Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Crowdfunding a Three-Ring Circus?

I think it's pretty clear now that crowdfunding through places like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo has totally changed the dynamic of small press publishing (and even the larger presses). Ever since traditional distributors changed the way they buy games, a publisher had to provide all the capital for a project upfront. This meant publishers had to bear the financial risk, but also had to carry the debt of the project until sales made it up. For some projects, this could take a while.

Crowdfunding is a great thing. I have a couple projects coming up and plan to give it a go again. The Labyrinth Lord Referee Screen was successfully funded through Kickstarter a few months back, which was great because that type of product is hit or miss. Some people love screens, some don't. Kickstarter let me raise the funds to cover the initial cost of printing. But I had a conversation lately with someone in which he said that he thought Kickstarter is kind of becoming a circus. I had some similar thoughts about some of the recent Kickstarters I've seen, but this statement got me thinking and I thought I'd see what opinions people have.

The circus issue is particularly in reference to stretch goals and the idea that "bigger is always better" when it comes to topping out as high as possible when the time limit is up. I think everyone would agree that stretch goals are a neat idea, and there is little doubt that they seem to "work" in terms of convincing people who may be on the fence to become a backer. But one real concern from a financial point of view is whether some backer rewards are "smart."

By smart, I just mean that the effort and monetary investment on the publisher side is worth the extra pledges. For example, if you have a $2,000 stretch goal that will cost you $1,900 to implement in shipping costs, production costs, and development costs (paying artists and writers), then in the end if you are a publisher what have you really gained from that stretch goal? I've spoken with more than one publisher who is concerned that the "stretch goal circus" may be setting unrealistic and possibly unsustainable expectations.

Which gets down to the heart of the issue. If you are a person who is planning to support a Kickstarter, what are your expectations? Are detailed backer levels enough, or at this point do you "expect" stretch goals? What sorts of stretch goals do you expect?

Friday, May 25, 2012


I admit that I was pretty pessimistic about whether 5e would actually end up being "old-school." In part I suppose that is because I've made peace with my breakup with the D&D brand. When I heard about the D&D 5e preview material I didn't feel disappointment or even frustration that the game was not old-school. Ok, so they've finally totally done away with even the illusion that characters might die. Fine, I was expecting something like that. I wouldn't even have been surprised if characters "respawned" upon death, at full hit points (5e is just one step away from that).

I guess the predominant thing I was feeling was pity for Mike Mearls. I've never met Mike, but from all accounts I've ever heard he is a nice guy. I wouldn't wish him any ill will at all. Think of the problem he faces. It's his job to revitalize the D&D brand. Bring people back to the game, away from all of the other options out there today. He's got to try to turn the next version of D&D into something that appeals enough to a wide segment of fantasy gamers that they will come back into the fold. I bet even Mike knows and knew all along that would be an impossible task.

The problem with needing to stand out is that D&D has to compete with all the other 3.x spinoffs that have been evolving for many years. What can 5e meaningfully add that hasn't already been done? I think that's why D&D 5e feels like an also-ran at this point. The days where the Brand alone was enough are past. D&D 5e could be a descendent of Castles & Crusades, or a cousin to any of the latest in the glut of 3e-lite spinoffs. As I consider 5e there is nothing much to distinguish it from any of those other 3e-derived games out there. 5e is a fantasy heartbreaker that even the brand can't save. I find myself feeling an emotion I wasn't even expecting--sadness.

Even though I had moved on maybe there was some small part of me that took comfort that "D&D" the brand is still there, enjoyed by others if not by myself. But what we have now just feels to me like the last failing gasp before the brand either dies completely or jumps to an entirely new medium. D&D is lost, not just to me philosophically, but probably soon to everyone. There are too many diametrically opposed expectations from the fantasy gamer audience, and the D&D brand can't possibly please them all. The fracturing is irreparable, and unfortunately, D&D isn't like so many of the competing brands that will be happy to chug along with a small piece of the pie. To appease the corporate owners D&D needs a much larger piece of that pie, but while WotC was away from the table it's already been divided up. What's left for them may be big by some standards, but not by their own. The majority goes to Pathfinder, and too large a chunk is divided by the various 3e-lite games and the old-school clone(like) games.

