by Stephen Kenson
December 22, 1998
Steve Kenson wrote the Magic Section in Shadowrun 3rd Edition, as well as contributing to many other FASA pieces and several articles in recent Dragon Magazines. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
A number of people have asked me recently "how do I break into writing for RPGs?" By way of a response, I'd like to relate my own experience of getting into the RPG industry and offer some advice for prospective writers looking to get into the field.
I've been working as a full-time freelancer since 1995. I've written a dozen or so game books and contributed to around twice that many. I also published my first game-fiction novel (Technobabel, for FASA's Shadowrun universe) this year and finished working on my second (available sometime in 1999), so I have a fair amount of experience about being a freelancer in the RPG industry.
First off, the bad news. If you're looking to get into writing for RPGs for the money, don't bother. There is no money in RPGs. That's not to say that you can't make money writing game product, or even that some people don't make a halfway decent living at it, but you won't get rich doing it. My first piece of advice is, unless you're looking to be a starving artist, don't give up your day job to write for RPGs.
The best reason to get into writing RPG material is because you really love to do it. If you can write some stuff on the side and manage to get paid for it, so much the better. Turning your hobby into a part-time freelance job can pay for your gaming habit, if nothing else.
So how do you do it? Sometimes you just get lucky. If you know someone in the industry, then you may have an "in" for getting your work published. However, most of us do not have those kind of contacts, so getting published takes practice and persistence.
It is easiest to start with writing articles for gaming-related publications, even fanzines or webzines. Writing for a fanzine provides practice and you can ask your readers for feedback and constructive criticism, which can help to provide your ego with the thick skin you'll need to make it as a writer. A writer who can't handle editorial criticism doesn't usually last very long.
Submit articles to professional gaming magazines like Dragon, Dungeon, Pyramid, or Shadis. If your article is rejected, come up with something else and keep trying. If you learn from your rejections and continue to refine your writing, sooner or later you'll get an article published. Published articles provide you with the start of a portfolio of writing work you can use to get bigger freelance jobs. I personally started out writing Shadowrun stuff for the "Scrawls from the Sprawls" fanzine and the old "KA*GE" fanzine.
Once you've got a track-record and you want to submit something to a game company, the first thing to do is get their writer's guidelines and FOLLOW THEM. Game companies publish writer's guidelines for a reason. Any writer who can't take the time to read and follow the guidelines probably isn't going to get published. I can't stress enough how important this is. Even if the guidelines mess up your concept, follow them. If a company's guidelines say "no world-altering events" then DON'T submit a world-altering event as your first proposal. Some companies don't even accept freelance proposals, so don't waste your time sending them any.
Before sending a proposal, send the developer or line editor of the game line a letter outlining your proposal and asking if he or she would be interested in seeing it. A query letter is not only polite, but can save you and the company a lot of time if your proposal isn't the sort of thing they want. Game lines are usually planned out months (if not years) in advance, so even if your idea is phenomenal, the company may not be able to use it right then.
Do NOT begin any proposal or query with anything that sounds like "this aspect of your game really sucks, but I have an idea on how to fix it." Even if it happens to be true. The last thing a developer wants to hear is that his or her game sucks. Either the developer doesn't think that aspect of the game is bad, in which case you've lost serious points, or the developer knows it's bad, and doesn't need to be reminded of it by you. It may seem like common sense, but many game developers I know have told me of would-be freelancers who have done just that (especially at conventions).
If the company is interested in seeing your proposal, send it via UPS or FedEx (or some other traceable mail service) so you can ensure it arrives safely and track it down if it doesn't. Don't ever send your only copy of anything, always keep backup copies of all hardcopy and electronic files. Follow the guidelines for how to prepare your proposal. The easier you make the editor or developer's life, the more they will like you and the more professional you look, which improves your chances.
Once you have sent your proposal, be patient. Don't call and bug the developer about your proposal. Most game companies are small and understaffed, so it may take some time for them to get to your proposal and even longer to get back to you. A single follow-up letter or e-mail 6-8 weeks after sending in your proposal is a good idea, just to make sure the company got the proposal and it didn't get lost. In all cases, be polite in dealing with the company and the developer. If your proposal is rejected, start working on your next one and take any criticism the developer offers to heart, it may help you the next time.
If your proposal is accepted, you can start working on the actual project. A developer may also reject your proposal, but offer you some other work on an existing project. In either case, if you agree to do a project for a company make certain you meet your deadlines. Consistently meeting deadlines is one of the most important qualities of a freelance writer. If you think you won't be able to meet a deadline, for any reason, inform your developer or editor immediately. They would rather know you're going to be late in advance (when there may be time to do something about it) than find out after the fact when it's too late.
Realize that your first draft of a project probably won't be your last. If an editor asks you to make changes, make them if at all possible. If changes get made in-house by the developer or editor, don't go ballistic over them. Like I said, you need to put your own ego aside if you want to succeed as a freelance writer.
Once the project is done and out of your hands, don't sit around waiting for the check to come. Start working on your next proposal. If you put together a string of projects, you can end up as a freelance writer. Best of luck to you.