Archive for the 'Crass Hucksterism' Category



31
Jul
12

Learning from the LotFP Campaigns

Looking back at my recent posts I see that a lot of ’em have been about Kickstarter campaigns and suchlike crowdfunding projects. Many of these have been ones I haven’t even been involved with, so crass hucksterism alone can’t explain the phenomenon. It’s not just me; crowdfunding has so caught the attention of everyone professionally or semi-professionally involved in RPGs that the Fund Your Game Project With Kickstarter panel I’m part of is just one of three such seminars at Gen Con. I know for sure lots of “industry insiders” are intensely interested in Kickstarter right now, and since I have been and will be talking about ’em a lot I hope there’s an audience who shares this interest.

My pet theory is that as RPG types we’re specifically excited by the potential of crowdfunding because we have a lot of experience launching campaigns. When I moderated the panel on roleplaying games and theater during the run of SHE KILLS MONSTERS, it seemed to me that RPGs are a performing art where you can bring in as many or as few elements of a theatrical production as you like, and do ’em all yourselves. In college I knew a number of people who were actors or directors or costume designers, who always seemed to be having a better time than I was as an audience member. RPGs offer a unique degree of involvement – everyone at the table is simultaneously creating the production and enjoying it as a spectator – and you can bring to it whatever creative talents you want to exercise. If you’ve got someone who’s a ham actor, and someone who likes building scenery, and someone who likes drawing character portraits, there’s room for all those things to enrich the gaming experience. But unlike a theatrical production you can get involved in all of those things; they’re not designated, inflexible roles. Or no one can do any of ’em, and the show will still go on.

Working for an established game company is like having a job in a stage production. As a freelancer, I’d be given a script and a date by which I’d have to have my lines ready. There’d always be some degree of room for improvisation, but not for stepping into a different role; marketing and art direction and everything else is someone else’s job. Starting your own company gives you a lot more latitude to wear different hats. Something I really enjoy about Autarch is getting to do so many different things and add my two cents to the way our game looks, reads, and communicates with its fans. But a business is still like a theatrical production in that some parts are non-optional. You can’t just decide not to worry about taxes or fire codes.

Launching a crowdfunding campaign is much more like starting its RPG equivalent. You just put up flyers for whatever you think will be cool, and if enough players or backers show up you’re good to go. I think this anarchic, DIY spirit appeals to us personally – kicking down any restrictions on player agency is a big part of the appeal of the schools of roleplaying I belong to – and is a natural continuation of the indie movement, for which “creator-owned” has always meant “no one gets to tell me what to do because I’ve got new technologies for reaching customers directly.” For the Forge, that meant desktop publishing, print-on-demand, and direct sales via your own Internet webstore; nowadays it’s Kickstarter,  IndieGoGo, and the like.

With all that said, let’s check up on the LotFP Grand Adventures Campaign, which is ending today around midnight, and see what things can be learned from it as per my earlier musings on why the campaign matters.

Here is how the funding stands as of the time of writing:

Pledges   Adventure Title Author
$6,865   Seclusium of Orphone Baker
$6,590   Broodmother Sky Fortress Rients
$4,693   Horror Among Thieves Green
$2,355   Towers Two Brockie
$2,176   We Who Are Lost Kreider
$1,630   Of Unknown Provenance Curtis
$1,390   Unbegotten Citadel Cook
$1,220   House of Bone and Amber Crawford
$870   Machinations of the Space Princess Desborough
$710   Depths of Paranoia Steen
$690   Strange & Sinister Shores Bingham
$650   Normal for Norfolk Seppälä
$645   Escaping Leviathan Alfrey
$540   Dreaming Plague Vuorela
$500   Land that Exuded Evil Miller
$470   Red in Beak & Claw Särkijärvi
$440   Pyre Pett
$340   Poor Blighters Sparks
$320   I Hate Myself for What I Must Do Pohjola

Stuff to note:

