Sometimes We Need Mediators

There’s a systemic problem in the hobby games business: most of us accidentally fall into business roles we neither expected nor  trained for. How many heads of RPG publishing studios come from a writing, art, or even an IT background, rather than a business one? A lot. And the backgrounds of individual creator-publishers and partnerships gets even more diverse.

How many have any formal business or management training? A few, but far fewer than there could be, which leads to a lot of problems when it comes to this business. Problems we aren’t trained to handle crop up between different participants in a project, whether it’s a publisher and creator unable to convey their issues to the other, or two partners at an impasse.

When this happens—and it will, if you spend enough time making stuff in a professional capacity—find someone to help you mediate. It’s possible that you can resolve your problems in a way that doesn’t cause bad blood down the road, but it’s just as possible that you burn out on each other.

Of course, the person who has the most power in the moment might not feel like mediating, because they hold the cards—whether that’s the publisher with the purse strings and power over releasing the work, or the creator who has yet to turn in the work. That position of power is part of the poison[1], because it creates unequal negotiation. A mediator evens the sides by looking at the needs and expectations of everyone involved, and proposes common ground and external understanding.

My early role on the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game was as a mediator between the lead designer and the publisher. Once I realized that’s why they hired me for—and they hadn’t realized that at the time either—I was able to get the project going again by listening to both sides, explaining the needs to the other in a neutral way, and proposing solutions that gave everyone something they needed. (In this case, getting the book back on schedule by finding ways to offload the massive work put on one person, who didn’t realize he could ask for that.)

Note: I’m not trained to mediate. I just happened to be the person who was there in the moment.

I got super lucky with working on Backstory Cards with Tim Rodriguez. We both have had some experience mediating for others in an ad hoc way, and so we were able to recognize things like “We should have a phone call, not do this over email” and “We need to both state what our needs and expectations are before criticizing the other.” But it could have (and nearly did once) go sour without a mediator, because we were able to put some rudimentary mediator training to use. (Which I’ve mentioned in the past.)

I’ve also quit on a publisher because we got to a serious impasse that a mediator couldn’t solve. Mediators aren’t healing salves. Sometimes a problem is just with the individuals involved and not the situation they’re in. Ideally, a mediator can also recognize that and propose a way to separate cleanly.

Still, if you’re struggling with a business partner, and you can’t seem to get over the impasse yourself, bring in a third party to help you—someone who is either a friend or collaborator with both of you or to neither of you, but definitely someone who can listen and propose solutions. It helps for each party to talk to each side individually, so that there’s frank discussion without interrupting or anger. Then listen to the mediator, and work together as three people trying to come to a solution.

If you’re in this business, you’re probably in this business with friends or with friends of friends. This sort of thing can help you stay friends and keep bridges unburnt. After all, people change, and the bridge you burn today might be one you wish you hadn’t burnt five years from now.[2]

– Ryan

[1] Alliteration for the win.

[2] I’m very much talking to past me here.