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The Empty Place

Content Warning: The essay includes discussion of death, suicide, self-harm, and the passing of a recently departed person in my life. I am writing it as much for me as anyone else, and if those topics aren’t something you need in your head right now, please feel free to read no further. Please, take care of yourself.

When my father died, I was less sad, and more sympathetic. He had been in so much emotional pain, for so long. And when I had told him he was drinking himself to death six months earlier, he just said “I know.”

I wasn’t glad, or relieved, or anything I could describe in a way that made me happier. But I knew he had decided that a slow, anaesthetized death was the only solution he could find to the dissatisfaction and anger he felt about his own life. His death was just the coda of a decision he had made years before, and while I hated that decision, I had come to grips with it.

My father was a man of great determination. Once I realized he planned to drink himself to death, I knew he would succeed, and sooner rather than later. What grief I felt for his loss peaked then, when he was still breathing, but actively working to not be part of my life anymore. Even then, the emotion was less sadness, and something much closer to empathetic pain. I knew he was hurting, and that the hurt was so great he’d do anything to escape it. That hurt me, but not in the same way grief does.

My father was unreliable for most of my life–at least from my earliest teens forward, and possibly beyond that. So for the 26 years I knew him, I learned I could not rely on him. He was often full of wonderful stories, good advice, and kind words… but he also often was not. I know he loved me and wanted to help me, but as a practical matter, he could not be depended on. I was still a young adult when he died, working to figure out who I was. My father was a big part of that, but a lot of the work of my becoming who I am now happened after he was gone.

I went to work the Monday after the weekend my father died. I was manager of a parking garage at the time. When the people running the associated building discovered I had lost my father, they were shocked I had shown up. They were ready to move heaven and earth to let me go home… but I didn’t. I kept the bereavement days in case I needed them to arrange funerals, or clear out his apartment. And over and over, society kept trying to tell me I should be devastated by my father’s death, and I just wasn’t. Sympathy, not sadness.

At the end of last month, my friend Marc Curlee died of covid. I had known Marc since I was 13, and he was several years older. As you might expect, I was a snot-nosed kid, and our early relationship was not without friction, but we loved many of the same things, and like most of my friends over my life, bonded over gaming. And through 37 years of moves, stretches of years in different states, marriage on my part, career changes, and shifting special environments, Marc and I stayed friends.

Early on, it was Marc, not my father, who taught me to shave. Later, when my father was long since gone, Marc was still a strong presence in my life. As I worked on figuring out who I was, my father checked out of his part in that, and Marc didn’t. If Marc told me he’d do something, it got done. If I was sad, or lost, or drowning in a sea of green-black depression, Marc reached out. Marc was an important part of my support group, and one of the people I desperately missed when I left OK for 6 years. And no matter how long Mac and I were apart, when we managed to hang out again, it was like we’d never had a gap.

While Marc was hospitalized, I called him every day. Early on, we’d chat, and he’d talk about his plans for years to come. He was focused on the future. Then, as he was moved to the ICU, he stopped picking up the phone. I left messages, but he wasn’t in any condition to return them. I desperately wanted to visit, but even beyond the risk to me I live in a house with 2 highly vulnerable people. I could not talk to Marc. Could not see him. Could not be at his side. He had been there for me for decades, and I couldn’t be there for him.

Marc’s passing as hit me like no loss I have suffered before. It’s not just grief, though I have been fighting avalanches of sadness, but an empty place. I had no idea how many times a day Marc entered my mind. When I see a thing I thought he’d like, I’d make a mental note to tell him. When some story or game rule or art reminded me of some even he and I shared in your decades-long friendship, I’d smile. Not just occasionally, but multiple times each day, even when he wasn’t nearby, Marc was part of the core fabric of how I interpret and interact with the world.

And his passing has opened an empty place within me. A place which used to be filled with the things Marc and I would share in the future, and now we never will.

Grief is very much my reaction, but it is more than that. Anger, confusion, and horror sit alongside sadness in near-equal measure, the mix constantly churning on what will come on top. This is the grief people kept telling me I should be feeling when my father died, and I never did. And to be clear, Marc is absolutely not a stand-in father figure in my life. But he was a close, lifelong, formative friend, without whom I would not only be who I am today, I would be a worse parody of the best aspects of my self.

Processing this takes time, and the energy and attention that process demands will not be denied or delayed. I am fragile, veering off into the avalanche of grief any time a tiny pebble of loss is disturbed, when I realize I can’t share something with Marc, can’t talk to him, can’t play games with him ever again. I know that I will survive this — among other things, it would dishonor Marc’s memory not to take care of the people he cared about, and that includes me — but it’s going to take time, effort, and pain to get to a place where maybe I am okay.

Right now, I’m constantly struggling with the Empty Place.

(In memory of Marc Curlee, one of my oldest and closest friends.)

(Supported by my Pateon)

Mental Health and Suicide Hotlines

I am not currently suicidal. Not even close. I open with that, so people won’t worry about me.

I have been suicidal, even within the past year. I was able to get help, and my support network assisted me. Mental health issues need to be destigmatized, which is why I am often so public about mine.

If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based network that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255.

It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

Online Contacts and Real Friends

This is quite the ramble. I wrote it more for myself than anyone else. It doesn’t touch on game content, or freelancing (really), and everyone who follows me for those kinds of things should feel free to skip it.

