A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Dreams of a Byline

We are currently about a fourth of the way through a submission window for Dungeon and Dragon magazines (DDI, for short). But early in the cycle a discussion cropped up on Twitter about why people want to be published in DDI in the first place, and why those same people just forget DDI and publish content on their own.

The Reasons to Submit

So why do people try and get published in DDI in the first place? There are a variety of reasons...

  1. For the Money: *snort!* Yeah, I know what you're thinking... Suggest this to almost any professional game designer and they'll probably laugh in your face. Sure, there are a few game designers that have made bazillions in the industry - John Carmack, Warren Spector, Sid Meier, Hideo Kojima and the like - but they are a rare breed, and they managed to create the right product at the right time. In fact, when you compare the amount of time you spend designing a game to the amount of money you stand to make from it you're looking at pennies on the dollar. So if you're looking to enter the lavish life of a freelance game designer, got news for you... Keep your day job.
  2. For Personal Pride: To many, being published in a major magazine is a rite of passage, a realization that your ideas were cool enough to get through the sea of slush that Wizards of the Coast must receive during every submission window. It's an acknowledgement that your ideas aren't crap and someone out there actually liked something you did. It might not mean anything to anyone you know, and your family might look at you as if you were nuts, but damn it... it's COOL! It's like seeing your name in lights on Broadway! You can't wait to frame your first article and hang it in my den!
  3. For the Greater Good: You have a brilliant idea, or at least one you think is really cool, and you think that there are many out there that could benefit from it. But how to let them know when your blog gets an earth-shattering eleven users a day? DDI has guaranteed readers - thousands of them - and if your article is as useful as you think it is, the exposure that DDI provides ensures that it reaches as many people as possible. And you feel better about using them to help support the community you're a part of and have grown to love.
  4. For Your Resume: Depending on your line of work, putting on your resume that you were a "freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast" could be a very big deal. Hell, I'm a computer programmer with 30 years experience... That won't mean squat on my resume but damn straight I'm going to put it in there when it happens.
  5. Because It's There: You got this idea and you're going to publish it no matter what. Why not send it to DDI? If they say "no", you can turn around and just publish it on your own. Either way, the world will see what you've written; it might not be with as much fanfare, but it's gonna get written no matter what WotC says.

As I've mentioned before, I've submitted many a time and actually have one article in the pipeline (I think anyway... Until I see it in print, I'll always be a skeptic). Of all the above, I think I fall in to #2 and #5, in that order. Damn straight the article's going up on my wall when it gets published, right next to my other ones (in case you're wondering, I've been in the Miami Herald, The Sun Sentinel, PC Magazine, a few other video game magazines and... er... the Tallahassee Democrat. Don't ask about that last one...)

The Wonders of Self-Publishing, or Lack Thereof

There's an interesting statistic I need to mention: according to Greg Bilsland himself, last cycle they received in excess of a thousand submissions for DDI. Now I don't know the exact numbers, but we can estimate how many of those might become articles: 12 months, 2 magazines, and let's say 6 accepted submissions each month (may be less if you consider regular authors that have articles every month)... that means 100-150 submissions a year or 50-75 submissions a cycle, which is probably a high number.

So 1,000 submissions go in, and 50-75 might get published. So what happened to the rest? If every one of the rejected authors would turn around and just publish what they suggested on their own, we'd be so up to our eyeballs in 4th Edition content we wouldn't know what to do with it all. Yet I can count the publishers I can think of in one hand (myself not included); why aren't there more?

There's a lot of reasons people don't self-publish.

It's Work: There's a big difference between creating an adventure and making it look good on paper. For every hour I spend designing encounters I spent 5 hours drawing maps and 10 hours doing layout in Adobe InDesign. And unless you're experienced in it and have adequate tools to do it - not many people can drop hundreds on dollars on Adobe CS5 Master Suite - it's a lot of damn work.

The amount of work depends on how you choose to express yourself and your product. Sersa from Save Versus Death reportedly does all his work in Microsoft Word, which quite frankly is staggering to me; I use MSWord for more than 5 minutes and I have to resist putting my fist through the screen, but he manages to create a fantastic looking product with the tool. You can perform miracles with nominal tools, you just got to know how to use them.

