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Root of the Problem (A Pathfinder 1e Mini-Adventure)

I recently applied for a full-time, remote, full-benefits, game writing position at Foundry. (One thing I have learned in this industry is that you need to keep up with changing needs and markets.) While I didn’t make the final cut, I did get far enough along to do a timed writing test. I was given instructions at 10am by email, and had to return my work by noon. The test called for an adventure in any game system I wished, that included a missing druid as part of the plot and at minimum one encounter that included investigation, one that included talking to an NPC, and one that was potentially a fight. The main prompt was “The wilderness surrounding a remote town has become perilous. Wildlife that previously avoided contact with humans is now overcome with some form of madness or disease, attacking townsfolk with reckless ferocity. A local druid and longtime protector of the region has gone missing. The protagonists are tasked with investigating the nature of this affliction and resolving it, if possible.”

Obviously, with just two hours for a complete adventure I just managed a “first draft” level of manuscript. But I thought people might be interested in what a produced. So, with Foundry’s express permission, here is “Root of the Problem,” a Pathfinder 1st -edition Mini-Adventure for 3-4 characters of 1st level. By Owen K.C. Stephens.

(Art by Chaotic Design Studio, and not part of the original writing test)

Adventure Background
The Crosstimbers are a dense and ancient forest, filled with towering evergreen trees that rise up to 300 feet tall, smaller trees that grow in clumps so tight that their limbs cross and weave together to form natural platforms, and dense, thorny underbrush that is often impassable to anything larger than a rabbit. They are also the site of an ancient battle thousands of years ago, between a powerful necromancer queen and a court of faeries. Though relics of this battle are mostly buried deep beneath the roots and moss of the forest, their influence can sometimes reach up to the surface level.

One such ancient power is the Grave of Lord Vaugir, also known as the Baron of Stakes. A powerful wight warrior who served the necromancer queen, Vaugir had a particular hatred of vampires (even those who were theoretically his allies), and carried a number of wooden stakes he used to both unsure those he killed would not raise as vampires naturally, and to destroy any vampire he could successfully accuse of treachery to their queen. Lord Vaugir was slain by a group of faerie Swan Knights, and buried in a stone tomb hundreds of feet below the surface. While Vaugir himself remains trapped in the tomb, a few roots of one redwood have cracked one corner of his burial vault, and been tainted by his undead powers.

This influence has not gone unnoticed, as the dwarven druid Ferron Ironbark has long known one of the Crosstimber’s mighty trees was fighting some dread infection. Ironbark has monitored the tree for decades, doing his best to heal and nurture it in the hopes it would overcome what ailment was attacking it. However, at the last new moon, the necromantic energy finally took control of one of the redwood’s roots right at the surface becoming the Grave Root and, when Ferron came to visit it, it impaled him through the heart. Ferron’s apprentice, a brownie named Rumpleridge, managed to drag Ferron back to the druid’s grove, and has watched over the body to ensure it won’t rise as some form of undead.

The Grave Root still does not control more than one short length of the redwood it is attached to. It cannot free itself, and cannot, yet, taint the entire massive tree it’s attached to. However, it can reach a spring adjacent to where the redwood grows, and has been tainting that water for a month now. The spring is a common watering hole for native fauna, which are also being tainted by the Grave Root’s power. This makes them ravenously hungry and much more aggressive than usual, but also causes them to work together and not attack one another regardless of the natural instincts.

Not far from Ferron’s grove is the town of Highmoss-On-The-Hill (often just referred to as “Highmoss”), a walled settlement just outside the Crosstimbers. The people of Highmoss have long been on good terms with Ferron, and work to maintain a sustainable relationship with the Crosstimbers. They gather herbs and wild mushrooms, hunt only as much food as they can eat, drag out dead timber for their own use, and make sure any foray into the forest is able to come home before nightfall. While an occasional attack by minor monsters or wild animals is not unknown, in the past month anyone who stays in the Crosstimbers for more than 2-3 hours has suffered an attack by wolves, wolverines, a bear, or even packs of apparently-rabid squirrels. No one has seen Ferron (and the town is unaware he has died), and in recent days some townsfolk have been attacked within sight of Highmoss’s walls, not even within the Crosstimbers.

