Signal to Noise retrospective 2: Post fulfilment

Back in March, I did an initial retrospective on my ZiMo campaign for Signal to Noise but now that I’ve completed the fulfilment of the game I wanted to revisit those thoughts and look at my options for the future. I’m also going to pull together final spending for a subsequent post as I like to be open about these sorts of things.

First up, the game – which is a delight to hold and looks beautiful thanks to Val’s fantastic art. It was such a pleasure to work with her and I hope I can do so again in the future. I can highly recommend commissioning her if you’re looking for detailed and realistic art.

Seriously, look at that art! If you somehow missed out on buying Signal to Noise before now then it’s available in digital from itch and drivethruRPG while physical copies are available via Etsy (with distribution via Peregrine Coast and IPR coming very soon).

Fulfilment itself was, I’m happy to say, a relatively straightforward process. That came down to a few factors – Mixam printing everything correctly the first time, the scale of the project (<50 shipments), most packages being a single zine and having help filling envelopes while I focused on the postage. At the moment I know the game has reached backers in the UK, US and even Australia but thanks to good old Brexit copies heading to the EU may still be in customs limbo.

So now that I have two successful campaigns under my belt how do I feel? Pretty good. I have no doubts that I’ll run another campaign next year and I’ve already started initial planning in terms of what to focus on. Starting planning six months out from Zine Quest might look a little premature but I need to ensure that I have a solid concept in place so I can advertise it at Dragonmeet (where I will be running a stall for the very first time).

The big question that hangs over any future crowdfunding I do is what platform I will use. I genuinely think that Game on Tabletop offers a robust ecosystem and the level of support I received from their team was outstanding. As you might suspect though there is a but hanging on to the end of that statement, in the form of “but I am certain Signal to Noise would have done far better on Kickstarter.”

And that is a frustrating situation to be in. I switched to Game on Tabletop because of Kickstarter screwing with Zine Quest and proposing that they enter the tech bro crypto market. While the community did try and support those of us that moved off of the platform many people stuck to Kickstarter and had wildly successful campaigns. I could say that I’m not into game design to make money (which is true) but on the other hand, making money allows me to make better games. I can’t afford to hire an editor or artist for games that don’t sell or fail to gather any attention, which is sadly true of much of my work.

On the selfish level, I also want people to play my games. It’s a fantastic feeling when someone says they’ve played something you wrote and that’s not going to happen if I only run campaigns that barely garner any attention. Signal to Noise is, I believe, a special game and I think it would have done significantly better on Kickstarter just by being tied into the ecosystem. Just comparing these two campaigns Project Cassandra was backed by 175 people, 107 more than Signal to Noise and every single one of them will receive an email if I launch a new campaign. Even if most of them ignore that email it’s such a big and effort-free marketing boost that I would be foolish to ignore it. That was true going into the Signal to Noise campaign but I had hoped the anti-Kickstarter feelings at the time would compensate for it and the truth is it didn’t. Or at least not as much as I’d have liked. I’ve always been upfront about the fact that Project Cassandra only did as well as it did because of the Zine Quest force multiplier effect and much of that is, frustratingly, baked into the Kickstarter site.

All of the above is really avoiding the big question – what am I going to do going forward? Honestly, probably go back to Kickstarter. I would like to pretend otherwise but the disparity in terms of the English-speaking market share between them and Game on Tabletop is so significant that I would be shooting myself in the foot if I didn’t. It sucks but as a tiny fish in the big pond of crowdfunding I just don’t have the influence to pull backers to a new platform when I’m struggling to even build an audience. I wish I was ending this post on a more upbeat note but, well I’m not, because like it or not Kickstarter remains the site to beat.

Rambling: Thoughts on crowdfunding and putting together your first campaign

Like it or not crowdfunding is now a central component of producing an RPG, especially if you are aiming to produce a physical product. When Matthew from the Effekt Podcast interviewed me at the start of 2022 to promote Signal to Noise we talked about sitting down after the game was out to discuss what goes into running a small crowdfunding campaign. While the game isn’t out just yet Kickstarter has decided to push on with an August Zine Quest so I thought it would be worth discussing some of those details now here on my blog.

You might be wondering why you should be listening to the advice of someone that has only run two small campaigns that raised less than £3k. To that, I would say because I’ve only run two relatively small campaigns. The vast majority of RPG crowdfunding is at the smaller end of the scale and unless you have an established presence or a lot of luck that is probably what you should be aiming at as a first-time crowdfunder. So my experience at the smallest end of the scale is reflective of the challenges new designers are likely to face.

So what do you need to think about going into your campaign? Obviously, there’s the game itself but I’m going to leave that to you and focus on logistics. The most important aspect to me is the budget, which I break down into 2 sections – fixed and dynamic. You should, ideally, be thinking about this well ahead of launch to ensure you have everything covered and that running your campaign won’t cost you in the long run. There are plenty of horror stories out there of disappearing products or people having to shell out from their personal finances because they failed to create a proper budget.

As I said I break my budget into 2 sections – fixed and dynamic – so lets take a closer look at each of them.

Fixed Costs

Your fixed costs are exactly that – one-off payments that will not change regardless of the success of your campaign. If an artist quotes you a price of £200 then that cost is fixed, regardless of whether you sell 10 or 1000 copies of the game. The majority of your fixed costs will usually be associated with contractors such as artists and writers but licences for software, fonts or stock art can also fall into this category. When it comes to hiring people get quotes early and make sure to pay them fairly. The standard rate across the industry for writing is often quoted as 5 cents but that is too low and we should be aiming significantly higher. Try to aim for 10 cents per word as a minimum and work from there. The cost of editing, another essential component, will vary more depending on whether it is copy-editing or proofing. Art is even harder to price as individual pieces may range from small embellishments at the corner of the page to complex full-page pieces so reach out to artists early, discuss rates and make sure to mention that you want to use it commercially as this will increase the price further. Then put it all in writing, make plans for when and how you will pay for the work and be prompt with payment.

You might be thinking but I can’t raise that much or how do I make any money off of this. If you’re thinking your campaign won’t raise that much then you need to scale back your plans (but well done on being realistic on how much you can raise). Look at your budget and scale it back. Do you really need 10 full-page spreads or could you use stock art and include stretch goals to upgrade each piece? Could you do any of the work yourself?

For Project Cassandra, I relied almost exclusively on stock art. My total spend on art? Less than $50 if you exclude the time I then spent tweaking it in photoshop. My art budget for Signal to Noise on the other hand was closer to £500 and was the single largest cost of the campaign. My original budget was for only a single piece but I designed the campaign (and budget!) in such a way that as we pushed past certain goals I would be able to afford additional pieces, a fact I’d already discussed with the artist.

Which brings us to the question of how do I make any money for myself? The short answer is you probably don’t, at least not nearly the amount you deserve relative to the amount of work that goes into producing a game. A small 5,000-word game has a writing cost alone of $500 if we use the 10 cents per word we’ve established as a minimal fair rate. That’s before we consider all of the other work you will have put into the game, from design and testing to promotion and running the campaign. A realistic budget that pays you fairly for the amount of time you have put in will come into the thousands. Some campaigns will raise that but you need to be realistic with what you think you can raise and be prepared to fail if you include those costs upfront.

Dynamic Costs

Simply put these are the costs that increase as you get more backers. The three main areas you will need to be aware of are production, shipping and fees.

Production is the cost of producing each copy of your game – most of the time this means printing by your chosen supplier. As with contractors you need to get quotes early and then add a margin. Paper costs have risen sharply due to the pandemic and continue to do so. So if you think each copy will cost you £1 to print then budget for £1.50 or even higher. This gives you a buffer if costs rise, the game ends up being larger than expected or you decide to switch from black and white to full colour. If it doesn’t then hey, it can go towards other costs.

Shipping – This is the cost of getting copies into the hands of your backers and just like printing costs postage rates have shot up, especially if you’re in the US. It’s fairly standard to charge for postage after the campaign but you should get an initial estimate early if only so you can let the backers know what to expect. You also need to think about how you are going to handle import fees such as VAT if you are shipping into the EU – for a small creator the reality is either finding a shipping partner or leaving backers to pay those fees when the product ships.

Talking of fees don’t forget to include them in your budget. Regardless of which site you run your campaign on each pledge will incur fees, so if a backer pledges £10 you might only receive £8. Sites such as Kickstarter typically take around a 5% cut of every pledge while payment processing will take another 3-5% so expect to lose around 10% of your total straight out of the door. After shipping, this is a common reason for campaigns costing their creators money.

Finally, we add a contingency, which I like to set at 10%. This is there as a just in case, if it’s not needed that’s great but if it is it can be the difference between a project making or losing money overall.

