Friday, March 07, 2014

Why You Shouldn’t Crowdfund Your First Special RPG Flower

After sitting on the sidelines and watching a number of crowdfunding opportunities, I decided to back three crowdfunding efforts over the last few months. All three completed successfully in the last 30 days, and I have high hopes that they will deliver.

The three I backed were the Barrowmaze Complete Indiegogo campaign, the Castles and Crusade Codex
Barrow Guardians
Nordica Kickstarter and the DCC Dice Kickstarter from Impact Miniatures. Grand total, these guys raised $75K between them and they each filled a niche in my personal gaming that no one else was approaching through the traditional marketplace.

That being said, I'm here to say that you should not consider crowdfunding your first special RPG flower. Why, you ask? But, I could raise tens of thousands of dollars and the sky would be the limit!

No. It won't. Without any experience with what it takes to bring a product to market in this industry, all you're doing is setting yourself up for failure, potentially destroying your reputation in the community, and adding to the general anti-crowdfunding sentiment that's beginning to grow within RPG circles and spreading to other creative endeavors that are now traditionally crowdfunded. Aside from that, focus on CREATING your special flower. Once it's actually created, then think about how you're going to publish it.

Trust and the Idea of Crowdfunding

There was quite a buzz over the last two weeks concerning the kerfluffle with John Campbell's meltdown
I'm a Raging Millennial! 
over his wildly successful kickstarter to produce a compilation of his comic Sad Pictures for Children. Seems that money was suddenly a "huge and terrible joke" and he decided to burn the rest of his books rather than deliver them to supporters. He was going to burn 1 book for every request for delivery that he received (and managed to hook in 127 folks to support his performance art tantrum).

Has this seriously eroded trust in crowdfunding? I don't know, but it certainly shined a spotlight on a high profile failure to deliver. RPG fans are very familiar with large and well-supported crowdfunding efforts going south -- Mike Nystul's various scams and James Maliszewski's disappearance from the scene being the most high profile. Heck, I've even been involved in one where the publisher disappeared before delivering all of the promised goods (Angels, Daemons and Beings Between).

This made me very skeptical of the crowdfunding concept. But, there's nothing wrong with the concept -- it's pretty pure and obvious: Help a person with a dream realize that dream and get a few rewards for it.

The thing that really changed my mind though, was that, after researching I found that failures are not the norm for the experienced. There are lots and lots of crowdfunding efforts that deliver all or most of their promised goods. Monte Cook's Numenara is a great example, as is the Shadowrun Returns mega-kickstarter. And aside from the high-profile ones, there are hundreds of creators that get their support from crowdfunding and deliver on a regular basis. I backed one of +Jeff Dee's and was extremely happy with it -- both the fact that I helped fund the recreation of classic D&D art and in the more physical rewards.

It's the idea of reaching out and giving a hand to those that have a little dream to create something -- to put their stamp on something that they've probably dreamed about all their lives -- that keeps me going back to find that pet project that I want to say, "Yep. This is it. I'll help you."

But, I won't just help anyone.

Why did I back them?

+Greg Gillespie is my hero. Not like superhero, taught me how to tie my shoes hero, but a really cool guy that took his home campaign and made a damn good product with it. He's a model of a DiY developer and publisher that inspired me to take the plunge and publish my own stuff. I love Barrowmaze I and II. The two together are the perfect mix of standard dungeon crawl, with a lifetime of creativity between the covers. It's not a stacked dungeon with goblins, orcs, and bugbears. Sure, there are regular zombies and skeletons and stirges, etc, but there's so much more. I've run Barrowmaze games using Labyrinth Lord, standard AD&D, B/X D&D, DCC RPG, and I'm going to run some Castles & Crusades characters through there. I have a feeling it would stand up to conversion to Savage Worlds, Mutant Future, or anything else you wanted to throw at it. He took the regular old D&D ingredients and made a fucking awesome cake. I played Barrowmaze with him at the helm at North Texas RPG Con and it was one of the highlights of the Con. I wished I could have played for 12 hours in that dungeon. So, that's why I backed it -- a new book with a combined Barrowmaze I and II, with lots of new content and a pack of miniatures. Greg has delivered on a previous kickstarter (Barrowmaze II), so I could see that, not only was he integrated into the gaming community, he had a track record of producing product and the integrity to deliver it.

For similar reasons, I backed +Stephen Chenault's Codex Nordica for Castles and Crusades. He has a long history of delivering quality product and I love the system. It was the first "4th edition flight" system that I embraced and has the right mix of old and new to make a really workable and extensible system. I'm really looking forward to a viking-focused campaign guide and the supporting adventures that Brian Young is developing for the campaign.

With the Impact Miniatures DCC dice kickstarter, I felt like I took a risk, but a calculated one. +Joseph Goodman gave his endorsement of the effort, as did a lot of the DCC community. They are an operating concern and seem to be well respected in the marketplace. And, hell, we need more DCC dice!

The theme that runs through these three is that the publishers/developers are known to me -- they have a track record of producing product, so they know what it takes to get this stuff out to people relatively on time.

They have created stuff in the past that doesn't suck. I think this may be the most important thing. I've seen their work, and it's good. It fits my definition of creative and innovative.

I also feel like that if they ran into trouble, they would be completely forthcoming to their backers and not disappear like others have done. In my research, I just couldn't back someone that wasn't established in the community, and more importantly, understood the business side of this equation. It's not just a dream that you're selling to your backers, it's a certain understanding of the process of publication and delivery.

So, What're the Little Guys to Do?

If you're thinking about getting funding for your little RPG dream, my advice is this: Write and Publish the Damn Thing on Your Own. It's really not that hard and not that expensive.

Learn what it takes to actually publish a book before you start asking folks for help. We published In the Prison of the Squid Sorcerer for less than $1,000 of up front cost. That's with paying artists, writers, layout, and ancillary costs and having no prior experience with the publishing process. We were all writers, just not publishers. That book was fairly large and complex for a first effort. We tried to crowdfund it and were unsuccessful. After a little soul-searching, we decided to go forward with the book because we believed in the project (and the damn thing was already mostly written). And putting our money behind that belief showed the community that we were willing to take the risk that we were wrong. And then we let the marketplace decide if we were wrong or right. The book paid for its expenses within 30 days and was a successful product overall -- well received and has made enough for us to fund our next big project.

Start Small, Make it Original, Learn from Your Mistakes, Build Trust

That's really it. Build a product that's small enough for you to handle, test all the various processes that it takes to get the thing published and to the market, and then let the community decide if you're right. If I trust you, I'll bet on your next project (or maybe three projects down the road). If your dream proves to fit some niche at my gaming table that the rest of the market isn't filling, I'll back you. Most of all: Believe in your dream enough to risk your own cash and reputation before you ask someone else to risk theirs.

I'm not even sure if this needed to be said, but there it is.


bygrinstow said...

Well said, and well thought through.

Being new to publishing at any size, and new to crowd funding (again, at any size) is a good recipe for trouble.

Good advice for anybody thinking of taking the plunge...

Paul Wolfe said...


Nik Wolfe said...

I didn't know you were with the Squid crew until I got to the end. Great advice!

Nik Wolfe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Impact! Miniatures said...

Just saw this article. With the last of the dice shipping out last week ... am glad this one is finally done. Your words in the article are good ones still on measuring your trust in the companies you back. Thanks for that trust and I hope you liked the dice.

Paul Wolfe said...

I got mine a while back. Great kickstarter. I'll definitely consider backing you guys again, if you have plans for a future funding effort.