  • Two authors have already met the funding limit – Jeff Rients and Vincent Baker. If you’re looking to pick up an adventure by either of these guys, you can pledge for it now and be sure of getting it. My guess is that their success is a mix of subject matter and communication skill. Both dudes have earned a loyal audience of readers, and picked compelling topics for their adventures that are either just what you’d want from them (the gonzo Broodmother Sky Fortress) or a revealing glimpse of a previously unseen side (the Vancian Seclusium of Orphone).
  • Backers want to know that they will get the thing they’re pledging for. Kelvin Green’s Horror among Thieves is doing well enough to have a shot at making the $6K target, and without seeing the curve I’d bet that it saw a big uptick when Green promised to deliver the adventure whether or not it gets funded – which in the latter case would mean giving it away for free to backers who had their pledges returned at the end of the unsuccessful campaign.
  • Backers are not strongly motivated by getting free things that are different from what they’re pledging. Monte Cook is offering free PDF copies of his magnum opus Ptolus to $100+ backers of his adventure The Unbegotten Citadel, but it’s still not doing as well as Kelvin Green’s – a disparity that’s all the more striking given that every D&D player knows Monte’s name and I only know Kelvin’s because I’m a Fight On! fan. Likewise, the global offer of a free sandbox by Rob Conley and an adventure by James Raggi to all backers at certain levels doesn’t seem to have had a big impact; these things are undeniably cool, but adding more guaranteed-but-different flavors to the smorgasbord doesn’t seem to have brought many extra people to the buffet.
  • An unspoken part of wanting to be sure you get the thing you pledge for is trusting the author to deliver it. Professional experience in RPGs would seem to me to be the best guide here, but it doesn’t seem to factor into backer decisions. GWAR guitarist Dave Brockie has zero previous gaming publications, but Towers Two still has more pledges than Monte Cook who’s designed more successful projects than you can shake a stick at.
  • The synergistic effects of running multiple campaigns simultaneously are balanced against the negatives of making the audience choose between backing so many horses each with uncertain chances to win. By my count, the Grand Adventures Campaign has raised $33,094 in pledges, more than twice the LotFP Hardcover and Adventures Project‘s $16,240. Although it seems likely that many of these pledges won’t be collected because they were for adventures that won’t meet their funding goal, this still reflects an overall increase in LotFP’s audience and crowdfunding power. I don’t think that the Grand Adventure Campaign represents an ideal way to deal with the various problems of shipping and ordering multiple crowdfunded projects, but it does look to me that with this one Raggi has lost many battles but still won the war.
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11
Jul
12

Hoping to See You at Gen Con

In hopes of getting together with Mule readers at Gen Con 2012, here is a rundown of stuff I’ll be doing at the convention:

  • I’ll be running an Adventurer Conqueror King mini-campaign Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening after the exhibit hall closes, going as long into the night as our stamina permits. It’ll be a casual, open-table affair, with easy drop-in/drop-out. I’ll have pre-generated characters at all three levels, or you can bring your own Adventurers, Conquerors, or Kings rolled up using the rules for starting characters at higher level. For that matter, you can bring characters from whatever other RPG you may have, subject to the usual “your ring of wishes doesn’t work on this plane” revision. Folks are welcome to play for one or multiple nights. Location TBD; leave a comment if you’re interested, and I’ll keep you up to date on where we’ll wind up.
  • During the exhibit hall hours, I will typically be at the Old-School Renaissance Group booth, #1359. I’ll be glad to sell you a copy of ACKS, answer questions about upcoming projects, and share enthusiasm for all manner of cool gaming stuff.

The major exception to my general plan to be at OSRG booth while it’s open will be the seminars and panels I’ll be doing as part of the Industry Insider track. Here are a rundown of the ones I’m part of, presented chronologically & with links to their info:

Can’t make Gen Con this year? CONcurrent will be running during the Best Four Days in Gaming to provide a host of gaming sessions and related discussions using G+; register here if that looks like fun. I won’t be taking part myself, but I will be doing another panel via G+ hangout about Kickstarter and Indie Game Development between now and then. You can watch it live this Thursday at 7 pm EDT, and the video of the session will also be posted on YouTube.