If someone wants to build a true emotional connection to me, I make it difficult. Doubly so online.

That’s okay. I have lots of friends. None of this is a complaint. Really, it’s just an examination of my mind and experiences, brought on in part by how much more of my socialization has been online for the past 9+ months. And that, in turn, has be thinking about the nature of online “friendship.”

Yes, a surprising number of my “Facebook friends” are actually my real friends. Some I have known for more than 35 years. Others I met online, but correspond with weekly or more.

But we all know that’s not the majority.

The majority of the Facebook users I have friend-demarcated are “People who have mutually decided a weak online connection might prove entertaining or beneficial.” Or “Mutubenes” for short.
Some of THOSE people have a business plan that includes being friendly, so they look and sound more like a friend to those who are their Mutubenes.

Sadly, some people who are Mutubenes can’t tell the difference between that causal connection and true friendship. Normally in such a causal online relationship, the more popular and/or beautiful person is aware of the true nature of the online connection, while one or more less-popular cybercommoners gets too sucked into the illusion of friendship to differentiate it from reality.

This isn’t a binary friend/notfriend status, of course. There are casual friends, work friends, friendly acquaintances, Mutubenies you like slightly more than others, Mutubenies you’d happily share a drink with which might allow you to become casual friends, pure business partners, people you dislike but tolerate… a long line of degrees and types of relationships that can grow, wilt, morph, and change over time, with the right context and circumstance.

Many Beaupops are attractive women. That’s not shocking–they have careers to build along with everyone else, and are taking a thing that often causes them to be dismissed to mistreated, and trying to turn it into an advantage. Whatever each Beaupop is comfortable with is perfectly appropriate, be that just knowing that looking professional and stylish can’t hurt get attention all the way to actually being a sex worker–these approaches are in no way comparable to each other, but they often share the same online space. Sadly, too often when male cybercommoners realize they aren’t truefriends with attractive Beaupop women the cybercommoner becomes aggressive and abusive.

I think about these things fairly often, for a number of reasons. First, I work in this online social space. I want to be aware and realistic of what’s actually going on in such connections.

But, second, I have social anxiety, in part tied to my civilian PTSD. It manifests in many ways, one of which is that when I don’t understand what is expected of me in a social interaction, I can panic. Sometimes full-on panic attacks that can be hard to distinguish from heart attacks. Other times, just a rising of bile in my throat and sense of impending doom. I’ve struggled with that in therapy, for years.

At least some of that seems to tie back to one of the worst beatings I ever took in my life. It’s a story I have told before, but not often. I was at camp as a young teen. The daughter of one of the camp masters invited me to take a walk in the woods. She was older than me, though not adult. I was confused as to why—we hadn’t talked at all, I didn’t really know her, and I had never had a girl ask me to walk with them before. Indeed, positive attention of any kind from girls was foreign to me. But she seemed friendly and genuine, so I agreed.
But I was confused, and unsure of the social expectations of such a walk.

She walked me out to a clearing, where a large number of boys had dug a pit. They beat me up, threw me into the pit, and sat and stood on me. They laughed. I remember smelling the dirt, tasting it, and being totally unable to get up. She laughed with them. I remember crying, and yelling, and that only making the laughter louder.

I don’t remember how that ended. I do remember being 100% sure that there was no point telling anyone. That doing so would just make things worse. So I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone, for years.
But that sense of dread is still tied to not knowing what is expected of me in a social setting, either in physical meetings or virtual ones.

I’ve worked on that a lot over the years. I have had to. But it also means that if I am not sure what a relationship is? If I can’t be certain if someone is my friend, or just a popular or talented or beautiful person who finds an online connection to me to be more likely to be useful than annoying?

I assume it’s an entirely transactional connection. Unless I am flat told by someone that they consider me their friend, or wants a closer connection, I assume they do not. I have to. To survive. Even people I have known for years are generally kept in that circle of polite acquaintance until there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I assume praise is based on the interests of the praiser, interaction based on the value of the interaction, expressions of liking or wanting to spend time with me are weighed by the value the person expressing such interest believes they can get from it.

Which doesn’t mean that is how you should do it. Nor does it mean I think these people are disingenuous. Being friendly is not a promise of anything but polite interaction. People who want to spend time with me to benefit themselves are acting in a perfectly rational and reasonable manner. Even when genuinely like and want to be with or help someone, I assume that feeling is not reciprocated to an emotional degree, and that’s fine. Being nice to someone is not a currency that buys me any obligation from them, nor should it be.
The upside of this is that I can continue to interact with people online without panicking. If there’s a downside, it’s mostly in potentially missed connections when people would like to form real friendship or emotional bonds to me, and I don’t give them the signals they would take as a go-ahead to try increasing that bond.

Basically, if someone is not already my friend I treat their online interactions the same way I treat those of a waitress as a favored restaurant at which I am a regular. They may know my name, be friendly, say they are happy to see me. And that can all be true, within the context of my coming to their place of work and having a professional interaction with them. Especially in the US, the fact that my being happy impacts their job security and payment (especially in the case of tips) means that friendliness is contextualized differently than if they acted the same way after asking me to go out to lunch somewhere else. I certainly HAVE made friends with the staff at places I was a regular, but it involved a lot of evidence that the relationship was not purely professional, including things like being invited to the restaurant when it was closed, and having staff choose to spend time with me and play games and go drinking when they were off-the-clock.

