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!

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.

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.

The UK Indie League

We’re a small group of indie tabletop roleplaying game publishers based in the UK.

Upcoming Events

We’ll be attending UK Games Expo 2024. We are at stall Stand 1-856. Drop by and visit!

We’ll also be at Dragonmeet 2024 – details TBC.

The League Membership

Biscuit Fund Games is the small press name for the creations of Chloe Montgomery and Alyssa Ridley, two trans women in their mid-20s working together to create exciting new roleplaying and tabletop games.

Black Armada Games, creators of games that unlock the creativity of your group, bring your favourite genres to life and give you feelings in your heart. We publish Wreck This Deck, Lovecraftesque, Bite Marks, Last Fleet and Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars, along with many smaller games.

Certain Death is the publishing company of Chris Longhurst, writer and game designer behind Strike Force Omega, Pigsmoke, Bleak Spirit, Gods and Monsters, See Issue X, and more.

The Rolistes is the home of tabletop RPG fans across the Channel, the Pond and beyond. Kalum started this multimedia umbrella with several podcasts and streamed shows, before branching out into live events and now tabletop RPG publishing. His first step in game design is Paris Gondo – The Life-Saving Magic of Inventorying. The Rolistes also publishes translations, between French, English and Spanish, of small format roleplaying games including Shakespeare in Role and The Feather & the Butterfly.

Sinister Beard Games publishes tabletop RPGs for beautiful weirdos, including Quietus, the roleplaying game of melancholy horror, Night Reign, and the upcoming Extreme Meatpunks Forever. It’s run by Oli Jeffery, who’s been regretting the name every since he chose it.

Wordplay Games

How long does it take to make an RPG?

Over the last couple of years I have been keeping a regular record of the time I spend on RPG design projects – especially the larger ones. During this time I’ve taken two big projects to conclusion: Flotsam – Adrift Amongst the Stars and Last Fleet.

I’ve combined the data from these two to make a rough chart of how I spend time on a big RPG project. Specifically, most of the post-Kickstarter campaign data (layout, art management, printing, shipping) comes from Flotsam while the rest comes from Last Fleet. This is because I only started keeping records partway through Flotsam’s lifecycle, while one impact of the current pandemic has been that my Last Fleet record keeping fell apart post-Kickstarter – though anecdotally it looks pretty similar to Flotsam so I feel comfortable combining the two.

The data isn’t perfect. Realistically I sometimes lost track of time and wrote down a best guess on how long I’d spent working on a given occasion. I also likely failed to catch some smaller bits of working time.

With the above caveats in mind, I estimate that one of these projects takes about 300 hours from start to finish. That’s just my time – not the wider project contributors (stretch goal writers, editors, artists etc). That’s how long it takes me; I would think every designer is different. Others may do more or less playtesting, take more or less time iterating their design ideas, or do more or less marketing work. So this is just one example, but hopefully it gives some sense of how long it might take you, dear reader.

Pie chart shows data as follows.
- Design 34.5%
- Playtest 17.2%
- Art 8.6%
Layout 3.4%
Editing 10.3%
Kickstarter 5.2%
Publicity 13.8%
Printing 1.7%
Shipping 1.7%
Admin 3.4%

As you can see from the chart (blue segments), I spend about half of my time on design (34.5%) and playtesting (17.2%) combined. That encompasses all the thinking and writing that goes into creating the draft game text, all the planning for the playtests and the actual time spent in playtest sessions. It’s likely more of an underestimate than the other segments, because who can really quantify time spent thinking – I do a good chunk of that in between formal design sessions.

The next biggest chunk, in red, is publicity (13.8%). That includes time spent on interviews and the like, but excludes time spent refreshing Twitter during the Kickstarter campaign. This is because I figure the latter is something I would have done anyway. I find Kickstarter campaigns very stressful. Perhaps in theory I should attempt to account for that stress and the time it eats up, I don’t know. However part of the reason for doing this accounting is to consider how much I might reasonably charge someone else to run their campaign, so it’s useful to know the actual hours spent working as opposed to time wasted because of the psychological impact of crowdfunding.

