Changing Up & Patreonising

While I’m pretty sure nobody will notice, I’ve changed the theme for the blog. All the menus, categories, and generic crap that litters every page is now hidden neatly away, leaving just the text to speak for itself, as it should be. Makes things easier for me to find old posts to reference when making something new, and hopefully it looks good for people reading as well. Not that anyone does; the sparseness of updates here is something I want to fix, but…

The lack of updates is down to a couple of things. One is ideas; I’m not out of them, but sticking things up here doesn’t have a lot of visibility and I don’t want to post random crap That’s what I have social networks for1. This blog is meant to be for game design, and my muse is a fickle beast. It doesn’t help that any post here has to go through the WordPress editing interface, which is a pile of lukewarm dogshit that gets worse with every release. The ongoing inability of a website to let me type in fucking markdown rather than some godawful WYSIKWYGIYLADTTDAI2 bullshit3 seriously limits my willingness to engage with it. I’m hoping that some tinkering with my toolchain4 may help with that, but whether such a thing is a) possible and b) functional remains to be seen.

Anyway! In far more important news, I should probably mention here that I have a Patreon, the idea being that if I can somehow get a little bit of cash for the little games that live in my head I’m more likely to do something with them. Because posting them up here wasn’t really doing much for me, and unfortunately life under a capitalist reignite requires transformation of labour into cash. But still, come and back me. You don’t pay until/unless I release something, and you get to see how the sausage is made (whether you want to or not).

Please do come and back it, it’s the kick up the arse my muse needs to get anything done.

  1. That and calling politicians worthless scum who could only benefit humanity by going extinct, of course. 
  2. What You See Is Kinda What You Get If You’re Lucky And Don’t Try To Do Anything Interesting. 
  3. Facebook’s started doing that too. But only sometimes. Basic text formatting used to be reserved for notes, but now it’s for every post. Sometimes. If your browser session happened to start in the correct phase of the moon to get into their A/B testing and you never change. Total fuckers. 
  4. About which another post is brewing. 

Abuse in the Industry

I’ve had to think quite a bit about this post. Some of you may be aware that the tabletop gaming community has been having its own #metoo moment, starting with Mandy Morbid’s post here. I already thought that the subject of that post was a shithead. Her post was followed by others.

I believe Mandy, Hannah, Jennifer, and Vivka. But it’s easy for me to believe them, because I already had no respect for their abuser. Due to his harassment, a friend of mine removed her online presence, and other friends had to move countries — but these posts made it clear that he is a proper waste of a human genome.

I believe the victims of John Mørke. Which is easy, because I hardly know him. John’s main defender, Holden Shearer, continues to point people to Mørke’s Patreon, signal-boosting to raise money for his friend the abuser. Meanwhile, Holden posts a lot about the other abusers in the industry, presumably to deflect from his own role.

I believe Irlymvhir. I believe Cheyenne. I believe Amy. I believe Luka. Which is harder, because for a long time I thought of Matt McFarland as a friend. I dropped all contact with him and Michelle (his wife, who helped hide his abuse) after the first allegations came out and Matt refused to say anything about it. I have no place in my life for abusers. I was wrong not to say something at the time.

I have worked with Matt, Holden, and John on the vast majority of my books with White Wolf and Onyx Path, and my name appears with theirs on the credits. These shared credits — some of which are because I hired them1 — have rather poisoned my memories of the past fifteen years of work. That’s left me pondering what to do about my back catalogue. Do I really want to continue promoting books that include abusers in their credits?

In the end, I’ve come up with a compromise. All of the affected books were work-for-hire. None of the people involved (including me) get any money from people purchasing the books. I get a small kickback if you use the links on this site. As such, I’m not going to remove links to my work. But I’m aware that many people will have stronger feelings against buying books by abusers. As such, I’ve flagged all of the books where I share a credit with an abuser or an enabler with a pair of red stars (**), and have linked to this post to explain why.

  1. I hope it goes without saying, but this was before I knew about their history of abuse 

Lasers & Hacking

Originally prompted by some of the ideas thrown around on the SomethingAwful Traditional Games forum (registration possibly required), I’ve fallen in love with hacking John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings. It’s a very nice, very light system that’s I’m using as the basis for a rough sketch of an urban-fantasy game with possibly-obvious inspirations (currently a pre-alpha; I’ll write about it here when it’s done).

But that’s not all I’ve done. I have committed hackery1, to tune Lasers & Feelings to different styles of game.

