Category Archives: Writing Basics

The Branding and Promise of the Names of RPGs

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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Starfinder Writing Basics: Terms

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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Writing Basics: RPG Pitches (Part One)

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, So, first, you need to pick some targets. Study your 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.

Take notes.

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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Writing Basics: What IS the Barrier to Entry?

When people ask how to break into, or expand their visibility within, the RPG industry I often mention working for small pdf publishers as an option, or becoming one to self-publish your work. But, how realistic is that latter choice?

I have been deeply involved in small, mostly pdf, mostly third-party RPG game publishing for a decade. Despite looking a lot like the same kind of work as mid-sized companies (to be be fare, many of the same skills and challenged DO apply), being a basically one-man RPG shop is possible, and the barrier to entry can be quite low.

But… how low? How much should you spend on your first RPG release? How little CAN you spend?

Well, let’s look at some actual numbers.

Let’s say I want to release a 10-page RPG supplement for a licensed game, but that some OGL game or something with a separate license. How cheap can I make that?

Well, at a guess, that’ll be 7,500 words of writing. Let’s assume I do all the writing myself.

Then I want it to be edited. I can, possibly, get a friend or family member to edit it for free, but let’s assume I don’t do that. You can find editors for 1 cent/word. That’s my first real expense, and it’s $75.

Then I need a cover, and some interior illustrations. And they have to be things I have the rights to. Stock art is clearly the way to go with this, if we are trying to keep things cheap. I want one big piece for the cover, and five 1/4-page or character illos pieces to have one every 2 pages for the interior. That’s six total pieces of art. There’s a wide, wide range of stock art available, including a lot from Rogue Genius Games. I’ll likely spend more on the cover art than the interiors (although you could also go the brilliant route Raging Swam Press did, and create a style that uses no art on its covers. That’s a savings now AND in the future.) Let’s say you average $5 per illo for stock art, so that’s $30.

You need someone to do graphic design, and layout.  Ideally you’d pay a graphic designer to design the look for your line and create templates, which your layout artist would then use to put all your text and illustrations in place to make a final book. But you’re trying to go cheap. So you find someone to do a basic graphic design and layout in one go, and pay $2/page. That’s another $20.

It’s smart to get a lawyer to go over licenses with you, get yourself an LLC and a company bank account, and lots of other steps… but you don’t HAVE to.

It’s also smart to pay people what they are worth, and you often get what you pay for. I’m not claiming the prices I list here are standard, or reasonable. I’m just saying you can find professional people to do the listed work for the listed price.

Okay, so you are now out $125. You don’t want to pay for print runs or advertising, so you put up a pdf on DriveThruRPG, and the Open Gaming Store, and maybe Paizo, and maybe Warehouse23. What makes sense depends on the product. Those all have different terms, but let’s assume you’re going to get 65% of cover price, on average.

How many copies will you sell? Who knows. Let’s assume you’ll do 50 copies in the first 90 days. So you need to make $125 over 50 copies, or $2.50 per sale to break even. Since you only get 65% of each sale (the rest going to your online distributor), you set the sale price at $3.95 for the pdf.

If you sell your 50 copies, you’ll bring in $128.37… a $3.37 profit!

Of course, taxes will take some of that.

And if you had paid even 3 cents/word for the writing, you’d have another $225 in costs, which would require you to sell nearly another 100 copies to break even.

And if that writing is going to earn as much as $15/hour at 3 cents/word, the 7,500 words need to take no more than 15 hours–a writing rate (including outlines, formatting, brainstorming, approvals, revisions, and so forth) of at least 500 words an hour.

But if you at LEAST break even, you can learn and improve, and make more sales (and produce the material faster) on your NEXT pdf…

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Writing Basics: Index Page

The “Writing Basics” line of articles is my effort to codify some things that are fairly fundamental to writing in the tabletop RPG industry, but which aren’t generally taught in schools or discussed  much in how-to forums and convention panels. These are things I’ve mostly had to pick up over the years, which I would have loved a short primer on when I was getting started (or, in some cases, even ten years into my RPG writing career).

As this line of articles grows, some folks have asked me if I will cover a topic that… I already covered!

Right. Social media is NOT a steady, reliable, or easily searched information distribution mechanism.

