Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends… Am I referring to world events? The continuing growth of the RPG Kickstarter market? Do I just really like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer? No matter what it is, we’re back again with Kickstarter Wonk for October of 2020! 2020 is slowly coming to a close, and the RPG market is slowly recovering…while making my 10-game articles would still be tough, I’m happy to say that the five game article format has forced me to make some tough decisions between definitely more than five great looking projects. This month we also have a bonus sixth game! Fellow Cannibal Halfling Maria’s game Hero Too: Super Edition is currently on Kickstarter, and while I think it’s great and deserves your pledges I’m noting the conflict of interest here just so no one gets huffy. In addition to these six projects of note, I’ve also reflected a bit on who the Kickstarter platform is for. People sometimes get grumbly when larger or more well-known companies use the platform, but it’s worth it to set the record straight a bit on the realities of financing game design.
Another crossover from the vibrant Italian RPG community, Broken Compass is a pulp game taking inspiration from sources like Indiana Jones and Uncharted. The design team is award-winning in Italy, and the Italian version of Broken Compass funded on Kickstarter successfully earlier this year (as I can’t read Italian, I did not cover the earlier campaign). Going straight up the middle of the Savage Worlds wheelhouse, Broken Compass employs a d6 dice pool system where matches rather than high results determine success. The theory behind finding matches leading to quicker mechanics is sound, and if you want to try it out there’s a substantial quickstart document available directly from the campaign. Broken Compass looks to be a high quality game, and could be yet another step in the Italian RPG community getting the recognition it deserves within the large English-speaking contingent of the hobby. €29 (~$35) gets you a PDF, in this campaign that includes the core book, two supplements, stretch goals, and a soundtrack.
Good Strong Hands (from the same creator as Capers) aims to the whimsical side of fantasy; influences claimed include the Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, and The Labyrinth. While the game is cemented around the setting (Reverie) and the antagonist (Void), much of the worldbuilding specifics are intended to be taken up by the players as the game progresses. The system is a d6 dice pool, though the mechanics around characters split the difference between more traditional attributes and bundles of abilities which are more akin to PbtA playbooks. Also of interest are the Story Schemes, which appear to provide structure to the GM side of the table. The parallels to PbtA games are clear, but Good Strong Hands appears to be taking a different approach to balancing structure and freedom with its rules. The stretch goals are for more character types and Story Schemes, tempting but also risky (scope creep is an enemy of all Kickstarter campaigns). Considering all of that, though, I’m interested in Good Strong Hands and think it could go places. $20 gets you a PDF.
Brinkwood is a Forged in the Dark game which takes some cues from an interesting set of influences. In this world, vampires are made willingly, not born or ‘embraced’, and they maintain their powers through exploitation. Meanwhile, there are fae, fighting a losing battle against the vampires from their forest refuge, the Brinkwood. The game is described as Castlepunk, employing both medieval and Victorian/Gothic aesthetics as the backdrop of a fight pitting the powerless against the powerful. Taking cues from Blades in the Dark and Band of Blades before it, Brinkwood uses a map of the region to contextualize your characters’ struggle and escalating mechanics which ensure a consistent increase in tension and drama as your rebellion gains strength. Where Band of Blades is military, Brinkwood is political, and looks like it’ll be a great mix of intrigue, aesthetic, and horror. $15 gets you a PDF (though there is a $10 hardship tier for those experiencing financial difficulties).
Licensed RPGs are often like a trainwreck: you just can’t look away. OGL licensed RPGs even moreso. That all said, Wyvern Gaming have somehow made me legitimately intrigued by a licensed Stargate RPG (what?) using D&D 5th Edition as its base (WHAT??). As is a prerequisite for any halfway decent genre-hopping D&D adaptation, the Stargate SG-1 RPG unceremoniously rips out the majority of the D&D rulebook in order to create a system that could actually work for the source material. Class-based levelling ends after 5th level, there is a significantly expanded (read: rewritten) encounter system, there are mechanics for base building, and the GM advice is structured towards the emulation of serialized plots like those in a TV series (like, say, Stargate SG-1). If the setting is adapted well and the design team is as irreverent towards the 5th Edition rulebook as I think they are, this could actually be rather good. $10 gets you a PDF.
Kevin Crawford is at it again, kickstarting Worlds Without Number as a fantasy counterpart to his earlier game Stars Without Number. While bringing the OSR-adjacent design of Stars Without Number back to the fantasy realm hardly seems original, the most valuable mechanics in Stars Without Number are those which make the game such a boon for GMs. In addition to a wealth of sandbox and setting generation material, Worlds Without Number will also have faction and project mechanics, a PbtA-adjacent Tag system, and adventure generation tools to help a GM turn all of these other systems into fun sessions. While Worlds Without Number looks like a return to D&D for Crawford, it’s a version of D&D I personally would want to play. $20 gets you a PDF.
