The various AGE (Adventure Game Engine) games from Green Ronin all have the same core mechanic — to see if you succeed at something, roll 3d6, one of which is a “Stunt Die.” Add the 3d6 and any bonus you have, and compare to a target number.
If any two of your dice are doubles (they have the same value), you earn “stunt points,” equal to the value of the stunt die.
In this article, I want to talk a bit about bell curves, critical success systems in RPGs, and what the odds are you’ll get doubles when your roll 3d6. And I’m using pictures of the Expanse RPG Dice Sets, since they are cool-looking and currently being crowdfunded on Kickstarter.
So, lemme start with three important notes.
I am NOT the developer for the Expanse RPG. That role is very ably handled by the extremely talented Ian Lemke.
Second, I AM biased in favor of Green Ronin, since they employ me to be the Fantasy AGE developer and I thus benefit (at least indirectly) if their projects make lots of money. So, yes, this post is happening at this time in part so I can highlight this Kickstarter. (But it’s also good game design analysis. 😀 )
Third, this is my own analysis, not an official AGE post which has been developed and edited. So any mistakes in the math or logic are entirely mine.
Okay, with those disclosures all disclosed, let’s look at bell curves. (We’ll get back to doubles, I promise.)
Many games use a single die to determine success, such as a d20. With this kind of resolution mechanic, you get a flat probability–that is, the chance you’ll roll a 4 on a d20 is the same as the change you’ll roll a 19, 5%. That means if you need to roll a 17 or better to succeed, you have a 20% chance of succeeding (5% for each number that could turn up that is a 17 or higher). This means that the best possible result (and the worst possible result) have the same probability of happening as an average result.
That also means that, barring some kind of automatic success system (such as saying rolling a 20 on the d20 always succeeds), any bonuses have a flat amount they add to your chance of success. When rolling 1d20, a +1 bonus is an additional 5% chance to succeed whether you need to roll a 3 or higher, or a 13 or higher.
And if you DO have an automatic-success or automatic-failure mechanic, the odds of that are also easy to calculate. if every time you roll a d20 on the d20 you succeed, or have a critical success, there’s a 5% chance of that happening with each roll.
Some people love the simplicity of a flat probability. Other people hate that “average” results are no more likely than high and low extremes.
So, enter the bell curve.
Rather than a single die with flat probability, AGE uses 3d6. While the average result on 3d6 is the same as on 1d20 (10.5), on 3d6 you are much more likely to roll something close to that average than either the high or low extreme. Despite having a small total range of numbers (3-18, rater than 1-20), the chances of getting that highest result on 3d6 is only 1 in 216, or a little less than one-half of one percent. On the other hand since there are 27 possible combination that can add to 11, the odds of rolling an 11 are 12.5%. The odds of rolling a 10 are also 12.5%. So, 1 out of every 4 rolls with 3d6 is a 10 or 11.
(This means that if you get a +1 bonus to your roll in AGE, rather than giving you a flat +5% to your chance of success, the value of the bonus depends on what your target number is. If you need a 17 or higher to succeed, your bonus only matters if you roll a 16. Your odds of rolling a 16 are 2.778%, and your odds of rolling a 17 or 18 are 1.852%, So the +1 bonus has increased your total chance of success from 1.852% to 4.63%. )
One of the drawbacks of a bell curve is that since it skews strongly towards the average, using it for task resolution can get boring. Even gamers who dislike a natural 20 being just as likely as rolling a 13 on a d20 tend to enjoy the chance of something *interesting* happening when you roll a 20.
The AGE system overcomes this with the stunt rules.
While success or failure of a task in AGE is determined by rolling 3d6, each roll also has a chance of producing stunt points. You can then use those stunts to perform special maneuvers and neat tricks. This adds some variety to task resolution, while still maintaining a bell curve so average-difficult tasks can be accomplished dependably.
In AGE, if any 2 dice in your 3d6 roll are doubles, you get a number of stunt points equal to the value shown on your stunt die. Which naturally leads to the question– what are the odds that when I roll 3d6, at least two of them are doubles?
So, to calculate this we need to know the chance the first two dice will match (which is 6 in 36). We then add the chance that if the first two don’t match (5/6 of the time), with the first and third or second and third match (2 in 6), or 10 in 36. That means we get at least one set of doubles in 16 our of 36 possible combination, or about 44% of the time (44.4 repeating, to be precise).
