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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Owen!

Hope you are doing well.

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

Thanks!

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

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

“Dear Mr. Stephens,

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

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

Thanks for your time,

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

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

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

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

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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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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Publisher. 1. New RPG Marketing Consultation

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 a consultation I was asked for from an RPG creator/publisher. The publisher kindly gave permission for me to use their question and my advice for this blog post (though a few details have been redacted). Since I did have to edit some of the info the publisher gave me that lead to the response posted below, keep in mind that this advice is for a specific publisher in a specific situation. I think it’s still fair advice, but it’s just one example of many ways you can try to build and market a new ttRPG line, and assumes you want to have multiple games using the same core mechanic, which is certainly not the case for every publisher and every game.

Here’s a paraphrased version of what I was asked:

I have created a new ttRPG system I am going to market and publish. It has a single, simple game mechanic that can be easily adapted to multiple genres and game themes. I figure a zine-sized book would be the best way to do it, since it’s VERY rules-light.

My question is, is it better these days to release it as a little book that has all the rules and tips for running various multiple genres with this system, or is it better to break it up into “the pastoral zine” “the horror zine” “the superhero zine”?

Here’s a cleaned-up version of my answer.

First, name the system. I specifically mean name the game engine itself, separate from any genre or setting-plus- rules-modifications for a specific theme. The “Chat RPG System,” or something like that. (I’m making names up as I go here, both for the specific game and various potential releases, but feel free to come up with better titles.)

Have the base, core rules written up so you can adapt and build off that core as needed.

Then for your first release, make it a super-tight setting Zine. “Pastoral Adventures, an RPG about Quiet Little Emergencies.” But mark it “Powered by the Chat RPG System.” It’s important here to pick a genre, theme, and style of game the Chat RPG system handles really well. Preferably something that plays off your rules-light system, and that is a good tonal math for how your core mechanic works.

Then see what feedback you get, what additional genres people ask for, and so on. If you find the Chat RPG system needs some core improvements, make those in your core rules documentation.

Then make your second ttRPG release. If people really seemed to want to add more grit and horror to “Pastoral Adventures,” and it’s a good fit, perhaps you put out “Shrieks in the Night, an RPG about Stories with Bloody Endings.” And also mark IT as “Powered by the Chat RPG System.”

Keep track, for your own use, how these use the Chat system differently.

Again, look to feedback and make any adjustments to the Core Chat you need to. See if support products for “Patroal Adventures” and “Shrieks in the Night” are popular.

Then you go with a third new “Powered by Chat” game. Perhaps “Patrols and Brooding, an RPG about Street level Heroes,” and, yep, mark it “Powered by the Chat RPG System.”

At that point, you can see if “Core Chat” has any fans asking for it, or it there is a community interested in other genres, themes, and ways to modify the Chat system. If so, you can release a “Chat CORE” book that brings all the rules together, and maybe expands on them and offers new genre tweaks. This is a particularly good place to support less popular, more esoteric genres, presenting them as examples of how you can use Chat CORE to make homebrew setting games. There may not be a general appetite for “TERMITE, Eat the Stats Quo,” a game about equality-minded insect colonies attacking the rotting elements of a tyrannical society’s buildings, but if you use it as a way to show how organization rules, toxic environment rules, and big project rules work with Chat CORE, you can both present a new, quirky setting and have a useful example of how to use Chat CORE to build settings that no publisher is likely to produce.

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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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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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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 1. Turnaround Times.

I recently moved toward the contract stage of a small project (1,500-2,500 words) with a new freelancer, and asked them what timeframe they thought would work for them as a deadline (so I could put it in the contract). Quite reasonably (especially given I had told the freelancer I was available for general industry questions), the freelancer wanted to know what kind of turnaround time was reasonable and typical in the industry. Also, how much back-and-forth was their going to be between the freelancer and myself, as that would impact their thinking on a deadline.

So, I wrote a short letter in response. It then occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of drill-down detail prospective and relatively new freelance ttRPG writers often ask about in seminars and such.

So I have copied it here, minus any identifying information and with a dab of editorial clean-up, as a generic “Letter from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer.” I might do more of these in the future, or this might just be a 1-off.

After a polite intro, I wrote:

“So, turnaround can vary wildly. At the “experienced freelancer” level, I normally expect someone to be able to produce a finished draft of 10,000 words per month, starting from the time they have a full outline (if needed) and contract. That’s assuming they aren’t doing this full time, and don’t have any other freelance assignments.

However, when I am working with a freelancer, it’s not really any of my business if they are doing it full time or have other contracts. I just offer a contact with a deadline, and see if they agree they can hit that.

