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The Biggest Secret of the ttRPG Industry

A lot of people are going to disagree with me, and that’s fine. But I firmly believe this is the most important secret within the ttRPG industry, as a whole. Obviously there are different secrets for any given company or game, but this is the one that you won’t hear about in reward ceremonies, podcasts, or social media acounts.

Ready?

You Never Hear About The Most Important People in the Industry.

But, you cry, I know all the streaming actors and GMs! I can quote 31 game writers’ names! I have memorized  Shannon Appelcline’s 4-volume “Designer’s & Dragons” history of the industry!

And that’s great. Seriously, thanks for paying attention.

But do you know who was the producer of your favorite show? Which editors were leading the team for that award-winning game line? Who tracked the budget of the company, making sure bills were paid and paychecks cleared? Heck who shipped those books from the warehouse? Who planned and built the Gen Con booth? Who made the arrangements with the printer, managed the schedule, figured out the cost/benefit factors of printing 2,000 vs 3,0000 copies? Who wrangled the new post-Brexit VAT laws, or YouTube children-appropriate content rules?

Who was taking customer service calls, handling people who might get pissed off about a game for reasons entirely unrelated to its content, fun, quality, or creator? Who wrote the community engagement rules, safety policy, and editorial standards?

When a game company goes under, the reason is rarely “The game wasn’t fun,” or “The Lead Designer Left.” No, companies collapse because they didn’t prepare for a change between the value of international currencies, or a book was massively overprinted, or they hired too many people-or not enough people-and the schedule and budget couldn’t be manipulated fast enough to deal with changing market conditions.

Or everyone burned out, and just walked away.

For the industry to be an industry, rather than a haphazard series of vanity hobby options, there are support professionals dealing with the things that all industries need. Sourcing. Shipping. Editing. Marketing. Warehousing. Customer service.

And even within the industry, most people can name 5 designers for every editor they know, and 5 editors for every print buyer, customer service manager, or warehouse director.

And yes, for a lot of companies, people have to wear many hat. But if you know the name of the writer who happens to also handle print runs, but you don’t know they are the person arranging for book printing, that’s still an unknown print buyer.

And most of these kinds of jobs can be done in other industries, for more money and less customer vitriol. So, if you have any opportunity to interact with these crucial people who make the ttRPG industry possible?

Be nice. Say thanks.

Without them, there is no industry.

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Guest Blog: Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Gaming veteran, artist, and writer Jacob Blackmon!

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

I Started Drawing Because I Can’t Spell Worth Shit…

OR…

My Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

By Jacob E Blackmon

Let’s just start by saying, I love my life. I love being an artist in the tabletop game community. This job has allowed me a freedom of living that I never imagined possible. I seriously cannot think of any job I would rather be doing right now.

As the same time, it has also been the occasional financial burden, when the art commissions slow down and money gets tight. That is something one has to learn as a freelancer in any market. There are highs and lows (or “feast and famine” as some say), and one never knows when they will come… so be sure to have a good savings account.

My name is Jacob Blackmon, and I have been a freelance artist in the tabletop rpg community since 2009. I’ve only been doing the gig as a full time thing since 2013. Given that I was born in 1977, this has been a very small – but significant – portion of my life. I’ve been gaming since 1989, and I never even considered using my art skills as a ttrpg artist.

For the longest time, I wanted to be a comic book artist, hence my distinctive style. This style has served me well… and also been a curse, as there are some companies that refuse to work with me, because I don’t have that traditional “painted fantasy” look. And that kind of rejection is certainly going to apply to the big-name companies (Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, etc.), who only use that “painted” style of art, so I know I will never get jobs with them. Which is too bad, because I would love to see my name in one of their books.

But my success is not measured in what books I have not been in. It is measured in the books where I HAVE contributed my art. And those are MANY! The third-party ttrpg industry is a massive community of wonderful and passionate people. These are the folks I consider my peers… and quite, often… my friends. Despite this familiarity to which I speak of them, it is important to maintain a professional attitude when working with such people. They expect every bit as much professionalism from their freelancers – artists and writers includes – as any of the big name companies.

Deadlines are a serious thing, and can make or break a company, especially in the post-COVID days. During the CV19 days of 2020, the gaming community seriously suffered. If you were not Wizards of the Coast, you saw your finances drop significantly. This is why deadlines are so important to keep in mind as a freelancer. We need to make sure we get our work done in time, so the company can get their product out.

