In this installment of Writing Basics I’ll take a brief look at two related subjects that freelance writers often don’t need to worry too much about, but that are extremely important to the RPG industry overall—paginations and wordcounts.
These are good examples of the kinds of topics I never got much training about in school, and had to pick up as I went through my career. While early on I didn’t ever need to work with these much, the time came when I was trusted enough to begin to get jobs that DID require me to make calculations based on these elements, and I was woefully under-prepared for it. Luckily I managed to find some people willing to explain the core skills to me before I messed anything up too badly, but it would have been useful (to me, and my developers and editors) if I’d understood how these tools are used, and connected, long before I had to be able to create them myself.
In concept a wordcount is extremely simple—it’s the number of words a project needs to fill. There used to be lots of ways commonly used to calculate the word count of work you’ve finished, but nowadays most people just use the wordcount in their word processor program of choice. That’s fine… as far as it goes. I’ll note that since the industry standard in my experience is Office Word, you want to make sure your program of choice calculates a file’s word count in roughly the same was Word does, so if you developer asks for 1,500 words, your computer agrees with their computer on how close you are to hitting that.
Calculating what wordcounts should be in advance is more complicated, and we’ll get to that after we briefly discuss paginations.
A pagination is a document that lays out the specific pages of a book. It is used to determine what content goes on what page. The most common form I am used to is usually an Excel file or similar document that actually has a cell for each page, in which you list what’s on that page. Let’s do a super simple example, for an 8-page book on halfling war baking, as a table.
Table of Contents
½ page art
|Halfling War Baking History
|War Baker Archetype
¼ page art
|Equipment: Battle Muffins
¼ page art
|½ page ad
Page 1 is the first page of the book separate from the cover, and is therefore a right-hand page. That’s why there is a blank entry to the left of it—when I open this 8-page book, the first thing I’ll see (after endpaper, which doesn’t count for our purposes but is sometimes printed on and would be listed as “front inside cover” in that case) is the inside of the front cover on the left, and the titles page on the right.
After that everything is 2-page “spreads.” Pages 2 and 3 will open with 2 on the left and 3 on the right. That means by looking at my pagination, I know that when reading the book you can see those two pages at the same time. This is extremely useful when determining where art goes—you don’t need art on every page. You don’t even need art on every 2-page spread. But you do want art fairly evenly distributed throughout an RPG book, or it becomes a dreaded “wall of text.”
Now obviously you don’t need a table of contents AND a glossary AND an index AND an appendix in an 8-page product. But when planning a physical book, you need to know how many pages your final product will be, and things like this take up space, and often can’t be written until so late in the process there’s no way to just flow them into a layout program and see how much room they eat up. By creating a pagination, you can leave room for these before they are written. Of course that means you need to know how much room you need for them, and that’s often a guessing game based on experience. But at least with a pagination, you have a chance to allot space for these things.
Now that we have a basic pagination, we can look at word count. While this is also a bit of a guessing game, there are factors we can depend on to get much closer than if we just use some generic round number. (That said, I use 22,000 words per 32 8.5×11 page of a 32-page or larger book when I can’t do a pagination for some reason, and while it’s not perfect, it’s often close enough for back-of-napkin calculations).
One of the things you need for an accurate wordcount is a finalized layout style. This is one of the reasons freelancers often don’t have to worry about figuring out their own wordcount—they would have to work with the layout artist to know the book’s fonts, styles, headers, and so on. But once you know how words are going fit onto a page, you can just count the words in 20 or so pages using those layout parameters (with no art or tables), and divide by 20, and that’s your rough per-page wordcount. Let’s say a page of nothing but normal words turns out to be 900 words per page for your graphic design. That means an 8-page book would be 7200 words, right?
Again, go to our pagination. We know the title page is just going to be the title of the book. The credits and table of contents are going to take up some words, but those aren’t part of the wordcount we need a freelancer to provide. Same with the glossary, index, and appendix—we need to remember those need to be done, but they aren’t the same as the halfling war baker material. The OGL is a bunch of words, and it’s super-important the writer work with us to make it accurate, but that’s not part of a project’s normal wordcount either.
The actual meat of this book is pages 3, 4, 5, and 6. That would mean a wordcount of 3600… except we already know there’s going to be art on those pages. A half page of art will reduce a page’s wordcount by, well, half… approximately. (This is all just an effort to get the best approximations we can—someday I may get into developing to fit, copyfit, layout to fit, and so on.) So with one ½-page piece of art and two ¼-page pieces of art, I lose a whole page worth of wordcount.
