that self-indulgent with my writing, but I have decided to give myself some leeway when marking two decades in the business. I may have more thoughts tied into the length of my career as 2018 progresses… or I may not.
It’s 1997. I get a letter from Dave Gross, editor of Dragon Magazine. A physical piece of paper, that I swear to myself I will keep forever, but that is gone by the very next time I move, to a new house.
“I really like your dwarven name generator but can’t use it, as we just published our dwarf-themed issue last month.”
I curse myself for not even realizing Dragon did themed issues. I am an idiot.
“But,” the letter continues in tones of glowing hope, “if you could do the same idea but for elven names, and get it to me quickly, that would be very useful.”
It’s my very first chance to prove I can take notes. I promise myself I will never let ego get in the way of doing good work.
That promise ends up with the letter, lost between moves. Unlike the letter, I find it again from time to time.
It’s very difficult for some tabletop game professionals to pin down exactly when their career “began.” Was it when they wrote their first houserule, or designed their first new game—even if neither rule nor game ever went anywhere? Was it the first time they got paid for work in the industry? Does it matter how much they got paid? Does it matter how long the gap was before they next got paid? Is there an amateur level of pay we should consider before someone is considered a “professional”? And if so, where’s the line?
A few years ago I realized I could no longer lay my hands on documents that decisively tell me when I got my first payment for RPG design work, which was an advance for a WII Hero e-book which was never published. I don’t even know if anyone has the manuscript, anymore. But that rules out using “when I first got paid” as a start point for my career, because that day is lost to the mists of time.
So, my next major benchmark is the publication of my first paid magazine article to appear, which happened some months (or maybe even a couple of years) later, with the elven name generator called “By Any Other Name” in Dragon 251, which came out in 1998. I know that I had to write that well before it came out, and I had submitted other articles and drafts to people before that came around. I also haven’t had a year pass since then when at least some professional project was released that I was involved with the creation of. So now that it’s January 2018, I feel very comfortable saying my professional tabletop career began (at least) 20 years ago.
It’s 1999. I have flown out to Seattle, or so I think. Really, I’m in SeaTac, and I’m headed to Renton, but I don’t know the geography. Eric Cagle picks me up in one of the new VW Beetles. I have an interview at Wizards of the Coast in a few hours. I would have been interviewed a year earlier, I am told, but my resume had fallen behind a filing cabinet. I’m wearing a suit. I hate the suit.
I love SeaTac and Renton, despite having no idea where I am.
Normally, I neither think about nor feel much impact from this extended timeline. I am fortunate to count among my friends, coworkers, and colleagues people who have been in the industry much longer than I have, so I don’t feel particularly older than what I consider the “norm” for RPG professionals. While my work has shifted the steps have often been small ones, often with long settling-in periods, so I didn’t even notice the major milestones as they went by.
Going from 2nd edition to 3rd edition D&D came with a staff position at WotC, so the change in the game I was working on was the least of my big shifts. When I had a more-than-decade-long run as a full-time freelancer, I was scrambling for any work I could get, so I didn’t really notice growing from 3e to 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder, and Star Wars d20 to the Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook. I DID notice working on Saga Edition Star Wars, but at that point I had EverQuest (the pen-and-paper version), Wheel of Time, Gamma World, Black Company, and Thieves World games under my belt, so the enormity of it was less shocking that it might have been otherwise.
It’s 2003. Many of my major lines of freelance work have dried up. I can make the rent for a couple of months on savings, but I need a big project soon or things will get uncomfortable. My AOL account has a message from Chris Pramas. Didn’t I say once, he asks in sentences that manage to be professional and casual all at once, that I was a huge fan of the Black Company series?
I had said so once. At my interview at Wizards of the Coast, when asked if I could adapt any one property to D&D, what would it be?
Well, do I actually want to do that now? It’s a big job, and I’d be working for Dr. Evil…
I DID notice Freeport, City of Adventure, which I believe to be the biggest book I was the primary development force for, but at that point I was on contract with Green Ronin, and their support and assistance made it much easier than it might have been and seemed to define my career at the moment more than working on the book did. I kinda celebrated to a product a week, every week, without fail for a number of years for Super Genius Games and then Rogue Genius Games… but that ended when bigger jobs were happening, so it was almost observed more in the ending than the success.
It’s 2007. Stan! calls. I’m surprised, because I had no idea he even knew my phone number, Would I, he asks, like to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure?
I’ve never written anything for Call of Cthulhu. I haven’t played it in a decade or more, and I never played it more than 2-3 times. I don’t know the rules, and I am not an expert on the mythos. I don’t particularly LIKE Call of Cthulhu.
I enthusiastically state I’d love to write a CoC adventure. It’s probably true. And like many dealings with the elder unknowable beings I am planning to wrangle into a compact booklet of fun, that decision has consequences that alter the course of my life.
