The Game Industry’s Insanity
There’s a famous quote about insanity — “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So, in that regard, I am afraid the tabletop game industry is insane. There are lots and lots of things the industry keeps doing, over and over, and being surprised when it gets the same results.
And, I don’t know that there’s much chance of that ever changing. Because the tabletop industry just isn’t big enough to bring in the kind of analysis and training it takes to properly analyze, iterate, redesign, and take risks about how the whole system is put together.
Here’s just one example — a single data point in a sea of oft-unexamined assumptions.
When my wife was earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, she took a class titled “The Business of Art.” In included how to promote yourself, write a resume, respond in an interview, create a portfolio, and so on. While there are more and more college-level classes about game design, they A: tend to focus on digital games (which represent a LOT more money as a market), and B: don’t have tabletop equivalents of “The Business of Games.”
So each new wave of people wanting to do professional ttRPG work have to cobble together best practices and a career path for themselves. Quite reasonably, they look to what was done by people who have the work they want to do and try to replicate, emulate, or adapt those steps. (Adapting is an important part — I came up through a series of magazine articles, from different tabletop-RPG-focused magazines, owned by different game companies. That’s not really an option anymore.)
So the same advice keeps going out, through the same venues… and keeps drawing in the same kinds of creators. Those of us who have ttRPG careers are asked how to get started–on social media, and at conventions, and in fan interviews– and we advise getting on social media, going to conventions, working with small presses and maybe fan projects.
So, the process that we found, and that appeals to us and is friendly to us, is the one we recommend to people (because, to be fair, it works), using the very venues we recommend newcomers depend on to move ahead, is held out as the best path for new talent.
On a larger scale, it’s similar with game companies. Open calls and contests (advertised in the same forums the people running the companies already use), and panels at conventions the company already have a presence at, and waiting for freelancers to drop pitches or ask how to get started at company forums or using company emails.
And, again, that’s reasonable.
But it does mean as long as the majority of elements in the game industry do what we have done, we’re going to get what we have gotten.
So, why is that a problem?
Because diversity is gold.
Because if we want to industry to grow beyond its roots, somehow there has to be an influx of new ideas, new creators, and thus new markets.
Of course some amazing and talented people DO manage to make their way into the industry. Some find the road that we take and use it despite it being harder for them. others forge whole new paths without any help from the existing system. Not only am I not claiming these folks don’t exist, I am specifically saying a bunch of them are BETTER than many of us who took the well-trod path.
But in terms of sheer numbers, creators from marginalized groups remain very much the minority. Which means their input remains a small fraction of the total amount of ttRPG content, and that most game companies don’t have a balance of different experiences and backgrounds among their creators.
A lot of ttRPG game companies are currently looking at the question of whether their products have been, or currently are, vehicles for racism, bigotry, and the reinforcement of negative stereotypes. There are tools that can (and should) be brought in to try to do better, including more outreach to different creators, research of the cultural impact of aspects that inspire new games, and bringing in sensitivity readers.
But as for the origins of the material, the people deciding what book gets publisher, which creators get bigger budgets, who is seem as “qualified” to work on big IPs — if the industry as a whole keeps doing what it ha been doing, it’ll keep getting what it has gotten.
This past weekend was Digital Gen Con, and my friend and colleague Stan! had the idea of us trying to recreate some of the “Bar Con” hanging out that many pros love to do after hours at a convention. So we did… and we saw a lot of people we would have seen in person.
But we also had some folks participate that couldn’t have made it to a physical Gen Con, and many who would find gen Con a terrible experience for any of a number of reasons. I was something different.
It’s far from a solution to the insanity. But it did make me think maybe there are more chances at improvement than I have normally thought.
That’s just one small part of the imperfect nature of the #RealGameIndustry I have seen over the years. But I hope shining a spotlight on it might convince one or two other people in the industry to look at new ways to getting information out. New ways ti tutor and mentor people. New ways to find creators.
New ways to change from insanity.
Speaking of trying new things, for a number of years I have dedicated more and more of my writing time and effort on publicly-available posts on this blog. I can only do that as long as my patrons can support the time it takes. So if you find any of the essays, reveals, ideas, or game material on this blog interesting or useful, please consider chipping in to my Patreon for as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month.
If the RPG Industry is So Terrible, Why Do I Do This?
(Image by Jessica Dale)
For about a month now, I’ve been talking about the realities of the U.S. tabletop RPG industry, as I see them. I’ve posted thoughts on Facebook and Twitter, including under the hashtags #RealGameIndustry and #NotesFromAnRPGDev. ENWorld also created threads to discuss many of these shortly after I started, and again a week or so later. (And, I just discovered, a third time on July 4th).
And a lot of those observations paint a pretty grim picture. Poor pay. No security. No prospects for retirement. Regular harassment from fans and pop culture commentators. A fairly wide spectrum of people who think what you do requires no special talents, and that’s why you can’t make a living at it, and if you wanted to be able to live in moderate safety you shouldn’t picked a “fun” job like making games. These, of course, are intermixed with people who feel the need to interject about how common these problems are in all industries–which certainly suggests picking a different career might not be as helpful as the first group wants to claim.
Of course, my experiences aren’t objective or somehow universal of course, but I have been involved in the industry for 23 years, as a freelance writer (full and part time), contract worker, staff designer, staff developer, freelance developer, producer, line editor, publisher, and consultant. But even then, it’s one narrow slice of the ttRPG industry. A number of other professionals have opined about what they agree with, and what they feel like need qualifiers, but there’s been little real disagreement that I have seen.