Sanity & Sorcery — Lovecraftian horror

Shaken & Stirred — Stealth action

Power & Responsibility — Silver-age superheroics

Swashbucklers & Scoundrels — Pirate adventures

Stepping Back

As Rich Thomas revealed at GenCon, I stepped back as developer of Werewolf: The Forsaken and Werewolf: The Apocalypse developer at Onyx Path a year and a half ago.

I didn’t say anything at the time as I was finishing the books I’d started — W20: Changing Ways and the Pentex Employee Handbook — but I have not started work on any new projects.

It was my decision as the amount of work at my day-job has stepped up considerably, and I am no longer able to give the lines the attention and time that they deserve. I’m not leaving the industry, but I’m back to doing writing and game design under the guidance and development of others. I’m also going to keep working on my own games, as I can take them at my own pace. I have nothing but respect for Rich and Rose and look forwards to the chance to write on Onyx Path books in the future.

Fuck 2016, Redux

As you may remember, I pledged that proceeds from my November and December sales would go to The Trevor Project, an American charity supporting LGBTQ youth. Because 2016 was a shitshow, and the results of the November election the icing on the cake.

Thing is, right now I’m on the long tail. My last two months’ proceeds are $15. That looks a bit anaemic, so fuck it. Over the last six months, my self-published games have made me $42. That’s more like it.

Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 12.42.40

Fuck 2016

2016 is a shit of a year. Life has got worse for a tremendous number of people.

If I can make it better, even in a small way, I shall do.

As such, all proceeds on Zero Point Information stuff at DriveThruRPG until the end of the year will go to to The Trevor Project, a charity that helps LGBTQ youth in the USA.

Meat is Murder

A cyberpunk roleplaying game about having the best stuff

This is very unapologetically 80’s cyberpunk — cybernetics rather than gene-tailoring and shit like that. All money is in Euro, and all numbers are written in European notation; one hundred thousand Euro is €100.000,00 but nobody cares about cents. Cash is good. Stuff is better. Meat is worthless.


Wider Margins

A footnote in yesterday’s post mentioned that one of the many reasons behind the razor-thin margins in the tradgames space is the stagnating price.

RPG books are ridiculously fucking cheap compared to books of similar production values in other areas. The price of the book has not risen in any significant proportion to the increase in costs. Instead, the increase in production price has eaten in to the margins, the amount of money that the publisher gets and uses to pay for writers and artists and game designers.

This has two drivers:

  1. A lot of people who start gaming are in university or younger, and don’t have a significant amount of disposable income.
  2. Old gamers have ossified to the point that they refuse to believe that production costs have increased by anywhere near as much as they have, and believe that a 300-page full-colour glossy hardback rulebook should cost as much as the 200-page black and white softcover that they remember from when they got started.

The target market of trad RPGs thus can’t (point 1) or can but won’t (point 2) pay a reasonable price for the books that they’re getting.

In order to pay people fairly for their labour, publishers need more available cash. One of the ways to do this is to increase prices of the premium end. Full-colour glossy hardbacks should be priced as what they are. Not even commesurate with said books of equivalent publication values in other areas, just enough to reflect the actual cost of making such a book and paying a publisher enough that they can continue putting the books out without ridiculous financial pressure.

Another way is to present rulebooks as they used to be — black and white softcovers, shorter and with less art. These days the market will happily bear them at 6×9 rather than “full” size. Those can be priced at the entry level, giving people enough to play the game without being overwhelming.

The Curse of Centralisation

So let’s talk about an elephant in the room: if you want to get involved with new projects and new companies as a freelancer, you have to go to GenCon.

GenCon is the biggest tradgames convention. It is the only one, as far as most of the work goes. And if you don’t go, you don’t exist.

I am a professional writer and game designer. As I may have mentioned, I have eleven years' experience as a professional game designer. That doesn’t count the years I spent beforehand doing fan-work and building up my skills, just the amount of time I’ve been paid for doing the job. I have a million and a half words in print. I have done work for publishers set up by people I’ve worked with at White Wolf/Onyx Path because they know my output even if they’ve not met me in person.

Yet to the wider industry, I don’t exist.

Thing is, I pretty much can’t go to GenCon. Getting there costs more than I make in the industry. It is a financial drain, and no amount of extra work that I’d pick up from being there would push that into the positive. I have other things going on that mean even if I could fund it from gaming work, it probably still won’t happen.

I have tried to get freelance work with people & publishers I haven’t worked with at White Wolf/Onyx Path. I have pointed to my list of publications, I’ve provided references, and I’ve provided writing samples of both published and first-draft work. In return, I’ve been treated like I’m a total n00b, like I’m trying to break in to the industry and don’t know how things really work. Patronised, patted on the head, or just ignored. Because how could someone be in the industry if you haven’t met them at GenCon?

