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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

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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