07
Jul
12

Why the LotFP Grand Adventure Campaign Matters

Yesterday I talked about how Charlatan, Ryan Browning, and I were going be part of the insane, ambitious Lamentations of the Flame Princess effort to crowd-fund nineteen different adventures at once, and why that didn’t happen. Here’s why I think the effort is admirable and well worthy of your close attention.

  1. Diversity. I mentioned how some of the creators James Raggi has gathered together into a nineteen-headed hydra are considered by some to be ideological enemies of the OSR, including one of the leading inheritors of the Forge’s legacy and some of the key figures in WotC-era D&D and the Paizo adventure path. Mule readers are no doubt much too cool to be down with this particular divisiveness; certainly I feel no shame in proclaiming myself a fan of Vincent, Monte, and Richard. What’s really remarkable is that Raggi has brought together worlds that I hardly even knew were into RPGs; you’ll find here adventures from GWAR’s lead singer and the drummer for the doom/death metal band Eminent Remains, plus some eminent representatives from a Nordic scene that I’m really excited to have been learning about recently. You could say that the fact that all these different folks are interested in writing an adventure for LotFP means the OSR has won. You could also say it’s a sign the OSR is no more; I think a key indicator of a dead subculture is that it no longer has efficient cell walls with which to exclude “outsiders”. Let’s say instead that it’s a remarkable tribute to the inclusiveness and far-reaching appeal of LotFP’s version of the old-school aesthetic, and the boldness and energy with which Raggi has communicated that vision to so many corners of the world.
  2. Innovation. Crowd-funding is so new that there is still no consensus on the best way to handle lots of fundamental things. One of the more important is how to combine orders into a package for the mutual benefit of the backers and publisher. The Grand Adventures campaign is an ambitious new approach to that problem, which has the extra benefits of breath-taking scope and attention-getting audacity.
  3. Visibility. The professional field of role-playing games is hindered by the fact that business data is so hard to get (outside of exemplary cases like Evil Hat). One great thing about crowd-funding is that it creates transparency for some of the key things you’d want to know. This is wonderfully leveraged by the insane ambition of Raggi’s grand scheme. Is there an audience for an old-school adventure by a designer from (just about any background you can think of)? Does it help or hurt to run 19 crowd-funding efforts simultaneously? Instead of just wondering, we can look at the IndieGoGo pages and find out.

In the above, I’ve been talking from the perspective of a scene-watcher and OSR theorist. I assume that is of at least some interest to you, gentle Mule reader (or else that you tl;dr past many of our posts). More importantly, though, you and I are also gamers and lovers of fine gaming products. I’m confident that some great ones will result from the Grand Adventures campaign. Which you’ll be attracted to is a matter of taste.

For my part, I’m particularly interested in ones where the artist is also the illustrator, which I suspect is part of the genius of Jaquays’ work. I’m going to back Strange and Sinister Shores because I was intrigued by Jonathan Bingham’s illustrations for ACKS and want to see the stories he has behind them. I’ll pledge to that one because I especially want to see it succeed, but I’ll choose the Faithful reward level so I get a copy of every one that does make it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how to register at IndieGoGo.

06
Jul
12

The Insane and Ambitious LotFP Campaign and I

Folks who have been following the LotFP Grand Adventure crowdfunding campaign closely will have noticed that, at one point, the Mule’s own Charlatan and I were slated to do one of the 19 adventures it will be funding, with illustrations by Ryan Browning. This post is to explain why I withdrew our project with the greatest regrets. In tomorrow’s post I’ll suggest some reasons why everyone who cares about the stuff we care about should indeed be following the Grand Adventure campaign closely.

The way that this all got started is that, back in March, James Raggi posted on G+:

My brain is exploding. ToC’s Bookhounds of London + ACKS mercantile system + XRP’s Silk Road detail + Warhammer’s Death on the Reik = Something, yes?

