1 year of self employment

A year and a day ago I left my office in the UK civil service for the last time. I started a life of adventure as a full time game designer. So far I haven’t looked back!

Here’s what I’ve done in my first year:

  • Run two successful crowdfunding campaigns, fulfilled one of them entirely and broken the back of the other one.
  • Built the foundations of a new game system which will form the core of a number of future releases, and commenced playtesting of that system.
  • Learned how to use Roll20 and designed the virtual playroom for Lovecraftesque in it.
  • Created 7 new games through our Patreon and supported Becky to publish 2 others.
  • Published 40 episodes of our AP podcast Black Armada Tales and watched the audience steadily grow.
  • Attended 3 major conventions including one overseas.
  • Set up a bunch of useful systems that will support our business in future.
  • Kept the business afloat and paid myself enough to live on.

I’m pretty satisfied with that for a first year’s work. This year will be different – we are only at the start of the design journey for the stuff we’re working on now, so there will probably be less publishing/crowdfunding activity and more development work. One thing I discovered this year is that it’s quite hard to manage a serious crowdfunding to publication cycle while also designing new stuff! Finding a rhythm is going to be one of my challenges.

All of this has been helped enormously by the enthusiasm and encouragement of our fans. Whether you’re one of our patrons, a crowdfunding backer, a podcast listener or someone who has helped to spread the word about our stuff, it is all very much appreciated.

Onward to the next year!

Lovecraftesque second edition is available to pre-order

Lovecraftesque. The eldritch horror roleplaying game where you create the mystery at the table. Pre-orders now open. Image shows the Lovecraftesque box cover with a skull-like monster lurking behind a lone character in the woods. Alongside this are the new rulebook with a striking red-and-white cover, and a spread of cards from the new edition.

Lovecraftesque second edition successfully crowdfunded in late 2023. You can now pre-order it here, or if you’d like to know more, read on!

A Storytelling Card Game Of Eldritch Horror

Lovecraftesque is a storytelling card game of creeping cosmic horror, emulating the tone and pace of eldritch horror stories. The game will guide you to create the story of a lone individual who stumbles upon clues to a terrible evil. It creates slow-building, brooding horror that the main character at first dismisses, until all too suddenly it becomes impossible to deny. The ending will certainly be bleak, and the main character is likely to meet their doom.

A mock up of the cards used to play the game
Brand new cards help streamline gameplay and inspire your group

Lovecraftesque is an emergent mystery game, which crafts a story out of clues that you take turns to create. The game includes hundreds of creative prompts to help you generate your story and guide the main character towards a confrontation with cosmic evil. You take turns to drip weird events into the story, building up your mystery one clue at a time.  Each player creates a secret theory about the horror and the truth about the horror emerges from those theories. By the end you’ll reach a chilling climax that none of you could have predicted at the start.

Lovecraftesque is easy to learn and teach, simple and intuitive to play, with hundreds of prompts to fire your imagination. It can be played with 1-5 players in around 2 hours.

Lovecraftesque is created by Josh Fox and Becky Annison of Black Armada Games, the award-winning publishers who brought you Wreck This Deck, Last Fleet, Flotsam: Adrift Amongst The Stars and Bite Marks.

A mock up of the Lovecraftesque core box
A New Edition

We created the first edition of Lovecraftesque back in 2015. It was our first game design project and we were delighted with its success. It’s received critical acclaim, won awards and gained thousands of fans around the world. But we were new to publishing then, and the costs and risks meant we were unable to realise our full vision for the game. In this new edition we’ve created the game we always wanted to.

The second edition is fully card-driven. It gives your group more support for their creativity through prompt cards that help you get your story set up and populate it with interesting clues, characters and locations. The story will seem to write itself.

There are also brand new card-based scenarios to get your story off to a flying start. Check out the scenarios list to see the incredible range of fresh exciting settings for eldritch horror, written by a diverse slate of talent from across the industry. Like the rest of the game, these are written on cards, meaning you can easily mix and match to make up your own weird tales.

With the new card-driven approach the game is even easier to learn, teach and play. The rules and structure of the game are written into the cards and your progress is tracked on the board, so you always know what you’re meant to be doing. As always we include teaching text to make it easy for you to learn and teach the game at the table, and tools to avoid the stereotypes of Lovecraft’s own work.

We are also commissioning new art by Vincent Sammy and Paul Tomes to make the game look cooler than ever before.

Lovecraftesque second edition will be available as a boxed set with the rules and all the cards you need, and as a virtual tabletop for online play.

Lovecraftesque is crowdfunding from 10 October to 9 November 2023. Pre-order now and become one of the first to back the project!

Lovecraftesque second edition has brand new scenarios!

We are just 24 hours off the launch of our crowdfunding campaign for Lovecraftesque second edition. If you are excited for the new edition you should follow the campaign now so you can back as soon as the campaign goes live!

As part of the new edition, we have commissioned a ton of new writers to create brand new scenarios for the game, as well as writing a bunch ourselves and updating a few of the scenarios from the first edition. They really are incredibly diverse – not just the writers themselves, but the fresh and exciting settings that they have brought to eldritch horror. I don’t think you’ll find a more unique and original set of cosmic horror scenarios anywhere (though the first edition of Lovecraftesque gives it a run for its money!)

