Category Archives: Writing Basics

Developer Basics: The Art Brief

I got asked by William Patrick Peña about Art Briefs on Twitter today, and I realized it’s a topic I’ve never talked about much. It falls in the same kind of category as my “Writing Basics” line of articles for ttRPG creators…except writers aren’t normally asked to write art briefs for their work. There are exceptions of course (ranging from one-person shops to small groups that want to divide the workload to companies that just do things differently), but in my experience most often an art brief is created by a developer, art director, graphic designer, publisher, producer, or content editor (depending a lot on how work is divided and what titles are used for what roles within a company).

So I’m calling this a “Developer Basics” article, though I’m still tagging it as Writing Basics in the blog categories and tags.

I don’t have a LOT of advice on this topic – it really is an area where doing is the best form of learning. But I do have a few, so here they are.

First, the what.

An art brief, also sometimes called an art order, art description, or graphics order, is a written description of non-text elements needed for a book. This is very likely to include the cover art, and interior illustrations of various sizes (often broken down as full-page, half-page, quarter-page, and spot art… but not always).

Second, WHOEVER you are doing art briefs for, ask how they write them, see if you can get some examples, and follow their lead. This may be as specific as format (I have done art orders in Word, Google Docs, Excel, Discord, Asana, Slack, Basecamp, and even a few forms of proprietary software designed specifically to receive art briefs). There may be rules about the budget, where are can come from (which is often handled by an art director rather than a developer… but not always), how much you can fit into a size of art (such as requiring quarter-pagers to be just a single figure with absolutely no background, or spot art to only be a single object such as one piece of equipment, or one distant shot of a simple building like a tower). There may be rules about orientation (landscape vs portrait, specific proportions, the need for a border that can potentially be cut or obscured, and so on). No one will thank you for deviating from a publisher’s format without prior approval.

Third, be aware an art brief may or may not include map sketches. While almost no one expects a writer or developer to be able to create a print-ready quality map (although some incredibly talents devs, myself very much not included, are capable of doing so), professional cartographers won’t put *anything* on a map unless it is clearly marked. If you want wrecked cars in a street, they need to be on the sketch and be clearly marked what they are. If you want them to be different types of cars, you need to say so. Trap doors, wood vs stone textures, rugs, chairs — it all needs to be clearly marked on a map sketch.

The timing of an art brief can also vary wildly by company. Some want art briefs done before writing is even finished on a manuscript, because art can take a lot of time to get in, and the publisher wants time for revisions. Others prefer for the final layout to be done or near-done, so it’s easy to see what pages need art, and what size and shape they need.

Be aware that not every artist has English as a first language, Avoid idioms and euphemisms if possible. These aren’t always obvious. I was once shown a piece of art that came from an art brief for a “man-eating tree.” It was a man, sitting in a forest, with a fork and knife, eating a tree.

Think about how posture, accessories, and form may impact the shape and space of a piece of art. A single figure in a quarter-page illustration of a woman with a rapier may seem simple enough, but if the woman is doing a drop-thrust with a rapier at full extension, she’s going to take up a lot more room.

Keep track in a written, searchable format of choices about gender representation, ethnicity, body type, age, and other factors. It’s up to you to decide if you want all your men to be heroic warriors and all your women to be scantily-dressed seductress witches (don’t do that, by the way), but it’s super-easy to not notice a trend unless you have these factors written down. And if you ever think you might have to fight for a decision that’s important to you, being able to point out that out of 27 character illos in a book you only made one obese, bespectacled, and bald can be useful ammunition.

Be aware that artists will generally default to what they are asked for most often if you don’t specify otherwise. If you don’t specify an ethnicity, they’ll be Caucasian. If you say they should be “brown,” they’ll be tan Caucasians. If you don’t specify body type, they’ll be fit and attractive. And if you don’t call out in the strongest terms that a woman should be illustrated with “no skin showing other than on her face, neck, and hands,” (and yes, I evolved that exact language to combat this trend), there’s a really good chance all women will be sexualized, with exposed cleavage and bare thighs.

Art references can help. If I want an estoc, specifically, I need to send the artist a visual example or link to the same. If you want a man to have strong African features and natural hair with a fade, you need to be clear on what that looks like.

Also, if you are doing any hairstyles outside your own personal experience, research them. A lot of hair styles mean something to the cultures they come from. Don’t assign them without some idea what statement you are making to people you are now representing in art.

Similarly, keep track of and think about the message your art sends. If all goblins are barefoot and have bones in their hair, you are presenting them as both uncivilized, and tied to racist caricatures of African natives. Don’t do that. Also, don’t pick an ethnicity or culture and make them exclusive to the visual style of your villains and evil cults. Yes, this is a lot of things to keep in mind while trying to describe the visuals for a imaginary world. but representation matters, normalization matters, and the message you are sending in visual form to people in different groups?

It matters.

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ADDED CONTENT!
The following are art brief tips by veteran developer AND artist, Stan!

Art Brief Tips:

• Come up with a CONCEPT for the piece rather than trying to imagine exactly what it should look like.

• A piece of art is a snapshot of a single moment, not a flowing scene of actions and results.

• Keep the description as short as possible. A sentence or two if possible.

