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To Be Frank and Honest About the Downside of ttRPG Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Is Owed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Convention Harassment is Real. What Are We Doing About It?

On three separate occasion in my life at scifi/gaming conventions, someone I tangentially knew and who I was not even vaguely in a romantic or even potentially romantic relationship with gabbed my ass. I don’t mean brushed by me, I mean got their fingers deep in a cheek and checked for ripeness. Each time, I was shocked and horrified. each time, I didn’t say a damn thing about it. This may, in fact, be the first time I’ve ever discussed it publicly–I’m genuinely not sure.

These harassers were of different ages, genders, and stations of power. To this day I have no idea what their goal or thinking was, if any. In at least one case, alcohol was involved. Maybe for all three, I do not know. Two of them are dead now, and one no longer able to go to conventions for various reasons. And, that third one later apologized, and I believe did the work needed to earn my forgiveness. This article isn’t about that. It’s about making sure people know and accept that sexual and emotional assault in public geek spaces is real, and we need as a culture to ask ourselves what we are doing about it.

I’m a 400-500 lb man, depending on when you catch me. If I can be a target of abuse, anyone can be. And while these assaults affected me, at no point did I have concern for my physical well-being, security, reputation, or other relationships. That is very much not true for a lot of targets of abuse and harassment. A lot of my reaction to these assaults stemmed from the fact I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In therapy and support groups, I have been told over and over that abusers are good at identifying survivors they can target without much pushback. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it might explain why anyone would harass me.

You know — pure evil and sadism.

As I write this, Gen Con just ended. I have always had an amazing time at Gen Con (although, yes, one of the events I am describing took place there, back when it was in Milwaukee, so those amazing times are mixed with other stuff too). But already, less than a week after it ended, there are both public reports and people talking to me in private about harassment and abuse that took place at the convention. And, of course, there are people publicly scoffing at the idea that someone might be assaulted, frightened, or threatened by an event that took place just the past weekend.

If you didn’t see it or hear about it, all that means is, well, you didn’t see it or hear about it. But it is happening, and I don’t have some brilliant or universal solution to offer to stop it. But I do know that dismissing or ignoring it is going to make it worse. And, to be very clear, this is not a Gen Con-specific problem. All gatherings have their predators and broken stairs (and if you don’t know what I mean by “broken stair” in the context of industry abusers, go do some research. It’s been discussed, a lot, by people smarter and more experienced than me, and you should be up to speed on those discussions if you want to have any chance of understanding the problem enough to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem). Bigger gatherings (and, I suspect, ones with people from more different places, which are often the same thing) may have more actual events, but that may be just the same percentage with a bigger population.

The second half of this issue, beyond “acknowledge this is real,” is to talk about what we, all, as part of the community are going to do about it. What policies do companies and organizations have in place? How are we making it clear to abusers and potential abusers that this behavior is not acceptable? Why are people still pressuring attendees in public, professional, or work environments to engage in unwanted, undesired behavior and conduct?

This is not the end of that process for me, but it’s part of it. To stand up and say loudly yes, people are abused. Yes, some of them aren’t talking about it, or won’t for years, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue. It’s real. I have seen it. I have even been a target of it, in discrete cases. but I have also stood next to people in this industry who don’t have some of the unearned advantages and privileges I do, and for too many of them harassment is part of the background radiation of their life.

That can’t be considered acceptable.

The Minimum Percentage of Jerks Rarely Changes

When an influencer has more than 150% more reach than anyone involved in a fandom (even its creator/publisher), badmouthing everything related to that fandom can end up being punching down.

Sure, if the fandom as a whole is toxic, or the IP fascist, that’s one thing.

But if the fandom is genuinely related to things you have identified as part of your interests (such as any ttRPG, if you declare yourself to be a ttRPG writer), and its fans enthusiastically promote it to you, that doesn’t rise to the level of toxic or abusive.

Of course part of the problem is, the minimum percentage of jerks in any group rarely changes, and social media algorithms are literally trained to seek things you’ll engage with. That means if something is worded to annoy you, since most people are more likely to engage with things that annoy or anger them, that version is most likely to be shown to you.

If the minimum percentage of jerks in a group is 5%, and you have a reach that gets you 10 replies from that group, half the time none of them are from jerks. If your reach means you’ll get 100 replies, 5 of them are from jerks. If your reach means you’ll get 1,000 replies, not only are 50 of them from jerks, but there’s a decent change you’ll be exposed to a higher percentage of them by AIs designed to get you to reply… even if that reply is angry annoyance.

And even you ask people on social media not to reply like that? Absolutely no guarantee anyone replying to your posts the next day saw that request.

If you have a lot of reach online, and are dealing with fandoms and groups and opinions, remember Sturgeon’s Revelation when judging them. “90% of everything is crap.”