The new scenarios come on cards, just like the rest of the game’s creative prompts, and provide pre-generated characters, locations and clues that you can use to create a story with a distinct flavour. These aren’t pre-plotted adventures, but rich ingredients that you deploy at the table to create your own eldritch mystery. Whenever you use them, they’re mixed in with some standard cards from the core game. As a result, every play through is different, and every scenario is infinitely replayable.

More than that, you can recombine the cards in the scenarios with each other and with those in the core deck to create scenarios of your own. With about 240 cards across the scenarios, it is an awesome bank of cosmic horror ideas and prompts.

Here is the full list of scenarios.

  • A Place In The Country by Lynne Hardy. The Norton Hotel Consortium plans to turn Rowan Hall into a luxury hotel and spa. But what mysteries lurk within the dilapidated hall and gardens? And why is its current owner so desperate to sell? 
  • A Witch’s Love by Michele Gelli. Caterina Sforza (1460~1509), ruler of Imola and Countess of Forlì, political leader and alchemist, was a tough cookie. She held hostage the Vatican’s conclave and she’s said to be a witch who had a well to dispose of bodies of “discarded” lovers. Can Caterina’s presence cross space and time? Can her love change the destiny of a team of archaeologists that are investigating her old castle?
  • Atlantis Swallowed by Becky Annison. Thousands of years ago and the sea levels are lapping at the heels of Atlantis. With greater technological prowess than anything a modern civilization has seen, they are confident they can hold back the waters. But a deeper rot has seeped in through the cracks.
  • Blow Ye Winds by Sasha Sienna and Jonathan Sims. In 1831, the British port of Peterhead processed the butchered blubber of over a thousand whales a year, hunted and killed off the coast of Greenland. Dr Andrew Campbell has left his landlocked life behind to serve as surgeon on the whaling vessel Sanguine, but his first voyage will not be an easy one as a strangeness begins to affect the ship.
  • Echoes of Vulcan by Darla Burrow. It is strange days in Pompeii. Phantoms walk the streets, doors open to tunnels where once they opened to courtyards, and birds fall dead from the sky. Something awful is coming, but what is it and how does it connect to the mysterious Cult of Mithras?
  • Ex Nihilo by Joshua Fox. A spaceship is sent to explore the last frontier of science by entering the black hole V616 Monocerotis “Mon”. The journey into the singularity is even more terrifying than expected.
  • Mr Giggles Comes To Dinner by Misha Bushyager. Your kid won’t shut up about their ‘imaginary friend’s’ exploits. So far, so normal, until you start experiencing them too.
  • Nothingness has a thousand endings by Bryan Thao Worra. In this scenario, the witness takes a step into the 1990s Southeast Asian refugee community in a working class neighborhood in the US to resolve a mysterious debt of uncertain consequences.
  • On Ilkla Moor Bah’tat by Becky Annison. Ilkley Moor is a dark and foreboding place for a young world war II evacuee miles from the city she called home. What lurks in the soothing waters of the suspicious Hydro Hotel and are the locals friendly or ready to offer her up on a plate?
  • The Chicxulub Horrors by Santiago Villa. In the coast of Yucatán where an ancient meteorite has created a gargantuan underground crater that is now a web of tunnels, a man disappears. During the art boom of the 1930’s in Mexico, painter and muralist Hervé Pelletier has gone missing and his wife, Amaranta Vera, has arrived at Chicxulub Puerto, a town nestled over the crater’s dead center, to look for him.
  • The Hidden Cabinet by Helen Gould. A scenario about whispered rumours, duplicitous politicians, and what really happens in the corridors of power. What will you find behind these closed doors?
  • The Sea Hungers by Thomas Manuel. It’s Bombay in 1728. As the East India Company recovers from a ferocious defeat at the hands of legendary pirate admiral Kanhoji Angre, a naive, young marine discovers a sinister plot involving sacrifice and spirals of blood.  
  • We serve and protect by Kenneth Hite. A long hot summer of protests rocks the streets of Chicago in the 1970s, and you rock with them. Until the cops pen you in, snatch you up, and take you to the precinct house, where worse things than rubber hoses wait in the basement. The Chicago Police Department serves and protects… but what inhuman entity do the cops who have you serve? What dark secrets do they protect?
  • Wolfshead by Joshua Fox. Sherwood, Nottinghamshire, in the 13th century. A hapless cutpurse robs the wrong person and finds themselves in possession of a strange item. Now they have the Baron’s men hunting for them – but that may not be the worst thing that stalks the night.
  • The Copycat Canal Murders by Becky Annison. Ritual murders spanning a century are investigated again in the age of DNA profiling and AI. Will the truth of the horrifying secrets on the foggy banks of the canal finally be revealed?
  • The Outer Gods by Nick Bate. The year is 23XX. Humanity has colonised the Solar System aboard reality-rending liveships, warding themselves against unearthly things hiding in the dark through ritual and prayer. Monette is one such liveship, a salvager investigating the sudden reappearance of a lost generation ship. What will they find aboard the deadship Yog-Sothoth?
  • The Siren’s Caw by W.H. Arthur. Every summer, visitors from London and beyond are drawn to the seaside resort of Brighton. Are they called here by the eldritch forces from beneath the waves, or is there something even more sinister from across time and space?
  • Through The Waters, Darkly by Josh Fox. A research and exploration base has been set up at the bottom of the deepest place on Earth: the Mariana Trench. The small team of scientists are isolated in the cold depths as they explore the last frontier of our planet. Isolated, yes: but not alone.

