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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 4. Post-Publication Activities.

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a letter about what is, and maybe isn’t, a good idea to do after a project you have a credit in gets published and is available to the public. I’ve given similar advice to numerous freelancers, and prospective freelancers over the years (and even have a file on my hard drive that has some snippets of those to borrow from when I am asked about this topic), but I don’t think I’ve ever publicly published any significant portion of the advice itself.

I *try* to always open such letters with congratulations for getting published–creatives in this industry see criticism SO much more than praise or well-wishing, so I like to celebrate those moments of success if possible. Then, I break down my main suggestions for things to do with a project, now that it’s out in the world in its (presumably) final state.

“First, let me say that all this advice comes with a huge proviso — never follow these suggestions if they conflict with your own ethics, morals, best practices, comfort level, or mental well-being. For example, I mention looking for opportunities to talk about your work, including podcasts, but if your mental health will suffer from doing that, don’t. Similarly I suggest keeping praise for your publisher public, and criticism private, but there I am talking about things like typos, or inferences the publisher may not have meant. If you feel you have an ethical mandate to call out a publisher publicly for things such as racism, bigotry, misogyny, and so on, I am in no way telling you not to do that. No one is paying you enough to sell out your ethical code, and I believe we all have a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. Any such instance is going to be too complex for some general advice that doesn’t know all the nuances of that specific situation to apply in any more than the vaguest sense. You’ll need to take those actions you feel most appropriate and/or most effective. That might mean publicly raising your objections, at least eventually if private notes do not seem to be making any difference. It also might not.

I wish I could tell you that any criticism you make, publicly or privately, will be taken as a reasoned, well-intentioned, good-faith effort on your part to make the hobby as a whole better. And, some folks will take it that way. But at both the professional and consumer level, many may not. It’s a risk, and you need to be realistic with yourself about the impact of possibly blowback on your life. If you have specific concerns in this area, please feel free to ask me about them. If you want my private, confidential take on a specific situation I am happy to give it. I might even be able to help.

That huge caveat aside, my general advise for what to do when a product you have a credit in comes along is pretty simple.

Read It

Do this first. You never know what may change from your final turnover to the printed page, and there are two good reasons to find out. First, seeing how things you wrote have changed may give you a better idea what that publisher is looking for, which can help you get more work with them. It may even give you insight into haw to be a better writer. If you don’t understand why a change was made, a short, polite note to your contact who got you the contract for the gig and to who you turned over your draft isn’t a bad idea.

Second, if you begin talking about the book, you want to talk about what is actually in it, rather than what you turned over. You neither want to promise people something that has been removed, nor seem uninformed if people ask you questions about things you have no familiarity with.

I sometimes sit with a PDF of the final release on one screen, and my draft on the other, and look line-by-line at differences. Yes, it would be easier for a developer to send you feedback, but that’s all-too-rare in this industry.

Check your NDA

Assuming, of course, you have an NDA. (Check your contract.) Most likely once the book is out you are free to talk about it, but if it’s one part of a multipart project you may be surprised by what hasn’t been revealed yet. Again, if in doubt, a short note asking for clarification to you contact with the publisher normally goes well.

Promote Your Credit

This is a great chance to promote yourself. Make a post talking about having a credit. if there’s some interesting anecdote about the process, that may be worth including as long as it doesn’t put anyone in a bad light (though see the proviso, above). For most social media platforms, including a picture of the cover of the product is a good idea.

This can help get your name out into the industry, remind people you are alive if you are already pretty well known (I still do this, for example), and convince publishers you are a good partner that will help advertise their product once it is out, driving engagement and interest.

Add It To Your Credits Sheet

Ideally, you have a list of all your credits already. If not, time to start! You want to be able to tell people what you worked on, and how you were credited, in case it ever comes up. Seriously, there is a big difference between having one credit, having ten, having 100, and having 1,000. Start keeping track now if you aren’t already, and make time to keep it up to date as things are published. I personally have all the print products I have worked on as a Facebook album, and people finding that has lead to things like consulting work.

