Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (pt 2)

This is part 2 in a multi-part series looking back on our RPG kickstarter, what went well, what we’d change, and so on. Part 1 is here. This time, we’re talking about how we worked to support diversity and inclusion, and tackle Lovecraft’s bigotry; and how we ran the Kickstarter campaign itself.

Diversity and inclusion

One of our goals for Lovecraftesque was to be an exemplar on diversity and inclusion, in as many ways as we could. Aside from this aligning with our politics generally, we specifically wanted to punch Lovecraft’s bigotry in the face – to make the kind of game he would have thoroughly disapproved of.

We did this in a number of different ways:

  • We directly addressed Lovecraft’s racism and the attitudes towards mental illness that are embodied in his writing and (to a much greater extent) Lovecraftian roleplaying games. We had written some basic guidance on this ourselves, but included as stretch goals more detailed work on this, which (once funded) we included in the game book.
  • We included in the art specification a requirement that the art be diverse, showcasing characters who are female, ethnically diverse, LGBTQ and disabled. We specified ratios for these characters to deliberately put white dudes in a minority in the book’s art. We also asked our artist to avoid casting these characters as weak, submissive or sex objects – although the nature of the game meant none of the characters were kicking ass, as all were potentially going to be victims of something nasty.
  • When advertising for artists we specifically asked PoC and LGBTQ folks to put themselves forward. When approaching individual artists and writers, we aimed to draw on a diverse pool, again keeping white dudes in a minority. We weren’t sacrificing quality to do this – there is a great pool of diverse talent out there.
  • We paid all of our contributors the same highly competitive rates – well above what we understand to be the industry average – because we’d like roleplaying design and writing to be something people get properly rewarded for, especially for people who don’t have the privilege of a rockstar reputation (i.e. most of us).
  • Although we didn’t exactly set out to do this, the diverse team we’d recruited was probably directly responsible for the very diverse set of scenarios that came with the game – from those with a fairly traditional Lovecraft-ey setup to stuff HPL would never have dreamed of.

To judge by the enraged response of some less reconstructed gamers, and those who affect to be tired of political correctness, we succeeded in branding the product as diverse, inclusive and tackling bigotry. I believe we did more than that – we embedded those values in the game itself.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: a priest stands amongst the pews of a church, comforting a visibly stressed man, in whose lap is a notebook filled with drawings of a scary figure. In the background, the same scary figure is just visible pressed up against a stained glass window.
Did I mention I love our art?

The Kickstarter

Thanks to Kickstarter preserving everything in aspic, you can go and look at our campaign page now if you like. We tried to hit all the information someone might want to understand the product, get enthused and feel confident in us. So: a clear pitch that highlights what the game feels like to play, what makes it different, and what makes it fun; a clear explanation of what you’ll get if you back; a simplified version of the game for free download, to try-before-you-buy; samples of art and layout work; a detailed explanation of how we planned to spend the money; and an explanation of the risks including how we planned to mitigate them. Plus a video, because apparently that’s a good thing to have (I personally am not at all motivated by videos, but statistically I’m in a minority apparently). We got feedback from friends and more experienced people on the page prior to the launch and made changes in response. You know, this stuff isn’t really rocket science, but you do need to check these boxes to maximise chance of success, and we did.

We worked hard to publicise the game from a relatively weak starting position. We had established a presence in Indie G+ circles, over a period of 2-3 years, so we weren’t exactly invisible. Even so, as far as I can tell, we weren’t well known, nor did we have (much of) a following. So we wanted to counteract the newcomer disadvantage.

One way that we did that was by approaching people who were better known than us for stretch goals. This conflicted a bit with another goal of ours, which was to have a very diverse stretch goal team. Early on we deliberately went for an approximately 50/50 split between people with star power and other designers – all of whom, to be clear, we had chosen primarily for their talent and the fact we admired them. We also leaned towards people who seemed interested in horror gaming. I think the presence of both of these groups will probably have helped to generate interest from a broader community than we could have reached ourselves. The “star” writers will have reassured people who like reliable industry quantities. In addition to helping fulfill our mission to create a diverse and inclusive Lovecraft game (see above), the broader set of writers probably attracted backers who like to see a diverse team and who were fans of the somewhat more niche indie game design community.

Another thing we did was to approach a wide range of podcasts and blogs. In retrospect, I wonder if we actually undersold ourselves here. Having seen a friend’s recent media engagement plan, it was significantly more wide-ranging than ours. Possibly we didn’t reach as broad a roleplaying audience as we might have. But that’s not to underplay the level of activity – and quite frankly it’s hard to imagine how we could have done much more than we did, given the stage of life we were at (tiny children limited what we could realistically do). We are enormously grateful to people who hosted us on their shows or interviewed us for their blog, and I strongly suspect that this had an impact on our support – though I can’t prove it. Also, talking to people about our game was fun!

On top of that, we managed to attract interest from some big-name websites including the Mary Sue, Boing Boing and (after the campaign) Geek & Sundry. It’s still a bit of a mystery how we did this, other than having the bare-faced cheek to ask. I suspect the concept of a Lovecraft game that tackles diversity and inclusivity head-on helped. With that said, I saw precious little evidence in our referral data that these websites had an impact on our sales. We had google analytics set up on our kickstarter page, showing where people viewing the page had come from, together with kickstarter’s own analytics saying where our actual backers came from. So for example, Boing Boing got us a whopping 600 website referrals over the course of the campaign – but to judge from Kickstarter’s analytics, zero backers. On the other hand, the Mary Sue got us 160 views and 17 backers. These media splashes widened our reach beyond our wildest dreams, and probably did get us some backers (after all, some may have come back to the page later on, rather than being directly referred by an article). But it didn’t generate the deluge you might imagine, perhaps because they mainly extended our reach to people who weren’t that interested in roleplaying games – and so less likely to actually buy a copy.

While we’re on the subject of where backers came from… where did they come from, anyway? About 250 of our backers had got there from Kickstarter itself: the search page, the “discovery” pages, other campaigns, and so on. That’s nearly half our backers. We also got a lot from G+ and Facebook; some of these will have been friends, but not all. Again, not knowing if people were coming back having seen the campaign through a link but then looked it up later on, means we can’t be confident how they originally found out about the project.

