Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Professional Storytelling Part 4: Creating Customer Value in Your Products and Services

What's in a Price?

There are plenty of philosophies on this subject, and I will be expressing my own personal experience and research. I attended the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, and I have always been fascinated by valuation. What makes a customer spend $300 on a pair of Beats by Dre headphones which cost about $18 to manufacture? The answer is plain and simple in this case. It's marketing. It's the same way Nike can cause a riot every week with new variations of tennis shoes. They have created a collector's market that's about prestige. The product itself isn't really important, but more the image that is created and reinforced by the company and the customers themselves. In many ways these items are unregulated commodities that have high bartering value. More bartering equals less taxable income, so individuals that are locked out of more traditional wealth building still have vehicles they can use to go forward.

Customers also have a bias when a value is put on an event. If it costs you something (even a little) many attitudes are changed. Douglas Cole, a fellow blogger at gamingballistic.blogspot.com, shared with me a story about free martial arts classes that were hosted by his corporate employer. When it was totally free, nobody showed up. When they started charging $5/week, people started participating. Why would that be so? It's because they made a commitment, and if they break that commitment they lose value. It may seem silly, but people will try infinitely harder to make it to an event they've payed for than one that is free. 

Now what about RPG products? Well, I can't think of any time I have ever garnered prestige for owning them. Most classic RPG products have been measured in utility. "This book is a reference for XYZ. Is it worth it to pay $x?" There are tons of products that are just jam packed with character options and objects that have no real context in an adventure. In the Information Age there are countless wikis and websites full of these kinds of references, so I believe the value of that kind of product has dropped significantly.

The most successful products I have seen in recent times are in more of a "content in context" format.

Adventure modules have always been this way. Sometimes you just need a new monster or magic item to fit the feel of your content, so it becomes a mini-reference for that thing. Instead of a class option or description just taken at face value, you have a whole world surrounding it that gives it real depth and life.

So why are there still so many of these kinds of products up on RPG marketplaces for next to nothing? They're easy to make. You can just have a single idea about a class variant, person, or thing, jot it down, format it, and you have a product.

I'm not saying these aren't good places to start from. If you're a budding RPG writer that's just trying to get a feel for how making these items or systems work, go for it! Maybe someone will like it and toss you a few sovereigns for your energy. I would just suggest that making an adventure, from beginning to end, to bring all those things to life holds much more value for a storyteller looking for a base to perform from. 

Tools are cheap. Finished products demand a premium.

Thou Shalt Value Thine Own Work

This is the biggest hurdle I see when it comes to many writers and storytellers is this idea that people will only give their products or services a shot if they charge next to nothing for them.

I believe that this is an attitude that needs to change if people want to be seen as professionals and experts.

When you are able to dedicate your time to your craft, you will most assuredly become better at that craft than those that can only pursue it part time.

It is wonderful to have folks that are not career writers and storytellers that volunteer their time and skills to our creative hobby. However, they are usually experts themselves in other fields and would more than likely be just as interested to be patrons than to be creators if presented with the right opportunity. 

Remember, just because someone does something for "free," it doesn't mean you should too.

Art demands that the artist have their own diverse experiences to draw from, and tangential networking and learning is very important in any creative field. Taking time to learn something new about the real world just enriches things that you can think about and therefore represent in your products or storytelling. Sometimes the value these writers bring is mostly in their creativity that might not have surfaced without their other passions coming first in their lives. Take the gift with gratitude, and continue making wonderful patronized pieces enriched by the community.

