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Thankful, 2020

It’s been a dark year.

A dark 14 months, in fact, as my year-of-very-bad-things began in Sept 2019.But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be thankful of. And while its a tad cliché, I DO like taking these national moments to take stock of my own wealth of blessings and support and good fortune, and put off worry and gnashing of teeth over the very-real problems until tomorrow.

I have a roof over my head, I am secure in my next meal, I have a tight social bubble of friends I have known for 20-37 years. I have a loving wife, a dear housemate, a supportive family, and a panoply of friends who are no less great just because I only get to see them online at the moment. Many of my friends are so kind, generous, and supportive it staggers my well-exercised imagination.

I have a career that, though not free of hiccups, I am genuinely proud of, and that I believe makes a positive difference in the world. Many of my friends are part of that career, from bosses to work-for-hire producers, but even beyond those in my work life I deal with many of the smartest, kindest, most ethical people I have ever met.

And I have you, a community of geeks, gamers, thinkers, writers, players, weirdos and outcasts, who have embraced me in a way I would scarce credit had I not seen it, and felt it, over and over for years, and repeatedly and strongly during the rough past year.

And I am thankful.

It is less that I am thankful despite it being 2020, and more that I am extra thankful because it’s 2020.

Writing Through Grief

Whether you write as your whole career, just do some freelancing, or write only for your own satisfaction but are driven to do that, it’s going to come up. At some point, you are going to find yourself needing to write while experiencing grief.

I wish this essay told you how to do that. It doesn’t. It can’t. I don’t know how. Every time I find myself having to do it, it becomes a new problem, because every moment of grieving is different. The problems grief causes change. Sometimes I lack motivation. Sometimes I find myself getting angry. Sometimes I can’t see the screen through the nonstop tears.

Whenever I talk about writing while grieving, a slew of well-meaning people come out and tell me to just give it time. I know they think I am just being too hard on myself, but I come from more than 20 years of writing professionally. This is my job. I’m a full-time freelancer again. I don’t get sick days, or bereavement. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid.

And yes, most people in the industry will cut you slack when you are dealing with something hard, but there are limits. Printers wont change their print dates for you. Conventions won’t shift when they are happening so you can have a big release bump a month alter than planned. People who make money by selling the work you are writing can’t hold off on payroll until you can get yourself together. Some projects have lots of slack built in, others have used it all. It’s worth talking to the people you owe work to, but trust me friends and fans, sometimes I have to write.

Other commentators want me to build everything around their favorite grief roadmap, such as the 7 stages of grief. If someone is totally unaware of some of thinking on how grief works, mentioning the existence of various roadmaps can be useful. But, again, I’ve been here. I know the maps are out there, and I also know the map is not the map is not the territory. Some grief follows different paths. It may jumble the order, or hop back and forth, or find brand new trails of misery, especially through my already-compromised brain.

So, advice from the outside tens not to do me much good. Support can help, like a blanket against the cold–it doesn’t make the cold any less, but it helps you to weather the storm. Of course some support helps more than others, and beyond noting that support that does not give pointless advice or make demands on me in return for the support has a much better track record than those that do, I can’t really tell you which will help more for any given grief.

Because every grief is different, and I can’t analyze it until i am at least mostly past it.

But the grief itself is not really the problem when writing. It’s the symptoms it causes, and those I can try to work through. Sometimes I’ll be successful. Sometimes I won’t. But I’ll get more writing work done by trying than by giving up on it.

So, what have I found works best?

*Accept that it’s not going to be as fast as if you weren’t grieving. Yes, maybe you need it to be for career purposes, but reality often doesn’t play nice with career goals. Take steps accordingly. Reach out to people you owe work to see which projects can spare some slipped deadlines. Cut back on expenses. Consider scaling back optional projects. Whatever you can do to reduce the impact of your reduced capacity.

*Prioritize. Don’t spend a lot of mental time and energy on it if that’s hard for you, but take a moment to decide what is most important. There’s very little as annoying as realizing you’ve been grinding through something you could have skipped, and not touched the crucial thing that needs all your time and attention.

*Write down every step you take. I, at least, suffer serious memory issues when grieving. Having a single place where I keep track of any deadlines, extended deadlines, changed project scopes, and so on, lets me go back and see where I am on things.

*Consider timing things. Need a break? Decide how long you need, set a timer. Having trouble focusing on work? Decide to hammer on a project for 20 minutes, then walk away. Need to do some online research? Set a timer so it’ll pull you back if you go down a rabbit-hole. Much as I have trouble remembering and tracking things when i am grieving, I often lose track of time. A nudge that I’ve been checking Facebook for 10 minutes when I meant to look up a single thing keeps me from wasting what time I have.

*Forgive yourself. If you can. If not, see if you can get therapy to help you forgive yourself. Some things are going to go wrong. I can’t say anyone else will forgive you, and you may make life hard for others or end up damaging your career. But you know why, and there’s no point in adding guilt or anger with yourself to the heavy emptions you are already carrying.

