The Seminar Files 01: Publishing ttRPG Material With Little or Not Art Budget
The Seminar Files is a new branding of an old idea: to provide the kind of information, thoughts, and answers I would once have given during a gaming convention seminar in a more accessible format. Not every creator or potential creator can afford to go to conventions and industry events to attend seminars, and that can create a barrier to entry that disproportionately impacts lower-income creators, creators with disabilities, creators that don’t feel safe in traditional game industry spaces, and creators in physical or social spaces that don’t even hear about game industry events.
Obviously those are serious issues that won’t be solved just by putting up blog posts–which themselves have some issues with limited accessibility–but every tiny step helps, and my hope is that not only will my own Seminar Files help get information to people who wouldn’t ever have a chance to hear me give it in a live seminar, but that it may encourage other veterans of a range of creative endeavors to also strive to make this kind of advice available in alternative formats.
Publishing ttRPG Material With Little or Not Art Budget
One of the hardest parts of being a one-person shop or small press publisher is what to do about art for a project. Many independent creatives have the skills to write and edit themselves, and can either learn to do layout or find someone who will do layout for a few dollars per page. Often elbow grease or a tiny budget can handle all the text and graphic design elements of a small project, keeping the barrier to entry lower the the bottom position of a limbo competition.
But art? Art is tougher. Good art is (quite reasonably) expensive. Few writer/developer/publishers can do their own art (though there absolutely are a few who can). Several low-to-no budget projects in recent months have turned to AI-generated images, but between the US Copyright Office declaring AI-Generated images not being eligible for copyright in a recent case and a number of companies (Chaosium and Paizo, in particular )declaring their community content programs do not allow the use of AI-generated images or text, that solution is less appealing to many of them.
Way before AI generated images or text were realistic options, publishing on a budget and having decent art was a challenge. But the very fact that challenge goes back decades means there are other potential solutions than AI, and I have enough experience with several of them to speak to their pros and cons. Obviously a lot of this advice can apply to projects outside the game industry, but that is where my own expertise lies, and thus is how I have framed this article.
Let’s look at some specific art-on-a-budget strategies.
1. Stock Art
One extremely cost-effective option is to use stock art for your project. There is a ton of very reasonably-priced stock art available at DriveThruRPG, and there are also professional stock art sites such as Adobe Stock Photos, Shutterstock, and Getty Images. Now, some provisos.
First, read the license before you pay for or use any stock art image. That’s simple for the specialty stock art sites, their licensing is normally easy to find well before you sign up (and they usually have better search engines, though they often have less game/speculative fiction-specific images). For DriveThruRPG the licensing is determined by each artist individually, and sometimes you have to search around a bit to find it prior to paying for a piece. If you can’t find the license, contact the publisher and ask for it.
Second, while many sites have policies stating that AI-Generated images must be marked as such, they don’t all have such rules, and even those that do lack a perfect method of detection and enforcement. In many cases a practices eye can pick put AI-generated images, but it isn’t always as easy as looking for characters with a weirdly large number of fingers. If you need to avoid AI-generated art (either for your own ethical guidelines or licensing requirements of the project you’re working on), you may need to seek out stock images from artists with a recognizable name and track records.
Third, really good, cheap stock art is likely to be used by a lot of projects, which can reduce the impact it has when you use it. There’s no perfect solution for tis, but older stock art is less likely to get used for a similar product around the time you release something with it than brand-new art everyone is excited by for the first couple of months its out. Also, some stock art allows you to modify it, which can increase customization. I personally am a big fan of art patreons that produce stock at and take feedback from backers (such as Dean Spencer’s Art Patreon), produce material anyone can use for free (such as Fantasy RPG Cartography by Dyson Logos), or have tiers that let you order specific images which become stock art for everyone after a certain period (such as Jacob Blackmon Illustration). Those require spending some monthly money, of course, but you still get a lot of visual impact per dollar spent.
