Monday, September 7, 2015

How To Get A Job Designing RPGs

People always say "do what you love," and "if you're good at something, then never do it for free." If you've decided you want to transmute yourself from a hobbyist into a professional when it comes to roleplaying games, good on you. Unfortunately you have a long, perilous road ahead of you.

Here's a map, and a few quick pieces of advice from a fellow adventurer.

"Here there be dragons," is not hyperbole.

And Just Who The Hell Are You?

Before we start digging, I should establish my bona fides.

My name is Neal Litherland, and I'm an author, and freelance RPG designer. I've worked for Paizo, TPK Games, Kobold Quarterly, and a few others as a hired troubleshooter. A few of the projects I've been part of are listed on my Amazon Author Page if you'd like to take a look at them. I'm telling you this because I want you, the readers, to know that I'm not just talking out of my ass here; this is what I've seen in the industry, and this is the strategy that's worked for me.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's get started!

Step One: Create Something

The world of professional RPG design is a lot like picking up quests. If you're brand-new, you still have to prove yourself by raiding goblin warrens or going after petty bandits. If you've been around, and you have the experience, then bigger organizations will come to you, lay out their problems, and in exchange for your talents cut you a big, fat check.

So how do you get from first level to epic RPG designer status? Experience. And you get experience by making things.

A campaign is a good start.
What kinds of things can you create if you have no experience or connections? Well, you could start a gaming blog (not unlike the Creative Repository Blog by Simon Peter Munoz), or you could sign up with an article-based website like Infobarrel where you can write a series of gaming-based articles (which is where I host my Character Conversions like Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane, The Hulk, Batman, and others). You could also enter competitions or open calls that gaming companies have, like Paizo's annual RPG Superstar contest, where winners are given a contract for a project with the company. Even if you don't win, you'll get eyes on your ideas and write-ups

When you create content, you are putting together your gaming resume. If your content gets popular, gaming companies may approach you and ask if you're open to contract work. Even if they don't, though, when you e-mail an RPG producer and ask if there are any openings, you'll have something for them to judge you by.

Step Two: Make Friends

Networking isn't just a buzz-word for empty suits looking to get some extra company stock and bigger benefits; it also applies to the publishing world. The more people you meet, and the more events you go to, the bigger and more diverse your network will become.

Like this, only less abstract.
Here's an example for you. Let's say you're at a gaming convention. You're walking the aisles, checking out products, and you get to chatting with the guy selling the books. Not only is he selling books, but it turns out he's the game's chief designer! So, you give him a business card and he says he'll call you if something opens up. You get an email, and a job offer for a small bit of flavor text. You complete it, take your earnings, and you're feeling pretty good. Then you get another email, and it turns out your paymaster has a friend who's working on a related game. He needs people with talent, but rather than just put out an all-call he's asking people he knows if they have recommendations. And you, my friend, just got recommended!

That's how most of the hiring goes on in the world of RPG publishing; you make connections, do a good job, and word gets around about you. For example, I got my first gig with Paizo because I saw a link on their homepage that said, "would you like to write for Paizo?" I clicked it, sent an email, and a few months later my short story The Irregulars was added to the Pathfinder Tales. When the fiction section filled up, I asked if there were any rules-style assignments open. I got a few thrown my way, and with those under my belt, started reaching out to other, third-party designers. After a while I didn't have to knock on doors anymore; companies who liked my work would come knocking on mine when something new came up.

Step Three: Repeat

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your career. Even if you write a blog post that goes viral, showering you with attention and ad revenue, you can't rest on your laurels. Be proud, be happy, but know that once that check clears you're going to have to get back to work on the next project, or projects, in order to keep your career's wheels turning. Much like being an adventurer, your job is never actually done. You just progress from earning pocket money for writing a few monster descriptions, to rent money from writing an entire rule book worth of content.

Pictured: A great way to pay your landlord.
Now, this all seems pretty simple. So I'd like to leave you with a few tips to help you get to that mystical, magical X marking the end of the trail in one piece.

First off, be professional. Even if you're just starting out and all you have on your resume is that you did some free articles for an obscure RPG website or magazine, bring your game face to the table. Do the job you're asked, make edits when they're requested, and never lose your cool while you're on the job. Soldiering on through adversity, and being able to deliver solid content on time, are qualities that will get you really, really far in your quest.

Secondly, help everyone you can, as often as you can. As I said in my blog entry The One Phrase Every Author Needs To Know For Networking Success, sometimes all it takes is boosting someone's signal to earn you an ally. Other game designers, artists, bloggers, etc. are not people you need to get a leg over; they're people who may be able to offer you a hand up. Treat everyone accordingly.

Lastly, remember to have fun. Sure it can be frustrating pounding out feat text, or trying to balance new spells when your deadline is in 10 hours, but if you're going to be successful you need to be able to delve deep into every project. Enthusiasm mixed with dedication is a sure-fire tonic for success (even if that success doesn't happen overnight).

Well, I hope folks found this little guide to be of help. If you have additional questions about how to become a professional RPG designer, feel free to send me an e-mail, or leave your query in the comments. If you want to keep up on my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too. Lastly, if you'd like to support Improved Initiative (remember what I said about no overnight successes?), then leave some bread in my jar over at my Patreon page!


  1. Very helpful post! I am just trying to publish my first RPG book, and there are definitely some things I struggle with!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, at a point where I'm not sure what I want to do in the future and it's nice to know this is a possibility because it's something I'd love to end up doing.