Yes, by all means protect yourself and your mental well being. And if that means finding a way to use online tools to block certain phrases, by all means do that. Need to block some folks who leap into your mentions too often. heck yes. But the bigger you are, the more careful you should be venting your annoyance in a way that makes an entire fandom look bad to your followers, because the bigger you are the more harm you can do to a whole group by lashing out and decrying them as an entirety. Make sure they deserve that before doing so, especially if you reach is bigger than any of them, or even all of them.

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Letters from a ttRPG Dev to a Freelancer, 6. When The Publisher Ruins Your Turnover

This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer who I had offered to help get some 3pp material published for, and who then had some other opportunities pop up that (quite rightly) they pursued first. But we kept in touch, and I was happy to give guidance and advice when they wanted it.

Recently, they had some material in something published professionally… and the product was not great. I won’t go into details, other than to say the final text is pretty clearly worse than the original turnover the freelancer sent in. Now, that happens sometimes. It’s much, much rarer than things being significantly improved, in my experience. It’s even rarer than a freelancer thinking something has been ruined, when in fact the publisher has made improvements the freelancer simply isn’t fond of. But a publisher ruining a good draft does occasionally happen. And, when it does, it can be a shock, and a real emotional gut-punch.

Especially if the product was something you were excited about, seeing it’s final form be less clear, more typo-ridden, and riddled with worse rule implementation can be spectacularly disheartening. Given how tough ttRPG creation work is, how poorly it generally pays, and how little respect the work earns from the general public, often the joy in seeing the final product–with all its polish and improvement–is the biggest reward for the labor you put into it. When that is not just worse than you expected, but worse than you handed over, it can feel like you wasted your time and have been treated with disrespect.

In this case, the freelancer asked if I was willing to offer any suggestions on how to handle both the professional issue, and the emotional toll it takes. My adapted response is below.

“First, know that this is rare. Also, that’s always hard when it does happen. As a socially awkward depressive, I have had some projects changes and/or cancellations send me into deep negative states. It’s rough.

So, what to do about it.

Assuming the whole book isn’t a shitshow, it’s totally worth celebrating it as a project you contributed to. Credits are important, and even if they take away your joy, they shouldn’t also get to take away your stepping stone. You worked hard for this, and if you decide to move forward with freelance work, it’s worth having a professional credit from a recognizable company name on your resume. As long as the issue isn’t a moral or legal failing, even if you aren’t a fan of the final form, the very fact you did the work and it got published can help you get more opportunities in the future. The best way to clean a bad project taste out of your mouth is with a better project.

Even if you claim the project credit, since you earned it, feel free not to talk about what specifically you wrote for it. Usually, people don’t ask. If the DO ask, just say “Since the developer made changes, I don’t want to claim anything specific without the developer weighing in first.” If someone notes the project has a lot of errors, it’s fair to say you are not the developer or the editor, but don’t go farther than that. As a freelancer looking for more gigs, there’s no upside to making a stink about the quality of other people’s work if it’s not an ethical or legal issue.

It can be worthwhile to reach out to your developer and (politely) ask about specific changes that seem to be errors or violate the guidelines you were given. Don’t say it’s wrong and they messed it up – just say something like “I note that I wrote the Thingamabob gives a +2 bonus, in keeping with the design document I had, and the final version gives a +5. Is there a design consideration I should be aware of, so I can create material closer to what you need?” This kind of request-for-feedback is fairly common, and even if it the change to what your wrote just a big fuckup on their part, bringing it to their notice at least means they can start more quickly to work on errata, if any.

Those are practical concerns. Emotionally? That’s harder.

Bitch to friends you trust to keep it quiet. Play a game as different from what you worked on as you can. Pet a cat. Do an internet search for “TSR DaWizard,” and when you read the stories remember a BIG company got that one wrong on a huge scale. Drink some hot cocoa (or whatever fills that role for you). Let some time pass.

Know that this is a moment in your career, not an omen about the entirety of it.

Also… the pandemic has been hard on every creative I know. This both makes projects more likely to get botched, AND makes the impact of having your work be mangled so much more impactful. We have no idea the circumstances under which the developers/editors got their work done on this project. It may be an outlier that just suffered from massive internal problems with the company. It sucks for you, but it isn’t personal. And it isn’t going to happen every time.

Give yourself permission to be angry right now, and to need some time to shake it off. Usually, after a few weeks, it won’t be quite so raw a wound.

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Creating With Mental illness: Prioritizing And Impossibilities

I’ve made no secret of the fact I have multiple mental health challenges, including civilian PTSD and depression. This has been true for my entire nearly-25-year career, and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties as a result. As a ttRPG writer and developer, I deal with deadlines a great deal. As someone who can suffer executive disfunction, the core tasks needed to hit deadlines are sometimes impossible for me. There are days I am literally unable to multitask, plan, organize, and, yeah, prioritize.

