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Gen Con: How to Start an RPG Career — Freelancing 101

Gen Con: How to Start an RPG Career — Freelancing 101

I’ve probably given the “How to Break into the RPG Industry” talk fifty times at conventions over the years, and the amazing thing is that the talk keeps changing because the field is always evolving. This Gen Con seminar was, frankly, one of the most honest and practical versions of these sorts of panels I’ve participated in, probably because of the range of experience of the panelists.

Adam Daigle, Brandon Hodge, Ben McFarland, and yours truly, have published as freelancers with 0one Games, Atlas Games, Chaosium, Goodman Games, ICE, Open Design, Paizo Publishing, Rite Publishing, TSR, Inc., Wizards of the Coast, and others. They explained how they got their first break, and how that turned into the next assignment, and Adam Daigle also provided a super-helpful 60-second rant about how to do it. Some of that is included in the list after the jump.

Here’s five things you need to know to start your own freelancing career, writing for KQ, Open Design, or elsewhere.

1) The First Rung is the Hardest: The hardest assignment to get might be the very first one. Today, you might consider starting a blog, submitting a pitch to a small PDF publisher, writing a magazine article, or writing for a contest or organized play. Panelists disagreed on whether it is a good idea to spend a lot of time on publisher forums fishing for an assignment — it depends on the publisher you are courting.

2) Know your Target: Choose a publisher and system you like and you most enjoy. Your work will reflect your passion for that game and setting; writing for systems you dislike is usually not worth it and makes it harder to break in. Before you pitch anything or respond to an open call, learn everything about that setting/periodical/ruleset. Hone your title and first few paragraphs of every pitch and email; first impressions count.

3) Every Publisher Does It Differently: All publishers want reliable, talented, creative freelancers who deliver on time. How they find those freelancers and move them into the inner circle of regulars for that company varies a lot. KQ uses an open slush policy; Paizo depends on the RPG Superstar contest and PFS scenario writing. Wizards doesn’t often draw from its organized play program for freelancers, and never has, even in the TSR days.

Read the publisher’s guidelines for how to submit and what they want. Kobold Quarterly has submission guidelines available.

4) Make Yourself Visible: Getting an assignment means building trust and getting a publisher to take a risk on someone new, introducing yourself (politely and swiftly) at a convention, taking part in board discussions and playtests, or becoming a patron on a project with an open call for designers (like, ahem, Open Design’s Midgard project and Dark Roads & Golden Hells). Publish something yourself in PDF, or better yet give it away for free to a small publisher to build a list of prior credits. Use those credits to solicit work slightly higher up the ladder of RPG projects.

5) On Time, To Spec: If you are fortunate enough to get an acceptance note on a pitch, deliver your work on time and at the desired length and style. If you aren’t sure, ask the publisher what they meant or what they prefer. Don’t change the length or approach without asking.

6) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: If your project is going poorly (or even if it is going well), communicate with the editor or freelance liaison as you are approaching the deadline. Most publishers are happy to hear relevant information about how the work is going before the deadline arrives (such as “Hey, I’m on track!” or “OMG, my spouse is hospitalized and I’m behind on my work”). After the deadline passes and you haven’t held up your end, publishers are much less forgiving. In fact, missing your first deadline with a new publisher generally means you won’t be asked to work for them again.

Important Exception: An accepted magazine query can miss the deadline for an issue without as much of a black mark on your record. There’s always next issue, after all. However, if the article in question was a major feature article meant to match an issue’s theme, confirm the query if you miss the close-of-issue-submissions deadline.

That list is a great start for approaching any creative industry, since these basics apply to artists and writers in other fields as well. KQ is looking forward to seeing new names in the query pile for the Fall and Winter issue!

Got questions about freelancing with KQ or anywhere else? Ask in the Comments!

18 thoughts on “Gen Con: How to Start an RPG Career — Freelancing 101”

  1. Even after sneaking an article into KQ (when the guard weasels were napping), snapping up the Kobold Guides to Game Design (out of the sale bin, which only mildly smelled like fish), and listening to a recording of a similar seminar from PaizoCon (by podcasters who clearly didn’t know better), I really appreciate posts like these. I’ve been sick for three months with what turned out to be lupus, and what suffered the most amidst the pain, exhaustion, and malaise has been the muse (or the desire to write, period). I’m on the mend (theoretically at least), struggled through a submission last week, and now the Kobold-in-Chief lays out the Big Plan. It’s enough to make one’s cold, crafty heart aflutter!

  2. I must echo Alex. I have been ravenously consuming the game Design Guide, podcasts and these articles. It is good to be reminded about where to grow and also encouraging to know when you’re on the right track. Thanks Wolfgang. It’s sinking in.

  3. Great post and great advice!

    In fact, I’d even say it’s worth printing out and taping to your computer, your wall or maybe even your forehead :)

  4. On the subject of KQ’s “open slush” policy: how long do articles submitted for KQ stay in the pile before getting retired?

  5. A submitted query is answered within 30 days (and often faster).

    A submitted article can sit in the slush pile from up to 120 days, because we’re on a quarterly publication schedule. If the article is submitted right after we close submissions for an issue, it sits until we consider the *next* issue’s articles!

    However, the more usual wait time is 65 days or so. Fairly typical for print.

  6. Excellent post.

    In terms of self-publishing PDFs and getting the e-material out there into the mix, are there any sorts of statistics to track for when you use this as part of a pitch down the line? Is tracking the number of downloads or reviews by other users/media useful for that sort of thing?

  7. Yep, great advice! When I’m on these panels, I also always tell the interested writers the reality of the pay side of the business. It’s not lucrative pay, so be sure you are approaching the prospect of being a published rpg author for the love of it. For all the hours you’d put into it, you’d be better off working a minimum wage job. Still, there’s nothing better than seeing your name in print on something you wrote. KQ and Open Design provide excellent opportunities for you to start your freelancing career. Go for it!

  8. Phantasmavore, I’m not sure what you mean. If you have self-published it, you do have statistics on how well it has gone and how well it was reviewed.

    If it went well, I’d certainly include that. Why not brag about your success, yes?

    Christina, yep, it doesn’t pay at well. But I don’t think people write games for the money.

  9. Wolfgang: So something that was submitted as article for summer is not still under consideration for fall. That’s the type of answer I was looking for. Thanks.

  10. Jeff, yes, I’ve sent responses to all the Summer submissions I have. I think I asked to consider one for Fall, the rest are either accepted or rejected at this point.

  11. I’ll add an addendum to #4 — don’t make yourself visible by being a jackass online (or anywhere else for that matter). Being an active member of a company’s message boards is a great way to get noticed. Being active by being arrogant, overly argumentative, pedantic, or just generally dickish is a good way to turn off that potential employer… or at least it is if that potential employer is me. ;)

  12. MBanach: alas, I suspect fiction freelancing is a whole ‘nother panel. And of course KQ and Open Design don’t publish fiction, so I’m not necessarily much of an authority for that.

    Steven S. Long: great addendum, and actually the rule “Don’t be a dick” did come up. I will never understand why people think being relentlessly negative will win anyone over.

  13. It was a really great panel discussion. I especially appreciated the question/answer session and the down-to-earth discussion about writing for the hobby.

    Also, Ben was super cool about just chatting about freelancing afterwards.

  14. I’m happy folks liked this and took something useful away from the panel and the wonderful summary Wolfgang whipped up.

    Get out there and write!

  15. The statement “Wizards doesn’t often draw from its organized play program for freelancers” has been somewhat true historically, but Dragon and Dungeon in July had some 8 or 9 contributors that had been involved in organized play. There are organized play authors authoring Lair Assault, writing upcoming published adventures, and creating Encounters seasons. Mike Mearls is a former Living Greyhawk Triad member.

    Now, there are hundreds of organized play contributors. As with anything else, the quality of what you do matters and you want to work on the whole package so you rise to the top. A good reputation for organized play contributions, good relationships with organized play admins, a positive/constructive presence on company forums, getting involved with playtesting, maintaining a blog with examples of your work… these all work together to increase positive exposure and improve your chances.

    Writing an organized play adventure is a good way to prove to a publisher that you can write, meet deadlines, and understand a variety of audiences. Organized play is very hands-on editorially, making it especially good for learning authoring skills and mastering the editorial process (realizing your work will be changed after submission).

    As one of the admins for Ashes of Athas, I feel our authors learn a lot about writing a great adventure. I would expect the process would give the authors a good feel for whether they are ready to freelance for a major publisher.

    So, yeah, the percentage of freelancers coming from organized play is small, but that isn’t due to it being a poor vehicle for entry. It is actually a very good way to develop skills and a reputation.

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