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The Biggest Secret of the ttRPG Industry

A lot of people are going to disagree with me, and that’s fine. But I firmly believe this is the most important secret within the ttRPG industry, as a whole. Obviously there are different secrets for any given company or game, but this is the one that you won’t hear about in reward ceremonies, podcasts, or social media acounts.

Ready?

You Never Hear About The Most Important People in the Industry.

But, you cry, I know all the streaming actors and GMs! I can quote 31 game writers’ names! I have memorized  Shannon Appelcline’s 4-volume “Designer’s & Dragons” history of the industry!

And that’s great. Seriously, thanks for paying attention.

But do you know who was the producer of your favorite show? Which editors were leading the team for that award-winning game line? Who tracked the budget of the company, making sure bills were paid and paychecks cleared? Heck who shipped those books from the warehouse? Who planned and built the Gen Con booth? Who made the arrangements with the printer, managed the schedule, figured out the cost/benefit factors of printing 2,000 vs 3,0000 copies? Who wrangled the new post-Brexit VAT laws, or YouTube children-appropriate content rules?

Who was taking customer service calls, handling people who might get pissed off about a game for reasons entirely unrelated to its content, fun, quality, or creator? Who wrote the community engagement rules, safety policy, and editorial standards?

When a game company goes under, the reason is rarely “The game wasn’t fun,” or “The Lead Designer Left.” No, companies collapse because they didn’t prepare for a change between the value of international currencies, or a book was massively overprinted, or they hired too many people-or not enough people-and the schedule and budget couldn’t be manipulated fast enough to deal with changing market conditions.

Or everyone burned out, and just walked away.

For the industry to be an industry, rather than a haphazard series of vanity hobby options, there are support professionals dealing with the things that all industries need. Sourcing. Shipping. Editing. Marketing. Warehousing. Customer service.

And even within the industry, most people can name 5 designers for every editor they know, and 5 editors for every print buyer, customer service manager, or warehouse director.

And yes, for a lot of companies, people have to wear many hat. But if you know the name of the writer who happens to also handle print runs, but you don’t know they are the person arranging for book printing, that’s still an unknown print buyer.

And most of these kinds of jobs can be done in other industries, for more money and less customer vitriol. So, if you have any opportunity to interact with these crucial people who make the ttRPG industry possible?

Be nice. Say thanks.

Without them, there is no industry.

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The Performative End of Being a Creator

You can think of this as an unusually long #RealGameIndustry entry.

If you are depending on the game industry for your full income, and you do not have a full-time job with benefits, necessity means at least part of what you are doing to performative.

Performing to build a community. Performing to gain name recognition. Performing to seem more fun and interesting, on the assumption that makes your products seem more fun and interesting.

Given how many of us came into gaming to escape what we saw as societal and clique-based requirements for shallow performative interactions, this is often a bitter irony. Indeed, while most of us are too smart to complain publicly, this can result in annoyance or anger as what we see as the “pretty popular people” being successful in their performance to a degree we cannot match (often directly measurable in how much money those people can raise compared to how much experience they have or how much content they have created.)

Especially as a mentally ill, socially-awkward, depressive introvert, it often strains my coping mechanisms and ability to put on a false face to their absolute limits. Social media is both a blessing and a curse in this regard. The ability to use text to put forth an idealized, entertaining self helps create a buffer between my depression and my need to be a performative creator. However, those very tools also demand constant attention to remain an effective part of my mandatory performance.

And at that, I have a much easier time as a cis white hetero male, because there are faults and failings I can have which are seen as quirky, or the stereotype of the grumpy writer. Creators in more marginalized groups often don’t get that slack. They both have much more cause to be scarred by social interaction, and must maintain a more perfect performance to reap the same benefits I do.

Even my ability to make discussions of my illnesses, failings, and annoyances part of my public persona is made easier by my role as an elder whitebeard. I have seen women, and minorities, and LGBT creators all with as much or more experience as I have been shouted down as clearly unstable for daring to say the same things I am allowed to state largely without consequence.

Nor do I foresee anything of this changing in a major way. The need to be performative to be successful as an independent appears to be baked into the industry (and full time jobs that pay something like the median income for their area are so rare as to be unicorns). That means the only part of this likely to change is the unfairness that performative need puts on marginalized creatives.

That fight is worth fighting. But it’s going to take hard work and time to make significant progress.
Meanwhile, the demands for performance keep changing and increasing, as technology drops the barriers between creator and consumer.