We aimed for a steady flow of activity during the campaign, including stretch goal announcements, interviews and so on. We tried to strike a balance between regular updates, keeping things ticking over, and not overloading our backers (and social media feeds) with constant Lovecraftesque stuff. Again, this didn’t really have a visible impact on our stats, which conformed closely to the standard pattern, i.e. a big rush at the start, a lot of people jumping on at the end, and a pretty steady (low) rate of uptake in between. Again, we’re enormously grateful to everyone to shared our campaign and contributed to the buzz by talking about it, and I assume it had some impact. But nothing we did showed up in our stats particularly.

So… did any of this publicity work help? I mean, in a way it must have. Clearly, if you don’t talk about your game, nobody will know about it, so nobody will buy it. But despite collecting lots of data, there is very little evidence on which of this activity had an impact, and which didn’t. So I can’t say we really learned much, other than that the campaign obviously succeeded, so we got something right.

One thing we did not do is advertise. I’ve noticed recently some Kickstarters showing up as adverts in my Facebook feed. And I know at least one designer who has had some pretty good sales figures (not on Kickstarter) from advertising their RPG that way. We did consider doing this, but decided that spending a non-existent budget on advertising probably wasn’t the best plan. But I do wonder, having seen other people’s success, whether this was a mistake. It’s certainly something we’ll consider for the future.

One final interesting thing to ponder is the grabbiness of the game. People say that you can sell roleplayers anything with Cthulhu on it. We were in the weird position of effectively saying “Come and buy our Cthulhu game! Surprise, it doesn’t have Cthulhu in it, and it doesn’t work like a normal Cthulhu RPG, and we spend a big chunk of the text criticising and addressing HPL’s bigotry.” We know that at least a few people bought the game having not looked beyond the Lovecraftian brand (though we were excruciatingly clear on the campaign page what we were selling) and were then disappointed when they got the product. We could equally conjecture that some people were put off by the Lovecraftian brand, not having registered the ways that the game addressed the things that give Lovecraft a bad name. Still other people may have been drawn in by Cthulhu and not backed us when they saw what the game was really about.

In the end, we just don’t know how these things interacted. We had a very successful first Kickstarter, and we’re delighted by that.

In part 3, we’ll look at how we delivered our successfully funded kickstarter.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective

Just over 2 years ago, we launched the Lovecraftesque kickstarter. If you didn’t follow it at the time, it was a success – we raised £15000, over triple our funding goal. As we’re slowly moving towards a position where we might kickstart some more games[*], it seems timely to talk a bit about what went well, and what went less well.

It turns out there’s quite a lot to say, so this is part one in a multi-part series. Part two is here.

Design phase

We started writing the game a good year before the kickstarter. We had a clear concept, and clear design goals.

We were very fortunate to get a lot of interest from potential playtesters, many of whom actually playtested the game. We asked clear, focused playtest questions. As a result, we got great feedback which allowed us to refine and streamline the game. I think this is visible in the quality of the design.

We already had a completed draft ready when we launched the kickstarter. I suspect that knowing the game was written was a selling point, for a debut project. It also meant that we had one less thing to worry about in the delivery phase.

Planning phase – printing and shipping costs

We put a great deal of thought into planning the kickstarter.

We identified potential printers, and took quotes from a few.  We plumped for delivery through Drivethru‘s printer, Lightning Source aka Ingram Spark. (We went direct to the printer rather than through Drivethru because the prices were slightly lower.) We’ve been delighted by the quality of the books they produced, and the price was reasonable – albeit a lot higher than if we had done a print run. They ship directly to customers, which is keeps things simple for us logistically.

In retrospect, however, we may have got this wrong. We now know that we could have got a significantly lower price per unit than we actually got if we had gone with a print run instead of POD. The sample of non-POD printers we looked at didn’t appear competitive, but perhaps our sample was too small, or maybe we should have asked for recommendations. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea; for smaller numbers, which is what we had anticipated, Print On Demand makes a lot of sense. It reduced our exposure to the risks entailed by up-front expenditure. It allowed us to produce as many copies as we wanted after the Kickstarter, because we didn’t have to decide on a number of copies in advance. However, knowing what we know now, we probably could have saved £1000s with a print run. This would be particularly true if we had gone for a single format rather than offering both softcover and hardcover.

Specifically: we priced our initial funding goal for just over 100 physical copies. In practice, we funded at triple our goal, including 400 physical copies. But perhaps more importantly, we underestimated the number of copies we might sell after the campaign. As of now, we’ve sold 1100 copies, and are still selling a steady stream. That’s easily enough for a print run. This would have entailed an up-front cost. But the cost reduction per unit (excluding shipping) would have been huge, at around a £5 saving per unit. A print run of 1500 would not have been much more expensive than producing 400 copies by POD. This excludes shipping, so may overestimate the benefits of a print run: but the lesson is that you should think ahead and at least consider whether a print run might work out better for you.

On which subject: the huge plus of using Lightning Source was that their shipping costs were very, very low. We had done our research and got the message: shipping can be expensive, especially international shipping. Lightning Source delivered to anywhere in the world (with a very small number of exceptions) for about £2-3. If we had a comparably successful product in future, this would be the one factor that might decide in favour of POD over a print run.

Planning phase – art and layout costs

For both art and layout, we researched and selected a shortlist of 3-4 individuals to approach for a quote, based on work they’d done before. We actively solicited a diverse pool of artists to shortlist from – something I’ll cover in more detail later on. For layout artists, this was based on looking at games we owned; for illustrators, we looked at the artist’s online portfolio. We selected partly based on price, and partly based on how much we liked the artist’s work. They were all great, or we wouldn’t have looked at them. We are really happy with the work our artists did.

One of the illustrations for Lovecraftesque: three children and their dog swim in a deep blue waterhole. A massive alien eye lurks at the very bottom of the picture.
I love commissioning art SO MUCH.

