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Be Your Own Brand

I’m not doing #ATTRPGMaker, but a lot of people I know are, and they all hit “What’s Your Brand?” today. And suddenly, I feel like answering.

My brand? My brand is Owen K.C. Stephens.

I love the fact that so many people are willing to employ me in one capacity or another (and honor me with the trust to all do so at once), but with 20 years of this under my belt, I know that I can’t depend on any game, trademark, or company to necessarily be around for as long as I want my career to last.

But, obviously, *I* will be here as long as I am here.

So yes, Paizo, and Green Ronin, and Rogue Genius Games, and Rite Publishing are all things I strongly promote. Starfinder, and Really Wild West, and Pathfinder, and Pathways are all lines I have staked a lot of time and effort in being part of.

But that’s all part of defining my one core brand, which is me.

My name. My professionalism. My reputation.

Hopefully, both industry folks and customers have some idea what adding me to a project means. Obviously lots of people have never heard of me, but my focus on myself as a brand is to try to make sure that when they DO hear of me, they do so in the context of the image I want to project.

And, hopefully, that makes adding me to other brands a benefit to those, as well.

The one thing you get to take with your wherever you go is your name. Things might change so the rights to games I work on get restricted, or companies that pay me might be struck by asteroids. And I think it’s *very* important I give my very best effort to everyone who hires me. I never “save something back” to promote my own brand at the expense of another.

But by making sure I do the best I can for everyone who hires me, I make THAT part of my brand.

I try to do the same in social media, on forums, and even in public. And by doing my best for everyone who hires me, and being professional in all game-related dealings with the public, I can build my brand at the same time I do my best to promote the other brands I am paid to work with.

Speaking of my brand:

I have a Patreon! Feel free to back it!

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Putting the “Steam” and “Punk” in Really Wild West

I haven’t referred to the Really Wild West setting as “steampunk,” because to me it’s a distinct Fantasy Weird West genre, rather than a “true” steampunk setting. Of course, steampunk is as much an aesthetic as a literary genre (certainly true now, regardless of its origins), and part of my issue with calling RWW steampunk is that I am going much more for a western aesthetic than a steampunk one. I’d also want to parse out the distinctions between steampunk, gearpunk, cogpunk, diselpunk, pulp, weird west, fantasy, and a bunch of other things related to speculative fiction settings of the late 1800s before I was comfortable referring to (or marketing) my setting as “steampunk.”

But, there certainly is going to be significant overlap between people who are interested in Really Wild West, weird west, and those who are interested in steampunk. And, ultimately, I suspect the weird west, pulp, and steampunk genres are very much like La Belle Époque, the Gilded Age and the Victorian Era—they aren’t the same, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what is unique to each and what is shared, but there’s certainly a lot of intersection.

Classically, one element of steampunk is that steam-engine level technology is capable of much more advanced devices than in the real world, allowing more modern devices to exist in larger, bulkier, brass-rivet covered steam versions. I’m not depending much on steam as the main technology of Really Wild West, because my setting advances electricity and magic as much as it makes steam more efficient. There are some things common to steampunk stories in RWW, such as Babbages (or “difference engines”) that are gear-driven computers (that can communicate over the Babbage-Bell Grid, creating a kind of primitive internet), and massive airships acting as floating cruisers and battleships, but in most cases those are using an imaginary technology developed from the inclusion of a form of advanced theosophy (magic) in the setting, or reverse-engineered from Martian tech after the War of the Worlds, rather than super-efficient steam. Steam engines exist, but RWW isn’t the steam age anymore. Aetheric engines are more important than steam turbines.

On the other hand, the “punk” elements of steampunk, as a social movement, make sense for my Really Weird West setting. Not all steampunk settings borrow the “punk” part of cyberpunk, but I think it’s worth remembering as a spine of the body that includes so many related and overlapping ideas. Much of the “punk” part of cyberpunk is about wanting to live free of mainstream society’s constraints and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of social expectations. That certainly borrows from the punk musical and cultural movements of the real world 1970s and 1980s, but in cyberpunk, that rejection is often frames in terms of the collapse of the benefits of society and, with cybernetics and AIs commonplace, asking what it even means to be human.

Some steampunk settings have their own versions of this punk-ness, while others just focus on the dashing heroes of society, whether they are the champions of wealth and aristocracy you’d expect to be promoted by society itself, or plucky underdogs of low station who rise to fame and power… and then generally become not only accepted parts of mainstream society but also proof that anyone of sufficient quality can succeed by bootstrapping, and thus a backhanded claim that the rules of society should be respected because they include opportunity to improve yourself if you are properly deserving. I find this to be especially true of steampunk set in or based on the 1800s US.

However, the imaginary 1891 of Really Wild West is a time of rapid societal change, whether that’s the impact of Reconstruction and the Progressive Era of the United States, the turn toward science and rationality of the Porfiriate of Mexico, or the removal of Otto Von Bismark from power in Germany. On top of those real-world social pressures, the setting of Really Weird West is dealing with the cognitive impact of magic being codified as real by the Theosophic Society over the past generation and proof of alien life (and both its technological superiority and desire to kill us) in the War of the Worlds just a year earlier. While polite society in major urban centers is trying to pretend nothing has changed, in their hearts people know better. Literature, science, music, poetry, and acceptable social behavior have all changed, and many people are actively rejecting its rules which, to be fair, are based on those of the real world at the time and thus include a lot of objectively terrible racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry.

