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To Be Frank and Honest About the Downside of ttRPG Industry

I love ttRPGs, I love being a full-time professional I love all the fantastic amazing people I have met doing this for decades. But it’s not *all* Bifrosts and Buddy Moments. There are things that may not get talked about enough and, without wanting to be a downer, I want people considering being more involved to know what some of them are.

The number of salaried positions with benefits in the ttRPG industry are extremely small. While some are highly-paid jobs with security and clear opportunities for advancement and career growth (and things seem to be trending that direction for more), that’s not the norm.

Even for well-known companies with name recognition, awards, large fanbases, and decades of business, the number of them run largely (or even entirely) by freelance and contract work would shock a vast number of gamers.

So while it is possible to make ttRPG work your full-time job (I’ve done it since the late1990s), it’s rare, difficult and stressful. And you have to set your own definition of success. I know many designers, developers, and writers end up happier with the ttRPG work being a hobby that pays for itself, or a side-gig that gives them both satisfaction and some extra money.

But that’s not me. And, maybe, it’s not you.

If so, here are a few tiny bits of hard-won advice, distilled from decades of experience but all obviously colored by my own life experiences, which include a lot of privilege and luck.

*Don’t work yourself to death. It may seem like just this once you need to put in 80 hours, or pull an all-nighter, or self-medicate to get through writer’s block. And, you know, I get it. that has to be your call. But the industry is build on the burned-out careers of people better than me who pulled off the impossible, and were rewarded with the expectation they’d keep doing it over and over, and who eventually discovered when burning the candle at both ends isn’t enough, you set fire to your own flesh without even realizing the extra heat and light is killing you.

*This industry remains disproportionately white and male. No, it’s not universal. But it is still the case, and not only is that a self-perpetuating issue, it reinforces an environment where anyone who doesn’t meet the expected traits of a “game designer” is likely subject to fewer opportunities, greater challenges, and more prolific abuse. We can’t shrug and just accept that this is the way things are, but we also need to face the current reality.

*Be safe. I wish I didn’t have to say that. But there are absolutely people who will take advantage of you in all sorts of ways, from underpaying you to gaslighting you abut what was agreed to, to being abusive to make them feel better about their hobbies. And, let’s be honest, sexual misconduct is not unknown. Look, I’m a 475 lb. cis white bearded male, and I’ve had my ass grabbed nonconsensually and inappropriately at events. More than once. Alcohol on the part of the grabber was usually involved. Never go anyplace you’re uncomfortable or with anyone who makes you feel unsafe.

*If you are someone who has ever or you think could ever send someone sexual pictures or texts without clear and ongoing consent, or pressure someone to kiss, or grab their ass, or make lewd remarks, or worse, be that at a bar, or the office, or a game, or an event, drunk or sober, fucking cut it out. I know a lot of us were powerless and mocked growing up, and I have seen what a little taste of power, prestige, and popularity can do. It’s not acceptable, it never has been, and it has to stop. And if you are aware of people doing it, take steps to stop it.

*If money, ideas, rights, graphics, art, or effort is being exchanged, commissioned, or transferred, don’t work without a contract. That contract needs to say what is being done, who gets the final rights for it, what the remuneration is, what happens if the project never happens, when it is due, and what happens if any element of that doesn’t go as laid out. Without that, don’t start working. Not for well-known companies. Not for me. Not for anyone.

There are lots of wonderful, amazing, caring, creative, fun, interesting people in this industry. In fact in my experience, that’s the MAJORITY of people in this industry. Most of my best friends are ttRPG professionals, and will move heaven and earth to make the world a better place.

But 1 oz of raw sewage can spoil a very, very large bottle of Mtn Dew even if most of it is fine. (Well, assuming you are okay with Mtn Dew to begin with — but you see my point). Nothing a ttRPG career can bring you is worth your security, safety, sanity, or serenity. By all means enjoy the great parts of this community — but also take care of yourself.

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On Being Your Own Hype Person as an Independent Creator

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

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

Small Words

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

I will use small words.

