Project Cassandra: Kickstarter Thoughts 2

Barring any packages going missing during delivery I’ve now completed the primary fulfilment on Project Cassandra, my ZineQuest 3 kickstarter. That covers finishing the game, layout, distribution of digital copies, an initial print run and physical fulfilment. While I still have to finish the final stretch goal I wanted to provide an update to this post on how I’m feeling about the campaign, hurdles, costs etc.

But first, a promo shot.

That’s my game! In print! Honestly, when I first started work on Project Cassandra I never thought it would end up like this. I fully expected to release it as a digital only game that would hardly be noticed by anyone outside of my immediate gaming circles. The game is available now in print and PDF from my ko-fi store or just PDF from itch.io and drivethruRPG.

Some numbers

For a breakdown of backer numbers take a look back at the first post in this series. For this post I’m going to focus on production and spending.

During the campaign I stated that I was expecting the game to be around 40 pages. The final count was 52 pages, including covers, printed in full colour on 115gsm paper while the covers were 170gsm with matt lamination. Slightly heavier to give a clear difference in feel but not the 250-300gsm card stock I know a lot of people prefer for covers. For the initial print run I ordered 160 copies, coming in at a price of ~£1.30 per copy.

I decided against a higher print run than that as I’ve heard too many horror stories of people ending up with boxes of unsold books. 160 copies should cover the kickstarter backers, a missing in the post margin of 10%, a small number of copies going into retail distribution and still leave me with ~20 copies to sell directly. Selling those final few copies would also cover the cost of a second printing should I decide there’s enough demand for one.

Sadly, when the initial print run arrived I discovered that 30 of the 160 were damaged by scratch marks on the covers. While not a significant visual issue the problem was very obvious to the touch due to the lamination. Thankfully Mixam were quick to respond to the issue and did a replacement print run, which arrived within 2 days of being submitted. Excellent customer support and ensures I’ll look into using them again in the future.

Post Kickstarter the game is on sale at a RRP of £6 for digital or £10+p&p for the print edition, including a digital download. Conventional wisdom seems to be that print copies should sell for approximately 10x the cost of the actual printing so based on that logic £13 would be a better price. I’ve gone for £10 for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I think that’s a fair price given the size and what other games in shops tend to go for.

Second, this was primarily a vanity project. While I would like to make a micro-business from publishing games Project Cassandra was written as a labour of love so the profit margin was never a driving factor. I could have opted for black and white printing or keeping to that original 40 page estimate but I wanted the game to be the best I could make it. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like it to continue to be successful but knowing what the average ZineQuest campaign earns it was never going to earn back all the labour that went into it.

So what about the costs?

If you remember I put together an initial Kickstarter goal of £400, which broke down roughly as so:

Lets look at this in detail. I budgeted printing costs at £1.50 per unit, shipping at £2 for UK backers and £5 for international backers. All of these were slightly over my true estimates to provide a small safety net at every level. The print tier was priced at £10 during the Kickstarter which included the shipping for UK backers while the rest of the world paid a £3 surcharge top top it up to the £5 I’d budgeted for.

Fixed costs included part of the editing (with the remainder paid for by profits from previous projects), a 10% contingency, test prints and some packaging materials. I made sure to include both the final Kickstarter fee (5% of the total) and per pledge fees that cover payment processing (3% + £0.20 for pledges of £10 and over, 5% + £0.05 for pledges under £10).

I also set up the budget and goal with the worst case scenario assumption of every single pledge being from an international backer at the print tier. The reason for this is that these backers have the highest per pledge costs, primarily due to the shipping. So the budget was set up to ensure that it would break even in this worst case scenario. Every UK or PDF only backer I got increased the final ‘profit’ margin (see below for why this is in quotes).

The two biggest costs using this model were the fixed costs and shipping. The shipping costs covered postage and a supplement to the packaging materials budget. The fixed portion of the packaging materials ensured I could purchase a bulk pack of envelopes while the per pledge supplement ensured I could then scale up if necessary.

