A lot of shows got cancelled recently. That’s fine. Good, even. It’s part of the Entertainment Cycle of Life.
So, here are my top ten pitches for new Geeky TV series. Note that in many cases while I am pitching it, I’d be the WRONG person to write, direct, or produce these.
It’s a single-room comedy… in space! Think of it as Cheers, but set at Quarks.
The US Civil War was about slavery. In a world where the heroes of the ancient world were real, and super-science and magic are just beginning to develop, this is the story of early mystery men (and women) operating during the civil war.
8. Lower Decks
The U.E.S. Topeka is the jewel of the United Earth fleet. On its upper decks negotiations decide the fate of systems, bluffs end wars, and strange creatures on contacted for the first time.
On its lower decks the sanitation systems have to be maintained, the quantum torpedoes polished, and the missing synthetics crate from storage 141 has to be found before the new official review. What goes on above deck 50 doesn’t make much difference down here.
Unless there’s a hull breach. Or a Krangin prisoner escapes. Or a visiting alien turns out to be accompanied by a vampiric slime that got into the air ducts.
A therapy group on loss decides they are tired of just mourning their dead. They have MMA fighters, engineers, paramedics, even a cop. No one of them could be a hero, but as a group? As a group they can forge one new figure to make a difference.
They can be Vigilance.
Foresee a fight? Then have one of the fighters wear the suit. Need to interrogate someone? Send the psychologist. Someone in the Vigilance suit gets hurt? Patch them up in secret at a member’s house, and send out someone else the next night.
No one has all the skills to be Vigilance. But between the twenty of them, they have this covered.
6. Lost City
Under Seattle is the famous and well known Seattle Underground.
Beneath that are the Tunnels and Cellars.
Beneath that is the Lost City. Things that have been lost, forgotten, or abandoned often end up in the Lost City. Atlantis may never have existed, but there are a few Atlanteans here. the Rat emperor is always lurking at the edges. And this is where the Sasquatch went when they were driven out of their native homes.
Debbie Darbaski’s little brother disappeared when they were children. Now a young adult she gets a letter from him, asking for help. In the Lost City.
5. Perri Hotter and the Arcane Adult Education Class
Look, not everyone in the Magic World can make it at the ivy-wand-league schools, like Warthogs, or Bullbrakes. Sometimes when you AREN’T the chosen one, your life takes an unexpected turn, and you best bet is Arcane Adult Education Class.
Of course that means if some villain DOES manage to encase all the major magic schools in dream ice, you and your evenings-and-online-classmates may the the only hope the Magic World has. And as the best-of-the-worst, everyone is looking to Perri Hotter, who was once mistaken for the Chosen One, to save the day!
Which doesn’t mean she can skip her day job, either. Saving the world doesn’t pay the bills.
The year is 2100. Asmara is the major, mobile solar-system traveling space station controlled by the African Union. With unlimited solar power and self-sufficient hydroponics, it is beholden to no one, and on it cultures suppressed for millennia are having a Renaissance.
3. The Game Masters
As the world gets weirder, the governments of the world often need experts who can tell the difference between real satanic rituals, and circles taken from the Paladin Roleplaying Game. Combining esoteric knowledge, game theory, and a host of friends with weird hobbies. Han Kite, Robin Kaos, and Mike Selinker (as himself!) tackle the weird cases the more traditional agencies have thrown up their hands and given up on.
A group of US firefighters go to help with an out-of-control blaze in Europe, but are cut off and surrounded by flame. they take refuge in a root-encrusted cave, pass out, and when they wake up and come out, it’s the 9th century.
And the locals mistake them for “ashmen,” Dane raiders famous for their ash-wood ships.
They have what was on them at the time, and their collection of modern knowledge. Can they make a new life in the dim past? Can they even learn the language? And, once they befriend a local village, can they protect it from the REAL ashmen, who are coming to raid?
1. The Morrigan
Erin Gabanna always loved her grandmother, but is still shocked when she inherits everything upon her grandmother’s death. In a letter, her gran warns her that this includes the title of The Morrigan–Erin is now the harbinger of death, lady of crows and wolves, and a member of the unseelie court.
Erin will be drawn to death and war for the rest of her life, and will be hunted by the one-eyed Cuchulainn as her geas.