I would much rather err on the side of polite professionalism, than even overstep socially appropriate bounds and make someone else uncomfortable. Even at the cost of coming off as distant now and then.
I enjoy having Mutubenies. I just think of them as different from what I think of as “friends.”

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Writing Through Grief

Whether you write as your whole career, just do some freelancing, or write only for your own satisfaction but are driven to do that, it’s going to come up. At some point, you are going to find yourself needing to write while experiencing grief.

I wish this essay told you how to do that. It doesn’t. It can’t. I don’t know how. Every time I find myself having to do it, it becomes a new problem, because every moment of grieving is different. The problems grief causes change. Sometimes I lack motivation. Sometimes I find myself getting angry. Sometimes I can’t see the screen through the nonstop tears.

Whenever I talk about writing while grieving, a slew of well-meaning people come out and tell me to just give it time. I know they think I am just being too hard on myself, but I come from more than 20 years of writing professionally. This is my job. I’m a full-time freelancer again. I don’t get sick days, or bereavement. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid.

And yes, most people in the industry will cut you slack when you are dealing with something hard, but there are limits. Printers wont change their print dates for you. Conventions won’t shift when they are happening so you can have a big release bump a month alter than planned. People who make money by selling the work you are writing can’t hold off on payroll until you can get yourself together. Some projects have lots of slack built in, others have used it all. It’s worth talking to the people you owe work to, but trust me friends and fans, sometimes I have to write.

Other commentators want me to build everything around their favorite grief roadmap, such as the 7 stages of grief. If someone is totally unaware of some of thinking on how grief works, mentioning the existence of various roadmaps can be useful. But, again, I’ve been here. I know the maps are out there, and I also know the map is not the map is not the territory. Some grief follows different paths. It may jumble the order, or hop back and forth, or find brand new trails of misery, especially through my already-compromised brain.

So, advice from the outside tens not to do me much good. Support can help, like a blanket against the cold–it doesn’t make the cold any less, but it helps you to weather the storm. Of course some support helps more than others, and beyond noting that support that does not give pointless advice or make demands on me in return for the support has a much better track record than those that do, I can’t really tell you which will help more for any given grief.

Because every grief is different, and I can’t analyze it until i am at least mostly past it.

But the grief itself is not really the problem when writing. It’s the symptoms it causes, and those I can try to work through. Sometimes I’ll be successful. Sometimes I won’t. But I’ll get more writing work done by trying than by giving up on it.

So, what have I found works best?

*Accept that it’s not going to be as fast as if you weren’t grieving. Yes, maybe you need it to be for career purposes, but reality often doesn’t play nice with career goals. Take steps accordingly. Reach out to people you owe work to see which projects can spare some slipped deadlines. Cut back on expenses. Consider scaling back optional projects. Whatever you can do to reduce the impact of your reduced capacity.

*Prioritize. Don’t spend a lot of mental time and energy on it if that’s hard for you, but take a moment to decide what is most important. There’s very little as annoying as realizing you’ve been grinding through something you could have skipped, and not touched the crucial thing that needs all your time and attention.

*Write down every step you take. I, at least, suffer serious memory issues when grieving. Having a single place where I keep track of any deadlines, extended deadlines, changed project scopes, and so on, lets me go back and see where I am on things.

*Consider timing things. Need a break? Decide how long you need, set a timer. Having trouble focusing on work? Decide to hammer on a project for 20 minutes, then walk away. Need to do some online research? Set a timer so it’ll pull you back if you go down a rabbit-hole. Much as I have trouble remembering and tracking things when i am grieving, I often lose track of time. A nudge that I’ve been checking Facebook for 10 minutes when I meant to look up a single thing keeps me from wasting what time I have.

*Forgive yourself. If you can. If not, see if you can get therapy to help you forgive yourself. Some things are going to go wrong. I can’t say anyone else will forgive you, and you may make life hard for others or end up damaging your career. But you know why, and there’s no point in adding guilt or anger with yourself to the heavy emptions you are already carrying.

*Make self-care checklists. I often wallow in my grief, and if I am not sleeping, eating, taking my prescriptions, or socializing at all, my writing is going to suffer. Yes, sometimes I need to put off socializing to make more time for writing, or pull an all-nighter because the drop-dead deadline is 8am, but for the long haul, you can’t be an effective writing machine without fuel, downtime, and maintenance.

I wish I had more advice. But the one thing I can add is that writing through grief is possible, but will always take more effort and produce less results. Try to be kind to yourself and others when you have no choice but to give it a try.

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On Creatives During A Pandemic

Hey, creative person.

Yes, you.

I get it. You have deadlines, and responsibilities, and bills, and people counting on you. People tell you to be kind to yourself, to take a break, to ease up… and you can’t.

I understand. I promise.

Only you can know what can be back-burnered, and what can’t. I won’t pretend to be able to give you advice on that front.

I also want to assure you, the trouble you are having now focusing on things? The lack of spoons, or inspiration, or concentration?

That’s the new normal. I can’t say we are ALL dealing with it. Maybe there are some folks who aren’t having trouble right now. But I haven’t talked to any creative that isn’t.

There’s an additional cognitive load on all of us. Worry, planning, concern, frustration, fear… those things take a toll. that toll comes directly from your brain.

The brain you use to be creative.

So, while I can’t tell you to take a break, or take it easy (because I don’t know if you are in a place where you CAN do that), I do want to encourage you to remember things are not normal.