Investigate Interviews

Often podcasts and blogs are looking for content related to new releases, and you helped make this one! You don’t want to steal the thunder from the publisher (again, looking like a good partner makes it more like both this publisher and others will want to work with you in the future… but yeah, see the proviso above), but in my experience if you send a note saying “The podcast ‘Second Level Spell’ wanted to interview me about the Battle Pie rules I wrote for the Orkenpie adventure,” they’ll be enthusiastic in their support, and may even boost that on their social media.

Move On

I’m bad at this one, so I include it here. You may have no issue with it at all. When I look at my old work I can… obsess over perceived failings. I want to figure out why I didn’t do what the developer did, make sure I learn all possible lessons from the project, and consider all the ways I could have done a better job.

A little of that is fine.

But then it’s time to put it down, and move on. Of course you can do a better job now than you did then–we are all learning and improving all the time. Instead of worrying about what past-you got wrong, turn to what current you is doing that you can apply those lessons to.

Don’t Take Reviews to Heart

For a lot of people, this may mean just don’t read the reviews. I personally am unable to do that, so instead I try to restrict myself to weighing their opinions against my own. Did they find something unclear? Fair enough, do I see their point or not? Is it full of typos? Well, that might mean my turnover was too error-ridden for even professional editors to save it, I can look at that. Do they not like it? Okay, but that’s, like, just their opinion man.

Dissatisfied people tend to be much more vocal than satisfied ones. So if you have to read the reviews, take them with a huge grain of salt. And never let them get you down.”

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 3. Bad Words

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a letter about doing research on words and terms you want to use in a game manuscript. I have sent variations on this same letter to numerous freelancers as part of their feedback, as it has come up surprisingly often.

(As an aside, it has come up so often I have considered making it part of a “packet” of advice I send to all freelancers I contract. The reasons I haven’t yet is twofold. First, while it comes up “often,” in the grand scheme of things that’s less than 1-in-10 assignments. Second, the more stuff I ask ALL freelancers to read, the more burden I am putting on then and the more likely it is they’ll skip some of it. Since 90% of the time freelancers don’t need this advice, it hasn’t ever actually made the cut for me to consider it crucial to ask everyone to read every time they work for me. So, instead, it goes here where people can check it out if they want to, and I can easily point to it if needed.)

Also, I want to say that when I refer to “bad words” in the title, I don’t mean morally repugnant words. I mean bad word choices, often for reasons we don’t realize, which is the entire point of this letter.

So, here’s the letter, taken from one specific example.

“On another matter, I want to recommend you get in the habit of doing an internet search every time you create a new word, or borrow a word from another language (even just archaic versions of existing languages) to use in your manuscript.

It turns out, a surprising percentage of the time “new” words are identical to existing words that have meanings and context very different from what we want be associated with the concept we are trying to name. Sometimes, we even run into trademarked terms that were created in various industries using the same sources of inspiration that lead to our “new” words.

Another risk is finding a term in a specific context and not checking to see if it has a broader or more common meaning that is very, very different. To wit, I see you used the term “Kanchō” as a classification of ninja spy. And, sure enough, if I go looking for “types of ninja” or similar online searches, the Kanchō-as-spy turns up fairly often.

However:

If I just do a search for the term “Kanchō,” by FAR the more common meaning is a highly inappropriate form of “goosing” common as an East Asian children’s ‘prank.’ And then, after that meaning, it’s used as the medical term for an enema in Japan. Neither of those conveys the implications we want for a ninja spy, and sources that use the word for a kind of ninja don’t generally warn of its more common meanings.

Also, I recommend you keep a “clean” browser for such searches, by which I mean one that hasn’t been tied to your search history and involves an algorithm trying to give you the results you most want to see. Sometimes Google is too good at guessing that I am doing research for game content, and skews its results towards those sources, rather than give me the most common meanings and context.

