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Don’t Hire Me

While it is true I am looking for a good full-time work position, and failing that making sure I have enough freelance to pay the bills, if you have such work you should not hire me.

That’s right. I am literally telling you, don’t hire me. There are better choices for you. Better game designer options you should take. People who are from minority or marginalized groups, or who are actively oppressed, and who you should hire in place of me, largely regardless of what your project is.

I have danced around this post for months, but it’s time to just say it. I will happily take what work comes my way–this is my career, and I need it. But if you value my opinion on who you should hire, please strongly consider hiring women, BIPOC folk, and LGBTQ people as designers, developers, and consultants instead.

And I am going to explain why, point by point.

  1. I’ll be Fine.
    In my original rough draft of this essay, this was my last point, a cap on the list to reassure anyone who was sincerely worried I was harming my career by recommending other people. But, I realized, that misses a big chunk of the point. This is, in many ways, the crux of why you should hire other people.
    The whole reason I’ll be fine is that the playing field isn’t tilted against me. As a white, cis, hetero, male, bearded grognard, I am assumed to be competent in my field without having to prove it. When I was an Industry Insider Guest of Honor at Gen Con in the mid 00s, there were tons of people who had never heard of me. I know, because I’d talk to them after my panels, and they’d cheerfully tell me they’d never heard of me.
    What there *wasn’t* was a backlash by people claiming that I didn’t belong. Not at Gen Con, and not at any other convention I have attended as a guest, going back to the 1990s. I mention that, because I have seen such backlashes against numerous women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ quests at Gen Con and other venues. People ask from the audience why they should listen to those guests, or actively rant on messageboards about “lowering standards” to score political points with “Social Justice Warriors” or engage in “Virtue Signaling.”
    Convention guest spots are a great boost to a creators career. No one guest spot may make a big difference, but going to multiple conventions over years makes you more visible. Lets to travel and talk to fans, and creators, and even potential employers, in other regions at the convention’s dime (at least when the con is doing it right).
    The same is true of invitations to be on podcasts or write introductions for books, or participate in special streaming programs. Each of these gives a small but real boost to your career, and I have had tons of such opportunities.
    Does that mean I didn’t deserve the opportunities I was given? Not necessarily. But I have seen marginalized creators I work with closely have to work harder to get the same recognition than I do. Harder than I ever had to. I have seen the chilling effect a lack of boosting and recognition has on their careers.
    So yeah, chances are that while I can defend every guest spot, job, opportunity, consultation fee, and ongoing series I have ever been given, at least some of those were things that would have been offered to someone else — someone with more artificial social roadbocks — if the world, or the industry, were a level playing field.
    So I can actually write a post literally entitled “Don’t Hire Me,” and it’s not going to end my opportunities.
  2. It’s Time to be Anti-Bigoted
    I know a lot of people in the industry who are very comfortable saying they are not racist, are not misogynist, and are not bigoted against LGBTQ+ professionals. The problem with that stance is, even if true, it’s not enough. The industry is skewed by its composition to channel people who benefit from its design into its key roles. Even if no one has ill intent or biases of any kind, the system itself is biased now.
    You can’t just be not bigoted. You have to be anti-bigoted.
    Not being racist is not the same as being anti-racist.
    Not being misogynistic is not the same as being anti-misogynistic.
    Not being biased against LGBTQ+ folks is not the same as being intentionally and mindfully opposed to such bigotry, and actively working against it.
    There are lots of reasons someone might talk themselves into hiring me for a game-related professional position. But many of those reasons are taking the path of least resistance, which is also taking the path of least active fight for change and improvement.
    Put in the extra effort. Making hiring decisions that change the very nature of the industry, so that the industry can improve. If we keep doing what we have done, we’ll keep getting what we have gotten… and in too many cases, that’s just not good enough.
  3. On Average, Marginalized Creators You’ve Heard of Will Be Better than Me
    This is not just the conclusion game theory teaches me (though it IS also that — logically given the bias and harassment and lack of opportunity i have actively seen marginalized creators face, any of them that overcome those hurdles have already proven that can produce at a higher level than I, who did not have to overcome the same difficulties), but it’s also something I have personal experience with. Many of the smartest, most talented, most multitalented professionals I have learned from are gay, trans, POC, and nonbinary.
    And in MANY cases, a good part of what makes them so much better than me is an awareness grown from their different life experiences.
    It’s extremely common for both companies and fans to note they’d like to see more stuff that aren’t just rehashes of Tolkien, Lucas, Howard, Azimov, Disney, King, and so on. The further you get from the life experiences of those men, and the people they inspired for generations, the easier it is to have new, creative, cohesive, original content that draws from different wells for inspiration.
  4. Diversity is Gold
    Look, if you don’t HAVE a white, cis, hetero, male professional on your game team, it might make sense to add one, and I could be a great choice. But my guess is, you already do.
    In fact, my guess is this one demographic is already the best-represented group on your team, outnumbering any other group (and maybe outnumbering everyone else put together). So why add one more?
    There is SO much more that a hire can bring tot he table than the ability to produce words that fall in line with the most common existing material. Diversity in games brings innovation, the potential to access new customer markets, and a fresh outlook that increases the chances of making the Next New Thing no one saw coming.
    I believe the cold, hard, cash-driven business case for having as diverse a set of voices as possible in your creative team is extremely strong. This isn’t an argument about social justice. It’s one about maximizing the chances you’ll do something innovative and profitable.

Now I will be the first to admit I am far from a scholarly expert on questions of women’s experiences, or BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creators. I am very much trying to listen more than I talk, and I learn something amazing and new every week by doing so.

But this is not a modest proposal. I’m serious.

You are better off hiring someone with a different background than mine.