I’ve separately accounted for time spent setting up the Kickstarter page (in purple), doing Kickstarter updates and suchlike, which you could consider publicity but are often actually taken up with more admin type tasks. At any rate – quite a small category (5.2%), probably because it’s mostly writing down stuff I’ve already worked out elsewhere and communicating it to backers.

After that, in orange, you have editing (10.3%) and layout (3.4%). The editing time is huge! To some extent the figure is arbitrary, because design work itself includes a great deal of editing. I have counted the time I spent re-reading the text after I had notionally settled on a final ruleset, polishing it, and also time I spent reading my copy editor’s comments and implementing them. (Aside: that’s how long it took me as someone very close to the text: imagine how long it takes a copy editor who has never even read your text before. Pay your copy editors well, folks!) Layout was mostly done by my layout artist but there was a bit of review, comment and editing to make stuff fit within a particular page template.

Art (grey) also took up a surprisingly large amount of time (8.6%). This covers generating the ideas for the illustrations, liaising with the artist(s), and reviewing their work and providing comments. Given that Flotsam has about 25 pieces of art in it, that’s over an hour per piece, which seems like a lot – I guess quite a bit of it just thinking.

In the “surprisingly low” category, in green, is printing (1.7%) , shipping (1.7%) and admin (3.4%). This covers tasks like setting up all my products on Backerkit, liaising with the printer and warehouse, fixing errors, dealing with customs, etc. I think this excludes post-Backerkit admin, such as setting up the new product on itch, Drivethru and our website, and handling orders. So in that sense, it’s probably an underestimate over and above the caveats mentioned further up. And since neither project was my first rodeo, there’s an element of familiarity with the admin systems that might take a newbie publisher longer to get to grips with (not least because you can copy data over from previous projects in Backerkit).

One bit of “lessons learned” from this is that I need to create “how to” guides for some of the things that I do as part of a Kickstarter project. For example, I wasted a small but nonzero amount of time figuring out how to complete customs forms for Last Fleet that I had done for previous projects but forgotten. Now I have a customs template of my own to make the process easier. It’s well worth your time to systematise this stuff if you’re planning to do multiple projects, as there are all sorts of fiddly details that can be hard to remember (and indeed, if you forget them, can cause problems).

Anyway, I did this analysis for my own benefit but hopefully someone somewhere might find it helpful.

How I curate my ideas

It is fashionable in game design circles to say that an idea is worth zero dollars. This is meant as a rebuttal to people who try to sell you their brilliant idea for a game. Which, fine – those people can’t really sell you an idea anyway, so that is indeed worth zero dollars. But that doesn’t mean ideas are worthless. On the contrary, an otherwise well-implemented game that lacks interesting ideas probably won’t get very far.

The thing is, ideas are ephemeral. Until you write them down, they’re just this slippery thing in your head. You can come up with dozens of them in a day – on the toilet, in the shower, while you’re trying to get to sleep. But most of them are lost.

In fact, they’re worse than that in many ways, because while you’re busy losing them, they distract you. They stop you sleeping because your brain won’t stop thinking about them. They stop you implementing your current project because you get excited about a different one. This is not good.

And you really don’t want to be at the mercy of your ideas. That way lies a trail of unfinished projects, each abandoned in favour of the latest shiny th- SQUIRREL!

So it is important to curate your ideas. To find a way to capture them before you forget them, and get them out of your head so they don’t distract you. And this, it turns out, is fairly simple: you just write them down.

Here’s what I do:

  • I write a simple one or two sentence summary of any idea that captures my attention for more than a few minutes and add it to my ideas list. In my case that’s a sticky on my laptop, but a notebook would be just as good.
  • I subdivide my ideas list. At the top are things I’m working on now. Then there’s the things that are next in line to work on. I break them down into small games and long games, and non-game things like articles or events.
  • I keep it updated, moving stuff in and out of each category. If it becomes clear I’m not going to finish something (at least not now) then it goes into the back burner section. Abandoned but not forgotten.
  • Because I know what I’m meant to be working on now, and I know I’m not losing the other ideas, I can focus on my top priorities. I’ve always got an idea of what I want to work on next, so if I have to take a break from my current projects (e.g. because they’re out for playtesting) then I can pick up something new right away. My subdivisions enable me to easily choose something small that I can do in a spare day, or something longer, as appropriate.
  • I take breaks from working on active projects to review the list and see what looks good. What has sustained my interest and what now seems less brilliant than it initially did. Which ideas might need to be merged or dropped. So the list isn’t just a dumping ground, it’s a breeding ground for my next project.