So, if it’s a terrible way to make a living—why do I? Why stick with an industry for decades if even the “success” of getting hired on-staff by the two biggest RPG companies in North America isn’t enough to leave me able to pay the bills without having to scramble every month?
I was writing the headline of this article, and my wife leaned over, and in all seriousness asked me “So, why DO you do it?”
I confess that in the past 6 months, I have begun to think maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s time to hang up the dice, at least professionally, and switch to a “normal” job. I still may. But not this week, which brings us back to “why?”
There are two big reasons.
1. I Want To Help
And I think I can, but only from the inside.
So, what do I mean by help?
I mean help gaming, as a hobby, and game professionals, as a group. I want to work to make the ttRPG industry create the most good situations for the most people. That means working to improve conditions and stability, trying new things and seeing if any of them work better, answering questions, tutoring people, putting folks in touch with other folks for mutual benefit, and publicly fighting for diversity, inclusion, and ethical game designs.
And while it may be hubris to think I can make a difference, I’d rather struggle so survive if it means there is a chance I can make other people’s struggles easier. I’ll never be the person who determines if I have succeeded at this, of course. And I may never know if I really improve things. But I do get feedback that convinces me the effort is worth making.
It looks to me like there will be people trying to be full-time RPG professionals for the foreseeable future. I want to help them, and at the same time help the industry, hobby, and fans of gaming be the best they can.
2. I Think RPGs Are Important
I think ALL games are important, but especially ttRPGs. Roleplaying Games brought me most of the good things in my life.
High school was harsh for me, and I can honestly say I was miserable most of the time and considered suicide more than once. But RPGs let me explore ideas I was too afraid to discuss, helped me form a strong social support group, and let me make friends I am still playing with 25 and 30 years later. Nothing else came close to letting me deal with my pain, and learn something about bravery.
I learned empathy through RPGs, and regret, and problem solving. It encouraged me to learn about history, grammar, math, probability, tactics, risk-taking and analysis, even a theory of fun. I doubt there is any positive aspect of my personality I can’t trace back to RPGs. And a lot of things I know were terrible parts of who I was growing up I overcame through interactions with RPGs, and the people I met through them.
My tightest bonds outside my immediately family came from ttRPGs. I met my wife through roleplaying. My best friends, from people I have known for more than 35 years to people I just got to know in the past year, through roleplaying. I have gotten to learn from geniuses, and help put folks much more creative than me on easier paths, through roleplaying games.
Further, I believe the influence of ttRPGs has much bigger ripples than people realize. And I want to have a small hand in what those ripples look like, and what messages they send out.
So yes, even when some person or persons leaves comments on videos claiming I am so fat and disgusting no-one should ever look at me or trust me, even in weeks when I have to spend 60-70 hours scrambling to pay the bills and arrange for opportunities to do the same thing next month, even when groups of people claim my ethics and morals are just schemes to draw attention, even when people smarter and more creative than me throw in the towel and leave the industry — or maybe especially those times — I feel the drive to keep doing this.
I know I cannot make a huge difference, but I feel this is the tool I can best use to do the most good, for the most people.
If you feel like supporting me in those efforts, you can make a huge difference by supporting my Patreon.
Writing Basics: Online Schmoozing
This is less Writing Basics than it is Freelancing Basics, but I suspect it’s going to have the same audience, so I don’t want to make a whole new tag. 🙂
I’ve spoken and written many times about how useful it is when building a game industry career to go meet other professionals in person. You can do this at conventions, game days, trade shows, and sometimes smaller open-invitation get-togethers. And I stand by all of that.
But, let’s face it, for a lot of people going to meet professionals who live in Seattle (or anywhere really) isn’t a viable option. If you don’t live right near an event they are attending, or very close to their home base, it’s expensive to get to any such opportunity. Even if you do live nearby, you may not be able to take time off work as needed. Or you may be a person with disabilities, or have family you have to take care of, or face crippling anxiety in crowds.
My first Gen Con nearly drove me out of the industry, I was so overwhelmed by the massive crowds. The first Gen Con I attended as a Paizo employee nearly killed me because I’m just not up to doing as much walking as it called for. I’ve worked very hard on overcoming those issues of mine, and many others, but that’s not an option for everyone.
What is available to everyone reading this on my blog is – online schmoozing.
No, it’s not as effective as meeting people in-person. But it’s also much less restrictive on when and with who you can try it. And human psyches being what they are, it can still be extremely effective, especially over the long run. Familiarity, gratitude, and humor can help build relationships.
So, some basics.
Follow Them. Like and Share Their Stuff
The beginning step is just to find places where these professionals are being visible in a professional capacity, and engaging with them there in basic and helpful ways. Do they have a professional Facebook page (and that likely includes anyplace they advertise their work)? Follow them, interact with and SHARE their posts. If you thought a post was neat, reply saying you thought it was neat. Retweet their Twitter announcements. Subscribe to their Twitch shows. This will begin to be noticed, over time, in a positive light.
Don’t Take Rejection Personally
Seriously, a declined friend request with no explanation is not an insult. Just take these things in stride, and look for more professional, less intimidate places to follow that game creative. Many creatives keep separate presences for their role as authors or artists an their personal social media, so try to find their professional account. (I don’t do this, but I’m a weird exception in that regard.)
And if they block you? Take the hint, and walk away. Full stop.