I work hard to remain relevant. And I see no time when I’ll be able to stop working at that without falling into an at-best-niche position. Which means my coping mechanisms for my trauma, depression, and other issues must include being able to maintain the performance–at least for regular, short bursts– even when I am fighting to not just curl up under the covers and give up on it all.

This is like climbing a wall, endlessly. If you ever fully give up you don’t just fail to make progress. You may be able to rest in a cradle for a time, or depend on your ropes. But those things can only hold you for a brief time. Eventually you’ll fall, and then you don’t just drop a little. You lose a huge percentage of your progress, and can damage yourself and your career, even kill it, as you smash things on the way down.

Keeping yourself in a place where people will see you and your work so they even might buy it is a grind, on top of the grind of creating enough work to survive even if people see enough of it.

You don’t have to have answers for all of this as you start. But to rise above a certain level, you must begin to work it out eventually.

When people sometimes suggest I take on too much, I want to yell at them that if I only do 75% as much work, I won’t get 75% of the result. I’ll get 50%, or less. If you try to microwave popcorn and you put it in for 60 seconds, you don’t get half the popcorn you’d get if you microwaved it for 2 minutes. Your work is all at least partially wasted if you can’t back it up with enough PR, backstock, and previews to maintain brainshare in an audience with tons of other, better-funded, better-advertised options.

I don’t have solutions for many of the problems these issues bring up. But it’s better for newer creators to be aware of the potential minefield and prepare for it, than have it come as a surprise for them. If you just want to create on your own terms and enjoy whatever success happens to come your way, and not try to pay the rent, cover medical insurance, and put food on the table purely through ttRPG efforts, you can largely ignore this. And if you find a way around it, I heartily congratulate you. And there are different levels of this performative need, with some folks managing much more success than I with much less performance put in.

But be aware of the potential drain on your time and energy.

Speaking of Performing

Part of the performative need is to drive people to platforms you can monetize, like my patreon. There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

Guest Blog: Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Gaming veteran, artist, and writer Jacob Blackmon!

If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at owen.stephens@gmail.com.

I Started Drawing Because I Can’t Spell Worth Shit…

OR…

My Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

By Jacob E Blackmon

Let’s just start by saying, I love my life. I love being an artist in the tabletop game community. This job has allowed me a freedom of living that I never imagined possible. I seriously cannot think of any job I would rather be doing right now.

As the same time, it has also been the occasional financial burden, when the art commissions slow down and money gets tight. That is something one has to learn as a freelancer in any market. There are highs and lows (or “feast and famine” as some say), and one never knows when they will come… so be sure to have a good savings account.

My name is Jacob Blackmon, and I have been a freelance artist in the tabletop rpg community since 2009. I’ve only been doing the gig as a full time thing since 2013. Given that I was born in 1977, this has been a very small – but significant – portion of my life. I’ve been gaming since 1989, and I never even considered using my art skills as a ttrpg artist.

For the longest time, I wanted to be a comic book artist, hence my distinctive style. This style has served me well… and also been a curse, as there are some companies that refuse to work with me, because I don’t have that traditional “painted fantasy” look. And that kind of rejection is certainly going to apply to the big-name companies (Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, etc.), who only use that “painted” style of art, so I know I will never get jobs with them. Which is too bad, because I would love to see my name in one of their books.

But my success is not measured in what books I have not been in. It is measured in the books where I HAVE contributed my art. And those are MANY! The third-party ttrpg industry is a massive community of wonderful and passionate people. These are the folks I consider my peers… and quite, often… my friends. Despite this familiarity to which I speak of them, it is important to maintain a professional attitude when working with such people. They expect every bit as much professionalism from their freelancers – artists and writers includes – as any of the big name companies.

Deadlines are a serious thing, and can make or break a company, especially in the post-COVID days. During the CV19 days of 2020, the gaming community seriously suffered. If you were not Wizards of the Coast, you saw your finances drop significantly. This is why deadlines are so important to keep in mind as a freelancer. We need to make sure we get our work done in time, so the company can get their product out.

I have seriously lost count of many projects have come my way because another artist decided they didn’t want to work on a project and did not communicate this fact until after the deadline posted by the company. This is a serious breach of trust and of professionalism. If a freelancer can’t make their deadlines, the company will stop going to that person in favor of those that will. So, meet your deadlines. This is, seriously, THE MOST IMPORTANT ADVICE IS CAN GIVE ANYONE! Meet your deadlines!