Of course if we DO get doubles, it’s the stunt die that determines how many stunt points we get. That’s a flat 1-in-6 chance of each possibility, so while we get SOME stunt points 44% of the time it’s about a 7.5% chance for each possible value of stunt points 1-6.
That’s important, because in AGE more powerful stunts cost more stunt points. This lets us have*something* interesting happen in nearly half of all important 3d6 rolls, but it isn’t always the maximum 6-point stunt result. We get the benefit of the bell curve leaning towards average results, while adding a good chance of some stunt points being generated, but only a relatively small chance of getting the best possible 6-stunt-point result.
To be clear, you DON’T have to understand these probabilities to play the game. It’s a useful analysis for game designers and GMs who want to know how likely stint points are, but the system is clean and simple enough you can just roll your dice, check for doubles, and enjoy the dice giving you fun things to do.
[PromotionModeON]Especially if you have a shiny new set of Expanse dice![PromotionModeOff]
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There’s a famous quote about insanity — “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So, in that regard, I am afraid the tabletop game industry is insane. There are lots and lots of things the industry keeps doing, over and over, and being surprised when it gets the same results.
And, I don’t know that there’s much chance of that ever changing. Because the tabletop industry just isn’t big enough to bring in the kind of analysis and training it takes to properly analyze, iterate, redesign, and take risks about how the whole system is put together.
Here’s just one example — a single data point in a sea of oft-unexamined assumptions.
When my wife was earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, she took a class titled “The Business of Art.” In included how to promote yourself, write a resume, respond in an interview, create a portfolio, and so on. While there are more and more college-level classes about game design, they A: tend to focus on digital games (which represent a LOT more money as a market), and B: don’t have tabletop equivalents of “The Business of Games.”
So each new wave of people wanting to do professional ttRPG work have to cobble together best practices and a career path for themselves. Quite reasonably, they look to what was done by people who have the work they want to do and try to replicate, emulate, or adapt those steps. (Adapting is an important part — I came up through a series of magazine articles, from different tabletop-RPG-focused magazines, owned by different game companies. That’s not really an option anymore.)
So the same advice keeps going out, through the same venues… and keeps drawing in the same kinds of creators. Those of us who have ttRPG careers are asked how to get started–on social media, and at conventions, and in fan interviews– and we advise getting on social media, going to conventions, working with small presses and maybe fan projects.
So, the process that we found, and that appeals to us and is friendly to us, is the one we recommend to people (because, to be fair, it works), using the very venues we recommend newcomers depend on to move ahead, is held out as the best path for new talent.
On a larger scale, it’s similar with game companies. Open calls and contests (advertised in the same forums the people running the companies already use), and panels at conventions the company already have a presence at, and waiting for freelancers to drop pitches or ask how to get started at company forums or using company emails.
And, again, that’s reasonable.
But it does mean as long as the majority of elements in the game industry do what we have done, we’re going to get what we have gotten.
So, why is that a problem?
Because diversity is gold.
Because if we want to industry to grow beyond its roots, somehow there has to be an influx of new ideas, new creators, and thus new markets.
Of course some amazing and talented people DO manage to make their way into the industry. Some find the road that we take and use it despite it being harder for them. others forge whole new paths without any help from the existing system. Not only am I not claiming these folks don’t exist, I am specifically saying a bunch of them are BETTER than many of us who took the well-trod path.
But in terms of sheer numbers, creators from marginalized groups remain very much the minority. Which means their input remains a small fraction of the total amount of ttRPG content, and that most game companies don’t have a balance of different experiences and backgrounds among their creators.
A lot of ttRPG game companies are currently looking at the question of whether their products have been, or currently are, vehicles for racism, bigotry, and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. There are tools that can (and should) be brought in to try to do better, including more outreach to different creators, research of the cultural impact of aspects that inspire new games, and bringing in sensitivity readers.
But as for the origins of the material, the people deciding what book gets publisher, which creators get bigger budgets, who is seem as “qualified” to work on big IPs — if the industry as a whole keeps doing what it ha been doing, it’ll keep getting what it has gotten.
