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Letters to a Dev from various Publishers. 1. Post-Development Developer Checklist

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 letters I have received from publishers and producers in my role as game developer. Since many freelance writers hope to become on-staff ttRPG game developers someday in their career, I thought looking at some less talked-about parts of that job might be useful.

Though the role of developer is often not well understood (or well defined), and varies from company to company, generally a ttRPG developer is seen as being responsible for conceiving, outlining, assigning, overseeing, and gathering the text for a ttRPG game book, and adjusting (or sometimes replacing) that text as needed to make sure is is uniform in tone, voice, wordcount, and theme; and meets the publisher’s standards for writing guidelines, rules language, and rule design. A developer is also generally the topic expert on question about that book for any questions about it that must be answered before some other person in the company to do their job (such as a marketing person, or customer service).

But there are more jobs that developers often have to do above and beyond anything involving just the text of the book.

This checklist is far from complete, nor does every company need every developer to do this for every project. But all of these are drawn from checklists I have been asked to follow in my duties as a developer for various published game books, taken from emails and physical checklists I have received from publishers. I’ve removed any identifying information, collated similar tasks described differently by different publishers, and added a touch of context where appropriate.

The Checklist

*Is the art order done? (Art directors generally actually assign the actual creation of the art, but the art director can’t know what art is needed without either the developer creating an art order, or reading through the manuscript themselves, and they rarely have time for that. Also, the developer often has to look at sketches to make sure they’ll meet the text and needs of the game.)

*Are the maps done. (As above, someone else usually orders them from cartographers, but a developer must make sure sketches for the cartographer are accurate, match the style of the company, and have all the needed text, things like a rose compass, scale, room markers, colors, and so on).

*Are the contracts handled? (The developer is often supposed to track that all freelancers get their contracts, and/or that all freelancers return their contracts, and/or that all freelancers have fulfilled the terms of their contract.)

*Is there back cover copy? (If the developer doesn’t write this themselves, they may be asked to give whoever is writing it bullet points of things to hit, and check the final for accuracy with what is in the book.)

*Is there a foreword/introduction/etc? (Just like back cover copy, sometimes the developer is supposed to do this, sometimes they just give info and check the end result.)

*Are the internal marketing text, ad text, catalog text, and solicitation text all written. (As with back cover and forwards.)

*Are the inside covers handled? (If they are supposed to be blank, great. If not… )

*Is any needed legal text done? (For example, if it’s an OGL product, a completed section 15 must be completed by someone.)

*Is the entire Table of Contents page updated (including the cover blurb, etc.)?

*Have any problems discovered during layout been addressed? (Sometimes, even if you make the wordcount right, a book solicited for 160 page pages turns out to be 150 or 170 once it’s laid out. Or monster entries designed to fill exactly one or exactly two pages go way short… or way long. Layout often does what they can, but if the text cannot be made to fit, it’s the developer who has to fix it by adding or cutting.)

*Are all credits correct? (Often books are done in text templates, and old credits may sit around and look “done” even if they are for a different book. Or someone may want their name listed in a specific way. It’s often the developers’ jobs to make sure the credits are correct and current.)

*Have supporting articles been written? (Not always, nor for every product, but it’s often the developers job. Same with interviews, podcast appearances, and so on.)

*Is the budget correct? (On-staff developers often have a specific budget, for both time and money, for the cover, the interior art, all text, all editing, and so on. Meeting that budget is then usually the developers job.)

There’s more, of course, depending on the product line, specific project, venue, publisher, company, and so on. But these are a big part of the most typical beyond-the-book’s text workload.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 2. Feedback and Keeping Complexity Where It Belongs.

The No-Feedback Loop

One of the things I have never been good enough at as a developer was sending feedback to my freelancers. Yes, a great deal of that is the industry standard and driven by work conditions–if I am already at 50 hours in a workweek, I have to turn over finished text in the morning, and there is something in a freelancer’s turnover that has to be fixed, it’s faster and easier to just fix and send it to the next step (be that editing, approvals, layout, or whatever) than write to the freelancer explaining what needs change and hoping they give me a usable version in time. And that means that writing up and sending feedback becomes extra work I am doing that doesn’t directly help hit my next set of deadlines.