That means if I want to assign this to a freelancer to write, or I want to have a good idea how long it’ll take me to write, the core part of this book is 2700 words. Specifically, the introduction is 450 words, the history is 900, the archetype is 450 (and that ½ page art had better be a visual of that archetype), and the battle muffins take up 675.
There are also lots of other problems a pagination can help you avoid. Let’s say, for example, that my freelancer comes back to me and says they want to take 150 words from the introduction, 150 from the history and 150 from the muffins, to add 450 words on dwarven war baking. That’s easy in a word-processor, but with the pagination I can see if I think I’d have any place to put that. Now I could just have the introduction end a paragraph before the bottom of that page, then begin the history, and have a tiny bit of it on page 3, and have it run most of the way (but not all the way) through page 4… but everything is becoming a mess.
There are good reasons a lot of publishers won’t let you do this. That’s outside the scope of this article, but you can see how knowing what goes on each page helps plan out any changes that get proposed as the writing progresses.
It’s also useful for placing art, ordering art if you need to do that before the text is done, keeping track of tasks like creating tables of content, and so on.
And, hopefully, it helps show why developers and editors love writers who can get within 2-3% of their exact wordcount. If I ask someone for 1500 words on war muffins, giving me 1800 words isn’t really doing me any favors. In fact, it makes work for me. That’s often less work than if someone only gives me 1350 words out of 1500, but I am still happier if I get 1475 to 1550.
With things designed only for a web blog post or an e-book, these hard wordcounts are often much less important. But paginations and the wordcounts they generate remain common tools of the industry, and even if you aren’t working with them yet it’s useful to know how they function.
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I do not accept the logic that says I must keep my political, personal, and professional online presences separate.
This is not to say I think the people who do make those distinction, at whatever level of firewalling they choose, are making a bad or wrong choice. Indeed, I suspect for quality of life, it’s often a smarter decision. I have enough stress trying to navigate the often zealous opinions the online community has on game design and the business of games before I add my political and personal opinions to the mix. And that’s allowing for the pretty high level of insulation I enjoy from people’s ability to actually harm me online. I’m not bulletproof by any means, but I am in a more stable and secure place in my career than many people.
I’ve seen the replies some of my colleagues get from posting political and personal thoughts online. I don’t blame any of them if they conclude the risk, or the emotional toll, is too great.
And there are consequences to deciding to talk about politics, and mental health, and ethics in public using the same channels and methods I use to discuss game design and funny geeky memes. People who are fans of my game industry work often engage with me in a very different way than they engage with people who are primarily being political advocates or primarily doing slice of life posts. That difference can be a good thing, but it can also result in a feeling of betrayal or anger if someone finds my game-related thoughts strike them differently than my other thoughts, or if they dislike all my work and see it overlapping arenas where they feel I should not be heard.
Angry and hateful messages directed at my privately are the most common response I see. Sometimes someone speaks ill of me in public forums (often that I’m not in, though I attribute that more to how big the internet is, rather than any effort to avoid me when discussing me), which may begin a multiple-party conversation about me. Less often (but with increasing regularity recently), someone sends complaints about me to an employer or associate of mine and tries to get me censured, fired, or blackballed.
Despite all that, I am still firmly convinced that discussing all these topics, as I find I have thoughts worth sharing about them, is the right thing for me. First, no one is forced to find or read my online thoughts. I don’t use official game company venues for anything not game related (not even the tiny game company I run). Reading through my blogs, twitter, and Facebook posts, or watching my YouTube videos, is an entirely voluntary activity. If anyone doesn’t like what I have to say, or how I say it, or how I moderate the online spaces under my control, they are free to go elsewhere.
I also don’t feel that someone who spends money on products that I benefit from financially has bought anything beyond my work within that book. Even backers of my Patreon are paying to encourage my content and make suggestions, not to own any right to censor me. I do not owe any public group more of my time or headspace just because they buy the things that pay for my career.
Even if what they dislike is how my politics or personal experiences influence what or why or when I write, their right to have an opinion does not equal their right to try to dictate mine. As long as I own the impact of my writing, I feel entirely free to write what I feel is most important, or most fun, or most helpful, as I am moved to do so. As I rule, I welcome public feedback. When that feedback shows me a segment of the public is using my online space to do harm, or arguing in bad faith, or even just pissing me off, I also reserve the right to stop taking that feedback.
