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.

Reflecting on 2019 – Part 1: Gaming

At the end of 2018 I was in the process of rebuilding after a couple of busy years that included moving away from my regular gaming group in Wycombe and then floundering about for a while failing to find a new, consistent game. After moving to Liverpool I’d started running semi-regular one shots at Sugar & Dice but really, what I wanted was a weekly game.

As 2018 came to close I got that, with The Immortals, a (somewhat) regular D&D game that ran all the way through to November of this year. I chanced into that game, as a colleague at work had picked up the starter set and was planning on running it even though they’d really rather have played. So I volunteered myself as DM, with a group of players that were pretty much brand new to the hobby. As I discussed during the round up D&D will never be my go to system but it was a fun campaign and it was refreshing to play for people that had yet to experience so many of the tropes that I’ve come to take for granted.

While our D&D campaign comprised the bulk of my sessions I was fortunate to be able to fit in a number of one-shots, primarily with the main group and occasionally at Sugar & Dice. Those covered a mix of systems and included playtests of material that I was writing for publication (which I’ll talk about more in Part 2). Including D&D I think I ran six distinct systems this year, which isn’t as high as I’d have liked but not too shabby. There were some systems that I’d planned to run but didn’t get around to, most notably Legend of the Five Rings 5th Edition and The Cthulhu Hack so I’ll have to ensure I get around to them in 2020.

Beyond gaming with a regular group 2019 was also the year I got back to conventions. Starting with UK Games Expo in June I then managed to follow-up with a series of one day events, BurritoCon 3 and BurritoCon 4 over in Manchester before rounding the year out with Dragonmeet (and a pile of con loot). While I found Expo to be a little overwhelming it was definitely worth the trip just to see how well the hobby is doing right now. The two BurritoCon events were at the complete other end of the spectrum – small, personal and focused on playing rather than selling. It’s pretty much a given that I’ll attend them again in the future. Then, finally, there was Dragonmeet. After a few years away it felt like returning home, an impressive feat given how much it has grown in those intervening years.

Despite all of that the one thing I didn’t do much this year was play. I’m used to being the GM and it is my preferred role but looking back I’ve played in a total of only three sessions this year and each of those were convention games (Victoriana, Marvel FASERIP and Goblin Quest). I’d like to play more but have struggled to find the right games (>90% of everything available locally is, no surprise, D&D).

All of that re-engagement has carried over here to the blog. Compared to 2018 I’ve written twice as many posts, doubled the number of views and more than doubled the number of visitors. While I can attribute those increases to a small number of specific factors (I did daily posts or RPGaDay while over half of the additional views came from my review of the D&D Monster Cards) it is still encouraging to see posts building some traction. I’m under no illusion about the reach of this blog, in the grand scheme of things my numbers are tiny but growth is growth and I’m going to do my best to continue building on that in 2020.

That desire to maintain, and build on, the momentum of 2019 is my core aim for 2020. With the conclusion of our D&D campaign it will include the start of a new Demon Hunters campaign, interspaced with a mixture of one-shots. I’m also going to do my best to expand my gaming beyond my regular group, not only as a GM and player but locally and nationally given how much I have enjoyed getting back to conventions. All in all I think 2020 should be quite a year.

Closing Thoughts: Wrapping up a D&D campaign

Earlier this month the D&D campaign I’ve been DMing for a group of work colleagues reached its conclusion. We’ve been playing for close to a year and for most of the players it was their first extended foray into the hobby. While it has been a slog at times overall I have enjoyed running my first campaign in any iteration of the “world’s greatest roleplaying game.”

I’m not, however, in any rush to repeat the experience.

The campaign has really reinforced my belief that the d20 system just isn’t for me. There are just too many elements where I feel like the mechanics are working against what I want to bring to the table. Can I work around them, or even accept why they’re there? Sure, but that doesn’t mean I’ll enjoy them.

Monsters & Mayhem

One of my biggest issues is D&Ds core focus – combat. The extent to which 5th edition revolves around it is both admirable and unbelievable. 4th edition may have a tighter combat system due to its design goals (I will forever think they should have released it under a separate line such as ‘D&D Tactics’) but it is still at the core of 5th edition.

