From the Freelancing Frontline: The Beginning

Welcome to a new column from veteran game designer Owen K.C. Stephens! He's worked at Green Ronin, Paizo, and Wizards of the Coast, as well has his own company, and was co-author of the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG and Design Lead for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. This first instalment covers his beginnings as a freelancer.

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So, how does a tabletop RPG freelancer career begin?

Mike Selinker bursts out of his office, and looks around the RPG R&D department at Wizards of the Coast. The cubicles are nearly empty, but he spots me sitting at my new, largely empty desk.

“Quick, Owen!” Mike is clearly excited. “Can an 11-year-old-boy hold a wallaby one-handed?”


...

Okay, maybe that’s starting too late. Let’s go back a bit.

Stan! and Ed Stark are sitting at a table in the game-themed restaurant Dalmuti’s, connected to the Wizards of the Coast Game Center. There are a dozen or more D&D fans sitting at the tables around them, attendees of the 1997 TSR Writer’s Conference. Of all those attendees, I am the only one to walk up to these two titans of the RPG industry, in a room decorated with many of their genius works.

“Hi, I’m Owen. May I sit with you two for lunch?”

They smile. I nearly puke. But they invite me to sit.


...

No, even that is too late.

It’s 1996. I am the manager of a parking garage. While my friends get college degrees and technical certifications, I alternate between spending my days making people pay 75 cents per hour to keep their car out of the rain and playing RPGs with my friends. I could be improving myself, educating myself. But for me, there is only the drudgery of a job I hate, and time spent with friends in geeky pursuits.

It really was as sad as it sounds.

I desperately wanted a subscription to Dragon Magazine. I couldn’t afford all the game materials I wanted, and I didn’t always get out to the game shop (literally called The Game Shop, in my hometown of Norman, OK, before it eventually went under) every month. So, I missed some issues of the magazine, and I really wanted the slight savings in price I could get with a year’s subscription.

I just couldn’t afford it.

My wife and partner (and geek and gamer in her own right, who had publicly recruiting for her gaming group and guild before I met her, at a time when I was still playing with 2 friends in my mother’s garage and trying not to let people see my D&D books at school for fear of being mocked), suggests that if I want more hobby stuff I should use my hobby to earn the money needed to get it. I had dozens of notebooks filled with campaign ideas and details (hand-written, in pencil), and she and many of my friends thought they had good, fun, interesting ideas.

Why not, she proposed, write and sell some articles to gaming magazines, and use the money to buy a subscription to Dragon?

And that was how it started – very small. All I wanted was a subscription to a single magazine. I even figured I could do without Dungeon, because making THAT much money seemed unreasonable.

Though things like email existed, when I first began trying to get paid for RPG work, nearly every outlet I looked into wanted a typed piece of paper with 3-5 article pitches, mailed with an SASE. That’s a Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope, for those of you who never had to deal with it. Magazines wouldn’t even look at your pitches if you didn’t give them a pre-stamped envelope for them to send a respond back to you. Dragon Magazine editorials spoke of the “SASE Ogre,” who would eat such pitches with no one the wiser. Which meant that every pitch letter I sent cost me about 1 cent for paper (I wasn’t buying typing paper in bulk), 5 cents for an envelope, 32 cents for a stamp to mail it, and another 32 for the SASE.

It seemed like madness. I couldn’t afford the things I wanted, so I had to spend 70 cents to propose articles magazines could pay me for? I carefully noted down these expenses in a ledger. Pitches to Dragon Magazine, D8 (which I loved, but no one else seems to remember), Troll (which had only 1 issue if I recall correctly), Shadis (1996 winner of the Origins Awards for Best Professional Gaming Magazine), and at least one magazine I can’t remember. (They never got back to me.)

And Pyramid Magazine, from Steve Jackson Games. But they had electronic submissions already, so that didn’t cost me anything.

And then I waited. And waited. Weeks passed. Mail is, after all, slow. And while I have never had to deal with a physical slush pile of new writer pitches, I have done the task with electronic submissions and know that it’s rarely the thing a developer or publisher is most looking forward to or putting the highest priority on.

But eventually, Dragon editor Dave Gross wrote back to me. I had pitched five articles for 2nd edition D&D—three I knew were brilliant (which Dave noted he had no interest in seeing any version of), one I wasn’t sure about (which Dave ALSO had no interested in seeing any version of), and just so I got the maximum value out of my SASE, a throw-away concept for a random Dwarf Name Generator.

Which, Dave noted, he couldn’t use for at least a year, because Dragon had just done their annual dwarf-themed issue.

I hadn’t ever noticed Dragon did an annual dwarf-themed issue. I realized I hadn’t really done any research (beyond my impressions as a casual reader) into what Dragon published, and when. That realization was one of my first steps into a larger, more frightening, more professional world.

But despite pitching him five things he couldn’t use Dave was kind enough to say he WAS interested in an elven name generator article... if I could get it to him in a month.

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It was a little over 1,000 words. And I spent an agonizing month with every spare hour going over it. Mornings, evening, weekends, I crafted what I wanted to be the next-best thing to happen to elf language since Tolkien. I spent hours using drafts to generate random names, looking up the names of elven characters in TSR sourcebooks and novels and breaking their names into syllables I then gave definitions that would be appropriate for each character.

And then, since I had written it in pencil, on notebook paper, I asked my wife to type it for me, and I sent it in. And waited.

And waited.

And got an acceptance letter. And a check. And a publication date—Dragon Magazine number 251.

And Dave Gross asked if I had any other ideas and gave me an email address to send him pitches. I cashed the check, got the magazine subscription, sent Dave more pitches, and began to work on the ones he liked.

And then my wife let me know that she wasn’t going to type any more of my manuscripts, as she handed me educational typing software. She waited until I had a second pitch accepted and had basked in the glory of being the first of my close circle of friends with a professional RPG credit.

So, despite my long history of playing games instead of working to better myself, I set about to learn how to type.

And that’s how my freelance career started.
 
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Owen K.C. Stephens

Comments

Von Ether

Explorer
A true pioneer, sir. Only now, decades later are people in mass picking up on the idea that "If I become a hobby professional, then I can afford some of the things on my hobby wish list."

I seriously wish this idea had occurred to me back in the 'aughts.
 
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Richards

Adventurer
I still use those fantasy race name generators you wrote for Dragon, mostly the elf and dwarf ones. And I still remember you forced one of them (I think maybe the Halfling one?) to translate "Owenn" as "good husband" - or something similar; it's been awhile since I looked at it. But nicely done.

Johnathan
 

Nellisir

Adventurer
My article in Dragon magazine is still the most money I've ever been paid for RPG writing. I was not displeased.
And then they announced 3e the same month my (half) article came out....

Hats off to the editors, though. I got one proposal back with notes from three different people.
 
I still use those fantasy race name generators you wrote for Dragon, mostly the elf and dwarf ones.
Awesome!
(Me too!)

And I still remember you forced one of them (I think maybe the Halfling one?) to translate "Owenn" as "good husband" - or something similar; it's been awhile since I looked at it. But nicely done.
I am, essentially, a half-ogre/half-halfling.
...
A halfgre, i guess. :)
Or one-and-a-halfling
 

David Howery

Adventurer
My article in Dragon magazine is still the most money I've ever been paid for RPG writing. I was not displeased.
And then they announced 3e the same month my (half) article came out....
it's been a while, but IIRC, Dungeon paid a bit better than Dragon on average, due to the maps. My own writing career for TSR's magazines ranged from 'mid 1E days before there even was a Dungeon Adventures' through 'right before 3E came out'. By that time, I was long out of gaming, and had no clue how 3E worked, so I pretty much just gave it up...
 

maransreth

Explorer
Your first paid gig was for the elven name generator? I used that generator to come up with my online "handle"! maransreth Si'Van Ty'Ka - mara (priest), ansr (rune/runic), reth (magic). Surname is meant to mean Crystal Dragon, Silver Tiger, or something like that.

I always enjoyed using that elven name generator. Was your article for the dwarven name generator used at a later date?
 
it's been a while, but IIRC, Dungeon paid a bit better than Dragon on average, due to the maps. My own writing career for TSR's magazines ranged from 'mid 1E days before there even was a Dungeon Adventures' through 'right before 3E came out'. By that time, I was long out of gaming, and had no clue how 3E worked, so I pretty much just gave it up...
I never got an adventure in the print version of Dungeon. I DID get a 4e adventure in Dungeon online, which was a nice checkmark for my career. :)
 
Your first paid gig was for the elven name generator?
Yep!

I used that generator to come up with my online "handle"! maransreth Si'Van Ty'Ka - mara (priest), ansr (rune/runic), reth (magic). Surname is meant to mean Crystal Dragon, Silver Tiger, or something like that.
Neat!

I always enjoyed using that elven name generator. Was your article for the dwarven name generator used at a later date?
Yep. In fact I did a whole series of "name" articles.

"By Any Other Name: Dragon Names" (Dragon 260); "By Any Other Name: Dwarven Names" (Dragon 261);
"By Any Other Name: Gnomes & Halflings" (Dragon 262); "By Any Other Name: The Drow" (Dragon 267);
"By Any Other Name: Races of the Underdark" (Dragon 281); "By Any Other Name (Part One): Sages, Shops & Smithies" (Dragon Annual 5).
And the related, "Cry Havoc!" (Dragon 278); and "Dragontongue: A Draconic Language Primer" (Dragon 284)

I also did name articles for Pyramid online and Star Wars Gamer.
For a while, it was one of my go-to concepts. :)
 

Mercador

Explorer
Nice story. It makes me sad however, I took the "normal" working route, got a decent salary and everything with it because "you can't live from your art, that's not a job!" kind of mantra that I learned from my parents. Now I got everything I need on the material level but I'm not fulfilled at all.
 

David Howery

Adventurer
I never got an adventure in the print version of Dungeon. I DID get a 4e adventure in Dungeon online, which was a nice checkmark for my career. :)
I got my foot in the door in Dungeon through kind of a roundabout way, by submitting a proposal for a module to TSR before there even was a Dungeon magazine (back in those days, any schmoe could submit a module proposal... and I was one of them!). It got punted over to Roger Moore, who eventually published it... after a lot of rewrites. While I was doing that, I managed to submit and get published a shorter adventure in Dungeon and an article in Dragon before my original proposal saw print....
 

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