Opening the Way

In this post, I want to write about practical things that publishers can do to increase diversity among the authors of tabletop role-playing games. I suspect that some, even most, of these points will apply to related fields, but I am writing based on my experience of 14 years as the Line Editor for Ars Magica; these are all things that I have tried, and that are practical. There is a further limitation: these are all ways to reduce the barriers to participation as an author of role-playing games. I am not going to write about positive steps for bringing people in for the simple reason that I didn’t find anything that worked well. I will return to this point at the end.

So, what should publishers do to reduce the barriers to entry for people outside the traditional range of role-playing authors?

Long, Flexible Deadlines

Deadlines should be at least three months out from the commission, and should be flexible even then. Remember that we are trying to reduce barriers to participation; by definition, we are trying to make things easier for people who are not full-time authors, at least not yet. That means that they all have work commitments.

This even applies to middle-class white men in secure professional jobs. Doctors can find themselves overwhelmed with work quite easily, for example, and a badly timed work crisis can cause serious problems for anyone. Furthermore, even professionals with decades of experience can badly misjudge how difficult a particular project will be. However, it is a much greater concern for people in under-represented groups. To take a clear example, a single parent working for the minimum wage might well only need eight hours to write a 4,000 word contribution, but it could easily take three months to find those eight hours. Someone from a poor background working while putting herself through college might be similarly time-poor. Similarly, someone who is a full-time carer for a disabled relative might find it difficult to make time to write in any particular week, but be able to put the time together over a period of time.

It is important to make authorship accessible to these groups. First, people from lower socio-economic strata should have a voice. This is an under-represented group all by itself. Second, in most societies women and ethnic minorities are heavily over-represented in these groups, so a working structure that makes it hard from them is, effectively, discriminating against women and ethnic minorities.

Variable Wordcounts

This is closely related to the previous point. Someone who is time-poor might well be unable to commit to writing 30,000 words, even given three months. There must be space in the schedule for people writing shorter pieces. This is not, in fact, something that I think role-playing publishers have any problem with, so I’ll leave it at that.

Edit the English

The ability to produce proper written English is a rather unusual skill. Most native speakers do not, in fact, have it. It is also a form of cultural capital associated with the privileged class, because the standard way to acquire it is through a university education. Requiring potential authors to be able to write proper, grammatical English in the appropriate register is therefore another form of exclusion. This applies even more strongly to non-native speakers of English. It is extremely hard to learn to write a foreign language properly. (That’s my experience of 15 years learning Japanese, and 12 years teaching English to Japanese speakers, talking.) If you require technically good English from potential authors, you are excluding people from most of the world.

Now, this point raises the question of what the writer is bringing to the game. I would say that a writer must be able to offer good ideas, developed in a way that creates an entertaining gaming situation. This goes a long way beyond the high concept, as it also includes the concrete development of the concept in a usable and entertaining way. I have dealt with several authors who could do that, but who were not, technically, very good writers of English. Writers who get practice and feedback get better at the technical side of things, although it can take years. Indeed, I’ve seen a number of authors improve remarkably in technical terms over the years I edited them for Ars Magica. The initial editing load is quite heavy, but by avoiding loading a whole book with technically lacking people, it can be made manageable.

Of course, a potential author needs to have good enough English for the editor to be able to see how good the ideas are, but that level is not as high as one might think. I suspect that any literate native speaker can clear it, as could the majority of dyslexics, and it is not an unrealistic hurdle for non-native speakers.

Remote Working

Hiring people to work on-site is incredibly exclusionary. First, it legally excludes anyone who does not already have the right to work, and change jobs, in the publisher’s country. It effectively excludes anyone who cannot relocate long distances, so most people with family commitments, such as children in school or partners with jobs. I could never work on-site for a US company, because, quite apart from the visa problem, I could not uproot my wife and daughter and cross the Pacific Ocean.

Furthermore, it is unnecessary. The internet means that it is possible to write collaborative books with authors in different time zones, without ever meeting. That is not to say that there are no benefits to meeting in person, or working at adjacent desks; there clearly are. The benefits, however, are not great enough to justify excluding so many people.

International Payments

A publisher needs to have an effective way to pay people overseas. US dollar checks are not such a method. These days, Paypal tends to work, so this is much easier than it used to be, but for authors in some countries it may be necessary to do international funds transfers. Those are quicker and easier than they were even ten years ago. When paying foreign authors, the publisher’s expenses are the publisher’s expenses, and should not be deducted from the author’s payment, any more than you would deduct the cost of the stamp from payment to a domestic author. The author’s expenses (such as the fee to withdraw money from Paypal) are the author’s expenses, but the amount that arrives in the author’s account should be the full contracted fee.

Open Calls

This is, in my opinion, the most important thing, and if a publisher only does one thing, it should be this one.

Hold open calls.

An open call means that you publicise a particular topic, set a three-month deadline, and allow anyone who wants to send you a draft. The format of the open call should be as close as possible to the standard submission format, because otherwise you are imposing additional requirements, and excluding people who could do the actual job. This means that Paizo’s RPG Superstar, while certainly much better than nothing, is not an open call. The fun and excitement of the competition format is a positive thing in itself, and it is a good thing to run in parallel with open calls, but it is not a substitute.

In my experience, an open call should ask for 2,000 to 5,000 words of material. If you have less than 2,000 words, it is difficult to tell whether someone has the necessary talent, but asking people to write more than 5,000 words on spec is not really ethical. You can ask for revisions, but that should be after you have committed to publishing the contribution. It may turn out that the author cannot make the necessary changes, in which case the editor should do it. In such cases, you may decide not to ask the author to make further contributions to the line.

The open call should also be publicised as widely as possible. I’m not sure that I managed this part as well as I could have, and I think it might actually be a good idea to hold them on a regular schedule, so that every book published for a game line can advertise the open call: “We hold an open call in every even-numbered year. The topic is announced on April 1st, and the deadline for submissions in June 30th. In order to participate, you have to submit 2,000 to 5,000 words of original material for the game. The best submissions are published in a supplement for the game, and paid for. For full details, check our website.”

In the open call, you may accept and publish people whom you do not think are quite up to doing the job long-term. Just being published once is a significant confidence boost, and they might try again, and be better, next time. However, the main aim is to recruit new people to the pool of standard authors for the game.

Reflections

The strategies outlined above are necessary, but they are not sufficient. In the case of Ars Magica, they were very effective at recruiting non-US authors. Indeed, Through the Aegis has no US authors. They were also pretty good at recruiting non-native English speakers, although only one of them became a regular writer for the line. (Writing in your second language is very hard work, so it is not wise to expect a high level of participation from non-native speakers; many of them will not want to do it very often.) They weren’t very good at recruiting women, and all the authors I’ve met or seen photographs of have been white, at least by UK standards. I have absolutely no idea how good it was at recruiting LGBTQ+ authors, although quite a few authors mention heterosexual relationships in their bios, so maybe not great. I also have no idea about disability recruitment. The process may not be gender-blind, because I can often guess from the name, but it is race- and sexuality-blind, and even so it did not appear to recruit many people from those minorities.

That is where positive strategies should come in. There is no real point in actively working to recruit minorities before you have removed the barriers to participation, because the barriers will turn them away at the next step. However, as I said at the beginning, I did not manage to find any effective methods for this. I suspect that the first step is to get a wide range of people playing the game, and that is the holy grail of all role-playing games.

Posted in Roleplaying.

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