So what were my issues? First off the attrition mechanic that is HP and how it scales. Shooting or stabbing somebody and then only knocking off 8 of their 50+ HP is boring and gets repetitive quickly. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it’s meant to represent wearing down luck or a person’s stamina but honestly if that is the case it needs to be renamed and characters should have a small, separate wound track.

I found HP especially frustrating given the challenge rating of many monsters are increased simply by upping their it but without increasing anything else. Too many creatures have large HP values relative to their damage output. I got around this using two of the more common approaches – first off I halved the HP of pretty much every monster if it was above 20. Secondly for anything that should have been a proper threat they always hit with max damage (for everything else I used the average damage just to speed up combats). I also ported over the concept of minions from 4th edition – hard hitters that went down after 1 or 2 hits regardless of the damage.

My second issue with the combat heavy nature of the game is how much D&D leans on the use of monsters. Yes, they’re iconic and fit the established dungeon crawling that D&D is actually all about but I like to have intelligent NPCs that the players can interact with. Unfortunately the system doesn’t make it easy to create them and there aren’t a massive number of examples in the basic game. Time and time again I found myself reskinning monster stat blocks to be city guards and tavern owners. It helped that we’d established from the start that no race was inherently evil so it wasn’t unusual for the PCs to encounter goblins or orcs that weren’t automatically out to get them.

As with HP I understand why D&D uses monsters so often but honestly I feel like unless you’re playing a West Marches game or just focusing on dungeon crawling that it would benefit shifting to include more individuals and better rules for quickly statting them up. This is one aspect where I suspect the published adventures improve on the game but given I don’t use them I don’t have access to the repertoire of NPCs in their pages.

Epic Storytelling

Despite all my complaints about the system my aim was always to lean in to one key aspect – epic storytelling. By the end of the campaign the PCs had worked their way up to fighting against Fate itself, which in our storyline manifested in the form of a dragon. The characters had been unwillingly chosen to be its immortal heralds in the next age of the world – theirs would be power and control at the expense of progress. They chose to fight against those ties, toppling the previous immortals before turning against Fate in an epic showdown with the dragon Rivqah. They opted to forgo the stagnation of stability in favour of progress and ultimately won the fight to let the world move forward and forge its own path.

What they didn’t succeed in doing was severing the ties to their own souls, rendering them immortal in a world that was moving on. This wasn’t something I’d planned, it just came down to the PCs achieving their main goal without first completing a second objective during the heat of combat. What it does mean is that we have the opportunity to revisit the characters in a later game, so my mind is already considering the possibilities. Maybe a fantasy spin on Deadlands? Or a look at how the world progressed as it entered its modern era? The options are open and I’m looking forward to seeing what the characters have been up to.

But not yet, there’s plenty of other games to play first.

#RPGaDay2019 31st August: ‘Last’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 31: Last

The last game I was in was D&D 5th Edition, a campaign that I’ve been GMing since the start of the year. We’ve entered the final arc and I’ve got to admit that while I have enjoyed it I am looking forward to a change of system. d20 will never be my system of choice, there are just too many parts that I don’t enjoy. Perhaps the biggest is combat. I am really tired of trying to make combat more interesting when a hit rarely does anything more than whittle away HP. I want each and every hit to have a narrative consequence, not ‘you get hit by an arrow for the 5th time this combat, lose 7 HP’. I’ve got workarounds but ultimately the issue is with the system. We’re probably moving on to Demon Hunters next, which utilises narrative conditions. I can’t wait for the change in pace and the opportunity to introduce the group to the wider world of both the setting and role playing in general.

And with that we bring RPGaDay 2019 to a close. It’s been an interesting challenge responding to the daily prompts and I hope that people have appreciated my stream of consciousness approach to it.

Rambling: Shifting expectations – From one-shots to campaigns

Until we started our current D&D game my recent gaming had been orientated towards one-shots or, at most, mini-campaigns. It was only following our most recent session, that it struck me how the switch to a campaign hadn’t resulted in a proper reorientation of my mindset.

The One-Shot

By their very nature, one-shot games are constrained by time. This is especially true for convention games which typically need to fit into a four-hour time slot. Typically that will include not only the actual game but picking characters, explaining the system and introducing the scenario. The format also requires the plot to take a specific shape. Scenes need to be concise and limited to only those that are directly relevant. Characters should be clearly defined, often to the point of exaggeration, to ensure that they are both easy to pick up and are able to shine during the adventure. Even if you are running a prep-lite game you need to be on the ball, responsive and focused. Anything else and you risk going over or having to trim down the game.

The Campaign

Campaigns are the polar opposite and I had thought that shifting to one would have led to a pretty instant shift in my preparations and expectations. On the surface it did. The adventures are now spread over multiple sessions, there is more time to socialise and go over rules and with a more relaxed approach to the plot, I’ve even found that sessions can comfortably run short. We typically end up with closer to three hours of gaming than four thanks to the knowledge that we’ll be picking things up again the next week.

Well of course there’s a difference…

Most people that have read the above are probably thinking that I’m pointing out the obvious and you’d be right, I am. In shifting my point of reference though I’ve been reminded how easy it is to overlook the obvious. The structure of a one-shot vs campaign starter vs mid-campaign session are all different. But with the transition from one format to another how often have I actively thought about those different structures?

How often have I paused and reminded myself of those constraints and what they force me to leave out?

The answer to that is not enough. It’s human nature to take shortcuts, which in the case of adventure prep means going with what you have become used to. When we started The Immortals I knew every session would have a followup and started thinking about multi-session arc and plots. Yet on a session to session basis, I maintained too many approaches that are better suited to a one-shot.

Most obvious – that our first few sessions all concluded with a mini-cliffhanger. On one hand that’s great, it can help maintain engagement but on the other hand, I was found myself leaning on the one-shot beat structure session after session. We’d start by resolving the cliffhanger, rest and recover, explore the new situation and then rapidly build to another point of drama. I was forcing the pace of each session to try and ensure it ended on a high because that was what I’d become used to. I did it without thinking, even though I knew I had time to spare. Even though I knew that we could end on a low or with the characters in the middle of something.

All because I had assumed I would automatically switch my habits back to approaches I’d learned when I was running regular campaigns.

Going forward its clear that I need to pause and reflect more often, not just on the big picture but on the fine details. I’m fairly confident that overall I run a good game but I don’t want to just run a good game, I want to run an amazing one. I’ve got a table full of new players and I want them to come out of the campaign wanting more. I want them to love this hobby as much as I do and that’s not going to happen if I just rely on past experience.

Note: Ok, so this post got away from me and just wouldn’t come together the way I wanted it to. Normally I’d work on it a bit more but the more I do the less I feel like it is going to go anywhere. So here it is, just some rambling thoughts that I hope make at least some sense.

Fall of the Immortals: Room for Improvement

We’re now four sessions into our D&D campaign Fall of the Immortals and it’s shaping up quite nicely. The PCs have reached level 2, the players are beginning to find their feet and we’re slowly establishing the details of the world in an approach that is somewhere between traditional D&D and the PBTA trappings of Dungeon World. I’m making an active attempt to ask the players to define details without overwhelming them.

There is, however, plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the screen and based on our most recent session one of mine is that I need to improvise less. This seems counter-intuitive in many ways as my progress as a GM over the last few years has been squarely towards improvisation. Going into our last session my concrete notes were little more than

PCs infiltrate noble party looking for the scroll. Upper echelons of gnome society; modron like mechanical creatures used as guards.

However, when it came to running the session I felt that while I was able to introduce scenes I felt like they lacked depth and that the connecting elements were paper thin. I had little sense of how the mansion was designed, of who the host was or of how the PCs might uncover the whereabouts of the scroll. When the PCs chanced upon an interesting location, such as the library where monodrones were loading and unloading books from cages that were slowly rumbling past, I then failed to provide proper context. The PCs decided to follow the cages of books, which led them to a room where dozens of shackled scribes were working away furiously on… something. My mind was blank, I just couldn’t think of a good explanation for them existing beyond trying to explain elements of the previous scene.

Fortunately, the PCs didn’t dig too deep and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players hadn’t picked up on my troubles but even so it is bothering me. The solution is likely that I need to prep more, taking those few sentences of notes and expanding them slightly. For example, going into the last session I knew the PCs were infiltrating the party so a few notes on the mansion would have helped. I knew they were after the scroll so I could have made notes on where it is and what might be protecting it. I’m never going to go the way of full on adventure paths, with every detail described in advance. I have neither the time or the inclination to put that much restricting prep in. But some more prep would have been invaluable without preventing the addition of elements on the fly.

