2020 in Review: Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Release: The Synth Divergence – A Technoir transmission

The Synth Divergence: Liverpool Corporate Authority – A Technoir transmission

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

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

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

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

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

The Synth Convergence: 1 year later

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

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

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

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

DrivethruRPG

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

Itch.io

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

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

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

Wrap up

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

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

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 doppelgänger 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.

Design diary: Going backwards to go forwards

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on 2019 – Part 2: Publishing

Alongside actually playing games one of my aims for this year was to step up my efforts as a publisher. It sounds weird to be calling myself a publisher but it is true. I’m a small scale, indie, party of one publisher but still a publisher.

Going into 2019 I had multiple projects on my radar. First off was completing the release of the Demon Hunters Slice of Life mission starters. It took me until July to release Trick of the Light while I only released Talentless Hacks this month, right before the end of the year. With those two starters out in the wild I have one left to complete – Clean-Up Crew, which I thought would be simpler because I had decided to turn that into a Fiasco playset, which is essentially just a collection of tables.

Well it turns out that writing 144 entries that mesh together into a cohesive and compelling whole is harder than it looks so that has sort of stalled for now. Before I push on with it I to spend a bit more time reading through existing playsets, as clearly there is an art to writing them.

Once the Slice of Life releases are complete I can focus on some of the other adventure drafts I have for Demon Hunters. I’ve got a number that are based on old adventures I ran with the original edition of the game, plus I am hoping to run a campaign of it during 2020 to playtest some new ideas. The big one there is Rocket Demons of Antiquity, my dual modern/Victorian adventure featuring Mina Harker and her team. I doubt I’ll write that up by the end of the year but it would be good to get all the bits into place for it.

My second major focus was Ghosts of Iron, a stretch goal commission piece for the Crystal Heart kickstarter. Writing that was a really valuable experience and one that I learned a lot from. First off was designing an adventure that would fit the world. My pitch had originally been inspired by a stock image, drawn by J. E. Shields.

From there I had to craft an adventure that would fit with the Crystal Heart setting, showcase both setting and system and then fit it all into a limited word count using the established ‘One Sheet’ format of Savage Worlds. It was a challenge, but an enjoyable one, helped along by the thrill of getting to run playtests in an amazing (and at the time unpublished) world. One of my big takeaways from writing for Crystal Heart was the value of editing, while I was happy with my initial submission the final release is polished in a way that isn’t really possible without the input of a second person. Sadly, as a one man operation hiring an editor for my future projects isn’t really an option but it’s definitely something I will be more aware of going forward.

The final project was The Synth Convergence, a trilogy of missions for The Sprawl RPG that launched right at the end of November. Initially a collaboration with Chris / @HyveMynd I ended up taking it on largely solo after they had to step back from it. By the end the manuscript had grown to over 10,000 words which needed formatting, edited and laid out – primarily during lunch breaks at work.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t immensely proud of the final product. It looks great and I really feel like the trilogy came together as a whole that groups will enjoy. This product required learning a lot of new skills, especially in terms of layout and graphic design so I’ve spent large parts of the last year just trying to get to grips with new techniques in Inkscape, Gimp and Scribus. It helped immensely that there was an established mission structure for The Sprawl, as I could focus on the content of the missions rather than how to structure them.

In terms of sales The Synth Convergence has already beat my modest target of 10 sales (currently sitting at 15 direct sales) and (not surprisingly) is also my highest earner to date. I handed out a number of business cards with free download links during Dragonmeet but so far only one of those has been redeemed. I could look at that as a negative, but just having the cards to hand out provided a confidence boost when it came to talking to people. Also they look just awesome.

Alongside these three projects there are a host of others that have yet to reach completion or even get off the ground.

After shelving it for far too long Project Cassandra returned to active development, with two playtests and a series of rule revisions. The last playtest highlighted a big issue that needs to be resolved (what is it with Dragonmeet throwing spanners into the works?) but I already have a plan for dealing with that. The big focus going forward is writing – I’ll probably start from scratch using the existing material as a guide rather than a draft so it will be interesting to see how much changes in the process.

