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.

August game – Ghost Hunt Live!

Ghost Hunt was our August release. It has now been taken down but it will be released soon on our Itch store.

Hey folks!

August’s game is Ghost Hunt Live! – a hack of Lovecraftesque where you play TV ghosthunters.

You are a fearless and seasoned team of TV ghosthunters. A blend of investigators, psychics, parapsychologists, camera crew, sceptics, a cool presenter and maybe even the occasional exorcist. This is a haunted location and it doesn’t know what is about to hit it!

Ghost Hunt Live! is a game about a TV show hunting for ghosts and finding the stories of the people they once were. You will play one main character, The Psychic, and rotate this and other roles around the play group until the full story of the haunting is revealed.

It’s a super fun game and we hope you enjoy it.

While we’re on the subject (kind of) of Lovecraftesque, you might be interested to know that we are not far off launching the crowdfunding campaign for the second edition of the game. The new edition takes everything that was good about the first and improves it, providing a slicker, more inspiring and even more accessible experience. You can sign up to be notified when the campaign launches here:

https://www.backerkit.com/call_to_action/7d5c14b9-1a73-4aa3-bd55-ad7c3afc43fe/landing?ref=patreon

Cheers

Josh and Becky

Lovecraftesque second edition is coming!

Check out the preview page and sign up for updates

We’re launching a new edition of Lovecraftesque, the classic storytelling game of creeping cosmic horror. Lovecraftesque creates chilling eldritch mysteries that keep the whole table in suspense right until the end: the story emerges over a single session as if by magic without any prep, planning or discussion. The first edition was critically acclaimed, won the Gioco Dell’Anno (Game Of The Year) award, was a finalist in the IGDN indie groundbreakers, and influenced a generation of mystery games like Brindlewood Bay, Apocalypse Keys and Bleak Spirit. We’re crowdfunding a new second edition boxed set, building on the lessons from the first to make an even slicker, more inspiring, easier-to-learn experience, with brand new art and a plethora of exciting new scenarios for the game. The campaign launches in October.

If you like the sound of that you can find out more and sign up for updates here.

Cute familiars and spooky mansions!

Familiar Friends is a cozy journaling game about the lives of witches’ familiars, and the silly adventures they get up to. It’s solo-first but it also works as a light GMless game for a gang of familiars. It’s a lot of fun! You can get it now by supporting the Black Armada Patreon – and of course it will be available on our itch store in a few months.

Ghost Hunt Live! is a game about TV ghost hunters staking out spooky mansions and uncovering the lives of the ghosts they find there. It’s a Lovecraftesque hack where your TV psychic will gradually discover the truth about a haunted place, ably aided by the crew of your TV show. GHL is on its way to the Black Armada Patreon imminently.

It’s a good time to join the Patreon – for a mere $5 you can get our previous release Polis, plus Familiar Friends and Ghost Hunt Live! when it releases. Not bad!

Wreck This Deck is available to pre-order

Wreck This Deck, the dark urban fantasy journaling game of demon summoning and deck crafting, is at the printers and shipping in the next few weeks. If you missed the crowdfunding campaign, you can pre-order it here.

July game: Familiar Friends

Familiar friends was July’s Patreon release. It has now been taken down, but will soon be available on the Black Armada itch store.

This month’s game seemed to leap into my head fully-formed. It’s a cozy journaling game about the lives of witches’ familiars, and the silly adventures they get up to. It’s solo-first but it also works as a light GMless game for a gang of familiars.

I had a lot of fun playtesting it and I hope you enjoy playing it too!

Josh

Wreck This Deck Designer Diary

Wreck This Deck is my solo journaling game of altered playing cards and I’m currently crowdfunding a print edition of the game on Backerkit. You can support the campaign here.

This post is to give you a deeper sense of the game and the influences that made it. Because it was influenced from some pretty far flung places. But before that, let’s explore what the game does.

In this game you play a type of demonologist called a deck runner. You attract and trap demons in playing cards by doing micro rituals. You then use those cards in rituals to generate magical effects and use the deck for fortune telling keeping meticulous notes in your journal as you go.  You can write about your life, your experiments, the outputs of your magic, micro fiction – whatever you need to get down and remember. The game loop can run in different directions but most times you would design a question and do a fortune telling spread with the deck to answer the question. That process would uncover some action you need to take, action which would probably involve doing some magic with the deck, summoning a demon into a card or both. Doing a magical ritual might create more problems and plot hooks etc.

In order to attract and trap a demon in a card you do something physical to the card. There are examples in the game text or you can design your own. For example, if I want to attract Beelzebub I’d take out the 2 of Clubs and smear honey on it. When Beelzebub arrives I snip all four corners of the card to clip his wings. After this trapping, everytime the card comes out, perhaps in a ritual or a fortune telling spread, I draw a little fly on the card. Over the course of play you create a full deck of these trashed, altered cards that can be beautiful art or a burned, ripped up little wreck.

