Category Archives: Retrospective
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.”
For me, 2017 was the Year of Starfinder.
The year began with putting the final touches on the Starfinder Core Rulebook, and that system has taken the vast majority of my professional time. I even opted to do Starfinder work outside the office, due to how excited I was about the system, in both professional and personal capacities. That was part of a long string of decisions I made about what work to do, and how much of it, and not all of those decisions were smart ones. I do not regret any of the work I accomplished, but early in the year it became clear I had taken on too much, and that I had been flirting with burnout for months if not years.
For me, 2017 was the year I burned out.
Burnout, like anything, comes in degrees. I’ve gotten slightly burned out before, and always managed to use coping mechanisms to power through it. But I’m not in the my 30s anymore, and honestly I’m well into the tail end of my 40s. Some of the things I used to do, like pull all-nighters to get work done more quickly to catch up. I’m not physically capable of anymore. Other things require specific support networks that I don’t have ready access to anymore. To be clear I have awesome support networks in Washington, but they are different from the ones I had in Oklahoma, and I need to learn how to use what I have the right way, rather than try to use it the way I used my old social circles.
This was the year I first felt total burnout.
I began taking steps to deal with the burnout in the first third of the year… and those steps have begun to be executed but still aren’t fully implemented. Hopefully, in the next 30 days or so, I’ll be where I wanted to be with those. I had hoped to get everything in place over my long winter break, of which this is the last day, but healing my psyche from the damage I did by 8 months of burnout took pretty much this whole time. I’m not fully recovered as it is, but I am mentally upgraded from a casualty to walking wounded. I forced myself to socialize, rather than forcing myself to work, and I let me brain go wherever it wanted when I sat down at my keyboard. (And, most, it went to the Really Wild West setting hack.) That was bad for my long-term plans, but good for my soul.
In August, Starfinder was released, and that put a whole new kind of pressure, almost entirely self-inflicted, on myself. I am proud of what we have done with this game, which required herculean efforts from everyone involved. There were many late nights from many people in multiple departments, there was weekend read-throughs and long playtest sessions and heated debates about what the right choice was… but while it was all in the office, it was all handled on a professional level. Once the book, and the game, were out in the hands of fans, I had to decide to what degree I wanted to engage. As a social awkward depressive introvert with mobility issues, a big part of me wanted to step back from fans and public games and discussions. Those things take effort, and I was firmly burned out when they hit, though buoyed for a time by the rush of seeing the game sell out so quickly. But in the end, I decided to engage pretty heavily.
I’ve been a professional game designer for 20 years. And, as noted, I’m not producing the volume of material I did even a decade ago. I may not have another opportunity to be a big part of a major RPG release. And I was more involved with Starfinder than any core game that came before except the Star Wars Saga edition, and even with that I was much less involved with the line after the core rulebook than I am already being with Starfinder. The title Starfinder Lead Designer only means something if I choose for it to, and I don’t want to insulate myself from the people who have the most important option about the game—the players. So, even when it drains or frustrates me, I want to engage with those fans, online and in person. From reading forums to offering examples of my personal work on my blog to speaking at the PaizoCon Preview Dinner to running a game at the AFK Tavern for the public on Free RPG Day, I took the opportunities I had and tried to make more, to be part of the community building up around the game. Things like public speaking and running games for people I don’t know and trust are hard for me, but I also think I am good at them and that they are an important part of making a mark in my chosen field.
There is work to a successful RPG career beyond the work on making games, and for many years I didn’t understand that. I have advantages many other smarter, more talented, designers don’t and I want to use them. Much of that is for my own benefit, which I think is reasonable. But also, I want to have a voice in shaping this culture, as minor as my voice may be, and staying engaged is the only way to boost how far that voice is heard.
Beyond my own trials, which were almost entirely self-inflicted and involved helping to make an incredible popular and successful game launch, I also had a lot of friends and colleagues have just fucking shitty years. I normally watch my word choice when writing a piece such as this, that people may share more than my game rules for Halfling space-muffins, but there’s nothing weaker than “fucking shitty” that can convey how rough some of the people I love most had it this year. Those stories and how they handled them belong to my friends, but I had multiple trusted, well-known people talk to me about suicide, or leaving the industry forever, or withdrawing from society as a whole. Fear, anger, and despair were not limited to just a few people in my circles in 2017. I hate it when my friends are in pain, and I hate it more when there’s nothing I can do to reduce the pain.
I have tried to be supportive. I have also tried to take better care of myself, because while these folks will leap up and carry me if I stumble… they’re tired and limping themselves. I have to love them enough to not ask them to hold my hand over self-inflicted injuries. I certainly am not saying I won’t ask for help if I need it. I am saying I owe it to the people who will give of themselves to aid me when I am in trouble to not get into trouble I could avoid by being smart.
For much of 2017, my personal gaming level fell dramatically. Though computer games and console games can take up some of that slack, to me nothing it more fulfilling than RPGs with friends. Nor was I lacking offers and opportunities, I just couldn’t make time. I have improved that situation some over the past few weeks, and look to dip my toe in more improvement on this front in the months to come. But I used to play 2 to 3 games nearly every week without fail, and living a life where I barely have time for 2 in a month is an adjustment I have not managed yet.