I’d also hoped to dip my toes into the DMs Guild this year, but the ideas I had for that have yet to move past initial notes. Part of the reason for that was burnout – running D&D 5e blunted my interest in developing for it far more than I’ve experienced with any other system. With the Immortals campaign now complete I’m hoping that I can revitalise my interest in those ideas as I think they each have merit, especially Tales from the Campfire.

Finally there’s The Dyson Eclipse, a vague idea for a space opera game using an adaptation of the Faith Corps system that powers Demon Hunters. Right now that project is little more than a collection of scribbled thoughts. I’m going to work on it over the coming year but with no expectation that it will be complete any time soon. The first hurdle is likely to be the biggest – what do you do? I’d rather avoid producing yet another scoundrels in space game, there are enough of those out there already. Similarly I don’t want dungeon crawling in space, which I realised I was leaning towards during my first crack at outlining the game.

So what does the big list for 2020 look like right now?

Demon Hunters

  • Clean-Up Crew
  • Dr Ahoudi’s Mutant Menagerie / Say Aaargh
  • Knights of the Dawn
  • Eat In or Stake Out
  • Motion in the Ocean
  • Rocket Demons of Antiquity
  • Rules hacks

D&D

  • Tales from the Campfire
  • The Dawnbreakers
  • Untitled Eberron adventure

Other systems

  • Project Cassandra
  • The Dyson Eclipse
  • The Sprawl mission starters
  • 7I/2034 V1 incursion for Trophy Dark
  • Plus a couple of unannounced hacks/adventures where I need to contact a few people first

Dragonmeet: The Loot Report

I’m going to put out a separate con report later this week but wanted to quickly talk about my purchases from the convention first.

Goblin Quest by Grant Howitt

Did I intend to purchase this: Yes

I first came across this delightfully silly game of incompetent Goblins only recently at BurritoCon. Inspired by how much fun I’d had, and working completely from memory, I then hacked it to run a slasher inspired Halloween game that was just as much fun. Based on all that and plans to run a Christmas themed Elf Quest I knew I needed to pick this up and had purchased it less than half an hour after arriving. Skimming over the various hacks included with the game and its clear that this is one I’ll be coming back to on a regular basis.

Scum and Villainy from Evil Hat

Did I intend to purchase this: Yes

I’ve been looking to pick up a copy of this for quite a while. I love sci-fi games but own relatively few of them while the Happy Jacks mini-campaign earlier this year piqued my interest in the system, especially given I’d yet to pick up any other Forged in the Dark games. I’ve not opened it yet and don’t know when I’ll play it but suspect this game will be a great reference during development of The Dyson Eclipse.

The Sprawl by Ardens Ludere

Did I intend to purchase this: No

Given I’d released The Synth Convergence only the day before Dragonmeet you might be surprised that I didn’t already own a physical copy of this book. The simple reason behind this is that I’d never seen it in print in the UK before this weekend so I jumped at the chance when I spotted it. Great game and one that I really need to introduce more players to.

Alien RPG corebook by Free League

Did I intend to purchase this: No

Ok, confession time. I have never watched Alien. Or Aliens. Or any other entry in the wider franchise. Despite that I ended up regretting not buying this during the pre-order period. Why? Firstly, Fria Ligan have put out consistently great products since exploding onto the gaming scene. Secondly, I listened to the Idle Red Hands actual play and really enjoyed what I saw. Finally, I saw the book which is absolutely stunning. The artwork alone would have made it a worthwhile (but expensive) purchase even if the game hadn’t looked so awesome. I can’t wait to run this next year and to see how the line develops.

Crystal Heart Action & Adventure Deck by Up to Four Players

Did I intend to purchase this: Sort of

I’d ummed and ahhed about picking this up during the Crystal Heart Kickstarter but decided against it for some reason. Then I saw the final artwork in the PDF and knew I wanted it so dropped by the stall to pick it up. The material put out by Eran and Aviv has been consistently awesome and I can see myself acquiring quite the collection as they release more material for the setting.