So, to help anyone who might wonder what topics I have already cover, here’s the Writing Basics Index Page, with a short description and link to each article in this series. I’ll update this page as I keep writing these.

From Nothing to a Game Book: What is the process that leads from nothing to a company publishing a finished book? This is my best stab at a high-level, rough overview. It is, at best, a sketch that covers a lot of different ways this happens, but there are companies that add steps, or skip steps, or do things in a totally different order.

Paginations and Wordcounts: In this installment of Writing Basics I take a brief look at two related subjects that freelance writers often don’t need to worry too much about, but that are extremely important to the RPG industry overall—paginations and wordcounts.

Introductions: This covers the topic of “Introductions,” by which I specifically mean the text at the beginning of a product, book, chapter, or section (likely with its own header—these things are often interconnected), that explains what’s actually in that section of text. Ideally, it’s interesting to read, gives the reader some idea of what information is coming and why, and gives some context how that material connects to other books/products/chapters/ or sections of text.

Headers: Headers are the big titles of sections of books that tell you (roughly) what content is in that section. If you want a quick overview of what headers are, how to mark them in a manuscript (which, I should note, is actually “however your publisher tells you to,” though the [H1]- and [H2]-style designations are pretty common if not universal), go check out Rogue Genius Games’ “RGG Writer Guidelines,” which discuss headers and how to let your editor and layout artist know where they should in your manuscript.

Final Checks for RPG Manuscripts: In this entry, I going to talk about the all the work you should be doing after you are done writing, but before you turn over the manuscript. These last checks are often the difference between a polished manuscript that gets people’s attention, and a barely-useful mess that requires significant work from your developer/editor/producer/publisher to bring up to their standards.

Check the Rights to Anything You Use in Publishing: This is SUPER basic, but I see smart people get it wrong all the time.

Impostor Syndrome: A lot of creatives have it. I have it. Here are some of my coping mechanisms, in case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about).

 

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Writing Basics: Paginations and Wordcounts

In this installment of Writing Basics I’ll take a brief look at two related subjects that freelance writers often don’t need to worry too much about, but that are extremely important to the RPG industry overall—paginations and wordcounts.

These are good examples of the kinds of topics I never got much training about in school, and had to pick up as I went through my career. While early on I didn’t ever need to work with these much, the time came when I was trusted enough to begin to get jobs that DID require me to make calculations based on these elements, and I was woefully under-prepared for it. Luckily I managed to find some people willing to explain the core skills to me before I messed anything up too badly, but it would have been useful (to me, and my developers and editors) if I’d understood how these tools are used, and connected, long before I had to be able to create them myself.

In concept a wordcount is extremely simple—it’s the number of words a project needs to fill. There used to be lots of ways commonly used to calculate the word count of work you’ve finished, but nowadays most people just use the wordcount in their word processor program of choice. That’s fine… as far as it goes. I’ll note that since the industry standard in my experience is Office Word, you want to make sure your program of choice calculates a file’s word count in roughly the same was Word does, so if you developer asks for 1,500 words, your computer agrees with their computer on how close you are to hitting that.

Calculating what wordcounts should be in advance is more complicated, and we’ll get to that after we briefly discuss paginations.

A pagination is a document that lays out the specific pages of a book. It is used to determine what content goes on what page. The most common form I am used to is usually an Excel file or similar document that actually has a cell for each page, in which you list what’s on that page. Let’s do a super simple example, for an 8-page book on halfling war baking, as a table.

Title Page

 

 

Page 1

Credits

Table of Contents

Page 2

Introduction

½ page art

 

Page 3

Halfling War Baking History

 

Page 4

War Baker Archetype

¼ page art

Page 5

Equipment: Battle Muffins

¼ page art

Page 6

Glossary

Index

Appendix 1

Page 7

½ page ad

OGL

 

Page 8

 

Page 1 is the first page of the book separate from the cover, and is therefore a right-hand page. That’s why there is a blank entry to the left of it—when I open this 8-page book, the first thing I’ll see (after endpaper, which doesn’t count for our purposes but is sometimes printed on and would be listed as “front inside cover” in that case) is the inside of the front cover on the left, and the titles page on the right.

