The Psychology of Freelancing in the Roleplaying Industry

Many roleplayers entertain thoughts of getting into the roleplaying industry – some of them as freelance writers. Many of these people, however, aren’t suited for the peculiarities of the industry. So they have a miserable time, the companies that hired them have a miserable time, and everyone goes home mad.

I’ve been researching writing and creativity lately. Add on top of that a slight background in psychology (I was working on getting a degree in it before we moved, and I’m certifiably nuts, which should count for something), roughly eight years of freelancing for roleplaying companies, some experience with writers’ and roleplayers’ burnout, and a tendency to just listen to and observe the writers around me. Somewhere in there I started coming to conclusions about what, exactly, made a writer suited to working in the RPG industry.

What Is Freelancing?

A freelancer takes odd contracts and jobs, doing what’s needed where it’s needed, whether for different game lines or different companies. Companies pay you by the job, not with a regular paycheck, and they hire you to write individual manuscripts (or pieces of manuscripts). There are several different ways that you might go about freelancing:

#1. You talk to a company that has books already chosen, planned out, and scheduled. You give them writing samples and whatever accompanying material they want. If they want you to write for them, they give you a contract and an outline. You write whatever that outline tells you to write – not something of your own devising.

#2. Thanks to the advent of the d20 phenomenon, there are now more companies willing to take a look at your own, pre-written manuscripts (or pieces of manuscripts) rather than hiring you to write up their ideas. While not everything in this article will apply to this kind of freelancing, you might find such sections as Redlines & Rewrites, Copyright & Contracts, and Critics & Reviews relevant to you if you want to do this sort of work. (For companies that take proposals instead of pre-written manuscripts, add in Deadlines, Word Counts & Ability Assessment, and Outlines.)

If you develop a heck of a reputation as a freelancer and game designer, you might get to the point where you can walk up to various companies, give them proposals for projects you want to write, and have them reliably agree to publish your projects. (Most freelancers don’t ever get to this point.) This largely follows the pattern of #2, so you’ll want to look at the same sections. Or you could decide to start up your own company and write your own material that way. This might seem like a quick way to avoid most of these issues, but the truth is that if you want to be successful, you’ll still have to deal with things like deadlines and rewrites.

A Bit Of Psychology

The psychology of outlines

When you write to a company’s outline, someone else controls what you write. Outlines vary from vague, loose instructions to minutely detailed monstrosities that control nearly every level of what you write.

According to Susan Perry, PhD, many writers lose motivation when they believe that someone else controls their writing (through outlines, deadlines, or what have you). And many writers hate working with outlines in the first place; this removes the mystery for them, and mystery acts as a powerful motivator for many writers. Others just find that they don’t consciously control where their writing takes them, so they simply can’t follow an outline.

If you have serious trouble following outlines, or hate the idea that someone else will be in control of your writing, then avoid the first type of freelancing. You might also dislike proposal-based freelancing, since most companies will want to see an outline before you write the manuscript. At least you get to write the outline yourself in this case, however.

[Note to companies: the implication here is that by using looser, less minutely-detailed outlines, you might attract some writers who would otherwise dislike this sort of work, because you’d give them more control over the writing. In particular, you might use this to hold onto long-time freelancers who are getting restless and want to start working on their own material. I don’t know how well this theory holds up in practice, but it’s something to think about.]

The psychology of co-authors

For the first type of freelancing, a company will often assign you a co-author (or five) to work on a book with. Even people who agree to give up a certain measure of control to the person who pays them often have trouble giving up any control to a peer. Following your outline becomes particularly important here, because if you don’t, you can screw over your co-author in various ways.

A good partnership with a co-author can work wonders. If you each accept feedback from each other and work closely together, it can result in a much better manuscript. If you don’t, it can result in a manuscript with problems. Can you play well with others? Can you take criticism from a peer? If not, the first type of freelancing might cause problems for you.

The psychology of copyright & contracts

Most RPG industry authors write on a work-for-hire basis (there are good legal reasons for this in most cases – I won’t get into them here). This means that the company owns your work in its entirety, and all rights to it (including derivative rights). This goes up against that control issue mentioned earlier – many writers hate the idea of signing over their work. (Many writing industries also see a lot of misuse of the work-for-hire contract, and thus it has acquired a bad reputation.) If you can’t handle signing over the rights to your work, then you might reconsider your desire to work in the RPG industry.