On the other hand, the more I can help freelancers become better writers, the better chance I have of not being in the same situation in the future. Sadly though, the decreased chance isn’t decreased by a lot. Firstly, people who stay in the industry tend to be the ones who figure out what they need to improve even if they don’t get specific feedback. Secondly, the percentage of freelancers who stay in the freelance-ttRPG-writing biz for more than a couple of years is pretty small compared to the fraction who dropout for whatever reason. Third, even if a freelancer gets feedback, sticks around, and gets better, there’s a good chance they’ll get grabbed up by someone else and not have time to do whatever projects I happen to be working on three years later.

Of course, all that doesn’t mean there’s no value in giving that feedback, however much extra work it is for me. If nothing else, it makes it more likely I’ll get to buy a good product later down the line. But more importantly to me, I care about games and gamers. I want to help if I possibly can, and feedback is a great way of doing that. However, in addition to lack of time, I’m not omnipotent. My feedback could be *wrong* for any number of reasons. I might lack the technical knowledge to understand why a freelancer is representing a specific real world event in a certain why. I might not have the cultural, social, or personal viewpoint to see why some inclusion or deletion is significant and important. I might just have a dumb opinion no one would agree with (it happens!). And when feedback is given privately in a professional setting, even if I am wrong, a freelancer might be intimidated by the imbalance of influence within the industry, and not feel safe to tell me I am wrong, or even suggest I am missing something.

(By the by, if you are ever working for me, and I am wrong in my feedback, let me know. I don’t promise to agree with you. I do promise to consider my own biases and limitations, and not punish you for having a differing opinion.)

So, now that I have begun looking at old emails and direct messages I have sent to freelancers over the years, I have concluded that scrubbing these of any specific details (to protect both the freelancer and whatever company I was working for when I wrote it, even if it was MY company), and posting it publicly may overcome a lot of these issues. Yes, the feedback isn’t going to be specific to the issues of everyone who reads it, but it can get into a lot of hands with a single post on my part, and if I’m wrong people are more likely to feel free to point out why (even if it’s just among themselves).

The Issue

Since I am redacting a lot of the details in the first part of this letter, I have to explain what the issue was in the freelancer’s handout, that I felt the need to both fix, and explain why I was fixing it.

In a d20-based fantasy ttRPG adventure, the Freelanced has included a room with a treasure chest. This was not a major villain’s cache, nor even the main focus of the room. There was nothing in the chest relevent to the adventure’s plot, nor tightly linked to the themes of the adventure. It was just one element of a typical encounter within the adventure.

And it had a fire trap.

Now, an occasional trapped chest is a good idea. There was no note as to who had the keys for the chest (after all, whoever trapped it wants to be able to open it safely), but that’s a minor issue. But more importantly, the trap did a variable amount of damage based on how much you failed to disarm it by, and by how far away from it you were, and by how much you failed to pick the lock (if you didn’t even try to disarm it), and special rules for determining how much damage each thing in the chest took depending on which of the above conditions happened.

It, by itself, took up more wordcount than any other part of the encounter, and more than most complete encounters within the adventure. And, weirdly, it’s not the ONLY time I got a overly-complex-random-fire-trap in a freelancer adventure turnover, nor the only time I’ve given feedback about it.

So, I wrote a short note of feedback to the freelancer. letter in response. I have copied it here, minus any identifying information and with a dab of editorial clean-up, as the second “Letter from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer.”

After a polite intro, and some minor notes on lesser matters, I wrote:

“About the fire-trapped chest. In the final version, you’ll find it just does flat damage in an area (Reflex save for half), and goes off if you fail the roll to pick the lock, or smash the chest, or fail the roll to disarm the trap by 5 or more. I wanted to explain why, and it’s not because the rules you wrote are wrong, or don’t work, or that they don’t make sense.

It’s just because, the rules eat up a lot of space, they are a lot for the GM to absorb and run correctly, and the players have no way to know how detailed the rules they are interacting with are. Even if the GM knows that the trap could have done more damage, or could have done less damage, or could have eliminated more items, all the players will ever hear is that it goes boom and does some damage.

