So You Want to be a Game Writer?

Editor’s Note:  You know, there are a million and one ways to earn money by writing, but the sad fact is that it’s easy to miss most of them if you don’t know where to look.  This week, we are fortunate to have a freelance writer share his experience in one field you may not have considered, or even heard of.  Read on, and be inspired!

So You Want to be a Game Writer?

by David Goodner

Hi.  I’m David Goodner.  In the late 1990s, I was a freelance RPG writer in the Pen and Paper RPG business.  That’s Dungeons & Dragons, not World of Warcraft.  (Actually, there’s an online version of D&D, and WoW has a pen and paper version, so a pedant could say the previous sentence isn’t very clear…)

So anyway, I’m here to tell you how to make a small fortune as a game writer.

Start with a large fortune.

But seriously, there’s a little bit of money to be made as a game writer.  I got out of the business because I found that I like working on my own stuff more than other people’s stuff, and the hassles from the small companies I was working with outweighed the rewards.  But I was getting a decent amount of work, given the time I had available, and if I’d been willing to stick with it, I might have made a name for myself.

IMG_00000134If game writing is something you think you’d like to do, read on.  I’ll share some of what I learned.

The submission process is a good bit different than what you might be used to.  At the top tier, publishers behave pretty similarly to other venues, but at the bottom tier you’re very frequently working for a single guy who runs a business in his spare time, barely more than a hobby.  Procedures, professionalism, and payment can all be a bit sketchy.

Now, if that hasn’t scared you off, here’s what you’ll likely be doing.

Game writing is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, with a side order of technical writing.  My first industry gig was writing flavor text for a gazetteer for the World of Arkular.  The actual creator of the setting was a fantasy cartographer, but not a great writer, so the publisher hired me to take his dry descriptions and make them more entertaining to read.  Most of my other jobs were similar.

Writing game text can be a little tricky.  You need to be able to match the tone of other products in the game line, and you need to present stuff that might be dry and complicated in a clear, entertaining way.  If you’re not the designer, you will probably also be called upon to write something you think is completely stupid.  It’s probably not wise to tell the creator you think his idea is stupid if you want to keep working with him.

Another gig you might get is writing fiction, be it shared world novels, short stories, or introductory fiction.  All the usual rules for writing fiction apply.  You’ll generally be writing in someone else’s setting, and quite often you’ll be writing a story someone else laid out.

I’ve never professionally designed a game, or written game rules, but that’s kind of the game writing big leagues.  You might be writing adventures, or character collections, or some or all of a game supplement.

In the cases of adventures or character collections, you’ll probably be working within the existing rules of the game, rather than creating anything new from whole cloth.  If you’re writing a supplement, you will almost certainly be creating new rules for the game.  In that case, you’ll be working with a designer or the publisher, who will approve your work.  Your job is to build something new that fits into the greater whole of the game.

And now a word about format.  If you’re used to the more mainstream publishing world, you’re probably used to having standard formats.  Game publishers are a lot more varied.  There is a pretty wide-spread document markup format, but not everybody uses it.  Your publisher will tell you what to do.  He’ll probably be pretty happy if you turn in legible text within a day or so of the deadline.  Game writing isn’t a bastion of professionalism or organization.

I can’t stress editing enough, though.  Professional editing is expensive, so almost nobody in the industry can really afford it.  Every effort you can put into making sure your text is clean will be appreciated.  Edit it yourself.  Rope a friend into looking for typos.  Then edit it yourself again.  You should never trust spell-check, but for game writing REALLY don’t trust spell-check, because you’re going to be using a lot of specialized terms and invented language.

And, that’s game writing in a nutshell.  You’ll never get rich, but you’ll also never find a more involved, responsive audience.  Gamers interact with your text the way no other writing fans do.  They don’t just read it, they USE it.  That’s a part of game writing I really enjoyed and kind of miss.  If you can put up with the aggravations, writing for RPGs can be really rewarding.

David Goodner is a fantasy and science fiction, and game writer who lives in Arlington, Texas.  He was one of the voices of the Radio Free Hommlet podcast on d20 Radio, and is currently on the board of the D/FW Writers’ Workshop.  He will not work on your game “for the exposure,*” but will probably do it for $.03 a word.  You can find him online at www.davidgoodner.com, or on Twitter as @RDGoodner.  

*Ironically, he wrote this article just for the exposure, but that’s because Tex Thompson asked him, and she’s a personal friend.



Categories: Writing tips

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2 replies

  1. This seems like it would be so much fun. I love RPGs (the computer kind, not paper) and have often remarked about the difference in the “lore” from game to game. In some games, it just doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t really tie into the plot very well. But some other games, such as those in the Elder Scrolls franchise, have an immense library of really good story “books” that you can find in-game. I may be the only one who actually read all 21 volumes of the “Biography of Barenziah” but it was a page-turner, let me tell you!

    I would love to be able to do this type of thing on the side. Is there a marketplace of any kind where you can find work? Or is it mainly just knowing someone?

    • I don’t actually know much about the computer gaming business. There is some crossover of writers between the two industries, since most computer game developers are huge nerds.

      If you’re interested in pen and paper RPGs, the biggest publisher in town is Wizards of the Coast. They periodically have open calls posted on their website, and they run two online magazines that they use as kind of a “farm league” to cultivate new talent.

      Many of the lesser publishers maintain a presence on RPG.net in the Publishing and Freelancing forums.

      Of course, knowing someone really helps. I know quite a few people who got their start through contacts made on RPG.net. My brief career as a freelancer started there, in fact.

      (There are some other gaming fora on the web, too, but RPG.net is the one where I happen to hang out. There are only so many hours in the day, so I can’t hang out at all of them.)

      David G.

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