I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few weeks ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this second post of two on Career Planning (you can read Part One here).
We covered step 1, process your new reality, and step 2, review. So that brings us to:
3. Look Forward
I often open advice sessions with other people with “Where do you want to be in two years?” It is, for me, a perfect amount of time. Far enough ahead that you can discount immediate but temporary inconveniences such as a sprained ankle or massive looming deadline, close enough that you can visualize the time between now and then. For other people different timeframes might make more sense, but my 5-year plans very rarely go anything like as planned, and when looking forward 6 months or less I am often skewed towards immediate issues that aren’t necessarily representative of what I am going to face in general.
So, where do *I* want to be in 2 years? As I make a list of those things I find, unsurprisingly, that a lot of them involve money.
And money involves a budget.
Budgeting isn’t any fun, but it’s a crucial part of a freelance career. If I am going to successfully reach any of my goals, many of which involve things like buying a house and paying off student loans, I have to be able to account for more than just my immediate bills. Freelancing if often filled with feast-or-famine incomes, where you get paid for several things over the course of 2-3 weeks, and then nothing to speak of over 2-3 months. It’s important to do more than just cover the rent and groceries. You need to be able to sock away for emergencies, long-term needs, even retirement.
That just isn’t likely to happen without a budget.
You also need to consider what skills and contacts you should improve to meet your two-year goal, whatever it is. Do you want to have a published novel? Then you better both be writing is NOW, and talking to anyone you can about how to get it published. Want to have your own game company? I recommend working as an assistant to someone else who has one, so you can learn the ins and outs by watching and helping, before you have to figure it out by doing.
The review is also the time to have an honest talk with yourself about what your weaknesses are. Are you bad at adventure writing? You can either plan to just avoid having to do that, or to get better at it, but you won’t know that’s something to take into account unless you are aware of it as a weakness.
You also need to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Impostor syndrome is rife in this industry… as is the Dunning–Kruger effect. Combating those in yourself is tricky–it’s always easier to see bias in others rather than yourself. I recommend both trying to describe how you would expect someone who gets the kind of work and responses you do objectively to see at least ho you are seen by others, and to ask people you trust who are more successful than you to give you their honest assessment of your pros and cons.
The whole point here is to be able to look forward from a grounded place of information about yourself. You don’t need to beat yourself up or gild your own laurels, but if you don’t have a rough grasp of where you ARE in your career, it’s very tough to plan a course forward.
It may be worth considering what kinds of jobs you have already done and think about which ones you’d like to do more of. My article “Developer? Designer? Who is the What Now?” may be helpful for thinking about different kinds of tasks within the writer end of the TTRPG industry. If you are more focused on art, editing, or business and planning, those are still useful distinctions to know, but you should consider what kinds of sub-divisions your own career has revealed.
Try to boil all your “looking forward” ideas in 3-5 bullet-points of 1-2 sentences each. If two bullet points look similar, see if you can blend them into one slightly broader bullet point.
My first run at that list of ideas looked like this. I offer it only as an example — your list should definitely look different, based on where your career is, and where you want it to go.
*Make enough money to cover more than just the necessities, including health care, buying a house, retirement planning, and the occasional vacation.
*Expand my professional skillset to be able to take advantage of any text-based or business-related aspect of the game industry, including working in different game systems, being a manager, and overseeing licenses.
*Build my online and social media presence to make it easier to directly reach fans and potential employers, possibly including doing more videos, streaming games, and redesigning my website to be more modern.
*Build income streams separate from per-word writing, possibly including growing RGG, doing more royalty-based projects, and patron support (such as my Patreon, which supports this blog and gives me time to write things like this article-Join Now!)
Now that you have an idea of where you are, and where you want to go, it’s time to:
4. Make Plans
This is going to be one of the vaguest sections of this article, because your previous steps should already be leading you to a different destination than mine–possibly a different destination than I could even think of. So making plans to get you from where you are to where you want to go in your career should look very different than getting me where I want to go. But I do think there’s some high-level advice that can still be broadly useful for making plans.
The first is: schedule your time, then fill it.
It’s very temping to do this the other-way ’round: to find things to do, and then go looking for time to get it done in. And at a casual or hobby level, that’s fine. If you mostly want to just post a few articles on free sites and occasionally get paid for a bit of work that drops in your lap, you probably can just schedule things as they come along. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way–I strongly suspect more TTRPG words get written each year by people who enjoy it as a hobby than those who see it as a side-gig or want it to be a full-time career.
But in my experience, if you want to step beyond that, you’ll eventually need to do the hard work of carving out time from everything else, and then filling that time. If you don’t have enough work to fill the time you set aside? Then it’s time to use the spare time to work on some RPG Pitches. If you don’t have enough time set aside to do all the work you’ve gotten?
Then it’s time to take a hard look at whether you need to set aside more time, write faster, or work less. For any of those answers, you may end up trying to Survive on 5 Cents/Word (or Worse). Good luck, sincerely.
As you set aside time, make sure some of it is saved for making contacts, pitches, and seeking better opportunities, and that includes opportunities for self-improvement. Work and learning opportunities may just fall into your lap sometimes, but there’s almost always more work you can get if you go hunting for it, and that often includes better options. If you want regular income, for example, you may need a regular gig writing articles, or running a Patreon, or being a part-time contract employee of a game company. Some of those things you can set up yourself, but that takes time too.