Whatever you would do if you had something dragging down — illness, technical problems, jury duty, whatever?

Global pandemic qualifies for the same measures.

And everyone gets that.

In Time of Pandemic, 1

Plague Doctor

Let me clearly open with this:

I am not in danger. I am not a threat to myself or others. I have a strong support network, which includes a lot of really good shoulders to cry on, ears to listen to me, and kind voices to give aid when asked.

I often write about the things I am going through in a way other professionals mostly don’t. Sometimes, the fact I do so worries friend and colleagues alike. That’s never my aim, and I sincerely apologize to anyone I have made uncomfortable. Online explanations of my mental state are part of my therapy process. Writing things gives me power over them, and helps me organize and contextualize my feelings.

And, I want other folks who are struggling to know they are not alone.

I also want now, in the front, to note I have a Patreon. If you find this writing useful, or just want to toss me some support, it’s a great way to help out.

So,

I am an aging, obese, depressive, introverted, socially-awkward independent creative with impostor syndrome, civilian PTSD, and a genuine fear of deadlines, disappointing people, and criticism.

If you are thinking to yourself “Wow, given all that it sounds like the ONE job you should avoid is freelance game writer,” you have a point.

In times of pandemic, you reassess your life choices.

But I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years now, and as much as I want to shrug and give up sometimes, it really is a defining part of my own self-image. Intellectually, I am well aware I have achieved success many people consider noteworthy. I am also aware that as a hetero cis white male I have had a lot of unearned advantages along the way.

I recently wrote online “One of the major advantages to doing business over social media is that I can literally be sobbing as I type smiley faces and multiple cheerful exclamation points.”

And I meant that it is, at face value, a useful advantage. I mean, when I was the manager of a parking garage in the 1990s, if I was sobbing not only could I not just go on with my day without people constantly asking me if I was okay, it would be considered unprofessional. It would interfere with my job function, the perception of me, and my own serenity. But when dealing with things in an entirely text-based format, as long as I am together enough to make the post look professional and upbeat, it is treated as professional and upbeat.

But of course, I only know that because sometimes I DO write marketing text and otherwise interact with fans and freelancers online while crying. Normally it’s a pretty rare thing, only happening when something is timing-critical. Like if there’s a one-day sale of a big product, or if a Kickstarter is ending. In those cases, even if I am depressed, or bereaved, it needs to get done right NOW, tears be damned.

The current situation, of course, is anything but normal.

Right now I am crying more than usual. I am also more often slumping into a mind-numb torpor where nothing gets done, more often ranting and yelling at the corner of the room, self-medicating a LOT more often, and walking away from everything in total disgust more often.

In times of pandemic, there are more tears.

That’s not to suggest I have it especially hard right now, compared to other people. While money is tightening, I am not totally unable to earn funds like some folks. My job hasn’t depended on my going anywhere but my home office since last July, and even before that it was work a company could (and in the case of my last full-time employer has) have people do from home. Even within my industry, the fact I have focused on digital products for my own projects is proving to insulate me slightly from the resounding crash of the physical product supply chain.

There are people under stay-at-home orders right now who, as a result of various factors often entirely beyond their control, have no home to stay at. I am in no way suffering more than average.

I’m not going it alone, either, thank goodness. I have an amazing support network. My wife of nearly 30 years is a constant source of comfort and aid. I have great friends, many of whom are going the extra mile to interact with me in video chats, discord forums, IMs, and so on. I have people paying me for my work, both in individual and direct ways and through companies and big projects, who are being understanding and patient with me, but also not letting me totally off the hook that I fall so far behind I can never catch up (thank god). I can get advice, or perspective, or sympathy in pretty much endless and instant supply. (Thank god.)

But I also acknowledge there are stresses in my life. I and my wife both fall into high-risk categories for the current pandemic. We’ve been self-isolating, and going out to places that are now closed (and spending money we currently don’t have) were among my best stress-relievers. And while I am not a fan of huge crowds anyway, I did love sitting with a small circle of close friends, and self-isolation for a month or so now has that off the table. I have some medical issues that cause severe fatigue, and it’s hard to differentiate those from depression or being overwhelmed by constant bad news and worry for friends and family.

Nearly every creative I have discussed it with agrees that it is HARD to get anything done right now. The fact that getting things done, and fast, is of even more importance as companies must pivot to deal with the new makes the failure to produce emotionally more challenging, but it doesn’t make it easier. And I completely support shutting down game stores and prioritizing crucial shipments from big vendors, but those things also put my entire industry at real, long-term, catastrophic risk.

In times of pandemic, my chosen career is not essential.

So yes, I am worried, and weary, and worn. And ultimately I am safe, and privileged, and supported. And I really wrote all of this both to assure those who worry about me that I am no closer to any tipping point or brink than normal; and to let other people who feel like they aren’t coping well know they are not alone.

None of us know what the next few weeks, months, and even years will look like. That lack of certainty, and the need to change how we do everything–from ordering groceries to teaching children to talking with friends to playing and creating games–is exhausting. Every day is both the first day of school, and a stroll by the edge of a very sparse minefield. Stress is a constant companion, and uncertainty is a mist that conceals every road.

I am sure I’ll get through this. I’m sure we’ll collectively get through this. Maybe not unscathed or unchanged, but still whole at the far side.

And maybe, if we work at it, we can improve society with the things we learned in a time of pandemic.

