While it is true I am looking for a good full-time work position, and failing that making sure I have enough freelance to pay the bills, if you have such work you should not hire me.
That’s right. I am literally telling you, don’t hire me. There are better choices for you. Better game designer options you should take. People who are from minority or marginalized groups, or who are actively oppressed, and who you should hire in place of me, largely regardless of what your project is.
I have danced around this post for months, but it’s time to just say it. I will happily take what work comes my way–this is my career, and I need it. But if you value my opinion on who you should hire, please strongly consider hiring women, BIPOC folk, and LGBTQ people as designers, developers, and consultants instead.
And I am going to explain why, point by point.
- I’ll be Fine.
In my original rough draft of this essay, this was my last point, a cap on the list to reassure anyone who was sincerely worried I was harming my career by recommending other people. But, I realized, that misses a big chunk of the point. This is, in many ways, the crux of why you should hire other people.
The whole reason I’ll be fine is that the playing field isn’t tilted against me. As a white, cis, hetero, male, bearded grognard, I am assumed to be competent in my field without having to prove it. When I was an Industry Insider Guest of Honor at Gen Con in the mid 00s, there were tons of people who had never heard of me. I know, because I’d talk to them after my panels, and they’d cheerfully tell me they’d never heard of me.
What there *wasn’t* was a backlash by people claiming that I didn’t belong. Not at Gen Con, and not at any other convention I have attended as a guest, going back to the 1990s. I mention that, because I have seen such backlashes against numerous women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ quests at Gen Con and other venues. People ask from the audience why they should listen to those guests, or actively rant on messageboards about “lowering standards” to score political points with “Social Justice Warriors” or engage in “Virtue Signaling.”
Convention guest spots are a great boost to a creators career. No one guest spot may make a big difference, but going to multiple conventions over years makes you more visible. Lets to travel and talk to fans, and creators, and even potential employers, in other regions at the convention’s dime (at least when the con is doing it right).
The same is true of invitations to be on podcasts or write introductions for books, or participate in special streaming programs. Each of these gives a small but real boost to your career, and I have had tons of such opportunities.
Does that mean I didn’t deserve the opportunities I was given? Not necessarily. But I have seen marginalized creators I work with closely have to work harder to get the same recognition than I do. Harder than I ever had to. I have seen the chilling effect a lack of boosting and recognition has on their careers.
So yeah, chances are that while I can defend every guest spot, job, opportunity, consultation fee, and ongoing series I have ever been given, at least some of those were things that would have been offered to someone else — someone with more artificial social roadbocks — if the world, or the industry, were a level playing field.
So I can actually write a post literally entitled “Don’t Hire Me,” and it’s not going to end my opportunities.
- It’s Time to be Anti-Bigoted
I know a lot of people in the industry who are very comfortable saying they are not racist, are not misogynist, and are not bigoted against LGBTQ+ professionals. The problem with that stance is, even if true, it’s not enough. The industry is skewed by its composition to channel people who benefit from its design into its key roles. Even if no one has ill intent or biases of any kind, the system itself is biased now.
You can’t just be not bigoted. You have to be anti-bigoted.
Not being racist is not the same as being anti-racist.
Not being misogynistic is not the same as being anti-misogynistic.
Not being biased against LGBTQ+ folks is not the same as being intentionally and mindfully opposed to such bigotry, and actively working against it.
There are lots of reasons someone might talk themselves into hiring me for a game-related professional position. But many of those reasons are taking the path of least resistance, which is also taking the path of least active fight for change and improvement.
Put in the extra effort. Making hiring decisions that change the very nature of the industry, so that the industry can improve. If we keep doing what we have done, we’ll keep getting what we have gotten… and in too many cases, that’s just not good enough.
- On Average, Marginalized Creators You’ve Heard of Will Be Better than Me
This is not just the conclusion game theory teaches me (though it IS also that — logically given the bias and harassment and lack of opportunity i have actively seen marginalized creators face, any of them that overcome those hurdles have already proven that can produce at a higher level than I, who did not have to overcome the same difficulties), but it’s also something I have personal experience with. Many of the smartest, most talented, most multitalented professionals I have learned from are gay, trans, POC, and nonbinary.
And in MANY cases, a good part of what makes them so much better than me is an awareness grown from their different life experiences.
