Crowdfunding Carnival: January, 2023

Happy new year! First month of the year, first week of the month, that means it’s time for a Crowdfunding Carnival! We’re in the post-holiday doldrums, for sure, and between the solstice season behind us and ZineQuest ahead of us, there aren’t many games being crowdfunded right now. Fear not! I did find a few. At the same time, there’s a whole new year ahead of us, like a blank character sheet. Now seems like a great time not only to look at the games which ran out of the 2023 starting gate, but also at what I think 2023 will bring for RPG crowdfunding in general.

Some Observations

There is nothing surprising about January being a light month. We just had the holidays, and in addition to that making January a bad time to find buyers, it turns out that game designers take vacations too! In addition to all of this, ZineQuest is back to its rightful place in February, so anyone with a small enough project to fit under the Zinequest banner is probably going to wait to board that train, as there are significant benefits to earnings and chance of success for ZineQuest projects over a project made at another time in the year.

Another interesting observation is that the number of new RPG projects being hosted on non-Kickstarter platforms (Gamefound, Indiegogo, Backerkit) has dropped to zero this month. None of the competitors were ever able to scrounge up more than a 10% share of projects or funding since I started tracking them, so this is less surprising than a trend going the other way. That said, the lack of network effects around competing services for RPGs specifically is eminently clear now, and Kickstarter is going to continue to rule the roost for some time. The one site I will continue to watch with optimism is Backerkit; I still believe they have some of ‘the sauce’ for earnestly competing with Kickstarter, and as they’re still working through their closed beta, the lack of projects on the platform isn’t indicative of anything yet. Backerkit says their platform will open ‘early 2023’, and a look at their ‘coming soon’ project list shows a dramatic expansion in concurrent projects is on the horizon for January 17th.

The Games

But what of the games on Kickstarter right now? Well, despite this being a light month there are still solid projects which are worth a solid look. Coven and Crucible is an urban fantasy game set around Chicago, which aims to portray a setting where magic is just another skill, like “martial arts or cooking or programming”. The game is based on a 2d12 mechanic, with the interesting choice to make criticals occur on a roll of 13, the most common possible roll on two d12s. The game has some interesting themes, and wants to at least partly focus on some magical slice of life elements. How well it accomplishes this will be clear only upon delivery; Thirteenth Moon Games are first-time crowdfunders so it may have been a good idea to include a quickstart or more game material in the campaign.

Haxen is a solo RPG about exploring a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Instead of using dice, the game uses runes, and does so in an interesting way. Each playthrough starts with a 6×6 grid of runes, and as you make your way through the game you mark off runes. Being a solo game this is a really neat idea for taking out randomness and replacing it with more choices. Additionally, the runes, which provide a three-outcome resolution system similar to that in Blades in the Dark, also make the previewed page layouts that much more striking. Haxen is a small game with a small price ($5), but I think it’s worth checking out.

The Bakers are back yet again with The Wolf King’s Son. The Wolf King’s Son is an episodic game built around the coming-of-age story of, well, the Wolf King’s Son, who has left his father’s court and struck out on his own. The game contains an ensemble cast, with the campaign specifically calling out A Graveyard Bird, A Briar Elf, and A Young Witch. The game seems to be walking a tightrope between typical playbooks in PbtA, where the archetype is there for a player to insert a character into, and a game like Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, where specific characters are part of the gameplay experience. It’s also worth noting that The Wolf King’s Son is presented as a companion to Under Hollow Hills. While it doesn’t sound like the characters of this game are circus performers, it does sound like both games take place in the same fey setting. I think this could be rather good, and certainly worth its $20 cost of admission (there are lower priced tiers for those experiencing financial hardship).

