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.

2020 in Review: Publishing

While I may not have gamed as much as I’d have liked this year it has turned into a bumper year for releases with 9 new products hitting the market. Coming off of the successful launch of The Synth Convergence at the very end of 2019 I had a long list of ideas to work on but surprisingly some of the most enjoyable work I did this year was on projects I didn’t see coming at the start of the year.

I started the year with the final Demon Hunters: Slice of Life inspired adventure starter. Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco (also available on itch.io) took a very different approach from the prior entries in the collection, not least because it was written for use with Fiasco rather than Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. While it took longer than I’d hoped to finished of it came together and made for an extremely fun playset. This was also my first try published material prepared with Affinity Publisher and the difference in what I was able to produce compared to Scribus was striking. This was probably most notable from the production side, elements that took me a long time to prepare previously were far simpler to lay out with the new software. One of my aims for 2021 is to compile all of the Slice of Life material together with a new, updated layout based on the one that I developed for this.

I had always envisaged The Synth Convergence (also available on itch.io) as my only real release for The Sprawl but it seems that I wasn’t finished with cyberpunk dystopias. Building on material I had explored for the original trilogy I released two Mission Packets with condensed outlines for a series of missions. The first, Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. (also available on itch.io) explored the realm of Near Earth Orbit while the second, Mission Packet 2: Subversion (also available on itch.io) turned the focus towards undermining the Corporations with the inclusion of new faction rules and a custom move. Having already laid the groundwork with The Synth Convergence these two releases were far easier to construct but just as enjoyable to write. I don’t know when I’ll next return to The Sprawl but it’s definitely a game that will stay on my radar should inspiration strike again in the future.

Even that wasn’t enough to quench my interest in cyberpunk. One of the first Kickstarters that I ever backed was for Technoir, a game of hard-boiled roleplaying that sadly never got the level of recognition or support that it deserved. It’s a great take on the genre, focusing on investigations and the back and forth story beats of noir novels. Having reread it during a week off I set myself the challenge of reworking elements from my Sprawl material into a Transmission – the format the game uses for adventures. Unlike a traditional adventure rely on the group weaving together plot threads by connecting nodes from a series of themed tables. An investigation that starts with an anonymous shipping container and a local celebrity overdosing at an exclusive nightclub may end up revealing Corporate corruption fuelled by an esoteric religious order. All built organically during play.

The end result of this reimagining is The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority (also available on itch.io). While it draws from the same material the reversed focus, from structured mercenary missions to emergent investigations drives a radically different tone and style of play. Having put in an significant amount of work on the layout front I’ll definitely be returning to Technoir in the future, if only to recoup some of the time investment!

2020 was also the year where I experimented with formats, starting with To Travel far from Home and The Stars will Carry you Home, two business card microgames that came together in a burst of creativity while I was watching a rocket launch. I knew that I wanted to round them off with a third game but it wasn’t until the Bookmark Game Jam that I worked out how to approach it, which included updated versions of the first two to form a trilogy of journal writing games that include messages being passed back and forth through the vast expanse that is deep space. They’re not perfect but the constraints of the formats made for an intriguing challenge and I’ll definitely be looking to produce further microgames in the future.

My other game jam submission this year was What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]? (also on drivethruRPG) as part of the What is so cool about Jam. Based on What’s so Cool about Outer Space I used this opportunity to rework the psychic spies theme of Project Cassandra into the WSCA framework. It’s a fun little game and served as a good exercise in adapting ideas to a new rules set. I’d like to expand on it at some point in the future (maybe the ‘Declassified edition’) but right now my focus is very much on its progenitor, Project Cassandra.

2020 was the year where I finally started making proper progress on the game. I released an updated Playtest Packet, containing the core rules, introductory mission and full layout test. The first draft of the current version is nearing completion and I’m gearing up for kickstarting the game as part of ZineQuest 3 in February 2021. In preparation for that I’ve been doing a lot of researching into costing everything out. I’m aiming to keep the total as low as possible while still ensuring that it breaks even. I’m not expecting to make any real money on this, that’s not why I’m doing it and realistically if I wanted to pay myself a fair rate it would never fund. Of course the Brexit shenanigans means I’m going to be tweaking the budget throughout January as new rules come into force and shipping prices are updated. My aim is to launch at the end of the window – Tuesday 23rd for a 2 week span and a goal in the £350-500 range. Expect to hear more about it throughout January and February.