You may want to check out:

GaymerX

https://ineeddiversegames.org/

 

 

The Game Industry’s Insanity

There’s a famous quote about insanity — “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So, in that regard, I am afraid the tabletop game industry is insane. There are lots and lots of things the industry keeps doing, over and over, and being surprised when it gets the same results.

Owen Bust

And, I don’t know that there’s much chance of that ever changing. Because the tabletop industry just isn’t big enough to bring in the kind of analysis and training it takes to properly analyze, iterate, redesign, and take risks about how the whole system is put together.

Here’s just one example — a single data point in a sea of oft-unexamined assumptions.

When my wife was earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, she took a class titled “The Business of Art.” In included how to promote yourself, write a resume, respond in an interview, create a portfolio, and so on. While there are more and more college-level classes about game design, they A: tend to focus on digital games (which represent a LOT more money as a market), and B: don’t have tabletop equivalents of “The Business of Games.”

So each new wave of people wanting to do professional ttRPG work have to cobble together best practices and a career path for themselves. Quite reasonably, they look to what was done by people who have the work they want to do and try to replicate, emulate, or adapt those steps. (Adapting is an important part — I came up through a series of magazine articles, from different tabletop-RPG-focused magazines, owned by different game companies. That’s not really an option anymore.)

So the same advice keeps going out, through the same venues… and keeps drawing in the same kinds of creators. Those of us who have ttRPG careers are asked how to get started–on social media, and at conventions, and in fan interviews– and we advise getting on social media, going to conventions, working with small presses and maybe fan projects.

So, the process that we found, and that appeals to us and is friendly to us, is the one we recommend to people (because, to be fair, it works), using the very venues we recommend newcomers depend on to move ahead, is held out as the best path for new talent.

On a larger scale, it’s similar with game companies. Open calls and contests (advertised in the same forums the people running the companies already use), and panels at conventions the company already have a presence at, and waiting for freelancers to drop pitches or ask how to get started at company forums or using company emails.

And, again, that’s reasonable.

But it does mean as long as the majority of elements in the game industry do what we have done, we’re going to get what we have gotten.

So, why is that a problem?

Because diversity is gold.

Because if we want to industry to grow beyond its roots, somehow there has to be an influx of new ideas, new creators, and thus new markets.

Of course some amazing and talented people DO manage to make their way into the industry. Some find the road that we take and use it despite it being harder for them. others forge whole new paths without any help from the existing system. Not only am I not claiming these folks don’t exist, I am specifically saying a bunch of them are BETTER than many of us who took the well-trod path.

But in terms of sheer numbers, creators from marginalized groups remain very much the minority. Which means their input remains a small fraction of the total amount of ttRPG content, and that most game companies don’t have a balance of different experiences and backgrounds among their creators.

A lot of ttRPG game companies are currently looking at the question of whether their products have been, or currently are, vehicles for racism, bigotry, and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. There are tools that can (and should) be brought in to try to do better, including more outreach to different creators, research of the cultural impact of aspects that inspire new games, and bringing in sensitivity readers.

But as for the origins of the material, the people deciding what book gets publisher, which creators get bigger budgets, who is seem as “qualified” to work on big IPs — if the industry as a whole keeps doing what it ha been doing, it’ll keep getting what it has gotten.

This past weekend was Digital Gen Con, and my friend and colleague Stan! had the idea of us trying to recreate some of the “Bar Con” hanging out that many pros love to do after  hours at a convention. So we did… and we saw a lot of people we would have seen in person.

But we also had some folks participate that couldn’t have made it to a physical Gen Con, and many who would find gen Con a terrible experience for any of a number of reasons. I was something different.

It’s far from a solution to the insanity. But it did make me think maybe there are more chances at improvement than I have normally thought.

That’s just one small part of the imperfect nature of the #RealGameIndustry I have seen over the years. But I hope shining a spotlight on it might convince one or two other people in the industry to look at new ways to getting information out. New ways ti tutor and mentor people. New ways to find creators.

New ways to change from insanity.

Patreon
Speaking of trying new things, for a number of years I have dedicated more and more of my writing time and effort on publicly-available posts on this blog. I can only do that as long as my patrons can support the time it takes. So if you find any of the essays, reveals, ideas, or game material on this blog interesting or useful, please consider chipping in to my Patreon for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month.

Q&A with Owen for Digital Gen Con

Heya Folks!

I have an ear infection, which took me out Thursday and most of Friday. But I also did some AMA things to try to replicate the hanging out experiences of Gen Con for its digital equivalent. A lot of the good questions and answers are buried deep in threads, so I wanted to pull them together for you with simplified versions of the questions as a double-helping of blog post content!

So, just pretend this was all said while hanging out at a bar after-hours of a convention. 🙂

Image may contain: Owen KC Stephens

Q: What general advice would you give someone just starting to get into ttRPG game design?
A: Keep creating.
Seek work-life-balance.
Try new things. Write a new poker game. Do a chess variant. Look for the neat parts of games you dislike.
Listen to and read advice from everyone. Especially people with different backgrounds and life experiences.
Diversity is gold.

 

Q: Other than writing and creative writing, what skills should I develop to be a better tabletop Roleplaying Game designer?