The Town Council has decided someone must venture into the Crosstimbers are travel to Ferron’s Grove, a 6-hour trip down a well-known path, and speak to the druid. This group should confer with Ferron, determine what is going on, and if possible assist him in fixing it. The more experienced hunters in town who would normally undertake such a missing are missing or too injured from wildlife attacks to attempt it, so the PCs have been chosen to do so. It is the height of summer, and daylight lasts 15 hours from sunup to sundown. If the PCs hurry it is hoped they can enter the Crosstimbers at dawn, consult with Ferron, solve the issue, and return before sundown.

Random Encounters
Wandering around the Crosstimbers is genuinely much more dangerous than usual, and there’s a chance the PCs may encounter some of the fauna that has been affected by the water tainted by the Grave Root. Until the water source is cleaned, for each hour the PCs are exploring the Crosstimbers there is a 20% chance of the PCs being confronted by one of following random
encounters. That chance doubles at night, and is halved if the PCs have been confronted by an
encounter in the past hour.
[Insert CR ½-1 random animal encounters here]

The Dead Hunter
The trail is marred by the smell of blood and signs of a vicious fight. Torn leather and cloth are scattered about, and a few tufts of black fur sit matted in old pools of blood.

This is the location where a Highmoss senior hunter, Apaxus Longshank, was attacked and killed by a pack of black wolves tainted by the spring next to the Grave Root. His body was dragged off the trail when they ate him, and a DC 10 Survival check to track or DC 15 Perception check to spot signs of the drag marks can locate him.

Examining the body show bite marks that can be identified as wolves, but the more significant clues are on Longshank’s own weapons. He fought with a masterwork handaxe and shortsword, which are still clutched in what’s left of his hands. They are bloody from the fight, but the blood is streaked with dark, oily slime. A DC 10 Knowledge (religion) check reveals this is necroplasm, a material sometimes used in place of blood by undead creatures. Finding it mixed with actual blood suggests the attacking wolves had been tainted by undead energy, but not yet true undead.

The Grove of Ferron Ironbark
The dense canopy of leaves and branches above break open, and light shines down to reveals a small, neat grove just off the path. There is a round hut with neatly fitted stone walls, a low, wide wooden door, and a roof apparently made of interwoven tree leaves and needles. A firepit sits in the middle of the clearing, with a wooden framework holding a small iron cauldron and
kettle side-by-side above it, but there is no fire now.

To one side of the clearing a neat pile of rocks has been build in an elongated dome roughly five feet long and three feet high. Laying next to it is a short humanoid, no taller than a human’s knee, with a bulbous head topped with a pointed felt cap.

This is the grove of Ferron Ironbark, but now it is his burial place. The brownie Rumpleridge build a stone cairn for his teacher and friend Ferron, and guards it all day and night. Rumpleridge won’t notice or acknowledge the PCs unless they call out to him, and even then, he’s slow to realize who they are or what they want. But eventually his enormous tear-streaked eyes will focus on them, and he’ll answer their questions as best he can. Rumpleridge wants to honor his teacher’s alliance with Highmoss, but is unwilling to leave the cairn for any reason. He plans to stay here through the summer and fall, and only come winter will he consider moving on.

Rumpleridge knows the general backstory of the Crosstimbers, but not the details of Lord Vaugir’s tomb or creeping influence. He does know Ferron was convinced some ancient, deeply buried evil was tainting a specific redwood an hour from the grove, at a major watering hole, and that a root from that tree impaled the druid. He gets tearful when he admits he saw the event,
and that it took all his strength and cunning to drag Ferron back home, and bury him.