Not every opinion is equally valid or valuable. The right of people to speak in their own space, or even to do so free of government censorship, is not the same as a right to force me to listen. As I note, people are free to tune me out. And, online, I am free to mute them.
While I do not believe my writing has any major impact on the world, where it does have an impact I believe it has on the balance been more good than evil. Not the least of that good is that when I get something badly wrong, expressing my thoughts gives people a chance to offer how I am mistaken, and allows me to examine such claims. I have changed my mind about a lot of things over my life, from the crucial to the trivial, and expect to change my mind about many more before I go silent.
I hope some people gain comfort from my writing now and then. I hope some find inspiration. I hope some are amused. I hope some are edified.
I hope some snort, roll their eyes, and wonder why they still talk to me.
But on every topic where I have something I am ready to say, I plan to say it. And accept the (generally very minor) consequences of doing so.
It’s fairly common for people to tell me they think I have gone too far.
Certainly once or twice, I have.
That makes me wiser and gives me a broader experience base to draw from when deciding what I am ready to say in the future.
It does not convince me to stop saying all these things.
Speaking of my writing, if you DO find any of these helpful, entertaining, or in some way worth your time, please consider backing my Patron. Just a few bucks a month is the most direct (and one of the cheapest) ways to support my words and videos.
I got asked how the process of creating a game book happens, from the very beginning. That’s a great question. It really is one of the writing basics.
It’s also a really complicated question.
This is my best stab at a high-level, rough overview. This is based on being on every side of this process at some point over 20 years, and working for and with and as a lot of companies, but it’s not absolute by any means.
This is, at best, a sketch that covers a lot of different ways this happens, but there are companies that add steps, or skip steps, or do things in a totally different order.
It also varies a lot depending on the project. Here are some general steps, although who does what and when can change even within the same company.
- Someone comes up with an idea for a product. This may be a publisher who has looked at sales and resources, or it might be a freelancer who wants to pitch something, or it might be a line developer who is supposed to do X products a year.
- Someone matches the idea to a publishing schedule. That may mean you know you need exactly 44,000 words and sketches of 3 maps by January 4th, or it may mean “This can be a 700 word pdf, send it to me whenever you’re done and we’ll lay it out in a week or two.”
Big publishers are very much more like that first example, while smaller ones are sometimes more flexible.
If it’s a freelancer pitch, the freelancer and publisher work out terms. If it’s internal, you may need to hunt down someone to write it. Either way, the schedule and budget should be finalized at this point.
- An outline is done, so ensure the project will be the right size, hit the right topics, and so on. Often cover art is ordered and art and editing is scheduled at this point.
- Once the outline is approved by the people who are paying for the book, and the people writing it agree, the writing is done.
- Then drafts are turned in. Depening on the company they may be developed, or just edited, or laid out and then edited. That process varies.
If art wasn’t arranged for before, it needs to be now.
- Layout and editing and development is finished. there may be marketing text that needs to be written, or printing that needs to be arranged for.
- Book is released.
- Profit! (Hopefully)
And that’s it!
(It is never, ever that simple.)
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I am not a lawyer. None of this is legal advice.
I recently saw a post where someone noted the 5th Edition Compatible logo they had created for a company, which is therefore copyrighted art, kept being used by other companies without permission.
That’s a copyright violation, and it’s systematic of sloppy rights-checking and weak understanding of when you can use work other people created.
I cannot tell you how often a 3pp freelancer I’m working with has grabbed a logo, or art, or rules, and either not noted where they got it, or sent it to layout with a note “I don’t know what we need to do to use this,” or “I found this on the internet, I assume it’s public domain.”
NO! Bad freelancer! (Grabs the squirt bottle.)
(This illustration created by Jefferson Jay Thacker, from materials with free rights. Used with permission.)
If you didn’t pay for it, the *assumption* must be that it’s under copyright someplace. Only if a reputable source notes that it’s public domain (or even better-you do your own research to determine that it is) should you ever assume it’s public domain.
In most cases, I don’t think these violations and stealing of other people’s work is malicious. I suspect many people quite reasonable use things like online art to illustrate characters in their home campaigns, then make the leap to professional work and don’t change their behavior and expectations to match. They then see people using other people’s work using the OGL, Creative Commons, and in some cases terrible misunderstandings of Fair Use of copyright material, and without understanding what is and isn’t allowed those things muddy the waters further.