Sometimes, an idea is so compelling that even with the above discipline I can’t get it out of my head, I write a concept document. This is a half-page document where I write down:

  • The elevator pitch
  • My design goals – the things I’d want to achieve through it
  • A short summary of how I think I might implement those goals right now.

That goes in a dedicated folder of ideas, where I can easily pull it out again if I need it. Again: I’m getting it out of my head, and written down, but I’m limiting its ability to dominate my creativity and draw me away from what I’m meant to be prioritising.

Of course, sometimes having written a concept document, it’s not enough. I want to flesh out the ideas. I’m struck by passion for this new idea! That’s ok. Sometimes I give myself permission to do this. I might even end up writing the game. But for the most part, the structured process above ensures I retain sustained attention to my current project. I get to keep all the ideas that constantly fly into and out of my brain without letting myself chase those ideas fruitlessly.

How do you manage your ideas? Let me know your top tips!

How can we get more people playing RPGs?

This is the #RPGaDay2018 topic for day 8. I’ve answered most of these as simple social media posts, but felt like I had quite a bit to say on this one, so it’s getting its own blog post.

Let’s start by saying that “we” means a lot of different groups of people, who have different opportunities to bring new people into the hobby. I’m going to go through some of these groups and how I think they could help to expand the hobby.

Game publishers. Ok, so obviously game publishers have succeeded handily in creating games that attract plenty of gamers. But an awful lot of those games have been presented and pitched in a fairly similar way. They cover fairly similar territory in terms of genre and approach. To brutally oversimplify, most RPGs are about action and adventure, with sword/gun-toting heroes as the central (though not exclusive) focus. The art and style have a particular look. There’s historically been a focus on white male characters. Now, this is all fine and dandy. There’s nothing wrong with such games. (Ok, maybe not nothing, but I’m not saying “get rid of games like this”, is my point.) They’ve succeeded in attracting a particular audience; but if you want more people, one way to do that is to broaden your audience. Bring in groups who aren’t attracted by the usual formula.

The good news is, we’re pretty much seeing this happen. Games are increasingly stepping outside the boundaries of those usual approaches, focussing on other genres, other types of story, other characters, different art styles, and so on. Of course, by their nature these games are different to the ones that attracted the existing core market. They may not immediately be as popular as the old stalwarts, or even as popular as new games within the traditional genres. This is because the existing (large) audience that is paying attention to RPGs and willing to spend money and time on them need to be persuaded to consider something different, and the existing (even larger) group of people who aren’t paying attention or willing to spend money need to be persuaded to even take a look. So these games can struggle a bit. They are, as some people put it, “a niche within a niche”. But just as Vampire: the Masquerade opened the doors of the hobby to an entirely new audience, these games can do the same.

Meanwhile, the more traditional approach is also adapting itself to expand its audience. More inclusive art, more innovative approaches to the game – D&D and others are changing. And this is at least partly influenced by the less commercially successful games mentioned above. In other words, the hobby is growing and changing and that’s a good thing.

Game retailers. So guess what? It’s the same message again. Game retailers, by and large, present a particular look to the world. To caricature, it’s a seedy comic store look. Giant cardboard cutouts of muscular barbarians or armoured space marines. Model tanks and dragons. Boxes of cards and dice. Again, this is all fine. But what it does is attract the existing audience. The people who like those things, of course, are drawn in. If you want to expand the audience, you have to go beyond that. And in particular you have to project an image that is welcoming to other groups.

