Category Archives: Writing Basics
I have now been a full-time employee of Paizo for five years.
It both seems like it’s been much, much longer than that, and like it can’t possible have been that long.
I was hired to be a developer for the Pathfinder Modules line, and that lasted for all of a single module (Plunder & Peril), which was outlined and ordered before I showed up, written by awesome authors, and which both Paizo Editor-in-Chief at the time Wes Schneider and the entire Paizo editorial staff had to do a lot of hand-holding to get me through it. Then I moved over to help with the Player Companion line, which I eventually took over. The first book I was able to propose, outline, assign, develop, and shepherd through the whole process was Dirty Tactics Toolbox, and it remains something I am proud of. I developed or helped develop 24 titles in that line, covering a little more than two years. Again, it both feels like it was longer than that, and like I couldn’t possible have been doing that for two years.
During that time I was also the host for Paizo’s RPG Superstar contest, was the Freeport Developer for Green Ronin (and yes, that got complicated, and I appreciate more than I can ever express the trust both companies placed in me), a blogger, the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, a developer and then producer for Rite publishing, a freelance writers developer and consultant, the person who handled most of the development blogs for the Emerald Spire (leading to my “Into the Emerald Spire ongoing multi-year Con game, which will be played at the 6th PaizoCon in row come next month), a seminar attendee, and as much as possible an advocate for the causes and people I thought needed allies.
(And as a ridiculously long parenthetical aside, I wish I had written something like this for my five-year anniversary with Green Ronin, who have been a loving and supportive family in ways I never would have predicted, and for Rogue Genius Games, which is still my baby. But those milestones hit at times when I didn’t have the words. I don’t want to take away from my main point, but nothing in the past five years has been simple, and I need some folks to know I love and appreciate them at a special level. Thanks Ronins. Thanks Stan! I would not have survived the past 60 months without you all.)
For five years, Paizo has been the focus of my social, professional, and financial life. I met new people. I made, and in a few cases lost to tragedy, close friends. I even had a “five year plan.” I thought I was on a specific path, and thought I knew where that would take me.
Which I never saw coming.
First the pre-game work, then the core rulebook, and now the work as Starfinder Design Lead. I’ve followed, collaborated, tried to lead, grown, and I hope helped others to grow. I am grateful for how amazing and talented all the people who work on Starfinder in all capacities are, and I am truly proud of a universe I have helped to begin. I look forward to seeing it evolve, especially watching the amazing things other people are doing to make it so much better than I imagined.
On the journey to be here, this arbitrary benchmark which has me writing passionately at 3:30am (and not at all for the first time), one moment sticks out in my mind.
In early 2014, on a phone call with Erik Mona about whether I would seriously give up the life of being a full-time freelancer in the extremely cheap and well-known environments of Oklahoma to take a full-time job for Paizo, he asked me why I wanted the job.
“I want to grow. I want to be around people who do work I admire. I want to meet new people, learn new skills, and do new things. I love Pathfinder, and I love Paizo. I want to help both of those things be better, and I can’t imagine a better place for me to be around successful people who can help me be better.”
It was, Erik said at the time, a great answer.
And, it has proven to be a great success in terms of making me a better person.
The past five years has certainly not been without its challenges, frustrations, pains, fights, and failures. But especially on the my year anniversary, I want to take special care to thank EVERYONE I have ever worked with since I joined Paizo, from managers and publishers and the warehouse crew and art department, editors, designers, developers, and owners, to freelancers and the community and Superstar contestants, for being so helpful, and welcoming, and awesome.
I look forward to the next five years, and all the challenges and opportunities they will bring.
Owen K.C. Stephens,
Starfinder Design Lead, Paizo, Inc.
If you are trying to get a publisher (or developer, editor, producer–anyone who could pay you for words) to accept a pitch of yours, tell them why they should care about it.
Compare the following pitches for “State of the Union,” a hypothetical Starfinder adventure.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. What appears at first to just be normal academic pranks turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, and I could have it completed in 3 months.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, have 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available.
Among the projects I think might be a good match for your company is a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) titled “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
I envision this as 32 pages long and needing 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available. It could also be adjusted to be longer or shorter, to fit your production needs. The core of this adventure comes from my experiences as the manager for the parking garage of the University of Oklahoma Student Union in the 1990s. During my 20-years as an RPG designer I have considered designing it for d20 Modern and Star Wars Saga Edition, but what has always been missing before are elements now available with the Starfinder RPG.