Erin’s grandmother hid her connection to death, but Erin is going to fight it. Or, at least, seek to bring justice to those deaths she is drawn to. In this she leans on her friends of college, which include a paramedic, a lawyer, and her best friend, a celebrity bodyguard.
The Morrigan is a murder-of-the week procedural, as Erin is supernaturally drawn to death but decides to solve these crimes on her own accord, with a running B-plot of supernatural politics with Maeb, Dagda, and other entities trying to draw Erin in as a young, inexperienced member of the court with a lot of enemies, and few allies.
Entertained by just the IDEA of these shows? Feel free to support me on Patreon!
(Want to pay me to actually work on these, or create more ideas for you? Leave me a note in the comments, or shoot me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!)
My father was an alcoholic. He went to rehab, once, in the 1990s and toward the end of that process we had ‘family week,’ where the whole family came in for group therapy and counseling. So the other members of my family and I went, and spent a week there. It was a bit like summer camp, but the activities were figuring out how badly screwed up you were and crying instead of archery and canoeing.
While there for family week, I met a young woman who had been badly abused. I did not get, and if I am honest did not at the time want, any details of what she had been through. She was there for her own addiction. I either never knew what she was addicted to, or I have long since forgotten. She wasn’t in any of the group or therapy sessions I was in with my father and family.
She saw some of my RPG books I had brought with me, and was fascinated by them. She understood the concept immediately but, faced with multiple books of hundreds of pages each for just a few games (I know I had Rolemaster with me, I may have also had some D&D and Champions), she claimed that she “wasn’t smart enough” to play RPGs.
I assured her she was. I promised I could show her how the concept worked and we could play a game, with just a few of sentences of explanation, and three sentences of rules. She agreed.
“Tell me about your character.”
She loved rabbits. She wanted to know if she could be a rabbit, I told her she could be anything she wanted. She decided she was an anthropomorphic rabbit scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world who hunted (and killed) carnivores, and defended herbivores.
I gave her a 3×5 index card.
“Write down one thing you are good at.”
She wrote down she was good at creeping.
“Write down one thing you’re bad at.”
She wrote she was bad at keeping calm.
“Write down one important thing you have.”
I had meant one object she possessed. She wrote she had ‘limitless determination.’ This game was for her. I was not about to tell her she’d done it wrong. Limitless determination it was.
“Write down one thing you want to accomplish.”
She wanted to find a safe place to bring orphan bunnies.
I gave her a penny.
“I’ll describe situations, and you tell me what you want your character to do. For anything you try you flip a coin – your action succeeds on heads and fails on tails. If you try something you are good at or have an important thing for you get to flip twice and succeed if either is heads, while if it’s the thing you are bad at you have to flip twice and get heads for both to succeed. That’s it.”
She asked if, since she was a rabbit, she could succeed on tails, and fail on heads. That seemed super-obvious, and I agreed.
And so the “Hares & Holocausts” game was born. Getting to flip twice and winning if either was tails was a bonus. Having to flip twice and winning only if both were tails was a trial.
We played 3-4 times over that week, mostly at lunch and once one morning after breakfast. I borrowed heavily from Gamma World, Rock & Rule, Watership Down, and Seven Samurai. Her character never got a name, and she didn’t seem to care. I thought of her as “The Rabbit Without a Name,” who wore a poncho, and assumed the setting used an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Each scene was clearly defined as casual or dangerous. Casual scenes had no consequences. In a dangerous scene, there were normally 3 chances for her to take an action. Actions weren’t blow-by blow things like “I stab a scorpion bandit,” but more like “I attack the bandits, trying to drive them back out of the mine shaft.” One successful action out of the three was a draw–she ended up neither better off nor worse at the end of the scene. Two successes was a win. Three was a BIG win, and she got some kind of permanent improvement.
Zero successes was a failure.
If she failed at a scene, she took a wound which meant she had to either give up one of her bonuses until she healed, or write down a new trial (which she got to pick) as a scar she kept until she succeeded at a task using that trial. I remember she choose a scar at least once, getting a cut through her left eye so she got the trial “Bad at seeing things to my left.”
She picked up a katana, with a BIG win, which she got as a bonus she could use once per combat, because I wanted to introduce the idea of equipment. She also gained a psychic mind-stare with a BIG win, which let her try to take out a foe before a scene began, with no penalty if she failed.
