Fairly often, I get asked how I START a big project. Like, if I know I want a chapter of magic items for the Really Wild West, where would I begin organizing my thoughts and planning that out?
Assuming the pagination and wordcounts was already done by someone else, I’d start with ideas.
Especially for a series of elements using the same basic rules subsystem (such as the features of one character class, a series of magic items for one campaign, feats, spells, new superpowers, whatever), I like to start the conceptual work by spitballing ideas to myself. This isn’t an effort to create completed rules elements yet, just to begin filling out what kinds of ideas I want those rules elements to cover.
There are numerous advantages to this for me. First, I can begin to hash out a tone and flavor for the section. Second, I find it easier to figure out how to use rules to model concepts if I have several of those concepts already in a hopper. Third, often coming up with interesting ideas is the important part of a project for me. I can’t do it all in one sitting. By making a list early on, I give myself time to iterate, modify, and even reconsider if I need to.
After I have a fair percentage of the ideas I think I need, I’ll go back and begin turning the ones I like best into full rules elements. this lets me see how much wordcount those take up, which lets me know how many ideas I’ll need to fit the space.*
*(Unless the project is based on a specific number of items– like a list of 100 NPC catchphrases or 2 things to do in a dungeon when you’re dead, in which case I still like this process but the thing I learn at this stage is if I need to modify how much info I am putting in each entry to the pre-determined number of items will fill up the pre-determined wordcount. IN this case the feedback loop may be more likely to tell me if my concepts need to change to be more of less detailed.)
I often do ideas in three big waves–when I first start a project, when I run out of those ideas I started with, and when I have a good idea how many ideas I’ll need to finish it. Sometimes one or more of those waves isn’t needed–occasionally I find my first brainstorm gave me everything that will fit, for example. I also jot down ideas as they come to me when I am working on other parts of the work, or even other projects.
So, what do I mean by spitballing ideas?
I just want some sense of what the item is going to be. Maybe a name, maybe a description. If I have some idea of how the rules for the idea should work, I jot that down.
Here’s an example of those spitball ideas (cleaned up to a standard format for presentation on its own, rather than as notes only I will see). These are concepts for “Oddities,” magic items that occur as a result of weird events and energies, rather than being created intentionally, for my Really Wild West setting. Each of these gives enough info to see how it might work in game, but doesn’t yet worry about things like item level, cost, and any special rules Oddities may have as opposed to typical magic items.
(Art by i-pciture. Of the Eye by the Witch Hazel Pentafaust)
01. Weathered copy of a leather-bound book titled “Diplomacy Through Other Means.” It has hardness 20, 20 hp, and can be used as a light simple melee weapon dealing 1d4 damage (+1d4 per 4 ranks of Culture you have). You can’t add Strength (or any other any ability score modifiers) to damage dealt, but do add you ranks in Culture.
02. Pearl-Handled corkscrew. When screwed into people (normally a full round action that requires they be restrained and which deals 1-2 hp) it forces them to reveal their name, even if they don’t know it themselves.
03. Small hourglass filled with dark blue sand. If flipped and allowed to run normally without being moved, when it goes off it casts a random summon creature (or a random spell level) which no one has any control over. It lasts 1 hour if not otherwise damaged or dispelled.
04. Single old scarf about a yard long, with a smoke stain near top. Does not conduct heat (but can burn), thus can be used as perfect oven mitt or grant fire resist 20 for a thing you touch with it.
05. Zippo lighter with the kanji for “stork” on the side. If used to illuminate a written word medium (scroll, book, so on), the text within it slowly scrolls by in the shadow created by the flame.
06. Wire-frame glasses. If kept tucked in a pocket, halves falling damage for possessor.
07. Stained paper map of Fort Harrison, Indiana, from 1823. If mis-folded and then opened, it creates a fog cloud (as the spell). The map itself is always torn free by a gust of wind that brings in the fog, and normally takes (4d4 – 1d4) x 10 minutes to find.
08. An 1888 John J. Loud ball point pen with green ink. Rapidly (and loudly) clicking the pen gives a +5 bonus to Perception checks, but only against people using Stealth.
09. Small box of “Court Orlock” brand safety matches. If thrown at someone within 15 feet they must make a Will save (DC equal to the touch attack roll to hit them) or spend 1 round picking up the matches. Has 1d4 uses per day.
10. Wicker Picnic Basket, with its own plates, cutlery, and stacking cups as service for 6. If loaded with food and taken out of any settlement and then used for an hourlong or longer picnic, the ort remaining can be interpreted as a diving device. It may act as augury, divination, or commune, as randomly determined by the GM. One of the picnic participants will then have an encounter within 1 week of a high enough CR that average treasure for that encounter would pay for a spell gem of the divination spell gained. The basket don’t work again until the creature using them has had this encounter, which doesn’t have any actual treasure associated with it.
11. Tortoiseshell make-up compact. Anyone who has the powder from the compact (requiring an successful EAC attack against an adjacent creature) blown on them is slowed (as the spell) for 1 minute, and the person who used it is slowed for 10 minutes. Only a creature not slowed can use it.
12. Dried pea. If placed up your nose, it grants a +4 bonus to saving throws against poison, and a successful save always ends the poison. Someone who knows you have it up there can get you to shoot it out with a successful dirty trick maneuver (replacing the normal options for dirty trick).
13. Cork table coaster. Anything placed on it doesn’t experience any passage of time as long nothing else is touching it but air. This DOES keep drinks cold (or hot) much longer, but it also prevents fruit from spoiling, dynamite from exploding, radioactive isotopes from decaying, and so on.
14. Wooden, obviously-toy pistol. When pointed at an animal and the trigger pulled, causes the animal to talk randomly in French for 1 round. There is a 10% chance the first time it is used each day the animal says something useful and relevant to the user holder.
15. Worn leather coin purse. As long as nothing but coins are stuffed into it there does not seem to be a limit how many fit in, but they can only be added or removed at a rate of 4 credits per round.
16. Tablecloth-sized parchment with complex diagram for an unidentified steam engine. If placed on a stationary, prone creature the piping diagram changes to represent the organs (and injuries) or that creature, granting a +5 bonus to Medicine checks with that creature.
17. Old-style iron key. Fits in any lock. Can’t unlock a lock, but can lock it. If it was already locked, the next person to touch it takes 1 point of electricity damage.
18. Small pot of glossy black lipstick. Never runs out. The first time each day someone wearing the lipstick is damaged by an attacker the wearer has not ever damaged, the wearer may kiss a weapon. That weapon delivers critical hit effects (but not critical hit damage) against that attacker the first time it successfully hits and damages the attacker.
19. A granite die with 20 sides, numbered 7-26. Anyone with this on their person is lucky (gain one reroll each day, rerolling after you see the result of a roll and taking the better of the two results) except in games of chance (always roll twice and take the worst result for all games of chance).
20. Carved whalebone whistle. If blown directly in someone’s ear is heals them for 1d8+1 damage, and they are deafened for 1 hour per hp healed. If the deafness is removed early, the healing is also removed. It cannot heal someone temporarily deaf from this effect. The healing appears to be the revelation the wound wasn’t that bad to begin with — there’s never any actual sign of improved health. A person cannot benefit from this again until after they next expend 1 RP to regain SP after a 10-minute rest.
21. The Sinister Glass Eye of the Witch Hazel Pentafaust. This cracked, yellow glass eye spins and looks about of its own accord. When held in a closed fist, it causes you to be shaken (despite any immunities you might have) and automatically be able to identify any spell you see being cast.
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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.
This one is super-short, but for me super-useful.
Don’t let your search for the perfect word derail your writing flow.
That’s not to say it’s not worth popping a thesaurus open (or using the ‘related word’ function of onlook.com, a site Starfinder Lead Designer Joe Pasini turned me on to) to see if you can find it quickly and easily.
But before it disrupts your produtive writing time, put it on the back burner and move on. I personally just put a description of the word I want in brackets and highlight in bright yellow, so I know when I go back through the piece later that it needs to be replaced.
A chunk of the time, describing the word I want to put in the brackets causes me to think of it. And often, when i run back into the section on a reread, at least SOME good word to use leaps to mind. But the important thing is, when I am “in the zone,” getting wordcount quickly and feeling the concepts flow easily, I am not wasting time trying to polish a single term during rough-draft-creation time.
I can’t tell you how long to spend on it before giving up. Only you can know your muse’s endurance. This is a trick for making sure you don’t spend an hour on one word when you need that time to write 500. But be aware you don’t have to get any of it perfectly right the first time through.
This applies to anything, really. Can’t think of the right word? Not sure what to make the 4th level bonus spell? Need a riddle to add some mental challenge to an adventure?
If it’s holding you up, and you KNOW what comes next already, skip it, mark it, come back to it.
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This is less Writing Basics than it is Freelancing Basics, but I suspect it’s going to have the same audience, so I don’t want to make a whole new tag. 🙂
I’ve spoken and written many times about how useful it is when building a game industry career to go meet other professionals in person. You can do this at conventions, game days, trade shows, and sometimes smaller open-invitation get-togethers. And I stand by all of that.
But, let’s face it, for a lot of people going to meet professionals who live in Seattle (or anywhere really) isn’t a viable option. If you don’t live right near an event they are attending, or very close to their home base, it’s expensive to get to any such opportunity. Even if you do live nearby, you may not be able to take time off work as needed. Or you may be a person with disabilities, or have family you have to take care of, or face crippling anxiety in crowds.
My first Gen Con nearly drove me out of the industry, I was so overwhelmed by the massive crowds. The first Gen Con I attended as a Paizo employee nearly killed me because I’m just not up to doing as much walking as it called for. I’ve worked very hard on overcoming those issues of mine, and many others, but that’s not an option for everyone.
What is available to everyone reading this on my blog is – online schmoozing.
No, it’s not as effective as meeting people in-person. But it’s also much less restrictive on when and with who you can try it. And human psyches being what they are, it can still be extremely effective, especially over the long run. Familiarity, gratitude, and humor can help build relationships.
So, some basics.
Follow Them. Like and Share Their Stuff
The beginning step is just to find places where these professionals are being visible in a professional capacity, and engaging with them there in basic and helpful ways. Do they have a professional Facebook page (and that likely includes anyplace they advertise their work)? Follow them, interact with and SHARE their posts. If you thought a post was neat, reply saying you thought it was neat. Retweet their Twitter announcements. Subscribe to their Twitch shows. This will begin to be noticed, over time, in a positive light.
Don’t Take Rejection Personally
Seriously, a declined friend request with no explanation is not an insult. Just take these things in stride, and look for more professional, less intimidate places to follow that game creative. Many creatives keep separate presences for their role as authors or artists an their personal social media, so try to find their professional account. (I don’t do this, but I’m a weird exception in that regard.)
And if they block you? Take the hint, and walk away. Full stop.
Remember They Don’t Owe You Anything
Online schmoozing is not transactional. Watching 400 hours of a Twitch stream does not obligate that broadcaster to do you favors, boost your stuff, or even talk to you. Over time you can see who does seem interested in talking to you, or even helping you, but accept that is their choice and you cannot and should not push for or expect anything.
In general, I think it’s most effective for you to use your real name and face as your tag and icon when you want to benefit from online schmoozing. But that’s obviously secondary to you being happy, and you being safe. If there are reasons not to use your real name or face, see if you can at least use recognizable names and icons over multiple platforms. I can’t begin to guess how many people I recognize on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on paizo.com, without having any idea they are all the same person. If someone wants to benefit from my getting to know them virtually, there’s a much bigger impact if I know those interactions are all with one person.
It’s the internet. Some creators are creeps. Some are secretly vile. Don’t do anything that feels scummy, invasive, or not in the nature of the professional contact level you are trying to build. Keeping communication in public spaces can help with this.
Respect Their Space
Different online spaces call for different kinds of interaction. For example, if a professional is streaming to promote their new book and have a live chat, and opens a question-and-answer period, that’s a bad time to ask their advice for how to break into the industry. They are there to promote something, so a much better interaction is to ask them about that project, or something closely related. If, after a few questions, there don’t seem to be more folks wanting to talk on that subject you can inquire about asking a less-related question. But if the answer is no, don’t push it.
Similarly, if you get invited to a social online space that includes professional, don’t pester them about professional issues without some sign it’s appropriate and welcome. I’ve heard stories about game company owners having people pitch them freelance projects during online gameplay with MMORPG guilds. That’s the wrong time and place.
Here I’m specifically talking about your interactions with professionals you WANT to get to know better. And, remember to think about how what you write could be taken in harsh text form, with no smile or human inflection or context to soften it. There are people I have known for decades who can reference old in-jokes with me online that make me smile, but that from the outside must look like some harsh insults. Someone who thought that was just how I interacted with folks online and tried to emulate similar language might well tick me off, and I’d have no idea they through they were joining in on the fun.
Don’t Spend Too Much Time On It
The idea here is to become part of an easily-accessed online community that includes professionals you hope to learn from, and someday be recognized by. It’s not to have a part-time job clicking likes and boosting tweets.
If your online schmoozing prevents you from doing anything fun or important? You’re doing it too much.
Shamelessly Linking This To My Patreon
Giving someone money actually isn’t generally the best way to build an online relationship… but being a patron of mine DOES help me have time to write advice posts like this one!
In part one of my recent ongoing series of articles looking at converting every feat from the PF Core Rulebook that doesn’t already have a namesake in Starfinder to the Starfinder game system, I mention that if you think a project you are being hired for has bad decisions behind it, you should bring those to your publisher. I also mention that once you agree to do the job you should do it, without offering any exceptions for cases where you have moral or ethical concerns about completing the work. these can be tricky waters to navigate, but it’s worth discussing some best practices for bring your concerns to your publisher/editor/developer/producer.
Some of the following examples are going to sound extreme, and I don’t want to give the impression that every project is filled with objectionable, harmful, short-sighted material you have to fight back against. But I can’t pretend it never happens, and obviously it’s when the stakes are highest that this is both the most important, and the most nerve-wracking.
Also, I am aware of my own shortcomings enough to know I don;t always see the ways in which material can be harmful. So if you are writing for me, and you have concerns? LET ME KNOW. Push back. Point to this article if you want some back-up. I ASKED you to tell me if I’m requesting bad ideas from you.
As always, I’ll also note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. Also, I come at this as a writer, developer, and publisher, as those are the kinds of roles I have filled for RPG creation. Artists, graphic designers, editors, and layout artists face similar challenges at least as great, but my advice may not work as well for them.
Try Not To Create Any Surprises
Ideally when working on a project you’ll have access to an outline and a general vision of the project prior to agreeing to write for it, so if you have any concerns you can bring them up early on. For example, if a project’s outline suggests covering topics you don’t feel are appropriate for an RPG, you can discuss that at the beginning with your contact. Even if that means you backing out of the project because you just can’t get on the same page as the publisher, it’s much better for all concerned if you do that early.
If your project is going to involve a lot of discrete bits, it’s worth scanning those for potential trouble spots extremely early in the process. For example if you are asked to do expanded write-ups on six cities, go through the existing material at least briefly as soon as you can. If one of the cities is mired in material you see issues with (whether those are as simple as it having a stupid name or as complex as having an explicit social set-up filled with stereotypes you find harmful), bringing those to your contact as soon as possible both allows everyone plenty of time to try to figure out a solution (while the rest of the project moves forward), and proves you’re taking your responsibilities seriously.
The closer you are to deadline, the less flexible your publisher is likely to be. While that is often because the publisher places money over your concerns, it’s worth remembering they have mouths to feed as well, and people counting on them. That doesn’t excuse making money on harmful material, but it is worth remembering if you’re trying to build a working relationship.
Of course sometimes things develop you could not have foreseen. You may only be contracted to write part of a project, and when you see someone else’s section it’s full of material you have issues with or, worse, it changes the context of your own material in harmful ways. Or you might be shown cover art you dislike so much you don’t want your name associated with it. Or you might get developer feedback that explicitly asks you to alter things in a way you have problems with. The point is that the sooner you can raise a flag, the easier the process is likely to be for all concerned.
There’s A Thing Line Between Asking for Clarification and Passive-Aggressive
A great first step when something from the publisher seems like a bad idea is to ask for clarification. Going back to my series of articles as an example, if a publisher told me to convert *every* missing PF feat from the core rulebook to Starfinder, I’d pretty quickly ask if they meant even feats that refer to rules that don’t exist in Starfinder and already have their basic concept covered, like Exotic Weapon Proficiency. The publisher might come back and agree that some feats don’t need conversion.
However, once I get told that yes, EVERY feat needs to be converted, constantly asking if that’s the case even if the end result is dumb, or even if that means confusing people, or any other objections, I’m moving beyond just asking for clarification. Once you have your answer work with it, for better or worse.
If the answer means you can’t work on a project for personal or ethical or legal reasons, at that point just say so.
Be As Polite As The Situation Allows
Ideally, you’ll always be in a place where you can be polite and considerate to your publisher. If nothing else, with luck you’ll have some idea what kind of material the publisher produces before working for them (or even pitching them ideas) and will have just avoided anyone who is going to ask for things you think are stupid or problematic.
Even just five years ago, I’d have made this advice to ALWAYS be polite. And, honestly, my privileged and luck have meant I have always had that choice (though I haven’t always used it, to my regret). But I have seen other writers put in situations where I confess, polite might not convey how serious an objection is.
I strongly recommend defaulting to as polite as you think you can possibly be, and reserving more stringent language and complaints for serious legal or ethical objections, but that has to be your call.
Explain Your Concerns
Saying “this piece of art is terrible” isn’t helpful to a publisher. Be as specific, and as nonjudgmental, as the situation allows for. Does the art depict the 8-armed Klyzon species as having 6 arms? Are the colors so muted and fuzzy that from 2 feet back it just looks like mud? Does the Klyzon look EXACTLY like a character from the Trek Wars animated series? It it’s tattoo of a symbol with real-world religious or political meaning? Is the Klyzon man a horrific monster in full armor, and the Klyzon woman a near-human with tiny horns wearing sexualized attire?
Specific details on what is your concern, and why it concerns you, helps move quickly to seeing if improvements or resolution can be found.
If there is a broader social issue in play, it may help to link to resources education on that issue. Yes, this is asking you to do extra work, and that’s both unfair and not your ethical duty. I offer the suggestion because I have found it effective, but you have to decide how much effort you’re willing to put into any issue.
If you can think of an easy way to address your concern, pitch it. Publishers love solutions to problems, especially compared to problems they have to spend time working on themselves.
In fact if approving your solution is less work than figuring out some way to get what the publisher originally asked for, the publisher may just agree to save time and effort.
Try To Do It All At Once
This isn’t always an option, but a publisher can much more easily deal with a unified, concise list of 7 issues with a project, than getting a new issues brought up 7 different times during production.
Pick Your Battles
There’s nothing wrong with noting you think a sketch of a monster you are writing up is too goofy to convey the theme of menace and fear you have been asked to write… but that’s also not something I’d ever take beyond the bringing-it-up stage. The publisher has people they trust to make publication decisions, and they are unlikely to take your freelance opinion over that of their staff or trusted contract producers.
Even when mentioning concerns, it can be worth it to note when you are just bringing something up for consideration, (and will finish your work as agreed, on time, to a high standard of quality even if nothing changes), and when you think there is a serious issue you need to find clarification on before you can continue, or that you fear may impact the value of your work.
To Thine Own Self Be True
I wish I didn’t even have to cover this, but that’s not the world we live in. Your own sense of ethics, morality, and right and wrong should take precedence over giving a publisher what they want… to whatever degree you decide you’re willing to pay the price for making a stand.
It’d be nice to claim you’ll always be rewarded for doing the right thing but again, that’s not the world we live in. Only you can decide what to do when legal obligations (such as a contract), financial obligations (such as looming rent payments), and moral obligations (such as creating work you think might harm others) aren’t in alignment.
But I don’t personally think advancing your career, or getting one freelance paycheck, is worth feeling you have made the world a worse place. Be honest with yourself, and make the best call you cab.
Don’t Assume The Publisher Is Making a Change Until They Say So
Some freelancers will write in they have a concern, propose a solution, and then immediately continue their writing as if their proposal had been accepted. In some cases this has included things such as saying a topic can’t support 1500 words, so they are going to write 1100 words on it, and 400 words on some new topic.
Don’t. Do. This.
The project outline and remit hasn’t changed until the publish says it’s changed.
Be Clear On Your Position
I never recommend starting with ultimatums or even making threats, but especially once you have voiced a concern, if you are dissatisfied with the publisher’s solution, it’s worth talking about how you would like to proceed.
You may just note you won’t want to take similar projects in the future. You might ask that your name be taken off a project. You might need to ask for extra time because you feel the scope of the project has shifted or requires more research than you expect.
I personally have never, on ethical grounds, backed out of a project without the publisher’s approval once I had signed a contract. But I’m not going to claim there are never circumstances where that might be the moral choice. Myself I’d always finish wordcount and turn a project over by deadline, even if I had to write something that wasn’t exactly what was asked for because I have conscientious objections to what was asked for.
I have asked a publisher if they would approve of my walking away from a contract for various reasons, and had them agree to it. In general, that means I don’t get paid for work already done (which the publisher then cannot use), and that’s often the cost of doing business.
Don’t Freak Out
As a socially awkward introvert with depression, I know it can be overwhelming to tell a publisher you think they need to change their concept. But it happens, and most publishers are used to it, and many even appreciate it. By being prompt, polite, and specific, you can generally get a dialog going on issues without having to take on a huge emotional burden.
I’ve talked many times about ways I deal with writer’s block, burnout, and the hard work of creating game material professionally. What I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about is my normal writing process. Like, if I am feeling okay and tackling the day-to-day work of a writing career, what does that look like?
Today’s my birthday, and birthdays are a good time for some retrospection, so I want to look at how my full-time freelance process looks nowadays, especially after 5 years of going into the Paizo office 5 days a week. I’m talking here just about how I organize and tackle my writing–things like getting assignments, editing, and so on are outside the scope of this article. (Though if you want to hear more about those, let me know!)
When I was first starting my writing career, I flat refused to use outlines. Outlines were, I felt, restrictive. Stifling. I didn’t know where my muse was going to take me, after all, so how could I outline it? Much better, I thought, to just begin at the beginning, and keep writing until I hit the end, and if that meant the project drifted all over the place, I could fix that in a second draft.
I was such a sweet, summer child.
Yes, you can fix things in a second draft. But the sooner you find problems, the easier they are to fix (and the less work you’ve done on things that are geing to get cut). So now I outline nearly everything. Often in very rough terms (maybe just listing out some potential headers), but enough for me to know where a piece is going to start, what it’ll cover, and how it will end.
I DO keep in mind my format, and this is a place where the years of being a developer for Paizo have really honed that skill. For example, if I know I want everything to break at the bottom of a page, I can do rough wordcounts to writing only as much as I need to do that. On the other hand, if something is going to be a 2-3 page pdf and never see print, i know it doesn’t matter nearly as much what my exact wordcounts are.
Prioritize, Schedule, Assess
Early in my career, I was often doing just fairly random magazine articles, and deadlines were pretty rough. I also usually worked on only one at a time, so I didn’t have to worry about priorities. Now I am often doing two-dozen things all at once, and some are for myself with loose deadlines, some are for myself with firm deadlines (like this article, since I promise Patreon readers a good-sized article every Monday), some are for other folks with loose deadlines (most of the things I produce for Rite are done when they are done… but they do need to get done!), and some are for other folks with hard deadlines (if Green Ronin or Paizo needs a thing by a set date, it’s crucial I adhere to that–there are lots of steps after mine that need time, and big books that go into the retail market get announced way before they are finished.
So I need to know what I need to work on TODAY to hit deadlines. I prefer to work on 2-3 different things per day, so i keep a running list of what deadlines are upcoming, how far along those things are, and I (ideally) check it every work day. I also have the free tacking program Asana, which I use to track projects so they don’t get totally forgotten if I put them on the back burner for a few days or weeks. That helps make sure that if Rogue Genius Games needs marketing text from me before a product can be made available for sale, I get that done in a timely manner.
If I have an idea I can;t begin yet, it gets noted so it’s not lost. i used to do that in physical notebooks. Then I moved to online files. Now, i use Asana.
The hope is to get 8 hours of writing done per day 5 days a week, and 4 hours 2 days a week. That actually usually takes me 12 and 6 hours, because when I find myself hitting a slowdown in my writing, I often take a short break to clear my mind. That may be 5 minutes on social media, or 15 minutes gluing bits of a model together, or 20 minutes on a computer game. Or a half-hour lunch break. The idea is to pause, rather than let my writing urge go completely cool, but distract my mind with something different enough that I can come back at it ‘fresh” in a bit.
But it’s important to keep a running track of how much work is actually getting done, and what is due soon. If I am producing plenty of words per day (I shoot for a minimum of 3,000 words/day, spread out over various projects) and everything is on-track to hit deadline, I don’t worry overmuch how many minutes I spend on non-work-writing. But if my production slows, or I have something behind schedule, I get much more serious about making breaks short and infrequent. I try to get up and do something else for at least a few minutes every hour, but if the muse has me head-down writing for 3 hours, I don’t interrupt that process.
I have a dedicated work space–a home office I share with my wife. It has my laptop, my reference books, chargers for phones, a place for my cat to sit within-reach but off my desktop, a few hobby-related items, and that’s it. No television. No chairs other than the office chairs. There IS a window, because getting some natural light is helpful to me. No microwave. When I look around, I see only things related one way or another to my writing, and that’s a big help for me.
Putting It All Together
For example, I began this article on Friday the 25th, based on an idea from my idea file I got from a friend on social media. I didn’t get much more done than outlining some headers. I took runs at it again on the 26th and 27th, but kept both short because I had a past-due project I needed to turn in on the 28th. OTOH I also took time out on the 27th to spend time hanging out at a friend’s house, because I had been working all week and the next day was my birthday.
But that meant this wasn’t done today… and neither was the past-due project. But the past-due was ALMOST done, so finishing it clearly took priority. Then a quick break to spend a few minutes with my wife. Since it’s my birthday and I have a 3pm phone call that is industry-related, i WANTED to play a game for 15-20 minutes… but I couldn’t take the time for that when my Monday blog post wasn’t finished yet.
So this became the next major priority, and I hammered on it until it was done. Now I can take a break, and then start on the NEXT most-urgent thing on my list. 🙂
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New freelancers often wonder how much money they can make writing tabletop game material (or editing, or art, though those are different fields than where my primary experience lies). They’ll ask how they get paid, maybe inquire about a per-word rate, or flat fee, and think they are done, But knowing the per-word rate of a project is the beginning of figuring out how much you’ll make doing it, not the end.
And let me start by saying not everyone cares how much they make, and not everyone is going to depend on this money for their livelihood even if they do, and none of that matters when discussing what is reasonable to pay. Work deserves to be compensated, and you deserve to know how hard you are working for the money you make.
I don’t know that there is an “industry standard” for tabletop RPG writing. At this point in my career I am usually writing for 10 cents/word or a goodly cut of all income from a project. Over the past 20 years I have written for as little as 1 cent/word (counting only things that were non-charity, paid projects), and as much as 35 cents/word, but those are both outliers. (Before that I once took a project for 0.1 cents/word… I didn’t know any better. And that’s not my worst experience, to boot.)
Most people I am willing to work with pay no less than 3 cents a word, even to new writers. So, for purposes of this article, that’s the number I am going to go with.
But even knowing a project pays ‘3 cents a word’ doesn’t tell you how much you are making, until you know how many words it is, and how long that will take you, how many revisions you’ll be asked to make, and how long you have to wait to get paid.
If you can do 2,000 words in a 2-hour evening run? That’s $30/hour.
If it’s 1,000 words over 4 hours? That’s $7.50/hour.
But if revisions take just as long as the writing? Your hourly rate just got cut in half. And you’ll likely be paying self-employment tax (in the U.S. anyway, basically another 15% cut out of your income), and you won’t get any benefits as you would for a full-time hourly staff job, and if you have to wait until it’s published to get paid you may miss out on the potential for months of interest (whether by putting it in savings or paying off a credit card cost), or both.
Some of those answers you won’t know until the project is done. You can ask a company if they expect to request revisions (and definitely check your contract to see if it asks for revisions), and you can ask other freelancers what their experience with that company is in that regard (and on other issues too — it’s worth knowing if a company has a reputation for paying late, or killing projects, or changing the remit partway through… if you can, find fellow freelancers you trust and talk to them). But ultimately, any given project may be the exception to the general rule.
It’s also worth finding out HOW you are getting the money. By check? By PayPal (in which case, is a fee coming out of it, and if so who is paying that fee?) By international wire transfer from a different currency? Find out, and get it in writing. It can make a huge difference, especially if different currencies get involved.
The math is even more variable for things that pay your a percentage, and there are even more elements that can change things. Is your percentage of the cover price, or the cut the publishing company gets? this is a huge difference. for example, if it’s a $5 pdf on DriveThruRPG, and you are getting 25%, you need to know if that is 25% of the $5 cover, or 25% of the $3.25 the publishing company gets after DriveThru takes their 35% cut? Also, are you being paid off gross (all the money that comes in) or net (the profit, after all other expenses are paid), or some hybrid number (such as all the money the company takes in for sale price, but none of the money it takes in for printing POD copies or for shipping)? Are you paid monthly? Quarterly? For the life of the product, or just for the first year of sales?
And it wouldn’t be fair not to mention here that some publishers, writers, and pundits think percentage payments are unethical. I’m not one of them, as long as the freelancer is well-informed when making their decision. But I WILL say that since a percentage asks the freelancer to take more of the risk on the project (since sales could be dismal), I recommend only taking a percentage that you believe, based on your own market research, will on average pay more than the flat rate you would accept for the project. I take percentage projects myself fairly often, but am most likely to do so when I have more creative control. If I pitched the idea, or I am developing it to my taste, or it’s a case where a publisher has told me they’ll pay me for anything I ant to write (rare, but it has happened from time to time in my career), I am more willing to take the risk with the publisher, as opposed to when I am given a hard outline and have fewer creative choices to give input on.
On the question of how fast you write, that answer may not be the same for you for every kind of project. I can write new rules content and essays (like this one) MUCH faster than I can write long adventures. Short adventures seem to be an average between those two. Worldbuilding varies for me wildly–sometimes the ideas and descriptions flow easily, and sometimes it’s a grind. And the better I know a game system, the easier and faster all the writing is for it.
You should also make sure you aren’t having to spend money in order to do the writing for a project. Nowadays every company I work with will at least give a freelancer free pdfs of their material that is related to a project. but for licensed properties, this isn’t always as clear. I have had licensed projects I worked on that required me to have some geek encyclopedia not published by the company I was working for, and which they could not get me free copies of. I always increased my asking price by the amount buying such things would cost me, or made sure they were things I could borrow off a friend, or get from the library. If there are free resources, such as fan wikis, make sure your publisher considers them authoritative before depending on them.
You also have t consider if your writing project requires you to do any non-writing work that doesn’t pay any extra above the per-word rate. It’s extremely common for adventure writers to have to do sketches of maps of the locations within their adventures. Not final cartography, but maps with enough detail that the cartographer doesn’t have to make any decisions when rendering final version. This generally doesn’t result in any additional pay above the per-word rate, so if it’s 3 cents per word for 10,000 words plus three full-page map sketches, you are doing more work for the money than if you got 3 cents per word for 10,000 words with no sketches. You may also have to provide an outline, or multiple outlines, which create additional words you are writing you don’t get directly paid for. If the outlines are part of your normal process of writing that’s fine, but if they aren’t be sure to think about how long they took you when considering how much you earned.
It’s much less common, but sometimes publishers also want writers to do interviews, blog posts, marketing text, and so on. Some of those things you may see as career opportunities (the publisher likely isn’t making any money off you doing an interview with someone, and it can be good for your own visibility), but it’s worth knowing if those things are optional opportunities for you, or considered mandatory part of your job, which you should then count against the time it takes you to earn that assignment’s money. (Of course you don’t count any promotion you arrange for and do on your own against the money the publisher pays you — that kind of self-promotion is just part of being an active freelancer.)
Only when you know how much money you’ll get, how long it’ll take to get it, how long it took you to write a draft, how long you spent on revisions or outlining or mapping or art orders, and how long any mandatory promotions you engage in took, can you figure out how many hours you spent earning your per-word, royalty, or flat rate. You may not want to bother to do this with every project, but it IS worth tracking from time to time so you know if there are things that earn you more per hour, even if they have a similar or lower rate for the whole project.
And, of course, when talking about how much you can earn as a freelancer on top of knowing how much you make per hour, you have to figure out how many hours you can spend on it in a month, and then if you can fill all those hours with work at a rate worth your time.
But those are sub-topics for another week.
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Like all my blog posts, this one is supported by the backers of my patreon! In this case this post is specifically sponsored by the fine folks at the Know Direction network, who have podcasts, articles, news, and convention recordings about the game industry and general, and Paizo, Pathfinder and Starfinder in particular! “Pathfinder News, Reviews, & Interviews!”
Your first draft doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
Yes, there’s a time and place where you need to be able to share your ideas with editors, developers, playtesters, and so on.
And, yes, it’s worth reading up on how other people draft and outline and process their work, to see if those techniques are useful to you.
But your FIRST draft doesn’t have to be anything more than a starting point. I, at least, never worry too much about what the final product is going to be when starting my first draft. I throw ideas at the page, and see what sticks. Often I have half-finished sentences I abandon because my brain finds something better.
Maybe you work that way. Maybe you don’t.
Just don’t let concern about your first draft being *right* sideline you from WRITING.
You can fix, change, revise anything you want in a second draft.
But only if the first draft happens.
This is SUPER basic, and SUPER ignored, but I promise you, it’s true. (And as with most of my writing basics, here I am talking about tabletop game writing for someone else to publish.)
Unless your editor/producer/publisher specifically tells you to?
DO NOT USE TABLE FORMATTING IN YOUR FINAL DRAFT.
It is of NO use to the developer, editor, or layout artist. It is, in fact, a huge pain in the butt.
Yes, MAYBE you need to get things in neat columns to make sure your table says what you want where you want it.
But when you turn it over?
Note what is a table title, what is a column head, and what is table text, and then put ONE TAB between EACH COLUMN ENTRY. (As always, check to see if your publisher has specific or different requirements.) Do NOT use your word processing programs table function.
Like this, but with [tab] replaced by an actual tab.
[Table Title]An Example Table
[Table Column Heads]Writing Level[tab]No. Of Wrong Tables[tab]Editor Cursewords
*Because a 102 level writer should know better.
Yes, it’s a minor thing.
But getting minor things wrong makes you take more time and more effort, and thus more money and frustration, for publishers to want to hire you.
Heya folks–I am back to being a full-time freelancer. Which means, ever word I write has to justify itself in time taken vs. benefit to my freelance career and/or money made.
So if you found this useful or entertaining, and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, check out my Patreon!
Just a couple of dollars a month from each of you will make a huge different.
If you are trying to get a publisher (or developer, editor, producer–anyone who could pay you for words) to accept a pitch of yours, tell them why they should care about it.
Compare the following pitches for “State of the Union,” a hypothetical Starfinder adventure.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. What appears at first to just be normal academic pranks turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, and I could have it completed in 3 months.
I’d love working with you, and would like to discuss with you the possibility of having you publish a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) I am working on called “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
The adventure would be 32 pages long, have 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available.
Among the projects I think might be a good match for your company is a Starfinder adventure (designed to be released under the OGL and Starfinder Compatibility License) titled “State of the Union.” It is a lighthearted adventure for 1st-level characters, and is set in the multi-species Student Union of a space-stations major university. The PCs uncover what what appears at first to just be normal academic pranks, but turns out to be the cover for a major organized crime operation! No one else takes the threat seriously, lives are at stake, and only the PCs can stop it!
I envision this as 32 pages long and needing 2 pages worth of maps, and I could have it completed in 3 months. A full outline is available. It could also be adjusted to be longer or shorter, to fit your production needs. The core of this adventure comes from my experiences as the manager for the parking garage of the University of Oklahoma Student Union in the 1990s. During my 20-years as an RPG designer I have considered designing it for d20 Modern and Star Wars Saga Edition, but what has always been missing before are elements now available with the Starfinder RPG.
So, this one is special. It was written in response to this article by Steven Marsh.
If you want to learn about RPGs and how they work, you should already know who Steven Marsh is. If you don’t, go look him up. But the main thing is that he was editor of Pyramid Magazine for 18 YEARS!
Steven has seen more RPG pitches than I will in a lifetime. If you ignore everything I wrote here, PAY ATTENTION to his much-better version (reprinted with his kind permission).
I’ve reviewed your submission guidelines and hope you’ll consider a new entry for your line of adventures under the Starfinder Compatibility License.
THE PITCH: Intrigued by seemingly mundane academic pranks, the heroes soon discover these deeds are cover for a major organized crime operation. With no one else taking this life-and-death threat seriously and the clock ticking down, only the spacefarers can infiltrate the multi-species student union and save the day . . . hopefully before the evening’s Zero-G-Pong Charity Fundraiser!
SPECIFICS: This is a lighthearted scenario close in tone to your adventures “Toastmaster Emperor” and “Pair of Dice Lost.” Designed as a combat-light standalone adventure for 4-6 low-level heroes, it can also serve as a followup to “Toastmaster Emperor.” It’s outlined at 31 non-title pages: 6 pages of background, 20 pages of encounters centered around two locales, and 5 pages of new gear and adversaries. It requires 2 maps; I could provide basic InDesign or JPG files, which can either be used as is or form the basis for more “professional” efforts.
Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to your thoughts!
You CAN put in too much information, and Pitch Three is pushing what i consider to be the upper bounds. But letting a potential publisher know you have done your homework, you have relevant real-world experience, and this isn’t your first rodeo are all useful additions to what you are pitching and why.
Also, as much as possible, reuse any work you have already done and still have the rights to (though clear that with your publisher, if it’s ever been seen by the public before) and write things you can use multiple ways.
For example, I WAS the manager of the OU Student Union parking garage in the 1990s, and I DO have an idea for an adventure called “State of the Union.” So, if a publisher asked me about this article, I could confirm those details.
(Though I DON’T have an outline. Yet…)
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