Mailbag 2 – Freelancing 101

(c) 2010 Chris SimsI’ve gotten a number of questions about freelancing and writing for D&D Insider. In this issue of the Mailbag, I’ll deal with queries and submissions. I’ll also touch on huge sums of money you can make and the glamorous lifestyle you can lead through successful freelancing. Or maybe I’ll just talk a little about money.

This is going to sound so obvious, but from what I’ve seen, it bears emphasis. Be sure to follow the submission guidelines when submitting to anyone, especially D&D Insider. As an editor for Dragon and Dungeon, I received a ton of queries and had only so much time to sift through them. I could ignore outright those that failed to follow the submission guidelines. My dirty little secret is that I didn’t always do this–sometimes an idea was too good to pass up–but I could have in every case without repercussions.

Following the guidelines shows you pay attention, and it shows you’re what I call “coachable.” You indicate that you place enough importance on your time and the editor’s that you present what is asked of you. Further, you demonstrate you can follow and take direction. These elements are important in any freelance writer.

When I was still employed at Wizards, the D&D Insider editorial team, I’m sad to say, was barely big enough to handle the flow of queries and submissions. Now that I’m gone, it’s entirely possible that the filter for such material is down to one person: Chris Youngs. He has a lot of other duties besides looking for new content. It’s likely that other companies you might submit ideas and work to have resources that are more limited.

When you do pitch ideas, rely on those that bud from your exposure to the game. Mechanical elements can stem directly from your home game or good story concepts. Be concise in your descriptions while proving you’re the one to execute the idea. You have to show that you know what you want to do in as few words as possible. Your pitch has to do more than reveal your notice of a mechanical hole in the game. It has to promise entertainment, as well. Mechanics are too dry without a story connection.

It was always easier for me to work out story elements and let rules elements spring from that narrative. My colleagues seemed to work from that angle, too. For example, Mike Mearls reinforced in me the idea that you should see a monster in your head, fighting a hero in a fantasy action movie, before you put its stats on paper. The best Dragon and Dungeon articles also grow from that fertile soil. It might go without saying, but good adventure design requires such thinking.

Showing you know the game’s needs is also key. If the maps in your Dungeon adventure can all be built with recent Dungeon Tiles sets, your query is a step ahead. Supporting recently released material is a good idea. On the flip side, supporting older rules with truly fresh ideas can work well. Older classes, for example, will always need some love.

No time can be had to give you a response if your proposal is rejected.  I was sorry that was the case when going through proposals was part of my job. It’s a sad truth. The editorial process and limit on resources requires a focus on what is going to be published. If your idea is accepted, you’ll get a go-ahead and, assuming you do what you should, a contract.

Then, there’s the waiting.

It’s frustrating, I know. Even if your article receives a green light, you might be waiting a while. Take comfort in the fact that the editorial plan for Insider is often nailed down months ahead. That said, don’t become too comfortable. Write to the editor you’re working with every so often to make sure things are on track. I promise–unless you actually are pushy, whiny, or annoying–you won’t be perceived as such. I enjoyed working with new authors when I was an editor, and I liked candor.

Such honesty is what you’re going to receive from your editor. And you should always ask questions if you have them. Questions early in the process are infinitely better than problems or misunderstandings later. Whatever you do, though, don’t take personally any brevity in your editor’s responses and instructions. It’s just that old devil of limited time raising its head again.

Respect your own time, thought, and effort, as well. Don’t sell yourself short. You won’t get rich writing for D&D Insider or other gaming entities. It’s likely that Insider and freelancing for Wizards offers the most lucrative outlet for D&D work. (Working for Insider is the likeliest path to working on D&D books, unless you have other gaming credits or prove yourself in another way.) But even if you write for someone else, you shouldn’t give your work away. You can receive “exposure” and a paycheck.

That’s it for now. I’ll talk more about this subject in the future. Leave me comments, and send me email.

Become Emotional

"Sympathy for the Devil" (c) 2010 Chris SimsThe psychology of desire and attachment defines our lives in countless ways. This fact is true even in the roleplaying games. Every character you play is an extension of you and the desires you want to fulfill by playing. More elusive, though, is real attachment–emotional connection–to a game’s goings on. Fulfilling player desires is where much of the fun is, and this is something the DM should facilitate. But when circumstances in a game also hit a personal chord, they have more meaning and can create even more fun.

Have you ever noticed how almost every player enjoys the fights in a roleplaying game? That’s because combat has real stakes and real consequences to something valuable to each player–his or her character. The danger to each character strikes that aforementioned personal chord. This is an example of attachment or emotional investment at its simplest in an RPG.