She crossed The Waste, and found a mine shaft, which had evil scorpion bandits in it. Driving them away, the mine shaft lead her to a valley with a ruined town which had some bunny orphans in it. She saved them from a spider sweat-shop owner (who forced the bunny orphans to weave designer webs for uptown spiders), then went to find them a safe home. That took her to an old observatory on top of a nearby mountain, where she had to convince the ancient security AI (that controlled a robotic sphinx guard) to allow the orphan bunnies to live there. She hunted down and imprisoned a skunk airship pirate who made clouds the observatory couldn’t see through, and promised shed talk the orphan bunnies into become astronomers, and the AI agreed to let them stay and protect them.
Then she took the stench-airship, and flew off. She wanted to find, and defeat, the Uptown Spiders who received the designer webs. End of campaign.
I did not realize for weeks that she never killed anyone. Drove off, defeated, jailed, convinced to change sides, yes. Never death.
She really seemed into it, and told me she would introduce that game to friends of hers. She still didn’t think she could play a “real” RPG. I tried to convince her there were lots of games, like there were lots of books and lots of movies, and all she needed was one that was a good fit for her. I was not convinced “Hares & Holocausts” could be played seriously, thought I didn’t tell her that.
I’m skipping over a lot of the weird, awkward, difficult parts of this experience. I was making it up as I went along, and it was not as polished as this short write-up makes it sound, especially for the first game or two. There were moments I was uncomfortable. There was at least one time she burst into tears. I used some Rolemaster critical hit tables for narrative inspiration once, and that was a big mistake on numerous levels. The councilors insisted all games take place in one of the public areas, and only between 7am and 6pm. No one else played with us.
At the end of my week, I gave her my contact info. She was going to be there for at least a few weeks longer. I did not ask for, and she did not offer, her contact information. I never heard from her.
I think that’s the only complete, totally original RPG I have ever designed by myself.
My father stayed sober for 90 days, because one of the councilors at rehab told him he couldn’t — that it would be impossible. Through sheer iron will, my father took not a single sip of alcohol for three months. They were a good time to know him. Then, convinced this meant he wasn’t an alcoholic, he drank himself to death over the next few years.
I have a Patreon. It allows me to take the time to make posts that are freely available, like this one. Your support is welcome and appreciated.
This post is heavy, not gaming-related (at least mostly), personal, and from my perspective. I’m not claiming this is a scientific or universal explanation. Just my experience.
When you experience trauma, everyone seems to understand why it affects you immediately. You witnessed blood spraying from your mother’s face as a child. You got beating bloody by a random drunk you had never met before. You saw a naked woman clinging to the railing of a motel, screaming for help while a man tried to drag her inside. You were lured into the woods by someone you thought was a friend, so a group could jump you, force you into a ditch, and threaten to bury you alive. You were in a car wreck. An earthquake. A wild fire.
In the hours and days after that, everyone gets it. It was traumatic. You were rattled. It sucked.
Years later, if something sets off those memories so you begin shaking, crying, screaming, some people don’t understand why you haven’t “gotten over it.” Why is it throttling back your productivity, or driving you to seek self-medication, or suddenly making you have nightmares. After all you were fine yesterday, right?
Well first, most likely not. But, second, life is a building, and it’s always growing. Every year is a new floor, every event and responsibility a new tenant you have to keep happy.
The foundation is SUPPOSED to be strong and reinforced enough to handle every floor you build. But some of us built our foundations under poor circumstances. The concrete was smashed, or the ground was swampy. When we put the first few floors on it, we are okay, but every floor is new weight. More and more strain on that foundation.
And not every floor gets built strong, or even correctly. Trauma is a fire on the 5th floor. A wrecking ball coming in through a corner office. Flooding in the basement.
So, we do what we can to shore it up. Self medication is trying to fix the problems of all that structural damage… but it’s not always good as a long-term fix. You’re not doing the work to code, because your problems are ones that sticking to code won’t fix. The tenants are complaining about the heat, because you never got the HVAC fixed after basement flooded. So you set about renovations in their apartments and offices. More windows, more doors, spruce the place up. Sure, you are cutting holes in retaining walls on the 27th floor to do it, but the building is only 28 floors tall, so who cares?