I certainly noticed Starfinder, though the transition from full-time freelancer to paid on-staff developer and designer at Paizo was well and fully made at that point, which made the benchmark seem less momentous somehow. I’ve been at Paizo for almost four years now, and that makes it hard to feel like anything I’ve done in my relatively short time on staff as anything more than getting used to being there, and trying to do enough to make hiring me seem like a good idea.
It’s 2013. I check my phone message machine, a physical device hooked to my landline with dinosaur sinew. To my surprise, I hear Wes Schneider’s voice. He wants to know if I was serious when I had last applied to Paizo. Would I really move back out to Seattle? Because if so…
A loud click tells me my answering machine cut of Wes mid-sentence. I panic. Obviously I have to call him back… and unlike most of his freelancers, I have kept track of his phone number at work.
He later jokes he hired me so I would stop calling him when working on projects for him, and use emails and texts like a normal person. He’s kidding.
It was only recently I realized I was still thinking like a full-time freelancer, despite having a steady contract job with Green Ronin for more than four years, and the Paizo job for almost four. Sometimes it’s less that I resist change, and more just I don’t actually know how to adapt to it.
In these twenty years there have been some major changes to how business gets done. I used to send proposals in print, with a Self-Address Stamped Envelope for feedback or rejection to be sent back to me my physical mail. The three-tier system of distribution was strong and broadly spread when I started, and there was nothing like Kickstarter (though patron driven projects existed… often advertised in physical print magazines). PDF products, and companies, did not (and could not) exist, though there were small scale and 1-man productions in the days of print, they just had less reach.
I remember when terms like munchkin and splatbook were fairly rare, and there were very few unmoderated places, be that forums of letters pages of magazines, for fans to gather and discuss what they loved… and hated… or blamed on the politics, incompetence, or greed of the people trying to make a living creating the games they wanted.
It’s 2014. We’re throwing a farewell for a Paizo employee who’s moving on to new opportunities. I tell a story about my first day of Wizards of the Coast, when I had to playtest the brand-new edition of D&D without having actually seen a final rulebook yet.
“Oh,” he says smiling. “Fourth edition?”
“Ah…” I stammer, a tad awkward. “No. Third edition. In 2000.”
His smile broadens. “I was in grade school then.”
But an equal number of things are about the same. The terms core rulebook, adventure, campaign, and miniature all mean roughly what they did 20 years ago. Game creators often still struggle for stability while pouring heart and soul into a complex mix of creative technical writing back by a hybrid of psychological theories and math.
Dungeons & Dragons is still the most commonly known brand. Most fans still don’t have a very accurate idea of what working in the RPG industry is like, even for people who manage full time salaried jobs.
Somehow along the way some people came to think I might have insight into what makes a good game, or what makes a good gamer, which are crucially different. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I have always enjoyed spouting my opinions. I used to be limited to doing it at friends or occasionally to whoever gathered at a convention seminar. Now I can track how many people in Australia clicked on a blog link. (And can ask fans to support me directly, through things like my Patreon… )
Design trends in games have proven to be a pendulum, but I also think genuinely good ideas continue to be created, recognized, and adapted. I doubt any game I write now will be completely forgotten in another 20 years, but I also doubt any of them will be the most current version of the niches they fill. My career only goes as far back as 2nd edition AD&D, but I certainly played several versions of the game before that. I expect to play many more, under many different names, if I make it two more decades.
It’s 2016. Starfinder is meeting the public for the first time, at the 50th anniversary of Gen Con. I don’t want to fight the crowds, so I give it a couple of hours, then go to where it’s being sold at a satellite both, outside the main organized play venue.
They’re sold out, and shutting down. But we brought more of that book than Paizo had ever brought of anything, so I go ahead and brave the main hall despite it being the first day.
By the time I get there, all copies of Starfinder are sold out. Instead of lasting a weekend, it lasted 5 hours.
I’m delighted that I continue to learn and, I think, get better at my craft. At the same time, I strongly suspect that I AM more than halfway through my tabletop game career. I can’t pull all the physical and mental stunts I used to use to keep up in this industry, and I have no idea if I have 6 more years in me, or 16. I suspect I’ll fade away rather than just stop, but one of the things I HAVE learned is that there’s very little point trying to predict what I’ll be working on in three years. I’m always wrong. Even if I am right about the broad strokes (three years ago I was pretty sure I’d still be at Paizo), I also miss major details (three years ago I had no clue Starfinder was even going to happen, much less that I’d play a major part in it).
I still play games with some of the same people I did 20 years ago, my wife included, but lots of other friends I knew and gamed with even a decade or more before that I don’t get to see much anymore.
But games are still my favorite social activity, and RPGs are still my favorite subset of games.
And writing, developing, consulting for, and designing games is still the only job I can imagine having.
This grew out of a response I wrote to someone considering full-time freelancing on Facebook. It comes with some provisos.
I haven’t been a full-time freelancer for nearly 4 years now. Things change fast, and no one still freelancing is going to bother to keep me in the loops, so while I stand by the generalities and warnings, the specifics may well be different nowadays.