A: I recommend looking at some game-specific skills. For example, what makes something fun? (And, I absolutely suggest A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster). Look at probability and averages and bell curves, with regards to dice. Especially if you use dice-based games.
Then, write some things for yourself. Doing it on a blog or appropriate form can help get some feedback, but the important thing is to write ALL of a few different kinds of game content.
For example, write an entire adventure.
That adventure can be just three encounters, but include the introduction, the instruction to the GM, descriptions of areas and NPC motivations, any monsters, treasure, wrap-up, and so on. For example for Pathfinder 2e: I’d say write a short adventure. Write a spell at each level, and make sure they are divided among the traditions. Write some feats. Write an archetype. Write items at different item levels. The best way to start is to *start*. You’ll learn from there.
If you want to write for a game that has multiple publishers supporting it, reach out to all of them. Find emails. Know what lines of products they publish. Make some pitches. I have some blog articles where I talk about pitches.
https://owenkcstephens.com/2018/12/10/writing-basics-rpg-pitches-part-one/
https://owenkcstephens.com/2019/01/23/writing-basics-rpg-pitches-part-two/
Also, follow and read every professional game designer, editor, and publisher you can on social media. Interact with them, politely and positively. Learn from them, both in the knowledge they offer, and how they comport themselves (you can learn from bad examples too).
Don’t just follow and interact with designers that fit one mold either. Learn from everyone. All games systems, all backgrounds, all life experiences. Diversity is golden. I

 

Q: I am often convinced my ttRPG project has no value. How do I push through and finish it?

A: Sometimes, you just have to push through. I often promise myself I’ll send a thing out to be reviewed and, if the reviewers hate it, never publish it. Self-inflicted negativity is super common among gaming pros. I talk about it at bit in this blog article.
https://owenkcstephens.com/2018/08/13/imposter-syndrome-in-the-game-industry/

 

Q: How do your organize your projects?
A:  I generally start by working on an outline. Be it a huge book. tiny article, or even a whole game line, an outline of high points and sections is the best way for me to organize my thoughts and keep track of where I am.
I personally just organize my outlines in word, using various headers.
I talk a little about outlines in this blog article, which also links to my related article on headers/
https://owenkcstephens.com/2019/10/28/writing-basics-the-freelance-work-process/

 

Q: What are the most important elements of game lore and worldbuilding?
A: Creativity
Clarity
Relatability, balanced with originality.
Utility. If a GM or player can’t use it somehow — to describe a region or culture, to inspire adventures, to explain important bakground — then why are you including it?
And a few interesting touchstones of details that are just enough to catch GM and player’s interests.

 

Q: Is the twenty-sided die the best randomizer for ttRPG rules?
A: There is no ideal. Each randomizer had pros and cons. d20 is simple, easily understood, and has a nice range of results. But 2 is as likely as 20. For some things, bell curves are good. For some, die pools. For some, drawing cards. It depends on what the needs of your game are.

 

Q: How do I acknowledge the impact previous games have had on my game design?
A: Ignoring the question of specific licenses (such as the OGL) which can complete things– I like forewords, myself. “Many amazing games and designers helped guide me as I worked on Halfling & Haberdasheries. I was particularly inspired by the Kobold Caps “hat trick” mechanics.”

 

Q: How much should I budget for art in an RPG? How much do artists charge?

A: Most concept artists have rate sheets, so you know in advance what you need to budget for them. Which runs from dozens to hundreds of dollars per piece. Also, talk to them about how they handle sketches and revisions.
Here’s sample rates, for finished art from Jacob Blackmon.

Image

 

Q: I want to learn to play new RPGs. Other than dropping in on new groups at conventions, what else can I do?

A: When life gets back to normal, you can see if your Local Friendly Gaming Store has new game nights, or a board with people offering to teach games. 🙂

 

Q: I have a project I want to send to playtesters since I can’t safely playtest in person but… what if the people I send it to steal it?

A: Get signed Non-Disclosure agreements from everyone before sending them the files. And send them to folks you trust. That’s what big companies do. And if you can, get at least one session done digitally so you can watch, it can be super-insightful!

 

Q: What are good and bad ways for fans to approach you at a convention or event>

A: My favorite way is politely and directly. “Hi, I’m a Big Fan. Would you sign my book for me?”
If I seem to be at liberty, invite me to a meal (Monica is not wrong — I got some quality time with Aaron Allston by offering to buy him lunch), or a drink.
If I am in a group, just stand in it, and if the conversation goes that way, offer to say hi.
My least favorite is barging and demanding. I have had people interrupt whoever I am talking to, or interrupt me, to introduce themselves and gush out a question in the middle of someone else’s answer.
Also, don’t ask me for a lot of time to do you a favor when we first meet. “Hi, will you go over this adventure I printed and have with me and tell me what I need to do to it so you’ll publish it?” is a bad introduction.
Nothing wrong with letting me know you’d like to know if I do such things, but work up to it in stages, and don’t expect it to happen right here and now.
Also if I am on a panel, or heading to another panel, or manning a booth and trying to sell things, don’t plant yourself in front of me and monopolize my tine.
Also, introduce yourself, even if we’ve spoken before. I can be bad at connecting name and face. Let me know the context of why you want to talk to me.”I love your work on Star Wars Saga Edition” tell me you know who I am. “You’re a designer, right? You hire people?” makes me wonder if you are just an opportunist.
Being an opportunist can be fine, to be clear, but even then I recommend using something I just said as a jumping -off point to talk to me, rather than try to jerk the conversation to your topic.
Don’t hug without asking if it’s okay (I am generally fine with it, but I am also a big believer in enthusiastic, ongoing consent).
Also, I personally recommend attaching your name badge with two lanyards, one in each corner, so it is less likely to flip around backwards.

Patreon
If you found this useful or entertaining, and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

 

If the RPG Industry is So Terrible, Why Do I Do This?

Dice(Image by Jessica Dale)

For about a month now, I’ve been talking about the realities of the U.S. tabletop RPG industry, as I see them. I’ve posted thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, including under the hashtags #RealGameIndustry and #NotesFromAnRPGDev. ENWorld also created threads to discuss many of these shortly after I started, and again a week or so later. (And, I just discovered, a third time on July 4th).