Obviously much more happened in 2017. Politics cast a shadow over everything, and seem to have damaged my relationships with people I love, but this isn’t a post about politics (and I think my positions have been made clear enough elsewhere). I broke a sofa. I got sick less than recent previous years. I took dental maintenance seriously for the first time in 30 years. I stepped way back in my role at various game companies, in part to try to deal with stepping up at other companies. I learned some life lessons, and unlearned some backed-in BS I’ve carried for decades.
In the balance, my 2017 was more good than bad. But it was also more hard work and worry than either good or bad.
I hope the next year will be one in which I can apply the lessons I have learned, and perhaps leave society better than I found it.
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Sometimes, it’s the weird little corners of your world that players will latch on to. In a post-apocalypse campaign I ran, the players ran into an old, fully automated factory that made self-heating cans of “Joe,” an artificial coffee-flavored meal substitute. I noted that there were some faded old signs (“Start Your day with a Big Cup of Joe!”), and that there was a trading village down the hill from the factory.
Before the players ever got to the trading village, they had formed dozens of theories about how the Joe Factory got raw materials (from roving “acquisition drones” who had once picked up cargo runs, but has simply adjusted to become automated hunter/gatherers dumping crops and game and ore in the Joe Factory intake hoppers) to how the village used the Joe cans to survive. Drinking it, of course, but also hammering out old cans to make tools, opening a dozen cans in a pot of water to heat and sanitize it, to pouring the thick Joe on thin rocks, letting it dry into a vinyl-like fabric, and making clothes out of it.
It was all much more interesting than what I had planned, so by the time the players got to the village, and I adapted and expanded off their best ideas to create a culture that was part cargo cult, part hipster battle clans (with the Blak, Sprezo, and Mhokah the most powerful factions).
So, sometimes a throwaway line or idea is just a drop of color in the impressionist painting that is an RPG campaign world… and sometimes it’s a jumping-off point for a much more fantastic and interesting element that’s explored in depth.
As a result when I have a weird idea, I often make sure to note it down and roll it around in my head a bit. Maybe nothing comes of it. Maybe I mention it once next time I am running a game off-the-cuff.
But maybe it’ll pay much larger dividends.
So, I told you that story to tell you this one.
In the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, there is a lizardlike race known as the vesk, who have their own empire, and a weapon like an axe with spikes instead of an axe-blade called a “doshko.”
Between the stress and exhaustion of the apst few weeks, and the OTC cocktail I’ve been using to try to sleep at night, an idea popped into my head, unbidden.
A phrase, really.
“Drink Dochcola, the Taste of War. … Or Else!”
I like the idea of a soft drink called “Doshcola,” though I presume it’s sold by a megacorporation that has very little to do with the vesk. Some vesk might even see it as an insult, a dishonor to their traditional weapon of war and symbol of their warlike god.
But that could be interesting, too.
So, as a jumping off point, I present the best slogan I came up with for Doshcola.
“Conquer Your Thirst”
“Give Your Lizard Brain a Drink”
“Spiked with Flavor”
“Now in new Plasma Doshcola Falvor!”
“Get a Taste for War”
“Doshcola. Deadly Serious.”
“4 out of 5 inhuman mercenaries prefer the sharp taste of Doshkola, over blood and dirt.”
“Doshcola. Because what else will you drink, beer made with Dwarf Sweat?”
“Now with 72% less Skittermander Tears!”
Speaking of Weird Little Corners
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I hope to put up a series of videos this week, beginning some some that recount the many tales of my very first day of work at Wizards of the Coast, back in 2000.
If you enjoyed this, check out the other videos I’ve posted on my page of Youtube videos.
Enjoyed this video (or any of my other videos or blog posts?) Consider supporting their production by backing my Patreon!
I hope to put up a series of videos this week, beginning some some that recount the many tales of my very first day of work at Wizards of the Coast, back in 2000.
If you enjoyed this, check out the other videos I’ve posted on my page of Youtube videos.
Enjoyed this video (or any of my other videos or blog posts?) Consider supporting their production by backing my Patreon!
This is about the sexual abuse I suffered as a child. It’s the most I have ever said about it, and I say it simply in the hopes that others who have suffered will find some strength in knowing they are not alone, and it’s not their fault. If you don’t want to read about that, I certainly understand.
I’m not sure how old I was. Older than 7, younger than 12, but I can’t tell you where in that range. The abuser was someone I and my entire family trusted, but not a family member. They were my friend. The abuse occurred once, that I can recall.
I never told anyone. I didn’t know how, and the transgressive nature of what happened to me was so great I was afraid. Afraid I’d get in trouble. Afraid I’d be blamed. I felt too much shame to tell my family, and had too many bad experiences with trust violations or lack of belief with other authority figures.