So, this one is special. It was written in response to this article by Steven Marsh.
If you want to learn about RPGs and how they work, you should already know who Steven Marsh is. If you don’t, go look him up. But the main thing is that he was editor of Pyramid Magazine for 18 YEARS!
Steven has seen more RPG pitches than I will in a lifetime. If you ignore everything I wrote here, PAY ATTENTION to his much-better version (reprinted with his kind permission).
I’ve reviewed your submission guidelines and hope you’ll consider a new entry for your line of adventures under the Starfinder Compatibility License.
THE PITCH: Intrigued by seemingly mundane academic pranks, the heroes soon discover these deeds are cover for a major organized crime operation. With no one else taking this life-and-death threat seriously and the clock ticking down, only the spacefarers can infiltrate the multi-species student union and save the day . . . hopefully before the evening’s Zero-G-Pong Charity Fundraiser!
SPECIFICS: This is a lighthearted scenario close in tone to your adventures “Toastmaster Emperor” and “Pair of Dice Lost.” Designed as a combat-light standalone adventure for 4-6 low-level heroes, it can also serve as a followup to “Toastmaster Emperor.” It’s outlined at 31 non-title pages: 6 pages of background, 20 pages of encounters centered around two locales, and 5 pages of new gear and adversaries. It requires 2 maps; I could provide basic InDesign or JPG files, which can either be used as is or form the basis for more “professional” efforts.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to your thoughts!
You CAN put in too much information, and Pitch Three is pushing what i consider to be the upper bounds. But letting a potential publisher know you have done your homework, you have relevant real-world experience, and this isn’t your first rodeo are all useful additions to what you are pitching and why.
Also, as much as possible, reuse any work you have already done and still have the rights to (though clear that with your publisher, if it’s ever been seen by the public before) and write things you can use multiple ways.
For example, I WAS the manager of the OU Student Union parking garage in the 1990s, and I DO have an idea for an adventure called “State of the Union.” So, if a publisher asked me about this article, I could confirm those details.
(Though I DON’T have an outline. Yet…)
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I love my editors.
I kinda have to. I need to treat them the way fighter pilots need to treat their ground crews. without them, I can’t do my job.
They are the only people in the world companies will pay to make me look smarter.
So, when they savagely rake me over the coals on something, I try to pay attention. To be a better writer, of course. And to show them I respect the effort I put into sending me feedback.
But, also, because I never want to know the savagery of a twice-spurned editor who finds the same mistake in a turnover of mine after pointing it out for me all special.
So that you can perhaps learn from my mistakes as well, here are the three two most savage pieces of editorial feedback I have ever received on my writing. I’m naming names.
One. Stilted Dialog.
Lj Stephens was editing a short piece of intro fiction I wrote for a game product. She asked for a revision noting:
“It’s great, except for when people are talking. That is all bad. Can you rewrite this so no one speaks?”
Yes. Yes I can.
Two. Passive Voice.
Louis Agresta sent me feedback on an adventure I wrote for him that said “Too much passive voice has been put in this adventure.”
Wow, that sentence is So awkward I wonder why…
Three. American Spelling.
I turned over a manuscript to Wes Schneider which, to be clear, was for an American publisher.
I spelled the word gray as “grey” throughout the text.
He gave the manuscript back to me with editorial comments. The first time that appeared, there was a correction.
The second? A bigger correction, with a star by it.
The third? The page bled red ink.
Wes said we fought a war for that ‘A.’ He mentioned I was making baby George Washington cry. He drew a sketch of a field of cut-up and dying E’s in red ink on the manuscript, and told me I had to enter all the corrections myself.
With apologies to baby George Washington.
Good luck out there. Be kind to your editors.
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This is a very small thing… and yet an important one.
When, as a freelancer, you turn your project over to the contact with the client (be that editor/developer/manager/producer/publisher), make sure you are giving it to them in the format they want.
If they have a style guide, READ AND FOLLOW IT.
If they DON’T have a style guide, ASK how they want it.
For many years, I VERY much preferred writing in WordPerfect, then exporting files as rtf or text, depending on what my client would take.
But over the years, more and more of them specifically wanted .doc, or .docx, or even styled Word documents using specific fonts and styles.
So, I had to give up my Beloved WordPerfect, more than a decade ago.
The vast majority of freelance work I do now is turned over in styled Word docs, as requested by the publisher.