But then you build the 29th floor. The 30th. Ten more on top of that. The external braces you bolted on to make up for the weak walls can’t handle that strain. The cracks in the foundation split their patches under years of use and tons of weight.
You seem fine… but there are problems.
Then one day, winds are just a tiny bit stronger than usual. The buildings around you are fine. They can take it. But you? Your trauma-ridden structure, patches and braces and ad-hoc fixes can’t take it. Your whole frame bends. Windows pop out. Girders on the 5th floor buckle.
People look at you wand wonder what the big deal is. The fire that weakened those girders was 40 years ago. Why are you making a big deal about them now?
We can’t tear ourselves down and start over. And while major renovations sometimes can help bring us up to code, it can be extremely difficult to use a building while it’s being renovated. Do I kick out functions like going to work, paying the bills, helping people out, so I can get the work of replacing major columns done? Especially since the workmen can’t promise the columns will ever hold the same weight, and don’t know what they’ll find in the walls when we start tearing into things?
Or do I throw up some more supports, just give up on ever using the 5th floor for anything, promise we’ll add high-speed wifi to the whole building, and hope I don’t drill through a sewage pipe as I install the fiberoptic?
Trauma doesn’t go away. It leaves scars, and you often don’t know where they are, what they look like, or what will set them off.
I spent way too long trying to decide if I even wanted to link to my Patreon in this post. It seemed cheap, somehow, to talk about my pain and then ask for money.
But I know some very brave, smart, struggling people who do it, and I never look down at them for doing so. So maybe we normalize that emotional work is work, and it’s okay to suggest people be paid for it.
If you want to contribute to my writing and videos, check out my Patreon.
EDIT: A post-script.
Since people have asked, yes, all the traumas I list in the second paragraph are specific examples from my life. I left out the sexual abuse as a child, mockery for fat shaming, bullying as a nerd, and probably dozens of others that felt less relatable to the general public.
That’s not the point of this piece but yeah, for those of whom it seems to matter, those ARE all examples of trauma in one person’s life. Mine.
First, note that I am a HUGE believer in playstyle being variable. I don’t think there is one BEST way to do almost anything in gaming. I often get annoyed if people are being too silly when I want a serious story… but that doesn’t mean I am right and they are wrong. Similarly if a group wants to focus on tactical miniatures combat using RPG rules, that’s fine, as long as they are all having a good time.
But for me, and the styles I engage in the most, this is the thing that I have done as a GM, and that GMs of mine have done, that has generated the most total fun.
Ready for the secret?
“Create the environment to tell the PCs’ stories.”
That’s it. … And that is a lot.
Anything I do — building memorable NPCs, adding GMPCs, worldbuilding, props, funny voices, creating a meta-plot, creating random encounters–it’s all designed to create an environment where players can build the story of their characters.
Yes, I want to have fun doing that. But I am specifically trying to tell HALF a story. I don’t want to write how the villain falls. I want to write how he rises, grows, becomes a threat… the players will write his downfall.
To me, this idea has two main corollaries.
First: Build the details in the places the players show interest.
Yes, it can be annoying if I mention there are two people in a bar (a mysterious cloaked figure with a circle of runes floating around her head, and a dirty pig-farmer), and the players only show interest in the boring one I *didn’t* build an adventure around.
But that’s okay. All my ideas connected to the circle or runes are still available. I just get there a different way, or table them until later. If the players want to know what’s up with the pig farmer, then THAT is the story they want, and I’ll give it to them.
What IS a pig farmer doing in the same bar as women with magic halo crowns? How can he afford a drink? Why isn’t he tending his pigs?
The answers to those questions can form the same story, or a new one. I’m even okay railroading PCs… as long as I build the track through the scenery they want to see.
Second: Give PCs opportunities to change, and be changed.
Gaining a flaming sword? Kinda cool, especially for some players. Gaining the ability to make any sword you use flaming because you saved a fire elemental envoy from being killed by evil water wizards and were named a Knight of Emblazoned Honor, a peer fo the Plane of Fire?
Of course, the player can turn that down. Or then seek out other elemental titles. Or embrace the idea of fire being their birthright.