So, the play experience for the players is nearly the same, and the cognitive load on the GM is much lower, if the trap just has a simple trigger, and does set damage. The very fact that damage is rolled already creates a wider range of possibilities, and does so in a way the players and GM are used to an expect. While the players aren’t likely to find out that a trap that ends up doing 4d6 fire damage to them could have done 8d6 fire damage, they will know if they made or failed their save, and are likely to know if the GM rolls 12 damage on 6d6.

That’s not to say a trap should never have this level of complexity, but the ‘weight’ of these rules is so great, the chest or trap would need to have a bigger narrative role within the adventure to justify the number of words on the page, and the amount of time the GM needs to figure out how to run it, and how much time it would take at the game table in play.

For example, if an important part of the adventure was getting a MacGuffin, famously locked in the Cask of Conflagrations, you could build up to this complex and detailed trap as part of the adventure leading up to that moment. Players could have chances to speak to people who failed to get past the trap, or find scraps of ancient descriptions of it. They could have a side quest to get some anti-fire salve to help survive it, and be aware that it was an especially devious and complex mechanism that would take more effort and carry heavier consequences than ususal.

Ultimately, this is an issue of thinking about the end play experience for the GM and players. (Note that there certainly ARE people who primarily engaging with adventures by reading them, which may react to something like this differently, but in my experience those people enjoy any well-written encounters, so there’s no actual benefit of having any rules section be longer and more complex than is justified by the narrative value the players will experience.) Every unusual exception to how rules elements are used is one more thing the GM has to spend mental energy understanding before they can run an adventure. Asking GMs to do so isn’t inherently bad, but the extra effort should be linked to extra fun for GM and players both.

There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to do something out of the ordinary with a trap, but being creative and being complex aren’t always linked. If the trap did fire damage, and sprayed alchemical materials that attracted more wandering monsters to attack the PCs as an additional effect that would be unusual, but could be explained in 1-2 more sentences. If it triggered a wand of magic missiles from inside that had just a few charges left, which the PCs could then recover as treasure, that would be unusual, and the end experience for the players would be something fun and new linked to loot, which means that wand then has a story connected to it, which can boost roleplaying opportunities.

I also want to make clear that the overall encounter was good, and this was a pretty easy fix for me as developer. But while I think the extra design work you did here doesn’t serve the adventure well, it was mechanically sound and an interesting read. I want to make sure the end message you get is not just “this was bad” or “this is too long,” but “this didn’t work well where and how it was–but keeping thinking about how to deliver unexpected things for GMs and players to enjoy, and know that if used a different way, these well-done game mechanics could work great.”

So, there’s some of the advice you might get from me, if I was contracting you to write for me.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 1

I recently moved toward the contract stage of a small project (1,500-2,500 words) with a new freelancer, and asked them what timeframe they thought would work for them as a deadline (so I could put it in the contract). Quite reasonably (especially given I had told the freelancer I was available for general industry questions), the freelancer wanted to know what kind of turnaround time was reasonable and typical in the industry. Also, how much back-and-forth was their going to be between the freelancer and myself, as that would impact their thinking on a deadline.

So, I wrote a short letter in response. It then occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of drill-down detail prospective and relatively new freelance ttRPG writers often ask about in seminars and such.

So I have copied it here, minus any identifying information and with a dab of editorial clean-up, as a generic “Letter from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer.” I might do more of these in the future, or this might just be a 1-off.

After a polite intro, I wrote:

“So, turnaround can vary wildly. At the “experienced freelancer” level, I normally expect someone to be able to produce a finished draft of 10,000 words per month, starting from the time they have a full outline (if needed) and contract. That’s assuming they aren’t doing this full time, and don’t have any other freelance assignments.

However, when I am working with a freelancer, it’s not really any of my business if they are doing it full time or have other contracts. I just offer a contact with a deadline, and see if they agree they can hit that.

There are freelancers I know quite well who can product 20k, 30k, or even 45k words in a month… but I try to never plan to need that. And, even those who can aren’t always free to do so when I have an emergency project. I also work with some people who can only manage 5k in a month, and only if the timing is right. But as long as they produce good work when they do take a contract, I can work around that.

