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My Insurance Drove Up an RX Price by 100%

So, late last week I got my bivalent Covid boost (just in time for new variants to dodge it, of course), and flu shot on the same day. And, as I expected, I felt crappy. I expected that to last a day, and had the liquids and OTC I needed to cope. And when it lasted longer than expected and got worse, I just assumed the double-dose was kicking my ass.

Saturday I crashed into bed in the middle of a game session. Sunday I was only alert for short bursts. Monday morning, I realized both my ears hurt the way they do when I have an ear infection. And since I had self-misdiagnosed for the whole weekend, it was suddenly at the constant-pain-and-occasional-icepick-in-the-ear-level-agony stage of ear infection.

No bueno.

So, off to my local favorite urgent care, who have always taken great care of me when I can’t wait a few days to see my Primary Care Provider, but don’t need the E.R. It was one degree above freezing, awful slush was falling from the sky, and my wife had to drive me. The Urgent Care was nonstop back-to-back with children with respiratory infections, but got me safely in a waiting area by myself, took my vitals when a medical assistant had a spare moment, and eventually a nurse practitioner managed to see me. She checked, confirmed I had ear infections in both ears (and quipped “How do you DO that?” as they have seen me for this more than once), and that it needed immediate antibiotics, and sent me to pick up a prescription they called into my pharmacy. Eardrops, because they’d be gentler on my system than an oral. But, the nurse practitioner assured me, if I didn’t feel better in day I should let her know, and she’d write a new script.

This had taken a few hours, much of it in the feeing dark, but normally this is the point when we can pick up the RX at a drive thru pharmacy, go home, and begin to recover. But if that had been how it shook out, I wouldn’t be making a bog post out of this.

So we went to the pharmacy, and waiting for the prescription to be ready. And when it was, the pharmacy tech asked if we knew how much it would cost, and we noted we did not.

“$180,” she said.

“What?! For eardrops?!”

“Yeah.”

“Did you run our insurance?”

“Yeah. Let me double check for you.” [Click, click click.] “Yes, I double checked your insurance is current, and ran it. It’s $180. Do you want me to fill this, or put it on hold so you can call the doctor or your insurance?”

We put it on hold, and called the clinic. We explained, and the assistant said she’d go talk to the nurse practitioner, and could we hold.

We held. Sitting in a packing lot, in now sub-freezing temperatures, ice slowly forming on the car, we held. Thank goodness I *could* afford $180 for eardrops if I had to… but I couldn’t afford to do so unless I really did have to. And I love my wife, and love spending time with her. But this was eating my entire day.

The assistant came back on the line, and explained that the eardrops were only $90 without insurance… but yes, she had checked, and they cost $180 with our insurance.

Wha… what? We could get it at half the cost if we DIDN’T use the insurance I had spent hours selecting, and paid for out of pocket every month as a freelancer? It was MORE EXPENSIVE with my insurance?!

Yes.

But, she was sure that was still more than we wanted to pay, so they had called in a new prescription. Let them know if there was any problem with it.

So we waited a bit, drove through the pharmacy window to see if the new RX was ready. It wasn’t. So we waited a bit more, hoping roads weren’t getting slick. (They weren’t, thankfully.) We drove through again, and this time they had it.

“How much?”

“$25.”

“How much without insurance?”

“$40.”

“Great, just checking.”

And, apparently, while the double-cost/$90 upcharge is rare… prescriptions in the US costing more when you use your insurance is NOT rare. “Clawbacks” may affect close to 25% of US prescriptions, often running $5-$10 higher than the uninsured cost. That doesn’t explain the huge difference for me, which may be a result of a pharmaceutical manufacturer offering a huge discount to uninsured customers, and my insurance not covering the drug at all, so I both have the higher price and no help covering the cost.

So, yeah. The system is broken. And, when getting a new RX, check both the insured and uninsured price.

Speaking Of Money
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Guest Blog: Going Gray at the Table

From time to time I highlight opinion pieces written by other folks in the industry who are interested in having their thoughts hosted on my blog. This one is by gamer and writer Dan Gallo.

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.

Twilight of the Old Gods: Going Gray at the Table

By Dan Gallo

“Oh cool, my dad plays that.” 

That was the horrifying response I got when I told a young man I used to play Vampire the Masquerade. 