If you are used to working with Open Licenses, know that those licenses have RULES. Learn them, understand them, and know that what you can do under an open license is NOT the same as what you can do with material not released under such a license.
Creative Commons, similarly, has rules. Check the release and see what use is allowed.
Further, “I’m not charging for something” does NOT mean you get to use any copyrighted material you want. There are “fair use” exceptions to copyright, but whether you charge for something has NO bearing on whether you are allowed to use it–only the damages you may be liable for if convicted. What may be fair use if you hand out to your players is not necessarily the same as fair use for notes you put up on a website for anyone to see. That’s still publishing something, and the rules can be very different.
DON’T be the person who steal’s a company’s work, or degrades the value of an artist who is paid to create something!
ALSO SUPPORT CREATIVES
If you want more cool stuff, you have to pay for what is created.
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As soon as any part of your career involves having your name attached to the things that make you money, you need to begin to consider who you are, and who do you speak for.
It genuinely doesn’t matter if that’s as a creator, or facilitator, or because your job comes with a nametag. Once your name is linked to your career product in some way, that should be assumed to follow you wherever you go, especially online. Of course with privacy, surveillance, and social media where they are today it CAN follow you whether your name is directly linked to your work product or not, but it’s far easier if that first step—publicly linking your name to your job—is handed out for free.
I’m not saying that’s universally a bad thing. Having my name be displayed on products I have had a part in and companies I have worked for has been a tremendous boon to me in building a career. (I am my own brand.) But it also creates a level of exposure. My anonymity is reduced. If someone doesn’t like something I say, they can easily link who I am to who I work for, and decide to take action based on that knowledge.
I try to make it very clear what hat I am wearing whenever I communicate in anything but the most private venue, and even for a lot of private communication. If I am working a Paizo event, I am speaking as an employee of Paizo. If I am writing a blog for the Green Ronin website, I am clearly communicating as a Ronin. And if I speak on my own social media, be that Facebook, blog, or Twitter, I am speaking as an individual.
But I can’t pretend that individual isn’t also linked to Paizo, GR, Rite, and Rogue Genius Games. Even if I feel my private thoughts should be judged exclusively on their own merits, rather than through the lens of who pays me, it’s been pretty solidly proven that may not be the case.
Now let me note that I am pretty experienced with this, and in general I have received a great deal of trust and support from all my employers, be that those that give me a regular paycheck or the ones who hire me for freelance writing and consulting. But that’s not to say over my 20-year career I’ve never had to defend myself for things I said in public, or that I am immune to blowback if I am seen as unprofessional or a liability. Mostly, the people I work with have my back. But when I speak, I need to remember that those words aren’t separated from my career by some invisible barrier. Even on my own time, even in unofficial venues, there can be consequences.
That isn’t all nefarious, either. If I make statements that make some perspective or current employer decide I’m an asshole, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to not want to work with me. That persona, of who I am online or who I am in business, is a fair consideration for people to judge me by. Indeed, I often boldly state that there are statements I make that if those cost me work, then I didn’t want to work with those people anyway.
But, being human, I also sometimes frak up and say things I regret. It’s worth remembering that more and more, I can’t depend on those things to go away because I erase them. And, just because I haven’t yet suffered from being targeted unfairly by bad actors for things I have said doesn’t mean I could never have that happen.
Of course as a cis white hetero male with an established career, I have a fair amount of built-in slack about these issues. Many people have the same privileges. I can’t really advise anyone on the “right” way to decide to handle these realities. I just acknowledge them, and decide what that means for me.
Because who I speak for means more than one thing. Yes, sometimes I speak for employers, and coworkers, and friends, and colleagues, and what I say or do can reflect on them. But I also have a pulpit, however small, and who I am is also defined in part by who I speak in defense of. When I am willing to take a risk. How I support my claim to be an ally.
I sadly fall short of where I think I should be on those points, but I do not forget them. A shortage of spoons, a risk-averse nature, a dislike of interpersonal confrontation, and even a concern that I am not the right voice to be raised on a topic often keep me silent. More often than they should, in fact, though I accept there are times where I am my best self by listening and learning, rather than opining and asserting.
I don’t expect I’ll ever be satisfied I have the answers on any of these issues. But I know know I need to keep asking the questions.
Who am I? Who do I speak for?