I have seriously lost count of many projects have come my way because another artist decided they didn’t want to work on a project and did not communicate this fact until after the deadline posted by the company. This is a serious breach of trust and of professionalism. If a freelancer can’t make their deadlines, the company will stop going to that person in favor of those that will. So, meet your deadlines. This is, seriously, THE MOST IMPORTANT ADVICE IS CAN GIVE ANYONE! Meet your deadlines!

I can count, on one hand, how many times I have failed to make a deadline. And, when it has happened I always let the company whom I am working for know that I will miss the deadline before it happens. That is the second key: communication. Just like in life, love, family, and relationships, one needs to maintain communication with the people they are working for. Let them know the progress of the art assignment. Have you started on it? Yes? Let them know that.

During the art process, I usually have several stages of communication with a client.

  1. Beginning – When first starting on the art.
  2. Early stages – When my first rough draft concept is ready, I send them a copy via email (sometimes through another PM service, if they prefer, but emails is always the true professional way to do it!). When a rough draft is approved, I move on to…
  3.  Line work – This stage shows the clean version of what had been the rough draft, giving the client an idea of what the final piece will look like. It is also the last time a client will really have to make any serious changes to the pieces. I mention this, because once we start to add color, shading, and highlighting to an illustration, it becomes MUCH harder to make alterations.
  4. Coloring – For me, this is both the base coloring stage, plus shading and highlights. This is often the final stage, as alterations after this stage are incredibly difficult.

Each of these stages has me sending the client an email of what is going on with the piece. Once the final piece is approved, that’s the best time to send an invoice and get paid! The best clients pay immediately (“I do the job, I get paid.” – Mal Reynolds, Firefly), but some clients may have to hold those payments until they themselves get paid through another venue. This is why it helps to make sure to have a steady stream of clients at the same time. That way, not only can an artist transition from one piece to another, while waiting for one client to respond to the latest email; but also so that the artist has a nice steady flow of income. One client may not be able to pay their bill immediately, but the other should be able to. And that keeps a bank account happy, bills paid, and food on the table.

There are a couple of suggestions I have to maintaining a steady supply of clients, as well as netting new clients in the future. These were things I had to learn along the way in my own freelance art career, and some were told to me by others. So I am teaching them to you, as well…

Get an online profile! Make sure you have a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure you have an online gallery where potential clients can see your art.

Have a rate sheet! Make sure you know how much to charge for your work, and make sure it is equal to how valuable your time is that you put towards your work. Don’t short-sell yourself, just to make clients happy. Save the price discounts for “friends and family.” Make sure to always charge your friends and family. Don’t give them free art, unless YOU choose to do so. This is your JOB!

THIS IS YOUR JOB! Be a professional. Meet your deadlines. But, at the same, time treat it like a job. Take time off, including regular breaks during the day (don’t sit in the chair and look at social media; stand up and move around… make yourself a light snack.. socialize with your roommates), break for lunch, and when you have put in your 8 hours…. STOP WORKING!

The last bit of advice I can give to a potential artist who wants to work in the ttrpg community is to also be a ttrpg gamer! You cannot imagine how much time it save a client to have an artist already be familiar with the various games and art associated with said games. No one has ever had to describe to me what a “peryton” is, as I already know what they are supposed to look like. This saves both you and the client a ton of time and descriptive text.

Go! Draw! Have fun and make money doing it!

Speaking of which, please support me on Patreon: patreon.com/jacobblackmon

Jacob Blackmon

Gallery: deviantart.com/prodigyduck

FB: facebook.com/jacob.blackmon.56

And as always, you can support this blog at Owen K.C. Stephens’ Patreon!

The Public Does Not Owe You Private Criticism

We live in an age where it is extremely easy for critics, commentators, pundits, customers, and fans to express their analyses and opinions on game products and announcements/ads for game products that have been presented to the public (and anything ever presented in public, really, but here I am sticking to one topic to make a specific point) very, very publicly.

And, for good or ill, if those analyses and opinions pick up interest from others with likes, comments, and shares, they can go viral. Often, by the time a game professional is aware of some statement about a project they worked on or are tied to, it’s already been seen by hundreds or thousands of other people.