After that everything is 2-page “spreads.” Pages 2 and 3 will open with 2 on the left and 3 on the right. That means by looking at my pagination, I know that when reading the book you can see those two pages at the same time. This is extremely useful when determining where art goes—you don’t need art on every page. You don’t even need art on every 2-page spread. But you do want art fairly evenly distributed throughout an RPG book, or it becomes a dreaded “wall of text.”

Now obviously you don’t need a table of contents AND a glossary AND an index AND an appendix in an 8-page product. But when planning a physical book, you need to know how many pages your final product will be, and things like this take up space, and often can’t be written until so late in the process there’s no way to just flow them into a layout program and see how much room they eat up. By creating a pagination, you can leave room for these before they are written. Of course that means you need to know how much room you need for them, and that’s often a guessing game based on experience. But at least with a pagination, you have a chance to allot space for these things.

Now that we have a basic pagination, we can look at word count. While this is also a bit of a guessing game, there are factors we can depend on to get much closer than if we just use some generic round number. (That said, I use 22,000 words per 32 8.5×11 page of a 32-page or larger book when I can’t do a pagination for some reason, and while it’s not perfect, it’s often close enough for back-of-napkin calculations).

One of the things you need for an accurate wordcount is a finalized layout style. This is one of the reasons freelancers often don’t have to worry about figuring out their own wordcount—they would have to work with the layout artist to know the book’s fonts, styles, headers, and so on. But once you know how words are going fit onto a page, you can just count the words in 20 or so pages using those layout parameters (with no art or tables), and divide by 20, and that’s your rough per-page wordcount. Let’s say a page of nothing but normal words turns out to be 900 words per page for your graphic design. That means an 8-page book would be 7200 words, right?

Well, no.

Again, go to our pagination. We know the title page is just going to be the title of the book. The credits and table of contents are going to take up some words, but those aren’t part of the wordcount we need a freelancer to provide. Same with the glossary, index, and appendix—we need to remember those need to be done, but they aren’t the same as the halfling war baker material. The OGL is a bunch of words, and it’s super-important the writer work with us to make it accurate, but that’s not part of a project’s normal wordcount either.

The actual meat of this book is pages 3, 4, 5, and 6. That would mean a wordcount of 3600… except we already know there’s going to be art on those pages. A half page of art will reduce a page’s wordcount by, well, half… approximately. (This is all just an effort to get the best approximations we can—someday I may get into developing to fit, copyfit, layout to fit, and so on.) So with one ½-page piece of art and two ¼-page pieces of art, I lose a whole page worth of wordcount.

That means if I want to assign this to a freelancer to write, or I want to have a good idea how long it’ll take me to write, the core part of this book is 2700 words. Specifically, the introduction is 450 words, the history is 900, the archetype is 450 (and that ½ page art had better be a visual of that archetype), and the battle muffins take up 675.

There are also lots of other problems a pagination can help you avoid. Let’s say, for example, that my freelancer comes back to me and says they want to take 150 words from the introduction, 150 from the history and 150 from the muffins, to add 450 words on dwarven war baking. That’s easy in a word-processor, but with the pagination I can see if I think I’d have any place to put that. Now I could just have the introduction end a paragraph before the bottom of that page, then begin the history, and have a tiny bit of it on page 3, and have it run most of the way (but not all the way) through page 4… but everything is becoming a mess.

There are good reasons a lot of publishers won’t let you do this. That’s outside the scope of this article, but you can see how knowing what goes on each page helps plan out any changes that get proposed as the writing progresses.

It’s also useful for placing art, ordering art if you need to do that before the text is done, keeping track of tasks like creating tables of content, and so on.

And, hopefully, it helps show why developers and editors love writers who can get within 2-3% of their exact wordcount. If I ask someone for 1500 words on war muffins, giving me 1800 words isn’t really doing me any favors. In fact, it makes work for me. That’s often less work than if someone only gives me 1350 words out of 1500, but I am still happier if I get 1475 to 1550.

With things designed only for a web blog post or an e-book, these hard wordcounts are often much less important. But paginations and the wordcounts they generate remain common tools of the industry, and even if you aren’t working with them yet it’s useful to know how they function.

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Writing Basics: From Nothing to a Game Book

I got asked how the process of creating a game book happens, from the very beginning. That’s a great question. It really is one of the writing basics.

It’s also a really complicated question.

This is my best stab at a high-level, rough overview. This is based on being on every side of this process at some point over 20 years, and working for and with and as a lot of companies, but it’s not absolute by any means.

This is, at best, a sketch that covers a lot of different ways this happens, but there are companies that add steps, or skip steps, or do things in a totally different order.

It also varies a lot depending on the project. Here are some general steps, although who does what and when can change even within the same company.

  1. Someone comes up with an idea for a product. This may be a publisher who has looked at sales and resources, or it might be a freelancer who wants to pitch something, or it might be a line developer who is supposed to do X products a year.
  2. Someone matches the idea to a publishing schedule. That may mean you know you need exactly 44,000 words and sketches of 3 maps by January 4th, or it may mean “This can be a 700 word pdf, send it to me whenever you’re done and we’ll lay it out in a week or two.”
    Big publishers are very much more like that first example, while smaller ones are sometimes more flexible.
    If it’s a freelancer pitch, the freelancer and publisher work out terms. If it’s internal, you may need to hunt down someone to write it. Either way, the schedule and budget should be finalized at this point.
  3. An outline is done, so ensure the project will be the right size, hit the right topics, and so on. Often cover art is ordered and art and editing is scheduled at this point.
  4. Once the outline is approved by the people who are paying for the book, and the people writing it agree, the writing is done.
  5. Then drafts are turned in. Depening on the company they may be developed, or just edited, or laid out and then edited. That process varies.
    If art wasn’t arranged for before, it needs to be now.
  6. Layout and editing and development is finished. there may be marketing text that needs to be written, or printing that needs to be arranged for.
  7. Book is released.
  8. Profit! (Hopefully)

And that’s it!
(It is never, ever that simple.)

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CHECK THE RIGHTS TO ANYTHING YOU USE IN PUBLISHING.

I am not a lawyer. None of this is legal advice.

I recently saw a post where someone noted the 5th Edition Compatible logo they had created for a company, which is therefore copyrighted art, kept being used by other companies without permission.

That’s a copyright violation, and it’s systematic of sloppy rights-checking and weak understanding of when you can use work other people created.

I cannot tell you how often a 3pp freelancer I’m working with has grabbed a logo, or art, or rules, and either not noted where they got it, or sent it to layout with a note “I don’t know what we need to do to use this,” or “I found this on the internet, I assume it’s public domain.”

NO! Bad freelancer! (Grabs the squirt bottle.)

No Bad Freelancer

(This illustration created by Jefferson Jay Thacker, from materials with free rights. Used with permission.)

If you didn’t pay for it, the *assumption* must be that it’s under copyright someplace. Only if a reputable source notes that it’s public domain (or even better-you do your own research to determine that it is) should you ever assume it’s public domain.

In most cases, I don’t think these violations and stealing of other people’s work is malicious. I suspect many people quite reasonable use things like online art to illustrate characters in their home campaigns, then make the leap to professional work and don’t change their behavior and expectations to match. They then see people using other people’s work using the OGL, Creative Commons, and in some cases terrible misunderstandings of Fair Use of copyright material, and without understanding what is and isn’t allowed those things muddy the waters further.

If you are used to working with Open Licenses, know that those licenses have RULES. Learn them, understand them, and know that what you can do under an open license is NOT the same as what you can do with material not released under such a license.

Creative Commons, similarly, has rules. Check the release and see what use is allowed.

Further, “I’m not charging for something” does NOT mean you get to use any copyrighted material you want. There are “fair use” exceptions to copyright, but whether you charge for something has NO bearing on whether you are allowed to use it–only the damages you may be liable for if convicted. What may be fair use if you hand out to your players is not necessarily the same as fair use for notes you put up on a website for anyone to see. That’s still publishing something, and the rules can be very different.

DON’T be the person who steal’s a company’s work, or degrades the value of an artist who is paid to create something!

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Impostor Syndrome in the Game Industry

I once heard one of the most talented people I know say, unironically and in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’m qualified to be on a panel abut impostor syndrome.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

Some of the smartest, most talented, hardest-working people I know often express to me (usually in private, so no one knows) how doubtful they are that they are really good at what they do. I’d say this is mind-boggling… except that I totally get it. My mental issues aren’t a secret, but they absolutely include being afraid that everyone who is impressed with me or my work has just been fooled, and at some point the “truth” is going to come out and I’ll never be able to sell game material or my writing ever again.

When I had just a few magazine articles to my credit, maybe that made sense. But now, after 20 years of this being my career? It just doesn’t jive with the facts in evidence. But even knowing that, I struggle with it on a regular basis.

That struggle has forced me to build coping mechanisms, many based on my pop-psych opinions on why impostor syndrome is an issue for me, and maybe why it is for other folks as well. In case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about), this article outlines some of those mechanisms.

Fake It Even After You Make It

A little humility can help you be likable and relatable. Too much humility gets you less work, less money, and less respect.

So, even when you have your own doubts, you may need to move forward on the premise that you actually can do the work, well, and are worth being paid for it. And paid well.

Sadly, no one else is likely to come along and be a great advocate for you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. So when someone asks you your rate, or your qualifications, or your value, you tell them what you think an actual expert with all your achievements and credits would say, rather than equivocate and undercut yourself.

In my case, I often lean on the idea that I owe it to *other* people to have a good career, and to be compensated for the work I do. I can think about the impact of my being underpaid on my family, friends, and even society as a whole more easily than I can think in terms of what I am worth.

Luckily as a roleplayer, I can often think about how someone is confident in their value might act, even when I completely lack that confidence.

Trust the Mentors in Your Life

As I mentioned, I know a lot of amazingly smart, fantastically talented people. Some of them are mentors to me, varying from those who are better and more experienced in everything I do to those who are willing to give me guidance in one specific area where I’m lacking. While those people are often underwhelmed with their own accomplishments, they generally reinforce the public perception of my skills.

Even when I tell them all the reasons that perception is an illusion.

So, if I know these people are smart and wise and great, and they are telling me I’m not an impostor… there’s a logical conclusion there. Now, often my brain tells me the conclusion is “I have them all fooled, and when they figure it out they’ll never talk to me again.” But, since these really ARE people smarter than me, that just doesn’t make sense.

No, if I value their opinions, and I do, that has to include their opinions of me. Intellectually at least, even if I still reject the idea emotionally.

Good mentors can also be a great resource when trying to decide if you are terrified to take on something slightly different because you are your own worst critic, or if it’s a legitimate concern about something that needs skills and/or experience you lack.

Be A Mentor to Others

Obviously mentoring others is a good act for the industry as a whole, and if you have mentors, it’s only fair to pay it forward  by providing the same service for other.

And that’s the best reason to become a mentor. But it’s not why this is a good coping mechanism for impostor syndrome.

Nothing proves to your subconscious that you actually have value like helping others find their own value. You may well end up convinced the people you are mentoring are smarter, more talented, and better-liked than you are (that often happens to me), but being part of that process is still helpful to fighting off feelings you are somehow getting by with less skill than people think you have.

Analyze Failure Fairly

This one is particularly tough, and I’m bad at it. But it’s also crucial, so I feel I have to mention it, at least as something to work on.

When you fail, and everyone fails sometimes, you have to analyze that failure in a fair, even, and balanced manner. Otherwise, it just becomes one more reason to not trust or believe in yourself.

For me personally, that means waiting a bit from point of failure to analysis, because until I get some space from the frustration, anger, and embarrassment of failing, I can’t possibly do a balanced analysis. This doesn’t have to mean letting yourself off the hook if you made bad decisions, but it does mean giving yourself some benefit of the doubt on how circumstances played into things going wrong. Since I am bad at giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I try to focus on identifying what I want to do differently in the future to prevent a similar failure, and what signs I should look out for to try to identify potential failures before they happen. By framing my mental efforts in ways that seem useful in the future, I am more likely to be fair to myself.

That DOES mean that when I am done analyzing a failure if the answer I come up with is “I was stupid, this was entirely my fault,” it stings. But that pain can also help me prevent being stupid in the same way ever again, and that knowledge—that I have learned from the experience—can help fight feelings of total incompetence.

