Category Archives: Writing Basics
Last week we began a line of Design Diary entries discussing how to create a character class from scratch for a d20 class/level based game. We tackled a number of questions about the concept for you class then, and now it’s time to look at taking that concept and turning it into playable game mechanics.
And that starts with the tools d20 games give you to define the base competencies of your class, and how quickly they progress.
Class Progression Tools
The heart of a good character class is its special abilities, but you don’t have to start with those. In fact, beyond a general idea of what you want its special abilities to be able to do, as part of settling on a class concept, I prefer not to focus on special abilities until I have more of the class’s framework in place. That framework is made up of various progressions — health, skill points, class skills, beginning proficiency, base attack bonus, base saving throws, and spell progression.
In most d20 games, there are only a few progressions available for these, and they are often interconnected in non-obvious ways. For example, in 1st edition Pathfinder, a class that gets a “full” base attack bonus progression (+1 to bab per level gained) always has at least a d10 Hit Points per level (the sole non d10 full-bab class is the Barbarian, who gets the slightly-larger d12), and no one gets a d10 or higher Hit Die unless they have a full bab progression.
In general, you want to have a balance of good, moderate, and bad progressions. In some cases those progressions already come in those quality levels–in most d20 games your base attack bonus progression can be good (+1/class level, like the barbarian, cavalier, fighter, soldier, and so on, also known as a “full” bab progression), moderate (+2/3 levels, like the bard, cleric, envoy, mechanic, and so on), or poor (+1/2 class levels, such as the sorcerer, witch, and wizard–interestingly Starfinder has no classes with this progression). In these systems it’s easy to see that if you give a class a good attack progression the focus of that class is combat, if you give moderate bab progression it is going to have numerous combat options but will either need abilities to make it more effective, or must accept that combat is a secondary function, and if you give it a poor progression it’s never going to be good at combat without special abilities.
There are some built in potential problems with those progressions that show up over 20 levels of play (the gap between a fighter’s chance to hit and a wizards goes from as little as 5% at 1st level to 50% or more at 20th), which several newer d20 games have tried to solve by having very different ways of rating who is combat. pathfinder 2nd edition has a flat progression of everything from level (+1 to attacks per level for all classes), and uses five ranks of proficiency (untrained, trained, expert, master, and legendary, or U/T/E/M/L) and class features to differentiate which classes are combat-focused. Most classes are at-best trained in various weapon categories, while the fighter begins play expert in some attack options. Similarly 5e has a flat “proficiency bonus) (ranging from +2 to +6) which classes can add to various attacks, defenses, skills, and ability score checks, and class features (the barbarian’s rage, the fighter’s fighting style) determine who is good at the raw math of combat.
The best way to begin a character class is to see how many good, moderate, and poor progressions (or whatever similar mechanics the game in question uses) a typical class gets and which classes have which progressions. Normally a class that is strong in combat has weaker skill options but more HP, and characters with strong spell abilities have weaker saving throws. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but you want to make sure every class both has strengths and weaknesses, and that it’s bonuses and game mechanics support what the description and flavor tell players the class is good at.
That last element can be tricky, of course. If you have a Combatant class (not a great name, but fine for example purposes) which you describe as the best class at combat, and a Big Boxer class which you describe as the best at unarmed combat, it’s going to be frustrating for Big Boxer players of the Combatant is better even at unarmed combat than Big Boxers are. On the other hand, you don’t want all the flavor and mechanics of a class to just be a difference on where they get their bonuses. You could have an Archer class and a Smasher class and have their only different be the Archer gets big bonuses to ranged weapons and the Smasher gets them to hammer attacks, but that gets boring and tightly locks those classes into narrow character concepts.
Spellcasting deserves a special note here, because not every class gets it, and it has a huge impact on character effectiveness. The most obvious variable in levels of spellcasting is what level spell a character gains access to–in early d20 games it’s often a question of 4-level spellcasting (such as the paladin and ranger), 6-level (such as the bard and all official Starfinder spellcasting classes), and 9-level (such as clerics, druids, and wizards). But even within that there are important distinctions such as how effective a spell list is at specific things (the wizard spell list has more and better offensive options than the cleric, for example).
Again, not every d20 game keeps this set of progressions (5e has 5-level and 9-level casting, PF2 has 10-level casting and access to specific focus spells), but each game generally has a few standards you can borrow when building the superstructure of your character class. If you don’t feel like you know what the progressions and proficiencies of the core classes of the game you are designing for are, you need to do some study and analysis before you try to write a character class for that game.
You don’t have to get all this right in your first pass–if a class initially feels like it’s going to be strong at skills and spellcasting and weak on everything else, and then analysis or playtesting reveals that limits its options too much, you can go back and beef up some other progression to give it more core competency. But handling your initial idea of progressions, proficiencies, skills, and spells up front also helps define where things like special abilities should go. If a class doesn’t gain any spellcasting (or mutations, psionics, superpowers, miracles, or whatever) in a game where such powers exist, it’s worth thinking about how that class is going to deal with things that DO have supernatural powers when writing the class’s special abilities.
Because special abilities are the heart and soul of most classes. And we’ll look at them, especially fixed abilities versus customizable abilities, next week!
These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.
I have designed a lot of character classes for d20 games.
Many were based on specific exiting intellectual properties, such as the classes I did for the tabletop EverQuest RPG, Star Wars Saga Edition, Wheel of Time, and Black Company. Some were inspired by such an intellectual property, but not designed to emulate it exactly such as the Dragonrider, Godling, Solarian, and Time Thief. Others were just inspired by some niche I saw that looked like a good place for an entire character concept to live, but not inspired by any specific existing work, such as the Armiger, Magister, and Templar.
I have developed a lot of character classes designed by other game writers. Many of them fall into the same kinds of broad categories, though there are also those that simply had to exist in order for a game to have a broad range of playable options, such as Starfinder’s Envoy, Operative and Soldier, and others were specifically trying to stretch a game into new design spaces and experiences, including the Character Operation Manual’s Biohacker, Vanguard, and Witchwarper.
(And, it’s worth noting, in most d20 games the name of a character class is not capitalized. I’m bucking that trend here, because it makes it clearer to me when i am talking about a fighter, as a generic term for one who fights, and a Fighter, a specific d20 character class. That said, when you do your writing, match the style your publisher uses if writing for someone else, and know what conventions you are choosing to buck if you do it differently when writing for yourself.)
Designing a character class from scratch can be a great deal more challenging than designing some smaller element that existing in an already well-defined niche. If you create a new spell for example, you can compare it to other spells available to the same classes at the same spell level, as well as comparing it to spells of higher and lower level, to get a good grasp of how impactful the spell should be. Additionally, the spell only impacts the game if it is cast in a given encounter. If it turns out to be unbalanced, you can generally exclude it from the game environment with little fallout.
A new class, on the other hand, interacts with the entire game system, is the primary way players impact every encounter, and if a player takes one every aspect of its design is constantly being tested and explored and removing it from the game is much more difficult. If it’s a class that fills a specific conceptual niche, removing it from a game can skew the entire feel of the play experience.
That said, despite its increased complexity, import, interaction, and potential complications, designing a character class is at its core still a matter of using the tools available in a game and assembling them in a way that creates a new option. I find it is also generally both extremely fulfilling as a d20 designer, and a great way to learn how the intricacies of interconnected rules work in a specific d20 game.