When those statements are critical, perhaps especially when those criticisms are valid and strongly negative, boosters of the project will often complain that there was “no need” to make “such a big deal,” out of the criticisms. One common refrain is that any complaints could be initially handled in private communications to the publisher or creator in question.

And of course, such things could start that way, that’s obvious. By even mentioning it, boosters are pushing the narrative that such criticism should start that way, and not doing so is somehow inappropriate.

And that’s B.S.

Such suggestions of different ways a thing could be handled also often claim the “only reason” criticisms are done in public is to “drive views,” or gain attention.

And even when true, that’s completely irrelevant.

Once a product, or an ad/announcement for a product, has been released to the public, the public has no responsibility to restrict their negative reactions to private communications, even as a first response. Nor should their be any expectation or suggestion that the public will do so. A game or announcement for a game is put out into the public eye specifically to garner a reaction. If a company is at a stage where positive reviews and critiques of an item are appropriate in a broad forum, then so are negative ones.

It is, of course, possible for there to specific specific people who WANT to begin criticisms privately, and that’s fine. If I have a relationship with a publisher or creator and I think they have, or are about to, make a big mistake I will often contact them privately and say why. Coming from another direction, someone who does not want fans of a game line to harass them may well seek less-public ways to send feedback to a publisher just so they aren’t the target for harassment. Further, if I was involved with a project, I may have some ethical desire to initially express my concerns about it in private even once the material in question is public.

And, yes, there ARE ways to respond to publicly released material that are themselves open to criticism. I’m not talking about the content of critiques, but the venue for them. Though it’s worth noting that even accusations of a response being made in bad faith — vicious ad hominem attacks, intentional falsehoods, and similar things — even that needs to be considered with an analytical eye. While there absolutely are bad actors who will make up objections to try to take down game creators and game projects they dislike, there are at least as many bad actors who will claim legitimate criticisms are actually vile attacks because they dislike the criticism.

My key point here is, the public doesn’t owe any game or game creator the privilege of a private preview of their critique of a public release. Once a creator releases an ad, statement, or game into the public eye, they are inviting response to that release.

Even the responses they don’t like.

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Why Isn’t GAME COMPANY doing THE THING?

Gamers often wonder why a specific game company (hereafter GAME COMPANY) isn’t engaged in some specific act of licensing, marketing, broadcasting, podcasting, customer engagement, convention support, or new game production (hereafter THE THING).

And while I can’t give specific details on why GAME COMPANY isn’t doing THE THING even when I know them, there are a few generic answers that come up so often, I thought it would be useful to have this response ready to point to whenever I need it.

There are numerous possible reasons why GAME COMPANY is not doing THE THING.

First, it may be a terrible idea.

GAME COMPANY has information you do not. This includes details such as (but not limited to) historic sales of various form factors and product lines, cost to manufacture vs sell-through rates, marketing costs, debt load, budget projections, contractual obligations, warehousing cost, warehousing availability, shipping costs, unpaid obligations, work capacity, unannounced projects, scheduling, and whether or not there is anyone at GAME COMPANY who has any interest in working on the THE THING, given that if its employees get too unhappy, they leave.

Even if they decide to do THE THING, it takes time. Legal agreements must be forged. Asset packages have to be put together. Clear rules on what is and isn’t allowed must be decided on internally, written up, and reviewed. Schedules have to be designed. Outlines have to be created. Budgets need to be projected. Brainstorms need to roll in for the best way to do THE THING without burning out the entire staff or making the same mistakes that 1/4 of the staff know NOW BANKRUPT COMPANY made when they tried THE THING in the 1990s.

All of that that takes work from managers, legal departments, and marketing people. Work that comes in on top of their normal load needed to keep making books and put them out at the highest level of quality and profitability. If you try to do THE THING, and while working on it fail to keep the normal flow of products going to pay the bills, THE THING won’t do you much good even if it is a success.

Often it seems like planning for THE THING should doable in a couple of days, maybe a week or two. But when GAME COMPANY’s staff is already generally already working 45-60 hour weeks to keep food on the table (on top of any freelance work or side gigs they have to make up for the generally low recompense within the industry), and any extra planning/meeting/organizing/budgeting/outlining can only be tackled when there’s a work lull, or people have extra energy, it can stretch out to months or literally years.