I was sitting at a bar and talking about what it was like to LARP in the One World by Night organization back in the 90s and early 2000s. OWbN, as we used to call it, was this huge shared universe game that had hundreds of LARPs across the US, all playing stories connected to the Mind’s Eye Theatre system from White Wolf Games. You could play as a reality-hacking Mage, snarling Werewolf, angel-powered Hunters, and countless other kinds of supernatural beasts. Vampire the Masquerade was my poison at the time and it was my obsession. You will never understand how many hours I squandered in a black trenchcoat pretending to be a bloodsucking creature in student unions around the Midwest.

Then one of the people I was talking to suddenly decided to choose violence and drop that Dad line on me. It socked me in the gut as I realized that the person who said this to me was roughly the same age I did my LARPing. I turn forty this year and I never felt older than when I heard those words.

No one likes to think about getting older or talk about what happens when they become the “elder statesman” of their gaming group, but for many gamers, that’s something we’ve had to deal with. The first generation of table toppers and dice chuckers are now in their 80s and 90s  and our hobby, a thing that feels artificially youthful to many of us, predates the invention of the personal computer by about three years.

We, the OGs who remember when this stuff wasn’t cool, are all old now and our hobby looks nothing like I remember it. Celebrities play this game and being a DM is actually a thing that can make you cool in high school. People casually talk about what kind of halfling rogue they play and how neat it was that they adopted Boblin the Goblin. RPGs have podcasts and video blogs and it has turned one group of voice actors into celebrities. Do you know how many times I have heard that weird guy from Dimension20 do that “Laws are threats” monologue? I’ve actually lost count. 

That guy has his own subreddit, by the way. 

With aging comes anger and annoyance. You start to build these ad hominem attacks on things that were never supposed to be your enemy in the first place. Often I find myself reacting to newness with a knee-jerk sense of grumpy rage. It can feel like I’m indulging in these invisible anger fantasies that came straight out of an internet message board. 

Oh, yeah, says the voice in my head, 5e has really shiny books but they sucked every piece of crunch out of the damned thing because they don’t teach math in schools anymore! I’m a veteran of the Edition Wars and you’ll pry 3.5 out of my cold, dead hands! Everybody on Critical Role was already rich. I’ve been gaming for years and no one gave me a cartoon show. Grrr eat the young!

I swear that at times it’s like there’s an elderly Incredible Hulk living inside me who reacts with anger at other people who just want to learn what I already know. I look around my gaming store and get irrationally angry None of you knows how to fight a gazebo, I think, and I refuse to explain to you fetuses what that means. Google it, you cowards! 

When I find myself slipping into that line of thinking, I have to pull back and realize what I am doing. I feel like I am being overthrown in my own hobby, not because of anything that’s actually happening but because of how I feel about myself. It’s misplaced anger and it’s silly. 

The better reaction is to acknowledge that kids are different, their worldviews are different, and that I, as a grown-up, have the chance to save them from the mistakes I have made. My conversation in that bar sent me on a google spiral that ended in me reading the latest edition of VtM and discovering all of the racist garbage that they took out of the game and feeling a sense of pride. New players to the game I really loved won’t have to read about dark brown vampires who get darker with age or the fact that someone decided that the African vampires are all drug dealers. 

Yes, that was all in the original books, and thank god it is gone. 

Still, you change as you get older, and not always for the better. There is a depressing sense that you are fading from view sometimes like you’re being colored into the background with gray paint. This meme is going around on Facebook about how we’ll all be tossing dice at the retirement home and how awesome that will be. It’s a nice idea but I know the truth: it won’t be as much fun. We won’t be using the newest systems, whatever that will be, we’ll be struggling with our dog-eared copies of books that have been out of print for forty years. We will vainly try to recapture our youth and the returns will be diminished every week. It’s hard to live in a fantasy world when everything is so painfully real and age robs you of fantasy each and every day. Playing a gray-haired old wizard is less fun when you’re an actual gray-haired old wizard. 

I know this is true because when I remembered my LARPing, I also remembered why I stopped. I was thirty-two years old and the game I was playing had dwindled from fifteen vampires to just six players. We had lost our last gaming location and we had to move to a park where we would have fake gunfights next to the jungle gym. At one point, we had a loud argument about a rule that the ST had misread. Then it hit me that I was arguing on a playground about who had died in our game of cops and robbers. 

That night I went home and did my taxes. 

Dan Gallo is the pen name of a former reporter and writer who lives in Louisiana. He currently writes the Strange Cases of Jimmy Bionel, a sci-fi detective series now available on Kindle.