Lovecraftesque second edition launches on Backerkit crowdfunding tomorrow – Tuesday 10 October, at 11am ET / 4pm BST. Follow the campaign and be one of the first to back the new edition.

Lovecraftesque 2e has hidden UV art!

We’re ONE WEEK away from the launch of the Lovecraftesque 2e crowdfunding campaign and, to celebrate, I want to share with you a very exciting part of Lovecraftesque 2e which is *hidden UV art*. The new edition will come with a UV torch, and when you shine it on the box, board and rulebook you’ll see extra detail that was invisible before.

The cover of Lovecraftesque shows a lone figure investigating some weird-looking cocoons while a skull-like monster lurks behind them.

When you turn the torch on, extra detail is revealed: tentacles, egg sacs and a summoning circle centred on the figure.
A mock-up of what the UV cover will look like

We first saw this approach in the Italian edition of Lovecraftesque 1e by Narrattiva, and we’re stealing it wholesale. Every illustration will contain hidden details and the text itself will be splattered with sigils, blood stains and tentacles. Check out the Italian edition cover below – you’ll be seeing something very similar on the new edition’s rulebook.

The Italian edition of Lovecraftesque 1e

The art for this game is going to be SO GOOD. You’ve seen the awesome cover by our lead illustrator Vincent Sammy, who also illustrated Bite Marks. There’s more where that came from. Check out this gorgeously creepy illustration for the game’s board, also by Vincent Sammy – shown here with its UV art.

The board for Lovecraftesque 2e.

And we also have Paul Tomes creating interior illustrations for the book. We’ve long admired Paul’s style and we’re really excited to have him on board. Take a look at this terrific piece showing horror about to unfold in a mine. Again, there will be UV on this one, but you’ll have to wait to see that.

A cross section of a mine, with tiny figures dressed in high-vis. Lurking behind the rock face are enormous tentacles about to break through.
One of Paul Tomes’ illustrations for Lovecraftesque 2e

As always, commissioning art for games is my favourite bit about being a small press publisher. It’s always delightful to see our weird ideas turned into something gorgeous, and to support artists while doing it.

The campaign for Lovecraftesque 2e is here.

Lovecraftesque 2e: what’s new

We are just TWO WEEKS from our crowdfunding of Lovecraftesque second edition (you can sign up to be notified when the campaign launches here). There are a ton of exciting things to share about the new game and I’ll be announcing them day by day.

But let’s start really basic: what is new in the game’s core design?

It’s still a GMless storytelling game where you share control of one main character, and also share the job of creating the clues that drive the mystery. It’s still about slow-building mystery culminating in worldview-shattering horror and a bleak ending for the main character.

But the game now comes with a plethora of prompts to help you create the characters, locations and clues.

You get a dedicated deck of Location Cards with prompts to generate the places where the horror unfolds, and a deck of Character Cards with prompts to create NPCs your main character might encounter. The two of these together help you rapidly generate the setting for your game; perhaps you’ll be presented with a Holy Place, a Remote Location and a Natural Feature and immediately think to yourself “that sounds like a monastery in the mountains”. Once you’ve decided your basic setting, the cards enable you to create a bunch of ready-to-go story elements that you can grab and quickly turn into a scene.

Then there’s the Mystery Deck, which is the engine that drives the unfolding mystery. The Mystery Deck contains Clue Cards with a theme for a Clue. Themes like technology, strange writings, weird construction, and rites & customs. With each card, you can straight away imagine the sorts of eldritch weirdness you might create. But to make it even easier, the cards contain a handful of prompts that you can quickly flesh out to turn into a Clue.

The Mystery Deck also contains Special Cards, just like the ones in the first edition of the game, that allow you to break the rules. These shake up the story so that just occasionally the main character will get killed midway through the story, and pick up a new character; or, even more surprising, they might actually defeat the horror at the end.

The game also comes with scenarios, just like the first edition, written by a diverse international slate of authors and covering fresh and varied venues for cosmic horror. What’s new is, the scenarios are written on cards. This makes it simple to set up the characters and locations where everyone can see them, and dish out the clues to the group. Further, you can recombine the scenario cards with cards from other scenarios and those from the main deck to create your own scenarios, and for infinite replayability.

The scenarios aren’t stretch goals: we’re funding them as part of our main goal. There will be a set included in the main game, and more available as expansion packs. We’ll be announcing details in the coming days.

Alongside those you have the Story Track and Story Cards, which guide you through the game. They serve a similar role to the teaching guide in 1e, walking you through each part of the game so you always know what to do next. This is a bit like the way games like For The Queen present each new step of the game on cards, making it simple to follow the structure of the game.

We haven’t got rid of the teaching guide, by the way – we know this was a favourite feature of the first edition. What we have done though is integrate it into the rulebook so that the whole text is now presented as a read-out-loud guide.

Finally you have Rule Cards which describe the key rules of the game – things like the creeping horror rule which limit how extreme the clues can be. These serve as a handy reference but also help to highlight when the rules change mid-game – it’s very satisfying to discard the rules that have been limiting the horror and know that the leash is off!