Remember They Don’t Owe You Anything
Online schmoozing is not transactional. Watching 400 hours of a Twitch stream does not obligate that broadcaster to do you favors, boost your stuff, or even talk to you. Over time you can see who does seem interested in talking to you, or even helping you, but accept that is their choice and you cannot and should not push for or expect anything.
In general, I think it’s most effective for you to use your real name and face as your tag and icon when you want to benefit from online schmoozing. But that’s obviously secondary to you being happy, and you being safe. If there are reasons not to use your real name or face, see if you can at least use recognizable names and icons over multiple platforms. I can’t begin to guess how many people I recognize on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on paizo.com, without having any idea they are all the same person. If someone wants to benefit from my getting to know them virtually, there’s a much bigger impact if I know those interactions are all with one person.
It’s the internet. Some creators are creeps. Some are secretly vile. Don’t do anything that feels scummy, invasive, or not in the nature of the professional contact level you are trying to build. Keeping communication in public spaces can help with this.
Respect Their Space
Different online spaces call for different kinds of interaction. For example, if a professional is streaming to promote their new book and have a live chat, and opens a question-and-answer period, that’s a bad time to ask their advice for how to break into the industry. They are there to promote something, so a much better interaction is to ask them about that project, or something closely related. If, after a few questions, there don’t seem to be more folks wanting to talk on that subject you can inquire about asking a less-related question. But if the answer is no, don’t push it.
Similarly, if you get invited to a social online space that includes professional, don’t pester them about professional issues without some sign it’s appropriate and welcome. I’ve heard stories about game company owners having people pitch them freelance projects during online gameplay with MMORPG guilds. That’s the wrong time and place.
Here I’m specifically talking about your interactions with professionals you WANT to get to know better. And, remember to think about how what you write could be taken in harsh text form, with no smile or human inflection or context to soften it. There are people I have known for decades who can reference old in-jokes with me online that make me smile, but that from the outside must look like some harsh insults. Someone who thought that was just how I interacted with folks online and tried to emulate similar language might well tick me off, and I’d have no idea they through they were joining in on the fun.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time On It
The idea here is to become part of an easily-accessed online community that includes professionals you hope to learn from, and someday be recognized by. It’s not to have a part-time job clicking likes and boosting tweets.
If your online schmoozing prevents you from doing anything fun or important? You’re doing it too much.
Shamelessly Linking This To My Patreon
Giving someone money actually isn’t generally the best way to build an online relationship… but being a patron of mine DOES help me have time to write advice posts like this one!
Titles of the 500+ pdf Bonus MegaBundle
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- EMM 48 Unchained Favored Classes.pdf
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- EMM 50 Haunted Archetypes.pdf
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- EMM 53 Rage Options.pdf
- EMM 54 Alchemical Power Components.pdf
- EMM 55 Front Liner’s Options.pdf
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- Genius Guide to Loot 4 Less 4 – Fantastic Footwear.pdf
- Genius Guide to Loot 4 Less 5 – All You Need Is Gloves.pdf
- Genius Guide to Loot 4 Less 6 – Cloaks and Daggers.pdf
- Genius Guide to Loot 4 Less 7 – Krazy Kragnar.pdf
- Genius Guide to Loot 4 Less 8 – Belt One On.pdf
- Genius Guide to Loot 4 Less 9 – Bell, Book, and Candle.pdf
- Genius Guide to Loot 4 Less Things that Make You Go Boom.pdf
- Genius Guide to Martial Archetypes.pdf
- Genius Guide to Mystic Godlings.pdf
- Genius Guide to Name Traits.pdf
- Genius Guide to Races of Fire and Fury.pdf
- Genius Guide to Races of Hoof and Horn.pdf
- Genius Guide to Races of Wind and Wing.pdf
- Genius Guide to Rune Staves and Wyrd Wands.pdf
- Genius Guide to Simple Monster Templates.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Archon.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Armiger.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Death Mage.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Dragonrider Revised.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Godling Ascendant.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Godling.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Magus.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Mosaic Mage.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Order of Vigilance.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Shadow Assassin.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Talented Cavalier.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Templar.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Time Thief.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Time Warden.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Vanguard Revised.pdf
- Genius Guide to the War Master.pdf
- Genius Guide to the Witch Hunter.pdf
- Genius Guide to What’s in my Pocket – Part Deux.pdf
