Your First Published RPG Product
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I have a lot of cool stuff coming out soon. Over the next year, I’ll be shouting out projects big and small, some of which have been in the works since 2015. I remember how excited I was to get my first gig with a publisher years ago and wanted to pass along some of the knowledge I’ve gained in the time since.
The RPG industry is full of consumers who are creators of game content, simply based on the creative nature of the games. This creative spirit plus the joy of gaming leads many to dream of and perhaps even pursue at least a part-time career in writing RPG content. If you’re interested in working in the industry, let me share with you what I’ve learned, so you can go into your first published product with a little more than no knowledge.
Writing RPG Products is a Lot Of Work for Little Monetary Reward
This is the first thing you should know. I have yet to find a creator who doesn’t agree (and if you have made lots of money in RPGs, please tell me how). Some things probably seem like a lot of work from the get-go. For instance, writing a new RPG system takes a lot of time and effort. But what about smaller supplements like an article about a new Dungeons & Dragons race in EN5ider or a one-shot adventure for the D&D Adventurers League? Those are going to take a lot of time too. Just take amazing designer Teos Abadia’s word for it.
Writing an adventure or supplement for pay takes longer than writing something for your home group, even if you’re the kind of DM who scripts every conceivable option they players have. The product you create needs to be read, understood, and interpreted by consumers, not just you. Its writing needs to follow a specific industry standard style, have typos removed, and fit into a specific word count. You won’t just be writing a product. You’ll be editing and rewriting it. You’ll be playtesting it, you’ll be researching it, you’ll be outlining it, and more.
All this work is for a product that you’ll make $0.03 a word on if you’re lucky. If that sounds like too much work for too little reward to you, know that you’re right. There are lots of reasons the industry is that way, but that’s another post (and a podcast). It’s fine if you just want to design for your home group. Do design for pay only if it also makes you happy to share your work with the world.
When you get that first job, have the time to do some hard work in your schedule. I recommend having at least 5 hours free per 1,000 words you’re writing between the date you sign your first contract and the deadline for your project. If you stick with paid design work, you’ll get faster, but if this is your first one, give yourself enough time.
So you landed the gig! Maybe you wrote a killer pitch or have some self-published work on DriveThruRPG or a blog that got noticed by a publisher. Maybe you made a publisher friend at a convention who is willing to take a chance on you. The first thing to do is take a look at examples of the publisher’s work. Writing a Pathfinder adventure for Kobold Press? Take a look at their previous Pathfinder adventures. If you don’t own any of that publisher’s products, ask them to send you a copy or two once you’re contracted. I’m sure they’d be happy to do so! It’s one of the few perks of being an RPG designer and it seriously helps.
When you’re reading the sample work, note how the product is laid out, where headings are, what stat blocks look like, etc. This will save you a lot of headache in the long run. Don’t memorize every detail of the product! You own it and have it for future reference.
Do Your Research
If you’re writing a product that takes place in an existing world, like the Forgotten Realms or Midgard, take some time to learn about that world, especially the places, characters, and events to which your product pertains. If you’re putting out an original product, do some research to see what already exists as far as similar products go (and read those too) and run a quick search on the product’s title to see if anything out there is similarly named.
Hit Your Deadlines
If you’re a new designer, you may not possess the chops or skills of a veteran but you do have the ability to hit your deadlines, which for many publishers is just as or more important than your talent. As the designer, there are many other people’s work and income that depends on you being on time. Turning in a draft late means you’re holding up the editing, art, layout, print, and sale of the product. A lot of people start an RPG product, realize how much work it is, and then never finish. Rather than owning up to this, some ghost their employers, leaving the publisher in a frustrated state with lots of questions that hold up other people’s livelihoods.
If you are going to be late with a draft or you find you are unable to complete a project, let the publisher know as soon as you know. When it comes to deadlines, treat others as you would want to be treated.
Be Awesome to Work With
When it comes to all things, treat others as you would want to be treated. As a new designer, you might require a little more guidance from editors and the publisher, but if you take their feedback with gusto and make every change requested, that is worth a lot more than someone with a lot of talent and experience who gripes about every change (and misses every deadline). Be polite. Have as much fun with the project as possible. Let your enthusiasm for your work show. Publishers love working with happy designers that are good, constructive collaborators.
Ask for a Style Guide and Template
Before you dive into writing your product, ask your publisher if they have a style guide and template for you to use. The style guide will give you the dos and don’ts of writing for that publisher. (e.g. Do always capitalize abilities like Intelligence and Wisdom. Don’t refer to ability checks as “skill checks.”) When you get the style guide, read it and refer to it often.
Many publishers also have a template, which is usually a Word document with a bunch of ready to use headings, fonts, and other styles. Use it. Templates help the publisher figure out what your words will look like on the page before layout, as thy approximate each publisher’s style. Using a template makes everyone’s life easier who has to work with your words after you’ve turned them over.
Ask Questions Along the Way
If you have questions that aren’t covered in the style guide or research phases of your design, ask the publisher. Better to ask a question you don’t know the answer to than guess. A guess, even an informed one, could be wrong and have ripple effects that mean you’ll need to revise the entire project later. If you need an answer and can’t continue working until you get it, make sure the publisher knows that when you email/text/Slack them, so they can prioritize getting you an answer over the other million tasks they have.
Don’t be a Lazy Writer
If you’re writing and you find yourself thinking, “Ah, I’ll make this up instead of looking it up,” or, “I’m not sure what the style guide says about this, but rather than take 30 seconds to open the document, I’ll just guess,” avoid those thoughts! Always better to look stuff up while you’re writing. Do this and as you write more, you’ll have fewer questions.
Edit Your Work
This goes with “Don’t be a Lazy Writer.” Make sure you’re editing your work before you send it to an editor. Typos and grammatical mistakes should be removed, but also make your writing stronger. Kill passive voice. Eliminate adverbs. Cut the fat and rework sections that make no sense. Reorder information! Do whatever you can to make your first draft the best it can be.
As my good friend and fellow designer James Haeck once said, “Once you’ve got all the words on the page, you’ve only got the sand. Editing is shaping that sand into a castle.”
Ask a Friend to Check Your Work
For your first job, ask someone you trust to check your work. Even if you’re sure it’s perfect, another set of eyes can catch things that are missing or assumptions you’ve made that leave the reader saying, “What?” You may not need someone to check every single draft, but for your first project and first draft, ask a friend to check it out.
As designer Dan Dillon says, “Playtesting is worth its weight in gold.” He’s right. When you actually play with your new rules or story, you see them in action and find out where your mechanical mistakes are. “Oops! This encounter is clearly too hard,” and “Oh! This new spell combined with this other existing spell makes you invincible,” are errors that can sometimes only be learned through playtesting.
If you can have someone else run it and give you a detailed playtest report, that’s even better. It has all the benefits of playtesting something yourself along with a person who doesn’t have any of your assumptions using the product.
Deliver What the Contracted Product
Finally, deliver what is agreed upon! If you’re contracted to write a 5,000-word adventure that takes place on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms and has a lich villain, don’t turn in a 15,000-word adventure that takes place in Eberron and has a dragon villain. That’s an extreme example, but if you’re word count is much greater or smaller than contracted, that creates a problem (especially if you’re writing a print product). If your idea changes or your need more words, write to your publisher as soon as you realize it and see what can be done. They’re paying you for something specific, so make sure that’s what you deliver to them.
If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!
September 7, 2017 @ 11:39 am
It’s a wonder anybody writes anything. So much work! But I can tell you from personal experience that it is, indeed, worth it (most of the time).
September 8, 2017 @ 11:28 am
Indeed! It’s a TON of work, but the rewards can be great…. just not the money kind usually!
September 8, 2017 @ 10:43 am
Great stuff, James. Incredibly accurate and thorough. As someone who has to edit and develop content for D&D and other games, I could not agree more. Did you know that roughly 50% of the new writers that I work with fail to finish their assigned projects? That should tell you something right there.
September 8, 2017 @ 11:29 am
Good lord that is a disheartening statistic. Someone said yesterday that it’s easier to get a gig in RPGs than it is to be an actual RPG designer. I guess this backs that up! I’m glad I hit the nail on the head.
September 22, 2017 @ 2:19 pm
Very nice article and very helpful. Keep up the great work.
September 22, 2017 @ 2:56 pm
Thanks, dude! Means a lot coming from one of the hardest-working people I know!
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November 30, 2017 @ 12:01 pm
[…] quoted James Haeck, editor and game designer, here before and I shall again, “Once you’ve got all the words on the page, you’ve only got the sand. […]