This past weekend was Digital Gen Con, and my friend and colleague Stan! had the idea of us trying to recreate some of the “Bar Con” hanging out that many pros love to do after hours at a convention. So we did… and we saw a lot of people we would have seen in person.
But we also had some folks participate that couldn’t have made it to a physical Gen Con, and many who would find gen Con a terrible experience for any of a number of reasons. I was something different.
It’s far from a solution to the insanity. But it did make me think maybe there are more chances at improvement than I have normally thought.
That’s just one small part of the imperfect nature of the #RealGameIndustry I have seen over the years. But I hope shining a spotlight on it might convince one or two other people in the industry to look at new ways to getting information out. New ways ti tutor and mentor people. New ways to find creators.
New ways to change from insanity.
Speaking of trying new things, for a number of years I have dedicated more and more of my writing time and effort on publicly-available posts on this blog. I can only do that as long as my patrons can support the time it takes. So if you find any of the essays, reveals, ideas, or game material on this blog interesting or useful, please consider chipping in to my Patreon for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month.
(Image by Jessica Dale)
For about a month now, I’ve been talking about the realities of the U.S. tabletop RPG industry, as I see them. I’ve posted thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, including under the hashtags #RealGameIndustry and #NotesFromAnRPGDev. ENWorld also created threads to discuss many of these shortly after I started, and again a week or so later. (And, I just discovered, a third time on July 4th).
And a lot of those observations paint a pretty grim picture. Poor pay. No security. No prospects for retirement. Regular harassment from fans and pop culture commentators. A fairly wide spectrum of people who think what you do requires no special talents, and that’s why you can’t make a living at it, and if you wanted to be able to live in moderate safety you shouldn’t picked a “fun” job like making games. These, of course, are intermixed with people who feel the need to interject about how common these problems are in all industries–which certainly suggests picking a different career might not be as helpful as the first group wants to claim.
Of course, my experiences aren’t objective or somehow universal of course, but I have been involved in the industry for 23 years, as a freelance writer (full and part time), contract worker, staff designer, staff developer, freelance developer, producer, line editor, publisher, and consultant. But even then, it’s one narrow slice of the ttRPG industry. A number of other professionals have opined about what they agree with, and what they feel like need qualifiers, but there’s been little real disagreement that I have seen.
So, if it’s a terrible way to make a living—why do I? Why stick with an industry for decades if even the “success” of getting hired on-staff by the two biggest RPG companies in North America isn’t enough to leave me able to pay the bills without having to scramble every month?
I was writing the headline of this article, and my wife leaned over, and in all seriousness asked me “So, why DO you do it?”
I confess that in the past 6 months, I have begun to think maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s time to hang up the dice, at least professionally, and switch to a “normal” job. I still may. But not this week, which brings us back to “why?”
There are two big reasons.
1. I Want To Help
And I think I can, but only from the inside.
So, what do I mean by help?
I mean help gaming, as a hobby, and game professionals, as a group. I want to work to make the ttRPG industry create the most good situations for the most people. That means working to improve conditions and stability, trying new things and seeing if any of them work better, answering questions, tutoring people, putting folks in touch with other folks for mutual benefit, and publicly fighting for diversity, inclusion, and ethical game designs.
And while it may be hubris to think I can make a difference, I’d rather struggle so survive if it means there is a chance I can make other people’s struggles easier. I’ll never be the person who determines if I have succeeded at this, of course. And I may never know if I really improve things. But I do get feedback that convinces me the effort is worth making.
It looks to me like there will be people trying to be full-time RPG professionals for the foreseeable future. I want to help them, and at the same time help the industry, hobby, and fans of gaming be the best they can.
2. I Think RPGs Are Important
I think ALL games are important, but especially ttRPGs. Roleplaying Games brought me most of the good things in my life.
High school was harsh for me, and I can honestly say I was miserable most of the time and considered suicide more than once. But RPGs let me explore ideas I was too afraid to discuss, helped me form a strong social support group, and let me make friends I am still playing with 25 and 30 years later. Nothing else came close to letting me deal with my pain, and learn something about bravery.