*Make self-care checklists. I often wallow in my grief, and if I am not sleeping, eating, taking my prescriptions, or socializing at all, my writing is going to suffer. Yes, sometimes I need to put off socializing to make more time for writing, or pull an all-nighter because the drop-dead deadline is 8am, but for the long haul, you can’t be an effective writing machine without fuel, downtime, and maintenance.

I wish I had more advice. But the one thing I can add is that writing through grief is possible, but will always take more effort and produce less results. Try to be kind to yourself and others when you have no choice but to give it a try.

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I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. If you’d like to see more game industry or professional essays, (or Pathfinder 1st edition options, or more rules for other game systems, fiction, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

Removing action penalties for gear swaps in tabletop Roleplaying Games

An essay on a specific element or ttRPG game design.

When I first got into playing RPGs, a round of combat was generally viewed as being a minute. As a result, no one worried about how long it took to draw a sword, reload a gyrojet pistol, or get a potion out of your pack.

I’m not saying none of the games had different action economies. Just that no one I played with ever worried about those things. You could do one thing a round, maybe two, and it was assumed in-play that you could get the gear you needed for that.

That changed, over time. Some of that change grew from better-written rules in more games to handle the action economy for such issues. Some from games moving to shorter durations for player turns (though I don’t remember ever having to declare I was drawing a pistol in Car Wars games, where a phase was 1/10th of a second).

Now most popular RPG rulesets have explicit rules for determining how long it takes to draw a weapon, change a battery, sheath a wand, dig a potion out of your bag, and so on. It makes sense. It helps with verisimilitude.

I’m not convinced it adds much fun.

I’m leaning toward trying some games where it is just assumed you can have any one set of held equipment at the beginning of your turn. Things you have to strap into or carefully adjust still take time, but if you want to be using a greatsword one round, twin nickel-plated Colt .45s the next, and a zippo lighter and healing potion the third, fine.

Changing gear in the middle or a round still takes time. Otherwise we hand-wave it, and focus on the interesting things characters are doing with their equipment, rather than making them waste a turn getting what they need to have fun ready.

This could be adapted to nearly any game system, though games with Quick Draw options, or limited charges as a power balancing factor, or characters who focus on equipmentless options in order to have reduced effect for increased readiness might nee tweaking.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. If you’d like to see more Pathfinder 1st edition options (or more rules for other game systems, fiction, game industry essays, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

Why Is [Insert Game Product] Late?

A lot of projects from a lot of game companies are late. I don’t find this at all shocking, at least in part because I have projects of my own that are not just horrifically behind, but (at least to public eyes) look like they’ve had no progress for weeks or months.

But for those who want answers and don’t have access to the creators of whatever project they feel is unreasonably late, here’s a table of reasons whatever thing you wish you already had is late. Tongue in cheek… but also a lot of grains of truth.

(Pic by stokkete)

Roll 1d20

  1. Roll twice. The first roll is the main reason the game product is late. The second roll is something that happened while the first roll was being dealt with, making it later.
  2. Nothing went wrong with the project. However, because game industry professionals always have multiple projects in the pipeline, an even older, even later project had an issue that delayed it, and that must be addressed before the project you are concerned about gets finished.
  3. While the publisher wasn’t dealing with major issues, a printer, distributor, freelancer, or shipper was, and that delayed things. By an unknown amount of time. We don’t have an eta yet. We’ll update you as soon as we know anything.
  4. Dog ate it.
  5. While only three days of work time was lost when a historic icestorm took the power out and killed cell phone access, it turns out that throwing out spoiled food, getting new groceries, getting emergency prescriptions to replace ruined insulin, clearing debris, calling insurance companies, checking in on elderly family members, and dealing with a three day backlog of emails, direct messages, and voicemails can take much longer than the time the power was out. Some issues take hours to deal with weeks and months later.
  6. Mental health issues. In this case, normal mental health issues that could have delayed the project in any year.
  7. Mental health issues… brought on by 2020. That might be a response to the pandemic, political turmoil, issues that call for protest, attacks from someone else flipping out over something linked to this year, or any of a dozen other things hammering this year.
  8. Aliens took it. … They may have been dog aliens.
  9. One or more of the creators is so overwhelmed that while they can dedicate time to trying to get the project out, when they do no useable creative work happens.
  10. A delay from someone else, linked to 5, 6, or 7, is serious enough other creatives need to take time to make sure the most impacted person is safe and okay.
  11. It was always going to be late. Let’s get real. It’s just worse because, you know, 2020.
  12. Time lost to having to have meetings virtually (rather than in person), and make plans to try to deal with the ever-shifting landscape of the industry, and answer questions publicly why projects are late, and try to find alternatives to plans made earlier in the pandemic which are already not viable, not only eats into time to actually make products, they tend to interrupt numerous times per day so what time can be applied to making progress on the delayed project is broken up and inefficient compared to conditions back when the project schedule was written out.
  13. All the time that should have gone to working on the project was wasted screaming into a pillow. And collecting bigger, more sound-absorbent pillows from other locations in the home.
  14. It’s hard to get much done when you are woozy from selling plasma, which you can do twice a week if you want the big donation bonuses… I mean the money has to come from somewhere.
  15. The pandemic, and the shutdowns and economic challenges it brings, have caused cash flow to drop so seriously that the project doesn’t have the money budgeted for some part of it. That work now has to be done in-house or by the lead creator, who has to squeeze it in around all the rest of the demands on their time.
  16. [This space left intentionally blank. Otherwise filling it would have taken so long, this blog post would have been late. The irony is not lost on us.]
  17. As the game industry takes hit after massive hit, time was taken to see if any Federal aid was available to make up for lost income, or to pay freelancers, to to act as a bolster for the downturn. Whether aid was found or not, the labyrinthine process of finding what options exist, reading the rules to understand if they apply, getting documents together, applying for the program, answering questions that come up, and letting others know what did and did not work, took enough time that an entire hardback book could have been written with the same effort–if anyone had a reason to think it would sell well right now.
  18. Time-travelers came from the future to delay the publication, claiming that if it was released on time, somehow things would get unimaginably worse.
    They looked… haunted.
  19. With all the joy and inspiration sucked out of them by nonstop horrorshows in their life, the creators just gave up. They aren’t happy about it, and hope to get to it later. When the world seems less terrible. If they haven’t moved on with their lives and let the industry behind forever.
  20. The creative team loved the game, the project, the fanbase, and the industry, and is working on the “Better late than bad” principle. Stated simply, this principle says “If a project is late, it’s only late until it’s delivered. If it’s not given the time and resources it needs and is bad, it’s bad forever.”

