Gazing into the Abyss

Gazing into the Abyss: If I Added Up All My Random Writing in a Week I Bet I Could Finish One of these Books!

Gazing into the Abyss: If I Added Up All My Random Writing in a Week I Bet I Could Finish One of these Books!

Hello All,

It's Thursday, and Thursday means a blog. But its been an active week in the world of Fat Goblin Games. And as I sat down to write, I realized I didn't have any one thing to say but many -- because I've been saying things all week, including today!

So while I am tagging this as a Gazing into the Abyss (see the usual style of these here), I'm going to forego the normal disclaimers and just share some of the interesting and public conversations (mostly on Facebook, but some on Twitter) that you should know about.

Someone Asked for Resources to Start a Third Party Publishing Company on a Shoestring Budget and I Overshared

Someone messaged another Third Party Publishing (and first party and likely somehow second party too, I'm sure -- he's just working for everyone all the time) about getting their own 3PP off the ground, and Fat Goblin Games was tagged, so I came in and maybe provided about 60% of the resources I know I've come across for "getting into the biz" before realizing I might have just been posting stuff I didn't need to.. or I'd long ago answered their question. Either way check it out on Facebook!

Maybe I should make a dedicated blog just about those kinds of resources?

Third Party Publishing is NOT FanFiction

Another Third Party Publisher posted an art preview for a hybrid class they are releasing soon, and someone asked if this was official Paizo stuff, or just "fan fiction." When someone tried to inform him of the truths of the matter, it became... interesting. Others decided it was time to educate the fellow.

You Should Follow Jessica Price of Paizo on Twitter

There are numerous reasons why you might want to follow Jessica Price (@Delafina777) or any number of other Paizo Publishing employees on social media, but Jessica Price is of particular interest so that you can get such valuable insight as these two threads.

Jessica Price talking about being a woman at a gaming convention, and things she'd like her especially male colleagues to know

Jessica Price discussing how people that haven't experienced a thing, like sexual harassment, don't get to tell people whom have "how bad it is" 

Jessica Price discussing the difference between individual persecution & society-wide structural oppression (and how it relates to gaming kinda sorta)

Now, those are my takes on her "titles" (or first tweets really) for each of those topics, but she gets at many, many more topics beyond it.

I don't think she has a dedicated blog, but if she did, you should follow it.

The New O.G.R.E. Awards (Open Game Recognition Awards)

John Reyst of announced he is working on the O.G.R.E. Awards, which I'd be excited for to enter many Fat Goblin Game products. If you've ever wanted to help form an award system for Tabletop Roleplaying Games, you should go check out his Google Doc all about the Award.

All for Now Folks

And with that, I'm signing off for the week. Back to the word-mines to mine some more words!

Lucus Palosaari on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ & LinkedIn -- and now on Amazon!

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Gazing Into The Abyss: On the Importance of Editors (and Proofreaders, etc.)

Gazing Into The Abyss: On the Importance of Editors (and Proofreaders, etc.)


A short, but certainly not "simple," blog today.

In the past few months, I've been plugging away at another Gazing Into The Abyss blog about developing a lexicon for even smaller tabletop roleplaying game companies, which is more than just a simple list of titles but an attempt to call attention to the many people that it can and should take to produce excellent tabletop RPG materials. Two fairly recent things have occurred that highlight this a bit for me. 

The first is "in-this-industry" and it was a comment by the esteemed Owen KC Stephens (see his excellent website here, and support his Patreon here -- and if you don't know who he is -- he's even on Wikipedia, so educate yourself) on the importance of editors and trying to give them a form of credit for the work they do.

The other comment comes to us from the world of novel writing and Anne Rice (if you don't know who she is, then I'll just let you Google it yourself) and a comment she made on her official Facebook page

 Repeating Text for Ease of Reading:

There is too much confusion in the book world over the word, "editor." Let's get something straight. All books, when they are finished should be proof read -- for spelling, grammar, consistency of capitalization, for dropped words, for mistakes in continuity, consistency in physical descriptions and so forth. That is not editing. That is proof reading. And all New York houses stringently proof read their books. And indie authors should indeed hire or solicit proof readers. My manuscripts are proof read by two people here before they ever go to New York.Then they are proof read through every stage of publication. ------- Editing is another matter. ------- Good New York editors respect writers deeply. They don't tell you how to write your book, and they don't take a blue pencil and hack away at your words, sentences, chapters. They don't order you to change the plot or remove a character. ------They read your books with sensitivity and respect and tell you what confuses them, disappoints them, leaves them cold, or what bored them. They tell you what didn't work for them. They also tell you what they liked, what they thought was really good, where they thought you did your best writing, and so forth. They ask that you seriously consider this feedback. And they respect your right to solve these problems IF you agree with them. ------- But they rely on you to maintain the integrity of your book, and to stand up for your work where you think the editor is wrong, and they see you as the final authority on the finished manuscript. ------- True, if editors find a book unacceptable, they will reject it, refuse to publish it. They have to take that stand. But what they really want is for you to succeed. They're eager for a finished book they can support wholeheartedly. And they know that only you can write it. ----- The vision of the author as a perpetual child who has to be corrected, disciplined and whipped into shape by a parental editor is a myth. Authors are adults. Writing is a serious profession. ---- If a reader doesn't like a book, if a scene or a character does not work for the reader, it is absolutely pointless to insist that an editor should have made the author write that scene or character to the reader's liking. Remember: if editors could write the books, they wouldn't need authors. And good editors know this. Good writers know it too. ----- Much as an author might love an editor and trust an editor, that author has to stand up for the integrity of the work when the author disagrees with the editor. ---- One of the easiest and cheapest swipes a critical reviewer can take at a book is to insist that a mythical authority figure at the publishing house should have made the author write the book to that particular reviewer's liking. Utter nonsense. Reviewers have no way of knowing how much editing was involved in the creation of any book. And that is as it should be. ----- I've worked with wonderful editors in New York, and wonderful thorough proof readers. But I take full responsibility for every word of mine ever published.