So in my experience, it’s best practices to carry out a search for any term or word you think up, or borrow from other languages or dialects. I have also come to consider this a form of due diligence when working outside my home dialect and experience, even if I think the terms I am using are new and fictional.”

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On Sticking To Word Counts

So, here is one of the very few things I ever told a room full of freelancers, that made one of them cry. (I felt terrible, btw).

“A note to freelancers, writing for print books. If I contract you for 10,150 words, and you give me 11,800, you are *not* doing me a favor. You are instead forcing me to figure out which 1,650 words to cut. Print books only have so much room, and while going over by 1%-3% isn’t a major issue (though I’ll love you more if you don’t), exceeding your word-count by 10% or more is creating a lot more work for me.

Don’t under-write by more than 1%-3% either!

Now for pdfs and blog entries, things are significantly more lax. But print products have finite space, and your writing has to fit in that space and look good.”

Apparently, one freelancer in the room had been told by a different developer, working for a different company, that overwriting by 10-20% was “always” good.

And there ARE things I contract extra words for. Mostly, crunchy, rules-heavy things with lots of chances to get it wrong. If I know I want 3,000 words of new spells of feats or specializations in a book, I often contract (and pay for) 4,250-or-so words, so I can cut needless extra verbiage and entire bad ideas (or badly executed ideas), and still have what I need.

But mostly? This is yet another way it’s important for freelancers to ask their contractors what is preferred, and have a high level of communication.

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Guest Blog: Stan! on “It’s Never Too Late to Chase Your Dream”

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Gaming veteran and cartooning luminary Stan!

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.

Heya, folks! I’m Stan! … yeah, one name with weird punctuation … yeah, there’s a story behind that … but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because Owen said that he could use some pinch-hit blog posts and he figured I’d have something interesting to say. I guess we’ll see about that.

Those whose gaming memories stretch back more than fifteen years might recall that I used to have my name on a bunch of products and had a bit of a reputation for work done on D20 Modern, Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, Dragonlance: Fifth Age, Legend of the Five Rings, and a bunch of other lines and titles. I did game design, wrote novels, and drew comics … heck, I even got nominated for awards in all three categories. But of my own volition I moved on to other types of work—a fair bit of it in the managerial side of gaming, but also doing the kind of writing work where my name doesn’t go on the cover of the product.

Since 2005 I’ve been doing “English Adaptation” for various manga published by Viz Media. Basically, I take literal translations of the books and smooth the scripts out so that they’re fun to read and fit in the pre-existing word balloons. By my count I’ve done adaptations for more than 200 volumes that include titles like Ultraman, Gundam, Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, Demon Slayer, Monster Hunter, and probably a dozen more. I’ve also been doing voice-over scripting for various computer games whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Suffice it to say, I’ve had a pretty good career so far doing a lot of really cool things. And yet … of all the cool things I’ve done professionally, there’s one that gives me more satisfaction than the others and still calls out to me to spend all my time in that pursuit—cartooning. For whatever reason, that is my true passion. And as cool as it is to be able to make a living doing game design, or writing … and as much as I do love doing those things too … no matter what I’m doing, I’d rather be cartooning.

To be honest, I struggled with that for a while. I mean, how ungrateful was it to get a “dream career” and still find yourself wanting something more? After all, I was able to do cartooning AND get paid for it … sometimes. And gaming and writing were definitely passions of mine. How could I want more than that? And after pondering that in a self-flagellating kind of way, here’s what I came up with:

No matter where you are in life, you’re always going to dream about where you’d like to be next!

And as a corollary:

Once you know what your current dream is … it’s never too late to chase it!

During the pandemic year I’ve spent as much time as possible doing cartooning of various sorts—single panel cartoons, illustrations, caricatures, and sequential art stories. And after much hemming and hawing I’ve finally pulled the trigger and launched a Patreon so I can create a community of folks who want to support my cartooning and encourage me to do even more of it.