Fourth, the more unusual the concepts of your project, the harder it is to find stock art that fits it. If you’re writing a cyberpunk setting, or a list of options for fantasy wizards, it’s not hard to find appropriate stock illustrations to match those concepts. But if you specifically need art of cybernetical-augmented anthropomorphic sharks with stun-gun-equipped mancatcher polearms… chances are you won’t find stock art to meet your needs.
There are a few ways you can handle that issue. First, you can just leave the unique elements of your product unillustrated. That’s not ideal, but a good cover combined with a title and description that spells out what’s interesting about your project is often better than no art at all. Secondly, you can find the coolest stock art that interests you, and write a product that is inspired by that art. Yes, this means writing something based on someone else’s ideas rather than your own, but if you do one such project, you can take the money it makes to pay for more custom art for your next, more you-centric product.
2. Public Domain Art
Want an even cheaper than stock art? Well, then it’s time to look at the Public Domain.
(Art by Gustav Doré, now in the public domain)
Public Domain art is available for anyone to use in any way they want. Of course, you need to understand what is and isn’t Public Domain,
For finding Stock Art, I’m a big fan of OldBookIllustrations. It’s a big collection, has a search engine, and provides info about artist and publication for each art piece (if known). The British Library has also released a huge Public Domain collection on Flickr, which for my purposes is less well-organized, but has stuff hard to find elsewhere (including maps).
Public domain art has all the subject-matter and style issues of stock art, but as long as you are sure it’s actually public domain, none of the licensing problems. And while a ton of public domain art is woodblock prints from centuries ago, there is other content out there if you look hard enough. Learning some image editor skills can be a huge help in turning what is available into something you can use, and there are good free image editors out there (I often use Pixlr when I just need to crop or touch up something for a blog post and don’t want to take up the time of my professional graphic designers and their greater skills and more powerful tools).
3. Other Licensed Art
In addition to commercial art and public domain art, there are other ways art gets licensed that makes it viable for commercial use. One big example of this is art released under the Creative Commons License, especially the CC-BY license. Most of the notes about stock art and some about public domain art apply here, but the most important one is to make sure you know which Creative commons license you are dealing with, and that you understand it.
4. Skip the Art
Yes, it’s a well-accepted truism that ttRG products must have art, especially cover art. And I believe an attractive cover is crucial to sales, and good interior art helps break up “walls of text” that can otherwise be daunting and unattractive to many readers.
But you don’t have to use illustrations to accomplish these things.
Raging Swan Press is a great example of a successful company that has attractive, informative, and even eye-catching overs with no illustrations beyond their logo. Obviously you shouldn’t duplicate their trade dress, but being inspired by it to create your own illustration-free cover design is a huge budget-saver, especially when you consider the impact of not paying for cover art over the life of entire product lines.
Similarly, there are things that can break up pages of pure text in the same way art does, without actually being illustrations. Chapter and section headers, charts, tables, sidebars, bullet points, scholar’s margins, and similar treatments of text that’s in any way different than the main prose can help break up the visual monotony of page after page of pure text.
5. Partner With An Artist
I’m going to open this section with a quick anecdote.
In 2014 Adam Daigle and I were guests at Comicpalooza, and we spoke about breaking into the games industry in a panel with easily 1,000 attendees. Most folks were interested in videogames, but there was still some basic stuff we could discuss that was relevant for them. At one point, a person wanting to be a writer for video games mentioned they were having trouble making a good impression because writing for a video game fell flat without art, level design, and programming, and they couldn’t afford to pay people to do those jobs just to make a working example of their writing.
Adam asked if there were any artists who wanted to have a sample video game they could use as part of their resume, and dozens of hands went up. then he asked about level designers, and then programmers, and in every case there were dozens of hands. So, Adam suggested, maybe those people should all get together and form groups, each looking to create a small playable example of their work. When the seminar ended, there were circles of people from different disciplines gathering, talking, exchanging business cards, and picking places to go and talk more right there at the con.
The moral of that story is that there are other people who want to break into the games industry, and some of them have exactly the skills you need to shore up your own weaknesses. They may not have the level of polish you’d prefer, and partnering with people means figuring out (and writing down!) how ownership of the end product works, how everyone gets paid, and how creative input is shared, but those are all solvable issues. Again, compromises are going to be called for, but if you work with other folks at your experience and success level it can both serve as a stepping stone to having the budget you need to hire professionals to match your specific vision, and help make contacts (and friend) that may well be a huge part of your process and success in later years.