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

The Print Run Crunch

(My blog post opinions are my own, and do not represent any of the companies I work, write, or freelance for.)

Tabletop RPG products that are part of an ongoing line and need a big, traditional print run (and here I’m going to go with 2,000 or more copies as “big” sadly, though that’s basically the minimum low end of big and 10k or 50k fits more strongly into this category) that goes into the distribution channel in order to make an acceptable Return On Investment have scheduling pressures that books that aren’t reliant on those factors get to avoid.

For that plan to work, distributors want to know your release date months in advance. Always well before a book is anything like ready to go to the printer. So, you do your best to write a schedule that makes sense to do that, and then you make arrangements with people like printers, warehouses, shippers, advertisers, freelancers, licensors… it’s a whole thing.

And because it is “a whole thing,” it is much, much more impactful if you miss that series of dates. Now, yes, it happens. Even the biggest companies sometimes miss a ship date. Sometimes it’s their fault. Other times, your normal printer can’t ship your product on time because they are shut down with too many employees out with Covid. (Yes, Covid. Yes, now in November 2022. This is not a random example, it’s something a tabletop-related company reported and is dealing with as we speak.)

But the consequences of it happening can be pretty severe, in both the short term and the long term. Distributors may push your product less if it doesn’t come out on time, or it may miss marketing windows you’ve set up in advance. Printing and shipping costs can go up precipitously (the Kickstarter Killer problem). Stores can end up not having the budget they set aside to get your book on their shelves because you don’t show up in the month they expect, and they reserve the money to spend on products with more reliable schedules. Printers and magazines may become less willing to reserve times for you in advance. And, retailers and customers may lose interest if they decide your release schedule isn’t stable.

No matter how hard companies try, sometimes their best effort at a reasonable schedule doesn’t allow for unexpected problems. Over 25 years in the industry I have had books get delayed because cover art was late, writers were late, editors were late, licensing approvals took longer than planned, licensing issues are found, files got corrupted, key team members became sick (or, sadly, even died), freelancers became unavailable due to things as serious as hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or war, and, of course, an international pandemic.

So when something you cannot predict or control goes wrong, and it goes wrong enough that the slack you built into your schedule can’t cover it, there is often a strong pressure to throw more hours at the project so you hit your printing/shipping deadlines anyway. Sometimes you can do this by adding more people, but that doesn’t always speed things on projects that require coordination between sections(especially core rulebooks). So, you look to have the staff working on it put in more hours… “Crunch Time.”

And, of course, the bigger and more expensive the book, the more pressure there is to get it done on time. Nor is this unfounded concern. A lot of game companies work on very thin margins. A major release going from a big moneymaker to just-above-break-even-or-worse can lead to cost-cutting that causes its own problems (you can have layoffs or do less marketing for one quarter, but you will suffer later), or even kill a game line or an entire company. This isn’t theory-crafting on my part. I have seen it happen.

Nor, in my experience, when a tabletop company has to go into Crunch Time, is it a matter of executives and managers airily commanding rank-and-file employees to work harder, do more with less, and stay late. At least with the companies I have been lucky enough to see the inner workings of, it’s much more likely that directors and department heads and publishers are among the hands for “all-hands-on-deck” emergencies. That doesn’t make it suck any less, but at least it’s shared pain.

And this, by the way, is one reason game creators can get pretty annoyed when someone claims something was just a cash grab, or the creators clearly didn’t care about quality, or it “just needed someone to read through it once to catch all the dumb stuff.” Because the bigger the book, the more likely it is everyone working on it put blood, sweat, and tears into it, and only caring about the quality kept them going at 2am, or when working 12-hour days for 20 days in a row, or pulling an all-nighter.

(This is actually one of the reasons the crowdfunding campaigns I run never include traditional print runs. I stick to pdf and print-on-demand, so that I can dodge some of these issues. And if something does get badly delayed, the fallout is less complicated. That does mean I am forgoing the possibility of a big retail hit, which limits my possible reach and income, but for me it’s worth it for my private projects. And given how many 6-digit Kickstarters I am aware of that ended up losing money, I’m happy to stick to my smaller-risk, smaller reward model.)