You’ll notice that the “Personal earnings” section of that chart is non-existent, or in other words it does not make a profit. There is a lot of discussion amongst the indie RPG scene about paying people fairly, including yourself, but by the point Project Cassandra got to Kickstarter I had already invested a significant amount of time into the game and it was going to be released regardless. The Kickstarter was there to push it over the line and provide the funds to both pay for an editor and an initial print run. If I had just released the game online I can guarantee that it would have failed to achieve enough sales to fund either of those and I still wouldn’t be getting paid for the work that went in.

The budget was set up so that once we’d hit the initial goal I would start earning a share of the pie, to the point that the final post-fulfilment spending looks like this:

As you can see “Personal earnings” in that chart, which accounts for ~£650, is actually a significant chunk of the final total. But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Amongst indie developers there’s a push to pay a writing rate of 10 cents per word, which equates to ~7.5p (GBP) per word right now. Paying myself at that rate would account for ~90% of my personal earnings.

Which seems OK, until you add in all the design work, playtesting, sourcing and editing art, layout, packing orders for shipping and admin that I did. The only reason I “made money” on this was because I did all of that myself, I couldn’t realistically pay someone a fair rate to do it and still compensate myself in any way. I was also fortunate that I was able to use stock art, hiring an artist at standard rates could have easily blown through everything I earned from the campaign.

The second biggest chunk of that pie chart is shipping. I expected this, budgeted for it, included a buffer and thankfully came in slightly under my original estimate. Even then it was a significant proportion of the budget and we’re only talking about a zine here. I don’t want to imagine how expensive a 200-300 page, standard sized hardback rulebook costs to ship and if I ever get to the point of producing one I will definitely look into professional distribution or print on demand.

Being under budget on the final shipping helped offset a cost that I hadn’t originally factored in – purchasing a second hand label printer (which I’ve added under the supplies slice). I bought one after seeing them being discussed by other ZineQuesters and had originally expected to take the cost of it fully from my personal earnings. I can say without a doubt that it has been worth every penny. The amount of time and hassle it has saved is enormous and I fully recommend investing in one if you plan to run even a small Kickstarter. The Zebra GK420d I picked up typically sells for £120-150 second hand on eBay.

Lessons learned

Those are some of the raw numbers but how do I feel about the whole thing? Honestly, pretty good. With 175 backers in total the scale of the project was more successful than I’d expected but still manageable. I know a lot of people find running a Kickstarter can be overwhelming but personally that wasn’t the case here. I think I can attribute that to 3 factors.

  1. I started planning early. As I have mentioned previously I started investigating the feasibility of running the Kickstarter in November just to get a feel for what was possible. That included familiarising myself with the Kickstarter back-end, creating a test project and putting together basic budgets. Plural. I tried out a number of permutations before I settled on the one I used.
  2. 80% of the game was written prior to launch. That was mostly just a quirk of how long this game has been in development limbo but it helped with allowing me to show off a preview (including a full quickstart) explaining what the game was about and ordering test prints of the layout.
  3. I kept the campaign simple. Of all the stretch goals only the final mission trilogy added any extra work to the campaign. Adding colour printing increased the cost of each copy but not the workload as the PDF was always going to be in colour. Similarly unlocking What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? to make it a PWYW product may, in the long run, cost me a small number of sales but it didn’t require any additional work or spending.

The things that I would definitely do differently are relatively minor. The first is a slightly heavier paper weight for the cover. As printed the cover works well, especially as I went for lamination but a denser paper would have added that little bit more stability and strength so it’s something I’ll keep in mind if I get to the point of needing a second print run.

The second is to rethink my approach to a special edition. Like many ZineQuesters I included a limited number tier for those wanting a copy of the game with some unique alterations. Keeping with the theme of the game I thought why not offer a redacted version, where I had gone through and blocked out sections of the text to the point that the game was unplayable.

I thought it would be a nice nod to the genre and it was fun to be paid to deface copies of the game. It was also incredibly time consuming. While I only had a dozen copies to redact doing it by hand was a far slower process than I originally anticipated and it contributed to a delay in sending out the final batch of zines.

Finally I’d make a slight adjustment to the design of my budget with regards the contingency funds. While I had included this in the initial budget at 10% of the goal I made it a fixed cost. So that £40 was going to be £40 regardless of how successful the project was. I got away with it this time but going forward I’ll be ensuring it scales with the campaign total.