• Include only the details that are NECESSARY. The artist can’t tell the difference between a key element and a “colorful addition.”

On Being Your Own Hype Person as an Independent Creator

Neal Litherland recently wrote a piece on social media abut why he posted about content of his in multiple different places online. It addresses a reality many of us face (everyone but the biggest and most successful content companies, n fact), and with his permission I am sharing it here.

Neal Litherland has a Patreon that supports his blog, and you can support him by joining it.

Small Words

“No disrespect, you made something really cool, but why did you share it literally EVERYWHERE?”

I will use small words.

Your options as an independent creator are either, “Be silent about your work, and let it languish ignored,” or, “Share it in every appropriate venue you can think of, and run the risk of possibly pissing people off because you have to be your own hype man.”

Trust me, Internet friend, I would DESPERATELY love to not have to do my own promotion. If I had a legion of at least a thousand dedicated fans who each bought a copy of every new release, who read and listened to everything I put out and then shared it on their own socials, I wouldn’t have to be constantly seeking out new places to scrounge eyeballs. But I had to go to over 60 different forums just to scrape together 1k views. If I hadn’t done that, I’d have managed 50. 100, tops.

I appreciate that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to be subjected to promotional posts. But I promise you with full sincerity, as much as you don’t want to see them, creators sure as fuck don’t want to make them. But it’s that, or starve, so that’s where we’re at.

I Am A College Dropout And Professional Writer

I do not have a college education.

I can, technically, list “some college” on forms or resumes as my highest educational level, but I got 0 credit hours from that “some college.” It wasn’t a great time for me, and I failed everything. Yes, every single class. For three semesters in a row. And, really, the impressive part of that story is that I talked my way past the admissions panels and deans of schools twice after failing every single class I took. While my close friends and colleagues know I can be a tenacious debater (I mean, I also talked my way into my High School diploma, which I was technically 1/2 credit short of earning), I have to suspect being a cis white male who was the son of two university employees (a professor and an executive secretary trusted to log information about radioactive materials) has as much to do with it as my blessing of blarney.

I was invited into a scholastic fraternity too, after three semesters of all-failing grades. So, yeah, I was treated by a nonstandard set of rules.

But I gave up, and walked away, and got jobs as a pizza delivery driver (a few times), movie theater usher (for one week, before I quit), banquet setup crew, short order fry cook, and the manager of a student union’s parking garage. All the while, what I wanted to do was write, preferably for big professional game companies.

And that left me in a bit of a pickle when I was applying for those professional jobs in the game industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As tempting as it was to write “Education: Talked my way into a High School Diploma and got enrolled in the same college three times despite failing ever class every semester — ask me how!” I’m not a big risk-taker when it comes to promoting myself. I was aware that cutesy things (sending in your resume as a character sheet or formatted as an adventure, doing it on pink paper with sketches of unicorns in the margins, literally folding it into origami that popped open as you tugged on it) were things some other applicants did, and that I just lacked the aura of whimsey to pull off.

So, for years: “Education: High School Degree, Aegis English Advanced Writing Program, Some College.

(And “Aegis English was just a special talented student program in High School, but I figured it sounded cool, and if someone asked me about it at least I was at an interview stage, where I could pile on the effort to be a strong advocate for my position.)

I picked and choose from other jobs that made me sound organized and team oriented. Being a manager of, well, anything was better than a big gap in my work history. Customer service at a bank suggested I could pass a background check. Most of the rest of it? Chucked in the proverbial bin.

Once I was actually on-staff at Wizards of the Coast for 14 months from 2000-2001, that became the crown jewel in my resume for a while. I figured a staff game industry job, followed by dozens of freelance projects for the same company, suggested I did good work. Then repeated freelance work for other companies. Then there was regular work for Super Genius Games. Then a developer gig for Green Ronin, which became the thing I built all my resume around.

And I began to wonder… was listing “High School, Some College” helping me, at all. Or, with no degree to point to, no specialty listed, no ongoing education in years, was I just highlighting one of my weaknesses? If I could get some staff jobs and tons of freelance, didn’t that matter a ton more than a sheepskin? No matter how undereducated I was, I could clearly put words together in a way that generated repeat business, which ought to be proof enough I wasn’t an idiot.

Now, to be clear, if I HAD had a degree in anything relevant, like English, Literature, History, Archeology, Film Studies (you know, just to mention some stuff there are Paizo employees with degrees in), sure, I’d include it. But there comes a point where the fact I was the manager of a parking garage, or could bread and fry cutlets, doesn’t really say anything about my ability to be a good fit for a staff job about making up worlds and rules and adventures.

It was actually my application to Paizo in 2014 when I decided “Fuck listing my education, with its high school and a few hours of college but no degree. I have more than 15 years of relevant, noteworthy, easily referenced work in this field. No one gives a shit if I don’t have a degree.” What I did do on that resume was list every single publication I had been paid for and was credited with. Every Dragon article. Every d20 Weekly byline. Every sourcebook, pdf, online adventure, and official website rules-answers article. Pages and pages of them.

Quantity, I felt, had a quality all it’s own.