And a lot of those observations paint a pretty grim picture. Poor pay. No security. No prospects for retirement. Regular harassment from fans and pop culture commentators. A fairly wide spectrum of people who think what you do requires no special talents, and that’s why you can’t make a living at it, and if you wanted to be able to live in moderate safety you shouldn’t picked a “fun” job like making games. These, of course, are intermixed with people who feel the need to interject about how common these problems are in all industries–which certainly suggests picking a different career might not be as helpful as the first group wants to claim.

Of course, my experiences aren’t objective or somehow universal of course, but I have been involved in the industry for 23 years, as a freelance writer (full and part time), contract worker, staff designer, staff developer, freelance developer, producer, line editor, publisher, and consultant. But even then, it’s one narrow slice of the ttRPG industry. A number of other professionals have opined about what they agree with, and what they feel like need qualifiers, but there’s been little real disagreement that I have seen.

So, if it’s a terrible way to make a living—why do I? Why stick with an industry for decades if even the “success” of getting hired on-staff by the two biggest RPG companies in North America isn’t enough to leave me able to pay the bills without having to scramble every month?

I was writing the headline of this article, and my wife leaned over, and in all seriousness asked me “So, why DO you do it?”

I confess that in the past 6 months, I have begun to think maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s time to hang up the dice, at least professionally, and switch to a “normal” job. I still may. But not this week, which brings us back to “why?”

There are two big reasons.

1. I Want To Help

And I think I can, but only from the inside.

So, what do I mean by help?

I mean help gaming, as a hobby, and game professionals, as a group. I want to work to make the ttRPG industry create the most good situations for the most people. That means working to improve conditions and stability, trying new things and seeing if any of them work better, answering questions, tutoring people, putting folks in touch with other folks for mutual benefit, and publicly fighting for diversity, inclusion, and ethical game designs.

And while it may be hubris to think I can make a difference, I’d rather struggle so survive if it means there is a chance I can make other people’s struggles easier. I’ll never be the person who determines if I have succeeded at this, of course. And I may never know if I really improve things. But I do get feedback that convinces me the effort is worth making.

It looks to me like there will be people trying to be full-time RPG professionals for the foreseeable future. I want to help them, and at the same time help the industry, hobby, and fans of gaming be the best they can.

2. I Think RPGs Are Important

I think ALL games are important, but especially ttRPGs. Roleplaying Games brought me most of the good things in my life.

High school was harsh for me, and I can honestly say I was miserable most of the time and considered suicide more than once. But RPGs let me explore ideas I was too afraid to discuss, helped me form a strong social support group, and let me make friends I am still playing with 25 and 30 years later. Nothing else came close to letting me deal with my pain, and learn something about bravery. 

I learned empathy through RPGs, and regret, and problem solving. It encouraged me to learn about history, grammar, math, probability, tactics, risk-taking and analysis, even a theory of fun. I doubt there is any positive aspect of my personality I can’t trace back to RPGs. And a lot of things I know were terrible parts of who I was growing up I overcame through interactions with RPGs, and the people I met through them.

My tightest bonds outside my immediately family came from ttRPGs. I met my wife through roleplaying. My best friends, from people I have known for more than 35 years to people I just got to know in the past year, through roleplaying. I have gotten to learn from geniuses, and help put folks much more creative than me on easier paths, through roleplaying games.

Further, I believe the influence of ttRPGs has much bigger ripples than people realize. And I want to have a small hand in what those ripples look like, and what messages they send out.

So yes, even when some person or persons leaves comments on videos claiming I am so fat and disgusting no-one should ever look at me or trust me, even in weeks when I have to spend 60-70 hours scrambling to pay the bills and arrange for opportunities to do the same thing next month, even when groups of people claim my ethics and morals are just schemes to draw attention, even when people smarter and more creative than me throw in the towel and leave the industry — or maybe especially those times — I feel the drive to keep doing this.

I know I cannot make a huge difference, but I feel this is the tool I can best use to do the most good, for the most people.

If you feel like supporting me in those efforts, you can make a huge difference by supporting my Patreon.

 

The Game Industry “In These Uncertain Times”

RPG illo
(Photo by Tab10)

I’m interrupting this week’s at-your-table game content to discuss the state of the industry. We’ll get back to fund stuff, but this is important.

I’ll start with some recent history.

The 2016 U.S. east coast blizzard made a noticeable negative impact on print RPG sales. Stores were shut down, people did not go out. It hurt. Companies suddenly were not selling like they had been, but expenses didn’t go down at all. While it didn’t drive anyone major into bankruptcy, it did have serious impacts. Budgets were slashed. Plans for new hires were axed. Raises were cancelled. Projects were scaled back. Not necessarily at every game company–some had very deep pockets from parent companies or investors and could just take the hit — but more companies than not had to change plans to survive.

Sales of PDFs did not see a significant uptick. Sales did not spike to higher-than normal levels after the snow melted and life got back to normal. Inventory for products created just before the blizzard did sit around longer. Some never sold. The expected money that would have been made that season was just gone.

Obviously the past few months have been worse. Worse for publishers, worse for companies, distributors, and individual creators.

But if the current upward pandemic infection trends continue and/or a second wave is bad? It doesn’t have to be the whole country to kill already struggling companies. The 2016 blizzard was a bit less than 1/3 of the US population, and everyone knew it couldn’t last. But it’s economic impact on gaming was widespread and serious.

There’s a reason so many ads currently begin with “In these uncertain times.” No one knows when a vaccine is coming. No one knows how bad the current rising numbers are going to get, or if they will spike again in the fall. In the US, there does not seem to be any national plan to handle this pandemic. Some places are depending on voluntary steps. Others are mandating masks.

Unlike 2016, there’s could reason to fear the impacts could keep going, or get worse, for a year. I hope a vaccine comes out before that, but I can’t depend on it. Not as a writer, and not as a citizen trying to pay the bills.

