Thursday, 8 September 2016

About Me and Freelancing

Kyle Carty on the Official Savage Worlds Facebook Group recently promoted a new group for RPG freelancers, where people can introduce themselves, and share their knowledge and experience. The group is called "Tabletop Freelancer Resources", so check it out if you're interested in the subject.

However his post got me thinking about the path I've taken, and as it seems a lot of other people are also interested in getting into freelancing or self-publication, I thought I'd give an overview of my background in roleplaying games, and how it took me to where I am now.

I don't usually talk much about myself, preferring to focus on my work, but I thought I'd make an exception this time, as it helps explain why I do what I do. If you're only interested in the freelancing part, feel free to skip to the Savage Worlds section (I've added a picture as a bookmark, just scroll down to that).

Primary School

My first experience with roleplaying games was red box D&D. I was about 8 years old, and the GM was a year older than me, but neither of us had much idea what we were doing. We played a few times, and I even asked my grandparents for my own copy of the game as a Christmas present, but I soon moved on to other interests.

Secondary School and Sixth Form College

Fast forward a few years. I was now about 12 years old, and heavily into Fighting Fantasy and other "choose your own adventure" books, but then my parents mistakenly bought me a copy of Dragon Warriors for Christmas (it was the same size, shape and artistic style as the FF books). I was instantly hooked, and soon convinced a group of friends to start playing with me.

Over the next 6 years my friends and I played many different roleplaying systems, and invented several of our own. But eventually we turned 18, and scattered around the country to attended different Universities.

University

University life brought its own experiences, including a roleplaying society and various organized events. I made many new friends, and played with various different groups, but the majority of my gaming was World of Darkness, particularly Vampire the Masquerade.

Work Life

After graduating I moved to a different part of the UK, and it took around two years before I was able to assemble another group - then six months later I moved again for a new job. Once again it was probably a couple of years before I formed a new group, and then I moved yet again, this time to another country.

Expat Life

In October 2001 I moved to Germany. I'd learned my lesson by this point, and wasn't willing to just wait around, so I immediately started hunting for a group. It took a few months, as I needed to find a group who were willing to initially play in English, but I was successful.

Over the years most of the players moved away, and occasionally others would join. I eventually became the full-time GM, as none of the remaining group were interested in GMing, and although I ran several different systems (and tested a few more homebrew systems of my own devising), most of my campaigns alternated between D&D 3.5 and WoD.

I loved the way skills scaled in WoD, the way you could start play as a competent character, or even be an expert in your chosen field. I also thought the merits and flaws were really cool, giving characters a unique feel. However the combat just didn't do it for me - I didn't run many fight scenes, but when I did they felt anticlimactic, just rolling fists full of dice and counting the successes. I found WoD great for the story, but not the action.

By contrast, D&D 3.5 had the game mechanics to support interesting and tactical combat, and I found the fight scenes could get pretty exciting at times (although it slowed down when there were lots of opponents). However I really didn't like the skill system. It was certainly a step up from the "non-weapon proficiencies" in 2nd edition, but it still felt tacked on, and I didn't like the way the skills were so heavily tied to your level (i.e., you start out completely incompetent, and can eventually swim up waterfalls). I loved the feats though.

Then in 2010, I discovered Savage Worlds...

Savage Worlds

Even my son likes Savage Worlds!
Savage Worlds combined the things I liked best about both D&D 3.5 and WoD. The skill system scaled like WoD (i.e., you could start out as an expert in your chosen field if you wished), but the combat was tactical and exciting (and even more flexible than D&D, without getting bogged down when there are lots of combatants). It had Edges (which combined the merits of WoD with the feats of D&D) and Hindrances (like the flaws of WoD), and even had Bennies (like fate points in D&D 3.5 Eberron, which was another mechanic I really liked).

I also liked the dice mechanic. The WoD dice pools could get out of hand, while rolling a single d20 in D&D always felt a bit too random. But Savage Worlds found a compromise between the two - roll a trait die and a wild die, and keep the highest. And of course you had Bennies for rerolls if the situation was important enough.

I liked the way Savage Worlds wounds are handled more like WoD, so you don't have to chip away at hit points like a lumberjack chopping down a tree, instead there's just 3 "health levels" for the PCs and important NPCs. The fact that Extras don't have wound levels or a wild die helps speed up combat considerably, as I can throw a handful of dice to resolve all their attacks simultaneously, and I no longer need to track hit points or write down initiative (I hate bookkeeping).

And of course, Savage Worlds also has some really cool settings, most of which have an unusual twist, and game forums with a very friendly and supportive community. So once I got started, there was no going back.

Fan Content: Tools

Although I was new to Savage Worlds, by this point I'd already been roleplaying for more than two decades, and had created several of my own systems from scratch - not to mention my other hobby of designing and developing competitive online games, where precise game balance is far more important.