Having a Patreon reminds me that if I want my dream to be real, I have to WORK at it … and it shows me that there are people out there who want me to succeed. I have to push myself to keep producing work at a regular pace and to hopefully keep honing and improving my skills. I have to be responsible to me AND my patrons to make sure that I’m not just fiddling around (though some amount of fiddling around is part of the package … as it is with any creative work). My Patreon is still in in its initial months, and already I’m feeling the difference it’s making in my life. I only hope that continues.

If you want to join in, I’ve got a little reward for those who join in as founding members of my Patreon community—a group I’m calling the “Stan!dard Bearers.” I’d love to have you join us. But more than that, I hope that what I’m doing can inspire you to take the time and effort to pursue your own dreams. No matter where you are in life … no matter what your dream may be … it’s never too late to CHASE it down and make it real.

Because once you catch it … you may find there’s an even BETTER dream calling out to you! And you can chase that, too!

Stan!

Patreons

You can support Stan!’s Patreon here!

And, as always, you can support Owen K.C. Stephens’s Patreon here!

Formatting the Drop-In Town, Part 1

A lot of ttRPG projects I am working on right now call for a way to present information on a town setting designed to be dropped into any game. Most publicly know is “Little Hamlet of Villago” for the soon-to-be-rebranded-as 52 x 4 subscription service. There are also some Age Creator’s Alliance stuff I have in various hands with similar needs, and then things on the list off entirely-theoretical future projects.

So, I have been trying to figure out how I want these settings to present info for the GM. The idea is that these can be used as bases of operation for PCs, or waystops that anchor adventures, or as places to explore, or just items in a big sandbox. That means they need to have enough detail to be useful for GMs just wanting details to play off of and offer enough ideas for a GM and/or exploring players to interact with, but also flexible enough to fit other story ideas and worldbuilding elements in with the town’s material.

When I’m trying to create game information formats like this, I find doing some practice builds a useful form of outlining.

So, visual elements can help things like this a lot, so I’d want each Drop-In Village to have a village-scale map. For purposes of a test case, here’s one available for free commercial use from Dyson Logos, “Appletree Pond.”

Map of Appletree Pond by Dyson Logos

It’s a great map, and it would need a scale, labels for road names and numbers for the buildings and locations of note, but that’s easy to add. It’s also useful to think about, because linking those tags to the text they match is going to be important.

Ideally, key buildings would also have both a map of their layout, and art of their exterior appearance. Obviously that would be more expensive than most projects can justify, but let’s pretend we’re doing it for the moment. Again, for this example I’ll grab a Dyson Logos map of an appropriate building, though it may not perfectly match my map outline.

Map of Twin Norkers by Dyson Logos

Both exterior and interior art can help give the feel of a place. I’m not going to order custom work for a test case, but you can do a lot with stock art. Here’s a good exterior art piece to use for Twin Norkers, even if it’s not a perfect match of the map’s details.

Art by ratpack223

I don’t think I’d ever want to give a interior map, exterior art, and interior art of the same location unless there was some good adventure-driven reason to do so, but let’s pretend I would. Here’s a shot of the Twin Norker’s dining room.

Art by Unholy Vault Designs

So, before I even get to the text, I can see if I use all these options I’m going to be looking at 2-3 pages of info for a single location, which may well crowd out the setting and game information a GM needs.

One thing learned, I’ll leave this thought experiment here and talk about presenting text info next time.

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Guest Blog: Dustin Knight on Breaking In

Heya folks!

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Dustin Knight, who has written for me and for other publishers, and whose experience breaking into the ttRPG industry is 20 years more recent than mine. A lot of how I did it isn’t relevant anymore (“Write for all the print RPG magazines! Like, ah….”). I thought someone with more current advice might be useful to readers.

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.

Howdy, my name is Dustin Knight (aka KitsuneWarlock on Discord), the author of Fox’s Cunning at Know Direction and freelance author for Paizo, Everybody Games, and a contributor to Rogue Genius Games 52-in-52 program. You can find my 2020 work on my old blog. I’m an active member of the Venture Corps for Pathfinder Society and run the lodge here in Kent WA and I’ve begun doing live 30 min Twitch streams every Friday at 4 PM PST. When Owen asked me to write a blog describing my experiences breaking into the industry the first thing that came to mind were two words:

Write Now.