So even as governments open for business, sales are still down. They are improved over total lockdown, obviously, but companies aren’t getting the lost money from the lockdown back. Ever. The blows taken in the next few months don’t have to be as bad as the lockdown in order to kill stores and companies, and drive creators out of the industry forever, because everyone already took several serious financial hits.

If you want professional ttRPG material in the future, there are things you can do, now and in coming months,

Support your local stores if you safely can. Some stores are doing curbside pickup, some are doing delivery.Some are allowing a small number of people wearing masks in at a time. I don’t want anyone to risk their health for games, but if your safety measures allow for contactless delivery, and you have the money, those stores are still hugely important. They sell more, total, than online places (yes, including Amazon). And they bring more new people into the industry.

Support game companies. Buying from a local store absolutely counts, but if that’snot an option for you for whatever reason, look to see if the publisher has their own online store. Look to sign up for mailing lists and get special offers. If you have to buy through online stories, try to find a game-specific store you like and buy through them. The huge distributors don;t care about RPGs, and they’ll survive or not with no regard to how many dice and game books they move.

Finally, support game creators directly if you can. Even those who have full-time on-staff positions with game companies often make ends meet by taking on additional freelance… and that freelance is greatly reduced right now because game companies are tightening their belts. If you have a creator you particularly like or enjoy the work of, find if they have a Patreon, of Ko-fi, or other means of receiving money.

Because if the stores go, the game companies will suffer. if the game companies go, the creators will suffer. And if the creators go?

Then there’s much less chance the game content YOU want will even be created.

And, yes, I have a Patreon. I am a full-time freelance and contract writer now. I pay for my own insurance, pay my own social security and self-employment taxes, have to make quarterly payments on income tax, and then try to pay all my bills with what’s left of the money made on words.

So if you found this article at all informative, or enjoy any of my content, or just want to toss a coin to your writer, please consider doing so at my Patreon. https://www.patreon.com/OwenKCStephens

GM Advice: Using Problems to Create Encounters

(This article was originally written in two parts, for Tuesday and Wednesday publication. It can been combined into a two-fer article for today.)

So, a member of the party died, and the characters aren’t in a position to raise them. Or they foolishly ignored all the warnings about the cursed artifact, and now have a lich hand slowly taking over their soul. Or they played tag with a vampire, and lost so many levels they can’t recover that the rest of the adventure you have planned is way over their head. As a GM, it looks like you have a problem.

But what you have is also an opportunity for a solution — new encounters!

Rather than handwave the negative consequences (which can remove the sense of risk and stakes many players need to enjoy rpg games), or enforce them mercilessly regardless of the reduction in fun, you can offer the players a change to earn the solution to their problems, with more encounters.

Often, this takes the form of an imperfect patron.

The Perfect Imperfect Patron

A patron is a great way to add new options to a campaign. Players know there are other powerful movers and shakers in a campaign setting, so someone with access to things they lack, and thus the solutions to their problems, are a reasonable part of the setting. And, obviously, if you want to be able to use a Patron to introduce ways for PCs to undergo encounters to buy the answers they need, you want your patron to be a fairly powerful entity. This is where your archwizards, angels of allied deities, cosmic heralds of fundamental forces of the universe, and tech billionaires can be handy.

But.

At the same time, you need the patron to be someone that both can’t just solve all their problems with the snap of a finger, and someone that can’t be relied upon to solve all the problems of the campaign (leaving the PCs with nothing to do). You need an imperfect patron.

You don’t want the PCs to be personal friends with Elmage the ArchEverything, because Elmage can likely just fix things without blinking. But if Elmage exists, and is nearly always in astral meditation protecting reality from cosmic horrors, it can be super-useful to know Elmage’s secretary. The secretary can’t just fix things, but DOES have access to the ArchEverything’s contacts and correspondence. Elmage himself can’t be awoken for something like this, but he has a lesser colleague who asked if Elmage knew any hearty heroes willing to undertake a weird journey, and that colleague An fix their problem… if they get their own help first.

Rather than an Angel, perhaps the PCs know an oracle, or medium, who can commune with powerful spirits but can’t guarantee the results. The tech billionaire is under investigation and can’t access most of her holdings, but she does have a friend in the right field she can put them in touch with. The Cosmic Herald has vast and ill-defined powers… but has also only had this job for 3 months and lost the manual. He’s sure he CAN just snap his fingers and fix the issue… but doesn’t know how. What he CAN do, though…

These kinds of imperfect patrons work best if you introduce them before you need them. Absent-minded demigods, long-retired and dottering high priests who just want to raise orchids. Lone bronze juggernauts of the God of Deals, who is left standing in the middle of a ruin where there was once a city, bound to wait there for ever for someone to need a deal badly enough to come talk to them. Folks who, when you first introduce them, clearly are not the end-all be all of the getting-things-done department, but have let slip to PCs that if things are ever REALLY bad, they might have… options.

So, what does an encounter to solve a problem look like? Some are obvious. The Cave of Wonders has this lamp, but is warded against Jafar, but if you go grab it, you can also have the Rod of Restoration you need.

Of course if a player is dead or unplayable, you may need to get more creative.

Planar Works Program

The Patron is more than happy to help the PCs with their problem… but in order to have the resources needed to do so, the PCs need to help out the Patron first.

Whatever Patron is working with the PCs has allies who often summon creatures for help. But there are cosmic threats afoot (as GM you can allude to whatever you have planned as a big plot point in 5 levels if you want, or you can hand-wave this by saying it’s all happening in adjacent realities, its just causing a shortage of resources) which leave the Patron short of souls/spirits/celestial badgers to send in answer to those summons.

So the Patron needs the PCs to fill in.

You can have the PCs (living and dead) be sent in lieu of whatever angels, demons, fey things or elementals would normally respond to a summons, or you can give the PCs NPC stat blocks for a few encounters. Regardless, you have them take the role of creatures summoned by heroes in other planes, planets, countries, or whatever. Once they cover 2-3 such events, they have bought their patron enough slack that the Probelem can be solved.

