The Mythical Prospective Roleplaying Game Writer

There are a lot of enthusiastic roleplayers who’d like to write for their favorite RPG companies. They know the material well, they enjoy it, and they like to write. (Lots of roleplayers like to write — it probably has to do with the fact that a lot of roleplaying is story creation.) This is a good thing.

So our mythical roleplayer/writer goes off to the company’s website, or the relevant newsgroup, and he reads the submission guidelines, and maybe he asks a few questions of random people. Or perhaps he sends something straight to the company.

He then gets a response. If he’s talking to other roleplayers and writers, maybe someone tosses in a line about how you really shouldn’t “just send stuff to the company,” that the companies don’t appreciate that. It isn’t relevant to what the roleplayer directly asked. If he sent something to a random developer or line editor at the company, maybe he’s told rather curtly to go read the submissions guidelines (which might not have answered his question in the first place).

Our roleplayer then feels (understandably) irritated. He feels that people are being condescending, are treating him as though he’s a random “fan-boy” and not a writer who’s seriously interested in writing for the company. After all, he already read those guidelines, and he didn’t ask whether or not he should send something straight to the company. He doesn’t understand why people are making all the wrong assumptions about him.

Maybe this will help him to understand a little, should he happen to read it. I’m not excusing people’s rudeness, but rather trying to help those who haven’t dealt with the RPG industry much to understand why the people they’re trying to reach have certain knee-jerk reactions that crop up when people inquire about writing for roleplaying game companies.

What the Line Developers See

A lot of roleplayers are interested in writing. Some of them are extremely good writers. Some are pretty good. Some aren’t bad, but haven’t yet reached a publishable level. And some will never be published by anyone. The RPG crowd might have a larger percentage of publishable writers than the average population, but that doesn’t mean that every roleplayer is the next bestselling author.

Our mythical roleplayer writes very well, and has a strong interest in professionally approaching his idea of rpg-writing. He, however, is not representative of the average person who approaches the developer of a roleplaying line, or even other rpg-writers. Before the developer got that well-worded letter from our mythical roleplayer, he got 20 letters from people who exhibited one or more of the following traits:

  • They had really bad grammar or spelling. No one wants to hire a writer who doesn’t understand grammar and doesn’t know how to use a spell-checker.
  • They sent him an unsolicited manuscript, without a nondisclosure agreement. Not only are most developers completely uninterested in unsolicited manuscripts, but at many companies they wouldn’t be allowed to read anything that didn’t include a nondisclosure agreement.
  • They sent him a proposal for a type of book that he has no interest whatsoever in publishing, and doesn’t suit his gaming line at all.
  • They sent him a proposal or manuscript for a type of book or story that’s been done to death already by every other company out there.
  • They told him just how awful his last book was and offered to rewrite it so it would be good. (No, really. This happens all the time.)
  • They told him how much they were interested in writing for the company so they could get free books (since any background books have to come before the contract, the developer will understandably expect this particular writer to take the books and never turn in a manuscript).
  • They evidence any other sign of a lack of professionalism.
  • They sent him a letter that showed that they have no idea what it’s actually like to write in the RPG industry. Since there are a lot of reasons why people don’t like writing for this industry, the developer is understandably worried that this person will bail on a project when they find out what it’s really like.
  • They sent him a piece of writing that showed talent and promise, but wasn’t of publishable quality. It isn’t the developer’s job to coach budding young writers into publishability — it’s to put out a good product.
  • They sent him a truly, terribly, awfully, horribly bad piece of writing and asked him to hire them (this happens more often than you’d believe).

Keep in mind that most developers put in very long hours, and don’t have hours and hours of spare time. Most are happy to use what time they have to encourage good writers, but having to spend it on people who clearly aren’t ready to write for the RPG industry drives them a little nuts. It doesn’t help that too many RPG writers as it is see their work as a hobby rather than a profession, and thus do all sorts of weird things: manuscripts don’t get turned in at all; manuscripts get turned in that completely suck; authors disappear off the face of the earth; authors give completely ludicrous excuses for why they can’t turn things in on time; and so on. Developers are desperate to not hire more people like this.

Our mythical roleplayer is none of these people. He made none of their mistakes. But by now, the developer knows the odds. Maybe one in twenty people who contact him have the talent and interest to really and truly behave professionally, write well, and be reliable. Maybe one in ten of those has the kind of experience, independence, and ability to work with a co-author under direction that the developer needs. Probably one in ten of those is actually realistically aware of what the job they’ll be doing entails, and is willing to work that way.