New Release: The Synth Convergence

Initialising subroutines… decryption protocols active
(cy2.12) CaseHD@AlphaC
Password: *****************************
Identity confirmed… Welcome back runner

Encrypted message incoming
RouteTrace.ise: Interrupt error 2.5 – dumping log
Message begins:

Welcome to the future hackers and runners, mercs and shadows. Welcome to The Synth Convergence from LunarShadow Designs.

It takes time and money to be a professional which means one thing – jobs. Off the book, spec-ops jobs run by deniable resources that work outside the Corporate system that runs the Sprawl and every other one just like it. The Synth Convergence provides teams with a trilogy of new missions built around synthetic lifeforms. Push the limits of technology with independent, autonomous artificial intelligences that require no sleep, no wages and no rights.

In The Tannhauser Investment (also available as free demo from drivethruRPG and itch.io) your team are brought in to negotiate the tricky process of a hostile Corporate takeover – all while evading the awareness of the synth consciousness built into the super-luxury hotel the target is holed up in.

The Infinitive Extraction takes the team to the beating heart of the entertainment districts as they seek to extract Infinitive Cascade, the hottest DJ on the circuits from an exploitative contract. But do your employers want them for their musical talents or the military codebase at the core of their personality matrix?

Finally in The Vanda-Weiss Demolition the past catches up with your operatives as they face off against The Evolved, a radical fringe group dedicated to wiping out synths and returning humanity to the true path before they are toppled by their own creations.

Get in, do the job, get out. It’s never that simple but if it was they wouldn’t have hired professionals like you.

The Synth Convergence is available to purchase now from driveThruRPG or itch.io. The Synth Convergence requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG to play. Purchase it from Ardens Ludere on driveThruRPG. Support the creators – buy the game.

Disclaimer: Links to driveThruRPG include the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID. If you chose to purchase anything using these links I will earn a small commission from driveThruRPG at no cost to you.

New release: The Tannhauser Investment, a mission for The Sprawl RPG

Initialising subroutines…
(base) Cereal.K@WJOHM_internal1:/usr/lib/resolvconf$ GaffEm -i rutger.bat -a 256k -t 1.1m
task = get() “/opt/conStruct/envs/cy5/lib/sitepackages/
joblib/pool.cy”, line 147, in get
racquire()
KeyboardInterrupt
KeyboardInter……

Encrypted message incoming
Target: Chenda Phy, CFO Bora Industrial
Regards: Hostile takeover

Specification: Initiate contact with target at secure public location and negotiate transfer of controlling stake in Bora. Phy currently resident at  secure, independent accommodation. Caution advised – significant intrusion countermeasures in place.

RV @ [DECRYPTING]] if interested.

Welcome to the future hackers and runners, mercs and shadows. Welcome to The Synth Convergence, a new trilogy of missions for The Sprawl RPG built around the thematic core of Synthetic Intelligence and the societal fallout that follows their emergence. The Synth Convergence offers teams a chance to push the boundaries of technological progress and answer the question of how far they will go to secure their lucrative Corporate payoffs.

Today we are releasing the first mission, The Tannhauser Investment, as a stand-alone preview while we complete the final editing and layout of the full collection. This asset acquisition contract will require your team to infiltrate a super-luxury hotel operated by a dedicated synthetic personality and secure the biometric signatures of their target. Why? To enact a decidedly hostile takover of a subsidary Corporate asset. All in a days job for a professional, in and out without collatoral damage.

The Synth Convergence reflects a new direction for LunarShadow Designs – It is my first publishing foray into the vibrant space of Powered by the Apocalypse games. It is also my first time working in collaboration with another designer, Chris Stone-Bush (@hyvemynd), who created the outlines for two of the three missions. Between design, writing, editing and layout the process has been one of continual development and I’ve learned numerous lessons that I’ll be putting to good use in the future.

You can download The Tannhauser Investment for free from driveThruRPG or itch.io with the full trilogy scheduled for release in November. This mission requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG by Ardens Ludere.

Disclaimer: Links to driveThruRPG include the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID. If you chose to purchase anything using these links I will earn a small commission from driveThruRPG at no cost to you.