Writing When Depressed

While I am personally a creative who suffers from mental health issues that include depression, and I know a lot of friends and colleagues who fall into that category, I don’t have scientifically valid statistics to prove that RPG creatives are often people struggling with depression. And that doesn’t really matter, because even if the numbers aren’t higher than for the baseline population, it still means that there are at least a few of us out there. I might just be talking to a tiny group today, but it’s something I am passionate about.

How do you write, draw, create, make things that are supposed to be fun for other people, when you are depressed? And I don’t mean down a bit because your favorite series ended or you can’t get that soda you like in your hometown anymore. I mean clinical depression, which can include loss of executive function, true hopelessness, sleep disruptions, and even thoughts of suicide.

I’ve talked before about how I get through my most serious depressions, but there’s one thing I haven’t touched on, or at least haven’t often enough.

Sometimes? You can’t. And that has to be okay.

Just as it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to run when your leg is broken, it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to create when your brain is broken.

If you are too far down the hole to reach any of your creative tools, please let that be, and instead seek help. That can be professional help, self-care, reaching out to a support network — whatever you can do. I’m not qualified to give professional advice on these things, but there are resources out there to find help if you don’t already have some in place. If you aren’t in a place where you can bring yourself to care about yourself, see if you can consider taking care of yourself as a way to help the people around you–sometimes I can only manage any degree of self-care out of guilt. That’s far from perfect, but sometimes I have to take what I can.

But then there’s the gray zone. Where you can try to work, but it’s terribly difficult and slow and you think everything you do is bad and pointless. Again, you have to be kind to yourself when you are here, but maybe there are ways to get a little more done if you find the hacks your brain responded to.

So, here are the hacks I use. They may not work for you, but if you try different things, and record the results, maybe you can find things to help you when work is possible, but damnably difficult.

For me some of it is habit. More than 21 years of it, at this point. If I’m not actively doing anything else, my brain naturally wonders if there is work I can do. When the thing that needs to be done FIRST is more than I can handle (sadly the project that is most important to finish often triggers the most anxiety which triggers the worst depression symptoms), I hop to something else if my brain is less opposed to it. No, that doesn’t help me get the most crucial thing done on time, but down the line it’s better to have worked on something, rather than nothing.

Some is desperation. This is how I pay the bills. Holding my own feet to the fire hurts, but it can also break through apathy sometimes. I don’t recommend this one unless you have already noticed a tendency of reviewing your situation to help you prioritize and take action. But if that is a tendency of yours, then it may be worth seeing if it can apply to creating.

A ton of it is therapy. I have learned to make my writing work for me in my battle with my brain. Often, that doesn’t actually produce anything that gets a deadline checked off. but sometimes, if produces a blog post when I need one, or at least helps me build my social media presence. And if nothing else, writing is a perishable skill. Writing privately helps me maintain the habit and edge I need to write for others.

My wife, Lj, is a HUGE help. In fact I have a lot of support group, including my public contacts. When I tell folks I am hurting, I get a lot of positive messages. People from lifelong close friends to social media connections I have never met in person also give me a lot of great private venting opportunities.

And sometimes? Sometimes I just have to melt down and give up for a bit. But Lj can hold me when I collapse and wail in great wracking sobs. When I am an inconsolable mess for an hour or two, convinced I have done so much damage to my reputation and career, that I’ll never work again. When it seems like I’ll never hit another deadline, that no one should ever trust me to get anything professional done. And that whole time, Lj tells me it’ll all be okay, and eventually I believe her.

Often, I pass out in exhaustion after that. Sleep, or at least oblivion, claims me for anything from a few minutes to a few hours.

And then, sometimes, I can write again.

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Career Planning. “Now What?” (Part Two)

I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few weeks ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this second post of two on Career Planning (you can read Part One here).

We covered step 1, process your new reality, and step 2, review. So that brings us to:

3. Look Forward

I often open advice sessions with other people with “Where do you want to be in two years?” It is, for me, a perfect amount of time. Far enough ahead that you can discount immediate but temporary inconveniences such as a sprained ankle or massive looming deadline, close enough that you can visualize the time between now and then. For other people different timeframes might make more sense, but my 5-year plans very rarely go anything like as planned, and when looking forward 6 months or less I am often skewed towards immediate issues that aren’t necessarily representative of what I am going to face in general.

So, where do *I* want to be in 2 years? As I make a list of those things I find, unsurprisingly, that a lot of them involve money.

And money involves a budget.

Budgeting isn’t any fun, but it’s a crucial part of a freelance career. If I am going to successfully reach any of my goals, many of which involve things like buying a house and paying off student loans, I have to be able to account for more than just my immediate bills. Freelancing if often filled with feast-or-famine incomes, where you get paid for several things over the course of 2-3 weeks, and then nothing to speak of over 2-3 months. It’s important to do more than just cover the rent and groceries. You need to be able to sock away for emergencies, long-term needs, even retirement.

That just isn’t likely to happen without a budget.

You also need to consider what skills and contacts you should improve to meet your two-year goal, whatever it is. Do you want to have a published novel? Then you better both be writing is NOW, and talking to anyone you can about how to get it published. Want to have your own game company? I recommend working as an assistant to someone else who has one, so you can learn the ins and outs by watching and helping, before you have to figure it out by doing.