We set specific goals for book length, and number of illustrations, for our basic funding goal and each of our stretch goals. took into account the extra printing costs that this would mean, and got specific quotes for each goal, including for extra illustrations, scenarios and so on, from our artists, so that we knew in advance exactly how much we would be paying, even for stretch goals that we hadn’t set at the start of the project.

Planning phase – other stuff

We had looked at a dozen other (completed) RPG kickstarters of a range of types, to get an idea of what the likely distribution of rewards chosen would be. We had a good idea of what percentage would be PDF-only, softcover, hardcover and so on: and these predictions were largely right. This helped us to ensure we were setting the correct funding goal, because the amount of money you keep varies by reward level (simply put, PDF has no print or shipping costs, so you keep 100% of the money, while physical copies vary in their costs).

We sought advice and views from lots of people in the run-up to the campaign. The biggest source of advice was Google Plus, where people generously gave their views on a wide range of issues we were worrying about – including many experienced people sharing their knowledge of how to run a kickstarter. We were super-grateful for all the advice we got, which hugely enhanced the research we ourselves had done.

We approached a handful of designers we knew and admired to write scenarios and essays for our stretch goals. We were gratified by the response – almost all said yes. We had set ourselves a goal to offer rates that would be significantly above the market rate for RPG writing, which may have been a factor in people accepting work from a couple of randos they’d never heard of. We set a word limit for our stretch goal materials, and stuck very closely to it, which meant that again, we knew in advance how much we would be paying for this work.

Finally, we had a contingency fund of 10% of our total funds raised, to cover stuff that might go wrong. This was a very good decision that we took early on, and – by fluke – we spent it almost exactly. (I’ll mention here that we’d planned to give an equal share of any remaining contingency money to ourselves and our artists. It didn’t happen, because there was nothing left, but we still think it was a pretty good idea, and will likely take the same approach in future campaigns.)

Next: How we ran the campaign itself – and how we supported diversity and inclusion.

[*] Yes, plural.

Some thoughts about GMless gaming

I’m a big fan of what is sometimes called GMless[1][2] gaming. I get things from it that I don’t get from GM’d gaming (whether I’m GMing or not). But there are also problems I or others in my group have experienced with GMless games, sometimes bad enough that it makes the experience unenjoyable. I’m going to use this post to talk about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and some things I like to do in my GMless design to mitigate the bad stuff.

This is the good shit

So why do I like GMless gaming? The main reason is simply that I love focusing in on one character, creating and developing them, advocating for them and pushing them along whatever journey they turn out to be on; but I also love getting my hands dirty creating and developing a world and situations, using those situations to create problems and opportunities for others and portraying more than one character. Some GM’d games allow me a bit of both[3], but it’s unusual for a GM’d game to scratch both itches at once. By contrast my best GMless experiences have given me both in spades. It’s a particular issue for campaign play, where I’m effectively committing to stay in one role for a long time – this nearly always leads to frustration that I can’t switch roles.[4]

There’s more, though! A big part of the fun of roleplaying, for me, is when I create something or do something and then others input to that in unexpected ways, and my own creation ends up going somewhere I couldn’t have planned or better yet boomeranging back and hitting me in the face. And while this does happen in GM’d games – everything the GM says or does can prompt unexpected action by a player, and vice versa – with GMless games I can literally create something and have someone else run off with it and make it part of something I had nothing to do with. A character I created could end up played by someone else, could literally hit my character in the face. The potential for creative interaction in a GMless game is particularly rich.[5]

Issues with GM’d play

There’s also an issue that can arise with GM’d play where the fact of one person having a superior position in terms of information and mechanical power leads to the rest of the players becoming kind of passive. At the extreme, it can lead to a sort of spoon feeding, where the GM is responsible for all the fun, and the players are only there to react to what they create. Many GM’d games have tried to break out of this in various ways (see footnote 3 below for examples) but it is devilishly difficult to create the mindset of active contribution once it sets in. In fact, it can be extremely difficult to get a group into GMless gaming, once they’ve got into this mindset – something I’ll discuss later.

Indeed, GM’d play can create a lot of pressure for the Chosen One who must turn up every week with ideas and energy. There’s no rest for them. A player can sit back and be a bit passive on a given session (or even over a whole campaign, if they’re so inclined). As long as they haven’t ended up in the role of group leader (which has some similar issues), they can engage or coast and the game mostly copes. This can be a plus for the individual and for the group, since the game doesn’t fall over if one person is wiped out. But by contrast if the GM is exhausted or not in the mood (or worse, burned out), the game cannot proceed. It dies. So many games have met this fate – I can’t imagine anyone who has played a GM’d game hasn’t experienced it. GMless play carries risks of its own in this regard (see below) but it doesn’t rely on one person to be awesome all the time.

Problems with GMless play

Alright, that’s my two big positives for GMless gaming, and my two big negatives for GM’d gaming. But I’ve said that I have had problems with GMless too – let’s talk about those. Let me say right now that some of these issues aren’t exactly new blinding insights, and there’s lots of tools out there for dealing with them, which I’ll talk about as we go.

Direction, energy and structure

There’s a big one around direction, energy and structure. Sometimes in the absence of a GM there’s nothing to stop the game kind of meandering or stalling. There’s several ways this can happen. One is on a scene-by-scene basis, where nobody really has an idea for what a scene should be “about” or where it’s going, and so it just fizzles. But then, on a story level, a bunch of energetic scenes may not really add up to much, and the overall arc of the game becomes frustrating or boring. This is I think a particular problem if a group includes players who aren’t used to being in a GM-like role, who tend to play passively and not want to push things in any given direction.

On the other hand, the opposite can happen. One person might be so pushy or definite in their ideas that they take over every scene and become de facto GM. Or two or more people may be trying to do stuff at the same time, creating a different type of lack of direction. And one way that this can spill over in the opposite direction is where people feel the only way to effectively contribute to the game is to fire exciting things at each other, in an escalating pattern that is sometimes called Going Gonzo.

Direction, energy and structure problems generally come from two things: a lack of common creative ideas, and a lack of structure in the game design itself. This can easily lead to meandering or chaotic play, and if players aren’t listening to each other and simply pushing their own ideas, it can also lead down the path of Gonzo. Fortunately there’s lots of approaches to help deal with this:

  • For the group, discussing and agreeing what the game might be about before the game, and perhaps during as well. Things like Microscope’s palette are simple tools to get yourselves on the same page.[6] Caerllion introduces the neat idea of a Lodestone which tells everyone broadly what the story is going to focus on.
  • For the individual, actively listening to others’ contributions and responding to them, as opposed to waiting for them to guide the scene to wherever they might be headed or trying to jump in and provide some impetus of your own.
  • For the designer, avoiding an entirely freeform approach to the game’s design, but helping to provide nudges towards the particular kind of play you want to see in your game. This can take many forms: you can create specific types of scene which help the players to focus on a particular kind of action; you can structure the overall arc of the game; you can provide prompt lists so people don’t draw a blank; you can mechanise the way that players contribute, constraining what they can do; and more besides. What you’re trying to do here is make sure that nobody comes to a scene without a clear focus, and perhaps give them a menu of approaches to reduce the risk of drawing a blank and reinforce the tone of the game.
  • (When it comes to introducing structure you have to be careful, of course, that you don’t remove all the interest from the game. There has to be player input to the action, else why play at all? The best structured games exert a light touch and leave a lot of undefined space where player creativity steps in.)
  • A particular approach I’m fond of is to explicitly call out who is responsible for the direction of a particular scene. I’m not saying someone has an idea and then railroads everyone else into following it (though you could do that). But in every scene someone – mandated by the rules – is responsible for framing a difficult situation, or introducing adversity, or preceding the scene with a question which everyone is trying to answer, or similar. This avoids diffusion of responsibility and reduces the risk of meandering; and as long as this responsibility rotates, it can help prevent one person taking over.

Mysteries, secrecy and black boxes

By the way, a particular subset of direction issues arises from the Black Hole problem, where someone creates a mystery or black box of some sort and then neglects to resolve it. For example, I introduce a character who is clearly up to something, but I refuse to make it clear what that something is and seem to be hoping someone else will make the decision for me. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t do this, and not doing it needs to be a part of every GMless game’s guidance. It can be ok to introduce something and ask someone else to define it for you, but this does generally require you to explicitly ask them to do so, not simply expect them to guess that you’re hoping they’ll do it. So, it’s ok to have a mysterious stranger carrying a black box – but then you either need to decide what’s in it and make that true, or ask someone else what’s in it and be guided by what they say.

Related to the above is the general problem of secrecy. If I want to play a game with a mystery in it, one that is genuinely mysterious, it necessary to have a person who owns that mystery and secretly knows what’s really going on? You might think so, because otherwise two people with conflicting ideas might unknowingly undermine each other, and anyway how can something be really mysterious unless I have no part in defining that mystery? Having ownership of mysteries is not a bad idea – and it doesn’t necessarily require a GM, you could just make it clear when you introduce your black box that it’s yours, you know what’s in it, and everyone else should defer to you in matters black box-related. But it is possible to have a mystery that nobody owns without it not being mysterious. Lovecraftesque does this – at the end of every scene, the players individually and secretly “leap to conclusions” about what happened in the scene, so that everyone has their own pet theory about what’s in any black boxes that may have been introduced. And because only one person is Narrator at one time in Lovecraftesque, there will always be moment-to-moment consistency about what the black box seems to be. This does require you to pay attention in every scene, so that your pet theory remains consistent with everything that has happened! But I would argue that’s a good thing.

Role hopping

Another problem which seems to be more major for some people than for others is the issue of hopping between roles, so that you feel a lack of connection or commitment to any one of them. A particularly important subset of this is a feeling of not being able to “immerse” in a character, because you’re too busy trying to think about things outside of them. It seems as though there can be a conflict of interest – and a difference of mental attitude – between advocating for one character and guiding the “story”[7] or the broader elements of the game world, which can prevent people from really getting into either one.

This, it seems to me, is a challenge that hasn’t quite been answered by any one game as yet. However the approach we took with Lovecraftesque, and which I’m taking with my game Flotsam, is to avoid it by making role changes much more structured and well delineated. In other words, I don’t ask you to play your character and be the GM at the same time – I ask you to do both roles, but at different times. In this way you can dedicate yourself to one job at a time. Flotsam attempts to make this flexible, by giving you permission to step outside your character and make GM-like contributions, but also making sure there’s nearly always at least one person who is on point as GM, who will deal with any GM-like contributions when they’re needed, so that you have permission not to do it when you’re focusing on your character. Flotsam is being playtested at the moment, so it remains to be seen how successful I’ve been there. Another possible approach to mitigate the problem is to make parts of the game off-limits to GMly intervention, safe spaces for “pure” in character interaction where you can focus on being your character. Indeed, When the Dark is Gone applies such an approach to an entire game (I suspect it may also be a common approach in LARP, where GM interventions pose other problems).

Too much like hard work

A final problem to mention is the “everyone awesome, all the time” problem. The problem with everyone being GM is that the issue I identified earlier on, of constant pressure on the GM, applies to everyone. I’m expected to contribute to every scene, I have to be always creatively ready to pick up what others create and build on it. This can be exhilarating! It can also be exhausting. And it means if anyone comes to the game not really ready to contribute, then the game may stall. If a lot of the group are tired or feeling passive, then it can start to feel like a GM’d game where one person ends up taking the reins. It also can be off-putting for many groups who aren’t used to the pressure of being switched on for a whole session, or simply don’t want to have to be. This may explain why a lot of GMless games are designed for one-shot play: short, intense, and over before you get too tired.

I think this last is chiefly a problem for us game designers. We need to find ways to design our games that allow people to step back and take a break. Don’t create a setup where everyone is always on. (Or maybe do, but then make it a one-shot and/or encourage breaks.) You can do this by not having a fixed requirement on who is involved in a scene, so that those with the energy pick it up and get involved, while those who are tired spectate; or you can do it by having a fixed requirement by making sure that it rotates around, leaving everyone with quiet periods they can just watch and listen. Again, in Flotsam I’m trying to design a system that lets people switch in and out in a fairly flexible way, choosing how actively they want to be involved – we’ll see how well it works in practice.