Pricing Uncertainty

If you have no idea what your product or service is worth, or you're using it as a sample of your capabilities, Pay What You Want is wonderful. However, if you create something that is a work that can stand on its own as a performance piece, you really need to put a price tag on it. You need to think about both what you require (measured by cents/word) and what the market will bare. You should never price something for less that the time is worth to you, and always saying your time is worth next to nothing is not true. Putting some works out there and estimating from there is probably the best way to go for a self-publishers starting out. For commercial publishers, the cost equation for a digital product is something like this:

w = words
i = illustrations
c = cartography
o = formatting
e = editing
x = payment
z = sales
r = discount rate

Their cost is distributed over the number of copies sold. This is expressed by adding up the cost of all the required tangible elements divided by the total of the integral of an unknown function that would express the product's sales over time which is also discounted over that time period. Time is money, and the longer one of those sales takes to happen, the less valuable that money actually is through lost utility. Game design, playtesting, and other modifications are included in one or more of the other factors. For example, Game design is part of the writing and editing process, but can also spill over into illustration and cartography if maps have to be changed.

This is one of the reasons that many companies are reluctant to produce creative products. There is a huge, unknown risk being taken. Some of that can be mitigated by taking the success of previous products into consideration, but none of that can tell the future on how profitable, if at all, the funding of a new creative project will be.

For performance, I feel that $25/hr is very reasonable. With that your patrons get along with the hours of the actual session is all the time outside the game as well. There is lead-up time (making sure the servers are up and running,) module prep (reading, technical set-up, and interpreting for performance,) and general customer service (being available via e-mail for questions or clarification.) It should be noted that this is for pre-published material. If you were designing adventures from scratch I would believe you would want to negotiate some extra hours of payed prep time to allow for adequate planning outside of just reading and interpreting a published work. These could be converted to new material for sale with a bit of effort, but don't think that means you should discount the creation of things. You have no idea how much, if any, you would ever sell when it comes to that module.

If you do have a successful product from such a creation, do not hesitate to be generous with those that were a part of crafting the narrative. They may not be the "owner" of the work, but you couldn't have done it without them. Reciprocity is wonderful, but you have to put yourself into a position to actually be able to afford generosity.

A Brand, A Brand, My Kingdom for a Brand!

An established brand makes you a safer bet. In products, it's like having a public portfolio where people can go snooping around for reviews of all your other past work. A brand that stands for quality will make it very easy for a previous customer to buy whatever you put out. This may sounds awesome, but really it's a double edged sword.

If you do have a good brand, you'll be held to a very high standard.

A product that doesn't fall in line with brand standards can leave you with horrible backlash. This can be intimidating to some artists, and may end up causing problems with future creations due to immense pressure. Despite this, always create one and make sure you create a feeling of coherence and quality if you want it to add value to your products.

For individuals and services, a brand is all about having a uniform identity. Keeping your social networking branded and easy to follow allows people to get in touch with you much more easily, thereby giving you access to more conversations that hopefully lead to more business and networking opportunities.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Professional Storytelling Part 3: The Value of Professional Storytelling

Value Comes in All Forms

Everybody's work has value, but what kind of value it has depends on you. Some of us are just bursting with creativity, looking for a willing audience to teach how to roleplay and share the experience. Some of us are part of a huge community of volunteers that donate their time for the good of the community. Then there are the very few of us that have boldly stepped out to craft a career out of storytelling, exchanging our availability and services for money.

Many Storytellers have done their work for free (or for snacks) for a very long time. There's nothing wrong with this arrangement. Most of these arrangements were and continue to be get-togethers between local friends sitting down at a kitchen or basement table to tell stories for pure entertainment and camaraderie. The game is more of a feature of the interaction than the main focal point (though the Dungeon Master might disagree.)

For the hobby of roleplaying, many conflicts will arise:

whether they are conflicts of schedule (I have to work tonight,)

conflicts of interest (Game of Thrones is on!,)

or personality conflicts between players and/or the DM (that rogue stole my coin purse again!!)

Many sessions will fall by the wayside, but to everyone involved (except the brooding Dungeon Master) knows it was "just a game" anyway.