Some publishers HATE styled Word docs. Some need things in google docs. I literally had one ask me to send the material in the body of an email… which would be anathema for everyone else I work for.
So the takeaway here is that it’s very little effort to ask, and it wins you a lot of goodwill to give publishers materials the way they want them.
Writing for tabletop games, RPGs in general, doesn’t pay fabulously well. Especially as a freelancer. The pay rates range from about half-a-cent-a-word on the lower end, to a ceiling of about 10 cents/word. An average is about 4-5 cents a word… and has been for this entire millennium.
Most of that is work-for-hire as well, so there’s no royalties, no residuals, and no opportunity to get a big payday when a project is a smash hit.
So, if you write 1,000 finished words a day, every day (which in my experience means writing 2-3k total words a day, so you have time for dead ends, revisions, and second drafts), AND you sell it all, AND you get paid for everything on time you’ll make… $1,500 a month.
With no vacation, sick leave, or benefits.
So, how does anyone survive on that amount of money?
Sorry, this is going to be a bit grim.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
The fact of the matter is, most people who write for tabletop games don’t make enough money doing so to pay all their bills (and especially not to do that and pay their own health insurance, put money away for retirement, build an emergency fund, and so on).
I’m not saying it can’t be done. I AM saying don’t assume you can do it until you’re seeing evidence it’s true.
Especially as you first begin to write for money, I strongly recommend you make that a side gig. It can be a fun way to make extra money, and it can reduce the stress of knowing your nascent writing skills/fledgling career has to pay the bills.
When I first began freelance tabletop game writing, I just wanted to make enough money to pay for a Dragon Magazine subscription. That was a reasonable early goal, and it wasn’t until I was making more money writing than my 40-hour job I went full-time. I strongly recommend this path. Yes, it reduces the pressure to succeed, and some people thrive under that pressure, but it also gives you time to make contacts, build a reputation, and settle in to a new lifestyle.
Live Someplace Cheap
Telling someone the secret to surviving on a tiny amount of money is to move someplace cheap sounds like out-of-touch advice from someone who doesn’t have to do it, and I’ll happily acknowledge that it’s just not a realistic option for everyone.
It is, however, exactly what I did for the majority of my freelance career.
In 2001 I was laid off from a salaried position at Wizards of the Coast, just 14 months after I was hired, and just 3 months after I had sold my out-of-state house and bought a new one on the assurance my job was secure.
And, suddenly, I couldn’t afford to live in the Seattle area anymore.
Note that it wasn’t as expensive them, even relatively, as it is now. But I also wasn’t as well-established then, and looking at making it as a full-time freelancer my wife and I could see it just wouldn’t be possible if we stayed in our new home, hung out with our new friends… or kept our new house.
I could have gotten a non-tabletop game industry job and made ends meet. But we decided nor to do that.
Instead, we moved to Norman, OK, one of the cheapest places in the US to live, and a place where we had an extensive support network. An there we stayed for the next 13 years, as I worked at being a full-time tabletop/RPG writer, up until I was hired by Paizo in 2014 and we moved back to the Seattle area.
So it wouldn’t be an honest or complete list of options from me, if I didn’t include one of the main coping methods I used.
We moved someplace cheap, and stayed there almost a decade and a half.
Ask For More
Don’t be a dick about it, but there’s nothing wrong (BEFORE agreeing to terms and signing a contract) with telling someone you want more money for a project. The difference between 4 cents and 5 cents a word may not seem like much, but it’s a 25% raise.
See if you can retain any rights. See if they can revert to you after 5 years. See if you can get profit sharing. Don’t come back with these over and over on the same project, but do feel free to ask for SOMETHING if you think you’ve earned it. If you are doing your 4th or 5th project with the same people, it’s worth seeing if you can get even a minor raise. It doesn’t have to be a cent a word– if they are offering $55 for 1,375 words and they won’t go for boosting it up to $68.75, ask if they’ll just do $60.
Every. Little. Bit. Helps.
And if you are someone who hates asking for more, or are afraid even one request for a raise will cause a potential client to immediately drop you?
The industry will be happy to never give you more… to your significant detriment.
People who pay you to write for them have a legitimate expectation you’ll do your best work for them, regardless of what they pay you. Once you agree to a pay rate, you are agreeing to do a good job for that amount of money.
Writing is, in my experience, a task where I can ALWAYS do a better job if I have more time. If I have a completely finished draft, ready to go to editing and layout, and a publisher asks me if I could make it better if I had a new deadline and they were going to pay me the per-word rate again to make it better?