The psychology of deadlines

Some people find that externally-imposed deadlines motivate them and challenge them. Others see them as yet another restriction placed on their writing. Make sure you know your tendencies before you decide to freelance. Think back to high school or college. Did you procrastinate until the last minute and do hurried, shoddy work? Did you turn things in late all the time? Then reconsider any freelance career that involves deadlines. Do you find that you can only get yourself to write when a deadline looms? Then you might enjoy freelancing after all.

Word counts & ability assessment

Agreeing to contracts you can’t handle is a quick way to overwhelm yourself, burn yourself out, and annoy companies. Know what sort of word count you can write per day. Spend at least two weeks (preferably a month) writing stories or adventures (you’ll need a writing sample, after all); use your word processor’s word count function and a spreadsheet to keep track of how many words a day you write. Think back to your lowest per-day output (and how many days a week you get writing done) when deciding whether you have the time for a contract. If your output is so unreliable that you can’t predict your writing rate at all, then you might not find freelancing to be your ideal job.

Know which sorts of material you write well and which you don’t (adventures? Rules systems?). If you can only do one thing well, you might not want to become the first sort of freelancer – companies could get tired of offering you contracts only to have you say no all the time. Or worse, you take the contract, you hate what you’re doing, and they hate the results. (There’s nothing to say you can’t try to widen the range of things you can do, of course – an openness to trying new things is a valuable trait in any writer.)

Working hours

Many prolific writers maintain their energy level and enthusiasm by writing for half a day at a time, rather than all day every day. Figure out what works best for you and take that into account when assessing your ability to handle a project. Keep in mind that those few people who make a living freelancing usually do it by putting in very long hours. Do you enjoy writing all day every day? Then you might like freelancing.


You’ll almost always have some sort of research to do for your contracts. For one contract I read 8 background books from the game line. For another, several long fiction series. For another, I watched quite a few movies. If this sounds like too much work to you, then you probably weren’t meant to be a freelancer, at least of the first variety. Sometimes for type 2 you can come up with projects that don’t require as much in the way of research. By the way – remember to factor research time into your assessment of whether or not you can handle a contract.

The psychology of redlines & rewrites

After you turn in your first draft, the line developer or line editor will read the manuscript, mark up everything he wants you to change, and send it back to you. If you can’t stand the idea of changing your words to suit someone else’s sensibility, don’t become a freelancer. If you can’t stand any kind of criticism, then find a different line of work.

You will find this process gets easier the more self-confidence you gain. This doesn’t mean that you need to be immune to criticism or perfectly self-confident to work in the industry – almost every writer finds criticism difficult to deal with. But you do need to be able to handle your negative reaction in a positive way.

[For companies: if you don’t want to drive away writers, then don’t go overboard writing vicious comments on manuscripts. There’s a difference between being straightforward and being nasty.]

The psychology of creativity & criticism

Mari Messer’s experience, as well as that of many others, has shown that criticism, when given too harshly and too early in the writing process, can squash creativity. Writers need to feel free to screw up in the very early drafts or they become afraid to take risks.

Make sure you can accept early criticism, or at least make sure that you have enough time on your contracts for you to do a rewrite or two before you turn in your first draft. That should give you the buffer time you need to be able to handle the criticism you get. If you can’t handle criticism until you’ve had quite a while to work on a manuscript, then the deadlines the first sort of freelancer will face might prove too difficult for you.

Handling critics & reviews

After a company publishes your work, someone will inevitably say rude things about it in a review. Someone will say “it sucked!” on a newsgroup, mailing list, or forum. The wide variety of roleplaying products in existence proves that different people want very different things out of their RPGs. So no matter how good your work, someone somewhere will dislike it. If you can’t handle this with equanimity, think twice about freelancing as a career.

It’s normal for writers to feel hurt by such things, but that’s different from not being able to handle it. You can feel hurt or angry and yet move on anyway. Many writers simply ignore such reviews and criticisms so that they don’t get discouraged by them. Others cultivate the ability to act in a polite (professional) manner, and move on.

The psychology of motivation

Susan Perry’s work shows that most writers have a much easier time writing if internal factors motivate them – the pleasure they get from writing, giving life to their ideas, challenging themselves, and so on. External motivators, such as other people’s deadlines and outlines, feedback from editors, and so on, can end up demotivating writers if they outweigh the internal motivators.