This is precisely how I started Dungeon Mastering myself, and it was the best place to improve my craft. When I started looking for partons as a professional storyteller, I thought really hard about my value proposition. What would people be willing to trade for a service? To do something for payment there are many adjustments that must me made. These may be different for different storytellers, but here is my current negotiation and some non-tangible benefits of becoming a regular patron:
  • My patrons have control of the game's content (which module,) the start time, and the number of players.
  • Donations are made in advance and are non-refundable. This is because I have done prep work and arranged my schedule to perform for my patron or patrons. It's like buying a ticket for an event. If you can't attend, then you lose the value of that ticket. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it has to do with reasonable consideration on both ends. If there is a real emergency on the patron's side, they would have a credit for a future session. If I had an emergency, I would issue a refund to a non-regular patron, and most of my regular patrons would just take a free session in the near future. In the eight months I've been doing this I've only had to deviate from my schedule once.
  • Players who aren't donors can make a minimum donation that gives them a reserved spot in a publicly listed game.
  • Donors get advanced notice of my publicly posted games. This gives them a chance to be higher priority on a waiting list.
  • For return patrons (and other players) I have a better understanding of their character and them as a player. The more I know a player, the more I can adjust to give them an even more personal experience suited to their play style and interests.
I have found that this all works very well in conjunction with an online community and organized play. Compensation allows me to focus on the experience instead of worrying about my financial situation. It also allows me to be extremely flexible when it comes to scheduling. I do hold down a regular albeit part time position bartending and serving at a local restaurant, but that's during Friday and Saturday nights when most of my current patron base is out with their families and wouldn't be scheduling games to begin with. I think that's the route that most artists of any kind must take unless they have a family that fully supports and provides for them while they pursue their passion.

For my next article I'll be diving a bit deeper into some of the psychology behind putting a value on your own time and energy. I'll talk about how services are much different than products in this industry and strategies on how to approach individual prospective patrons. I'll also give some insight to those that are trying to pursue careers as product writers and designers on how to brand yourself or your team.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Professional Storytelling Part 2: My Personal Liftoff Moment

Every Person Has a Struggle and a Story

I was working as a manager of a cell phone store, and I had been doing so for about six months. I had weathered the winter, the holiday season, and had turned a rathole of a store into a much more professional place. I felt that I had accomplished a lot, and I did it in only about 40 hours of work a week. My regional manager had helped me a lot to get settled, and things were looking alright.

Then, my local friend John stepped into my store and changed my outlook on what I could do. I have always know that I've wanted to do something in entertainment, but it took a complete stranger to tell me that I shouldn't be afraid to try. He's a recovering cancer patient in his mid-60s, and he has his own ideas of what he want to do with and for people in business. I act as a sounding board for his own ideas, and I help him clerically with his ventures, which are going well. His confidence in himself and my abilities got me through the first few months of uncertainty.

With a good amount of savings but no real plan for the future, I resigned from my position after a "come to God" kind of conversation with my regional manager. 

"Are these other projects and your friends more important than your job?" he asked.

"You know, I really think they are" I responded.

"Well, can you at least give me two weeks so I can replace you?" I did, and it was the least I could do for a guy that pushed the wrong underling. I worked there because it was challenging, and I liked cleaning up the mess. I wasn't chasing commission checks, and I wasn't spending more time there than I needed to in a market of 3,000 people where 500 of them owe my store/company money.

After the holiday season, every new "promotion" was lipstick on a pig that just kept getting uglier. It was exhilarating to tell The Man to get lost after cleaning up years of neglect and misrepresentation from the last manager, and then being informed that my higher-ups wanted me to work "60 to 70 hours a week like the other managers do." I guess most people are just desperate to be employed. I'll tell you that being your own boss is challenging, but every moment you get do blame you for what happens and not anyone else.