I admit I put a lot of work in to my products, but that's not because it's necessary; I do it because that's just the way I am. You don't need to create 38 detailed, high resolution encounter maps every time you have an adventure... Make it simple and get it out there. Draw it with a pencil if you have to, just do it.

Rejection: I can imagine a lot of people interpret "we are not interested in pursuing your submission at this time" to mean "What is this crap? Are you f&*#!%g serious?!? What the hell are you thinking?!? No, no, no... Sweet mother of God, no!" *DELETE!*

Look at the numbers above: 1,000 submissions turn in to about 50-75 publications. That's a mere 5-8%, give or take, so there's a lot that doesn't make the cut. And when you factor the amount of time and work it takes to get something published - remember that every article needs to get edited by several people and could call for more than one piece of really nice artwork - there simply isn't enough time to get everything published.

Some of the best ideas have to be left behind, and there's no reason to take it personally. There's a big difference between WotC not liking your idea and WotC having to pass on your idea simply because they don't have a choice.

But if they do answer "are you f&*#!%g serious?!?", you might want to reconsider.

Lack of a Venue: A lot of people who are submitting to DDI probably don't have any other public venue to release their product. They may not have anything more than an email address, so if they decide to publish anyway their product might simply disappear through the cracks amongst the other more visible blogs and sites. Sure you can publish through Drive Thru RPG, but your product might simply get lost amidst the sea of other content that flows through that site on a daily basis.

And let's say that you do publish it on Drive Thru RPG; you cannot expect thousands of people to download it within the hour. I admit I myself had some feelings of rejection when I published my first product and nobody downloaded it for a week. Heck, my most recent product - A Hero's Journey - has had only had about a dozen downloads. There are a variety of reasons why that's happening with AHJ, the biggest reason of which is that I simply have lousy timing (that's a topic for a later date).

Do not let the lack of an audience dissuade you. Get the product out there, then learn to do some self-marketing and go get your audience. If you continue to develop products that people might actually want, over time you won't have to hunt for customers; they'll come to you.

Fear of Lawsuit: I find it necessary to mention this simply because it is one of the reasons, however infrequent it may occur. Then again, it occurs to me... a lot. You see, the whole world that is 4th Edition material is governed by the 4E GSL. As a result, there are several things that you simply can't publish because Wizards of the Coast won't let you. Have an adventure idea with a beholder in it? Displacer beast? Umber hulk? Sorry, no. We can't let you do that... Unless you publish it through DDI. It's not like WotC is going to "cease and desist" themselves.

As you know, I like Gamma World a lot, so every chance I get I offer to create something... anything... Gamma World related simply because DDI is the only avenue through which I would be able to do such a thing.

This is a legitimate problem, and honestly one that you can't do much about. Simple answer: don't create anything that might get you sued. Trust me.

So, in a nutshell, there's nothing stopping you from publishing. If DDI tells you "no", buck up and do it anyway. The same people that complain about the lack of 4E material are those that don't publish their own ideas. I hope this trend doesn't continue with 5th edition, and I look forward to the onslaught of content as soon as it launches.

On a related note, I've been working on an article describing what is actually involved in getting something published through DDI. It's somewhat of a touchy subject, and I have to be sure to tread the line due to my NDA, but hopefully I'll be able to post that soon. There may be a delay since I'll probably require WotC to approve it, though; I submitted the article to DDI and they passed on it, but I'm going to do it on my own anyway just because I can.

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Publication, RPG Comments Off
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  1. I submitted 4 things to DDI in the last cycle. All rejected. I do want to write them up anyway at some point, but as you point out, there are some things standing in the way. One of my ideas was an Eberron article and there’s no way that’s going to fly outside the official WotC locales. Another article runs headlong into the problem that players don’t like to use items/equipment that aren’t in the CB, so I didn’t know how worthwhile it would be to give it a full treatment. But I think the biggest thing standing in the way of creating new 4e content outside DDI right now (and was true to some extent of the last submission cycle too) is that 4e is now a lame duck game. We all know that 5e is on the drawing table, being tested even, so why write material that might not be used at all? That’s one of the big problems I have right now.

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