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Industry Insider: The Cold Hard Truth About Motivation

So, real talk.

The game industry does not run on motivation. It runs on hard work. The people I see who don’t grasp that, or who can’t accommodate it, don’t last.

It’s pretty easy to write when you’re motivated. That seems self-evident (it’s pretty close to the definition of ‘motivation’), and it’s one reason a great deal of writing advice talks about how to GET motivated, and STAY motivated. When that works for you, that’s great–I’ll take a motivated day of writing over an unmotivated day any time I can. Inspirations, muses, focusing techniques–these are all things that make game design and development much easier to actually do. They may or may not impact the quality of the end product, but they absolutely make it easier to get the work done.

But they are not the end-all, be-all of making it as a successful full-time professional.

I see people struggle all the time with making the leap from side-gig or hobbyist freelancer to growing professional, and a lot of that has to do with being able to operate without motivation. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobbyist or side-gig, I did it for years in the 1990s before I finally became a true full-time professional. Not everyone even wants to depend on the game industry for their full-time career, and I don’t blame them.

But if you DO want to make that leap, you are going to have to learn how to get work done, at a high quality, when you are not motivated to do so. When it’s just as hard as any other job.

I used to be asked fairly often how I got over writer’s block, and I’d glibly say I looked at my mortgage (nowadays it would be looking at my rent due). While that was clearly an effort to be funny, it’s also more true than I realized at the time. If I didn’t feel words coming to me easily, then I worked to get the words that were hard to produce. Because motivation was inconsistent, and as a game designer looking to make this my primary source of income, I couldn’t be inconsistent.

And in time, that became a skill like any other.

That’s not to say there aren’t tricks to use to get you through periods low on inspiration and enjoying the writing or developing process. Sometimes you can take a break from a project, and discover some other kind of game work is more fulfilling. Sometime you can subvert expectations or analyze what about a project you find lacking and, by addressing that, both become motivated and make the project better. Sometimes you can shuffle the order of things and do boring scut work–whatever that is for you, be it tables, paginations, formatting, outlining, finishing touches, whatever–when you’re not feeling creative to save the “creative” work for when your muse is working.

But sometimes, you just have to tackle the grind and get the job done.

I’ve discussed things related to this topic fairly often. I’ve talked about making sure the whole world isn’t your job, coping mechanisms for impostor syndrome,  watching for signs of burnout,  and even balancing the needs of burnout and the rent. I’ve also talked about working sick, which is closer to the kind of doing-the-job-when-you-don’t-care skill I’m talking about here, and what I see as the basics of game industry professionalism. And I’ve made lots of posts about coping mechanisms.

But I don’t think I’ve every just come out and said this:

“To be a successful, full-time professional in this industry, you have to do the work even when you are in no mood to do the work.”

And its corollary: “If you want people to trust you to be able to get the work of a full-time professional done, they have to have confidence in your ability to work when unmotivated.”

You don’t have to start there. But you do have to GET there, eventually, or you’ll hit  a ceiling of success.

I have coping mechanisms for this, too, of course. I have no idea how universal they are, because this is a topic no one ever seems to want to talk about, until we’re huddled around drinks after-hours at a convention telling horror stories. So none of this may be useful to anyone but me. I offer them up regardless.

These may not help you do the work when you couldn’t care less, but you have to find SOMETHING that can.

So what do I use?

I talk to a trusted source, and see if they can spark some excitement. To be honest, this ENTIRE blog post comes from me not being motivated to write anything for the professional end of my blog this week, and talking to a trusted collaborator who suggested that itself was a topic I should tackle. And in this case, writing about lack of motivation was a perfect task for when I’m not motivated.

I try to change the conditions of my environment. Different-than-usual music, different diet drinks, different things on my desk–anything to alter the physiognomy of my work space. Even if I can’t spark motivation, I can alter the feel of the drudgery so it’s less wearying than the same thing over and over and over.

I work in bursts. Often I am better off writing for 20 minutes, no matter how bad or annoying or 5-degrees-off-true the words are, and then taking a short break. This works especially well if I am having trouble writing, but am still okay to develop existing words. By the next day, the work is existing text, and I can make improvements to the less-than-stellar work of the previous day.

I remind myself of Sturgeon’s Law, combined with the idea that perfect can be the enemy of good.

That last one hurts. It means that, at the time I am doing the work, it feels like it’s not work worthy of me, or my employer, or the project.