- Genius Guide to What_s in my Pocket – Part Deux.pdf
- GG to Bravery Feats.pdf
- GG to Feats of Spellcasting II.pdf
- GG to Gruesome Dragons.pdf
- GG to More Horrifically Overpowered Feats.pdf
- GG to More Ranger Talents.pdf
- GG to the Dracomancer.pdf
- GG to the Hellion.pdf
- GG to the Magister.pdf
- GG to the Riven Mage.pdf
- GG to the Shadow Warrior.pdf
- GG to the Talented Ranger.pdf
- GGT Domain Channeling II.pdf
- GGT Domain Channeling.pdf
- GGT Expanded Class Options.pdf
- GGT Gruesome Giants.pdf
- GGT HOMFeats.pdf
- GGT Homophone Spells.pdf
- GGT More Barbarian Talents.pdf
- GGT More Bard Talents.pdf
- GGT More Cleric Talents.pdf
- GGT More Simple Class Templates for Monsters.pdf
- GGT More Witch Talents.pdf
- GGT Mythic Subpaths.pdf
- GGT Simple Class Templates for Monsters.pdf
- GGT the Cruorchemist.pdf
- GGT The Opportunist.pdf
- GGT The Talented Barbarian.pdf
- GGT the Talented Bard.pdf
- GGT the Talented Bestiary PDF Webview.pdf
- 2GGT the Talented Bestiary PDF.pdf
- GGT the Talented Cleric.pdf
- GGT the Talented Druid.pdf
- GGT the Talented Otter Dragon.pdf
- GGT the Talented Witch.pdf
- GGT Variant Multiclass Rules.pdf
- GO Masters of Time.pdf
- Heralds of the Apocalypse.pdf
- HH 002 Spellpoints Expansion.pdf
- Houserule Footnotes Spell Point Feats.pdf
- Houserule Handbooks Spell Points.pdf
- Houserule Handbooks Spellpoints Compilation.pdf
- Into The Veil.pdf
- Kitsune Compendium.pdf
- Krazy Kragnar Magic Staff Emporium.pdf
- Krazy Kragnar’s Black Market Magic Items.pdf
- Krazy Kragnars Alchemical Surplus Shop.pdf
- Leadership Handbook.pdf
- Lunar Knights.pdf
- Microsized Adventures.pdf
- MM A Council of Genies.pdf
- MM Bulette Points.pdf
- MM Draconis Arcanus.pdf
- MM SS Giraffenomicon.pdf
- MM SS Pumpkin Stalker.pdf
- MM The Swarminomicon.pdf
- MM Troops.pdf
- MO Core Mythic Class Features.pdf
- MO Mythic Base Class Features.pdf
- MO Mythic Dragonrider Class Features.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Construct Companion.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Covens of Chaos.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Demonic Harlots.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Horrors of the Aboleth.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Howl at the Moon.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Kingdom of Graves.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Kith of the Harpy Queen.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Lurkers in the Dark.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Threats from Beyond.pdf
- Monster Menagerie – Winter Ravagers.pdf
- Monster Menagerie Griffmeras.pdf
- Mythic Fighter Class Features.pdf
- Mythic Menagerie – Rise of the Goblinoids.pdf
- Mythic Options The Missing Core Feats.pdf
- Night of the Starbird.pdf
- Occult Options 1.pdf
- Oceans of Blood.pdf
- Paranormal Adventures.pdf
- Paranormal Classes.pdf
- PF Trash Gryphon.pdf
- Psychological Combat.pdf
- Races Revised – the Kitsune Clans.pdf
- Ranger Options – Knacks of Nature.pdf
- Ravagers of Time.pdf
- Relic Files – From Beyond the Stars I.pdf
- Relic Files – From Beyond the Stars II.pdf
- Relic Files – Treasures of Camelot I.pdf
- Relic Files – Treasures of Camelot II.pdf
- Relic Files – Treasures of Camelot III.pdf
- RF Manticore Power Armor.pdf
- RF Treasures of the Earth – Svarduun.pdf
- RP Kyubi Paragon.pdf
- RP Noble Aspirant.pdf
- SA Laser Grenades.pdf
- SA Shotguns.pdf
- Samsaran Compendium.pdf
- SC Coordinated Combat Feats.pdf
- SC Horrifically Overpowered Feats.pdf
- SC Legacy Cavalier.pdf
- SC Legacy Dragonrider.pdf
- SC Legacy Gunslinger.pdf
- SC Technomancy Manual.pdf
- SC Toonimancy.pdf
- SFA Cannibal Clowns from Outer Space.pdf
- SFA Deluxe Drider.pdf
- SFA Sluagh.pdf
- SFS Psychic Space Cats.pdf
- SGP A Brace of Pistols.pdf
- SGP Argonax the Mad.pdf
- SGP Power Word Spells.pdf
- SGP Races Revised The Kobold Kings.pdf
- Skill Challenge Handbook.pdf
- Sorcerers Options Beyond Bloodlines-1.pdf
- Starfarer’s Codex Witch Legacy Class.pdf
- The Clockwork Wonders of Brandlehill.pdf
- The Genius Guide to More Cavalier Talents.pdf
- The Genius Guide to More Fighter Talents.pdf
- The Genius Guide to More Monk Talents.pdf
- The Genius Guide to More Rogue Talents.pdf
- The Genius Guide to the Death Knight.pdf
- The Genius Guide to the Relics of the Godlings II.pdf
- The Genius Guide to the Relics of the Godlings.pdf
- The Genius Guide to the Talented Cavalier.pdf
- The Genius Guide to the Talented Fighter.pdf
- The Genius Guide to The Talented Monk.pdf
- The Genius Guide to the Talented Rogue.pdf
- The Pirate Haven of Blackrock.pdf
- Ultimate Charisma.pdf
- Ultimate Occult.pdf
- Ultimate Options – Arcane Discoveries.pdf
- Ultimate Options – Grit and Gunslingers.pdf
- Ultimate Options – Power of the Ninja.pdf
- UO Bardic Masterpieces.pdf
- UO New Magus Arcana..pdf
- UO Story Feats.pdf
- VC Radical Pantheon.pdf
- VC The Black Knight.pdf
- Veranthea Codex – Lost Legends of Urethiel.pdf
- Wind and Wing Racial Options.pdf
- Yuletide Terror.pdf
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Writing Basics: Bringing Your Publisher Concerns
In part one of my recent ongoing series of articles looking at converting every feat from the PF Core Rulebook that doesn’t already have a namesake in Starfinder to the Starfinder game system, I mention that if you think a project you are being hired for has bad decisions behind it, you should bring those to your publisher. I also mention that once you agree to do the job you should do it, without offering any exceptions for cases where you have moral or ethical concerns about completing the work. these can be tricky waters to navigate, but it’s worth discussing some best practices for bring your concerns to your publisher/editor/developer/producer.
Some of the following examples are going to sound extreme, and I don’t want to give the impression that every project is filled with objectionable, harmful, short-sighted material you have to fight back against. But I can’t pretend it never happens, and obviously it’s when the stakes are highest that this is both the most important, and the most nerve-wracking.
Also, I am aware of my own shortcomings enough to know I don;t always see the ways in which material can be harmful. So if you are writing for me, and you have concerns? LET ME KNOW. Push back. Point to this article if you want some back-up. I ASKED you to tell me if I’m requesting bad ideas from you.
As always, I’ll also note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. Also, I come at this as a writer, developer, and publisher, as those are the kinds of roles I have filled for RPG creation. Artists, graphic designers, editors, and layout artists face similar challenges at least as great, but my advice may not work as well for them.
Try Not To Create Any Surprises
Ideally when working on a project you’ll have access to an outline and a general vision of the project prior to agreeing to write for it, so if you have any concerns you can bring them up early on. For example, if a project’s outline suggests covering topics you don’t feel are appropriate for an RPG, you can discuss that at the beginning with your contact. Even if that means you backing out of the project because you just can’t get on the same page as the publisher, it’s much better for all concerned if you do that early.
If your project is going to involve a lot of discrete bits, it’s worth scanning those for potential trouble spots extremely early in the process. For example if you are asked to do expanded write-ups on six cities, go through the existing material at least briefly as soon as you can. If one of the cities is mired in material you see issues with (whether those are as simple as it having a stupid name or as complex as having an explicit social set-up filled with stereotypes you find harmful), bringing those to your contact as soon as possible both allows everyone plenty of time to try to figure out a solution (while the rest of the project moves forward), and proves you’re taking your responsibilities seriously.
The closer you are to deadline, the less flexible your publisher is likely to be. While that is often because the publisher places money over your concerns, it’s worth remembering they have mouths to feed as well, and people counting on them. That doesn’t excuse making money on harmful material, but it is worth remembering if you’re trying to build a working relationship.
Of course sometimes things develop you could not have foreseen. You may only be contracted to write part of a project, and when you see someone else’s section it’s full of material you have issues with or, worse, it changes the context of your own material in harmful ways. Or you might be shown cover art you dislike so much you don’t want your name associated with it. Or you might get developer feedback that explicitly asks you to alter things in a way you have problems with. The point is that the sooner you can raise a flag, the easier the process is likely to be for all concerned.
There’s A Thing Line Between Asking for Clarification and Passive-Aggressive
A great first step when something from the publisher seems like a bad idea is to ask for clarification. Going back to my series of articles as an example, if a publisher told me to convert *every* missing PF feat from the core rulebook to Starfinder, I’d pretty quickly ask if they meant even feats that refer to rules that don’t exist in Starfinder and already have their basic concept covered, like Exotic Weapon Proficiency. The publisher might come back and agree that some feats don’t need conversion.
However, once I get told that yes, EVERY feat needs to be converted, constantly asking if that’s the case even if the end result is dumb, or even if that means confusing people, or any other objections, I’m moving beyond just asking for clarification. Once you have your answer work with it, for better or worse.
If the answer means you can’t work on a project for personal or ethical or legal reasons, at that point just say so.
Be As Polite As The Situation Allows
Ideally, you’ll always be in a place where you can be polite and considerate to your publisher. If nothing else, with luck you’ll have some idea what kind of material the publisher produces before working for them (or even pitching them ideas) and will have just avoided anyone who is going to ask for things you think are stupid or problematic.
Even just five years ago, I’d have made this advice to ALWAYS be polite. And, honestly, my privileged and luck have meant I have always had that choice (though I haven’t always used it, to my regret). But I have seen other writers put in situations where I confess, polite might not convey how serious an objection is.
I strongly recommend defaulting to as polite as you think you can possibly be, and reserving more stringent language and complaints for serious legal or ethical objections, but that has to be your call.
Explain Your Concerns
Saying “this piece of art is terrible” isn’t helpful to a publisher. Be as specific, and as nonjudgmental, as the situation allows for. Does the art depict the 8-armed Klyzon species as having 6 arms? Are the colors so muted and fuzzy that from 2 feet back it just looks like mud? Does the Klyzon look EXACTLY like a character from the Trek Wars animated series? It it’s tattoo of a symbol with real-world religious or political meaning? Is the Klyzon man a horrific monster in full armor, and the Klyzon woman a near-human with tiny horns wearing sexualized attire?
Specific details on what is your concern, and why it concerns you, helps move quickly to seeing if improvements or resolution can be found.
If there is a broader social issue in play, it may help to link to resources education on that issue. Yes, this is asking you to do extra work, and that’s both unfair and not your ethical duty. I offer the suggestion because I have found it effective, but you have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into any issue.
If you can think of an easy way to address your concern, pitch it. Publishers love solutions to problems, especially compared to problems they have to spend time working on themselves.
In fact if approving your solution is less work than figuring out some way to get what the publisher originally asked for, the publisher may just agree to save time and effort.
Try To Do It All At Once
This isn’t always an option, but a publisher can much more easily deal with a unified, concise list of 7 issues with a project, than getting a new issues brought up 7 different times during production.
Pick Your Battles
There’s nothing wrong with noting you think a sketch of a monster you are writing up is too goofy to convey the theme of menace and fear you have been asked to write… but that’s also not something I’d ever take beyond the bringing-it-up stage. The publisher has people they trust to make publication decisions, and they are unlikely to take your freelance opinion over that of their staff or trusted contract producers.
Even when mentioning concerns, it can be worth it to note when you are just bringing something up for consideration, (and will finish your work as agreed, on time, to a high standard of quality even if nothing changes), and when you think there is a serious issue you need to find clarification on before you can continue, or that you fear may impact the value of your work.
To Thine Own Self Be True
I wish I didn’t even have to cover this, but that’s not the world we live in. Your own sense of ethics, morality, and right and wrong should take precedence over giving a publisher what they want… to whatever degree you decide you’re willing to pay the price for making a stand.
It’d be nice to claim you’ll always be rewarded for doing the right thing but again, that’s not the world we live in. Only you can decide what to do when legal obligations (such as a contract), financial obligations (such as looming rent payments), and moral obligations (such as creating work you think might harm others) aren’t in alignment.
But I don’t personally think advancing your career, or getting one freelance paycheck, is worth feeling you have made the world a worse place. Be honest with yourself, and make the best call you cab.
Don’t Assume The Publisher Is Making a Change Until They Say So
Some freelancers will write in they have a concern, propose a solution, and then immediately continue their writing as if their proposal had been accepted. In some cases this has included things such as saying a topic can’t support 1500 words, so they are going to write 1100 words on it, and 400 words on some new topic.
Don’t. Do. This.
The project outline and remit hasn’t changed until the publish says it’s changed.
Be Clear On Your Position
I never recommend starting with ultimatums or even making threats, but especially once you have voiced a concern, if you are dissatisfied with the publisher’s solution, it’s worth talking about how you would like to proceed.
You may just note you won’t want to take similar projects in the future. You might ask that your name be taken off a project. You might need to ask for extra time because you feel the scope of the project has shifted or requires more research than you expect.
I personally have never, on ethical grounds, backed out of a project without the publisher’s approval once I had signed a contract. But I’m not going to claim there are never circumstances where that might be the moral choice. Myself I’d always finish wordcount and turn a project over by deadline, even if I had to write something that wasn’t exactly what was asked for because I have conscientious objections to what was asked for.
I have asked a publisher if they would approve of my walking away from a contract for various reasons, and had them agree to it. In general, that means I don’t get paid for work already done (which the publisher then cannot use), and that’s often the cost of doing business.
Don’t Freak Out
As a socially awkward introvert with depression, I know it can be overwhelming to tell a publisher you think they need to change their concept. But it happens, and most publishers are used to it, and many even appreciate it. By being prompt, polite, and specific, you can generally get a dialog going on issues without having to take on a huge emotional burden.
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Writing Basics: The Freelance Work Process
I’ve talked many times about ways I deal with writer’s block, burnout, and the hard work of creating game material professionally. What I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about is my normal writing process. Like, if I am feeling okay and tackling the day-to-day work of a writing career, what does that look like?
Today’s my birthday, and birthdays are a good time for some retrospection, so I want to look at how my full-time freelance process looks nowadays, especially after 5 years of going into the Paizo office 5 days a week. I’m talking here just about how I organize and tackle my writing–things like getting assignments, editing, and so on are outside the scope of this article. (Though if you want to hear more about those, let me know!)
When I was first starting my writing career, I flat refused to use outlines. Outlines were, I felt, restrictive. Stifling. I didn’t know where my muse was going to take me, after all, so how could I outline it? Much better, I thought, to just begin at the beginning, and keep writing until I hit the end, and if that meant the project drifted all over the place, I could fix that in a second draft.
I was such a sweet, summer child.
Yes, you can fix things in a second draft. But the sooner you find problems, the easier they are to fix (and the less work you’ve done on things that are geing to get cut). So now I outline nearly everything. Often in very rough terms (maybe just listing out some potential headers), but enough for me to know where a piece is going to start, what it’ll cover, and how it will end.
I DO keep in mind my format, and this is a place where the years of being a developer for Paizo have really honed that skill. For example, if I know I want everything to break at the bottom of a page, I can do rough wordcounts to writing only as much as I need to do that. On the other hand, if something is going to be a 2-3 page pdf and never see print, i know it doesn’t matter nearly as much what my exact wordcounts are.
Prioritize, Schedule, Assess
Early in my career, I was often doing just fairly random magazine articles, and deadlines were pretty rough. I also usually worked on only one at a time, so I didn’t have to worry about priorities. Now I am often doing two-dozen things all at once, and some are for myself with loose deadlines, some are for myself with firm deadlines (like this article, since I promise Patreon readers a good-sized article every Monday), some are for other folks with loose deadlines (most of the things I produce for Rite are done when they are done… but they do need to get done!), and some are for other folks with hard deadlines (if Green Ronin or Paizo needs a thing by a set date, it’s crucial I adhere to that–there are lots of steps after mine that need time, and big books that go into the retail market get announced way before they are finished.
So I need to know what I need to work on TODAY to hit deadlines. I prefer to work on 2-3 different things per day, so i keep a running list of what deadlines are upcoming, how far along those things are, and I (ideally) check it every work day. I also have the free tacking program Asana, which I use to track projects so they don’t get totally forgotten if I put them on the back burner for a few days or weeks. That helps make sure that if Rogue Genius Games needs marketing text from me before a product can be made available for sale, I get that done in a timely manner.
If I have an idea I can;t begin yet, it gets noted so it’s not lost. i used to do that in physical notebooks. Then I moved to online files. Now, i use Asana.
