Why is the world still here? Musings on the Mythos

I’ve been thinking about the Mythos lately while I work on bashing into shape writing up Red Roots of the Rose for publication (initially for The Cthulhu Hack but with plans for a Call of Cthulhu version to follow). One of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the question of why hasn’t the world ended already?

It’s a simple enough question – if those dabbling with forces beyond human comprehension are constantly trying to bring great old ones into the world surely one of them would have succeeded by now. If we look back to the original Lovecraft short stories then the answer is, largely, because people are not trying to. The majority of the stories are about personal revelations as the protagonists stumble across evidence of the Mythos or, alternatively, personal quests for power. The type of large ritual trying to summon ancient powers to bring about the end of the world is relatively rare so why do we gravitate towards it in gaming?

I think the answer is fairly simple: In traditional mythos games we regularly position the characters as heroes. They are rarely the protagonists of Lovercraft who uncover a horror and seek to escape and forgot what they have encountered but proactive individuals that work to unravel the mystery in front of them and stop the great plan that is taking place. As a result games often tend towards situations where the world quite literally needs saving, especially when you’re running a campaign and need to build the threat and tension. It’s the same problem that games such as D&D have – there’s only so long you can murder goblins before you feel the need to murder increasingly bigger foes, slowly working your way up to dragons.

Taking that into consideration raises the question of why, in games where world ending situations are common enough for the characters to consistently encounter, has the world not already been consumed/corrupted/destroyed? These are a few of the explanations that I’ve been considering:

  1. It’s exceedingly difficult, to the point that the people who attempt it would fail most of the time even if the investigators never got involved. Sure there may be chaos and death on a local scale, explained away as mass suicides or a natural disaster but not the arrival of a great old one or elder god that those involved were hoping for.
  2. Humanity is incapable of actually summoning anything powerful enough to end the world. This is related to the above but draws from the idea that to the most powerful entities of the Mythos we’re simply so inconsequential that they don’t take notice and ignore our attempts to attract their attention.
  3. Something, or someone, acts to counter every attempt. While this goes against the concept of a hostile and uncaring universe it does work well with the idea that the various factions and entities are locked in an eternal struggle against one another. Followers of Dagon trying to open a portal? Well maybe Hastur surreptitiously arranges for the PCs to be in the right place to intervene. Combined with 1 or 2 it is the approach that I personally would favour if I even ran a long campaign within the wider setting.
  4. Finally there’s the possibility that they have already succeeded but humanities perception of the world is so restricted that we haven’t noticed yet. Maybe we’re so incapable of handling the truth that humanity has fashioned a collective hallucination of the world we know. This is, perhaps, the most intriguing approach but also the most difficult to fit into the gaming side of the genre. How would you even approach this in such a way as to reveal the truth of the world? Certainly not with the more traditional systems out there.

So which approach am I taking in Red Roots of the Rose? In typical fashion the answer is none of the above. The scenario, while built for ‘heroes’ intervening in a deadly mystery is also built around personal power and what individuals will do to maintain their own small slice of it. It’s mythos with a small m, driven by human greed. Failure won’t tear open reality or summon an endless wave of unspeakable horrors. It may leave the investigators scared, broken or dead but that is all.

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.

Talking Numbers: On being Deal of the Day

Back at the start of the year I finally found myself in the position of having sufficient Publisher Points on drivethruRPG to submit a product to the Deal of the Day queue. As my (at the time) biggest seller I submitted The Synth Convergence, my trilogy of missions for The Sprawl, and sat down to wait. For close to five months. Towards the end of May I finally received a notification that it had hit the top of the queue and would be the featured product on the 25th. I’ve mentioned before, both here and on twitter, about wanting to be open about sales and numbers as an indie publisher. Part of that is because I’m very much in the long tail at the end that you normally don’t hear from – many of the small publishers I see talking numbers are doing sales that are already an order of magnitude above mine (my 2020 numbers can be found here as an example). The Project Cassandra Kickstarter is going to shift my earning considerably but that’s a topic for when fulfilment is complete.

With all that in mind I want to talk about how well the missions did, my thoughts and general sales numbers. Prior to the deal of the day The Synth Convergence had sold 80 copies on drivethruRPG, with gross sales of $248.08, earning me $148.85. That comes in to an average purchase price of $3.01, compared to the list price of $5.00. The differences there are due to two factors – for much of 2020 I reduced it to $1.50 as part of a pandemic sale while it is also part of a Sprawl bundle including Mission Packets 1 and 2 that retails at $6.00.