The answer is always yes. That’s literally what developers do. And even with my own material, I can always find ways to make it better.
Which means, I can always find ways to take longer than I can afford to.
I’m absolutely not saying to rush through a job or delivery a crappy manuscript. Not only do I consider that unethical, it’s a bad way to build a reputation and a career.
But I AM saying that there’s is a reasonable level of effort to be expected from you, and if you constantly go above-and-beyond, you are going to make it hard to write enough to make a living. If doubling your time spend would give you a 5% boost in quality, then that would probably be spending too much time on that project.
The other end of “Write Fast” is to see what you are doing in your writing time that doesn’t put words on the page. Does every trip to Google to look up poisons used in ancient Rome end up with an hour spent looking at TVTropes? Then you may need to set yourself a research timer.
Did you spend more time watching videos of anime space battle that writing about space battles? Then you may need to set yourself some rules on what constitutes “writing time.”
Don’t make yourself miserable, but do remember that if you want freelance writing to reward you like a job, you need to treat it like a job.
Make Your Leisure Writing Work For You
I am assuming here that you DO leisure writing. That there’s SOMETHING you write for fun.
If not, I have no idea why you want to be a tabletop game writer, and you can just skip this one.
Whatever it is you write for fun — campaign histories, fan fiction, descriptions of fabulous gay taverns in Waterdeep — try to find a way to make money off it. Keep it legal — don’t violate copyright to make a buck — but do consider what your options are. If you are writing material for a campaign you don’t own, see if you can rewrite it to be generic and set it up as a Patreon. Post it to your blog and have a Ko-fi.com tip jar. Save it as material to raid if you get a writing gig you can repurpose it for (assuming you haven’t published it some other way at that point). Gather it together into it’s own product and pitch it to publishers… or get into self-publishing.
If you are a writer, all your writing has value. Don’t overlook ways to monetize anything you have written. If you wouldn’t have written it anyway and posting it gets you $10 a month? That means you can cover one more $100 expense once a year.
Recognize Feast and Famine, and Act Accordingly
As a freelancer, sometimes you’ll have a (relatively) large amount of money drop in your lap at the end of a project… and then nothing for months.
Try to prepare for that.
Hold back money for bills you can predict. Try to build an emergency fund. If you have extra money, that’s a great time to buy in bulk if it’ll actually save you money. But if you don’t know when your next payday is, it’s a good idea to spend as little a possible. You don’t want to get a great deal on 40 gallons of peanut butter, then not have money for any other groceries–or gas, or rent–for 3 months.
I am not the person to tell you when it’s time to take a big risk, or give up, or move on, or take a temporary gig to make ends meet. Only you can do that.
But you need good data to make that call accurately.
So keep track of it all. What you made, what you spent it on, how long it took.
Maybe you discover you can write adventures much faster than campaign settings. Or that you spend too much on pizza delivery when you are on deadline. Or that you can save money on taxes with business deductions.
I don’t know. And if you don’t keep track, you won’t know either.
Yes, relationships with publishers, developers, and editors, in an effort to be kept in mind for work. But also other writers (to bounce ideas off of, commiserate, or in case they become publishers, developers, and editors). People in your community who do freelance work (you never know what resources are out there, and local folks are good contacts to find out). Even fans… sometimes.
Your career is more than your skill. It’s who is willing to pay you for that skill, which means who knows you. And who they think will pick something up because you wrote it, which means who they think knows you matters too.
As an introvert with social anxiety I found this one of the hardest things. But I discovered that when people at conventions invited me out for drinks, they didn’t care if I drank or not. I could get a club soda. It was just an opportunity to network, hang out, make connections. I set my career back at least a decade by avoiding those opportunities for most of my career.
Be smart, be safe. But when you are safe and comfortable, reach out to folks, and make connections.
A strong community will pay dividends in ways you can never predict.
Post Your Thoughts, Ask People to Pay You For Them.
There’s always SOMEONE who cares what you think, and who looks up to where you already are.
Some of them will pay you if you post to a blog, and have a link to some way to give you money.
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We covered some of the work you need to do well before you actually make a pitch to a game company in Writing Basics: RPG Pitches (Part One). Now we can go on to What to Pitch and When to Pitch It.
What to Pitch
Okay, so if you’ve gone and done the work we outlined in Part One, you have a number of game companies you know are publishing work for the game system you want to write for, and you know what kinds of projects they publish.