The Immortals and Ending with the Beginning

Like many gamers when it comes to campaigns I’ve found that the majority tend to end not with a bang but a whimper. They fall apart due to scheduling issues or simply fizzle out when trying to continue on from after epic and satisfying story arc. It’s an issue that has been on my mind with the start of the new D&D campaign – how to end it?

At the moment, two sessions in we have yet to touch on any real plot, the mini-adventure has seen the players investigating an attack on an apparent merchant caravan and trying to rescue the lone survivor. While the adventure is really just aimed as an introduction to the game mechanics I have tried to drop in a few hooks here and there. The caravan was carrying a scroll inscribed with the symbol of one of the Immortals (that burned up before the PCs could retrieve it – yay for natural 1s on investigation attempts) and was being guarded by High Elves, which we established was unusual for the setting.

But where is it going? What is the point of this all? That’s the question that I’ve been wracking my brain with for the last few days. The obvious answer to that is the Fall of the Immortals, the rulers of the Empires in our as yet unnamed setting. We have already established that two of the characters are survivors of a previous rebellion, so it makes sense that they would have an interest in seeing the downfall of the tyrants.

It also fits with a number of standard fantasy tropes. Authoritarian empires? Check. Unknown heroes rising up? Check. Normally I wouldn’t lean so heavily on those tropes, at least not deliberately. However, in prepping for this campaign I’ve been going back to basics. The first of which is that D&D is best when it is tied to those tropes. Indeed from a gaming perspective, many of them originated with D&D (which itself lifted them from the established traditions of the fantasy genre, both Tolkien and its pulpier counterparts). Secondly, I am running a game for a group of mostly new players. Players who haven’t played through those tropes before and who certainly haven’t burned out on them.

So keeping with the basics we already have an ending – The Fall of the Immortals. Thanks to the fact that we established there to be multiple empires we even have our intermediate goals, taking down the first couple of Immortals before building up to the strongest of them. All that’s left to add is a touch of Fate, which I plan to introduce through a little bit of prophecy and a whole lot of dragon.

We are playing Dungeons & Dragons after all.

Diving into… my first D&D campaign

I’ve been slowly re-engaging with the hobby since moving to Liverpool earlier this year and one of the things I have really had to get over is my apprehension at playing D&D. I’ve blogged about this already but in short – the game is everywhere and if I want to play regularly then it is likely that it will have to be D&D.

So when the opportunity to run a game for a group of almost entirely new players at work came up? I grabbed it. No hesitation, no grumbling about better games. We had our first session at the start of the week, which covered character gen, a little bit of world building and a single introductory scene. While we’re going to stick to a fairly traditional game I’m making use of the fact that they are new to gaming to just slide some indie approaches into it. The main one – shared world building. I presented them with the following outline

The known world is comprised of six great Empires, encircling a vast wasteland that legend tells was once itself a powerful domain. The Empires are ruled by individuals that, collectively, are known as the Immortals. It is a time of relative peace but not prosperity. The Empires are locked in a permanent cold war, to attack one neighbour would leave them open to assault by another. In response the Immortals have turned inwards, isolating themselves in an attempt to maintain absolute control over their citizens. The old ways and religions are regulated, persecuted or driven underground. Only in the wastes can one truly be free. Bands of adventurers and rebels seek out lost riches and safe havens while merchants risk their wares for the chance of greater profit. Legends and prophecy, spoken only in whispers, speak of the Immortals and their origins.

but beyond that I want them to fill in the details. Who are the Immortals, what are the Empires like, what do the rebels seek? I have a couple of ideas for world-changing events, including a few set pieces. I’m also thinking of introducing something akin to the Last Breath move from Dungeon World. That way I can dial up the lethality while expanding on elements of the setting (fictionally the move will be associated with a possible backstory for the Immortals).

I have no idea if the game will take off, or whether it will fall foul of scheduling problems and player drop out, but for now, I am looking forward to it. I’m excited about D&D, I’m excited about building a campaign and getting to introduce some new players to this weird and wonderful hobby.

Thoughts on Marvel Heroic

Alongside my Monthly OneShots, I’ve recently finished playing in a mini-campaign of another Cortex Plus system, the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG. While I was fortunate enough to buy it while still in print it’s a system that has languished on my shelf for some time.

Unfortunately, with the campaign over, I feel like it may return to that position for some time as overall it just did not work for me.