Therefore it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that I'm a bit of a tinkerer when it comes to game design, and right from the start I was interested in understanding and expanding the mechanics of Savage Worlds (something which newbies are generally discouraged from doing, admittedly!).

Within three months I'd created the first prototype of a Combat Simulator, which became my first Savage Worlds tool. Since then I've developed over 30 additional tools, most of which are available online, including character builders, random character generators, adventure generators, monster converters, a statblock analyzer, and so on.

Designing such tools gave me a much better understanding of how Savage Worlds works, and helped build my reputation as a contributor within the community, but it also led me to something new: creating fan PDFs.

Fan Content: PDFs and Blogging

As I've already mentioned, I'd previously developed several homebrew roleplaying systems. However I'd only ever produced them as simple documents, initially with pen and paper, then later with a word processor. But Savage Worlds has many fan developers, and most of them release their work as a PDF. With a quick Google search, I realized that I could easily create PDFs simply by exporting my Word documents - then all I needed to do was make the results look good.

Back then, Storn Cook would frequently post samples of his awesome artwork on the Pinnacle Forums, and allowed much of it to be used under a Creative Commons license. I used his art extensively (and PM'd him to make doubly sure he was okay with it), and in March 2012 released my first fan supplement: Supernaturalis.

The reception from the community was pretty lukewarm, but people seemed particularly interested in my weapon creation system, so I turned that into a separate fan PDF and released it a month later as Savage Armoury - it proved a big hit (in fact it's still probably my most popular creation to date), so I started churning out more PDFs: Savage Arcanum (June 2012), Savage Spellbook (May 2013), Savage Dragons (October 2013), Savage Undead (October 2013), Savage Frost Giants (January 2014), Savage Beasts (February 2014), and Savage War of the Burning Sky Player's Guide (February 2014) and GM's Guide (9th March 2014).

At this point, Matthew Hanson of Sneak Attack Press contacted me, asking if I was interested in producing supplements for him as a freelancer. This caught me off-guard, it wasn't something I'd considered - and while it was flattering, I wasn't entirely comfortable about selling the rights to my work. I thanked him and said I'd let him know if I wanted to publish anything.

My next supplement was more complex, incorporating many elements of game design, and I released it as Savage Abilities in August 2014. I took a bit of a breather at that point, as I was also working on my tools, and involved in design discussions on the Pinnacle forums. And of course becoming a father in October 2014 threw me a little off my game!

In December 2014 I started this blog as a place to post my conversions, after getting into trouble for posting them directly on the Pinnacle forums (sorry guys!), although since then I've found it generally quite a convenient location to post my thoughts and ideas. It was also in December 2014 that I started working on my most ambitious fan PDF to date; at 160 pages, Savage Vancian Magic took me around seven months to write.

However by the time I'd finished Savage Vancian Magic, in July 2015, I'd already taken my first steps into the world of freelancing.

Freelance Work: Obatron Productions

In September 2014 I saw that Obatron Productions were looking for articles for Savage Insider, and better yet, writing for them didn't require giving up my rights - so I sent them a pitch, and they accepted it. My "Savage Archery" article was published!

I later followed up with two more article submissions, "Back from the Dead" in March 2015, and "Status and Renown" in August 2015, although the latter was for an issue hasn't been published yet.

Freelance Work: SPQR Games

In January 2015 I saw that Mat Greenfield was looking for someone to write up the stats for various NPCs in his Guild of Shadows setting, so I applied. Sadly someone else had already taken the job, but he asked if I'd be interested in reviewing his mechanics instead, and I readily agreed. He liked my feedback so much that he hired me to make the changes directly, and I got a bit carried away.

The Kickstarter had mentioned "more than 30 custom Edges and Hindrances", yet there were currently only 14 - so I added 17 more. The Kickstarter also mentioned expanded rules for disguises, so I add those too, along with additional rules for minions. Mat was so pleased with my work that he listed me as co-author, and then hired me to review the mechanics in the adventures and write the Rogues Hall of Fame.

The Rogues Hall of Fame was a stretch goal that the Kickstarter nearly reached, and Mat wanted to include it anyway as a thank you to the backers. The original plan was to include stats for 10 famous rogues from history, but I expanded it to 30, and had them double-up as valid starting characters. I also handled the layout and artwork, so this was the first licensed product that I literally created entirely myself. 3 of the NPCs were dropped from the final product due to being more "villain" than "rogue", so I secured permission to release them as an unofficial bonus page under the fan license.

Freelance Work: Sneak Attack Press

In August 2015, Sneak Attack Press announced the Kickstarter for Drakonheim: City of Bones. I backed it, and immediately fell in love with the setting. I also recalled my earlier exchange with Matthew Hanson, and feeling more confident after my recent freelancing efforts, I decided to contact him.

