Full Time RPG Writing: The Reality

buried-under-paperworkThere’s a lot of articles out there telling you how hard writing is, how difficult it is to get into writing or game design and how it’s not really worth it. I suspect some people just don’t want the competition and are trying to put you off. You have to ask yourself though, if it’s so damn difficult why are they still doing it?

I just want to give you a real perspective on what it’s like, but one balanced by giving you the reason why I still do it in spite of the difficulty.

Getting In

I consider myself to be a pretty good game designer and writer, despite getting bashful about it and denying it if anyone asks. It’s something I know how to do and something I’ve been doing a long time. I’ve put in ten years as a self-publisher with this as my only job. I’ve written… a lot. I’ve freelanced… a lot but despite all this I’m painfully aware of one big, blindingly obvious thing about the fact that I’m now employed, full time doing what I love.

I’ve had a lot of luck.

  • I have an incredibly patient wife who has been willing to support me.
  • I didn’t let any of a hundred different things stop me.
  • I’ve not ‘grown out’ of the thing I love.
  • I gained a ‘superfan’, a sponsor and patron without whom I may not have been able to continue.
  • I managed to struggle through mental illness.
  • I was lucky enough to inherit the house I now live in.
  • I was lucky enough to encounter and befriend people who were in a position to make this happen.

It’s not all luck. If you have talent and you have vision then hard work makes up a lot of the ground, but it’s not the only thing. It’s also more than possible to have vision and drive but not the necessary talent. A lot of people are weirdly impervious to their own lack of ability while, from what I’ve seen, most people who are really good at something are crippled with self doubt. It’s a weird dynamic.

The good side? Once you’re ‘in’ you’ll get a bit more respect (and jealousy). You can relax a bit and – if you’re lucky – you’ll form a bit of a legacy.

Doing the Work

Working in gaming is a fucking pig of a job. To justify what I’m paid, which isn’t a huge amount by any normal standards, I have to turn out around 3,000 words a day. There’s other things I can do, since I’m not just a staff writer, but just to justify my existence I need to try and aim for that amount.

This is a punishing amount of work.

RPG writing doesn’t directly correlate to prose writing, some parts of each are more difficult than the other, but to give you some idea an informal survey showed me that most professional writers in prose are turning out – perhaps – 1,000 to 2,000 words a day on average while games writers and designers are expected to turn out 3,000 words or more.

Quality suffers when you have to write that much but the economics of the situation mean that this is unlikely to really change that much unless you can become a real name with some independent market value all of your own. There aren’t that many Monte Cooks.

That’s just the words you put out at the end. There’s a lot of ‘shadow work’ around that which you also have to take into account. In-progress editing, research, cross-checking, correcting errors, checking consistency, reading and so on. That’s just if you’re writing/designing. If you’re doing other stuff it can take some of the pressure off but it’s still going to eat into your writing time.

You just can’t plan around inspiration and creative energy. It’s too unpredictable, even if you give yourself ‘work hours’ there’s no guarantee your output is going to match the time you put in.

This is part of the reason I’ve found it a bit unfair in the past that Mongoose and other mid-tier companies were criticised for the quality of the writing or using a more formulaic approach to making games. The writers had to turn out a mass of material and of course quality was going to suffer. That a lot of the material we get at the end of process is usable or inspiring at all is a bit of a miracle.

Reaping the Rewards

Money isn’t going to be your reward (unless you stumble on the next D&D or Munchkin – and have more contact sense than we did). Give that up right now. If you’re looking to make a lot of money and sleep in a bed of gold coins you’re in the wrong business.

You absolutely have to do this for love, first and foremost.

Gamers are a subculture, for all that D&D is known. Fame isn’t going to be yours either but you may become known and appreciated within our subculture. You may get invited to conventions as a guest if you do well. You will get fan mail (delete the hate mail, keep the good criticism). People will want books signed.

You will find videos and podcasts and blogs by people who are playing your games and enjoying themselves. That’s the reward. It sounds cheesy but knowing you’re making people happy, that you’re providing a way for hundreds of people to be creative and spend some time together. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s not quite as good as sex, but it’s up there with the bit just after sex where your partner tells you how good it was.

I’m not going to tell you not to do it.

Do it. Make games. Tell stories. Help others create their own legends. Just do it because you love it.

One response to “Full Time RPG Writing: The Reality

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