I could write voluminously on both of these comments, and I think that I have (see that other Lexicon blog post again) at least to a point. But for now I'll just post these as they are hoping to spark some thoughts in you all.

Lucus Palosaari on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ & LinkedIn -- and now on Amazon!

PS: Putting my usual disclaimers at the end today:

A few disclaimers to this before we get going:

  • The following are my own musings and opinion on the state of tabletop gaming and publishing, and while I have been looking into, thinking about it, and studying the "industry" as it exists, I'm a relative neophyte.
  • These opinions are mine, not those of Fat Goblin Games, its just Me, Myself, & I here really.
  • I'm not going to back up each and every point with solid facts from a specific link like this was a scholarly piece. I started it that way, but realized I was pulling in my ideas from so many pieces and stray bits of text that I'd need to link to three different articles sometimes just to make one small point. Instead, I'm just pitching the idea out there and we can discuss, debate, or disagree on it in comments and on Facebook.
  • Also, this is a Gazing into the Abyss blog, a small series I am writing after previously managing to recover one of my old blogs (which you can find on here). I’ve also used this ‘space’ to question Is there even really an RPG ‘Industry’?
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Gazing into the Abyss: Toward a Lexicon for RPG Industry Roles

Gazing into the Abyss: Toward a Lexicon for RPG Industry Roles

Hello All,

Due to time, this singular blog is getting written in multiple parts, the first portions are here -- come back later for more!

A few disclaimers to this before we get going:

  • The following are my own musings and opinion on the state of tabletop gaming and publishing, and while I have been looking into, thinking about it, and studying the "industry" as it exists, I'm a relative neophyte.
  • These opinions are mine, not those of Fat Goblin Games. To that end, The Fattest Goblin and The Janitor have both variously used these terms as well as fought against their use in our own products, so its just Me, Myself, & I here really.
  • I'm not going to back up each and every point with solid facts from a specific link like this was a scholarly piece. I started it that way, but realized I was pulling in my ideas from so many pieces and stray bits of text that I'd need to link to three different articles sometimes just to make one small point. Instead, I'm just pitching the idea out there and we can discuss, debate, or disagree on it in comments and on Facebook.
  • Also, this is a Gazing into the Abyss blog, a small series I am writing after previously managing to recover one of my old blogs (which you can find on here). I’ve also used this ‘space’ to question Is there even really an RPG ‘Industry’?

They're mostly meant to be only semi-serious navel gazing as I muse on tabletop RPG 'industry' topics. For instance…

Toward a Lexicon for RPG Industry Roles

So I’ve been “doing this” for the past three+ years of my life, and when asked by a random coworker of my wife’s or another parent at my daughter’s gymnastics class, I say typically say “I’m a writer.” which is mostly true. For those that press, I often follow with either, “I write for tabletop RPGs; do you know what Dungeons & Dragon is, like that but other companies.” And when I’m really pressed, I explain “I actually do a lot more editing work these days, rather than just straight writing.” and it's around this point that the pleasant conversation can move on to something else.

In rarest of cases, I meet a fellow geek that would also love to get into the RPG biz or otherwise “write RPGs” and more often than not, the conversation starts to become both significantly more interesting and significantly harder. What is a ‘writer’ in the context of tabletop RPGs? These are games, after all, and while text is the primary means of conveyance, we’re not just “writing” in the traditional sense that maybe an author ‘writes’ a narrative into a short story or novel. Instead we’re having to create (design? develop? — more on that later) rules and scenarios. Even in something like adventures, you are at best setting a stage that tells half the ‘story’ as more RPGs have a shared narrative aspect, in which the group of gamers <players + referee/gamemaster/etc> are creating A story as they go along (some are basically only that). But so, the basic discussion of what it is that a “writer” of RPGs ‘does’ becomes problematic, especially as anyone that tries to ‘do it’ finds there are key aspects that are different and require nearly different skill sets to do.

And beyond that, we also struggle a bit within the industry, in my experience, to even talk about what it is that our creators do. A publisher recently was asking in a group chat of publisher-types about how to go about getting someone that could take their existing notes from the past decade+ of playing and “turn it into a publishable book” for lack of a better phrase. The thing is, they don’t exactly need “a writer” at least not one that will do the work wholesale, but they need more than a classic “editor” in that some text (possibly all of it) needs to be rendered into a legible and cohesive collection that we refer to as a “book.”  Then too, will this person take care of collecting the artwork to go with the text? Will they design the backgrounds and trade dress of the book, its cover, etc? Will they be laying out the text using a program like InDesign, and then proofreading it to make sure it’s all still as cohesive as the text was? Or is the publisher handling these ‘other things’ and will they be doing it alone or hiring others? What would these roles and jobs be?

Now, our RPG ‘industry’ (see my Gazing into the Abyss blog here about why I’m putting it into quotation marks), also has the common issue that for the vast majority of “publishers” of RPGs, they’re little more than “one-person-shops” that maybe occasionally have “freelance writer” that hands over some text and then it's laid out, given art (often stock images), and even distributed (another key aspect of being a publisher people forget, that whole marketing and sales and getting it in front of people to get them trade their money for your ‘work’ etc.).

Now, I love the DIY and maybe even ‘punk’ we-don’t-need-nobody mentality of the indie publishers of RPGs; one in which it’s such a small ‘shop’ that the Publisher is also the Editor as well as Art Director (if not also The Artist), and maybe even Writer (don’t edit your own work though people, it can’t really be done, but I’m not going to debate that right now — it's a verifiable fact though, not just an argument ;) ), they are also likely the one with a broom cleaning up the mess, taking out the trash, scrubbing the toliets, and everything else. Now, while I love that mentality, I also have had a few of these types gufwah at the idea that people need defined roles and labels. But here’s my comment to all you Freelancers out there reading this:

TAKE CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE, because you likely DO A LOT MORE than merely ‘write’ — and when a larger company comes knocking, they want to have you back up your claim(s) that you can ‘handle the task’ by pointing to credits, in books, from reputable companies, that can be asked “hey, how well did So-and-so handle XXX.”

