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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