The review is also the time to have an honest talk with yourself about what your weaknesses are. Are you bad at adventure writing? You can either plan to just avoid having to do that, or to get better at it, but you won’t know that’s something to take into account unless you are aware of it as a weakness.

You also need to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Impostor syndrome is rife in this industry… as is the Dunning–Kruger effect. Combating those in yourself is tricky–it’s always easier to see bias in others rather than yourself. I recommend both trying to describe how you would expect someone who gets the kind of work and responses you do objectively to see at least ho you are seen by others, and to ask people you trust who are more successful than you to give you their honest assessment of your pros and cons.

The whole point here is to be able to look forward from a grounded place of information about yourself. You don’t need to beat yourself up or gild your own laurels, but if you don’t have a rough grasp of where you ARE in your career, it’s very tough to plan a course forward.

It may be worth considering what kinds of jobs you have already done and think about which ones you’d like to do more of. My article “Developer? Designer? Who is the What Now?” may be helpful for thinking about different kinds of tasks within the writer end of the TTRPG industry. If you are more focused on art, editing, or business and planning, those are still useful distinctions to know, but you should consider what kinds of sub-divisions your own career has revealed.

Try to boil all your “looking forward” ideas in 3-5 bullet-points of 1-2 sentences each. If two bullet points look similar, see if you can blend them into one slightly broader bullet point.

My first run at that list of ideas looked like this. I offer it only as an example — your list should definitely look different, based on where your career is, and where you want it to go.

*Make enough money to cover more than just the necessities, including health care, buying a house, retirement planning, and the occasional vacation.
*Expand my professional skillset to be able to take advantage of any text-based or business-related aspect of the game industry, including working in different game systems,  being a manager, and overseeing licenses.
*Build my online and social media presence to make it easier to directly reach fans and potential employers, possibly including doing more videos, streaming games, and redesigning my website to be more modern.
*Build income streams separate from per-word writing, possibly including growing RGG, doing more royalty-based projects, and patron support (such as my Patreon, which supports this blog and gives me time to write things like this article-Join Now!)

Now that you have an idea of where you are, and where you want to go, it’s time to:

4. Make Plans

This is going to be one of the vaguest sections of this article, because your previous steps should already be leading you to a different destination than mine–possibly a different destination than I could even think of. So making plans to get you from where you are to where you want to go in your career should look very different than getting me where I want to go. But I do think there’s some high-level advice that can still be broadly useful for making plans.

The first is: schedule your time, then fill it.

It’s very temping to do this the other-way ’round: to find things to do, and then go looking for time to get it done in. And at a casual or hobby level, that’s fine. If you mostly want to just post a few articles on free sites and occasionally get paid for a bit of work that drops in your lap, you probably can just schedule things as they come along. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way–I strongly suspect more TTRPG words get written each year by people who enjoy it as a hobby than those who see it as a side-gig or want it to be a full-time career.

But in my experience, if you want to step beyond that, you’ll eventually need to do the hard work of carving out time from everything else, and then filling that time. If you don’t have enough work to fill the time you set aside? Then it’s time to use the spare time to work on some RPG Pitches. If you don’t have enough time set aside to do all the work you’ve gotten?

Then it’s time to take a hard look at whether you need to set aside more time, write faster, or work less. For any of those answers, you may end up trying to Survive on 5 Cents/Word (or Worse). Good luck, sincerely.

As you set aside time, make sure some of it is saved for making contacts, pitches, and seeking better opportunities, and that includes opportunities for self-improvement. Work and learning opportunities may just fall into your lap sometimes, but there’s almost always more work you can get if you go hunting for it, and that often includes better options. If you want regular income, for example, you may need a regular gig writing articles, or running a Patreon, or being a part-time contract employee of a game company. Some of those things you can set up yourself, but that takes time too.

This is often the hardest part of planning a career. While there are now formal education opportunities to get involved in gaming (and not all of them are focused on computer games, and many of the skills are fungible even so), nearly everything I know about being a game industry professional came from working with people smarter, more talented, and more experienced than I was. My time on-staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo taught me there is something I can learn from everybody in the industry, even people with much less experience than me. I needed to be open to the opportunities to learn from them, and that often required I take the time to consider why they wanted to do something differently than I planned to. Yes, deadlines are often tight and there is a time and a place to be a strong advocate for your own vision and experience, but never let that cheat you out of a chance to learn a new resource, skillset, hard-learned lesson, or even just a new point of view.

So, look not only at what work you can do, but what doing that work may mean in terms of advancing your career. There are people in this industry I will always work with if I can, because I always learn from them. I try to challenge myself to take on things that put me out of my comfort zone, and set aside extra time to get those uncomfortable things done.

Sometimes that means an opportunity doesn’t pan out, and that can be especially painful if you gave up something stable for it, and/or were depending on it for a major part of your income. It’s good to note these things (like in future rounds of processing and reviewing your new reality), but it’s not a reason to not try new things. You’ll need to balance potential risk with possible reward, and I can’t tell you how much risk to take for what reward level. Just be realistic with yourself, and never take a risk you can’t survive going badly if you don’t have to.

So, with those steps in mind, what am I looking at for plans to carry my career forward? I’m not going to go into ever deep detail, for obvious reasons, but I think it’d be a bit of a cheat not to wrap this up with some concrete examples of where this process has lead me. So:

I’m the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin. This is a part-time contract position, working with some of the smartest and most experienced people in the TTRPG industry, and it’s a stable source of some income every month. That hits a number of my goals, from working with new game systems to being around people who can help me be better at a wide range of TTRPG industry tasks. I’ll be looking for more similar opportunities, but I am super-stoked at making this part of my long-term success.