With those odds, I’d be grumpy too.

Other RPG Writers

Why are other writers grumpy, too? Why do they have their own knee-jerk reactions? They get to hear lots of grumbling from developers who are sick of getting really bad submissions from writers who clearly aren’t publishable. They also get emails from writers who tell them that they could have done the author’s job much better than he did. They get emails from writers who demand every detail of how to get into the RPG-writing business, and don’t even bother saying “please” or “hey, if you have a spare minute.” They get emails from people who clearly can’t even spell or use proper grammar who claim they’ve written the next great RPG of all time.

They also hear from a lot of people who think that writing is really easy and that anyone can do it. Since most writers work pretty hard at what they do, they naturally find this attitude a little offensive. Unfortunately this makes some writers a bit oversensitive to potential writers who approach them. After a while of getting barked at by people, they start assuming that other proto-writers who email them are also taking the same tone. This isn’t the best assumption to make, but after a while it can be hard not to make it.

On top of that, they too have gotten growled at by developers and RPG authors who couldn’t tell them apart from any other random fan who wants to write for the RPG industry. They figure that if they can head a few of the people who really don’t know what they’re doing off at the pass, or pass along some of the things they’ve learned, then things will be a little better for everyone who would make a good RPG writer.

In short, they’re not trying to be condescending or hurtful. They just figure that the more information they can put out there about how to professionally approach RPG-writing, the more likely our mythical roleplayer/potential writer is to do the right thing and avoid annoying everyone. There isn’t much information out on the web about how one goes about getting into RPG-writing, so they have reason to think that you probably don’t know certain details.

My Own Knee-Jerk Advice

If you’re thinking of becoming an RPG author, do yourself and the companies you want to work for a few favors. If you’ve gotten this far then some of this probably doesn’t apply to you, but does it really hurt to read it one more time? Besides, one or two things in here just might surprise you (they’ve certainly surprised other people I’ve talked to).

  • Find out what working in the RPG industry entails. I’ve had people read this series of articles and say, “wow, I didn’t know you had to work with a co-author. I was going to look into writing for the RPG industry, but I don’t know about that now.” If you’re already reading this series of articles, you’ve probably taken care of that part.
  • Show the developer up-front that you can behave professionally. Read the submission guidelines before asking questions. Try asking people on newsgroups or other sources before talking directly to a developer. Behave calmly. Don’t insult the developer or yell at people you want help from.
  • Write well. Get experience. Get something published, even if it’s just a short story. RPG companies like to see prior publication credits as much as anyone else does. (This is one of the major things that very few people I talk to have ever thought about.)
  • Developers are far more interested in people who can write well than in people who know the game world inside and out. The developer can always fix continuity mistakes, or tell the authors to go read thus-and-such. But they’d much rather hire “a writer who’s interested in roleplaying” than “a roleplayer who’s interested in writing.” If you want to write for a game, concentrate on proving that you’re a good writer, not that you know game trivia. (This is the second major thing that few people have thought about.)
  • On the other hand, companies do appreciate it if you at least know their basic rules system and cosmology. So make sure you’ve read and understood at least the main rulebook(s) before contacting a company.
  • Get lots of experience writing. I don’t mean for your own website, and I don’t mean for your friends. Take classes. Get involved in workshops. It may not always be a lot of fun, but it is useful.
  • Here’s a little-known tip: If you send a developer a story as a writing sample, it does not need to be set in his game world (unless the submission guidlines specifically say otherwise). As I said, he doesn’t care whether you know
    his game world, he cares whether you can write.
  • Small detail: take care when asking questions of writers to be polite. Even if you don’t intend to be demanding, an overly sensitive writer who’s had a few bad experiences may misinterpret your tone. Besides, being polite to someone you’re asking for help is just simple good manners.

None of this will guarantee that you will get a writing contract, or that the developer will realize your brilliance among the 50 people he doesn’t want to hire. It does, however, increase your chances. Act like a professional and you’re more likely to be treated as one.

Just try not to take offense if someone gives you some knee-jerk advice. Remember, he has no way of knowing that you’re the one in 50. Think of it like the can of Dust-Off(R) on my desk: There’s this picture of someone spraying the stuff in his ear with a big red stripe across it. My initial reaction is, “That’s ridiculous! No one would do that!” But then I stop, and I realize — they wouldn’t give the warning unless someone had tried it.

Posted in Gaming, Writing

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