Like a mad scientist, Raggi seems to be perpetually fizzing over with the ferment of mash-ups like this. Note that he is unafraid to throw volatile elements in the mix. Expeditious Retreat Press (XRP)’s A Magical Medieval Society: Silk Road, although eminently useful for all fantasy and historical gaming, is a d20 supplement from the era when 3E was “The Edition That Shall Not Be Named” among the dfootians. And Trail of Cthulu (ToC) is a big favorite of the story-gamers I know in the nerdNYC community. But of course James scoffs at the idea that the OSR should be a firewall that protects us from contamination by TESTSNBN or Forge swine; he takes things that are awesome as he finds ’em. His getting Bookhounds of London author Ken Hite to do a LotFP adventure is a supremely awesome achievement that, for me, is one of the fruits of the OSR having won and a demonstration of what you can make happen with an insanely ambitious crowdfunding campaign.

So when I emailed Raggi with a vague affirmation of his G+ post – “yeah let’s make that mash-up happen!” – he came back with both a crazy way to achieve that, involving nineteen simulaneous IndieGoGo campaigns, and a tasty proposal for what it should look like:

You do a supplement updating the economics stuff from ACKS into the Early Modern Age – taking into account regular sea lane shipping, trading companies and the monopolies they secure (and the piracy they attract), the great risk/reward of exploration, colonies, realms that are ruled by parliaments or noble lineage but the age of small-time conquest/rulership is over, etc.

He gave me the go-ahead to add Charlatan as a collaborator, since I would never venture into the sea-lanes without his Saltbox expertise, and Ryan as artist because he can draw the inside of my mind better than I can see it. We started talking it over, and all manner of ideas started to flow. Some of the concrete results were the title “Register of the Deeps” and a concept for the cover:

Original sketch for the Register of the Deeps cover, by Ryan Browning.

Unfortunately, in the middle of this creative ferment, a development in my personal life arose that forced me to re-evaluate my ability to deliver “Register of the Deeps” by the deadline I’d agreed to. It’s nothing worthy of a Lifetime special, or even an after-school one. It won’t mean my departure from gaming, or even prevent me from working with Charlatan and Ryan to finish Register and release it via a different route at some future date, but it did make me feel I couldn’t promise to have it in time for the LotFP campaign backers with the right degree of certainty.

Lots of people are saying that crowd-funding is changing the face of the gaming industry for the better. If you’ll be at Gen Con on Friday at 3pm, you’ll see me among ’em. The key ingredient here is trust. When people back a project, they’re expressing their faith that it will come to pass. For the Kickstarter miracle to work, this faith has to be well-placed. I thought it better to withdraw from the LotFP adventures campaign than to run the risk of breaking faith with people who’d put up money expecting to have “Register of the Deeps” when I said they would.

Kickstarter may be a new thing under the sun, but gaming history offers plenty of tragic examples of what can go wrong with taking money now for a product later, whether via pre-orders (the Wormy compilation, Sinister Adventures) or a subscription model (Adventure Games Publications). To his great credit, James Raggi was totally understanding about my situation & the reasoning behind my (difficult) decision. He made good on his promise to find replacements who were bigger stars than the originally booked talent, and seeing the quality of the people who are filling the void makes me feel a little better. Nevertheless I’ll always regret having gotten folks, especially Charlatan and Ryan, excited and then yanking the football; also having come this close to saying I shared a stage with the lead singer from GWAR, metaphorically at least.

Next to come: why the LotFP Grand Adventure crowd-funding campaign matters.

 

22
Jun
12

The Shadow out of Providence

I am currently in Norway collecting data on wilderness encounters, which I will share when my internet access is less limited. However in the interim Ezra Claverie’s very worthy Kickstarter for a Lovecraftian meta-textThe Shadow out of Providence, is about to reach the end of its funding campaign, as he was kind enough to remind me:

Tumble out of your hammock, seaman! I’ve orders for ye!

Run aloft to the very top of the Mule Abides, and sing out that you’ve spotted _The Shadow out of Providence_. Tell the lads to row for it with all their might, and we may yet return with a hold full of oil.

