Dragonmeet Retrospective Part 2: The Stand

This is a multi-part retrospective and you can find the full series via these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

For this second post looking back at my first time attending Dragonmeet as a trader, I want to focus on my stand (part 1, focusing on sales is here). What went right, what went wrong and what I would do differently. So let’s start with a picture. This was my stand as I set it up on the Friday evening. With the exception of the banner, which I moved about a little, it’s also how it looked during the rest of the convention.

You can see immediately that it’s quite utilitarian. Six sets of zines, flanked by signs and leaflets on either end. Each zine has a little blurb that also states its price and number of players. While there is a copy of everything standing vertically the majority are lying flat on the table. Behind all that are copies of each product prepackaged in a card back envelope while my remaining stock was stashed behind the table.

So let’s start with the good and I’m going to immediately shift away from the table to this beauty: my roller banner. 

Seriously, I loved how well this came out and it really sells my brand. The images stand out, my company name is clear and it’s got useful information at the bottom. The only things missing are my name and email address, issues that are apparently blind spots of mine as they came up more than once.

With regards to the actual stand, I felt like the limited number of games worked in my favour – I had enough of a range to grab people’s attention but not so many that you couldn’t look at them all. It was also a small enough number of products that I could give a customer a quick rundown of everything without losing their attention, a fact that I believe contributed to a number of sales.

The blurbs turned out to be a star asset, especially when I had multiple people at the stall so definitely something to repeat. They’ll also be invaluable when I have a larger range on offer and have to focus my pitch on a subset of games.

The other factor that helped was that I had two clear themes. I repeated the phrase “can I interest you in sci-fi or spies?” so many times during the course of the day that it almost lost meaning by the end. But it’s a concise and clear pitch that worked. While my personal interests are wider than just these two genres I expect they will always be a primary focus so it’s useful to know that people can be drawn in with a focused sales pitch like this.

So what, in retrospect, didn’t work or would I do differently?

First up are the envelopes. I’d prepackaged a number of zines in the card-backed envelopes that I use for postage and added download codes directly to them. While customers seemed to appreciate this it did cause a little confusion, as people would pick things up to buy and then I’d put them back down and hand them an envelope. Once I’d explained they appreciated it but it was a little hitch that I could easily smooth out. The bigger issue is weight and space. Using the envelopes made my bag heavier than it needed to be, something I could have done without (and more about that in a bit).

As for the download codes again, a great idea but as they were just small slips of paper they’re easily lost. Next time I think I will print them on small stickers and just add them directly to the inside cover of each zine. Again, it’s an easy solution that just speeds things along.

Stock wise I brought far too much. I’d received advice from someone with experience that around 25 copies per product was a good number and with the exception of Numb3r Stations this would have been sufficient. How many copies did I bring? 40-50. Of everything. My case weighed a lot. Why did I do that? Honestly, a mix of “what if it’s super busy” panicking and because I had space in my case to do so. While I did manage it next year I’ll aim for fewer copies of each product and hopefully make life a little easier for myself.

What I could have used that space in my case for was some vertical stands. Compared to others my table was quite flat and below eye level. A vertical stand would have allowed me to put multiple items on display, at eye level, while also only using a small portion of the table space. I could have also used it to make the price lists more visible, as people seemed not to notice them.

One thing that surprised me was how difficult it was to get people to take a freebie. I had produced mini A6 leaflets containing the Home Amongst the Stars micro games and a sign-up to my next Kickstarter. People were really reluctant to take them and even when they were at the stall didn’t seem to realise they were free. If I print a solar leaflet next time then I’ll put some really big ‘FREE GAMES!’ signs next to them. I was also a little disappointed that while I did hand out 100-150 of these leaflets that’s translated to only ~5 signups on the Kickstarter page. Not a great conversion rate. I knew it would be hard but had hoped to get 10-20 new signups to the landing page.

The biggest issue with my setup though was the lack of contact details/indication of who I am. Of the six products, I had for sale on the stand the only one with a name on the cover wasn’t mine! To top this off I forgot to order extra business cards and quickly ran out of them and for some stupid reason didn’t add my contact details to the flyers. Not great given I was hoping to build awareness of who I am so it’s definitely something to go to the top of the planning checklist for next time.