If I were smarter, I’d have gotten out of the deadline business. But I am stubborn and strongly, weirdly, dedicated to creating (and trying to promote and improve) tabletop roleplaying games.

Which means over a quarter-century, I have developed some coping mechanisms. None work all the time. Many make only a marginal difference. But deadlines, budgets, projects, and deadlines are often won or lost in the margins. If something lets you average 2,050 words per day rather than 2,000, over 52 five-day workweeks, that’s an extra 13,000-word project done every year.

One of the things I have to deal with is the conflict between prioritizing, and the things at the top of the priority list being impossible. I can’t fix that conflict, even though it happens over and over, but I can work to mitigate its impact. In no particular order (see #2), here are some coping mechanisms

1. Don’t Wait To the Last Moment

Your deadline is 4 weeks away and you think you need 2 weeks to do it? See if you can be done in the first 2 weeks. If yes, then you can get a jump on the next thing, and no mental health issues in that last two weeks can make you late. If not, you at least have a feel for what the project is really going to take, and two more weeks to try to get it done. If you wait until the time needed is the time left, a mental health issue sidelining (or even just slowing) you means you will be late.

It’s also helpful if some issue means you are radically wrong when you estimate how much time you need.

2. Don’t Get Sucked Into Doing Work You Don’t Need To

Making a list of coping mechanisms on your blog? You may be tempted to prioritize them to present them in the best possible order. But if that is taking more thought cycles that just tying them out in any order does, maybe you are making work for yourself when you don’t need to.

I have found myself making outlines longer than the final product is supposed to be, spending days researching something that is going to be relevant for just one line of text, and writing the same thing four different ways to see which one is better. If you have the time for that and are ahead on everything else and have no the projects you’d like to start, that’s fine. But in the real world, there are better ways to spend to your time.

3. Attack Any Task You Can From Any Angle You Can Whenever You Can

Sometimes my brain works best by carefully planning ahead, making lists, figuring out what I need to do when and for how long… and sometimes the only thing it can focus on is writing about halfling battle cheese. That’s fine if halfling battle cheese projects are my priority, but even when they aren’t, that may be the only thing I can work on. If I have multiple projects, and I simply cannot make my brain do any of the work three of them need, then I need to prioritize among those things I CAN do.

This is crucial, at least for me. Spending time psychically flagellating myself for not working on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd most important thing is NOT more useful than actually getting work done on the 4th, 5th, or 6th most important thing. Depending on how disastrously close to failure those 1st three projects are, I may ramp up the internal pressure to try to force myself to get them done — but if I can’t, then I can’t. Acknowledging what is impossible, and then still prioritizing among what isn’t impossible, is the best route forward for me.

Of course, this means I also must regularly re-assess what’s impossible for me. Just because I began work on a lower-priority task doesn’t mean I need to finish it before moving on to something else. Indeed, sometimes there mere act of accomplishing something gives me the strength and focus I need to tackle something harder and more important. My contribution to more than one award-winning game came not in one smooth run, but in jerks and jolts as I tackled some crucial part of it, then had to go away to work on less-important things until I could do the next difficult bit of writing.

4. Be Honest With Yourself

You can’t fix every shortcoming you acknowledge to yourself, but you can’t even try to fix any lie to yourself about. It hurts to say “I am going to miss this deadline, because my cPTSD won’t let me work on it, again, for the fifth day in a row.” But that’s still better than trying to believe you can write 15,000 words of quality work in 24 hours, with enough caffeine and snack food to keep you going the whole time.

And if you USED to be able to do that, in your 20s, 30s, and 4s, and now that you are in your 50s you can’t anymore? You need to be honest about that too.

5. Be Honest With People You Are Working With

This is super-hard some days, but it is the ethical, practical, empathetic option. You can’t build a sustainable, long-lasting career on just not communicating when things go bad (it’s often called “going turtle” in the ttRPG industry, and it’s a well-known bad sign), or constantly claiming the dog ate your hard drive.

Things DO happen sometimes. If you got driven out of your home by a hurricane a day before a turnover was due, by all means tell the people you are working with what happened while you can. But honesty is always the best policy.

6. Track The Impact Different Kinds Of Projects have On Your Mental Health

For many creators, not all creative work is created equal. I, for example, can more easily write about my process and mental health and industry insights than I can write descriptions of fictional worlds and their societies. I can much, MUCH, more easily write crunchy player option game rules within an existing ruleset than I can write an encounter for a GM to run as part of a published adventure. And writing some things is more likely to leave me depressed, fatigued, or dysfunctional.