Final thoughts

I’ll just finish off by saying that a lot of these problems can be solved on a group-by-group basis through a culture of listening, give and take, common ideas about what’s fun and so forth. Some groups may be so good at this that these problems don’t even arise. That’s great – but not every group has this, and it can be challenging to develop such a culture. As a game designer I want to help everyone to get a good experience from my games by providing tools which reduce these problems regardless of what group they’re in.

Ok! That was long. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences or approaches to cracking some of these problems. Please do give your views in comments.


[1] “GMless” is sometimes replaced by the word “GMful”, which I believe to be interchangeable with “GMless”, and merely a way of emphasising that in a GMless game, everyone gets to be GM. I have also seen “GMful” used to mean a game where the GM role exists but different people occupy it at different times.

[2] As far as I’m concerned, any game that doesn’t have a single person who has primary responsibility for describing the world, playing the bulk of the characters (except for the “player characters”) and generating any adversity required for the game, is at least partly GMless. Sometimes that’s because the role exists but rotates, sometimes it’s broken down or structured and handed out amongst the group, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist.

[3] Games like FATE have mechanics that give me temporary ability to narrate stuff outside my character, PBTA games usually include a bit of co-authorship for the world in the form of question-asking, and arguably most GM’d games at least give you some creative input on stuff outside your character such as key NPCs connected to them.

[4] GM burnout being a good example – though that is also caused by the pressure that a highly GM-led gaming approach tends to heap on the GM.

[5] There’s a whole set of ways in GM’d gaming where you can create stuff that literally never interacts with anyone else. The secret backstory nobody ever finds out about. The mega-plot that nobody knew was happening. Even the notorious cases where the plot is a railroad, with the players forming a passive audience to it. I’m not going to say this can’t happen in GMless gaming, but the whole setup makes it pretty obvious to all concerned that if you didn’t say it out loud, it hasn’t happened yet, so secret plot and backstories could get nixed by someone else any time; and railroading is essentially impossible. Good!

[6] These same tools are useful for ensuring a consistent genre and tone as well – which can potentially be a problem, but in my experience much easier to solve.

[7] I put “story” in quotes there because I don’t buy into the often-promulgated idea that GMless games mean everyone just focuses on the story and everything else is secondary. This is not how I play GMless games at all! It is true that I sometimes take individual decisions differently “for the good of the story” but it’s very much not the main approach. I dedicate myself to the fictional situation and push it forward, while actively trying to get my contributions to engage with what others are doing, and I don’t particularly worry about “is this making a good story”. For me, story is something that doesn’t happen in any given decision or moment, and it’s something that one only really needs to pay attention to when things are going wrong.

The power of asking

Over at Department V, Smiorgan writes about Everway’s three methods to decide a conflict: Karma, drama and llama.

Smiorgan discusses the issue of who decides what the plot should be (in order to rule in accordance with drama), and how randomness (fortune) can introduce something new and unpredictable.

I mostly want to talk about the latter here. It’s a ubiquitous way to keep the game unpredictable: Pick up some dice and let fate decide what happens. An observation I make is that this is very often restricted to determining “can I do X”, which is in itself only one of the interesting things one needs to decide during a roleplaying game, but that’s a topic for another day. What I want to talk about here is an alternative approach to introducing unpredictability – one which I am increasingly favouring in my game design.

Here I am going to refer to the method as asking. More broadly, it is about giving away decision-making power to someone else. You see, your decisions as GM (or a player, for that matter) may be based on drama or karma or something else entirely, but to you they can seem predictable. You have perhaps already thought about what the needs of the story are, or what the demands of the fictional situation are, so making that decision can seem predictable to you.

So an obvious way to get the sense of unpredictability for as many people as possible is to spread those decisions around. I’m not talking about discussion and consensus; in many ways that feels like the most predictable method of all for resolving things. I’m talking about varying who makes the decisions.

In a traditional GM-and-players game, you get this a bit. The GM takes decisions about the NPCs, the world, and often some conflict resolution. so they provide a sense of unpredictability to the other players. And it’s often remarked by GMs how the players’ surprising actions make the game exciting and unpredictable. But it’s clear that the GM has much broader scope for making decisions, and it is they who provide the chief source of unpredictability outside of the dice: the question is not “what will happen”, but “what will the GM decide”.

What I’m increasingly finding is that having all the players involved in those GM decisions, by making individual calls, creates a fantastic sense of unpredictability for everyone. No one person has their hand on the tiller, so the boat goes where it will.

I’ve called it asking, because a very straightforward way to make it happen is by asking questions to another player. Instead of it being either the dice or the GM who decides what happens next, it’s another person whose mind you can’t read. And even the person you ask, moments ago, didn’t know what the question would be or that they would be answering it.

Similarly though, rotating roles (as seen in Microscope and Lovecraftesque, for example) ensures that the story isn’t moving in a straight line. Each person guides it a bit, and no one person could have forseen where it would go. In effect, here, it’s the system doing the asking, but instead of always asking the same person, it’s a different person every time.

It’s important to emphasise this is about one person deciding. If you turn to group discussion for this, you quickly find that you’re relying on negotiation, social dynamics and (often) a rather turgid laying out of the reasons for and against each course of action. This is far from unpredictable.

This is also the method that lies behind improv-based approaches to GMless roleplaying. Each person leaps forward and inserts their ideas into the story higgledy piggledy, like having a jam session. But what improv approaches tend to leave space for a small number of people (maybe just one) to dominate the game, subtly or not-so-subtly steering things so that they are not so much a product of the group as the product of an organising committee. This is why games like Lovecraftesque and Microscope impose a no-discussion rule, forcing every player to contribute to the flow of the game.

So there you go – karma, drama, llama and banana, I guess.

Game feedback: different kinds

I was listening to one of the Metatopia panelcasts from last year, and the panelists[*] mentioned that there are different types of feedback and wouldn’t it be nice to have a way to say what kind of feedback you wanted. Well, I agree, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to write about. So here goes.

Before I start, let me say that when I send my games out for feedback (playtesting, normally) I always provide a list of specific questions. This is partly to ensure that specific things I’m wondering about get covered; it’s partly to avoid feedback I’ll find unhelpful; and it’s partly to provide a structure to help people think about the play experience. But anyway. Let’s talk through different kinds of feedback.

  1. Drafting feedback. This includes identifying spelling and grammar errors, as well as areas where language might not be as clear as it could be. You might want this when your game is in its final draft form. You probably won’t find it that useful before that point, because you’ll be redrafting anyway.
  2. Comprehension feedback. This is a bit like drafting feedback, but a bit higher level. It’s asking whether there are aspects of the rules that are confusing. Can you understand the game? This might be particularly useful for an early draft read-through. I normally check on it with playtesting as well.
  3. Experiential feedback. What did the game feel like to play? Was it humorous or scary? Was a particular mechanic hard work? Did you get emotionally invested in your character? This is generally a key component of playtesting for me. I want to create a game that feels a particular way, and so I need you to tell me what it felt like to play it. That’s much less useful if you’re just testing out a mechanic in isolation, though. You also might not need it so much if, say, you’ve already playtested the game quite a bit and you’re just testing a modification to the original design.
  4. Mechanical feedback. What happened, mechanically? Did you seem to crit fail constantly? Was there an exploit where you could build up unlimited bennies? Did some mechanics just never get used? Did anything break down at the table? You’ll probably want this sort of feedback at some point in playtesting, unless your game is super freeform. Some people like to playtest mechanics individually, outside the context of a full session. It’s not something I do, but worth considering.
  5. Design advice. It is often said that it is very annoying when people try to design your game for you through their feedback. And generally, I do agree with that. But, sometimes that may be exactly what you want: you know something isn’t working in your game, and you want suggestions on what to do about it.

So, when you’re asking for feedback on your game, be clear which kind(s) of feedback you’re looking for and, where appropriate, which kinds you aren’t looking for. I would add that you can, and probably should, say which specific bits of your game you are asking for feedback on. If there’s a particular mechanic or aspect of play you want to hear about, say so! Even if there isn’t one particular aspect, you might want to break your game down into specific areas you want covered.

Of course, it bears noting that you might not always realise that you need feedback on something. Maybe you think your mechanics are working perfectly and you don’t need feedback on them. If a playtest reveals they broke down completely, I’d hope my playtesters would tell me that, even if I was only asking for experiential feedback.

I hope that’s useful. I’ve probably missed something. Comments welcome!

[*] I don’t know exactly who said it. Panelists included Emily Care-Boss, Julia Ellingboe, Avonelle Wing, Shoshana Kessock and Amanda Valentine.

Oi, rules, get out the way!

A long time ago, in a blog post, Vincent Baker wrote about mechanics which are driven by the game fiction, and mechanics which aren’t. He used some fancy diagrams to make the point, but I think it’s not much more complicated than that. His point (or at least a point that he made) was that if your mechanics aren’t, on some level, driven by the fiction, then you end up ignoring the fiction.

Why is this? I think it’s reasonably straightforward. If the game’s mechanics can manage quite well without the fiction, the fiction becomes an inconvenience. You can’t have your hit roll until you’ve described your attack. You can’t have your damage roll until you’ve described some gore. The description makes no difference to anything, and you may well not be that interested in detailed descriptions of combat. You want to skip to the stuff that actually matters, the hit roll and the damage roll. And so, with the best will in the world, it becomes tempting to skip over, you know, the actual roleplaying. And as your descriptions become more perfunctory, they seem ever more unnecessary, the colour drains from your combat (or investigation, or whatever mechanic it might be) in favour of lifeless dice rolling.

(Incidentally, I’m not talking about mechanics that model the fiction. Nice probability curves and mechanics broken down in a way that maps onto the fictional “reality” are not relevant here. I’m not against them. But what I’m talking about is mechanics that engage because of circumstances somebody narrated, and which are sensitive to the detail of that narration.)

Once I’d seen the phenomenon Baker describes, I could not unsee it. Everywhere I looked were designs which violated the “fiction first” principle, where a conscious effort is required to keep describing, at least when the game’s mechanics are engaged. And, conversely, many an hour of dull die-rolling seemed explicable, even inevitable, given the rules of the games I had been playing.

To bring this back to the title, many roleplayers would prefer that the rules just “get out of the way”. And I think Baker’s analysis is highly relevant to understanding why. When your mechanics suck the colour out of your roleplaying in this way, every time you find yourself in a mechanics-free scene, everything will seem that much more vibrant. You have no choice but to describe, because the mechanics aren’t there to pick things up; and the fiction no longer seems a burden, because it isn’t getting in the way of your resolution system. In the absence of those mechanics, that resolution system will probably be GM fiat or collective agreement, probably based on what is plausible in the fiction, making description key.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the entirety of mechanics-averse play is down to a lack of “fiction first” in the rules. A significant amount of it is down to clunky, cumbersome mechanics, cognitive load and tedious book-keeping, for example. But it is certainly a part of it. When the fictional situation drives the mechanics, when fictional logic is put at the centre of the rules, this problem falls away. And so, whenever I design a mechanic, I always look at it through this prism, watchful for anything that might tear the players away from the fiction.

Crowdfunding calculator

In the run up to our planned Kickstarter of Lovecraftesque, I’ve been busily crunching numbers to make sure that the whole thing will fly financially. All of our figures have gone into a spreadsheet, where I can easily update the costs as I get better information, and tweak the prices of the rewards to reflect those costs. In turn the spreadsheet works out how much we need to ask for.

Anyway, having gone to the effort of creating it, it seemed like other people might find it useful. If you give it basic information about your crowdfunding campaign (like reward levels, costs and so on), it will work out your reward levels for you.

I’ve included instructions on how to use it (at the top and in comments on the relevant cells). In brief: fill in the yellow bits and then read off the information in the green bits.

Crowdfunding calculator

Crowdfunding calculator

EU VAT for indie roleplaying publishers

I first noticed the changes to EU VAT when they started being shared all over my social meejas around about December last year. Everyone was all doomy about it. It didn’t seem that relevant to me at the time, partly because I don’t sell digital stuff on the internet, and I suppose mostly because I assumed it would blow over.

It hasn’t blown over, and now I’m contemplating selling digital stuff on the internet. So I’ve been doing some research into this. For the uninitiated, it basically means that anyone, anywhere in the world who sells digital products or services to customers in the EU is liable to pay VAT at the local rate to the member state where the customer lives. Phew! That’s a lot of people. And in due course – scheduled for 2016 – it will apply to physical goods too, though one might hope they’ll make some improvements to this confusing and opaque law in the interim.

I have seen some people, mostly Americans I think, rolling their eyes and saying “how do you plan to enforce that”. Well, I wouldn’t want to put my business in the position of breaking the law in the EU, even if I was in America; but as it happens I am also in the EU, so that makes it… pretty easy to enforce, actually.

Anyway: my research is, essentially, a bit of googling, a fair bit of looking at the website of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), and an email conversation with same. HMRC’s answers can probably be considered as definitive as it gets at this point, for UK businesses at least, and probably for everyone.

And before I go any further: I’m not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. I am not responsible if you mess this up.

Why is this so hard?

Well for one, it’s not that easy to determine where your customer is. You’re selling them digital goods, so it isn’t like you can easily tell by looking at them. And the VAT rate is different in different EU Member States, so it’s pretty much easy to mess this up.

The HMRC online guide to the new rules says that except in some weirdly specific circumstances (it’s along the lines of, if the customer is buying through their mobile bought from country A while flying in a plane from country B to country C but is in the airspace of country D when the sale is made…) then you have to “obtain and keep 2 pieces of non-contradictory information to support and evidence the member state where the customer is normally located.”

And, “Examples of the type of supporting evidence that tax authorities will accept include:

  • the billing address of the customer
  • the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the device used by the customer
  • customer’s bank details
  • the country code of SIM card used by the customer
  • the location of the customer’s fixed land line through which the service is supplied
  • other commercially relevant information (for example, product coding information which electronically links the sale to a particular jurisdiction)”

So, that might be easy or difficult, depending on how you handle your payments and so forth. Administratively, it’s definitely not going to be easy for anyone who has an appreciable number of EU sales.

Oh, and you’re required by law to include the correct rate of VAT in your prices, too. In theory that means you need to get the above bits of information in advance of sale and then work out the correct VAT and include it in your price which, let’s forget about that. I can’t see any reason why you can’t just quote a blanket price to all customers and say “if you’re in the EU, we’ll pay the VAT”, but then you have a tricky balancing act to set a price which ensures you can afford to pay the VAT, when you won’t know how many customers you’re going to get from each country; plus you’ll be marking up your prices for non-EU customers to make sure you have the funds to pay VAT for the EU customers.

I don’t like the sound of this! What can I do about it?

There’s a lot of ways you might legally avoid having to worry about all this.

First off, if you’re selling bundled products, and the digital product is only “ancillary” to the main product, then you don’t have to pay, at least as long as the law only applies to digital stuff. But you have to be careful, because the definition of when a component in a bundle is ancillary and when it’s part of the main thing you’re selling, doesn’t seem to exist. My guess is that a hard copy RPG sold with a PDF version counts as primarily a physical product, but I wasn’t able to get a straight answer out of HMRC so I’m not 100% confident.

There’s a sort of loop-hole in the law – I say loop-hole, it seems to have been deliberately designed this way to catch the likes of Amazon but miss smaller operations – which says that if your product isn’t delivered automatically then you don’t have to pay VAT. Emailling an attachment doesn’t count as delivering automatically. Emailling a link to a download site does. I can’t really see the logic, but that seems to be the rule. Still, you probably won’t want to manually email attachments to large numbers of people if you can help it. Also, you may want to check up on your email providers policies, as some email providers (e.g. gmail, or so I’m told) blacklist people as spammers who send too many such emails.

What about selling through a third party? Or crowdfunding?

A third way to get around the tax is if there is an intermediary in your sales process. This is crucial for a lot of roleplaying games, because they are frequently sold through online platforms such as DriveThruRPG, Indie Press Revolution, or through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. I wasn’t clear on whether digital products sold through such a platform would be subject to the EU VAT rules, so I asked HMRC. I am going to quote their reply in full:

“If the platform operator identifies you as the seller but sets the general terms and conditions, or authorises payment, or handles delivery/download of the digital service [my emphasis], the platform is considered to be supplying the consumer. They are therefore responsible for accounting for the VAT payment that is charged to the consumer.”

I think that’s pretty clear. In the case of sites like DrivethruRPG and Indie Press Revolution, they will handle the payment and delivery of the digital service, so they are liable to pay the correct rate of VAT. In the case of sites like Kickstarter, they set the general terms and conditions and authorise payment, so they are liable to pay the correct rate of VAT.

[edited to add:] The HMRC website also has this to say ”

If you operate a digital platform through which third parties sell e-services you are liable to account for the VAT on those sales unless every one of the following conditions are met:

  • the digital platform and everyone else involved in the supply must identify who the supplier is in their contractual arrangements
  • the invoice, bill or sales receipt must identify that supplier and the service supplied
  • the digital platform must not authorise the charge to the consumer
  • the digital platform must not authorise the delivery
  • the digital platform must not set the general terms and conditions of the sale”

Again, this seems pretty clear to me. [/edit]

Kickstarter have specifically said that they will not do this, and that the campaign promoters are responsible for dealing with EU VAT. However, I think HMRC’s advice makes it pretty clear that they are wrong about that. This may not be particularly good news: after all Kickstarter is a big enough target that at some point someone may go after them for the VAT they have said they won’t pay. VAT is generally paid at around 20-25%, so the bill could be pretty big. If I were Kickstarter I think I’d be thinking pretty hard about this. But HMRC’s advice strongly suggests to me that you, as  the campaign promoter, do not need to think about this.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there are payment platforms out there like Payhip, who as well as being legally bound to deal with EU VAT, have said that they will do so. Where possible, you should consider using such providers, simply because those who are still in denial may be on a rocky road, and if you use them you may take some bumps along the way.

