This month marks one year since I published my first physical book,
and I thought it would be the optimal time to sit and think about the things I’ve learned since I’ve joined this industry.
There have been hard lessons, and strange lessons. There have been uncomfortable ones too. And not all of them are bad—but there’s hopefully something you can take away from my experience that might help you. Even if you’re a veteran in comparison.
How it Started:
My first foray into RPG writing was a mess. I started with an idea that I deeply adored—one that my partner and I had come up with wholly as a joke—but that had such potential. I really believed in it. But I didn’t know anything about writing games.
I’ve actually been told that that doesn’t matter. And there are those who truly believe knowing HOW to write games isn’t as important as just writing them. And I’d like to counter that with my own experience and beg to fucking differ.
My first manuscript was a slough of useless jargon—intended to clarify, but only serving to sink the reader up to their waist in a bog of text that stank from bottom to top.
The conversations that followed were ones of utmost positivity—this is great Kirby—I must have heard a hundred times. Very few people offered actual critical analysis of my work, but the ones that did, actually offered good suggestions on how to improve—and I can’t think of where I’d be without that.
Which brings me to the next point
Toxically Positive Support
There’s no worse place to be in the world as a budding game designer, than a place that doesn’t just support your work—but never offers critical response to it. I’m guilty of this. So very guilty. But realizing I was partially to blame for creating, and sustaining, such a space, was one of the biggest lessons I needed to learn.
Not everything you do is good.
And seriously? That’s fucking fine.
Sometimes nothing you do will be good…for a long while. But you can’t expect to get better if you a) don’t keep trying, and b) don’t accept unfortunate critique of your work when it is bad.
I say this as someone who gave toxically positive support to BAD games.
An especially big part of this problem is when a designer writes an actually good product—only to be followed by…not great work. This is often the result of their mutual base of friends not having the gall to critique their new work through a lens of honesty—but rather through that of their current relationship.
This kind of critique is how bad games get made—and how good designers flop.
What is shovelware? I often hear the word thrown around at Mörk Borg, Mothership, and even D&D 3rd party work might qualify. Adventures, supplements, etc that fill a niche in alarming rates, with often little critical reading done to them.
That said—it’s not a dirty word.
I, for one, am actually a huge proponent of Shovelware in the industry because it actually allows budding writers to try their hands at game—throw a pile of shit at the wall and see what sticks.
One of my first products I ever published was a MB supplement called The Church of Katharszisz. It wasn’t good. But it was fun as hell to write—received no critical reading and later down the line I came to my own realization how bad it was and removed it from publication.
There’s room for shovelware though. It helps boost game support, builds communities, and often is the first stepping stone into better writing.
But it can’t stop with just being shovelware.
You can’t stop with just publishing shovelware.
And shovelware can be games too
The itch that needs to stop being scratched
itch.io is fantastic; platform made for indie designers to showcase their work.
In the tabletop space though—itch is also full of shovelware.
There is a certain…need, I’ve seen in my time in this space—that desire to fill every void in subject matter you see with the tabletop tag. If a topic doesn’t have a game—you goddamn better write one.
But that doesn’t need to be, nor really should it be, the case.
I’ll likely make some unhappy people here—but Lyric games are the culprit.
Not inherently bad of course, but lyric game writing has opened us up to a world of unnecessary publication. Things that didn’t need to be written are being written just for the sake of filling a perceived void. A void that may or may not exist—but absolutely doesn’t always need to be filled.
Lyric games have become my primary example of shovelware in the TTRPG industry (just look at any of the bundles from last year and try your best to read more than 5 of the games in them)
Ive now seen game designers who’s primary income is publishing…dare I say it…nearly unplayable work, on a regular basis—and they’re LAUDED for it.
Again—I’m guilty of these things, so don’t go off being angry at my words when I’m speaking from my own experience DOING this.
So what to do?
—Don’t stop writing. Of course.
—HIRE an editor. Find a recommended editor and pay them to work for you.
Especially if you have a really small manuscript.
Not only will this ensure that your work at least sees some level of professionalism—it will also aid you in self-promotion.
And trust me when I say—shelling out that extra $75 up front for a game you will sell for $4 will really make that $4 product stand out among the pile of garbled messes that are also $4 or more.
—Immediately write off the opinions of anyone who only gives you positive feedback.
—Consider writing settings or adventures for already established systems instead of pressing your fingers into your eye sockets, in an attempt to crunch subject matter into a system you make yourself.
I recently took this leap, and I’m so much better for it. Nearly all the ideas I’ve had floating around in my head for new games—have immediately become feasible when reworked as adventures (especially when you consider how wildly freeing writing for TROIKA! can be to your imagination)
—Honestly, quit Twitter. It’s a cesspool. I’m still trying.
You’ll receive very little in return for quite a lot from you.
—Figure out which method works for you best—grinding small work out regularly, or keeping your head down on massive intermittent projects.
Both are viable, and both are rewarding, however the second is much more anxiety inducing, so be prepared to counteract that with support from your crew.
—Have a crew.
but don’t let your crew tell you your work is good when it’s not. Require honesty in return for honesty.
The only way we become better is critical reading and honest encounters with others.
Anyway. Happy 1 year to me—maybe I’ll have a sale or some shit.