The hope is to get 8 hours of writing done per day 5 days a week, and 4 hours 2 days a week. That actually usually takes me 12 and 6 hours, because when I find myself hitting a slowdown in my writing, I often take a short break to clear my mind. That may be 5 minutes on social media, or 15 minutes gluing bits of a model together, or 20 minutes on a computer game. Or a half-hour lunch break. The idea is to pause, rather than let my writing urge go completely cool, but distract my mind with something different enough that I can come back at it ‘fresh” in a bit.
But it’s important to keep a running track of how much work is actually getting done, and what is due soon. If I am producing plenty of words per day (I shoot for a minimum of 3,000 words/day, spread out over various projects) and everything is on-track to hit deadline, I don’t worry overmuch how many minutes I spend on non-work-writing. But if my production slows, or I have something behind schedule, I get much more serious about making breaks short and infrequent. I try to get up and do something else for at least a few minutes every hour, but if the muse has me head-down writing for 3 hours, I don’t interrupt that process.
I have a dedicated work space–a home office I share with my wife. It has my laptop, my reference books, chargers for phones, a place for my cat to sit within-reach but off my desktop, a few hobby-related items, and that’s it. No television. No chairs other than the office chairs. There IS a window, because getting some natural light is helpful to me. No microwave. When I look around, I see only things related one way or another to my writing, and that’s a big help for me.
Putting It All Together
For example, I began this article on Friday the 25th, based on an idea from my idea file I got from a friend on social media. I didn’t get much more done than outlining some headers. I took runs at it again on the 26th and 27th, but kept both short because I had a past-due project I needed to turn in on the 28th. OTOH I also took time out on the 27th to spend time hanging out at a friend’s house, because I had been working all week and the next day was my birthday.
But that meant this wasn’t done today… and neither was the past-due project. But the past-due was ALMOST done, so finishing it clearly took priority. Then a quick break to spend a few minutes with my wife. Since it’s my birthday and I have a 3pm phone call that is industry-related, i WANTED to play a game for 15-20 minutes… but I couldn’t take the time for that when my Monday blog post wasn’t finished yet.
So this became the next major priority, and I hammered on it until it was done. Now I can take a break, and then start on the NEXT most-urgent thing on my list. 🙂
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Writing Basics: How Much Will You Make?
New freelancers often wonder how much money they can make writing tabletop game material (or editing, or art, though those are different fields than where my primary experience lies). They’ll ask how they get paid, maybe inquire about a per-word rate, or flat fee, and think they are done, But knowing the per-word rate of a project is the beginning of figuring out how much you’ll make doing it, not the end.
And let me start by saying not everyone cares how much they make, and not everyone is going to depend on this money for their livelihood even if they do, and none of that matters when discussing what is reasonable to pay. Work deserves to be compensated, and you deserve to know how hard you are working for the money you make.
I don’t know that there is an “industry standard” for tabletop RPG writing. At this point in my career I am usually writing for 10 cents/word or a goodly cut of all income from a project. Over the past 20 years I have written for as little as 1 cent/word (counting only things that were non-charity, paid projects), and as much as 35 cents/word, but those are both outliers. (Before that I once took a project for 0.1 cents/word… I didn’t know any better. And that’s not my worst experience, to boot.)
Most people I am willing to work with pay no less than 3 cents a word, even to new writers. So, for purposes of this article, that’s the number I am going to go with.
But even knowing a project pays ‘3 cents a word’ doesn’t tell you how much you are making, until you know how many words it is, and how long that will take you, how many revisions you’ll be asked to make, and how long you have to wait to get paid.
If you can do 2,000 words in a 2-hour evening run? That’s $30/hour.
If it’s 1,000 words over 4 hours? That’s $7.50/hour.
But if revisions take just as long as the writing? Your hourly rate just got cut in half. And you’ll likely be paying self-employment tax (in the U.S. anyway, basically another 15% cut out of your income), and you won’t get any benefits as you would for a full-time hourly staff job, and if you have to wait until it’s published to get paid you may miss out on the potential for months of interest (whether by putting it in savings or paying off a credit card cost), or both.
Some of those answers you won’t know until the project is done. You can ask a company if they expect to request revisions (and definitely check your contract to see if it asks for revisions), and you can ask other freelancers what their experience with that company is in that regard (and on other issues too — it’s worth knowing if a company has a reputation for paying late, or killing projects, or changing the remit partway through… if you can, find fellow freelancers you trust and talk to them). But ultimately, any given project may be the exception to the general rule.
It’s also worth finding out HOW you are getting the money. By check? By PayPal (in which case, is a fee coming out of it, and if so who is paying that fee?) By international wire transfer from a different currency? Find out, and get it in writing. It can make a huge difference, especially if different currencies get involved.
The math is even more variable for things that pay your a percentage, and there are even more elements that can change things. Is your percentage of the cover price, or the cut the publishing company gets? this is a huge difference. for example, if it’s a $5 pdf on DriveThruRPG, and you are getting 25%, you need to know if that is 25% of the $5 cover, or 25% of the $3.25 the publishing company gets after DriveThru takes their 35% cut? Also, are you being paid off gross (all the money that comes in) or net (the profit, after all other expenses are paid), or some hybrid number (such as all the money the company takes in for sale price, but none of the money it takes in for printing POD copies or for shipping)? Are you paid monthly? Quarterly? For the life of the product, or just for the first year of sales?