All this makes for a hugely improved experience: better creative support, slicker, easier to learn rules, and a more accessible game. I’ve successfully taught and played a full session of Lovecraftesque in 90 minutes and the group was BUZZING with how much fun they had and how easy it was to pick up.

I’ll be back with more over the next two weeks. In the mean time, if you haven’t already, you should get yourself signed up to be notified when the project launches. Don’t miss it!

Our experience with Backerkit advertising

We’ve been running TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns for almost a decade and we like to think we’re quite good at it. We’ve been gradually and organically growing our audience, but it gets harder and harder to connect with people as the TTRPG world fractures into zillions of little communities. We had dipped our toe in the water of advertising previously, but never had much success with it and viewed it as a waste of money. Enter Backerkit advertising – a service that proved very effective for us. In this article I’ll break down the experience and the outcomes we saw.

The TL;DR here is that we got a lot more money, both before and after taking out the cost of the ads. Wreck This Deck looks likely to have been unusually successful for a TTRPG zine even without the ads, but there’s clear evidence that the ads increased that.

I’m not affiliated with Backerkit, I’m not getting anything from them for doing it, I’m just sharing this because I think it might be helpful for fellow creators.

Backerkit’s advertising pitch is, they buy advertising on your behalf (mostly Facebook/Instagram ads) and improve the targeting using their presumably very impressive storehouse of data from all the millions of crowdfunding campaigns they’ve been involved with. You tell them a target return you want on your ads, and they then increase or decrease spend depending on how well they’re meeting that target. They charge you a commission on any resulting pledges. You don’t pay for anything until the campaign closes and you’ve received your pledge money.

By the way, this is in-campaign advertising. Backerkit (and others, probably) do pre-campaign advertising to build up followers on your launch page. We haven’t tried that, and it isn’t covered here.

We weren’t sure if this service was likely to work for us, but – spoiler alert – it absolutely did. We saw at least a 50% increase in our backers compared to our most optimistic expectations, and there’s very clear evidence to show that this was generated by the ads, as I’ll explain below.

Before going any further, let’s talk about the ick factor. If you’re like me, you probably don’t like the idea of advertising. It’s horrible, intrusive stuff that feels sort of spammy and slightly dirty. You just want to be left alone to enjoy the internet without this stuff, and you don’t want to be a part of it. You maybe feel like your product should be so good that it doesn’t need advertising.  There was a definite emotional barrier we had to push through to get started with this. But the truth is, well-targeted adverts for a quality product are a way of finding people who want something and helping them to find out about it. They’re gonna see some ads anyway, so it might as well be for a cool new game. Provided the things you promise in your pitch are accurate, and your game is good, you’re not hurting anyone by using it.

What we did

We were pretty wary of pouring a ton of money into something for no return. The Backerkit model – tell us a target return on your ad and we’ll spend like crazy as long as you’re meeting it – was kind of terrifying to us. We set up advertising early on in our campaign, saw some fairly middling results, and told them to switch the ads off.

Later on in the campaign, for no reason I can articulate, we decided to give them another go. We switched them on again, at a low level of spend, and saw an immediate increase in pledges. Bumping the spend up a bit, we saw even better results.

Throughout the periods where we were advertising, we set a target return on advertising spend (ROAS) of 3 – meaning the aim is for each £1 spent on adverts to yield £3 or more of pledges. This is the amount we’d worked out, after costs, should ensure we made extra money rather than a loss. Although the ROAS jumped around a lot over the course of the campaign, the final ROAS was 3.04.

The results

The graph below tracks our pledges each day of the campaign for Wreck This Deck.

The blue bit of the chart is pledges that Backerkit identify as not being ad driven. Orange is pledges that Backerkit identify as being ad driven. The tiny almost-invisible grey bit is pledges Backerkit identify as being driven by their newsletter.

You might ask: why should we trust Backerkit’s assessment of whether a pledge was ad-driven? They get a commission on the ad-driven pledges so it’s in their interests to round those up isn’t it? That is indeed an anxiety that we had. But in a way, the fact that we had a gap in the middle where we weren’t using ads was incredibly helpful, in that it clearly demonstrated that the ads were working. You can easily see the point that we turned the ads back on in the graph below, even without the big red arrows, and you could probably guess how much revenue was ad-driven even without the colour-coding.

Graph showing pledges each day for Wreck This Deck. On day 20 we restarted our ad spend and there's an immediate large increase in pledges, through to the end of the campaign on day 29.

The first few days of a crowdfunding campaign always see lots of pledges as existing fans and highly enthusiastic backers jump in. After day 3 or so, things naturally quieten down, and you see a trickle of pledges from folk who have only just heard about the campaign. During this mid-campaign period – days 4-20 on the graph – we saw about £200 of new pledges per day. Once we turned the advertising on this leapt up by a factor of 4, even excluding the last few days when, again, you always see a big increase in pledges.

Interestingly even the organic pledges increased by about 75% during the period we were advertising. Presumably some people were seeing the ads and then pledging on a different device or similar, hiding them from Backerkit’s tracking algorithm.

It’s a lot harder to feel confident about the impact of the ads during the last few days, because you’d expect a big spike anyway. Look at any successful crowdfunding campaign, there’s always a rush of pledges at the end. But it is possible to estimate the effect of advertising here. I looked at our previous campaigns and a few carefully-chosen third-party campaigns that I deemed to be similar to Wreck This Deck. The difference is fairly obvious.