ZineQuest 4?

I’ve already started thinking about ZineQuest 4, not so much in terms of content but logistics and planning. I think this campaign worked well so I wouldn’t change too much. If I run one next year my aim is to once again have as much as possible in place by the end of December. That will include bringing people on board earlier – an editor (probably Emzy if she is available) at a minimum but ideally an artist as well. That will obviously raise the campaign goal but for the direction I’m leaning towards stock art isn’t likely to be an option. My hope is that my sales this year will be sufficient to offset some of those costs and allow me to launch the Kickstarter with at least one showcase piece.

Obviously, unlike Project Cassandra, this won’t be a game that I’ve been working on for years which means I need to get it outlined and workshopped ASAP. Having seen the range of games on offer this year I think that I will aim for a less traditional system that embraces more indie concepts. Partially because I want to explore that space but also because the indie approaches I enjoy the most tend towards lighter systems with less mechanical crunch. I think Project Cassandra was about as crunchy as I’d be comfortable with given the constraints of the format.

One of the things that I need to change from this time round is promotion. While Project Cassandra reached more people than I ever expected I’m also not under the illusion that it was all (or even primarily) down to what I did. ZineQuest is one of those force multiplier events that allowed me to reach a lot more people than I normally could and I’ve no doubts that without its community I would have struggled to reach even the initial £400 goal.

That said I think with the proper promotion a future project could do even better but it is going to require work. Self promotion and networking is an area that I find excruciatingly difficult, both in gaming and my professional life as an academic. It’s also an essential aspect of this publishing gig – unless you manage to accidentally go viral with a new game it’s hard to get noticed unless you have an established following. I’m also extremely clear that this is an area where a) I’m going to have to push myself to consistently engage with more people and b) I’m in the privileged position that I can afford to fail. I’m doing this as a hobby and while I can day dream of one day making it a major part of my income I know how unlikely that is.

So what am I going to do about it? First up try and just put myself out there, primarily on twitter and to join conversations (while also being careful not to push myself into them when I’m not wanted). I’m also going to do my best to convert as many backers of this campaign as possible to being fans of my work. This is one of the reasons why I’ve started the LunarShadow Designs Newsletter, as an attempt to build awareness of my work and that of other indie creators. It’s slow going but I’ve made those first few steps. Once in person conventions return I’m going to do my best to attend as many as feasible, including looking into a stall at smaller events just to be seen.

The other important thing is to continue to release new material. I’m never going to be one of those designers that is constantly releasing games or supplements week after week but I’ve got a number of unfinished products in the pipeline. I’m slowly building up a portfolio that showcases what I am capable of and I think Project Cassandra is an excellent example of that but it’s only a start and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.

Project Cassandra: Kickstarter Thoughts 1

The kickstarter for Project Cassandra wrapped over the weekend, raising £1830 thanks to the support of 175 people. Having had a few days away from it all, but with everything still fresh in my mind I wanted to do an initial retrospective on the campaign. I’m going to try and avoid giving advice here based on that experience. Partially because I’ve yet to actually produce and release the game but primarily because datum does not equal data. I could try and draw conclusions from what I did but looking at it with my data analyst head on the vast majority of zinequest 3 projects succeeded and many of those took wildly different approaches to my own campaign. So I’m going to stick to observations only.

The Campaign

Project Cassandra is a game of Cold War psychics trying to prevent an apocalyptic vision from coming to pass. Unlike many of the ZineQuest offerings this is a complete game using its own system. The campaign ran for 2 weeks from 4pm 20th Feb to 4pm 6th March with an initial goal of £400. Besides myself there was only one other person involved, Emzy Wisker, who I’d hired as an editor.

The Backers

After two weeks of hustle the campaign reached 457% funded, raising £1830 from 175 people. We hit the goal of £400 in the first four and a half hours. With a relatively modest goal I knew we had an excellent chance of funding but I honestly did not expect to reach it that quickly. Privately I’d set a target of hitting it within the first 48 hours, as it would turn out that was approximately how long it took to reach the first stretch goal.