Drakonheim is a system-neutral setting, but Sneak Attack Press also publish a lot of content for Savage Worlds. Matthew had a lot on his plate with other projects, but was interested in hiring me to create a Savage Worlds companion for Drakonheim, and convert his earlier Heroes of Drakonheim adventures from D&D 5e.

Whereas my work on Guild of Shadows had been flat rate, Sneak Attack Press paid by the word, so now I had to be a bit more careful about what I wrote. The earlier setting book already contained the flavor text, so I focused almost exclusively on the mechanics, trying to keep them interesting and concise. I also had to make sure I didn't deviate from the published setting, so I had to thoroughly familiarize myself with the setting book, and maintain close contact with Matthew.

Once the documents were complete (and after a short delay to avoid competing with Savage Rifts), Sneak Attack Press ran a successful Kickstarter to fund the artwork, and with Matthew's permission I released a couple of free One Sheets under the fan license to help promote it: Gray Matter and Broken Crown.

Freelance Work: Gun Metal Games

In December 2015, David Jarvis wrote a number of posts describing aspects of his new setting, Codex Infernus. I was interested in the project, having backed it on Kickstarter, so I responded to a few of his posts and gave feedback on the mechanics. David sent me a private message and asked if I'd like to do some editing work, and I readily accepted.

While the setting was nearly complete, there were still a few things missing, which gave me the opportunity to contribute some new content. David wasn't satisified with the corruption rules, for example, so I wrote a revised system for him. I also created an angel race (which will be released in a future Forces of Light supplement), and expanded rules for the Faith skill, including angelic and demonic weapons.

My first proposal for divine weapons wasn't what David was looking for, so I turned the content into a fan supplement called Eldritch Weapons. This also allowed me to practice the layout and presentation skills I'd been working on.

Freelance Work: Melior Via

In January 2016 I decided to update and expand my Savage Frost Giants fan supplement, which contained guidelines for an unofficial Witchbreed for Accursed. John Dunn mentioned Savage Frost Giants in the next Kickstarter update for Accursed: World of Morden, which I had eagerly backed earlier in the month, and the SBN News Podcast mistakenly reported that I was working for Melior Via. I corrected them, but John decided he liked the idea, and asked if I'd be interested in writing a One Sheet for Accursed!

I'd already released two One Sheets under the fan license by that point (Sanguine Solstice and Bone of Contention), and John had already seen them, and said he'd like something similar. So I sent him a pitch for Dark Queen's Gambit, he gave it the thumbs-up, and two weeks later I submitted the finished adventure.

Freelance Work: Just Insert Imagination

In April 2016, Eric Lamoureux contacted me. He'd been impressed by my work on Codex Infernus, and wanted to know if I was interested in working on a new project for Just Insert Imagination - a Mutation Deck. Eric's initial idea was to create a deck of around 40-52 cards, each listing three versions of a mutation: One disadvantage comparable with a -1 racial ability, one zero-sum mutation, and one advantage comparable with a +1 racial ability.

I proposed turning it into a 56-card deck that also doubled up as an Action Deck, complete with four Jokers, with each card offering an Advantage comparable with an Edge, and two Disadvantages comparable with Minor and Major Hindrances. It took a couple of weeks to complete the first draft, but that was followed by four months of polishing, play-testing and refinement, and I think it was worth the wait!

Summary

My freelancing experience has been varied, interesting and educational, it's given me the chance to network with some very talented and creative people, build up some credentials, and I've gained a lot of valuable insight into the publication process. However when I sell the rights to my work, it sometimes feels like I'm selling a little piece of my soul, so in general I view freelancing as a means to an end - a stepping stone to becoming self-published. That certainly doesn't mean I won't do more freelancing work in the future, but I'm trying to avoid working on things that close off avenues I might like to explore with my own supplements in the future.

The early fan PDFs I produced were simple Word-exported PDFs with low-resolution artwork, they were functional but ugly. But as my standards have increased, so have my costs; high production values require proper layout and high-quality artwork, and even stock art can get expensive when you need a lot of it. Now that I've started commissioning custom art, my overheads are increasing accordingly, and this isn't sustainable for a hobby (my artwork is currently all funded through my freelancing). But pride in my work prevents me from lowering my standards.

Last year I started sketching out some rough ideas for Saga of the Goblin Horde, releasing my first One Sheet adventure, Sanguine Solstice, in December 2015. I released the next adventure, Bone of Contention, in February 2016. Then in March 2016 I released the third adventure, Egg Hunt, along with four archetypes and an overview of the setting. Since then I've been releasing one new archetype each month, while working in parallel on the main setting book, which I hope to have completed by the end of the year (or perhaps early next year at the latest).

Once that's finished there are several other personal projects I'd like to work on, including two mini-settings that I'm really excited about, several unusual adventure ideas, and a few new splats. I'd also like to re-release expanded versions of my older PDFs with new layout and artwork, like I've already done for Savage Frost Giants, Savage Undead and Savage Dragons.