As GM you can have a lot of fun with this. First, since the PCs are being summoned, you can give them hints of plot elements normally off-screen. Planning for the Queen of Graves to be awakening in the Barrowmire, beyond the Shallow Sea? Well that may be 5,000 miles from the PCs bodies, but if a flumph cleric in the Barrowmire summons them to help fight the undead Regicidals who serve the Queen, the PCs can see part of the scene of things going badly, but without the time to do a whole lot about it.

You can also give PCs much different goals and challenges that usual. For example, a TPK isn’t a big deal if the PCs are summoned spirits who will return to their Patron rather than truly die. They may not speak the languages of their summoner, and have to quess what task they must perform. They might only be present for the duration of a single summoning spell–of if they can give the creature that summoned them enough aid, perhaps they can be re-summoned (with full health and daily abilities) multiple times during one fight. If any PC is looking for someone (a long-lost sister, the man who burned their town down), they could spot that individual at the summoned spot, but not know its exact location in the world.

Speaking of Patrons

This content is possible because of the awesome patrons backing me through My Patreon, which is an important part of my writing and game-creating income!

On Creatives During A Pandemic

Hey, creative person.

Yes, you.

I get it. You have deadlines, and responsibilities, and bills, and people counting on you. People tell you to be kind to yourself, to take a break, to ease up… and you can’t.

I understand. I promise.

Only you can know what can be back-burnered, and what can’t. I won’t pretend to be able to give you advice on that front.

I also want to assure you, the trouble you are having now focusing on things? The lack of spoons, or inspiration, or concentration?

That’s the new normal. I can’t say we are ALL dealing with it. Maybe there are some folks who aren’t having trouble right now. But I haven’t talked to any creative that isn’t.

There’s an additional cognitive load on all of us. Worry, planning, concern, frustration, fear… those things take a toll. that toll comes directly from your brain.

The brain you use to be creative.

So, while I can’t tell you to take a break, or take it easy (because I don’t know if you are in a place where you CAN do that), I do want to encourage you to remember things are not normal.

Whatever you would do if you had something dragging down — illness, technical problems, jury duty, whatever?

Global pandemic qualifies for the same measures.

And everyone gets that.

In Time of Pandemic, 1

Plague Doctor

Let me clearly open with this:

I am not in danger. I am not a threat to myself or others. I have a strong support network, which includes a lot of really good shoulders to cry on, ears to listen to me, and kind voices to give aid when asked.

I often write about the things I am going through in a way other professionals mostly don’t. Sometimes, the fact I do so worries friend and colleagues alike. That’s never my aim, and I sincerely apologize to anyone I have made uncomfortable. Online explanations of my mental state are part of my therapy process. Writing things gives me power over them, and helps me organize and contextualize my feelings.

And, I want other folks who are struggling to know they are not alone.

I also want now, in the front, to note I have a Patreon. If you find this writing useful, or just want to toss me some support, it’s a great way to help out.

So,

I am an aging, obese, depressive, introverted, socially-awkward independent creative with impostor syndrome, civilian PTSD, and a genuine fear of deadlines, disappointing people, and criticism.

If you are thinking to yourself “Wow, given all that it sounds like the ONE job you should avoid is freelance game writer,” you have a point.

In times of pandemic, you reassess your life choices.

But I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years now, and as much as I want to shrug and give up sometimes, it really is a defining part of my own self-image. Intellectually, I am well aware I have achieved success many people consider noteworthy. I am also aware that as a hetero cis white male I have had a lot of unearned advantages along the way.

I recently wrote online “One of the major advantages to doing business over social media is that I can literally be sobbing as I type smiley faces and multiple cheerful exclamation points.”

And I meant that it is, at face value, a useful advantage. I mean, when I was the manager of a parking garage in the 1990s, if I was sobbing not only could I not just go on with my day without people constantly asking me if I was okay, it would be considered unprofessional. It would interfere with my job function, the perception of me, and my own serenity. But when dealing with things in an entirely text-based format, as long as I am together enough to make the post look professional and upbeat, it is treated as professional and upbeat.

But of course, I only know that because sometimes I DO write marketing text and otherwise interact with fans and freelancers online while crying. Normally it’s a pretty rare thing, only happening when something is timing-critical. Like if there’s a one-day sale of a big product, or if a Kickstarter is ending. In those cases, even if I am depressed, or bereaved, it needs to get done right NOW, tears be damned.

The current situation, of course, is anything but normal.

Right now I am crying more than usual. I am also more often slumping into a mind-numb torpor where nothing gets done, more often ranting and yelling at the corner of the room, self-medicating a LOT more often, and walking away from everything in total disgust more often.

In times of pandemic, there are more tears.

That’s not to suggest I have it especially hard right now, compared to other people. While money is tightening, I am not totally unable to earn funds like some folks. My job hasn’t depended on my going anywhere but my home office since last July, and even before that it was work a company could (and in the case of my last full-time employer has) have people do from home. Even within my industry, the fact I have focused on digital products for my own projects is proving to insulate me slightly from the resounding crash of the physical product supply chain.

There are people under stay-at-home orders right now who, as a result of various factors often entirely beyond their control, have no home to stay at. I am in no way suffering more than average.

I’m not going it alone, either, thank goodness. I have an amazing support network. My wife of nearly 30 years is a constant source of comfort and aid. I have great friends, many of whom are going the extra mile to interact with me in video chats, discord forums, IMs, and so on. I have people paying me for my work, both in individual and direct ways and through companies and big projects, who are being understanding and patient with me, but also not letting me totally off the hook that I fall so far behind I can never catch up (thank god). I can get advice, or perspective, or sympathy in pretty much endless and instant supply. (Thank god.)

