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Freelancing is Dead – Mearls

posted Thursday, June 29th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignNews, Reviews & Culture

As a small-time RPG writer who managed to go full-time freelance before landing a spot at Wizards of the Coast, fan-favourite author Mike Mearls is a shining example to many small-time writers with big aspirations. Perhaps it’s surprising that their hero has proclaimed in his blog that freelancing is dead:

If you aren’t working full-time as a freelance RPG designer right now, you won’t be working as a full-time freelancer any time in the next few years.

The dream’s dead, kids. The reason to freelance in the past, aside from working on a game you love that someone else owns, was to reach that brass ring and design games for a living. You can’t do that anymore. Stop trying to.

Given these things, it makes no sense to freelance. It’s done. The party’s over. Wait for the next batch of companies to jump into the market, or for companies to start investing in RPG lines again.

It seems that not only is the work drying up, but the work that is there pays so little that you’d have a hard time making a living from it. Bad news for anyone who was hoping to go full time any time soon.

At a guess, Mearls’ theory is that with the RPG market slowing down as small games fail and smaller companies go out of business, there will be a limited amount of freelance work that will largely go to the established full-time freelancers, who are by nature determined and by now experienced. There’s still work for the rest of us, but it won’t pay enough for you to make a living on – Dragon pays five cents per word and is both space-limited and highly selective, and one might assume that the other major companies pay even less.

One might also conjecture that as a Wizards of the Coast employee, Mearls is privy to their hiring plans over the next few years, putting him in a better position to guess these conditions. There’s also a small camp of conspiracy theorists who think Mearls might be making this announcement in order to convince competing writers to quit, but Uruguayan blogger RPGpundit rebuffs that idea. I wouldn’t rush to accuse him of the same either; Mearls after all is popular for the respect his name commands, and I don’t think he’d do anything to tarnish it.

Something else that Mearls suggests is that if you want to make a reasonable amount of money by doing this part-time, you have to cut costs by publishing it yourself. To me, this poses its own problems. If you’re print publishing, how are you going to distribute to such a spread-out market, especially when their shelves are probably already competing for space with the big-names like Wizards, Swords & Sorcery, AEG, Mongoose and Green Ronin?

Maybe somebody will pay me to blog.

Metamagic Components

posted Saturday, June 24th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceLinks and ResourcesNews, Reviews & CultureThird Edition

Recently I wrote two articles for this site, Spell XP Cost Variant and Magic Item XP Cost Variant. I have to admit that they were inspired by this:

Metamagic Components, an article originally published in Unearthed Arcana, includes a fantastically exhaustive list of each basic spell in the game along with an expensive, optional material component that can be applied to it in order to apply a certain metamagic for free. For example, you can spend two +3 arrows to cast magic missile as empowered. You don’t even need the metmagic feat to use these material components, but take care to watch your wallet – the costs can add up! Check it out at the link above.

Spell XP Cost Variant

posted Tuesday, June 20th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

Back in April I wrote about a Magic Item XP Cost Variant, a system wherein a person can substitute an expensive material component for the XP cost when making a magic item. Here’s a similar system applied to spells with an XP cost.

In the standard rules, the idea of the XP cost is to make certain spells “expensive” to use. This means that the spellcaster will have to think hard before using the spell, and will only use it on rare occasions when it is absolutely necessary. A similar effect can be achieved by making each spell require a unique material component, something which is both very expensive and very rare. Such a component costs 10 gp for every experience point that would normally be spent.

The item for each spell should not be easily come by or reliably purchased by conventional means, since the rarity of the item is an important balancing factor here. A character should have no more than one or two material components for a spell, at least until higher levels when that spell’s XP cost becomes almost negligible. In general, such items should be dropped as treasure, or can be given out by an organization such as a church who has an interest in the spell being cast. Any spellcaster capable of casting a spell which would normally have an XP cost, automatically knows the material component. I’m leaving the choice up to the DM as to whether or not a spellcaster can still pay the XP cost if he doesn’t have the item, although the reason for this variant is to help keep the spellcasters in the party from being behind the rest of the party in XP.

Here’s a list of components that you can use.