Don’t Compare Your Secret Apples to Other People’s Public Oranges

I am personally convinced one major cause of impostor syndrome is the tendency to take all the things you know about yourself—your struggles, your doubts, your dissatisfaction with what you produce—and compare it to only the public, successful face of other people. After all, if you know you could have done better on a project, and no one else ever talks about how they could have done better on any of their efforts, that means you’re worse than them, right?

But it doesn’t.

Especially as social media has become ubiquitous and especially in creative endeavors where having a reputation as a smart, well-liked, talented, successful creator can mean better opportunity and more pay, most people you are comparing yourself to have no incentive to air their doubts, problems, or failings. So if you take the sum whole of all the problems you know you have, and compare that only to the public face of other people, you’re not making a fair comparison.

Everyone has problems now and then. Most people have doubts, and the ones who don’t are honestly often assholes and/or people suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. But since such things are often taken as weakness, not a lot of people discuss their problems in depth. And even those who do often frame their doubts and struggles in a positive way, or hold back the truly painful or embarrassing things they’d rather not be well-known.

That means that when you look around at your peers, you are certain to see their achievements much more clearly than their letdowns. If you try to compare that to everything you know about yourself, including all the things that aren’t obvious from the outside, you’re grading on a negative curve. Of course all of your reality doesn’t compare to the curated public appearance of other people. Especially since you are most likely to [ick people with the highest visibility to compare yourself to, and those are the people who do the best job making themselves look good.

This is another place where having a mentor, or even just a trusted peer, can be extremely helpful in maintaining perspective.

Celebrate Every Achievement

Ultimately, I think impostor syndrome is more about fear and gut feelings than rationality and logic, and as a result all the well-reasoned efforts to talk yourself out of it in the world can only go so far. For the emotional component, you also have to make sure you celebrate your own achievements.

Every publication. Every interview. Every review—even bad reviews mean you impacted someone enough for them to take time to write about it. Abso-damn-lutely every award or honor, even the ones you think are dumb or should have gone to someone more deserving. You celebrate all of it.

I recommend celebrating it publicly, because private celebrations often seem less impactful, but you do you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but you DESERVE to be proud of everything you make. The very voice telling you right now that no one wants to hear about your new book, or the blog post you wrote, or your review of an obscure fantasy movie from 1973, is the same one that tells you that you aren’t a “real” creative, and that you don’t measure up to other people.

The fight to take the credit you have earned IS the fight against impostor syndrome.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

Yes, or course, that’s the entire point of rejecting impostor syndrome. But here I literally mean don’t assume you aren’t monetarily worth the best rate you can get. I have seen people actually undercut the price agreed upon for a project before anyone else mentions money.

Don’t do that.

On very, very rare occasions offering to do a job for less might be appropriate. If it doesn’t meet some aspect of a contract and it’s entirely your fault is the main one… and even then it’s rarely something you should bring up without the other party at least suggesting things need to be adjusted.

Instead, as for raises. See if your per-word rate can be increased. Suggest you deserve perks, like more free copies, bigger credit, more advertising for the project, or opportunities to cherry-pick assignments.

A Caveat

I can’t tell you if you need to fight impostor syndrome. There are people who are legitimately trying to punch above their weight, and for those people this advice could do more harm than good.

But if a lot of your fans, or a few of your peers, or even one of your mentors keeps telling you that you’re more awesome than you can possibly accept?

Then you probably are.

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Writing Basics: Final Checks for RPG Manuscripts

This is the third in my series of Writing Basics blog articles, designed for people who want to write game material (especially tabletop RPGs), and are looking to pick up some insights into how to be better at its weird mix of creative writing and technical writing. These are all lessons I didn’t get in any school or class, or at least that I apply in ways no class ever suggested.

In this entry, we’re going to talk about the all the work you should be doing after you are done writing, but before you turn over the manuscript. This stuff can be a drag, especially since the thrill of writing something may be gone once you are done actually writing it, but these last checks are often the difference between a polished manuscript that gets people’s attention, and a barely-useful mess that requires significant work from your developer/editor/producer/publisher to bring up to their standards.

The Cold Read-Through

Done with your writing project? Great!

