So You Want to Write RPGs?

I listen to all sorts of gaming podcasts and read all sorts of gaming blogs.  So when I heard that my friend and game-design and OP-admin colleague Teos Abadia was going to be a guest on a new gaming podcast called Going Last, I checked it out.  I took a shine to it right away, because it gave good information that interested me, but the two hosts Ian and Justin did not take themselves too seriously.

I dropped Teos a note saying that I enjoyed his talk on the podcast, as well as the podcast in general, and before long I had traded a couple of emails with the Going Last guys, and they wondered if I wanted to talk to them about freelancing and organized-play campaigns.  Sure, no problem.

My chat with them was recorded and released earlier this week, and one of the questions they asked me is one that I get asked quite frequently.  Because a concise and coherent answer is not something I am known for, I wanted to take the time to write a more measured and clear answer.

How Does One Become an RPG Freelancer?

When I get asked this question, I feel like I just got stupid-drunk, climbed a steep hill, fell off the cliff at the top, somehow landed on my feet, and then got asked, “Hey, since you were just up there on that hill, can you let me know how to get down?”  I sort of remember the trip, but I don’t quite know how I got from point A to point B.

Some of the answers and advice I give here, I gave for the podcast.  Others were things that I did not get to, or did not think of in time to answer coherently.  It is also important to note that I can only speak from my own experiences—as well as the experiences of those who I have talked to about this topic.  There is no single right path to regular freelancing or organized-play work, but I think there are strategies and considerations that are common to many paths.

1. Play (and like) the game you want to design.

As I mentioned in the podcast, I’ve been in the position in many organized-play campaigns to work with new adventure designers.  It is terrifying when I think about the number of people who wanted to write adventures but did not play the game regularly—or even at all.  Or did not know the specific rules of the campaigns.  Or did not know the specific rules of the game.  Or hated the game.  Even beyond those extremes, it is still important to play the game to get a feel for how things work: what aspects of a game need to be highlighted, downplayed, tweaked, or changed are only made apparent through play.

2. Play games you don’t want to design.

One of my mantras to my writing students was to read everything, even if it wasn’t your genre.  Novel writers can learn as much about language and cadence and phrasing from reading poetry as they can from reading novels.  Playwrights can learn about expressing ideas coherently from reading creative nonfiction.  Equally applicable, RPG designers can learn much about game play from playing other RPGs, and even other types of games.  This is something I struggle with, due to a lack of time and player availability.  But even if I cannot play those games, I am reading the rules and listening to what others have to say about the games.  The cross-pollination of ideas between games is great game design material.

3. DM games.  Then DM more games.

When you DM home games that you create yourself, you are an adventure designer—even if you are making it up as you go along without writing anything down on paper.  When you DM games from a pre-published adventure, you are still a game designer—even if you stick completely to the adventure’s text without changing a thing.  You translate the words of the adventure into the action on the table, so you are doing exactly what a game designer must do: envisioning how the abstract idea manifests itself into actual play.  The more you DM, and the more you insert yourself into the process of going from an abstract idea to the words on the pages to actual game play, the more easily it becomes to put down those abstract ideas successfully onto the page in a way other DMs can use.

4. Volunteer and participate until your help is invaluable.

An organized-play campaign runs on the backs of its volunteers: authors, playtesters, DMs, game organizers, rules reviewers, etc.  Even the players who make the play sessions happen and provide constructive feedback on the forums help the campaign grow and prosper.  The best way to see how a campaign works and subsequently become more active in writing for the campaign is to become active in all aspects of the campaign, no matter how seemingly tangential.  Something like playtesting really taps a person into the heart of the campaign.

It is important to remember, however, that sometimes even offers to volunteer will be rejected.  It’s not that the offers aren’t appreciated—because they are—but even willing and able volunteers cannot solve all problems.  Many problems and processes are sometimes even beyond the reach of the admins.  But those who really drive the campaigns—DMs and event organizers—are well-known and appreciated by the admins, and it is those people who get the call when important jobs in a campaign come up.

5. Mr. Right Brain, meet Mr. Left Brain.

A few years ago, developmental psychologists were talking about right-brain vs. left-brain.  To over-simplify, it was said that the two hemispheres of the brain managed different aspects of thinking: the right was the more creative and saw things holistically, while the left deal with the elements of details and logic.  This theory may or may not still be in vogue, but when dealing with highly creative people or highly analytical people on a regular basis, you can see some truth in the dichotomy between the two.  You often see astoundingly creative people—the ones with the grand ideas of story and who can envision the most awesome encounters—completely unable to tame those ideas into the complex formats and restrictions that are required in adventure publication.  Conversely but similarly, you might have designers who can put together the components of an adventure or encounter with savant-like effectiveness, yet be unable to synthesize those elements into anything resembling a fun and imaginative story.