When I personally began ttRPG writing in the mid-1990s, I averaged a mere 1,000 words in a month Luckily, I just did magazine articles at first, often with no set deadline. However, by the time I left Wizards of the Coast in 2001, after more than a year of full-time, in-house game writing, I was producing 40k-50k words per month as a freelancer. Now that I’m in my 50s, I can’t really keep that up anymore. 😛

Most developers/editors/producers assume newer writers need more time, and try to work around that. In this case, I *could* perfectly well give you 90 days to write this. Given it’s short length, I’d expect an experienced freelancer to be able to do it in 1-2 weeks, and a veteran to be able to do it in one day (if the timing is right  and they can spare a day when I need it written).

I would expect anywhere up to 30 days for someone with very little experience, but honestly in my dealings it often seems most people who can’t do it in 2 weeks just can’t do it. That’s not being judgmental — some people just have too much going on in their lives to spend much time writing about imaginary magic creatures. And there ARE exceptions. So if you wanted to pad your time with this first project because it made you more comfortable, I’d be okay with that.

As a side note, never be afraid to tell someone offering you a freelance writing project up-front you can’t do it in the timeframe suggested. Also, if you want the job, feel free to tell them when you COULD have it done by. Something like “I love this idea, but my schedule wouldn’t allow me to get it back to you in 6 weeks. However, if you could extend the deadline to 9 weeks, I could accomplish that.” Missing a deadline after you say you can do it is bad, but telling people you can’t meet a deadline when turning down work is never seen as a bad thing. It’s usually taken as a sign you know your limits, and are thus more likely to be reliable.

(And missing a deadline after you agree to a job isn’t the end of the world, especially if there are extenuating circumstances. The most important things are to communicate with your developer early, and let them know if problems are growing. If you have 4 weeks for a project, and 2 weeks in you tell them “This is going slower than expected, can I have an extra week to get it done?” they may be free to give it to you. But if you tell them that the day before it is due, it both gives them much less leeway, and shows you haven;t been working on it throughout, or haven’t been tracking your progress. Even then, exigent circumstances CAN arise. I once had a freelancer tell me the day before their deadline they were going to be weeks late–because their home had been hit by a Category 4 hurricane. And, yeah, I could see how that would make delivery nearly impossible even if they were mostly done.)

(As a second aside, communication is important. Telling someone on the last day that you are giving up on a project and won’t be turning over any work for it at all is BAD, but not telling them that and not replying to their inquiries is still much worse.)

As for how much back-and-forth is needed, it’s a fine line. Especially for something short, if everything goes smoothly, you may do your work and send it to me without ever needing any other advice or input. However, if you aren’t sure if you are doing it right, or aren’t sure if an idea you have had fits what the person paying you wants, or want to change something from the pitch that was already agreed to, or can’t figure out how to write a rule or describe an issue or fix a plot hole, those are all great reasons to reach out to your developer and explain the issue and ask for feedback.

For bigger projects, there are often “milestones” where you are asked 1/2-way through the project’s writing time to show you have done 1/2 the work. And some projects later on where you are asked to work with multiple writers may have some forum or Discord channel set up where writers can brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other.

OTOH, the person paying you to write something normally doesn’t want to spend as much time answering your questions as it would take them to write it themselves.”

So, there’s some of the advice you might get from me, if I was contracting you to write for me.

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Are People REALLY Trying to Break Into ttRPG Writing? In This Economy?!

In response to yesterday’s guest blog post by Luis Loza, a number of people have been asking me, a bit incredulously, if there are really people trying to break into writing for the tabletop game industry. At least some of that incredulity seems rooted in my description of what working in the industry is like, in such venues as the #RealGameIndustry hashtag on Twitter, and my blog posts on the business of games and freelancer life.

And, yes, there absolutely are. But many of them aren’t looking to make it a full-time job and long-term career.

For those who see it as a hobbytime activity, like building ships in bottles or collecting commemorative sneakers, it can be extremely fulfilling. But you don’t expect your hobbies to be profitable, so even a revenue-neutral one can be extremely appealing.

