A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



The Off Pitch

The time is upon us once again: a new submission window has just started for Wizards of the Coast and DDI!

And... and... I'm drawing a blank here.

The Thrill of Victory

Now I know how some of you think because I'm in a similar boat: getting something published in Dragon or Dungeon magazine would be really, really cool. It's an acknowledgement, a nod by a major gaming company that shows you actually created something worthy of their attention, so much so that they actually PAID you to do it! Not only that, but whatever you write will be read by lots of people! Players worldwide could potentially be using your content in their own private games! Your name will become a synonym for "awesome"!!!

Maybe I'm exaggerating that last part a bit, but you get the point. And I'm not saying that everyone's like that, but since I'm kind of already a self-publisher it's starting to look that way. I mean, I can already publish any content I want and it'll be seen by... well... a few people... So the only thing that DDI brings is a higher level of exposure and acknowledgement.

And money, let's not forget that. You can't buy a boat with it, but it's something. I admit that, had I received a check from Wizards of the Coast I would have probably not cashed it, choosing to encase it in plastic and make it a really cool paperweight. But, in case you all aren't aware, WotC doesn't send checks; they use direct deposit to pay you.

The Agony of Defeat

There's a flip side to acceptance: the agony of rejection. I have to admit, compared to other publishing venues in the world the folks at Wizards of the Coast do a fantastic job of rejecting your idea. Where most publishers will send you a "No. Just... No" form letter, WotC actually goes in to vivid detail as to why they are not interested in what you're proposing. There's an actual human responding to each and every email - I've received rejections from at least four different people at WotC in the past - and unless your idea is completely bats%#@ insane they'll add a fantastic personal touch to the message explaining why they are not interested at this time. I've never seen a company say "no" in such a nice, professional and constructive way. Even if they really want to say "good god, man... what the hell were you thinking?", they'll be nice about it.

But, regardless of how nicely they put it, some people see the rejection as a soul crushing defeat. Even if they respond "we like it, but we're doing that already", it'll feel like you're idea has been thrown in to the Abyss. If they don't like it, nobody will! You just have to look at the numbers to realize it... Every submission cycle WotC receives tens of thousands of submissions and only accepts a hundred or so. Where are these submissions? We should be up to our eyeballs in independently published content for 4th Edition, but instead these ideas are thrown away and lost.

The Publisher's Dilemma

Now I have to admit something: I have an article in the pipeline. I don't know when it might get published, or even if, but it's out there... sitting in either the "to be published" or "shred with extreme prejudice" virtual bin on a WotC server. And, yes, I did get paid... but printing my online bank statement, cutting out the single line that recognizes the wire transfer from Hasbro/WotC and encasing that in plastic just doesn't have the same flair to it.

That article was accepted about eight or nine months ago. Quite frankly, I freely admit it wasn't my best work by far, but I still look forward to the day that it might get published. At midnight on the last day of every month I eagerly open the new Dragon and Dungeon table of contents to see if my name is there yet, only to fall away in despair when it's not.

I know what you might be thinking: "you got paid, right? What does it matter?" ... Well, if you're like me you're not thinking that but somebody out there is. It all goes back to acknowledgement; until I see my article in print, the payment means little to me. It almost feels like I got paid to be silenced, especially since I legally can't publish it on my own now. Heck, I'm pretty sure I can't even mention the article's contents at this point. Until the world sees the article, the payment almost feels like hush money. And, at $0.06/word, it turns out that it's pretty cost effective to shut me up.

Because of my first experience with publishing something in DDI, I'm now hesitant to do it again. If I submit an idea now, it might not see the light of day until 5th Edition is out... and what's the point then? At this point I'm not worried they'll say "no", but I'm concerned of how I will react if they say "yes". Can I take another nine months of waiting for the article to be seen, hoping that it'll be published while 4th Edition is arguably still relevant?

And then the business person in me chimes in: "you're already a publisher! What do you need DDI for?" Admittedly, self-publishing is a lot more work and doesn't get anywhere near the level of exposure that a DDI article gets. And, even though WotC doesn't pay much, it might not make as much (I've only had one product sell well enough to be worth it, and of course it's the product I can't sell anymore and can't talk about. You know, that one...). Some people might write for recognition or for profit, but I write because I enjoy it.