As expected the number of pledges plateaued during the middle of the campaign before picking up again around 3 days before the end. The quiet middle wasn’t a surprise, it happens to most campaigns but the uptick 3, rather than 2, days prior to the end was surprising. Kickstarter sends a reminder email 48 and 8 hours before the end of a campaign if you’ve saved it but not backed it so I don’t know where this increase came from. At launch the project had ~150 followers, which increased to 252 by the end and a final conversion rate of 28%. It sat at around 18% until the final stretch and from talking to other creators a final rate in the 25-30% range is fairly normal.

Breaking the backers down by reward tier there were 63 at PDF only, 96 bought print copies (with 2/3 of those being international, non-UK backers), all 10 redacted editions sold out and 2 of the 3 online sessions went. The breakdown is roughly what I’d expected based on looking at other campaigns. I’m honestly surprised that the redacted editions not only sold out but did so within a matter of hours. I had included those as a special nod to the genre and didn’t foresee them being so popular.

Stretch Goals

Not knowing how well the game would do I waited a day before announcing the traditional stretch goals. The first was full colour printing, at £800. That was reached within 48 hours. I set the next two as multiples of the initial goal with targets of £1200 and £1600. Based on just watching other campaigns I thought £1200 was achievable and £1600 was a big push. Thankfully we hit both, the last with a day still to go.

The full colour cover of Project Cassandra

Promotion

During the run up to ZineQuest 3 I promoted the game pretty heavily on Twitter and discord but less heavily elsewhere. Those two sites are both where I’m most active and where there is a visible ZineQuest community. I should give special thanks to the other creators this year – there was substantial cross promotion and retweeting that got links in front of more people that I could have on my own. I also receive boosts from many people that follow me, which I’m very thankful for.

During the run up to the campaign I was offered the opportunity to do interviews with the Yes Indie’d and Effekt podcasts which again, anecdotally, boosted reach. I know for certain that a number of the Effekt listeners backed the campaign while Yes Indie’d reaches indie gamers I’d have otherwise missed.

The big thing I didn’t do with regards promotion was run the game much at conventions. I’ve had a hard time engaging with them following the shift online but it would have been a good way to get it in front of people I have no connection to. That I’ve also been missing having a regular group over the last year should have served as an additional push on that front.

Thoughts

I said I wasn’t going to give any advice in this post but I do want to talk a little about the bits I would do the same if I run another campaign in the future.

The first is plan ahead again. I started my planning for the campaign around November, well before I made a final decision about whether I would even run it. That gave me time to both play around with my budget and to prepare my campaign page without rushing. While I continued to tweak both right up until launch I had completed drafts by Christmas, significantly reducing my stress levels in the run up to launch.

Second, get the majority of the text written before launch. While the draft of Project Cassandra is only 90% complete I’ve been working on it for years. That meant I could present a clear estimate of the focus and goals of the game. It also meant I could include demo material that people could read over and try out. While I can’t be certain of the overall impact of that it did lead to somebody not only backing the game at the highest level but running a streamed playtest while the campaign was underway.

Third, use stock art. While I would love to be able to commission artwork in the future I cannot overstate the value of stock art. The only reason I could justify the £400 goal was because all of the art is stock, either freely available or costing £3-5 per piece. I had the advantage of producing a game set during recent history, so there is no shortage of era appropriate photos available through sites such as Unsplash. If I’d been producing a Dyson Eclipse game I’d have been severely constrained in terms of low cost choices and would have required a significantly higher goal. If I run a campaign again next year I suspect that I will budget for either a small number of commissioned interior pieces or a full colour cover.

That’s a lot of what I’d do the same, so what would I do differently? The big one is probably launch a little earlier. With ZineQuest growing over the last few years fatigue is definitely an issue. Anecdotally I saw a big drop in people talking about it during the final week of February / first week of March. I don’t know how that impacts on final numbers across the event but I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest campaigns all launched during the first half of the month.

The Wrap-up

Ok, so this turned into a much longer post than I’d envisaged. The wrap-up is that as a campaign it was a far bigger success than I’d imagined and I think I did most things well. There are a few areas where I could definitely improve but as this one game has now blown past my total earnings from everything else I’ve ever released it’s a clear win. I’m planning to follow up with additional posts as milestones in production are reached and as I deal with the dreaded postage of the zines but for now I’ll leave it with one final thought.