This is a small industry, we all chat. Even as just a Project Manager, I’ve had at least a half-dozen other publishers or PMs ask me about the Freelancers I’ve worked with, and I know I’ve been asked about by others.

 Publisher: Key figurehead that ultimately is responsible for and produces a product on behalf the company, and is likely the lead person of said company, unless it’s a really large organization with a dedicated business leader (like a CEO etc.). The publisher is, in all likelihood, the top most responsible person for “what is on the page” and they typically manage all the “behind the scenes” matters such as contracts, art and work orders, payments, as well as public release to sales venue and so much more. These people or these roles may also be done by someone called a Producer.

A Note: These terms and definitions are mine, and mine alone. BUT, feel free to use them. I release them under an Open License, if you will. Do with them as you see fit. Agree, disagree, use these definitions, or redefine them for your own use.

Freelancer vs. Writer

Ok, so I’m going to go about this as trying to come up with terms, and define them. Often, I’ll point to issues with using a term. Like for instance, as the title implies, why at Fat Goblin Games we’ve tried to use either our own inclusive term of The Fat Goblin Hoarde (see all about them here), or a more generic phrase of our Freelancers, versus calling them all our Writers, because well… a few reasons.

One, pure definition: Writers write; Freelancers freelance.

While all of these people are freelancers (i.e. not staff or full-time employees of Fat Goblin Games, but instead independent contractors doing work-for-hire on a by-job basis, even Troy and I in our roles as part of We Three Bastards — Rick, our Publisher, is the only real “employee” of FGG, we’re just freelance badasses, i.e. Project Managers). But a lot of our people don’t “just write” — I mean, they often are authors on books, but we also have them playtest or at least theorycraft, we have them review (peer review, copy edit, content edit, etc) other members of the Hoarde, they’re also Line Developers and then too many take on innumerable additional tasks as needed, mostly to get their product out the door.

Freelancer: An independently contracted worker for a company, that is paid per project rather than kept as full-time staff employees. Also, a better term to generically refer to people that do possibly multiple roles at RPG companies, typically in a per project fashion rather than as full-time staff employees.

Writer: A person who writes. Ok fine, a person that writes for tabletop RPGs. An actual Writer may end up developing rules expansions, designing entirely new rule systems or settings, or just creating fluff text that may be narrative or instructive in nature, or a million other things.

Additional Consideration Thanks to Richard Bennett (Sept 20, 2017)

A freelancer I've worked with in the past and an academic of gaming and the industry gave the following answer to a question RE: "How would you go about describing the duties/skills associated with being a Creative Technical Writer to an outsider to our industry in moderate detail?"

Richard's excellent response was (reformatted by me for this blog):

Creative Technical Writer

Like a creative writer, I'm responsible for developing interesting places with characters and situations that the reader can identify with and that they find interesting. Like a technical writer, I am obliged to explain a somewhat opaque math process in terms that a layman can understand and apply to whatever situation the game brings up. Unlike either of those professions, I have to do both at the same time, and consider rhetorical questions of audience and procedurality (how the rules of the game affect the rules of the world). It's a unique fusion of processes that gives the professional game writer a working proficiency in both fields.

This write up works on a number of levels and I highly recommend you consider using it.

What even is an Editor, really?

So for me, I see at least two major forms of Editor existing, that can be done by a single person (but it's better when it's at least two or more people), with a number of related tasks. I think Content Editors (or just plain Editors) are actually getting into the the mechanics and text, looking to correct both rules language and also checking things like the lore for consistency. A proper Content Editor, in my opinion, is working hand-in-hand with the original Writer(s) of a text to make sure all the components fit together, from tone of language used, to making sure the story told on pg. 10 fits with the mechanics presented on pg. 100, and other things that matter at the textual level.

A Copy Editor or Copyeditor, on the other hand, is more looking at the writing. They’re focused on making sure the right styles are followed, that the correct form of a word is used (they’re - their - there), and that the punctuation, and rules of grammar are followed (clearly, I am not having someone copy edit this blog!). A Copy Editor may also put into or make sure a manuscript from a Writer and/or Content Editor is properly formatted to a style guide or template for ease of layout. They typically are less interested in matters of whether Xyzig has three-eyes in this description and the other one 100 pages later, but whether the right tense is used for three-eyes vs three-eyed.

There are additional types of potential “editors” that could work for a company. Playtesters and theorycrafters I’ll discuss a bit below, as they’re almost a class of their own, but also things like Beta Readers or Galley Copy Editors that are looking at either nearly finished versions of a text, looking for problems missed by the various writers and editors, or nearly finished versions of a layout, looking for issues like orphaned text, misaligned columns, broken tables, etc.

Content Editors: A person who works most closely with a writer to make sure the content of their text is mechanically sound, written well, and fitting to the design expectations of the Publisher

Copy Editor: A person who checks over a text for 'surface level' formatting and grammar errors, as well as problems with punctuation and things like double spaces, extra words as well as active vs. passive voice, etc. Often focuses more on making sure a manuscript matches a style guide or standard format/template used by the Publisher.

Beta Reader: A non-professional (i.e. not always paid, though they may be compensated with a free copy of product etc) reader of a text that is more giving their opinion of its design and content. May point out more surface errors, but should be reading a text as if they were "reviewing" it -- except in this case, its an early review before release to hopefully improve the quality of the text.

Ok fine, but what does a Project Manager (or a Lead) Actually "Do"?

Thank you for asking, imaginary conversation partner! In simplest terms, the project manager manages a project! There, done; next question.

Ok, fine-fine. Project Manager is a fairly nebulous term, and would vary from publishing house to publisher, but they should be the coordinator of all pieces. "Managers" can be undervalued, as they often lack expertise in the specifics of the roles and people they manage, but often bring important value to a company in the form of organization, planning, and cross-project synergy (#buzzword).

