RPGs: The ‘K’ Word

In this article, Steve considers the positive effect of Kickstarter on authors, designers and their crowd-funded RPGs.

I have only ever backed a handful of Kickstarter projects. It’s really for the same reason I don’t like shopping in Argos. (For those folks outside the UK, Argos is a physical, high-street shop, where you go in and look through a catalogue and then order and pay). I like to pick the game up, turn it over, inspect the box, and feel the weight. Kickstarter itself is a divisive concept. I shan’t go into the rights and wrongs, you either like it or you don’t. I’m not going to pass comment on who you back and what sort of service you get. All I would say is that my stance has softened somewhat in recent months.

The main reason for this is the proliferation of fantastic RPGs that have become available on Kickstarter, some as PDF downloads only and others that I am only likely to be able to get hold of if I back them there and then. The main reason to back, of course, is ensuring that a creative mind with a project I believe in is given an opportunity to produce it and bring it to the public. I have my own solitaire story game that I created and posted on BGG as print and play, knowing I didn’t have the time or capacity to try and get it published. The thought of self-publishing, especially through crowd-funding, seemed like such an enormous task, I just put it up for free instead.

I had already backed the beautiful Snow White for the Pathfinder system and Feng Shui 2, which was a phenomenally popular project. However, two seemingly smaller but no-less-exciting RPGs caught my eye earlier this month. The first was an RPG called Vow of Honor by Sigil Stone Publishing, based in Sasara – a broken and depraved world ruled by despots, where you must protect the weak and avenge the victims. The second is Cleadonia by Josh Dixon, where players explore the hidden and dangerous corners of the world as brilliantly illustrated, anthropomorphic animal adventurers.

Having backed both, I decided I wanted to get more insight into the decision making process behind these projects. Both Ben from Sigil Stone Publishing and Josh ‘Skull’ Dixon were kind and accommodating creators who took the time to answer my questions about their respective creative journeys. My first question was the obvious one and, I suppose, the one I was most interested in finding out about: why choose crowd-funding?

Josh, better known to his friends and associates as ‘Skull’ was quite matter-of-fact in his response: “I never planned to sell it through a publisher. I had always planned to put the game out myself.” This was an interesting approach, since back in 2004 (when he first began to design Cleadonia) crowd-funding didn’t even exist. He had planned to save up the money and find a way to sell it to a game store or at GenCon. This seems like a bold move and I give Skull the credit he deserves for finding Kickstarter, the outlet he needed. His attention was drawn to Kickstarter as he finished school: “Several of my comic and game design friends had some success getting their books/games funded and published, and it became a valid option for me to pursue.”

Ben Dutter, author of Vow of Honor, tells a similar tale. Crowd-funding is the ideal avenue allowing the small press publisher to combine a few different elements into one: “Gauging appeal of the product, developing a fanbase and audience, preordering the product, and of course funding the product.” Ben goes on to say that these steps are usually cost-prohibitive. He sees and shares the same concerns as many of Kickstarter’s detractors; that as crowd-funding matures, so too it becomes entangled with big business. He has a few key thoughts for those who have been burnt by the process and those companies that may have been at fault: a) keep the community involved; b) keep the process transparent; c) build trust on both sides of the transaction. Wise words indeed.

Both authors speak about the focus of producing their product, something that remained within their control. Vow of Honor will exist just as a PDF, I asked Ben if there was a reason for this decision. His response made perfect sense, given that devoting too much attention to the printing and shipping would distract from producing the game he wanted. He makes the point that he isn’t opposed to printing and, in fact, had developed a relationship with a high quality printer for a previous Kickstarter project. However, the failure of that campaign taught him the value of running one that he knew would be financially viable. At the end of the day, I as a roleplayer would certainly be more concerned about receiving a quality game than a high quality glossy book. I do love a wonderfully illustrated, well-bound book, but not at the cost of the gameplay itself.

Cleadonia race illustrations
Cleadonia race illustrations by Josh Dixon

Having spent several years developing the game I put on BGG, building it into the theme and mythos of the Sherlock Holmes universe, I was interested in finding out how long both Skull and Ben had been working on their ideas. Skull remarked that he didn’t have the world planned out when he began the process, not even the races, as all the characters he was thinking of were human. Instead he concentrated on the system itself. However, he soon realised he wanted his game to stand out from the many available that offered a High Fantasy setting. Having shelved the game for two years while he finished school, he went back to the idea and began by researching other RPGs he had at home. (This was something I did myself, looking at what worked well in core rulebooks and what wasn’t always needed). This helped focus the setting for Skull’s game on the Nimdor Forest, removing a lot of information about other lands that were not as instrumental in creating a solid and exciting experience. Skull also worked tirelessly on the artwork while going through the proof-reading process that has taken up most of his time since 2010 (keeping extra busy by taking on freelance work).

Skull had faith in his game and its core concepts and knew from the start that he planned to publish the game: “I just don’t see any reason to create something that I could not somehow share with the world.” He does accept that it remains to be seen whether it is commercially viable but hopes that it will gather a big enough following. I certainly feel there are enough interesting elements involved to create that following. The world of Cleadonia itself and its inhabitants definitely seem worth investing in. I could go into more details but I urge you instead just to check out the Kickstarter project for yourself. There is a link at the end of this article.