6. Decide What You Are Trying To Do
One of the pieces of advice that I don’t think is discussed enough is “Decide what your goal is with your work.” Do you want to be a publisher, one-person or otherwise? Great, then work on finding ways to publish material even if it’s not your magnum opus. In that case, for early projects you may have to find stock or public domain art first, and build products around it.
Do you want to be a professional writer, developer, or editor? Okay, then maybe you don’t need to self-publish at all, or should do so specifically for the goal of proving you can do the work, so you can point at that work when asking publishers to give you a shot. In that case you may not need art at all, since you aren’t trying to get work as an artist or art director. Just make sure your text is as clean as possible, and understand that being a professional paid ttRPG writer working for other publishers is mostly about writing the projects someone else wants to make happen, not getting paid to do the projects you want to make happen.
(And if you DO want to get work as a ttRG artist, by all means see if you can find a writer and publisher who is looking for an art solution and partner up with them for a few projects. Just make sure your ownership and cut of the profits is covered in writing when you do.)
Do you just want to publish the one thing you are dying to show the world, make sure it’s true to your vision, and don’t want to turn this into a career or even side-hustle? Well, most likely that means you are a hobbyist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you want custom art, high-quality layout, and someone else to do the boring parts of developing and editing your text, and aren’t willing to compromise or build a line of other projects to slowly build to a bigger budget, you likely are going to have to pay for it. Like most hobbies, publishing at a professional level primarily for fun and bragging rights takes money.
Even if you aren’t sure what your end-goal is, deciding how you want to proceed initially can help you figure out what low-to-no-budget art strategy to begin with. As your experience grows and your goals shift, you can pivot to projects and plans that better match your evolving needs.
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This is What Victory Looks Like
So, WotC has announced they are leaving OGL 1.0a completely alone.
AND releasing the 5.1 SRD under CC.
YOU did this. Congratulations!
There’s a lot to talk about in “Now what” territory, but I’ll get to that later this weekend, after I have had some time to process.
For now, I thank WotC for listening to the fans and industry as a whole. A lot of people said this would never happen. It’s to WotC’s credit that they decided not to keep pushing this.
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WotC Cannot Deauthorize the OGL 1.0a, and That Matters
There’s a new OGL draft, 1.2, which WotC has released for discussion.
It still claims WotC has the power to stop people from using the OGL 1.0a by “de-authorizing” it. That’s not a term acknowledged by the OGL 1.0a, and it’s not one with a legal meaning.
WotC is still trying to take away the promises of the OGL 1.0a, and that is 100% unacceptable. (The short version of why is if someone gives you 20 things for you to use however you want, and promise never to take any away, then they say they are taking back 18 of them anyway, it is NOT a victory if they decide to only take 12, or even only take 1. And WotC should be well aware of this.)
First, while some base set of rules is supposedly going to be released on a Creative Commons license, that explicitly does not cover things like Magic Missile and Owlbears. WotC opted to release those concepts under the OGL 1.0a, and did so multiple times over the years. They don’t now get to claim can force you to use a new license rather than follow the old one.
Second, their claim they “have to” to prevent “harmful, discriminatory, or illegal” is spurious at best. If you publish *illegal* content, obviously they have legal options to stop you. As far as “harmful” and “discriminatory” go, a huge part of making something Open is to prevent a corporation from getting to decide what is in good taste.
The license specifically forbids “obscene” material, without defining it. If you decide to include a happy gay owlbear couple, Wotc can say that it’s obscene under OGL 1.2 and cancel your license. That’s not a power they reserved for themselves under 1.0a, and given big corporations’ track records, there’s no guarantee they won’t abuse the power if it is given to them.
Third, they restrict the OGL 1.2 to “any content in the SRD 5.1 (or any subsequent version of the SRD we release under this license) that is not licensed to you under Creative Commons.”