This isn’t just true of freelancers looking to work for other publishers. It’s sometimes true for people in the same company — no matter how many referrals you have from other folks, not having that in-person connection puts you at a significant disadvantage. It’s also true for indie designers and publishers. Not having a presence at GenCon means your game — hell, you as a writer/designer/publisher — don’t exist.

The unstated requirement of GenCon attendance is an issue because it acts as a barrier to the free movement of labour in the industry. Free movement is beneficial to creatives because they get more work, they get more experience with new systems, and they are better-known by people who buy games which in turn means that if they do want to go it alone they have a built-in fan base that people stuck working for one or two publishers don’t have. GenCon creates two classes of RPG pros. Those who have free movement, and those who don’t. In order to be a healthy place to work, the industry needs to do a hell of a lot better.

For people who can go, GenCon is great. For those of us who can’t, it poisons the industry and wider community against us.

No Silver Bullets

A small but significant amount of commentary on the shitty situation for freelancers in the industry side of the TRPG industry is along the lines of “Well, just run a Kickstarter or Patreon for the games you want to design”.

This is bad advice. Kickstarter and Patreon are not the tools to free writers from the shackles of the game design industry.1

They are crowdfunding platforms, and crowdfunding works on a bunch of different assumptions. Primarily, if you want to run a successful Kickstarter or make an amount of money that isn’t a joke on Patreon, you need a pretty much constant stream of marketing and self-promotion.

The idea that “quality” will somehow attract money is bullshit; it was proven to be bullshit as soon as nerds started complaining that the only way Microsoft remained in a dominant position despite poor software was “marketing”, like that was some kind of black magic. Well no shit, Sherlock. Of course marketing is how Microsoft remained popular. Without marketing, nobody wants to use your shit.

That is a truism of doing business. “Quality” gets you dick. Marketing gets you popular. Anyone saying otherwise is a liar.

People point to small-press kickstarters and patreons that succeeded. Dungeon World, f'rex. They succeeded because marketing.2

The point of all of this is simple: marketing and self-promotion are not part of the writing and game design toolkit; they’re entirely orthogonal to it. Sometimes you can manage it in the short-term, say, during a KS. Even then, if you’re not good at it you end up promising things you can’t reasonably deliver. That’s not a factor of budgeting as much as it is self-promotion — you need people to get involved with what you’re doing. And so the KS crushes you.

I’ve been part of two Kickstarters so far: W20: Changing Breeds and W20 Book of the Wyrm. In neither case was I the main person on the project. Rich and Rose took point. And yet, it was a full-time job. While the Kickstarters were running, I straight-up could not do any design work. It was absolutely fucking exhausting. I know from that experience that I cannot do that with any regularity; I do not have the skills or the energy to run a successful KS.

Patreon is similar: you need to build the initial following to get enough money per-release (or per-month, but in the trad-games space that’s code for “fund my life”) that doing the work for that release is worth it. And to make enough to recoup the costs of the work involved, you’d need to be in the top 1% of trad-games Patreons. Otherwise, compared to freelancing — even as it is now, even with all the unpaid bullshit — you lose money.

If I had to self-promote to get paid, I’d be out of the industry in a New York second, and I know that I am not unusual in this.

The other factor of crowdfunding is cash. Because of a string of massive delays and total failures, one of the best ways to guarantee funding is to have at least the pre-release text ready to go when you launch. You also need a video and at least some art; text-only kickstarters don’t succeed.

Except that means writing the damn thing happens before you know if you can pay for it. Art-ing the damn thing likewise. As for the video? Sure, count it under “self-promotion” but even if you’re just doing voice-over, if you have the skill to do it as a pro that’s £100-£150 of work you’re doing for free.

Thing is, this whole thing came about because of the amount of work that we as writers & game designers already do for free. By the time you factor in art and video, a kickstarter for a 60-page game — say, if I’d kickstarted BLACK SEVEN — would have left me over £1000 out of pocket with no guarantee of recouping that cash.

Instead, I stuck it on DriveThru, where it has a chance of people noticing it without dedicating a month to doing nothing creative but using skills I don’t have. With the tiny bit of self-promotion I managed, it’s an electrum bestseller (top 3% of products on the site).

TL;DR: Crowdfunding works for people with the skills to crowdfund. Those are separate skills. Most creatives, especially those freelancing, do not have those skills. It is not a silver bullet, and attempts to claim that it is are disingenuous and insulting.

  1. Obviously Kickstarter and Patreon work for a number of people. They are not failures as platforms in any way. I’m talking to the specific experience of trying to use them as a replacement for freelance TRPG design work. 

  2. The impotent rage of grognards is a kind of marketing.