Rumpleridge knows animals are going rogue, and can confirm that behavior began when Ferron was killed. It doesn’t occur to Rumpleridge that the Grave Root is infecting the nearby watering hole, but he does mention the infected redwood is “By the main watering hole in this section of woods,” and if a PC asks if the watering hole could be the source of the problem, Rumpleridge agrees the animals becoming vicious are all ones that would periodically drink there. As Ferron had been checking on the tainted redwood for decades, there is a well-worn path leading from the clearing here to the watering hole.

If attacked or pushed too hard to render aid, Rumpleridge will use his brownie powers to harass and confuse the PCs, but he won’t risk harming them. If he must, he flees into the Crosstimbers, and only returns to the cairn after the PCs have left.

The Grave Root
A large pond sits in a low point in the forest, a short outcropping of rocks surrounding it to the north and west, and the roots of a mighty redwood bordering it to the south and east. The surface of the pond’s water seems oily and black, with dark swirls spinning within it though there seems to be no breeze or current to cause the movement. At the southern edge of the pond, one root among the masses is darker, wetter, and more gnarled than the others, it’s 10-15 foot length pulsing slightly. The tip of the root moves, dipping itself into the pool to release a black ooze that joins the oily darkness covering all the water. The root then curls up, rising like a wooden tentacle, and sways back and forth.

The Grave Root uses the stats for a Draugir (HP 19, Bestiary 2), but with the following changes.
It has 15 feet of reach. It is immobile. It can fire a hunk of its own rotting bark as a target as a ranged attack that uses its slam attack, but has a range increment of 20 feet.

If the Grave Root notices the PCs, it immediately attacks. If destroyed, it breaks down into rotting mulch, and the oily blackness begins to clear from the water (taking 2-3 hours to be fully gone). If a PC drinks the water before it is clear, they are immediately confused and affected by the rage spell for 1d10 minutes.

The oily material on the pond is necroplasm, and PCs who found Longshank’s body can identify it as the same as was in the blood on his weapons. Without the Grave root, the water will run clear within hours, and the tainted animals return to normal within a few days.

Continuing the Adventure
Dealing with the Grave Root eliminated the immediate problem, but the risk presented by Lord Vaugir’s tomb remains. Striking up a friendship with Rumpleridge can help explore the region and safely travel further into the Crosstimbers. Seeking a senior member of the faerie court that claims rulership over the forest may reveal the true nature of the evils buried beneath it, and
lead to finding and dealing with Lord Vaugir, and other threats like him.

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Developer Basics: The Art Brief

I got asked by William Patrick Peña about Art Briefs on Twitter today, and I realized it’s a topic I’ve never talked about much. It falls in the same kind of category as my “Writing Basics” line of articles for ttRPG creators…except writers aren’t normally asked to write art briefs for their work. There are exceptions of course (ranging from one-person shops to small groups that want to divide the workload to companies that just do things differently), but in my experience most often an art brief is created by a developer, art director, graphic designer, publisher, producer, or content editor (depending a lot on how work is divided and what titles are used for what roles within a company).

So I’m calling this a “Developer Basics” article, though I’m still tagging it as Writing Basics in the blog categories and tags.

I don’t have a LOT of advice on this topic – it really is an area where doing is the best form of learning. But I do have a few, so here they are.

First, the what.

An art brief, also sometimes called an art order, art description, or graphics order, is a written description of non-text elements needed for a book. This is very likely to include the cover art, and interior illustrations of various sizes (often broken down as full-page, half-page, quarter-page, and spot art… but not always).