Stress testing the budget

So now that you’ve got all of those numbers what do you do with them?

Maths. Sorry, but it’s time to break out excel. You need to put all those numbers into a spreadsheet and work out a goal for your campaign that, at a minimum, ensures you break even. This is also the point at which you must start thinking about what each pledge tier will offer. Why? Because different products have different dynamic costs. PDFs might be as low as nothing while a physical tier will need to cover printing and shipping.

When running these calculations I start with the total fixed costs as my initial goal and use the cost of the print tier to work out how many backers I would need to reach that target. I then calculate whether that would break even once I add the dynamic costs for that number of backers. Then I incrementally increase the goal and rerun the numbers, repeating the process until I break even. Then I add a buffer, just in case. So lets break that down into an example. Say my fixed costs total £500, my print pledge tier costs £10 and my dynamic costs for that tier are £2 per backer. If I set my initial goal to £500 I will need 50 backers at that level to reach the goal. However, the dynamic costs for those backers come to a total of £100 so my final expenditure is £500 fixed plus £100 dynamic for a total of £600. I’ll therefore lose £100 if I hit that goal but don’t exceed it.

Incrementing the goal I find that to break even I need to set the goal to £630. This requires 63 backers to reach, and their total dynamic costs are £126. Added to my fixed cost of £500 I’d make a profit of £4. After finding that break-even point for my print tier I then check my numbers with other rewards. If a third of my backers choose the print tier and the rest go for PDF only (which will have a much lower dynamic cost per pledge) will I still break even? What if it’s 50/50? If all of those tests return a profit then I’ve found the minimum viable goal for the campaign.

So that’s the budget. Much of it may seem obvious but I’ve spent a lot of time on it because it’s important and because so many creators still seem to trip up at this point. Even big names in the hobby can screw up – just look at the mess that was the 7th Sea 2nd edition Kickstarter.

Before I move on to what else you need to consider I want to come back to paying yourself. This is an issue that gets a lot of discussion. Creating games, for many of us, is a hobby but we also need to ensure that people are paid fairly when they want to make money off of them. There are two things to consider here. The first is not to undersell your work, something I have been guilty of in the past and which is depressingly endemic across the hobby. For my campaigns, I have priced PDFs at £5 and print copies at £10 plus shipping, which I think is the bare minimum you should aim for when producing a zine-sized game. Many creators are starting to raise their prices but it’s a difficult market and the vast majority of small press games will never earn enough to pay their creator fairly. You need to be aware of that going in.

The second factor to consider is the time and effort you have already put into the game. If you have already written 5,000 words then you could be tempted to add £500 to the goal to pay yourself for that work. I would argue against doing that though. Why? Because it’s a sunk cost – you have already done the work regardless of whether the campaign succeeds or not. If you end up being able to pay yourself back £200 then you’re £300 in the red but if you had set the goal £500 higher you’d still be £500 in the red.

I’m aware that this approach requires a level of time, money and privilege that not everyone can afford – if you’re not in a position to afford those upfront costs then add them into your budget but make sure to avoid the temptation to spend on the campaign before it succeeds. For Signal to Noise I was fortunate that I could afford the time to have a complete version of the game before the campaign launched. I then set the initial campaign goal so that it would cover printing and a small amount of art. Stretch goals paid for additional art, maximising the chance of success. Have I paid myself for the work I put in? No, but it hasn’t personally cost me money either, only time and that is something I can afford. Any future sales of the game will slowly pay me back but I doubt it will ever earn me what could be considered a fair wage for the work that went into it.

Creating your campaign page

Right, enough about the budget. What about the campaign itself. My biggest piece of advice here is once again to plan ahead as much as possible, starting with which platform to use. As much as I hate to admit it Kickstarter still rules the crowdfunding space and projects there have a much higher chance of success than if you use one of the alternatives such as Game on Tabletop or Game Found. That may change over time but right now it’s an important factor to take into account. You also need to decide whether you have enough of an audience to go it alone or whether you should join an event such as Zine Quest. If you’re a new creator I would highly recommend this.

Why?