New Release: The Synth Divergence – A Technoir transmission

The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority – A Technoir transmission

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

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

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

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

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

The Synth Convergence: 1 year later

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

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

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

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

DrivethruRPG

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

Itch.io

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

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

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

Wrap up

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

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

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.

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.

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

State of the Conspiracy: Lockdown Update 1

So it’s mid May which equates to week 7 or 8 since the start of lockdown for me here in the UK. It sucks and having been through a similar process when writing my thesis many years ago meant I had an inkling of just how much it would sap my creative energy. Which is why I decided I wasn’t going to make any big goals about pushing Project Cassandra forward, even though it was next on my list after the release of Mission Packet 1: N.E.O., my mini supplement for The Sprawl RPG.

That’s not to say that I’ve made no progress. Following the play tests at BurritoCon and Dragonmeet I have been slowly working my way through the text, filling gaps and preparing for the dreaded rewrites. Given they’re likely to be extensive I decided the first step was to clarify my contents, which are currently:

Teaser / Blurb
Introduction
Defining the scenario
    Setup / Questions
    Pacing
    Sample questions
    Alternative setup
Agendas
    Make events extraordinary
    Build towards a dramatic climax
    Take suspicion and twist it towards paranoia
    Play to the era
    A note on historical accuracy
Safety tools
    Lines & Veils
    Script change
The Vision
Rules of Engagement
    Taking actions
        Aiding
    Premonitions
    Conditions & consequences
    Visions
    Powers
    Knowledges
    Gear
Enacting the Conspiracy
    Building the conspiracy
    Genre and tone
    Following the action
    Challenges & The Opposition
    Nulls
Example of Play
Creating characters
Sample Characters
    Secret service agent
Small time criminal
    Academic analyst
    Reporter
Two Minutes to Midnight
    Ich bin ein Berliner
    The dark of the moon

On the face of it that feel like a lot but many of those smaller sections come out to a single paragraph and my aim is to keep the finished product to within the limits of a zine.

Why?

Because I’d like to participate in ZineQuest 3 on Kickstarter next year. Having followed it the last couple of years it seems like the ideal way to launch Project Cassandra and actually produce physical copies. It would also provide the potential for something I just can’t afford right now – an editor. It’s part of the process that I really don’t get on with and where I know the game would benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

So alongside writing I’ve been slowly putting together a budget and trying to estimate the various costs. That, in and of itself, is a rabbit hole and I’m quickly discovering how much I don’t know, so I’m glad that I made this decision with enough time to just learn.

Thankfully I’ve got plenty of time to do that, so fingers cross next February I’ll be able to include Project Cassandra amongst the list of successfully funded ZineQuest Kickstarters.

Design diary: Going backwards to go forwards

Getting into RPG publishing has involved quite a steep learning curve – from the basics of how to write a game (you just write a game) through to the intricacies of publishing that final product. Taking the dive right in approach I decided early on that I wanted to aim for a better layout than I could reasonably achieve with just a text document so I started to teach myself. Thanks to training in how to format academic posters I already had an understanding of the basics but dug deeper into the theory, guided by the The Non‑Designer’s Design Book.

Simultaneously I also dived into the software side in the form of Scribus, a free and open source desktop publishing program. While not as powerful or as intuitive (or as functional) as InDesign as a newbie doing this as a hobby it provided everything I needed and more. The difference between Channel Surfing, my first release using Scribus through to The Synth Convergence are a testament to the value of incremental improvements.

Last month though I made the switch from Scribus to Affinity Publisher, a vastly more powerful program and decided to go back to basics from the get go – everything from templates and style guides to page organisation and image assets. The difference was, once again, rather immediate even though I had yet to add anything beyond placeholder content.

This week though, after spending a number of hours just on setup and planning I made a rather hard decision. To start again. Why? Not because the template wasn’t working or because I’d abandoned the project but because of the slim possibility that I might want to submit these files for Print on Demand at some point in the future. It’s not the only thing I’ve thrown out this week – I’ve restarted a Sprawl mission draft three times because it wasn’t working. It’s only a small amount of text but it simply wasn’t working.

That willingness to throw material away, or even admit something wasn’t working has been a hard lesson to learn. A little over month into 2020 and happily going backwards. It’s not the position I’d planned to be in at this point but hopefully the extra work will pay off in the long run.