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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.

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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

Your Developer as a Resource, 1. Running Short

If you are a freelance writer working on a ttRPG assignment, your developer (or editor, publisher, producer — whatever title the contact person you have for the assignment uses) can be a valuable resource. After all, they want you to produce something that meets their needs, so they are motivated to help you give them the text they want.

So if you are having problems with a project, it’s a good idea to write to your developer and see if they can offer advice or guidance. If you think you need to deviate from your outline, it’s absolutely crucial you talk to your developer first. You don’t want to be constantly bothering your developer with issues (they’re paying you to do work for them), but when you are having trouble that is going to impact the quality of your project, better to ask than not.

One common issue that can come up is feeling you have been asked to provide more words on a given subject than the subject needs, or can even support. If you are “running short” on a section, there are better and worse ways to rach out to your developer about it.

Here are some examples:

Good: “I’m having trouble finding enough material to fill out 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast. I could use some guidance.”

Better: “I’m having trouble coming up with enough material to fill out 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast without just padding it out in obvious and unhelpful ways. If we could expand the topic to cover all halfling war-based baked goods, that would give me a wider range of things to cover. Alternatively, I could do 2,500 words on this, and add 2,500 words to the section on Dwarven Axe-Beer. Or if you have ideas for what I am missing in the Battle Toast section (current draft attached), I can fill that out. How would you like me to proceed?”

Bad: “It is not possible to write 5,000 words on Halfling Battle Toast, so you need to tell me if I am just turning it in short, or if I can use those words elsewhere.”

Worse: “Here is the turnover. I took 2,500 words from Halfling Battle Toast, which didn’t need that much, and used them in other sections.”

Worst: “Since you assigned my more words than needed for Halfling Battle Toast, I moved 1,500 of them to the Monsters of the Bakery section, and contacted your CFO to have my contract reissued for 1,000 fewer words.”

And, yeah, all of those examples are fictional, but they are based on actual ways I have seen different freelance writers handle the issue of being short on wordcount.

Also, sooner is better for something like this. Don’t wait to tell your developer you are short on a section 2 days before the due date. The more time you give them, the more flexible they may be to help you get your section done, and get paid for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Owen!

Hope you are doing well.

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

Thanks!

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

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

“Dear Mr. Stephens,

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

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

Thanks for your time,

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

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

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

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

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Writing Basics: Saying No

Early in my ttRPG writing career, I never wanted to say no to any project I was offered. Add free content to the “Netbook of Spells” for AD&D? Sure. Do unpaid reviews of multiple Alternity supplements? Of course. Read over a friend’s 75,000 word manuscript and offer edits and critiques? Always. Write a 128 page book on super-spies in WWII at 1/10th of one cent per word? On it.

While that method did work for me, eventually, I can’t recommend it. Looking back, I see so many times when saying yes pushed me away from being a successful game industry pro. And eventually, I discovered I had more projects offered to me than I could possibly complete.

Even after I knew I was at least marginally established within the industry, for a long time I used to say yes when I shouldn’t because I was afraid if I tuned someone down when they offered me work, they’d never offer me work again. Not only has that turned out not to be the case, I have had many more people tell me how much the appreciate my knowing my own limits to what I can produce in time (when I do know — it’s not like I don’t still get that wrong all too often), but agreeing to too many things makes it more likely I’ll do a bad job, or be late, or worse, and that will harm your chances of getting more work from the same people.

So whether you are fully booked, not interested, have ethical issues, or are just smarter than me, as your creator career takes off eventually you’re going to have to say no to someone.

For some people, that’s easy and natural. For me, it’s a source of social anxiety and worry. So, I have kept track of what refusals seem to have been taken well, and considered how I felt with rejections sent to me when I offered work to others. These are my best practice pointers on how to say no without creating confusion or bad feelings.

These are all keyed to assuming you are saying no in a written form, be that email, Discord, or direct message. Generally if I am offered work in person and I need to say no I’ll use similar structure, but I also often have to say “Ah… I am honestly not sure. Can you email me about it and I’ll get back to you?” (Because without my schedule and some time to think about it, I often am NOT sure. If I am certain it’s a no, I’ll say no. And unless I am 100% sure I can do it, I never, ever say something that might sound like a yes if it’s not written down. I prefer to go to email asap, because then there is a written record of what was and was not agreed to. And then, of course, to contract.)

Be Polite and Maybe Formal

I never want to be rude or abrupt in business communications, even with people I don’t like or plan to ever work with. This isn’t about obsequiousness, just clear, professional behavior. If I want someone to keep me in mind for the future, this helps make sure I don’t seem to be given a brush-off. If I don’t want to ever work with someone in the future, or actively dislike them, this helps make sure I don’t say something I would regret becoming public.

Be Honest

If I’m not going to accept an offer or work, or pursue a opportunity, I want to make sure I’m honest about why… or say nothing. If the question is I am too busy, saying so can open discussions of being more free in the future. If a given system isn’t something I am familiar with, that leaves open the possibility I’ll learn it. If pay is too low, saying so puts it in the employers court to decide if they want to offer more. If I think I am a bad choice for a specific game system or type of project, that can both leave open options for different projects and possibly lead to the employer asking me who I think IS a good option, which can lead to good networking possibilities.

If, for whatever reason, I don’t want to go into why I am saying no to something, I just give no reason at all. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you are being polite and professional.

Open With Thanks

Again, assuming I can do so honestly, I like to open most rejections by thanking the potential employer for considering me. This is often a case of saying, “Hello [Person], thanks for thinking of me for this.” If there’s more to it and I have some real context I would like to add, I might go into that for a sentence or so. “I’m a big fan of what you are doing with [Game Line], and really enjoyed [Last Release].”

I like to build relationships where I can, and even saying no is an opportunity to open a dialog and get to know someone.

Be Clear

Make sure if you are saying no that you actually say no, and only connect it to why if changing the why might mean a yes.

“It’d be tough to fit this in” is waffling, not saying no.

“I can’t take on another project with that deadline at the moment.” is saying no, but if the deadline was later then maybe.

“I need to pass on this project” is saying no.

Sign Off

I don’t know why, but I just feel better if I use some kind of sign off, be that “Maybe next time” or just a “Sincerely” before signing my name to a rejection. Again, I make sure that sign-off is honest (I don’t say “Maybe Next Time” if I am sure that no, I won’t be taking a project like this in the future, either). There’s a good chance this is just for me–that saying no to work is so foreign to my instincts that having a definitive end to a message doing so helps me not ramble on.

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