GAME COMPANY might love to do THE THING. As the very smart Mike Selinker pointed out in a response to this post, they may even be WORKING on THE THING, and just not want to announce it yet.

But even if they are fast, efficient, brilliant, and focused, they may lack the time, resources, or energy to do THE THING quickly.

#RealGameIndustry

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Industry Insider: The Pandemic Creativity Toll

So, I have written about the impact of the pandemic, and how to try to handle it, several times already. However, these days the main way I communicate with people is by text. So as I engage in the needful day-to-day tasks of being a freelancer, even without taking on new projects, I end up generating a lot of words on game-industry-related topics. It seems a shame to leave those in emails and direct messages, so I have taken a moment to arrange edited versions to form an update of where I see the Games Industry sitting now, nearly a year into the global pandemic.

I spoke about the State of the Industry about seven months ago, and while things have definitely changed since then, over and over in fact, I wouldn’t say they are better. And things like another major east coast blizzard, the biggest since the 2016 storm that did long-lasting damage to game sales, are going to have a magnified impact when things are already so destabilized. And while we do now have multiple vaccines, it turns out there’s a huge gap between the formulas existing, and people actually getting a shot in the arm. There are deep divisions within the industry about whether any major in-person events are going to happen, but no doubt that if they do they will be less-attended and more stressful than equivalents were in 2019.

Not only are game companies feeling the hurt in terms of sales and stress on creators (which I’ll touch on more in a bit), they have to guess when sales will pick back up. Making major game books takes time and money. A company can often bank a product or two and not send them to the printer yet… but they can’t do so for a full year. Books ready-to-be-printed aren’t making any money yet, and companies have to decide how big a backlog of resources they can possibly sit on. At some point you have to either put them out, and acknowledge that means their total sales will never match normal levels (much as sales of winter 2016 products were hurt over their whole lifespan), or stop making new product until thing have improved… which means not having work for people you are already having trouble paying salaries or freelancer contracts. But if you wait too long to begin making books again, when things do improve you’ll miss the first wave of new purchases by people getting back into in-person gaming and recreation, making it that much harder to get income asap to make good on debts and build new momentum.

There are obviously some steps mid-range game companies and creators can take now to help weather the hardship, and many companies are trying new things. Professional Patreons are more common than ever before, with some 3D print file and art Patreons bringing in thousands of dollars a month. Game industry Patreons focusing on rules and text seem to be less common and less lucrative, but the idea is young yet, and breakout successes may just not have developed yet. Certainly things like the Green Ronin Patreon Rundown (which, full disclosure, I wrote, is hosted by a company I work for, and features my own Patreon) show that there are numerous game professionals and companies putting out amazing content directly to fans.

However, even when venues of sales are open, there’s another major problem hitting the industry, and it has gotten much worse over the past many months–creator burnout. I don’t think there is a single game company which I have insider insight with that isn’t having a much, much higher level of late and even completely-dropped assignments. In some cases you can see how specific factors may have played a part–new game lines can be hard to launch, people getting sick have ample reason to miss deadlines, and tight budgets often means less leeway built into schedules for late assignments and developmental assistance to creators. However, in other cases experienced veterans are taking on things that should be right in their wheelhouse, with all the time and help they normally need, and they are just not performing as well.

It’s widespread enough, though different game lines, production models, and personnel, that I simply have to believe the pandemic and related political stress is broadly impacting creativity for large swaths of people. It’s been a major factor for me, resulting in my being months behind on high-profile projects I staked my reputation on, to my own significant embarrassment. I’ve spoken before about Being Creative During a Pandemic, and gave a view of what my own struggles in time of pandemic look like. And when I reread that last one, I see I was in lockdown for a month when I wrote it, and just think “Oh, my sweet summer child.”

A huge swath of game industry professionals are exhausted. Emotionally worn thin, creatively low and fuel, intellectually at a loss, and financially on edge. We are not unique in that, of course. My effort to shine a light on what I am seeing within every level of the game industry is meant not to claim it is rougher than for other professions, only to share the experiences as I have had them. And because the tabletop RPG industry in particular is so small and on such tight margins, there’s a real risk big sections of it could simply cease to exist. I always try to recommend being kind, but if you are interacting with gam creatives right now, I’d ask for any additional consideration you may have. Certainly if what you want is for ttRPGs to keep getting made, additional yelling at, insulting, accusing, or belittling writers and publishers isn’t likely to help under current circumstances.

