It’s time, once again for RPGaDay and as always I’ll be releasing a short post each day inspired by the prompt from the table below. For the most part these are going to be off the top of my head, zero edit posts so I have no idea how much sense they’ll make or where each prompt will take me.
12th August: Think
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about publishing, what I want to get out of it and the intersection between hobby and business. Over the last year or so I’ve shifted towards releasing things that have a price tag affixed to them. The result of that is that very few people actually end up seeing my games – Signal to Noise released a week and a half ago and so far has racked up all of 8 sales. I’d obviously like that number to be higher but on the other hand I put a lot of work into the game and would like to see some earnings back from it.
Which, I suppose, brings me to the point of this and what I’ve been thinking about recently. This is a hobby for me, so should I even be bothered about price and earnings? You could make the argument that no, I don’t need to and I should consider just putting everything out for free or PWYW. The counter to that is that this risks devaluing the work that people doing it for a job do. How do you fairly price something when a hobbyist working in their spare time for fun can produce material close to or at the level that a professional working in the industry can do? It’s a conundrum and not an easy one to answer. I firmly believe that an individual should be able to make a living from making RPGs and actively want a wider more diverse selection of people who are able to do so. That can only make the industry stronger. I don’t think it will ever be an easy task, there are so few companies that hire people that the majority of designers are always going to be freelancers/self-employed while selling enough to make a living off of games requires an investment of either time or money – both of which I realise are privileges many people don’t have access to.
On the other hand how do you balance that when there are people like me who can do it for fun, don’t need to make an earning from it but can? As a hobbyist should I be expected to price my material at the same level as a professional working full time? Should I give it away for free? Is there a middle ground that doesn’t undercut the industry as a whole but reflects the intersection of the two? I just don’t know and I think the short form discussion that platforms such as twitter encourage really prevents us from having a proper, nuanced discussion about it.
The other issue that I think doesn’t help is the move towards digital. On one hand I think it’s great, as it opens up the door for people that just can’t afford a print run and games that don’t suit traditional formats. As a society though I think we still don’t appreciate the value of digital goods. The time and work that goes into a game is rarely focused on what it takes to get it printed and from what I’ve learned the actual cost to print most games reflects only 10% or less of the cover price. The rest goes into the art, the writing, the time it took to design and playtest. All factors that play into PDFs as much as print yet we value that printed book far more than the file sat on our computers and until we get past that I don’t think we’re ever going to value small games by indie designers properly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.