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I once heard one of the most talented people I know say, unironically and in all seriousness, “I don’t think I’m qualified to be on a panel abut impostor syndrome.”
Let that sink in for a minute.
Some of the smartest, most talented, hardest-working people I know often express to me (usually in private, so no one knows) how doubtful they are that they are really good at what they do. I’d say this is mind-boggling… except that I totally get it. My mental issues aren’t a secret, but they absolutely include being afraid that everyone who is impressed with me or my work has just been fooled, and at some point the “truth” is going to come out and I’ll never be able to sell game material or my writing ever again.
When I had just a few magazine articles to my credit, maybe that made sense. But now, after 20 years of this being my career? It just doesn’t jive with the facts in evidence. But even knowing that, I struggle with it on a regular basis.
That struggle has forced me to build coping mechanisms, many based on my pop-psych opinions on why impostor syndrome is an issue for me, and maybe why it is for other folks as well. In case any of that is useful to someone else (and, you know, why would it be given that I clearly have no idea what I am talking about), this article outlines some of those mechanisms.
Fake It Even After You Make It
A little humility can help you be likable and relatable. Too much humility gets you less work, less money, and less respect.
So, even when you have your own doubts, you may need to move forward on the premise that you actually can do the work, well, and are worth being paid for it. And paid well.
Sadly, no one else is likely to come along and be a great advocate for you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. So when someone asks you your rate, or your qualifications, or your value, you tell them what you think an actual expert with all your achievements and credits would say, rather than equivocate and undercut yourself.
In my case, I often lean on the idea that I owe it to *other* people to have a good career, and to be compensated for the work I do. I can think about the impact of my being underpaid on my family, friends, and even society as a whole more easily than I can think in terms of what I am worth.
Luckily as a roleplayer, I can often think about how someone is confident in their value might act, even when I completely lack that confidence.
Trust the Mentors in Your Life
As I mentioned, I know a lot of amazingly smart, fantastically talented people. Some of them are mentors to me, varying from those who are better and more experienced in everything I do to those who are willing to give me guidance in one specific area where I’m lacking. While those people are often underwhelmed with their own accomplishments, they generally reinforce the public perception of my skills.
Even when I tell them all the reasons that perception is an illusion.
So, if I know these people are smart and wise and great, and they are telling me I’m not an impostor… there’s a logical conclusion there. Now, often my brain tells me the conclusion is “I have them all fooled, and when they figure it out they’ll never talk to me again.” But, since these really ARE people smarter than me, that just doesn’t make sense.
No, if I value their opinions, and I do, that has to include their opinions of me. Intellectually at least, even if I still reject the idea emotionally.
Good mentors can also be a great resource when trying to decide if you are terrified to take on something slightly different because you are your own worst critic, or if it’s a legitimate concern about something that needs skills and/or experience you lack.
Be A Mentor to Others
Obviously mentoring others is a good act for the industry as a whole, and if you have mentors, it’s only fair to pay it forward by providing the same service for other.
And that’s the best reason to become a mentor. But it’s not why this is a good coping mechanism for impostor syndrome.
Nothing proves to your subconscious that you actually have value like helping others find their own value. You may well end up convinced the people you are mentoring are smarter, more talented, and better-liked than you are (that often happens to me), but being part of that process is still helpful to fighting off feelings you are somehow getting by with less skill than people think you have.
Analyze Failure Fairly
This one is particularly tough, and I’m bad at it. But it’s also crucial, so I feel I have to mention it, at least as something to work on.
When you fail, and everyone fails sometimes, you have to analyze that failure in a fair, even, and balanced manner. Otherwise, it just becomes one more reason to not trust or believe in yourself.
For me personally, that means waiting a bit from point of failure to analysis, because until I get some space from the frustration, anger, and embarrassment of failing, I can’t possibly do a balanced analysis. This doesn’t have to mean letting yourself off the hook if you made bad decisions, but it does mean giving yourself some benefit of the doubt on how circumstances played into things going wrong. Since I am bad at giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I try to focus on identifying what I want to do differently in the future to prevent a similar failure, and what signs I should look out for to try to identify potential failures before they happen. By framing my mental efforts in ways that seem useful in the future, I am more likely to be fair to myself.
That DOES mean that when I am done analyzing a failure if the answer I come up with is “I was stupid, this was entirely my fault,” it stings. But that pain can also help me prevent being stupid in the same way ever again, and that knowledge—that I have learned from the experience—can help fight feelings of total incompetence.