Also, I totally understand you may not have any spare financial support to offer game creators, and I get that. I’ll note that sharing, liking, and commenting on things like sales, new product announcements, and links to blog posts on social media really is a huge help even without you spending a dime. Spreading the word is among the biggest things fans and friends can do for independent creatives and small companies.

If you do want to give creators, things such as Patreon and Ko-Fi are huge boons to writers and artists that have them. My own Patreon makes things such as this blog post possible, and even just a few dollars a month is enormously appreciated. And if you happen to have bigger blocks of money you want to use to stimulate the economy without getting charged every month, my Patreon now offers annual subscriptions.

But to put some of my own advice into practice, let me highlight someone else’s online presence. (And, if you’d like me to highlight your online home in a future post, drop me a line. I’ll do what I can.)

Joshua Hennington is an up-and-coming freelance writer of tabletop role-playing game content; he’s written for several accredited publishing companies, from Paizo Publishing to Rogue Genius Games, Everyman Gaming, Rite Publishing and more! Some of his most recognizable works include In the Company of Doppelgangers (PF1e), Starfarer’s Codex: Legacy Dragonrider (SF), and Tombstone Ancestries: Chupacabra (PF2e). He is always eager to write, and quickly becomes passionate on any topic – including yours!

His Ko-fi was created so you can commission custom-made RPG content from Joshua for your favorite characters as inspiration! All his content that is commissioned through that platform is also made publicly available, for anyone to use, and he strives to insure it as high-quality as a turnover would be to a major publisher.

Q & A Week, Pt 4

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: What’s an rpg mechanic you saw and wish you had come up with?
A: The Hero Point reroll mechanism in Mutants and Masterminds. It lets you reroll a failed d20 check, but it also gives you a major protection against getting another bad roll — if your d20 reroll is a 1-10, you add 10 to the result.
This is now my go-to standard for reroll rules.

Q: What’s one thing missing, in your opinion, from White Wolf’s classic World of Darkness? For example, let’s say you’re hired to do ONE book for White Wolf’s original, classic World of Darkness, and you can do this book on literally any aspect of the (sprawling) mega-setting.
What book is it, and why?

A: “Kevin Matchstick: The Pendragon.”
Because a “Mage: The Hero Discovered/Defined/Denied” RPG would rock, and work SO well with WoD.

Q: Who is your favorite game writer? Who do you think is the most underrated one?
A: I know so MANY really good ones. I’d have to say either Crystal Frasier or Steve Kenson are my favorite.
And they are both massively under-rated for their true genius, MacArthur-Fellows-Program-worthy skill, talent, and vision.
But I gotta call out Eleanor Ferron as the MOST underrated. That woman is spectacular, and no one seems to know it outside the industry and a small group of super-fans.

Q: What genre of game have you not worked on that you would like to?
A: Modern Urban Fantasy

Q: What is the very first rpg you played, and which one got you into the business?
A: 1st edition AD&D.
Also, 1st edition AD&D.

Q: I see posts about game night quotes, but have no idea who utters these gems. Is is a local group in OK? An online group? Is there anyone in it we would know?
A: I do game night quotes from any game group I am in who give permission, and I intentionally don’t attribute them so no one gets mocked or called out for saying something wrong.
So over the years they have included quotes from lots of Paizo and Green Ronin folks, some Wotc alumni, and even sometimes random brilliant designers at places like Gen Con.
But right now (since June) they are all from my social bubble, made up of close friends I have been gaming with for 30-37 years.

Q: Why do you think people are so opposed/hateful towards not only 3pp companies but the people who work for them as well?
A: Lucky, I don’t think most people are hatefully toward 3pp and the people who work at them.
But yeah, there are some loud exceptions.
For those few who are truly hateful, I personally think they don’t want to accept that there are people who are BETTER than them at game creation, without the seal of approval of 1st publisher employment.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

Q & A Week, Pt 3

I found some ttRPG-industry-related Q&A items that have never made it onto my blog, and thought this week, when I am so distracted and overloaded, would be a great time to offer them up.