Overall though I was very pleased with my stand setup, especially given it was my first time. I’ve attended a lot of conventions so I think I’ve subconsciously built up a picture of what I do and don’t like on a stand, which reflects where I focused my own attention on. For part 3 I want to reflect on the day itself then do a final roundup in part 4. I’ve had a lot of encouraging comments about part 1 so I hope that this is also useful to people considering running a convention stand.

Dragonmeet Retrospective Part 1: The Money

This is a multi-part retrospective and you can find the full series via these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

This weekend (3rd of December, 2022) I made my yearly trip down to Dragonmeet. It is by far my favourite convention but this year was different. Why? Because it was my first as a trader. I’m planning to write a series of posts about the experience as I think it’s important to have this information freely available. For post number one I want to talk about money, so here’s the raw numbers.

Sales

Project Cassandra (£12) – 5
Numb3r Stations (£5) – 17
Espionnage bundle (Project Cassandra, Numb3r Stations, £15) – 10
Signal to Noise (£12) – 10
Rock Hoppers (£10) – 7
Kandhara Contraband (£5) – 8
Dyson bundle (Signal to Noise, Rock Hoppers, Kandhara Contraband, £25) – 5
Stealing the Throne (£12) – 14
Home Amongst the Stars (£0) – Many!

Total sales before any fees: £818
Banked after card processing fees: £805

Costs

Stand £150
Accomodation £274
Travel £100
Printing £262
Stealing the Throne stock £126
Acrylic stands £20
Envelopes £24
Banner £40
Card reader £23
Table cloth £6

Total costs: £1025

Profit: -£220

So attending the convention as a trader cost me money and there may be a couple of costs I’ve forgotten to add to that list. The biggest single factor was accommodation – two nights in central London is expensive, especially over a December weekend. I could, if I wanted, make arguments about why certain costs don’t really count. For example, I’d have spent that money on accommodation and travel if I’d gone as a visitor while the printing and envelopes included enough stock that I probably won’t need to order reprints until at least next summer.

Was it worth it though? That’s a topic for future posts but the short answer is yes. Some of those costs such as the banner were one offs that I wouldn’t have to pay for again while I already have thoughts on how to reduce other expenditure. The big reason it was worth it though is the exposure. So many people have now looked at or bought my games that, over time, it will start to add up and boost future sales. But as I said, that’s for a future post.

Prepping for Dragonmeet

Test setup of a convention stall fill of RPG zines. To the left is a toll roller banner and the stand is in front of a bookcase

With Dragonmeet rapidly approaching it seemed wise to put together a test of my stand setup earlier this week to see if there was anything missing or obvious issues with it. I’ve been fretting over how to arrange my stand since making the decision to exhibit at the convention but honestly, I’m really happy with how it looks.

The biggest surprise while putting everything together was that I’ve got a decent range of products to promote. Unlike some creators I’m not the most prolific so to get to ordering my print run and finally feeling like yeah, this is a good selection, was really heartening. While I’d obviously love to sell out and make loads of money my aim for the weekend is to showcase what I do and build some awareness.

It’s honestly a weird position to be in as I’ve moved squarely from the hobby to keep me engaged with gaming to taking the business side of things seriously. Am I ever going to do this full time? Almost certainly not. Would I like to be recognised as a designer and build a modest audience? Yes, and this is a big step forward in doing that.

So what will be on the stall?

Well I’ll have 2 distinct themes of games – sci-fi and spies. The sci-fi releases include Signal to Noise, Rock Hoppers and The Kandhara Contraband. Supporting those I’ll also have the excellent Stealing the Throne by Nick Bate, who unfortunately can’t make it this year.

On the espionage half I’ll obviously have Project Cassandra which will be backed up by Numb3r Stations, my recent collaboration with Albi.

To top it off, a freebie in the form of Home Amongst the Stars as an A6 leaflet. Suffice to say getting through the next week of work is going to be a challenge when I’ve got the convention to loon forward to.

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.

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.

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.