This means that if you can’t find enough joy and motivation from the simple act of writing, or if deadlines and outlines sap your enthusiasm, freelancing could potentially burn you out.

While you certainly don’t need all of the following personality traits and abilities in order to become a freelancer, it helps to have at least a few. Some items (such as a desire to try new things) tend to be common among writers. Others (such as a lack of need to write about your own ideas) are not common among writers:

  • Professionalism
  • A sense of responsibility
  • Being a “workaholic” who enjoys writing long hours
  • Being the type of person who finds deadlines, word counts, and outlines challenging rather than restricting
  • An ability to write whenever you want, rather than needing to wait for inspiration to strike out of the blue
  • A good sense of your abilities and limitations
  • A desire to try new things
  • An enjoyment of research
  • Self-confidence, resilience, or at least equanimity
  • A lack of need to write about your own ideas (most freelancers I know find that they don’t have extra time to write their own material)
  • An ability to enjoy writing for its own sake, no matter what outside concerns (like deadlines and outlines) may exist

Keep in mind that there are no hard-and-fast rules where personality is concerned, so these are rough guidelines, not regulations by any stretch of the imagination. Also keep in mind that with effort, people can often learn such attitudes and skills if they really want to. So even if you don’t see yourself in the above list, that doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to work in the industry. It just means it would take a little more work for you.

The psychology of burnout

There are many things that can lead to burnout for a writer. Since burnout consists of a lack of motivation, enthusiasm, and desire to engage in an activity that once felt good, all of the information in this article about motivation applies. Here you’ll find a number of things that can contribute to burnout, depending on your personality:

  • That feeling of lack of control.
  • Harsh criticism (particularly too early in the process, or criticism directed at you rather than your writing).
  • Since freelancing almost never seems to leave much time for writing your own things, the fact that you don’t get to write what you want.
  • Having to meet a deadline.
  • Knowing you don’t own any of your published writing.
  • Having to do research you hate.
  • Realizing you’ve taken on more work than you can handle
  • Feeling that your work no longer challenges you, or provides you with anything new and interesting to do.
  • Having to work with a co-author (particularly one you can’t get along with).
  • Having to work long hours.

Odds are that no one of these things would lead to burnout, but gradually add in one after another over a period of years, and before you know it you’re sick of writing RPG material. Keep in mind that things do change. What works for you this year might feel tiresome and annoying five years from now, and what sounds annoying now might seem easy five years from now.

I’ve noticed a very high burnout rate among RPG freelancers. So many of them end up feeling grumpy and trapped, or simply move on to other things. Many people start out being ideal freelancers, but after 10 years they’re more than ready to move on, to write their own material for a change. Given how much RPG freelancing violates all of the research-supported ideas of what motivates writers, this doesn’t surprise me at all.

It seems to me that the writers who stay in the industry the longest are the ones who find ways to gain greater autonomy and control over their writing – by starting their own companies, doing other writing on the side, or gaining a great enough reputation that companies will often publish whatever the author wants to write.

Is It For You?

If you can’t decide after reading this whether you can handle it, then try a small contract and see how it goes. Or give the second type of freelancing a try, and leave the first alone until you see how you like it. Just keep in mind that ten years from now you might want to give a different sort of writing (or other work) a try if you’re burned out on freelancing; leave that option open to yourself so you don’t feel trapped. There’s nothing that says you have to remain a freelancer if you decide to go that route for now.

Don’t do something you aren’t suited for and will hate. This leads to many of the “horror stories” you’ll hear about freelancers who disappear in the middle of a job, fail to turn anything in, turn in something that bears no resemblance to what was contracted for, refuse to rewrite a manuscript, and so on. After all, if you hate what you’re doing, then you probably won’t want to stick around and finish it.

Many people simply shouldn’t freelance for the roleplaying industry; the average writer isn’t suited to it. I don’t think of the ideal freelancer as a lesser or greater sort of writer than others – just different, and oddly suited to an unusual sort of job. Judging by all the research on what makes writers tick, in fact, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the ideal RPG industry freelancer is an aberration, a very peculiar sort of writer. So don’t push yourself to write in a way that you won’t like. Don’t become another horror story – do the kind of writing that’s right for you, whether that’s freelancing – or not.


Posted in Gaming, Writing

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