Chatty DM, Freelancer, Part 5: OMG! I Made it!

Oh yeah, This is getting real baby!

This is the last of my autobiographical series that describes my becoming a writer and a freelancer. You can follow the series by clicking: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.

Once the Plan was in place (see part 4), I started looking  where I could send pitches. It was late in 2009; the economic crisis had hit the industry hard. Many struggling third-party publishers had few projects and the pay was too low for me (like 1 cent a word).

Rate aside: The rate per word (or per article) that you get paid is variable. It always starts low. I’ve worked from 3 cents a word (my first adventure) up to 20 cents  for some of my most recent copywriting work. Game and adventure designs based on pitches usually pay between 4 to 6 cents a word. Rates increase when you are invited to join bigger projects with actual budget (like a WotC book or  like the recently announced Marvel Super Heroes RPG).

Just don’t expect to ever become rich on this… that’s why I still have a (part time) day job.

So how did I start landing freelance jobs?

There’s no surefire secret. Were I to distill how I started to systematically land gigs, I’d bring it down to these points:

Networking with people.

I started going to Gen Con in 2008. At that time, I had had contacts with a few game designers through forums, emails and my then one-year old blog. For example, I was a regular on Monte Cook’s forums and had exchanged a few question-answers messages.

With a few, very rare exceptions, writers, designers and freelancers , if approached nicely, are easy to talk to and interact with. In my opinion, the BEST way to approach someone you admire is to go up to them,  introduce yourself, and thank them for a specific product you liked. That will usually make them  happy and more likely to talk to you. If you have a follow-up question that is simple enough, ask it. Engage them; make them talk about their stuff, their projects. By getting creative folks to talk about what they love, you’re establishing a great contact.

There is a chance you’ll notice they keep looking away from you, as if distracted by something. That’s because they have somewhere to be soon (or maybe you just don’t click). If they do, apologize and say you don’t want to be keeping them, and that you hope you get to talk more at a later time. It leaves a good expression and there’s a chance, if you do meet them later, that they’ll greet you as they recognize you.

Blogging also featured greatly in creating relationships with people of the industry. Late in 2007, I made a dumb post about Wolfgang Baur being the Storytelling Fluff Nemesis to my Crunchy Rules Overlord (links are broken, they come from my deleted Blogger blog). You should have seen my surprised face when, the next day, Wolfgang responded to a comment I left on one of his posts. I was delighted as I admired Wolfgang’s craft when it came to world building and setting flavour. I wanted to learn to become more like him and this “Crunch Overlord vs Fluff King” became a fun back and forth game which Wolfgang eventually won when I joined his team of freelancers on Kobold Quarterly.

Thus did I started seeing the potential of blogging, and more importantly, interacting with people from the industry.

Being nice to people always pays off.

Sending Queries

You won’t get invited into freelancing. You have to open the door and jam you foot in it with your skills and professionalism (i.e. write well, edit yourself, deliver on time and write what you were asked to write). Shortly after Gen Con 2009, I sent a query to WotC about making a D&D for kids adventure and I got a positive response to write a full outline. The idea never panned out as WotC later decided to tackle the idea in-house. But this first response gave me the positive boost I needed to keep at it. It told me that my ideas could be sold for money, provided I found myself at the right place and at the right conjecture in time.

How did I land my 1st magazine article? Very simple, I sent a “would you be interested in…” pitch to Wolfgang. He  answered positively and that’s how I got to talk about mixing Skill Challenges in combat encounters back in the 2009 winter edition of Kobold Quarterly. Of course at that time, I had to  learning a lesson that took me almost 2 years to fully grok:

Publishing in a magazine =/= blogging; edit your stuff, then do it again, and again.  Get all the help you can.

Kobold Quarterly has high standards to get a piece published. Getting a query accepted does not mean your article will make it to print. You need to polevault over Wolfgang’s invisible quality line which keeps being raised with each passing issues.  Your article is in competition with all others he gets for inclusion in the next issue. I was very lucky for my first piece to have the help of Ben Mcfarland, a veteran KQ contributor, who helped me morph my very conversationalist tone into a more neutral “magazine” voice.

Thanks Ben, I really owe you one.

Setting the Table for Success

I spent most of 2010 consolidating my non-RPG freelance projects.  I spent countless hours building (and re-building) my training seminars, by far my highest paid part time gig. I also opened my own company in May and taught  myself all the vagaries of billing, setting aside money for taxes, retirement, and other “fun” things like that. In the meantime, I got two more KQ queries accepted, one of which got published: an article on traps that become monsters and vice-versa in the Fall 2010 issue.  The other was rejected.

The rejection was a bit painful, but not as bad as I thought, the piece was too gimicky for the magazine, maybe I should post it here.

I recall that during the fall of 2010, my wife Alex came to me and remarked that I wasn’t getting a lot of freelancing gigs vs the amount of time I had freed from my day job. She was right. At that point my other contracts and seminars were mostly set so I told her I’d initiate the final phase of “The Plan: Get (more) Freelance Contracts”.  I sent about 10  pitches to Wizards of the Coast, none of them panned out.  But I concentrated on getting my business up and running and stopped thinking about Wizards so much.