So, here at Fat Goblin Games, We Three Bastards consist of our Publisher Rick, whom "does it all" but really can't when you have as much going on as we do as a company, and then his two Project Managers, Troy Daniels and myself.

This leads to a natural pyramid with Troy and I supporting Rick, and then below each of us are a number of Line (sometimes Lead) Developers and writers which we "manage." We internally break these things down a bit so that we have typically RPG system based "projects" which we either individually manage for Rick or jointly work on in varying capacity.

A simple example of this division is that you're only rarely see me "attached" to anything 5th Edition Fantasy based from Fat Goblin Games. The entire 5th Edition Fantasy line ("project") is managed by Troy, with him talking to writers like Ismael Alvarez or Kim Frasden about whatever 5th Edition Fantasy book lines we are cooking up.

A large amount of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game materials, meanwhile, are under my purview, with everything from the world-neutral book lines like Call to Arms and CLASSified, to the world-setting materials like the Shadows over Vathak and Steampunk Musha lines. I also am charged with managing the vs. M Engine books and developing our in-house Bastard System (more on that soon I hope). 

As a small, indie publisher, it may not seem like there is much "space" (or money) for "middle management" but that's where Rick has had to make a conscious choice to make space (and money) for people like Troy and I. And a key component of that is trust. Rick has to trust us; trust that we are doing what he asks, trust we're working in his/the companies best interest, trust that were dealing fairly with our writers and others, and also trust us to make a million smaller decisions that he just doesn't have time for. Rick is Fat Goblin Games publisher, and primary artist, as well as graphic designer and layout specialist, and he wears a dozen other hats. When I handover a manuscript, he needs to trust that its been well written, well edited, properly formatted, and that it meets the quality and content standards that he has set for the company.

The thing is, we're a stronger and better company for it. We can specialize. I have done massive amounts of research and keep abreast of numerous topics related to my areas. Adding in another massive system, like 5th Edition Fantasy, on top of managing development of others, is no small task. The thing is, you can't just "play" a game, you need to know it -- deeply and well. When I assess a pitch, when I try to consider the balance for a feat or a magic item, if I try to see if a class design is fitting and interesting -- I need to have an accurate measuring stick to compare it to.

Every month, Paizo releases 3+ new books with Pathfinder Roleplaying Game content, and hundreds of 3PP release all new rules and subsystems to the masses. We need to know how our stuff will interact with, be replaced by, or is replicating what already exists, or changing trends in the games design etc. The occult classes, introduced in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Occult Adventures, adds an entire additional depth and space for exploration that didn't exist before. I needed to learn them, but also be able to distinguish unique design choices between psychic magic vs. psionics, for instance.

That level and kind of specialization also comes into to Line or Lead Developers. We have, at Fat Goblin Games, a license to release books in support of Castle Falkenstein, which uses a unique-to-it-system. There were, before adding our own texts, over a half-dozen existing tomes of rules and setting material. We were fortunate to already have (well, really, trying to get such a license was his idea in part) on staff J Gray whom knew the system well and could start developing for it immediately. When I worked as his Project Manager, I took on not only logistics of trying to make sure Rick had proper contracts with him and other official paperwork, but also helping him to develop the ideas for the books, assessing the practicality of design choices, creating and managing a Castle Falkenstein Facebook group, and so much more. These are in addition to acting as the editor of the book, which required I learn the basics of a whole new system in short order well enough to assess the balance concerns of new creatures and rules presented in our Curious Creatures text (another task J was able to aid me in as Line Developer). Moving forward, J and I have developed plans for future expansion of the line, with plans to bring in additional writers whom will have to first answer to J and his design expectations, then I will need to check that those are inline with Fat Goblin Games, and finally at the end Rick gets a manuscript to publish and at the same time the writer, J, and I all get our correct compensation and credit. 

 A Project Manager for a company is an umbrella term for an individual charged by a Publisher or the company to coordinate and take care of logistics (in addition to other duties as needed) for one or more "projects" as defined by the company. Typically, you need to have additional people reporting to a manager, or you may have more just a "Lead" on a project etc. Project Managers may also be in charge of multiple projects, but are normally trusted right-hand people to the company, and trusted with a level of autonomy and given control over various facets of running the company -- be it approving projects, signing contracts, managing payments, etc.
A Lead on a project (like Lead Writer, Lead Developer, Lead Artist, etc.) is typically the person in charge of some aspect or specific project, possibly with subordinates of the same type. For instance in the case of a Lead Writer, the LW would be "leading" the group of writers in producing the manuscript, reporting to the Project Manager as needed. Leads are often "experts" in their area or on their project, with the assumption that "know one knows the material like they do." A Lead Developer may also go by a name like Line Developer, which typically refers to them being charge of a specific "line" of books related by game system, topic, etc.

So, this is all a long ramble to give examples of the kinds of things a Project Manager (or Lead Developer) might do in a company -- but what is a Developer anyways, and how does that compare to a Designer?

Developers vs. Designers

Design vs. Development. This was a key point of distinguishing I originally wanted to write this blog about, but as I tried to get "definitive" answers, that would be well sourced, it became problematic to say the least. So instead of trying offer an end-all-be-all answer to the matter, let me give you my opinion, and how we typically try to use them here at Fat Goblin Games.

For me, Designers are creating all-new game systems, while Developers are adding to existing ones. As such, you could consider "the creator of Game X" the Designer, like say how Jason Bulmahn typically gets credit for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and all of us releasing books in support of it, 1PP or 3PP, are just "developing" for it.

It may be a subtle distinction, and one that is only meaningful initially, or can be confusing because when does the line between "developing for an existing system" cross "designing new rules for an existing system?"

For ourselves at Fat Goblin Games, we often use Line Developer as a meaningful title because we consider that person to be not just a "writer,"  but also likely editor and researcher of a game system (why reinvent the wheel when you should really just grab someone else's and repurpose it), but also expect them to be an expert i that topic/line.

