Kickstarter Wonk: May, 2020

Welcome to Kickstarter Wonk! The world is still a deeply weird place this month, and Kickstarter is still being affected. With the economic uncertainty that comes along with a global pandemic, it makes sense that fewer people have the resources to either pull off a Kickstarter campaign or pledge one at this time. Still, there are creators out there putting in work, and producing some good stuff. If you have the means, check this shorter list of campaigns out. Since four campaigns does not an article make, I’ve also gathered up my thoughts about being a third-party D&D creator, community content programs, and why you should be careful pursuing either.

Skull Diggers

Skull Diggers takes the dungeon crawl conceit and mixes it up with some good old cosmic horror. Instead of venturing out to plunder dungeons, the dungeons come to you, in the form of “The Bones” which are rising up into your village and tainting reality as they go. To succeed, you not only need to venture down into The Bones and deal with all the things that are coming out from there, but also manage your relationships with your neighbors and fellow villagers as well as how you explore the new spaces below you. With various villager factions on one side and the things from below on the other, your ventures to save the town are going to get a little fraught. $10 gets you a PDF.

Deadlands: The Weird West

Deadlands was the game that originally kicked off Savage Worlds, one of the most popular generic systems currently going. This new edition of Deadlands reverses the parentage, and has been retooled to fit the latest edition of Savage Worlds (Adventure Edition) which actually came before it. Pinnacle has a history of conducting professional (and successful) Kickstarter campaigns, and there’s no reason to believe the new edition of Deadlands will be any different. Continuing the timeline from earlier editions, Deadlands mixes westerns, horror, and just the right amount of magic to make a compelling but still weird setting. $25 gets you a copy of the PDF.

Torchbearer 2nd Edition

Torchbearer is dungeon crawl by way of Burning Wheel, and as I touched on in my In-Depth Review, it’s a game both elegant in its mechanics and gritty as hell in terms of what you subject your characters to. As much as I enjoyed the first edition, Luke Crane and Thor Olavsrud were still able to bring forth significant improvements in this new version. There are new classes and races, all classes go to tenth level, and the mechanics are both tweaked as well as expanded to cover more of the bases you might expect to see in an equivalent OSR game. I’m personally very excited. $30 gets you three PDFs, the two core books plus the Loremaster’s Manual.

Bloodlines and Black Magic

Bloodlines and Black Magic is a d20 game, but not one that’s exactly aligned with one existing d20 ruleset. Originally written as a modern horror conversion for Pathfinder, the designers of Bloodlines and Black Magic sought to write a 5e-compatible version but ended up making something much more original, as writing a 5e conversion wouldn’t give them the leeway they needed to make the mechanics which were important to the game. Color me surprised. Anyway, Bloodlines and Black Magic puts a d20 spin on the sort of Urban Fantasy stories often associated with the World of Darkness, and the designers have put a lot of effort into making a game that matches their vision. I dunk on D&D and d20 all the time, but this looks honestly cool and if you’re interested in horror or urban fantasy it’s worth checking out. $21 gets you a PDF, and includes a free copy of the original Pathfinder version of the game. 

Needless to say, activity on Kickstarter remains low, and that is something that I will have to deal with to some degree if my intent is to continue writing a ‘Kickstarter Wonk’ article every month. There will be time to showcase other Bargain Bin Gaming opportunities, as well as talk about other places where projects are coming down the pike.

Today, though, I wanted to talk about something I do see a lot of on Kickstarter, a lot more than I see original games. Every month I see a significant amount of content generated for Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition. Often, this is content with nothing differentiating it whatsoever…sometimes, it’s something that really pops in terms of execution, like Matt Colville’s projects for Strongholds and Followers and Kingdoms and Warfare. Regardless of how good or bad any one project is, there is a lot of it, enough that there are typically more 5e projects than any other RPG projects combined, even including non-game projects like play aids and dice. Unfortunately, barring projects that are wildly original or from already well-known designers like Matt Colville, 5e Kickstarters are generally a losing proposition.

The caveat to all of this is that “losing proposition” is grounded in the notion that you wish to be compensated for game design work. Looking through the various and sundry 5e campaigns on Kickstarter right now, I’d say about half of them have funded, which is hardly a complete wash. If your aim was simply to make a labor of love and translate something cool from your home game into a slick looking PDF, go for it! Just don’t expect to make any money off of it…many of the campaigns live now are asking for low ticket values (less than $5000 and in some cases less than $1000), and for reasons I’m about to discuss many of these products won’t make another cent after their Kickstarter funding is collected. The issue with D&D material that doesn’t crop up with most other Kickstarters is one of market saturation. Market saturation isn’t exactly a non-issue with the RPG world as a whole; DriveThruRPG has nearly 100,000 products and that’s only counting those in English. That said, if you’re making something very specific or you’ve done your homework around what already exists for your chosen genre and play experience, it’s definitely possible to avoid getting lost in the sea. If you’re making D&D material, you’re generally making monsters, items, rules expansions (i.e. new races and classes), or setting material. If you’re making new setting material there’s a lot you can do to make it unique and market it as something more than just another third-party D&D splatbook…but if you’re making monsters, items, or classes, standing out is going to be tough. If you click through to the Dungeon Master’s Guild on DriveThruRPG, you’ll find over 15,000 products for sale including a plethora of monsters, items, and classes. If you’re particularly unlucky, you may find that someone has already written and sold something almost exactly like one of the entries in your supplement.