So, now it is time to pitch some things very similar to what they already do. Hopefully, there are projects you are excited about that are a good fit for one or more game companies.
If no-one is publishing the kinds of things you want to write, you have some tough decisions to make. Pragmatically, I recommend you get experience and contacts and a good reputation by pitching the sorts of things publishers are already interested in before you try to pitch unique projects no one else has ever thought of. The latter is amazingly useful if done well—but most publishers are going to be dubious about your ability to do something so nonstandard well until they have some idea of who you are and the quality and tenor of your work.
The best way to earn trust to do something outside the box is to prove you understand what the box is and why it’s there. Publishers gets weird and unusual pitches fairly often—everything from people who don’t understand the legal limitations of publishing (it’s hard to lose my interest faster than by pitching a project I legally can’t do, or that required me to do a lot of work on my end to get the legal rights so you can write a thing).
Once you have written a few things for a company that have turned out well, you can begin pitching more out-there ideas.
If you happen to have any special advantages or skills that make you the perfect person to write a pitch, be sure to include that info. For example, if you DO have the legal rights to do a licensed project that seems similar to what a game company is already doing, that’s something to mention early in a pitch. Make sure you’re actually right about that—for example if you have to have a friend who is a best-selling author and casually said they’d be fine with you writing game material set in their universe get that in writing (preferably with some details on timeframe, rights, royalty needs, and so on).
Or if you are pitching an adventure set in a sewer, and you have a professional wastewater civil engineering job, that’s worth mentioning.
When developing your pitches to suggest to a company you have never worked with before, come up with projects at the shortest end of the things that publisher does. You can include one longer one in a set of pitches, but in general something short is a great first project. It’s not asking the publisher to take as big a risk, and it’s not eating up as much of your time to create. Once you and the publish have a project or two together under your belts, you’re both in a better position to know if you want to work on longer projects together.
(Also, you can make sure the publisher is fulfilling their end of the contract before you get more work tied up with them. Do. Not. Work. Without. A. Contract.)
When to Pitch
Well, as soon as you have done your homework, and know your own schedule, and have a pitch written.
“But… but… gen Con and the GAMA Trade Show and the publisher’s announced schedule and my school year…”
Yep. Pitch now anyway.
Look, there is no “perfect” time to pitch. Your schedule, the publisher’s schedule, both of your sets of needs—those things are in constant flux. Shoot pitches out there asap, and then begin scheduling when you get replies back. If you have enough work booked for 6 months you can pause, but in general even if you have some work lined up it’s worth pitching new things—just be clear in your pitch what your timeframe likely is. Chances are you won’t hear back about your pitch for weeks anyway, and if your availability is different by then, just be honest.
I only included a When to Pitch section because people have asked me tons of questions about getting the timing of this right.
You can’t. Just do it. The time is now.
The Things You’ve Wanted Me To Tell You For 2,000 Words Now
Your success is going to depend a lot on how much you have read and absorbed all the notes and processes I’ve outlined up to this point, and on being persistent and not getting discouraged when the first company you contact turns you down. And the second. And the next ten.
But yes, there are some basic things you should do once you are actually writing and sending the pitch, and for those of you who have been wanting that list, you’ve finally reached that point in my advice. For all of these steps, remember what I’ve said about doing your homework, pitching things similar to what a company already does, and being ready to actually produce once you get a green light.
If at all possible, find the company’s “Contact Us” page, and use the appropriate email to send your pitch. If you can’t find that, contact them through other (public, professional) means and ask what their process is for accepting pitches. Read their whole website and Facebook page before you do that though—getting this right the first time is a much better impression on your ability to get details right.
Begin with an at-most 2-sentence introduction. If you have any connection at all to the publisher or company, mention it here but keep is SHORT, and don’t suck-up.
Pitch 3-4 projects each time you contact a company to see if they are interested in publishing something of yours. Try to make these different enough that if the company has a gap on its schedule, at least one of your ideas is a good match for their needs. Make sure the projects are all things you are actually interested in and able to write. (Some people try to have one “real” pitch and 2-3 terrible ideas they presume no one will choose to publish. Don’t do this.)
Your pitch should include the following information about each project:
A proposed title. This can be a great chance to prove you know their game product lines.