Because they are force multipliers that will bring more eyes to your project, especially if you put in the effort to be active in the community. I’m under no illusion about the fact that my own projects would have struggled or even failed if not for the fact that other creators drove cross-promotion from their own projects. It’s tempting to consider running a project outside of those events but for that, you’ll need to seriously consider your reach and whether you will succeed because building an audience is hard. You cannot just launch a Kickstarter and expect it to gain backers without spending time and effort on promotion. There’s a lot that goes into building an audience but the biggest piece of advice I can offer (which I regularly fail at myself) is to be active. You need to be part of the community, talking about your game but also engaging with others on a regular basis. It’s easy to spot someone that is only interested in talking about their own work and that tends to put people off. A podcast interview or actual play is a fantastic way to bring attention to your project (Thanks again Matthew and Dave from Effekt and Marx from Yes Indie’d!) but as with everything else give yourself time. Most podcasts will schedule interviews a month or more in advance so launching your campaign and then reaching out to people at the last moment is a big no.

Going back to the campaign page itself once you’ve decided on the site and launch window give yourself the time to put your campaign page together and make changes. Many of the sites have rather unintuitive campaign creation tools that can take a while to get used to so don’t expect to be able to throw together a perfect page in a weekend. You need time to work out how to create a page, write and edit the text, to create banners and promo images. At the same time check what the process is to get your campaign approved – it may take a week or two and I’ve heard of more than one project launching late because the creator assumed the process would be relatively quick. For Project Cassandra, I started this process in November ahead of a February launch. I know many fellow Zine Questers that only started mid-January but I wanted to avoid going into the campaign already stressed by creating the page at the last minute. For Signal to Noise I gave myself a month but as the game had already been released on itch I was able to reuse text and art assets, significantly cutting down the amount of work required.

Ultimately what you include on your page is up to you but you need to showcase your work in a clear and concise manner. The text of the campaign is arguably the most important section – it needs to hook the backers and tell them what the game is about. But that’s not enough. The best pages will also use graphics and preview material to support the text. Graphical section headers can help break up the text while art and layout previews give the backers an idea of what to expect from the final product. This upsell is why so many creators invest in the sunk cost that I mentioned earlier – a rules preview or example artwork grabs the attention of supporters in a way that plain text never will.

If you’re unsure of what to include on your page the best idea is to look at successful projects by both small and large creators (These are the links to the Project Cassandra and Signal to Noise pages). What did they write, how did they order the page, did they include any preview material etc. Section banners are an easy and effective way to improve the visual design of your campaign page. You can quickly and easily create eye-catching banners using a combination of stock art and photoshop (or one of the many cheap/free alternatives). My ability to draw is pretty close to zero but over the years I’ve learned the basics of image manipulation and can produce effective banners for my own campaigns that cost me nothing but time. Art previews are another great way to sell your game on the campaign page so if you’ve been able to commission material in advance of the campaign make sure to highlight it. A lot of the time that won’t be possible for the simple reason that the aim of the campaign is to raise funds for art (amongst other things). In that case, ask your artist if they have any existing portfolio pieces that you can share. It lets you show off their abilities and costs absolutely nothing.

Alongside the main page, you will obviously need to set up your reward tiers, which you should have already decided on when creating your budget. For your first campaign, keep these as simple as possible – PDF, Print+PDF and maybe one or two special high-value tiers such as an annotated print copy or private game session. It’s tempting to offer extras such as custom dice or limited edition art prints but these come with a lot of risks due to the added complexity of budgeting for them. That goes double if you were thinking of including them as stretch goals – it’s all too easy to promise extras that you can’t afford in the long run – just look at the disaster that was the 7th Sea 2nd Edition Kickstarter if you want an example of a campaign by a big name in the industry that promised too much and failed to budget properly.

So that’s my rambling thoughts on what you should be thinking about in advance of running a campaign. It’s by no means comprehensive despite its length and there are so many caveats that you shouldn’t take any of it as gospel. I just want people to be aware of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into just setting up a campaign and of the many things you should be thinking about when you do.

In the next post, I’m going to talk about what happens after your campaign has been funded and all the wonderful pitfalls such as customs forms and printing errors that you might run into.

Set phasers to boring: Starship combat and RPGs

During the most recent edition of the newsletter I ruminated on the issue of starship combat and why most systems fail. I’m currently preparing for a mini-campaign using the Tachyon Squadron system, one of the few which I think works but for this post, I want to take a deeper look at the most common approach to starship combat, which I’m going to call bridge combat.

The best example of bridge combat is on Star Trek. Each character has a specific and narrow role to play – Worf at tactical, Sulu at the helm or Janeway in the Captain’s chair. With the exception of those episodes when a character is forced to work at a different station for the sake of the narrative (such as Picard taking the helm), they have a single, clearly defined role.