When working on projects for publication, both sides of the brain have to be firing on full cylinders. Multiple deadlines, space considerations, maps, art orders, word count, imaginative stories, project-related restrictions, cool game play, post-development revisions: there are so many considerations when working in RPG design.  When you sit down to write even a “simple adventure,” are you ready to see it all the way through to the end?

6. Get online, then get offline.

The Internet is an incredible tool for freelancers.  Social media helps you keep tabs on the industry.  Research that would normally take hours can be done in minutes through great RPG sites.  Most freelancing jobs are found and filled via the Internet.  Forums let designers see how games and rules are being received and played.  Once the connections are made and the deals are done, it is equally important to get off the Internet and so the work: particularly the social media sites.  If you are working on a deadline and a 50,000-word project, you don’t want to be wasting words on anything unless you know you can schedule it correctly.

7. Your words are not precious.

This is the best advice I have ever received, and even though it was given with reference to fiction writing, it holds true to any form of writing.  This doesn’t mean that the writing isn’t good or important, or that it doesn’t entertain people in an important way.  All it means is that the words I write can be easily thrown out and re-done, and none of them are valuable as mere words.  As soon as my words become more important than the project, I don’t deserve to be on the project.  As soon as a person who I am working with on a project is unwilling to change the words to make the project better, I know that person doesn’t have what it takes to be a designer.

I’d love to hear other people’s experience in the freelance world, whether it is with RPGs or elsewhere.


  1. This is great advice, and I think, particularly, playing other games. I’m just a homebrewer and have only ever made like 20 bucks off RPGs in my life, but I think I’ve learned a lot more about the game I want to write from the games I played and wanted to stuff the book back into the mailbox. They made me think about exactly what in the game disagreed with me, and why, and how that could have or might have changed under different circumstances or in a different game.

  2. Steve Townshend says:

    All of this is Truth.
    Well said.

  3. Wizards has two design contests running now– it never hurts to make a pitch when WotC is asking for it… good practice, even if they don’t respond. I actually happened to link to them in my blog this week (link below).

  4. Andy Collins says:

    Well said, Shawn.

    I would especially like to echo point #7, and not just for aspiring writers. EVERYONE who creates (or wants to create) for a living would do well to pay heed to this one.

  5. Some pretty solid insights here. I’d only add one more thing (you sort of touch on it but don’t call it out specifically): You need iron self-will and discipline. When you get an assignment, you must finish it and finish it on time. As a developer, receiving mediocre work from a writer sucks–but not nearly as abysmally as receiving nothing come deadline time. If you aren’t good with managing your time, this isn’t a line of work for you.

  6. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Wyatt: Ever since I was in high school and hacked together a makeshift hybrid D&D/Top Secret game, I have always loved the mental gymnastics of figuring out both the crunch and the fluff of hacking different games together and seeing how it played. Even if you don’t get into the rules part, just bringing the feel of a game into another game can have great results. And your point about getting the feel of a game to know what agrees with you and what doesn’t is spot on.

    @Steve: Thanks man!

    @Sunyaka: I am not the biggest fan of certain contests for a variety of reasons. However, as you say, it is a good exercise to do the work for the contest just to see what you have come up with. Even if we don’t plan to submit to the contest, it is excellent practice to design and develop something that has a lot of restrictions. This definitely has some similarities to designing a freelancing project.

    @Andy: Thanks Andy. I wish I could remember exactly which of my teachers said that to me, but it was definitely a turning point in my understanding of the creative process and a writer’s relationship with his or her work.

    @CharlesRyan: Absolutely. Your emphasis on this is appreciated. Working on various OP campaigns, I would estimate that about 50% of the work I received was either late or on time but seriously lacking what needed to be there to be considered complete.

  7. Madfox11 says:

    Well said Shawn, especially when #5 meets #7 😉 It created some fire-protective clothing on occassion when reviewing stuff for Organized Play.

    As for playing other game systems, I just wish I could do so. In fact, at times I am so busy with LFR I am having difficulties getting a HC up and running, let alone getting a project for DDI or joining some of the competitions. So like you, I just stick with reading other material.

  8. Shawn Merwin says:

    @madfox: You know it better than I! It’s a great feeling to work with a designer, especially a new one, to help turn those ideas into a really great printed product that leads to an even better play experience. But when things go wrong, it can get frustrating. And I know what you mean about a lack of time. I have shelves full of unplayed RPGs and board games, where I’ve read them multiple times but still haven’t had the chance to get a group together.


  1. […] it turns out, Critical Hits had an article today called "So You Want to Write RPGs", which talks about what it takes to be an RPG designer… And it got me thinking a bit. Of the […]

  2. […] colleagues have already done so, chiefly among them my friends Chris (here and here) and Shawn who both had great things to say about […]