You can play the game totally solo, dipping in and out as you choose or you can use the #WreckThisDeckRPG hashtag to post pictures of your deck and interact with other deck runners. Joining up your stories for a little while. One of my cards was posted over 2 years ago to a fellow deck runner, and they are still keeping it safe for me.

I chose playing cards because they are cheap and easy to get.  I would love to run a variant of this game with a tarot deck or supplement my playing card-based demon deck with cards from board games or old collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering.  There is a wide open field for how creative you can get.

Back to the influences and these go back a long long way; starting with a book called Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith encouraging you to draw, doodle, make stains in the physical book itself. Breaking the taboos of what we can and can’t create on and with, it was a total eye opener. I bought that book nearly 20 years ago and I’m still wrecking it even today. I got the book at the same time I was lurking on the edge of the artists trading card community and the altered book art phenomenon and I loved it all. Taking everyday things and making them beautiful, changed, unique and sharing that art with others. Fits right in with the DIY element of zines which flows through Wreck This Deck. I have no interest in keeping things in a mint, pristine condition. I like my books second hand; I like to see the fingerprints of humans using things, reading things, imbuing them with meaning as they touch them.

Next, I was hugely inspired by Unbound by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor.  I adored the idea of making marks and notations on a deck of playing cards and then seeing those marks come up again later in a game in a different context.  Shifting the story and made call backs – I originally designed What The Water Gave Me with that in mind.  In WTWGM you make notes about the ghosts that come up in your game on the playing cards used in the system. Keeping the same deck for future plays of the game means the old ghosts from previous stories have a chance of coming back in later games. Haunting your future games with echoes of your past ones.

So the twin ideas of a ‘legacy’ game which builds up ideas, correspondences and story ideas from earlier games, alongside creating a physical and unique artifact during play was hugely appealing.  In the case of Wreck This Deck this artifact (the deck) exists both in the game and for you as the player. The hashtag idea was because sometimes playing a solo game can get a little lonely and being able to drop into a community for an extra bump of inspiration is nice.  This is a low effort, asynchronous way to do that and also gives you somewhere to post cool pictures of your creations!

And there is one more thing. Just before Covid, Josh and I played Pandemic Legacy from start to finish. I remember the look of horror when he realised he had to deface a card for the first time. He actually refused. I picked up the card, ripped it in two and it felt far cooler then it should have. There is a power in transgressing, a power in changing how we are supposed to treat games and books etc. A power that suits the idea of trapping demons in cards just perfectly.

That brings me all the way through to the current crowdfunding campaign. This zine will be printed physically, it will have gorgeous original lino print art and a new layout. The rules are slightly revised and there is a lot more material on demons you can summon and some sample fortune telling spreads.

Blessed are the deck runners.

June game: Polis

Polis was our June Patreon game. It has now been taken down but will be available soon on the Black Armada itch store.

Hello everyone!

It has been very busy this last month. I’ve been away at Play Modena, Becky launched her crowdfunding campaign for Wreck This Deck, and the two of us both went to UK Games Expo. Plus I have been feverishly working to progress Lovecraftesque second edition. On top of that it was our youngest child’s birthday, which is almost as much work as these.

Somehow, amongst all this activity, I’ve managed to finish Polis, which is this month’s Patreon game. Here is the blurb for the game:

Here is a settlement. It is unique and filled with potential. And from this settlement you are going to grow a city.

This is a game about the rise and evolution of a city. You will start with a simple map of a settlement, with its surrounding terrain and a some starting details. Over time you spark its growth, and watch it grow and change over time into a full-fledged city. You will populate it with vibrant cultures, build beautiful buildings and neighbourhoods. You will shape your city with festivals and monuments, wars and revolutions, bounties and catastrophes. With each change, the city will evolve and respond until you have something truly unique.

You’ll need a couple of people (or more), some index cards or a virtual equivalent, and a few hours to play. If you want to, you can play for much longer, until the process of adaptation and change leaves you with a city that has changed utterly.

Polis was developed using similar mechanics to my earlier creation, Biome, and inspired by games like Microscope. It’s a world-building game where you take turns to make changes you your world, and then the entire table makes further changes that react to what you did. The result is a city that feels like a living thing – responding and adapting to change, evolving over time. Like its predecessors, there is a lot of fun to be had just building and growing your game world, but it is also very fun to dive into the world and play scenes in it, and the mechanics make it matter when you do.

It’s a very fun game and I hope you enjoy it.

Best wishes

Josh

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!