In a TV show this makes sense but in a tabletop game it leads to boring combats. Why? Because each character is static.

Let’s take a hypothetical scene from TNG and break it down into the standard turns of an RPG. Worf, standing at tactical because Starfleet doesn’t believe in providing seatbelts, fires the phasers. Next turn he… fires the phasers. There may be some minor variation to the roll when he switches to photon torpedoes but ultimately his choice of actions are limited. This plays out for each and every character – they make the same type of roll turn after turn. In some situations they may not even be able to make a roll, for example if there isn’t a ship for Worf to shoot at.

And that’s boring.

Worf did not sign up for boring

It works for a TV show for a few reasons. The tension and dynamic nature of a scene is built into it as a whole and that’s where the audience’s attention is. It’s rarely focused solely on an individual character and all the time they spend standing around waiting.

The second reason is that it plays out in real-time – we don’t have to wait for Worf to remember which button to press or to pause as we calculate the damage. We can even have overlapping actions, with Worf taking his shot at the same time that Picard is giving orders or Geordi is falling in love with a hologram. That adds to the drama and the tension.

And all of that is absent from bridge combat in an RPG.

In a game, we focus on one character at a time and a second long action may take a number of minutes to resolve. The passage of time drags out so by the time it gets around to a player’s turn they want to be able to contribute and to have a choice in how they contribute.

To use a personal example a number of years ago I played in a high-level campaign of the Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader RPG from FFG. We had a group of six players and each of us had a specific role during bridge combat. As the Missionary, mine was to minimise the crew losses when the ship took damage. One action, rolling the same skill every turn of the combat… except on turns where we hadn’t taken damage and I did nothing. Because of how the system was designed that was almost the only way I could contribute to the combat. Many of the fights took multiple hours and I’d often leave a session having rolled only two or three times. Not the best of ways to maintain player engagement.

Yet mediocre (at best) bridge combat seems to be the default for sci-fi games and I don’t know why we’ve come to accept it as the norm. Tachyon Squadron gets around the issue by shifting the focus to starfighters and I’m going to do a deep dive of it once the upcoming campaign is underway.

But how to improve bridge combat?

Personally, I think the solution is to shift the focus back a little, away from individuals and onto the ship as a whole. A player should be able to take any action, regardless of which character it is technically associated with. Get round to the person playing the medic when the ship is on the tail of their target? Well, they might end up as the one to take the shot.

The trick though will be to design the system in a way that they are balancing resources/harm. Sure they could take the shot but should they be trying to repair the shields or perform first aid on the crew instead? They might be better at the first aid roll but is the shot a more urgent action? Are the shields at 20%, 10% or out entirely? It requires the sort of balancing act more often seen in board games than RPGs but I think it would make for more dynamic bridge combats that would keep players engaged. It’s certainly one I’ll be looking to explore when I get around to introducing bridge combat to the Dyson Eclipse.

RPGaDay 2021: 14-18th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

14th August: Momentum

Momentum – When it comes to one shots, convention games and even shorter sessions during a campaign I think it’s vital that a scenario has the momentum required to get through to the end of the session and reach a satisfying conclusion. A 3-4 hour window isn’t long, especially online where there are the inevitable connection issues and slower pace of play necessitated by the inability to have more than one person talking at a time. My advice to GMs is pretty simple – have a clear objective and get right into it. A clear objective tells the players what they should be seeking to achieve and sets out the focus of the game. Take the following setup:

“You’re a group of paranormal investigators and you’re here to investigate some recent sightings.”

It’s not a terrible opener, it tells the players who the characters are, why they’re present and gives some idea of what they’re here to do. But “investigate some recent sightings” is rather weak, it’s vague and lacks any specifics. As a result the players might dither or spend ages just trying to work out what the sightings were.

“You’re a group of paranormal investigators and you’re here to deal with a civil war ghost that has been attacking people at the mall.”

Is a much better opener. It provides far more in the way of details and makes it clear what the problem is (a ghost), where it is (at the mall) and that they aren’t just here to investigate but to deal with it. Combine that with a strong opening scene:

“It’s nearing midnight, you’ve been wandering the halls of the mall for over an hour without any signs of activity when a scream rings out. It’s coming from the security office…

Bam. Now you’ve got a problem and action. It starts you off from the get go and if you can do that then it’s far easier to maintain the momentum. Start a session by spending an hour picking gear and chasing vague rumours before you even stumble into the mall and you put yourself in the position of needing to overcome that initial inertia which is a far harder problem.