Would I run another ZineQuest campaign? Yes.

Project Cassandra: Now on Kickstarter

The last few weeks have been exceedingly hectic with regards life in general but gaming in particular. Why? In short the Project Cassandra kickstarter launched on Feb 20th as part of ZineQuest 3 and while I’ve been heavily promoting it I somehow forgot to post about it on my own blog! Quite an oversight so I thought I’d drop a quick post now.

The campaign runs until the 6th March and has already exceeded my expectations – We’re over 200% funded as I write this with a week and a half left to run. We’ve unlocked the full colour printing stretch goal and I’m hopeful that we’ll hit at least one of the two remaining stretch goals. I’ve also been fortunate to be a guest on both the Yes Indie’d Podcast and the Effekt Podcast (the latter of which was streamed to youtube) so check those out for more details about the game.

State of the Conspiracy: First print tests

Alternate cover page – with and without background

One of the reasons why I want to run a Kickstarter for Project Cassandra is so I can produce a physical edition. The goals of ZineQuest align pretty much perfectly with both the scale and scope of the game – small releases with a simple two tone aesthetic that can be quickly turned around and sent out to backers. As my first print release I’ve been spending time investigating the various options for printing and fulfilling orders. Not surprisingly there are numerous options to choose from. POD options, such as drivethruRPG, have the advantage of handling fulfilment and shipping but at a generally higher cost per item whereas bulk printing comes in cheaper but would require that I ship items manually. As this will be a relatively small project I’m leaning towards using an established zine printer, Mixam, and manually handling fulfilment.

While Mixam were recommended I wanted to do some due diligence now, months ahead of the Kickstarter, to ensure that I was happy with the service and quality of the prints so I put together a small test document and placed an order through their sample service.

Project Cassandra print tests with the original cover page

Those sample prints arrived earlier this week and were 100% worth ordering. Ripping open the envelope was extremely satisfying and I’m more than happy with the results. The overall quality of the printing is high and just having that proof in my hand makes the game real in a way that’s hard to describe. The second reason for ordering test prints was to check how the layout translated to the printed page and I’m glad that I did. The photobashed cover I created for Playtest Packet 2 (above) looks dull and washed out in black and white. It fails to grab attention. In contrast the simple large text and JRD seal page is clear and effective. It establishes the tone of the game and looks like the cover to an official document.

Mission Profile: Ich bin ein Berliner with background and map of Berlin

I’ve still got a number of tweaks to make that will necessitate a second round of print tests but just seeing the quality of this is a massive ego boost. The game is going to look great and I can’t wait to get it out to the world.

Project Cassandra on Le Repaire de Gulix

As a small indie developer there’s an amazing feeling that comes with seeing my work highlighted by somebody else and over the weekend the French blog Le Repaire de Gulix was kind enough to give the game a shout-out. The post, Coups de soleil sur itch, mentions the game alongside the work of other developers such as Rogue Scroll by Epidiah Ravachol and Our Queen Crumbles by Jason Brown.

Project Cassandra: Inspiration and Origins

Project Cassandra: Psychics of the Cold War header with image of an ominous man smoking a cigar and stamped Classified

With the release of Playtest Packet 2 over on itch.io I wanted to take the chance to sit back and think about how far Project Cassandra has come since its inception. I first started working on it in 2013 with the intention of putting together a hack of the amazing Lady Blackbird RPG. That game is a masterclass in design, especially with how much depth it manages to convey in only a few pages. The characters are fully realised, the rules are elegant and the minimal description of the setting somehow flips a switch in your brain to fill in the gaps without you even realising that that is what you are doing. I’ve played Lady Blackbird numerous times and while the setup for the scenario is predefined the game always plays out in a unique way.

My aim with Project Cassandra was to replicate that, with a scenario that started the same way each time (a premonition of the President being assassinated) but that naturally spun off into its own, contained story.

But why Cold War psychics? The inspiration for that is, as it turns out, a little more disjointed. I’d reread the original Jason Bourne novels, which are set during the Cold War, not long before starting work on the game and had subsequently gone digging into some of the conspiracy theories from the era. It was a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Most, such as the Majestic 12, are just that – conspiracy theories with no actual evidence but as is often the case truth is stranger than fiction and I ended up reading about dozens of formerly classified projects.