Attachment, and the significance it provides to imaginary events, is hard to pin down. No unaltered publication, such an adventure, can pull it off for you or your fellow tableside explorers. Hooks in such products exist only to help your DM make the connection between a published work’s assumptions and the campaign’s reality. However, even with these tools, your DM can’t create all the necessary emotional involvement. You have to help. And you should, because everyone at your game table will have more fun if you do.

If the roleplaying aspects of a game aren’t as fun and exciting as combat, somebody has failed to make those aspects personally significant. Perhaps you haven’t provided the DM with the tools to create situations you (character or player) care about in more than a superficial way. Define your character meaningfully, and you’re on your way to bringing such game-enhancing situations forth. Even a shiftless, unaligned mercenary has motivations and secrets that can be tapped to enrich a game’s storyline

The 4e Player’s Handbook goes into a little detail on this subject in its second chapter. It aims at inspiring you to describe your character in nonmechanical ways, and it’s right in that you need no complex history or extensive motivations for your character. But like countless other RPG systems, it fails to clearly define why this exercise is necessary. Therefore, your choices can seem arbitrary.

A character’s quirks, appearance, and history can be interesting as a simple narrative that allows you to roleplay consistently. It’s more important, however, to define traits that motivate your character or others in ways that push game’s unfolding tale forward. Such traits should make the story personal and evocative.

Extremes, opposites, and mysteries are good places to start when defining meaningful traits for a character. The most interesting characters in literature and movies have strong attributes with contradictory flaws. Straightforward but potentially significant qualities also work. A noble warrior who hates orcs has difficulty when faced with an orc that displays honor or begs for mercy. An addict might put her addiction before the welfare of others. A thief with a heart of gold can’t just take the treasure and leave suffering in the theft’s wake. An adventurer who values family and friends returns home often and might share the wealth. A strange birthmark might have meaning.

Once you have a few of these traits for a character, simply answer one question for each–why? Does the noble warrior hate orcs because orc raiders slaughtered his or her family (cliché but still useful), or is this hatred based on the teachings of a mentor, religious order, or leader? Is the addict’s addiction someone else’s doing or the result of an addictive personality, or due to accidental exposure? Is the thief kind because of personal suffering or regret for a past deed? Do the ties that bind the family oriented-adventurer come from burdensome duty or genuine affection? (What if he or she is adopted?) Does the birthmark single out the character as a messiah in the campaign, or is the mark just the thing to send a religious fanatic over the edge for one encounter?

Players can (and probably should) work together as a group to come up with a few traits that two or more characters share. Is another character a lover, a sibling, an old friend, or a onetime rival? Could the party share an overarching affiliation or loyalty? Have similar circumstances forced the characters together?

These traits, even simply detailed, should give the DM a springboard from which to weave a tale  that is emotionally motivating to a character (and player) and the party (and players). The DM might, for example, decide that the noble warrior’s mentor is corrupt and deceitful. Clues woven into the game could eventually lead to a momentous confrontation with an unexpected but wholly personalized villain. Perhaps the party, sharing affiliation with the warrior’s religious order, has an interest in seeing such corruption rooted out. Will the warrior be able to confront and destroy a once-trusted teacher? How will the experience change the character? Certainly none of this will happen without some play-enhancing emotional investment.

Such traits also give other players special points of interest to interact with in your character. People are complicated, and groups even more so. Motivations mesh and clash. This give and take can be interesting at the table.

Players and the DM should emphasize the positive aspects of character traits, though. A DM should use them to influence the path of a session or game rather than to force an outcome. Players should use them as a means to facilitate roleplaying, rather than derailing the game with the infamous, “My character wouldn’t do that.” (Maybe not, but what would he or she do when faced with something important to a comrade?)

Molding a character and party to purposely build attachment to the game is a worthwhile task. Doing so allows the DM to reinforce emotional investment by taking cues from player desires expressed as character traits. The game then becomes a shared narrative that is sharply focused on its protagonists, rather than a series of unfortunate events heaped on the shoulders reluctant participants.

More to Come

If I get some interest, shown in the comments, I’ll write more about this from my perspective as a DM, using my recent campaign episodes as examples. I can also expand on player emotional investment in a session rather than just at character creation. Something can be said for using 4e’s background system to create more emotional investment and mechanical benefits, as well.

Feel free to use the comments to critique, as well. Is the essay too long, too impersonal, too whatever. That’s valuable information, so spill it.

Also, I have some interesting mailbag topics. I’m looking for more. Email me.

Check out the new bio, too. Identify the classic AD&D monster and source if you want.