There are freelancers I know quite well who can product 20k, 30k, or even 45k words in a month… but I try to never plan to need that. And, even those who can aren’t always free to do so when I have an emergency project. I also work with some people who can only manage 5k in a month, and only if the timing is right. But as long as they produce good work when they do take a contract, I can work around that.

When I personally began ttRPG writing in the mid-1990s, I averaged a mere 1,000 words in a month Luckily, I just did magazine articles at first, often with no set deadline. However, by the time I left Wizards of the Coast in 2001, after more than a year of full-time, in-house game writing, I was producing 40k-50k words per month as a freelancer. Now that I’m in my 50s, I can’t really keep that up anymore. 😛

Most developers/editors/producers assume newer writers need more time, and try to work around that. In this case, I *could* perfectly well give you 90 days to write this. Given it’s short length, I’d expect an experienced freelancer to be able to do it in 1-2 weeks, and a veteran to be able to do it in one day (if the timing is right  and they can spare a day when I need it written).

I would expect anywhere up to 30 days for someone with very little experience, but honestly in my dealings it often seems most people who can’t do it in 2 weeks just can’t do it. That’s not being judgmental — some people just have too much going on in their lives to spend much time writing about imaginary magic creatures. And there ARE exceptions. So if you wanted to pad your time with this first project because it made you more comfortable, I’d be okay with that.

As a side note, never be afraid to tell someone offering you a freelance writing project up-front you can’t do it in the timeframe suggested. Also, if you want the job, feel free to tell them when you COULD have it done by. Something like “I love this idea, but my schedule wouldn’t allow me to get it back to you in 6 weeks. However, if you could extend the deadline to 9 weeks, I could accomplish that.” Missing a deadline after you say you can do it is bad, but telling people you can’t meet a deadline when turning down work is never seen as a bad thing. It’s usually taken as a sign you know your limits, and are thus more likely to be reliable.

(And missing a deadline after you agree to a job isn’t the end of the world, especially if there are extenuating circumstances. The most important things are to communicate with your developer early, and let them know if problems are growing. If you have 4 weeks for a project, and 2 weeks in you tell them “This is going slower than expected, can I have an extra week to get it done?” they may be free to give it to you. But if you tell them that the day before it is due, it both gives them much less leeway, and shows you haven;t been working on it throughout, or haven’t been tracking your progress. Even then, exigent circumstances CAN arise. I once had a freelancer tell me the day before their deadline they were going to be weeks late–because their home had been hit by a Category 4 hurricane. And, yeah, I could see how that would make delivery nearly impossible even if they were mostly done.)

(As a second aside, communication is important. Telling someone on the last day that you are giving up on a project and won’t be turning over any work for it at all is BAD, but not telling them that and not replying to their inquiries is still much worse.)

As for how much back-and-forth is needed, it’s a fine line. Especially for something short, if everything goes smoothly, you may do your work and send it to me without ever needing any other advice or input. However, if you aren’t sure if you are doing it right, or aren’t sure if an idea you have had fits what the person paying you wants, or want to change something from the pitch that was already agreed to, or can’t figure out how to write a rule or describe an issue or fix a plot hole, those are all great reasons to reach out to your developer and explain the issue and ask for feedback.

For bigger projects, there are often “milestones” where you are asked 1/2-way through the project’s writing time to show you have done 1/2 the work. And some projects later on where you are asked to work with multiple writers may have some forum or Discord channel set up where writers can brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other.

OTOH, the person paying you to write something normally doesn’t want to spend as much time answering your questions as it would take them to write it themselves.”

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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On Being a Full-Time Tabletop Game Freelancer

This grew out of a response I wrote to someone considering full-time freelancing on Facebook. It comes with some provisos.

I haven’t been a full-time freelancer for nearly 4 years now. Things change fast, and no one still freelancing is going to bother to keep me in the loops, so while I stand by the generalities and warnings, the specifics may well be different nowadays.

I had a spectacular set of advantages when my freelance career really took off. While I went to full-time freelance sometime in 1997, at the time my wife made enough money, and got enough insurance, that my miserable first few years didn’t need to be self-sufficient. It’s when I restarted full-time freelance in 2001, after being laid off from Wizards of the Coast, that I had to cover my share of buying houses, paying all the bills, cover insurance, and paying college expenses based purely on what I could earn as a freelancer. And at that point, I was a d20-proficient writer during the d20 boom, multiple people who left WotC to start their own businesses or work as editors and developers for bigger companies knew and liked me, and I already had some major game titles under my belt thanks to 14 months as a WotC designer.