Q: Do you think we, as a creative force, have hit a dead end? Can we still produce New and Original material at a time when everything seems to be derived from something recent or a Reboot or Remake? Do we need a Renaissance of the Human Spirit to bring a new Age of Inspiration? Can we still make New works?

A: I think we CAN, and WILL, and ARE.
I also think 90% of everything creative is crap, and always has been, and sometimes the crap is the most popular/successful.
But it’s still worth striving to make New Art.

Q: What would you guess are the 5 best selling ttrpgs right now? What game isn’t on that list that you think more people should know about?

A: My guesses (and they are JUST guesses) are, in order:
D&D 5e
Cyberpunk (Right now, though maybe not a year ago or a year from now)
Pathfinder 2e
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Starfinder

And I think the entire AGE game system from Green Ronin is something more people should know about, but especially The Expanse.
https://greenroninstore.com/collections/the-expanse-rpg

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

One Last Thought on Material from Other IPs in Game Products

What was originally just a few Facebook and Twitter posts grew into the Monday post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, which lead to Tuesday’s More About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, Wednesday’s About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, and yesterday’s On Writing With Licensed Game Rules. I hadn’t intended for this to be a weeklong series but… here we are.

So, I have one more semi-related topic I think bears mentioning.

In all the previous articles, I was talking about the complications, considerations, and connected issues when working with someone else’s intellectually property (IP) that you access through a license. But there are also times when you may find yourself tempted to work with other people’s IP without having legal access to it. You might feel you are within fair rights use, or think it’s fine because it’s an “Easter Egg,” or that no one will care, or it’s okay because you’re not charging money for the end product.

I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.

DON’T play with other people’s IP without a license unless you have paid a lawyer to tell you it’s okay.

I recommend even avoiding Easter Eggs, and be sure when drawing inspiration that your creation is not a carbon copy of the thing that inspired you. And if you do write Easter Eggs or draw major inspiration from a source, tell your developer/editor/publisher, so they can decide how much they are comfortable with that you have done.

And that’s the end of my thoughts for the week.

Stay safe, take care, be kind.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

On Writing With Licensed Game Rules

Another day, another follow-up post growing out of Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. In fact, another response brought on by a follow-up from Egg Embry, who asked about working on games with licensed game systems, and how those compared to working on games using licensed game systems.

While this week I have been focused on tabletop games that are based on a licensed IP, such as a Star Wars rpg, that’s not the only kind of licensed game material a game professional may get assigned to work with. There are also licensed game systems, such as when you use a system released under the Open Game License (OGL). While some of the research and approval process can be very similar, there are some very different concerns that can come up when working with licensed game systems, rather than licensed IPs. This is often the case when doing work for what are referred to as “third-party publishers,” (or 3pp), who publish adventures, supplements, and expansions for games by other publishers.

Of course who is a 3pp isn’t necessarily a clear-cut question. There are a number of games that have their origins in the OGL version of the d20 System, including 13th Age, Mutants & Masterminds, both editions of Pathfinder, and Starfinder. To most fans, that doesn’t make Pelgrane Press, Green Ronin Publishing, and Paizo 3pp… at least not for those game lines, where they are the publishers of the core rulebooks. (Of course some fans DO think of them as 3pp–which mostly doesn’t impact working on such projects, but is something a freelancer should be aware of if it comes up in conversation).

However, a writer working on those game lines should be aware they are published under the OGL, and therefore have rules and restrictions that may not apply to other game projects. (And please note – I am not a lawyer. NONE of this article is legal advice.) This means that the writer should be aware of what license applies to the rules of the game, and what a publisher expects the writer to know. for example, when operating with the OGL, the end product needs to include the Section 15 entry (part of the OGL published in every OGL product) of any protect it draws material from. That means as a writer if you include material from another OGL product (which you shouldn’t do without talking to your editor/developer/producer), you need to tell your publisher what that product was so they can include the required information.

And that highlights on of the biggest issues that can crop up when dealing with licensed game systems — many of those licenses are open, and can be used by anyone who follows their restrictions. That means publishers, producers, developers, and freelancers may well decide to use such a license without properly understanding it. this is much less common when dealing with a license for an intellectual property, since those negotiations tend to involve an active discussion on the terms and helps insure a meeting of minds. But the lower barrier to entry for things such as the OCL or Creative Commons licenses, or the very-different Dungeon Master’s Guild and similar programs, means people may try to use them without truly understanding them.