I had a spectacular set of advantages when my freelance career really took off. While I went to full-time freelance sometime in 1997, at the time my wife made enough money, and got enough insurance, that my miserable first few years didn’t need to be self-sufficient. It’s when I restarted full-time freelance in 2001, after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast, that I had to cover my share of buying houses, paying all the bills, cover insurance, and paying college expenses based purely on what I could earn as a freelancer. And at that point, I was a d20-proficient writer during the d20 boom, multiple people who left WotC to start their own businesses or work as editors and developers for bigger companies knew and liked me, and I already had some major game titles under my belt thanks to 14 months as a WotC designer.
That made things much, much easier.
I was a full-time freelance RPG content provider from 2001 to 2014. So it can be done. But it’s hard.
I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, one of the cheapest places in the US to live and, thanks to being a college town, one that still had a fair number of modern amenities. I recommend finding cheap living options, whatever that can mean for you.
I discovered being a full-time freelancer was actually three jobs.
>First, you have to get work. That means promoting yourself online, contacting potential clients, and going to conventions or similar events to make contacts and network.
>Second, you have to do the work. This is the only part anyone pays you for.
>Third, you had to get paid for the work. Most of my clients were great, but I *still* have a $2000 outstanding bill for a project that got published, and numerous pay-upon-publication projects that were never published, despite me doing my part, and thus never came due.
I strongly recommend spreading yourself around to as many kinds of writing as you can. I once traded writing copy for a repair shop’s website for $600 in repairs. which is good, because I did not have $600. In bad periods I worked for trade for food, yard work, clothes, and even editing or similar favors for other work of mine. Much of that work was not game-related.
I joined Super Genius Games, and when I left it began Rogue Genius Games, so I would always have a place to write, when other companies weren’t hiring. Of course that meant I only made money on those projects if people bought them, since it was all on royalties. Before that I wrote for d20 Weekly and later Pyramid magazine because they would publish whatever I wrote, without fail, every week. And they paid on time.
It isn’t always smart to start your own game company, but it is always smart to look for a place that will publish you regularly. They may pay less or pay only royalties. You DO need to get paid, but I found a mix of high-paying but rare work and lower-paying or royalty work that was always of often available was the way to make ends meet.
Magazine columns were great. Lines with regular releases and developers who liked me were great. One advantage of smaller projects is that you often do less work before you get paid. A 30,000 word project sounds great… but it’s 3-6 weeks of work you have to do before the clock even starts on getting paid.
Similarly, ongoing contract work is great. Especially if it pays by the month. This is rare, but there are companies who need a single developer or editor, or project manager (or, much less often, has a whole contract staff) that will pay you for a certain amount of time or a certain cut of what gets done, every month. This is a huge help, as it cuts down time spent getting work and tracking down payment for work. Even a small monthly amount can help balance the budget (and see Patreon thoughts, below.)
Don’t work without a contract. Look at the terms. An advance is best, but almost nonexistent nowadays. Pay-upon-acceptance, especially if it talks about when you’ll be accepted by and what happens if you’re not, is great. Pay upon publication kinda sucks, but is fairly standard. Flat rates are often better than royalties, but royalties are a legitimate business plan. I’ve made more money on freelance projects that paid royalties than I ever have on flat rates. of course, I’ve also had such projects end up paying nothing or nearly nothing. And, full disclosure, my own company (Rogue Genius Games) mostly pays royalties, so my opinion on this may be biased.
Your budget may be feast-or-famine. My wife and I were very cautious about spending money when a big check came it, because we literally did not know how long it had to last. We tried very hard to do nothing on credit, because credit can pile up and kill you, but even so after 13 years of freelancing I had tens of thousands of dollars of medical and educational debt that we still haven’t fully paid off.
The 80 hour work week because my norm. The 100 hour work week happened way too often. I pulled more than one 30-hour “all-nighter” shift, a feat I am physically no longer capable of pulling off.
I can’t recommend full-time freelance writing tabletop games as a career choice. In my case, because I had cared about games more than a career or education, I ended up with no other marketable skills.
But if you feel you must try it, I hope you get advice from lots of different people first, and I wish you well.
Things like Kickstarter and Patreon have change the potnetial freelance landscape. I recommend everyone have a Patreon-like subscription service and a blog or similar ongoing outlet you can ask people to pay you to continue.
And, of course, I’d appreciate it if you consider supporting mine. 🙂
Addendum the Third: There is no shame in being a part-time freelancer. You can do it as a second job, or as a hobby. You can also do it mostly, then with some little extra thing on the side to make sure you survive. I’ve known awesome freelancers who were fast food dishwashers, Uber drivers, substitute teachers, and temp workers. If that’s what you need to have a safety margin, or to live at least part of the life you want to live, do it with your head held high. If, someday, you feel secure in leaving the non-freelance part of your life, great. If not, your work is no less ‘real” or “professional.”