Thank you for attending the Writing for Computer, Roleplaying, and Board Game session at ArmadilloCon 41. I appreciate our moderator Aaron de Orive and fellow panelist D Chang. Below are some key thoughts I may or may not have shared during this session on writing for tabletop / pen & paper roleplaying games (we’ll just go with TTRPG for the rest of this post) as well as some useful links. I also invite you to check out my roleplaying writing credits here.
1) The State of the TTRPG Industry in 2019
The TTRPG industry looks a lot like the world of fiction publishing in 2019, in many ways dominated by a few companies (Wizards, Paizo, White Wolf, Chaosim, Games Workshop) with formidable resources. Beyond that sphere are a wide range of mid and small size, often niche, publishers as well as self-publishers. While that is very good for the range and diversity of projects coming available, resources as scant. The extent to which TTRPG products are now crowdfunded gives an idea of exactly how much money is floating through most of the industry (not much). Margins are generally low and publishers are resistant to backing a project that can’t prove its market.
In summary, the industry is wide open for new innovative ideas. But, if writing for TTRPGs is your “get rich quick” scheme (or even your “get rich slow” scheme) you probably want to rethink that.
2) TTRPG Trends
What is Old is New Again: The biggest trend in TTRPG matches one at the movies. Many of the most successful and early anticipated releases in recent years have been new installments or reboots of familiar properties (Vampire: The Masquerade, Lord of the Five Rings, Pathfinder 2nd Ed., ongoing new properties for D&D 5th Ed.).
Which is not to say that no one is putting out new properties. Some recent release that have received buzz include the high-concept fantasy Overlight, the space-opera Tachyon Squadron, and the dark Sword & Sorcery Forbidden Lands.
Keep it Simple, Sorcerer: In terms of new properties, we see a continuation of the decade-or-so old trend toward greater simpler game mechanics emphasizing quick set ups, flexibility, and speed of play. This can be seen in the popularity of games that use engines like FATE, Savage Worlds, and the Gumshoe System. (Of course, in TTRPG, anytime you talk about a “trend,” at least one counterexample will immediate present itself. This year saw a re-release of Runequest, a game once (in)famous for its complexity.
Along with the trend toward simplicity, comes a greater fondness for open or collaborative storytelling, in which all participants and not just the GM have some ability to shape the broader world beyond direct PC action.
Every Game is now Cyberpunk 2020: Finally, the continuing popularity of play by post, the increasing popularity of live streaming, and the rapidly expanding number of apps on online resources is slowing blurring the lines between TTRPG and computer RPG.
3) Six Tips for Breaking into TTRPG Writing
Play TTRPGs: And then, when you’re sick of them, play more TTRPGS. Just like the best writers are voracious readers, the best TTRPG writers are compulsive gamers. Also, when I say “play TTRPRGs” I really mean “DM/GM TTRPGs.” Only by being in the driver’s seat to really get the 360-degree experience of what goes into a published product and develop an intuitive feel for what works and what doesn’t.
Begin by Freelancing: Publishers/designers are much more likely to take a chance on you if you have a portfolio you can show the,
Be cautious about entrusting your content to open source market places.
Practice the Craft of Writing: It’s not enough to have great ideas, you must be able to communicate them in writing clearly and succinctly. It’s not at all sexy to think about it this way, but TTRPG writing is essentially technical writing.
Network, Network, Network: In the interest of full disclosure, I’m terrible at this one. But, compared with fiction publication, I’ve found the TTRPG to be informal and heavily driven by “who you know.” So, how do you get to know the right people. First, hit the chatrooms and social media. Make intelligent comments and astute observations. Second, become a presence at local cons and beyond (think GenCon, PaxEast, etc.). Not only is this great way to meet people, it helps you stay abreast of industry trends. Third, look for volunteering opportunities. The industry has an endless hunger for playtesters, rules reviewers, game reviewers, etc. those are excellent opportunities to make connections and favorable impressions!
Take Your Ego Out of It: Remember, the proximate goal for TTRPG publishers is producing a coherent, compelling, marketable product. Their ultimate goal is making a profit. If you can’t suborn your artistic vision to the publisher’s needs, you’re not going to get very far.
5) Streaming/Live Play Games
The emergence of gaming is a spectator sport is something, I admit, I don’t fully understand. But, clearly, I’m in the minority there … and building a following there certainly could help one’s career in TTRPG writing … so this post would be remiss without addressing the issue. Plus, I’ve finally drunk the Kool-Aid, next month I’ll be playing the Hygiene Officer in live-streamed Paranoia campaign.
To be clear, I’m not speaking from first-hand experience here, but from reading and conversations with others, here is what I can offer on successful streaming/live-play.
Production Quality: An engrossing game is essential to be successful … but it will not in itself ensure success. You need to think of this as full on video-production and treat it accordingly, giving full consideration to camera placement, quality of audio, sound effects, even gimmicks like dry ice or puppets.
The Interactive Experience: Unlike a traditional video production, the level and nature audience interaction is another aspect needing consideration. Some groups find it both convenient and effective to appoint a single individual to take point on this. While the DM feels like the intuitive choice for this, I’ve heard reports that assigning a player or even recruiting a “host” for these duties is very effective.
Allowing chat members to directly impact the game, by choosing a character to receive an automatic critical success/failure, vote on an encounter monster, or even name an NPC or tavern is an effective way to engage and involve viewers. Obviously, any form of audience impact is something that needs to be agreed upon by DM and all players beforehand. Some groups monetize audience interaction by putting some or all of these features behind a paywall.
Give Murphy Murphy His Cut: Finally, manage your expectations. First, things will go wrong. React with patience and good humor, maybe even try to bring the audience in on the “joke.” While there are stories of instant streaming success … for most mere mortals audience growth is a slow process.
6) Jon, what are your favorite RPG systems?
GURPS (of course), D&D 3.5E, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Paranoia, 2300 AD, MegaTraveler, and Earth Dawn. Thank you for asking.
7) Useful Links
So You Want to Write RPGs: Tips for Becoming a Freelancer (an older article, but the most of the information is still good)
Five Tools that Will Help You Create a Gaming Broacast (another older article, some of the technical info is outdated but the general advice and prodcution checklist remains solid)
An Online RPG Writer Workshop (This is not an official endorsement … but I have heard positive feedback).