This month features a rare happening: one of the Cannibal Halflings is on the Kickstarter circuit! Maria’s creation, Hero Too, is a single-player journaling game based on plot ARMOR by Orion D. Black but trading out the mecha for superheroic trans narratives. The ‘Super Edition’ of Hero Too being funded here expands the original version (available on itch) with six new superheroic arcs, as well as new art and layout. This is a really exciting expansion of the base game, and knowing Maria’s talents as a writer and designer you should definitely check it out. €12 (~$15) gets you a PDF of the new Super Edition, though there is both a hardship tier and an option to make your purchase of the base game support the Kickstarter.
Who is Kickstarter For?
Kickstarter has made a dramatic mark on the tabletop world over the last decade, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the small-scale investment model it’s enabled has changed the entire way that RPG designers and publishers do business. There is a constant question then of who ‘deserves’ to use Kickstarter, and if larger designers and publishers employing Kickstarter for every new release turns the site into a “glorified pre-order system”. The issue with this perspective is that we need a consistent definition for who’s ‘larger’. When you get into the financing options that most game designers have here in 2020, it’s easier to understand why Kickstarter is so popular, and also why nearly everyone should have access to Kickstarter as a resource.
When Cannibal Halfling started at the end of 2016, my day job was in power market economics. Power market economics concerns itself primarily with two phenomena that happen in electricity markets: price formation for electricity (not relevant here) and project finance for new power plants (very relevant here). While I’m not going to go into much detail around project finance, it’s basically the quantitative assessment of how much a project will cost, how long it will take, and then when it will start making money and how much money it will make. These project traits should sound familiar because the concept of project finance can be applied to any project that can be, well, financed. Where RPGs and power plants diverge is in the degree to which the economic performance can be predicted. I can tell you right now where you can build a power plant and expect to make money, because of how power markets are regulated and reported on. I can’t do that for an RPG. The result of this dynamic is that banks and other financial institutions will lend you money to build power plants, at least if you have a track record as a developer. Banks will lend an RPG designer approximately nothing, no matter how many games they’ve sold.
Enter Kickstarter. You tell Kickstarter how much money you need for the project to be successful, and how long you need to raise it from investors. If you succeed, you then get a no-interest loan where you have set the repayment terms (usually in product). If you fail, you’ve lost nothing. If you happen to have a project finance background, you’ll note these terms are ridiculously good for the creator and provide little or no recourse to the backer. While this has meant that there have been projects where the lead walked off with the backers’ money, it also means that Kickstarter is full of designers and entrepreneurs who couldn’t possibly secure financing in a traditional way or afford the risk of doing so even if they could. Kickstarter can afford this by making you, the backer, assume the risk, and ten years on backers have mostly taken it upon themselves to manage this risk through norms of behavior and reputation assessment for projects and project leads.
The issue some people have comes down to defining who “couldn’t possibly secure financing in a traditional way”. Well, in the tabletop RPG world, that’s everybody. Yes, if Wizards of the Coast decided to finance the next D&D supplement through Kickstarter you should be suspicious, but that has not happened before and likely will never happen. Among a whole host of reasons, Hasbro being a publicly traded company makes it far more trouble than it’s worth to get into crowdfunding, and far cheaper to just assume the financial risks of a D&D product on their balance sheet. This is irrelevant, though, both because Wizards has never employed Kickstarter and Hasbro is literally the only publicly-traded company in the TTRPG space.
So what about everyone else? Everyone else needs the help. Even frequent Kickstarter users Pinnacle Entertainment and Steve Jackson Games are liquidity constrained to the point that a Kickstarter campaign will make the difference between a project happening and not happening. You can go to the Steve Jackson Games website and read the Reports to the Stakeholders going back 17 years, and see for yourself how difficult it is to keep a product pipeline going for a game like GURPS. There is a massive difference between a company making enough to pay their employees fairly, keep the lights on, and keep games in stock, and a company with a war chest large enough that they can just self-finance a book. Kickstarter is a positive influence on virtually the whole RPG hobby, and those companies which are truly large enough to not need it (Wizards, Paizo, Asmodee) don’t use it.
As we wind into the last quarter of 2020, life is slowly being breathed back into RPG crowdfunding. Hopefully these games help inspire you to try something new or support the creators out there still working in spite of everything that’s going on in the world. As we go through October and into the year’s end, nothing’s going to be quite the same; not Halloween, not Thanksgiving, not New Year’s. But we’re here, moving steadily onward, and hopefully taking the time to find some joy and roll some dice as we keep going. I’ll still be here, and you can find me again next month for another Kickstarter Wonk!
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