In the frontier lands, that change is even more pronounced. Where lawlessness is more common, society has less power to enforce both its good and its bad dictates. Sure, lawless lands often include a lot of robbery, fraud, assault, and murder, but they also have weaker social codes insisting everyone fall in line with societal expectations. Not no social codes of course—each town, business, cattle barony, and gang can have its own society requirements no less strict and merciless than those of “Back East.” But while that means people can’t automatically be free of bigotry and racism, it also means they don’t have to go as far to get away from it. Given how dangerous it is to live outside of town that might be a short trip into a shallow grave, but the option exists.

That very danger also means that people who refuse to follow the norms of society, but who have a particular set of skills, can find more than one place that will accept them at least as long as there’s a problem they can fix. It’s no coincidence that this sounds like the plot of numerous classic Westerns, but it’s also the plot of numerous cyberpunk stories. In many ways the gunslinger is the original “punk” character concept… and before that the samurai, and local hero highwayman, and some Greek heroes. Punk heroes, as independent experts who thrive outside the system, can exist in the largest numbers in campaign settings where society has a weakened grip. In cyberpunk this is often because corporations have grown to be so powerful that they can challenge the government-controlled legally defined societies, and virtual reality is competing with meatspace, and the gaps between those factors are shadowy realms where expertise is more important than adherence to societal standards. In a Western, Really Wild West included, there’s a similar conflict between the expansive, technocratic societies and the less mechanized and more sparsely-spaced aboriginal societies as well as the rapid expansion of new forms of transformation and communication into areas with vast untamed stretch of exploitable natural resources. RWW, of course, adds magic, an alien invasion, and weird science to the mix to create even more instability, and larger shadows where the punk character concept comfortably fits.

If Really Wild West promotes the idea that exceptional people can rise above their stations and become heroes, it must acknowledge that doing so often means bucking the systemic oppression directed at numerous minorities. Certainly, if a group would rather not deal with such real-world issues, and the players would have more fun playing whatever they want without considering how people from a world based on the heavily-flawed real world of 1891 would react to them, they can do that. But asking a group to all agree not to take the expected real-world biases and bigotry too far may be more than everyone can handle, so there are also explicit notes within the campaign where any character background is explicitly appropriate. Specifically, even in the small amount of material written so far, the Dread Templars and Science Agents are both groups that accept anyone with the skills of a player character, and both are respected and established part of the campaign world. Being a punk who is part of a group may be a tad counter-intuitive, but it’s not really any different than imagining a cyberpunk hacker as part of a real-world collective like Anonymous.

All that said, I’m not likely to begin calling Really Wild West “steampunk,” but I won’t tell anyone else who does that they’re wrong. 😊

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This post is brought to you by one of my patrons, specifically StarfinderSRD.com, who have the OGL rules for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game readily available. If you enjoy my posts, you can also become a patron and support new material!

The Deal With The Boomerang

Here’s a picture of my new desk, at the office.

Desk 2 05 2018

Upon seeing that picture, Alex Augunas noted he wanted to hear the story about the boomerang.

And, weirdly, there is one.

My father was a professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma.

He was sometimes hired to teach short courses elsewhere in the world.

At one point, when I was a child, this included Australia.

When asked if there was anything I would like him to bring back, I said a boomerang.

So he did.

I learned to throw it (not well, and I beaned myself dead between the eyes the first time because I did it wrong, and I haven’t thrown one in more than 25 years).

So I kept it with me. When I was hired by WotC in 2000, I hung that boomerang as a decoration, because I thought it was cool to have a weapon at my desk.

Then I got laid off. And had to move back to Oklahoma.

I promised myself I’d come back to Seattle someday. And that promise got embodied in my boomerang I had kept at WotC.

It sat over my desk, wherever I was, for 14 years.

And now… I’m back. And so it the boomerang.

(Want to keep sharing my short life stories? Then support my Patreon!)

Marriage, Gaming, and Freelancing

Today is my 27th wedding anniversary. For those who saw me  talk about this being my 20th year as an RPG writer, it’s easy to do the math—It took my wife Lj 6 years to convince me to try to get my home campaign ideas published in Dragon Magazine. Most of our marriage, I have tried to make a living my making things up and giving my made-up ramblings rules. For a lot of that, I was a full time freelancer, so she and I had to learn to manage on a very irregular income. But she also has always believed in me and my writing ability, and supported me when I wasn’t strong enough to support myself. I’d have given up long ago if not for my wife’s encouragement and ability to talk me through my options, and help me find the one that makes the most sense not just as a career choice, but as a life path. It is not overstating things to say that without my wife, I wouldn’t have a game writing career, but it also simplifies the issue way too much.

My wife is very different from me. She’s a bigger geek than I am. When I was still hiding game manuals for fear of being mocked, Lj was launching a gaming club in the public library. When I was convinced my ideas were mundane and unmarketable, she saw potential for a career. When I doubt myself, she is always prepared to give me an honest assessment, which is much more valuable than empty praise. Lj has made me a better man, but she’s also made me a better gamer.