Vow of Honor book images
Vow of Honor RPG by Sigil Stone Publishing

While Skull’s project gestated over several years, Ben says that Vow of Honor came together relatively quickly, compared to some of his other projects. Interestingly, he had originally intended the universe to be part of a graphic novel (which he still might do, folks, stay tuned!) so largely the creative work had been done. It was the final development and refinement phases of his previous game, Forge of Valor, that helped him scope out Honor’s core mechanics. Here you will find the very interesting Honor Dice, developed from an original concept that had a dice pool to model character motivations. Again, it’s totally worth going to check out the project for yourself, rather than me try to explain it! Likewise, a link can be found at article’s end.

Six months of fast and furious writing and playtesting brought Ben to where he is today. Not that this feels like a rush job by any means. There is a lot of thought and invention in the game and the six month turn around should not in any way dissuade potential backers. Ben says that his editor still challenges for the best game possible: “I’m sure there will be some more changes and finishing touches, not to mention a whole heap of editing!” As a serial entrepreneur, Ben always tries to make everything commercially viable. He is a self-proclaimed obsessive when it comes to creating things that other people will enjoy. Which has to be a good sign!

In respect to creating something that others will flock to, I asked Ben to talk about his brave move of opening up a new pledge level that encouraged crowd-sourced material. This has become a normal part of many Kickstarter projects – create or name a character, place, item or event – and it sounds like an easy way to make extra money but clearly requires a huge investment in time, effort and effective communication. Ben was pragmatic about the decision: “Sure you open yourself up to risk, but I think the rewards well outweigh the risks.” He talked about management and setting clear guidelines, schedules and, possibly most importantly, retaining editorial control. He certainly seems to have a good balance of backer creativity and risk mitigation. The second part of his answer speaks volumes about what I think is such a cornerstone of the Kickstarter experience: “The bigger risk I think is in not involving your game’s community and fanbase, as that puts this sort of artificial separation between the game’s creator and the game’s consumer.” A principle I am sure all his backers will appreciate.

The final question I set to Skull was more personal, seeing that we shared a route into RPGing through Palladium game books. I wondered what his favourite systems were and whether any had provided inspiration during the creative process of designing his own RPG. He responded: “I think hands down that Shadowrun (3rd Edition) is my favourite game system.” He commented that he still played Palladium Fantasy, D&D, Savage Worlds and White Wolf, among others. We have both spent most time in the Palladium universe and both found inspiration somewhere in their systems. Mine came through the abilities and traits, Skull’s through how armour actually felt like it did something. On discovering that other game systems he played didn’t offer armour that degraded as it was used, he ensured that armour in Cleadonia was able to absorb damage and be destroyed in a track-able manner. He also brought over the layered armour approach of Shadowrun, because it made sense and added a layer of realism he personally likes in games.

“One of the main things that inspired me when creating Cleadonia was the books I read and in most of the fantasy books I have read, the magic user does not have to re-memorize his or her spells every day.” That always struck me about certain RPG systems that relied on magic but soon felt unwieldy due to characters seemingly forgetting spells moments after casting them. In the books he read, Skull found that “usually what the spell caster is doing is using energy from the world around them, pulling it in and weaving it into the spell they had in mind.” This approach was important for the effect Skull wanted to achieve in Cleadonia. Interesting then that inspiration came as much from fiction as from other RPGs.

Like Ben, Skull mentioned the dice mechanics for his game. With a wealth of systems on the market, some of them card-based or diceless, but mainly using simple (d6, d8, 20) or custom dice it is important to position your RPG with interesting and fun new variations of dice mechanics. Cleadonia’s was inspired by D&D and Palladium Fantasy because he “wanted to do the opposite of those games and keep it simple.” Sometimes the best ideas come from doing what the competition is not, I guess. Skull set himself the task of not over-burdening the game and the players with 6-10 different dice types that were used at different stages and, as an outcome, create a game that anyone could play. This led him to design a game using two ordinary six-sided dice. After all, a d6 is the easiest thing to find: “You don’t need a game store or Amazon to get one. You can simply take some from your copy of the game of Monopoly or go to the local dollar store.” Out of respect for all gamers, and having spent most of his life with little money of his own, Skull did not want to create a game that forced players to continuously shell out large sums of money. This also looped back into why he wasn’t getting the book printed in hard back on fancy paper. The final learning he shared was from Palladium Fantasy: “They have for years kept most of their books, all of which are at least around 300 pages each, under $30 and I plan to do the same.”

Both Ben and Josh were incredibly generous with their time and answers. I set out to learn a little about the Kickstarter process and the reasoning behind decisions they had made in getting their games to market. I ended up learning a lot. Two different creative processes with two very different RPGs to show at the end: both equally intriguing and with plenty of merits on either side. This article does not intend to review either; I am but a humble backer like everyone else. I haven’t been privy to secret material or a sneak peek inside the books. All I can say is that both projects interested me enough to look further and, ultimately, to back them both. I urge you greatly to do the same. Because both of these talented creators have taken a risk, laid it all on the line and pushed into the big wide world their ideas. Almost all of us have dreamed of having a published game, through whatever means. Some of us have approached publishers and considered Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sources. Not many of us have actually produced those games.

Whatever your views on, or fears about Kickstarter, put them aside when you approach projects like Vow of Honor and Cleadonia. They are both labours of love which deserve a place on shelves and in inboxes across the world. More so, creators like Ben and Josh deserve to be recognised and trumpeted. The best way to do this is to back their projects. Both of them. Now. Go do it, so you don’t regret it later.

Find Ben Dutter’s project, Vow of Honor at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2111664817/vow-of-honor-rpg

Find Josh Dixon’s project, Cleadonia: A High Fantasy Adventure Game at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1499997394/cleadonia-a-high-fantasy-adventure-game