The fact that I'm drawing a complete and total blank this time around doesn't help either. I have some big campaign ideas, but they are all beyond the scope of anything that would ever get published in DDI. And I am terribly bad at writing lore (I struggled on the lore like you wouldn't believe in the aforementioned article of mine), so I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that sort of thing no matter how cool the idea might be. I just can't think of anything to submit right now.

But, sooner or later, I'll submit something. Because, god damn it, I want to see my name on that Dungeon table of contents!


In a completely unrelated and surprising note, "The Heart of Fire" was recently reviewed on ENWorld and got 4 out of 5 stars!

Two things I learned from that review:

  1. Interior art is important. I really got to do something about that.
  2. I'm not charging enough for my products. I've always been bad at gauging the worth of what I do; when one enjoys it so, it's hard to try and gouge people with the price. Many say I should raise the price, but I probably won't.
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  1. I enjoyed reading this, thanks! I agree with much of what you write and have a few related thoughts. I primarily write because I want to contribute. I completely understand those that do it for fame and/or money (and those _are_ fine pursuits), but for me the primary drive is to contribute. There are a number of ways to contribute. One is to provide useful context. Write an adventure and people might use it or use parts of it. That’s cool. Another way to contribute is to try to advance the science of the game a bit. We can sometimes do a bit of educating or push the rules one way or another such that gamers might think of or approach the game a bit differently. I try to do that with some of my pieces.

    For those looking to contribute, I highly suggest organized play. Programs such as Living Forgotten Realms or Ashes of Athas are great ways to get your creation into the hands of others. A single LFR adventure will often be played by more than 1,000 players. That will be far greater than the number of people that actually play a Dungeon magazine adventure. With more DMs and usually more artistic freedom, organized play can be a more effective vehicle for promoting an alternative take on an adventure. With Ashes of Athas, where we encourage creative encounter construction, we’ve seen all kinds of really interesting takes on role-playing, combats, skill challenges, puzzles, exploration, and more. This, in turn, influences the community. I’ve seen Ashes of Athas ideas end up in LFR and I’ve personally been influenced by LFR advancements and brought them into AoA.

    So, hopefully, that’s interesting to your readers. It is generally easier to be accepted for an organized play writing gig – though the work is not easier. You still really get to hone your skills and the quality level is demanding. The LFR admins are professionals – many have seen their work published very often over the last 15 years by various RPG companies. One nice aspect is that you can often get a bit more dialogue with them over what they develop and why. If you see a change in the final form it is far easier to get feedback from an organized play admin.

    On the topic of getting paid but not seeing your work, in my experience Wizards will let you know if an article is truly “shelved” versus waiting for the right moment. I’ve had something shelved. I can in retrospect see why it happened. No, you can’t share the details (after all, they paid you, so you don’t own any rights to it!). It is possible to try to recast it, but that would involve a new contract. (And I would only attempt this if you have been told it is shelved and if you have a very clear vision for how to address the issues that caused it to be shelved).

    But, yeah, having something published in DDI is cool. It is an achievement, regardless of why you approach it. Also, I particularly like getting a feel for how the process of DDI works.

  2. Thanks for the article, it’s nice to see other people excited about the submission window.
    I’m also excited about it, but I’m hesitant with 5E on the horizon that a submission won’t matter much.
    And I agree that it’s all about the acknowledgement, if I ever got published in an official magazine, I’d probably encase the published article and hang it on the wall.

    @Alphastream, I didn’t know yet about LFR or AoA. I did know about Paizo’s submission for their Golarion setting.

  3. Hi, Tom! Paizo’s policy is similar, and not without reason. There is a long history of RPG companies needing freelance help and looking to people who were big fans and who were running games. Look no further than the first D&D Basic set! Over time it ebbs and flows. Paizo led the way a few years back, using their RPG Superstars program to identify talent. Some of those early contributors are huge contributors now. They also do the same with Pathfinder Society. Recently, Wizards has done that – for many DDI issues more than half of the contributors have organized play experience. Kobold Quarterly is an excellent place to get started; you can write for either edition!

    I have some thoughts on writing for DDI here, and I’ve linked to this article from it as well.

  4. An actual human response is so nice, especially when they offer criticism that is actually helpful and will help you be better.

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