Now, none of this is an excuse to mistreat people or not keep striving to find ways to avoid Crunch Time. This kind of relentless deadline grind that still sometimes fails to hit the mark is one of the things that lead to burnout among creatives, and financial loss among companies. Nor is this an issue that only impacts some companies, or that has only come up in recent years. It’s hard to avoid, and happens often, to companies of different sizes, different structures, and different locations. It *can* happen as a result of negligence or bad decisions. But the vast majority of times I run into it (and end up Crunching for a project), it’s just an unfortunate consequence of how the industry and technology and retail have evolved. Those forces may not be insurmountable, but they are powerful. And a company may not crash if no one pulls crunch, but it’s a risk.

And often, it’s a risk even the rank-and-file employees and freelancers want to avoid if they can, even if that means Crunch Time.

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

On Being Your Own Hype Person as an Independent Creator

Neal Litherland recently wrote a piece on social media abut why he posted about content of his in multiple different places online. It addresses a reality many of us face (everyone but the biggest and most successful content companies, n fact), and with his permission I am sharing it here.

Neal Litherland has a Patreon that supports his blog, and you can support him by joining it.

Small Words

“No disrespect, you made something really cool, but why did you share it literally EVERYWHERE?”

I will use small words.

Your options as an independent creator are either, “Be silent about your work, and let it languish ignored,” or, “Share it in every appropriate venue you can think of, and run the risk of possibly pissing people off because you have to be your own hype man.”

Trust me, Internet friend, I would DESPERATELY love to not have to do my own promotion. If I had a legion of at least a thousand dedicated fans who each bought a copy of every new release, who read and listened to everything I put out and then shared it on their own socials, I wouldn’t have to be constantly seeking out new places to scrounge eyeballs. But I had to go to over 60 different forums just to scrape together 1k views. If I hadn’t done that, I’d have managed 50. 100, tops.

I appreciate that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to be subjected to promotional posts. But I promise you with full sincerity, as much as you don’t want to see them, creators sure as fuck don’t want to make them. But it’s that, or starve, so that’s where we’re at.

I Am A College Dropout And Professional Writer

I do not have a college education.

I can, technically, list “some college” on forms or resumes as my highest educational level, but I got 0 credit hours from that “some college.” It wasn’t a great time for me, and I failed everything. Yes, every single class. For three semesters in a row. And, really, the impressive part of that story is that I talked my way past the admissions panels and deans of schools twice after failing every single class I took. While my close friends and colleagues know I can be a tenacious debater (I mean, I also talked my way into my High School diploma, which I was technically 1/2 credit short of earning), I have to suspect being a cis white male who was the son of two university employees (a professor and an executive secretary trusted to log information about radioactive materials) has as much to do with it as my blessing of blarney.

I was invited into a scholastic fraternity too, after three semesters of all-failing grades. So, yeah, I was treated by a nonstandard set of rules.

But I gave up, and walked away, and got jobs as a pizza delivery driver (a few times), movie theater usher (for one week, before I quit), banquet setup crew, short order fry cook, and the manager of a student union’s parking garage. All the while, what I wanted to do was write, preferably for big professional game companies.

And that left me in a bit of a pickle when I was applying for those professional jobs in the game industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As tempting as it was to write “Education: Talked my way into a High School Diploma and got enrolled in the same college three times despite failing ever class every semester — ask me how!” I’m not a big risk-taker when it comes to promoting myself. I was aware that cutesy things (sending in your resume as a character sheet or formatted as an adventure, doing it on pink paper with sketches of unicorns in the margins, literally folding it into origami that popped open as you tugged on it) were things some other applicants did, and that I just lacked the aura of whimsey to pull off.

So, for years: “Education: High School Degree, Aegis English Advanced Writing Program, Some College.

(And “Aegis English was just a special talented student program in High School, but I figured it sounded cool, and if someone asked me about it at least I was at an interview stage, where I could pile on the effort to be a strong advocate for my position.)

I picked and choose from other jobs that made me sound organized and team oriented. Being a manager of, well, anything was better than a big gap in my work history. Customer service at a bank suggested I could pass a background check. Most of the rest of it? Chucked in the proverbial bin.

Once I was actually on-staff at Wizards of the Coast for 14 months from 2000-2001, that became the crown jewel in my resume for a while. I figured a staff game industry job, followed by dozens of freelance projects for the same company, suggested I did good work. Then repeated freelance work for other companies. Then there was regular work for Super Genius Games. Then a developer gig for Green Ronin, which became the thing I built all my resume around.