So WotC is claiming you can’t do *anything* with the 3.0. 3.5, and d20 Modern SRDs. They are not part of the CC release. They are not allowed under OGL 1.2. Also, of course, they’re shutting off OGL products built off Open d6, Fate, Fudge, and other game systems released under OGL 1.0a that WotC had absolutely no hand in creating.
So when the survey opens? If you can fill it out without making a D&D Beyond account, do so and tell them this is 100% unacceptable. The only reason to attempt to invalidate the OGL is to steal back rights that were openly and freely given, which WotC has significantly benefited from, and which entire careers were built in reliance on.
That bad faith effort must be refused and fought.
And if you can’t fill the survey without making an account? That’s also a bad faith measure, and will call for strenuous protest to keep this debate in the public.
And ALL of those efforts must focus on the actions of WotC itself, NOT on attacking WotC staff or spreading rumors. At this point, WotC is telling use exactly what they are planning to do, and that’s the ground to fight them on.
Support This Blog
Because I need to encourage people to sign up for my Patreon to pay for the time I take to write the material in this blog, I have taken to making Tuesday and Thursday posts Patreon-exclusive. But the issue of the safe continuance of the OGL 1.0a is too important to paywall my thoughts, so I’m breaking my own rules and making this freely and publicly available.
Obviously, community support is crucial to my making these posts, and is much appreciated. So if you can spare the cost of a cup of coffee each month, please join my Patreon.
Now On Patreon: “In Times of Wars,” The Pros and Cons of Being on the Outside
My Tuesday posts are currently Patreon-exclusive. That’s an intentional carrot to get more people to join my Patreon, and once it’s risen to $1,500/month, I’ll both go back to posting Tuesday posts for free here on my blog as well as on my Patreon, and I’ll make and maintain some article index for my Patreons (the carrot to encourage Patrons to see if their friends want to join).
So when I do Tuesday posts at the moment, I try to give enough information on what it is about and where it’s going that people who read my free blog can decide if they want join up for a few bucks a month to read the end.
I’m doing the reverse, this time. The premise on why and how I can to the following conclusion is the meat of today’s Patreon-exclusive article. The tl;dr I ended with I’m going to post here, for everyone to read if they wish.
War is messy, and people are going to get hurt. Consider that very carefully before taking the first shot, or joining some brigade.
But not opposing wrongdoing when your best analysis of a situation says it’s coming allows bullies to win.
I don’t believe there’s a perfect answer here.
OGLpocalypse: WotC’s Response To The Public Wrath At Their Bad Faith Is Not NEARLY Enough
I have talked about OGL facts before, but not previously written an opinion piece here on my blog about the bad faith efforts WotC prepared to try to force people to give up the OGL 1.0s, which has driven the creation of tens of thousands of products over 23 years, in favor of a draconian “OGL 1.1” which would bad for anyone who agreed to it.
If you aren’t up to speed on this, check out Linda Codega’s articles here, here, here, and here. They are at the front of this developing story.
So, here’s the big kicker on why today’s official WotC response is unacceptable. A non-starter that even with the tiny concession they want to use to turn down the heat of anger directed at them by the community doesn’t even begin to address the root of the real problem with what they are trying to do. Taken from the very first paragraph of their response today.
“And third, we wanted to ensure that the OGL is for the content creator, the homebrewer, the aspiring designer, our players, and the community—not major corporations to use for their own commercial and promotional purpose.”
Fuck you, WotC corporate. You DON’T get to ensure that, and the fact you want to means you still think you can change the rules on how people interact with and use the OGL.
You released SRDs for 3.5, d20 Modern, and 5.1 under OGL 1.0a. That license was NOT released with any restrictions on who could use it, and you know it.
The OGL 1.0a was designed to be something you couldn’t force people away from — could NOT force them to used a changed version of it — and you know it.
The OGL doesn’t allow anyone to make “D&D” products with content you object to, as they can’t even mention the name of your game, much less use its logo, and you know it.
You’ve benefited from the ubiquity of each edition of D&D you released an SRD for, reaped profits as a result, and you know it.