Playtesting: some reflections

Lovecraftesque playtests

I’ve collated the information from the first Lovecraftesque external playtest and I thought it might be useful to discuss it here. I’m not going to talk about our game, instead I’ll be talking about the playtest in more general terms, in the hopes of deriving some more general lessons about playtesting.


We advertised the playtest through our website, Black Armada, and through G Plus, Twitter and Facebook. We put the files in a public drop box but only provided the link on request to people who expressed an interest in playtesting.

We received 31 expressions of interest. 29 of these were from people who appeared to be men, 2 from women. 6 were from people who we know quite well in real life, and another 3 from people we’ve met a few times in the flesh. The rest were from comparative strangers.

We allowed six weeks for playtesting from the day we announced it. We sent a reminder out at the midway point to anyone who we hadn’t interacted with for at least a week, and another one a few days before the deadline.

Of 31 expressions of interest, 19% sent in a report.

We received 6 playtest reports within the playtest period – just under a 20% response rate. All of these were submitted by men. 2 came from friends, 4 from comparative strangers. Between these we got 22 session-hours of playtesting, or 72 person-hours.

It seems to me that we were fairly fortunate to get as many as we did. In previous playlists using a similar method I only had a 10% response rate, from a smaller number of expressions of interest. The improved success comes, I think, from a combination of us being better connected within the indie roleplaying community than I was back then, and having a game pitch that was always likely to be a bit more popular.


None of the playtesters received any guidance from us or clarification. They were given a set of detailed questions covering 10 aspects of the game, which were rather bossily labelled “READ THIS FIRST”, in addition to the rulebook and some supporting materials.

None of the playtests involved us, either as a participant or a witness.


All six playtest reports responded to the questions we asked fairly assiduously. I wouldn’t say they were all completely comprehensive, but none of them ignored the structured questions, and all responded to most of the points we wanted covered. One came with a blow-by-blow actual play report (which was quite valuable beyond what our questions elicited).

I shall now provide a breakdown of the issues identified by the playtest. (Either identified by the playtesters themselves or apparent from their report whether they themselves realised it or not.) I have classified them as follows:

  • A critical issue is one which would make the game unplayable.
  • A serious issue is one which would make the game not fun or prevent the design goals of the game from being realised. If even one group identified a serious issue, I’d count it.
  • A major issue is one which makes the game very clunky or interferes with realising the design goals of the game.
  • A minor issue is one which doesn’t interfere with the design goals or make the game avery clunky, but rather is a matter of polish. Minor rules clarifications also fall into this category.

I’ve obviously had to exercise judgement as to whether an issue identified by a group is attributable to the design, and whether there’s anything that can be done in the design to ameliorate the issue. In one or two cases, because different groups reported radically different observations, I haven’t recorded an issue, but will instead watch for these recurring in the next round of playtesting.

Here’s what our groups found:

  • Critical issues – 0 (phew!)
  • Serious issues – 1
  • Major issues – 2
  • Minor issues – 16

50% of our groups caught all three major or serious issues, but 33% only caught one and 17% didn't catch any.

A note here about consistency: not all our issues were detected by all of our groups. Two groups (one of which played twice) did not pick up the serious issue identified above, and the two major issues were each picked up by only three of the six groups (arguably one of them was detectable in a fourth group, but I think we might have dismissed it based on their evidence alone, as it didn’t look that serious). More importantly, these were clustered: 3 groups caught all the serious and major issues, 3 groups missed at least two of these issues.

I want to be clear, by the way, that I don’t consider the above to be a poor reflection on any of our groups. I suspect the ones that missed issues did so because they were more familiar with the style of game or the genre. Some of our clearest and most helpful feedback came from groups that didn’t catch a lot of the bigger issues, but did notice many smaller ones. All the feedback was immensely useful.

The above suggests to me that you want at least three groups to test a game to be reasonably confident of picking up on major and serious issues. With fewer, you might get them, or you might be unlucky. (Of course in our case, we would need four groups to guarantee catching them all.)

By the way, I haven’t analysed the minor issues, but my impression is that they were sprinkled liberally through all six groups. I doubt if there’s a single group that didn’t pick up some minor issues missed by the rest.


The top line conclusion is that you need to playtest, and not just with one or two groups. The comparison with the playtesting on my previous game is instructive. I only had one response, which added a little to my own efforts at playtesting. But clearly, my analysis above means that there is a high risk of failing to catch even quite serious issues with such a low level of response. There would be innumerable smaller issues that will have slipped the net.

Getting playtesters isn’t at all easy. I think we were fortunate this time around. Our voices carry a bit further as a result of a few years circulating in the online indie gaming community. We got support from a couple of people with a very wide reach, and although it’s hard to say how much impact this had, I would guess a lot. And our game concept was more grabby – though whether we would have been taken as seriously if we’d proposed such a concept three years ago, I can’t say.

One thing I would observe is that it’s a lot easier to make playtests happen if you offer to organise them yourself. That’s pretty obvious, but it is worth saying anyway. You can tackle the tendency for the game to get cancelled by providing a venue, making sure you pick people you can rely on and above all not dropping out yourself. And you can make sure decent notes are taken and guarantee to take them away with you. It’s more effort, and if you want it to have the same value as an external test you’ll have to be disciplined about not facilitating the game itself, but it dramatically increases your sample size, which reduces the chances of missing a given issue.

Will people like your game?

I’ve recently been playtesting a game, and the difference in response to that game and the previous one I designed got me thinking about what makes a game successful. The diagram below massively simplifies the process:

Screenshot 2015-02-21 18.22.17


Notice that if your ideas aren’t engaging, you’re already at a disadvantage. I doubt this will come as a surprise to anyone, but I think its an important observation.

Notice also that if you fail to communicate your ideas (or your design) then once again you are hampered.

There’s also feedback loops between these three streams. If people don’t buy your game (or download it, or sign up to play it at a con, or whatever) then you don’t get past the first hurdle, and people never play it. If people don’t play your game then they obviously won’t get to enjoy it. If people enjoy your game then they will talk about it, helping you get your message out and get more people to buy your game.

So, every element in all three chains is vital. And, unless you’re hiring someone else to do parts of the process for you, you need to be able to do all four things – ideas, communication, networking and design.