The most famous is probably Project MKUltra – which explored extreme approaches to interrogation and mind control. That project was itself preceded by Project Artichoke – which sought to determine if a subject could be programmed to perform an assassination against their will. Then there was Project Stargate, which investigated remote viewing and psychic abilities as a method of gathering intelligence.

With all these real world examples to draw the only thing that I needed to introduce with Project Cassandra was the element of success. The secret project that had trained a group of psychics but then ignored their warnings, forcing them into direct action.

In the summer of 2013 the final piece of inspiration came into play – a video game. Specifically The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The game was fun without being spectacular but two aspects stood out. Firstly, it was rooted in the aesthetics of the Cold War which helped reinforce my choice of backdrop. Secondly, the abilities of the characters struck me as something that would complement the system. I had already started to develop Project Cassandra, including the use of Powers (again inspired by the abilities in Lady Blackbird) but the way the game implemented them, and encouraged interaction, cemented my desire to make them a core feature of the game.

From there the game went down the usual route of alterations, tweaks and dead ends that I’m sure are familiar to any designer but looking back it’s comforting to see that many of the core elements were present early on and I can’t wait to finally release the game next year.

State of the Conspiracy: Playtest Packet 2 Released

During the last few weeks I’ve been working towards a fairly major milestone in the development of Project Cassandra – the completion and release of a second playtest packet for the game which is now available as a free download via itch.io.

Playtest Packet 1 featured a minimal rules set, a single mission and pre-generated characters. Everything was there from a technical point of view but for anybody other than myself it would have been a stretch to run the game in the way I have always intended. This new release improves on the prior one in almost every way. The rules have been placed into context with explanatory text while new explanatory text sets the game and how to play in context. Crucially this includes additional detail on the central role of precognition to the game, from the opening questions during setup through to the use of premonitions during play.

Project Cassandra – draft cover page

Framing all of these changes is a test layout that I have been working on since purchasing Affinity Publisher earlier this year. While there are still tweaks to be made it looks great and helps immensely in setting the tone of the document. I’m hoping that in the coming months I’ll be able to use it for some test printings, both to test out a couple of zine options and to show it off in the run-up to the kickstarter.

Yes, kickstarter. Specifically ZineQuest 2021.

I’ve been considering the possibility since this years ZineQuest as the format is an ideal match for Project Cassandra, which I have always envisaged as fitting a small booklet form. It would also allow me to bring an editor, and possibly some writers, on board. That gives me five months to complete development and more importantly spread the word about the game so if you download the playtest packet I would greatly appreciate any comments or shout outs about the game. As a tiny indie designer it can often feel like I am shouting into the void when it comes to my work so any boosts are greatly appreciated.

Playtest Packet 2 is available for download from: https://lunarshadow.itch.io/project-cassandra

Example of play with layout

State of the Conspiracy: Lockdown Update 1

So it’s mid May which equates to week 7 or 8 since the start of lockdown for me here in the UK. It sucks and having been through a similar process when writing my thesis many years ago meant I had an inkling of just how much it would sap my creative energy. Which is why I decided I wasn’t going to make any big goals about pushing Project Cassandra forward, even though it was next on my list after the release of Mission Packet 1: N.E.O., my mini supplement for The Sprawl RPG.

That’s not to say that I’ve made no progress. Following the play tests at BurritoCon and Dragonmeet I have been slowly working my way through the text, filling gaps and preparing for the dreaded rewrites. Given they’re likely to be extensive I decided the first step was to clarify my contents, which are currently:

Teaser / Blurb
Introduction
Defining the scenario
    Setup / Questions
    Pacing
    Sample questions
    Alternative setup
Agendas
    Make events extraordinary
    Build towards a dramatic climax
    Take suspicion and twist it towards paranoia
    Play to the era
    A note on historical accuracy
Safety tools
    Lines & Veils
    Script change
The Vision
Rules of Engagement
    Taking actions
        Aiding
    Premonitions
    Conditions & consequences
    Visions
    Powers
    Knowledges
    Gear
Enacting the Conspiracy
    Building the conspiracy
    Genre and tone
    Following the action
    Challenges & The Opposition
    Nulls
Example of Play
Creating characters
Sample Characters
    Secret service agent
Small time criminal
    Academic analyst
    Reporter
Two Minutes to Midnight
    Ich bin ein Berliner
    The dark of the moon

On the face of it that feel like a lot but many of those smaller sections come out to a single paragraph and my aim is to keep the finished product to within the limits of a zine.