But for a professional, sometimes what you have to focus on is that at the end of the day, it needs to get done. Every professional I have ever discussed this with agrees that sometimes, you just have to grit it out, so there adventure is finished, the book is published, the project can move forward…

The blog has content.

This is one reason editors and project managers and publishers talk about the value of a freelancer who hits their deadlines and stays in communication before they talk about awesome ideas and inspired writing. Obviously “great” is better than “adequate,” but adequate is better than greatness so late the company has gone bankrupt.

Without people who can do the job even when the muse is silent, inspiration doesn’t strike, and motivation is lacking, you can’t have a game industry. Once careers and house payments and full-time jobs and health insurance is involved, the product must get done, even if it’s not the most inspired entry in the field. And I don’t think we do anyone any favors to hide that fact. Sometimes this career is fulfilling and awesome.

Sometimes it’s what we have to do to fulfill our obligations.

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The Branding and Promise of the Names of RPGs

I think it’s helpful for the name of an RPG to tell you something about what the game is (supposed to be) like.

For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars (even if some folks will always claim it is just the Ghostbuster’s rules of D&D, “reskinned”).

Dungeons and Dragons does a good job of this–it’s a game about monsters and underground locations. Yes, it’s more than that, but it still tells you something. And it’s ubiquity allows you to show kinship with it easily enough — Tunnels and Trolls is clearly giving a similar feel as D&D. Mutants & Masterminds was brilliant.

Hero System and Champions are both pretty good.

Shadowrun was not as good as Cyberpunk, originally, but it is now. Gamma World was good, but Aftermath was better, and Marrow Project at least as good.

But Omega World was brilliant, because of Gamma World.

Both Vampire and World of Darkness did good jobs with this.

Star Frontiers was better than Traveller in this department, but Space Opera may have been better than either.

I’m not comparing the quality of these games as games. Just the ease of branding offered by their names.

I think about this, when I am working on things like Really Wild West, which I hope does a good job of immediately identifying itself as a kind of over-the-top Weird West setting.

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Industry Insider: Guesstimating RPG Popularity/Sales

Sometimes, it’s useful to know how a given RPG is doing, both in absolute terms (how many units sold total, how many this month), and relatively (what is it doing better than? What is it doing worse than? Are it’s numbers trending up, or down?)

Especially if you are a 3pp and you are considering doing a licensed product linked to a core game, it can be useful to know how those core games are doing.

But, game companies don’t normally release numbers like that. And even if you want to compare a game to something you publish, you only have one set of those number (your units sold). (And sometimes you don’t even know that if you have things out to distributors with a returnability clause, meaning things you think you have sold might still come back to you and require a refund–but that’s another post).

So the best you can do is gather what little information the industry has, much of which is vague and anecdotal, and then make you best guess.

Since the Starfinder Roleplaying Game is a system covered by the Open Gaming License, and my blog does OGL things compatible with it, let’s see if we can figure out any sources of info to help pin down the game’s popularity.

When released at Gen Con in 2017, the Starfinder Core Rulebook sold out in 5 hours. That’s a fine start, but it doesn’t tell us much about sales now, or how many total units moved.

The Starfinder Core Rulebook is #69 for RPG gaming books on Amazon for gaming books. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook at 66. Other Starfinder books are also in the Top 100–Armory at #52, Alien Archive at #48, Armory #52, and Pact Worlds #93.

Pathfinder has one other entry, the GameMastery Guide at 94.

Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Savage Worlds, Shadowrun, Cortex, FATE, 13th Age, World of Darkness, Mutants and Masterminds and for that matter most other non-D&D tabletop rpgs don’t have any books that make the top 100. That’s only one seller, but it’s a big seller.

Now that’s all relative information only, but it does tell you something about whether new Starfinder books are still moving well, and how they do in physical, online sales compared to other RPGs. You can also try to use that information to guesstimate sales per month, though again you can’t really trust the quality of that data. Still, that data, iffy as it is, says the Core Rulebook is moving 290 units per month on Amazon alone.

You can also look at ICv2‘s ranking of Top 5 RPGs, keepign in mind again that the data is from just one set of courses and not gathered scientifically. ICv2 listed Starfinder at #2 for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, (behind D&D in both cases).

Roll20 periodically does a quarterly report showing how many games and players are using it for games of various systems. The latest report I can find (June 12, 2018) says “Starfinder is growing steadily, from #16 to #11 over the course of two quarters, and we anticipate that the release of the official Starfinder sheet, as well as some excellent Starfinder products, will break it into the top 10 in no time.”