An elevator pitch description. (That is: if you found yourself sharing an elevator with a publisher and you mentioned you were a writer, and they said “Oh yeah? Got a project you’d like to write for us?,” the description of your idea that is complete but short enough to get out before the elevator finishes it’s ride is your “elevator pitch.” 2-3 sentences, top, and one is better.)
A length, in words. (Doing your homework on the company’s project should held you estimate wordcount based on the words in similar projects.)
A timeframe when you could complete it by, in weeks. If your timeframe has other limitations (“if I don’t get started by August I’ll have school, so writing will take long”) include that information.
Your flexibility on any of these points—but only promise what you can deliver.
Anything that is likely to convince the publisher that you are a particularly good choice to write the product in question. Again, be short.
Here’s a sample pitch, though in a real message I’d add 1-2 more project pitches.
Dear Rogue Genius Games,
I read your publisher’s blog article about game product pitches, and it inspired me to write to you to see if you had interest in some projects I’d love to write for you.
Title: Bullet Points: Halfling War Muffin Recipes.
Length: 600-1,500 words.
A 1st edition Pathfinder RPG rules guide that gives options for adding combat-effective and game-balanced baking-related abilities for players and GMs who want cooking-themed character abilities. Similar in size and scope to your existing Bullet Point projects that add rules for one theme, such as 3 Things Made From Crabmen. (This could also be expanded to be a longer Genius Guide-style project, more like the Genius Guide to name Traits.)
With my current workload I expect this would take two weeks to write once we decided to proceed, although if other freelance projects get greenlit first I might need to schedule more like 4 weeks.
I’ve written numerous OGL products for Pathfinder, and worked on Gingerbread Kaiju (an edible boardgame that included a gingerbread recipe in it), and have insights on how to make this both a useful game supplement and something that appeals to foodie gamers.
Thanks for your consideration,
Owen K.C. Stephens
(You can also put your phone number here, if you actually answer your phone. I don’t.)
And that’s it!
Now, go make a dozen more pitches, and while you wait to hear back about those, write for your Blog, Patreon, social media, make some videos… throw your creative spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks.
Then make more pitches.
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So, real talk.
The game industry does not run on motivation. It runs on hard work. The people I see who don’t grasp that, or who can’t accommodate it, don’t last.
It’s pretty easy to write when you’re motivated. That seems self-evident (it’s pretty close to the definition of ‘motivation’), and it’s one reason a great deal of writing advice talks about how to GET motivated, and STAY motivated. When that works for you, that’s great–I’ll take a motivated day of writing over an unmotivated day any time I can. Inspirations, muses, focusing techniques–these are all things that make game design and development much easier to actually do. They may or may not impact the quality of the end product, but they absolutely make it easier to get the work done.
But they are not the end-all, be-all of making it as a successful full-time professional.
I see people struggle all the time with making the leap from side-gig or hobbyist freelancer to growing professional, and a lot of that has to do with being able to operate without motivation. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobbyist or side-gig, I did it for years in the 1990s before I finally became a true full-time professional. Not everyone even wants to depend on the game industry for their full-time career, and I don’t blame them.
But if you DO want to make that leap, you are going to have to learn how to get work done, at a high quality, when you are not motivated to do so. When it’s just as hard as any other job.
I used to be asked fairly often how I got over writer’s block, and I’d glibly say I looked at my mortgage (nowadays it would be looking at my rent due). While that was clearly an effort to be funny, it’s also more true than I realized at the time. If I didn’t feel words coming to me easily, then I worked to get the words that were hard to produce. Because motivation was inconsistent, and as a game designer looking to make this my primary source of income, I couldn’t be inconsistent.
And in time, that became a skill like any other.
That’s not to say there aren’t tricks to use to get you through periods low on inspiration and enjoying the writing or developing process. Sometimes you can take a break from a project, and discover some other kind of game work is more fulfilling. Sometime you can subvert expectations or analyze what about a project you find lacking and, by addressing that, both become motivated and make the project better. Sometimes you can shuffle the order of things and do boring scut work–whatever that is for you, be it tables, paginations, formatting, outlining, finishing touches, whatever–when you’re not feeling creative to save the “creative” work for when your muse is working.
But sometimes, you just have to tackle the grind and get the job done.
I’ve discussed things related to this topic fairly often. I’ve talked about making sure the whole world isn’t your job, coping mechanisms for impostor syndrome, watching for signs of burnout, and even balancing the needs of burnout and the rent. I’ve also talked about working sick, which is closer to the kind of doing-the-job-when-you-don’t-care skill I’m talking about here, and what I see as the basics of game industry professionalism. And I’ve made lots of posts about coping mechanisms.