But it can be extremely intimidating, and it’s useful to break it down into a few discrete steps, at least until you are far enough along in the design you have a framework to hold other ideas on.
So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be doing weekly Design Diaries takign a look at the needs, tips, tricks, and pitfalls of d20 Class Design. And we’re going to start where I think all class design should — The Concept.
I strongly believe that the first step of every class design should be to have a concept for what the class is supposed to do. This is a mix of how it should interact with the encounters you expect to be a major part of the game, what you expect it to do to help a team of adventurers overcome such encounters, what a player will expect a member of the class to be able to do, and what the class is going to look like.
Some of the “what does it do” questions are pretty obvious. Most d20 games have a heavy focus on combat, so you want to make sure the class has interesting and effective choices in combat. It doesn’t have to be the most effective combat class (in fact if the game already has classes in it, you likely don’t want to create one that’s better at combat than all of them or you’ll steal spotlight time from an older, better-established class). Most games also have at least a few noncombat challenges, which are often broken into social encounters, investigations, and physical challenges. Some games add specific other forms of encounter, such as starship combat in Starfinder.
You want to make sure you new class has something to contribute in all of these types of encounters. It can be less-good at one or more, both as a weakness to make up for being strong in other areas and as a way to help focus the class’s concept, but you never want encounters of a specific type to be no fun at all for a player. A great deal of classic d20 game class design is pretty weak in this area — most versions of the Fighter are pretty bad at social encounters, which can be more than half the game in some campaigns.
And you can’t fix a gap like that by giving a class an option to sacrifice its core function to pick up secondary competence. This is both because players are unlikely to make such a trade-off (and thus still aren’t having fun in encounters where their character class has no meaningful contribution), and because if they make the choice in too many ways to weaken their core competence, they may not be able to do what the game (and GM and other players) expect them to be able to. A Fighter who i a master negotiator and investigator and starship engineer, but who can’t *fight*, is likely to leave their party in a lurch in combat encounters.
On the other hand, you don’t want your concept to be that the character is good at everything all the time. First, that makes it difficult to have more than one class, since if all classes are good at all things they all feel the same. Second, it’s boring. Players want to have effective options in most encounters, but they also want to be challenged. Also, some players WANT to skip some encounters, or at least minimize their interaction with them, because they don;t like that kind of roleplaying. Some people choose the Fighter exactly because they want to avoid being pressed to be the voice of the party.
If your concept seems too one-note, it can be useful to look at how fictional characters of a similar trope act in various encounters. The surly warrior in fantasy shows and movies may seem not to do anything during social encounters, but if its a major character they actually normally are more impactful than you might think at first glance. That impact might be limited to telling the charismatic talker who the surly warrior does not trust, or glaring down opposing surly warriors, but those actions can easily be gamified as things a player can have their character be doing while the talking goes on, Perhaps the Fighter class should have an Aura of Confidence, which makes it more difficult for their allies to be intimidated or bluffed, but only if the Fighter has “sized up” specific NPCs. The sizing up and granting of confidence is largely invisible to an outside observer, but are still, game actions that allow the player to contribute.
Many concepts can be boiled down to being the Fighter, the Rogue, or the Spellcaster, so it’s a good idea to make your class concept broader than that (unless, like Fantasy AGE, you only want three classes in your game). Some other elements that can inform a concept are focus on a specific kind of magic or fighting (necromancers, summoners, archers, assassins, and so on), knowledge and wisdom (a form of skill expert different from the rogue), religious and spiritual elements, social skills, and unique power sources. You can flesh these out more as your design evolves, but it’s useful early on to decide your Priest has divine abilities gained from worship of a god, your Sorcerer has innate powers like a comicbook superhero, your Warlock has dark powers gained from a contract with some fel entity, and your Wizard is a learned sage who has picked up spells and incantations through pure study and dedication.
It’s also important for your concept to be one that is deserving of it’s own *class*, rather than being an option of a build within a broader class. For example, the Soldier in Starfinder has fighting styles, ranging from Arcane Assailant to Sharpshoot. The broad concept of professional fighter has lots more room to vary that way than if we had made Sniper its own class. A good test for a class concept is if you think any existing d20 class (even ones from other games) can easily have your concept as a sub-options. If yes, your concept may not be broad enough.
Also ask yourself if you can think of differing build options within your class concept which are different from build options appropriate to other classes within the same game. For example, if you wanted a Starfinder class that just controlled gravity, that feels a lot like a sub-build of Solarian, and most gravity-controlling sub-concepts are going to feel like they could be Solarian specialties. If you broaden the class concept out to be a telekinetic and telepath, that gives you much more scope to define a class and make it different and distinct from the Solarian, even if your Psychokinetic has gravity control as one of its specialties.
Once you have a rough concept, you should write it down. You can keep it flexible–it may evolve as the design progresses–but it’s worth looking at your original concept as a guiding principle if you want to course-correct later on.
Then you can begin looking at the tools the game give you to define your class and convey information about what it is supposed to do to the players and GM. But we’ll talk about that next week!
These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.
So, you have a finished draft of a game project. You’ve checked that it meets your wordcount requirements (neither too much nor too little off the mark – I try to hit within 5% of the exact wordcount total, and I consider being off by 10%–whether over or under—to be a failure to hit wordcount), the formatting is what your publisher has asked for (so if you used ANY table function of your program, you have replaced it with what the publisher’s style guide calls for), and you’ve hit all the required topics.
Now what? Now, you get ready for revision.
Revisions can have a number of steps for game writing, depending on the project, time, and circumstance, but here are some common types. A project may have all of these, just a few, or none… though try to avoid not even having time for a reread.
The best way to get a good revision on your own is to put your writing down for a couple of weeks, work on other projects and then, when it’s no longer fresh in your mind, reread it from the beginning. You are likely to catch a few places where the wording got muddled, or you didn’t type exactly what you were thinking. But you may also find some more systemic problems, such as discussing concepts in length before introducing them in brief, or contradicting yourself because ideas evolved as you wrote them (or you wrote two parts of the same section days apart, and misremembered what you said the first time).
This is also a good time to play developer with your own material. Do you see a simpler way to express the same idea? Is a rule system too complex for the value it gives the game? Is an option obviously overpowered, or under-powered, and you can see a way to fix it? Does something you thought was awesome now seem dull? This is a good chance to fix all those issues.
And if you aren’t sure about something? Just flag it for your developer/editor/producer. Leave a comment explaining your thought process and concern, and that you weren’t sure one way or another. Having comments and thoughts from the author can be a huge help when a developer is first tackling a project, and it shows you’re cognizant of potential issues in your work, but trust the people you are working with. While you are at it, put notes in about anything else that might be useful for your developer. A list of resources that need to be mentioned in a OGL section 15. Which bits of continuity are canon (and where you found them), and which are new elements you made up yourself. Anything that’s an Easter Egg (or even clearly inspired by existing IP—homage CAN be fine, but let your publisher know what you are riffing off of, so they can make that decision for themselves).