On a smaller (lower-level) scale, let players save the owner of a tavern, and get free drinks. Be befriended by an entirely mundane mockingbird. Have one horse hate them. As with all elements of telling their story put out feelers, and build on what the players enjoy.
Look at their character histories for hints on this. A summoner who doesn’t know why they can summon a chickenlike outsider? Give hints to multiple potential answers, and see which ones they build on. A fighter who carried their grandfathers sword from the Otyugh Wars? Leave hints their grandfather did more than they ever let on… and the sword may have a destiny as well.
While non-item rewards are part of this, so it just giving the players a sense that their characters impact the world in ways large and small, and the world can impact them as they interact with it.
Don’t force change. But make it available.
While, of course, trying to give players more of the things they seem to enjoy, and less of the things they don’t.
It’s the most complex simple thing in the world. 🙂
If you get use out of or enjoy any of the content on this blog, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!
If you are trying to get a publisher (or developer, editor, producer–anyone who could pay you for words) to accept a pitch of yours, tell them why they should care about it.
Compare the following pitches for “State of the Union,” a hypothetical Starfinder adventure.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. What appears at first to just be normal academic pranks turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, and I could have it completed in 3 months.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, have 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available.
Among the projects I think might be a good match for your company is a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) titled “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
I envision this as 32 pages long and needing 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available. It could also be adjusted to be longer or shorter, to fit your production needs. The core of this adventure comes from my experiences as the manager for the parking garage of the University of Oklahoma Student Union in the 1990s. During my 20-years as an RPG designer I have considered designing it for d20 Modern and Star Wars Saga Edition, but what has always been missing before are elements now available with the Starfinder RPG.
So, this one is special. It was written in response to this article by Steven Marsh.
If you want to learn about RPGs and how they work, you should already know who Steven Marsh is. If you don’t, go look him up. But the main thing is that he was editor of Pyramid Magazine for 18 YEARS!
Steven has seen more RPG pitches than I will in a lifetime. If you ignore everything I wrote here, PAY ATTENTION to his much-better version (reprinted with his kind permission).
I’ve reviewed your submission guidelines and hope you’ll consider a new entry for your line of adventures under the Starfinder Compatibility License.
THE PITCH: Intrigued by seemingly mundane academic pranks, the heroes soon discover these deeds are cover for a major organized crime operation. With no one else taking this life-and-death threat seriously and the clock ticking down, only the spacefarers can infiltrate the multi-species student union and save the day . . . hopefully before the evening’s Zero-G-Pong Charity Fundraiser!
SPECIFICS: This is a lighthearted scenario close in tone to your adventures “Toastmaster Emperor” and “Pair of Dice Lost.” Designed as a combat-light standalone adventure for 4-6 low-level heroes, it can also serve as a followup to “Toastmaster Emperor.” It’s outlined at 31 non-title pages: 6 pages of background, 20 pages of encounters centered around two locales, and 5 pages of new gear and adversaries. It requires 2 maps; I could provide basic InDesign or JPG files, which can either be used as is or form the basis for more “professional” efforts.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to your thoughts!
You CAN put in too much information, and Pitch Three is pushing what i consider to be the upper bounds. But letting a potential publisher know you have done your homework, you have relevant real-world experience, and this isn’t your first rodeo are all useful additions to what you are pitching and why.
Also, as much as possible, reuse any work you have already done and still have the rights to (though clear that with your publisher, if it’s ever been seen by the public before) and write things you can use multiple ways.
For example, I WAS the manager of the OU Student Union parking garage in the 1990s, and I DO have an idea for an adventure called “State of the Union.” So, if a publisher asked me about this article, I could confirm those details.
(Though I DON’T have an outline. Yet…)
If you get use out of or enjoy any of the content on this blog, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!
I love my editors.
I kinda have to. I need to treat them the way fighter pilots need to treat their ground crews. without them, I can’t do my job.
They are the only people in the world companies will pay to make me look smarter.
So, when they savagely rake me over the coals on something, I try to pay attention. To be a better writer, of course. And to show them I respect the effort I put into sending me feedback.
But, also, because I never want to know the savagery of a twice-spurned editor who finds the same mistake in a turnover of mine after pointing it out for me all special.
So that you can perhaps learn from my mistakes as well, here are the three two most savage pieces of editorial feedback I have ever received on my writing. I’m naming names.
