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.

Project Cassandra: Kickstarter Thoughts 1

The kickstarter for Project Cassandra wrapped over the weekend, raising £1830 thanks to the support of 175 people. Having had a few days away from it all, but with everything still fresh in my mind I wanted to do an initial retrospective on the campaign. I’m going to try and avoid giving advice here based on that experience. Partially because I’ve yet to actually produce and release the game but primarily because datum does not equal data. I could try and draw conclusions from what I did but looking at it with my data analyst head on the vast majority of zinequest 3 projects succeeded and many of those took wildly different approaches to my own campaign. So I’m going to stick to observations only.

The Campaign

Project Cassandra is a game of Cold War psychics trying to prevent an apocalyptic vision from coming to pass. Unlike many of the ZineQuest offerings this is a complete game using its own system. The campaign ran for 2 weeks from 4pm 20th Feb to 4pm 6th March with an initial goal of £400. Besides myself there was only one other person involved, Emzy Wisker, who I’d hired as an editor.

The Backers

After two weeks of hustle the campaign reached 457% funded, raising £1830 from 175 people. We hit the goal of £400 in the first four and a half hours. With a relatively modest goal I knew we had an excellent chance of funding but I honestly did not expect to reach it that quickly. Privately I’d set a target of hitting it within the first 48 hours, as it would turn out that was approximately how long it took to reach the first stretch goal.

As expected the number of pledges plateaued during the middle of the campaign before picking up again around 3 days before the end. The quiet middle wasn’t a surprise, it happens to most campaigns but the uptick 3, rather than 2, days prior to the end was surprising. Kickstarter sends a reminder email 48 and 8 hours before the end of a campaign if you’ve saved it but not backed it so I don’t know where this increase came from. At launch the project had ~150 followers, which increased to 252 by the end and a final conversion rate of 28%. It sat at around 18% until the final stretch and from talking to other creators a final rate in the 25-30% range is fairly normal.

Breaking the backers down by reward tier there were 63 at PDF only, 96 bought print copies (with 2/3 of those being international, non-UK backers), all 10 redacted editions sold out and 2 of the 3 online sessions went. The breakdown is roughly what I’d expected based on looking at other campaigns. I’m honestly surprised that the redacted editions not only sold out but did so within a matter of hours. I had included those as a special nod to the genre and didn’t foresee them being so popular.

Stretch Goals

Not knowing how well the game would do I waited a day before announcing the traditional stretch goals. The first was full colour printing, at £800. That was reached within 48 hours. I set the next two as multiples of the initial goal with targets of £1200 and £1600. Based on just watching other campaigns I thought £1200 was achievable and £1600 was a big push. Thankfully we hit both, the last with a day still to go.

The full colour cover of Project Cassandra

Promotion

During the run up to ZineQuest 3 I promoted the game pretty heavily on Twitter and discord but less heavily elsewhere. Those two sites are both where I’m most active and where there is a visible ZineQuest community. I should give special thanks to the other creators this year – there was substantial cross promotion and retweeting that got links in front of more people that I could have on my own. I also receive boosts from many people that follow me, which I’m very thankful for.

During the run up to the campaign I was offered the opportunity to do interviews with the Yes Indie’d and Effekt podcasts which again, anecdotally, boosted reach. I know for certain that a number of the Effekt listeners backed the campaign while Yes Indie’d reaches indie gamers I’d have otherwise missed.

The big thing I didn’t do with regards promotion was run the game much at conventions. I’ve had a hard time engaging with them following the shift online but it would have been a good way to get it in front of people I have no connection to. That I’ve also been missing having a regular group over the last year should have served as an additional push on that front.

Thoughts

I said I wasn’t going to give any advice in this post but I do want to talk a little about the bits I would do the same if I run another campaign in the future.

The first is plan ahead again. I started my planning for the campaign around November, well before I made a final decision about whether I would even run it. That gave me time to both play around with my budget and to prepare my campaign page without rushing. While I continued to tweak both right up until launch I had completed drafts by Christmas, significantly reducing my stress levels in the run up to launch.

Second, get the majority of the text written before launch. While the draft of Project Cassandra is only 90% complete I’ve been working on it for years. That meant I could present a clear estimate of the focus and goals of the game. It also meant I could include demo material that people could read over and try out. While I can’t be certain of the overall impact of that it did lead to somebody not only backing the game at the highest level but running a streamed playtest while the campaign was underway.

