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.

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State of the Conspiracy: First print tests

Alternate cover page – with and without background

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

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

Project Cassandra print tests with the original cover page

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

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

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

Project Cassandra on Le Repaire de Gulix

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

New Release: Mission Packet 2 Subversion

The Sprawl is built around missions and the Corporations have no shortage of dirty money but if you want to take the fight to them that means subverting their goals, one directive at a time. Mission Packet 2: Subversion introduces three new, non-Corporate factions struggling to fight against the system, custom moves for subverting the goals of the Corporations and missions for each faction for once you have earned their trust. The Factions introduced in this Mission Packet are:

  • The Synth Republic, who seek to rescue captured AI from the hands of their Corporate masters and provide them the opportunity to experience life in the physical domain. 
  • The Peoples Union, local gang or the last protectors of labour rights? When they offer you the chance to wipe the debt of thousands of workers from the system will you step up to protect the downtrodden?
  • The Env, anti-capitalist environmental activists pushed to take extreme measures in their fight to protect what little is left of the natural world.

Mission Packet 2: Subversion is available now from itch.io and drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link) for $1.50. This release requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG to play.

New Release: What’s so [Redacted] about [Redacted]?

What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]?

What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? is a game of psychic operatives during the Cold War, fighting to prevent a dangerous vision of the future from coming to pass. The game was created as a submission for What’s so cool about Jam and hacks the simple system of What’s so cool about Outer Space by Jared Sinclair to focus on psychics out to save the world.

The premise of the game might sound familiar and that’s because it serves as an introduction to the world Project Cassandra. The game builds on the concepts developed for Project Cassandra, most notably by allowing players to outline elements of the adventure from the outset, which provides the GM with a road map of scenes to work from. As an added incentive to interact with each scene the player that predicted it gains an ongoing bonus thanks to their foreknowledge of the event.

For a game that came together in less than a fortnight I’m extremely proud of the result. It fits the aim of the jam, aligns with the core concepts underlying Project Cassandra and also looks the part.

What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? is available now from itch.io and drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link).

Podcasts I Love: Happy Jacks RPG

I’m a dedicated podcast listener – I got hooked on them in the early days and they’ve become a constant source of entertainment, from filling the time during long commutes to being a welcome distraction while being stuck at home during the current crisis. I’ve got a number that I want to give shoutouts to in these quick posts. I’ve picked each of them based on a simple parameter – they’re the ones that I regularly push to the top of my queue and do my best to keep up with.

Of all the podcasts that I listen to Happy Jacks is the one that I’ve stuck with the longest. How long? Roughly a decade. It was the second ever podcast that I got into, after the now defunct Bear Swarm and it’s safe to say that it’s the one that has had the biggest influence on me as a gamer. It not only got me through the wilderness of periods where I found myself barely playing games but has been responsible for introducing me to so many amazing gamers over the years. The community, through both the (numerous) forums and discord has always been fantastic and welcoming (with only a small number of flame wars). It’s been a big enough part of my gaming life that I even flew out to the amazing Stratigicon convention back in 2015 for the best four days in gaming I have ever had.

The regular advice show, which has always had the welcoming feel of friends just casually chatting about the hobby, has also developed an extensive stable of actual plays, featuring a wide ranging style of games from D&D to Legend of the Five Rings (Inukai!), a multitude of PbtA games and smaller indie games. As the show has grown it has also worked to diversify the cast roster and continues to do so at a time when representation is something so much of the hobby is struggling with. I’m not going to pretend that they’re perfect but they are actively engaging with issues and striving to improve.

New Release: Home Amongst the Stars

After creating To Travel far from Home and The Stars will carry you Home business card micro-games earlier this year I spent a long time pondering how I would complete the trilogy. I knew that I wanted a final game that covered the explorers returning to Earth, just not how to go about it.

Then I saw a tweet about the bookmark game jam being hosted on itch.io by Diwata ng Manila. The slightly larger format offered the potential to rework the first two games while keeping them true to the original intent. In the process of doing so I got the inspiration for This Earth we called Home, the final part of the trilogy, which sees the explorers return to a world in need of hope but at risk of falling to fear. With the concept in place the final game came together nicely and the trilogy now function as a set of interconnected journaling games – the explorers log their thoughts and dreams as they undergo selection and a perilous voyage before coming together in an attempt to unify the world. With a word count of less than 600 I’m extremely happy with what the games achieve and hope that others get the chance to read and play it.

You can download Home amongst the Stars for free on the LunarShadow Designs itch.io page.

Podcasts I Love: Pandas Talking Games

I’m a dedicated podcast listener – I got hooked on them in the early days and they’ve become a constant source of entertainment, from filling the time during long commutes to being a welcome distraction while being stuck at home during the current crisis. I’ve got a number that I want to give shoutouts to in these quick posts. I’ve picked each of them based on a simple parameter – they’re the ones that I regularly push to the top of my queue and do my best to keep up with.

Panda’s Talking Games is a weekly advice podcast from the Misdirected Mark podcast network hosted by Senda Linaugh and Phil Vecchione. Each episode the hosts answer listener questions from alternate perspectives, typically but not always One-Shot vs Campaign. Those questions may range from topics such as balancing immersion with mechanics to discussions on the approaches of new vs old games or even how to translate their favourite Ditch Lilies albums into game mechanics.

The alternating viewpoints provide a really refreshing approach to the topics compared to many podcasts where the hosts often just end up agreeing with one another. It’s especially welcome because Phil and Senda don’t just play devils advocate with one another, their points are always well thought out and complementary rather than trying to compete with the old ‘this way is better’ argument.

What really makes the show stand out though are the hosts and their attitude to gaming. The fact that they love the hobby is apparent from the energy that they bring to every single episode of the podcast and I think it’s a safe bet that they’re the sort of people that would not only bring that energy to the table but help everyone else find it as well.

You can find Panda’s Talking Games on the Misdirected Mark site, on all the major podcast aggregators and on twitter.

Project Cassandra: Inspiration and Origins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the Conspiracy: Playtest Packet 2 Released

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

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

Project Cassandra – draft cover page

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

Yes, kickstarter. Specifically ZineQuest 2021.

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

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

Example of play with layout