I can count, on one hand, how many times I have failed to make a deadline. And, when it has happened I always let the company whom I am working for know that I will miss the deadline before it happens. That is the second key: communication. Just like in life, love, family, and relationships, one needs to maintain communication with the people they are working for. Let them know the progress of the art assignment. Have you started on it? Yes? Let them know that.

During the art process, I usually have several stages of communication with a client.

  1. Beginning – When first starting on the art.
  2. Early stages – When my first rough draft concept is ready, I send them a copy via email (sometimes through another PM service, if they prefer, but emails is always the true professional way to do it!). When a rough draft is approved, I move on to…
  3.  Line work – This stage shows the clean version of what had been the rough draft, giving the client an idea of what the final piece will look like. It is also the last time a client will really have to make any serious changes to the pieces. I mention this, because once we start to add color, shading, and highlighting to an illustration, it becomes MUCH harder to make alterations.
  4. Coloring – For me, this is both the base coloring stage, plus shading and highlights. This is often the final stage, as alterations after this stage are incredibly difficult.

Each of these stages has me sending the client an email of what is going on with the piece. Once the final piece is approved, that’s the best time to send an invoice and get paid! The best clients pay immediately (“I do the job, I get paid.” – Mal Reynolds, Firefly), but some clients may have to hold those payments until they themselves get paid through another venue. This is why it helps to make sure to have a steady stream of clients at the same time. That way, not only can an artist transition from one piece to another, while waiting for one client to respond to the latest email; but also so that the artist has a nice steady flow of income. One client may not be able to pay their bill immediately, but the other should be able to. And that keeps a bank account happy, bills paid, and food on the table.

There are a couple of suggestions I have to maintaining a steady supply of clients, as well as netting new clients in the future. These were things I had to learn along the way in my own freelance art career, and some were told to me by others. So I am teaching them to you, as well…

Get an online profile! Make sure you have a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure you have an online gallery where potential clients can see your art.

Have a rate sheet! Make sure you know how much to charge for your work, and make sure it is equal to how valuable your time is that you put towards your work. Don’t short-sell yourself, just to make clients happy. Save the price discounts for “friends and family.” Make sure to always charge your friends and family. Don’t give them free art, unless YOU choose to do so. This is your JOB!

THIS IS YOUR JOB! Be a professional. Meet your deadlines. But, at the same, time treat it like a job. Take time off, including regular breaks during the day (don’t sit in the chair and look at social media; stand up and move around… make yourself a light snack.. socialize with your roommates), break for lunch, and when you have put in your 8 hours…. STOP WORKING!

The last bit of advice I can give to a potential artist who wants to work in the ttrpg community is to also be a ttrpg gamer! You cannot imagine how much time it save a client to have an artist already be familiar with the various games and art associated with said games. No one has ever had to describe to me what a “peryton” is, as I already know what they are supposed to look like. This saves both you and the client a ton of time and descriptive text.

Go! Draw! Have fun and make money doing it!

Speaking of which, please support me on Patreon: patreon.com/jacobblackmon

Jacob Blackmon

Gallery: deviantart.com/prodigyduck

FB: facebook.com/jacob.blackmon.56

And as always, you can support this blog at Owen K.C. Stephens’ Patreon!

Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 5. The Polite Inquiry about Work.

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer I had a good relationship with, when they asked how to contact other developers and ask them for work.

They hadn’t needed to contact me for work through formal written channels, because we had arranged the first freelance writing they did for me at a convention when they were introduced to me by a mutual friend and had since then discussed the next thing they’d do each time they finished the last one. We also became friends, and often chatted in nonformal online venues, so it was easy for them to ask me if there was anything upcoming they might get to work on.

But given it is best to have multiple venues to get work from when you want to be a full-time freelancer, and the relatively high turnover in the ttRPG industry, it’s a good idea to branch outfrom just one person who may assign you projects. That left this freelancer wondering –if they wanted to contact someone OTHER than me for work, what were best practices for doing so?

My response, in a Facebook Messenger window, form the basis for the following:

“First, do NOT contact people on Facebook or Twitter for ttRPG work unless they specifically say somewhere that is okay. I’m fine with it, but many other developers and publishers are not. And if someone has said they want all inquires to come in from some official email, or follow a specific format, and you don’t do that you;ve already not put your best foot forward. If you can’t follow those instructions, why should the developer think you’ll follow the instructions of a writing assignment.