And I began to wonder… was listing “High School, Some College” helping me, at all. Or, with no degree to point to, no specialty listed, no ongoing education in years, was I just highlighting one of my weaknesses? If I could get some staff jobs and tons of freelance, didn’t that matter a ton more than a sheepskin? No matter how undereducated I was, I could clearly put words together in a way that generated repeat business, which ought to be proof enough I wasn’t an idiot.

Now, to be clear, if I HAD had a degree in anything relevant, like English, Literature, History, Archeology, Film Studies (you know, just to mention some stuff there are Paizo employees with degrees in), sure, I’d include it. But there comes a point where the fact I was the manager of a parking garage, or could bread and fry cutlets, doesn’t really say anything about my ability to be a good fit for a staff job about making up worlds and rules and adventures.

It was actually my application to Paizo in 2014 when I decided “Fuck listing my education, with its high school and a few hours of college but no degree. I have more than 15 years of relevant, noteworthy, easily referenced work in this field. No one gives a shit if I don’t have a degree.” What I did do on that resume was list every single publication I had been paid for and was credited with. Every Dragon article. Every d20 Weekly byline. Every sourcebook, pdf, online adventure, and official website rules-answers article. Pages and pages of them.

Quantity, I felt, had a quality all it’s own.

(It was also, I have since been told by people who had to read it, a bit much. Nowadays I tend to lump things like Dragon articles and official advice columns into an entry that says “Various articles for Dragon Magazine, published from 1998 to 2009, list available upon request.”

And I can safely say in nearly a decade since making that decisions, whether applying at small ttRPG game companies, megacorporations, or start-ups, no one has asked me what my educational background it.

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The Dichotomy

As a GM, I often want to make sure I am providing a rich environment where players can roleplay, explore, build connections and networks, expand into their own character and story, and feel they have a voice within and impact on the world they are thrust into. I try avoid making every session just a “monster of the week” fight, or endless dungeon stomp.

As a player I love those things when they seem to evolve naturally. When it feels like they are being forced and this results in slow sessions where no player is particularly engaged and things are sow, I desperately wish we could just go smash undead/punch fascists/shoot robots. I much prefer even a typical monster-of-the-week fight to a roleplaying session where things aren’t gel-ing.

This makes me wonder how often I am trying to hard as a GM, failing to just let things naturally evolve on the RP side. I have begun to think part of the issue is that my own GM style tends towards crucial, needful conflicts that can’t wait. That’s partially in response to my players generally being the opposite of murder hobos — they don’t want to have characters that murder and loot for the sake of murdering and looting, but want to be heroes who put themselves in harms way while saving others… even as they as players enjoy the action and reward of fighting and looting. So, I often generate foes who *must* be opposed for ethical reasons, and then players feel like they can’t take a day off without letting someone down.

Maybe I can find a way to have more fights and risks be optional, things you can feel good about going and opposing, but not feel bad if you let them sit because everyone really wants to help the orphaned goblin child find a home this week.

This is the other side of roleplaying for me; the flip side of rules and tactics and action economies and even storytelling. The fine tuning of figuring out what activities the GM and players will all enjoy going through within the game.

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AI Images as References for Live Artists

So, I’ve written a few articles on my exploration of human-prompted, AI-generated images. There is going to be more and more public discussion about this, and I think articles like this one at Kotaku, are important to read and consider. Of course, such articles are generally an undifferentiated mix of fact and opinion, but even where I disagree with the opinions I want to be open to them and see if any new points of view or data are presented that may alter my current position on the issues.

I also want to keep exploring various possible ways to use human-prompted, AI-generated images. One of the things I’ve mentioned is the idea of using such an image as a visual reference for an artist.

So, I did.

Here is an image of a lich I got from prompts fed into MidJounrey.

(Generated from prompts I fed into MidJourney)

I really like this image, including it’s sartorial style, but there are (at least currently) significant limitations I’d have to contend with if I wanted to use this commercially. Not the least of those is I have no way of creating different images of the same being.

So, what if I gave this as a reference to an artist I like? (And, you know, pay them to create more art.)

So, I took this to Jacob Blackmon and asked if he was willing to participate in my experiment (at his standard rate). He was, and sent me this sketch:

(Art by Jacob Blackmon, a living professional artist and great person.)

This highlights two of the things I love about working with Jacob. First, he did a LOT of design work in this piece, flowing from the reference image, but absolutely building well beyond either it or even standard fantasy lich images. Secondly, his sketch stage has enough detail for me to see where he is going and give useful feedback or ask for alterations. In this case, I gave an immediate thumb’s up.