Table showing the percentage share of revenue taken in the last 3 days of various crowdfunding campaigns. The figure ranges from 16-29%, except for Wreck This Deck where 66% of revenue came in the last 3 days.

We also asked our backers in the post-campaign survey whether they’d seen ads. Obviously the data here is subject to the caveat that people might not remember correctly, or might have thought something was an ad when it wasn’t, and so forth. With that said:

  • 35.2% said they didn’t see any ads
  • 13.2% said they saw an ad after they’d already backed
  • 5.7% said they saw an ad after they’d already heard about the campaign
  • 9.5% said they saw an ad but probably would have heard about the campaign anyway
  • 32.9% said they came to the campaign because they’d seen an ad

Backerkit’s marketing stats claim that 57% of our pledges came from advertising. That matches reasonably well to the 61% above who said they’d seen an ad, though just under half of these had already heard of the campaign or think they would have done so anyway.

Did it pay off?

The above analysis seems to pretty clearly indicate that we raised a large amount of revenue from advertising. But of course, that’s before costs.

Based on Backerkit’s own analysis, the fees we paid them for the advertising – covering the cost of the ads themselves and Backerkit’s commission – added up to 39.8% of what the pledges that they identified as being ad-generated. So we got to keep 60.2% of what we raised.

Once you take out our own costs, that number comes down, but because we’d already paid off a lot of our costs (art etc) from organic pledges alone, it still leaves a decent % of money left over for paying ourselves for the work on the project.

The possible fly in the ointment here is what I term “wasted ad spend”. This is essentially my attempt to work out how many ad-driven pledges would have happened anyway, and are therefore wasted money. This is really really hard to know.

The survey data above suggest that only about half of our advertising driven pledges were people who hadn’t already pledged, hadn’t yet heard of the campaign and wouldn’t have likely done so anyway. If all that is counted as “wasted ad spend” then we came in very close to break-even – probably making a small amount of extra money, but just possibly making a small loss once all costs have been counted.

However, if you’d heard about the campaign before but not backed, maybe the ad was what tipped the balance, reminding you about this cool game and getting you to pledge. Only those who already backed can be considered definitely as “wasted ad spend”. If you only count these as waste, that’s only a 21.5% rate of wasted ad spend. That might seem over-optimistic, but if you compare what we made in the late stages of the campaign with what we would have expected, based on comparison with other campaigns, you’d guess that only about 19% of the ad-driven pledges were “wasted ad spend”. At any rate, at a 21.5% rate of wasted spend, the ads would have driven a healthy amount of extra money – meaning we would have kept about 23.5% of the ad-driven revenue after costs.

So we can’t ever really know how effective the ads were taking into account wasted spend. Indeed, there are other unknowns: could it be that the ad-driven folks would eventually have bought the game after the campaign closed? Might we be robbing our future selves? Conversely, might ad-driven backers have reshared the campaign a generated more organic sales from people who would never have heard of it otherwise? It’s all pretty hard to estimate.

What we do know is that this was our most successful campaign, in terms of number of backers, ever. Even though it was a small zine project, it was the most revenue we’ve ever raised from a crowdfunding campaign. And even if we can’t quite prove it, the overall trend in the data suggests that the advertising was well worth it for us.

A small further addendum to the above is that obviously a % of our ad-driven backers will come back and support future projects. We can’t know what this is worth to us, but in the scenario where we actually had very high wasted ad spend, and made a small loss overall, this would be the silver lining to the cloud.

What about you?

Before closing out, I want to pile in some caveats to the above.

First off, this was just one example. Wreck This Deck appears to already have been fairly unusual as zine projects go, with nearly 600 backers before the ads kicked in. It had low overheads, and indeed once you’ve got 600 backers the extra cost of delivering additional copies of the game is very low. This makes it easier for ads to be cost-effective. This might not be a representative example.

Second, we’re a relatively mature gaming company. We’re still absolutely tiny in the scheme of things, but we knew we could afford to take some risks with a relatively small project and if we made a loss then it wouldn’t destroy us. It’s wonderful that Backerkit don’t charge you until after the campaign, but they do charge you, and the bill can be quite high. You have to decide your own appetite for risk.

Third, your costs are an absolutely vital part of the calculation here. Not just the cost of the ads, but the cost of providing your product to all those extra people, including shipping and all the other horrible costs that notoriously turn out to be higher than you expected. We made a spreadsheet to add all these costs up, and work out how high a % return on advertising spend we’d need to turn a profit. We looked at nightmare scenarios where that % turned out to be too low, and how much that would cost us. I strongly recommend you do that too, if you’re thinking about using ads.

Fourth, advertising can be a bit anxiety-inducing. You get real-time data about advertising spend, including how effective it’s been today, and sometimes the numbers can be quite alarming. Returns on spend zigzag around. If you’re in the UK like us, it’s doubly alarming as you can’t communicate with West Cost US-based Backerkit until they get to work in your late afternoon. This goes back to your risk appetite – are you comfortable watching your money being spent, and sometimes feeling unsure if it’s worth it?