First up was a personal issue – I prefer shades of grey in my games. Four colour heroics just don’t sit well with my style of play. Especially when trying to be a clean-cut hero such as Captain America. It’s something that I’ve struggled with during previous superhero games and it clearly remains something I need to work on.

As for the system, well something just failed to click. To a degree, it felt over-engineered, with too many moving parts. Rolls were typically built around a base of Affiliation + Distinction + Powerset + Speciality. That’s before considering any possible boosts or variations such as Sfx. Each of those had to be considered and actively chosen, there is no default combo so each action felt slow, though I will admit that they sped up as we became more familiar with the mechanics.

My other mechanical issue was one of focus. While I understand that the superhero genre is heavily combat orientated my non-combat options felt like they were lacking. Again, I appreciate that Captain America is pretty much the archetype for ‘super-soldier’ but it still put me off when I saw that my non-combat rolls were relatively limited.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-movie-hd-wallpaper-my-top-10-of-2014This isn’t to say that my thoughts on the system entirely negative, as there was a lot that I did enjoy. The doom pool was central to this, allowing the GM to bank dice for later use rather than having to create complications in the moment (ala Firefly). It’s definitely a mechanic that I’ll be including in my future Prime games, likely alongside the Firefly type complications for when I want to immediately challenge the party.

Second, was the ability to counter actions on a successful defence, allowing the heroes to inflict stress even when it wasn’t their turn. This really felt like it played to the genre and made the heroes feel special, as with enough plot points it is (theoretically) possible to take out a mob of low-level antagonists without even taking an action!

Finally the idea of switching out power-sets between adventures to highlight different facets of a character really appeals. Demon Hunters, which blends some Cortex concepts onto a backbone of Fate, does similar by allowing you to spend milestones to rewrite Aspects. Over the course of a campaign, I could see a character building up a repository of options to pick from. Want to focus on mysterious backstory this adventure? Simply swap in that aspect. Want to highlight your stealth? Add in the power-set you acquired during the recent downtime.

So overall, mixed thoughts. I won’t be rushing back to the system but on the other hand, I would like to play it again (or run it) to see if I can get a better feel for it.

Your sandbox sucks

Most sandbox games suck. Why? Because all too often the idea of player led, follow what interests you type campaign leads to complacency on behalf of both the GM and the players. GMs feel like because the plot is in the hands of the players they can’t do any prep while players… well players rarely know what motivates them. So the game lurches from one random encounter or fetch quest to another, never adding any depth to the world until the campaign dies from a severe case of the blahs.

I say this from experience. I’ve attempted to run games that have fallen foul of it and I’ve seen it happen almost every time somebody suggests a sandbox. It even happens in video games. For example Skyrim, one of the best-selling open world games ever sucked.

Why?

Because its world was shallow and unconnected. Major quests had almost zero impact on the wider world while the procedurally generated quests made it seem like you might end up being sent to each and every mound of grass to fight the ghost/skeleton/cultist/bear that had stolen the favourite spoon of meaningless NPC #1,234,799. You could be the archmage in one town but a peasant in the next. Plot threads by the dozen but never weaved together into something more.

And because it was open world if you decided not to stop pursuing a quest part way through it would just sit there. Waiting. Tired of the civil war? We’ll just go away for now. Bored of dragons? They’ll wait to complete their plans while you go and explore another loot filled cave just outside town that somehow nobody knew about.

Now apply that to a tabletop RPG. But with even less depth because the GM didn’t want to force their plot on the players so hasn’t added any detail to the world.

It should be the opposite.

If you’re running a sandbox then you need to know so much more about the world or be able to wing it. You need factions and NPCs galore that all have their own motivations and goals before the PCs are even on the scene. Plot hooks should be abundant, to provide PCs more options than they could possibly deal with and when they resolve one then there should be consequences for leaving the others hanging. Take out the gang harassing the neighbourhood? Fantastic, except now little Jimmy’s cough has put left him six feet under because you didn’t get him the medicine he needed in time.

As for the PCs well they should be just as detailed as the world. They need lives and families, wants and needs if they’re going to have some real motivations. They should know why they’re in the world and what’s driving them and it should be established in collaboration with the GM so that they don’t exist in a vacuum.

Do what you want is meaningless if you don’t want for anything.