You often won’t know about these differences until you have done several different kinds of writing. But as you go through the career of a creator with mental health issues, keep track. Was the War Clans of the Half-Pint Bakery a nightmare because you were having a bad month and other factors in life impacted you? Or does any project focusing on warfare set off mental blocks you don’t get on other assignments?

7. Forgive Yourself

All the best intentions, your strongest efforts, and the smartest coping mechanisms may fail you from time to time. If you beat yourself up over that, it’s just more fuel for the next round of executive disfunction. There are plenty of other people ready to castigate you for every delay, dip in quality, shuffled schedule, and dropped ball. They don’t need your help to point out your flaws. Keep an eye on #4 and #5… but then forgive yourself.

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The Performative End of Being a Creator

You can think of this as an unusually long #RealGameIndustry entry.

If you are depending on the game industry for your full income, and you do not have a full-time job with benefits, necessity means at least part of what you are doing to performative.

Performing to build a community. Performing to gain name recognition. Performing to seem more fun and interesting, on the assumption that makes your products seem more fun and interesting.

Given how many of us came into gaming to escape what we saw as societal and clique-based requirements for shallow performative interactions, this is often a bitter irony. Indeed, while most of us are too smart to complain publicly, this can result in annoyance or anger as what we see as the “pretty popular people” being successful in their performance to a degree we cannot match (often directly measurable in how much money those people can raise compared to how much experience they have or how much content they have created.)

Especially as a mentally ill, socially-awkward, depressive introvert, it often strains my coping mechanisms and ability to put on a false face to their absolute limits. Social media is both a blessing and a curse in this regard. The ability to use text to put forth an idealized, entertaining self helps create a buffer between my depression and my need to be a performative creator. However, those very tools also demand constant attention to remain an effective part of my mandatory performance.

And at that, I have a much easier time as a cis white hetero male, because there are faults and failings I can have which are seen as quirky, or the stereotype of the grumpy writer. Creators in more marginalized groups often don’t get that slack. They both have much more cause to be scarred by social interaction, and must maintain a more perfect performance to reap the same benefits I do.

Even my ability to make discussions of my illnesses, failings, and annoyances part of my public persona is made easier by my role as an elder whitebeard. I have seen women, and minorities, and LGBT creators all with as much or more experience as I have been shouted down as clearly unstable for daring to say the same things I am allowed to state largely without consequence.

Nor do I foresee anything of this changing in a major way. The need to be performative to be successful as an independent appears to be baked into the industry (and full time jobs that pay something like the median income for their area are so rare as to be unicorns). That means the only part of this likely to change is the unfairness that performative need puts on marginalized creatives.

That fight is worth fighting. But it’s going to take hard work and time to make significant progress.
Meanwhile, the demands for performance keep changing and increasing, as technology drops the barriers between creator and consumer.

I work hard to remain relevant. And I see no time when I’ll be able to stop working at that without falling into an at-best-niche position. Which means my coping mechanisms for my trauma, depression, and other issues must include being able to maintain the performance–at least for regular, short bursts– even when I am fighting to not just curl up under the covers and give up on it all.

This is like climbing a wall, endlessly. If you ever fully give up you don’t just fail to make progress. You may be able to rest in a cradle for a time, or depend on your ropes. But those things can only hold you for a brief time. Eventually you’ll fall, and then you don’t just drop a little. You lose a huge percentage of your progress, and can damage yourself and your career, even kill it, as you smash things on the way down.

Keeping yourself in a place where people will see you and your work so they even might buy it is a grind, on top of the grind of creating enough work to survive even if people see enough of it.

You don’t have to have answers for all of this as you start. But to rise above a certain level, you must begin to work it out eventually.

When people sometimes suggest I take on too much, I want to yell at them that if I only do 75% as much work, I won’t get 75% of the result. I’ll get 50%, or less. If you try to microwave popcorn and you put it in for 60 seconds, you don’t get half the popcorn you’d get if you microwaved it for 2 minutes. Your work is all at least partially wasted if you can’t back it up with enough PR, backstock, and previews to maintain brainshare in an audience with tons of other, better-funded, better-advertised options.

I don’t have solutions for many of the problems these issues bring up. But it’s better for newer creators to be aware of the potential minefield and prepare for it, than have it come as a surprise for them. If you just want to create on your own terms and enjoy whatever success happens to come your way, and not try to pay the rent, cover medical insurance, and put food on the table purely through ttRPG efforts, you can largely ignore this. And if you find a way around it, I heartily congratulate you. And there are different levels of this performative need, with some folks managing much more success than I with much less performance put in.

But be aware of the potential drain on your time and energy.

Speaking of Performing

Part of the performative need is to drive people to platforms you can monetize, like my patreon. There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.

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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