It isn’t uncommon for people to decide they want to write for roleplaying games because they want to write for their favorite game line. However, there are many reasons why this isn’t as simple as it seems. Here are a few things to think about before you decide to devote your life to writing D&D (or whatever else catches your fancy).
Getting the Attention of the Company
Big Companies Already Have Authors
Odds are if you’re set on writing for a particular game, it’s probably one of the big, well-known ones. Most of the big companies already have a regular “stable” of authors. Some of those companies just don’t need many new authors. When they do want a new author, they’re more likely to hire someone who already has experience in the industry. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to approach your favorite company first; some of them are more friendly to first-time authors than others. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out the way you hope.
Check the Web Site
Check out the company’s web site. Do they have information up for prospective freelancers? If not, then don’t get your hopes up. Most companies eager to hire new people have information out there designed to get authors to come to them. If they do, read the information carefully and follow any instructions to the letter. Some companies will tell you straight out that they already have most of the authors they need.
Check Out the Company
Look around the web at major RPG sites and check out press releases and news bits. If you hear that the company you’re interested in is doing poorly, laying people off and whatnot, then this might not be the time to approach them. If they’re tightening their belt they may well be thinning their production schedule, which means less possibility of getting hired. And if they’re doing particularly badly, you might not want to risk that they’ll fold without paying you.
Set Your Sights Lower
If you really want to write RPG material, then be willing to work on other games besides your favorite. Otherwise, what are you going to do if you approach the company and they say, “Well, we don’t have anything for you on that line you were interested in, but how would you like to write for this other line we publish?” Big companies will often try out new writers on smaller, less popular gaming lines before trusting them with the big ones. If you say you aren’t interested, or if you’re so set on writing only for your favorite line that you screw up that smaller assignment after taking it, then they won’t let you write for the big line.
Companies may want to see prior RPG publication credits (or at least prior publication credits of some sort). If this is the case with the company you want to write for, then start with a slightly smaller company first. For instance, if you want to write for D&D, you might write for one of the companies that are putting out D20 material first. If you do well, you at least have great resume material for when you approach the bigger company.
The only worry when working for smaller companies is that they’re more likely to fold. And if they haven’t been around long, you may have trouble finding out whether they pay their authors reliably and on-time. You might wait until they’ve put out a few products, then use web-searches and email to track down one or two of their authors, and nicely ask whether they can say if they’ve been paid on-time and without hassle.
Starting out at a smaller company or with a smaller game line may also help you network. I started out working for one line developer, who told another that I did good work, who told another… And now I’ve worked for or been hired by something like six developers. Never ever underestimate the power of networking, even if most of your networking consists of doing good work and letting someone else talk about it. Networking can also take the form of hanging out on newsgroups and mailing lists related to the company’s products, and engaging in intelligent discussion regarding the games you like. Some companies, particularly the smaller ones, take note of this sort of thing.
Think about What You Really Want
Concentrate on the Writing
Don’t go into RPG-writing because you like to roleplay. Go into RPG-writing because you like to write. The two just aren’t the same thing. Study your writing. Improve your writing. Get some things published, even if they have nothing to do with roleplaying.
Think about Other Games
If you only care about one game line, some people in the RPG industry might not think of you as a professional writer. They’ll expect you to see your RPG-writing as a hobby, and they have enough problems already with people who don’t approach their RPG-writing professionally. You have to be willing to write whatever assignment you’re given, and to write it well. If you have huge restrictions on what you’re willing to write, you won’t be seen as a professional. You won’t be expected to write whatever you’re told to write, and developers want writers who will write what they’re told.
Understand the Industry
Make sure you have some idea of what writing for the RPG industry is like. I’ve talked to people who suddenly decided that maybe they didn’t want to write RPGs after all when they found out they had to work with a co-author. Check out the rest of this series of articles before determining that you’ve found your dream job.
Paying Your Bills
RPG Authors Write Freelance
Many people don’t realize that there are few if any full-time writing positions in the RPG industry. RPG authors are contracted on a project-by-project basis. For the most part, only line developers are hired full-time, and you’re hardly likely to get one of those jobs right out of the starting gate (not to mention that developers don’t always get to do lots of actual writing, so you might not be writing much for that game of yours anyway). So no health insurance, no guaranteed work, no weekly paychecks, no office, no parking space.
Single Lines Don’t Put Out Enough Books
Even if you got hired to work on every single book put out in a single gaming line, which just wouldn’t happen, you probably wouldn’t make enough money to support yourself. If you want to make a living writing for RPGs you have to work on more than one game line, and probably for more than one company.
Checks Don’t Come Quickly
Many companies don’t pay until publication. So it could be a year or two before you get paid for your work. Keep that in mind when you’re planning on paying for your rent.
A Little Practicality
Most writing doesn’t pay that well, and RPG-writing is not at the high end of the spectrum. One of the big authors’ guilds (I don’t remember which one) did a survey not all that long ago that showed that the average professional writer makes $4,000 a year. That won’t even pay your rent. On top of that, you’re unlikely to get lots of contracts until you’ve proven yourself, RPG companies fold all the time (so you might not get paid for all of your work), and as I said earlier, it can take a couple of years in some cases before you start getting paid.
A Day Job
You’ll probably need a day job. If you’re trying to kick-start a writing career and don’t have anything else in mind, I might recommend something simple, even if it doesn’t pay a whole lot. If you’re working the kind of job that takes up 60 hours a week and which you can’t help but think about when you go home, you won’t be getting much writing done. Probably your best option is to have a 9-5 job that’s over at the end of the day — no late hours, no “homework.” Even better, some such jobs may allow you to do reading or writing during your slow hours.
Don’t just jump into a low-paying job, however, unless you’re awfully sure about the writing career and have some reason to think you might be able to do it. It would suck to grab the first cheap job you can find, only to discover that you can’t sell your writing. Another option, however, is to get a different sort of job in the RPG industry, one that doesn’t require as much experience. Some people get their start by doing other sorts of work for a company, and then use the fact that they talk to RPG company employees all the time in order to network.
Other Kinds of Writing
If you do RPG-writing, do other kinds of writing too. It’ll look good on your resume, it’ll polish your skills, and it’ll give you a little income besides those small RPG checks.
It takes time to kick-start a writing career, to build up a selection of magazines, RPG companies, and other places that are willing to buy your work. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, your writing career will probably ramp up pretty slowly. Hopefully at some point you’ll make enough money and have enough contacts that you can decide to write full-time. Just don’t expect it to happen tomorrow, and remember that it might not happen at all.
This isn’t meant to depress you or to convince you that it isn’t worth trying to write for your favorite game. I really enjoy the RPG-writing I do! But then I don’t expect it to pay all of my bills, and I have realistic expectations of what the conditions are like. Check things out for yourself, and once you know how things work, make a fully-informed decision.
A reader by the name of Alan (thanks Alan!) pointed out to me that for those people who want to write for their favorite game, there’s always another option: putting up material on your own web pages, and submitting things to other web sites and ezines. He mentioned this specifically in reference to writing for games that are no longer being published, but it applies to other games too. You won’t get paid for your work, and it requires the publisher to have a reasonable policy about fan-posted material. But at least you’re providing material for yourself and others to use, and that can be fun.