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

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

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

One D&D: What Can “Compatible” Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just not the same.

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What Is Owed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are People REALLY Trying to Break Into ttRPG Writing? In This Economy?!

In response to yesterday’s guest blog post by Luis Loza, a number of people have been asking me, a bit incredulously, if there are really people trying to break into writing for the tabletop game industry. At least some of that incredulity seems rooted in my description of what working in the industry is like, in such venues as the #RealGameIndustry hashtag on Twitter, and my blog posts on the business of games and freelancer life.

And, yes, there absolutely are. But many of them aren’t looking to make it a full-time job and long-term career.

For those who see it as a hobbytime activity, like building ships in bottles or collecting commemorative sneakers, it can be extremely fulfilling. But you don’t expect your hobbies to be profitable, so even a revenue-neutral one can be extremely appealing.

Those who see it as a side-gig are, at least, unlikely to suffer significant economic hardship as a result. Many more will find it a bad source of income than will make more than minimum wage, but some will thrive.

For full-timers dedicated to this being their primary source of income, it’s rough. And for the industry to thrive, it needs full-timers. But there are other reasons do a job than security and money.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to improve things.

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Guest Blog – Luis Loza on How to Break Into Writing for the Tabletop Game Industry

This is advice from ttRPG writer, producer, podcast runner, and Paizo developer Luis Loza, responding to someone asking how to break into writing material for tabletop ROGS. It is collected from a Twitter thread, and posted here with his permission.

“I tell everyone that’s interested in freelancing that the best thing they can do to get started is just get to writing. If you’ve done homebrew material, get a blog in place and start putting that stuff on there. One of the most important things you can share is a writing sample. If someone can’t see anything you’ve written, they can’t judge any of your work. It doesn’t matter if it’s been published or not, just as long as you have something to show.

From there, the most important thing you can do is try to replicate existing official material as much as you can. Take a note of when things are bolded or italicized or the order of listings in a monster stat block, for example. The more you can closely replicate the existing material, the more you’ll get a feel for the game’s specific style and it will go a long way to prove that it’s worth taking a shot on you. If your material uses language and formatting that matches 5E, but you want to work on PF2E, that material won’t do you any good. Write for the game you want to be paid to write for!

From there, find someone to contact about work. There are third party publishers like that are constantly producing material and they might be a good start. Maybe chat with @Owen_Stephens about publishing with Rogue Genius Games? If you’ve done the work of getting your work *somewhere*, you can reach out to them and provide your writing samples to show your skill.

Also, get to talking with other people interested in writing. I recommend checking out Freelance Forge for a community willing to look over your stuff, give you more tips, and get you some possible connections for work.”

Thanks for the shout-out, Luis!

People who are interested can also check out my thoughts on the game industry, business of games, writing basics, and the freelancer life here in this blog, if interested.

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If you enjoy any of my articles, please sign up, for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month!

Industry Insider: The Pandemic Creativity Toll

So, I have written about the impact of the pandemic, and how to try to handle it, several times already. However, these days the main way I communicate with people is by text. So as I engage in the needful day-to-day tasks of being a freelancer, even without taking on new projects, I end up generating a lot of words on game-industry-related topics. It seems a shame to leave those in emails and direct messages, so I have taken a moment to arrange edited versions to form an update of where I see the Games Industry sitting now, nearly a year into the global pandemic.

I spoke about the State of the Industry about seven months ago, and while things have definitely changed since then, over and over in fact, I wouldn’t say they are better. And things like another major east coast blizzard, the biggest since the 2016 storm that did long-lasting damage to game sales, are going to have a magnified impact when things are already so destabilized. And while we do now have multiple vaccines, it turns out there’s a huge gap between the formulas existing, and people actually getting a shot in the arm. There are deep divisions within the industry about whether any major in-person events are going to happen, but no doubt that if they do they will be less-attended and more stressful than equivalents were in 2019.