I’m offering an extra measure of rum for all the crew if we exceed our goal by a thousand Yankee dollars. Videlicett, if we raise $8,500, “the hardcover will have marbled endpapers, and every backer’s name will appear in the book, on the roster of the lost members of the 8th American-Soviet Friendship Expedition (which, sadly, had no survivors). This list will be separate from the acknowledgments, and part of ‘The Vostok Dossier’.”

Update #9, which I just posted, contains the full details, if ye should forget, or if ye should find the lingo of an old sea-captain less than transparent.

–Cap’n Ezra

One of the main attractions of this project for old-schoolers may be the new illustrations by Erol Otus, see below. However there is much to be said (which I guess I also need to say in a future post) for the proposition that Lovecraft and his circle of correspondents invented a key component of roleplaying, the idea of a shared world which was gradually revealed by the stories of individual protagonists. Of course, many of these protagonists died horribly in proper old-school fashion because D&D and the Cthulu Mythos are both the story of the world, not the story of the heroes in it. I’ve written before about how seeing the Mythos appear in the Electronic Arts game Murder on the Zinderneuf was my first transmedia experience, and I think it’s not jus a fondness for monsters that causes Lovecraft is named in Appendix N and beloved of roleplayers everywhere. Ezra’s metatext promises to be a worthy and exciting addition to this canon; check it out, I think you’ll dig it.Image

10
Apr
12

Mike Mearls’ Magnificient Encomium

Recently noisms of the superlative Monsters & Manuals called The Mule Abides “the most consistently high-quality blog out there, in terms of theory and gaming history, probably.” I should thus be ashamed to use it as the ashbin for stuff I write that didn’t make it elsewhere, but one of the benefits of being a blog-collective is that no doubt one of the other contributors will come up with something brilliant to keep up our quality average.

A while back Ed Healy contacted me for some quotes for the RPG Countdown Best of 2011 show. I wound up quipping about a number of things I didn’t work on, but one that I did – Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium – caught the attention of the guys at EN World, who wanted me to expand on the quote for their D&D Next page.

I think – but am not sure – that it didn’t ever appear there. As was the case in 2008, being a playtester means that visiting sites where fans are talking about a new edition is as madness-inducing as wearing just one of the eye-cusps that lets you perceive the Vancian over-world. If y’all have already read this at EN World, I apologize for the repost and the out-of-context community in-jokes like the link at the end. Just in case this is its last chance to avoid obscurity, though, here’s me looking back on Mordenkainen’s:

As a lifelong Gygax fan, I was honored to be chosen as one of the designers of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium; how cool is it to be hired in real life to make magic items for Gary’s PC? And as a Dungeons & Dragons fan, I was thrilled to learn that Mike Mearls would be the lead on the project. At every step in my professional involvement as a gamer, Mike has been participating in the same communities I’m fascinated by and showing me the next step forward.

When I was at the Forge in ’04 learning how to start Behemoth3 to publish Masters and Minions, Mike was there sharing the design chops and OGL mastery that he’d soon demonstrate in Iron Heroes, and also proving that it was OK to be open to indie insights and still love D&D with all your heart.

When I was at the OD&D boards in ’08 discovering all the things the old-school renaissance could reveal about the game I thought I already knew, Mike was there posting session reports from his Kardallin’s Palace campaign and dropping science like the analogy that OD&D is a jam session while 4e is a symphony.

I haven’t kept up with the combat as sport vs. combat as war thread here at EN World but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Mike posting there too; he is a true member of this community and as appreciative of others’ deep insights bridging the edition gap as he is ready to bust them out himself.