Becoming a tabletop game designer had been my dream since the 5th grade. Why did it take me almost two decades to finally write something other people would read? Sure, I was on many forums writing guides and discussing builds, even generating some content like fan-made Magic cards and rules for play-by-post roleplaying games. But nothing I could show a developer or publisher. Then I heard the best advice of my career: “Write (Now).

You don’t need a contract. It doesn’t have to win awards. It can be a blog or a twitch channel or a subreddit. Just get your content out there in a way that you feel comfortable sharing who you are with your future colleagues. It can be reviews, stories, interviews, game mechanics, or even just a tirade on some niche decade-old book you’re fairly certain no one even remembers! Get your content out there, take notice when people appreciate it, and give people more of what they want. You don’t need a special license, but if it helps feel free to print this out:



But what about me?

I knew since the earliest days of 3rd Edition that I wanted to be a professional game designer. But even back in Jr High I shelved the idea in the same headspace as winning the lottery. Even when I started designing my own games in High School, I felt like it was something I’d slowly work on my entire life and only ever pursue legitimately after retirement. I went into the Architecture program at CSU Pomona without realizing I was only doing it to challenge myself (and because I loved drafting maps for RPGs), and went on to Philosophy and Graphic Design with the side-dream of possibly breaking into the tabletop game industry as a production artist or art director. After some graphic design freelance work and a couple years of gig work, I moved from California to South Carolina and found real estate. And Pathfinder.

My childhood friends back in California were very much dedicated to 3.5e, so until I moved to the Carolinas I only had maybe a dozen opportunities to try Pathfinder. Being a “forever GM”, I was enticed by the prospect of being a player at the (relatively) local Pathfinder Society lodge in Savannah. I was hooked and quickly found myself a core member of the lodge, helping to organize games, going to conventions, and even playing games online. After countless nights discussing what character options were and weren’t allowed in Pathfinder Society, I was invited to volunteer my time to Organized Play as a volunteer. I started my blog back in 2018 to share some character builds and “review the AR”, literally going over all the new character options coming out for Pathfinder Society that players may have forgotten about during the substantial gap of time that existed between a book release and when the book was legal for Pathfinder Society. These posts became a smash success for highlighting new options that were challenging to parse using the official Additional Resources layout. Around the same time I started hanging out on the Know Direction discord, excited to find a Pathfinder community with an anime channel!

Ok, But When Did You Break into the Industry?

Paizocon 2019. Roll Credits.

In all seriousness, I moved to Washington in 2019 and responded to an invitation to play Pathfinder Society with the Australian lodge a couple days before to Paizocon. We were playing exclusively Seeker (high level) modules in preparation for the high-level tier of the final 1st edition special, Siege of Gallowspire. We were invited by Tonya Woldridge to visit the Paizo HQ for a tour, and the day before Paizocon I wrangled Alexander Augunas into playing a high level game at the convention site where I showed off what he lovingly called: “the most broken character I’ve ever seen.”

As the game progressed more and more people gathered around. By the time we were done, we had amassed a respectable cluster of industry insiders, including Mark Seifter and Owen K.C. Stephens (the Gamefather). I sat there dumb-struck as more and more authors showed up, paying their homage to the Gamefather as I quietly nodded and tried my best not to audibly gush in the presence of all these industry titans. That’s where I first pitched my Cards for Everybody to Alexander Augunas and scored my first assignment!

Some chance encounters with developers from Paizo during the convention and an appearance at the Freelancer panel got me on Paizo’s radar, and after some email correspondences with their developers I landed my first assignment: Wayfinder Origins!

Five months and four sets of feat cards later, Alex invited me to write a guest blog post on Know Direction. Little did I know at the time, but the network was using the guest blog week to test our mettle and shortly after invited me to become a member of the Know Direction network! Thanks to KDN my audience exploded and I suddenly found myself writing reviews, toolkits, builds, & even being featured live on stream with the rest of the KD Crew!