That made things much, much easier.

I was a full-time freelance RPG content provider from 2001 to 2014. So it can be done. But it’s hard.

I lived in Norman, Oklahoma, one of the cheapest places in the US to live and, thanks to being a college town, one that still had a fair number of modern amenities. I recommend finding cheap living options, whatever that can mean for you.

I discovered being a full-time freelancer was actually three jobs.
>First, you have to get work. That means promoting yourself online, contacting potential clients, and going to conventions or similar events to make contacts and network.
>Second, you have to do the work. This is the only part anyone pays you for.
>Third, you had to get paid for the work. Most of my clients were great, but I *still* have a $2000 outstanding bill for a project that got published, and numerous pay-upon-publication projects that were never published, despite me doing my part, and thus never came due.

I strongly recommend spreading yourself around to as many kinds of writing as you can. I once traded writing copy for a repair shop’s website for $600 in repairs. which is good, because I did not have $600. In bad periods I worked for trade for food, yard work, clothes, and even editing or similar favors for other work of mine. Much of that work was not game-related. 

I joined Super Genius Games, and when I left it began Rogue Genius Games, so I would always have a place to write, when other companies weren’t hiring. Of course that meant I only made money on those projects if people bought them, since it was all on royalties. Before that I wrote for d20 Weekly and later Pyramid magazine because they would publish whatever I wrote, without fail, every week. And they paid on time.

It isn’t always smart to start your own game company, but it is always smart to look for a place that will publish you regularly. They may pay less or pay only royalties. You DO need to get paid, but I found a mix of high-paying but rare work and lower-paying or royalty work that was always of often available was the way to make ends meet.

Magazine columns were great. Lines with regular releases and developers who liked me were great. One advantage of smaller projects is that you often do less work before you get paid. A 30,000 word project sounds great… but it’s 3-6 weeks of work you have to do before the clock even starts on getting paid.

Similarly, ongoing contract work is great. Especially if it pays by the month. This is rare, but there are companies who need a single developer or editor, or project manager (or, much less often, has a whole contract staff) that will pay you for a certain amount of time or a certain cut of what gets done, every month. This is a huge help, as it cuts down time spent getting work and tracking down payment for work. Even a small monthly amount can help balance the budget (and see Patreon thoughts, below.)

Don’t work without a contract. Look at the terms. An advance is best, but almost nonexistent nowadays. Pay-upon-acceptance, especially if it talks about when you’ll be accepted by and what happens if you’re not, is great. Pay upon publication kinda sucks, but is fairly standard. Flat rates are often better than royalties, but royalties are a legitimate business plan. I’ve made more money on freelance projects that paid royalties than I ever have on flat rates. of course, I’ve also had such projects end up paying nothing or nearly nothing. And, full disclosure, my own company (Rogue Genius Games) mostly pays royalties, so my opinion on this may be biased.

Your budget may be feast-or-famine. My wife and I were very cautious about spending money when a big check came it, because we literally did not know how long it had to last. We tried very hard to do nothing on credit, because credit can pile up and kill you, but even so after 13 years of freelancing I had tens of thousands of dollars of medical and educational debt that we still haven’t fully paid off.

The 80 hour work week because my norm. The 100 hour work week happened way too often. I pulled more than one 30-hour “all-nighter” shift, a feat I am physically no longer capable of pulling off.

I can’t recommend full-time freelance writing tabletop games as a career choice. In my case, because I had cared about games more than a career or education, I ended up with no other marketable skills.

But if you feel you must try it, I hope you get advice from lots of different people first, and I wish you well.

Patreon

Things like Kickstarter and Patreon have change the potnetial freelance landscape. I recommend everyone have a Patreon-like subscription service and a blog or similar ongoing outlet you can ask people to pay you to continue.

And, of course, I’d appreciate it if you consider supporting mine. 🙂

Addendum the First: Always see if you can use anything you have written to either make money, or promote yourself. Or both. That’s why I blew up what was originally a Facebook response into full blog post.
Addendum the Second: Friends, and colleagues and fans that like and respect you, are more likely to help you find work and promote you and the work you have done.
Act accordingly.
Addendum the Third: There is no shame in being a part-time freelancer. You can do it as a second job, or as a hobby. You can also do it mostly, then with some little extra thing on the side to make sure you survive. I’ve known awesome freelancers who were fast food dishwashers, Uber drivers, substitute teachers, and temp workers. If that’s what you need to have a safety margin, or to live at least part of the life you want to live, do it with your head held high. If, someday, you feel secure in leaving the non-freelance part of your life, great. If not, your work is no less ‘real” or “professional.”