In all honesty, I was upset and discouraged that I couldn’t get a feet through the proverbial door. But D&D grand guru, James Wyatt, told me to hang in there… saying that he had been rejected a LOT before making it into Dungeon magazine. 

Opening the Floodgates

It’s actually funny how things tumbled from there. First, I started hanging out with cool local Web 2.0 people: social media representatives for local media, tech bloggers, Tweeterati, TV show hosts, freelancers and others of that ilk. At one party, I met the host of a geek TV show and we hit it off talking about video games and RPGs. As it happens, he mentioned me in his weekly podcast;  the week after I got a call from someone that offered me a regular copy-writing gig for a local workshop that manufactures realistic looking foam weapons for LARPs.

I still work for them;  you can see some of my best work here and here.

Things really took off this year. I got a 3rd, very exciting query accepted for Kobold Quarterly which was just published in the Summer 2011  issue, a 4e article about playing character flaws and being rewarded for them. As my interest in small press games grew, especially with the Leverage game by Margaret Weis Production, I was invited by my friend Cam (MWP’s producer and lead designer/writer) to submit a 2000 word hack that allowed to play with Leverage‘s rules in a different genre.

I created a fantasy hack inspired by what I liked most of old school dungeon crawl… except I delivered 8000 words instead of 2000 😉

Cam also sent out a request for letters of interest to join the writing team of MWP’s newest RPG: Dragon Brigade based on Weis’ last novel: Shadow Raiders. After getting my response, he gave all contenders a writing test. I was  asked  to write, in an Alexandre Dumas voice, how to set scenes for a Swashbuckling game. I had a blast writing it. I think he liked it because I ended up writing more than 16 000 words for the game.

Of course, this was just a preview of the jackpot I would hit just a few weeks later. First, at the time I thought my chances if writing for Wizards of the Coast had evaporated, I got an email from the D&D Insider editorial inviting me (along several other bloggers and freelancers) to join their team of writers. This landed me 4 gigs: 2 Dungeon adventures and 2 Dragon magazine articles. If everything goes as planned you should see a combined Dragon/Dungeon set of article appear in the September issues and the next ones in early 2012.

After nearly 30 years of having started playing D&D, getting to officially contribute  to it is such a honor.  I hope I do the game justice.

Yet the biggest thing had yet to happen.

Cam (on IM): So what are your thoughts on Super Heroes gaming?

Phil: I have very fond memories of busting open TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes yellow box and making Wolverine fight Spiderman!

That discussion, initiated at an undisclosed date, eventually led me to be invited on the new Marvel Super Hero RPG design and writing team…

Brain… Blown.

The Journey Barely Begins

It took me nearly 25 years to realize I was a writer. It took me another 4 and a ton of effort, writing about a million words online, to  become a better one.  I  made  friends along the way that ultimately helped me make it in the RPG industry. Yes, I finally made it. And for a lot of this, I have you all to thank for it, through your supportive comments and helpful feedback.

Now I just have to keep on delivering. The road is not easier ahead, just more intense! 😉

I hope you’ll get to derive the same kind of fun from what I will help create as I have with what the giants before me created.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Phil, I remember when we were just baby bloggers filling our diapers with words. I am so proud of you that the planet may implode. Good job and good luck, sir!

  2. Great series Phil. It’s always inspiring to hear about someone following their dream. A common thread in the quest to happiness seems to be realizing what it is that makes you happy. Reinventing yourself is much easier when you have an idea of what you want to be.

  3. I really enjoyed this series. I think any writer (or really any profession) who is struggling to make it in the industry should read this. Congrats on getting into DDi, I look forward to seeing your contributions (hopefully) next month!

    • @Vanir: I so clearly remember our early years man. Filling diapers with words is quite an apt, if graphical, metaphor.

      @Todd: The first step is to believe, deep down, that dreams are not frivolous and that dreams can only become reality through actions and planning. Oh and some pig headedness. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words.

      @Garg: Thanks. I’m happy you enjoyed it and I so hope your mind gets blown away by what I have in store for you on D&Di next month. (Fingers crossed).

  4. As the other comments have said, this has been a great series! These kind of introspective and heart-felt posts are some of the best stuff you blog Phil, keep it up and I’m getting more and more excited for the Marvel RPG!

  5. Cam Banks says:

    I’m grateful for Phil’s enthusiasm and effort. He really brings a lot to the table, even if (as he sometimes says) he’s surrounded by “gamer celebrities.” In my book, he’s already a gaming celebrity. En avant, mon ami!

  6. TheMainEvent says:

    Congrats Phil, it was great seeing you up there during the MWP announcement.

  7. Keep going Chatty DM… I read you all the time. 🙂

  8. As always, Phil, it is a pleasure to read your work, as well as read about your work.


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