So, that brought us to this, Jacob’s final.

(Yep, also by Jacob Blackmon)

This is awesome, it shows Jacob distinct and developing style, I love it, i can use it, Jacob got paid for it, and it would not have existed without MidJourney returning the top image in response to prompts I gave it. It’s not a duplicate of the original (nor did I ask for it to be), but it clearly uses that image as the umping off point for a new design.

I like this result, and can easily see going this route again. It remains to be seen how issues of legality, ethics, and public opinion shake out on any use of human-prompted, AI-generated images, but I found this a useful project to help me explore my own thoughts on the subject.

And, in this case, it put money in the pockets of an artist I like, which is always a plus.

Speaking Of Money…

I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. If you’d like to see more essays on industry issues, or Pathfinder 1st or 2nd edition, 5e, or Starfinder content (or more rules for other game systems, fiction, storytime posts, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

If you prefer, you can drop a cup of support in my Ko-Fi. It’s like buying me a cup of coffee, but more convenient!

AI Art As Writing Prompts

So, I generated this image using MidJourney.

(Created by me using MidJourney)

That image is at least as good as many I have seen in ttRPG gear books, and would make a great tripod security robot, or battle armor for a 3-legged species, or mecha for someone who pilots it from a chest cockpit.

But none of those things were what I was going for. Moreover, at least at current iterations, AI image generators can’t give me that same figure mixed with others, or in a different position, or holding a different gun. If I want any of that, I am much better off paying a living artist. So I expect living artists to be a crucial part of my business needs for the foreseeable future.

Right now, I’d say 80% of the useable art I get isn’t exactly what I asked for, or is background without characters. Other people are doing better, but I can only analyze where I am.

Which means a lot of these images end up being writing prompts if I want to use them in a commercial product. I have the skill to do that, and in one sense it meets my needs — if I set out to create a product I can generate images to build the game material or fiction off of until i have all I need, then write to the images. But I can also already do that with stock art. The upside of stock art is that it’s often easier to get things in the same system, there is an original artist I can go to commission variations if I end up needing them, and a copyright definitely exists (though not, for example, for public domain stock art). The advantages of the AI prompt are that it won’t have been overused before I release my product with it, and it may be cheaper. But it also may not be subject to copyright (see my last article on this subject), which would mean once it was out, anyone could reuse it. Again, much like stock art.

And, of course, I could use the AI generated images as writing prompts, then pay an artist to create new images using the AI image as a reference, which is going to have a mix of pros and cons that won’t be clear until case law is better settled, but it certainly less risky than pure AI images.

If I decide to use AI images for commercial products, I strongly suspect they’ll mostly end up being used for the same sorts of purposes as stock and public domain art. I haven’t taken that plunge yet, and may never do so, but I can see how these would become one more tool. I can’t see how they could replace all the artists I regularly give money to, even if I wanted to do so.

(This is an editorial. No part of this article is covered by the OGL.)

Speaking Of Money…

I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. If you’d like to see more essays on industry issues, or Pathfinder 1st or 2nd edition, 5e, or Starfinder content (or more rules for other game systems, fiction, storytime posts, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

If you prefer, you can drop a cup of support in my Ko-Fi. It’s like buying me a cup of coffee, but more convenient!

One D&D: What Can “Compatible” Mean?

This is an editorial. It is not covered by the Open Gaming License.

One of the things that’s being debated in the wake of the “One D&D” playtest release is how this is going to impact D&D customers, other publishers making compatible products, Virtual Tabletops (VTTs), and the ttRPG environment overall. For better or worse, D&D has a huge influence on tabletop RPGs overall in the English-speaking world. Even if you don’t play D&D, and never have, it’s popularity can impact what dice, maps, digital tools, play spaces, game conventions, and dozens of other adjacent materials and options are available to you.

There have been sea-changes in what was considered “D&D” several times before. The release of AD&D in the late 1970s was one, and to some extent so were both BECMI and 2nd edition AD&D. The release of 3rd edition in 2000, which dropped the “advanced” in the title, along with the introduction of the d20 System and OGL had a huge impact in 2000, and the release of edition “3.5” in 2003 is seen as going hand-in-hand with the “d20 crash,” leaving a lot of companies who used the OGL in trouble. (Indeed, many ceased to exist, and others walked away from d20 System-derived games forever.) Similarly the release of the radically different D&D 4th edition in 2008, which abandoned the OGL, had significant impacts throughout the industry (not the least of which was the creation of the circumstances that lead to Pathfinder 1st edition, and by extension eventually Starfinder and Pathfinder 2nd edition).