(It was also, I have since been told by people who had to read it, a bit much. Nowadays I tend to lump things like Dragon articles and official advice columns into an entry that says “Various articles for Dragon Magazine, published from 1998 to 2009, list available upon request.”

And I can safely say in nearly a decade since making that decisions, whether applying at small ttRPG game companies, megacorporations, or start-ups, no one has asked me what my educational background it.

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#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 5:Jason Eric Nelson and Joseph Blomquist

Origins Game Fair is this weekend, and sadly I won’t be there. Interstate travel and big in-person gatherings just aren’t on my docket for the foreseeable future. So, I’m going to keep posting #OwenOnTheCouch content to try to do some good by remote, since I can’t sit with folks in person.

This time, let’s talk to Jason Eric Nelson, of Legendary Games (@LegendaryGamesJ on Twitter), and prolific freelance creator Joseph Blomquist (@DoctorMono on Twitter).

Owen: So, Jason: how do freelancers get work from Legendary? What’s the process?

Jason: Usually it’s a recommendation from someone who’s already worked with us, often from another collaboration they’ve done or being an active commenter on a playtest on one of our books. Sometimes it’s a recommendation from someone at Paizo or Wayfinder or Freelance Forge, etc. Having something to point to in the past to show your work or to talk about working with you.

Usually we start on one of our many collaborative books, doing a chunk of something working together with one or more other authors so we each get a feel for working with the other. If everything feels like a fit, we keep going from there. I’ll throw out project ideas or send things to jump on, and freelancers pitch things they’d like to do, and if it sounds like something that’s right for Legendary, we’ll roll with it and you might end up the lead or even some author on a book once you’ve shown your reliability.

Owen: Okay Jospeh, I know you’ve done game writing, reviews, art, and graphic design work; but if we’re just focusing on tabletop game design, what are some credits people might know you from?

Jospeh: I have a list, but just hitting some highlights I have credits for Margaret Weis Productions (Smallvile Roleplaying Game, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: Civil War – X-men and Annihilation), Paizo (several Pathfinder Society and Starfinder Society scenarios, including #2-10: Corporate Interests; and the Pathfinder 2e Bestiary 2 entries for the Blink Dog, Hippogriff, and Sandpoint Devil) (PF2), Saturday Morning Games (Dime Stories Roleplaying Game Rulebook, Easy Money- a 10 Cent Tale, and Among the Living- a 10 Cent Tale), Slugfest Games (Red Dragon Inn — Adventures Series: Appetizer and The Guide to Inns and Taverns).

Owen: So, lots of stuff for Pathfinder, Starfinder, Cortex, and Dime Stories! What other game systems are you comfortable writing for?

Joseph: I’ve done a bunch of writing in the industry, but any incarnation of the venerable d20 system- especially Pathfinder 2e, Starfinder, and 5e are all easy choices. I cut my teeth writing for Cortex and have a lot of familiarity with Modiphius’ 2D20 system (especially Star Trek Adventures), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and FATE systems. And of course, most of my early conversion work was in classic systems like DnD 2nd edition, Marvel FASERIP, West End Games’ D6 system, and Shadowrun. All of those systems are well within my wheelhouse.

Pathfinder Society Scenario #3-04: The Devil-Wrought Disappearance (PF2)

Starfinder Society Scenario #4-13: Hard Reset (Starfinder)

Pathfinder Society Scenario #4-02: Return to the Grave (PF2)

Paizo Fans United

Wayfinder # 20 (The Boomrock Run) (Starfinder)

Wayfinder #21 (Knights of Everstand, Knighthaunt) (PF2)

Saturday Morning Games

(Dime Stories Roleplaying Game Rulebook, Easy Money- a 10 Cent Tale, and Among the Living- a 10 Cent Tale)

Slugfest Games

Red Dragon Inn—Adventure Series: Appetizer (PF1)

Red Dragon Inn: The Guide to Inns and Taverns (PF1)

What other systems are you comfortable writing for?

I’ve done a bunch of writing in the industry, but any incarnation of the venerable d20 system- especially Pathfinder 2e, Starfinder, and 5e are all easy choices. I cut my teeth writing for Cortex and have a lot of familiarity with Modiphius’ 2D20 system (especially Star Trek Adventures), Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and FATE systems. And of course, most of my early conversion work was in classic systems like DnD 2nd edition, Marvel FASERIP, West End Games’ D6 system, and Shadowrun. All of those systems are well within my wheelhouse.

Owen: With such a broad range of experience, have you discovered you prefer one kind of writing assignment over another?

Joseph: I think my interests here are mostly common fare. I love writing background, giving a world or setting life. I love the challenge of coming up with a neat mechanic to act as an interesting sub system in a game. I love to challenge my players and my GMs. After three decades of GMming multiple systems, I am pretty proud of my abilities in that role. I try to be characterful and dive deep into my NPCs and the general feeling of the world I’m trying to lose my players into. That comes out in my writing where I try to incorporate mood pieces to help GMS set the scene and memorable characters that chew scenery.

Most recently, I seem to have found a niche I did not expect- one of an adventure designer. I guess I was always good at telling a tale, but most of my work – for Paizo especially – has been writing adventures. And let me tell you – I love it. It lets me do all the things I enjoy in setting a scene, writing characters, and challenging players. But it lets me do one thing else, help to create the kind of stories play groups still talk about years later.