Houston, We Have Liftoff

I experimented around with streaming games on Twitch for a couple of months. I had some success, but nothing that was even close to being able to pay the few bills that I had. I was doing some odd jobs for my new friend John, but I really did need more if I was going to make this life choice work. Then, I heard about Fantasy Grounds from Dragon+ on my phone, and it seemed to be everything I was looking for in a virtual tabletop. I had been a Dungeon Master since I was a Sophomore in high school off and on through D&D 3rd and 4th editions, and I was starting to pick up the core books and first few adventures for D&D 5th Edition. 

I loved D&D 5th more than any other edition or RPG I'd played, so I invested in the core modules on Fantasy Grounds and started running games for D&D Adventurer's League. I streamed them on Twitch, and after about a month I got the most important email of my life:

"I'll pay you $50 to run..."

I almost died of excitement. 

I had honed my Dungeon Master craft for over a decade, and now I was being given a shot to run a game professionally. 

My patron has always wished to remain anonymous, and was obviously impressed because the same day after our first session together:

"I'll pay you $100 a session, and here are the dates and times:"

Since September 2015 I've been running two to three sessions to week on average. Many of the games that my patron has set up as publicly listed on alonlinetools.net are not attended by said patron, but are ran for the public in stride out of my patron's generosity. Most people don't know that, but enjoy the benefits nonetheless.

The First Customer is the Most Important

I can't highlight enough how my first patron has changed my life. Without my patron, I would still be a lone nut out here on the Internet looking to create a whole new profession. Now I have three regular patrons, with occasional support by a handful of other brave adventurers. I'm hoping the trend continues and I can expand this into multiple storytellers and systems. Before you know it we'll be making a movement towards tons of memorable and awe-inspiring "you had to be there" moments.

Now it's official, but even if people still laugh when I tell them "I run Dungeons & Dragons games professionally," I'll be sharpening all of my creative and business skills every day on a sword of fantasy and improvisation. I'm more than happy to share my story with the world to tell you that if you're out there looking for a way to be a professional storyteller, you are no longer crazy. 

You can do this, and you should do this. 

A Word of Warning and Disclaimer

Results not typical. It takes a village to raise a storyteller. Make sure you have the experience and the support you need to journey down a road that could be a little intimidating and barren when you first embark. 

In my next blog I'll be discussing why professional storytelling is valuable and the negotiation points to consider when it comes to putting together an agreement for a storytelling gig.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Professional Storytelling Part 1: Getting Started Storytelling

A Triumphant Return to Blogging

This is my first post in a very long time, but for good reason. Since September of last year, I have been working diligently in the field of Storytelling. My ability to pursue it full time is due to the generosity of my current patrons, and for that I am grateful beyond words. At this point, I will be writing a series of How To blogs, from getting started as a Storyteller to more advanced topics such as how to market yourself to your community of choice.

Every Journey Starts With a First Step

The first thing to do as a Storyteller is learn a game system. This requires investment in some literature and time to read and understand its mechanics. Once you have done this through a time or two, move on to practical experience.

Storytellers will never really "know the rules" until they are applied. 

Don't get bogged down with the idea of rules knowledge perfection. Storytelling is a performance art, and improvisation and creativity are just, if not more important, than system knowledge. If there are players that have invested energy into being a wealth of rules knowledge, allow them to assist you when necessary. This validates their own efforts and helps you to make more consistent and satisfying rulings.

Remember the Golden Rule

A Storyteller provides a service with value. That value is derived from the level of entertainment that is received from their players. As an example, part of the D&D Adventurer's League mission is to "foster a welcoming atmosphere focused on fun."

When people have fun, they'll seek you out to run games for them in the future.

This isn't to say that all players will have the same goals, and you will have to adjudicate conflicts of personality between characters and players alike. In the future, I will be sharing some of my personal strategies for resolution, and when all else fails, a compromise.

An Army Marches on its Stomach

Next, Storytellers must be prepared. This comes in a couple of different forms since there are both in-person and online games.

In most cases, you need to be ready to provide everything.