If at all possible get at least SOME playtest in of any gameable elements. An adventure can be easy to do a quick playtest of—grab some friends (with your publisher’s permission to have people you are sharing the unpublished material with, if under NDA or similar restriction) and run through it once. Single stand-alone elements such as spells or feats can be trickier, but having people other than you use them in character builds can show if they are unexpected synergies, or are valued much more or less highly than similar options. Larger elements, such as entire character classes, can take months to properly playtest, but at minimum it can be useful to run a Rules Rumble playtest – have one set of players make characters without access to the new rules, and a second group make characters required to use the new rules, and pit them against each other.
If you find any glaring issues, fix them. If you find potential issues, leave comments for your developer/editor/producer.
It can be useful to have people you trust take a look at your work to highlight any potential problems they see. Again, if you are under NDA or similar constraint, get your publisher’s permission for this. Sometimes projects with multiple freelancers working on it provide a way for those freelancers to go over each other’s work as it is created, which can be a great resource (but be sure you give back – if someone gives you useful feedback in that kind of environment, read through their stuff too). You don’t have to take a Beta Reader’s opinion over your own of course, but do consider their point of view. If a Beta Reader says something is unclear, for example, then no matter how obvious it is to you, you know it’s unclear to at least SOME other people.
Publisher feedback is extremely important on any project they have the time and energy to give it to you, which is my experience isn’t that often. Ultimately if you don’t work with your publisher on their feedback, you may not get published. But the degree of how important this is varies from ‘crucial” to only “very important.”
Most freelance work written for the tabletop game industry is done Work for Hire, which means once you are paid you have no further rights to the work. You aren’t even considered the creator, for copyright purposes. When I am working on that kind of project, if the publisher gives me feedback, I consider it part of my job to incorporate that feedback, even if I disagree with it.
I ALSO consider it part of my job to point out why I think bad feedback is bad, but in the end if this is something for which I am providing content using someone else’s sandbox, and I have been hired to fill a certain amount of it with the kind of sand they want, I consider my job to be to give the publisher what they want. I often call this kind of work “content provider” rather than “author,” to remind myself of what my end goal is.
Things are slightly different if a publisher is partnering with you to publish something you retain the copyright to. It’s still crucial to consider the publisher’s feedback—one presumes you picked this publisher to be the venue for your work for a reason, but if it’s ultimately your project any feedback should ultimately be your call. (Though, you know, check your contract. Preferably before signing it.)
The point of a First Draft is to get it done. The point of a Revision is to get it right. This can vary from tweaking a few things to realizing you have to tear out the heart of what you have written and start over (which can feel a lot like tearing out your own heart). In tabletop RPG design you often don’t have time for more than one revisions (though a developer may be coming along behind you to make another, out of your sight), so try to get as much feedback as you can, then apply what you have learned, make notes…
And move on to the next project. Never finishing revisions is a form of never finishing, and it’s often said “Game designs are never finished, they just escape their designers.”
Don’t be afraid to change things in revision, but also don’t be afraid to leave them alone if you think they’re good.
Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, every word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. benefit to my freelance career and/or money made.
So if you found any of this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!
Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.
This one is super-short, but for me super-useful.
Don’t let your search for the perfect word derail your writing flow.
That’s not to say it’s not worth popping a thesaurus open (or using the ‘related word’ function of onlook.com, a site Starfinder Lead Designer Joe Pasini turned me on to) to see if you can find it quickly and easily.
But before it disrupts your produtive writing time, put it on the back burner and move on. I personally just put a description of the word I want in brackets and highlight in bright yellow, so I know when I go back through the piece later that it needs to be replaced.
A chunk of the time, describing the word I want to put in the brackets causes me to think of it. And often, when i run back into the section on a reread, at least SOME good word to use leaps to mind. But the important thing is, when I am “in the zone,” getting wordcount quickly and feeling the concepts flow easily, I am not wasting time trying to polish a single term during rough-draft-creation time.
I can’t tell you how long to spend on it before giving up. Only you can know your muse’s endurance. This is a trick for making sure you don’t spend an hour on one word when you need that time to write 500. But be aware you don’t have to get any of it perfectly right the first time through.
This applies to anything, really. Can’t think of the right word? Not sure what to make the 4th level bonus spell? Need a riddle to add some mental challenge to an adventure?
If it’s holding you up, and you KNOW what comes next already, skip it, mark it, come back to it.
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This is less Writing Basics than it is Freelancing Basics, but I suspect it’s going to have the same audience, so I don’t want to make a whole new tag. 🙂
I’ve spoken and written many times about how useful it is when building a game industry career to go meet other professionals in person. You can do this at conventions, game days, trade shows, and sometimes smaller open-invitation get-togethers. And I stand by all of that.
But, let’s face it, for a lot of people going to meet professionals who live in Seattle (or anywhere really) isn’t a viable option. If you don’t live right near an event they are attending, or very close to their home base, it’s expensive to get to any such opportunity. Even if you do live nearby, you may not be able to take time off work as needed. Or you may be a person with disabilities, or have family you have to take care of, or face crippling anxiety in crowds.
My first Gen Con nearly drove me out of the industry, I was so overwhelmed by the massive crowds. The first Gen Con I attended as a Paizo employee nearly killed me because I’m just not up to doing as much walking as it called for. I’ve worked very hard on overcoming those issues of mine, and many others, but that’s not an option for everyone.
What is available to everyone reading this on my blog is – online schmoozing.
No, it’s not as effective as meeting people in-person. But it’s also much less restrictive on when and with who you can try it. And human psyches being what they are, it can still be extremely effective, especially over the long run. Familiarity, gratitude, and humor can help build relationships.
So, some basics.
Follow Them. Like and Share Their Stuff
The beginning step is just to find places where these professionals are being visible in a professional capacity, and engaging with them there in basic and helpful ways. Do they have a professional Facebook page (and that likely includes anyplace they advertise their work)? Follow them, interact with and SHARE their posts. If you thought a post was neat, reply saying you thought it was neat. Retweet their Twitter announcements. Subscribe to their Twitch shows. This will begin to be noticed, over time, in a positive light.
Don’t Take Rejection Personally
Seriously, a declined friend request with no explanation is not an insult. Just take these things in stride, and look for more professional, less intimidate places to follow that game creative. Many creatives keep separate presences for their role as authors or artists an their personal social media, so try to find their professional account. (I don’t do this, but I’m a weird exception in that regard.)
And if they block you? Take the hint, and walk away. Full stop.
Remember They Don’t Owe You Anything
Online schmoozing is not transactional. Watching 400 hours of a Twitch stream does not obligate that broadcaster to do you favors, boost your stuff, or even talk to you. Over time you can see who does seem interested in talking to you, or even helping you, but accept that is their choice and you cannot and should not push for or expect anything.
In general, I think it’s most effective for you to use your real name and face as your tag and icon when you want to benefit from online schmoozing. But that’s obviously secondary to you being happy, and you being safe. If there are reasons not to use your real name or face, see if you can at least use recognizable names and icons over multiple platforms. I can’t begin to guess how many people I recognize on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on paizo.com, without having any idea they are all the same person. If someone wants to benefit from my getting to know them virtually, there’s a much bigger impact if I know those interactions are all with one person.
It’s the internet. Some creators are creeps. Some are secretly vile. Don’t do anything that feels scummy, invasive, or not in the nature of the professional contact level you are trying to build. Keeping communication in public spaces can help with this.
Respect Their Space
Different online spaces call for different kinds of interaction. For example, if a professional is streaming to promote their new book and have a live chat, and opens a question-and-answer period, that’s a bad time to ask their advice for how to break into the industry. They are there to promote something, so a much better interaction is to ask them about that project, or something closely related. If, after a few questions, there don’t seem to be more folks wanting to talk on that subject you can inquire about asking a less-related question. But if the answer is no, don’t push it.
Similarly, if you get invited to a social online space that includes professional, don’t pester them about professional issues without some sign it’s appropriate and welcome. I’ve heard stories about game company owners having people pitch them freelance projects during online gameplay with MMORPG guilds. That’s the wrong time and place.
Here I’m specifically talking about your interactions with professionals you WANT to get to know better. And, remember to think about how what you write could be taken in harsh text form, with no smile or human inflection or context to soften it. There are people I have known for decades who can reference old in-jokes with me online that make me smile, but that from the outside must look like some harsh insults. Someone who thought that was just how I interacted with folks online and tried to emulate similar language might well tick me off, and I’d have no idea they through they were joining in on the fun.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time On It
The idea here is to become part of an easily-accessed online community that includes professionals you hope to learn from, and someday be recognized by. It’s not to have a part-time job clicking likes and boosting tweets.
If your online schmoozing prevents you from doing anything fun or important? You’re doing it too much.
Shamelessly Linking This To My Patreon
Giving someone money actually isn’t generally the best way to build an online relationship… but being a patron of mine DOES help me have time to write advice posts like this one!
In part one of my recent ongoing series of articles looking at converting every feat from the PF Core Rulebook that doesn’t already have a namesake in Starfinder to the Starfinder game system, I mention that if you think a project you are being hired for has bad decisions behind it, you should bring those to your publisher. I also mention that once you agree to do the job you should do it, without offering any exceptions for cases where you have moral or ethical concerns about completing the work. these can be tricky waters to navigate, but it’s worth discussing some best practices for bring your concerns to your publisher/editor/developer/producer.
Some of the following examples are going to sound extreme, and I don’t want to give the impression that every project is filled with objectionable, harmful, short-sighted material you have to fight back against. But I can’t pretend it never happens, and obviously it’s when the stakes are highest that this is both the most important, and the most nerve-wracking.
Also, I am aware of my own shortcomings enough to know I don;t always see the ways in which material can be harmful. So if you are writing for me, and you have concerns? LET ME KNOW. Push back. Point to this article if you want some back-up. I ASKED you to tell me if I’m requesting bad ideas from you.
As always, I’ll also note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. Also, I come at this as a writer, developer, and publisher, as those are the kinds of roles I have filled for RPG creation. Artists, graphic designers, editors, and layout artists face similar challenges at least as great, but my advice may not work as well for them.
Try Not To Create Any Surprises
Ideally when working on a project you’ll have access to an outline and a general vision of the project prior to agreeing to write for it, so if you have any concerns you can bring them up early on. For example, if a project’s outline suggests covering topics you don’t feel are appropriate for an RPG, you can discuss that at the beginning with your contact. Even if that means you backing out of the project because you just can’t get on the same page as the publisher, it’s much better for all concerned if you do that early.
If your project is going to involve a lot of discrete bits, it’s worth scanning those for potential trouble spots extremely early in the process. For example if you are asked to do expanded write-ups on six cities, go through the existing material at least briefly as soon as you can. If one of the cities is mired in material you see issues with (whether those are as simple as it having a stupid name or as complex as having an explicit social set-up filled with stereotypes you find harmful), bringing those to your contact as soon as possible both allows everyone plenty of time to try to figure out a solution (while the rest of the project moves forward), and proves you’re taking your responsibilities seriously.
The closer you are to deadline, the less flexible your publisher is likely to be. While that is often because the publisher places money over your concerns, it’s worth remembering they have mouths to feed as well, and people counting on them. That doesn’t excuse making money on harmful material, but it is worth remembering if you’re trying to build a working relationship.
Of course sometimes things develop you could not have foreseen. You may only be contracted to write part of a project, and when you see someone else’s section it’s full of material you have issues with or, worse, it changes the context of your own material in harmful ways. Or you might be shown cover art you dislike so much you don’t want your name associated with it. Or you might get developer feedback that explicitly asks you to alter things in a way you have problems with. The point is that the sooner you can raise a flag, the easier the process is likely to be for all concerned.
There’s A Thing Line Between Asking for Clarification and Passive-Aggressive
A great first step when something from the publisher seems like a bad idea is to ask for clarification. Going back to my series of articles as an example, if a publisher told me to convert *every* missing PF feat from the core rulebook to Starfinder, I’d pretty quickly ask if they meant even feats that refer to rules that don’t exist in Starfinder and already have their basic concept covered, like Exotic Weapon Proficiency. The publisher might come back and agree that some feats don’t need conversion.
However, once I get told that yes, EVERY feat needs to be converted, constantly asking if that’s the case even if the end result is dumb, or even if that means confusing people, or any other objections, I’m moving beyond just asking for clarification. Once you have your answer work with it, for better or worse.
If the answer means you can’t work on a project for personal or ethical or legal reasons, at that point just say so.
Be As Polite As The Situation Allows
Ideally, you’ll always be in a place where you can be polite and considerate to your publisher. If nothing else, with luck you’ll have some idea what kind of material the publisher produces before working for them (or even pitching them ideas) and will have just avoided anyone who is going to ask for things you think are stupid or problematic.
Even just five years ago, I’d have made this advice to ALWAYS be polite. And, honestly, my privileged and luck have meant I have always had that choice (though I haven’t always used it, to my regret). But I have seen other writers put in situations where I confess, polite might not convey how serious an objection is.
I strongly recommend defaulting to as polite as you think you can possibly be, and reserving more stringent language and complaints for serious legal or ethical objections, but that has to be your call.
Explain Your Concerns
Saying “this piece of art is terrible” isn’t helpful to a publisher. Be as specific, and as nonjudgmental, as the situation allows for. Does the art depict the 8-armed Klyzon species as having 6 arms? Are the colors so muted and fuzzy that from 2 feet back it just looks like mud? Does the Klyzon look EXACTLY like a character from the Trek Wars animated series? It it’s tattoo of a symbol with real-world religious or political meaning? Is the Klyzon man a horrific monster in full armor, and the Klyzon woman a near-human with tiny horns wearing sexualized attire?
Specific details on what is your concern, and why it concerns you, helps move quickly to seeing if improvements or resolution can be found.
If there is a broader social issue in play, it may help to link to resources education on that issue. Yes, this is asking you to do extra work, and that’s both unfair and not your ethical duty. I offer the suggestion because I have found it effective, but you have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into any issue.
If you can think of an easy way to address your concern, pitch it. Publishers love solutions to problems, especially compared to problems they have to spend time working on themselves.
In fact if approving your solution is less work than figuring out some way to get what the publisher originally asked for, the publisher may just agree to save time and effort.
Try To Do It All At Once
This isn’t always an option, but a publisher can much more easily deal with a unified, concise list of 7 issues with a project, than getting a new issues brought up 7 different times during production.
Pick Your Battles
There’s nothing wrong with noting you think a sketch of a monster you are writing up is too goofy to convey the theme of menace and fear you have been asked to write… but that’s also not something I’d ever take beyond the bringing-it-up stage. The publisher has people they trust to make publication decisions, and they are unlikely to take your freelance opinion over that of their staff or trusted contract producers.
Even when mentioning concerns, it can be worth it to note when you are just bringing something up for consideration, (and will finish your work as agreed, on time, to a high standard of quality even if nothing changes), and when you think there is a serious issue you need to find clarification on before you can continue, or that you fear may impact the value of your work.
To Thine Own Self Be True
I wish I didn’t even have to cover this, but that’s not the world we live in. Your own sense of ethics, morality, and right and wrong should take precedence over giving a publisher what they want… to whatever degree you decide you’re willing to pay the price for making a stand.
It’d be nice to claim you’ll always be rewarded for doing the right thing but again, that’s not the world we live in. Only you can decide what to do when legal obligations (such as a contract), financial obligations (such as looming rent payments), and moral obligations (such as creating work you think might harm others) aren’t in alignment.
But I don’t personally think advancing your career, or getting one freelance paycheck, is worth feeling you have made the world a worse place. Be honest with yourself, and make the best call you cab.
Don’t Assume The Publisher Is Making a Change Until They Say So
Some freelancers will write in they have a concern, propose a solution, and then immediately continue their writing as if their proposal had been accepted. In some cases this has included things such as saying a topic can’t support 1500 words, so they are going to write 1100 words on it, and 400 words on some new topic.
Don’t. Do. This.
The project outline and remit hasn’t changed until the publish says it’s changed.
Be Clear On Your Position
I never recommend starting with ultimatums or even making threats, but especially once you have voiced a concern, if you are dissatisfied with the publisher’s solution, it’s worth talking about how you would like to proceed.
You may just note you won’t want to take similar projects in the future. You might ask that your name be taken off a project. You might need to ask for extra time because you feel the scope of the project has shifted or requires more research than you expect.
I personally have never, on ethical grounds, backed out of a project without the publisher’s approval once I had signed a contract. But I’m not going to claim there are never circumstances where that might be the moral choice. Myself I’d always finish wordcount and turn a project over by deadline, even if I had to write something that wasn’t exactly what was asked for because I have conscientious objections to what was asked for.
I have asked a publisher if they would approve of my walking away from a contract for various reasons, and had them agree to it. In general, that means I don’t get paid for work already done (which the publisher then cannot use), and that’s often the cost of doing business.
Don’t Freak Out
As a socially awkward introvert with depression, I know it can be overwhelming to tell a publisher you think they need to change their concept. But it happens, and most publishers are used to it, and many even appreciate it. By being prompt, polite, and specific, you can generally get a dialog going on issues without having to take on a huge emotional burden.
I’ve talked many times about ways I deal with writer’s block, burnout, and the hard work of creating game material professionally. What I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about is my normal writing process. Like, if I am feeling okay and tackling the day-to-day work of a writing career, what does that look like?
Today’s my birthday, and birthdays are a good time for some retrospection, so I want to look at how my full-time freelance process looks nowadays, especially after 5 years of going into the Paizo office 5 days a week. I’m talking here just about how I organize and tackle my writing–things like getting assignments, editing, and so on are outside the scope of this article. (Though if you want to hear more about those, let me know!)
When I was first starting my writing career, I flat refused to use outlines. Outlines were, I felt, restrictive. Stifling. I didn’t know where my muse was going to take me, after all, so how could I outline it? Much better, I thought, to just begin at the beginning, and keep writing until I hit the end, and if that meant the project drifted all over the place, I could fix that in a second draft.
I was such a sweet, summer child.
Yes, you can fix things in a second draft. But the sooner you find problems, the easier they are to fix (and the less work you’ve done on things that are geing to get cut). So now I outline nearly everything. Often in very rough terms (maybe just listing out some potential headers), but enough for me to know where a piece is going to start, what it’ll cover, and how it will end.
I DO keep in mind my format, and this is a place where the years of being a developer for Paizo have really honed that skill. For example, if I know I want everything to break at the bottom of a page, I can do rough wordcounts to writing only as much as I need to do that. On the other hand, if something is going to be a 2-3 page pdf and never see print, i know it doesn’t matter nearly as much what my exact wordcounts are.
Prioritize, Schedule, Assess
Early in my career, I was often doing just fairly random magazine articles, and deadlines were pretty rough. I also usually worked on only one at a time, so I didn’t have to worry about priorities. Now I am often doing two-dozen things all at once, and some are for myself with loose deadlines, some are for myself with firm deadlines (like this article, since I promise Patreon readers a good-sized article every Monday), some are for other folks with loose deadlines (most of the things I produce for Rite are done when they are done… but they do need to get done!), and some are for other folks with hard deadlines (if Green Ronin or Paizo needs a thing by a set date, it’s crucial I adhere to that–there are lots of steps after mine that need time, and big books that go into the retail market get announced way before they are finished.
So I need to know what I need to work on TODAY to hit deadlines. I prefer to work on 2-3 different things per day, so i keep a running list of what deadlines are upcoming, how far along those things are, and I (ideally) check it every work day. I also have the free tacking program Asana, which I use to track projects so they don’t get totally forgotten if I put them on the back burner for a few days or weeks. That helps make sure that if Rogue Genius Games needs marketing text from me before a product can be made available for sale, I get that done in a timely manner.
If I have an idea I can;t begin yet, it gets noted so it’s not lost. i used to do that in physical notebooks. Then I moved to online files. Now, i use Asana.
The hope is to get 8 hours of writing done per day 5 days a week, and 4 hours 2 days a week. That actually usually takes me 12 and 6 hours, because when I find myself hitting a slowdown in my writing, I often take a short break to clear my mind. That may be 5 minutes on social media, or 15 minutes gluing bits of a model together, or 20 minutes on a computer game. Or a half-hour lunch break. The idea is to pause, rather than let my writing urge go completely cool, but distract my mind with something different enough that I can come back at it ‘fresh” in a bit.
But it’s important to keep a running track of how much work is actually getting done, and what is due soon. If I am producing plenty of words per day (I shoot for a minimum of 3,000 words/day, spread out over various projects) and everything is on-track to hit deadline, I don’t worry overmuch how many minutes I spend on non-work-writing. But if my production slows, or I have something behind schedule, I get much more serious about making breaks short and infrequent. I try to get up and do something else for at least a few minutes every hour, but if the muse has me head-down writing for 3 hours, I don’t interrupt that process.
I have a dedicated work space–a home office I share with my wife. It has my laptop, my reference books, chargers for phones, a place for my cat to sit within-reach but off my desktop, a few hobby-related items, and that’s it. No television. No chairs other than the office chairs. There IS a window, because getting some natural light is helpful to me. No microwave. When I look around, I see only things related one way or another to my writing, and that’s a big help for me.
Putting It All Together
For example, I began this article on Friday the 25th, based on an idea from my idea file I got from a friend on social media. I didn’t get much more done than outlining some headers. I took runs at it again on the 26th and 27th, but kept both short because I had a past-due project I needed to turn in on the 28th. OTOH I also took time out on the 27th to spend time hanging out at a friend’s house, because I had been working all week and the next day was my birthday.
But that meant this wasn’t done today… and neither was the past-due project. But the past-due was ALMOST done, so finishing it clearly took priority. Then a quick break to spend a few minutes with my wife. Since it’s my birthday and I have a 3pm phone call that is industry-related, i WANTED to play a game for 15-20 minutes… but I couldn’t take the time for that when my Monday blog post wasn’t finished yet.
So this became the next major priority, and I hammered on it until it was done. Now I can take a break, and then start on the NEXT most-urgent thing on my list. 🙂
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New freelancers often wonder how much money they can make writing tabletop game material (or editing, or art, though those are different fields than where my primary experience lies). They’ll ask how they get paid, maybe inquire about a per-word rate, or flat fee, and think they are done, But knowing the per-word rate of a project is the beginning of figuring out how much you’ll make doing it, not the end.
And let me start by saying not everyone cares how much they make, and not everyone is going to depend on this money for their livelihood even if they do, and none of that matters when discussing what is reasonable to pay. Work deserves to be compensated, and you deserve to know how hard you are working for the money you make.
I don’t know that there is an “industry standard” for tabletop RPG writing. At this point in my career I am usually writing for 10 cents/word or a goodly cut of all income from a project. Over the past 20 years I have written for as little as 1 cent/word (counting only things that were non-charity, paid projects), and as much as 35 cents/word, but those are both outliers. (Before that I once took a project for 0.1 cents/word… I didn’t know any better. And that’s not my worst experience, to boot.)
Most people I am willing to work with pay no less than 3 cents a word, even to new writers. So, for purposes of this article, that’s the number I am going to go with.
But even knowing a project pays ‘3 cents a word’ doesn’t tell you how much you are making, until you know how many words it is, and how long that will take you, how many revisions you’ll be asked to make, and how long you have to wait to get paid.
If you can do 2,000 words in a 2-hour evening run? That’s $30/hour.
If it’s 1,000 words over 4 hours? That’s $7.50/hour.
But if revisions take just as long as the writing? Your hourly rate just got cut in half. And you’ll likely be paying self-employment tax (in the U.S. anyway, basically another 15% cut out of your income), and you won’t get any benefits as you would for a full-time hourly staff job, and if you have to wait until it’s published to get paid you may miss out on the potential for months of interest (whether by putting it in savings or paying off a credit card cost), or both.
Some of those answers you won’t know until the project is done. You can ask a company if they expect to request revisions (and definitely check your contract to see if it asks for revisions), and you can ask other freelancers what their experience with that company is in that regard (and on other issues too — it’s worth knowing if a company has a reputation for paying late, or killing projects, or changing the remit partway through… if you can, find fellow freelancers you trust and talk to them). But ultimately, any given project may be the exception to the general rule.
It’s also worth finding out HOW you are getting the money. By check? By PayPal (in which case, is a fee coming out of it, and if so who is paying that fee?) By international wire transfer from a different currency? Find out, and get it in writing. It can make a huge difference, especially if different currencies get involved.
The math is even more variable for things that pay your a percentage, and there are even more elements that can change things. Is your percentage of the cover price, or the cut the publishing company gets? this is a huge difference. for example, if it’s a $5 pdf on DriveThruRPG, and you are getting 25%, you need to know if that is 25% of the $5 cover, or 25% of the $3.25 the publishing company gets after DriveThru takes their 35% cut? Also, are you being paid off gross (all the money that comes in) or net (the profit, after all other expenses are paid), or some hybrid number (such as all the money the company takes in for sale price, but none of the money it takes in for printing POD copies or for shipping)? Are you paid monthly? Quarterly? For the life of the product, or just for the first year of sales?
And it wouldn’t be fair not to mention here that some publishers, writers, and pundits think percentage payments are unethical. I’m not one of them, as long as the freelancer is well-informed when making their decision. But I WILL say that since a percentage asks the freelancer to take more of the risk on the project (since sales could be dismal), I recommend only taking a percentage that you believe, based on your own market research, will on average pay more than the flat rate you would accept for the project. I take percentage projects myself fairly often, but am most likely to do so when I have more creative control. If I pitched the idea, or I am developing it to my taste, or it’s a case where a publisher has told me they’ll pay me for anything I ant to write (rare, but it has happened from time to time in my career), I am more willing to take the risk with the publisher, as opposed to when I am given a hard outline and have fewer creative choices to give input on.
On the question of how fast you write, that answer may not be the same for you for every kind of project. I can write new rules content and essays (like this one) MUCH faster than I can write long adventures. Short adventures seem to be an average between those two. Worldbuilding varies for me wildly–sometimes the ideas and descriptions flow easily, and sometimes it’s a grind. And the better I know a game system, the easier and faster all the writing is for it.
You should also make sure you aren’t having to spend money in order to do the writing for a project. Nowadays every company I work with will at least give a freelancer free pdfs of their material that is related to a project. but for licensed properties, this isn’t always as clear. I have had licensed projects I worked on that required me to have some geek encyclopedia not published by the company I was working for, and which they could not get me free copies of. I always increased my asking price by the amount buying such things would cost me, or made sure they were things I could borrow off a friend, or get from the library. If there are free resources, such as fan wikis, make sure your publisher considers them authoritative before depending on them.
You also have t consider if your writing project requires you to do any non-writing work that doesn’t pay any extra above the per-word rate. It’s extremely common for adventure writers to have to do sketches of maps of the locations within their adventures. Not final cartography, but maps with enough detail that the cartographer doesn’t have to make any decisions when rendering final version. This generally doesn’t result in any additional pay above the per-word rate, so if it’s 3 cents per word for 10,000 words plus three full-page map sketches, you are doing more work for the money than if you got 3 cents per word for 10,000 words with no sketches. You may also have to provide an outline, or multiple outlines, which create additional words you are writing you don’t get directly paid for. If the outlines are part of your normal process of writing that’s fine, but if they aren’t be sure to think about how long they took you when considering how much you earned.
It’s much less common, but sometimes publishers also want writers to do interviews, blog posts, marketing text, and so on. Some of those things you may see as career opportunities (the publisher likely isn’t making any money off you doing an interview with someone, and it can be good for your own visibility), but it’s worth knowing if those things are optional opportunities for you, or considered mandatory part of your job, which you should then count against the time it takes you to earn that assignment’s money. (Of course you don’t count any promotion you arrange for and do on your own against the money the publisher pays you — that kind of self-promotion is just part of being an active freelancer.)
Only when you know how much money you’ll get, how long it’ll take to get it, how long it took you to write a draft, how long you spent on revisions or outlining or mapping or art orders, and how long any mandatory promotions you engage in took, can you figure out how many hours you spent earning your per-word, royalty, or flat rate. You may not want to bother to do this with every project, but it IS worth tracking from time to time so you know if there are things that earn you more per hour, even if they have a similar or lower rate for the whole project.
And, of course, when talking about how much you can earn as a freelancer on top of knowing how much you make per hour, you have to figure out how many hours you can spend on it in a month, and then if you can fill all those hours with work at a rate worth your time.
But those are sub-topics for another week.
Sponsored By: The Know Direction Network!
Like all my blog posts, this one is supported by the backers of my patreon! In this case this post is specifically sponsored by the fine folks at the Know Direction network, who have podcasts, articles, news, and convention recordings about the game industry and general, and Paizo, Pathfinder and Starfinder in particular! “Pathfinder News, Reviews, & Interviews!”
I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few weeks ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this second post of two on Career Planning (you can read Part One here).
We covered step 1, process your new reality, and step 2, review. So that brings us to:
3. Look Forward
I often open advice sessions with other people with “Where do you want to be in two years?” It is, for me, a perfect amount of time. Far enough ahead that you can discount immediate but temporary inconveniences such as a sprained ankle or massive looming deadline, close enough that you can visualize the time between now and then. For other people different timeframes might make more sense, but my 5-year plans very rarely go anything like as planned, and when looking forward 6 months or less I am often skewed towards immediate issues that aren’t necessarily representative of what I am going to face in general.
So, where do *I* want to be in 2 years? As I make a list of those things I find, unsurprisingly, that a lot of them involve money.
And money involves a budget.
Budgeting isn’t any fun, but it’s a crucial part of a freelance career. If I am going to successfully reach any of my goals, many of which involve things like buying a house and paying off student loans, I have to be able to account for more than just my immediate bills. Freelancing if often filled with feast-or-famine incomes, where you get paid for several things over the course of 2-3 weeks, and then nothing to speak of over 2-3 months. It’s important to do more than just cover the rent and groceries. You need to be able to sock away for emergencies, long-term needs, even retirement.
That just isn’t likely to happen without a budget.
You also need to consider what skills and contacts you should improve to meet your two-year goal, whatever it is. Do you want to have a published novel? Then you better both be writing is NOW, and talking to anyone you can about how to get it published. Want to have your own game company? I recommend working as an assistant to someone else who has one, so you can learn the ins and outs by watching and helping, before you have to figure it out by doing.
The review is also the time to have an honest talk with yourself about what your weaknesses are. Are you bad at adventure writing? You can either plan to just avoid having to do that, or to get better at it, but you won’t know that’s something to take into account unless you are aware of it as a weakness.
You also need to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Impostor syndrome is rife in this industry… as is the Dunning–Kruger effect. Combating those in yourself is tricky–it’s always easier to see bias in others rather than yourself. I recommend both trying to describe how you would expect someone who gets the kind of work and responses you do objectively to see at least ho you are seen by others, and to ask people you trust who are more successful than you to give you their honest assessment of your pros and cons.
The whole point here is to be able to look forward from a grounded place of information about yourself. You don’t need to beat yourself up or gild your own laurels, but if you don’t have a rough grasp of where you ARE in your career, it’s very tough to plan a course forward.
It may be worth considering what kinds of jobs you have already done and think about which ones you’d like to do more of. My article “Developer? Designer? Who is the What Now?” may be helpful for thinking about different kinds of tasks within the writer end of the TTRPG industry. If you are more focused on art, editing, or business and planning, those are still useful distinctions to know, but you should consider what kinds of sub-divisions your own career has revealed.
Try to boil all your “looking forward” ideas in 3-5 bullet-points of 1-2 sentences each. If two bullet points look similar, see if you can blend them into one slightly broader bullet point.
My first run at that list of ideas looked like this. I offer it only as an example — your list should definitely look different, based on where your career is, and where you want it to go.
*Make enough money to cover more than just the necessities, including health care, buying a house, retirement planning, and the occasional vacation.
*Expand my professional skillset to be able to take advantage of any text-based or business-related aspect of the game industry, including working in different game systems, being a manager, and overseeing licenses.
*Build my online and social media presence to make it easier to directly reach fans and potential employers, possibly including doing more videos, streaming games, and redesigning my website to be more modern.
*Build income streams separate from per-word writing, possibly including growing RGG, doing more royalty-based projects, and patron support (such as my Patreon, which supports this blog and gives me time to write things like this article-Join Now!)
Now that you have an idea of where you are, and where you want to go, it’s time to:
4. Make Plans
This is going to be one of the vaguest sections of this article, because your previous steps should already be leading you to a different destination than mine–possibly a different destination than I could even think of. So making plans to get you from where you are to where you want to go in your career should look very different than getting me where I want to go. But I do think there’s some high-level advice that can still be broadly useful for making plans.
The first is: schedule your time, then fill it.
It’s very temping to do this the other-way ’round: to find things to do, and then go looking for time to get it done in. And at a casual or hobby level, that’s fine. If you mostly want to just post a few articles on free sites and occasionally get paid for a bit of work that drops in your lap, you probably can just schedule things as they come along. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way–I strongly suspect more TTRPG words get written each year by people who enjoy it as a hobby than those who see it as a side-gig or want it to be a full-time career.
But in my experience, if you want to step beyond that, you’ll eventually need to do the hard work of carving out time from everything else, and then filling that time. If you don’t have enough work to fill the time you set aside? Then it’s time to use the spare time to work on some RPG Pitches. If you don’t have enough time set aside to do all the work you’ve gotten?
Then it’s time to take a hard look at whether you need to set aside more time, write faster, or work less. For any of those answers, you may end up trying to Survive on 5 Cents/Word (or Worse). Good luck, sincerely.
As you set aside time, make sure some of it is saved for making contacts, pitches, and seeking better opportunities, and that includes opportunities for self-improvement. Work and learning opportunities may just fall into your lap sometimes, but there’s almost always more work you can get if you go hunting for it, and that often includes better options. If you want regular income, for example, you may need a regular gig writing articles, or running a Patreon, or being a part-time contract employee of a game company. Some of those things you can set up yourself, but that takes time too.
This is often the hardest part of planning a career. While there are now formal education opportunities to get involved in gaming (and not all of them are focused on computer games, and many of the skills are fungible even so), nearly everything I know about being a game industry professional came from working with people smarter, more talented, and more experienced than I was. My time on-staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo taught me there is something I can learn from everybody in the industry, even people with much less experience than me. I needed to be open to the opportunities to learn from them, and that often required I take the time to consider why they wanted to do something differently than I planned to. Yes, deadlines are often tight and there is a time and a place to be a strong advocate for your own vision and experience, but never let that cheat you out of a chance to learn a new resource, skillset, hard-learned lesson, or even just a new point of view.
So, look not only at what work you can do, but what doing that work may mean in terms of advancing your career. There are people in this industry I will always work with if I can, because I always learn from them. I try to challenge myself to take on things that put me out of my comfort zone, and set aside extra time to get those uncomfortable things done.
Sometimes that means an opportunity doesn’t pan out, and that can be especially painful if you gave up something stable for it, and/or were depending on it for a major part of your income. It’s good to note these things (like in future rounds of processing and reviewing your new reality), but it’s not a reason to not try new things. You’ll need to balance potential risk with possible reward, and I can’t tell you how much risk to take for what reward level. Just be realistic with yourself, and never take a risk you can’t survive going badly if you don’t have to.
So, with those steps in mind, what am I looking at for plans to carry my career forward? I’m not going to go into ever deep detail, for obvious reasons, but I think it’d be a bit of a cheat not to wrap this up with some concrete examples of where this process has lead me. So:
I’m the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin. This is a part-time contract position, working with some of the smartest and most experienced people in the TTRPG industry, and it’s a stable source of some income every month. That hits a number of my goals, from working with new game systems to being around people who can help me be better at a wide range of TTRPG industry tasks. I’ll be looking for more similar opportunities, but I am super-stoked at making this part of my long-term success.