Why?

Because I’d like to participate in ZineQuest 3 on Kickstarter next year. Having followed it the last couple of years it seems like the ideal way to launch Project Cassandra and actually produce physical copies. It would also provide the potential for something I just can’t afford right now – an editor. It’s part of the process that I really don’t get on with and where I know the game would benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

So alongside writing I’ve been slowly putting together a budget and trying to estimate the various costs. That, in and of itself, is a rabbit hole and I’m quickly discovering how much I don’t know, so I’m glad that I made this decision with enough time to just learn.

Thankfully I’ve got plenty of time to do that, so fingers cross next February I’ll be able to include Project Cassandra amongst the list of successfully funded ZineQuest Kickstarters.

Con report: Dragonmeet 2019

After attending a number of excellent events earlier this year I knew that my final convention of the year had to be something special. That really meant I had only one option, Dragonmeet this past Saturday (November 30th) in London. As I’m no longer based in the South East I went with the there and back again stupidly long day option, taking a 06:45 train down from Liverpool and then rushing off to catch a 18:07 train home again. Was the 16 hour round trip worth it? Absolutely.

The Convention

The last time I was at Dragonmeet (2015 I think) it had just relocated to its current venue, the Novotel West hotel near Hammersmith. In that time it has grown substantially, with the trade hall now spread over two floors and they have finally (!) replaced the game sign-up process with online booking that limits the sign-up scrum that the convention had become infamous for.

I spent the morning in the trade hall, saying hello to people and browsing the stalls and even conducting an impromptu interview for the Rolistes podcast. After working on the Crystal Heart kickstarter I also finally got the chance to say hello in person to Eran and Aviv from Up to Four Players and I can’t wait to see how that world progresses over the next year. I handed out business cards with free download links to a few people, so hopefully that will help with getting my work seen by a wider audience. (This is something that I find excruciatingly difficult so sorry to anybody that thought I was avoiding a conversation!)

Overall I was really impressed by the range of products on offer and thanks to expanding onto the second floor it never felt too busy (unlike the chaos of Expo). Dragonmeet is built around RPGs and it was good to see that while it has grown there were still dozens of independents mixed in with established small studios and some of the larger publishers such as Modiphius, Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press.

I’ve posted a separate loot post but suffice to say I had no problem in spending more than I’d initially planned to and was happily over budget by half eleven. There were a few further products I did consider picking up – Carbon 2185, which looks really nice but from my perspective is a difficult ask given my apprehension towards 5E derivatives. There was also Broken Shield 2.0, a brand new iteration of an interesting dark future-noir setting. Unfortunately I’d bought the original game many years ago and got burned by the clunky, old-school system so was reluctant to jump straight in. I have, however, downloaded the quick-start so will give that a good look through.

Indie Games on the Hour

After playing in Games on Demand at UK Games Expo back in June I volunteered my services to run games in two slots at indie Games on the Hour (iGOTH), organised (primarily) by Josh Fox from Black Armada. I offered two games – Project Cassandra and Demon Hunters, which are probably the only systems I know well enough to comfortably run in under two hours for strangers.

During my first slot I had three players for Project Cassandra and we played the Ich bin ein Berliner scenario that is included in the minimal playtest packet (which will be receiving an update soon). The players seemed to really enjoy themselves and dived in to the game, with one player liberally spending premonitions to the point that they had run out with half an hour still remaining.

From a playtest perspective this session was extremely valuable. On the positive front it demonstrated that with a proper use of difficulties the switch back to using premonitions to re-roll dice that didn’t already add a success wasn’t game breaking. The players still failed an appropriate number of times and didn’t rely on the same small set of skills. It also reinforced my belief that the game is best with three players – that provides both a wide range of skills while ensuring that they are sufficient gaps to allow for challenges to arise naturally.

