How I Became a Game Designer

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for February 19th, 2014. Today’s article is an Author Anecdote; the topic is how I became a game designer.

 So this installment of the Gibbering Mouth is going to be a relatively straightforward compared to last week’s. I’m asked all the time “How did you get into writing?” and “How did you get into game designing?” and every time, I usually tell a shortened version of this tale. And I mean extremely shortened; like two sentences tops. But since you’re here today I’m assuming you want all of the gritty details, so here they are. Be warned; no two designers have the same story.

Humble Beginnings

I started playing 3.5 Edition of Dungeons and Dragons towards the middle of my senior year of High School. I had a vague idea of what Dungeons and Dragons was, but at the time my gaming was restricted to World of Warcraft. (I’ll date myself even further by saying that Naxxramas was just patched into the game. So there.) Two of my buddies, who were in college at the time, discovered the game somehow (I never learned where they got that dwarven forge module from) but four of us got together to play this 3.5 Adventure. I couldn’t tell you a blasted thing about it except that I played a horribly named druid with a wolf motif; Allupeaye (Al-loop-pay). It took me almost two HOURS to come up with that name. Like anything else, creativity is a learned skill.

 We had been playing for about a week when my friends met a man who would change my life; I’m not going to give any names here who haven’t already cosigned themselves as public figures in the industry. Anyway, one of my friends encountered this guy by chance in a college class and they got talking over a shared interest in Magic the Gathering. When Dungeons and Dragons was brought up, this gentleman was aghast that we weren’t playing correctly and resolved to “fix” us by DMing a game for us himself. I never played Allupeaye again.

 I like to think that teenaged Dungeons and Dragon games are in a league all of their own. We tend to look back fondly at them even though we grimace at some of our roleplaying decisions. This game, my first real campaign, basically had the PCs acting like stereotypical High School teenagers. One friend was the everyman, another was the jock, and another was basically a cheerleader. My character was the nerd, a multiclass elven rogue/wizard named Noxithalmas. My character constantly squabbled with another friend’s character; this big, burly fighter named Magnus Maximus McOricuss. I was too inexperienced to realize that I likely could have vaporized him on the spot if I wanted, but that campaign ultimately ended when both Magnus and Noxithalmas died; he drowned while pinned face-first into a pile of rubble while I died from a spider bite I suffered trying to save him. That summer ended and I went away to college (I was the only one in that group of friends to go away) and all I could think about was Dungeons and Dragons.

A Designer is Born

It’s hard being in a new place and wanting to play a social game like Dungeons and Dragons. My school was two hours from home and I had no car, so I was basically stuck. As some of you might know, my degree is in education and when you go to a school for teachers, finding people who are willing to take time away from coursework to play games is even more challenging. Furthermore I wasn’t a social butterfly at that point in my life so finding people to play with was a Herculean task, an itch I couldn’t scratch. The first year I mostly ignored that itch by engrossing myself into World of Warcraft with my roommate; when you’re a full-time student by day and a progression raider throughout the Burning Crusade by night, you don’t have much time for anything else. When that roommate suddenly dropped out of school towards the middle of my sophomore year, I was suddenly without anyone to share my love of fantasy gaming with again.

It was about January of that year that I began designing as a way to tune out my new, obnoxious roommate. A friend introduced me to the Order of the Stick on giantitp.com during winter break and I discovered their homebrewing community. Giant in the Playground will always have a special place in my heart because its where I learned the advanced parts of playing 3.5 Edition and how to GM. I engrossed myself into the rules, the mechanics, the classes, everything. I even took part in a few of their Prestige Class contests, which I think are still held by the community to this day. Using my own home rules (which consisted of things like giving martial maneuvers from the Tome of Battle to all martial classes), I ran a few campaigns, made some mistakes here and there (I could write an entire article about this time I reincarnated a player’s character), and grew as a designer and a GM. But even then, I never thought about actually publishing anything.

The Part Where I am Introduced to Pathfinder

If I’m not mistaken, Pathfinder was published in 2008, right around when all of this self-designing was happening. I had even heard of Pathfinder before; it had strong supporters in the Giant in the Playground Community, but I was too much of a fan boy at the time to convert. That wouldn’t change until 2010 when I met another important man who helped shape my design career.

By chance, this gentleman and I shared an Education class together. Part of the class was talking about your “environments,” or the different aspects of your life. For my presentation gaming was obviously one of them. I included a screen shot of my Protection Paladin that I took when my guild downed Professor Putrecide. (More self-dating! Hooray!) I also had some board games and small video games. But most predominantly on the gaming slide was a screen shot of dice. Not just any type of dice; gaming dice. My soon-to-be-friend was suspicious of this picture, so he came up to me and asked me if I was a roleplayer. I was taken aback, but I confirmed it. He told me on the spot, “I’m claiming you as my own; gaming friends are hard to find.”

 It was this friend, who had just recently picked up Paizo’s Advanced Player’s Guide, who invited me to play Pathfinder with him for the first time. I was jumping into a campaign that already well underway as a 13th level sorcerer. This was the highest leveled game that I have ever played in, and let me tell you this: if you want to get ANYONE into Pathfinder, give him or her a blaster sorcerer. I specialized in transmutation, evocation, and metamagic, and my sheer blasting capacity was so great that I ended encounters on my own, much to the GM’s dismay. I haven’t played a sorcerer like that in a long time, but it was vital to my game design career. I bought myself copies of every hardcover Pathfinder book I could find and engrossed myself in them. I brought those books hope from college and ran games for everyone I knew and eventually I pulled all of my high school friends into Pathfinder; none of us ever regretted the switch.

