Friday, January 2, 2015

Looking back at my 2014 as a freelancer

Jacob's post about new year's resolutions inspired me to look back at my 2014 and write a bit about how my freelancing career started, both the ups and downs of it.

A year ago, I had no freelancing experience whatsoever. I had designed adventures, monsters, and other RPG-related things before but only for my own group. I had also designed several messageboard games (which some people still, after many years, play on the Giant in the Playground forums). However, becoming a freelance designer was just a distant dream for me.

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect of RPG Superstar 2014. The previous year had been a bit of a disappointment for me since up until that point I had made steady progress as a contestant (alt in 2011, Top 32 in 2012), but in 2013 I "only" made the so-called Top 89 from which the judges selected the Top 32 items. I thought I had lost my mojo.

The Top 32 reveal

On the 21st of January (the day of the Top 32 reveal), I was understandably nervous but tried not to lose hope. At midnight (2 pm Pacific is midnight here) and for a long time after it, there was so much traffic on the Paizo website that it was impossible check who made the Top 32. There was also no email from Paizo, so I went to bed thinking that I wasn't in the Top 32.

I randomly woke up around 1:40 am (still feeling hugely disappointed). I checked my phone and noticed I had new email! But no, it wasn't from Paizo, it was from Facebook! I silently cursed Facebook for giving me false hope but opened the message to see what it was about. A friend of mine had congratulated me for making the Top 32! My response was a sleepy "Lol whut? I didn't get the memo..." :-D

Further rounds

Thinking back to the weeks and months that followed, everything seemed to happen really fast. My round 1 item was generally well liked (though some people were slightly confused by the mechanics), my monster was lauded as flavorful and was the third most popular entry in the exit poll, and my encounter was the most popular entry that round, if the exit poll results are to be believed.

The fourth (last) round, however... I was quite devastated by the judges' comments. I still cringe whenever I even think about the my adventure proposal. (But I promise, I'll get over it.) Unlike the previous rounds, the last round doesn't test your ability to create good content or a finished product. Rather, it tests your ability to write a good pitch, an outline for an adventure, a design specification, whatever you want to call it. I foolishly still tried to prove that I can design good content instead of focusing on the big picture. I didn't adjust my design paradigm accordingly and paid for it. And well, I probably still have a lot to learn about adventure design as well. ;-)

The aftermath

Despite the last round, I think I did really well in RPGSS 2014. Which is why I was a bit disappointed that the only freelance work offer I got was from someone I had talked with a lot during the contest. The general lack of interest was especially disappointing because I knew one of my fellow Top 4 finalists had received quite many work offers thanks to RPGSS. Considering that the majority of freelancers I know today don't actually design adventures but player options and such, I don't think my adventure proposal writing skills (or lack thereof) could have been the reason. Maybe publishers are hesitant to hire foreigners? Maybe I was too loud or opinionated during the contest? Probably not, but it's easy to start thinking about things like these when things don't work out the way you want.

Perhaps the realization that I have to fight tooth and nail to get what I want made me a stronger and better freelancer. Perhaps it was naive to think everything would be easy. If I had won RPG Superstar or if it had been easier to get started as a freelancer, I might have become complacent and thought that whatever I'm offered is all I can possibly ever hope to get as a freelancer. How wrong I would have been!

The blog

I started blogging around the time that RPGSS 2014 ended. When I announced my intent to start blogging, there was a very thought-provoking conversation on the RPGSS boards. Someone said blogging was a solid move while someone else said it's basically a waste of time because you could use that time for actual freelancing. These comments really made me think about my blogging, so thanks to both of these people! In hindsight, I really think it was a solid move for me. It might not be that for someone else, but it certainly works for me.

There are a number of things that a blog can do to support your freelancing career, but it's probably a good idea to have a strategy and vision for your blog if you want to make it useful. Otherwise it's just writing for the purpose of writing.

For example, why did I choose to conduct interviews with publishers and other people? Well, besides the obvious reason, sharing information about freelancing opportunities, I also wanted to network with these people. If you've interviewed someone, it's really much easier to email them later and ask about freelancing opportunities or if they could sponsor a monster design contest. ;-)

What about the aforementioned contest? Well, obviously, it was a lot of fun to be one of the judges. But I also learned a lot about monster design, and both the comments I wrote as a judge and the design advice articles I wrote after the contest are a valuable part of my freelancing resume. They show I understand monster design and they're also available on the internet.

While I do think that freelancing is the best way to learn freelancing, I also think it's very important for a freelancer to gain visibility. Sadly, most RPG products have either long time-to-market cycles (e.g. Paizo's Adventure Paths) or limited readership (many 3rd-party.products), which means that the visibility you gain from freelancing alone happens really slowly or is limited in scope. For that reason, a blog may be useful for gaining more visibility.


Despite the difficulties in the beginning, I was able to land a number of really interesting freelancing gigs in 2014. I started with a 3rd-party product, and later got an assignment from Paizo, which went really well. It kind of snowballed from there; my dev recommended me to another dev, and that project also went well, and shortly after that, I got yet another project. I'm currently writing an adventure; this assignment is really the only one I got simply by virtue of being one of the Top 4 finalists in RPGSS.

I've thoroughly enjoyed all the work I've done, and I hope to do much more in 2015. I made no new year's resolutions, but one of my goals for 2015 is to become one of Paizo's tried-and-true freelancers and get the coveted Contributor tag. :-)

I also hope to do more freelancing for 3rd-party publishers. I'm always on the lookout for new, interesting projects.

RPG Superstar judge

Thanks to my work with Paizo and all the effort I've put in my blog, I was invited to be on the judging panel for this year's RPG Superstar. It really is the highest honor for a freelancer and former contestant I can think of, and I'm very thankful to Paizo for this opportunity.

I'm very much looking forward to round 3 and I hope to see 16 awesome monsters!


All in all, I think 2014 was a great year for me as a freelancer. Each time I thought "this is way cool, nothing can possibly top this!" there was always something new and amazing waiting for me around the corner. If 2015 will be even half as awesome as 2014, it'll be a very good year for me. :-)

Anyway, I'm going to PaizoCon in May. If you have been reading A Sword for Hire and you're also going, you should come and say hi if you see anyone wearing an ASFH shirt. (Still gotta design the shirt though...)


  1. Of course I'm biased, but I'm glad you're doing the blog. I've really enjoyed your posts—and the contest was excellent, too!

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