It is humbling for me to think about all the way in which my wife has provided me with guidance and good examples, but that’s a few of the things spouses are supposed to do for each other. I tend to view my entire life through the lens of games. Since games are how I met nearly all my friends, and how I met the woman who is now my life, I think that’s actually pretty reasonable of me. But early in my gaming hobby, I was convinced I gamed the *right* way, and everyone else hadn’t reach my level of enlightenment yet. I saw things not in terms of what people liked, and what met their needs, but as what was good (because I enjoyed it) and what was bad (because I didn’t, and everyone else who didn’t was wrong, dumb, or both).

Long before she was my wife, Lj was the first person who enjoyed radically different aspects of gaming than I did, and was clearly smarter than me, as experiences as I was, and geekier than I was. I can’t overstate how important that realization was in slowly putting me on a path difference from Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. And just as it opened me up to seeing games differently, watching how my wife interacted with other people opened me up to seeing the world differently. It was only in realizing I was limiting my opinion of what was good to what I personally liked best that I was able to begin to contextualize things like empathy, which saved me from being an emotional monster.

That paid huge dividends for me as a human being. Flawed though I am, I still try to live up to an ideal Lj taught me to understand. But it also paid huge dividends in my development as a game designer and later developer. I learned that people could enjoy things I didn’t, and that it was possible to study what they did and didn’t enjoy and why. You can’t always please everyone, but sometimes you can make something more people will enjoy without weakening its appeal to the core audience you want. And, once you know there is no one true way to game, you can explore your own preferences and attitudes, and examine why you like and why you like it. Even if you don’t come to appreciate a broader scope of styles and elements (and I certainly have), just the examination of what you enjoy about your favorite things can be useful in finding the best versions of those things.

Twenty years of game design. Twenty-seven years of marriage. Two long, linked journeys. Neither is complete. Both have only been possible with the love, help, guidance, and support of my wife. And that support has only been possible because of a community of family, friends, co-workers, and gamers.

Happy anniversary, sweetie.
Thanks, everybody.

Speaking of things I have learned:
So, in all earnestness, I hate following up something that heartfelt with something as base as asking for money. But part of the support the community gives me is the ability to take some time to write things like this, and one of the things I have learned is you have to ask for that kind of support.
So if you want to see more of these essays, follow this link to my Pateon, and pledge a couple of bucks a month. 🙂

Mega-Patrons and Monthly PDFs

Heya folks!
So, it’s no secret that a lot of Patreon campaigns lost a lot of pledges when Patreon announced they would be charging patrons more than their pledge levels. I added some emergency pricing tiers to prevent people from having to pay more to get the same rewards, but even so many people just left the platform entirely. So even though Patreon has decided not to change how they bill (for now, anyway), the damage is done.
While removing the no-longer needed emergency pricing levels, I decided I wanted my mega-patron level, where you get a monthly pdf of all the free content I release in a month, to be more affordable. So I’ve brought that down from $20 to $10.
And so you-all have some idea what those monthly pdfs of free content are like, I’m posting the August pdf on my Patreon sight, but leaving the post available for all my fans to enjoy! The amount of content I produce each month varies, but this gives you an idea what kinds of material to expect. This one has some old-school inspired material for Pathfinder (randomly acquired psionics, archetypes and hybrid classes for old 2nd ed muticlass character concepts such as the cleric/fighter/magic-user, cleric/fighter/thief, cleric/ranger, illusionist/thief, and more ), some Starfinder material (the pistol of tricks, belt of veskkind, folding torpedo minisub, trenchcoat of the bat, and more), and some of the extras each pdf includes (random supers ideas, essays on the game industry and my life intersecting with it, and random things like song lyrics, game night quotes, and every funny thing I posted over 31 days).
So check out the pdf and, if you want more like it, become a mega-patron today!
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On Dan Harmon; What Next?

Dan Harmon has confessed to harassing Megan Ganz when she worked on Community. He has detailed the circumstances, apologized, and she has accepted and public stated she forgives him.

I think seeing this handled to Megan Ganz’s apparent satisfaction is important. We do need to think about, since all these terrible things happened, once we accept that…. then what?

I’m not claiming anyone gets a pass, or that even that a harsh, honest accounting and confession fixes everything. And clearly in the broader context we need to look at what needs to happen for men to stop harassing women.

But we also need to look at what are the correct steps to take for harassers, both in acknowledging their wrongdoing, and what is appropriate from there. 

And to be clear, there’s no room on this post for discussions of due process or innocent before proven guilty. None of that is relevant here. Dan Harmon acknowledges his guilt.

He has apologized for it. Megan Ganz has accepted his apology and forgiven him.

Now what?

I’d be entirely understanding if a production company said “Given your self-confessed track record, we’re not willing to allow you to have hiring and firing power over women anymore.” Should a company Dan works with do more than that?

What’s next?

Looking Back On Twenty Years of Professional Tabletop Game Work

This is a retrospective, and it’s not one I wrote with any great point or theme. I try to not be that self-indulgent with my writing, but I have decided to give myself some leeway when marking two decades in the business. I may have more thoughts tied into the length of my career as 2018 progresses… or I may not.