One. Stilted Dialog.
Lj Stephens was editing a short piece of intro fiction I wrote for a game product. She asked for a revision noting:
“It’s great, except for when people are talking. That is all bad. Can you rewrite this so no one speaks?”
Yes. Yes I can.
Two. Passive Voice.
Louis Agresta sent me feedback on an adventure I wrote for him that said “Too much passive voice has been put in this adventure.”
Wow, that sentence is So awkward I wonder why…
Three. American Spelling.
I turned over a manuscript to Wes Schneider which, to be clear, was for an American publisher.
I spelled the word gray as “grey” throughout the text.
He gave the manuscript back to me with editorial comments. The first time that appeared, there was a correction.
The second? A bigger correction, with a star by it.
The third? The page bled red ink.
Wes said we fought a war for that ‘A.’ He mentioned I was making baby George Washington cry. He drew a sketch of a field of cut-up and dying E’s in red ink on the manuscript, and told me I had to enter all the corrections myself.
With apologies to baby George Washington.
Good luck out there. Be kind to your editors.
If you get use out of or enjoy any of the content on this blog, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!
This is a very small thing… and yet an important one.
When, as a freelancer, you turn your project over to the contact with the client (be that editor/developer/manager/producer/publisher), make sure you are giving it to them in the format they want.
If they have a style guide, READ AND FOLLOW IT.
If they DON’T have a style guide, ASK how they want it.
For many years, I VERY much preferred writing in WordPerfect, then exporting files as rtf or text, depending on what my client would take.
But over the years, more and more of them specifically wanted .doc, or .docx, or even styled Word documents using specific fonts and styles.
So, I had to give up my Beloved WordPerfect, more than a decade ago.
The vast majority of freelance work I do now is turned over in styled Word docs, as requested by the publisher.
Some publishers HATE styled Word docs. Some need things in google docs. I literally had one ask me to send the material in the body of an email… which would be anathema for everyone else I work for.
So the takeaway here is that it’s very little effort to ask, and it wins you a lot of goodwill to give publishers materials the way they want them.
I hate being in situations where I don;t understand the social expectations.
This includes nearly all forms of confrontation.
Not knowing how things are supposed to go, not having a clear grasp of the rules of any interaction with people, makes me extremely nervous. Sometimes it makes me puke. I am not kidding when I say it’s among the hardest things I have to deal with.
For some things, my career of choice has made such interaction unavoidable. I have spent decades trying to get used to those specific interactions, both so I can fake them when they go off the rails of what I am used to, and so I just feel I have a stronger grasp on what their (generally unstated, often poorly understood) rules are.
When I don’t HAVE to interact in a way that makes me uncomfortable, I generally don’t. If I have spare spoons I might dip a toe in just to remind myself that fire won;t actually fall from the sky, but I rarely have the spare spoons.
Sometimes, however, I don’t feel I have a choice. Sometimes it’s about something more important than my comfort level.
My current apartment complex has a pond in the open area behind our building. It’s not huge, but at the center it is 4-5 feet deep. And, of course, as a result of the week+ of snow and sub-zero temperatures, it’s mostly frozen over.
But only mostly. And, that surface ice can’t be depended on.
Yesterday, I happened to glance out a window and see three boys playing on that ice. Throwing rocks to try to break through the ice… that they were standing on. Stomping on it to see if they could crack it.
I froze for a second. I did NOT want to have to interact with youngsters, age unknown, attitude unknown, and try to convince them (with no real authority) to stop paying on the ice.
In shock, I mentioned to my wife what I was seeing. She confirmed what I knew, but did not want to admit.
“Oh, lord, you need to tell them to cut it out!”
Yeah, I did need to. My discomfort, even if it was going to be extreme, was not as important as the safety of these boys. Yes, they were being stupid. But that doesn’t reduce the value of their lives.
So I stepped outside, and called out to them. I asked them to PLEASE not play on the ice. The ice could be thing, the water is dangerously cold, and if they slipped UNDER the ice it could be hard to get them out.
Oh, they said. Really?
Yeah, I promised. Really.
Okay, sir. Thanks!
And they got off the ice. And have not gotten back on it.
Objectively, this was an incredibly minor interaction.