Obviously I wouldn’t think to tell anyone “go and spend a pile of money on ads” – that has to be your decision, based on your particular circumstances. All I can say is: it worked well for us, and we will likely be doing more of it.

Wreck This Deck is LIVE on Backerkit!

Wreck This Deck is a dark urban fantasy game of solo journaling, demon summoning and deck crafting. Summon and bind demons into your Demon Deck, defacing the cards as you go. The game was first published during lockdown and saw a lot of play, and we’re now crowdfunding the print zine that it always deserved, using Backerkit’s new crowdfunding platform.

In Wreck This Deck you will:

  • Delve into dark knowledge and live life on the edge as a demon-summoning deck runner.
  • Bind demons into your haunted deck, wielding their strength for yourself.
  • Modify playing cards, creating a personalized deck spattered with paint, blood and sigils.
  • Unleash the power of your demon deck to fight corporations, right injustice and protect your community. 

Pledge now to help us get the strongest possible launch!

Play Modena

This last week I’ve been away in Italy at Play Modena, Italy’s biggest gaming convention. I was invited by Narrattiva, who did the awesome Italian Ghostlight Edition of Lovecraftesque, and was at the convention as a guest. It was a pretty interesting experience and I’m going to give you the highlights.

First things first: how do you say “Modena”? This seems to be quite a difficult thing for English people. We get tempted to say “Moderna”, which is wrong. I’ve been studying Italian over the last year and it didn’t help at all. So: the word is pronounced “Moh – duh – nuh“, with a rhythm and emphasis similar to how you say “modelling”.

At the time of the convention Italy was suffering major rainfall and some of the worst flooding its ever had, right near to Modena, something I only started to become aware of as I travelled over. Modena itself seemed unscathed (and indeed fairly dry by British standards) but my hosts were coming from Forli, in the region most affected by the floods. This made life very difficult for them as their daily 1-hour commute became over 4 hours. The convention organisers very kindly put me up in a local hotel and I’m very glad they did because some of the Narrattiva team were surviving on 4 hours sleep a night. But although a gaming con is hardly the most important thing during a disaster like this (several people died), it did affect footfall and some events had to be cancelled. The Narrattiva team stoically (and rather impressively) got on with it and, on a wing and a prayer, managed to keep the show on the road.

Me with some of the Narrattiva team
The Narrattiva team were a very welcoming bunch.

My first day was setting up the stall before the convention. A different experience from what I’m used to – the Narrattiva team had a sort of Ikea-style build-it-yourself booth which initially seemed like madness but looked very good once built. Even if the chaos around the floods meant they needed to do things unconventionally – see the video below for what I mean!

My first takeaway from the convention, on day 2, was that Italian gaming publishers are very showy. We had holographic displays on our booth, showing off the products Narrattiva produce. Next door was a massive table carved to look like a game board. Down the way, an area made up to look like a prison cell you could play Heroquest in. Massive battlemaps big enough to walk on, a room-sized Rubiks cube, and much more. They made UK conventions look a little boring. I’m honestly not sure how much of this is important and effective marketing, and how much is just an arms race of showing off. It does look very cool though.

A gorgeous wooden table carved into a game board.
So cool.

At the convention my main activities were signing books and running games. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever signed so many books. I came in thinking Italy was the place in the world where our games are most popular and the convention confirmed it, with more copies of Lovecraftesque sold than we’d normally do at home. I was frequently approached by very enthusiastic fans who wanted to tell me how much they loved the game, and by designers whose games we have influenced. It was a bit like being a minor celebrity for the week, and that was rather lovely.

As for running games, the flooding meant that the printouts and other materials I had hoped to have never materialised. But luckily I came to the convention armed with a prototype set of cards for Lovecraftesque second edition. These proved invaluable and worked even better than they have during online playtesting. The cards made everything smoother and easier to explain, and the prompts helped to grease everyone’s creative wheels. This was so effective that we managed to play a speed run in 90 minutes, which I think is a record for me. (I think the ideal run time for Lovecraftesque is more like 3 hours, but it’s very easy to cut this down if you need to.)

Playing Lovecraftesque 2e at Play Modena
I display my uncanny ability to close my eyes at the wrong moment.

Narrattiva had set up a 24-person “massive game” of Lovecraftesque (would have been 50 person but for the floods), which was a first for me. 7 or 8 individual games of Lovecraftesque were linked together. The premise was that the main character on each gaming table was the beneficiary of the same will: each character inherited a different house and also an item (which was provided as a physical prop in a box we had to open). There was also a “telegram” system where we could send messages to other tables if we wanted to. In the event, my table did a fairly ordinary (i.e. good, fun) game of Lovecraftesque, without making much use of the props or the telegrams, but I liked the idea of it and there was a certain buzz about playing the game in a room full of other people doing it at the same time.

Indeed my second big takeaway from the convention was the focus on play. Every booth in the convention had its own play area, and many “booths” were nothing more than a set of play tables. Organised play was a standard part of having a booth, and booking a session to play with me personally was part of Narrattiva’s sales pitch for the event. Offering massive/mega-games was an important part of the show. In the UK trade halls are essentially nothing but giant retail areas; they might be next door to a big play area, and the companies involved might offer games, but it all feels a bit separate. Given that we’re all interesting in gaming, presumably, to play games, this now feels a little odd. On a related note I heard from the organisers that they do something called “Play on tour” where they set up gaming tables at other (non-gaming) events around the country, including for example local festivals and scientific conferences. I would love it if we did that here in the UK.