Third, use stock art. While I would love to be able to commission artwork in the future I cannot overstate the value of stock art. The only reason I could justify the £400 goal was because all of the art is stock, either freely available or costing £3-5 per piece. I had the advantage of producing a game set during recent history, so there is no shortage of era appropriate photos available through sites such as Unsplash. If I’d been producing a Dyson Eclipse game I’d have been severely constrained in terms of low cost choices and would have required a significantly higher goal. If I run a campaign again next year I suspect that I will budget for either a small number of commissioned interior pieces or a full colour cover.

That’s a lot of what I’d do the same, so what would I do differently? The big one is probably launch a little earlier. With ZineQuest growing over the last few years fatigue is definitely an issue. Anecdotally I saw a big drop in people talking about it during the final week of February / first week of March. I don’t know how that impacts on final numbers across the event but I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest campaigns all launched during the first half of the month.

The Wrap-up

Ok, so this turned into a much longer post than I’d envisaged. The wrap-up is that as a campaign it was a far bigger success than I’d imagined and I think I did most things well. There are a few areas where I could definitely improve but as this one game has now blown past my total earnings from everything else I’ve ever released it’s a clear win. I’m planning to follow up with additional posts as milestones in production are reached and as I deal with the dreaded postage of the zines but for now I’ll leave it with one final thought.

Would I run another ZineQuest campaign? Yes.

What’s on my shelf 2: Cortex

Collection of RPG books using the Cortex system including Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Leverage, Smallville, Firefly, Marvel Heroic and Cortex Prime

Following on from the overview post of what’s on the shelves of my new bookcase I want to focus in on a few individual groups of books. First up – Cortex RPG.

While Torg may have been the system that got me into tabletop RPGs it was Cortex that became the first I picked up independently, without being introduced to it by somebody else. The game that drew me in was the original Serenity system. As a massive fan of the show (which is unfortunately tainted by the actions of Joss Whedon) I picked it up as soon as I was aware of its existence and with the giddy excitement of being a brand new GM proceeded to run an absolute clusterfuck of a session. We had PCs turning on one another, half drunk players falling asleep (we were playing during a uni society overnight event following a club night) and a ‘quick’ combat that stretched into multiple hours.

Somehow that failed to put me off GMing and after gaining a little more experience we returned to the system to play the most cursed campaign I’ve ever run. Thankfully the curse here was scheduling rather than the game. Every session we did manage was great, they were just few and far between. The more we played the more I fell in love with the mechanics and naturally, being a collector, I picked up subsequent releases. One of those was Demon Hunters, a game which I have talked about at length on this blog.

As the system progressed from Classic to Plus I continued to pick up the books, focusing on the core rulebooks rather than supplements. Of the core rulebooks the only one I’m missing is Supernatural. I’m really excited about the new Prime edition and the opportunities it offers and have vague ideas of putting together a game using it. Right now I’m waiting to see what the rules for the Creators Workshop look like but if all goes to plan at least one game in my Dyson Eclipse setting will make use of the system. As far as the future of the line goes I’ve no plans to pick up the currently announced games, primarily as I’ve never been big on fantasy settings. I have mixed feelings about the focus on the digital platform, but what I’ve seen so far looks promising and it’ll be interesting to see if they can finally fulfil the potential of digital approaches.

I’m not sure I can fully articulate why the system resonates with me so much. That it was the first game I found on my own is certainly a part of it but I think the interlocking of traditional and narrative approaches is also a significant factor. It achieves a lot of what I enjoy about Fate but in a way that is slightly more intuitive and feels less meta. It’s also remarkably easy to teach, people latch onto the ‘when this applies grab the associated die’ and as a result I’ve run it repeatedly at numerous conventions.

Combining it all together I expect Cortex, in one form or another, is going to be one of those forever systems for me and I’m glad to see that it’s in good hands going forward.

Project Cassandra: Now on Kickstarter

The last few weeks have been exceedingly hectic with regards life in general but gaming in particular. Why? In short the Project Cassandra kickstarter launched on Feb 20th as part of ZineQuest 3 and while I’ve been heavily promoting it I somehow forgot to post about it on my own blog! Quite an oversight so I thought I’d drop a quick post now.

The campaign runs until the 6th March and has already exceeded my expectations – We’re over 200% funded as I write this with a week and a half left to run. We’ve unlocked the full colour printing stretch goal and I’m hopeful that we’ll hit at least one of the two remaining stretch goals. I’ve also been fortunate to be a guest on both the Yes Indie’d Podcast and the Effekt Podcast (the latter of which was streamed to youtube) so check those out for more details about the game.

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.

State of the Conspiracy: First print tests

Alternate cover page – with and without background

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

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

Project Cassandra print tests with the original cover page

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

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

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

Project Cassandra on Le Repaire de Gulix

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

New Release: Mission Packet 2 Subversion

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

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

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

New Release: Home Amongst the Stars

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

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

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

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.