I now have an audience, multiple up-and-coming releases (including Lost Omens: Grand Bazaar, a Pop Culture Catalogue release with Everybody Games, and more 52-in-52 products), and the confidence to acknowledge everything I’ve written here without trying to sabotage myself with a dozen-and-one excuses for my successes.

So How Did You Do It?

Write Now.

(Has that sunk in yet? Okay, I’ll throw in some more useful advice while you wait for wordpress to install.)

1.) Accept that everyone has imposter syndrome. I first heard this from Kate Baker after I got my first Paizo writing assignment, and I wish I had learned it ten years prior. Owen wrote a great article on it in 2018 that’ll do the topic more justice than I ever could. (Yes, that was intentional.)

2.) Accept that there is always an audience. It might not be the next best seller on Drive Thru RPG, but if you have a genuine passion for something you go ahead and do it. You already have the inspiration for that passion project, and at worst it becomes another product under your belt.

3.) Accept your image. Back in 2018 I toyed with changing my username out of fear that I’d be considered “the kitsune guy”. Alexander Augunas talked me out of it, reassuring me that having that kind of identity is a priceless commodity. Most of us have some kind of online identity and profile. Embrace it! Heck, my first successful twitch video was my review of the kitsune ancestry!

Overall I’m extremely grateful for all the factors that came together to help jettison my career this far, and grateful for Owen giving me this space to reflect on my career and promote my work. You can follow me on twitter, follow my bi-weekly blog Fox’s Cunning on Know Direction, and check out my 30 minute Friday 4pm PST Twitch streams that alternate between RPGs & Card Games! I’m also an active participant of Super Smashfinder, Pathfinder Society and you can most readily message me on Discord!

Patreon

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Guest Blog: Alex Augunas Talks Breaking In to the ttRPG Industry

Heya folks!

Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Alex Augunas, a friend and business partner of mine, and talks about how he broke into ttRPG writing, and eventually publishing.

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.

Hello, I’m Alex Augunas. You might know me as Alexander Augunas, the Know Direction Network’s Everyman Gamer and the voice of Xvi on Stellar, a Starfinder Actual Play Podcast. Or Alexander Augunas, a Paizo freelance author responsible for creating insane amounts of content in various Core Rulebooks, Player Companions, Organized Play scenarios, and more. Maybe Alexander Augunas, owner of Everybody Games LLC. Probably Alexander Augunas, “That guy who likes foxes too much.”

Owen and I have been friends for a long time. While everyone who is even remotely in a sector of the Tabletop RPG Industry that’s adjacent to 3.5 D&D knows Owen K.C. Stephens, I think we first met professionally in when he first took over Paizo’s Player Companion with Monster Summoner’s Handbook. At the time, Patrick Renie had just left Paizo, leaving Owen to transition over from being in charge of the old Pathfinder Modules line to the Pathfinder Player Companion line, and he liked my spell work in Monster Summoner’s Handbook so we started working together more closely. (I’m the madlad who wrote the spell that lets you blow up your summoned monsters from that book.) That ended up leading me to getting an offer from Owen to work on the Weaponmaster’s Handbook alongside David N. Ross, and Paizo fans adored my advanced armor trainings so much that whenever Owen needed someone to write some wild and brand-new alternate class feature for Pathfinder 1E, he often had me do it. I penned the only bloodline mutations for sorcerers and bloodragers, advanced versatile performances for bards, advanced armor trainings for fighters, and a few things I’m probably forgetting. Then when Owen transitioned from overseeing Player Companions to being Design Lead of what would become the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, he had me pen significant chunks of Blood of the Beasts (literally my dream assignment) and outline Psychic Anthology.