If you are just starting out and really want people to give you a shot, you'll have to make sure there are zero barriers to entry. Run pre-published material to get yourself comfortable with performance. World building and writing are exciting ideas, but they are really a whole other skill that must be learned alongside the performance aspect of storytelling. Reading a module will give you an idea of how professional publishers structure their adventure material. This will give anything you do publish in the future a better chance of meeting the expectations of seasoned roleplayers.

Ask for Feedback, Don't Expect it

After you have done your best to facilitate fun and adventure, be sure to thank all of your players and persuade them to share their thoughts about the game. They may have insights into how you can improve as a Storyteller, and they also may be able to bring to light conflicts between players. Most of these conflicts should be mediated and resolved to really enhance the value of your services. This is the point I feel is most important for the growth and improvement of the skills of a Storyteller, and I will be writing multiple articles on aspects involving feedback and iteration/improvement of one's storytelling style.

Nobody Walks Alone

The very best way to expand your audience and improve your performance craft is getting involved with a large roleplaying community. My personal favorite is the G+ Tabletop Roleplaying Games Community. Its moderation is superb, and its discussions are kept constructive. It also hosts Giant Dragons Gamer Chat on most Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons which is a semi-open forum for talking about gaming events going on, gaming products new and old, and gaming philosophy discussions. If you are interested in this type of interaction, please contact +Jonathan Henry and let him know! He'll add you to his list of invitees, which already numbers in the hundreds.

Thank you for taking the time to peruse this article. You have plucked my words out of an endless sea of data, and I am honored to host your attention, if just for a few moments. Go forth and game with passion! 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stronghold joins ArcheAge with Epic Podcast and 50 Rush

Good morning Internet!

I’m excited to tell you about The Flagship Alliance’s events and activity for this weekend’s Beta and beyond. Through the work and dedication of key members of <Stronghold> and <SPQR> we will bring you both engaging and informative content through Shot’s 50 Rush and The Flagship Podcast.

The Shot 50 Rush

Starting at Beta opening and continuing until our goal is met, Shot will be rushing to level 50 on his Twitch stream at http://www.twitch.tv/kin_tsuna. Kael, one of the guild leads of <Stronghold>, will be main s
upport and both guilds will be backing up the speed runners. Come check us out!

The Flagship Podcast

On Saturday, July 17th at 7PM EST (2300 GMT) The Flagship Podcast’s first episode will be live on Twitch at <insert stream>. The podcast will be hosted by Kael of <Stronghold> and Shot of <SPQR>. We will focus on topics that are relevant to the people that need it most: the average ArcheAge player who hasn’t been out scouring forums and prepping hard for Beta. We hope to shed some light on the game’s complex economy and essential quests that can be easily overlooked by the new player. For our more hardcore viewers we also have an exclusive interview with Pohx, a popular AA Twitch streamer who popularized the Daggerspell class. Come be part of the start of the best ArcheAge podcast on the Net!

Gamers United!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Basic D&D Next: First Impressions

Hold on to Your Dice!

After skimming the new Basic D&D PDF, I have to say that I'm filled with a sense of optimism and excitement. Even in this first offering of the new system my mind and spirit are drawn in to the new way characters are composed, as well as new core systems like Advantage and Inspiration. In this article I'll talk briefly about the top level mechanics and my thoughts. This series will continue with a deeper discussion about races, classes, equipment, and spells to give some opportunity for discussion and debate. On with the show!

Advantage Play

From the beginning of the playtest I've been a staunch proponent of the Advantage system. Mathematically the system changes the deviation of rolls without having to give some kind of real bonus. With a mechanic as simple as "roll two d20 and take the highest/lowest result," it is an elegant and general solution for tackling all kinds of archetypal and mechanical instances where players and DMs alike would have the feeling of "this should succeed/fail a lot." This also lends well to flattening out all of the numerical values for Difficulty Classes and Armor Classes, allowing even the lowest level of characters to make some progress against overwhelming odds instead of it being a completely futile exercise. Giving players more choice instead of shutting things off mechanically is a great way to foster the fantastic and vast openness of possibilities in a role-playing game.