But I don’t think I’ve every just come out and said this:
“To be a successful, full-time professional in this industry, you have to do the work even when you are in no mood to do the work.”
And its corollary: “If you want people to trust you to be able to get the work of a full-time professional done, they have to have confidence in your ability to work when unmotivated.”
You don’t have to start there. But you do have to GET there, eventually, or you’ll hit a ceiling of success.
I have coping mechanisms for this, too, of course. I have no idea how universal they are, because this is a topic no one ever seems to want to talk about, until we’re huddled around drinks after-hours at a convention telling horror stories. So none of this may be useful to anyone but me. I offer them up regardless.
These may not help you do the work when you couldn’t care less, but you have to find SOMETHING that can.
So what do I use?
I talk to a trusted source, and see if they can spark some excitement. To be honest, this ENTIRE blog post comes from me not being motivated to write anything for the professional end of my blog this week, and talking to a trusted collaborator who suggested that itself was a topic I should tackle. And in this case, writing about lack of motivation was a perfect task for when I’m not motivated.
I try to change the conditions of my environment. Different-than-usual music, different diet drinks, different things on my desk–anything to alter the physiognomy of my work space. Even if I can’t spark motivation, I can alter the feel of the drudgery so it’s less wearying than the same thing over and over and over.
I work in bursts. Often I am better off writing for 20 minutes, no matter how bad or annoying or 5-degrees-off-true the words are, and then taking a short break. This works especially well if I am having trouble writing, but am still okay to develop existing words. By the next day, the work is existing text, and I can make improvements to the less-than-stellar work of the previous day.
That last one hurts. It means that, at the time I am doing the work, it feels like it’s not work worthy of me, or my employer, or the project.
But for a professional, sometimes what you have to focus on is that at the end of the day, it needs to get done. Every professional I have ever discussed this with agrees that sometimes, you just have to grit it out, so there adventure is finished, the book is published, the project can move forward…
The blog has content.
This is one reason editors and project managers and publishers talk about the value of a freelancer who hits their deadlines and stays in communication before they talk about awesome ideas and inspired writing. Obviously “great” is better than “adequate,” but adequate is better than greatness so late the company has gone bankrupt.
Without people who can do the job even when the muse is silent, inspiration doesn’t strike, and motivation is lacking, you can’t have a game industry. Once careers and house payments and full-time jobs and health insurance is involved, the product must get done, even if it’s not the most inspired entry in the field. And I don’t think we do anyone any favors to hide that fact. Sometimes this career is fulfilling and awesome.
Sometimes it’s what we have to do to fulfill our obligations.
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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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Quick Starfinder developer note.
In Starfinder? The names of classes, archetypes, bonus types, magic items, class features, hybrid items, technological items, equipment, the word level, and spells ARE NOT CAPITALIZED the way feats, skills, and HP/RP/SP are.
It’s not “The Gramarthurge is an Archetype exclusive to Technomancers that gains Word Abuse at 2nd Level, which boosts the utility of Spell Cache.”
It’s “The gramarthurge is an archetype exclusive to technomancers that gains word abuse at 2nd level, which boosts the utility of spell cache.”
But it’s still “The gramarthurge gains Toughness as a bonus feat, and a +2 insight bonus to Diplomacy when speaking or writing.”
As for why?
Well for every game, that’s a house style call, generally lead up by the editors and publisher, and possibly creative directors and designers.
It’s a process that involves a lot of smart people with a lot of opinions, and I am far from the most important (or most informed) member of that group, but as general guidelines:
If a detect magic spell will cause it to ping, it get italicized. So spells, magic items, hybrid items. This makes it easy for a GM to know what is magic without always looking it up.
If the term has been capitalized in every version of the d20 rules in our ancestry for 19 years (skills, feats), it gets capitalized. The original logic (IIRC) was that if we didn’t capitalize skill and feat names, they would get lost as game terms, and they were each their own highest-level header independent of any other game element. For example, you don’t capitalize class features because they are elements of a larger sub-category, the class. But each feat is all of that feat, and same with skills.
If the abbreviation of a multi-word game term is capitalized so it won’t be lost, and uses the first letters of the game term, the full term is capitalized. So HP leads to both Hit Poitns and Hull Points, but XP does not lead to experience points being capitalized. This isn’t true for all d20 games.