Those who see it as a side-gig are, at least, unlikely to suffer significant economic hardship as a result. Many more will find it a bad source of income than will make more than minimum wage, but some will thrive.

For full-timers dedicated to this being their primary source of income, it’s rough. And for the industry to thrive, it needs full-timers. But there are other reasons do a job than security and money.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to improve things.

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Guest Blog – Luis Loza on How to Break Into Writing for the Tabletop Game Industry

This is advice from ttRPG writer, producer, podcast runner, and Paizo developer Luis Loza, responding to someone asking how to break into writing material for tabletop ROGS. It is collected from a Twitter thread, and posted here with his permission.

“I tell everyone that’s interested in freelancing that the best thing they can do to get started is just get to writing. If you’ve done homebrew material, get a blog in place and start putting that stuff on there. One of the most important things you can share is a writing sample. If someone can’t see anything you’ve written, they can’t judge any of your work. It doesn’t matter if it’s been published or not, just as long as you have something to show.

From there, the most important thing you can do is try to replicate existing official material as much as you can. Take a note of when things are bolded or italicized or the order of listings in a monster stat block, for example. The more you can closely replicate the existing material, the more you’ll get a feel for the game’s specific style and it will go a long way to prove that it’s worth taking a shot on you. If your material uses language and formatting that matches 5E, but you want to work on PF2E, that material won’t do you any good. Write for the game you want to be paid to write for!

From there, find someone to contact about work. There are third party publishers like that are constantly producing material and they might be a good start. Maybe chat with @Owen_Stephens about publishing with Rogue Genius Games? If you’ve done the work of getting your work *somewhere*, you can reach out to them and provide your writing samples to show your skill.

Also, get to talking with other people interested in writing. I recommend checking out Freelance Forge for a community willing to look over your stuff, give you more tips, and get you some possible connections for work.”

Thanks for the shout-out, Luis!

People who are interested can also check out my thoughts on the game industry, business of games, writing basics, and the freelancer life here in this blog, if interested.

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A White Cis Hetero Male’s Current Comprehension

This is a post about racism, a topic on which I am absolutely not an expert. I present my comprehension of one element of it not to educate others, or moralize, or defend. I present it because it’s where I am, and I know my current position is fallible, incomplete, and in need of constant work on my part to evolve.

This is not my original idea. This is an idea that has come from my efforts to understand, through listening and study, to the voices and experiences of others. Any failure to understand the words and teaching lies with me, not them. I want to specifically credit the writing of by Ibram X. Kendi (Author), especially his book How to Be an Antiracist and the ongoing efforts of Tonya DePass and I Need Diverse Games. I recommend reading their words and listening to their voices (as a starting point, not as a one-stop center to learn all you need to know and be forgiven any other work educating yourself).

Here’s my current comprehension of this one idea:

Simply not being racist is not good enough.

We must choose to be antiracist.

As a result, things which go from being antiracist to just status quo are subject to criticism for doing do, even if they didn’t become actively racist.

Actions that nonmarginalized groups or systems take against other nonmarginalized people or groups can have a different impact when taken against marginalized people and groups. Claiming otherwise is naïve at best, often disingenuous, and sometimes actively racist.

The problems are systemic. Just not making them significantly worse cannot be the acceptable bar.

I’m going to screw this up sometimes. When I learn I have done so, I will try to take steps to be better, and do better.

The Public Does Not Owe You Private Criticism

We live in an age where it is extremely easy for critics, commentators, pundits, customers, and fans to express their analyses and opinions on game products and announcements/ads for game products that have been presented to the public (and anything ever presented in public, really, but here I am sticking to one topic to make a specific point) very, very publicly.

And, for good or ill, if those analyses and opinions pick up interest from others with likes, comments, and shares, they can go viral. Often, by the time a game professional is aware of some statement about a project they worked on or are tied to, it’s already been seen by hundreds or thousands of other people.

When those statements are critical, perhaps especially when those criticisms are valid and strongly negative, boosters of the project will often complain that there was “no need” to make “such a big deal,” out of the criticisms. One common refrain is that any complaints could be initially handled in private communications to the publisher or creator in question.

