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10 Quick Unpretentious Tips for Writing RPG Material

I know I am not the most successful RPG author out there. Far from it. But I’ve learned a lot (at least in my point of view) and I want to share whatever knowledge I may have. I might not have all the answers, but sharing this might help someone, and may even help me if someone points out my mistakes and where can I get better. Sharing helps everyone, so it’s a win/win thing!

1. Don’t wait for inspiration or a great idea. Just write!

The real difference isn’t between the people who write bad stuff and the people who write great material. It’s between the ones who do and the ones who doesn’t (assuming they want to write, obviously). Don’t wait for a magical moment to arrive or the greatest idea ever (it’s very likely that idea isn’t that great either), just sit and write. Create stuff, even boring stuff. After you’ve started, you can get better. You will get better, as long as you do it. Inspiration can help sometimes, but ask anyone doing good work and they will tell you it only account for 10% of their work. The rest is just that work. Begin with small stuff, a NPC, a Monster, a Magic Item. Them build around it. Make every subsequent work as big as you are comfortable. Begging small is important so you can see a finished work before getting demotivated.

2. Keep at it. Practice makes less sucky.

I am not gonna lie to you. In the beginning, it’s going to suck. Our first creations are not going to be masterworks. Nobody’s first attempts are great. Not even the ones from people you admire. But creative work, as any other work, gets better with practice. So keep practicing, keep creating things and you will get better. We are all learning everyday. We all want to get less sucky every day. We all suck, but we can suck less if we keep trying.

3. Keep a notebook always near.

It’s hard to keep working on our stuff all the time, because life today is pretty hectic, right? That’s why you need a notebook always by your side. This can be physical or digital (I have a physical notebook but one OneNote too, it’s very good). This way, whenever you have an idea, pick it out and scribble your notes. Having word processors at your phone also allows you to write your material wherever you are, whenever you have time (on the subway, during lunch hours, on boring work parties). I am typing this post on my phone on my way to a birthday party right now!

4. Keep record of your work.

I never managed to keep a journal or diary before. But once I started recording and keeping track of what I am working on and what I managed to get done each day, I almost never miss an entry. This habit helps me keep track of what I’ve done, how I am progressing and it boosts my confidence to see I’ve been working 180 days straight. Even if I only write a paragraph a day, sketch a few things of an illustration, I did something and I kept the moment. That’s important and keeps me “moving”. It’s like exercising. If you stop for awhile it’s painful to come back. So keep at it and register your progress so you know what you’ve done.

5. Share your work and what you’re learning.

Don’t be afraid to share what are you working on. Actually, I think this is essential to make your work better. When you share what you are doing, people interested in it can see it and offer you useful tips, point you to interesting references, point to mistakes (and there will be mistakes as no one is perfect). Sharing leads to improvement, always. Not to mention, this helps you create a group of people who enjoys what you do and share your interests. Sharing also helps you find your people, your tribe. This is extremely valuable.

6. Learn with others.

You probably admire the work of many creators, both alive and dead. It’s your duty to learn from them. And from their masters. Get the work you are a fan of and study, dissect it. Find out what makes you a fan of that work. And see what you can incorporate into your own work. Copy what you love. Don’t worry, it’s very likely your favorite author copied it from somewhere else. Copy, however isn’t plagiarism. You modify it to suit your work, your tastes, your preferences. Not to mention the human brain is incapable of making a perfect reproduction, always tainting it with our own imperfections. Which is great. Don’t be embarrassed to cite your references, the people you copy from. And if you can, find out who they have copied from too, and study your masters’ masters work.

7. Consume good stuff to create good stuff.

What comes in, goes out. If you consume a lot of uncreative and boring stuff, your work will reflect this. So go out and seek the best stuff you can find. Try new things. New games. New settings. Different styles of literature, comics, shows, RPGs, whatever. You can always learn something new from all the great stuff it’s out there. Once you’ve accustomed to this and begin to see things as what’s stealable and what is not, you may even find valuable stuff to steal from the not so good material. I have tons of game books. More than I could possible ever use. But I try to read them all, to seek all the good stuff I can draw upon. They inspire me. They help me improve.

8. Accept criticism, ignore insults.

As I’ve said, not everything you do will be good. Criticism, good criticism, will help you improve your production. Sometimes out first impulse is discredit criticism and defend our work. Try to avoid that. If you have to, let the criticism sit there for a few days and look at it with a fresh open mind. It may have some truth to it. Thank the person and think about. You may never agree to it, but if it makes you think, it’s good. You can confirm your original idea, making it stronger, or you can change it and improve it. Insults and “trollish” criticism are a whole different thing. Just saying you stink, or that your work sucks without offering something to help you improve isn’t valuable at all. Ignore these comments. Delete it, block the person, whatever. You don’t need to put up with it and you don’t have to give audience to them. If someone came to your house and pooped on the floor you would not leave it laying there, would you (yeah, I took this from Show Your Work by Ashton Kleon).

9. Be interested to be interesting.

For your work to be meaningful, you have to be passionate about what you are creating. To be interesting, you have to be interested and demonstrate this interest. Be passionate about what you like. Share your thoughts about your favorite games, books, comics and whatever. This tells what you’re about and identify your creative DNA. Share the stuff of other creators that you like. Be into their stuff. If you’re into other stuff that means maybe your stuff has something for others to be into too. Not to mention it’s really sad to see someone who thinks everything is only about them. Every creation is in fact collaborative.

10. Use your finishing as a new beginning.

If you finish working on something. Look for something else to work on. If you are keeping a notebook near you, you probably will have a ton of other things you might want to work on afterwards. So pay attention to your work and it will probably tell you where to go next. I began writing house rules to play sword and sorcery games using DCC RPG. Then it lead me to create a system that would fit everything I wanted for a sword and sorcery campaign, tossing everything I didn’t find necessary. And from there I created a science fiction game with the same system and same pulpy feel. Now I am working on a setting toolkit for my sword and sorcery game, but I have notes for many other things I want to create! This very post is the result of learning things and finishing some of my creations. The secret is never stop working.

I guess this is it for now. I can probably delve deeper into every one of these 10 tips to provide more thoughts about them, but we gotta start somewhere. This, of course, is not a fireproof recipe for success (I consider myself successful, but my reference might be different from someone else), but are things that have been working for me. If you got something else to add, please do. If I got something wrong, help me learn the correct way. Who knows? We may learn something new!

If you like what you've just read, check out my books over RPGNow and Lulu.

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