Find Your Inspiration

Inspiration further builds on the Advantage system, allowing Dungeon Masters to reward players that are true to the character they have created. Also, since a character can only be Inspired or not, it encourages players to use that Advantage roll liberally instead of constantly saving them for the most challenging moments. It also seems to give DMs the opportunity to describe how things are resolved during those rolls, making the Inspired player a focal point and encouraging other players to earn Inspiration status themselves.

A Touch of Character

One of the complementary systems for Inspiration is the addition of Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws to characters. I find that many players would be much more engaged in the acting and improvisation of an RPG experience if they just had a little direction. Players are, in fact, actors, and these tidbits can give even the creator of a character a place to start from when it comes to portraying themselves as their adventurer. Like a good director, DMs and the system itself should give their players the tools to succeed. I believe that emphasizing these attributes in conjunction with the Inspiration system will incentivize players enough to do just that.

I Cast Burning Hands... FOR SCIENCE!

I think this was one of the more subtle changes in this edition, but the description of the areas of area of effect spells is fantastic. Now it is a geometric description of the area instead of "this is what a 30ft cone looks like in squares" as it was in previous editions. The math nerd in me giggles in delight since I now have good, solid rules to back up a decision of where AoE should reach.

Keeping Up With the Jhessails

For the first time by my observation, the idea of having Lifestyle Expenses in a concrete way is not something I have had in my own games. I really like the idea of characters having a home instead of being vagabonds, both for role-playing opportunity and to give players a sense of belonging to the world. A little drip of gold out of the character's pockets, along with descriptions of where it goes, seems to add even more life to them at the table.

You Are What You Eat (or Don't Eat)

I'm also glad that they have added meaningful and balanced penalties for lack of food, water, and rest to the Basic game. These needs seem to be overlooked in a lot of sessions in which I've played. However, they are a vital part of anyone's life, and the quality of your food, drink, and rest can really have an impact on your health and sharpness in important, even life-threatening, situations.

All of these aspects of D&D Next and more give my team's pursuit of writing a fantasy campaign setting an even better foothold. These rules are innovative and really seem to emphasize the openness of the RPG platform beyond its recent tactical focus. As we saw with 4th edition, over-engineering can be a bad thing. Instead of constantly bloating out the rules, the D&D guys can put more energy towards telling compelling and engaging stories while enriching their own campaign setting with wonder instead of concrete abilities and status modifiers. I'm sure there is much more complexity to come, but for a younger and more general audience, the Basic D&D rules are plenty to chew on as the rest of the books are released.

What do you think? I'm all ears when it comes to your own observations and takeaways.

Gamers United!

Cavin "Pox" DeJordy

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Gamers for Good: Giant Dragons and Their Critical Hit Against Leukemia

During all of my work and adventures in game and systems design, I stumbled upon one of my favorite places to go to exchange ideas and beta test some of my work: Giant Dragons Gamer Chat. Here, +Jonathan Henry+Cameron Corniuk, and friends have been hosting a get-together of game players and designers alike, networking its participants for RPGs via Google Hangouts or to just talk about what's going on in the world today and how we might adapt things in to our own gaming sessions or settings. One of their newest and most excellent initiatives is centered around helping our little Dragon, Siberius Corniuk, in his battle with cancer.

We all hope that the Critical Hit Against Leukemia will help to bring a little relief to the Corniuk family through sponsoring them via the Children's Organ Transplant Association for everything from drugs, to special dietary needs, to all the little things that pile up through the many hospital visits required by the family. WIth your help, we hope to give Si a +5 Shield of the Gaming Community. We need to reach the goal of 42 orders for any help to reach him, so tell your whole social network about Si's story and be a hero, just like the ones we all love to write about and play in our gaming sessions.

Gamers United!