During its 24 hour run the Deal of the Day promotion, while it was available for $2.50 (or less as part of the bundle), it was purchased 47 times, bringing in $122.54 in gross sales and personal earnings of $73.65. That may not be much for publishers with a more established following but personally it represents a massive up tick in sales and earnings.

That’s not the end of the story though.

With the increase in people looking at my publisher page I saw other releases picking up additional sales . The Sprawl Bundle sold 9 copies thanks to the fact that the Deal of the Day sale price was automatically factored in to its retail price. The Tannhouser Investment, the first mission from the trilogy is available separately as a PWYW demo but 3 people paid for it, either not realising it was included or because they wanted to send a little extra my way. The Synth Divergence transmission for Technoir and my Demon Hunters Fiasco playset both picked up a sale. Altogether those boosted my earnings by another $20.37. Finally, in the days since there has been a small trickle of sales – 3 sales of the bundle, 1 of The Synth Convergence and 1 of What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]?

So those are the numbers. Now for some thoughts/analysis. Emphasis on the thoughts given my limited data.

Was submitting the missions to Deal of the Day worth it? Yes, undoubtedly so. Those numbers speak for themselves and represent a substantial boost to my sales. Over a third of all sales I’ve had of the missions were in that 24 hour period.

Would sales have been higher if I had chosen a stand alone game for my submission? Honestly, I have no idea. As a supplement they are reliant on a purchaser owning a copy of The Sprawl but on the other hand it is a well known and popular PbtA game. Combined with the sale price I suspect a lot of people will have purchased the missions on impulse alone. I just don’t have the data to know if they’d have done the same with a stand alone game.

Do I wish I’d have saved the points for using with Project Cassandra? Also yes. While I would have probably ended up waiting another year to use them it would have been nice to ensure that the game got in front of as many people as possible. It cost 577 publisher points to submit to Deal of the Day. Right now it’s over 650. As a non-exclusive publisher I receive 10 points a month plus 1 for every $10 of sales that month. So unless I can significantly increase my monthly sales it will be a few years until I can submit again. What I will do though is look into other ways that the publisher points can be used – the cost for banner adds is currently low, and with the impending digital release of Project Cassandra I intend to use them to boost visibility of the game. I’m not sure how effective banner impressions are but I’ve got enough right now to trial it and see if there is a boost to sales.

All in all being deal of the day drove a significant increase in my sales and that, ultimately, was always the goal.

Newsletter #1

With the work on Project Cassandra well under way (the draft text is now in the hands of backers) the start of the month also saw another new milestone for LunarShadow Designs with the launch of the first Newsletter, which will be releasing at the start of each month going forward. My goal each month is to talk about what I’m personally working on and to highlight new releases that have caught my attention. As the organiser of the ZineQuest 3 Jam on itch.io I also want to talk about the games that have been submitted to the jam with a focus on a few that I’m personally excited about.

You can find Issue #1 of the newsletter here and if you want to get future updates direct to your inbox once a month please sign up. I’ll still be updating the blog when I want to talk about something in more depth, though I expect those articles will be a little more sparse while I work on completing Project Cassandra.

What’s on my shelf 3: The Indie Corner

Next up in exploring my physical collection I’ve got the indie corner and at first glance it’s a little underwhelming. Not because of the games that are present but because the vast majority of my indie collection is digital. It’s one of the things I’d like to amend going forward, especially once we get back to in person conventions and I can buy directly from the creators.

So what’s present? The first call out, over on the very right, is Crystal Heart from Up to Four Players. It’s an amazing setting for the Savage Worlds system and I was lucky enough to write one of the stretch goal adventures, Ghosts of Iron. It was my first (and currently only) time working as a freelancer and something I’m keen to do more of once I whittle down my own project list.

There are a smattering of PbtA and Fate books, both systems that I enjoy but haven’t latched onto the way the wider market has. I used to own more but have sold off bits here and there over the last few years. Surprisingly I only acquired a print copy of The Sprawl after releasing The Synth Convergence at the end of 2019. The most recent acquisition is Black Armada’s Last Fleet, which is essentially Battlestar Galactica with the serial numbers filed off. Despite loving the concept and genre I’ve yet to get around to reading it.