It’s 1997. I get a letter from Dave Gross, editor of Dragon Magazine. A physical piece of paper, that I swear to myself I will keep forever, but that is gone by the very next time I move, to a new house.

“I really like your dwarven name generator but can’t use it, as we just published our dwarf-themed issue last month.”
I curse myself for not even realizing Dragon did themed issues. I am an idiot.

“But,” the letter continues in tones of glowing hope, “if you could do the same idea but for elven names, and get it to me quickly, that would be very useful.”
It’s my very first chance to prove I can take notes. I promise myself I will never let ego get in the way of doing good work.

That promise ends up with the letter, lost between moves. Unlike the letter, I find it again from time to time.

It’s very difficult for some tabletop game professionals to pin down exactly when their career “began.” Was it when they wrote their first houserule, or designed their first new game—even if neither rule nor game ever went anywhere? Was it the first time they got paid for work in the industry? Does it matter how much they got paid? Does it matter how long the gap was before they next got paid? Is there an amateur level of pay we should consider before someone is considered a “professional”? And if so, where’s the line?

A few years ago I realized I could no longer lay my hands on documents that decisively tell me when I got my first payment for RPG design work, which was an advance for a WII Hero e-book which was never published. I don’t even know if anyone has the manuscript, anymore. But that rules out using “when I first got paid” as a start point for my career, because that day is lost to the mists of time.

So, my next major benchmark is the publication of my first paid magazine article to appear, which happened some months (or maybe even a couple of years) later, with the elven name generator called “By Any Other Name” in Dragon 251, which came out in 1998. I know that I had to write that well before it came out, and I had submitted other articles and drafts to people before that came around. I also haven’t had a year pass since then when at least some professional project was released that I was involved with the creation of. So now that it’s January 2018, I feel very comfortable saying my professional tabletop career began (at least) 20 years ago.

It’s 1999. I have flown out to Seattle, or so I think. Really, I’m in SeaTac, and I’m headed to Renton, but I don’t know the geography. Eric Cagle picks me up in one of the new VW Beetles. I have an interview at Wizards of the Coast in a few hours. I would have been interviewed a year earlier, I am told, but my resume had fallen behind a filing cabinet. I’m wearing a suit. I hate the suit.

I love SeaTac and Renton, despite having no idea where I am.

Normally, I neither think about nor feel much impact from this extended timeline. I am fortunate to count among my friends, coworkers, and colleagues people who have been in the industry much longer than I have, so I don’t feel particularly older than what I consider the “norm” for RPG professionals. While my work has shifted the steps have often been small ones, often with long settling-in periods, so I didn’t even notice the major milestones as they went by.

Going from 2nd edition to 3rd edition D&D came with a staff position at WotC, so the change in the game I was working on was the least of my big shifts. When I had a more-than-decade-long run as a full-time freelancer, I was scrambling for any work I could get, so I didn’t really notice growing from 3e to 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder, and Star Wars d20 to the Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook. I DID notice working on Saga Edition Star Wars, but at that point I had EverQuest (the pen-and-paper version), Wheel of Time, Gamma World, Black Company, and Thieves World games under my belt, so the enormity of it was less shocking that it might have been otherwise.

It’s 2003. Many of my major lines of freelance work have dried up. I can make the rent for a couple of months on savings, but I need a big project soon or things will get uncomfortable. My AOL account has a message from Chris Pramas. Didn’t I say once, he asks in sentences that manage to be professional and casual all at once, that I was a huge fan of the Black Company series?

I had said so once. At my interview at Wizards of the Coast, when asked if I could adapt any one property to D&D, what would it be?

Well, do I actually want to do that now? It’s a big job, and I’d be working for Dr. Evil…

I DID notice Freeport, City of Adventure, which I believe to be the biggest book I was the primary development force for, but at that point I was on contract with Green Ronin, and their support and assistance made it much easier than it might have been and seemed to define my career at the moment more than working on the book did. I kinda celebrated to a product a week, every week, without fail for a number of years for Super Genius Games and then Rogue Genius Games… but that ended when bigger jobs were happening, so it was almost observed more in the ending than the success.

It’s 2007. Stan! calls. I’m surprised, because I had no idea he even knew my phone number, Would I, he asks, like to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure?

I’ve never written anything for Call of Cthulhu. I haven’t played it in a decade or more, and I never played it more than 2-3 times. I don’t know the rules, and I am not an expert on the mythos. I don’t particularly LIKE Call of Cthulhu.

I enthusiastically state I’d love to write a CoC adventure. It’s probably true. And like many dealings with the elder unknowable beings I am planning to wrangle into a compact booklet of fun, that decision has consequences that alter the course of my life.  

I certainly noticed Starfinder, though the transition from full-time freelancer to paid on-staff developer and designer at Paizo was well and fully made at that point, which made the benchmark seem less momentous somehow. I’ve been at Paizo for almost four years now, and that makes it hard to feel like anything I’ve done in my relatively short time on staff as anything more than getting used to being there, and trying to do enough to make hiring me seem like a good idea.

It’s 2013. I check my phone message machine, a physical device hooked to my landline with dinosaur sinew. To my surprise, I hear Wes Schneider’s voice. He wants to know if I was serious when I had last applied to Paizo. Would I really move back out to Seattle? Because if so…

A loud click tells me my answering machine cut of Wes mid-sentence. I panic. Obviously I have to call him back… and unlike most of his freelancers, I have kept track of his phone number at work.

He later jokes he hired me so I would stop calling him when working on projects for him, and use emails and texts like a normal person. He’s kidding.

Mostly.

It was only recently I realized I was still thinking like a full-time freelancer, despite having a steady contract job with Green Ronin for more than four years, and the Paizo job for almost four. Sometimes it’s less that I resist change, and more just I don’t actually know how to adapt to it.

In these twenty years there have been some major changes to how business gets done. I used to send proposals in print, with a Self-Address Stamped Envelope for feedback or rejection to be sent back to me my physical mail. The three-tier system of distribution was strong and broadly spread when I started, and there was nothing like Kickstarter (though patron driven projects existed… often advertised in physical print magazines). PDF products, and companies, did not (and could not) exist, though there were small scale and 1-man productions in the days of print, they just had less reach.

I remember when terms like munchkin and splatbook were fairly rare, and there were very few unmoderated places, be that forums of letters pages of magazines, for fans to gather and discuss what they loved… and hated… or blamed on the politics, incompetence, or greed of the people trying to make a living creating the games they wanted.

It’s 2014. We’re throwing a farewell for a Paizo employee who’s moving on to new opportunities. I tell a story about my first day of Wizards of the Coast, when I had to playtest the brand-new edition of D&D without having actually seen a final rulebook yet.

“Oh,” he says smiling. “Fourth edition?”
“Ah…” I stammer, a tad awkward. “No. Third edition. In 2000.”
His smile broadens. “I was in grade school then.”

But an equal number of things are about the same. The terms core rulebook, adventure, campaign, and miniature all mean roughly what they did 20 years ago. Game creators often still struggle for stability while pouring heart and soul into a complex mix of creative technical writing back by a hybrid of psychological theories and math.

Dungeons & Dragons is still the most commonly known brand. Most fans still don’t have a very accurate idea of what working in the RPG industry is like, even for people who manage full time salaried jobs.

Somehow along the way some people came to think I might have insight into what makes a good game, or what makes a good gamer, which are crucially different. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I have always enjoyed spouting my opinions. I used to be limited to doing it at friends or occasionally to whoever gathered at a convention seminar. Now I can track how many people in Australia clicked on a blog link. (And can ask fans to support me directly, through things like my Patreon… )

Design trends in games have proven to be a pendulum, but I also think genuinely good ideas continue to be created, recognized, and adapted. I doubt any game I write now will be completely forgotten in another 20 years, but I also doubt any of them will be the most current version of the niches they fill. My career only goes as far back as 2nd edition AD&D, but I certainly played several versions of the game before that. I expect to play many more, under many different names, if I make it two more decades.

It’s 2016. Starfinder is meeting the public for the first time, at the 50th anniversary of Gen Con. I don’t want to fight the crowds, so I give it a couple of hours, then go to where it’s being sold at a satellite both, outside the main organized play venue.

They’re sold out, and shutting down. But we brought more of that book than Paizo had ever brought of anything, so I go ahead and brave the main hall despite it being the first day.

By the time I get there, all copies of Starfinder are sold out. Instead of lasting a weekend, it lasted 5 hours.

I’m delighted that I continue to learn and, I think, get better at my craft. At the same time, I strongly suspect that I AM more than halfway through my tabletop game career. I can’t pull all the physical and mental stunts I used to use to keep up in this industry, and I have no idea if I have 6 more years in me, or 16. I suspect I’ll fade away rather than just stop, but one of the things I HAVE learned is that there’s very little point trying to predict what I’ll be working on in three years. I’m always wrong. Even if I am right about the broad strokes (three years ago I was pretty sure I’d still be at Paizo), I also miss major details (three years ago I had no clue Starfinder was even going to happen, much less that I’d play a major part in it).

I still play games with some of the same people I did 20 years ago, my wife included, but lots of other friends I knew and gamed with even a decade or more before that I don’t get to see much anymore.

But games are still my favorite social activity, and RPGs are still my favorite subset of games.

And writing, developing, consulting for, and designing games is still the only job I can imagine having.

RPGs: The Map is Not the Territory

RPGs are not, in general, trying to create a pure simulation of reality in the form of entirely consistent and all-encompassing rules (and acting as if they are, or even should, leads to unhappiness, silliness, or both). The rules of the Game part of an RPG can be distinctly different from a description of the objective rules that define a universe. People who want to take things ‘allowed” by RPG rules and dive down to what a world is “really” like if those rules are equally and evenly available to even citizen of the world are not playing the game as intended.

(And if they have fun doing that, that’s fine. But if they don’t, the flaw isn’t necessarily with the game rules.)

For example, it’s perfect acceptable to say “This ability can be selected by any player for their character. There are no limitations or restriction on a player doing so.” and a GM or campaign setting saying (or even being built so it is true without saying it) “This ability represents a very rare ability, and only a very few people in the universe have it.”

One early step in beginning a new RPG campaign or adventure that almost no RPGs ever mention is, everyone involved should be interested in engaging in that activity in a way that causes everyone to have fun. If someone actively doesn’t want to play, or their motivating for playing is to make other people unhappy and sadly yes, this happens), most RPGs are going to collapse under the weight of neutral or bad intentions. (This is, by the way, one reason why formal organized play groups often have some significant additional rules about player and character behavior, or collapse under their own weight. I remain in awe of people able not only to run such organizations, but write for them, build them,\and create environments where clearly most participants are having fun.)

If everyone wants to play the game for mutual fun, the fact the rules are often focused on what player characters can do (rather than what is unavailable to the majority of the population because not everyone is a Caped Knight Wizard of Justice) is rarely an issue.

Some people claim such a focus on PC abilities automatically mans the player characters are somehow “chosen ones” because they have access to options common NPCs don’t. Now, sometimes that’s the case, and that’s fine. I have often run games where player characters were, explicitly, somehow gifted in ways the vast majority of the population was not. Sometimes that’s a built-in rarity explained by the game. (“Only 1 in 10,000 people can learn the Rite of Heroism… and in this rare case, all four of you have that ability despite being from a village of 700.”)

But in other cases, the PCs have no special fate or inherent superior power. They are just the people who, at the start of the game, have ended up somewhere interesting. Maybe they have options other people can’t take due to genetics, but that doesn’t make them “chosen” despite the rarity, any more than having one blue and one green eye does. Or maybe they have just had unusual circumstances since birth—a lot of people feel anyone CAN become a professional artist if they spend the time and have the drive to do so, but not everyone does.

Put another way, if you were reading a piece of fiction about an interesting time and place where 25% of children die at birth, you wouldn’t want to focus on the people who died at birth at point of view characters. There’s nothing that “protected” the other 75% of the people born, they’re just the characters who are still alive to do things, so of course the story follows them instead.

So just because a game says “A character may select ‘Ouch’ as a power, which removes 1% of a foe’s health once per day with no chance of failure” doesn’t automatically mean the world is ruled by roving gangs of 100 11-year-old commoners who all have Ouch and thus can, as a group, kill absolutely anyone they want to. It just means some people have this and, if the campaign setting, GM, or adventure doesn’t call out Ouch Battallions, chances are they don’t exist.

Now it IS useful for an RPG to give a GM and players some idea of what NPCs and common folk in the game are likely to be like. This might be as complex as the kind of distinction between PC and NPC character classes in d20 games—no player character is going to select the strictly-inferior “warrior” if “fighter” is an option, but tons of NPCs do, and at the same time some important NPCs instead tale PC classes which lets you know (generally without explicitly saying so) that those NPCs are more important to the adventure or campaign.

Or it might be much more simple and subtle, like providing lists of NPCs game rules, or even just lists of inspirational media. If an RPG tells you it takes inspiration from the X-Men comics, Gifted television show, and movies Carrier, Firestarter, and Push, and the game gives you options to take extraordinary superhuman powers, it doesn’t also have to explicitly tell you that not every person in the world has those powers. That’s clear, in the types of stories it outlines as inspiration. You can BUILD a campaign world with that paradigm if you want to, but you should already know you are system-hacking.

I love system hacks, as Really Wild West might make clear. But once you go that route, it’s unfair to expect the rules to not force you to make some decisions to make the hack logical.

No RPG can fully, accurately, and deeply represent all the factors that determine who ends up with what abilities in a realistic world setting. We can’t even do that in the real world, even if we just limit ourselves to who will be successful out of a single class of kids. We can make educated guesses, based on experience and statistics, but some kid will buck those trends.

That kid, by the way, is the one many people want as their player character.

Patreon

If you got this far, maybe you like these essays enough to help fund them? That’s easy and cheap to do, with my Patreon.

On Being a Full-Time Tabletop Game Freelancer

This grew out of a response I wrote to someone considering full-time freelancing on Facebook. It comes with some provisos.

I haven’t been a full-time freelancer for nearly 4 years now. Things change fast, and no one still freelancing is going to bother to keep me in the loops, so while I stand by the generalities and warnings, the specifics may well be different nowadays.

I had a spectacular set of advantages when my freelance career really took off. While I went to full-time freelance sometime in 1997, at the time my wife made enough money, and got enough insurance, that my miserable first few years didn’t need to be self-sufficient. It’s when I restarted full-time freelance in 2001, after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast, that I had to cover my share of buying houses, paying all the bills, cover insurance, and paying college expenses based purely on what I could earn as a freelancer. And at that point, I was a d20-proficient writer during the d20 boom, multiple people who left WotC to start their own businesses or work as editors and developers for bigger companies knew and liked me, and I already had some major game titles under my belt thanks to 14 months as a WotC designer.

That made things much, much easier.

I was a full-time freelance RPG content provider from 2001 to 2014. So it can be done. But it’s hard.

I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, one of the cheapest places in the US to live and, thanks to being a college town, one that still had a fair number of modern amenities. I recommend finding cheap living options, whatever that can mean for you.