I was also afraid I’d be a social outcast. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I mean, 3 or fewer. Often only 1. Losing someone I could hang out with, that my tiny number of friends hung out with, someone important to my social existence outside the home, was more than I could handle. The idea I had to spend time with my abuser or be alone was horrible, but ultimately I decided to be with my abuser. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it happens. One reason I have said RPGs saved my life is that they gave me a way to make more friends. Once I had a few more friends, sometime in the 6th grade, I stopped ever speaking to my abuser. I think that hurt their feelings. I don’t care. As I was making that transition to new friends, suicide had begun to be a practical solution for me.
For years, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was in a youth support group for most of my teens. These were people I trusted, literally with my life in a few cases. But I couldn’t even hint that I had been abused. It has been so long, people would wonder why I hadn’t said anything.
I told one of them, a young woman slightly older than me, on a weekend retreat to a rent house. She burst into tears, and told me how many times she’d been raped. We talked about her, not me, and I think that was the right call. She swore me to secrecy. I’ve never said anything about it, and only mention it now because it’s impossible even for people who know me to identify her, for various reasons. She never brought it up in group. In fact, she really never talked to me again, and I understand. I hope she got help.
I had been married for years before I told my wife. I had been in therapy with the same therapist for years before I could talk about it in therapy, and it’s still something that makes me freeze if I try to talk about it in person. Writing is safer. And writing about it, when I can, is the main way I try, still, more than 35 years later, to someone grapple with it.
This industry eats people alive. That’s because it’s extremely demanding, draws in those who are passionate, but doesn’t pay well. I’ve been a full time game writer for most of the past 20 years, and more than a decade of that was freelance. A lot of people who began when I did have left, for computer games, novels, or in some cases security guard gigs or farming. They leave because the time demands, creativity demands, occasional unprofessional ruining either your projected income or something you love, and the pay is, compared to other things with similar demands, low. And often, they leave broken, vowing to never return.
To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for those facts. That’s the way the industry is. I work for, and with, a lot of great people who do their absolute best to take care of everyone they can. I’m not railing against some corporate greed, or claiming I could do better. heck, I’m a publisher as well as a writer and developer. I know what the economic realities are. I am very fortunate to have as many great employers as I do. It’s just a rough business, and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to do well by only putting in 40 hours a week.
So, I do more than that. But that’s not a universally good thing. I know I take on a lot, and I try to give everyone what is expected. And, I fail sometimes. Sometimes very publicly. I’m in my late 40s, I have two decades under my belt, and I still feel like this is all a learning experience.
And like a lot of game designers, I live locked in battle with two extremes—burnout, and the rent.
Burnout is real, and if you fully burn out you are done. There are lots of signs of burnout—never enjoying the work instead of only not liking some parts of it; not being able to force yourself to work on a specific project; depression; panic; confusion, as to why what used to work to get projects finished doesn’t anymore; apathy; slowing of new ideas; reduced quality; a willingness to cut corners in ways you know aren’t right (be that ethically, legally, or just not the kind of work you like to produce, depending on who you are and how badly you burned out).
But just because you can see potential burnout, doesn’t mean you can walk away. Everyone will tell you to… but they don’t know your budget, your needs, your situation overall. If you have people depending on your to provide for them, if you know you can’t survive a loss of income, if you’re going to be homeless if a project falls through, “taking a break” may not be a realistic option for you.
I have flirted with burnout more than once over the years. Sometimes I’d love to have walked away, but at that moment it wasn’t financially practical. Other times I knew if I could push through some specific project, I’d be fine. It isn’t always the big projects, either. Sometimes something small will suck up hundreds of hours of time, because you just can’t get it right.
On the other hand, you also can’t just ignore signs of burnout. If you see it coming, you need to do something. Stepping back from even one big responsibility can make a huge difference. So can powering through something to see the results of your hard work. So can assign for help, if you have people you can ask.
In my experience, those things don’t fix problems immediately. But if you don’t take steps like that, and burnout gets worse, you are traveling a dark path. One that has taken out better designers than I.
Big and important projects—new core rulebooks, connected series of adventures, new jobs that have extremely steep learning curves, ventures with partners counting on you—can be particularly brutal. And if you do more than one of those at a time, the effects multiple, rather than add.
But such projects also, eventually, smooth out. Either you finish them, or you learn the ropes.
It’s all too easy to end up in a position that is unsustainable, caught between burnout and the rent. But small changes do, eventually, make a different. Not everything must be sustained forever.
Also, know what helps. Or if you don’t know, look. I’ve been very public with a lot of my mental issues, and I have posted a lot of retrospectives, like this. These are both a release valve for me–a cheap and useful form of stress relief–and something I do because I would have loved to have this information in 1997, when I was writing freelance material but nothing had been published yet. It helps me, and I hope it helps someone else.
Each person must navigate their own path between these creative and financial Scylla and Charybdis. And sometimes you just have to strap yourself to the tiller, lay on sail, and hope you are still above water when you reach the far side.
But if you do that…keep those navigational charts, and try to avoid those waters in the future. Most people, myself included, bring burnout down on themselves. Try to learn from it.
You’ll keep making mistakes, of course. Just try not to make the same mistakes over and over.
I have a patreon. It’s one way I try to navigate between burnout and the rent, and it has some exclusive content.
If you ever find my posts to be entertaining or useful, consider offering a dollar or two a month of support.