Mailbag 1 – Character Contortion

(C) Wizards of the Coast and the ArtistHere’s the first question from the mailbag. Jon Hixson asks:

How do you deal with players new to 4e who want to run characters that the system doesn’t support? I’ve got one player coming from 3e who wants to run a “Buffing/Utility wizard who does very little damage.” There’s really not a lot of buffing powers outside of the leader classes (and the “buffs” are fairly short term and small), and not a lot of utility outside of rituals. Considering every power does some form of damage, and pawning this player off on a cleric is unlikely, I’m not sure what to say.

Here’s the first essential step to overcoming this problem–stop equating class name with what the character is in the game world. I’ve heard players say, “Boy, I miss druids being able to use healing spells.” Well, I play a 5th-level druid, and she can heal as just about well as any 3e druid of her level. See, she’s a multiclassed bard. In the game world I play in (Jeremy Crawford’s Oberon campaign) her social title is “druid.” But that would be her title even if her class were wizard. If I had wanted to emphasize healing and retain the “primal” feel, the shaman class would have suited that purpose just fine.

I also allow my players to customize the narrative appearance of their character and powers to support character concepts. For instance, the shaman class talks about primal spirits, emphasizing animals. Those spirits can just as easily be ancestor spirits and stay well within the intent and description of the primal power source. But, in your own home game, you don’t even have to be beholden to the power source description. I’ve seen a player create a deva “shaman” whose spirit powers were manifestations of her own past lives. In the game world, she was not identified as primal or a shaman. In my Dark Sun campaign, the shaman is a dwarf “animist” who calls primarily on ancient dwarf ancestor spirits. Mechanically, he’s a bear shaman–but bears don’t exist in my Dark Sun campaign. The classifications exist only to define the character for the player with reference to the rules, rather than to define the character in the world.

Some players want the character’s performance to be a complete match to concept at 1st level. That’s rarely possible in any roleplaying game. The concept solidifies only after the character advances to a certain point. That’s cool, in my mind, because the character (in the game world) might have the ambitions the concept embodies (in the player’s mind in the metagame). Like anyone with an ambitious agenda, the character is unable to express the full extent of that ambition yet. That’s a roleplaying opportunity.

As an aside, and not meaning to be snarky, one also has to go with game. What I mean by this is some concepts don’t match the tenor of a game. The 4e D&D game is high heroic fantasy that emphasizes beating monsters and overcoming obstacles. Other editions of the D&D game had the same core concept.

All that buildup is so I can say that a character who doesn’t pull his or her weight in a fight doesn’t belong in a typical D&D game in any edition. A character needs to be able to do some damage. Further, in 4e, the nature of most effects is “short-term and small.” The fact that the buffing powers work that way shouldn’t trouble anyone. They have their intended effect within the game’s framework.

Enough with the philosophy, though.

It’s clear to me your player actually wants to be in the leader role, probably without being beholden to the other meanings of “leader.” Arcane magic power is also part of his or her goal. I’d recommend he or she start with the bard class. Emphasize the Cunning Bard build, along with Charisma (obviously) and Intelligence (for the AC and Reflex, as well as multiclassing into the wizard class). Wear leather armor–it can look like fancy, heavy robes. Choose implement powers, focusing on those that help allies or hinder foes in place of higher damage. The character already has the Ritual Caster feat, so I’d recommend multiclassing into wizard immediately. For this player, I suspect a desire for wizard cantrips, so I’d allow access to the cantrips in place of the at-will power Arcane Initiate grants. I’d even grant training in a wizard class skill instead of Arcana, since bards already have access to Arcana, but I’m generous. Along the lines of my “narrative appearance” philosophy, I’d allow the player to ignore the “music magic” aspect of the bard, allowing the player to describe power effects “in-game” as he or she desires. I’d probably ask for a general description of power usage as part of the creation process.

There are other ways to solve the problem, such as a hybrid bard/wizard. My feeling is that full-fledged leader-role character is what this player is really looking for. The freedom to customize should result in something close to his or her desires, if not an exact fit. This sort of nonmechanical customization should be encouraged anyhow, and it often solves the problem you speak of.

Mailbag Memo

Please don’t hesitate to send me email or leave a comment about questions you have. (If you send an email, be sure to put Sims CH Mailing in the subject line.) I’m willing to answer just about anything I legally and conscionably can about games, the industry, freelancing, and working professionally at Wizards of the Coast. I’ll share opinions and facts, as well as how I’d run my game or recommend you solve a problem you have. I have a few questions already, but more is better. Don’t be shy just because I’m a cannibalistic demihuman. (I do bite.) Go ahead, email me. I dare you.