Owen: What has the journey from gamer to game writer been like for you? How did you start?

Joseph: I’ve been gaming for 38 years or so, starting with the Mentzer Red Box one day, and TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes the next. By age 10, I was the regular GM for my friends- usually in Marvel Superheroes, but eventually introducing my closest friends to AD&D, Shadowrun, FASA’s Star Trek, GURPS, Mekton, and the World of Darkness games as the 90s came with a vengeance.

By the time I was 12, I was the ambassador of role-playing games for my group of friends- not all of which were prepared for the crunchy, rules heavy games of the late ‘80s. My answer was simple- make a game. I made a simple percentile system and wrote a 20-page rpg in my notebook with the amazingly clever name that was in no way derivative of Dungeons and Dragons, Sword and the Hand. This game was the intro for RPGs for our group of friends for years, until we dove headlong into Star Wars in the heyday of WEG’s license. At this point, I put my effort more into writing my own adventures, and plotting them out ahead of time for my players to enjoy in the systems we loved.

Eventually, I became a part owner in a local game store on Long Island, running games of MnM, Shadowrun, and D20 Star Wars in the back room nonstop with my prewritten adventures, to the delight of my players. But not knowing how to get my toe into the industry though I’d been freelancing for various video game, board game, and science fiction periodicals at this point, I did the next best thing – I wrote up my own superhero game. At the time, I conceived Superhuman as a skirmish level miniatures game (though the current incarnation coming to kickstarter soon-ish is a hybrid RPG/miniatures game) and I brought a mostly professional demo version of it with me to Origins in 2006 to show off to game designers I liked to ask for feedback. Luckily, one of the places I dropped a copy, Margaret Weis Productions, got me more than feedback – Cam Banks hired me a few weeks after the con to write super powers for Smallville. And a new leg of my career was born.

Owen: I’m always fascinated how people move into the tabletop writing industry. You mentioned not knowing how to get your toe in the industry: what other learning and experience prepared you for a game writing career once you found yourself in one?

Jospeh: So purely from an educational standpoint, my degree was in psychology and my minor was history. Most of my historical studies were centered around post-roman Britain through to the end of the Danelaw. One of my greatest passions is Arthurian legends, so diving into the deep end of the history and socio-political intricacies of the years Arthur would have lived as well as the years, centuries later, that his legend was truly born was more than just a passing interest. I suppose at some point I’ll seek out graduate studies on the subject or just do what most Arthurphiles do and write my own Arthurian novel.

I played in a touring metal band through my early 20s, and I try to bring my musical acumen into my work wherever possible. That being said, I was a piss poor songwriter- so don’t expect me to write you a jingle worth remembering. I could probably sing it though. Mixing that with the acting I did in college, I’ve increased my voice work to include not only A-list GMming, but voice overs for games and an audiobook on the horizon.

 Comics has been one of the few passions I have that rivals my love of gaming and all things Arthur. My vast comic collection has pushed my interest in games, writing, and allowed me to have a greatly informed perspective on the cycles, elements, successes, and failures of our most modern of mythologies. I’m a fan of B characters (Marv Wolfman’s Nova and Nightwing topping my list) and work well in every aspect of that medium- especially when it comes to games around the subject.

Owen: What’s the most recent project people can check out that you can talk about? 

Joseph: My most recent credit is Starfinder Society Scenario #4-13: Hard Reset. However, my next adventure will be released at Gencon, Pathfinder Society Scenario #4-02: Return to the Grave. Like all freelancers, my best work is under NDA, so I’ll just say – the best is yet to come.

Owen: Where can people find you if they want to reach out? 

Joseph: I can be found @DoctorMono on twitter, on kofi at https://ko-fi.com/doctormono, or in my rarely updated blog www.UnderwearOnTheOutside.com

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues. Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 4: Michael Sayre and Carlos Cabrera

Continuing with the #OwenOnTheCouch theme, let’s talk to Senior Designer at Paizo Michael Sayre (@MichaelJSayre1 on Twitter), and freelance Game Designer and Voice Actor Carlos Cabrera (https://carloscabrera.carrd.co/).

(#OwenontheCouch 2015)

Owen: Hey Michael Sayre, if someone wanted to write for the Pathfinder Rules Team, what’s their best bet for getting started? By the time they dare to reach out to you, want do you want to see them have done already?

Michael: So, the things I look for are-

A) An established portfolio of published work. Show me you’ve done the thing you’re looking to do for me at a professional level.

B) A professional online presence. Big rulebooks are a collaborative effort and I need people who can be respectful and work well with others.

C) Passion for and experience playing the game you’re looking to write for. I can almost always tell the difference between someone who’s just churning the formula and templates and someone who’s really finding under-supported pieces of the game that can be embellished to enhance the play experience.

D) Some evidence that you know how to read and follow an outline or similar kind of professional collaborative project instructions. With the kind of publishing we do, I already know what kinds of pieces I need and where I need them to make my book happen, so it’s critical that freelancers read and follow their assignment e-mail, outline, and milestone feedback.

Owen: Thanks, that’s a great response!