And of course, such things could start that way, that’s obvious. By even mentioning it, boosters are pushing the narrative that such criticism should start that way, and not doing so is somehow inappropriate.

And that’s B.S.

Such suggestions of different ways a thing could be handled also often claim the “only reason” criticisms are done in public is to “drive views,” or gain attention.

And even when true, that’s completely irrelevant.

Once a product, or an ad/announcement for a product, has been released to the public, the public has no responsibility to restrict their negative reactions to private communications, even as a first response. Nor should their be any expectation or suggestion that the public will do so. A game or announcement for a game is put out into the public eye specifically to garner a reaction. If a company is at a stage where positive reviews and critiques of an item are appropriate in a broad forum, then so are negative ones.

It is, of course, possible for there to specific specific people who WANT to begin criticisms privately, and that’s fine. If I have a relationship with a publisher or creator and I think they have, or are about to, make a big mistake I will often contact them privately and say why. Coming from another direction, someone who does not want fans of a game line to harass them may well seek less-public ways to send feedback to a publisher just so they aren’t the target for harassment. Further, if I was involved with a project, I may have some ethical desire to initially express my concerns about it in private even once the material in question is public.

And, yes, there ARE ways to respond to publicly released material that are themselves open to criticism. I’m not talking about the content of critiques, but the venue for them. Though it’s worth noting that even accusations of a response being made in bad faith — vicious ad hominem attacks, intentional falsehoods, and similar things — even that needs to be considered with an analytical eye. While there absolutely are bad actors who will make up objections to try to take down game creators and game projects they dislike, there are at least as many bad actors who will claim legitimate criticisms are actually vile attacks because they dislike the criticism.

My key point here is, the public doesn’t owe any game or game creator the privilege of a private preview of their critique of a public release. Once a creator releases an ad, statement, or game into the public eye, they are inviting response to that release.

Even the responses they don’t like.

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The Empty Place

Content Warning: The essay includes discussion of death, suicide, self-harm, and the passing of a recently departed person in my life. I am writing it as much for me as anyone else, and if those topics aren’t something you need in your head right now, please feel free to read no further. Please, take care of yourself.

When my father died, I was less sad, and more sympathetic. He had been in so much emotional pain, for so long. And when I had told him he was drinking himself to death six months earlier, he just said “I know.”

I wasn’t glad, or relieved, or anything I could describe in a way that made me happier. But I knew he had decided that a slow, anaesthetized death was the only solution he could find to the dissatisfaction and anger he felt about his own life. His death was just the coda of a decision he had made years before, and while I hated that decision, I had come to grips with it.

My father was a man of great determination. Once I realized he planned to drink himself to death, I knew he would succeed, and sooner rather than later. What grief I felt for his loss peaked then, when he was still breathing, but actively working to not be part of my life anymore. Even then, the emotion was less sadness, and something much closer to empathetic pain. I knew he was hurting, and that the hurt was so great he’d do anything to escape it. That hurt me, but not in the same way grief does.

My father was unreliable for most of my life–at least from my earliest teens forward, and possibly beyond that. So for the 26 years I knew him, I learned I could not rely on him. He was often full of wonderful stories, good advice, and kind words… but he also often was not. I know he loved me and wanted to help me, but as a practical matter, he could not be depended on. I was still a young adult when he died, working to figure out who I was. My father was a big part of that, but a lot of the work of my becoming who I am now happened after he was gone.

I went to work the Monday after the weekend my father died. I was manager of a parking garage at the time. When the people running the associated building discovered I had lost my father, they were shocked I had shown up. They were ready to move heaven and earth to let me go home… but I didn’t. I kept the bereavement days in case I needed them to arrange funerals, or clear out his apartment. And over and over, society kept trying to tell me I should be devastated by my father’s death, and I just wasn’t. Sympathy, not sadness.

At the end of last month, my friend Marc Curlee died of covid. I had known Marc since I was 13, and he was several years older. As you might expect, I was a snot-nosed kid, and our early relationship was not without friction, but we loved many of the same things, and like most of my friends over my life, bonded over gaming. And through 37 years of moves, stretches of years in different states, marriage on my part, career changes, and shifting special environments, Marc and I stayed friends.