Don’t Compare Your Secret Apples to Other People’s Public Oranges
I am personally convinced one major cause of impostor syndrome is the tendency to take all the things you know about yourself—your struggles, your doubts, your dissatisfaction with what you produce—and compare it to only the public, successful face of other people. After all, if you know you could have done better on a project, and no one else ever talks about how they could have done better on any of their efforts, that means you’re worse than them, right?
But it doesn’t.
Especially as social media has become ubiquitous and especially in creative endeavors where having a reputation as a smart, well-liked, talented, successful creator can mean better opportunity and more pay, most people you are comparing yourself to have no incentive to air their doubts, problems, or failings. So if you take the sum whole of all the problems you know you have, and compare that only to the public face of other people, you’re not making a fair comparison.
Everyone has problems now and then. Most people have doubts, and the ones who don’t are honestly often assholes and/or people suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect. But since such things are often taken as weakness, not a lot of people discuss their problems in depth. And even those who do often frame their doubts and struggles in a positive way, or hold back the truly painful or embarrassing things they’d rather not be well-known.
That means that when you look around at your peers, you are certain to see their achievements much more clearly than their letdowns. If you try to compare that to everything you know about yourself, including all the things that aren’t obvious from the outside, you’re grading on a negative curve. Of course all of your reality doesn’t compare to the curated public appearance of other people. Especially since you are most likely to [ick people with the highest visibility to compare yourself to, and those are the people who do the best job making themselves look good.
This is another place where having a mentor, or even just a trusted peer, can be extremely helpful in maintaining perspective.
Celebrate Every Achievement
Ultimately, I think impostor syndrome is more about fear and gut feelings than rationality and logic, and as a result all the well-reasoned efforts to talk yourself out of it in the world can only go so far. For the emotional component, you also have to make sure you celebrate your own achievements.
Every publication. Every interview. Every review—even bad reviews mean you impacted someone enough for them to take time to write about it. Abso-damn-lutely every award or honor, even the ones you think are dumb or should have gone to someone more deserving. You celebrate all of it.
I recommend celebrating it publicly, because private celebrations often seem less impactful, but you do you. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but you DESERVE to be proud of everything you make. The very voice telling you right now that no one wants to hear about your new book, or the blog post you wrote, or your review of an obscure fantasy movie from 1973, is the same one that tells you that you aren’t a “real” creative, and that you don’t measure up to other people.
The fight to take the credit you have earned IS the fight against impostor syndrome.
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Yes, or course, that’s the entire point of rejecting impostor syndrome. But here I literally mean don’t assume you aren’t monetarily worth the best rate you can get. I have seen people actually undercut the price agreed upon for a project before anyone else mentions money.
Don’t do that.
On very, very rare occasions offering to do a job for less might be appropriate. If it doesn’t meet some aspect of a contract and it’s entirely your fault is the main one… and even then it’s rarely something you should bring up without the other party at least suggesting things need to be adjusted.
Instead, as for raises. See if your per-word rate can be increased. Suggest you deserve perks, like more free copies, bigger credit, more advertising for the project, or opportunities to cherry-pick assignments.
I can’t tell you if you need to fight impostor syndrome. There are people who are legitimately trying to punch above their weight, and for those people this advice could do more harm than good.
But if a lot of your fans, or a few of your peers, or even one of your mentors keeps telling you that you’re more awesome than you can possibly accept?
Then you probably are.
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I have often described my freelancing career as being a “Content Provider.” Because for some of the things I have written for 1 to 29 cents/word, “writer” sounds too pretentious. My job is to give the people paying the bill the content they want/need, not to create my vision of high art and argue with the client that they should appreciate it.
Now, that doesn’t mean I keep my opinion on what is good a secret. When someone is paying me a contract rate to give my best effort, that includes letting them know when I think they are wrong on something. And I do–once per wrongness. After that, I give them their money’s worth with my best efforts applied to the way they want it done.
Writing exclusively the way I think it should be done is reserved for when I am in charge of the project, and even then I keep an eagle eye on whether I’m the one out of step with the target audience. Generally speaking I am working with smart, experienced people. I don’t want to dismiss their opinions even if the ultimate call is mine. And, to be clear, that is very much the exception in this business.
Obviously there’s an exception if I feel the content I am being asked for violates my ethics or is damaging for me to work on. That’s happened maybe once over 20 years, but I certainly have decline jobs for fear one of those two things would be true. And in that case, it’s time to refund any monies paid, apologize, and move on.