For many games, you could also look at their relative sales position on DriveThruRPG (for a relative sense of recent sales compared to other games sold on the site), and the metallic best-seller values of specific products (for a feel of total sales over that product’s lifetime). However, Paizo does not sell the Starfinder pdfs or print books on DriveThru, so the best you could do is compare various Starfinder-compatible 3pp products to the 3pp products of other games. There might be times when that kind of comparison is useful, but they are going to be rare enough I’m not going to dig up sample data just for a blog article.

NONE of these sources of info are definitive. But they do give something slightly better than a wild guess, or asking people at a single game store of convention what they *think* is doing well. It seems clear that Starfinder’s sales are healthy, and so far that appears to be a steady or growing trend. There are other things you can look at, like what kinds of products has the publisher of the game announced? The fact that Paizo has a Starfinder Beginner’s Box coming at least suggests they are looking at new customer acquisition, which may help keep Starfinder sales robust.

You can sometimes augment the utility of such things with your own sales information–if you know how well a print book of yours is selling on Amazon, you know books rated about it are moving more units than that.

And sometimes you can tease out other trends as well–but that’s a practice for people who think there’s specific information they need, and I wish them the best of luck.

It’s not GREAT data for making business decisions, but in general I do find it better than nothing.

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Industry Insider: Pragmatism, Personality, and Partnership

I talk a lot about how the best way to get work as a freelancer is to put your name, in a positive context, in front of people who can give you work as often as possible. That’s true in my experience, but it also just hints at another truth about the tabletop game industry in general.

It’s not just what you can do. It’s also about who you know, and who you are.

The tabletop game industry is stunningly small. Personal relationships, personality matches, and private opinions carry a lot of weight on who everyone does business with. At a pragmatic level, the bigger a company the more likely it is to try to just look at objective questions of what makes sense for a business, but those decisions are made by individual people, and their preferences and biases can impact everything from who gets a faster reply to an inquiry to who is trusted with big-dollar budgets.

Obviously it’s helpful to have friends in the industry, but equally obviously most people don’t start off with that advantage. It is absolutely possible to make friends, but more importantly it is possible to build relationships based on trust and respect. Friendship can cause problems as often as it gives an advantage, because people don’t like to give their friends bad news. And the tabletop game industry is all-too-often a place where business decisions are bad news.

Building relationships within the industry can happen organically just by being active in industry activities. Post regularly on messageboards. Write reviews. Engage in social media. Go to conventions. Volunteer to help with events, especially running games for organized play programs. None of those things generally gives you a direct payoff in “game industry friends earned per month,” but they do expose you to people who, like you, are building a network of people known.

Pragmatically, remember that with all these interactions being professional and honest and accurate is going to impact how people think of you. I absolutely do not recommend being a kiss-ass–most people aren’t actually very good at that, and yes-folks aren’t as useful as people who can give an honest, professional opinion. But you also don’t want to be an asshole. There are successful game industry professionals who use ‘asshole” or “grumpy curmudgeon” as their brand, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of talent, and in my opinion they often do themselves as much harm as good and are sometimes buoyed up by cults of personality who can give them bad feedback, false promises of support, or even turn on them.

The main point with this kind of industry engagement is to let people know who you are, and hopefully learn who you get along with. Tabletop game projects often involve a lot of interaction and back-and-forth among their participants, and a lot of us want to know we can get along with someone before we commit to working with them for weeks, months, or even years.

That means that all those things people want to keep out of business decisions–politics, sense of humor, debate style, even questions of spirituality–can impact who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. I know people in the industry who dislike being in long conversations with me because I am too likely to extensively engage in at-best-mid-quality puns. Obviously that limits my ability to get those people excited to work with me, even if they think I have the skills and connections to help a project along. Equally obviously, I’m not willing to change how I interact with them enough to remove that block to a working relationship. Sometimes we get over that hurdle (often by using middlemen or online-only communications, where I can regretfully delete clever wordplay that’s out-of-place). Sometimes we don’t. But by knowing each other well enough to foresee an issue, we can decide if the extra work is worth the payoff.

Especially early on, extra complements and support can help open doors to more opportunities to show people who you are. from Kickstarters to Patreon campaigns to pre-sales to social media posts about upcoming projects, people who make things happen in the industry often have ways you can show your support, and that is not the worst way to introduce yourself to someone. But don’t pander–it’s not a good basis for any long-term relationship, and it’s exhausting.