So, how did I get there? Honestly, if you’ve heard one designer’s story about how they broke into the Tabletop RPG industry, then you’ve heard one story. Everyone’s got a unique tale to tell, and mine is basically about me getting duped into writing several hundred pages of Pact Magic content. Imagine, if you will, a younger me (I emphasize “younger” because Owen likes to remind me that compared to “an old fart” like him, I’m a “young’un”). I’m fresh from College, trying to make my way in the world as a substitute teacher (that literally went nowhere) with a lot of time on my hands to kill. I’m what you call an extroverted introvert, i.e. an introvert that learned how to fake being extroverted fairly well in order to be a teacher. So I would get come from work and just not want to be around anyone after having to manage a classroom of screaming kids all day, aged 5 through 12 or so. One day while I was crashed at home, I got an e-mail from one of my College gaming bodies; this was the group that originally introduced me to Pathfinder. He knew I was a huge fan of 3.5’s Secrets of Magic (I actually wrote a pair of pretty sick Prestige Classes involving Pact Magic on the Giant in the Playground Forums for a Prestige Class content back in the day), so he passed along this pact magic supplement written by Dario Nardi for 3.5 called Secrets of Pact Magic. I was instantly hooked; Dario took the core concept Wizards of the Coast published and took it a few steps further, adding style and panache that I became instantly obsessed with. But I had left that 3.5 lifestyle behind; I was a Pathfinder fan now, and I wanted Secrets of Pact Magic for Pathfinder. So I did what any normal person would do and translated a few pages of Dario’s initial work into Pathfinder-compatible designs and e-mailed them to him.

“Hey Mr.! You should update your book to Pathfinder. Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing!”

Now, most people don’t know Dario Nardi. He’s a neuropsychologist by trade, and man he neuro-played me.

“Oh, this is fascinating! Care to show me more?”

Five months later and I had written a 100-page manuscript that became Pact Magic Unbound, Vol. 1. I still remember calling a family meeting where I pulled my parents into the room.

“H-Hey. I know you don’t like that I don’t go out and socialize more and I don’t hang out with my friends as much, but now that my book’s done I thought I should probably tell you that I’m going to be a published author in like five weeks when the print proof of the book arrives at our house.”

Needless to say, my parents were stunned. Here they thought they just had a shut-in son when in reality, their boy had gone and made a book! Cheers all around, and no one ever yelled at me for staying inside all the time again. Hooray! From there, my career can be described succinctly by a quote from Jerry Smith of Rick and Morty.

Someone way smarter than me once said, “There is no confidence like that of a mediocre white man,” and in my case that’s absolutely true. Because literally, I saw companies I liked and wanted to write for, asked them to pay me to write for them, and while some said no, others said yes. That is literally all I did. My first Not-Dario assignment was for a now-defunct company where I wrote Amazing Races! Kitsune. (That product line got bought by another company, and I’m no longer credited for my work there. That happens sometimes.) After that, I asked the absolutely sublime Creighton Broadhurst if I could write villages and other rules content for him, and he said yes! My absolute favorite things to write for Raging Swan Press were villages; I wrote a half-dozen of those easily. They were all interconnected and there was a kitsune hiding in every village. And Creighton, bless the man, who normally puts himself out there as this old-school traditionalist let me publish each and every kitsune I asked for.

From there, I built myself up to the point where I was ready to write for Paizo, and my time came when then-Editor-in-Chief Wes Schneider posted a comment on the forums about always wanting new freelancers and I jumped on it! Only remember, I was/am a mediocre white man with absolutely no sense for how professionalism in an industry I literally wandered into by accident works, so instead of doing something intelligent like writing an e-mail or preparing a cover letter, I literally just messaged poor Wes Schneider on the Paizo website, at his Paizo forum address, and asked him for work.

DO NOT DO THIS. I AM DUMB QUITE OFTEN.

Wes, being the wonderful man he is, politely redirected me to his e-mail where we could chat. He asked for some references, I sent him some rules and some villages and my favorite short story that I wrote for Pact Magic Unbound, Grimoire of Lost Souls Vol 2 (yeah that happened between Vol 1 and this). I don’t know which of those things made him design to gift a plebian of a freelance author such as myself with a chance to write in a Pathfinder Player Companion, but he did and now I’m here, hooray!