Second, WHOEVER you are doing art briefs for, ask how they write them, see if you can get some examples, and follow their lead. This may be as specific as format (I have done art orders in Word, Google Docs, Excel, Discord, Asana, Slack, Basecamp, and even a few forms of proprietary software designed specifically to receive art briefs). There may be rules about the budget, where are can come from (which is often handled by an art director rather than a developer… but not always), how much you can fit into a size of art (such as requiring quarter-pagers to be just a single figure with absolutely no background, or spot art to only be a single object such as one piece of equipment, or one distant shot of a simple building like a tower). There may be rules about orientation (landscape vs portrait, specific proportions, the need for a border that can potentially be cut or obscured, and so on). No one will thank you for deviating from a publisher’s format without prior approval.

Third, be aware an art brief may or may not include map sketches. While almost no one expects a writer or developer to be able to create a print-ready quality map (although some incredibly talents devs, myself very much not included, are capable of doing so), professional cartographers won’t put *anything* on a map unless it is clearly marked. If you want wrecked cars in a street, they need to be on the sketch and be clearly marked what they are. If you want them to be different types of cars, you need to say so. Trap doors, wood vs stone textures, rugs, chairs — it all needs to be clearly marked on a map sketch.

The timing of an art brief can also vary wildly by company. Some want art briefs done before writing is even finished on a manuscript, because art can take a lot of time to get in, and the publisher wants time for revisions. Others prefer for the final layout to be done or near-done, so it’s easy to see what pages need art, and what size and shape they need.

Be aware that not every artist has English as a first language, Avoid idioms and euphemisms if possible. These aren’t always obvious. I was once shown a piece of art that came from an art brief for a “man-eating tree.” It was a man, sitting in a forest, with a fork and knife, eating a tree.

Think about how posture, accessories, and form may impact the shape and space of a piece of art. A single figure in a quarter-page illustration of a woman with a rapier may seem simple enough, but if the woman is doing a drop-thrust with a rapier at full extension, she’s going to take up a lot more room.

Keep track in a written, searchable format of choices about gender representation, ethnicity, body type, age, and other factors. It’s up to you to decide if you want all your men to be heroic warriors and all your women to be scantily-dressed seductress witches (don’t do that, by the way), but it’s super-easy to not notice a trend unless you have these factors written down. And if you ever think you might have to fight for a decision that’s important to you, being able to point out that out of 27 character illos in a book you only made one obese, bespectacled, and bald can be useful ammunition.

Be aware that artists will generally default to what they are asked for most often if you don’t specify otherwise. If you don’t specify an ethnicity, they’ll be Caucasian. If you say they should be “brown,” they’ll be tan Caucasians. If you don’t specify body type, they’ll be fit and attractive. And if you don’t call out in the strongest terms that a woman should be illustrated with “no skin showing other than on her face, neck, and hands,” (and yes, I evolved that exact language to combat this trend), there’s a really good chance all women will be sexualized, with exposed cleavage and bare thighs.

Art references can help. If I want an estoc, specifically, I need to send the artist a visual example or link to the same. If you want a man to have strong African features and natural hair with a fade, you need to be clear on what that looks like.

Also, if you are doing any hairstyles outside your own personal experience, research them. A lot of hair styles mean something to the cultures they come from. Don’t assign them without some idea what statement you are making to people you are now representing in art.

Similarly, keep track of and think about the message your art sends. If all goblins are barefoot and have bones in their hair, you are presenting them as both uncivilized, and tied to racist caricatures of African natives. Don’t do that. Also, don’t pick an ethnicity or culture and make them exclusive to the visual style of your villains and evil cults. Yes, this is a lot of things to keep in mind while trying to describe the visuals for a imaginary world. but representation matters, normalization matters, and the message you are sending in visual form to people in different groups?

It matters.

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ADDED CONTENT!
The following are art brief tips by veteran developer AND artist, Stan!

Art Brief Tips:

• Come up with a CONCEPT for the piece rather than trying to imagine exactly what it should look like.

• A piece of art is a snapshot of a single moment, not a flowing scene of actions and results.

• Keep the description as short as possible. A sentence or two if possible.