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It supports the time I take to do all my blog posts. If you’d like to see more snarky game industry commentary disguised as comedy (or Pathfinder 1st edition options, more rules for other game systems, fiction, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

Why Fantasy RPGS Do Better: A Theory

When I was first getting involved in RPGs in the 1980s, and then in the industry as a professional in the 1990s, people often noted that when discussing success and popularity of Fantasy VS Scifi, movies and TV always skewed much more towards scifi, and RPGs towards fantasy.

Not that there weren’t scifi RPGs and Fantasy tv shows and movies, but they were less common, less popular, and less successful.

And people wondered why.

Now, Fantasy has largely broken the TV/Movie barrier since 2000, and I attribute that to better budgets, effects, and acceptance of fantasy stories as interesting and varied. (And I believe some of that influence came from games… but that’s another essay.)

That still leaves the question of why scifi (and modern, and old west, and so on) ttRPGs simply are not as successful or popular as Fantasy ttRPGs.

It cannot just be momentum or nostaliga. The first scifi ttRPGs came hot on the heels of D&D, and by the time most people were exposed to them there were peltny of both. And ttRPGs have seen several resurgences since their first hitting the public eye, and every time fantasy ttRPGs come out on top.

(There are some AWESOME, world-influencing, trend-setting, society impacting scifi and modern ttRPG IPs. They are just less common than fantasy, and tier-to-tier less successful.)

This of course rasies the question of why. WHY are fantasy ttRPGs better accepted by the general gamer community than other genres of ttRPG?

So, this is my theory:

Players are more forgiving of fantasy.

Yeah, that’s pretty simple, but I have seen it over and over in more than 2 decades of professional game creation, and nearly four decades of play. This increased forgiveness comes in two primary forms.

First, people are comfortable blending a wider range of fantasy concepts together than they are blending modern or scifi concepts.

For example: If I want to play a Knight of the Round Table, you want to play a character inspired by Conan the Barbarian, Jan wants to play a character inspired by Lord Darcey, and Robin wants to play a character inspired by Arjuna, most groups can accept those characters can interact and still feel close enough to their inspirations to be satisfying.

However, if I want to play a character inspired by Captain Kirk, you want to play a character inspired by RoboCop, Jan wants to play a character inspired by Luke Skywalker, and Robin wants to play a character inspired by Char Aznable, chances are we can’t all play in the same game without the differences in our characters making our characters not seem close enough to be satisfying, or having to ignore smart choices in order to stay true to our sub-genres.

Similarly, if a game has special powers fueled by magic, more players accept that magic is not real, and doesn’t need to make a lot of sense and thus just accept the game rules, compared to the number of players who will shrug and ignore rules oddities in science fiction they don’t like.

A simple version of this is that in a game where a target can expect to be hit and damaged with a greatsword 8-12 times and survive (clearly very uncommon in the real world), many players can just accept it. If pistol rules are then introduced and someone can be hit and damaged with a 9mm handgun 8-12 times and survive, a large number of the players who were FINE with the greatsword rules now feel the pistol rules are so “unrealistic” they don’t want to play them.

So, additional scrutiny and less suspension of disbelief is leveled as non-fantasy settings, leading to groups (rather than individuals) gaining mroe satisfaction from fantasy ttRPG properties.

Patreon
I have a Patreon. It supports the time I take to do all my blog posts. If you’d like to see more gaming theories, (or Pathfinder 1st edition thoughts, or more rules for other game systems, fiction, game industry essays, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

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