15th August: Supplement

Supplement – I don’t ever expect game design and publishing to become my primary income but it is a very nice way to supplement it and provides earnings that I am able to reinvest in the hobby. My hope going forward is that it will provide enough going forward to cover not only the money I spend on games but convention travel and accommodation. Right now, for the past 2 years my profit margin is about £500/year and if it stays at that then I’d be quite happy. A substantial portion of that was from ZineQuest, take out the income and costs I can directly associate to it and it drops to ~£130/year (though obviously this tax year still has a while to go). It’s a big difference and while I know a lot of people have issues with Kickstarter I’d have had a fraction of the success on other platforms. As an example Signal to Noise, which I’ve been trying to itchfund has sold a total of 9 copies right now whereas I’m pretty confident that had I launched it during ZineQuest it would have easily done 10-20x that.

16th August: Move

The emergence of Moves as a mechanic is, I think one of the defining features of the last decade of game development. They’re an elegant way to move past the very naturalistic idea of actions as defined by older RPGs and to incorporate the impact of the narrative on what you’re doing. Take, for example, jumping from one building to another. In an action orientated RPG you’d probably resort to something like rolling dexterity or acrobatics. The thing is that action would be the same regardless of the situation – jumping a chasm full of lava? Acrobatics. Jumping it to try and impress your crush? Still an acrobatics check.

Switch it to PbtA though and the move you use could be wildly different depending on the combination of what you’re doing, your motivation and what you want the narrative impact to be. Jumping out of danger vs showing off would be two completely different moves despite your action being exactly the same. It’s one of the things that I like about PbtA style games.

That said I also regularly find myself struggling with moves. Because of that need to incorporate the fictional positioning moves generally need to be wordy and describe the situations where they apply. They’re also typically paired with a name that while evocative isn’t always clear. Even faced with a PbtA game I’m familiar with I find that I have difficulty recalling exactly what each move does or when it applies. I can learn it with time but most of my PbtA experience is with oneshots so the lack of clarity is frustrating at times.

17th August: Crime

Given its popularity across wider media I am very surprised that crime solving games are not a bigger part of the gaming scene. Off the top of my head I can think of a few but very few that I would say are police procedurals or crime dramas. That being said investigative mystery is a fairly big category, especially as you could potentially say that games such as Call of Cthulhu fall into it.

The emergence of the GMless, clue driven Brindlewood Bay games is an interesting development and I’m keen to see how they develop in the future. It’s a system that would be ideal for a police or detective game, though I appreciate that many people would be reluctant to explicitly play as cops right now.

18th August: Write

I find the switch from development to writing hard. I always have and I say that with the experience of having written a 70k word doctoral thesis. Going from the ideas in my head to word on the page is just a difficult process and I often find myself self editing as I write which is NOT a great way to do things. For one it means that it takes forever just to write each section but it also doesn’t save me any time. I still need to go back to do edits/rewrites once everything is in place just to ensure that what I wrote at the start works with what I wrote at the end. When it comes to games I’ve actually found that working directly in layout helps me immensely. One of those weird tricks you won’t believe things. I think it helps being able to see how everything will work on the page and where I need to consider page breaks, art etc. It’s obviously not really that suitable for larger projects but for items under <10 pages it is my preferred option.

So what am I in the process of actually writing rather than designing right now? The first is the next in my fantasy adventure pamphlets. These are really small double sided releases that are designed to be printed and folded into a small pamphlet. I’ve released two so far for both Brighthammer and for D&D 5e via the DMs Guild. They’re built around a central map so the word count is really low and they make for an enjoyable creative distraction. Alongside that I have adventures for The Cthulhu Hack and Demon Hunters that need finished. Both of these have already been sketched out and I just need to get the words onto the page so I can release them. I’ve spoken before about Red Roots of the Rose and I’m really keen to get it out into the wild as I think it is an interesting adventure. I’m also really proud of the cover image that I’ve made – I’m not an artist so to be able to create artwork rather than just photoshop together existing pieces is something that represents a big step up for me.