This is a much trickier job for retailers. They only have so much window space, and so much shelf space, and so many tables for your games night. You can either put a space marine in that spot by the door, or make space for something else. You can’t really do both. I don’t really have an easy fix for that. But I think the whole can be made attractive to other audiences without sidelining the things that the existing audience like.

There’s another issue, which is about how welcoming the space of the retail store is once you’re in the door. There’s something here about whether new customers feel safe and comfortable in your store. I’m not an expert in this at all, so I’m not going to sound off in detail, except to say that this is not something RPG stores have always been good at. But it is something that we can do. Just take a look at a typical modern Games Workshop store for an idea about one way to do it: they look like proper, professional shops. Yes, they still have marines and tanks and so on, yes (nearly) all the staff and customers are men and might project a slightly unwelcoming “who is this alien” look at women who walk in the store, so yes there’s still work to do. But they don’t look scary. They’re well-lit, well presented, places you’d feel comfortable leaving your eleven-year-old (which is the main GW audience, in case you hadn’t noticed).

Apart from, like, the playground, the RPG store is the primary way into games for new people. It is the literal shop window. So retailers can help get new people in by making it look good, and not just to people who already like RPGs.

Conventions and clubs. Can I say more of the same? Offer games that aren’t monolithic, create spaces that look attractive and welcoming. This is difficult stuff though – the games are mostly offered by volunteers who are already in the hobby,  and the room is mostly filled with those people. Sure, it would be nice if every club had a game of Monsterhearts (or whatever) and some women and PoC, and a welcoming atmosphere, but the reality is that you’ve got the attendees that you’ve got, and they want to play the games that they want to play.

So what can convention and club organisers do? Think about what would make spaces more welcoming. Tackle harassment. Have a decent welcome for newcomers in the form of a smiling, helpful human being who can help direct new attendees to a game they’d like or just find their way to the toilets. Have readily identifiable convention staff who are ready to help people in the same way, and who actively look out for newcomers looking lost, and not just chat to their mates. And project that same ethos to other attendees: tell them what a welcoming space you’re looking to create, how you want them to be friendly to newcomers. Choose a venue that looks clean and has space to move around, space to sit and take a quiet breather. Support new GMs/facilitators and new players, make space for them on the schedule. Support different ways of gaming, like Games on Demand for example.

Once again, at least some conventions are getting this stuff and doing it. More would be better.

Ordinary roleplayers. Nine times out of ten, a new gamer is introduced to the hobby by a friend. (I have no evidence to back this up, but I think it’s true.) So what can we do to help?

The absolute number one thing in my view is to talk about our hobby unashamedly and enthusiastically. Because we don’t do this, roleplaying has a stigma that has been hard to shake. People don’t know that roleplaying is fairly popular, and that normal people do it. It seems alien and sort of shameful or weird. We are the ambassadors for the hobby, more than anyone, and for the most part we shirk that role. Friendly, engaged people with an interesting hobby that they’re clearly interested in is what gets other people interested.

The next thing we can do is to treat each other decently, watch out for each other and come down hard on people in our social circle who don’t do those things. The hobby is plagued by, if not bad behaviour and social awfulness, at the very least the perception of those things. We have a reputation. And if we want to beat that reputation, we have to not just not be like that, but rise so far above that reputation that we break it. This will mean people are more likely to stay in the hobby, and more likely to join.

I absolutely think we can do this. I think many of us are already doing this. And we have a golden opportunity, because popular media is opening the door to our hobby as never before, whether it’s blockbuster fantasy TV shows, widespread superhero movies, or D&D featuring on popular TV. Let’s grab it with both hands.

PS I could have talked about gaming media. There’s great stuff going on here. The AP movement just won the Diana Jones award. I really am not an expert on this, and don’t have a lot to say about it right now, but it’s important and could be key to expanding the hobby.

Lovecraftesque – a kickstarter retrospective (part 4)

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 herePart 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.

Image of a library. A woman in a wheelchair looks over her shoulder, holding a gun at the ready. Behind her, a monstrous praying mantis lurks amongst the bookshelves.
One of the illustrations from Lovecraftesque

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.

Post-kickstarter phase

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.

Graph of our sales during and after the kickstarter