That goes with the next important point, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. If you want to contact someone at Paizo about writing or them, read their forums first. Look for the “about us” section to see if there are emails you should use, specific people you should write to, open calls you should try for first, and so on.

After that, do not use form messages. Customize for each developer. If you are on good, friendly terms with them, you can keep it super short and informal, but still on-point and professional. For example:

“Hi Owen!

Hope you are doing well.

I just finished a Project for another developer at Paizo, and wanted to let you know I have availability if you have anything coming up to be assigned. I’d especially love to get to work on some worldbuilding or adventures, but am happy to take any project that could use another writer.

Thanks!

Freelancer Name
Freelancer Email
Freelancer Web Site or Other Social media Link if you have it”

If you don’t already know the developer quite well, especially if you have never worked for them or anyone else at their company of on their game line, you should be both more formal, and more informative. Such as:

“Dear Mr. Stephens,

My name if Freelancer McFreelanceface, and I am a freelance ttRPG writer. I have worked on numerous d20-based games, and the Halfling War Cheese boardgame. I’m a fan of Pathfinder, especially the Player Companion line, and wanted to reach out and see if there was any projects coming up you might be interested in having be write some part of. I am especially skilled with adventures and worldbuilding, and am familiar with your formats for both, but am also happy to take on any part of any project.

If there is an open call or tryout procedure coming up you think might be a better place for me to start doing things for Paizo, I’d be happy to do that first.

Thanks for your time,

Freelancer Name
Freelancer Email
Freelancer Web Site or Other Social media Link if you have it”

Also, make sure all those things are true! If you haven’t cracked open a lot more than one game book from a company, you likely shouldn’t be reaching out to them for freelance work.

Also, if you have other devs or editors or publishers you are on good terms with, or other freelancers, hit them up for suggestions, recommendations, and even references. Always keep the ask at a level appropriate with your actual connection and level of experience with them, but it’s generally cool to ask if someone knows if a publisher is looking to hire freelancers, and if anyone knows who to get in touch there and how. (And, sadly, to learn if anyone has had bad experiences with anyone you should watch out for, though as with anything, you have to decide how to weigh such concerns.)”

My personal rule of thumb is once you ping someone, if you don’t hear from them or they seem open to the idea of you working for them but note they don’t have anything at the moment, it is appropriate to drop them a note again in 90 days. Some people are okay with more frequent pokes (I have people prod me about things I have said I’d LIKE to get around to doing with them once or twice a week, and if done politely that doesn’t bother *me* at all), and if anyone ever replies with something like ‘I’ll contact you when I have something,” that’s a good sign to politely reply that you look forward to it, then stop cold contacting them.”

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My Evolution as a Tabletop RPG Player, Part 1. The Beginning

The idea of a tabletop roleplaying game was so unbelievably powerful and alluring when I first encountered it in 1982, it did not matter how good or bad the rules were. In fact, it didn’t matter if we even had the rules–the group I first played with (myself, my sister, and my uncle Lucien) literally only had the hardback 1st edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide available to us. But the very idea of a game where you took on the role of a heroic character and played through your own adventures was so seductive that I crafted (terrible) rules to replace the Player’s Handbook, and we managed two game sessions.

I was hooked forever. To the best of my knowledge, neither my uncle or sister ever played again.

Part of the appeal was that I was an voracious reader, and always got through series I loved faster than they were produced. And, in many cases, the pulp novels that lined the hallway to my bedroom in my childhood home stopped having new entries before I was even born. I hated getting invested in a character and having the stories about them just… stop.

But here was an opportunity to make my OWN stories. To my 11-year-old self, it had all the exciting appeal of playing cops & robbers, but with RULES and a simulated semi-objective reality attached so everything didn’t just devolve into yelling “Bang! Bang!” “You’re Dead!” “Am Not!” “Are Too!” (or, at least, that happened less often).

I was a child with a new toy, and it was better than any toy I had ever had previously. I was already dipping my hand into game design, on an ad-hoc, houserule basis, but I wasn’t really questioning the basis of the games I played, or the stories they encouraged me to tell. In the first few years I played a lot of Tunnels & Trolls solo modules, played a massive amount of D&D hybrids (blending AD&D 1st ed, OD&D, and Basic D&D however made sense at a given session),played a little Car Wars (but made a LOT of Car Wars designs), and played a surprising amount of Secret Gamma Hill World Busters Alpha (smooshing Gamma World, Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gangbusters, and Metamorphosis Alpha into one reality-hopping, post-apocalypse-retro-Saturday-Afternoon-B-Movie mess, which only worked because no one questioned it much).