Emergence & Reentry


Hello everyone! I’m Chris Sims, former Wizards of the Coast designer and editor. You might know me from my editing work on the 3e D&D game (Rules Compendium), my design work for the 4e game (Martial Power, Monster Manual, Monster Manual 2, and so on), or from D&D Insider. I’m joining my friends here at Critical-Hits, because I enjoy talking, thinking, and writing about games and generally geeky stuff.

I want to write what you want to read. That means I’m open to questions and topic suggestions. Feel free to send me either or both at my Critical Hits email–chris at critcal-hits dot com. Also, I want to start helping you with your games and design questions, which might even form a whole new “mailbag” column if it receives enough response.

I also want to to play the “identify the classic AD&D monster and source” with my author bio. You identify it first, and I’ll tell everybody you did. I’ll try to change up once a week.


I’ve been thinking about entry-level tabletop roleplaying games a lot lately. Looking back on the start of the 4e D&D game, and the amount of material that’s already out for it, I wish it had been developed and released in a more controlled manner.

I realize that the 4e game isn’t really entry-level. However, it was produced with the intent of gaining a whole sector of new players. It failed to be as good as it could have been in that area of design intent.

An entry-level game must give the potential player setting and rules material that are comprehended quickly and easily. The player needs some control of character creation and play through choices. But an entry-level game needs to limit choices to the point that they’re digestible.

By limiting choices, I don’t mean eliminating choices by making character creation extremely random. Randomness isn’t simplicity; it’s choices made for you by a roll of the dice. Numerous modern video roleplaying games allow a lot of choice during character creation without resorting to such a crutch. A modern entry-level product has to acknowledge that. Random systems all too often force a character into particular molds, limited by the designer’s imagination and page space. Such a lack of choice won’t fly with most modern gamers.

Numerous modern tabletop roleplaying games, and even more video game RPGs, instead provide ideal starting points for a player in the form of archetypes. You want a troll mage? Here’s the perfect set of initial abilities for that character. (Even the 4e D&D game has such archetypes for a starting character, but the information is easily overlooked in each character class entry.) The good modern games allow you to tinker with and eventually outgrow the archetypes as you grow in play proficiency. They do it without overwhelming you.

Speaking of overwhelming, the 4e D&D game had a cumbersome amount of legacy material and audience expectations. These pressures didn’t serve the design process as well as they could have. It seemed to me that the possible forms the game could have taken overwhelmed even the designers themselves. A 4e that took a few more of its cues from the old-school red-box (Moldvay 1981 revision) D&D Basic Set might have been better in the end.

For character creation and development, that game had several classes, a little randomness, and limited scope. It also had a range of information that at least implied a setting, as well as enough challenges and rewards to get one started as a DM. Sure, looking at it with modern sensibilities makes its flaws even more glaring. At the time, though, that red box had an approach that was sheer genius–simple, limited, and modularly expandable.

The tendency today is to try to give players everything possible at once, maybe even with a little new hotness for spice. That’s a wrongheaded approach, especially given the evidence of how people digest and play with tabletop roleplaying game material (slowly). It’s also wrongheaded approach if you, as a designer, want the game to have a long, exciting lifespan.

Too many players think that a new version of a game needs, at its inception, all the options the previous, mature system had. They’re wrongheaded, too. The way people learn and play a new system (slowly) doesn’t bear out this desire to have it all as soon as possible. It’s also wrongheaded if you, as a player, want the game to have a long, exciting lifespan.

Imagine if we could roll back time to the initial release of the 4e D&D game. What if the first Player’s Handbook had, at most, 160 pages–about the size of Martial Power and similar books. Let’s say it had the expected races (dwarf, elf, half-elf, halfling, and human) four core classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard), levels 1–10. It’d also have all the rules the current PH1 has, along with some clearer “entry-level” stuff such as archetypes. (All this would indeed fit in a 160-page book, along with a little new hotness, such as a new race or three and maybe another class–to taste.)

Before you decry or support this utter fantasy, imagine also that the release schedule modularly expanded the game. Six months would give you, as a player, a few more builds, classes, and races. A year later, at most, you would have access to the first paragon tier material. Year two would show you epic tier in all its glory. (The fact is, though, most current 4e players aren’t yet beyond heroic tier, even now.)

It would have been better for the designers and for the players. And that’s not even mentioning a utilitarian release schedule for DM products. It’s also ignoring that an entry-level game also has to be simple and fun, which I think 4e is. But that, and perhaps expansion on some of the topics touched on here, is a topic for another day.