In 2011, several RPG bloggers and freelancer were contacted by the D&D producer team of Wizards of the Coast. They wanted to to tap into the community of amateur content creators to scout new talents and get some new perspectives into their D&D magazines.
I was among those invited. My experience turned out to be… Interesting. I’d like to share that experience, now more than a year after, so that current and would be freelancers avoid making the same assumptions and mistakes I made.
Like all invitees, I was presented a list of planned articles for the coming year (early 2011 to early 2012) and was invited to express interest for those I felt like tackling. We were also invited to pitch article ideas. I expressed interest in a few and sent a few ideas, mostly a rehash of previous pitches I had sent before.
Lessons Learned 1: If a pitch isn’t taken the first time, don’t try to pass it with a new coat of paint, try something else.
I was awarded 4 articles (I lost one along the way). I got to design level 0 rules for D&D 4e and I got to write an article for such characters. I also got to write a companion article to the Halls of Undermountain adventure featuring mechanical monsters created by the Metal Mage, Trobriand.
I had two contacts at Wizards to interact with. Greg Bilsland was the Dragon Magazine producer and Chris Perkins was producer of Dungeon Magazine content. They were my interface with the rest of the D&D team: developers, editors and art directors. I was told to direct all my questions to these two.
I could describe my WotC freelance experience as a play-by-play, but I have a story that actually resumes what freelancing for them is all about.
About 20 years ago, my friend Eric enrolled in Military College. After a year of science and officer training, he was given a choice as to what job he wanted to do in the Canadian Armed Forces. He asked to become a F-18 pilot (Canada’s jet-fighters). The Armed Forces selection process was dead simple: take all the kids that want to be fighter pilots, put them in a flight simulator… and don’t give them any instructions whatsoever. They pick the best 2 kids from each college and put them through actual training.
My friend failed…
That kinda sums up my experience with WotC. Once you get a Go signal to produce an article or an adventure, the onus is on you to deliver exactly what they want. While you are given templates to follow and a series of well-written guidelines, the actual human support you get is invariably less than what they promised you. Now let me be crystal clear, I don’t believe it’s entirely their fault. Much like anyone with day jobs in this modern age, the D&D producers are overworked and are expected to cover a ton of ongoing projects at the same time. In reality, you can’t expect to be mentored or taught the basics of the field. You are given one (maybe two) chance to deliver what they asked for on top of what they assume you know about their expectations.
And those expectations are thus: deliver top grade, engaging manuscripts that will require no or minimal editing in terms of grammar, syntax and spelling. Those are very stringent requirements which you can’t afford to brush off.
Lessons Learned 2: Yes the Chicago Manual of Style is a HUGE and expensive document. If you want to write for WotC, that’s going to be your main bible. I decided to ignore that… and I paid for it. I could use the fact that English is my second language as an excuse… but that only goes so far when you get to work with the highest paying client in the field.
Lessons Learned 3: If you’re serious about being a freelancer, get MS-Word. It’s got issues but that’s what the industry uses. Forget about Open Office and Google Drive. Purchase MS-Office.
Lessons Learned 4: This may be unfair, but there’s a bug in Office 2010 that prevents some styles of the WotC templates from being imported properly when you open a template. I heartily suggest using Word 2007 unless someone can attest that the bug has been fixed.
Once I got the assignments, I was asked to produce outlines for the articles so the producers and developers could comment on them. As things stand now, outlines are no longer required. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write one. Trust me, YOU MUST! In fact I suggest sending them to the D&D developers to let them know how you plan to tackle the article. You should also send them to any other freelancer you trust who’ve signed the WotC NDA so you can get extra set of eyes to look at them.
I got great feedback on the outlines. My daring approach for token-based powers for level 0 characters was green-lighted (with some well thought-out advice). My proposal to set the 0th level adventure in the Elemental Chaos was also well received, if only because it struck the fancy of the producer. But therein lies another issue. By proposing ideas that were so outside established “normal” D&D concepts (indie-like mechanics, staging an adventure’s setting outside its usual level range), I got people within R&D to champion them against people who disliked them. I can say this because I got some tersely written feedback from people down the line saying they didn’t like the approach. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to change course. For this I thank those who championed my ideas.
Lessons Learned 5: Don’t always try to reinvent the gaming wheel. Be innovative, but don’t go for crazy all the time…
But that wasn’t the real problem. The thing is that while I got people championing an unproven freelancer with crazy ideas within the D&D team, I failed to deliver a draft that was up to the established standards of WotC. My piece needed significant editing, didn’t fit the established templates (faulty styles), was handed a few days late and needed additional content to be more fleshed out. While none of these issues were a problem in themselves, once combined they put me in the “not quite trustworthy” category.
Why? Well, I started working on the assignments too late. I mostly ignored style guides (thinking English and French were similar enough… Sadly, they’re worlds apart .) I also got screwed on MS Word Styles without realizing it.
Lessons Learned 6: Getting your foot in the WotC freelancing machine is the easy part. Delivering top notch material with little to no guidance is your prerogative. Show THEM you can fly the F-18, they can’t afford to teach you, they likely never will.
No matter how talented, creative or passionate you are, you have absolutely no entitlement to a “fair chance” as a freelancer. Your chance is the one you get when you have one of your pitches accepted. If you flub it, even if no one took the time to tell you the rules, it’s your own fault. You will be remembered for it and the climb to get another assignment will only be that much harder. I know… I can see it in the tone of the notes I get from my recently rejected pitches.
Lessons Learned 7: Put that sense of entitlement back in your desk. You are one of many dozens of moderately skilled writers WotC can call upon. If you don’t wow them, they’ll pick the next one because they can afford to. Your job is to amaze them and deliver a product that will not add to their workload. That’s how they work, we either accept it or seek elsewhere.
Lessons Learned 8: For God’s sake, don’t leave typos and spelling mistakes in your pitches. That’s an almost auto-rejection, especially if you are on their “watch-for-mistakes” list.
I still got three great D&D articles I’m incredibly proud of. They were very well received and I still get praise for them. It however became clear to me I was not “on the list” after those.
Am I bitter? Not anymore. I consider myself a professional and take full responsibility for how I managed the whole thing. The producers were nice enough to warn me and I still missed my chance.
Fortunately, I have since found other teams where my skillset (both strengths and weaknesses) are more compatible with their practices. I’ve since gotten progressively better. Not perfect, but better.
So here’s the list of often repeated, not always followed advice if you do land an assignment:
- Write what you were hired to do, no more, no less.
- Make an outline and validate it with a third party… preferably one of the producers
- Deliver before the deadline. If you can’t, tell the producer in advance and suggest an alternate date you will stick too.
- Follow style guides and templates, it is not optional
- Leave your ego by the door when you get “notes'” back from developers and editors. Always stay polite no matter how annoyed, angry you get.
- Never, ever, ever… send your first draft. Go through it at least three or four times before sending it. Sleep on it, then review it 3-4 more times.
What about your experiences with a publisher, want to share your own advice, your Dos and Do nots?
Comment here or post them in your blogs!
P.S. My friend Jerry wrote about his own, more recent, experience over on his blog here.