And as I noted this is for freelance contract work. If I am a staff writer or the publisher, my relationship, and responsibilities to my employer, changes.
So I don’t think anyone should be burning bridges or tearing their hair out over disagreeing with what the best game mechanic or writing style is with freelance writing. I DO think a polite note on when you think your idea is better (along with acknowledgement you are happy to do it there way if they don’t agree) is worthwhile.
But at least in my case after that? You provide the desired content.
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Gridiron football grew out of older games, and became a hobby sport. At that point, the money in the game was in producing the materials (equipment) for it, and to a lesser extent selling books with the rules.
Now, far more people watch football than play it, and the money is made by forming professional-level exhibitions and controlling the viewing of such, and related licensing. Making generic football equipment and rulebooks for it is a far, far less lucrative business.
This may just be the natural progression for all games.
In which case, adventure game companies are looking at the hobby they largely created giving someone else most of the money generated by the game.
(And hey, speaking of making money elsewise, please sign up to my Patreon so I can afford to keep making posts like this!)
A lot of creatives are very engaged with the public nowadays, myself included (to the degree I can manage it). That can have lots of rewarding interactions, but it can also lead to people giving you very public feedback. That feedback may be valuable to your work, or it may miss the point entirely, or it may actually cause you problems in being seen as open, or competent, or paying attention. If you want to be a public professional creative, in my opinion you need to respond to your viewer’s feedback professionally.
And here, I am specifically talking about responding to true feedback. If someone is trying to threaten you, or your right to exist, or your livelihood in a comment disguised as feedback, you are in a much more serious situation that’s flatly outside the scope of this essay—take steps appropriate to their intent, not steps designed to respond to a normal comment that’s well within the reasonable back-and-forth of the public creative.
My most recent public feedback? So, my mother (Empress of the Geeks) called me out on twitter about my Laser Dress design. “If laser dresses are weapons. aren’t they forbidden at all important (diplomatic etc) parties? What use is that?”
First, let me say how much I love that I live a life where I can do a fairly silly, opening-of-an-80’s-animated-series-inspired, a co-worker threw the idea over a cubical wall and I ran with it, off-the-cuff design for a piece of armed formalwear for a roleplaying game… and my mother can (and will) critique it online. Most of my fellow game designers have to mourn that their families don’t really get RPGs, or what they do for a living. My mother’s connected enough to tell me if she thinks I’ve missed a bet. ❤
Regardless, that’s feedback in a public venue. Now, how to respond?
First, personally, I believe in staying polite. Don’t ever be the one to escalate, it doesn’t help anything. If you think someone isn’t worth responding to, just don’t respond to them. You can try ignoring them – most people lack the time to hunt down and pester every creative they question, so this often works. However, it’s not universally effective. If you feel you need to be clear you are disengaging, I recommend not beating around the bush but not being rude. “I appreciate the question, but that’s not something I am going to go into.” or “That’s outside the scope I of what I want to get into.” Have both worked pretty well for me. The point is to be clear to someone who doesn’t want to let something go that you don’t want to get into—just tell them you don’t want to get into it. They don’t get to decide what conversations you have unless they are paying you directly under some kind of contract. (And no, buying your stuff doesn’t count for this purpose—they are a customer, not an employer.)
In this case, I’m happy to engage and respond with my mother, so I wrote a response.
“First, that assumes that they aren’t designed for diplomatic parties among races where going unarmed would be an insult. Judge not aliens by our own cultural norms, Mom. :)”
So let’s be clear, my mother has a point. The main reason I didn’t address her point in the original write-up is that it’s as much a joke as it is a serious piece of equipment… and my mother isn’t the right audience for that joke. But I did go to all the trouble of writing it up as useable equipment so… why? Why did I bother?
My unofficial material for Starfinder is very much third-party publisher material, and in general I trust GMs to figure out what they want to use that material for. Maybe laser dresses are rare, and no one normally knows what they are. Of course if that’s the idea, the rules should have covered how to identify them, so listing that invites a further debate, which isn’t what I am looking to do here. I want to respond, in an engaging and friendly way, without leaving a huge opening for other people to jump into.
