This sandbox isn’t big enough for the both of us!

Word to all you writers out there who “Really want to jump onto the RPG bandwagon”: It’s not as easy as it looks.

While my experiences writing for RPG publishers (let me clarify that I write fiction, not game design) have been very positive, it has also been a real learning experience, and quite often a challenge.  The first rule, Don’t Break The Toys, seems, at first, not that hard to follow.  Okay, I can’t destroy cities, sink continents, or kill heads of state or your iconic characters.  Easy, right?  At first, yes, but as the story grows (if you are even writing “your” story, and not a plot given to you by the publisher) this becomes more difficult.  There is a visceral desire in the pit of every writer’s stomach that pushes toward “the big one.”  You want to write about world-changing events, earth-shattering cataclysms, toppling governments, devastation, and wide-scale war.

Nope.  Can’t go there.

And let me tell you that it’s very challenging to write the “big story”, including all the cool magic, talents, setting elements, monsters, and machines, and keep things from escalating to the world-changing level.  If you get into writing game-related fiction, you become a master at dancing around the larger scene like twirling around the periphery of a crowded dance floor.  You add to the overall scene, and can even create (with approval) elements that become setting cannon, but you cannot just whip out your brush and start painting over the Mona Lisa’s smile.

Here’s another thing that might keep you up at night.  You can’t kill whomever you want to kill.  Even if they are your characters, since the story is “work for hire” and you don’t own the result, your publisher has the say of how things go.  Story outlines are generally approved before the contract is signed.  Needless to say, if your editor has given you characters to include in your story, maiming, torturing, and life-changing events (even giving too much background that is not already in print) is also not generally acceptable, at least not without approval.

Having said all that, I don’t want to paint a totally negative picture.  There is one thing that is a lot of fun about writing in an already established world: you get to play with their very cool toys.  Game designers are detail freaks, and world-builders to the nth degree.  I wrote Pirate’s Honor for Paizo Publishing having already fallen in love with their setting and the Pathfinder game.  I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in 1977, and jumped over to Pathfinder some years ago.  The Inner Sea setting has not just a little of everything, but a lot of everything, and Paizo has been very generous in allowing me to create my own characters and take them where I want to go.  Also, in general, the publishers want you to showcase their setting, so they are very generous about giving you copies of whatever game supplement you need to add that special detail that will make some gamer/reader’s day.  In fact, if you do jump on the bandwagon, and ask for some reference, you should receive it, both promptly and free of charge (usually in PDF), for your use.  If you are told “No.” or “Sure, just buy it.” you may want to start looking for that escape clause in your contract.

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