So for instance, I originally was (and am still) the Line Developer for the Call to Arms series, a book line dedicated to providing definitive guides with both old and new content on a specific type of item -- from the mundane to the magical to the cursed and mythic etc all for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. In turn, at Fat Goblin Games, I am often the go-to person on anything "item related" for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game "stuff" and often check out our items for design and balance issues.

A Designer is the (or one of the) original creators of an roleplaying game system. They had to design core mechanics, key components, and often "wrote the rules" originally. They may take inspiration from existing systems, but at the point that an RPG is being marketed as "different from" some others, it was likely designed to be that way.

A Developer is the creator of subsystems for an existing roleplaying game system. Developers are creating new content (instead of merely editing existing rules to new purpose), most often "writing" it themselves. Development is distinct from merely being a Writer in that, while you can "develop a world" by expanding fiction and lore, developing for a game system implies a harder, game mechanical edge. The new development can be as small as a single new feat or magic item, to as large as an add-on subsystem that works with existing core or alternate mechanics.

It may not be immediately obvious how or why a distinction could or should exist between Developers and Writers, but I do feel we should as often call ourselves Freelance Developers as we are Freelance Writers. It helps to distinguish, in part, what we as game creators are doing compared to others that "write" in a less technical way. While some int eh tabletop RPG business only write "crunch" and others are able to only write "fluff," the vast majority of us need to understand how to create worlds and settings and present new options like races and classes and such that are both creative but also meaningful in-game.

I’ll still be adding the following topics…

  • Playtesters, Beta Readers, Theorycrafting, etc.
  • Artists, Art Directors, Graphic Designers, and Layout
  • Logistics of Selling Games in the Modern Era (and who does that)
Merry Christmas All!

Lucus Palosaari on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ & LinkedIn -- and now on Amazon!

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Gazing into the Abyss: Is There Even a Tabletop RPG 'Industry'?

Gazing into the Abyss: Is There Even a Tabletop RPG 'Industry'?

Hello All,

A few disclaimers to this before we get going:

  • The following are my own musings and opinion on the state of tabletop gaming, and while I have been looking into, thinking about it, and studying the "industry" as it exists, I'm a relative neophyte.
  • These opinions are mine, not those of Fat Goblin Games. To that end, The Fattest Goblin and The Janitor have both variously argued against my viewpoint, and also strengthened other sides of it. Not that they agree or disagree, they're too busy just making great products to be too worried.
  • I'm not going to back up each and every point with solid facts from a specific link like this was a scholarly piece. I started it that way, but realized I was pulling in my ideas from so many pieces and stray bits of text that I'd need to link to three different articles sometimes just to make one small point. Instead, I'm just pitching the idea out there and we can discuss, debate, or disagree on it in comments and on Facebook.

Also, this is a Gazing into the Abyss blog, a small series I was writing and managed to recover one of my old blogs which you can find on here. 

They're mostly meant to be only semi-serious navel gazing as I muse on tabletop RPG 'industry' topics. For instance...

Is There Even Really an Industry?

I am not going to be able to give any kind of definitive answer to that question, but a large number of people talk about it as a homogeneous "industry" and there are organizations, like ICv2, which collect data about our niche within the larger Hobby Games Market, and so perhaps it at least is or can be treated as an industry.

Assuming their figures for 2015 are right, ICv2 estimated that the overall Hobby Games Market is at $1.2 billion, of which "roleplaying games" make up $35 million dollars.  You can make a fancy chart like so:

U.S. / Canada Games Sales -- 2015

Category Retail Sales (in millions, US dollars)
Collectible Games $625
Non-Collectible Miniature Games $175
Hobby Board Games $250
Hobby Card & Dice Games $105
Roleplaying Games $35
TOTAL Hobby Games $1,190

Which helps to put into perspective how very "small" but also very "large" RPGs are; $35 million dollars isn't even 3% of the ~$1.2 billion hobby games market, BUT you could support a LOT of RPG companies on a pie $35 million in size. 

Now the Top 5 publishers of RPGs, also from ICv2, for Spring 2016 are:

  1. Wizards of the Coast -- Dungeons & Dragons
  2. Paizo Publishing -- Pathfinder Roleplaying Game
  3. Fantasy Flights Games -- Star Wars RPG
  4. Catalyst Game Labs -- Shadowrun
  5. Green Ronin -- Fantasy AGE (Dragon AGE)

And then also even more telling is that the $35 million dollars is UP drastically from even 2014, when it was at $25 million -- which is itself UP from 2013's estimated $15 million. The "industry" more than doubling in two years time is... hard to wrap-one's-head-around.

Now better people than I have put together amazing charts and think pieces about this all, so I'll just recommend checking out stuff like: 
Top 5 RPGs Compiled Charts 2004-Present

Hot Roleplaying Games

Now, all that money then is NOT making it into the hands of lil ol' gaming companies like ours. Much of that growth year-to-year is very likely WotC/D&D selling to people, people that may not have even been part of the equation before, but it also entirely possible that not only was 5e gaining ground, but so could have Paizo/Pathfinder and others like Fantasy AGE, etc. I mention this just because there have started to be forum posts and blogs asking "Is Pathfinder Dying?" in various forms (like see this here) or "Is Pathfinder In Its Twilight?"), but with this kind of crazy growth within the industry, Paizo could have doubled their fan-base and subscription base from 2,500 to 5,000 unique buyers, and while it may have been a massive influx of money for them, they'd still be #2 as in that same time WotC sold 50,000 more copies etc.Meaning that the "rising tide floats all boats" it might just be floating the bigger ones the most.

I'm curious though if that conversation, about Pathfinder being past its prime is more a function of the history of "the industry" and less that a real concern. If you look at various attempts to tell the story of tabletop RPGs, you get a lot things that focus on key companies (i.e. TSR, then WotC, then Paizo) but it ignores that some companies have nearly as old a release date as D&D's 194: Games Workshop was founded in 1975, you start having various forms of Traveller in 1977 and Runequest from Chaosium in 1978, and then 1980 and beyond sees quite a few other companies come into existence and games produces from Steve Jackson Games, FASA, Iron Crown , Palladium Books, etc. While rough times were had by all, and still other companies came around after this point while some of these have come and gone and even come back, there almost always have been "other companies" and we may just be in a space now where we can have D&D 5th edition AND Pathfinder AND Fantasy AGE AND a host of other options.