I learned empathy through RPGs, and regret, and problem solving. It encouraged me to learn about history, grammar, math, probability, tactics, risk-taking and analysis, even a theory of fun. I doubt there is any positive aspect of my personality I can’t trace back to RPGs. And a lot of things I know were terrible parts of who I was growing up I overcame through interactions with RPGs, and the people I met through them.
My tightest bonds outside my immediately family came from ttRPGs. I met my wife through roleplaying. My best friends, from people I have known for more than 35 years to people I just got to know in the past year, through roleplaying. I have gotten to learn from geniuses, and help put folks much more creative than me on easier paths, through roleplaying games.
Further, I believe the influence of ttRPGs has much bigger ripples than people realize. And I want to have a small hand in what those ripples look like, and what messages they send out.
So yes, even when some person or persons leaves comments on videos claiming I am so fat and disgusting no-one should ever look at me or trust me, even in weeks when I have to spend 60-70 hours scrambling to pay the bills and arrange for opportunities to do the same thing next month, even when groups of people claim my ethics and morals are just schemes to draw attention, even when people smarter and more creative than me throw in the towel and leave the industry — or maybe especially those times — I feel the drive to keep doing this.
I know I cannot make a huge difference, but I feel this is the tool I can best use to do the most good, for the most people.
If you feel like supporting me in those efforts, you can make a huge difference by supporting my Patreon.
(Photo by Tab10)
I’m interrupting this week’s at-your-table game content to discuss the state of the industry. We’ll get back to fund stuff, but this is important.
I’ll start with some recent history.
The 2016 U.S. east coast blizzard made a noticeable negative impact on print RPG sales. Stores were shut down, people did not go out. It hurt. Companies suddenly were not selling like they had been, but expenses didn’t go down at all. While it didn’t drive anyone major into bankruptcy, it did have serious impacts. Budgets were slashed. Plans for new hires were axed. Raises were cancelled. Projects were scaled back. Not necessarily at every game company–some had very deep pockets from parent companies or investors and could just take the hit — but more companies than not had to change plans to survive.
Sales of PDFs did not see a significant uptick. Sales did not spike to higher-than normal levels after the snow melted and life got back to normal. Inventory for products created just before the blizzard did sit around longer. Some never sold. The expected money that would have been made that season was just gone.
Obviously the past few months have been worse. Worse for publishers, worse for companies, distributors, and individual creators.
But if the current upward pandemic infection trends continue and/or a second wave is bad? It doesn’t have to be the whole country to kill already struggling companies. The 2016 blizzard was a bit less than 1/3 of the US population, and everyone knew it couldn’t last. But it’s economic impact on gaming was widespread and serious.
There’s a reason so many ads currently begin with “In these uncertain times.” No one knows when a vaccine is coming. No one knows how bad the current rising numbers are going to get, or if they will spike again in the fall. In the US, there does not seem to be any national plan to handle this pandemic. Some places are depending on voluntary steps. Others are mandating masks.
Unlike 2016, there’s could reason to fear the impacts could keep going, or get worse, for a year. I hope a vaccine comes out before that, but I can’t depend on it. Not as a writer, and not as a citizen trying to pay the bills.
So even as governments open for business, sales are still down. They are improved over total lockdown, obviously, but companies aren’t getting the lost money from the lockdown back. Ever. The blows taken in the next few months don’t have to be as bad as the lockdown in order to kill stores and companies, and drive creators out of the industry forever, because everyone already took several serious financial hits.
If you want professional ttRPG material in the future, there are things you can do, now and in coming months,
Support your local stores if you safely can. Some stores are doing curbside pickup, some are doing delivery.Some are allowing a small number of people wearing masks in at a time. I don’t want anyone to risk their health for games, but if your safety measures allow for contactless delivery, and you have the money, those stores are still hugely important. They sell more, total, than online places (yes, including Amazon). And they bring more new people into the industry.
Support game companies. Buying from a local store absolutely counts, but if that’snot an option for you for whatever reason, look to see if the publisher has their own online store. Look to sign up for mailing lists and get special offers. If you have to buy through online stories, try to find a game-specific store you like and buy through them. The huge distributors don;t care about RPGs, and they’ll survive or not with no regard to how many dice and game books they move.