In the end I'm not sure where the blame goes. I can't help but think at least some of the blame has to go to the edition treadmill philosophy. Criticize 3rd edition all you like (and I have), but it was a pretty successful edition. The problem is that when WotC left an edition behind they didn't just revise the game into something else, they torched and salted the fields behind them each time. Each time they tell their customers that there is something fundamentally broken and bad with the previous edition, and in doing so they create a rift between the people who stay behind with the old edition and the people who take the bait for the new edition. How can you possibly convince the people who have followed you all along that, "No, wait a second, there was something salvageable back there after all"? You can't. That's why the 4e players will resent 5e because of how much it resembles 3e.

Sadly, I think we're witnessing D&D's last resurrection survival roll. From where we're sitting it isn't clear yet, but I think we might be seeing double-aught on the dice. Will it carry on in some new form? Who knows. But in the meantime--D&D, RIP.

Lulu free shipping!

Through today only if you select "Mail Shipping" at Lulu your shipping will be free! Hurry and grab some books you may have had in mind.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

GEN CON: Labyrinth Lord Society Meet n' Greet

The Labyrinth Lord Society First Annual Meet-and-Greet is on!

Organized by Tim Snider of the Savage Afterworld and Time Corps HQ, the meet and greet will be an oportunity for LLS members to make connections, recieve some free swag, and maybe tip a beer or two for our favorite hobby!

To be held during the Gen Con "Stink" (the annual kick-off party for the convention)
Date: Wed Aug 15
Time: 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Place: Union Station in the Grand Ballroom

There is a lot of activity going on during the Stink -- lots of folks meeting each other, swag being tossed about, pick-up games, drinking (there's a bar here), etc. We'll have a table set aside, so stop on by and introduce yourself! Tickets are available for the Stink (free), although a ticket is not required to get in. (The Stink is an "unofficial" event, though Gen Con likes to know how many people attend, hence the tickets.) Be sure to sign up when Event Registration goes live on the 20th:

And more info about the Meet-and-Greet as we approach the date!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Q&A With David Silvera, author of WIZARDS' WORLD

David Silvera was kind enough to write up a Q&A of some of his thoughts and recollections of WIZARDS' WORLD. Thanks David! I'm delighted that this game is reaching a new audience.

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Q: Why did you create Wizards’ World?

A: Before Wizards’ World, my gaming group mostly played AD&D. At that time, AD&D’s roots in strategy gaming showed a little too clearly for our taste – basically, we wanted a system that let characters be more unique. We wanted fighters who could be great with rapiers but lousy with axes, thieves who could pick locks but not pockets, and wizards whose spell repertoire could not be predicted simply by knowing their class level.

Over the years, we accumulated a growing volume of house rules to help us achieve our gaming goals, until I eventually came to the conclusion that our game was more house rules than core rules. At that point, it seemed at least worth considering publishing our own system. And, of course, it would be really cool to do that…

Q: How did Wizards’ World come to be?

A: We eventually found a friend of a friend of a friend who was willing to provide the publishing know-how to get out a book. He showed pity on poor college students and helped us a lot figuring out how to proceed, and undoubtedly also cut us a really good deal on printing prices.

I did most of the writing in 1982, which is eons ago by publishing standards. In particular, I didn’t have a computer, I didn’t have word processing software (much less publishing software), and I was 100% dependent on typesetters and fancy publisher machinery to make Wizards’ World happen. The actual production process was about like this: Any chance I got over a period of 6 months or so, I went to a friend’s house and typed like a maniac while discussing both how to design various game elements (given that there was no longer a need/reason to anchor our design in a pre-existing system) and how to explain everything so gamers would understand what we were trying to do.

The biggest glitch in the process was that it turned out we were not allowed to edit the document after typesetting. In other words, my stream-of-consciousness typing is pretty much exactly what you see in the Wizards’ World book. Considering that, I’m shocked at how well written Wizards’ World is, but I did have some regrets about things I never got a chance to fix in the official copies. We got out an errata sheet to fix most of the meaningful errors (i.e., ones that influenced gameplay as opposed to formatting inconsistencies and typos), but that was as far as we were able to go. An updated second edition with errors fixed, a few new game elements added, and a million or so spells and monsters would have been great, but unfortunately never came to pass.

Q: What about the business side?

A: This is a tough one… Basically, we were a bunch of college kids who thought we had a good idea for a game. In fact, I still think we had a good idea for a game. Our biggest obstacle was that we didn’t have two business brain cells to rub together between us. None of us had any relevant experience, and none of us were studying any aspect of business (although I did get a belated MBA degree 7 years later).