So, here’s what’s what.

Let’s say you’re someone new, someone who really wants to break into the Tabletop RPG Industry. That’s cool, yo! Let’s say you think you can’t. That’s wrong, yo! The wonderful thing about writing is that, given time to find and perfect one’s voice, literally anyone can do it. Writing is a craft that one hones and improves over time, and while one might have a predisposition for the pen and paper (or for the keyboard and Microsoft Word as it were nowadays), it’s certainly not a divinely bestowed talent that only those who rolled a 46 on life’s Random Talent Generator table at birth receive. Study other people’s writing and design, practice making your own, and allow yourself the time to learn and grow, and you can do it too! I guarantee it.

 So hey, maybe you kinda liked me and my writing from this article and want to show me some support. (Or maybe you hate me now and really want to make me feel badly about myself by giving me MONEY, as if I would know what to do with such niceties!) You can follow me on Twitter @AlJAug, or my company, Everybody Games, @EBGamesLLC. I SWEAR I’m not related to the old EB Games chain (although I DID get one angry Tweet from someone who thought I was). I have a Patreon, where I’m working on designing my own Roleplaying Game, Eversaga, at a glacial pace. You can learn more at https://www.patreon.com/eversagarpg. I also have a website for my company, http://www.everybodygames.net, where you can find links to all my TTRPG products. And hey, since this is Owen’s blog, did you know that Owen and I are partners, so every product of mine that you buy Owen gets some money too? It’s pretty nifty, so you can support us BOTH by buying neat game products from me!

Thanks for listening to me ramble, and I’ll chat with y’all again soon. I have a Kickstarter project in the works, and Owen’s given me the okay to write an article about it! Until then, Ciao!

Alexander Augunas

The Everyman Gamer and Publisher of Everybody Games

As always, you can support this blog by joining it’s Patreon!

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

This post is part of the “Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer” line of articles, but in this case it’s taken from letters I have received from publishers and producers in my role as game developer. Since many freelance writers hope to become on-staff ttRPG game developers someday in their career, I thought looking at some less talked-about parts of that job might be useful.

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

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

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

The Checklist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unused Starfinder Monster Pitches

These are ideas I was pitching to various publishers/producers in 2017, which never got picked up by anyone. These are taken directly from my pitches, when I was asked to come up with examples, or a set number of ideas, for an article or book.

Bybbin—A long, flat, ribbon-shaped creature like a very flat snake. Uses loops of itself as its arms and hands. Has a single featureless eye at the front and back of it’s form, and “eats” by using a few loops to engulf and crush something that is then absorbed through its skin. Secretes acid, can spray it, and can hear (its whole body is able to pick up vibrations), but needs a mechanical aid to speak.
Envisioned as a sentient and sapient species. Could be a playable species. Could have multiple stat blocks.

Fundamental Dragons — Following the presentation format of chromatic dragons in Alien Archive, but the dragons are spacefaring creatures linked to fundamental forces. Thus there would be electromagnetic dragons, gravity dragons, strong atomic dragons, and weak atomic dragons. Could also add a dark energy/quintessence dragon, or quantum dragon, to get to the traditional 5 dragon within one category. Opportunity for dragons to interact with solarion and vanguard abilities and themes.
Can do any range of CRs.

Ruhnk—A creature shaped like an inner tube, with dozens of tiny tentacles spouting from the “sidewall” of its ring, eyes along its outer wheel (hard crystal eyes that it can roll over), and mouths lining the inner ring. A sentient scavenger that eats whatever it finds off the floor nonstop, the way other races breathe, and has no sense of shame or humiliation—to exist is its own justification. Moves by rolling.
Can work at any CR up to 9 or so. Could be a playable species, or be more monstrous. Could have multiple stat blocks.

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

The No-Feedback Loop

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

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

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

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

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

The Issue

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

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

And it had a fire trap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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