I had only two regular groups early on — the School Recess Crowd, and the game my mother ran for I and several friends every Sunday (in which she discovered young boys would shut up, listen to her, and tackle math, history, geography and logic puzzles if she made it needful for the solution of a dungeon room). Everything was fair game. We all borrowed from movies, books, comics, and other games. I grabbed every RPG I could, even ones I never got to play or only played 1ce or 2ce, and Traveller, Space Opera, Champions, Empire of the Pedal Throne, the Morrow Project, and Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying Game, all took up more and more space in my room, as action figures, brick-building sets, and plastic army men slowly lost their appeal.

But I was generally still only playing with people I knew from other walks of life in 1982 and 1983. A few school friends, family, and people my family arranged for me to meet. I wasn’t developing a circle of friends FROM gaming yet, nor expanding into all the wide and various other forms of tabletop games. I wasn’t questioning HOW to play games, or even WHY, or considering there might be good ways, bad ways, and even damaging ways.

Not yet.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 4. Post-Publication Activities.

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a letter about what is, and maybe isn’t, a good idea to do after a project you have a credit in gets published and is available to the public. I’ve given similar advice to numerous freelancers, and prospective freelancers over the years (and even have a file on my hard drive that has some snippets of those to borrow from when I am asked about this topic), but I don’t think I’ve ever publicly published any significant portion of the advice itself.

I *try* to always open such letters with congratulations for getting published–creatives in this industry see criticism SO much more than praise or well-wishing, so I like to celebrate those moments of success if possible. Then, I break down my main suggestions for things to do with a project, now that it’s out in the world in its (presumably) final state.

“First, let me say that all this advice comes with a huge proviso — never follow these suggestions if they conflict with your own ethics, morals, best practices, comfort level, or mental well-being. For example, I mention looking for opportunities to talk about your work, including podcasts, but if your mental health will suffer from doing that, don’t. Similarly I suggest keeping praise for your publisher public, and criticism private, but there I am talking about things like typos, or inferences the publisher may not have meant. If you feel you have an ethical mandate to call out a publisher publicly for things such as racism, bigotry, misogyny, and so on, I am in no way telling you not to do that. No one is paying you enough to sell out your ethical code, and I believe we all have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. Any such instance is going to be too complex for some general advice that doesn’t know all the nuances of that specific situation to apply in any more than the vaguest sense. You’ll need to take those actions you feel most appropriate and/or most effective. That might mean publicly raising your objections, at least eventually if private notes do not seem to be making any difference. It also might not.

I wish I could tell you that any criticism you make, publicly or privately, will be taken as a reasoned, well-intentioned, good-faith effort on your part to make the hobby as a whole better. And, some folks will take it that way. But at both the professional and consumer level, many may not. It’s a risk, and you need to be realistic with yourself about the impact of possibly blowback on your life. If you have specific concerns in this area, please feel free to ask me about them. If you want my private, confidential take on a specific situation I am happy to give it. I might even be able to help.

That huge caveat aside, my general advise for what to do when a product you have a credit in comes along is pretty simple.

Read It

Do this first. You never know what may change from your final turnover to the printed page, and there are two good reasons to find out. First, seeing how things you wrote have changed may give you a better idea what that publisher is looking for, which can help you get more work with them. It may even give you insight into haw to be a better writer. If you don’t understand why a change was made, a short, polite note to your contact who got you the contract for the gig and to who you turned over your draft isn’t a bad idea.

Second, if you begin talking about the book, you want to talk about what is actually in it, rather than what you turned over. You neither want to promise people something that has been removed, nor seem uninformed if people ask you questions about things you have no familiarity with.

I sometimes sit with a PDF of the final release on one screen, and my draft on the other, and look line-by-line at differences. Yes, it would be easier for a developer to send you feedback, but that’s all-too-rare in this industry.

Check your NDA

Assuming, of course, you have an NDA. (Check your contract.) Most likely once the book is out you are free to talk about it, but if it’s one part of a multipart project you may be surprised by what hasn’t been revealed yet. Again, if in doubt, a short note asking for clarification to you contact with the publisher normally goes well.

Promote Your Credit

This is a great chance to promote yourself. Make a post talking about having a credit. if there’s some interesting anecdote about the process, that may be worth including as long as it doesn’t put anyone in a bad light (though see the proviso, above). For most social media platforms, including a picture of the cover of the product is a good idea.

This can help get your name out into the industry, remind people you are alive if you are already pretty well known (I still do this, for example), and convince publishers you are a good partner that will help advertise their product once it is out, driving engagement and interest.

Add It To Your Credits Sheet

Ideally, you have a list of all your credits already. If not, time to start! You want to be able to tell people what you worked on, and how you were credited, in case it ever comes up. Seriously, there is a big difference between having one credit, having ten, having 100, and having 1,000. Start keeping track now if you aren’t already, and make time to keep it up to date as things are published. I personally have all the print products I have worked on as a Facebook album, and people finding that has lead to things like consulting work.

Investigate Interviews

Often podcasts and blogs are looking for content related to new releases, and you helped make this one! You don’t want to steal the thunder from the publisher (again, looking like a good partner makes it more like both this publisher and others will want to work with you in the future… but yeah, see the proviso above), but in my experience if you send a note saying “The podcast ‘Second Level Spell’ wanted to interview me about the Battle Pie rules I wrote for the Orkenpie adventure,” they’ll be enthusiastic in their support, and may even boost that on their social media.

Move On

I’m bad at this one, so I include it here. You may have no issue with it at all. When I look at my old work I can… obsess over perceived failings. I want to figure out why I didn’t do what the developer did, make sure I learn all possible lessons from the project, and consider all the ways I could have done a better job.

A little of that is fine.

But then it’s time to put it down, and move on. Of course you can do a better job now than you did then–we are all learning and improving all the time. Instead of worrying about what past-you got wrong, turn to what current you is doing that you can apply those lessons to.

Don’t Take Reviews to Heart

For a lot of people, this may mean just don’t read the reviews. I personally am unable to do that, so instead I try to restrict myself to weighing their opinions against my own. Did they find something unclear? Fair enough, do I see their point or not? Is it full of typos? Well, that might mean my turnover was too error-ridden for even professional editors to save it, I can look at that. Do they not like it? Okay, but that’s, like, just their opinion man.

Dissatisfied people tend to be much more vocal than satisfied ones. So if you have to read the reviews, take them with a huge grain of salt. And never let them get you down.”

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 3. Bad Words

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a letter about doing research on words and terms you want to use in a game manuscript. I have sent variations on this same letter to numerous freelancers as part of their feedback, as it has come up surprisingly often.

(As an aside, it has come up so often I have considered making it part of a “packet” of advice I send to all freelancers I contract. The reasons I haven’t yet is twofold. First, while it comes up “often,” in the grand scheme of things that’s less than 1-in-10 assignments. Second, the more stuff I ask ALL freelancers to read, the more burden I am putting on then and the more likely it is they’ll skip some of it. Since 90% of the time freelancers don’t need this advice, it hasn’t ever actually made the cut for me to consider it crucial to ask everyone to read every time they work for me. So, instead, it goes here where people can check it out if they want to, and I can easily point to it if needed.)

Also, I want to say that when I refer to “bad words” in the title, I don’t mean morally repugnant words. I mean bad word choices, often for reasons we don’t realize, which is the entire point of this letter.

So, here’s the letter, taken from one specific example.

“On another matter, I want to recommend you get in the habit of doing an internet search every time you create a new word, or borrow a word from another language (even just archaic versions of existing languages) to use in your manuscript.

It turns out, a surprising percentage of the time “new” words are identical to existing words that have meanings and context very different from what we want be associated with the concept we are trying to name. Sometimes, we even run into trademarked terms that were created in various industries using the same sources of inspiration that lead to our “new” words.

Another risk is finding a term in a specific context and not checking to see if it has a broader or more common meaning that is very, very different. To wit, I see you used the term “Kanchō” as a classification of ninja spy. And, sure enough, if I go looking for “types of ninja” or similar online searches, the Kanchō-as-spy turns up fairly often.

However:

If I just do a search for the term “Kanchō,” by FAR the more common meaning is a highly inappropriate form of “goosing” common as an East Asian children’s ‘prank.’ And then, after that meaning, it’s used as the medical term for an enema in Japan. Neither of those conveys the implications we want for a ninja spy, and sources that use the word for a kind of ninja don’t generally warn of its more common meanings.