RPGaDay 2021: 13th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

13th August: Improvise

I learned the hard way how to improvise by diving in at the deep end with a creative group of players that often latched on to elements that I, as a rookie GM, hadn’t expected them to. Some of those situations I handled well, others not so well. Those early experiences have had a massive impact on how I approach games as a player, GM and designer. I lean in to lightweight adventure design that focuses on the situation, the driving forces behind the plot and the goals of those involved. I’ll sometimes plan out key locations knowing I expect to drop a clue that will lead the players there but just as often I end up throwing something together just because they took a left turn.

That all comes from experience though. I once had a new player, during a game of Honey Heist, ask how I was able to come up with all the details on the fly and my response was simple – practice and experience. I’ve been gaming for well over a decade and the majority of the time I’m a GM. What I can do now without thinking would astound the me that first tried to GM and started out with a session of Serenity that was so comically disastrous that we shelved the campaign after that single session. We did eventually come back to it and treated that session like an unaired pilot to be reworked as the plot of the true session 1. While that campaign went on to be a nightmare for scheduling it eventually produced some of the best RP I’ve ever come across.

Improvisation was also at the heart of Project Cassandra, where I wanted to mix the traditional GM role with the player input that many indie games favour. The ability for characters to add details that can drastically shift the plot or tone of the game was key to making it feel like they really had prophetic abilities but that does mean a GM can end up running an adventure that is totally different from what they’d expected. I’ve heard from a few people that have since run it that they found that one of the harder aspects of the game to handle, to flip things in an instant and rework a scene to fit the new truths that had been revealed. I wish I knew how to bottle that, or present the skills I’ve picked up for others to learn as I think being able to improvise is a key skill for GMs. All I can really say is play more indie games, get the practice in. You can learn the skills if you want to.

I did.

RPGaDay 2021: 12th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

12th August: Think

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about publishing, what I want to get out of it and the intersection between hobby and business. Over the last year or so I’ve shifted towards releasing things that have a price tag affixed to them. The result of that is that very few people actually end up seeing my games – Signal to Noise released a week and a half ago and so far has racked up all of 8 sales. I’d obviously like that number to be higher but on the other hand I put a lot of work into the game and would like to see some earnings back from it.

Which, I suppose, brings me to the point of this and what I’ve been thinking about recently. This is a hobby for me, so should I even be bothered about price and earnings? You could make the argument that no, I don’t need to and I should consider just putting everything out for free or PWYW. The counter to that is that this risks devaluing the work that people doing it for a job do. How do you fairly price something when a hobbyist working in their spare time for fun can produce material close to or at the level that a professional working in the industry can do? It’s a conundrum and not an easy one to answer. I firmly believe that an individual should be able to make a living from making RPGs and actively want a wider more diverse selection of people who are able to do so. That can only make the industry stronger. I don’t think it will ever be an easy task, there are so few companies that hire people that the majority of designers are always going to be freelancers/self-employed while selling enough to make a living off of games requires an investment of either time or money – both of which I realise are privileges many people don’t have access to.

On the other hand how do you balance that when there are people like me who can do it for fun, don’t need to make an earning from it but can? As a hobbyist should I be expected to price my material at the same level as a professional working full time? Should I give it away for free? Is there a middle ground that doesn’t undercut the industry as a whole but reflects the intersection of the two? I just don’t know and I think the short form discussion that platforms such as twitter encourage really prevents us from having a proper, nuanced discussion about it.

The other issue that I think doesn’t help is the move towards digital. On one hand I think it’s great, as it opens up the door for people that just can’t afford a print run and games that don’t suit traditional formats. As a society though I think we still don’t appreciate the value of digital goods. The time and work that goes into a game is rarely focused on what it takes to get it printed and from what I’ve learned the actual cost to print most games reflects only 10% or less of the cover price. The rest goes into the art, the writing, the time it took to design and playtest. All factors that play into PDFs as much as print yet we value that printed book far more than the file sat on our computers and until we get past that I don’t think we’re ever going to value small games by indie designers properly.

RPGaDay 2021: 11th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

11th August: Wilderness

As a general rule I’m not a fan of wilderness exploration games. I just find them boring and I think that’s down to a few bad experiences with West Marches style games. The big one: A lack of plot. I’ve encountered too many people that think a West Marches game means the exploration takes over from the plot, even sometimes down to the level of individual sessions. They view the approach to the game as being little more than “you go here, explore, kill stuff, go home” which doesn’t excite me. I get that the characters are meant to be explorers and the GM in a traditional West Marches game has to expect different players each time but that doesn’t mean you can’t have plot.