Finally, support game creators directly if you can. Even those who have full-time on-staff positions with game companies often make ends meet by taking on additional freelance… and that freelance is greatly reduced right now because game companies are tightening their belts. If you have a creator you particularly like or enjoy the work of, find if they have a Patreon, of Ko-fi, or other means of receiving money.
Because if the stores go, the game companies will suffer. if the game companies go, the creators will suffer. And if the creators go?
Then there’s much less chance the game content YOU want will even be created.
And, yes, I have a Patreon. I am a full-time freelance and contract writer now. I pay for my own insurance, pay my own social security and self-employment taxes, have to make quarterly payments on income tax, and then try to pay all my bills with what’s left of the money made on words.
We are at a point where I am asked this enough, and need to refer to it often enough, that having a statement about how the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting both me personally and Rogue Genius Games, the company i am publisher for, seems warranted.
Put simply, while we are not shutting down and still plan to produce all the same content, the schedule is going to be less assured.
Some of this is a matter of expected resources being well below our normal projections. Sales of content are down in numerous venues, in some cases down by 80% or more. Numerous freelancers find themselves unable to spare time to take on projects they once would have happily accepted. Less money coming in and fewer people able to take on the work in any area of my mix of personal and professional ventures impact other areas.
Some is a matter of time requirements. There are new business concerns that require extensive research and paperwork. For example: can Rogue Genius Games benefit from the Payroll Protection Program, and/or Economic Injury Disaster Loan emergency advance? Can any of our staff or freelancers gain relief through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance? Getting answers to these questions is not easy, and often requires going through a lengthy and tiring process.
And some is a matter of personal availability. As a high-risk individual in a household with other high-risk concerns, I have to spend more time and mental effort ensuring that daily activities don’t introduce unacceptable health risks. That has so far eaten at least a little into free time nearly every day.
So, here’s how those challenges are currently impacting my ongoing projects.
RGG Crowdfunding Projects: At least at the moment, we don’t expect any significant delays to any open campaigns. There are potential problems we need to keep an eye on (if our chosen print On Demand printers stopped operations, for example, we’d have to consider how to pivot).
RGG Products: There are a lot of exciting things RGG has been working on, from the Talented Class line of products to more solo adventures. Anything that we haven’t already promised by a given date is going to be at the back of the line for our time and attention. We are still putting things out regularly, but some bigger projects we had hoped to launch are just going to have to wait.
52-in-52: When I put together the schedule for this ambitious subscription, I just didn’t allow for the impact of something like a global pandemic. While it’s ongoing and has produced a ton of content, we’ve already slipped by a week, had to push one project back, and it looks like we may slip by another week.
Rest assured, every subscriber will receive every one of the 52 pdfs promised, each presented in 4 versions for the 4 supported game systems. But it’s possible it’ll take us a bit longer than 52 weeks to get all 52 projects out.
That said we are looking at ways to get caught up, and I’ll update folks here if we have any news on that front. Otherwise, we’ll just keep producing products and sending them out to subscribers regularly.
Patreon/Blog: So far whenever I fall behind on the 5 days/week posts my Patrons are making possible, I add the missing content within a week. That remains the plan.
Grimmerspace: I’m still going to be doing a lot of design work and running a playtest for Grimmerspace. They have made their own statement about how the pandemic is affecting them.
Conventions: Right now, with regret, I am not planning on attending any cons this year.
Other Projects: I still have outstanding freelance to fulfill, and work to do as a developer for Green Ronin. That work is being impacted, obviously, but not in a way that should delay or cancel anything announced by those companies.
For those who want to know how they can help, the easiest way to assist me directly is by backing my Patreon. Even just a few dollars a month of reliable, regular income is a huge boon. Also I depend on companies like Green Ronin to make ends meet, and they are currently being hammered by things like printers shutting down, game store closings, and distributors opting to not pay for products shipped for weeks or months at a time. Buy anything from Green Ronin’s own online store or DriveThruRPG store is a big help for them, and therefore to me.
Thanks for your understanding.
Stay safe out there.
Owen K.C. Stephens
Hey, creative person.
I get it. You have deadlines, and responsibilities, and bills, and people counting on you. People tell you to be kind to yourself, to take a break, to ease up… and you can’t.
I understand. I promise.
Only you can know what can be back-burnered, and what can’t. I won’t pretend to be able to give you advice on that front.