Also, I recommend you keep a “clean” browser for such searches, by which I mean one that hasn’t been tied to your search history and involves an algorithm trying to give you the results you most want to see. Sometimes Google is too good at guessing that I am doing research for game content, and skews its results towards those sources, rather than give me the most common meanings and context.

So in my experience, it’s best practices to carry out a search for any term or word you think up, or borrow from other languages or dialects. I have also come to consider this a form of due diligence when working outside my home dialect and experience, even if I think the terms I am using are new and fictional.”

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Publisher. 1. New RPG Marketing Consultation

This post is part of the “Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer” line of articles, but in this case it’s taken from a consultation I was asked for from an RPG creator/publisher. The publisher kindly gave permission for me to use their question and my advice for this blog post (though a few details have been redacted). Since I did have to edit some of the info the publisher gave me that lead to the response posted below, keep in mind that this advice is for a specific publisher in a specific situation. I think it’s still fair advice, but it’s just one example of many ways you can try to build and market a new ttRPG line, and assumes you want to have multiple games using the same core mechanic, which is certainly not the case for every publisher and every game.

Here’s a paraphrased version of what I was asked:

I have created a new ttRPG system I am going to market and publish. It has a single, simple game mechanic that can be easily adapted to multiple genres and game themes. I figure a zine-sized book would be the best way to do it, since it’s VERY rules-light.

My question is, is it better these days to release it as a little book that has all the rules and tips for running various multiple genres with this system, or is it better to break it up into “the pastoral zine” “the horror zine” “the superhero zine”?

Here’s a cleaned-up version of my answer.

First, name the system. I specifically mean name the game engine itself, separate from any genre or setting-plus- rules-modifications for a specific theme. The “Chat RPG System,” or something like that. (I’m making names up as I go here, both for the specific game and various potential releases, but feel free to come up with better titles.)

Have the base, core rules written up so you can adapt and build off that core as needed.

Then for your first release, make it a super-tight setting Zine. “Pastoral Adventures, an RPG about Quiet Little Emergencies.” But mark it “Powered by the Chat RPG System.” It’s important here to pick a genre, theme, and style of game the Chat RPG system handles really well. Preferably something that plays off your rules-light system, and that is a good tonal math for how your core mechanic works.

Then see what feedback you get, what additional genres people ask for, and so on. If you find the Chat RPG system needs some core improvements, make those in your core rules documentation.

Then make your second ttRPG release. If people really seemed to want to add more grit and horror to “Pastoral Adventures,” and it’s a good fit, perhaps you put out “Shrieks in the Night, an RPG about Stories with Bloody Endings.” And also mark IT as “Powered by the Chat RPG System.”

Keep track, for your own use, how these use the Chat system differently.

Again, look to feedback and make any adjustments to the Core Chat you need to. See if support products for “Patroal Adventures” and “Shrieks in the Night” are popular.

Then you go with a third new “Powered by Chat” game. Perhaps “Patrols and Brooding, an RPG about Street level Heroes,” and, yep, mark it “Powered by the Chat RPG System.”

At that point, you can see if “Core Chat” has any fans asking for it, or it there is a community interested in other genres, themes, and ways to modify the Chat system. If so, you can release a “Chat CORE” book that brings all the rules together, and maybe expands on them and offers new genre tweaks. This is a particularly good place to support less popular, more esoteric genres, presenting them as examples of how you can use Chat CORE to make homebrew setting games. There may not be a general appetite for “TERMITE, Eat the Stats Quo,” a game about equality-minded insect colonies attacking the rotting elements of a tyrannical society’s buildings, but if you use it as a way to show how organization rules, toxic environment rules, and big project rules work with Chat CORE, you can both present a new, quirky setting and have a useful example of how to use Chat CORE to build settings that no publisher is likely to produce.

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Do ttRPGs Need to Define Death? Fire? … Steam?

More than one ttRPG has made its players giggle when they realize there are no rules about what a character being dead means. Sure, there are rules that tell you when you die and (sometimes) how to come back, but nothing that says, for example, “A dead character can not take any actions.”

So, the argument goes, the Rules-As-Written game lets your dead character keep running around and doing things, right?

Okay, so that’s a silly example (though it DOES come up in some game groups). And a common counter-argument is, that’s only a problem if a game actually defines TOO much, so the GM and players expect everything to be defined. We all know what dead means, right?