I’d actually say that you need more plot – you need a reason for people to want to keep heading out into the unknown beyond a love of gold and XP. You need something more than a grind.

At the campaign level a West Marches style game is the ideal opportunity to have a large, emergent plot that is slowly revealed by the players as they realise that individual events and clues are all being driven by larger events that will require them to work together and plan their future expeditions. Give me the awakening evil and search for ancient relics that are foretold to herald a new age. That’s exciting. The procedurally generated quests that have zero impact on the wider world (yes, I’m calling out you out Skyrim)?

Boring.

As for individual sessions, well anyone that can’t fit a decent plot into a 3-4 hour session needs to sit down at some convention tables and learn from the GMs there who regularly do the impossible and not only teach the mechanics of the game but include a full plot arc with highs, lows and a satisfying conclusion.

Do all that and maybe then you’ll get me interested in the wilderness beyond the keep.

RPGaDay 2021: 10th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

10th August: Advantage

While it wasn’t particularly revolutionary if you consider RPGs as a whole I think the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanics in D&D 5E was an inspired move by the WOTC design team (unlike Inspiration, which never felt like it was anything more than a tacked on idea). With one fell swoop it drastically simplified the +/- modifier system that had become excessively overcomplicated in 3.5/4 just because of how many factors could come impact a roll.

Situation works in your favour? You have advantage. Situation works against you? Disadvantage.

It’s simple and elegant and I really wish that they’d come up with it for 4E as that was a game that could have really benefited from it. While there has been some resurgent interest in that edition I’ve not heard of anyone tweaking it to include the advantage mechanic and I’d be interested to hear how it impacts play.

RPGaDay 2021: 9th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

9th August: Percentage

Like a lot of gamers I’ve only run or played a small percentage of the games that I own. Just looking at my shelves I’ve probably brought around 70% of the systems to the table in one form or another but that’s a little deceptive. It doesn’t account for the various sourcebooks I’ve not had a chance to use or that I’ve slimmed down my collection over the past couple of years, which filtered out a lot of games I’d owned for years but never run/played. It also doesn’t account for the elephant in the room: PDFs. Thanks to various bundles and impulse purchases my PDF collection dwarfs that of my physical collection. Just using ZineQuest as an example I backed a single zine in print but around a dozen digitally. The number of those that I’ve run or played? Well I’d be astounded if it even approaches 20% and wouldn’t be surprised if was actually below 10%.

Oops.

All that said I am getting pretty good at reading through games. While the number is lower than I’d like I would say that I have read a significant chunk of everything I own, probably in the 60-70% range (though not necessarily cover to cover). Part of that is because I’ve been increasingly focused on design and want to get a feel for how other creators approach a challenge but the larger motivation is that I enjoy reading them. I always have. Is it as good as playing them? No, not even remotely but I enjoy the process of diving into a new world and set of mechanics, to see how it all comes together and the story the creator was trying to tell through it.

RPGaDay 2021: 8th August

It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.

8th August: Stream

I’m not sure that I will ever fully embrace streaming. It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal but they just don’t sit right with how I tend to connect to media. I’ve never really gotten into watching things on my phone, it’s just not something that I enjoy doing. Similarly I’ve never really made the jump to regularly watching things via a computer and I’ve no idea why. Part of it is probably that if I’m sat at a computer I’m doing something and I struggle to do that and watch a stream. I’m one of these people that when it comes to watching something I need to give it my full attention or I lose track of what’s going on. I think that’s why I like podcasts so much – I typically listen to them during commuting to work on the train or when I’m doing tasks I can zone out such as the washing up. Maybe that will change in the future, I’m probably going to need a new tablet soon and I might try again then especially if I can find some more UK/Europe friendly streams to watch.

It’s also interesting how a large part of the growth of the hobby seems to have come off of the celebrity culture that has built around the big streams. I think it would be really interesting to examine the average stream engagement, watchers, returns etc as I suspect the vast majority are really low and only a handful are actually getting enough to convert it into something that pays. Not that that should be surprising and I don’t doubt many people are doing it just for the fun but I wish people appreciated just how much work and luck goes into being a successful streamer, I’ve seen plenty of comments about not getting viewers or being able to build an audience and it’s hard knowing that you can produce amazing material and just not have the right connections or reach to turn that into noticeable numbers.