Not only are game companies feeling the hurt in terms of sales and stress on creators (which I’ll touch on more in a bit), they have to guess when sales will pick back up. Making major game books takes time and money. A company can often bank a product or two and not send them to the printer yet… but they can’t do so for a full year. Books ready-to-be-printed aren’t making any money yet, and companies have to decide how big a backlog of resources they can possibly sit on. At some point you have to either put them out, and acknowledge that means their total sales will never match normal levels (much as sales of winter 2016 products were hurt over their whole lifespan), or stop making new product until thing have improved… which means not having work for people you are already having trouble paying salaries or freelancer contracts. But if you wait too long to begin making books again, when things do improve you’ll miss the first wave of new purchases by people getting back into in-person gaming and recreation, making it that much harder to get income asap to make good on debts and build new momentum.

There are obviously some steps mid-range game companies and creators can take now to help weather the hardship, and many companies are trying new things. Professional Patreons are more common than ever before, with some 3D print file and art Patreons bringing in thousands of dollars a month. Game industry Patreons focusing on rules and text seem to be less common and less lucrative, but the idea is young yet, and breakout successes may just not have developed yet. Certainly things like the Green Ronin Patreon Rundown (which, full disclosure, I wrote, is hosted by a company I work for, and features my own Patreon) show that there are numerous game professionals and companies putting out amazing content directly to fans.

However, even when venues of sales are open, there’s another major problem hitting the industry, and it has gotten much worse over the past many months–creator burnout. I don’t think there is a single game company which I have insider insight with that isn’t having a much, much higher level of late and even completely-dropped assignments. In some cases you can see how specific factors may have played a part–new game lines can be hard to launch, people getting sick have ample reason to miss deadlines, and tight budgets often means less leeway built into schedules for late assignments and developmental assistance to creators. However, in other cases experienced veterans are taking on things that should be right in their wheelhouse, with all the time and help they normally need, and they are just not performing as well.

It’s widespread enough, though different game lines, production models, and personnel, that I simply have to believe the pandemic and related political stress is broadly impacting creativity for large swaths of people. It’s been a major factor for me, resulting in my being months behind on high-profile projects I staked my reputation on, to my own significant embarrassment. I’ve spoken before about Being Creative During a Pandemic, and gave a view of what my own struggles in time of pandemic look like. And when I reread that last one, I see I was in lockdown for a month when I wrote it, and just think “Oh, my sweet summer child.”

A huge swath of game industry professionals are exhausted. Emotionally worn thin, creatively low and fuel, intellectually at a loss, and financially on edge. We are not unique in that, of course. My effort to shine a light on what I am seeing within every level of the game industry is meant not to claim it is rougher than for other professions, only to share the experiences as I have had them. And because the tabletop RPG industry in particular is so small and on such tight margins, there’s a real risk big sections of it could simply cease to exist. I always try to recommend being kind, but if you are interacting with gam creatives right now, I’d ask for any additional consideration you may have. Certainly if what you want is for ttRPGs to keep getting made, additional yelling at, insulting, accusing, or belittling writers and publishers isn’t likely to help under current circumstances.

Also, I totally understand you may not have any spare financial support to offer game creators, and I get that. I’ll note that sharing, liking, and commenting on things like sales, new product announcements, and links to blog posts on social media really is a huge help even without you spending a dime. Spreading the word is among the biggest things fans and friends can do for independent creatives and small companies.

If you do want to give creators, things such as Patreon and Ko-Fi are huge boons to writers and artists that have them. My own Patreon makes things such as this blog post possible, and even just a few dollars a month is enormously appreciated. And if you happen to have bigger blocks of money you want to use to stimulate the economy without getting charged every month, my Patreon now offers annual subscriptions.

But to put some of my own advice into practice, let me highlight someone else’s online presence. (And, if you’d like me to highlight your online home in a future post, drop me a line. I’ll do what I can.)

Joshua Hennington is an up-and-coming freelance writer of tabletop role-playing game content; he’s written for several accredited publishing companies, from Paizo Publishing to Rogue Genius Games, Everyman Gaming, Rite Publishing and more! Some of his most recognizable works include In the Company of Doppelgangers (PF1e), Starfarer’s Codex: Legacy Dragonrider (SF), and Tombstone Ancestries: Chupacabra (PF2e). He is always eager to write, and quickly becomes passionate on any topic – including yours!