• Include only the details that are NECESSARY. The artist can’t tell the difference between a key element and a “colorful addition.”

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.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 6. When The Publisher Ruins Your Turnover

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer who I had offered to help get some 3pp material published for, and who then had some other opportunities pop up that (quite rightly) they pursued first. But we kept in touch, and I was happy to give guidance and advice when they wanted it.

Recently, they had some material in something published professionally… and the product was not great. I won’t go into details, other than to say the final text is pretty clearly worse than the original turnover the freelancer sent in. Now, that happens sometimes. It’s much, much rarer than things being significantly improved, in my experience. It’s even rarer than a freelancer thinking something has been ruined, when in fact the publisher has made improvements the freelancer simply isn’t fond of. But a publisher ruining a good draft does occasionally happen. And, when it does, it can be a shock, and a real emotional gut-punch.

Especially if the product was something you were excited about, seeing it’s final form be less clear, more typo-ridden, and riddled with worse rule implementation can be spectacularly disheartening. Given how tough ttRPG creation work is, how poorly it generally pays, and how little respect the work earns from the general public, often the joy in seeing the final product–with all its polish and improvement–is the biggest reward for the labor you put into it. When that is not just worse than you expected, but worse than you handed over, it can feel like you wasted your time and have been treated with disrespect.

In this case, the freelancer asked if I was willing to offer any suggestions on how to handle both the professional issue, and the emotional toll it takes. My adapted response is below.

“First, know that this is rare. Also, that’s always hard when it does happen. As a socially awkward depressive, I have had some projects changes and/or cancellations send me into deep negative states. It’s rough.

So, what to do about it.

Assuming the whole book isn’t a shitshow, it’s totally worth celebrating it as a project you contributed to. Credits are important, and even if they take away your joy, they shouldn’t also get to take away your stepping stone. You worked hard for this, and if you decide to move forward with freelance work, it’s worth having a professional credit from a recognizable company name on your resume. As long as the issue isn’t a moral or legal failing, even if you aren’t a fan of the final form, the very fact you did the work and it got published can help you get more opportunities in the future. The best way to clean a bad project taste out of your mouth is with a better project.

Even if you claim the project credit, since you earned it, feel free not to talk about what specifically you wrote for it. Usually, people don’t ask. If the DO ask, just say “Since the developer made changes, I don’t want to claim anything specific without the developer weighing in first.” If someone notes the project has a lot of errors, it’s fair to say you are not the developer or the editor, but don’t go farther than that. As a freelancer looking for more gigs, there’s no upside to making a stink about the quality of other people’s work if it’s not an ethical or legal issue.

It can be worthwhile to reach out to your developer and (politely) ask about specific changes that seem to be errors or violate the guidelines you were given. Don’t say it’s wrong and they messed it up – just say something like “I note that I wrote the Thingamabob gives a +2 bonus, in keeping with the design document I had, and the final version gives a +5. Is there a design consideration I should be aware of, so I can create material closer to what you need?” This kind of request-for-feedback is fairly common, and even if it the change to what your wrote just a big fuckup on their part, bringing it to their notice at least means they can start more quickly to work on errata, if any.

Those are practical concerns. Emotionally? That’s harder.

Bitch to friends you trust to keep it quiet. Play a game as different from what you worked on as you can. Pet a cat. Do an internet search for “TSR DaWizard,” and when you read the stories remember a BIG company got that one wrong on a huge scale. Drink some hot cocoa (or whatever fills that role for you). Let some time pass.

Know that this is a moment in your career, not an omen about the entirety of it.

Also… the pandemic has been hard on every creative I know. This both makes projects more likely to get botched, AND makes the impact of having your work be mangled so much more impactful. We have no idea the circumstances under which the developers/editors got their work done on this project. It may be an outlier that just suffered from massive internal problems with the company. It sucks for you, but it isn’t personal. And it isn’t going to happen every time.

Give yourself permission to be angry right now, and to need some time to shake it off. Usually, after a few weeks, it won’t be quite so raw a wound.

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Creating With Mental illness: Prioritizing And Impossibilities

I’ve made no secret of the fact I have multiple mental health challenges, including civilian PTSD and depression. This has been true for my entire nearly-25-year career, and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties as a result. As a ttRPG writer and developer, I deal with deadlines a great deal. As someone who can suffer executive disfunction, the core tasks needed to hit deadlines are sometimes impossible for me. There are days I am literally unable to multitask, plan, organize, and, yeah, prioritize.

If I were smarter, I’d have gotten out of the deadline business. But I am stubborn and strongly, weirdly, dedicated to creating (and trying to promote and improve) tabletop roleplaying games.

Which means over a quarter-century, I have developed some coping mechanisms. None work all the time. Many make only a marginal difference. But deadlines, budgets, projects, and deadlines are often won or lost in the margins. If something lets you average 2,050 words per day rather than 2,000, over 52 five-day workweeks, that’s an extra 13,000-word project done every year.

One of the things I have to deal with is the conflict between prioritizing, and the things at the top of the priority list being impossible. I can’t fix that conflict, even though it happens over and over, but I can work to mitigate its impact. In no particular order (see #2), here are some coping mechanisms

1. Don’t Wait To the Last Moment

Your deadline is 4 weeks away and you think you need 2 weeks to do it? See if you can be done in the first 2 weeks. If yes, then you can get a jump on the next thing, and no mental health issues in that last two weeks can make you late. If not, you at least have a feel for what the project is really going to take, and two more weeks to try to get it done. If you wait until the time needed is the time left, a mental health issue sidelining (or even just slowing) you means you will be late.

It’s also helpful if some issue means you are radically wrong when you estimate how much time you need.

2. Don’t Get Sucked Into Doing Work You Don’t Need To

Making a list of coping mechanisms on your blog? You may be tempted to prioritize them to present them in the best possible order. But if that is taking more thought cycles that just tying them out in any order does, maybe you are making work for yourself when you don’t need to.

I have found myself making outlines longer than the final product is supposed to be, spending days researching something that is going to be relevant for just one line of text, and writing the same thing four different ways to see which one is better. If you have the time for that and are ahead on everything else and have no the projects you’d like to start, that’s fine. But in the real world, there are better ways to spend to your time.

3. Attack Any Task You Can From Any Angle You Can Whenever You Can

Sometimes my brain works best by carefully planning ahead, making lists, figuring out what I need to do when and for how long… and sometimes the only thing it can focus on is writing about halfling battle cheese. That’s fine if halfling battle cheese projects are my priority, but even when they aren’t, that may be the only thing I can work on. If I have multiple projects, and I simply cannot make my brain do any of the work three of them need, then I need to prioritize among those things I CAN do.

This is crucial, at least for me. Spending time psychically flagellating myself for not working on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd most important thing is NOT more useful than actually getting work done on the 4th, 5th, or 6th most important thing. Depending on how disastrously close to failure those 1st three projects are, I may ramp up the internal pressure to try to force myself to get them done — but if I can’t, then I can’t. Acknowledging what is impossible, and then still prioritizing among what isn’t impossible, is the best route forward for me.

Of course, this means I also must regularly re-assess what’s impossible for me. Just because I began work on a lower-priority task doesn’t mean I need to finish it before moving on to something else. Indeed, sometimes there mere act of accomplishing something gives me the strength and focus I need to tackle something harder and more important. My contribution to more than one award-winning game came not in one smooth run, but in jerks and jolts as I tackled some crucial part of it, then had to go away to work on less-important things until I could do the next difficult bit of writing.

4. Be Honest With Yourself

You can’t fix every shortcoming you acknowledge to yourself, but you can’t even try to fix any lie to yourself about. It hurts to say “I am going to miss this deadline, because my cPTSD won’t let me work on it, again, for the fifth day in a row.” But that’s still better than trying to believe you can write 15,000 words of quality work in 24 hours, with enough caffeine and snack food to keep you going the whole time.

