For a writer, the dilemma is Faustian. Someone with a lot of money – say, Paramount – has a property they want to push into a new area – a roleplaying game, a novel – and they come to you for it. You’ll get paid decently, and your books will sell (that’s pretty much guaranteed by the big words on the cover) but people won’t be reading because of the story you labored to put together in those long, lonely nights, and they probably won’t notice your name in tiny print far below the picture of Captain Picard looking badass. It’s a dream – a steady check is a rare enough thing in freelance writing – and a writer’s nightmare.
Robin D. Laws is a prolific game designer and writer, with original designs including Feng Shui, Hero Wars and Rune, but he’s also a well traveled licensed-product gunslinger, with licensed work including the roleplaying game based on Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, the tabletop RPGs for Star Trek, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the City of Heroes novel The Freedom Phalanx. His position is unique, not quite famous enough to be stopped on the street, but so omnipresent his work – especially for such luminaries as Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, FASA and Atlas Games – has probably touched your gaming life somewhere along the way, and his extensive experience dabbling in other people’s stuff gives him a unique insight into the world of writing guns for hire.
Being creative and building a world of your own is hard enough, but working within someone else’s and playing by the rules he sets down is even harder. “Working on a project as a primary creator,” he says, citing Feng Shui and The Esoterrorists, “is clearly easier, in that you’re establishing the tone and content of the setting. Instead of asking yourself whether element ‘X’ or ‘Y’ matches the spirit of an existing property, you’re deciding what that tone and content will be. It requires somewhat less analysis before you get to the purely creative part of the process, and can be a more intuitive act of invention.”
By contrast, in dealing with a licensed property, you’re necessarily playing by someone else’s rules. No matter how much it would fit the story, the Enterprise is never going to sport 20-inch spinning rims and cruise down to the LBC. The secret, he says, “is to find a meeting point between the IP and whatever it is that keeps you personally inspired, so that you’re both honoring peoples’ expectations of the work and giving them something new and fresh that comes from the heart. … That’s also the hard part. But all writing is hard.”
In addition to doing what they’ve been hired to do, such as writing a novel or building a roleplaying game, writers working with a license have to deal with the licensors’ expectations and, in the case of properties like Star Trek, an audience that will tear their work to shreds looking for any flaws or inconsistencies, a dilemma with which Laws is familiar. “During my brief sojourn at Marvel, I observed the catch-22 facing writers hoping for unconditional love from the hardcore fan base,” he says. The problem they face is “longtime fans of a property are both jaded and resistant to change, which is a tough combination. If you do something similar to what has gone before, they yawn at the unoriginality of it all. If you push the property in a new direction, they greet you with confusion and indifference, because they want the comfort of the familiar.” What hardcore fans want is “to recapture the experience they had when they were young and discovering a character or world for the first time. By definition, that’s never going to happen again. So, you have to put your head down, serve the story you’re writing and believe in the value of your own work. Reader response is a useful benchmark, but if you rely on it for personal validation, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
As for the license holders, he says he hasn’t had many problems. “I’ve pretty much managed to dodge the bullet on that front.” However, some of his success has come down to good timing. “License holders go through phases,” he says, citing Paramount as an example: They had a reputation for being very tough on people working in the Star Trek universe, but during his time on the RPG, they “were very laid back and extremely helpful. More often, the problem is simply one of schedule: Roleplaying material is very dense, and an approvals person used to taking a few minutes to give a thumbs-up or down to a Spock keychain or Tribble plush toy suddenly finds himself confronted with tens of thousands of words full of numbers and rules and stuff. The newer and hotter the property, the harder it is for the approvals person to plough through [his] workload and get back to you with change requests.”
Working with a license seems like thankless work. Knowing something like the Star Trek RPG would probably be more popular than something he’d sunk his heart and soul into developing struck me as demoralizing. “If you find a way to both express the ethos of the IP and to bring something of yourself to the work, you bridge that fulfillment hurdle,” he said. “Working on an established property can put your name in front of a very wide audience. Only a tiny fraction of those people will follow you to other projects, but being read is much better than the alternative.” He admits “it’s easy to find ways to make yourself nuts, which I try to steer clear of by [maintaining] both a positive attitude and a sense of detachment. I can’t imagine spending my days thinking bitter thoughts because Star Trek is more popular than I am. Life is too short to devote yourself to absurd regrets. Better to try to live it as best you can, and keep struggling to produce your best work, whatever the circumstances.”
When it comes to picking projects, he says he loves writing fiction – “which is much harder to get right than roleplaying design” – and cites the Dying Earth RPG as one of his favorite projects, though, “my favorite project is whatever I’m working on at the moment you ask me, plus whatever’s coming next. Part of the job is finding a way to love what you’re working on,” which is the secret to success in any field.
Shannon Drake is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist and changed his name when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkwurdigeliebe.