I’ve been getting quite a bit of feedback on my current WIP, Last Fleet. In case you’ve missed hearing about it, the game is about the last surviving members of the human race, fleeing across space from an implacable inhuman adversary. The players are brave pilots, officers, politicians and journalists, struggling to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece, under immense pressure.
As you might gather from the above, a key theme in Last Fleet is pressure. The core mechanics revolve around gaining and losing Pressure, which acts like hit points and mission/team pool all rolled into one. Crucially, players can gain +1 to any roll, after rolling the dice, by marking 1 Pressure. This means players tend to push their Pressure up of their own accord. Your Pressure track has room for five marks, after which you have to mark and perform a Breaking Point action whereby you do something risky or irrational. Eventually when you’ve marked them all, the (presumably) last Breaking Point action is to die.
Side note: if this sounds quite a bit like Night Witches system of Marks, that’s no coincidence. I’ve drawn inspiration from that. And as you’ll see, I think the lessons from playtesting are pushing the design to being more similar to Night Witches than it currently is.
A significant issue in playtesting has been getting the balance right between being under too much pressure versus not enough. There are lots of variables which can affect this:
How often the players make actions that allow them to erase Pressure (social stuff, mostly);
How much space the GM gives them to do that;
How much the players have to roll the dice;
How serious are the consequences the GM puts on the line;
How much players work together to min-max their rolls and apply maximum bonuses from assists; and (not forgetting)
How well the players roll.
So the system puts the players under pressure, but getting it at the exact right level to avoid either crushing them or leaving them feeling totally relaxed, seems to be a bit of an art. But I’m currently feeling that the system itself makes it too easy to reduce Pressure, while leaving the consequences of bad rolls insufficiently terrifying to prompt the players to increase their own Pressure all that much.
So where is that leading me to? Three (or maybe four) things:
I’m toughening up the consequences of bad rolls, including on a 7-9, to increase the stakes of failure. In turn that should mean players wanting to spend more Pressure.
I may reduce the overall statline of starting characters, which currently start with +2/+1/+0/+0/-1.
I’m reducing how much Pressure is erased when Pressure-reducing moves are taken.
I said maybe four. I’m considering whether players trust each other too much. The initial relationships set up tend to push things towards distrust and conflict, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken it far enough. Something to think about.
What’s interesting is that the stories people are coming back with from playtesting sound like exactly the sort of play I want to see – so while people may not feel sufficiently pressured, the game is fundamentally working ok. It needs tuning, perhaps even some significant redesign of individual components, but the overall shape of the design seems right.
If you’re interested in Last Fleet, get in touch! I’ll be doing more playtesting later in the year and I’m always keen to have more playtesters.
Reading through the comments I saw a lot of pushback against point 2. People saying “But it sucks if some random roll means I get killed by an orc in the first encounter.” “Some players don’t like it when they die, it isn’t fun.” “It’s ok if I got the threat level wrong, so I’m just correcting my mistake.” “You shouldn’t have rolled the dice if you weren’t ready for that outcome.” And so on. This got me thinking about why people fudge dice rolls at all.
Now as I see it, the answer is pretty straightforward. People fudge dice rolls because their chosen game isn’t giving them sufficient discretion in decision-making. They rolled the dice, and what they rolled means they are forced to either implement a fictional outcome they didn’t want, or fudge the roll.
When this happens, it is probably because the game is premised on a simple linear process:
Someone makes an attack -> roll dice -> inflict damage (or not)
See how that works? As soon as the GM picks up the dice, they’re committing to possibly inflicting damage on you. Maybe it will kill you. But that’s all that can happen. They can’t knock you out, they can’t take your stuff and leave you tied up. They can’t leave you beaten but humiliated. And that’s just thinking about possibilities relating to us fighting. We haven’t even got started on how they can’t reveal a terrible secret that will leave you crushed and sobbing, or have a totally different threat raise its head.
My point is, I think a lot of people are playing games with what you might call ballistic mechanics. You get to choose whether to pull the trigger (i.e. roll the dice) but once you’ve done that, you have no choice in where the bullet hits (i.e. what the outcome of the dice roll is). You can solve the problem by cheating – by ignoring the die roll – or by using a system that fires smart missiles instead of dumb bullets.
There’s plenty of games out there which continue to give you choices after you’ve rolled the dice. A failure doesn’t have to imply a mechanically fixed outcome. If you’re reading this and wondering what games I mean, one good avenue to google is Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark, both of which give real, hard consequences to dice rolls – but in a way that gives you interesting choices rather than automatic pre-defined outcomes.
Even D&D (which I assume is what we’re all thinking about here) doesn’t need to be implemented like that. I mean, come on. It isn’t like you haven’t used house rules or not-technically-RAW “roll a d20 and I’ll tell you what happens” for umpteen other things. So why be a stickler about the attack roll? Why not say that on a hit, the orc disarms you, then headbutts you into unconsciousness. You wake up in chains. Hard consequences that generate more fun, instead of snuffing out interesting possibilities.
So if I’m so keen on interesting outcomes, why not just fudge the roll and do it that way? Well, like the Tweet said, this is about social contract. If you’re playing in a group where the expectation is that successful attack rolls lead to hit point loss and hit point loss leads to death, then you’re playing with fire if you don’t enforce that. You’re essentially saying “your choices were meaningless; you thought you were risking death to achieve your goals; you thought there was a point to me rolling these dice; but you weren’t and there isn’t. You might as well stop recording your hit points and stop rolling the dice because the real decision-maker is me, the GM, and I’ll ignore the dice when it suits me.” The whole point of systems with dice rolls is to create risk and drama and make choices meaningful.
The same applies to games where hit point loss and death aren’t automatic consequences of a roll, by the way. Just because I can opt to have you KO’d and captured by the orc instead of killed, doesn’t mean its all just arbitrary GM fiat. I have to abide by the fact that the dice were rolled, so something bad happens. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say “nothing happens”. If I do that, I’m equally guilty of denying you the fruits of your decisions as the GM who refuses to inflict those hit points because they think it wouldn’t be fun.
But I think that a lot of groups in their heart of hearts don’t want a social contract like the one we see in D&D, RAW. Dying at an arbitrary moment because of bad dice rolls is not everyone’s idea of fun. I think that’s why we see so much fudging going on – because people don’t actually like what the rules tell them they must do. The point is, you’re breaking the social contract if people thought hit point loss and death was a possibility but it actually never was; but you can have a different social contract if you want. You have to ask yourself in advance whether you want arbitrary death or not. You have to talk to your group about how you play the game, and get their consent.
“Hey, I’d like to play some D&D, but I’m not really into the whole ‘one bad roll and you die’ thing, so I’m using a different set of rules. Ok?”
If you do that, then you’ll get the outcome you wanted – you remove arbitrary “un-fun” death from your game. But you get it without having to cheat people out of meaningful choice, and waste time rolling dice when you have no intention of enforcing the results of your rolls. Everyone can engage with the encounters you present, knowing what’s on the table and what isn’t.
I was recently lucky enough to get to play Pasion de las Pasiones by Brandon Leon-Gambetta. Pasion is a (currently ashcan-only) PBTA game based on telenovelas. If you haven’t come across telenovelas, my totally uninformed layperson’s summary is: overwrought, over-the-top Latin American soap operas. Now you might be thinking “why would I play a game about that when I know nothing about telenovelas”, and that is what I thought too. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Pasion is brilliantly designed to reinforce the themes of a telenovela even for a complete novice to the genre. The core mechanics and the playbooks point you in the right direction, probably more effectively than any other game I’ve seen. You cannot really go wrong simply noticing the things that will give you a mechanical benefit and doing them – and if you do, you’ll naturally get both a fun experience and an on-genre experience.
Before I talk any more about how it does this, let’s just look at some things that happened in our game to give you an idea what I’m talking about:
Ernesto, the eyepatch-wearing drugs kingpin, fed his lover Maria’s sister to a pair of jaguars for refusing to do his bidding.
Ernestino, Ernesto’s twin brother who everyone thought was dead, makes love to Marcela (who is under the impression she is making love to Ernesto) against a marble statue of aphrodite.
In a single scene, Maria reveals that she has been posing as a nun to sooth the pain of a wealthy landowner (and inveigle herself into the landowner’s inheritance), and then agrees to run off with Ernesto, ripping off her habit to reveal a slinky dress underneath.
The police descend on the (deceased) landowner’s mansion at the reading of her will, to try and wipe out Ernesto’s drug empire, forcing Ernestino and Marcela to smash through window to a waiting limousine, while Ernesto and Maria shoot their way to Ernesto’s helicopter.
In other words, think of a Western soap opera, then imagine that all concerns about suspension of disbelief and overacting have been not merely removed, but destroyed with a flamethrower, and you get some idea of what you’re in for.
So how does Pasion do it? Start with the playbooks. Each one has a set of props which you can choose from to help add flavour to your character. This simple decision makes it easy to see what the character is about. My character Ernesto was essentially built from those props: an eyepatch, a scarily large knife and a huge mansion. More standard for PBTA are the moves and the relationships – though these are very good, and further reinforce the character type and the themes of the game. Most fun of all is your character’s question; as long as you can answer yes to it, you get +1 to all your rolls. Examples are “are you taking control of this situation?” and “are you the centre of attention?”. Wonderful stuff.
Then there’s the basic moves, which are glorious in at least two ways. The first is the obvious, usual way that a well-crafted PBTA game does it, which is simply to point each move at the things you want the game to be about, in this case things like declaring your love for someone, accusing someone of lying, processing your feelings out loud and other such excellent stuff. But the one I’d like to dwell on is the way that stats work in Pasion. The way it works is: there aren’t any. Instead, each move has two questions attached. For each one you can answer yes to, you get +1 to the roll (plus of course your playbook question, which can add a further +1). The questions are things like “are you doing this for love?”, “are you doing this for vengeance?”, and suchlike. So not only are the moves themselves pointing you at the right sort of drama, you’re incentivised each and every roll to conduct that drama, and even shape your character’s motivations, in an in-genre way.
I’ll also mention flashbacks – only briefly, because we didn’t actually use them all that much, though I think they have a lot of potential. Pasion has a flashback move similar to what’s used in Leverage and Blades in the Dark. You can use it, just like in those games, to retroactively declare you have stuff set up to be prepared for whatever situation you’re in. But more interestingly, you can use it to reveal secrets about other characters, and have it be true, right in the middle of a scene. I wish I’d noticed this mechanic earlier on in the game because I’m sure this would be a lot of fun.
Finally there’s a wonderful little mechanic reminiscent of World-Wide Wrestling where – during other characters’ scenes – you get to play the audience watching the show at home, and during your own scenes you earn XP from their reactions. It’s a lot of fun.
I was super-impressed with Pasion de las Pasiones. If soap opera drama on steroids appeals to you then I’d seriously recommend it. You can buy it here.
I hear a lot of people saying that indie games are more focused on narrative or story. This is said in implicit (or explicit) contrast with traditional games, which are more… I don’t know… gamey? It often flows from the said people having read and (IMO) misunderstood GNS theory. So here’s the thing: it isn’t true. Or at least, it’s an extremely partial view of the indie market.
Let’s start with those last two words – indie market. I use them advisedly: “indie” isn’t a design school or a brand. It’s just stuff that’s independently published, meaning creator-owned. So indie games includes some stuff which is part of the OSR, or “trad” gaming. Yes, there’s some definite trends visible in the indie market that are different from those in the mainstream market, and so it’s not entirely unjustified to talk about “indie design”. The point is, #notallindiegames, let’s not pretend they’re all the same.
With that said, there is definitely a chunk of the indie games market that could be justly called “games focused on narrative”. My own game (with Becky Annison) Lovecraftesque fits into this part of the market. It aims to emulate the structure of a Lovecraftian tale, and it bakes that structure directly into the rules of the game, at the level of the scene. The rules literally require you to play through a series of scenes in which clues are gradually revealed, before playing through a rapidly accelerating scary sequence, followed by a terrifying finale. Similarly Fiasco has story structure baked into it. There’s plenty more where they came from. These games have “story” in their bones, and you know when you play them, at a high level, what kind of story you’re going to tell.
But a lot of indie games that are not at all like this still get painted with the “narrative” brush. A prime example is the Himalayan range of indie game design, PBTA, and that’s what I’m going to focus on now- though I think it’s true of wider indie design.
PBTA (well, most PBTA anyway) does not at all do anything to bake narrative structure into the game, except perhaps at the very high level of the GM’s prep. In fact PBTA is, to my eye, extremely similar in structure to more traditional games: each player focuses on one character, using their abilities and skills as the main mechanical interface with the world, but also interacting with it through straightforwardly roleplaying a character, with outcomes adjudicated in a fairly freeform way by a GM. Yes, there are differences – what is traditionally regarded as GM advice is baked into the rules, each player skill/ability has its own custom rule, and so forth – but at a structural level it isn’t really that different from (say) D&D.
The point is, “the story” is something that only exists after the fact. You play the game, you play your character, the GM describes the world and plays their NPCs, and only after you’ve done that can you look back and say what the story was. Just like traditional games. There’s no “narrative” in this narrative game, or no more than any other RPG.
So why does PBTA often get described as being a narrative game? I mean, partly it’s a branding thing. It’s part of the “story games” movement, which is strongly identified with “narrativism”. It’s probably partly because the rules of a PBTA game engage directly with the “fiction”, and are typically designed to never be more than one step away from re-engaging with “the fiction”, either.
But “the fiction” isn’t story. The fiction is just the game world, from the places in that world, through to the characters, the situations they find themselves in, the minute details of their exact position as described by the words you speak at the table. A character walks into a bar, two pistols cocked, and challenges the bartender to a duel: that’s the fiction. That character is standing next to a honky-tonk piano as she does it: that’s also the fiction. The honky-tonk is playing “baby elephant walking” and its middle C is slightly flat: also the fiction. None of this is story per se. None of it would be out of place in a traditional RPG. And probably this character will next roll to taunt or manipulate or intimidate the bartender, and possibly later to shoot at him with those pistols, and that will all be mechanically fairly similar to what happens in a traditional game. And again, not story.
I think it all comes back to the decision to describe one of the three prongs of GNS as “narrativism” or “story now”. Narrativism isn’t (as I see it) about focusing on “the story”. It’s about playing to engage with human issues, in such a way that it’s more likely to make a compelling story. But “the story” per se still arises from micro decisions that you make during the game. “Story now” is so called because you get straight to the interesting bits of a story, not because you in some sense consciously try to generate a story. I’m aware that like everyone else I’m no doubt misinterpreting goddamn GNS; but no RPG theory article is complete without that, is it? The point is, narrativism isn’t about turning roleplaying into story writing, and by the way (most) indie games are mostly not especially narrativist except to the extent that they empower you to play that way if you want to.
So what? Isn’t this just a tedious argument about semantics? Probably at some level it is. But I think probably some of the holy wars of the roleplaying community – the imagined conflict between OSR and indie and trad, for instance – are rooted in these wrongheaded ideas about indie. And I think the idea that indie games are “about story” makes them seem kind of intimidating and highfalutin to players who are used to D&D. The truth is, they are different from traditional RPGs. They do play differently – otherwise they would be the same game. But they aren’t a fundamentally different “story-focused” thing, so if you’ve heard tales of scary story games, those tales are wide of the mark. Maybe it’s worth giving them a try.
Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You play through their everyday lives, interpersonal relationships and small-scale drama in the Below, a dangerous world where poverty, social strife and gang conflict sit side-by-side with alien technology and supernatural weirdness.
Imagine the Belters of the Expanse watching as Earth and Mars shape their lives, the civilians in Battlestar Galactica living with the decisions made by the military and the folk of Downbelow in Babylon 5, abandoned to destitution and squalor by those who built the station. This game is about characters like that.
The game is GMless and diceless, with rules that point your characters at each other and bring their relationships into sharp focus. They help you create a rich setting, flawed characters, and charged relationships which develop over time. You’ll watch your characters evolve and change before your eyes. It’s really cool.
“Josh has put together something really interesting here – there’s glimpses of a larger setting through the world, but it only comes out through the lenses of the characters. Very clever stuff.”
– Grant Howitt, co-designer of The Spire RPG
You can get Flotsam for as little as £9 / $12 for the PDF.
This is part 4 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. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This time, we’re talking about the quality of the product and the post-kickstarter phase.
Delivery phase – quality
Quality-wise, I couldn’t be prouder by what we achieved. The game has met with a very positive reception, including several award nominations. I continue to get a massive buzz every time I hear about people playing it. I believe it stands up in comparison to any other horror game out there.
The production values met our very high standards. The book is beautiful, filled with gorgeous art and an evocative yet readable layout, both of which mirror and reinforce the structure and themes of the game. The physical product looks and feels great.
I also want to say here that our stretch goals massively enhanced the game. The finished stretch goal material was high quality, incredibly evocative, and provided a powerful set of diverse support materials for the game. We had one review whinge that the game itself was just a third of the book: but that really fails to recognise the benefits of these extra materials. The book has a massive 17 scenarios – you have so much choice, and they’re all so good; many people have commented that the quick-start scenarios are their favourite way to play. Plus the essays, which offer a really in-depth analysis of how to handle race and mental health in Lovecraftian games – issues which were a major focus of the campaign, and very dear to our heart. So the stretch goals were a major success for this project.
Honestly, we didn’t really plan for what would happen after the kickstarter. That might seem funny given all the detailed planning described so far, but we really were focused on the campaign.
After the dust settled, we set ourselves up on Payhip, on DrivethruRPG, and (using Paypal buttons) on our own website to directly sell the game to customers. We reached out to Indie Press Revolution in the US and Esdevium in the UK, to get the books out to retailers.
All this basically worked ok. However, one thing new game designers should know is that retail distributors ask for a very hefty discount in the region of 50-55% on your product. This is because retailers ask for a 30-35% discount. I’m not being critical – retailers and distributors have costs to meet and presumably try to make a profit too. It can be pretty tricky to make any money on sales to retailers if you haven’t factored this into your planning – which we hadn’t. At one point we realised that we would make a loss on US retail sales, and had to make some changes to keep this viable. It would have been better if we’d planned that in advance – and it’s another reason why a print run would probably have been a better choice for us, since we’ve sold hundreds of books this way, many at a negligible profit margin. We’re glad to support retailers, and have the books out there, but next time we’ll do better out of it too.
I’ll also mention accounting. Once you make money, you’re going to have to report it to the authorities. In the UK that means submitting accounts and a self-assessment tax return to HM Revenue and Customs. This is a faff. Even if you pay someone to do it, in practice you will do a lot of work. If you pay someone, it will cost you, and probably more than you think. Just, you know. Think about that, and plan time and money around it.
Just for fun, here’s a graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter. It includes PDFs, but is I estimate over 80% physical copies. You can see that retailer sales are a large share of post-kickstarter sales, which makes my earlier remarks about planning for those even more salient.
I’ve been working hard to get Flotsam ready for kickstarter, and it looks like it’ll be ready to launch some time in July.
Flotsam is a game for 3-5 people about outcasts, renegades and misfits living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. You focus on their everyday lives, their relationships and small-scale, interpersonal drama.
You could play:
The cast-off, an ordinary person fallen on bad times;
The Thunder, a tough ganger who makes the rules down here;
The Voice, the charismatic leader of a cult or community;
The Spider, a ruthless trader or spymaster;
The Sybyl, a prophetess with uncanny powers; or
The Hybrid, part human and part something else (alien, AI, god… there are lots of options).
The game is GMless: Each player gets one Primary character to play, as well as one Situation that they help to develop and push forward when not playing their Primary. That can be a lot to juggle, so the game has a simple, streamlined system that’s geared towards giving each player maximum control over the pacing of their own scenes, so you can have quiet, tense emotional scenes when you want them, or high-energy, threatening scenes when you feel like hitting the gas.
The game’s system pushes you to focus on your relationships and personal flaws, to move your character out of their comfort zone and develop them. Over time you’ll see those relationships and flaws change, and your characters grow. As such, it’s designed to work best in campaign mode. Over a handful of sessions, you’ll get to see real evolution of your character and their relationships.
Nonetheless, I wanted the game to be playable as a one-shot, so the game will include rules for quick-start play, using simple scenarios with pre-generated characters and situations. These will be designed to kickstart play with relationships that are already on the point of change, and problems at the point of exploding. It’ll mean you can play the game in 3-4 hours.
I’m excited to share the game with you! If you’re interested in this project you might want to follow the Black Armada kickstarter account here, so you’ll get a notification when the campaign launches. If you have questions or would like to talk to me about the project, you can comment here or contact me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.
Finally, I couldn’t end this article without sharing the work-in-progress cover art by Anna Landin. It’s only a sketch and it’s already looking great! Honestly, commissioning art is one of my favourite things about being a game designer.
I’d like to talk a bit about how players can contribute to making a roleplaying game as much fun as possible for everyone. The headline is: Don’t expect your GM to make all the effort, or to make the game fun for you. Roleplaying isn’t like going to a movie – your contributions are as important to making the game fun as the GM’s contributions. Don’t show up expecting to sit back and watch. Get stuck in!
I’ve observed that people often like to talk about how to achieve GM mastery, or how you (the GM) can best entertain your players and meet their needs. Such things are the fodder for countless articles. And that’s completely valid! In a GM’d game, the GM is often a really key person, and it’s important that they do everything they can to make the experience great for everyone. But guess what? It’s not only the GM’s job to do that. You can and should do things to help to make the game enjoyable for everyone (including the GM, and including yourself).
What things can you do to make the game better?
1. Look out for what the GM is offering you, and SAY YES. Come up with a reason why your character is interested in what’s on the table. And I don’t mean sarcastically saying “oh, I guess we’re meant to go to the dark dungeon, I bet that will be fun”. I mean genuinely looking for reasons to engage with what the GM puts on the table. That doesn’t have to mean doing exactly what the GM expected you to: engaging with the game could mean finding a clever way around a problem or turning an expected enemy into an ally. What it definitely doesn’t mean is turning around and walking away from a situation.
2. Look out for what the other players are interested in and engage with that too. Look to make connections with them. Take an interest in what they’re doing. In some games that might mean reacting strongly, creating intra-character drama. In others it might mean being a supportive team player. Still others might be adversarial in nature. You can probably tell what kind of game you’re in, but if in doubt, ask – discuss it with your group, and then engage in a way that works for the game. Bankuei’s same page tool could be handy here.
3. If you find the above hard, then it might mean you need to talk to the group about it. A roleplaying game should ideally get you excited, and make you want to leap in and engage with the story and with the other players’ characters. If that’s not how you’re feeling then maybe you’re in the wrong game, or maybe there’s something you want from the game you’re not getting right now. But be prepared to listen and think about what you could do, before you start making demands on others. It’s your game too.
4. Look for opportunities to involve the other players in whatever you’re doing. It’s fun to have the spotlight – share it with your friends! Ask another player’s character to help you. Ask their advice. You’ll be helping to enthuse another player and improving the game too.
5. Get comfortable improvising, and throw yourself at the story. Don’t worry about what might go wrong, get stuck in! The GM is constantly making stuff up to make your game feel real and cool. You should do this too. If everyone has to wait while you think or debate the exact right thing to do or say, that’s… sorry, but a bit boring. Your first thought is probably good enough. And you know, if you realise a couple of seconds later you said the wrong thing, you can always ask for a do-over (but only do it if you really need to). GMs, be nice – if you jump on the first thing a player says and use it to hurt them, you are hurting your game. Everyone will want to spend hours thinking and discussing the best action to take, to avoid getting kicked. Don’t make them feel like every moment is a trap waiting to spring on them.
6. Pay attention. Listen. Focus on what’s happening at the table. Chatting to someone outside the game, checking your phone, zoning out – they all kill the energy at the table. Learn to enjoy watching the other players. You’ll get more from the game if you know what they’re doing anyway, because you’ll know how to engage with what they’re doing, and how to push their buttons in fun and interesting ways.
7. Cut down on the funny remarks. Ok, take this one with a pinch of salt, because after all we’re here to have fun, and table banter can be fun. But unless it’s in character, table banter isn’t the game, and ultimately is a distraction from the game. So by all means make jokes, but don’t overdo it. Especially don’t make fun of other people’s characters or ideas – you’ll kill their enthusiasm.
8. Tell the other players what you’re enjoying. Tell them their plan was awesome. Tell them you enjoyed their characterisation. Pump up their enthusiasm! And do the same for the GM, it makes a big difference. Plus all of this helps the group to learn what each other like – and supply it. It will make your game better. The other half of the coin is talking about what you’re not enjoying: but keep this to a minimum, because it’s better to encourage than criticise. Major on what’s good, because if the game focuses on that then the bad stuff gets edged out anyway.
I’m sure there’s more I could write here. The bottom line is, GMs don’t turn up to run a game, to spoon-feed entertainment to you. They turn up to have a fun experience with the other players. Just one attentive, giving, engaged player makes a HUGE difference to the fun the GM has – a whole group is basically GM heaven. And great players improve the game for the other players too. Be that player.
This is part 3 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. Part 2 is here. Part 4 is here. This time, we’re talking about how we delivered the product, particularly how we managed the delivery timetable and our costs.
Delivery phase – time
We did ok with keeping to our timetable. We delivered it late, but only by about 1.5 months. In the end this came down to a single delayed workstream which we couldn’t have known in advance would hit problems, and which was too critical to the project to work around. Seen in that context, 1.5 months delay is not too bad – though we would aim to get that down to zero next time.
We did several things to keep the project on track, and they largely worked. First, we calculated that there might be delays, and included that in our project timetable. We’d seen so many Kickstarters delivering many months or even years late that we were trying very hard to be realistic or even pessimistic about our timetable. We actually doubled the time estimate we’d been given by one of our contributors, because we felt it was too optimistic.
Second, we ensured that everything that could be done early was. So we wrote the game in advance of kickstarter launch. We had planned all of the art and layout in advance, and initiated work on them as soon as it was apparent we were going to fund. We had the layout completed for everything we could, even while waiting for some material to come through. In short, we ensured that we could concentrate on delivering the difficult stuff, by getting the easier stuff out of the way fast.
Now before I mention the next factor, this is a good point to recognise that people – and you should include you, the designer, in this category – are a major risk factor for any project. Everyone has a real life that can distract and delay you or even take you out of commission. Health issues can spring up, family tragedies… these are realities in an industry where almost nobody does this as their day job, so we’re all trying to squeeze out work in our spare time. (In fact, our second child was born right in the middle of fulfilment – though we did at least get 9 months notice of that!) I hope it’s clear that I don’t regard this as something to blame or shame people over: it’s something that you as the project manager have to do your best to mitigate. It turned out to be a significant factor for Lovecraftesque.
So, third, we had said up front that we weren’t guaranteeing any of our stretch goals. We would drop a stretch goal or deliver it electronically rather than let its non-delivery delay the project as a whole. I think that was a good thing to do. We didn’t have to drop any, but because we’d said we might, we didn’t need to feel too bad about having to take on authorship of one stretch goal ourselves, supported by a couple of additional consultants that we took on at short notice. We didn’t get any complaints about this, and we think the resulting product was high quality and – crucially – didn’t delay publication.
Fourth, we were very active in managing our contributors. We set deadlines, we reminded people about them, we nagged them if they were late, we negotiated additional time for those who needed it. We worked with contributors to make sure their work meshed with the vision for Lovecraftesque, giving comments and drafting assistance. I hope and believe that this was done in a supportive way, to get the very best finished product.
There is a final thing to recognise in our delivery timetable. While the books were ready and delivered to many backers in October, some of them went missing for about 7 weeks. We don’t know exactly what happened. The records suggest that books destined for the US were shipped from Britain to continental Europe, and then – for some reason – send to Budapest, where they sat for a long time. They were eventually (most of them) sent on to their US recipients. But this caused us a lot of stress and worry, since for a long while we thought they’d simply vanished. And it meant that some of our customers received the product 3 months late rather than 1.5 months. My guess is that this could happen to any project (it certainly seems to be a common problem, watching other projects). In future we would consider paying out on more expensive shipping to allow us to have greater confidence about this.
We’d originally chosen Lightning Source as our printer because they had branches in the UK and US. We planned to ship our US backers from the US branch, which would probably not have been subject to delay in this way. It was a great plan – but one which we had to abandon because of cost. Fluctuating currency values, which we’ll return to later, made the US print branch unviable for us. Post-kickstarter, we’ve offered our US customers the option to pay a (small) premium to get the product printed in the US and therefore delivered faster. Perhaps we could offer that as an option in future kickstarters – though as against that, this strikes me as potentially confusing for customers.
Delivery phase – cost
Next, let’s talk about cost. Our carefully costed project was almost exactly on-budget. Our costings – which all included error margins for inflation, currency conversion and suchlike – came in literally on the money, pretty much every time. And yes, that includes shipping: as mentioned earlier, we shipped directly from the printer at very reasonable cost. Runaway shipping costs were my biggest fear throughout the project, and we dodged that bullet thanks to a forensic examination of the costs in advance.
And yet, as I mentioned earlier, we spent our entire 10% contingency fund. Why? Well, the single biggest factor was: Brexit. The value of the pound dropped by a total of 20% between the launch of our project and delivery. 10% of that was pre-referendum, but in retrospect was probably reflecting uncertainty about the referendum result. The rest came after. Most of our stretch goal writers, plus both our artists, were paid in dollars. The resulting exchange costs came to about £600.
The other major factor was to do with the Special Cards. Basically, we underpriced them. Or to look at it another way, we underestimated demand for them. Let me unpack that. From examining previous RPG kickstarters, we thought about half of people who purchased the physical book would want cards as well. In reality, well over 80% did – and in response to backer demand we created a “PDF + cards” tier that we hadn’t planned on. Now, the cards had a very low profit margin on them, which we’d taken into account in our planning – but when we sold a lot more of them than we anticipated, that cost us a bit. Plus they were priced in dollars, so this came together with the Brexit factor in a bad way. After the kickstarter we raised the price of the cards from £5 to £8, because of this.
The cards also added complications to delivery. They were printed and shipped separately to the books (Drivethru Cards is a separate printer from DrivethruRPG). They were an extra bit of admin, an extra delivery risk, one more thing to track and worry about. So, with the above… I’d dearly like to avoid using cards in future. Or rather, I’d like to try and stick to one physical product: cards or a book, probably not both.
So with all this, plus a handful of much smaller things, our contingency fund was spent in full – plus £5 over, to be precise. Sigh. At least we had one. But despite this, we did not make a loss. We included payment for ourselves in our funding goal, and increased it with each stretch goal – something I would always urge you to do, if you’re planning to kickstart something – and so we actually made a very respectable amount of money from the kickstarter itself. And of course, we never had any money-related problems delivering the product.
By the way, I should also mention that we used Backerkit to do our customer survey. This allowed non-Kickstarter backers to purchase books after the campaign ended and enabled existing backers to upgrade their initial pledges. True to what Backerkit estimate, we sold a sizeable additional chunk of books through them. A good choice, which I’d recommend to others.
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. Part 3 is here. Part 4 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.
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. Click here to read it.