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Starting Small

This is the second post in the So You Want To Make A Game? series. Like most entries in this series, it was written by a guest author.

Starting Small 

As part of doing a podcast about gaming conventions, I find myself at a fair number of conventions. Whenever I’m in the dealer hall, I often wander over to booths of companies with whom I’ve freelanced. Not only is it nice to meet and catch up with the editors who smith my words and the artists who translate my art orders into masterpieces, I also like to see people looking at the stuff I’ve written. Sometimes, I’ll even get roped into talking about something I’ve worked on. 

Invariably, someone will talk to me about how I got into freelance game design. Quite frequently, this person will talk about their epic adventure arc or vast homebrew fantasy campaign world. The person harbors a thought that they want to develop this into an RPG work and offer it to the world. 

Each time, whatever they’re proposing sounds awesome—but I always give this bit of advice: Start small. Why? 

Writing for an Audience

I have worked with enough new designers to recognize that there’s a difference between writing for your table and writing for an audience. It’s very easy to write an adventure at the level of detail for you to run a gaming session. However, it’s a whole different project to write an adventure organized and detailed enough to sell to someone who has the reasonable expectation that they can run a session with limited prep work. (Quintuple this dilemma for adventure arcs and campaign settings.) 

Self Publishing

Unless you have a connection within the industry, your first RPG works are likely self-published — especially at the scale of an adventure campaign or campaign setting. This means you have to arrange for everything.

At the outset, you should be outlining and writing the product itself. A good outline is your best friend, and I’ll warn you that the words sometimes flow more slowly than you want. 1500 words a night is a solid pace, but that’s 3-4 pages at a time. Once you’ve finished writing it, you should go back through and revise the work 1-2 times.

I’ve often heard the joke that the last 10% of the job is 90% of the work, and RPGs are no exception. Just when you get done with the writing, you get to the next three grueling steps: editing, art and layout.

  • You may get away with being your own editor—but the argument becomes weaker as the work grows longer and you’re tired of reading the same words. A good editor has the fresh eyes and outside perspective to help ensure your words are clear.

  • You can probably also get away with sourcing your own artwork—an early collaborator of mine was amazing at this. However, it becomes increasingly harder to source low cost/no cost art as the work grows longer, or worse—you choose artwork that is mislabeled as Creative Commons, which results in DriveThru or Itch pulling down the work for violating copyright.

  • You can probably also get away with doing your own layout — in fact, some of my favorite layout partners started out doing their own work before making the switch. Yet again, the argument for doing your own layout becomes weaker as the work grows longer, as it takes more and more effort to finish the project.

If there’s something that you can’t do on your own, you’ll need to pay someone to do it for you. Again, the bigger the work, the bigger the bill you’ll need to foot.

Redefining Success

You want to set reasonable, tempered expectations for what qualifies as success with your first RPG works.

While I’m sure that it’s creative and fills a need for players and game masters, your first works will probably struggle to find an audience. An appropriate measure of success with your first RPG works likely isn’t going to be downloads or sales—even if I still get a dopamine hit from looking at royalty reports and seeing sales and downloads.  

One measure of success is going to be completing your project. I have a number of projects in forgotten Google Drive folders because either my co-authors or I lost interest in working on them. Getting an RPG work to completion is a great accomplishment. 

Another measure of success is going to be learning from mistakes. In the process of developing an RPG work, you will make a number of mistakes, and I think you’re successful whenever you learn to avoid them in the future. 

Yet another measure of success is building a portfolio. If you want to freelance with your favorite publishers, having a list of RPG works that you can provide is a great way to get a foot in the door. 

In each case, you’re better positioning yourself for this kind of success by starting smaller. It’s easier for a larger project to fall by the wayside. You’re going to learn lessons writing five 10 page PDFs for Mork Borg before you write a whole Powered by the Apocalypse game. You’re going to develop a portfolio faster with smaller works than bigger works, even if bigger is perhaps better. 

Building on Past Success

None of this precludes you from building on your past works. If you have your heart set on that epic adventure arc, you can build it adventure by adventure. If you want to publish your campaign setting, why not start with a gazetteer of the capital city? 

Furthermore, RPG designers stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us and those who still stand among us. You’ll find tons of freelancers and professionals who are willing to give advice and offer guidance on how to be some definition of successful — sometimes it starts by saying hello to us at the booth.

 Benjamin L. Eastman was introduced to RPGs by his four closest friends—who immediately betrayed his trust by sacrificing his first character to a demonic artifact. Undeterred, he’s played all manner of RPGs in the intervening years. In addition to writing adventures, monsters and lore-filled blog series for Kobold Press, he’s contributed to the Stargate SG:1 RPG and Americana. While not playing elfgames in his basement, he and his partner are raising two irascible hobbit girls in the Midatlantic US.

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.

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