I discovered being a full-time freelancer was actually three jobs.
>First, you have to get work. That means promoting yourself online, contacting potential clients, and going to conventions or similar events to make contacts and network.
>Second, you have to do the work. This is the only part anyone pays you for.
>Third, you had to get paid for the work. Most of my clients were great, but I *still* have a $2000 outstanding bill for a project that got published, and numerous pay-upon-publication projects that were never published, despite me doing my part, and thus never came due.

I strongly recommend spreading yourself around to as many kinds of writing as you can. I once traded writing copy for a repair shop’s website for $600 in repairs. which is good, because I did not have $600. In bad periods I worked for trade for food, yard work, clothes, and even editing or similar favors for other work of mine. Much of that work was not game-related. 

I joined Super Genius Games, and when I left it began Rogue Genius Games, so I would always have a place to write, when other companies weren’t hiring. Of course that meant I only made money on those projects if people bought them, since it was all on royalties. Before that I wrote for d20 Weekly and later Pyramid magazine because they would publish whatever I wrote, without fail, every week. And they paid on time.

It isn’t always smart to start your own game company, but it is always smart to look for a place that will publish you regularly. They may pay less or pay only royalties. You DO need to get paid, but I found a mix of high-paying but rare work and lower-paying or royalty work that was always of often available was the way to make ends meet.

Magazine columns were great. Lines with regular releases and developers who liked me were great. One advantage of smaller projects is that you often do less work before you get paid. A 30,000 word project sounds great… but it’s 3-6 weeks of work you have to do before the clock even starts on getting paid.

Similarly, ongoing contract work is great. Especially if it pays by the month. This is rare, but there are companies who need a single developer or editor, or project manager (or, much less often, has a whole contract staff) that will pay you for a certain amount of time or a certain cut of what gets done, every month. This is a huge help, as it cuts down time spent getting work and tracking down payment for work. Even a small monthly amount can help balance the budget (and see Patreon thoughts, below.)

Don’t work without a contract. Look at the terms. An advance is best, but almost nonexistent nowadays. Pay-upon-acceptance, especially if it talks about when you’ll be accepted by and what happens if you’re not, is great. Pay upon publication kinda sucks, but is fairly standard. Flat rates are often better than royalties, but royalties are a legitimate business plan. I’ve made more money on freelance projects that paid royalties than I ever have on flat rates. of course, I’ve also had such projects end up paying nothing or nearly nothing. And, full disclosure, my own company (Rogue Genius Games) mostly pays royalties, so my opinion on this may be biased.

Your budget may be feast-or-famine. My wife and I were very cautious about spending money when a big check came it, because we literally did not know how long it had to last. We tried very hard to do nothing on credit, because credit can pile up and kill you, but even so after 13 years of freelancing I had tens of thousands of dollars of medical and educational debt that we still haven’t fully paid off.

The 80 hour work week because my norm. The 100 hour work week happened way too often. I pulled more than one 30-hour “all-nighter” shift, a feat I am physically no longer capable of pulling off.

I can’t recommend full-time freelance writing tabletop games as a career choice. In my case, because I had cared about games more than a career or education, I ended up with no other marketable skills.

But if you feel you must try it, I hope you get advice from lots of different people first, and I wish you well.

Patreon

Things like Kickstarter and Patreon have change the potnetial freelance landscape. I recommend everyone have a Patreon-like subscription service and a blog or similar ongoing outlet you can ask people to pay you to continue.

And, of course, I’d appreciate it if you consider supporting mine. 🙂

Addendum the First: Always see if you can use anything you have written to either make money, or promote yourself. Or both. That’s why I blew up what was originally a Facebook response into full blog post.
Addendum the Second: Friends, and colleagues and fans that like and respect you, are more likely to help you find work and promote you and the work you have done.
Act accordingly.
Addendum the Third: There is no shame in being a part-time freelancer. You can do it as a second job, or as a hobby. You can also do it mostly, then with some little extra thing on the side to make sure you survive. I’ve known awesome freelancers who were fast food dishwashers, Uber drivers, substitute teachers, and temp workers. If that’s what you need to have a safety margin, or to live at least part of the life you want to live, do it with your head held high. If, someday, you feel secure in leaving the non-freelance part of your life, great. If not, your work is no less ‘real” or “professional.”

My 2017 Year in Review

For me, 2017 was the Year of Starfinder.

The year began with putting the final touches on the Starfinder Core Rulebook, and that system has taken the vast majority of my professional time. I even opted to do Starfinder work outside the office, due to how excited I was about the system, in both professional and personal capacities. That was part of a long string of decisions I made about what work to do, and how much of it, and not all of those decisions were smart ones. I do not regret any of the work I accomplished, but early in the year it became clear I had taken on too much, and that I had been flirting with burnout for months if not years.

For me, 2017 was the year I burned out.

Burnout, like anything, comes in degrees. I’ve gotten slightly burned out before, and always managed to use coping mechanisms to power through it. But I’m not in the my 30s anymore, and honestly I’m well into the tail end of my 40s. Some of the things I used to do, like pull all-nighters to get work done more quickly to catch up. I’m not physically capable of anymore. Other things require specific support networks that I don’t have ready access to anymore. To be clear I have awesome support networks in Washington, but they are different from the ones I had in Oklahoma, and I need to learn how to use what I have the right way, rather than try to use it the way I used my old social circles.

This was the year I first felt total burnout.

