Why Tabletop RPG Kickstarters Fail

Kickstarter Wonk is an opportunity for me to, every month, show off some neat Kickstarter campaigns that deserve to get a little extra attention. To write these articles, I read pretty much every Kickstarter campaign that could be termed as an original RPG, and then pull from there to make my list. Some months, getting to ten is difficult because there are twenty or more games, sixteen or more that are worth covering, and narrowing down the list gets really hard. That’s when I apply some really arbitrary metrics like “the campaign ends less than two days before the article will be published” and “I will weigh my choice towards the game with original mechanics as opposed to the one which is using Fate”. On the other hand, sometimes there’s fewer than ten games I want to cover, and the last one or two which are all right will have a bit of sarcasm in the descriptions. What has not happened until now was a month where I couldn’t even muster up half a dozen games I was excited about.

The biggest reason for this drought is that September is a thin month. Most game designers with a sense of timing will aim to have their campaign open during GenCon (beginning of August) if at all possible. This means that last month there were tons of campaigns to read, and this month there are a lot fewer. This September was even drier than September of 2018, though, with only ten campaigns in total which I read. To make it worse, I read at least one second edition to make it to that number, meaning that there were less than ten games even before I started applying my typical standards.

Now, it’s not fair to call out any individual game. There are bad designs pushed to Kickstarter every month, and this month was no exception. There were good designs with good marketing this month, though not a large enough number to make me want to write an article. The most populous category, though, is good designs where the designer didn’t do the necessary work to market the game. There have been times where I have thrown my weight behind amateur efforts, even pledging myself on a number of cases. I have yet to part with any money for games like this, though, because without a good first impression, these games never fund.

Instead of putting word count to games I don’t care about, let’s talk a bit about why RPG Kickstarters fail. It’s not only that amateur Kickstarters make these mistakes, it’s also that the professionals, the companies like Modiphius and Pinnacle and Evil Hat, basically never do.The baseline has been set, and you must hit this baseline if you want any chance to succeed.

Game Design

Nothing stops me in my tracks faster than bad game design. The worst campaigns, the ones that make me audibly groan, are the ones where the designer has spent hundreds if not thousands of dollars to buy art for and market their heartbreaker. Now, I have very purposefully excluded most Kickstarters for things like modules or system-specific content, I’m only talking about complete games and preferably original games. There is a ton of grey area there, though, and you’ll see me covering Savage Worlds and Fate based games, as well as some 5e-based games like Carbon 2185, which I personally backed. That said, once you’ve marketed yourself as “like D&D but” or “so many more classes/races/weapons/hats” it’s pretty much auto-delete from me. While there will very, very rarely be a completely original design that is also awful, there will very often be games designed by people who didn’t read beyond D&D, don’t understand what is and isn’t wrong with D&D, and also, most sadly, aren’t aware that this has been done 500 times before since 1975 (Tunnels and Trolls gets a pass but only because it’s the first one). The world does not need another d20-based fantasy game, and the likelihood that yours is any good is proportional to the number of extant fantasy games you’ve read.

Investment

I hate to say this, but even a good game is going to have a tough time selling to me with bad art. There are campaigns out there with one piece of decent art, a couple concept shots or maybe even photographs of playtesting…those are perfectly fine. I dare say half the PbtA games I’ve backed (not reviewed, backed with money) had campaigns like this. There’s a difference between economy of media and just bad media. If you don’t have art yet, don’t put your mediocre concept art in the Kickstarter campaign, of all places. If you’re a one-man shop and doing the drawings yourself…maybe don’t? Kevin Crawford, best known for Stars Without Number and Godbound, is one of the most successful one-man shops in the industry. You know what he doesn’t do himself? Art.