And it wouldn’t be fair not to mention here that some publishers, writers, and pundits think percentage payments are unethical. I’m not one of them, as long as the freelancer is well-informed when making their decision. But I WILL say that since a percentage asks the freelancer to take more of the risk on the project (since sales could be dismal), I recommend only taking a percentage that you believe, based on your own market research, will on average pay more than the flat rate you would accept for the project. I take percentage projects myself fairly often, but am most likely to do so when I have more creative control. If I pitched the idea, or I am developing it to my taste, or it’s a case where a publisher has told me they’ll pay me for anything I ant to write (rare, but it has happened from time to time in my career), I am more willing to take the risk with the publisher, as opposed to when I am given a hard outline and have fewer creative choices to give input on.
On the question of how fast you write, that answer may not be the same for you for every kind of project. I can write new rules content and essays (like this one) MUCH faster than I can write long adventures. Short adventures seem to be an average between those two. Worldbuilding varies for me wildly–sometimes the ideas and descriptions flow easily, and sometimes it’s a grind. And the better I know a game system, the easier and faster all the writing is for it.
You should also make sure you aren’t having to spend money in order to do the writing for a project. Nowadays every company I work with will at least give a freelancer free pdfs of their material that is related to a project. but for licensed properties, this isn’t always as clear. I have had licensed projects I worked on that required me to have some geek encyclopedia not published by the company I was working for, and which they could not get me free copies of. I always increased my asking price by the amount buying such things would cost me, or made sure they were things I could borrow off a friend, or get from the library. If there are free resources, such as fan wikis, make sure your publisher considers them authoritative before depending on them.
You also have t consider if your writing project requires you to do any non-writing work that doesn’t pay any extra above the per-word rate. It’s extremely common for adventure writers to have to do sketches of maps of the locations within their adventures. Not final cartography, but maps with enough detail that the cartographer doesn’t have to make any decisions when rendering final version. This generally doesn’t result in any additional pay above the per-word rate, so if it’s 3 cents per word for 10,000 words plus three full-page map sketches, you are doing more work for the money than if you got 3 cents per word for 10,000 words with no sketches. You may also have to provide an outline, or multiple outlines, which create additional words you are writing you don’t get directly paid for. If the outlines are part of your normal process of writing that’s fine, but if they aren’t be sure to think about how long they took you when considering how much you earned.
It’s much less common, but sometimes publishers also want writers to do interviews, blog posts, marketing text, and so on. Some of those things you may see as career opportunities (the publisher likely isn’t making any money off you doing an interview with someone, and it can be good for your own visibility), but it’s worth knowing if those things are optional opportunities for you, or considered mandatory part of your job, which you should then count against the time it takes you to earn that assignment’s money. (Of course you don’t count any promotion you arrange for and do on your own against the money the publisher pays you — that kind of self-promotion is just part of being an active freelancer.)
Only when you know how much money you’ll get, how long it’ll take to get it, how long it took you to write a draft, how long you spent on revisions or outlining or mapping or art orders, and how long any mandatory promotions you engage in took, can you figure out how many hours you spent earning your per-word, royalty, or flat rate. You may not want to bother to do this with every project, but it IS worth tracking from time to time so you know if there are things that earn you more per hour, even if they have a similar or lower rate for the whole project.
And, of course, when talking about how much you can earn as a freelancer on top of knowing how much you make per hour, you have to figure out how many hours you can spend on it in a month, and then if you can fill all those hours with work at a rate worth your time.
But those are sub-topics for another week.
Sponsored By: The Know Direction Network!
Like all my blog posts, this one is supported by the backers of my patreon! In this case this post is specifically sponsored by the fine folks at the Know Direction network, who have podcasts, articles, news, and convention recordings about the game industry and general, and Paizo, Pathfinder and Starfinder in particular! “Pathfinder News, Reviews, & Interviews!”
Writing Basics: The First Draft
Your first draft doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
Yes, there’s a time and place where you need to be able to share your ideas with editors, developers, playtesters, and so on.
And, yes, it’s worth reading up on how other people draft and outline and process their work, to see if those techniques are useful to you.
But your FIRST draft doesn’t have to be anything more than a starting point. I, at least, never worry too much about what the final product is going to be when starting my first draft. I throw ideas at the page, and see what sticks. Often I have half-finished sentences I abandon because my brain finds something better.
Maybe you work that way. Maybe you don’t.
Just don’t let concern about your first draft being *right* sideline you from WRITING.
You can fix, change, revise anything you want in a second draft.
But only if the first draft happens.
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.
Classes: Mage, Rogue, and Warrior
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.
Writing Basic: DO NOT USE TABLE FORMATTING
This is SUPER basic, and SUPER ignored, but I promise you, it’s true. (And as with most of my writing basics, here I am talking about tabletop game writing for someone else to publish.)
Unless your editor/producer/publisher specifically tells you to?
DO NOT USE TABLE FORMATTING IN YOUR FINAL DRAFT.
It is of NO use to the developer, editor, or layout artist. It is, in fact, a huge pain in the butt.
Yes, MAYBE you need to get things in neat columns to make sure your table says what you want where you want it.
But when you turn it over?
Note what is a table title, what is a column head, and what is table text, and then put ONE TAB between EACH COLUMN ENTRY. (As always, check to see if your publisher has specific or different requirements.) Do NOT use your word processing programs table function.
Like this, but with [tab] replaced by an actual tab.
[Table Title]An Example Table
[Table Column Heads]Writing Level[tab]No. Of Wrong Tables[tab]Editor Cursewords
*Because a 102 level writer should know better.
Yes, it’s a minor thing.
But getting minor things wrong makes you take more time and more effort, and thus more money and frustration, for publishers to want to hire you.
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 this useful or entertaining, 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 different.