Would you recommend people doing their own projects, or working for other publishers, before they approach you? Is having a lot of smaller Paizo credits good? A few bigger 3pp or self-published projects? Both?

Michael: A diverse portfolio with a broader array of experiences is probably more appealing to me, personally, than having your entire portfolio exist within a single bucket (whether that be self-publishing, writing for a specific 3pp, etc.)

I think the broader your perspective is coming in the quicker you’ll be able to master “entry level” tasks and get entrusted with some larger or weightier pieces of content. Learning the industry through a few different vectors can help you avoid some of the more common stumbling blocks I see, especially when it comes to learning the best habits for good contract work and avoiding inheriting someone else’s bad habits.

That being said, everyone’s paths to improvement are different, and there’s nothing wrong with essentially “apprenticing” yourself to e.g. a 3pp while you learn the ropes, and as long as you’re still coming in with an open mind and a willingness to broaden your perspective and learn, having experience with one publisher instead of five or the like isn’t a deal-breaker and can have its own advantages.

Owen: Thanks, Mike! And here comes Carlos Cabrera! Heya Carlos. Lemme ask since you are here: I know you do freelance game writing and vice work. What published credits do you have, and for what game systems?

Carlos: I have worked on Pathfinder for both 1st and 2nd editions. My 1st edition work with 3PP is in Pathways #78, the Aethera Field Guide, the Mythic Character Codex, and the upcoming Kingmaker Anniversary Edition. For both systems and with Paizo directly I have worked on Borne by the Sun’s Grace, Lost Omens: Legends, the 2nd edition Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Society Quest #11: A Parchment Tree, and Ruins of the Radiant Siege. I have also done voicework in Starr Mazer DSP on Steam, Ashasar in the Pathfinder Society Special #3-99: Fate of the Future, and my likeness was used as a playable zombie survivor in State of Decay 2.

Owen: Neat! I’ve never gotten to be a zombie! What other systems are you comfortable writing for?

Carlos: If you’re listening @FFGames I would love to write something for your Star Wars RPG or Imperial Assault! I have already designed content for a home game of IA so I’m familiar with your incredible new dice system. I also have two different board game projects in development and one of them has been picked up by a publisher!

Owen: When you have your druthers, what kind of game content do you prefer to create?

Carlos: I like designing rules that can really expand the worldbuilding of a setting. Adventures or scenarios in new locations, NPCs and player options that can interact with the world in new and interesting ways, deities and the planes… really lore-defining things. In board games you generally have to keep it brief, but all of that is really up to you.

Owen: So, how did you get into games? And then into game writing?

My father got my two closest brothers and I into games at an early age with video games. I had an Intellivision system, one of my brothers a Colecovision, the other a Vectrex. After I had graduated to the NES and then the Sega Genesis, the game that made me want to be a designer at the impressionable age of 10 was Flashback: The Quest for Identity (womp womp). It was a birthday gift from my mother, so both my parents really had a hand in my chosen career.

Even though I wanted to get into video games, I broke into the industry first with writing for tabletop RPGs. I loved playing them and my imagination just didn’t stop after making characters. It took me a good 5 years of networking before my first freelance assignment. I filed Something Clever Games an LLC in 2015 and started work in 2017, so I was trying to break into the industry even before then. I haven’t given up on video games though. When I’m between assignments, I pivot back to a turn-based mobile RPG that I’ve been working on for a while.

Owen: You’ve obviously put a lot of thought and effort into your career. What expertise and study have you undertaken as part of that? 

Carlos: I made the decision to get a degree in multimedia/graphic design instead of using my mechanical drawing and architecture skills to go that route (there were also no video game schools until about halfway through). This has served me well in making maps for encounters and running campaigns, and I still enjoy making art and accessories like custom card sleeves for my games.

Owen: So, if someone is wanting to look at your work, what’s the most recent project people can check out?

Carlos: You still have a reliable couple of months to hear my voice in Pathfinder Society Special #3-99 before season 4 launches at GenCon this year. I will also be a recurring cast member for a Pathfinder 2e podcast this summer, so for that and any future announcements be sure to check out my website! (http://somethingclevergames.com)

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 3: Jason Keeley and Mark Seifter

Continuing this week’s #OwenOnTheCouchTheme, let’s talk to Development Manager of Starfinder at Paizo Jason Keeley (@herzwesten on Twitter), and BattleZoo Director of Games Mark Seifter (@MarkSeifter on Twitter). This is a great chance to listen and learn from industry pros!

(#OwenontheCouch, 2013)

Jason Keeley

Owen: So, Jason, if someone wants to write Starfinder content for you at @Paizo, how do they get your attention? What are you looking for in a freelancer?

Jason: *is walking by* Oh hi there! Well, for adventures, I’m generally looking for someone who has proven they can handle larger assignments (ie, being timely and the ability to inject a bit of their own ideas into a sometimes rigid outline) or has done something equally impressive.

I’m willing to try out newer freelancers for smaller assignments, though! It all depends on what the particular project needs.

Mark Seifter

Owen: Hey Mark, if someone wanted to get your attention as Director of Game Design, and maybe get work from you, what’s their best option?