Now put it down, and leave it alone for at least a few days. A week is better.

Then reread it all from scratch, beginning to end.

Yes, this requires you have some extra time between the completion of your manuscript and the deadline. This is one of the hardest things to actually arrange for in real-world conditions… but it’s also one of the most useful. One of the reasons I often do drafts of ideas here in my blog is that when I get around to wanting to turn them into full products, I’ve been away from them so long I can look at them with almost-fresh eyes.

It’s amazing, at least for me, how often I didn’t quite say what I thought I did. This is the most reliable way for me to find unclear rules, inelegant phrases, and run-on sentences. Besides, you ought to be shooting to be done well before your deadline anyway, just in case you get kidney stones while a hurricane affects your employer so they need to to work weirdly scheduled extra shifts.

It happens.

Common Personal Error Checklist

Do you write affect when you mean effect? Do you often capitalize Class and Race names, when that’s not the style of the game you are writing for? Do you forget to italicize spell names and magic items, when that IS the style of the game you are writing for? Do you write x2 to indicate doubling something, when your publisher uses <<TS>>2?

As you discover things you do on a regular basis that are wrong, make a checklist. When you are convinced your manuscript is done, run through that list of common errors, and check for them. And make it a living document—if you stop writing “could of done better” in place of “could’ve done better,” you can take it off your personal error checklist.

Spellcheck

Hopefully, we’re all running spellcheck as the very last thing before we turn over our manuscripts, right? Okay, good.

But just running the base program isn’t good enough.

Games often have a lot of string-of-letters that aren’t words any program recognizes off-the-shelf.

Deosil. Otyugh. Sith. Bloodrager. Starfinder.

You need to have a strategy for making sure you spelled all those correctly. If you just skip over these words in a spellcheck, “knowing” that the spellchecker doesn’t recognize them, you risk have a manuscript with a Starfidner ritual for Otuyghs to dance desoil around the Blodrager Circle.

There are two good ways I have found to fix this.

If a word is going to be used a lot in your writing, it may be worth entering it in your word processor’s dictionary. That’s generally not difficult, but when you do it make SURE you are entering the correct spelling of the new/imaginary word or name. Otherwise you can turn spellchecker into an error-generating device, and that sucks.

Alternatively, you can actually take the time to check the spelling of every weird word spellcheck flags for you. Is the god named Succoth-benoth, or Seccoth-bunoth, or Succoth Benoth? You can write down the correct spelling, or have it in another tab, and check it carefully each time you run into it.

If you have some common misspellings you find, you can search for those errors and replace them (one by one—NEVER replace all, it can seriously dawizard your credibility) before you make the word-by-word check for the correct spellings.

Grammar Checker

Different grammar checker programs have different levels of value, but most can at least be used to help find common writing problems such as passive voice, agreement errors, and sentence fragments. In my experience you can’t trust any grammar checker program, but it’s worth looking at anything it flags and double-checking your own work.

Formatting

Check you Headers to make sure they still make sense with your final manuscript. If your publisher uses specific text style formatting (as Paizo does, for example), make sure you have the right formatting in the right places. If you aren’t sure about some specific formatting, it’s generally good to ask. Your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher CAN fix your formatting… but that takes time away from them doing more important work to make your manuscript awesome. Also, it generally does not endear you to them.

File Format

Most publishers have a file format they want to work with. Check with them if they don’t mention it. There can be important differences between .doc, docx, .rtf, and a Google doc. Remember that to get more work and be paid a higher rate (or to have people be happy to work for you, if you are self-published but not self-laid-out), you want to make your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher’s job as easy and pleasant as possible.

Post-Mortem

Once you really and truly are done and you turn your manuscript over, it’s time to think about how you can learn from it. With luck, your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher will give you direct feedback. But to be honest, time is money in this industry, and they often won’t have time to help you be better. In those cases, I find it useful to see what the final version of the published material looks like, and examine how it is different from what I wrote. This isn’t always about something being “wrong” when you turned it in, but about what changes the people who are paying you and that you want to give you more work thought made your manuscript better.

Review

This is like the cold read-through or post-mortem, but it takes place months or years later. When you look at your past work, and consider what you might do differently now.

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