In addition to market saturation, it doesn’t help that Wizards of the Coast has done everything in their power to ensure that 5e material made outside their sphere of influence is going to have an uphill battle to market acceptance. The main way they do this is through the DM’s Guild. When you as a creator post your material though the DM’s Guild, you are given permission to use a whole slew of Wizards of the Coast IP and trade dress, much more than what is allowed through the OGL. This works out for Wizards because not only do they charge for this privilege (20% of purchase price over and above what Drivethru already charges), but it ensures that they have control over their branding even though they can’t do anything legally about other designers using their mechanics (and that’s true about all RPGs and has nothing to do with the OGL). Wizards gets a whole bunch of third party content, third party designers get to use some slick D&D materials, everyone’s happy.

Except not. I’m not usually very prescriptive, even in my reviews. That said, do not submit your work to the DM’s Guild. Here’s a bit of the Community Content Agreement to tell you why:

  1. Rights You Grant to OBS

(a) No Reversion. Due to our licensing arrangement with the Owner and the collaborative nature of the Program, you are granting us broad licenses in your Work and your User Generated Content included in your Work, and the rights to your Work will not be reverted once it is published in the Program. You will have the ability through online tools at OBS websites to stop public display and sale of your Work on OBS marketplaces, but not to stop the sale of works of other authors in the Program even when such works use your User Generated Content that you originally created in your Work and thereby became part of the Program IP for other authors to use.

(b) Exclusive License to your Work. Effective as of the date you setup your Work through the Program on OBS’s website, you grant us the exclusive, irrevocable license for the full term of copyright protection available (including renewals), to develop, license, reproduce, print, publish, distribute, translate, display, publicly perform and transmit your Work, in whole and in part, in each country in the world, in all languages and formats, and by all means now known or later developed, and the right to prepare derivative works of your Work.

(c) Exclusive License to all User Generated Content in your Work. Effective as of the date we first make your Work available through the Program, you grant us the exclusive, irrevocable license for the full term of copyright protection available (including renewals), to all User Generated Content included in your Work. You agree that the User Generated Content is available for unrestricted use by us without any additional compensation, notification or attribution, including that we may allow other Program authors, the Owner and other third parties to use the User Generated Content.


If you are a content producer of any stripe, never sign a deal with these clauses or ones that look like them. You have just sold your material for zero dollars, and according to this agreement you cannot get it back nor can you be compensated if it’s used again, even by Wizards (as opposed to another fan creator). These clauses are actually in every OneBookshelf Community Content Agreement, and they are just a whole load of oof. Even while there is some hay made about you ‘keeping your IP’ in the less formal FAQ pages, this is a legal contract and it says you grant the program unlimited rights to your material forever. Don’t do that.

So it sounds like your choices are either to publish in the DM’s Guild and sign away your material forever, or to run a Kickstarter and hope you can stand out while not having access to the largest sanctioned D&D storefront on the internet. Rock, meet hard place. Of course, there is a solution, which is writing material for literally any other game. It does so happen that every Community Content program offered through DriveThruRPG is equally bad, but in no other case will releasing material independently mean butting heads with a multinational corporation that’s trying to convince your potential customers you don’t exist. Neither Community Content Agreements nor any form of license whatsoever are needed for you to adapt game mechanics, and agreements that include clauses like those above are what every gamer should recognize as a trap option.

I certainly empathize with trying to market D&D material on Kickstarter, but it’s difficult. Even on DM’s Guild, which absolutely does get more exposure and marketing support, about ⅔ of the products haven’t cracked 50 copies. Given the 50% royalty and a modal price of $10, that means the vast majority of products make their creators less than $250. That’s a tough pill to swallow after signing away all copyrights to OneBookshelf, but it’d still suck if that was a Kickstarter campaign. Selling a game is a whole new challenge that comes after designing one, and it is not made easier if the company who holds the keys to the marketing kingdom only wants you to succeed on their terms.

It’s tough enough trying to get your game out there now, with the world as upside-down as it is. It’s a difficult place for content creators even in the best of times, but there are still some choice Kickstarter campaigns out there, paving the way for some promising games. Everyone stay safe…and for all that is good in the world, read the fine print.

Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. You can travel to DriveThruRPG through one of our fine and elegantly-crafted links, which generates credit that lets us get more games to work with (including the ones needed for this article)! Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!

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