Dotted amongst those is a rather eclectic selection, a number of which came out of the Scottish indie scene between 2008-2011. I was fortunate to know and mix with a number of the designers that were around Glasgow and Edinburgh at that point and without it I doubt I’d have gotten in to indie gaming to the extent that I have. From that period Remember Tomorrow remains one of my go to references for Gibson flavoured cyberpunk and goes nicely with The Sprawl and Technoir. Unfortunately somewhere along the way I lost my treasured fold out copy of Hell 4 Leather. It’s a game that I love and was my first real introduction to narrative, GMless gaming.

The thing that I’ve really come to appreciate with indie games, and even more so with those I own digitally, is the sheer range of systems and the stories they tell. With ZineQuest having only recently finished I’m looking forward to seeing what the latest round of games from new designers look like and adding them to the shelf.

For those that might be wondering the full list of games in the photo is as follows:

  • Last Fleet
  • The Cthulhu Hack (and Mother’s Love adventure supplement)
  • Technoir
  • 2 copies of BESM 2nd edition
  • Remember Tomorrow
  • Goblin Quest
  • Piledrivers and Powerbombs
  • Fate Accelerated
  • Fate System Toolkit
  • Fate Core
  • Scum & Villainy
  • The Sprawl
  • Dungeon World
  • Crystal Heart
  • 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars
  • Best Friends

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.

What’s on my shelf 2: Cortex

Collection of RPG books using the Cortex system including Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Leverage, Smallville, Firefly, Marvel Heroic and Cortex Prime

Following on from the overview post of what’s on the shelves of my new bookcase I want to focus in on a few individual groups of books. First up – Cortex RPG.

While Torg may have been the system that got me into tabletop RPGs it was Cortex that became the first I picked up independently, without being introduced to it by somebody else. The game that drew me in was the original Serenity system. As a massive fan of the show (which is unfortunately tainted by the actions of Joss Whedon) I picked it up as soon as I was aware of its existence and with the giddy excitement of being a brand new GM proceeded to run an absolute clusterfuck of a session. We had PCs turning on one another, half drunk players falling asleep (we were playing during a uni society overnight event following a club night) and a ‘quick’ combat that stretched into multiple hours.

Somehow that failed to put me off GMing and after gaining a little more experience we returned to the system to play the most cursed campaign I’ve ever run. Thankfully the curse here was scheduling rather than the game. Every session we did manage was great, they were just few and far between. The more we played the more I fell in love with the mechanics and naturally, being a collector, I picked up subsequent releases. One of those was Demon Hunters, a game which I have talked about at length on this blog.

As the system progressed from Classic to Plus I continued to pick up the books, focusing on the core rulebooks rather than supplements. Of the core rulebooks the only one I’m missing is Supernatural. I’m really excited about the new Prime edition and the opportunities it offers and have vague ideas of putting together a game using it. Right now I’m waiting to see what the rules for the Creators Workshop look like but if all goes to plan at least one game in my Dyson Eclipse setting will make use of the system. As far as the future of the line goes I’ve no plans to pick up the currently announced games, primarily as I’ve never been big on fantasy settings. I have mixed feelings about the focus on the digital platform, but what I’ve seen so far looks promising and it’ll be interesting to see if they can finally fulfil the potential of digital approaches.

I’m not sure I can fully articulate why the system resonates with me so much. That it was the first game I found on my own is certainly a part of it but I think the interlocking of traditional and narrative approaches is also a significant factor. It achieves a lot of what I enjoy about Fate but in a way that is slightly more intuitive and feels less meta. It’s also remarkably easy to teach, people latch onto the ‘when this applies grab the associated die’ and as a result I’ve run it repeatedly at numerous conventions.

Combining it all together I expect Cortex, in one form or another, is going to be one of those forever systems for me and I’m glad to see that it’s in good hands going forward.

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.

New Release: The Synth Divergence – A Technoir transmission

The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority – A Technoir transmission

In the wake of the rising cost of air travel and development of clean propulsion methods the city of Liverpool has returned to its roots as a hub of ocean shipping. Thousands of workers have flocked to the docks in search of employment, managing a never ending stream of bulk cargo. Then came Synthetics, true artificial consciousness with the potential to upend the economy. As their numbers increase so does their dominance in the workplace and the careful balance between workers and the Corporations hangs by a thread.