I’m not going to try to present this as reasonable or the way things “should” be, but the tabletop game industry is hard enough that many of its professionals just don’t have any interest in working with people they don’t get along with. Sometimes this results in people playing favorites, and that can be frustrating when you are the outside of a social circle. But it’s also something that can mostly only be overcome by developing your own social circle. You have to do the work, be available, put yourself out there, but you also have to remember that every interaction with everyone in the game industry is a preview of what you are like to talk to and hang around with.

Memories in the industry are often as long as the industry itself is small. If you insult someone, slight their work rudely, fail to uphold your end of a contract, or honestly do anything that seriously annoys them, it can impact their desire to work with you forever. I have friends and partners who avoid ever being on the same project because they can’t get along with one another. I don’t recommend trying to walk on eggshells–you have to live your life–but respect, consideration, politeness, and fulfilling obligations once you undertake them go a long way to build a reputation and network of people who appreciate your efforts.

You can’t compromise who you are or what your values are–there are people I won’t work with for moral and ethical reasons. You shouldn’t take risks you can’t afford even for friends–there are projects I have declined to get involved with because while I liked everyone working on it, I had no confidence in their ability to see it through. You can’t make people like you–there’s no one I know in this industry who doesn’t have a few serious detractors, deservedly or not. But you can be aware of the impact of your personality and behavior, and remember that it’s not divorced from your ability to make deals, get work, earn trust, and move forward with career goals.

This is a long-term concern. It takes years, often, for engagement to build any relationships that help you know who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. But those years are going to pass one way or another. I find it’s best to try to use them to increase my opportunities, rather than burn bridges.

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Writing Basics: RPG Pitches (Part One)

One of the things I have given as advice to people who want to break into rpg writing or increase the amount of rpg writing work they receive, is to make pitches to smaller companies. The logic here is that while Paizo and Fantasy Flight and Wizards of the Coast pretty well all know exactly what books they are doing for the next 12-18 months, and likely already have some sense of their schedule over the next 5 years or so, smaller RPG companies are more likely to be flexible and interested in projects freelancers are excited to write. You probably can’t get WotC to publish your idea for an adventure or a book on halfling baking magic, but Rogue Genius Games, Rite Publishing, and other small-to-mid-range companies are more likely to be interested.

If you do it right. And I never really talk about what that looks like. So, here’s a new Writing Basics to cover making rpg-related pitches. A lot of this is going to carry over to other publishing mediums and freelance work… and a lot won’t. As usual this is where I have the most experience, so this is where I am focusing my advice.

Way Before You Pitch

But before you do more than jot down some ideas you want to pitch, you have some pre-work to do. A lot of this is boring, and requires you to put in a lot of effort and thought before you get to any of the fun stuff of making things up for a game. That’s one of the big secrets of freelance work. It’s three jobs—successfully get the assignment, do the assignment, and then get paid for the assignment. The willingness to do this “boring part” is a huge part of how to get good without depending on getting lucky.

So, you want to pitch some companies. That means you need to pick some targets, and study those targets. I don’t want to make this sound creepier than it has to, but that really is the best way to say this.

You need to know who to pitch to, and you need to know what to pitch to them. One good way to find companies who are doing current work in the game system you want to write for is to go to DriveThruRPG, search for the game system, and click its home page. On the left is a list of game companies that have had good recent sales on products for that game line. Those are prime targets, because they are making money on that game and are doing do recently.

That’s not the only method of course—see who is active, who freelancers are talking about, who releases lots of products. Ask around.

Once you know who you want to pitch, you want to make it as easy as possible for the people you pitch to say yes, and that requires knowing somethings about them. Check their web sites. Look to see if they have submission guidelines. Look to see if they have a “Contact Us” link somewhere. Look to see if the owners or employees or recurring freelancers have social media you can follow and, if they do, read everything you can.

Take notes.

You can’t be a writer if you aren’t a reader. You want to know as much as you can about every company you are going to send pitches to. If they are looking for something specific, if they work in particular game lines, you want to know. Do they use a lot of authors for each product? What size product do they publish? What kinds of products do they publish? Adventures? Monster books? New rules content? Campaign settings? Entire game expansions? Whole games?