The session also picked up on two trends that I’ve spotted previously and that I’d now say form a pattern of potential issues. Those centre around powers and pacing. On the powers front they are generally underused and players tend to save them for big scenes. Not an issue but definitely something to take note of, especially during one shots. The pacing is a bigger issue – after reaching Berlin the first thing the players did was head to the site of the coming assassination attempt. Which is a perfectly logical approach but somewhat breaks the tension. I’ve got some ideas on how to go forward and will incorporate them into the next playtest.

By the time of the second slot the interest in iGOTH had seemingly exploded and all of a sudden we were swamped with players. Thankfully an additional GM was able to step up, ensuring that almost everybody got a game (I think a few late comers may have been unable to). At first count I had 11 people express an interest in Demon Hunters! While I’d have loved to accommodate them all that’s just not feasible and in the end I ran for a table of 6, which included two younger players (aged 10 and 7) and their dad plus 3 other adults who all stepped up to help make it a silly, family friendly game. To say it was chaotic would be an understatement and I found myself making numerous on the fly additions to the Missionary Opposition scenario, including a magically reanimated, vampire rabbit (inspired by a memorable scene from Dorkness Rising). I played fast and loose with the rules, knowing it was necessary to keep the kids interested and I hope that didn’t impact too much on the rest of the table. In the end the day was saved, pets were rescued and Albrecht even got to walk away with a big stick. I’m considering the possibility of simplifying the system as a way to offer it in a dedicated child friendly way without losing the flavour but that’s something for future me to think about.

Closing thoughts

It’s been a few years since I last attended Dragonmeet so it was great to see that in that time it has continued to grow but without sacrificing the welcoming feel it has always had. This isn’t a giant impersonal event like Expo – it still feels like a friendly, small convention despite being perhaps the biggest UK event focused primarily on RPGs. I don’t know the final numbers and didn’t explore the spaces dedicated to organised play or pre-booked games, I would guess in the 2-3000 over the course of the day, but it shows that the hobby is vibrant and alive. It was great to see an improved gender balance and increased visibility of queer creators but there are definitely still gains to be made, especially in drawing in non-white gamers but I also think that is (unfortunately) reflective of the UK RPG scene as a whole.

I’ve already answered the question of whether the excessively long day was worth it, which is a resounding yes. Dragonmeet remains a friendly convention that I will try and attend again next year. As I progress into this little adventure that is publishing I can see it becoming increasingly important for me as an opportunity to catch up with other indie developers. Even if that wasn’t the case the combination of gaming opportunities and chance to interact directly with traders in a relaxed space would make it worth it. In an ideal world I’d be able to make a full day of it rather than rushing off in the early evening but those sort of logistics are an issue for future me, right now I have loot to enjoy.

Project Cassandra: Layout considerations

Project Cassandra started life as a hypothetical exercise – could I hack Lady Blackbird to a 60’s spy setting with psychic powers? The answer to that was yes but it quickly progressed to the point that I was no longer hacking a system but writing my own. During that time I also started to wonder – could I publish this? The simple answer to that is also yes. I could have written the game in a plain text file, put it up on the web and that would have been fine. The difference though was that I wanted more than that. I wanted a game where the presentation reflected the time that I’d put into the system and setting.

So I started to teach myself the basics of graphic design. Layout, image editing, desktop publishing. It helped that I knew the very basics from preparing material for academic presentation but diving in like that opened my eyes to how much more there was to learn. I don’t have any illusions about being able to produce material to a professional level but I do think that investment of time has been worth it.

Left – First version of the Project Cassandra character sheet. Right – Version 2, applying some basic approaches to layout.

One of the areas that stood out to me was the overall look of the page. When you’re working on a computer a white background really stands out. There is, it seems, a reason why most games apply a background image or texture to the page. It took me a while but I think I have finally found one that I want to use and thanks to it being released via Unsplash it is free to use.

As you can see it makes a noticeable difference without being demanding attention. I’ll definitely be using it when I get to the point of formatting the final document, though I intend to release a printer friendly version as well.