Luckily, we happened to have a gaming contact who was also involved in the business side of gaming. His name was Russell Powell, and he was a huge help in getting Wizards’ World started. Without Russ, I’m not sure Wizards’ World would even have gotten off the ground at all. We made a lot of contacts through Russ, basically with him trying to get us to meet people to tell us what we were in for and how to deal with it. The most memorable was a great dinner we had with Dave Arneson. Dave was a super nice guy and really encouraged us to push forward with Wizards’ World.

Unfortunately, at the end of the day Wizards’ World wasn’t polished enough to be successful even back in the early 1980’s. We went to some industry conventions without a lot of success, and reviews from within the industry (public and private) were mostly negative.

Although the scale was way too small to produce mass interest in Wizards’ World, the place we really had success was at gaming conventions. We ran games at local conventions for about 5 years where we would give a basic orientation about the rules then run a session. In that context, we got a lot of positive feedback about Wizards’ World and developed a fairly large following in the local gaming community. Gaming convention sales weren’t enough to drive a business, though, and all of us college students drifted our separate ways after graduating. That was pretty much the end of Wizards’ World as a commercial enterprise.

Q: What is cool about Wizards’ World?

A: To make up for the previous question, I threw myself a softball this time. Like I said earlier, our gaming group wanted characters to feel unique and special. We also liked to be able to spend time outside of sessions planning and thinking about our characters (I know this is controversial and some people would prefer to get right to gaming with zero prep time). Although some game components evolved after the book was published, you can really see this in the Wizards’ World spell system if you look past all the scary numbers in the spell tables. You can basically customize to focus on anything you want – for example, in the last Wizards’ World game I played we had one character who dominated most combats by spamming one super-powerful paralysis spell but was pretty much a one-trick pony, whereas my character was a utility caster who had a few decent combat spells plus a ton of low level spells that collectively covered almost any imaginable occasion.

Another thing I really like about Wizards’ World is that even low level characters get to feel useful. Especially back in the 1980’s, a lot of times low level characters literally couldn’t do anything (old school players must remember the “I’ve cast my one first level spell for the day; I’m done until we rest” feeling). We wanted to get at least a bit of a heroic feeling from day 1 of gameplay, but still have enough upside that characters get to grow over time. I think we did a pretty good job of achieving that.

Q: What are your best Wizards’ World memories?

A: The top of the list has to be the fact that I met my wife while running a Wizards’ World game. Aside from that, I think it is the humorous stuff that sticks most in my mind. Here are some examples: I gave a player a magic suit that let him stretch his body like Mr. Fantastic (from the Fantastic Four), and he later used that to stretch his neck through a prison cage to trip a lever that enabled the party to escape. We had a running gag with one of our regular convention players where each session we found a new way to get the player’s character tied up in a Salin’s Magic Rope spell. Another player had a zombie toucan familiar that produced some interesting interactions. Hmm, maybe you had to be there, but those were all really funny at the time…

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WIZARDS' WORLD is available in PDF format and in print.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

WIZARDS' WORLD: California Gamin' Redux

Most people reading this won't have ever heard of a fantasy RPG called WIZARDS' WORLD. Goblinoid Games recently discovered this little gem, hunted down the author, and bought the rights so that a new audience can examine this game.

Recently, James Maliszeweski wrote a blog post titled California Gamin' in which he asked whether there is a common thread between the various RPGs that emerged from what some people call a different gaming culture in California during the late 70s and early 80s. I'm not yet sure I've developed a firm opinion, but I now offer another fantasy RPG specimen for your perusal.

Back in 1983 a small Californian game company, Fantasy Worlds Unlimited, released WIZARDS' WORLD, a fantasy RPG. The result of how the author's home game evolved, WIZARDS' WORLD included several innovations for its time, not unlike other efforts from the 80s, such as The Complete Warlock or The Palladium Fantasy RPG. WIZARDS' WORLD is an important game in the history of fantasy RPGs, because it reflects the design enthusiasm of the early 80s and is an interesting example of how many people at this time were taking inspiration from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In many ways WIZARDS' WORLD might be what Second Edition could look like in an alternate universe.

From the back cover:

In Wizards' World you can

— Explore uncharted wildernesses

— Do battle with fierce monsters

— Accumulate great hordes of gold and silver

— Gain amazing magical powers.

You create the characters and play them the way you like. The game master determines the challenges to be faced and the rewards to be reaped; you and your fellow adventurers decide on the strategy.

This manual provides guidelines for play, including

— Character races

— Character professions

— Magical spells

— Combat rules

— Monsters.

All that is needed to enjoy many hours of fascinating adventures in the comfort of your home is in this book. You will need a variety of dice, and a vivid imagination.