You don’t get to bully or bamboozle people into changes now, because you don’t like what the OGL 1.0a means for your current business plans.
I feel it would intellectually dishonest not to include this, written 12 or so hours later. I’m not walking back anything I said above, but I have to acknowledge that writing the above happened on the same day I wrote the below.
“The ttRPG industry is small.
One thing that means is that dozens of people asked me to be one shows, consult on the future, or lead on the OGL issue. I have done my best.
But ANOTHER thing it means is I have hurt friends and family-of-choice in the process.
That was never my intent, but some soul-searching tells me I didn’t give that possibility the weight of consideration I should have.
Would I have done things differently? I don’t know, but I should have given it more thought.
Apologies don’t undo harm, but I’m sorry folks.
That said, I need to step back and ponder the current reality very, very carefully.
So, I’m taking the next few days off from any OGL-related news, links, or posts. I’ll wake up Tuesday, and see what I think I need to do for my career, industry… and friends.
ALL my friends.”
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Some Facts About the OGL (1.0 and 1.0a)
With the excellent article written by Linda Codega, and the video released by Roll For Combat that brought in a contract lawyer, there is a lot of news about WotC’s (Wizards of the Coast) plans for a “OGL 1.1” and why it is an act of bad faith on the part of WotC if they go forward with it.
So I’m not going over all that again here.
What I DO want to do is present some groundwork for what the OGL is, and isn’t, and what WotC have said about it in the past. This is an editorial by me, based in factual information, and is not itself part of the OGL content on this blog.
1. WotC themselves wrote an FAQ about how the OGL was to be used, back in 2004. This is important, because it shows (for example) that they were of the opinion if they changed the OGL publishers could ignore their new version, and that the OGL could be used for software. Obviously WotC doesn’t host that FAQ anymore, but the Wayback Machine has the original archived for us to all read and draw out own conclusions.
2. There is a huge difference between the OGL and the various SRDs (System Resource Documents). The OGL is not tied to any one game system or product release (see Point 3, below). For example, none of the D&D core rulebooks has ever been released under the OGL. Instead, pared-down versions of the rules for D&D 3.0. 35, D20 Modern, and 5e had SRDs released (and the Psionics handbooks back in 3.x days).
3. The OGL does not just cover products that are designed for use with D&D. For one thing, there are game systems that have been released under the OGL that were not created by WotC, and have no ties to any edition of D&D, including d6 Adventures, Fudge, and Fate.
There are also numerous complete RPGs that are their own things, separate from D&D, including Pathfinder, Starfinder, Mutants & Masterminds, and 13th Age, just to name a few.
4. It’s entirely up to WotC whether or not they release a One D&D SRD. If they don’t, those rules aren’t open. And they could release it under a totally separate license, unrelated to the OGL 1.0a. So, WotC is not under any threat from people using genuinely new rules from One D&D using the existing OGL. (Of course they have said One D&D will be compatible with 5e, so that raises a question if they are *new* rules, and if there aren’t, that might speak to motive on their part.)
5. The OGL does not allow anyone to mention D&D, WotC, the Forgotten Realms, or any other trademarks, or emulate any trade dress. So WotC does not need to worry about the OGL allowing people to associate repugnant material with D&D — all the brands trademarks, characters, and stories, of D&D are off-limits to OGL users, as are many even iconic creatures such as beholders and mind flayers.
6. WotC always knew the OGL would be used by their major competitors to make big profits. The OGL was shared with numerous representatives of various companies before it was made public. I was part of the email chain that was used by Ryan Dancey to do that. And it’s why Sword & Sorcery Studios (a newly-created division of White Wolf, a major ttRPG publisher at the time) was able to put out the Creature Collection in October of 2000, *before* the official 3.0 Monster Manual got published.
7. WotC benefitted from the existence of the OGL. They crafted it, with the knowing intent it would last forever, as part of their D&D relaunch business plan.
But don’t believe me. Believe Keith Strohm (and learn about why you care about his opinion on it in this fireside chat with Peter Adkison, president of WotC when the OGL was created). This is from a comment Keith made on Facebook, and is shared with his permission.
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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.
“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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