But I also acknowledge there are stresses in my life. I and my wife both fall into high-risk categories for the current pandemic. We’ve been self-isolating, and going out to places that are now closed (and spending money we currently don’t have) were among my best stress-relievers. And while I am not a fan of huge crowds anyway, I did love sitting with a small circle of close friends, and self-isolation for a month or so now has that off the table. I have some medical issues that cause severe fatigue, and it’s hard to differentiate those from depression or being overwhelmed by constant bad news and worry for friends and family.

Nearly every creative I have discussed it with agrees that it is HARD to get anything done right now. The fact that getting things done, and fast, is of even more importance as companies must pivot to deal with the new makes the failure to produce emotionally more challenging, but it doesn’t make it easier. And I completely support shutting down game stores and prioritizing crucial shipments from big vendors, but those things also put my entire industry at real, long-term, catastrophic risk.

In times of pandemic, my chosen career is not essential.

So yes, I am worried, and weary, and worn. And ultimately I am safe, and privileged, and supported. And I really wrote all of this both to assure those who worry about me that I am no closer to any tipping point or brink than normal; and to let other people who feel like they aren’t coping well know they are not alone.

None of us know what the next few weeks, months, and even years will look like. That lack of certainty, and the need to change how we do everything–from ordering groceries to teaching children to talking with friends to playing and creating games–is exhausting. Every day is both the first day of school, and a stroll by the edge of a very sparse minefield. Stress is a constant companion, and uncertainty is a mist that conceals every road.

I am sure I’ll get through this. I’m sure we’ll collectively get through this. Maybe not unscathed or unchanged, but still whole at the far side.

And maybe, if we work at it, we can improve society with the things we learned in a time of pandemic.

What The Heck is “ShadowFinders?”

So, I happened to mention a “ShadowFinders” campaign on social media a few times in the past few weeks, leading a number of people to ask “What the heck is ShadowFinders, and when does it come out?”

Cyberpunk katana

And now I’ll have a place to point them to, at least for the moment. And the answers are… “A theoretical modern Pathfinder campaign I have been noodling and, as far as I know, never.”

I know, not very satisfying.

The thing it, I already have TWO campaign settings mulling about that I work on when I get what I laughingly refer to as “Space Time.” I’ve been working on-and-off on the Really Wild West (a campaign hack for Starfinder), and more recently Sorcerers & Speakeasies (a campaign setting for 5e). Those are both mix-modern-and-fantasy settings, with Really Wild West having a great deal more material done for it (having begun working on it more than 2 years ago), and Sorcerers & Speakeasies currently having an actual for-sale product currently being designed by a freelancer.

So, clearly, I already have my hands full with modern fantasy pastiche ideas for two game systems that I don;t have time to move forward at full speed as it is. So why would I add another?

To some extend, I can’t help it.

I didn’t become an RPG game designer because that was my life goal. I slid into it sideways, by loving games (especially RPGs), and making up stuff for my own home games (mostly RPGs), and wanting to turn my hobby into a revenue-neutral pastime that paid for itself. (You can read more detailed accounts of my nearly-accidental entry into my 20+ year RPG design career at “From the Freelancing Frontline,” in a series of articles at EN World.)

And, it’s still one of my primary hobbies. Which means, I am still having ideas about things I’d like to run as games, or add to games, or even play in games. Now, a lot of that content ends up in products I write or develop–I find it easiest to work on a game system if I am playing that system. (I know some rpg designers prefer not to be frequently playing the game they are working on, and given how great many of those designers are I have to say that works for them. I don’t think it would work well for me.)

But a lot of it DOESN’T end up in my professional writing. Now, some of that is for legal reasons (yes I have thoughts on Jedi in Starfinder, but unless I create a totally different Owen-as-fan-only space, I’m never going to share them). Some of it is because it’s material I’d only want to use in a context where I knew the people involved and could tailor it to match their preferences and playstyles. But some of it is just because there hasn’t been a good match yet, and/or because I haven’t had the time.

And that last category is the weird limbo where ShadowFinders exists.

Cyberpunk Gun

I have several solid ideas for ShadowFinders, as a modern supplement for Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Essentially a smaller stand-alone hardback book that is a complete RPG and 100% compatible with the Core Rulebook, but focuses on a modern, urban fantasy game. I have ideas on how I’d save space (many fewer ancestries and classes, likely only occult and primal magic), how to link it to existing cosmology (some primal magic comes from Egypt, which once had strange portals to another Egypt-like land in another world, but most magic is occult material that entered the world in through strange events involving Rasputin), and how it would work with the existing rules (as a modern supplement, with material you could use in a 100% fantasy setting, or could add to a fantasy setting that happened to already have alien spaceships and guns in it in limited locations).

But that approach works best if it’s a book Paizo publishes… and that is both unlikely (I have some idea how hard it is for Paizo to manage to both maintain its currently offers AND produce a new core rulebook with a new setting), and if it did happen would  most likely not involve me in any major capacity. I have thoughts on that too, of course (involving Paizo deciding to outsource creation of a SahdowFinders rpg to keep costs and down and experiment with freelance production and development), but that’s not particularly likely either. (Never say never, but be realistic with your planning.)

So, that leaves me with a name and idea I like but that would work best in production circumstances that aren’t going to happen soon if ever, no spare time, two more similar projects already further along… and tons of ideas for a thing I can’t take time to move forward on right now.

So is ShadowFinders dead? No, definitely not. But it is in a holding pattern, neither being given up on nor getting any resources to speak of at the moment. One of the few things I know is that I never know what I’ll be working on in 3 years, and often have no idea what I’ll be working on in 1 year.