Other Reasons it IS an Industry

For one, we talk and treat it like one. It has fairly specific delineations that make it not one thing or another and it actually has a fairly long history (again, see here). 

But then there is also recognition of contributions of game designers and writers from spaces outside the immediate industry. While the ENnies are one of our own biggest prizes, having an organization like the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) now accepting "game writers" changes the conversation some, as a form of recognition from outside is being made.

Recognition of what we are doing from "outside" helps it feel like there is an "inside" -- and its interesting to have people at least remotely aware of what it is that I do now vs. just a few years ago when I talk about "write tabletop RPGs" because they may have read major newspapers or TV shows (or both) talk about even something like Pathfinder, let alone when Dungeons & Dragons features as not just a part of, but a key point of story development in TV shows as wildly popular as Stranger Things. This leads to articles like this and even mentions of D&D in publications like The New Yorker. And even more interestingly, to articles like this one from The Hollywood Reporter about all the people in Hollywood playing RPGs these days.

The Ways It Matters to Us

But so does it, or should it even matter if there is an "industry" for tabletop RPGs to people like us, small publishers. I think yes.

While you can sometimes find just how small sales can be for say third-party publishers (like Rite Publishing's "First 90 Days" releases like this one), you also should realize that if a company is currently managing to make a living, year-to-year, and keep producing books on less than 500 sales/$3,000 for a book they release, just imagine how much MORE productive companies could be if we too are benefiting from doubling our sales in 3 years time.

But also, if we're more than just a niche or something else that is "sub"-industry, then we might to remain worried and dedicated to a single-system dominance model where we all do focus solely on whichever brand is popular at the moment. Lets hope though that that is NOT needed. 

Instead, maybe at $25 or $35 million+, we are finally large enough that we can start to diversify our industry, similar to the rise and changes to video games over the past few decades of their timeline. Today, saying you are "a gamer" is almost as meaningless a phrase as saying "I am a movie goer" -- of course you are, they've become mainstream. It might not all be the SAME game, not everyone is playing the latest FPS title, in fact, many self-identified gamers might HATE FPS, but they still can claim that title because they play one of a hundred other genres and subgenres of video games. And likewise, not every game released needs to be WoW or CoD or something that becomes well known for having three initials. We can have silly games we play on our phones in our down-time and triple-A games we play at home on consoles, and deeply customized games we play with via PC or apps or whatever.

And so we get to what I think might be the a great "experiment" of this in our field today, and the sort of "spark' for this whole Gazing into the Abyss -- Invisible Sun. Its all still new and going on and I still don't, myself, fully "get" what Monte Cook is doing with the game, but 909 people at this point, for a combined $250,577 and growing either do get it, or are at least $197-sure they want to be part of whatever this will be. I look at it and find it cool and wonderful sounding, which is similar to how I felt about No Man's Land. I fully support it existing, but I know that I just wont get the chance personally to ever play it. 

But that's OK.

In fact, that's partially my point. 

We can likely have, in our tabletop RPG "industry" enough space for Invisible Sun from Monte Cook Games AND for vs. Ghosts from Fat Goblin Games. Both can even likely flower in the shade of titans of the industry like WotC and Paizo and on and on. We are serving and servicing different needs and wants and its possible, in part, because we have been able to grow ourselves an industry to tap of people looking for different things and experiences.

And that's really cool!

Lucus Palosaari on, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ & LinkedIn

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Gazing into the Abyss: Lessons in World-Building from Marvel, DC, and Paizo

Gazing into the Abyss: Lessons in World-Building from Marvel, DC, and Paizo

Hello All,

Those of you that follow our blog know we lost all of our website a month or so ago. I had been blogging for Fat Goblin Games for over a year weekly on Thursdays by that time, switching to semi-weekly with a Steampunk Musha Design Blog on Tuesdays as of the first week of 2016.

When the site “went away” we lost everything, and our service provider said that they couldn’t recover ANYTHING. The SpM Blog was related to a commitment to our fans of that setting, so I tried much harder to “find” old blogs on sources like the Internet Archive or going through my own records, but there were many, many, MANY pages just lost.

Most of these, I don’t worry about – a lot were me introducing writers that we’ve since released product for in the Call to Arms line, or giving previews for books still coming out in many different lines. I was able to give the entire Call to Arms line a thorough review over the previous two weeks, using some old blog post, but also using reviews of many books by Endzeitgeist of the line!

But some blogs, some were more… personal. I even had a specific line, Gazing into the Abyss, that started with the following quote:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. – Aphorism 146 from Beyond Good and Evil, by Friedrech Nietzsche

… and was meant to be my only semi-serious navel-gazing about all things related to RPG Industry en masse. Original blogs in the Gazing into the Abyss thread were things like:

  • Small Publisher Dilema – Design for a Broken System, or Try to Fix Broken Systems
  • Unchaining Knowledge (Nobility) and Knowledge (History)
  • The Best-Laid Schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
  • Questioning Art and Storytelling in Tabletop Roleplaying Games

And then there was a blog I had done before that first one back on June 5th, 2015 about “Lessons in World Building from Marvel, DC, and Paizo” and it’s this blog I was able to raise from the dead and am reprinting now.

Only, in its original form, the blog was talking in the future tense about what I thought was going on or would be going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the what is now known as DC Extended Universe (DCEU), as well as Paizo Publishing’s own Golarion through their various Pathfinder Campaign books.

As “a lot has changed” in terms of what we know about these Universes in the past year, I am not merely “reproducing the blog” but going to try to “update it” to the best of my ability, as what I was talking about then mostly bore true and the lessons apply, if anything even more, still to “world-building” as I work on various projects for Fat Goblin Games.