And if you USED to be able to do that, in your 20s, 30s, and 4s, and now that you are in your 50s you can’t anymore? You need to be honest about that too.

5. Be Honest With People You Are Working With

This is super-hard some days, but it is the ethical, practical, empathetic option. You can’t build a sustainable, long-lasting career on just not communicating when things go bad (it’s often called “going turtle” in the ttRPG industry, and it’s a well-known bad sign), or constantly claiming the dog ate your hard drive.

Things DO happen sometimes. If you got driven out of your home by a hurricane a day before a turnover was due, by all means tell the people you are working with what happened while you can. But honesty is always the best policy.

6. Track The Impact Different Kinds Of Projects have On Your Mental Health

For many creators, not all creative work is created equal. I, for example, can more easily write about my process and mental health and industry insights than I can write descriptions of fictional worlds and their societies. I can much, MUCH, more easily write crunchy player option game rules within an existing ruleset than I can write an encounter for a GM to run as part of a published adventure. And writing some things is more likely to leave me depressed, fatigued, or dysfunctional.

You often won’t know about these differences until you have done several different kinds of writing. But as you go through the career of a creator with mental health issues, keep track. Was the War Clans of the Half-Pint Bakery a nightmare because you were having a bad month and other factors in life impacted you? Or does any project focusing on warfare set off mental blocks you don’t get on other assignments?

7. Forgive Yourself

All the best intentions, your strongest efforts, and the smartest coping mechanisms may fail you from time to time. If you beat yourself up over that, it’s just more fuel for the next round of executive disfunction. There are plenty of other people ready to castigate you for every delay, dip in quality, shuffled schedule, and dropped ball. They don’t need your help to point out your flaws. Keep an eye on #4 and #5… but then forgive yourself.

Patreon

This writing is work, and it takes time from my other paying projects. If you got any use out of this article, or have enjoyed any of my content, please consider supporting my Patreon to cover the cost of my doing it. You can join for the cost of a cup of coffee a month.

Being The Cruise Ship Singer of ttRPG Design

Years ago, I was watching a singing competition reality show tryout, when one of the judges told a singer they weren’t good enough for the show. They had no chance of being a pop star, or become famous. they were, the judge said, good enough to make a living being an act singer on cruise ships.

The contestant and other judges reacted as though this was a significant insult. The judge was annoyed by this reaction. “I just told them they were good enough to make a living as a singer. That’s not true for everyone. I’m not doing them any favors by suggesting they can be more successful than their talent allows!”

While that obviously simplifies a lot of factors–the ability to improve, a god producer or agent, luck, determination, changing public standards and genre preferences–I suspect there’s a grain of truth in that critique. Pre-pandemic, there were more than 300 cruise ships operating worldwide, each with one or more theaters offering various acts nearly daily. That’s a lot of stages to fill with singers, and while it doesn’t pay as well as being a hit singer, there is a paycheck involved along with travel, room, and board.

And a lot, a LOT of work. Some singers go on for hours every night, 6-days-a-week, with a few 15-minute breaks. Very few cruise singers do the job for their whole career and then retire. Most run contract-to-contract for a few years, and then move on to some other career, possibly coming back for short contracts between other gigs.

In this, I see a lot of similarities to ttRPG design.

Robin D. Laws famously said there are more professional astronauts in the U.S.A. than full-time ttRPG game designers. That’s especially true if you define full-time as making all the money needed to pay all your bills, and cover health insurance, and put away money for retirement. And of those full-timers, many are the equivalent of cruise-ship singers. Going from gig to gig, making ends meet by working hard, long hours and taking work better-known (better paid) designers don’t want. Most of them will put in a few years, often while younger, then go to part-time-at-most, or move on to other fields entirely.