Otherwise normal rules of grammar apply, so elebrian isn’t capitalized for the same reason human isn’t, but Deoxian (as in a resident of the undead world of Deox) would be for the same reason American is.
And you can always check a game’s glossary and/or index, and always ask your editor/developer if they have a style guide.
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One of the things I have given as advice to people who want to break into rpg writing or increase the amount of rpg writing work they receive, is to make pitches to smaller companies. The logic here is that while Paizo and Fantasy Flight and Wizards of the Coast pretty well all know exactly what books they are doing for the next 12-18 months, and likely already have some sense of their schedule over the next 5 years or so, smaller RPG companies are more likely to be flexible and interested in projects freelancers are excited to write. You probably can’t get WotC to publish your idea for an adventure or a book on halfling baking magic, but Rogue Genius Games, Rite Publishing, and other small-to-mid-range companies are more likely to be interested.
If you do it right. And I never really talk about what that looks like. So, here’s a new Writing Basics to cover making rpg-related pitches. A lot of this is going to carry over to other publishing mediums and freelance work… and a lot won’t. As usual this is where I have the most experience, so this is where I am focusing my advice.
Way Before You Pitch
But before you do more than jot down some ideas you want to pitch, you have some pre-work to do. A lot of this is boring, and requires you to put in a lot of effort and thought before you get to any of the fun stuff of making things up for a game. That’s one of the big secrets of freelance work. It’s three jobs—successfully get the assignment, do the assignment, and then get paid for the assignment. The willingness to do this “boring part” is a huge part of how to get good without depending on getting lucky.
So, you want to pitch some companies. That means you need to pick some targets, and study those targets. I don’t want to make this sound creepier than it has to, but that really is the best way to say this.
You need to know who to pitch to, and you need to know what to pitch to them. One good way to find companies who are doing current work in the game system you want to write for is to go to DriveThruRPG, search for the game system, and click its home page. On the left is a list of game companies that have had good recent sales on products for that game line. Those are prime targets, because they are making money on that game and are doing do recently.
That’s not the only method of course—see who is active, who freelancers are talking about, who releases lots of products. Ask around.
Once you know who you want to pitch, you want to make it as easy as possible for the people you pitch to say yes, and that requires knowing somethings about them. Check their web sites. Look to see if they have submission guidelines. Look to see if they have a “Contact Us” link somewhere. Look to see if the owners or employees or recurring freelancers have social media you can follow and, if they do, read everything you can.
You can’t be a writer if you aren’t a reader. You want to know as much as you can about every company you are going to send pitches to. If they are looking for something specific, if they work in particular game lines, you want to know. Do they use a lot of authors for each product? What size product do they publish? What kinds of products do they publish? Adventures? Monster books? New rules content? Campaign settings? Entire game expansions? Whole games?
Before you ever approach a game company asking if they want to give you work, you want to have a solid idea what kinds of things they publish. That’s a big part of “making it easy to say yes.” Sure, if you have a brilliant idea that’s radically different from what a company normally does they may opt to take a risk on you… but that’s a bigger ask than suggesting you be the person to fill a slot they are already likely to want somebody to fill.
Also, BUY some of the company’s products. Yes, this means spending money before you make money. But not every game company has a style guide, and even the ones who do don’t include all the things they do out of institutional momentum. How a company arranges headers, whether it uses first-person, second-person, or third-person language, how it handles pronouns, how much art it uses, how many maps it presents, how serious or jokey their products are—those things can vary wildly (and can vary by line, or even by product). Knowing at least some of how a company actually presents game material is a huge help both when deciding what to pitch them, and in producing a manuscript they like enough to want to work with you again.
If you can, categorize the types of products produced by numerous game companies and their various lines. This can be helpful when you are first pitching, but it can also be helpful later on. For example, if you know what companies product short monster books for pathfinder tied to a single theme, then if you pitch a book like that to one of them and get turned down, you can quickly decide who to pitch it to next.
Finally, if you have any contacts within the industry, you may want to ask about their experiences working for each of the companies you have picked. Knowing if they are friendly, timely, how they pay (profit-share? Per word? Upon completion or upon publication?), what rights they take (work for hire or share of rights?) can help you know what to expect. You can always try to negotiate these things if they don’t match your needs (and should walk away from an offer rather than take one not worth your time or that takes advantage of you), but that’s another issue that may make it harder for a company to say yes to you.
We’ll continue this advice with Part Two: What to Pitch and When to Pitch It.
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