His Ko-fi was created so you can commission custom-made RPG content from Joshua for your favorite characters as inspiration! All his content that is commissioned through that platform is also made publicly available, for anyone to use, and he strives to insure it as high-quality as a turnover would be to a major publisher.

One Last Thought on Material from Other IPs in Game Products

What was originally just a few Facebook and Twitter posts grew into the Monday post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, which lead to Tuesday’s More About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, Wednesday’s About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties, and yesterday’s On Writing With Licensed Game Rules. I hadn’t intended for this to be a weeklong series but… here we are.

So, I have one more semi-related topic I think bears mentioning.

In all the previous articles, I was talking about the complications, considerations, and connected issues when working with someone else’s intellectually property (IP) that you access through a license. But there are also times when you may find yourself tempted to work with other people’s IP without having legal access to it. You might feel you are within fair rights use, or think it’s fine because it’s an “Easter Egg,” or that no one will care, or it’s okay because you’re not charging money for the end product.

I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.

DON’T play with other people’s IP without a license unless you have paid a lawyer to tell you it’s okay.

I recommend even avoiding Easter Eggs, and be sure when drawing inspiration that your creation is not a carbon copy of the thing that inspired you. And if you do write Easter Eggs or draw major inspiration from a source, tell your developer/editor/publisher, so they can decide how much they are comfortable with that you have done.

And that’s the end of my thoughts for the week.

Stay safe, take care, be kind.

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I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy. 

On Writing With Licensed Game Rules

Another day, another follow-up post growing out of Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. In fact, another response brought on by a follow-up from Egg Embry, who asked about working on games with licensed game systems, and how those compared to working on games using licensed game systems.

While this week I have been focused on tabletop games that are based on a licensed IP, such as a Star Wars rpg, that’s not the only kind of licensed game material a game professional may get assigned to work with. There are also licensed game systems, such as when you use a system released under the Open Game License (OGL). While some of the research and approval process can be very similar, there are some very different concerns that can come up when working with licensed game systems, rather than licensed IPs. This is often the case when doing work for what are referred to as “third-party publishers,” (or 3pp), who publish adventures, supplements, and expansions for games by other publishers.

Of course who is a 3pp isn’t necessarily a clear-cut question. There are a number of games that have their origins in the OGL version of the d20 System, including 13th Age, Mutants & Masterminds, both editions of Pathfinder, and Starfinder. To most fans, that doesn’t make Pelgrane Press, Green Ronin Publishing, and Paizo 3pp… at least not for those game lines, where they are the publishers of the core rulebooks. (Of course some fans DO think of them as 3pp–which mostly doesn’t impact working on such projects, but is something a freelancer should be aware of if it comes up in conversation).

However, a writer working on those game lines should be aware they are published under the OGL, and therefore have rules and restrictions that may not apply to other game projects. (And please note – I am not a lawyer. NONE of this article is legal advice.) This means that the writer should be aware of what license applies to the rules of the game, and what a publisher expects the writer to know. for example, when operating with the OGL, the end product needs to include the Section 15 entry (part of the OGL published in every OGL product) of any protect it draws material from. That means as a writer if you include material from another OGL product (which you shouldn’t do without talking to your editor/developer/producer), you need to tell your publisher what that product was so they can include the required information.

And that highlights on of the biggest issues that can crop up when dealing with licensed game systems — many of those licenses are open, and can be used by anyone who follows their restrictions. That means publishers, producers, developers, and freelancers may well decide to use such a license without properly understanding it. this is much less common when dealing with a license for an intellectual property, since those negotiations tend to involve an active discussion on the terms and helps insure a meeting of minds. But the lower barrier to entry for things such as the OCL or Creative Commons licenses, or the very-different Dungeon Master’s Guild and similar programs, means people may try to use them without truly understanding them.