I began taking steps to deal with the burnout in the first third of the year… and those steps have begun to be executed but still aren’t fully implemented. Hopefully, in the next 30 days or so, I’ll be where I wanted to be with those. I had hoped to get everything in place over my long winter break, of which this is the last day, but healing my psyche from the damage I did by 8 months of burnout took pretty much this whole time. I’m not fully recovered as it is, but I am mentally upgraded from a casualty to walking wounded. I forced myself to socialize, rather than forcing myself to work, and I let me brain go wherever it wanted when I sat down at my keyboard. (And, most, it went to the Really Wild West setting hack.) That was bad for my long-term plans, but good for my soul.

In August, Starfinder was released, and that put a whole new kind of pressure, almost entirely self-inflicted, on myself. I am proud of what we have done with this game, which required herculean efforts from everyone involved. There were many late nights from many people in multiple departments, there was weekend read-throughs and long playtest sessions and  heated debates about what the right choice was… but while it was all in the office, it was all handled on a professional level. Once the book, and the game, were out in the hands of fans, I had to decide to what degree I wanted to engage. As a social awkward depressive introvert with mobility issues, a big part of me wanted to step back from fans and public games and discussions. Those things take effort, and I was firmly burned out when they hit, though buoyed for a time by the rush of seeing the game sell out so quickly. But in the end, I decided to engage pretty heavily.

I’ve been a professional game designer for 20 years. And, as noted, I’m not producing the volume of material I did even a decade ago. I may not have another opportunity to be a big part of a major RPG release. And I was more involved with Starfinder than any core game that came before except the Star Wars Saga edition, and even with that I was much less involved with the line after the core rulebook than I am already being with Starfinder. The title Starfinder Lead Designer only means something if I choose for it to, and I don’t want to insulate myself from the people who have the most important option about the game—the players. So, even when it drains or frustrates me, I want to engage with those fans, online and in person. From reading forums to offering examples of my personal work on my blog to speaking at the PaizoCon Preview Dinner to running a game at the AFK Tavern for the public on Free RPG Day, I took the opportunities I had and tried to make more, to be part of the community building up around the game. Things like public speaking and running games for people I don’t know and trust are hard for me, but I also think I am good at them and that they are an important part of making a mark in my chosen field.

There is work to a successful RPG career beyond the work on making games, and for many years I didn’t understand that. I have advantages many other smarter, more talented, designers don’t and I want to use them. Much of that is for my own benefit, which I think is reasonable. But also, I want to have a voice in shaping this culture, as minor as my voice may be, and staying engaged is the only way to boost how far that voice is heard.

Beyond my own trials, which were almost entirely self-inflicted and involved helping to make an incredible popular and successful game launch, I also had a lot of friends and colleagues have just fucking shitty years. I normally watch my word choice when writing a piece such as this, that people may share more than my game rules for Halfling space-muffins, but there’s nothing weaker than “fucking shitty” that can convey how rough some of the people I love most had it this year. Those stories and how they handled them belong to my friends, but I had multiple trusted, well-known people talk to me about suicide, or leaving the industry forever, or withdrawing from society as a whole. Fear, anger, and despair were not limited to just a few people in my circles in 2017. I hate it when my friends are in pain, and I hate it more when there’s nothing I can do to reduce the pain.

I have tried to be supportive. I have also tried to take better care of myself, because while these folks will leap up and carry me if I stumble… they’re tired and limping themselves. I have to love them enough to not ask them to hold my hand over self-inflicted injuries. I certainly am not saying I won’t ask for help if I need it. I am saying I owe it to the people who will give of themselves to aid me when I am in trouble to not get into trouble I could avoid by being smart.

For much of 2017, my personal gaming level fell dramatically. Though computer games and console games can take up some of that slack, to me nothing it more fulfilling than RPGs with friends. Nor was I lacking offers and opportunities, I just couldn’t make time. I have improved that situation some over the past few weeks, and look to dip my toe in more improvement on this front in the months to come. But I used to play 2 to 3 games nearly every week without fail, and living a life where I barely have time for 2 in a month is an adjustment I have not managed yet.

Obviously much more happened in 2017. Politics cast a shadow over everything, and seem to have damaged my relationships with people I love, but this isn’t a post about politics (and I think my positions have been made clear enough elsewhere). I broke a sofa. I got sick less than recent previous years. I took dental maintenance seriously for the first time in 30 years. I stepped way back in my role at various game companies, in part to try to deal with stepping up at other companies. I learned some life lessons, and unlearned some backed-in BS I’ve carried for decades.

In the balance, my 2017 was more good than bad. But it was also more hard work and worry than either good or bad.

I hope the next year will be one in which I can apply the lessons I have learned, and perhaps leave society better than I found it.

Sponsor

John Reyst in specific, and d20pfsrd.com and the Open Gaming Store in general, have always been friends of me and my career. John is a high-level sponsor of my Patreon, and an active booster of my work. I encourage you to check out his online rules archives and connected store.

Patreon

Speaking of my Patreon…

I make these posts available to everyone, for free, but the time they take has to be balanced against other writing I could do. My patrons help me justify making longer, more involved posts. If you’ve read this far, please consider if you’re willing to pledge just a few dollars a month to