I’m focusing more on my Patreon, including posting a new goal promising videos and bonus content if it hits $1500/month. It was, to be honest, extremely scary for me to consider a $1500 goal, but my $700+ goal having been met, I have to take that risk. And if it turns out the public doesn’t want what I am offering for that level of patronage? I’ll re-assess, and try again. I see this as both a way to seek semi-regular income to help meet my financial goals, and to force me to learn and offer new things to stay connected and relevant to the ever-changing TTRPG market.

I’m setting aside more time for Rogue Genius Games. There are types of projects I have never dared tackle with my own little gaming company, and forcing myself to try them is another way to exp[and my skillset. And of course writing more of my own products also means having more royalty-based projects, which is a good way to build income streams that aren’t exclusively one-time per-word money.

Fiction. I am going to do it, this time. I am terrified.

More traditional freelance. I need the money in the short-term, and the contacts in the long-term. So I am throwing my doors open to new publishers, new projects, and new game systems. Time to prove I am more than a d20 game mechanic guy.

So, for the moment, in broad strokes, that’s it for me. I’ll compare my results to my needs and plans (especially my income vs my budget) every 90 days (and more frequently if things are obviously out of whack). And every 6 months or so, it’ll be time to do the whole process again — process, review, look forward, and plan.

It’s a never-ending process, but that’s okay. I never plan to stop having a career, so I can afford to take time to adjust and rethink as needed.

In fact, I can’t afford not to.

 

My Patreon: The Silver Lining

Well, you crazy folks did it. You pushed my Patreon over the $714 mark, my first monthly GOAL, which I have had since 2016, and never gotten closer than halfway before now.

So, I can now (starting today), “budget a guaranteed amount of time into my freelance schedule, allowing me to post at least one 750-word or longer piece of setting or fiction material every Monday, and 2 microrules (Microfeats, Spell Tweets, or similar very-short RPG rule ideas) every Tuesday-Friday.”

I also need to figure out my next goals. Sure, bringing in $1500/month to support my random writings seems impossible–but then $714 always felt like a stretch as well. More news on that soon.

Obviously I am extremely grateful to my backers, new and pre-existing, and everyone who has boosted, linked, promoted, and generally made a big deal of the fact I write things and people can help fund that directly. Since the job that my wife Lj and I moved to Indiana for has dried up many friends and fans have told me they wished they could do more. But it is clear that the efforts people have made on our behalf is what’s lead to this point, where my Patreon is a noteworthy part of my freelance income.

So what is the money going towards? Right now the time I am carving out for Patreon-supported writing is paid for by this income, which is going to go directly to finding a stable health insurance solution for my family.

And now, of course, what you are all paying me for– Game Content! Keeping with the theme of today I have written up a Silver Lining feat. Or, rather, since Silver Linings come in lots of different forms, I have written three different versions of it, for three of my favorite different RPGs.

Silver Lining (Pathfinder 1st Ed)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll or a saving throw in circumstances where a typical character could not take 10 on a skill check, you gain 1 resolve point. As a reaction when you next fail an attack roll or saving throw you may spent this resolve point for an immediate reroll without taking an action. If the d20 die result of the reroll is 1-10, add 10 to your total result. You can only have 1 resolve point at a time, and if not used it goes away when you next qualify to regain uses of daily abilities (even if you do not actually have daily abilities to regain).\

Silver Lining (Pathfinder 2nd Ed)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you suffer a critical failure on an attack roll or saving throw, as a reaction you may choose to either heal a number of HP equal to your level, or regain one Focus Point.

Silver Lining (Starfinder)
When things look bad, something else always works out for you.
Benefits: When you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll against a significant foe, or on a saving throws against a significant foe, as a reaction you may spent 1 Resolve Point to regain a number of Hit Points and a number of Stamina Points equal to your level. You cannot regain more of either than you are currently missing.

Silver Lining for Fantasy AGE

I am also now the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin, so I’m posting this *very* rough, *very* unofficial version of Silver Lining as a Talent for that game system.

SILVER LINING
Classes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior
Requirement: None
When things go badly for you, it’s usually a sign that something good is also about to happen.
Novice: When a foe using a stunt with a SP cost of 3 or more against you, the next time you gain SP, you gain 1 more than usual. You never gain more than 1 extra SP from Silver Lining.
Journeyman: Silver Lining now functions when a foe using a stunt with a SP cost of 2 or more against you.
Master: Silver Lining now functions whenever a foe uses a stunt against you.

Want to help with my Silver Lining?
I’m back to being a full-time freelancer, which means arranging for stability, health insurance, retirement options, and so on, is extremely difficult.

So if you found any of this useful or entertaining and you’d like to join the growing community of folks supporting the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.

Career Planning. “Now What?” (Part One)

I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few days ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this first post of two on Career Planning.

It’s a question that comes up all too often, and that there’s not much guidance for. Not “how do I break in,” or “how can I do a better job,” but the much more basic “now what?”

It’s a place I have found myself many times over more than two decades, but to be honest I thought I was done asking it for a while. When I took a full-time staff position with Paizo, my expectation was that I’d be there at least a decade. But you can’t always predict what opportunities come along (or how they’ll turn out), and you need to analyze them based on your current situation, not your best guess from 5 years ago.