But a few will stay with it for decades. Even fewer will manage the career alchemy to move into more sustainable positions. Some combination of getting better, changing preferences, good connections, and luck will propel them into full-time jobs with benefits.

That’s not a guarantee they’ll stay in those positions of course. My wife and I have moved cross-country for stable, full-benefit ttRPG industry jobs three times. Twice, that ended in a company layoff in less than a year. Once, the cost of living where the job was simply grew faster than the job’s salary. Even getting that rare unicorn of a full-time ttRPG job isn’t a sure thing, just another shot at maybe finding pop stardom… or at least paid insurance. Reaching the peak of the industry can end up being a visit, that raises your visibility, gives you a chance to improve, gets you more contacts… and then ends. So you need to look around for other ways to make it, just now with a better-looking resume.

And the more tourists might recognize your name, the easier it is to get a gig singing on a cruise ship.

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The Performative End of Being a Creator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Performing

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

Guest Blog: Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

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

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

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

OR…

My Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist

By Jacob E Blackmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob Blackmon

Gallery: deviantart.com/prodigyduck

FB: facebook.com/jacob.blackmon.56

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

TTRPG Retirement Plans, or Lack Thereof

There are, as far as I know, only six realistic retirement plans for full-time, ttRPG professionals in the United States–and calling them “realistic” is debatable. This is not a happy or upbeat list of options, and it doesn’t come with any problem-solving or brilliant insights on my part. This is just the state of the industry, as I know it.

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

Company Retirement Account

A few of the biggest ttRPG-producing companies have things like 401k programs, a few with some degree of matching funds. It can be tough to put much away in these, as in most cases pay barely covers living expenses, but if you can, and you manage to work at the same company for 30 years or so (which is also extremely rare), it may build up a big enough account to cover you in retirement.

Personal Retirement Account

You can, of course, create your own retirement account and put money in it, with or without some period of time when you have corporate matching funds. This is the “best” option for most full-time freelancers… who on average make even less money (and thanks to paying for their own health insurance and paying self-employment tax often have higher expenses), which makes it even harder to put anything away for the future. And, of course, no matching funds.

Build A Passive Income

Though royalty deals, maintaining ownership or partial ownership of the products you create, starting your own company, or some similar plan, you can try to set up passive income — that is, money you work for once that then keeps coming in. I have profit-share deals with more than 500 products sold as pdfs. Most older files sell only a few copies a year now, but that IS an income that keeps coming in even when I don’t do much or any work on maintaining it. I myself haven’t even gotten this near a level of retirement income, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or at least be part of a retirement plan.

Have a Spouse With A Real Retirement

Yep, this sounds like I am being glib, but I have had multiple ttRPG professionals tell me they only believe they have any hope of retirement because they have a spouse with a solid corporate retirement plan or the spare income to invest in their own retirement account. It would be dishonest not to include this as among the common plans within the industry.

Depend on State Benefits

Be that Medicare, Social Security, Disability, or some other program, I know many ttRPG professionals who just assume at some point they’ll only have whatever the government gives them, and will have to survive on whatever that allows. Most are not optimistic about the quality of life this will allow, and many have tried to make other arrangements, only to have them fall through.

Don’t

This is honestly the most common “retirement plan” ttRPG professionals have talked to me about – Don’t Retire. Work until they die. Assume that there will never be a time when we don’t have to put in 40-80 hours a week to earn enough to maintain an at-least marginal existence.

I personally call this the “Die at the keyboard” plan.

Speaking of Making a Living

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

Potentially Big News for the Game Industry

Sometimes, the most important thing is to have a seat at the table.

Within the ttRPG, and broader tabletop hobby game community, often GAMA is the table.

And it looks like there may be soon a place for more people to be a part of it, with formal ways to have their voice heard and respected.

https://www.gama.org/news/572134/GAMA-Adopts-New-Membership-Structure.htm