  • Atonement: Incense prepared from the golden firs of Arborea, worth 5,000 gp
  • Awaken: Aromatic spirits painstakingly prepared from the rare silver moonflower, worth 2,500 gp
  • Commune: A small piece of spiritstone from the deity’s plane, worth 1,000 gp
  • Gate: A fist-sized piece of spiritstone from the outsider’s plane, worth 10,000 gp
  • Limited Wish: The skull of a long-dead forgotten archmage, worth at least 3,000 gp
  • Miracle: A drop of your deity’s blood, given willingly, worth 50,000 gp*
  • Permanency: Ancient Suloise magical tomes each worth 5,000 gp, one tome per caster level above 8th
  • Planar Ally: Willingly given blood (or equivalent) from a reasonably powerful outsider of the appropriate plane, worth 2,500 gp
  • Planar Ally, Greater: Willingly given blood (or equivalent) from a very powerful outsider of the appropriate worth 5,000 gp
  • Planar Ally, Lesser: Willingly given blood (or equivalent) from a moderately powerful outsider of the appropriate plane, worth 1,000 gp
  • Restoration, Greater: The universal panacea, a healing potion worth 5,000 gp
  • Simulacrum: An amount of the mythical Ice That Never Melts, worth 1,000 gp per HD (minimum 10,000 gp)
  • Vision: Four strips of ivory made from the tusks of the legendary rare dragon elephant, worth 1,000 gp in total
  • Wish: A major artifact worth at least 50,000 gp (the artifact is returned to its creator upon casting)*

* As an alternative to the hard-to-get material components for miracle and wish, the following can be substituted. Firstly, the caster can sacrifice his own life, after which he refuses to be raised. Secondly, the caster of a powerful miracle may sacrifice a cleric of a good aligned deity – only evil deities accept this. Finally, the caster of either spell may sunder a favoured weapon of their deity or a magical staff that is unique in nature, that is worth at least 50,000 gp, and that they have been using as their primary weapon or staff for at least four levels prior. The DM may accept similar sacrifices as payment, or invent other, impossibly rare items.

My Half-Elf House Rule

posted Friday, June 16th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceGame DesignThird Edition

I just thought I’d quickly remind of you of my half-elf house rule, which I’ve borrowed from Unearthed Arcana. Basically, I find half-elves to be a little underpowered – perhaps deliberately so, since they are among the rarest of the core races. They’re basically humans, but get a few skill bonuses instead of a bonus skill point per level, and low-light vision with sleep immunity and +2 to saves against one school of magic. If you ask me, that’s not an optimal trade when you consider what that feat can buy.

I balance this weakness by giving the half-elf the extra skill point, as per the human – as it’s phrased, “4 extra skill points at 1st level and 1 extra skill point at each additional level.” The human is still a viable race in comparison because it’s the only core race to get a bonus feat at first level.

I consider this balance especially important in Eberron, where the half-elves are one of the more common races in the setting, with most being the descendents of other half-elves for several generations–such half-elves are known as khoravar, according to one of Keith Baker’s Dragonshards.

Adding a New Race

posted Wednesday, June 14th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

Whether you’re creating a new race or simply using one from a published sourcebook, it’s important for you as a DM to consider what place this new species has in the world. Some players won’t mind simply taking as fiat that the race just happens to be there, but the rest will probably expect some degree of explanation if they like to feel that their characters live in a coherent, consistent fantasy world.

A race is more than a set of statistics, and giving it a place in your world deserves a little thought. If you can help it, avoid simply saying “they’ve always been here, you’ve just never noticed them”. Consider these five points when introducing a new race to an existing, ongoing game.

  • Why haven’t we seen this race before? Most fantasy worlds are inhabited by humans, elves, dwarves and the like, so while it’s not a stretch to see cat-people or dragon-folk walking around in cities, your players have probably never seen or heard of them before. Are they among the last of their kind? Are they travellers from distant nations where their races are more popular?
  • Where does the race come from? You don’t need a complete creation myth, but you do need to be able to say what lands the race inhabits. Are they more common in neighbouring nations? Do they control vast empires in the unexplored continent to the west? Perhaps they’re from another plane of existence entirely? Do they have their own unique language? What is their culture like, especially with regards clothing, magic and weaponry?
  • How do people react to this new race? Do they tend to react with fear and suspicion, or even outright hostility? Do they welcome members of the new race with open arms? How do different groups of people view the race? Naturally, this will depend on the race and its qualities as much as the people who judge them — a good example is the warforged in Eberron, with mineworkers fearing their jobs will be stolen by tireless warforged who can work without sleep. Besides logical reasons, what irrational superstitions do people have of the race?
  • What effect will this race have on the world? If this new race is more than an isolated individual or two, what effect will they have? Will people set out in expeditions to set up trade with their people? Will nations fight over the secrets they bring? Will they be hired by people glad to take advantage of their special abilities? In addition, what effect have they already had on the world? Do they appear in ancient tales or prophecies?
  • Avoid conflicting established material. In all these cases, avoid contradicting yourself if possible. Whether it’s the established canon of a campaign world or just what you’ve detailed previously, try to keep the continuity. It’s possible to “retcon” — to retroactively change what’s already been established — but try not to fall back on this if you can find a better way.

Of course, if you’re playing Eberron you can just stick it in Xen’Drik and not worry about it. ;)

Watch Your Language

posted Saturday, June 10th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

A quick piece of advice here for DMs. When your players are generating their characters, make sure they remember to write down which languages they speak – in my experience, it’s commonly overlooked. While you can often write other things in later, you generally only notice that you’ve forgotten to include languages when asked if you speak a certain language. Almost always, a player in this position will have to decide whether or not to write that language in on the spot to fill in their character sheet – in which case, even though it’s probably the right thing to do and isn’t that big of an advantage later, it may feel like cheating.

Most people in English-speaking countries will rarely encounter other languages in their daily lives, and so it’s easy to overlook this aspect of a game where learning new languages is remarkably easy for a heroic character. Writers fail to take advantage of this aspect too, so we end up with worlds where everyone speaks Common. I’ve heard homebrew settings discussed where there is no such thing as a common tongue, which could be interesting if you’re willing to take that route.

Even with Common in place, consider situations where knowing other languages has an advantage. Dwarves place great importance on tradition, so speaking to an old dwarf in his native tongue might help to gain his favour. Old documents might be written in another language and you might not want the wizard to waste a spell slot on comprehend languages when he could prepare an offensive spell instead. You can overhear opponents who don’t expect invaders to know their language. Perhaps you can all speak one language in common and your opponents won’t understand you.

Another Anecdote

posted Friday, June 9th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

There was another time, when a character in my game found a rock and said “I throw it at Quinn” — Quinn was my half-elven bard NPC, who they hated so badly that they kept trying unsucessfully to get him killed in hilarious ways. “Quinn didn’t follow you, he’s back in town.”

“So what’s the range increment on that?”
“Range increment? He’s one mile away.”

“Can I hit him if I roll a natural 20?”
“Yeah, why not.”

He rolls. “Oh yeah! Natural 20!”
“…oh wow. Quinn’s busking on the street when a rock falls from the sky and knocks him flat out. The people disperse and brigands steal his lyre.”

I stopped letting them do dumb things on natural twenties after that.

Hold On, Your Character’s Named Sephiroth?

posted Saturday, June 3rd 2006 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

Did I ever tell you about the fourth level fighter who tried to dual-wield greatswords?

In my first, terrible session in the DM’s chair I had the PCs encounter the villain only for him to catch them in one of those sphere of force items. I realised this was dumb because they couldn’t get out and so I had him challenge someone to a duel. A greatsword duel.

The villain was a tiefling wizard, and this was back when Skip or someone had just ruled that all outsiders got martial weapon proficiencies, which would include tieflings. The player, whose character is named Sephiroth and names his greatsword Masamune or something, defeats the villain and kills him abruptly before he can finish his “you haven’t seen the last of me!” dying speech. The player takes his +1 greatsword.

The player refuses to give up Masamune, and so when he reaches level 4 decides to take Ambidexterity (this was back in the day when you needed two feats to fight with two weapons). Why? In order to finally take advantage of the +1 greatsword, he was going to dual-wield it with Masamune.

The penalties were atrocious and he rarely hit anything. When he did, though, he’d splatter it in one hit. However, he had this remarkable knack for rolling natural 1 on his attacks! “Oh, I guess I drop the +1 greatsword then” — after which he’d start being able hit things. “Alright,” I said, eager to end the combat more quickly since he’d spent most of it not hitting, “The +1 greatsword flies from your hand, decapitates a skeleton and embeds itself in the wall.”

Thus, he decided that every single time he rolled a criticle fumble, that +1 sword would embed itself into the nearest wall, no matter how far away that wall was. It became a running joke. I eventually decided that the sword had been cursed to leap from its wielder’s grasp when he least expected it, and that’s why it had been embedding itself in so many walls.

I gave up trying to get him to give up Masamune when he tried to climb down a cliff face without a rope, fell a hundred and twenty feet, survived–I gave him a broken leg–and he tied the legendary sword to his leg as a splint.

Treasure Tables

posted Thursday, June 1st 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

Just a quick post to let you in on this D&D blog I’ve found: Martin Ralya’s Treasure Tables. He likewise blogs about DMing, and I think he updates slightly more frequently than I do. Give it a look.

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