Of course, there was also delicious food. I ate the local gnocco fritto, a kind of fried dough served with cheese and cured meat. Naturally there was also wonderful pasta. I had local wine (fizzy red wine served cold – unusual but very nice) and delightful limoncello brought to the convention by a fan of Lovecraftesque. I made myself into a typical Englishman by constantly asking for “un piccolo po di latte freddo” with my tea.

With the convention being in a peripheral part of town I only saw the centre of Modena on the morning before my return flight, but the convention organisers very kindly drove me in to have a little stroll around before rushing off to the airport.

Gorgeous Italian cathedral
Modena cathedral is striking in white stone.

I want to thank everyone at Narrattiva, particularly Michele, Pietro and Filippo (who acted as my translator on various occasions), and Matteo and Marco from the convention team, for being such wonderful hosts and managing to make my stay friction-free despite all the problems. I had a fantastic time and I hope to return one day.

Why we’re using Backerkit for Wreck This Deck

We’ve done four TTRPG crowdfunding campaigns, starting with Lovecraftesque (first edition) in 2015, then Flotsam, Bite Marks and Last Fleet. All four were on Kickstarter. We’ve had some great success with Kickstarter. But for Wreck This Deck, we’ve decided to go with Backerkit, and I want to talk about why.

First a brief plug for Wreck This Deck. It’s a solo journaling game of demon summoning and deck crafting, where you trap demons in ordinary playing cards by defacing the cards: paint them, stitch them, burn them, scrawl on them. It had some great success when we first released it during lockdown and we’re now ready to give it a print edition. If you like the sound of that then you can pledge on our Backerkit crowdfunding page.

When we first started crowdfunding, Kickstarter was more-or-less the only game in town. Indiegogo was there, but it just didn’t look as attractive, and the campaigns on there didn’t seem to do as well. Kickstarter was an accessible, simple way to get into crowdfunding – and it rewarded its users with what seemed to be a pretty good throughput from people who were just browsing the site.

But Kickstarter has made some weird moves recently. From the resistance to recognising the union, to the flirtation with crypto, it’s simply not been presenting an attractive face to ethical publishers and backers. And for a long time, Kickstarter has seemed complacent: for years it wasn’t even possible to put alt text on images, despite us writing to them to complain about the accessibility implications. (This now appears to have been fixed, thankfully.)

Perhaps in response to the diminished reputation of Kickstarter, there has been a growing set of rivals. Projects using these rivals have seen mixed success. It’s always a risk to move from a popular marketplace into somewhere new. And so there’s a risk of a vicious cycle, with alternative platforms seeing poor outcomes, putting off creators from using them.

Enter Backerkit. This is a platform that already has a lot of understanding of the crowdfunding market. We’ve been using them since our first campaign to provide post-campaign support, tracking our backers, generating helpful post-campaign surveys, managing our digital rewards and so on. Their customer service is second to none: when I’ve had problems working out how to do something they will send me a custom-recorded video by one of their staff made just for me, showing me how to do the specific thing I wanted. Where our Kickstarter campaign pages have always been approved without ceremony, Backerkit actually sent us detailed feedback on the Wreck This Deck campaign page, enabling us to improve it. And their functionality is great.

Backerkit has launched a full-blown crowdfunding platform of its own and it’s shown some pretty good success stories. But much more important, they’ve shown that they know how to run a crowdfunding platform. Their setup is flexible, functional, and well integrated with the kind of tools you need to manage a campaign. And as previously remarked, they have great customer service – both for us as the publisher and you the customer.

It felt like a risky move. We are all too aware of the potential for our campaign to lose visibility because Backerkit is still a relatively small player, with less “passing traffic”. But we think it’s the right move at this time. And early results from the campaign suggest we’ve made a good call. Of course we’ll never know how it would have gone if we’d used Kickstarter, but for a zine campaign Wreck This Deck is doing incredibly well at nearly 350 backers after 1 week, and that’s included a fair bit of people coming from within Backerkit’s website.

Of course, we’re not saying Kickstarter is evil, and we may well use them in the future. So far the crypto flirtation hasn’t come to anything, and they’ve shown they can improve by (eventually) recognising the union and offering alt text on their images. This isn’t some kind of principle-driven rupture. But we do hope that we can be part of a greater move to diversify the crowdfunding market so we’re not all dependent on one big provider. Having that competition will likely be better for Kickstarter too, in the long run.

So anyway, that’s a little insight into why we’re doing this. We’ll be watching closely how well Wreck This Deck does with a view to deciding what to do with our next big project: Lovecraftesque second edition. Watch this space!

Lies, damned lies and TTRPG art – our experience with a dishonest “artist”

We have been working on the second edition of our storytelling horror card game, Lovecraftesque, for quite a while and have begun to reach out to artists to illustrate the game. During this process we had a bad experience with an “artist” who we think was trying to scam us out of money, or who at the very least was dishonest, and we wanted to share what we’d learned as a warning to others.