The other note on investment is one you can judge for yourself, but at this stage of Kickstarter maturity it’s important. You’re going to have a lot more difficulty finding backers if your game isn’t done. Sure, if you’re Nathan Paoletta you can run a “Break Kickstarter” campaign for three unstarted games, but that’s the very floor of recognition you need to have if you want to run a campaign on an unfinished game. The best thing anyone can possibly do to ensure their campaign funds is to include playtest notes or videos, endorsements from others who have playtested your game, and most importantly, a quickstart or alpha ruleset. Nothing speaks to your game like the game and its players. If you’re worried about giving too much away, just remember that regardless of what percentage of revenues a free quickstart will eat up, any percentage of zero is zero and that’s what you get when your project doesn’t fund.

Campaign Design

Having a good product is important, having enough invested in your product is important. The actual Kickstarter campaign is important too. I’ve had designers DM me on Twitter asking if I read their campaign that month. The most frequent answer is actually “yes but you never used the words ‘role-playing game’ so based on your concept art I thought it was a board game”. I’m serious. The best we get, categorization-wise, on Kickstarter is “Tabletop Games”, so put that ‘RPG’ right in the introductory description. On the flip side, if you use the term ‘RPG’ to describe your worker-placement card game where each player just so happens to be represented by a character, I probably dislike you.

A lot of campaign design is reiterating earlier points, but more about what information you’re providing to readers. Of course, if your game is bad, the information you present will read badly, so it’s very important to make the information about your good game read well lest the average browser become confused. If your only point of comparison is D&D, and the game isn’t a module for D&D, it’s not finished! Go read at least three other games in your genre. If your campaign is driven on comparisons, then maybe you should consider your game’s merits rather than why it’s different than some other game you’ve played. The exception is that if you’re writing a game like Zweihander which is a retro-clone, you of course should speak in depth to the game on which yours is based. If you’re writing yet another D&D retroclone though, you probably need to advance the timeline to something like Shadow of the Demon Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I already can’t tell you why I’d play both Shadow of the Demon Lord and something else like Dungeon Crawl Classics, so it may just be that the space is full at this point.

If you are writing a game in an existing system, mention that early. Nova Praxis is wonderful even though it uses the Savage Worlds ruleset, and most PbtA games do in fact stand nicely on their own, even if the rules are not that new. That said, if you don’t mention the ruleset until four paragraphs in, that’s four paragraphs in which you’ve failed to tell me how your game works. Despite what you may think, your setting is not that interesting, and it certainly won’t stand on its own while you do gymnastics around telling the reader anything about the mechanics.

In summary, consider an elevator pitch. If I don’t know a) what setting your game uses, b) why that setting is interesting or different, c) what mechanics the game uses, and d) why these mechanics are good or at least compatible to the intent of the game, all by the end of the first paragraph, there’s very little chance you’re making any money off of this.

There’s one other special case, which has come up a few times since I started writing Kickstarter Wonk. That is the case of someone re-doing a campaign after something happens to mess up the timing, or more likely after the campaign fails. To put a line in the sand, I’ll never cover a game twice. To speak more broadly to the universe of Kickstarter backers, if your campaign fails that means it didn’t generate enough interest, period. If you just put it up again the next month and hope the timing’s better, you will fail again. If you’re really dedicated to a product even though the market already spoke on it, the way to go is to do the work to make that product demonstrably more appealing so it attracts demonstrably more dollars. Otherwise, it may be wiser to put the game away and try something else.

So we talked a bit about why Kickstarter campaigns fail, let’s talk about ones that succeed. On one hand you have clearly professional efforts coming from Fria Ligan and Evil Hat, on the other you have either very small press or clearly indie efforts like Good Society and Super Destiny High School Rumble. Now, Super Destiny High School Rumble didn’t quite follow my advice about getting your ruleset in the first paragraph (it’s PbtA but doesn’t mention it until paragraph 4…still in the intro though which is better than many), but listen to this first sentence:

Super Destiny High School Rumble!! is a roleplaying game about anime high school students who have to balance secret identities, emerging powers, homework, and combating villains.