The Moment You’ve Been Waiting For

All right, so now you’ve heard exactly how I got into Pathfinder itself. Now you’re ready to heard about how I got into game designing. Sorry it took so long; there’s a reason some of my friends compare me to Ted Mosby.

So after I graduated college and came home I began working more and more on my own campaign world because I was GMing for my friends at the time. I had always loved the binder from Wizards of the Coast’s Tome of Magic; it earned a special place in my heart after I won Giant in the Playground’s prestige class contest in a team-up round with a binder prestige class I wrote. I wanted to make the binder available for Pathfinder and set out slowly writing an update. One day Important Friend #2 sent me an e-mail with an attachment that he wanted me to take a gander at. This attachment was Secrets of Pact Magic, by Dario Nardi of Radiance House publishing. He’s the final important person in this story. I almost immediately fell in love with this book and immediately bought copies of it from Paizo. I studied them closely, but was disheartened when I realized that while the product was good and the designer had made an update document, his rules weren’t quite on-par with modern Paizo products power-wise (I believe Ultimate Combat either just came out or was in playtesting at this time).

So, I did something that is now a staple of my style as a designer; I sent Dario a random idea with some work samples in it straight out of the blue. Any publisher who has worked with me before knows that I do this all the time; this is why. About a week or two later, Dario replied with an e-mail saying that he liked my ideas and was interested in a community-driven effort to update his product. I hopped onto his Pact Magic Facebook group and did my best to rouse up some interest in the product, but ultimately I ended up writing most of it and taking advice from a handful of people who chimed in on the subject.

 This became a super-secret project of mine. I told absolutely no one what I was working on. My parents thought I was “obsessed” and chastised me constantly over sitting at my computer for as long as I did. I didn’t want to tell anyone what I was doing because I honestly couldn’t explain it; how was I supposed to know that by August of the following year I’d have published an 86-page book? As you can imagine, my friends and family were just as shocked as I was when I made the announcement that April. That was the point where Dario scheduled a meeting with me to sign a contract, and I figured that if I was going to sign a contract I should at least tell my family about it!

And that’s exactly how it happened and how it continues to happen. I write a publisher with an idea and if they like it, we roll with it. I e-mailed Daron Woodson, Creighton Broadhurst, and Owen Stephens about writing for their respective companies and I’ve written products for and with all of them. If I can impart any advice on would-be designers, it is this:

  • No one is going to ask you to design for them, at least not at first. If you want do anything in life, you need to go out there and pitch yourself to others.
  • The more familiar you are with the rules (and with the English language) the better your chances of being able to turn yourself into a designer are.
  • Give yourself overly generous time limits and time frames. Because I always ask for more time then I’ll need, I have never missed a project, been late on project, or otherwise had to cancel a project. Publishers prefer to not have to remind you to do your work.
  • Anyone can be a game designer if they have the drive, passion, and willingness to take a leap of faith where other people would falter.

 And that about wraps up my story about how I became a game designer for this installment of Author Anecdotes. Have you designed any products or written any articles for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game? Is designing a product a goal you would want to achieve, or are you more happy as a consumer? Why? Leave your answers and comments below, and I’ll see you next week for another installment of the Gibbering Mouth!

 Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune rogue, and his favorite pastime is casting scorching ray at unsuspecting foes.  

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6 thoughts on “How I Became a Game Designer

  1. As I stand today, I don’t think I could be a designer. I’m prone to depression and when I get depressed, I just stop working. I also have nothing I’m very passionate about in my life, so my motivation is very limited. I’m kind of just ‘existing’ at the moment, instead of truly living.

    • I think all creative people in the digital age have been depressed at some point in their lives/career. Its very easy to succumb to, especially when you’re trying to write or paint, or make music and you are surrounded by a global community of folks who are all more experienced than you are. It can feel impossible to climb to their level. But the key to moving past that depression is recognizing that everyone who is great now wasn’t great at some point in their lives. Truly shaking depression is difficult; I for one would argue that it is impossible. But in order to be successful you need to learn to push yourself past it, no matter how hard it is. It is struggling against that first bit of self-doubt that makes you a strong designer and a strong person. Keep up the good fight, Darrel!

    • Darrell, I am going to echo what Alex has mentioned. I have been publishing for about 2 years, but have worked as a paid playtester for about 3 years prior to that. I also suffer from your situation and the hardest in those moments is the motivation. It can be very overwhelming, and a few of my designers also suffer from the same affliction. Even just ‘existing’ can be tough.
      Support groups if there are any in your area, can be a great help if you can find them.

      Reading and designing became my motivation. Even at the points where I needed help getting out of bed, I tried to slap my keyboard a few minutes a day for a paragraph. Even at those points, do not delete your work. Move on and come back to them. In fits I would wipe everything. I lost some really good ideas that way.
      The designing process is never easy. From a brother in arms, I can safely say I know you can do it. Take your time. Just pen an idea down, every so often even if it is just a sentence or a word. You might be surprised what can come out of it. All the best to you!

  2. I’m interested in game design, but my creative ADD gets in the way. I’m currently working on a homebrew campaign path for Pathfinder, and I’ve been putting some significant work into trying to make my own system.

    This was a good read, and inspirational towards my reaching for my own goals.

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