We solicited artists for the game through a google form that we circulated on social media, requesting details, availability and a portfolio. Our intention was to review the portfolios submitted, alongside other artists we were potentially interested in working with, and then draw up a shortlist to ask for quotes from. This is a new idea for us – we usually identify artists we like and approach them directly, but we wanted to cast our net a bit wider this time, avoid just going to the usual suspects, and potentially open up the field to lesser known artists. Little did we realise that we were inviting in someone with less positive motives.

We got a good response and we shortlisted five artists whose work we liked. We reached out to them by email with a detailed specification, asking for a quote, and having got these, we narrowed the field to two artists whose work we liked. One was an artist we had used before and whose work and professionalism we were confident of. The other was someone we had not worked with before, who had an eclectic portfolio of gorgeous images, albeit submitted as a Google drive folder of images, which was a little unusual. It was this second person who very nearly tricked us into hiring them on false premises.

Having narrowed the field, we arranged a meeting with each artist and talked through the project a bit more, clarifying details and trying to ensure we got the most accurate estimate of both the cost and the time to do the work. Our new artist, who said they were based in Texas, turned up a little late for the call and when they arrived they did not turn their video camera on. We thought nothing of it at the time. We talked through the project and they offered refined quotes with a discount based on the volume of work we were suggesting, but saying they would give a final “package” price once we confirmed exactly what we were hiring them to do. They asked for a 50% deposit on each piece before starting work, something we’ve done before with other artists. At this point no alarm bells rang.

It was only later when we sent them the final details of what we wanted that they came back with a different price from what they’d discussed with us – a higher price, even though the specification hadn’t changed. They also asked for 50% of the total package as an up-front payment, which was a big change and would mean giving them a lot of money without any work having been done. They’d also given a New York address which, having said they were in Texas, seemed at the very least a little strange.

Something felt wrong and, acting on instinct, I Googled their name. I’d done this before of course, but hadn’t really worried when I didn’t find any information about them. Looking back this should have been a warning sign. I still felt a nagging concern and so I went back to their portfolio and downloaded the images, before performing a reverse Google image search on them. And that is when I realised that we were being lied to.

The reverse image search revealed that most of the images were lightly edited copies of images in the online portfolios of several different artists, none of whom shared the name of the “artist” that we’d come so close to hiring. I put “artist” in quote marks there since, at this point, it has to be doubtful whether the person we had spoken to was an artist at all. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were quite prepared to continue lying once confronted, claiming they shared the portfolio with other friends of theirs, and continuing to state that they are a “legit artist” even when I informed them I had contacted the artists whose work they had used and none of them had heard of them.

The fact is that we were extremely close to giving this person money to produce art for Lovecraftesque. If they had played their game a little bit better, and not attempted to change the price and terms they offered us, we would have handed over hundreds of dollars to them. I think it likely that they would have simply taken that money and disappeared. At the very least we’d have been unlikely to get art that was up to the standard we wanted. Of course, if we hadn’t got suspicious it’s possible we could have ended up giving them even more money.

Two images of an angel-like creature, appearing as a dark-skinned woman with two pairs of feathered wings, and wearing white and gold clothing and a gold headdress. 

They look essentially identical except that the one on the left has been colorised with a purple filter, mirrored, and its aspect ratio slightly altered.
One of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Kang Sojin, used with permission (right). Find Kang Sojin’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/L9oK5

It was a surprise to me that anyone would bother to target a small creator like us in this way. Obviously we’re aware of internet scammers, you couldn’t move for Nigerian bankers looking to give their money away in the 1990s, but the idea that someone would fill out a Google form for a tabletop game art project with the aim of tricking them out of money never occurred to us.

My lessons from this experience are:

  • Google your artist. You want to know you’re not hiring someone disreputable, and if they have no internet footprint at all then that should at least prompt you to investigate further.
  • Consider asking around – has anyone worked with this artist before? Of course with this you should be careful that you aren’t discriminating against newcomers.
  • Reverse Google image search their portfolio images, and make sure the names match.
  • As with all scammy stuff, trust your instincts – if something feels wrong, pause and look again. Don’t hire someone that’s setting off your inner alarm bell.

Similar considerations apply to hiring freelancers of all kinds, I fear. If you don’t know them or have good references, you need to do your homework.

Two near-identical images, each showing what appears to be a boat atop a pile of moss-covered stones, in the shadow of which is another ship, and the whole of which is surrounded by azure water. Rocky crags loom in the background.

The left-hand image has a brighter, more saturated palette and is mirrored compared to the one on the right.
Another of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Andrew Porter, used with permission (right). Find Andrew Porter’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/w88qg

In the age of AI, this is going to get harder. Some of the art of our “artist” did not show up on reverse image search, and looking at the images that it did throw up made us suspect that these might have been AI-produced. Of course you might ask why that’s a problem, if you liked the art? Personally I find AI art to be ethically dubious, as it essentially remixes the work of other artists without credit or permission. But even if you’re comfortable with it, you probably wouldn’t want to pay the same price to such a person as you would for an original illustration by a skilled artist. You might also think that there was a risk that a person who had simply produced their portfolio using AI might be doing as we suspect our “artist” was, and luring you into giving them money for nothing.

Luckily, we did spot the fake artist’s lies, and we’re now working with an excellent artist to make Lovecraftesque as beautiful and haunting as it deserves to be. But we will certainly be a bit more wary of unknown applicants, and check their credentials carefully as standard in future.