Subjectively, I was exhausted and shaking for about 30 minutes.
But this wasn’t about me.
Sometimes, it isn’t about me.
Writing for tabletop games, RPGs in general, doesn’t pay fabulously well. Especially as a freelancer. The pay rates range from about half-a-cent-a-word on the lower end, to a ceiling of about 10 cents/word. An average is about 4-5 cents a word… and has been for this entire millennium.
Most of that is work-for-hire as well, so there’s no royalties, no residuals, and no opportunity to get a big payday when a project is a smash hit.
So, if you write 1,000 finished words a day, every day (which in my experience means writing 2-3k total words a day, so you have time for dead ends, revisions, and second drafts), AND you sell it all, AND you get paid for everything on time you’ll make… $1,500 a month.
With no vacation, sick leave, or benefits.
So, how does anyone survive on that amount of money?
Sorry, this is going to be a bit grim.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
The fact of the matter is, most people who write for tabletop games don’t make enough money doing so to pay all their bills (and especially not to do that and pay their own health insurance, put money away for retirement, build an emergency fund, and so on).
I’m not saying it can’t be done. I AM saying don’t assume you can do it until you’re seeing evidence it’s true.
Especially as you first begin to write for money, I strongly recommend you make that a side gig. It can be a fun way to make extra money, and it can reduce the stress of knowing your nascent writing skills/fledgling career has to pay the bills.
When I first began freelance tabletop game writing, I just wanted to make enough money to pay for a Dragon Magazine subscription. That was a reasonable early goal, and it wasn’t until I was making more money writing than my 40-hour job I went full-time. I strongly recommend this path. Yes, it reduces the pressure to succeed, and some people thrive under that pressure, but it also gives you time to make contacts, build a reputation, and settle in to a new lifestyle.
Live Someplace Cheap
Telling someone the secret to surviving on a tiny amount of money is to move someplace cheap sounds like out-of-touch advice from someone who doesn’t have to do it, and I’ll happily acknowledge that it’s just not a realistic option for everyone.
It is, however, exactly what I did for the majority of my freelance career.
In 2001 I was laid off from a salaried position at Wizards of the Coast, just 14 months after I was hired, and just 3 months after I had sold my out-of-state house and bought a new one on the assurance my job was secure.
And, suddenly, I couldn’t afford to live in the Seattle area anymore.
Note that it wasn’t as expensive them, even relatively, as it is now. But I also wasn’t as well-established then, and looking at making it as a full-time freelancer my wife and I could see it just wouldn’t be possible if we stayed in our new home, hung out with our new friends… or kept our new house.
I could have gotten a non-tabletop game industry job and made ends meet. But we decided nor to do that.
Instead, we moved to Norman, OK, one of the cheapest places in the US to live, and a place where we had an extensive support network. An there we stayed for the next 13 years, as I worked at being a full-time tabletop/RPG writer, up until I was hired by Paizo in 2014 and we moved back to the Seattle area.
So it wouldn’t be an honest or complete list of options from me, if I didn’t include one of the main coping methods I used.
We moved someplace cheap, and stayed there almost a decade and a half.
Ask For More
Don’t be a dick about it, but there’s nothing wrong (BEFORE agreeing to terms and signing a contract) with telling someone you want more money for a project. The difference between 4 cents and 5 cents a word may not seem like much, but it’s a 25% raise.
See if you can retain any rights. See if they can revert to you after 5 years. See if you can get profit sharing. Don’t come back with these over and over on the same project, but do feel free to ask for SOMETHING if you think you’ve earned it. If you are doing your 4th or 5th project with the same people, it’s worth seeing if you can get even a minor raise. It doesn’t have to be a cent a word– if they are offering $55 for 1,375 words and they won’t go for boosting it up to $68.75, ask if they’ll just do $60.
Every. Little. Bit. Helps.
And if you are someone who hates asking for more, or are afraid even one request for a raise will cause a potential client to immediately drop you?
The industry will be happy to never give you more… to your significant detriment.
People who pay you to write for them have a legitimate expectation you’ll do your best work for them, regardless of what they pay you. Once you agree to a pay rate, you are agreeing to do a good job for that amount of money.