This is often the hardest part of planning a career. While there are now formal education opportunities to get involved in gaming (and not all of them are focused on computer games, and many of the skills are fungible even so), nearly everything I know about being a game industry professional came from working with people smarter, more talented, and more experienced than I was. My time on-staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo taught me there is something I can learn from everybody in the industry, even people with much less experience than me. I needed to be open to the opportunities to learn from them, and that often required I take the time to consider why they wanted to do something differently than I planned to. Yes, deadlines are often tight and there is a time and a place to be a strong advocate for your own vision and experience, but never let that cheat you out of a chance to learn a new resource, skillset, hard-learned lesson, or even just a new point of view.
So, look not only at what work you can do, but what doing that work may mean in terms of advancing your career. There are people in this industry I will always work with if I can, because I always learn from them. I try to challenge myself to take on things that put me out of my comfort zone, and set aside extra time to get those uncomfortable things done.
Sometimes that means an opportunity doesn’t pan out, and that can be especially painful if you gave up something stable for it, and/or were depending on it for a major part of your income. It’s good to note these things (like in future rounds of processing and reviewing your new reality), but it’s not a reason to not try new things. You’ll need to balance potential risk with possible reward, and I can’t tell you how much risk to take for what reward level. Just be realistic with yourself, and never take a risk you can’t survive going badly if you don’t have to.
So, with those steps in mind, what am I looking at for plans to carry my career forward? I’m not going to go into ever deep detail, for obvious reasons, but I think it’d be a bit of a cheat not to wrap this up with some concrete examples of where this process has lead me. So:
I’m the Fantasy AGE developer for Green Ronin. This is a part-time contract position, working with some of the smartest and most experienced people in the TTRPG industry, and it’s a stable source of some income every month. That hits a number of my goals, from working with new game systems to being around people who can help me be better at a wide range of TTRPG industry tasks. I’ll be looking for more similar opportunities, but I am super-stoked at making this part of my long-term success.
I’m focusing more on my Patreon, including posting a new goal promising videos and bonus content if it hits $1500/month. It was, to be honest, extremely scary for me to consider a $1500 goal, but my $700+ goal having been met, I have to take that risk. And if it turns out the public doesn’t want what I am offering for that level of patronage? I’ll re-assess, and try again. I see this as both a way to seek semi-regular income to help meet my financial goals, and to force me to learn and offer new things to stay connected and relevant to the ever-changing TTRPG market.
I’m setting aside more time for Rogue Genius Games. There are types of projects I have never dared tackle with my own little gaming company, and forcing myself to try them is another way to exp[and my skillset. And of course writing more of my own products also means having more royalty-based projects, which is a good way to build income streams that aren’t exclusively one-time per-word money.
Fiction. I am going to do it, this time. I am terrified.
More traditional freelance. I need the money in the short-term, and the contacts in the long-term. So I am throwing my doors open to new publishers, new projects, and new game systems. Time to prove I am more than a d20 game mechanic guy.
So, for the moment, in broad strokes, that’s it for me. I’ll compare my results to my needs and plans (especially my income vs my budget) every 90 days (and more frequently if things are obviously out of whack). And every 6 months or so, it’ll be time to do the whole process again — process, review, look forward, and plan.
It’s a never-ending process, but that’s okay. I never plan to stop having a career, so I can afford to take time to adjust and rethink as needed.
In fact, I can’t afford not to.
I’m at a major crossroads in my career, and not one that looks like I expected it to just a few days ago. So, I ask myself an important question in this first post of two on Career Planning.
It’s a question that comes up all too often, and that there’s not much guidance for. Not “how do I break in,” or “how can I do a better job,” but the much more basic “now what?”
It’s a place I have found myself many times over more than two decades, but to be honest I thought I was done asking it for a while. When I took a full-time staff position with Paizo, my expectation was that I’d be there at least a decade. But you can’t always predict what opportunities come along (or how they’ll turn out), and you need to analyze them based on your current situation, not your best guess from 5 years ago.
Sometimes you just need to take stock and see if your current, stable situation is doing what you need it to, or if improvements could be made. Sometimes you move across the country because your spouse got an amazing job that ceases to exist after 90 days with almost no warning.
So, my Paizo job made the “now what” question irrelevant only on the macro scale. I still needed to have a plan for growth within Paizo (and becoming Starfinder Design Lead was a huge step for me in that regard), and I had to keep an eye on what I was doing as side-gigs (which is one reason I had to shuffle those so often–side gigs must be treated with respect, but they can’t take so much effort they damage your performance on your main career path), but in general I knew where the next set of paychecks was coming from, and who I was going to be doing most of my work for over the next 6 months, and where I would be sitting my butt most often.
I do not regret deciding my family’s needs were no longer in good alignment with Paizo’s opportunities for me, though I am going to miss not only the stability it afforded, but also the friends I have made and the amazing coworkers I have learned from and grown with. And, obviously, I didn’t expect my move to turn out the way it did and would have handled things differently if I’d thought this result was possible in this timeframe. But the fact is I am in Indiana now, and while I expect Paizo to continue to be part of my career for the foreseeable future, that situation is a freelance relationship rather than a regular paycheck.