Finally, a hack of a hack. While The Black Sword Hack was technically released on DriveThruRPG before, this campaign will be the first time the game sees print, as well as an expansion on the original. The Black Sword Hack is, unsurprisingly, inspired by The Black Hack, an emblematic OSR game which has seen two editions and numerous other hacks (like The Cthulhu Hack, as noted in the campaign). The Black Sword Hack expands The Black Hack from its stripped-down origins and adds back in more swords and sorcery weirdness, as well as some additional mechanics for things like new forms of magic, travel, and solo play. I’m especially enamored of the culture-based character archetypes: Barbarian, Civilized, and Decadent. While ‘barbarian’ as a word may have some connotations, overall this is a great idea which steps away from classes, races, and race-as-class as was typical in earlier editions of D&D. In addition to the new mechanics (both to The Black Hack and to The Black Sword Hack, this edition goes from 75 to 110 pages), the preview pages of the book look gorgeous, making this a winner on the gaming table and the coffee table.

Crowdfunding in 2023

Crowdfunding is one way to check the pulse of the RPG hobby, and by the end of 2022 that pulse was faltering. Projects for supplements and settings, especially those for 5e, are ‘safe’ projects and the larger a proportion they make up of crowdfunding, the less optimistic the industry tends to look. Of course, using this as a barometer was thrown off significantly by recent conversations about OneD&D and the OGL; D&D-only gamers have begun pulling back as well, causing the glut of 5e projects to abate.

Beyond near-term events, Kickstarter has been supporting a large portion of the RPG hobby for over a decade now, and both creators and commentators have a fairly developed view of how crowdfunding works and doesn’t work for new games. Kickstarter is at its core a marketing company; this is the reason for both secondary platforms faltering (especially for new creators) as well as creators describing their development processes as a ‘Kickstarter addiction’. The only reason Kickstarter is an addiction to a designer is that they provide marketing support the average designer doesn’t know how to do and can’t afford to outsource otherwise. This is why games go ‘thud’ after leaving Kickstarter: without marketing support, these games will never develop a fanbase or buyers beyond the cash-rich, fairly flighty Kickstarter audience. The solution? A new game, another Kickstarter campaign. It’s not good for designers, but at least I’ll always have something to write about.

This month is the fifth anniversary of Kickstarter Wonk/Crowdfunding Carnival. That first month I covered five games: Bastille: Fallen Kingdoms, Nightcrawl, Havenlore, Cyneric’s Call, and Children of the Apocalypse. Two of these projects failed, and one was canceled before funding. Nightcrawl died; there was an update in 2022 that’s backer only but based on the comments we know what happened. That leaves one project which actually fulfilled, one! Cyneric’s Call started shipping in early 2019, which is a pretty good timeline for a Kickstarter. That said, the comments were…not good. The game went out of print, though there’s apparently a copy for sale at Noble Knight if you want to pick something up that multiple anonymous commenters blasted as ‘sub-par’.

While I knew I was going to be talking about games disappearing into the ether, I’m a little surprised that Kickstarter Wonk’s first crop was as bad as it was. That said, it does serve as a reminder that anyone can make a Kickstarter, game design chops notwithstanding. If anything, the glut of 5e projects has likely improved the stock of original games by virtue of providing a more attractive target for those with a propensity for, well, shovelware.

Next month will be ZineQuest, the true new year of the crowdfunding calendar for the RPG world. It will also be ZineMonth, but I do not think the alternative event will survive being run concurrently to ZineQuest. The one exception is if they narrow to exclusively non-Kickstarter projects, but then they’re settling for being 5-10% of the size of ZineQuest, at most. The problem is the marketing thing. The whole modus operandi for ZineMonth was trying to show that RPG crowdfunders don’t need Kickstarter, and that continues to be untrue thanks mostly to marketing. Even the humble mailing list is something Kickstarter can do significantly better than pretty much any RPG designer I’ve met.

Here in 2023, is crowdfunding a carnival? Am I still a Kickstarter Wonk? Time will tell, but I think the answer to both questions will be yes. There weren’t many games this month, but I feel pretty good about the ones I highlighted. Next month is ZineQuest, so expect an order of magnitude more RPG projects, and, like in previous years, multiple fly-bys to cover all the projects. In addition to that, I had fun doing the five year retrospective this month. I think, at least for 2023, I’m going to continue it. Let’s review the first year of Kickstarter Wonk, and see where all the projects turned up. Hopefully February 2018 won’t be as much of a trash fire as January was. Until next time, pledge some projects, play some games, and be on the look out for ZineQuest when we return next month for Crowdfunding Carnival!

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