RPGaDay 2021: 12th August

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.

Talking Numbers: On being Deal of the Day

Back at the start of the year I finally found myself in the position of having sufficient Publisher Points on drivethruRPG to submit a product to the Deal of the Day queue. As my (at the time) biggest seller I submitted The Synth Convergence, my trilogy of missions for The Sprawl, and sat down to wait. For close to five months. Towards the end of May I finally received a notification that it had hit the top of the queue and would be the featured product on the 25th. I’ve mentioned before, both here and on twitter, about wanting to be open about sales and numbers as an indie publisher. Part of that is because I’m very much in the long tail at the end that you normally don’t hear from – many of the small publishers I see talking numbers are doing sales that are already an order of magnitude above mine (my 2020 numbers can be found here as an example). The Project Cassandra Kickstarter is going to shift my earning considerably but that’s a topic for when fulfilment is complete.

With all that in mind I want to talk about how well the missions did, my thoughts and general sales numbers. Prior to the deal of the day The Synth Convergence had sold 80 copies on drivethruRPG, with gross sales of $248.08, earning me $148.85. That comes in to an average purchase price of $3.01, compared to the list price of $5.00. The differences there are due to two factors – for much of 2020 I reduced it to $1.50 as part of a pandemic sale while it is also part of a Sprawl bundle including Mission Packets 1 and 2 that retails at $6.00.

During its 24 hour run the Deal of the Day promotion, while it was available for $2.50 (or less as part of the bundle), it was purchased 47 times, bringing in $122.54 in gross sales and personal earnings of $73.65. That may not be much for publishers with a more established following but personally it represents a massive up tick in sales and earnings.

That’s not the end of the story though.

With the increase in people looking at my publisher page I saw other releases picking up additional sales . The Sprawl Bundle sold 9 copies thanks to the fact that the Deal of the Day sale price was automatically factored in to its retail price. The Tannhouser Investment, the first mission from the trilogy is available separately as a PWYW demo but 3 people paid for it, either not realising it was included or because they wanted to send a little extra my way. The Synth Divergence transmission for Technoir and my Demon Hunters Fiasco playset both picked up a sale. Altogether those boosted my earnings by another $20.37. Finally, in the days since there has been a small trickle of sales – 3 sales of the bundle, 1 of The Synth Convergence and 1 of What’s so [redacted] about [redacted]?

So those are the numbers. Now for some thoughts/analysis. Emphasis on the thoughts given my limited data.

Was submitting the missions to Deal of the Day worth it? Yes, undoubtedly so. Those numbers speak for themselves and represent a substantial boost to my sales. Over a third of all sales I’ve had of the missions were in that 24 hour period.

Would sales have been higher if I had chosen a stand alone game for my submission? Honestly, I have no idea. As a supplement they are reliant on a purchaser owning a copy of The Sprawl but on the other hand it is a well known and popular PbtA game. Combined with the sale price I suspect a lot of people will have purchased the missions on impulse alone. I just don’t have the data to know if they’d have done the same with a stand alone game.

Do I wish I’d have saved the points for using with Project Cassandra? Also yes. While I would have probably ended up waiting another year to use them it would have been nice to ensure that the game got in front of as many people as possible. It cost 577 publisher points to submit to Deal of the Day. Right now it’s over 650. As a non-exclusive publisher I receive 10 points a month plus 1 for every $10 of sales that month. So unless I can significantly increase my monthly sales it will be a few years until I can submit again. What I will do though is look into other ways that the publisher points can be used – the cost for banner adds is currently low, and with the impending digital release of Project Cassandra I intend to use them to boost visibility of the game. I’m not sure how effective banner impressions are but I’ve got enough right now to trial it and see if there is a boost to sales.

All in all being deal of the day drove a significant increase in my sales and that, ultimately, was always the goal.

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.

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.

New Release: Mission Packet 1 – N.E.O. for The Sprawl RPG

The Sprawl is built around missions – The Corporations have no shortage of Credits but if you want their money you had better be prepared to do the dirty work. Steal a prototype, extract an assets or trash the market value of a rival – all in a days work for the deniable, and disposable, teams that work outside the system.

Within this Mission Packet you will find three one page job outlines to offer up to your operatives. These three missions have been constructed around the core theme of N.E.O. – Near Earth Orbit.Each one page outline provides background, mission directives and advice on running the mission.

The remaining details? They’re up to you and your operatives.

Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. includes

The Geller Protocol – A liberated AI seeks a route to the stars while its corporate masters will do anything to return it to their private networks, including recruiting a synth bounty hunter to erase any evidence of the leak.

The Shynom Bombardment – Radicals have taken hold of an orbital refinery. Before the Corporations crush the rebellion they need you to ensure an appropriate rival is blamed for the uprising.

The Equatorial Ascension – An ailing King has summoned his successor to the orbital palace but it’s time for the dynasty to enter the modern age. Switch out the Crown Prince with a doppelg√§nger while they ascend towards the heavens and bring the family into the Corporate fold.

Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. is available now from Itch.io or drivethruRPG and for the duration of the Coronavirus epidemic is available as Pay What You Want download. Like what you see? Then check out The Synth Convergence, a full trilogy of missions for The Sprawl available from Itch.io and drivethruRPG.

Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG, available from drivethruRPG. Links to drivethruRPG include the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID and may earn me a small commission at no cost to yourself.