Ideally, it would be the job of the publisher to ensure anyone they hire or contract to work on a licensed game line was aware of the terms and requirements of that license before assigning them work. Pragmatically, many companies (often even bigger ones) simply do not have the spare time (or in some cases the instructional expertise) to undertake that effort, and depend on professionals to know how to operate within such licenses. Practically, it means knowing how common licenses work can make it easier to get work with such publishers, and reduce the risk of stumbling over some legal landmine.

Of course many people will quite reasonably say that such legal landmines are risks exclusively for the publisher, not the hireling… which may or may not be true. Anyone working for a publisher operating under a licensed game system should read their contract (you all have contracts for all your freelance work, right?), and see what you are agreeing to in terms of your responsibility to get the legal niceties right. While I am not aware of a freelancer even getting hauled into court over such a contract (nor am I aware of any lawsuits that settle OGL enforceability or interpretation), I am personally risk-adverse when it comes to these things, and like to stick to both the letter and spirit of contracts and licenses I agree to by using, even as a freelancer.

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About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Apparently this is becoming Licensed games week on my blog, as I continue to respond to questions about Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. A number of people had questions and comments about the stresses, additional work, drawbacks, and benefits of working on licensed game projects. I could go on about those topics for hours, but instead here’s a few quick thought snapshots.

First, be aware that you almost certainly won’t own any of the work you do. Work-for-hire is the norm in tabletop game writing in any case, but when you are working on a licensed IP, the IP holder is sure to insist on owning anything related to the IP you come up with. Indeed, you likely won’t even be credited for the ideas you create when they are reused. I know I created the ILH-KK Citadel Cruiser, Hutt battle armor and the Kilian Lords for Star Wars, but when those have re-entered other Star Wars projects, my name is generally no-where to be found.

Publishers can (and should) contract to keep the rights to the game systems and mechanics they create for a licensed game, but any IP-related ideas outside pure mechanics is going to go to the IP-holder. And, honestly, that’s reasonable.

The research requirements can be heavy, but whether they are heavier than typical game writing depends very much on what kind of game writing you’ve gotten used to. If you have mostly been making up things whole-cloth for cartoon universes where revolutionary mice use psychic weapons to fight against an authoritarian spider aristocracy, you may not have had to do a significant amount of continuity research in your game writing. On the other hand, if you’ve been working on games that try to match historical periods, or that have significant game continuity (some game worlds go back more than 40 years at this point), the skills to learn about the setting, match existing continuity, and project ideas appropriate in tone and theme translate well to converting IP-concepts to game design.

The approval process can throw a monkey wench into the process, though that’s more likely to impact a publisher’s process than a writers. It’s essentially another level of editing and development. If you are exposed to it at all (many developers handle approvals themselves, rather than have writers do it), the largest issue is to not take it personally, and to try to learn what the IP owner wants by examining what gets approved, what doesn’t, and what gets approved with changes (and how they are changed). The IP holder is unlikely to have either time or interest in training licensees in how to write for the IP, so learning to train yourself on feedback is a useful skill. (It’s also one reason people who have successfully worked on multiple licensed projects are often sought out for new licenses–the publishers and project leads have reason to believe you have mastered the process of licensed project writing, rather than just having a good grasp of a single IP).

Honestly I have found it’s a skill much like any other writing specialty. It’s stressful the first few times you do it, but once you have an idea of how to tackle it it’s much like following any other structured outline.

And while your name may not be directly attached to ideas you create for the setting of the IP, the increased visibility of a licensed game certainly can get you more attention based on your involvement. My work on the three d20 Star Wars RPG games remains one of the places people recognize my name from, and both fans and publishers have mentioned following my career after seeing my name on multiple Star Wars game books. And on a resume, having been involved with recognizable properties can impress people who may never have heard of The Genius Guide to the Dragonrider, but definitely know what Star Wars and Star Trek are.

And, often the money is better than usual for the writers and editors. Not always, by a long shot, but often enough to make it worth considering branching into licensed writing if you haven’t already.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy.