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Now, the Twist: On (RPG) Process

Now, the Twist: On (RPG) Process

The Chess GameWelcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey that will force him to take a long, hard look at game design.

Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.


I recently finished another project for Paizo Publishing, and since the experience is fresh in my mind I figured I’d go through the freelance RPG design and development process—which, I should note, is very different from the tabletop design and development process.

First in line is the freelance order. This is where the company looking for work sends out emails to their desired freelancers to see who is available for the project. If they happen to contact me, I ensure that I am absolutely aware of my schedule and my work habits. This requires me to be brutally realistic in my self-assessment before accepting the project. If I don’t have enough time or I have doubts, I communicate that up front. Yes, it might mean a smaller paycheck, but that’s the price I pay. This is a truism: if you blow a project, you move quickly down the list of people they will contact for work…

So here’s Advice #1: If you choose a freelancer’s life, choose quality over quantity.

If the project is big enough (for example, Paizo’s Game Mastery Guide), I can request specific portions that appeal to me. One of the advantages of freelancing for a company like Paizo is that they provide a detailed outline of what they want from a book with a rough range of word count for specific sections.

From a production standpoint, this allows them to provide a consistent play experience across their line of products, and, from a design standpoint, it means I have an exact target for every project and portion thereof.

Whether I have a section of a book or an entire book, this is invaluable. Knowing my word count helps me put together a spreadsheet that tracks my minimum daily word count goals. One of the great advantages of modern publishing is that I can get an exact word count by section simply by highlighting my text. By establishing my minimum word count each day, I give myself a mini-deadline. Only the most extenuating circumstances (such as house projects or —ahem—new games) let me off the hook for a day. Even then, I know I have to make up the work the following day. Seeing the required daily word count creep up, rather than down, is an extraordinarily good motivator to work hard.

Advice #2: If you want to work in the industry, practice discipline. Learn to get your work done in a timely fashion, and, if possible, do it ahead of time.

Lack of time budgeting is the primary downfall of freelancers. Counting on a burst of inspiration (whether genuine or deadline-dread related) to boost your productivity is a huge gamble. It largely worked for me many years, but it has also backfired on me too, and those were painful lessons. Learn to make good habits, and, if you can’t do that, at least don’t let yourself sleep until you’ve finished your daily work. If your word count is still too high, you’ve taken on far more than you can handle for your project.

This leads to Advice #3: if you get into trouble, let your contact know as soon as possible so the company can make arrangements to work around the issue. It is far better to admit this ahead of time than it is to make your contacts scramble at the last minute to fill the hole you’ve left.

But enough advice. Back to the process. When I get to work, this work involves a fair amount of research. Depending on the project, this could mean refreshing my memory of particular facets of a campaign setting or finding source documents such as books, films, articles, or whatever.

It always means finding the proper inspiration. Every project I work on has some sort of media influence, whether fiction, music, or movie. This helps key me into the proper mindset. If I am bogged down in some detail, I hit that key media again to remind me of any cool ideas I forgot to write down.

Which reminds me: I write down cool ideas at the appropriate points in my document, so I remember to include them later. (Why didn’t I write that down? Hm.) One problem with this is occasionally I get distracted while writing a sentence, and I forget how I was going to end it when I come back later. In the daily writing routine, it’s frustrating to come back to a paragraph and discover that I’ve left a sentence that says something like, “Once roused, the.” Worse still is just “The.”

So I would add as subadvice, don’t leave sentences half-finished. You’ll just get annoyed.

I’m a big believer in saving frequently. While autosave is a great feature, I guarantee that the last 5 minutes of every document are the best thing ever. If the word processor crashes, the best thing ever has just disappeared. This is one of the reasons I learned a pile of quick-keys—not moving my hands from the keyboard allows me to save quickly and keep working without breaking the flow. Grabbing a mouse breaks the flow and is a prime reason for a “The” fragment.

Let’s see… so I’ve hit some of the process, I’ve hit the importance of meeting deadlines early or on-time, or at least letting the developer know when I’m running late. So I’ve turned my project in, and now I’m done, right?

Not so fast. Whether it goes to a developer (who further develops the work and makes sure it adheres to the project’s specific goals) or to an editor, who cleans up the work and makes sure it’s print-ready (and boy, am I oversimplifying the role of an editor here), I still need to be on-call to answer questions about that work.

Sometimes this happens months down the road because the company’s schedule is not my schedule, and I’ll need to brush up on what I turned over before I answer their questions. But I want to make sure I give them the best possible answers to help them in their job. This is a crucial phase, and I hasten to remind designers that editors are your friends, even when they are tearing apart your work. They will catch errors and inconsistencies in your work, make sure it fits into their world, correct your dumb style mistakes and terrible grammatical choices, and much, much more (such as asking what your intent was with the sentence fragment).

They may also rewrite your work or discard portions of it altogether. If this happens, well… Advice #4: Learn to let go. If you are writing work-for-hire, what you write stops being yours as soon as you turn it in. It becomes the property of the person or company who contracted you to write it, and what you’ve written may not fill their needs.

What you can do in this case— rather than crying and moaning—is write to the editor and ask what you can do differently for the next project. If you keep getting work from the company, you can assume that they simply wanted to take that particular project in a different direction, and what you turned over didn’t meet that description. There’s no need to take that personally, especially if they pay you for the work anyway.

It’s when they send insulting letters back that you need to worry.

Next time, I’ll share design advice for non-RPG games—I’ll have a fresh new perspective on it, since I’ll have playtesting feedback for my game from a group of strangers at U-Con in Ann Arbor (November 13, with Paul S. Kemp as the Guest of Honor).

Any questions?

13 thoughts on “Now, the Twist: On (RPG) Process”

  1. Thanks for the advice Colin. I’m still waiting for my first sale. Do you have any quick advice for part-timers, and do think that having a blog helps with the process.

  2. I would say that every freelancer is a part-timer. Few writers / freelancers are employed full time.

    Rule 1: Don’t quit your dayjob.

  3. Indeed! I know I fit my writing and illustrating jobs in on top of my full time job.

    Colin’s advice about time management and not biting off more than you can chew is spot on! It’s an easy thing to over look, but it will also bite you in the patootie every time if you don’t heed it!

  4. Tom: Darkjoy’s advice is right. “Don’t quit your day job is pretty crucial.” There are very few writing freelancers who make a comfortable and reliable living from gaming material. In general, writing is not a lucrative profession, and it should be a part-time gig for you as a creative release rather than a life-plan. Unless you have incredible motivation, discipline, and creativity, I strongly urge having backup income.

    My other advice is, strangely, that you should keep reading and keep writing. Enter contests like Paizo’s RPG Superstar, where you can have your work judged by professionals. Having a blog *could* help as a showcase of your work, so the question is whether you’re comfortable with putting portions of your portfolio online – the implicit assumption with putting anything online is, of course, that it’s going to be copied, possibly without attribution, and there’s not a thing you can about it.

  5. Marc – I’m sure you’ve been called in to help clean up messes as well. Having an emergency happen once or twice due to unforeseen circumstances (tornadoes, fires, floods, deaths in the family, etc) is an acceptable excuse for blowing a deadline… but again, only if you let your contact know as soon as possible. Just disappearing and refusing to answer the phone or email is not.

    Flakes don’t get work. At least, not more than once.

  6. I only really know of two regular, pure freelancers and they are full-on demigods of design who have massive experience on their side and enough name to make full-time freelance feasible.

    Staying on top of your deadlines is essential, and this is the advice I’ve seen repeated by pro after pro– Colin, Wolfgang, and any one of the great folks I managed to chat with at Gencon. Good reviews are fleeting, but blown deadlines are forever.


  7. “Good reviews are fleeting, but blown deadlines are forever.”

    Wow, what a great quote! It should be every freelancers mantra.

    I think it might even be a good saying on a tee shirt … :)

  8. I would add be available for interviews and other press-related items. If you mention that you’re available for interviews, follow-up articles and (bonus points)yet if you suggest which media outlets might be interested in them, you’ll really raise your freelancing profile.

    If you’re lucky enough to land interviews or be on a panal at a con, have something more interesting to say than, “It’s a really cool product.” You need to differiate it from everyone else’s. And don’t diss it. Be professional with media outlets noting their deadlines and needs.

  9. “Good reviews are fleeting, but blown deadlines are forever.” I think I’ll write that one down.

    Did I mention that I’m available for interviews and other press-related items? ;)

    But seriously, Shelly’s got great points. If you’re planning on doing this professionally, be prepared to do it professionally.

  10. Great article, huge amount of truth to this.

    I would add two things.

    1. After your finished you need to ask “What’s Next” while your fresh in the developer’s mind.

    2. Self-promote yourself and the projects your working on.

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