Writing is, in my experience, a task where I can ALWAYS do a better job if I have more time. If I have a completely finished draft, ready to go to editing and layout, and a publisher asks me if I could make it better if I had a new deadline and they were going to pay me the per-word rate again to make it better?
The answer is always yes. That’s literally what developers do. And even with my own material, I can always find ways to make it better.
Which means, I can always find ways to take longer than I can afford to.
I’m absolutely not saying to rush through a job or delivery a crappy manuscript. Not only do I consider that unethical, it’s a bad way to build a reputation and a career.
But I AM saying that there’s is a reasonable level of effort to be expected from you, and if you constantly go above-and-beyond, you are going to make it hard to write enough to make a living. If doubling your time spend would give you a 5% boost in quality, then that would probably be spending too much time on that project.
The other end of “Write Fast” is to see what you are doing in your writing time that doesn’t put words on the page. Does every trip to Google to look up poisons used in ancient Rome end up with an hour spent looking at TVTropes? Then you may need to set yourself a research timer.
Did you spend more time watching videos of anime space battle that writing about space battles? Then you may need to set yourself some rules on what constitutes “writing time.”
Don’t make yourself miserable, but do remember that if you want freelance writing to reward you like a job, you need to treat it like a job.
Make Your Leisure Writing Work For You
I am assuming here that you DO leisure writing. That there’s SOMETHING you write for fun.
If not, I have no idea why you want to be a tabletop game writer, and you can just skip this one.
Whatever it is you write for fun — campaign histories, fan fiction, descriptions of fabulous gay taverns in Waterdeep — try to find a way to make money off it. Keep it legal — don’t violate copyright to make a buck — but do consider what your options are. If you are writing material for a campaign you don’t own, see if you can rewrite it to be generic and set it up as a Patreon. Post it to your blog and have a Ko-fi.com tip jar. Save it as material to raid if you get a writing gig you can repurpose it for (assuming you haven’t published it some other way at that point). Gather it together into it’s own product and pitch it to publishers… or get into self-publishing.
If you are a writer, all your writing has value. Don’t overlook ways to monetize anything you have written. If you wouldn’t have written it anyway and posting it gets you $10 a month? That means you can cover one more $100 expense once a year.
Recognize Feast and Famine, and Act Accordingly
As a freelancer, sometimes you’ll have a (relatively) large amount of money drop in your lap at the end of a project… and then nothing for months.
Try to prepare for that.
Hold back money for bills you can predict. Try to build an emergency fund. If you have extra money, that’s a great time to buy in bulk if it’ll actually save you money. But if you don’t know when your next payday is, it’s a good idea to spend as little a possible. You don’t want to get a great deal on 40 gallons of peanut butter, then not have money for any other groceries–or gas, or rent–for 3 months.
I am not the person to tell you when it’s time to take a big risk, or give up, or move on, or take a temporary gig to make ends meet. Only you can do that.
But you need good data to make that call accurately.
So keep track of it all. What you made, what you spent it on, how long it took.
Maybe you discover you can write adventures much faster than campaign settings. Or that you spend too much on pizza delivery when you are on deadline. Or that you can save money on taxes with business deductions.
I don’t know. And if you don’t keep track, you won’t know either.
Yes, relationships with publishers, developers, and editors, in an effort to be kept in mind for work. But also other writers (to bounce ideas off of, commiserate, or in case they become publishers, developers, and editors). People in your community who do freelance work (you never know what resources are out there, and local folks are good contacts to find out). Even fans… sometimes.
Your career is more than your skill. It’s who is willing to pay you for that skill, which means who knows you. And who they think will pick something up because you wrote it, which means who they think knows you matters too.
As an introvert with social anxiety I found this one of the hardest things. But I discovered that when people at conventions invited me out for drinks, they didn’t care if I drank or not. I could get a club soda. It was just an opportunity to network, hang out, make connections. I set my career back at least a decade by avoiding those opportunities for most of my career.
Be smart, be safe. But when you are safe and comfortable, reach out to folks, and make connections.
A strong community will pay dividends in ways you can never predict.
Post Your Thoughts, Ask People to Pay You For Them.
There’s always SOMEONE who cares what you think, and who looks up to where you already are.
Some of them will pay you if you post to a blog, and have a link to some way to give you money.
If you found this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, (and/or if you want the best venue for suggesting more topics to me), check out my Patreon!