Before you ever approach a game company asking if they want to give you work, you want to have a solid idea what kinds of things they publish. That’s a big part of “making it easy to say yes.” Sure, if you have a brilliant idea that’s radically different from what a company normally does they may opt to take a risk on you… but that’s a bigger ask than suggesting you be the person to fill a slot they are already likely to want somebody to fill.

Also, BUY some of the company’s products. Yes, this means spending money before you make money. But not every game company has a style guide, and even the ones who do don’t include all the things they do out of institutional momentum. How a company arranges headers, whether it uses first-person, second-person, or third-person language, how it handles pronouns, how much art it uses, how many maps it presents, how serious or jokey their products are—those things can vary wildly (and can vary by line, or even by product). Knowing at least some of how a company actually presents game material is a huge help both when deciding what to pitch them, and in producing a manuscript they like enough to want to work with you again.

If you can, categorize the types of products produced by numerous game companies and their various lines. This can be helpful when you are first pitching, but it can also be helpful later on. For example, if you know what companies product short monster books for pathfinder tied to a single theme, then if you pitch a book like that to one of them and get turned down, you can quickly decide who to pitch it to next.

Finally, if you have any contacts within the industry, you may want to ask about their experiences working for each of the companies you have picked. Knowing if they are friendly, timely, how they pay (profit-share? Per word? Upon completion or upon publication?), what rights they take (work for hire or share of rights?) can help you know what to expect. You can always try to negotiate these things if they don’t match your needs (and should walk away from an offer rather than take one not worth your time or that takes advantage of you), but that’s another issue that may make it harder for a company to say yes to you.

We’ll continue this advice with Part Two: What to Pitch and When to Pitch It.

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Writing Basics: What IS the Barrier to Entry?

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

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

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

Well, let’s look at some actual numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, taxes will take some of that.

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

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

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

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Horrifically Overpowered Star-Feats

Very soon, RGG will be releasing Starfarer’s Codex: Horrifically Overpowered Feats.

And it’s my fault.

This is, obviously, a new entry in the Horrifically Overpowered line of game supplements, bringing the world of OP to Starfinder-compatible games. And while it WILL update many of the old Pf-edition OP feats, that’s not all the book has.

Oh heavens no.

It is SO much worse than that.

“How bad could it be?” you ask. Pretty bad. game-breakingly bad. You should never allow ANY of these into your campaign.

Seriously, let me show you.

Here’s just a few examples of Horrifically Overpowered Star Feats.

Ain’t Got Time To Bleed (Horrifically Overpowered)
You can rest when you’re dead.
Benefit: As a full action, you can use any option available to you that normally takes 10 minutes. You are subject to all the other restrictions of the action (it’s fast not free, get real).

Ancestral Plasma Canon
You have an item your family has carried into star battle with star demons for star centuries.
Benefit: Select one category of item that is not consumed when it is used, such as a small arm, heavy weapon, light armor, an armor upgrade, or a technological, hybrid, or magic item. Each time you gain a new character level, this item is upgraded to any item of the same category you wish with an item level no greater than your character level +2. If the item is lost or destroyed, it or a replacement returns to you no later than the next time you gain a character level.

Resolved (Horrifically Overpowered)
No one is more resolved than you are.
Benefit: The Resolve Point cost of any ability or option that requires Resolve Points is one lower than normal for you. If that makes the Resolve Point cost 0 or less (yeah, or less—if you are allowing THIS option, who KNOWS what you’ve allowed into your campaign?!) you can still only use the ability if you have at least 1 Resolve Point remaining in your Resolve Pool.

If you want to make me stop writing such ridiculous pandering products which appeal only to power gamers and bring shame on my reputation as a professional, feel free to join my Patreon, in the hopes the money will distract me and put an end to this terrible idea.
Or… I mean back me and tell me to write more. As long as you give me money, I don;t care what you ask me to do.

Writing Basics: Paginations and Wordcounts

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

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

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

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

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

Title Page

 

 

Page 1

Credits

Table of Contents

Page 2

Introduction

½ page art

 

Page 3

Halfling War Baking History

 

Page 4

War Baker Archetype

¼ page art

Page 5

Equipment: Battle Muffins

¼ page art

Page 6

Glossary

Index

Appendix 1

Page 7

½ page ad

OGL

 

Page 8

 

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

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

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

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

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

Well, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I Don’t Strictly Self-Censor My Writing

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.

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Writing Basics: From Nothing to a Game Book

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

It’s also a really complicated question.

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

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

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

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

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

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