Mark: So, find the Arcane Mark Discord server, join, then you can PM me on discord and I’ll add you to the list. We’re small so I don’t have a lot of opportunities at any given time, but I love to hear from freelancers.

Plus, now we have this!

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

#OwenOnTheCouch, Part 1: J Gray

This past weekend was PaizoCon, an event I attended in person from 2014-2019, and would very much like to go to again someday in the future. For a long time it was the kickoff of Convention Season for me, and missing one held in-person whole hearing how much fun other folks were having was bittersweet.

One of the things I commonly did at conventions was sit on a couch in a hotel lobby and talk to folks. A lot of these were fans, friends, co-workers, and colleagues, of course… but a big chunk were less-experienced or just-breaking-in freelancers, and (though they were often also friends or co-workers) work-giving publishers, editors, and developers.

A lot of people told me this year both that they miss that opportunity in general, and the chance to network in particular. So, I’m going to see if I can create a virtual version of #OwenontheCouch in social media, posting results on my blog and perhaps even holding a virtual event sometime during Origins and/or Gen Con. This week will mostly be Couch content, as I am still recovering from the flu.

The lobby couch I traditionally used during PaizoCon has apparently been removed during the pandemic, and my pals at Legendary Games were kind enough to create this memorial at the site of the original couch.

So please welcome J Gray to the couch! He wrote these observations back in 2016, and since has gone on to work for R. Talsorian Games. A number of industry professionals have noted how accurate these observations are, and I consider them well worth reading.

Five Things I’ve Learned As a 3pp Freelancer
I’ve been a freelance RPG professional, almost entirely for 3pp Pathfinder products, for over a year now. I’ve had the chance to work with several different companies and have written, developed, edited, beta read, or done layout on several books (some out for sale, some not yet out). While I haven’t been at this gig for as long as most of the folk I admire in the field, I think I’ve got enough experience under my belt to have learned a thing or five.

  1. THE WORK WON’T COME TO YOU
    While there are exceptions, if you’ve got few credits to your name and no real relationships with publishers no one is going to come to you and ask you to write Ultimate Splatfinder Adventures 5. You need to go out there and find the work. Enter the Paizo Superstar Contest for practice. Send articles to Wayfinder to build up a resume. Pay attention to the forums where publishers advertise for writers (such as the Paizo 3pp forum). And don’t be afraid to send in a query or a pitch to a publisher if you think you’ve got an idea that will work for them. You need to find your work. The work won’t find you.
  2. PUBLISHERS ARE BUSY PEOPLE
    Most 3pp publishers run their company as a hobby or a second job. They’ve already got a 9-5 of some kind. Those who are doing the gaming gig full time are probably running herd on a dozen projects (if not more!) at once for their own company AND working on something for other companies as well. Add to that family, friends, and the occasional social activity and they are probably sleep-deprived and busy as hell. If a publisher isn’t getting back to you right away, chances are it is because that person is busy not because they are rude. Have patience. If you haven’t gotten a response, wait a week or maybe even two and then send a polite follow-up email asking if they got your previous email. Don’t spam the hell out of them.
  3. YOU AREN’T THAT SPECIAL
    Or, put another way, use your freaking manners people! Here’s the truth. There are many, many 3pp writers out there and unless your name is Monte Cooke or Owen KC Stephens, chances are your desire to make RPG material is greater than a publisher’s need to have YOU, in specific, make RPG material. Confidence is awesome! You should totally have it but the best way to approach any publisher is to mind your Ps and Qs, say please and thank you, and follow any confidence cocktail with a nice chaser of humility. Go in thinking you’re the cat’s meow or believing that you can follow your rules instead of the publisher’s rules and chances are all you’ll get is a “No, thank you, we’re not interested in working with you.”
  4. KNOW THE RULES
    I don’t mean the game rules here. Obviously, any RPG writer should know the rules for the system being written for. Instead, I mean know the rules for writing for a publisher or system. Many publishers have guidelines that they will happily share with their writers. Read them. Follow them. Many publishers have specific workflow procedures. Ask about them. Follow them. I CANNOT STRESS HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS! If the publisher uses Google Docs on projects YOU use Google Docs on projects. You conform to the publisher’s guidelines and workflow and not the other way around. Respect their process. Also, know “system standard”. Fans of an RPG system get used to things being written in a certain way and when those things aren’t written in a certain way, it breaks their flow of reading and devalues their appreciation of a book. For example, if a system’s standard format is “Each character should make a Difficulty 20 Bagpipe skill check.” don’t write “Each character should make a bagpipe skill roll, DC 20.” Capitalize the terms that should be capitalized and use the right terms.
  5. WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED
    Based on my experience, here’s how workflow tends to go in RPG writing. First, you brainstorm the idea. Second, you write what you’re going to write using whatever process you use until it is done and submitted to the publisher. Third, the editor (or editors) edits and might ask you to make changes or just might make the changes themselves based on their experience, knowledge, and preference. Fourth, your work will be beta/playtested and further changes might be suggested. Fifth, the editor (or editors) might make further changes based on feedback from the previous stage. Sixth, there’s layout and production and all that jazz. So, let me reiterate here. WHAT YOU WRITE ISN’T WHAT WILL BE PUBLISHED. This means fluff will be changed. This means crunch will be changed. It might only be a few words that change or it might seem like the item was entirely rewritten. Why? Because no one’s work is perfect. Because the editor’s job is to see the big picture and make sure your work fits into that big picture. Because the beta readers found a flaw or a loophole that needs to be closed. Because your cool magic doodad is too close to someone else’s magic doodad. Because they freaking felt like it and that’s their job and you need to live with it. If your first instinct upon finding out someone edited your precious baby is a burning sensation in your gut and the desire to post on Facebook about how much it sucks? Learn to check your damn ego or consider getting out of the business. Because that’s how it works.