Early on, it was Marc, not my father, who taught me to shave. Later, when my father was long since gone, Marc was still a strong presence in my life. As I worked on figuring out who I was, my father checked out of his part in that, and Marc didn’t. If Marc told me he’d do something, it got done. If I was sad, or lost, or drowning in a sea of green-black depression, Marc reached out. Marc was an important part of my support group, and one of the people I desperately missed when I left OK for 6 years. And no matter how long Mac and I were apart, when we managed to hang out again, it was like we’d never had a gap.

While Marc was hospitalized, I called him every day. Early on, we’d chat, and he’d talk about his plans for years to come. He was focused on the future. Then, as he was moved to the ICU, he stopped picking up the phone. I left messages, but he wasn’t in any condition to return them. I desperately wanted to visit, but even beyond the risk to me I live in a house with 2 highly vulnerable people. I could not talk to Marc. Could not see him. Could not be at his side. He had been there for me for decades, and I couldn’t be there for him.

Marc’s passing as hit me like no loss I have suffered before. It’s not just grief, though I have been fighting avalanches of sadness, but an empty place. I had no idea how many times a day Marc entered my mind. When I see a thing I thought he’d like, I’d make a mental note to tell him. When some story or game rule or art reminded me of some even he and I shared in your decades-long friendship, I’d smile. Not just occasionally, but multiple times each day, even when he wasn’t nearby, Marc was part of the core fabric of how I interpret and interact with the world.

And his passing has opened an empty place within me. A place which used to be filled with the things Marc and I would share in the future, and now we never will.

Grief is very much my reaction, but it is more than that. Anger, confusion, and horror sit alongside sadness in near-equal measure, the mix constantly churning on what will come on top. This is the grief people kept telling me I should be feeling when my father died, and I never did. And to be clear, Marc is absolutely not a stand-in father figure in my life. But he was a close, lifelong, formative friend, without whom I would not only be who I am today, I would be a worse parody of the best aspects of my self.

Processing this takes time, and the energy and attention that process demands will not be denied or delayed. I am fragile, veering off into the avalanche of grief any time a tiny pebble of loss is disturbed, when I realize I can’t share something with Marc, can’t talk to him, can’t play games with him ever again. I know that I will survive this — among other things, it would dishonor Marc’s memory not to take care of the people he cared about, and that includes me — but it’s going to take time, effort, and pain to get to a place where maybe I am okay.

Right now, I’m constantly struggling with the Empty Place.

(In memory of Marc Curlee, one of my oldest and closest friends.)

(Supported by my Pateon)

RPG Table Talk: Session 0

It’s fairly common for people in discussions of tabletop RPGs to mention the idea of “Session 0,” but not a lot has been written about what Session 0 is, what you do during it, or why it’s potentially useful. Since I think a good Session 0 is a huge help in creating a lasting and fun campaign, I thought it was worth a brief article.

For those not familiar with the term, in general “Session 0,” refers to getting the players and GM of a new ttRPG campaign together before the actual gameplay starts, to go over expectations and do some pre-planning. Generally this is something done for a group that are planning on playing a game over a multiple sessions, rather than for one-shot games at conventions, demos, or organized play events. Most people assume Session 0 occurs after a group has decided what game they are going to be playing, who is the GM, what their schedule of play is going to be, and similar other broad topics that need to come before “What characters are we each gong to play” and “Do we have a rule for determining if a die is cocked and needs to be re-rolled?” That’s not to say there can’t be value in gathering as a group to decide what game is going to happen and who is running it, but that kind of “MetaSession” is outside the normal Session 0 process (though it may be worth it’s own article sometime soon).

From my perspective, there are three related but separate kinds of topics that should be covered in a good Session 0. The first is any introductory information the GM can offer players so they know what genre and tone the campaign is going to take. Does the campaign have a theme? Is it urban and gritty, or inspired by fluffy folktales, or a massive mega-dungeon? Is it a single short adventure, a homebrewed sandbox, or a published campaign designed to take two years to play? Is there content the GM wants to warn players might be included? Are there things the players want to warn the GM they don’t want to interact with? In fact, on content and behavior, the entire group can discuss any RPG safety tools, group standards, or safe words being used.