It PROBABLY won’t be any version of ShadowFinders…

Cyberpunk Butterfly

Unless, of course, it gets a huge positive response from a Patreon crowd that grows large enough to support even more of my time going to working on such things. 🙂

One Feat: Four Systems (Allied Spellcaster)

So, obviously, I’ve been working in a lot of different game systems recently. With the 52-in-52 program, I’m developing the same game content for Pathfinder 1st ed, Pathfinder 2nd ed, Starfinder, and 5e.

It’s been a fascinating view of how the different game systems look at game elements that have the same name, but different functions.

For example, feats.

In Pathfinder 1e and Starfinder, feats are cross-character goodies that are generally designed to be optional, and sometimes tie into class design (such as for the fighter and soldier), but not always.

For Pathfinder 2e, feats are the quintessential character ability, and different kinds of feats are crucial to your ancestry, class, and any archetype you take.

For 5e, feats are entirely optional, and if taken come in place of ability score advancements. Each feat is more potent in many ways, but you can make a character with a single feat, or no feats, and no class depends on feats for any part of its core functions.

As an example, we’re going to take a PF1 teamwork feat, and present it (as a non-teamwork feat) in different versions, one for each of the four game systems.

Here’s the original, a PF1 Teamwork feat

Allied Spellcaster (Teamwork)
With the aid of an ally, you are skilled at piercing the protections of other creatures with your spells.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who also has this feat, you receive a +2 competence bonus on level checks made to overcome spell resistance. If your ally has the same spell prepared (or known with a slot available if they are spontaneous spellcasters), this bonus increases to +4 and you receive a +1 bonus to the caster level for all level-dependent variables, such as duration, range, and effect.

Here’s a new PF1 version, that isn’t a teamwork feat

ALLIED SPELLCASTER
You can aid an allied spellcaster, adding your magic power to their own.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who can cast spells, as a standard action you can expend a spell slot or prepared spell of 1st level or higher to attempt to boost their spellcasting ability. This requires a Spellcraft check, DC 10 + double the level of the spell slot expended. On a successful check, you increase their caster level for the next spell they cast before the beginning of your next round by an amount equal to the level of the spell or spell slot expended.

You can also take eldritch power from a willing adjacent spellcaster to boost the power of your own spells. The allied spellcaster must ready to grant you a spell slot or prepared spell of 1st level of 1st level or higher on your turn. If they do so, you make the same Spellcraft check as a swift action and, if successful, for the next spell you cast this round your caster level is increased by an amount equal to the spell level your ally expended.

*So, that plays with both action economy and resource management, but it lets you play the spellcaster who can work in a group without anyone else having to also have the feat in question.

Here’s the same spell for Starfinder.

ALLIED SPELLCASTER
You can aid an allied spellcaster, adding your magic power to their own.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who can cast spells, as a standard action you can expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher to attempt to boost their spellcasting ability. This requires a Mysticism check, DC 10 + triple the level of the spell slot expended. On a successful check, you increase their caster level for the next spell they cast before the beginning of your next round by an amount equal to the level of the spell or spell slot expended. If the spell does damage and does not have a duration, area, or damage calculation based on level, you can instead grant +3 damage per level of spell you expended.

You can also take eldritch power from a willing adjacent spellcaster to boost the power of your own spells. The allied spellcaster takes a standard action to imbue you with energy by expending  a spell slot of 1st level or higher on your turn. If they do so, on your turn you can make the same Mysticism check as part of the action to cast your next spell and, if successful, gain the benefits listed above. If you do not cast a spell within 1 round of being imbued, the additional spell energy is lost.

*That’s very similar, though it makes an adjustment for the fact that Starfinder doesn’t generally have damage affected by caster level and readied actions work differently caused us to make some adjustments.

Here’s a version for 5e.

ALLIED SPELLCASTER
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st or higher
You are skilled at magic manipulatipons. Increase your Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma score by 1.
You can cast a spell to boost the effectiveness of an allied spellcaster within 60 feet, rather than its normal effect. If allied spellcaster casts a spell of their own that is no more than one spell level higher on their next turn, they have advantage on any attack roll the spell requires, or one target of their choice has disadvantage on any saving throw the spell requires.
An ally can cast a spell to boost your effectiveness rather than the spell’s normal effect, giving you the same benefit on your next turn.

*Things in 5e are simpler. Like, way simpler. Advantage or disadvantage is 75% of how the game handles things. And they are pretty big bonuses (work out to about a +4 bonus on a d20), so it’s okay that this only applies to spells of a level close to the level you expend.

That said, weaker feats in 5e also give you a +1 to one ability score (since you gave up a +2 to get the feat), which applies here given how circumstantial this is.

Here’s the same feat for PF2

ALLIED SPELLCASTER     FEAT 2
General Skill
Prerequisites: Expert in Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion
You can use the aid reaction to assist an adjacent ally when they cast a spell. This requires a successful Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion check (you must be expert in the selected skill) with a DC of 20 + double the level of spell the ally is casting. You must expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher, and you gain a bonus to your skill check equal to the level of the spell expended. You grant the ally a +2 circumstance bonus to their attack roll, or a +1 bonus to the save DC of their spell.
An adjacent allied spellcaster can attempt to use the aid reaction when you cast a spell. This works the same way, except you must make the Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion check.

*Pf2 uses a universal proficiency system for everything, so a +2 bonus matters as much at 15th level as it does at 5th level. There’s already an aid action which might be usable if a spell required an attack roll, but it’s not clear how it would apply and it certainly won’t boost save DCs. This cut through that, and is a skill feat spellcasters might really appreciate.

PATREON
Enjoy this look at one feat in four game systems? want to see more? You can back my Patreon to encourage me to do more of this kind of work, and you can subscribe to the 52-in-52 program to get entire game supplements, one a week for every week of 20020, that are done in four versions, one for each game system!