I moved without a full-time situation preplanned for myself, and the stable job I thought would remove the pressure of needing to spin up my career quickly has turned to vapor. So I come to a place creative careers often do.
I have to ask myself, “Now what?”
I’ve done this before, of course. When I was laid off from Wizards of the Coast in 2001. When 3.5 came out, and 4e, and Pathfinder 1st ed. Both when I joined up with and then was bought out from Super Genius Games. When I was offered a regular gig doing Freeport for Green Ronin, and when I left that. When I started Rogue Genius Games, and became involved with Rite Publishing. Each of those moments came just before, or just after, that crucial questions about what’s next.
So, how do you answer that question? It takes some analysis, some planning, and some guesswork.
1. Process Your New Reality
Ideally your new reality is what you were hoping for, such as when I got a full-time job with Paizo. I had that rarest of unicorns — a full-time job (with benefits) in the game industry. But even in that case, I should have taken more time to settle into that new position, after 13 years of full-time freelancing, before I took on any additional projects. I thought that since I knew how long it takes me to write and produce game content, and I knew how much of that Paizo expected from me, I knew what my new reality was like. But there’s a big difference between being a freelancer and going to an office 5 days a week, and while I’d held a staff job before, more than a decade of changes in technology and best practices, and working for a different company, meant I wasn’t as prepared as I thought.
I adjusted, and it was fine. But it would have been better if I had gotten a feel for things first, and considered how to augment that situation afterwards.
However, if your new reality is caused by sudden, unexpected, terrible changes of circumstance, processing it may have a very different set of needs. If you have had the death of a partner or colleague, gotten laid off or fired, had a license pulled, or otherwise experienced a swift and unforeseen major setback, you have some emotional needs you need to deal with before you make big plans.
You can’t rush this. It’s going to take the time it takes, and that’s that. However, you can set some boundaries and expectations for yourself. I recommend giving yourself at least a few days, but also to maintain your route work and duties. Of course I am a depressive introvert, so I need to take specific steps to make sure my mental health is cared for, and I can’t give other folks specific advice how to do that.
My point is, take care of yourself and don’t make any huge decisions you don’t have to in the first few days of a big, negative change. And if you need more help than that, get it. Huge life changes are tough, and the most important part of your career is you.
For me the first thing I do when I am at a crossroads is look backward.
It can be hard to properly assess projects and jobs while you are doing them. Since hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, the moment when you aren’t sure what to do next is a great time to look back over the past few years, and analyze what things went well, and which ones didn’t. This isn’t just about money, or ease of work, or satisfaction, though all those things should be considered. I also like to ask myself, if I knew then what I know now, would I still do the same things I did in the past few years.
I consider this a post-mortem, rather than a time to kick myself or dig up regrets. Often there was no way to know what unrelated things might make a great opportunity turn out terribly, or save a disaster from being much of a problem. But often there were subtle signs I could have paid more attention to, and thinking about what they might be helps me catch them in the future. I also want to analyze what I learned, what I enjoyed, what I made good money on… and what I feel burned out about, what opportunities I missed, and what I feel like has begun to put me in a rut either creatively, or in my career.
For example, I was between projects in 2012/2013, when Lou Agresta asked me if I wanted to write for the Heart of the Razor Adventure anthology for Razor Coast. Now, writing adventures is more work for me than the same word count of worldbuilding or rules expansion, so I often skip it. But, I realized I hadn’t written an adventure in years, and a number of people in the industry had begin to refer to me as a “rules guy.” So I accepted, to change up my perception in the industry, and get myself out of a rut. (And it won an ENnie, and within a year of it coming out Paizo was asking me what adventure I had done recently I was most proud of… and I had something great to point to!)
On the other hand, right NOW I have written two adventures in the past 3 years (one yet to be released), and I don’t feel like it’s a good time for me to be working on slower products that aren’t (currently) an underserved area of my career. Different point in my life, different answer.
In a week we’ll look at Part Two, where I discussing looking forward, and making plans.
Part of My Plan is Patreon
Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, ever word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. benefit to my freelance career and/or money made.
So if you found any of this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!
Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge difference.
Just coming off Gen Con, which gave me an opportunity to talk shop and history with many of the titans of tabletop, I want to offer some insight on what it’s like to be a manager, owner, or major executive employee at a tabletop game company.
I’ve worked on staff at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and Paizo. I’ve freelanced for a dozen other companies, and know many of their owners and executives very well. I’ve helped start, run, and shut down game companies. I’ve been doing this in different roles for more than 20 years.
This insight isn’t about one company. Nor is it about my own time constraints (in general my role is game creation and NOT these kinds of tasks)
This is about the tabletop RPG industry as a whole, as it has been for decades, in many different capacities, for many different companies.
First–you never have free time, or enough time. There is always an event coming up. Sometimes people have to walk away from one almost-week-long event that took 2 months to plan for to get on a plane to fly overseas for another such even. Sometimes people work 5-6 weekends in a row at events, conventions, sales meetings, open houses, and so on. Sometimes you have to work 30 8-10 hour days in a row.
And the people who do that work also have things that have to be done every weekday, every week, every month. It’s 40 hours of work if you are lucky, AND weekends of work (especially during March-August, the half the year we refer to as con “Season”), AND THEN emergencies that are time-sensitive and cannot wait.
And it’s a rough industry. Most of the game companies I bought things from 20 years ago don’t exist anymore. A lot of the ones I bought from 10 years ago don’t exist anymore. Even those that are still around sometimes suffer layoffs, or long periods where things are so risky that a single bad decision about which license to sign, which partner to anger, which friend-of-a-friend you annoy, which print run to cut back, which book to publish, can sink a company.
It’s high-stakes, high-stress, high-time-consumption, all the time.
I absolutely am not telling anyone they are not allowed to ever feel like a company isn’t giving them enough attention. But when there are serious problems, it’s wrong to think the company owners or senior staff are showing disrespect or proving they “don’t care about customers” because they “won’t just take 10 minutes and discuss some information.”
The people who make the decisions who keep the doors open at a tabletop game company can’t do anything regarding major problems off-the-cuff.
It’s never “just 10 minutes.”
And, again, I’m not currently dealing with any of these huge issues in my role at any company right now.
But I have in the past.
I know when I have had issues with licenses with other companies, when I was in other positions, I have had to not just decide “What do I want to say,” but:
“Do I need to warn my partners, who are also partners of a company i am having issues with, before I make a statement about that company’s issues??”
“Do I need to run this by my company’s owner?”
“Do I need to run it through our legal council?”
“Do we need to have a meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page about what has happened, and what our plans are?”
“Do I need to have editors go over my statement so it is clear and concise?”
“Would I rather take the 2-3 hours of collective time it is going to take to do this, or to sleep at least 6 hours tonight?”
And when the people who run these companies are too harried to make the right business decisions? People lose their jobs.
It’s not just a game, or a badly produced entertainment product for the people who depend on these jobs for health insurance, retirement income, and rent.
The thing you claim will be easy to give you?
Done right, it’s never just 10 minutes.
Done wrong, it can tank someone’s job.
(Do you enjoy the content on this blog? Why not become a patron, and support the creation of more free material! Or you could even become a sponsor, and get me to link to YOUR content!)
Tonight, in about 25 minutes, is my “Farewell Diner” for Paizo.
I’ll be here for 2 more weeks, but this is my last chance to have all the remaining Starfinder team be present for what I see as a celebration of my time at Paizo, and Starfinder (and the people who worked on it) have been a crucial, defining part of that time.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but right now, as I face the first official memorial of 10% of my life, I wanted to express this.
Paizo has some of the greatest, most creative developers, writers, storytellers, and designers in the RPG industry. The art staff, customer service, warehouse staff, and project management all do amazing work trying to keep the actual company able to support those creative goals.
It is not easy. It is not painless. They work spectacularly hard, and emotions and investment in these products runs very high.
I Boomeranged back to Seattle, back into an RPG staff job, because I thought it would make me a better creator.
It has, by leaps and bounds that exceeded my wildest hopes.
But the people I work with, many who have gone on before me and many who are staying here after I am gone, have also made me a better person.
I’m going to have lots of conflicted feelings the first time I see the Paizo credits without my name listed among them.
But one of the strongest will be gratitude for what this time has meant for me.
Long after I am no longer an employee, I’ll remain a fan.
Well I don’t like TOO much preamble before getting to the point of the announcement, so here’s the tl;dr version.
My wife Lj has gotten a job in Indiana, working as an Executive Assistant for Lone Wolf’s vice-president. As a result, she and I are moving from WA to IN.
In fact, Lj is flying out to our new apartment (if you need our new address and don’t have it, drop me a line) on Saturday. June 15th. In 3 days.
I’ll be around for about a month in Redmond, and then go out to join her.
Inevitably some folks will have questions, so predicting them as best I can, and in no particular order:
Starfinder isn’t going anywhere. Paizo has lots of amazing, hard-working, and talented people on that game line, and they have known I was leaving for a bit now. We don’t know exactly how everything will get sorted out, but the game line and its products will continue.
I remain a huge fan of Paizo, Pathfinder (both editions), Starfinder, the Adventure Card Game, and even things I can’t talk about yet. I was a freelancer for Paizo for years before I was a full employee, and I expect to be freelancing for them again in the future.
While Lj getting a job is the reason for this change, yes, I have plans that involve other companies. But I’m not announcing any of them just yet. Rest assured, I am not leaving gaming behind.
Yes, this is why Rogue Genius Games is taking a short break. But in the long run, it’s not going anywhere. I have plans and plans, yet, for my tiny little gaming company, and its partners and allies.
Yes, that’s why I will be at Gen Con this year. I had decided not to do any out-of-state conventions in 2019. But that won’t be out-of-state by August.
If you have more questions, let them fly!
CW: Trauma, Violence
In conjunction with my therapist, I am writing about some of the traumas I have suffered. This is an exercise for me, which I make public as part of the process, rather than in an effort to garner responses of any kind.
I’ll go back to fake words and weird game ideas later. You can safely skip this one.
I don’t remember many details of the worst beating I ever took.
Since it was also one of the most public, I someone feel like I should remember it well, but I don’t.
I was at a friends’ apartment, in the short gap after I was driving and staying out all night (at least on weekends and in summers) out of High School, before I got married. I’d guess 1987 or 1988, making it more than 30 years ago.
One of the friends who stayed at that apartment and I heard a woman yelling for help. We looked out a window and out the front door, but couldn’t see anything.
In case she needed immediate assistance, we ran toward the sound, along the 2nd-floor exposed walkway that linked the apartments, and down a set of stairs to a parking lot.
When we got to the edge of the parking lot, we saw a woman was in a car, on the driver’s side. Her window was cracked open by a very small amount, and she was yelling for help out the window. A very large man was holding on to the side-view mirror, screaming at her, and pounding on the glass.
I can not tell you anything about the woman, or the car. I have no memory at all of their appearance, or even impressions they gave me. They existed, and that’s all I know.
The man was large, muscular, and angry. I can’t tell you what he wore, what his ethnicity was,m what he hair looked like–nothing.
The woman was clearly safe, at that moment, but also clearly could not drive away without dragging the man along with her, which she seemed unwilling to do.
My friend and I decided that he, being faster,m would run back to the apartment and dial 911. I would remain here, in case the situation devolved and direct intervention became necessary. We did not wish to escalate things unless it was the only way to prevent bodily harm–a theme in many of my traumatic events which I have begun to question.
My friend ran off. The man kept screaming. The woman kept yelling for help. I observed.
At some point, something changed. I have no idea if I looked away and missed the change, or if I had the information beaten out of me, or I have just forgotten because it has been so long.
The next memory of the event I have is that the woman was driving away, dragging the man with her for a bit until he was knocked lose of the car. She drove off.
The man got up, yelled at the car, then looked around.
He saw me, and screamed “You think that’s funny?”
To be clear, I did not. i was not laughing, or even grinning. I was trying to decide if I should go check on him for injuries.
He shouted, and charged at me,
I was standing at the edge of the parking lot, next to a concrete sidewalk and a sandbox. I have a bright, clear memory of thinking that when he tackled me, it would be better to be knocked down into sand, rather than onto concrete, and taking on big step sideways so that was the angle he’d hit me at.
I do not remember speaking to him at all. I do not remember the impact.
I do remember the taste of sand and blood in my mouth, and being aware I was successfully using my arms to protect my head from his kicks.
He kicked me for what seemed like a truly prolonged period of time, but I have no objective idea how long it was. I remember being surprised that, given his size, he wasn’t doing more damage to me. I remember wondering if it was because he was drink. I don’t remember in any moment before that concluding he was drunk.
At some point in the time he was kicking me, I began to wonder if I was going to have to fight back. I had made no effort to strike him yet. I was curled up, protecting my head with my arms and my sizable gut with my legs, and he was kicking me. I feel like he must have been yelling, but that’s an impression on my part, not a clear memory.
I know I considered my options, as I was being beaten. His right leg was right on front of my feet. I saw I could easily lash out and slam into the front of his knee with both feet.
I was really afraid I would break his leg if I did that. Maybe cripple him. It felt like a disproportionate response to having him kick me for however long he had been.
It felt unreasonable.
I don’t remember if he ran off when I heard sirens, or a little before I heard sirens.
The recovery from being on the ground is also lost in my memory. One moment I was seeing him run off, the next I was sitting… I have no idea on what, talking to a policewoman.
I declined to go to the hospital. This worried her, because blood was pouring out of my mouth. I discovered my right cheek was bleeding profusely into my mouth, where a kick had torn it against my own teeth. I explained this to the policewoman.
There were a lot of people milling about. My friend had returned, at least one other friend from the apartment had shown up, and there were bystanders.
And the manager of the apartment complex, who was pressuring me to file a report at the police station. Apparently the man was someone she had trouble with.
I asked the policewoman if I should do that. She asked me if I knew the man, or would recognize him, or could describe him. I told her all I could say was he was taller than me, and powerfully built,. She affirmed I could go file a report if I wanted to, but she didn’t see how that description could lead to anything.
I did not go file a report. I was told later the manager was very upset with me for that.
Eventually I ended up at home. My parents care was there, so I must have driven myself, but I have no memory of that.
My arms and legs hurt for weeks, and I had some really spectacular bruises. I was on my parent’s health insurance, and I didn’t want them deciding I could not visit that apartment complex anymore, so I didn’t have a doctor check me out.
In the weeks that followed, several of my friends asked if I had talked to the woman in the car. A few suggested I should ask her out on a date. That seemed… vile to me. In any case, I quite honestly told them, I had no idea who she was, and given she has driven off without me doing anything to help, I doubt she had any idea who I was, or that she would care if she knew.
And that’s all I recall of this event.
This addresses and describes trauma I have suffered, and if you don’t have interest in knowing about that, or if it’s not in your mental health best interests to read about cruelty, assault, or being immobilized, don’t read this.
It’s okay. I’ll get back to imaginary creatures and game spells later. At my therapist’s recommendation, and with their support, I am both making a list of the potentially traumatic events in my life, and trying to nail down details about them I have forgotten.
It is exhausting, frightening, shocking work.
having been diagnosed with civilian PTSD, I also think it is important work for my own well-being.
This is a frank discussion and description of some of that trauma. If you’d rather not be exposed to that, it’s perfectly all right to skip this. I’ll go back to pastiche supervillains ideas and my take on politics and gaming later.
This content is mostly about alcoholism.
My father was an alcoholic. He and my mother tried to control his alcoholism with rationality and intelligence, because they were rational, intelligent people.
It did not work.
My father was never violent. In fact, I have never witnessed any violence against any member of my family except myself, and I have never witnessed any member of my family be violent except myself.
I have assumed, for my entire life, that since my father was never violent, there was no trauma to me associated with his alcoholism.
When drunk, my father made promises that not only would he not keep, he would not remember.
All the alcohol in the house I grew up in was kept in a cabinet that, after he had consumed the two drinks a night my parents thought was reasonable, my mother would lock.
Then, when he felt he needed more alcohol, my father either had to try to force the doors of that cabinet open just enough to pry a bottle loose with a bent coathanger, or go out.
He never drove to get alcohol, and never drove after having even one drink.
He did, however, call a taxi… of just take a walk. We lived 3 houses down from a bar and restaurant (The Mont, in Norman, OK), and late a convenience store was even closer,
As early as 5 or 6, if I woke up late at night and my father was going out, he might take me to the Mont as 10 or 11pm, after everyone else was asleep. I could sit in the restaurant section, and he’d sit right next to me, on the other side of the railing that demarcated the bar.
I learned to play chess with him, and later the game go, at that bar.
As I grew older, he was more likely to walk to the store, buy a bottle, and come back and we’d play games at home. My earliest game experiences–chess, go, checkers, pitch, and a civil war wargame/boardgame I don’t know the name of, were with my father, but only when he was drunk. We almost never got to finish those games, because he’d become too drunk to keep playing. Usually he’d fall asleep, or begin to cry about international politics he’d slurringly try to explain to me.
This was all I knew. To me, this was normal.
I did that less once I had friends, and could play games with them. No because I was avoiding my father, but because the window during which he could play got shorter and shorter, as he drank more, faster.
After my sister went to college, it began to be normal to come into the living room in the morning to discover my father had passed out after unlocking the door to come into the house, and we had, for an unknown period of time, been asleep with our front door held open by his body being slumped across our doorway.
My mother told my father to stop getting drunk at home, so he would take a taxi to a motel, and get drunk there, often paying people to spend time with him because he disliked drinking alone.
In my mid-to-late teens, I met some of the people he paid to spend time with him. They suggested I could pay them to spend time with me. They also suggested I could get the money to do so from my father and he wouldn’t even notice.
I am sure I could have.
My father was a sweet man who loved me, and was doing the best he could.
He and my mother were going to take my wife and I out to dinner on our first wedding anniversary–but he got too drunk and couldn’t do it. My mother had to call me, and confess he had moved out a few weeks before, and they hadn’t told me because they didn’t want to ruin my anniversary dinner.
My mother took us out without him.
About a year before he died, in an effort to get him to go back into rehab, I told him he was drinking himself to death.
He told me he knew, and that was what he wanted. He wanted to drink himself to death.
This addresses and describes trauma I have suffered, and if you don’t have interest in knowing about that, or if it’s not in your mental health best interests to read about cruelty, assault, or being immobilized, don’t read this.
It’s okay. I’ll get back to imaginary creatures and game spells later.
While I have been to therapy for years, I had never before had a therapist ask me to catalog all the major traumas in my life.
There are things I mention when asked probing question I have never thought of as major trauma… but I see why my therapist is dubious.
I know that, at a major national camping event, when I was in my early-to-mid teens, a young woman asked me to follow her from the campground into the woods, whereupon she brought me to a group of mostly older kids who jumped me, hit me, and forced me into a large hole they had dug in the dirt. At least one of them jumped down on me and kept me pinned there.
I remember being confused as to why she wanted me to come with her. I knew who she was (the only woman I recall in a camp full of boys and men), but I did not know her at all. I had a sense that I was headed into a situation where I did not understand the socially acceptable behavior or appropriate expectations.
Anytime I feel that now, I get very upset. I can have a panic attack walking into a new restaurant if I don’t know if I am supposed to sit, wait for a server, or walk up to the counter. That’s not my most common response, but it has happened.
I very clearly remember being very upset that no matter how hard I tried, I could not get up, or get my face out of the dirt.
I remember everyone was laughing, in what sounded like true amusement.
I don’t remember how I got out of the hole. I don’t remember what anyone said, afterwards. I do remember being entirely sure I could not tell the people running the camp. That doing so would make things worse.
I don’t remember why, though the young woman was the daughter of one of those people, which may have impacted my thinking. I remember I liked her. I don’t remember her name. Or even her face, at this point.
I don’t remember any of their faces.
I know that for months after that I thought about it, but noted to myself that I hadn’t been *injured*. No broken bones. No blood.
“Not a big deal.”
I never told my family.
Eventually, I dropped out of that camping group, though not for at least a year after this.
“Not a big deal.”
Maybe I was wrong, about that.
Thankfully, my therapist knows this is impacting me. I have coping mechanisms. I have support. And if this IS something I needed to accept had a lasting impact on me, at least I can work on it now.
But it’s weird to have to face this thing again, which I so successfully buried, so long ago.
It’s upsetting, and I don’t like them still having the power to upset me.
Which, or course, is part of the point of delving into it.
My father was an alcoholic. He went to rehab, once, in the 1990s and toward the end of that process we had ‘family week,’ where the whole family came in for group therapy and counseling. So the other members of my family and I went, and spent a week there. It was a bit like summer camp, but the activities were figuring out how badly screwed up you were and crying instead of archery and canoeing.
While there for family week, I met a young woman who had been badly abused. I did not get, and if I am honest did not at the time want, any details of what she had been through. She was there for her own addiction. I either never knew what she was addicted to, or I have long since forgotten. She wasn’t in any of the group or therapy sessions I was in with my father and family.
She saw some of my RPG books I had brought with me, and was fascinated by them. She understood the concept immediately but, faced with multiple books of hundreds of pages each for just a few games (I know I had Rolemaster with me, I may have also had some D&D and Champions), she claimed that she “wasn’t smart enough” to play RPGs.
I assured her she was. I promised I could show her how the concept worked and we could play a game, with just a few of sentences of explanation, and three sentences of rules. She agreed.
“Tell me about your character.”
She loved rabbits. She wanted to know if she could be a rabbit, I told her she could be anything she wanted. She decided she was an anthropomorphic rabbit scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world who hunted (and killed) carnivores, and defended herbivores.
I gave her a 3×5 index card.
“Write down one thing you are good at.”
She wrote down she was good at creeping.
“Write down one thing you’re bad at.”
She wrote she was bad at keeping calm.
“Write down one important thing you have.”
I had meant one object she possessed. She wrote she had ‘limitless determination.’ This game was for her. I was not about to tell her she’d done it wrong. Limitless determination it was.
“Write down one thing you want to accomplish.”
She wanted to find a safe place to bring orphan bunnies.
I gave her a penny.
“I’ll describe situations, and you tell me what you want your character to do. For anything you try you flip a coin – your action succeeds on heads and fails on tails. If you try something you are good at or have an important thing for you get to flip twice and succeed if either is heads, while if it’s the thing you are bad at you have to flip twice and get heads for both to succeed. That’s it.”
She asked if, since she was a rabbit, she could succeed on tails, and fail on heads. That seemed super-obvious, and I agreed.
And so the “Hares & Holocausts” game was born. Getting to flip twice and winning if either was tails was a bonus. Having to flip twice and winning only if both were tails was a trial.
We played 3-4 times over that week, mostly at lunch and once one morning after breakfast. I borrowed heavily from Gamma World, Rock & Rule, Watership Down, and Seven Samurai. Her character never got a name, and she didn’t seem to care. I thought of her as “The Rabbit Without a Name,” who wore a poncho, and assumed the setting used an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Each scene was clearly defined as casual or dangerous. Casual scenes had no consequences. In a dangerous scene, there were normally 3 chances for her to take an action. Actions weren’t blow-by blow things like “I stab a scorpion bandit,” but more like “I attack the bandits, trying to drive them back out of the mine shaft.” One successful action out of the three was a draw–she ended up neither better off nor worse at the end of the scene. Two successes was a win. Three was a BIG win, and she got some kind of permanent improvement.
Zero successes was a failure.
If she failed at a scene, she took a wound which meant she had to either give up one of her bonuses until she healed, or write down a new trial (which she got to pick) as a scar she kept until she succeeded at a task using that trial. I remember she choose a scar at least once, getting a cut through her left eye so she got the trial “Bad at seeing things to my left.”
She picked up a katana, with a BIG win, which she got as a bonus she could use once per combat, because I wanted to introduce the idea of equipment. She also gained a psychic mind-stare with a BIG win, which let her try to take out a foe before a scene began, with no penalty if she failed.
She crossed The Waste, and found a mine shaft, which had evil scorpion bandits in it. Driving them away, the mine shaft lead her to a valley with a ruined town which had some bunny orphans in it. She saved them from a spider sweat-shop owner (who forced the bunny orphans to weave designer webs for uptown spiders), then went to find them a safe home. That took her to an old observatory on top of a nearby mountain, where she had to convince the ancient security AI (that controlled a robotic sphinx guard) to allow the orphan bunnies to live there. She hunted down and imprisoned a skunk airship pirate who made clouds the observatory couldn’t see through, and promised shed talk the orphan bunnies into become astronomers, and the AI agreed to let them stay and protect them.
Then she took the stench-airship, and flew off. She wanted to find, and defeat, the Uptown Spiders who received the designer webs. End of campaign.
I did not realize for weeks that she never killed anyone. Drove off, defeated, jailed, convinced to change sides, yes. Never death.
She really seemed into it, and told me she would introduce that game to friends of hers. She still didn’t think she could play a “real” RPG. I tried to convince her there were lots of games, like there were lots of books and lots of movies, and all she needed was one that was a good fit for her. I was not convinced “Hares & Holocausts” could be played seriously, thought I didn’t tell her that.
I’m skipping over a lot of the weird, awkward, difficult parts of this experience. I was making it up as I went along, and it was not as polished as this short write-up makes it sound, especially for the first game or two. There were moments I was uncomfortable. There was at least one time she burst into tears. I used some Rolemaster critical hit tables for narrative inspiration once, and that was a big mistake on numerous levels. The councilors insisted all games take place in one of the public areas, and only between 7am and 6pm. No one else played with us.
At the end of my week, I gave her my contact info. She was going to be there for at least a few weeks longer. I did not ask for, and she did not offer, her contact information. I never heard from her.
I think that’s the only complete, totally original RPG I have ever designed by myself.
My father stayed sober for 90 days, because one of the councilors at rehab told him he couldn’t — that it would be impossible. Through sheer iron will, my father took not a single sip of alcohol for three months. They were a good time to know him. Then, convinced this meant he wasn’t an alcoholic, he drank himself to death over the next few years.
I have a Patreon. It allows me to take the time to make posts that are freely available, like this one. Your support is welcome and appreciated.
This post is heavy, not gaming-related (at least mostly), personal, and from my perspective. I’m not claiming this is a scientific or universal explanation. Just my experience.
When you experience trauma, everyone seems to understand why it affects you immediately. You witnessed blood spraying from your mother’s face as a child. You got beating bloody by a random drunk you had never met before. You saw a naked woman clinging to the railing of a motel, screaming for help while a man tried to drag her inside. You were lured into the woods by someone you thought was a friend, so a group could jump you, force you into a ditch, and threaten to bury you alive. You were in a car wreck. An earthquake. A wild fire.
In the hours and days after that, everyone gets it. It was traumatic. You were rattled. It sucked.
Years later, if something sets off those memories so you begin shaking, crying, screaming, some people don’t understand why you haven’t “gotten over it.” Why is it throttling back your productivity, or driving you to seek self-medication, or suddenly making you have nightmares. After all you were fine yesterday, right?
Well first, most likely not. But, second, life is a building, and it’s always growing. Every year is a new floor, every event and responsibility a new tenant you have to keep happy.
The foundation is SUPPOSED to be strong and reinforced enough to handle every floor you build. But some of us built our foundations under poor circumstances. The concrete was smashed, or the ground was swampy. When we put the first few floors on it, we are okay, but every floor is new weight. More and more strain on that foundation.
And not every floor gets built strong, or even correctly. Trauma is a fire on the 5th floor. A wrecking ball coming in through a corner office. Flooding in the basement.
So, we do what we can to shore it up. Self medication is trying to fix the problems of all that structural damage… but it’s not always good as a long-term fix. You’re not doing the work to code, because your problems are ones that sticking to code won’t fix. The tenants are complaining about the heat, because you never got the HVAC fixed after basement flooded. So you set about renovations in their apartments and offices. More windows, more doors, spruce the place up. Sure, you are cutting holes in retaining walls on the 27th floor to do it, but the building is only 28 floors tall, so who cares?
But then you build the 29th floor. The 30th. Ten more on top of that. The external braces you bolted on to make up for the weak walls can’t handle that strain. The cracks in the foundation split their patches under years of use and tons of weight.
You seem fine… but there are problems.
Then one day, winds are just a tiny bit stronger than usual. The buildings around you are fine. They can take it. But you? Your trauma-ridden structure, patches and braces and ad-hoc fixes can’t take it. Your whole frame bends. Windows pop out. Girders on the 5th floor buckle.
People look at you wand wonder what the big deal is. The fire that weakened those girders was 40 years ago. Why are you making a big deal about them now?
We can’t tear ourselves down and start over. And while major renovations sometimes can help bring us up to code, it can be extremely difficult to use a building while it’s being renovated. Do I kick out functions like going to work, paying the bills, helping people out, so I can get the work of replacing major columns done? Especially since the workmen can’t promise the columns will ever hold the same weight, and don’t know what they’ll find in the walls when we start tearing into things?
Or do I throw up some more supports, just give up on ever using the 5th floor for anything, promise we’ll add high-speed wifi to the whole building, and hope I don’t drill through a sewage pipe as I install the fiberoptic?
Trauma doesn’t go away. It leaves scars, and you often don’t know where they are, what they look like, or what will set them off.
I spent way too long trying to decide if I even wanted to link to my Patreon in this post. It seemed cheap, somehow, to talk about my pain and then ask for money.
But I know some very brave, smart, struggling people who do it, and I never look down at them for doing so. So maybe we normalize that emotional work is work, and it’s okay to suggest people be paid for it.
If you want to contribute to my writing and videos, check out my Patreon.
EDIT: A post-script.
Since people have asked, yes, all the traumas I list in the second paragraph are specific examples from my life. I left out the sexual abuse as a child, mockery for fat shaming, bullying as a nerd, and probably dozens of others that felt less relatable to the general public.
That’s not the point of this piece but yeah, for those of whom it seems to matter, those ARE all examples of trauma in one person’s life. Mine.