Well… maybe. Like, if a spell can only affect and object, and not a creature, which is a corpse? Surely I can’t use Charm Creature on a corpse, so it must be an object? So can I use Fix Object to make a mangled corpse pristine?

Similarly, some games go into fair detail about different kinds of damage, for example tagging things that do fire damage with a [Fire] keyword. But we all know what fire is, right?

So if a Squirming Rat Mound takes double damage from fire, the players and GM all know that burning oil, a lit torch, and a firecube spell all do that double damage. But what about a cone of embers? Steambolt? Superheated frying pan? Jalapenos?

Now, yes, as long as the GM and players can all agree on how things ought to work, it doesn’t matter – But there are three good counter-arguments to that position.

First, if a GM and their players feel things should work differently, but it’s not obvious they have different opinions, that can cause during-the-game unpleasant surprises and debate. If a fire elemental is immune to fire damage (and maybe they shouldn’t be), and the players focus a blast of superheated steam at it, what happens? The GM may declare that since fire resistance is heat resistance and thus prevents damage from steam, and the elemental is immune to fire, it is immune to steam. The players might argue that steam is water, and water puts out fire, so the elemental should not just take damage, but take double damage like it does from a water elemental’s wet fish slap power, or Biggly’s Aquatic Hand spell.

Second, even fit the GM perfectly well can make all these rulings, many GMs don’t want to have to do any more mental work than absolutely necessary. If everything that does fire damage has a little [Fire] tag, that makes things easier for those GMs. Of course, there’s a limit to that. Like, do [Acid] and [Base] attacks have different tags? Can you counter an [Acid] attack with a [Base] attack? Are there strong [Acids] and weak [Acids]? Is the level of complexity being kept where it belongs?

Third, scenario assumptions can be built off these rules. Even ignoring the complex question of special cases such as Organized Play efforts for different groups to have the same experience when running the same encounter with different GMs, a scenario may have been built assuming a specific set of rule interactions. If an encounter with fire elementals in a sewer assumes that the steam pipes running alongside the pipe can be used to easily defeat the elementals, so there are twice as many present as normal, a GM that rules those don’t hurt the elementals is altering the adventure design plans without even knowing it.

I’m not claiming their is an objectively correct answer here. I tend to lean toward defining things that are going to come up a lot, trying to give some broad general rules and guidance, and then leave it t the GM to adjudicate rarer interactions… but that’s based on my gaming preferences.

What are yours?

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Gaming Hobby vs Gaming Pastime vs Gaming Socials vs Gaming Career vs Gaming Collector

I personally think most tabletop game players fall into one (or more) of five categories.

Gaming hobbyists like playing games, but they also enjoy working on games. Like someone building ships in bottles or having a reading group, there are aspects of the tabletop games they like to interact with outside of strict gametime. They may well read games for fun that they know they’ll never play, or study game theory, work on game builds, prepare complex campaigns or character histories, and otherwise spend a great deal of time with the elements of the game outside of time spent playing it.

Pastime gamers are people enjoy playing tabletop games, but primarily want to focus on the play aspect. they aren’t interested in game theory, or working on aspects of the game outside of game-time. If a player, they don’t want to have to study the rules or character advancement in order to be able to have fun. If a GM, they don’t want to have to spend a lot of time preparing a game session. For pastimers, the games are GAMES, and time spent interacting with the games in non-play ways is not fun.

Gaming socialites don’t mind playing games, but primarily want the social interaction that comes with regular tabletop sessions. They might be just as happy if their friends wanted to watch movies, or fly kites, or build treehouses.

Career gamers make money from creating, playing, or otherwise being involved in games. This includes game writers, editors, and everyone working in game companies, but also professional streamers, distributors, GMs-for-hire, and so on. Many people slide into gaming careers through being gaming hobbyists, though this is also one of the categories where you may be driven to be engaged with tabletop by something other than fun.

Gaming Collectors want to pick up everything for one or more games, or all of a type of game element, for the same reasons stamp and coin and sports card collectors do. They are often hobbyists, and sometimes career gamers, but they may also just be driven to collect with no other involvement in the games they pick up.

These all mix and match, of course. Some people collect dice obsessively, never using most of them, and are hobbyists for one game system they love, but mere social gamers for other systems their friends prefer.

I’m not making any value judgments, either. But it can be useful to consider why people engage in games, and in what ways, both as a career gamer, and as a hobbyist with friends who are neither career or hobby gamers, but still play tabletop games with me.

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