It’s extremely common for both companies and fans to note they’d like to see more stuff that aren’t just rehashes of Tolkien, Lucas, Howard, Azimov, Disney, King, and so on. The further you get from the life experiences of those men, and the people they inspired for generations, the easier it is to have new, creative, cohesive, original content that draws from different wells for inspiration.
- Diversity is Gold
Look, if you don’t HAVE a white, cis, hetero, male professional on your game team, it might make sense to add one, and I could be a great choice. But my guess is, you already do.
In fact, my guess is this one demographic is already the best-represented group on your team, outnumbering any other group (and maybe outnumbering everyone else put together). So why add one more?
There is SO much more that a hire can bring tot he table than the ability to produce words that fall in line with the most common existing material. Diversity in games brings innovation, the potential to access new customer markets, and a fresh outlook that increases the chances of making the Next New Thing no one saw coming.
I believe the cold, hard, cash-driven business case for having as diverse a set of voices as possible in your creative team is extremely strong. This isn’t an argument about social justice. It’s one about maximizing the chances you’ll do something innovative and profitable.
Now I will be the first to admit I am far from a scholarly expert on questions of women’s experiences, or BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creators. I am very much trying to listen more than I talk, and I learn something amazing and new every week by doing so.
But this is not a modest proposal. I’m serious.
You are better off hiring someone with a different background than mine.
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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.
(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.
We are at a point where I am asked this enough, and need to refer to it often enough, that having a statement about how the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting both me personally and Rogue Genius Games, the company i am publisher for, seems warranted.
Put simply, while we are not shutting down and still plan to produce all the same content, the schedule is going to be less assured.
Some of this is a matter of expected resources being well below our normal projections. Sales of content are down in numerous venues, in some cases down by 80% or more. Numerous freelancers find themselves unable to spare time to take on projects they once would have happily accepted. Less money coming in and fewer people able to take on the work in any area of my mix of personal and professional ventures impact other areas.
Some is a matter of time requirements. There are new business concerns that require extensive research and paperwork. For example: can Rogue Genius Games benefit from the Payroll Protection Program, and/or Economic Injury Disaster Loan emergency advance? Can any of our staff or freelancers gain relief through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance? Getting answers to these questions is not easy, and often requires going through a lengthy and tiring process.
And some is a matter of personal availability. As a high-risk individual in a household with other high-risk concerns, I have to spend more time and mental effort ensuring that daily activities don’t introduce unacceptable health risks. That has so far eaten at least a little into free time nearly every day.
So, here’s how those challenges are currently impacting my ongoing projects.
RGG Crowdfunding Projects: At least at the moment, we don’t expect any significant delays to any open campaigns. There are potential problems we need to keep an eye on (if our chosen print On Demand printers stopped operations, for example, we’d have to consider how to pivot).
RGG Products: There are a lot of exciting things RGG has been working on, from the Talented Class line of products to more solo adventures. Anything that we haven’t already promised by a given date is going to be at the back of the line for our time and attention. We are still putting things out regularly, but some bigger projects we had hoped to launch are just going to have to wait.
52-in-52: When I put together the schedule for this ambitious subscription, I just didn’t allow for the impact of something like a global pandemic. While it’s ongoing and has produced a ton of content, we’ve already slipped by a week, had to push one project back, and it looks like we may slip by another week.
Rest assured, every subscriber will receive every one of the 52 pdfs promised, each presented in 4 versions for the 4 supported game systems. But it’s possible it’ll take us a bit longer than 52 weeks to get all 52 projects out.
That said we are looking at ways to get caught up, and I’ll update folks here if we have any news on that front. Otherwise, we’ll just keep producing products and sending them out to subscribers regularly.
Patreon/Blog: So far whenever I fall behind on the 5 days/week posts my Patrons are making possible, I add the missing content within a week. That remains the plan.
Grimmerspace: I’m still going to be doing a lot of design work and running a playtest for Grimmerspace. They have made their own statement about how the pandemic is affecting them.
Conventions: Right now, with regret, I am not planning on attending any cons this year.
Other Projects: I still have outstanding freelance to fulfill, and work to do as a developer for Green Ronin. That work is being impacted, obviously, but not in a way that should delay or cancel anything announced by those companies.
For those who want to know how they can help, the easiest way to assist me directly is by backing my Patreon. Even just a few dollars a month of reliable, regular income is a huge boon. Also I depend on companies like Green Ronin to make ends meet, and they are currently being hammered by things like printers shutting down, game store closings, and distributors opting to not pay for products shipped for weeks or months at a time. Buy anything from Green Ronin’s own online store or DriveThruRPG store is a big help for them, and therefore to me.
Thanks for your understanding.
Stay safe out there.
Owen K.C. Stephens
It’s Friday the 13th, a day long associated with misfortune and evil spirits… and urban legends.
So, what would such a day look like in an RPG? Let’s examine 4 different ideas, in 4 different game systems–Pathfinder 1st and 2nd edition, Starfinder, and 5e.
On blood night, the moon takes on a dull reddish hue that lasts through the night. Blood night is always in autumn, but exactly what night it occurs is based on a complex set of rules only heirophants really seem to understand. What is known is that when a blood night occurs on the night of a full moon, the bad luck is far worse.
From sundown to sunup, any attack that normally only threatens a critical hit on a natural 20, or 19-20, instead threatens one on an 18-20. Additionally, attack rolls made to confirm critical hits gain a +8 circumstance bonus
When the ancient Cyclops Calendar begins the month of Maze on the week of a new moon, that is the day of the Minotaur’s Moon, when the Bull Man works to kill the small and weak. Goblins, in particular, greatly fear this.
On the Minotaur’s Moon, everyone has Doomed 2.
The kasatha and shobad calendars do not normally line up, being from different worlds with different year durations. But both have a “wyrd” day that is observed in grim reserve, and every few years those days happen to overlap by a period of 11 to 17.5 hours.
During that “which weird,” all Reflex saving throws take a -4 penalty.
When the Imperial Calendar gets a full day off from the Seasonal Calendar, a day must be added to adjust the beginning of Spring. This day is seen as a gate through which evil dead spirits can speak into the world to so discord for one say, and weaken the resolve of heroes, and is known as Lichgate.
On Lichgate, when making a Wisdom saving throw, you roll twice and use the lower result as if you had disadvantage. However, if your unused result is enough to resist the effect, you only suffer the consequences of the failed saving throw for 1 round. After that you shake off the evil spirits that weakened you, and are no longer effected. But if both die rolls are failures, the effect’s duration upon you is doubled.
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Here’s a teaser of content yet to come this year in the 52-in-52 subscription!
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This is the sixth in my series of class-focused d20 Design Diaries. I suspect I only have a couple more posts to go on this topic, but we’ll see how the topics actually shake out (and what kind of feedback I get).
If you followed class design steps in the order I have written about them, we’ve settled on an appropriate and interesting class concept, set up the right class progression tools, made sure we are following (or at least only breaking by intent rather than by accident) the game’s style and etiquette, looked at how many options you want for each level of your class and how that impacts complexity, and discussed spell access and progression.
But we still need to talk about spell lists. Specifically, do you give your new class access to one (or more) existing spell lists, or make a brand-new spell list? And, it turns out, that.s a pretty complex question that depends very much on the game system you are using.
So, you know, let’s start by saying studying what that system does and how it handles those questions.
Also, it’s very important to know if you are building expansions classes that are in addition to a *core* set of pre-existing classes or are building a whole set of classes from scratch. Most of the advice here is directed at the former case. If you are in the latter situation, there may not even be pre-existing spell lists for you to borrow from. In that case you’ll need to make decisions about how many class lists to build from scratch, and the following advice may still be applicable to that decision.
Certainly the more you want a spell list to have a very strong theme tied to the class’s concept, the more you should consider a unique class spell list. The more you want the spell list to interact and grow well with other publisher’s content, the more you should consider using an existing class list.
In Pathfinder 1st edition, classes have access to a hodgepodge of class-specific lists, sharing class lists, and mixing class lists. The bard has its own spell list for example (though the skald later gains access to it as well), while the warpriest just has access to the cleric list (though it gets most spell levels later in its own level progression, when they are less powerful compared to the challenges being faced). Both sorcerers and wizards use the sorcerer/wizard spell list, though it has specific spells only one of the classes can take. Hunters get both druid and ranger spells (and gain access to ranger spells much earlier than rangers do, potentially making them more powerful compared to the challenges faced when you first access them), but inquisitors have a unique spell list.
Counting only official classes, no alternate classes, and only actual spell lists (as opposed to formula lists for alchemists and investigators), by the end of its run Pathfinder 1st d had 16 separate spell classes. On top of that, all of the class spell lists are defined as being arcane, divine, or occult.
In that environment, it seems insane to create a brand new unique class list. First, there are tons of lists with different themes already. Second, each of those lists has been expanded by so many supplements (official and otherwise) that any new lists is either going to fill a small book on its own, or have many fewer options than the 16 existing lists. Further, if someone is adding content from other publishers, those 3pp spells won’t even know to suggest what new spells should be on your unique class spell list.
By the same token, by the time a game has 16 unique spell lists, it’s hard to claim a 17th will be the bridge too far for design weight.
Pathfinder 2nd edition, as a counterexample, has only 4 spell lists. Absolutely every class has access to the arcane, divine, occult, or primal spell list. Some classes can pick what spell list they access based on other class features (such as the sorcerer), and many classes have access to a very small number of “focus spells” unique to their class. This includes both classes with access to a traditional spell list (such as the bards and their occult spells), and classes with no other spell access (such as champions). While it would be possible to build a whole 5th spell list (akashic magic, perhaps, or runic magic), this would likely only make sense if designing multiple classes that accessed it, or perhaps writing class variants of existing classes that accessed your new magic type. However, adding a small number of focus spells to any new spellcasting class, but otherwise tying them to one or more of the 4 existing lists, seems an excellent way to both benefit from that class having unique and flavorful spells of its own (new focus spells) and benefiting from ties to a growing standard spell list that other books and companies can expand. Pathfinfer 2nd ed also has things such as spell rarity which could be used to create “new” spell list options (such as creating a magister class that has access to common spells for multiple lists, but can never gain uncommon or rare spells).
By contrast Starfinder goes the opposite route, and give every spellcaster their own unique spell list.
Starfinder only has 3 official spellcasting classes so far of course, and each also has the same level of spell access and spells/day. That certainly sets an expectation for players that a class focused on spellcasting would likely follow the same path. There are many potential reasons to not go that route (if creating a mechanic/technomancer hybrid class, the Dronemancer, that only had access up to 3rd level spells, it might well make sense for it to have the technomancer spell list), but again the key point is to know what tools are at your disposal, and study how the core game (or similar games, if you are starting from scratch) use them.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th ed also gives each class its own spell list (at least in the Player’s handbook), including the sorcerer and wizard, who shared a spell list when the sorcerer was first introduced in 3rd edition. There is greater variety in both spell access (paladins and rangers only get up to 5th level spells), and how the class uses spells (warlocks and wizards have very different game mechanics dictation how they interact with and use their spells). The larger number of lists makes it more likely that you can match a specific class’s theme with an existing class list or combination of lists, but it also drives home player expectation in much the same way Starfinder does.
As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that whether a game has dozens of class spell lists or just three, d20 games almost always have some basic spells that appear on multiple (or even all) spell lists. the most flavorless and utilitarian spells are often there, from detect magic to light. By the same token, most such games have at least a few types of spells that are kept off specific spell lists, in the tradition of “clerics don’t cast magic missile, wizards don’t heal.”
But honestly, that’s another whole blog post worth of commentary.
These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.
So, you have a finished draft of a game project. You’ve checked that it meets your wordcount requirements (neither too much nor too little off the mark – I try to hit within 5% of the exact wordcount total, and I consider being off by 10%–whether over or under—to be a failure to hit wordcount), the formatting is what your publisher has asked for (so if you used ANY table function of your program, you have replaced it with what the publisher’s style guide calls for), and you’ve hit all the required topics.
Now what? Now, you get ready for revision.
Revisions can have a number of steps for game writing, depending on the project, time, and circumstance, but here are some common types. A project may have all of these, just a few, or none… though try to avoid not even having time for a reread.
The best way to get a good revision on your own is to put your writing down for a couple of weeks, work on other projects and then, when it’s no longer fresh in your mind, reread it from the beginning. You are likely to catch a few places where the wording got muddled, or you didn’t type exactly what you were thinking. But you may also find some more systemic problems, such as discussing concepts in length before introducing them in brief, or contradicting yourself because ideas evolved as you wrote them (or you wrote two parts of the same section days apart, and misremembered what you said the first time).
This is also a good time to play developer with your own material. Do you see a simpler way to express the same idea? Is a rule system too complex for the value it gives the game? Is an option obviously overpowered, or under-powered, and you can see a way to fix it? Does something you thought was awesome now seem dull? This is a good chance to fix all those issues.
And if you aren’t sure about something? Just flag it for your developer/editor/producer. Leave a comment explaining your thought process and concern, and that you weren’t sure one way or another. Having comments and thoughts from the author can be a huge help when a developer is first tackling a project, and it shows you’re cognizant of potential issues in your work, but trust the people you are working with. While you are at it, put notes in about anything else that might be useful for your developer. A list of resources that need to be mentioned in a OGL section 15. Which bits of continuity are canon (and where you found them), and which are new elements you made up yourself. Anything that’s an Easter Egg (or even clearly inspired by existing IP—homage CAN be fine, but let your publisher know what you are riffing off of, so they can make that decision for themselves).
If at all possible get at least SOME playtest in of any gameable elements. An adventure can be easy to do a quick playtest of—grab some friends (with your publisher’s permission to have people you are sharing the unpublished material with, if under NDA or similar restriction) and run through it once. Single stand-alone elements such as spells or feats can be trickier, but having people other than you use them in character builds can show if they are unexpected synergies, or are valued much more or less highly than similar options. Larger elements, such as entire character classes, can take months to properly playtest, but at minimum it can be useful to run a Rules Rumble playtest – have one set of players make characters without access to the new rules, and a second group make characters required to use the new rules, and pit them against each other.
If you find any glaring issues, fix them. If you find potential issues, leave comments for your developer/editor/producer.
It can be useful to have people you trust take a look at your work to highlight any potential problems they see. Again, if you are under NDA or similar constraint, get your publisher’s permission for this. Sometimes projects with multiple freelancers working on it provide a way for those freelancers to go over each other’s work as it is created, which can be a great resource (but be sure you give back – if someone gives you useful feedback in that kind of environment, read through their stuff too). You don’t have to take a Beta Reader’s opinion over your own of course, but do consider their point of view. If a Beta Reader says something is unclear, for example, then no matter how obvious it is to you, you know it’s unclear to at least SOME other people.
Publisher feedback is extremely important on any project they have the time and energy to give it to you, which is my experience isn’t that often. Ultimately if you don’t work with your publisher on their feedback, you may not get published. But the degree of how important this is varies from ‘crucial” to only “very important.”
Most freelance work written for the tabletop game industry is done Work for Hire, which means once you are paid you have no further rights to the work. You aren’t even considered the creator, for copyright purposes. When I am working on that kind of project, if the publisher gives me feedback, I consider it part of my job to incorporate that feedback, even if I disagree with it.
I ALSO consider it part of my job to point out why I think bad feedback is bad, but in the end if this is something for which I am providing content using someone else’s sandbox, and I have been hired to fill a certain amount of it with the kind of sand they want, I consider my job to be to give the publisher what they want. I often call this kind of work “content provider” rather than “author,” to remind myself of what my end goal is.
Things are slightly different if a publisher is partnering with you to publish something you retain the copyright to. It’s still crucial to consider the publisher’s feedback—one presumes you picked this publisher to be the venue for your work for a reason, but if it’s ultimately your project any feedback should ultimately be your call. (Though, you know, check your contract. Preferably before signing it.)
The point of a First Draft is to get it done. The point of a Revision is to get it right. This can vary from tweaking a few things to realizing you have to tear out the heart of what you have written and start over (which can feel a lot like tearing out your own heart). In tabletop RPG design you often don’t have time for more than one revisions (though a developer may be coming along behind you to make another, out of your sight), so try to get as much feedback as you can, then apply what you have learned, make notes…
And move on to the next project. Never finishing revisions is a form of never finishing, and it’s often said “Game designs are never finished, they just escape their designers.”
Don’t be afraid to change things in revision, but also don’t be afraid to leave them alone if you think they’re good.
Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, every 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.