#AprilTTRPGmaker Being a TTRPG designer means…

diceBeing a tabletop role-playing game designer means: poverty.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: emotional highs and lows.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: disappointment.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: a huge sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: drama.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: providing fun and games to people all around the world.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: having your every design decision questioned and misinterpreted.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: creating people and worlds that can have profound meaning to people.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: letting other people play with your baby.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: constantly learning new and interesting things.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: answering questions and queries.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: innovation and the honouring of tradition in equal measure.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: telling people no, more than you’d perhaps like.

Being a tabletop role-playing game designer means: sometimes having to do something for yourself, rather than your customers.

#AprilTTRPGmaker Who are you?

29415856_177908456264412_4608036318428004352_nThere’s a ‘thirty-day challenge’ (these are popular in the TTRPG community) aimed towards tabletop game designers. I need content and am trying to recover from a long and nasty bout of depression, so this seems like a good way to try and get back on track.

The first question is ‘who are you’? Which is either a really deep or a really shallow question, depending which way you take it.

I’m James ‘Grim’ Desborough. The ‘Grim’ was originally an insult, directed at me at college where I was a mopey goth kid with a dark and sick sense of humour. The slang of the time was ‘that’s Grim’ for anything disgusting or awful, so with typical contrarianism, I adopted it as my nickname. Hence ‘Grim Jim’.

I’m a rapidly-ageing, semi-notorious game designer, known better for a rather thin gruel of supposed transgression than my work in game design and independent publishing – which is unfortunate.

I’ve had my toe in the game design waters since the early 90s, but my career really took off in 1999-2000, with the publication of The Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming (which kicked off the whole Munchkin phenomenon and lead to a lot of freelance work).

Since around 2005 I’ve primarily been working on my own material, but I’ve been suffering from bouts of depression since 2007-2008 which have made work and freelancing rather difficult. Still, I struggle on and while my work is informed by my interest in history, old-school left-wing politics and my struggles with mental illness, it rarely dominates my work – with the exception of one or two projects such as ImagiNation and The Little Grey Book.

tumblr_ozzupxaSXr1qgh5aeo1_540.pngI occupy a design/writing space somewhere between the OSR and Indie scene, and most other sociopolitical armed camps, which means I end up pleasing nobody and being a filthy centrist! My work is also informed by my commitments to free expression, controversial (meaning, interesting) subjects, sexual freedom and the implications of science (and fantasy) on society.

Hopefully, that sounds interesting 🙂

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.