This is the Synth Divergence – A transmission for Technoir, the game of high-tech, hard-boiled roleplaying.

Building on the success of my work on missions for The Sprawl during the past year The Synth Divergence remixes the material into a Technoir transmission centred around the city of Liverpool and its dominant Corporate Authority. Where The Sprawl is built around action oriented missions Technoir spins the cyberpunk dystopia towards noir investigations with intuitive mechanics that weaves a web of intrigue and connections as the plot is revealed.

Inside the transmission you’ll find the 36 connections, objects, locations, events, factions and threats used to construct the plot map and draw the characters in to the investigation. These include The Auctoria super-luxury hotel and CHES, its resident Synth, MetroNews, the custom Manta-Masti sports car, legendary racer Fabio Scorpius and a host of additional nodes inspired by the city of Liverpool.

You can pick up The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority now from itch.io and drivethruRPG for $3.

The Synth Convergence: 1 year later

It’s been a year since the release of The Synth Convergence and as it has turned into by biggest release to date I wanted to discuss how it has done.

The Synth Convergence started life with two missions that had been run by Christina Stone-Bush and a third by myself that were rebuilt around the core theme of synthetic intelligence. While I ended up taking on most of the project as a solo endeavour none of it would have been possible without the initial mission profiles that Christina had developed. Developing the missions, and learning how to lay them out in Scribus, took most of 2019 and I achieved my before Dragonmeet release target by only a couple of days.

Supported by mentions and retweets from both Hamish (the creator of the Sprawl) and Christina it quickly blew past my initial target of 10 paid sales. As a relatively unknown developer who had previously only released smaller adventures for Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors the reception to the trilogy was amazing. So let’s talk numbers.

All in the final release came to 37 pages, comprising 3 missions and a collection of bonus characters and locations that could be dropped into any game of The Sprawl. Just over 10,000 words in total. It was released simultaneously on drivethruRPG and itch.io with a $5 price tag then went on sale at $1.50 for most of the year in response to the COVID crisis.

DrivethruRPG

The majority of direct sales have, to date, come from drivethruRPG. Right now that’s 60 paid sales. 21 of these were at full price, 32 at reduced sale prices and 6 as part of a Sprawl Missions bundle that includes Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. and Mission Packet 2: Subversion. The gross revenue comes to $178.81 and my take home (net) earning is $107.28. Sales dipped quickly after the first month, picked up while it was on sale and then have trickled in ever since. It hit Copper best seller (>50 paid sales) on 24th August, just short of 9 months after release.

Itch.io

Compared to drivethruRPG itch.io sale numbers have been much lower, 17 paid sales to date only 2 of which were while it was listed at the full price. Itch.io allows for customers to tip though and a number of people did so those 17 sales have a total earning of $55.75, coming to $43.98 after processing fees and the sites cut. The most anybody paid was $8.00, right after launch. To date 1 person has purchased the missions via the bundle.

I can’t say for certain but I’d attribute the lower number of itch.io sales to a few factors. Firstly The Sprawl itself isn’t available on itch.io but is listed on drivethruRPG so if you go looking for the game there you’ll also find The Synth Convergence. Second is just the overall traffic to the site, which I’d guess is at least an order of magnitude lower than drivethruRPG.

The final factor is that in June I contributed The Synth Convergence to the bundle for racial justice so many people that might have picked it up already own copies of it. It’s difficult to say how many people that supported the bundle have checked the mission out but my estimate (based on downloads of the individual files) is ~2,000 off of over 10,000 page views. As a tiny fish in a very big pond those are the sort of numbers that I never expected to see my writing reach and I hope that people enjoy what they read.

Wrap up

When I first ran the mission that would become The Infinitive Cascade the idea that it might end up as a published adventure didn’t even enter my head. I was just running a cool cyberpunk game and trying to build interest in games other than D&D at my local games cafe (if only that had been as successful as the missions!) The idea to publish them became a turning point for me and I feel like everything that I have done since then has been better because of it. I’m more confident in my writing, more knowledgeable about layout and overall more invested in continuing in the indie publishing scene. I’m also immensely proud of the final product, it looks good and the missions are fun to play. I’ve published two additional mission packets since then, incorporating ideas I had bounced around and the lessons I had learned in the process. That material has even inspired the development of a Technoir transmission, which I’m currently putting the finishing touches to and hope to release soon.

Not bad for something that started with a DJ seeking to escape their record contract.