I also want to assure you, the trouble you are having now focusing on things? The lack of spoons, or inspiration, or concentration?
That’s the new normal. I can’t say we are ALL dealing with it. Maybe there are some folks who aren’t having trouble right now. But I haven’t talked to any creative that isn’t.
There’s an additional cognitive load on all of us. Worry, planning, concern, frustration, fear… those things take a toll. that toll comes directly from your brain.
The brain you use to be creative.
So, while I can’t tell you to take a break, or take it easy (because I don’t know if you are in a place where you CAN do that), I do want to encourage you to remember things are not normal.
Whatever you would do if you had something dragging down — illness, technical problems, jury duty, whatever?
Global pandemic qualifies for the same measures.
And everyone gets that.
So, I happened to mention a “ShadowFinders” campaign on social media a few times in the past few weeks, leading a number of people to ask “What the heck is ShadowFinders, and when does it come out?”
And now I’ll have a place to point them to, at least for the moment. And the answers are… “A theoretical modern Pathfinder campaign I have been noodling and, as far as I know, never.”
I know, not very satisfying.
The thing it, I already have TWO campaign settings mulling about that I work on when I get what I laughingly refer to as “Space Time.” I’ve been working on-and-off on the Really Wild West (a campaign hack for Starfinder), and more recently Sorcerers & Speakeasies (a campaign setting for 5e). Those are both mix-modern-and-fantasy settings, with Really Wild West having a great deal more material done for it (having begun working on it more than 2 years ago), and Sorcerers & Speakeasies currently having an actual for-sale product currently being designed by a freelancer.
So, clearly, I already have my hands full with modern fantasy pastiche ideas for two game systems that I don;t have time to move forward at full speed as it is. So why would I add another?
To some extend, I can’t help it.
I didn’t become an RPG game designer because that was my life goal. I slid into it sideways, by loving games (especially RPGs), and making up stuff for my own home games (mostly RPGs), and wanting to turn my hobby into a revenue-neutral pastime that paid for itself. (You can read more detailed accounts of my nearly-accidental entry into my 20+ year RPG design career at “From the Freelancing Frontline,” in a series of articles at EN World.)
And, it’s still one of my primary hobbies. Which means, I am still having ideas about things I’d like to run as games, or add to games, or even play in games. Now, a lot of that content ends up in products I write or develop–I find it easiest to work on a game system if I am playing that system. (I know some rpg designers prefer not to be frequently playing the game they are working on, and given how great many of those designers are I have to say that works for them. I don’t think it would work well for me.)
But a lot of it DOESN’T end up in my professional writing. Now, some of that is for legal reasons (yes I have thoughts on Jedi in Starfinder, but unless I create a totally different Owen-as-fan-only space, I’m never going to share them). Some of it is because it’s material I’d only want to use in a context where I knew the people involved and could tailor it to match their preferences and playstyles. But some of it is just because there hasn’t been a good match yet, and/or because I haven’t had the time.
And that last category is the weird limbo where ShadowFinders exists.
I have several solid ideas for ShadowFinders, as a modern supplement for Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Essentially a smaller stand-alone hardback book that is a complete RPG and 100% compatible with the Core Rulebook, but focuses on a modern, urban fantasy game. I have ideas on how I’d save space (many fewer ancestries and classes, likely only occult and primal magic), how to link it to existing cosmology (some primal magic comes from Egypt, which once had strange portals to another Egypt-like land in another world, but most magic is occult material that entered the world in through strange events involving Rasputin), and how it would work with the existing rules (as a modern supplement, with material you could use in a 100% fantasy setting, or could add to a fantasy setting that happened to already have alien spaceships and guns in it in limited locations).
But that approach works best if it’s a book Paizo publishes… and that is both unlikely (I have some idea how hard it is for Paizo to manage to both maintain its currently offers AND produce a new core rulebook with a new setting), and if it did happen would most likely not involve me in any major capacity. I have thoughts on that too, of course (involving Paizo deciding to outsource creation of a SahdowFinders rpg to keep costs and down and experiment with freelance production and development), but that’s not particularly likely either. (Never say never, but be realistic with your planning.)