With the exception of the switch from 3.0 to 3.5, these changes didn’t much revolve around claims that the new D&D would be compatible with older editions. The release of 5e in 2014 was a bit different, often centered on the idea that it was going to take the best ideas from all previous editions, but it also tied to efforts to be simpler and more accessible, and to have “bounded accuracy” fix many of the problems in mid- and high-level play.

One of the talking points of One D&D is that this isn’t a “new edition,” but a modification of the once-and-future D&D engine that is the core of 5e. It is, we are told, going to be compatible with existing D&D materials.

So, in this instance, what does “compatible” mean? And, what’s WotC’s goal in striving for their new rulebooks (I’m entirely convinced there will be new print PHB, DMG, and MM books, and that belief serves as one of the underpinnings of this analysis) to be in some way compatible with the material they have been putting out since 2014?

Well, firstly, I don’t expect WotC to be particularly concerned about how their decisions impact people making “5e Compatible” products, and I don’t think it’s realistic (or, honestly) reasonable for anyone else to expect that either. The only group that might feel they have some claim on WotC’s mindspace is Dungeon Master’s Guild publishers, since they are working within the WotC IP, in a space where WotC gets a cut of their income. But even then, I personally expect WotC to do what they think is best for their own company (and will thus be most likely to allow them to continue to be the best-paying ttRPG employer in North America, and maybe the world).

My best guess is that WotC is going for One D&D to be “100% Adventure Compatible.” And, in this, I may be letting myself be influenced by the fact that’s very similar to what I was shooting for in the Fantasy Age Core Rulebook, which I have been saying since its inception was not a “new edition,” but a “quality of life improvement implementing much of what we have learned since Fantasy Age Basic Rulebook came out.”

While working on that, I discovered that you can make a new rulebook be “100% “compatible” with all the old accessories and adventures, and still not be exactly the same game. You can, with skill and caution, make a game with some new mechanics, and some mechanics that work differently, and not create anything that doesn’t work with the old game mechanics.

Let me give you a concrete, and entirely theoretical, example.

Let’s say you had S.T.A.B. (Sneaking, Talking, Arcana, and Battle) 1st edition, a very d20 System-esque game, where the success of most tasks are determined by rolling a d20, and adding some modifiers, and trying to hit or beat a target number. If you d20 die roll is a natural 20 you automatically succeed, and if it’s a natural 1, you automatically fail. And, one of the persistent pieces of feedback you get, is that people hate Hate HATE rolling a 2 on their d20 roll, because they will always fail due to the game math, even though it’s not an “automatic failure.”

So, when you release S.T.A.B.B.E.D. (Sneaking, Talking, Arcana, Bards, Battle, Economics, and Dragons), an “updated rulebook for S.T.A.B., you add a new rule — anytime your d20 roll is a natural 2, you then roll 1d10 and add it to your total. If you roll a 3 you add 1d8, if you roll a 4 you add 1d6, and if you roll a 5 you add 1d4. (This is almost certainly a terrible rule, I’m using it just as a very basic illustration of “compatible-but-not-the-same’).

Now, this changes the math of the game, and impacts how the game plays in many significant ways. Someone playing with the S.T.A.B.B.E.D. book is going to have a very different experience than with the S.T.A.B. book, and you can’t really have some players use one and some use the other. But you CAN use *either* to play through the classic adventure “King of the Demonpit Webs.” And they both work with the official expansion Stabinomicon book of extra classes, ancestries, spells, and talents.

But if a third-part publisher had released BASH (“Basic Adventure System Handbook”), based on STAB, and in BASH there was a whole system for earning a “booster die,” which you added to d20 rolls, and additional rules written with notes such as “If either your d20 die, or any die you get to add to it, is a 1, you take a point of Dangit, which the GM can use to cause you bad luck,” then the BASH system suddenly isn’t nearly as compatible with STABBED as it was with STAB.

Now, that example is clearly and intentionally ridiculous. But it shows how a new rulebook can have a set of notably different game rules that still work with all the official expansion books a company has released. It is, in that regard, “compatible.” And for people who only but official STABBED books, it doesn’t matter if they play older adventures or newer “Hardship paths,” though old STAB books, and anything other publishers build off STAB, may not work with all the new material.