Sometimes you just need to take stock and see if your current, stable situation is doing what you need it to, or if improvements could be made. Sometimes you move across the country because your spouse got an amazing job that ceases to exist after 90 days with almost no warning.

So, my Paizo job made the “now what” question irrelevant only on the macro scale. I still needed to have a plan for growth within Paizo (and becoming Starfinder Design Lead was a huge step for me in that regard), and I had to keep an eye on what I was doing as side-gigs (which is one reason I had to shuffle those so often–side gigs must be treated with respect, but they can’t take so much effort they damage your performance on your main career path), but in general I knew where the next set of paychecks was coming from, and who I was going to be doing most of my work for over the next 6 months, and where I would be sitting my butt most often.

I do not regret deciding my family’s needs were no longer in good alignment with Paizo’s opportunities for me, though I am going to miss not only the stability it afforded, but also the friends I have made and the amazing coworkers I have learned from and grown with. And, obviously, I didn’t expect my move to turn out the way it did and would have handled things differently if I’d thought this result was possible in this timeframe. But the fact is I am in Indiana now, and while I expect Paizo to continue to be part of my career for the foreseeable future, that situation is a freelance relationship rather than a regular paycheck.

I moved without a full-time situation preplanned for myself, and the stable job I thought would remove the pressure of needing to spin up my career quickly has turned to vapor. So I come to a place creative careers often do.

I have to ask myself, “Now what?”

I’ve done this before, of course. When I was laid off from Wizards of the Coast in 2001. When 3.5 came out, and 4e, and Pathfinder 1st ed. Both when I joined up with and then was bought out from Super Genius Games. When I was offered a regular gig doing Freeport for Green Ronin, and when I left that. When I started Rogue Genius Games, and became involved with Rite Publishing. Each of those moments came just before, or just after, that crucial questions about what’s next.

So, how do you answer that question? It takes some analysis, some planning, and some guesswork.

1. Process Your New Reality

Ideally your new reality is what you were hoping for, such as when I got a full-time job with Paizo. I had that rarest of unicorns — a full-time job (with benefits) in the game industry. But even in that case, I should have taken more time to settle into that new position, after 13 years of full-time freelancing, before I took on any additional projects. I thought that since I knew how long it takes me to write and produce game content, and I knew how much of that Paizo expected from me, I knew what my new reality was like. But there’s a big difference between being a freelancer and going to an office 5 days a week, and while I’d held a staff job before, more than a decade of changes in technology and best practices, and working for a different company, meant I wasn’t as prepared as I thought.

I adjusted, and it was fine. But it would have been better if I had gotten a feel for things first, and considered how to augment that situation afterwards.

However, if your new reality is caused by sudden, unexpected, terrible changes of circumstance, processing it may have a very different set of needs. If you have had the death of a partner or colleague, gotten laid off or fired, had a license pulled, or otherwise experienced a swift and unforeseen major setback, you have some emotional needs you need to deal with before you make big plans.

You can’t rush this. It’s going to take the time it takes, and that’s that. However, you can set some boundaries and expectations for yourself. I recommend giving yourself at least a few days, but also to maintain your route work and duties. Of course I am a depressive introvert, so I need to take specific steps to make sure my mental health is cared for, and I can’t give other folks specific advice how to do that.

My point is, take care of yourself and don’t make any huge decisions you don’t have to in the first few days of a big, negative change. And if you need more help than that, get it. Huge life changes are tough, and the most important part of your career is you.

2. Review

For me the first thing I do when I am at a crossroads is look backward.

It can be hard to properly assess projects and jobs while you are doing them. Since hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, the moment when you aren’t sure what to do next is a great time to look back over the past few years, and analyze what things went well, and which ones didn’t. This isn’t just about money, or ease of work, or satisfaction, though all those things should be considered. I also like to ask myself, if I knew then what I know now, would I still do the same things I did in the past few years.

I consider this a post-mortem, rather than a time to kick myself or dig up regrets. Often there was no way to know what unrelated things might make a great opportunity turn out terribly, or save a disaster from being much of a problem. But often there were subtle signs I could have paid more attention to, and thinking about what they might be helps me catch them in the future. I also want to analyze what I learned, what I enjoyed, what I made good money on… and what I feel burned out about, what opportunities I missed, and what I feel like has begun to put me in a rut either creatively, or in my career.

For example, I was between projects in 2012/2013, when Lou Agresta asked me if I wanted to write for the Heart of the Razor Adventure anthology for Razor Coast. Now, writing adventures is more work for me than the same word count of worldbuilding or rules expansion, so I often skip it. But, I realized I hadn’t written an adventure in years, and a number of people in the industry had begin to refer to me as a “rules guy.” So I accepted, to change up  my perception in the industry, and get myself out of a rut. (And it won an ENnie, and within a year of it coming out Paizo was asking me what adventure I had done recently I was most proud of… and I had something great to point to!)

On the other hand, right NOW I have written two adventures in the past 3 years (one yet to be released), and I don’t feel like it’s a good time for me to be working on slower products that aren’t (currently) an underserved area of my career. Different point in my life, different answer.

In a week we’ll look at Part Two, where I discussing looking forward, and making plans.

Part of My Plan is Patreon
Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, ever word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. benefit to my freelance career and/or money made.
So if you found any of this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!

Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.