I’m focusing more on my Patreon, including posting a new goal promising videos and bonus content if it hits $1500/month. It was, to be honest, extremely scary for me to consider a $1500 goal, but my $700+ goal having been met, I have to take that risk. And if it turns out the public doesn’t want what I am offering for that level of patronage? I’ll re-assess, and try again. I see this as both a way to seek semi-regular income to help meet my financial goals, and to force me to learn and offer new things to stay connected and relevant to the ever-changing TTRPG market.
I’m setting aside more time for Rogue Genius Games. There are types of projects I have never dared tackle with my own little gaming company, and forcing myself to try them is another way to exp[and my skillset. And of course writing more of my own products also means having more royalty-based projects, which is a good way to build income streams that aren’t exclusively one-time per-word money.
Fiction. I am going to do it, this time. I am terrified.
More traditional freelance. I need the money in the short-term, and the contacts in the long-term. So I am throwing my doors open to new publishers, new projects, and new game systems. Time to prove I am more than a d20 game mechanic guy.
So, for the moment, in broad strokes, that’s it for me. I’ll compare my results to my needs and plans (especially my income vs my budget) every 90 days (and more frequently if things are obviously out of whack). And every 6 months or so, it’ll be time to do the whole process again — process, review, look forward, and plan.
It’s a never-ending process, but that’s okay. I never plan to stop having a career, so I can afford to take time to adjust and rethink as needed.
In fact, I can’t afford not to.
I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few days ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this first post of two on Career Planning.
It’s a question that comes up all too often, and that there’s not much guidance for. Not “how do I break in,” or “how can I do a better job,” but the much more basic “now what?”
It’s a place I have found myself many times over more than two decades, but to be honest I thought I was done asking it for a while. When I took a full-time staff position with Paizo, my expectation was that I’d be there at least a decade. But you can’t always predict what opportunities come along (or how they’ll turn out), and you need to analyze them based on your current situation, not your best guess from 5 years ago.
Sometimes you just need to take stock and see if your current, stable situation is doing what you need it to, or if improvements could be made. Sometimes you move across the country because your spouse got an amazing job that ceases to exist after 90 days with almost no warning.
So, my Paizo job made the “now what” question irrelevant only on the macro scale. I still needed to have a plan for growth within Paizo (and becoming Starfinder Design Lead was a huge step for me in that regard), and I had to keep an eye on what I was doing as side-gigs (which is one reason I had to shuffle those so often–side gigs must be treated with respect, but they can’t take so much effort they damage your performance on your main career path), but in general I knew where the next set of paychecks was coming from, and who I was going to be doing most of my work for over the next 6 months, and where I would be sitting my butt most often.
I do not regret deciding my family’s needs were no longer in good alignment with Paizo’s opportunities for me, though I am going to miss not only the stability it afforded, but also the friends I have made and the amazing coworkers I have learned from and grown with. And, obviously, I didn’t expect my move to turn out the way it did and would have handled things differently if I’d thought this result was possible in this timeframe. But the fact is I am in Indiana now, and while I expect Paizo to continue to be part of my career for the foreseeable future, that situation is a freelance relationship rather than a regular paycheck.
I moved without a full-time situation preplanned for myself, and the stable job I thought would remove the pressure of needing to spin up my career quickly has turned to vapor. So I come to a place creative careers often do.
I have to ask myself, “Now what?”
I’ve done this before, of course. When I was laid off from Wizards of the Coast in 2001. When 3.5 came out, and 4e, and Pathfinder 1st ed. Both when I joined up with and then was bought out from Super Genius Games. When I was offered a regular gig doing Freeport for Green Ronin, and when I left that. When I started Rogue Genius Games, and became involved with Rite Publishing. Each of those moments came just before, or just after, that crucial questions about what’s next.
So, how do you answer that question? It takes some analysis, some planning, and some guesswork.
1. Process Your New Reality
Ideally your new reality is what you were hoping for, such as when I got a full-time job with Paizo. I had that rarest of unicorns — a full-time job (with benefits) in the game industry. But even in that case, I should have taken more time to settle into that new position, after 13 years of full-time freelancing, before I took on any additional projects. I thought that since I knew how long it takes me to write and produce game content, and I knew how much of that Paizo expected from me, I knew what my new reality was like. But there’s a big difference between being a freelancer and going to an office 5 days a week, and while I’d held a staff job before, more than a decade of changes in technology and best practices, and working for a different company, meant I wasn’t as prepared as I thought.
I adjusted, and it was fine. But it would have been better if I had gotten a feel for things first, and considered how to augment that situation afterwards.
However, if your new reality is caused by sudden, unexpected, terrible changes of circumstance, processing it may have a very different set of needs. If you have had the death of a partner or colleague, gotten laid off or fired, had a license pulled, or otherwise experienced a swift and unforeseen major setback, you have some emotional needs you need to deal with before you make big plans.
You can’t rush this. It’s going to take the time it takes, and that’s that. However, you can set some boundaries and expectations for yourself. I recommend giving yourself at least a few days, but also to maintain your route work and duties. Of course I am a depressive introvert, so I need to take specific steps to make sure my mental health is cared for, and I can’t give other folks specific advice how to do that.
My point is, take care of yourself and don’t make any huge decisions you don’t have to in the first few days of a big, negative change. And if you need more help than that, get it. Huge life changes are tough, and the most important part of your career is you.
For me the first thing I do when I am at a crossroads is look backward.
It can be hard to properly assess projects and jobs while you are doing them. Since hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, the moment when you aren’t sure what to do next is a great time to look back over the past few years, and analyze what things went well, and which ones didn’t. This isn’t just about money, or ease of work, or satisfaction, though all those things should be considered. I also like to ask myself, if I knew then what I know now, would I still do the same things I did in the past few years.
I consider this a post-mortem, rather than a time to kick myself or dig up regrets. Often there was no way to know what unrelated things might make a great opportunity turn out terribly, or save a disaster from being much of a problem. But often there were subtle signs I could have paid more attention to, and thinking about what they might be helps me catch them in the future. I also want to analyze what I learned, what I enjoyed, what I made good money on… and what I feel burned out about, what opportunities I missed, and what I feel like has begun to put me in a rut either creatively, or in my career.
For example, I was between projects in 2012/2013, when Lou Agresta asked me if I wanted to write for the Heart of the Razor Adventure anthology for Razor Coast. Now, writing adventures is more work for me than the same word count of worldbuilding or rules expansion, so I often skip it. But, I realized I hadn’t written an adventure in years, and a number of people in the industry had begin to refer to me as a “rules guy.” So I accepted, to change up my perception in the industry, and get myself out of a rut. (And it won an ENnie, and within a year of it coming out Paizo was asking me what adventure I had done recently I was most proud of… and I had something great to point to!)
On the other hand, right NOW I have written two adventures in the past 3 years (one yet to be released), and I don’t feel like it’s a good time for me to be working on slower products that aren’t (currently) an underserved area of my career. Different point in my life, different answer.
In a week we’ll look at Part Two, where I discussing looking forward, and making plans.
Part of My Plan is Patreon
Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, ever word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. benefit to my freelance career and/or money made.
So if you found any of this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!
Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.