While obviously I don’t have any insider insight into exactly what WotC is planning beyond what they have publicly stated, I have done this kind of backwards-compatible new game book work myself. It can be done. And it’s compatible.

Just not the same.

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What Is Owed?

As a creator, I sometimes struggle with what I owe my family, friends, fans, employers, industry, colleagues, and customers. Not any one of those things in isolation, but how to balance them against one another.

Especially when I prove unable to do all of the minimum of what I feel I should.

Do I owe my family some of my time every day? If so, does that supersede owing work to to employers who are paying me by the project? What if it’s by the hour, or by the month?

If I tease a cool idea and people strongly request I work on making it real, do I owe them that because I proposed it? I mean, I clearly think not, but then, why am I noodling with new ideas in my off hours anyway? If I have late work, do I *get* off hours?

Is there a level or diligence and quality I owe my employers? Do I have a duty to my colleagues and industry not to devalue, demean, or damage the business community we make a living on? How far does that go? Honesty in my dealings, sure. But, do I always need to give my best ideas and best work, or is good enough sometimes good enough. Can I primarily be concerned for getting my own from licenses and open sources, or do I have a responsibility to avoid the tragedy of the commons?

Obviously I owe customers what they pay me for, but where does my owing them go if I fail to produce what is expected when it is expected? Should I be willing to go into debt or bankruptcy to focus only on things due, no matter my economic reality? Should I spend less time sleeping, or sacrifice my health with simulants and energy drinks to crank out the overdue as fast as possible?

Do I owe something back to the community, which has certainly supported and aided me over the years. Is being a mentor to those who ask enough? Should I be seeking out mentees who are otherwise overlooked. Am I being a bad trustee if I don’t? Is it enough to do my best to cause no harm, or must I decry harm done by others wherever I find it? I have a venue, how much do I need to seek to actively use it to support others?

I’m not kidding about any of this. Some answers are obvious, taken individually. I told people who subscribed to my 52-in-52 program they’d get 212 pdfs, total, in 2020. For various (and often unavoidable) reasons, that didn’t happen. It’s 20 months past when it was supposed to be accomplished, and it still isn’t. So, taken by itself, obviously I owe those people the remaining products (because it’s not that nothing has been delivered) as soon as possible.

The 52-in-52 bundle is still for sale, and all the money I make on it (and more) gets channeled into fulfilling it. It’s a great value as is… but more is due. I’ll never give up on finishing it, and I make sacrifices to make that happen. But am I not sacrificing enough? Am I wrong to insist on making sure I don’t skimp on quality while grinding on 20-month-late material?

Is that as soon as possible no matter the consequences to my economic, physical, metal well-being? I think clearly not, but absolutely urgency and some sacrifice on my part is called for. As soon as possible while trying to also make sure people subscribed to my newsletter get their content, my family gets my love and support, my friends get to talk to me, my employers get the contracted time I have agreed to, and I am spend the time needed on my own health and sanity and relationships to be sustainable? That sure feels reasonable, but there’s no meter for that — no magic timer that dings when I have spent the minimum hours needed to fulfill my social obligations, or care for my body and mind. How hard do I push? Does the answer need to be “harder” the longer it’s been since I managed to complete part of the missing content?

When I am paid by the word, how much do I need to make sure I am giving the best, and most focused words? If I have to choose between hitting a deadline and hitting my normal quality level, do I make that call, or go to the people hiring me? If I am convinced it’s better-than-average is that good enough, or do I owe my very best work on every project all the time? That sure sounds reasonable, people don’t normally tell me they don’t care how good I job I do.

If I am instead contracted for hours, those have to be efficient hours, right? If I have writers block and stare at a screen for two hours, should I call that working on that project and be paid for it? Does it matter how often it happens? If it’s no more than my usual amount of wasted time is that okay because it’s part of my process; but if global threats and moving and friends dying and new careers being started means I’m having nonproductive hours much more than normal, do I need to not count them all as “work”?

If a colleague wants to consult with me to hep them in their career, do I need to refuse because the time should be spent on overdue projects? Is 5 minutes of it okay, byt 5 hours isn’t?

I’m not looking for anyone else to answer these questions for me. My honor, my reputation, my work ethic, and my need to do well enough to get repeat business and my guides, and I have been doing this for decades.

But I always keep an eye on: What is due?

And how do I balance the accounts for different aspects of my life when I can’t pay them all?

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