That tells you exactly what you need to know, and was all I needed to read to know I needed to read the rest of the campaign. On a similar note:

Good Society is a collaborative roleplaying game that seeks to capture the heart, and the countenance, of Jane Austen’s work. It is a game of balls, estates, sly glances, and turns about the garden. At least on the surface. Underneath this, just as in Austen’s own novels, it is a game of social ambition, family obligation and breathtaking, heart-stopping longing.

That’s all you needed to read to know exactly what you were getting into. And while a Jane Austen RPG may not exactly be mass market to the gamer crowd, the punchy campaign was a big help in making the game as successful as it has been.


Kickstarters are wildly variable in quality every month, and it stands to reason that it would be immediately after GenCon where I finally had a month that I couldn’t muster up a top ten. That said, it’s not all bad out there, even if I can’t say there are ten campaigns worth your examination.  You might just catch the intriguing-looking Never Knows Best from CHG favorite Fraser Simons, but the campaign ends the day after this article posts (September 5th) so it’s pretty close. Nonetheless, as far as I know a tight month will be replaced with a jam-packed one for October, so let your wallet enjoy the breather. Anything about Kickstarter campaigns that always does it for you, or is always a turn-off? Let us know, either in the comments below or on Twitter! Kickstarter Wonk will be back next month, with hopefully many interesting campaigns to check out.

6 thoughts on “Why Tabletop RPG Kickstarters Fail”

  1. Good article,with lots of useful things to consider for someone trying to fund their first game on Kickstarter.

    One distinction I’d make is that you should put up front the the things that matter to your audience, which might not be game mechanics/system. In my modestly successful Kickstarter for Return to the Stars, the introduction was all about tone and theme and setting: optimistic space opera tales of exploration and adventure, and hopepunk resistance. That’s what mattered to me, and that’s what resonated with the backers.

    I mentioned system a several paragraphs in, and approached it in two ways: first, explaining why the game was easy to learn and play (I had a lot of more casual RPGers signed up on my mailing list at that point) and describing cool new subsystems to interest Fate nerds.

    Obviously you need to do the work of making sure the system suits your design goals. But that isn’t necessarily what you want to talk about first. There is a subset of people that really geeks out about ruleset and mechanics. And it includes influencers like game designers and writers. If that’s you audience, your probably should mention mechanics right up front. But the most important thing is to know why people should care about your game, and explain that first.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Really well written and thought out article. Thanks for putting it together.

    I feel a bit sad for the one or two interesting campaigns this month (assuming there were any) that just happened to launch at this time of year and didn’t get any coverage.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I collect board games and RPGs, partly because it’s fun to have the variety but I also have plenty of friends with different interests, skill sets, attention spans and learning curves. I pride myself in having at least one game that fits the group that I have over.

    As such, there are three things I look for specifically in the game (in no specific order): theme, difficulty, and basic mechanics. Explanations in the same order below.

    Theme- I’ll play just about any thing, but a lot of my friends bring people who have never played an RPG or are new to boardgames. Finding a theme that fits their interests is a great way to spark their interest.

    Difficulty- I host a lot of friends and friends of friends game nights. Partly explained above, if you need two hours to explain how to play to someone brand new (unless they’re the ones interested in specifically learning it) then it’s probably not the best for my new folks. However, there is a time and a crowd for the super complex games. There’s also plenty of room for the in between. That said, if I can’t estimate how easy/hard it will be to learn to play within the first 3ish paragraphs, then I move on.

    Mechanics- ugh, card games. I see a lot of card games dressed up as both RPGs and board games. Keep your explanations of the mechanics on track and to the point. Videos of play also help with all three of these points. But if I can’t tell how the game is played then it renders this point as well as the previous point moot. Not many people want to invest in something when they can’t tell how it works at a basic level. (*also looking at you, tech kickstarters…)

    Liked by 1 person

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