20 July 2014

So You Want To Write These Things Yourself?

People have odd notions of pros in this hobby.  I’ve come across some startling fanboyism.  When I came to gaming forums in 2003, after an eight year hiatus from tabletop, a fellow proclaimed in one thread of the inerrant truths of Ryan Dancey’s proclamations, was shocked that I’d neither heard of nor was impressed by him, and that I couldn’t be much of a gamer if I didn’t Know Who He Was.  That no one else in the hobby in 1995 had heard of Dancey didn’t really penetrate the poster’s shell.

But that's because participants in this hobby place a huge, disproportionate importance on it  — it's the same syndrome that has SF conventioneers quivering in ecstasy at the mere sight of authors who didn’t crack the New York Times top one hundred best-seller list with the most popular books of their careers.   Some people just gasp in horror that the names of the Big Name Authors of the Games They Play aren't engraved in gold in the consciousnesses of every gamer alive, and it's natural to go on from there to assume that these people are figures of monumental importance and wealth.

Now this is in ignorance of what most game designers make; for my own part, I was a frequent guest in the modest two-bedroom suburban apartment of the president of a game company that had one of the most hugely touted supplements of the 1980s, and he made almost ZERO money from the hobby — the family income was based on his day job as an environmental services executive.  There might not be more than a couple dozen people who make decent livings as full-time game designers.  There might not be that many.

There’s probably a hundred times that many people who’ve been a semi-pro at some time in their gaming careers, which leads into another syndrome. What sports fan hasn't sat up in his chair and cursed the blunderings of the home team, insistent that the player or the coach is a bum, and that he could do better himself? This derives from the fact that a majority of the men and a growing number of the women in this country at one point in their youths held a baseball bat, kicked a soccer ball or threw a football. It isn't THAT hard, they think, and so they figure they know all about it.

In like fashion, many GMs write their own scenarios and adventures. They have a notion how it's done, and they then read a product and mutter, "I could do a better job."  Now very few of you have book authors as personal friends (counting people who’ve had genuine national releases from major publishing houses, my total is two) ... but gaming?  Eight published authors of GURPS products alone have been regular players of mine, or else I’ve played in their campaigns.  That figure more than doubles for writers for non-GURPS products, and we won't even discuss those I’ve played with in one-shots, playtests or convention runs.

Now maybe there's a preponderance of game authors in New England, but what's more likely is that there's a whole lot of them out there period, and chances that every one of you who is a veteran gamer has played with at least one. So you look across the dice at the Sunday afternoon run, and there's Joe Blow, who wrote a module for D&D and a few articles for Vampire, and you say to yourself, "Sheesh, he's not any better a gamer than I am. What makes HIM so special?"  The mere implication that he's making dollars from the hobby can either be resentment making, or fill you with the certitude that you can do it yourself.

Fair enough.  Just don’t expect riches.  For the great majority of us, selling a gaming product meant some nice pin money. One sale got me the down payment on a new economy car. Another paid for a modest vacation.  One (split four ways for the co-authors) bought me my books and materials for my last semester of college.  I’ve got a dozen RPG publishing credits, and all of the money I ever earned from gamewriting doesn’t total up to a single year’s worth of a full-time minimum wage job.

Beyond that ... every single gamebook I ever wrote came through connections.  I met the aforementioned game company president at the local gaming club; he’d just moved to the Boston area, and we’d both joined the same dice baseball league.  There was the game company president who had a serious crush on my first wife's college roommate (true story!).  There were the people who recognized my name from long-time writing in APAs.  I started writing for GURPS because the baseball-loving game president had received a courtesy copy of the playtest rules from Steve Jackson, he didn’t have particular interest but knew I was a TFT GM, and handed them over to me – that got my name on the radar and into the GURPS corebooks.

This is how a number of game companies winnow down the hordes of energetic wannabe writers. Few game companies – if any – have people reading through slush piles. They often have specific projects in mind, fitting into existing product lines, and as in any other creative field they'll hire someone they know (or someone vouched for by someone they know) over those newcomers. They are not at all interested in OJT, and expect professional efforts written to their exact requirements, submitted on or before the deadlines, no excuses.

Starting your own deal from scratch? It can be done, and we know of folks who've done it. Unfortunately, many of them already had capital they were willing to invest to print their stuff, convention hop to push their stuff, and keep the bills paid while they were trying. And for every indie success, there've been twenty small press failures, and fifty no one's ever heard of beyond the local college's gaming club.

(I've two anecdotes to illustrate the syndrome. The first is from the mid-80s.  The gaming club at UMass-Amherst had a fellow who designed a board game, called Dawn of Islam.  Sorta a Diplomacy/Risk style wargame with unbalanced sides; the Byzantine position was by far the strongest.  Except ... the Islamic player, early in the game, received four tokens called "Army of the Faithful" which were damn near invincible, and of course to conquer the rest of Europe he'd have to go through the Byzantine player first.  Very intriguing, very well designed, very engrossing, there was a session damn near every week.  Everyone said that the designer ought to get it published.  He never succeeded at it, and the only reason I know the guy's name at this remove -- Roger Adair -- was in asking clubbies of the era on Facebook a couple years back.  Roger's passed away now, and no doubt his marvelous game's been at the bottom of a landfill for a couple decades.)

(Second one is, well, me.  I started veering away from D&D very early, and getting very very variant indeed.  Typed up the result in 1981, brought it to UMass with me the next spring.  I was something of a nine-day wonder that spring semester, had more players than I knew what to do with ... either I was that good a GM or everyone else was that bad, eh.  That was the only semester I was at UMass, life events taking me back to Boston, but one of my players had a xerox of the system, and Tom was enough of a fanboy to GM it.  He was doing it years later, something I found out at a SF convention down the road.  Having moved on to TFT and GURPS by then, I inwardly winced that someone was still GMing that godawful melange, but gave belated permission, and furthermore got into Tom's hands a copy of my spell manuscript, the part he never had.  The last I'd heard, he was still GMing it deep into the 1990s.  Go figure.)

Not deterred? Fair enough ... give it a shot! Just make sure to keep your day job.

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