Want to Support the Couch?!
A great way to help me be able to make connections, post advice, and make #OwenOnTheCouch useful is to send me your thoughts, questions, contact info to be publicly shared, and anything else you think might advance the conversation or help people connect. I’m happy to host publisher throughs on what they are looking for, veteran’s advice, and even post common questions people have about how to break in, move up, and manage common issues.

Or, you can just throw money at me! Easiest done through Patron, and Ko-Fi.

Creative Resources Online

Today, I’m just listing some online resources I find useful, and other gamers. GMs, and creators might as well. I may expand this list as time goes on, in which case I’ll link back to it when it gets updates.

As always, I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Read terms and conditions of any resource you sue for commercial products.

Gold Standard
These are the very best of their kind. The gold standard of usefulness, in my opinion.

Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources (https://dmnes.org/names) – This is just what is says on the tin. The list is long, and hyperlinked to definitions, origins, and atributions.

Dyson Logos’ Commercial Maps (https://dysonlogos.blog/maps/commercial-maps/) – A huge, amazing repository of excellent maps by Dyson Logos that have free, commercial licenses attached to them. Read the license and understand it before use (i am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice), but if you need a city, tavern, dungeon, castle, and much, much more either for your game tomorrow night, or your product you want to sell without incurring cartography costs, this is an amazing place to start.

The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes: The Online Edition, by Jess Nevins (http://jessnevins.com/pulp/introduction.html) – Jess Nevins is a true scholar of entire forms of fiction I adore, including Victoriana, Pulp Stories, and more. This is an amazing list of pulp fiction characters, as well as important introductions, descriptions of archetypes, cross-referencing, and so on. For inspiration or a better understanding of the genre, this is an invaluable resource. (His Encyclopedia of Golden Age Heroes is nearly as good, and a valuable companion piece, but is not as finished as the pulp encyclopedia. And , of course, he has numerous published books as well, and a range of similar subjects, most of which are in my cloud reader and a few of which are on my physical bookshelves.

OneLook Dictionary Search (https://www.onelook.com/) – I don’t care about the definitions section of this. What’s amazing is the ability to enter a word and click the “related” button. That provides a list of words that are, somehow, related to the search term. Not synonyms (necessarily), but words that share some kind of link to your search word. Searching for words related to “death” gets you executioner, tomb, slaughterhouse, and so on. The utility for when I want words tied to a theme for spells, hero names, groups, magic items, archetypes, and so on is huge.

Almost as useful is the * before or after searches (such as death*), which give you words and phrases that start with or end with your search term. death*, for example gets you death’s head, death throes, and more. And, you can click through the examples to find out what they mean and/or where they come from.

There are tons of search options and ways to organize and sort the results, so spend some time reading the site and trying out options.

My Patreon and Ko-Fi

Speaking of resources, the tons of material I have on this site is supported by the members of my Patreon, and cups of donation to my Ko-Fi. So, if any of the links above open a new world of options for you, please consider supporting my current and future efforts to bring you more!

Relic Framework Concept: Rochambeau

When worldbuilding, sometimes you want to create a relic framework–that is, a set of rules and and concepts that guide how a specific type of important objects function and interact. This might be ancient rings of power (one of which binds them all in darkness), whispering keys (which perhaps have a special connection to one family line), conceptual stones that if gathered can change the entire universe, color-coded energy swords, alpha-class mecha no-one knows how to build anymore, or whatever.

This idea leaped into my head when I was contemplating such a set of relics, and trying to decide if I wanted to use them as narrative devices, McGuffins, elements of an RPG (ShadowFinders, maybe? Or my long-dusty StrangeFinder Modern ideas?), or whatever. But without knowing where I am going to put it yet, this has grown to be taking enough headspace I need to jot the ideas down so I can move on with other projects.

The Throws

Sometimes, the forces of the universe imbue an object with extraordinary power, thrown off from the normal processes of being a universe. Known as a “throw” the form of a throw may impact what it can do (a wasp trapped in a hunk of amber that can be used to summon a swarm of wasps), or might be utterly unrelated (a book of sonnets that teleports anyone hit in the head with it to a random bus station in Poughkeepsie).

Throws come in three categories.

Rock: Not always mineral, rocks are always unworked, natural objects, often stones but they could also be leftover plant matter, a liquid, a salt, amber, and so on. Most rocks are about the size of a child’s fist, though much larger and smaller exceptions exist. Rocks’ powers tend to center around raw creation or destruction on a powerful but crude scale. A rock’s powers are weak against a paper throw, and strong against a scissor throw. A rock is the only thing that can destroy a scissor, and a paper is the only thing that can destroy a rock.