The GM can also go over house rules. My personal preference is for a written record of house rules, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. And yes, sometimes a GM discovers issues on the fly, that’s part of being a GM. But I have also been in games where the GM revealed a house rule about something major that they’ve used for years, but only in the 3rd session, when it turns out to impact the primary ability of my character. Any social expectations can be discussed as well–if a GM has issues with players using laptops or smart phones as character management, or wants clear signals if a player is speaking out-of-character, this is a good time to talk about those. Even things like what to do if a player can’t make it can be hashed out in advance.

Finally, players can also discuss and workshop character concepts that will mesh well with each other, and with the campaign. Does the group want to make sure it has one mage, one warrior, and one rogue? Is this a good game to play that idea that everyone’s characters are teenagers that got on the Pirate World log flume ride, and ended up in the Pirate City of Freeport? Do any players want to have characters that know each other in advance? Are there roles the adventure is assuming someone will fill, and if so are there players interested in filling those roles? Does someone want to play a morally questionable character, and if so, is everyone enthusiastically on board with that idea?

I also personally like to establish at Session 0 that everyone agrees that all players and GM are all agreeing to try to build a game environment and tone that everyone will enjoy. I know that seems obvious, but I have had people refuse to make such and agreement, and once at a seminar had a participant declare that they always insisted on playing evil clowns (regardless of the game’s genre or rules) that never took anything seriously and actively insulted other characters, and they knew they were “doing it right” if they could get other players to quit, cry, or both.

And making sure THAT isn’t anyone’s idea of doing it right is worth taking one evening of communication before you start playing.

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Why Isn’t GAME COMPANY doing THE THING?

Gamers often wonder why a specific game company (hereafter GAME COMPANY) isn’t engaged in some specific act of licensing, marketing, broadcasting, podcasting, customer engagement, convention support, or new game production (hereafter THE THING).

And while I can’t give specific details on why GAME COMPANY isn’t doing THE THING even when I know them, there are a few generic answers that come up so often, I thought it would be useful to have this response ready to point to whenever I need it.

There are numerous possible reasons why GAME COMPANY is not doing THE THING.

First, it may be a terrible idea.

GAME COMPANY has information you do not. This includes details such as (but not limited to) historic sales of various form factors and product lines, cost to manufacture vs sell-through rates, marketing costs, debt load, budget projections, contractual obligations, warehousing cost, warehousing availability, shipping costs, unpaid obligations, work capacity, unannounced projects, scheduling, and whether or not there is anyone at GAME COMPANY who has any interest in working on the THE THING, given that if its employees get too unhappy, they leave.

Even if they decide to do THE THING, it takes time. Legal agreements must be forged. Asset packages have to be put together. Clear rules on what is and isn’t allowed must be decided on internally, written up, and reviewed. Schedules have to be designed. Outlines have to be created. Budgets need to be projected. Brainstorms need to roll in for the best way to do THE THING without burning out the entire staff or making the same mistakes that 1/4 of the staff know NOW BANKRUPT COMPANY made when they tried THE THING in the 1990s.

All of that that takes work from managers, legal departments, and marketing people. Work that comes in on top of their normal load needed to keep making books and put them out at the highest level of quality and profitability. If you try to do THE THING, and while working on it fail to keep the normal flow of products going to pay the bills, THE THING won’t do you much good even if it is a success.

Often it seems like planning for THE THING should doable in a couple of days, maybe a week or two. But when GAME COMPANY’s staff is already generally already working 45-60 hour weeks to keep food on the table (on top of any freelance work or side gigs they have to make up for the generally low recompense within the industry), and any extra planning/meeting/organizing/budgeting/outlining can only be tackled when there’s a work lull, or people have extra energy, it can stretch out to months or literally years.

GAME COMPANY might love to do THE THING. As the very smart Mike Selinker pointed out in a response to this post, they may even be WORKING on THE THING, and just not want to announce it yet.

But even if they are fast, efficient, brilliant, and focused, they may lack the time, resources, or energy to do THE THING quickly.

#RealGameIndustry

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