Ideally, it would be the job of the publisher to ensure anyone they hire or contract to work on a licensed game line was aware of the terms and requirements of that license before assigning them work. Pragmatically, many companies (often even bigger ones) simply do not have the spare time (or in some cases the instructional expertise) to undertake that effort, and depend on professionals to know how to operate within such licenses. Practically, it means knowing how common licenses work can make it easier to get work with such publishers, and reduce the risk of stumbling over some legal landmine.

Of course many people will quite reasonably say that such legal landmines are risks exclusively for the publisher, not the hireling… which may or may not be true. Anyone working for a publisher operating under a licensed game system should read their contract (you all have contracts for all your freelance work, right?), and see what you are agreeing to in terms of your responsibility to get the legal niceties right. While I am not aware of a freelancer even getting hauled into court over such a contract (nor am I aware of any lawsuits that settle OGL enforceability or interpretation), I am personally risk-adverse when it comes to these things, and like to stick to both the letter and spirit of contracts and licenses I agree to by using, even as a freelancer.

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About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Apparently this is becoming Licensed games week on my blog, as I continue to respond to questions about Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. A number of people had questions and comments about the stresses, additional work, drawbacks, and benefits of working on licensed game projects. I could go on about those topics for hours, but instead here’s a few quick thought snapshots.

First, be aware that you almost certainly won’t own any of the work you do. Work-for-hire is the norm in tabletop game writing in any case, but when you are working on a licensed IP, the IP holder is sure to insist on owning anything related to the IP you come up with. Indeed, you likely won’t even be credited for the ideas you create when they are reused. I know I created the ILH-KK Citadel Cruiser, Hutt battle armor and the Kilian Lords for Star Wars, but when those have re-entered other Star Wars projects, my name is generally no-where to be found.

Publishers can (and should) contract to keep the rights to the game systems and mechanics they create for a licensed game, but any IP-related ideas outside pure mechanics is going to go to the IP-holder. And, honestly, that’s reasonable.

The research requirements can be heavy, but whether they are heavier than typical game writing depends very much on what kind of game writing you’ve gotten used to. If you have mostly been making up things whole-cloth for cartoon universes where revolutionary mice use psychic weapons to fight against an authoritarian spider aristocracy, you may not have had to do a significant amount of continuity research in your game writing. On the other hand, if you’ve been working on games that try to match historical periods, or that have significant game continuity (some game worlds go back more than 40 years at this point), the skills to learn about the setting, match existing continuity, and project ideas appropriate in tone and theme translate well to converting IP-concepts to game design.

The approval process can throw a monkey wench into the process, though that’s more likely to impact a publisher’s process than a writers. It’s essentially another level of editing and development. If you are exposed to it at all (many developers handle approvals themselves, rather than have writers do it), the largest issue is to not take it personally, and to try to learn what the IP owner wants by examining what gets approved, what doesn’t, and what gets approved with changes (and how they are changed). The IP holder is unlikely to have either time or interest in training licensees in how to write for the IP, so learning to train yourself on feedback is a useful skill. (It’s also one reason people who have successfully worked on multiple licensed projects are often sought out for new licenses–the publishers and project leads have reason to believe you have mastered the process of licensed project writing, rather than just having a good grasp of a single IP).

Honestly I have found it’s a skill much like any other writing specialty. It’s stressful the first few times you do it, but once you have an idea of how to tackle it it’s much like following any other structured outline.

And while your name may not be directly attached to ideas you create for the setting of the IP, the increased visibility of a licensed game certainly can get you more attention based on your involvement. My work on the three d20 Star Wars RPG games remains one of the places people recognize my name from, and both fans and publishers have mentioned following my career after seeing my name on multiple Star Wars game books. And on a resume, having been involved with recognizable properties can impress people who may never have heard of The Genius Guide to the Dragonrider, but definitely know what Star Wars and Star Trek are.

And, often the money is better than usual for the writers and editors. Not always, by a long shot, but often enough to make it worth considering branching into licensed writing if you haven’t already.

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I have a Patreon. It helps me carve out the time needed to create these blog posts, and is a great way to let me know what kind of content you enjoy.