Now, in this case I have an advantage of knowing my audience. She raised me, after all, and introduced me to science fiction (and fandom, and cons, and her brother introduced me to RPGs, and she was my DM for many years when I was a kid – we’re a pretty geeky family). So I know she’s read a ton of classic science fiction, which often asks questions like, “what would it be like if an alien culture was radically different than our own?”
So, I can use that to craft a response that notes she has a point (“Yeah, laser dresses aren’t going to be legal in most high-end parties based on our culture”), while pointing out that doesn’t mean it’s not a reasonable item (“Starfinder is set in a whole galaxy of adventure—there are tons of cultures not based on ours!”).
But, I made a mistake.
It being my mother, I ripped off a response on-the-quick, and didn’t think about it again until this morning. When I re-read it, it felt… a tad patronizing. I didn’t INTEND to be patronizing, but the tone and wording are more dismissive than I meant them to be. And that’s one of the risks of communications online. All you have is the words, cold and hard on the screen, and missed tone is all too easy. I included a smiley face, which has become the punctuation of emotion in e-missives, but I don’t think that’s good enough. I should have carefully reread my repost, as I often do when talking to new folks, and made sure the tone was friendly and polite.
Sorry, mom. I’ll try to do better. 🙂
Speaking of Being a Professional: Patreon!
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I have spoken to many creatives about how they interact with the media they create for, and gotten a lot of different responses. Many novelists have told me they can’t help but dissect the story elements of all fiction they absorb, and the word structure of everything they read. They can’t help themselves, and it makes the process of enjoying fiction different. Not necessarily worse, but different. On the other hand, some have a specific type of fiction or writing they carefully keep separate from their professional analysis, such as romance novels, or pulp adventure, or biographies, so they have something they can enjoy without feeling like it’s work.
But even then, they confess, it’s always a little bit work.
I’ve had the privilege to talk to more than one movie and television screenwriter. Most of them seem to have a different process—they try to be in the moment the first time they watch anything, with just a running checklist of the moments that get a big reaction from them. It’s later that they break things down for analysis. The second viewing. The fourth. The twentieth.
I found myself thinking about that a lot when I was going frame-by-frame through Star Wars space battle scenes, looking to see if there was any starship that had never received game stats before, in any video game, board game, RPG, card game, or miniatures game. I was not, at that moment, enjoying Star Wars. I was far from my hobby, while staring elements of it in the face.
Some game designers I know can’t play the games they work on. It’s always work for them, even if they are surrounded by friends and laughing and bouncing dice. The rules and layout and themes have come to be associated with their career and employment to a degree they can’t let go, relax, and enjoy themselves. Other game designers (myself included) have a hard time imagining working on a game they don’t play. I certainly have written for games I didn’t particularly enjoy, but even then having a real-world feel for how the elements all came together was crucial to my understanding of how to expand, adjust, or develop the game.
Ideally, I DO like the games I’m working on. And thankfully, that’s usually the case. And yes, I have a constant background awareness that the things I am learning have a relevance beyond me having a good time. They are a form of professional development, and that changes how I respond to them, and sometimes even how I interact with the players around me. Especially just after a game, I sometimes want to know why people did what they did, because I want to understand how THEY are interacting with the game.
But for me, it’s when I am playing a game I’m NOT working on I find myself the most in my job-headspace rather than my hobby-headspace. That lessens significantly once I am familiar with a game, but whenever it has a new twist or interaction, I’m right back to analyzing it for it’s engine, rather than enjoying the ride.
That fine, honestly. I was analyzing game mechanics long before it was my job. Indeed, it largely became my job because it was such an all-consuming hobby for me. While my friends and class mates were learning life skills, I was learning when a die pool could accidentally make massive failure more likely for highly skilled characters that got more dice.
In the end they had saleable talents and experiences, and I had Dragon magazine articles.
I DO think it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t make your whole life your job. And over twenty years of having a professional game design career, I have tried to distinguish between leisure writing and creative writing. On the other hand since I support myself and my family with the work of creating games, I am well aware it’s never just a game when it’s your career.
Since I am generally creating entire fictional universes for people to play in, my job touches on all the geek media I can get my hands on. Popular tropes, characters and ideas people may want to model, and things I might accidentally duplicate in parallel development are all things I need to be aware of, and that touches on everything I consume in all aspects of my leisure time.
Sometimes it’s a hobby. But it’s always a job.
And Patreon is part of My Job
Or at least, an important part of my career. If you find any of my posts useful, be they game industry essays, game material, or just assorting musings, please consider supporting their creation by becoming a patron.