For clarities sake, the Marvel Cinematic Universe includes:

  • The Movies: From Iron Man to Captain America: Civil War; but only those produced by Marvel Studios and Disney; so NOT films like Fox’s Xmen series, or the old iterations of Spider-Man produced by Sony.
  • The TV Shows: Specifically ABC’s Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, as well as the Netflix series like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, as well as planned TV series like Marvel’s Most Wanted, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, and the entire Defenders Netflix series, like the upcoming Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Punisher
  • Other Transmedia: Which includes MCU specific comic books, specific MCU “official” video games, and the Marvel One-Shots, a set of shorts filmed specifically for release with the DVDs for the MCU movies like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer.

For clarities sake, the DC Extended Universe includes only the movies, so those that have been released (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), and the many planned movies like: Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Justice Leagues Part I & II, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Cyborg, and Green Lantern Corps. It does NOT include the DC TV-verse from shows like Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, or Constantine, which have all been shown to share a single multiverse (and in turn for the following discussion, are a better example of “the MCU approach” than “the DCEU approach”).

And for clarities sake, the Paizo Campaign Setting includes all the books featured on the world of Golarion, and specifically tied to it or its multiverse, including all the books from the Pathfinder Adventures (modules and Adventure Paths, etc), Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Pathfinder Player Companion, and Pathfinder Societies AND many of their non-gaming or non-tabletop materials like the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and Pathfinder Fiction.

Ok, assuming now we’re all on the same page, lets begin…

<Rambling Babble Warning — You’ve Been Warned>

While I’m mostly known for being the Line Developer for the Call to Arms (CtA) line published by Fat Goblin Games, I am also a Project Manager and Editor now for a number of other projects for the Fattest Goblin. And while CtA is largely a crunch/mechanic focused book, I have been needing to think a lot about “world-building” as I write for Steampunk Musha and help the Janitor and His Fattness manage Shadows over Vathak with John Bennett.

BUT, like many people, I’ve been even more obsessed with something else — the MCU! I’m a fairly voracious consumer of the MCU as a whole, enjoying the movies, the TV Shows, and especially the One-Shots. I’d likely enjoy the comics and other minutia if I could find an easy sources for it all (the Internet has a lot, but not everything).

While the MCU and the people in charge of it (Kevin Feige, and the Russo Brothers to a point) of course have a massive, decades-long back catalog of another medium of storytelling to dig into (the comics), I still think that Marvel has some lessons applicable to building a larger world with smaller installments that, as a game-designer, we can all learn from.

To illustrate the point, I’m going to make a number of analogies and comparisons to Paizo’s own world-building efforts with Golarion and their entire Campaign Setting: the Adventure Paths (APs), modules, Pathfinder Society, Campaign Books and related works. These are comparisons aren’t perfect of course — the change in medium and method changes things dramatically, but in broad strokes I think it’s possible. In part, my comments are informed from a convention panel Jason Bulmahn of Paizo Publishing fame made at AMKE Convention this in Feb 2015 on the matter of world-building, so if you’d like — let’s blame him. And compare this method to the one the DCEU is attempting as a counter point.

Start Small and Personal, Establish a Fan-Favorite, then Go Back to it to Progress the Story

The first movie in the MCU was the classic Iron Man released in 2008, which focused on the story of one, fairly relatable character in a circumstance that felt almost believable to our world and quite comfortable for the genre of “superheroes.” After just the second film, The Incredible Hulk, they continued the development of their world with Iron Man 2. In that film, they made a single cameo appearance after the credits of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury from Iron Man into major plot development with involvement in the second film. They also introduced new characters, like Black Widow, and explored the SHIELD agency and how it was going to relate to the budding superheroes of the world MCU was constructing. They showed, by adding a little clip at the end of The Incredible Hulk where Stark approaches Thunderbolt Ross (which was expertly re-interpreted with the One-Shot “The Consultant,” that #ItsAllConnected, even way back then and set down that things introduced in one movie would help to establish the others.

Paizo by comparison, started their first AP Rise of the Runelord in the itty-bitty town of Sandpoint, which they detailed fairly well. That first AP is an interesting one in a few ways. While the original one was released in 2007, they returned to a minor character 4 years and 8 AP’s later, that was tucked into Sandpoint the begin the Jade Regent AP, which would launch the characters to literally the other side of Paizo’s world, detailing so much more of it. Another way in which Rise is special is that they were able to go back and republish it, recontextualized and made only stronger by the 5 year’s worth of publications about their world.

Small Bits of Storytelling Work as Well as the Big

Going back to the MCU, many if not all the other films and TV shows that came out after Iron Man have variously “filled in” the world of the MCU.  Agents of SHIELD stands out as the most extreme example of this, but that makes sense when you consider they get to have 22 45-min. episodes a season instead of just a 2+ hour movie. One of the more interesting aspects of the show is even how they were able to make an almost insignificant character, Agent Coulson, into essentially the “star”, and in my own opinion, Phil is-all-of-us. He’s reprimanded billionaires, fan-boi’d over war heroes, worked along-side fellow super-spies, rubbed elbows with “gods”, and so much more — he’s still just a normal guy (though by Season 3, one with alien blood in his body, a bionic hand that can project a shield, and director of a secret spy agency – so I guess not THAT normal). Despite having come back from the dead, been affected by alien influences, and other of incredible things,  I feel that one of the cores values you see in even the most recent  episodes of Agents of SHIELD is that having seen and done all that he has, he still seems the “humanity” and tenderness in everyone; from the real monsters, like Grant Ward/HIVE and Lash, to the misunderstood, like Daisy/Skye/Quake.

While Paizo releases massive amounts of additional material for their game-world, and the stories told in even one module is “more” than you’d see in a movie, the most similar comparison I can see to Agents of SHIELD would be the PF Society adventures done in “seasons” as well. Even more than APs, which do come out regularly, each of those is almost needed to NOT change the world, where as each year of PFS play pushes the world of Golarion 1-year further ahead.