Paper: Paper throws are always objects that hold knowledge, and are almost always manmade. A book, cassette tape, clay tablet, vinyl record, and knotted accounting cord are all possible papers, though in rare cases something like the cross-section of a tree showing the environments impacts on it over centuries could become a paper. Paper throws tend to have powers focused on evolution, change, and to a lesser extent knowledge. A paper’s powers are weak against a scissor throw, and strong against a rock throw. A scissor is the only thing that can destroy a paper, and a paper is the only thing that can destroy a rock.

Scissor: Scissors are always something created by the action of a living thing, but they are not all man-made. While tools, weapons, clothes, and furniture are all common scissors, so are bird nests, honeycomb, and beaver dams. Scissors’ powers are generally about applied force, ranging from destruction to heating, cooling, carving, and even assembling and forging things. A scissor’s powers are weak against a rock throw, and strong against a paper throw. A scissor is the only thing that can destroy a paper, and a rock is the only thing that can destroy a scissor.

So, this leaves us with a word where people seek relics for specific purposes, but every relic is also a potential weapon against one class of throw, and vulnerable to the other class of throw.

Now, what to DO with such a framework is a much broader question.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 6. When The Publisher Ruins Your Turnover

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer who I had offered to help get some 3pp material published for, and who then had some other opportunities pop up that (quite rightly) they pursued first. But we kept in touch, and I was happy to give guidance and advice when they wanted it.

Recently, they had some material in something published professionally… and the product was not great. I won’t go into details, other than to say the final text is pretty clearly worse than the original turnover the freelancer sent in. Now, that happens sometimes. It’s much, much rarer than things being significantly improved, in my experience. It’s even rarer than a freelancer thinking something has been ruined, when in fact the publisher has made improvements the freelancer simply isn’t fond of. But a publisher ruining a good draft does occasionally happen. And, when it does, it can be a shock, and a real emotional gut-punch.

Especially if the product was something you were excited about, seeing it’s final form be less clear, more typo-ridden, and riddled with worse rule implementation can be spectacularly disheartening. Given how tough ttRPG creation work is, how poorly it generally pays, and how little respect the work earns from the general public, often the joy in seeing the final product–with all its polish and improvement–is the biggest reward for the labor you put into it. When that is not just worse than you expected, but worse than you handed over, it can feel like you wasted your time and have been treated with disrespect.

In this case, the freelancer asked if I was willing to offer any suggestions on how to handle both the professional issue, and the emotional toll it takes. My adapted response is below.

“First, know that this is rare. Also, that’s always hard when it does happen. As a socially awkward depressive, I have had some projects changes and/or cancellations send me into deep negative states. It’s rough.

So, what to do about it.

Assuming the whole book isn’t a shitshow, it’s totally worth celebrating it as a project you contributed to. Credits are important, and even if they take away your joy, they shouldn’t also get to take away your stepping stone. You worked hard for this, and if you decide to move forward with freelance work, it’s worth having a professional credit from a recognizable company name on your resume. As long as the issue isn’t a moral or legal failing, even if you aren’t a fan of the final form, the very fact you did the work and it got published can help you get more opportunities in the future. The best way to clean a bad project taste out of your mouth is with a better project.

Even if you claim the project credit, since you earned it, feel free not to talk about what specifically you wrote for it. Usually, people don’t ask. If the DO ask, just say “Since the developer made changes, I don’t want to claim anything specific without the developer weighing in first.” If someone notes the project has a lot of errors, it’s fair to say you are not the developer or the editor, but don’t go farther than that. As a freelancer looking for more gigs, there’s no upside to making a stink about the quality of other people’s work if it’s not an ethical or legal issue.

It can be worthwhile to reach out to your developer and (politely) ask about specific changes that seem to be errors or violate the guidelines you were given. Don’t say it’s wrong and they messed it up – just say something like “I note that I wrote the Thingamabob gives a +2 bonus, in keeping with the design document I had, and the final version gives a +5. Is there a design consideration I should be aware of, so I can create material closer to what you need?” This kind of request-for-feedback is fairly common, and even if it the change to what your wrote just a big fuckup on their part, bringing it to their notice at least means they can start more quickly to work on errata, if any.

Those are practical concerns. Emotionally? That’s harder.

Bitch to friends you trust to keep it quiet. Play a game as different from what you worked on as you can. Pet a cat. Do an internet search for “TSR DaWizard,” and when you read the stories remember a BIG company got that one wrong on a huge scale. Drink some hot cocoa (or whatever fills that role for you). Let some time pass.

Know that this is a moment in your career, not an omen about the entirety of it.

Also… the pandemic has been hard on every creative I know. This both makes projects more likely to get botched, AND makes the impact of having your work be mangled so much more impactful. We have no idea the circumstances under which the developers/editors got their work done on this project. It may be an outlier that just suffered from massive internal problems with the company. It sucks for you, but it isn’t personal. And it isn’t going to happen every time.

Give yourself permission to be angry right now, and to need some time to shake it off. Usually, after a few weeks, it won’t be quite so raw a wound.

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