So, that leaves me with a name and idea I like but that would work best in production circumstances that aren’t going to happen soon if ever, no spare time, two more similar projects already further along… and tons of ideas for a thing I can’t take time to move forward on right now.
So is ShadowFinders dead? No, definitely not. But it is in a holding pattern, neither being given up on nor getting any resources to speak of at the moment. One of the few things I know is that I never know what I’ll be working on in 3 years, and often have no idea what I’ll be working on in 1 year.
It PROBABLY won’t be any version of ShadowFinders…
Unless, of course, it gets a huge positive response from a Patreon crowd that grows large enough to support even more of my time going to working on such things. 🙂
While I am personally a creative who suffers from mental health issues that include depression, and I know a lot of friends and colleagues who fall into that category, I don’t have scientifically valid statistics to prove that RPG creatives are often people struggling with depression. And that doesn’t really matter, because even if the numbers aren’t higher than for the baseline population, it still means that there are at least a few of us out there. I might just be talking to a tiny group today, but it’s something I am passionate about.
How do you write, draw, create, make things that are supposed to be fun for other people, when you are depressed? And I don’t mean down a bit because your favorite series ended or you can’t get that soda you like in your hometown anymore. I mean clinical depression, which can include loss of executive function, true hopelessness, sleep disruptions, and even thoughts of suicide.
I’ve talked before about how I get through my most serious depressions, but there’s one thing I haven’t touched on, or at least haven’t often enough.
Sometimes? You can’t. And that has to be okay.
Just as it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to run when your leg is broken, it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to create when your brain is broken.
If you are too far down the hole to reach any of your creative tools, please let that be, and instead seek help. That can be professional help, self-care, reaching out to a support network — whatever you can do. I’m not qualified to give professional advice on these things, but there are resources out there to find help if you don’t already have some in place. If you aren’t in a place where you can bring yourself to care about yourself, see if you can consider taking care of yourself as a way to help the people around you–sometimes I can only manage any degree of self-care out of guilt. That’s far from perfect, but sometimes I have to take what I can.
But then there’s the gray zone. Where you can try to work, but it’s terribly difficult and slow and you think everything you do is bad and pointless. Again, you have to be kind to yourself when you are here, but maybe there are ways to get a little more done if you find the hacks your brain responded to.
So, here are the hacks I use. They may not work for you, but if you try different things, and record the results, maybe you can find things to help you when work is possible, but damnably difficult.
For me some of it is habit. More than 21 years of it, at this point. If I’m not actively doing anything else, my brain naturally wonders if there is work I can do. When the thing that needs to be done FIRST is more than I can handle (sadly the project that is most important to finish often triggers the most anxiety which triggers the worst depression symptoms), I hop to something else if my brain is less opposed to it. No, that doesn’t help me get the most crucial thing done on time, but down the line it’s better to have worked on something, rather than nothing.
Some is desperation. This is how I pay the bills. Holding my own feet to the fire hurts, but it can also break through apathy sometimes. I don’t recommend this one unless you have already noticed a tendency of reviewing your situation to help you prioritize and take action. But if that is a tendency of yours, then it may be worth seeing if it can apply to creating.
A ton of it is therapy. I have learned to make my writing work for me in my battle with my brain. Often, that doesn’t actually produce anything that gets a deadline checked off. but sometimes, if produces a blog post when I need one, or at least helps me build my social media presence. And if nothing else, writing is a perishable skill. Writing privately helps me maintain the habit and edge I need to write for others.
My wife, Lj, is a HUGE help. In fact I have a lot of support group, including my public contacts. When I tell folks I am hurting, I get a lot of positive messages. People from lifelong close friends to social media connections I have never met in person also give me a lot of great private venting opportunities.
And sometimes? Sometimes I just have to melt down and give up for a bit. But Lj can hold me when I collapse and wail in great wracking sobs. When I am an inconsolable mess for an hour or two, convinced I have done so much damage to my reputation and career, that I’ll never work again. When it seems like I’ll never hit another deadline, that no one should ever trust me to get anything professional done. And that whole time, Lj tells me it’ll all be okay, and eventually I believe her.
Often, I pass out in exhaustion after that. Sleep, or at least oblivion, claims me for anything from a few minutes to a few hours.
And then, sometimes, I can write again.
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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.