Both Agents of SHIELD and PFS in their scenarios offer us little, bite-sized pieces of the world that are as equally canon as anything else released by either company, sometimes more so. Both also might seem “too focused” on something, with Agents for instance looking almost exclusively at SHIELD and it’s more human enemies, while PFS is very focused on “The City at the Center of the World” because it is where the Society is based, but from that narrow focus we still learn about the much wider world. I’m hopeful that new shows like Marvel’s Damage Control and Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, being produced for ABC-affiliated channels, will add to this by giving us even more content – like adding the Pathfinder Player Companions or

The world of the MCU has been happily getting “fleshed out” a bit more by other avenues as well, like the various Defenders of Daredevil and Jessica Jones showing more personal stories of “street level” heroes, even getting to feature some of the others like Punisher, Elektra, and Luke Cage. If the APs are the “movies” of the MCU, and PFS scenarios are the “ABC shows” like Agents of SHIELD, then the Netflix shows feel more like the adventure modules where they focus on some key area, develop it well, and give us a richer view of it overall, but are also consumable all on their own.

Counter-Point Method – the DCEU

There are certainly “more lessons” that could be learned. For instance how it was important that Iron Man 3 was the launching point for Phase 2, because it brought us back again to that familiar character, but showed how he and the world had changed, and using a “key character” for launching Phase 3 in having Captain America: Civil War “set up” what seems like it’s going to be the “civil war” phase of the MCU. and there are certainly flaws in my over-simplifications and comparisons above. But let me circle back to comparing MCU and DCUE, then relate that to world-building for tabletop RPG gaming.

While the shared DC world has Man of Steel (2013) as an “origin” for the shared world, their immediate follow up – Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – wasn’t just a “team up” movie, where in the established character of Superman got to bring in Batman and/or Wonder Woman, like how The Avengers were able to bring together existing characters of Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, and others. Instead, they tried to not only have Batman and Wonder Woman “ride the coattails” of Superman, and include not just one villain (Lex Luthor) but also a classic nemesis of Superman, Doomsday, AND have Superman pitted against Batman, and vice versa.

Now I could ramble on and on about various aspects of BvS: DoJ,  but for my own argument, the key components are that they had one successful film (Man of Steel) then tried to go from Iron Man to Avengers in one step. This, in turn, means that we don’t get a fully fleshed out Batman, or Wonder Woman, and that other aspects of the world (The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, etc.) are comparatively getting that one paragraph reference in the back of the book that mostly has to focus on the “big three” aspects.

And so, Dawn of Justice feels like a very different way to introduce a world — One Big Book – that tries to cover it all. While there are a number of companies that have successfully used this very method, I look at Paizo’s successful run and it wasn’t until they were releasing their third Adventure Path, Second Darkness, in August 2008 that the original Campaign Setting book for their world was being released, over a year after they’d started publishing books in that setting.

Campaign Book vs. Focused Books in Tabletop RPGs

So how does this relate to me and Fat Goblin Games? As I stated at the beginning of this post, I’m currently working with the Fattest Goblin on the long-promised, terribly delayed Steampunk Musha campaign setting. But I understand why it’s been so long trapped in “development hell”. I don’t think I’d even started developing my first Call to Arms book when the original Kickstarter ended, and in my tenure with FGG, we’ve had big changes on the various product development teams (Endzeitgeist tracks some of the changes in his reviews of Call to Arms books as their tone and quality changed from my first to the most recent releases in the series), like myself moving from just a lowly freelancer to a Line Developer to a Project Manager with a roster of my own freelancers (The Goblin Hoarde!), some of whom have even moved on themselves to be Line Developers, etc. 

In my time here and as the Project Lead on Steampunk Musha, we’ve developed quite a few other books, like a revamped Shadows over Vathak: Player’s Guide – Book 1 in a redesign of the Shadows over Vathak setting, and breaking up what was originally One Big Book into a planned minimum of three smaller books, a Player’s Guide, a GameMaster’s Guide, and a Bestiary. As it is, that Player’s Guide is still likely to clock in at over 400 pages by His Fattness’ most recent estimation!


Likewise, the Steampunk Musha Design Team and I have been applying this kind of logic to SpM. Trying to “do it all” in one huge book has been a problem. It is, first of all, a MASSIVE undertaking. With the SoV PG looking like it will be 400+ pages long, that IS an entire One Big Book all by itself (the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Core Rulebook is ~575 pages in comparison). Even just “developing” that much text is an insane undertaking. But we’re locked into doing Steampunk Musha “a certain way” and I’m still hopeful that we’re making solid and positive movement on that book.

In the future, once the rerelease of SoV line and SpM are behind us, We Three (The Fattest Goblin, The Janitor, and I) have a number of additional plans for future lines and releases, but the expectation is to try to take to heart lessons learned and copy a model more similar to the MCU method, not the DCEU. Start with something “small” and “focused,” release it as a starting point, develop out from it, and build the world around it. There are dozens of ways to do this. Start with adventures or modules, for instance. Try to plan “simpler” passes at the world, rather than one big “everything you need” just give single perspectives. You could even “break up” the standard chapters of the books like the Player’s Guide – classically covering Races, Classes, Character Options (feats, spells, etc.), and a general overview, etc. into stand-alone texts.

You can already (or will soon) see “some” of this stuff going on in how we approach other lines and ideas here at Fat Goblin Games. Our Fat Goblin Games Traveler’s Guide to Hell IS the Hell of our shared world (which has the Vathak and Rosuto-Shima from our various existing campaign settings in it), and is a much shorter, tighter book that gives a more general overview in less than 60 pages. And we have a new line of expanded options related to our older Return of the Drow line, written by Jeffrey Swank, that will be a series of related books each focused quite small and tight, but packed full of excellent options.

If you have any suggestions, ideas, or examples of other companies in the RPG biz that have done this successful (or unsuccessfully for that matter) I’d love to hear about them.

I hope you’re all able to enjoy your weekends, be it watching the Avengers or playing Pathfinder (or hopefully both!) Thank you for reading to the end.

Lucus Palosaari, Babbling Fan-boi


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