The vision that Mike showed in his leadership of the Mordenkainen’s team is everything that I want from D&D Next. His eagerness to celebrate the game’s rich history meant that no artifact was too obscure or silly for us to find its hidden treasure. I’d done five other 4e projects at that point and never expected I’d get a crack at the iron bands of Bilarro or the bone of bruising. I didn’t have to tell him why it was important to have mundane items like mules in the game, Mike already knew. He pushed me to define caltrops or glass marbles with the same clarity and concision as the best 4e design, and let me write about how players and GMs can work together to adjucate the flexibility and concreteness that lets OD&D characters retrain their mule into a warbearer donkeyhorse or a pitfinder donkeyhorse in the blink of an eye.

The other thing Mike taught me with Mordenkainen’s was how to be honest and direct and still discreet. The book went through a lot of changes – I lucked into being interviewed by the Gamerati because Amazon still has the version of the cover that had my name on it, and for a while it wasn’t going to come out at all. Mike gave me some time at Gen Con, and after I rattled off all my conspiracy theories about what was going on behind the scenes, he kind of sighed a little. “Sometimes we come up with these clever stories that sound good until people start asking questions, and then it all gets complicated,” he said. “I don’t understand why we don’t just tell the truth.”

D&D Next’s promise is as huge as the job it’ll have overcoming the misgivings fans have in trusting a new set of promises. Because I want D&D to grow and thrive, I am overjoyed to see Mike in charge of that job.

When we were doing the Kickstarter for Adventurer Conqueror King, seeing that Mike had become one of our backers was a shining moment that all the great reviews since can’t equal. Autarch is taking up the space that freelancing used to for me – getting to do Dwimmermount with James Maliszewski is also making me feel like the big kids have agreed to let me roll up a character in their game – but I’d gladly put it aside for a second and pitch in to Wizards’ great project to end the edition wars. Send me that contract for the Quintessential Mule, D&D Next is the perfect system for it!

02
Apr
12

D&D’s Original Iconic Characters

Doesn’t this look like an adventuring party you’d like to be part of?

Illustrations by David C. Sutherland for the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide

Stat one of these characters up using the Adventurer Conqueror King System and you can play ’em in a session I’ll run via G+ hangout! Plus, if the Kickstarter for Paul Hughes’ Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map poster succeeds in raising more funding than Autarch’s Player’s Companion did, the backers of that worthy project will get to admire your character-making handiwork as part of a bonus goal I offered Paul in the foolhardy belief that it’d never happen. (It is now less than $300 short).

Here’s the backstory. The designers of 3rd Edition D&D went to remarkable lengths to reference 1st Edition AD&D. This is something I’ve been saying for a long time, but the more I learn about 1E the more examples I discover.

One of the defining aspects of 3E’s art direction was the use of iconic characters whose illustrations were featured in the section introducing their class and were then re-used in other books, the D&D miniatures line, etc. For example, here we see the rogue Lidda, the wizard Mialee, and the fighters Regdar and Tordek planning a dungeon-heist:

At Gary Con, we were talking about things we liked and didn’t like about 3E. Iconic characters made it onto both lists.

  • Plus: The way that the same heroes would turn up in different contexts created the sense of the books being a window into another world, the way that elements of the Cthulu Mythos like the Necronomicon showing up in different stories made it seem real (and a precursor of roleplaying games and transmedia).
  • Minus: We weren’t convinced that the 3E iconic characters emerged from actual play; their inception had the whiff of a clever memo from WotC’s marketing department.

Until reading this post at Blog of Holding, from which the top picture was taken, I didn’t realize that the idea of a party of characters recurring from one illustration to the next had its roots in David C. Sutherland’s drawings for the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. I don’t know whether they represented a real party of player characters, but certainly the DMG illustrations show them doing the kinds of things adventurers do in actual games of D&D. (The planning illustration above is an exception to the normal kind of thing the 3E iconic characters were depicted doing: standing around on their own, looking iconic.)

Given that I care about things like illustrations reflecting actual play, let’s make sure that the ACKS writeup of the AD&D iconics reflects characters that a player created (albeit to match a pre-existing visual image) and played in a game! Reply in the comments to claim which of these five adventurers you’d like to stat up and play, I’ll email you to work out the details and schedule the G+ hangout.




Past Adventures of the Mule

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