Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am pleased to be joined by a fellow James, this time James Wallis has come to talk to us about his Kickstarter “ALAS VEGAS.”  Thank you for joining us today James.

It’s a solid pleasure to be here, James. Thanks for asking me.

So besides being set in Vegas, can you tell us a bit about ALAS VEGAS?

ALAS VEGAS is a tabletop RPG that follows a new format called a ‘blast’: it’s a self-contained pack of rules and adventure designed to run to conclusion over four game-sessions. It’s a weird-horror game combined with classic game tropes and situations. I describe it as ‘Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch’.

The game begins with the characters dragging themselves out of a shallow grave on the edge of the desert. They have no memory of how they got there or who they are. It’s midnight. They’re naked, cold and covered in dirt. On the horizon is a scar of neon: a great casino-city, with answers, and trouble. And then the players have four sessions to find out what’s going on, remember what happened to get them there, and learn how to survive.

Alas Vegas uses a new system of mechanics called Fugue. Fugue is fast and simple: characters start with nothing on their character sheet, but they can get abilities by having flashbacks of using them in their earlier life. But over the course of the game the flashbacks start linking together to form a narrative that will eventually explain how they got there—and how they get out. Because this place is much more than it seems.

There’s no dice, instead there’s a cut-down version of Blackjack played with Tarot cards, which works really well, using the imagery on each Tarot card to build a narrative that ties in with the setting.

Conceptually it’s halfway between The Hangover and The Prisoner. I’m really excited by it, I think it’s something new in the RPG field, and it’s some of the best design-work I’ve done in over a decade.

What brings you to Kickstarter?  While it’s been a while you’re certainly not new to Roleplaying Game development.  

I’ve been kicking around in game design for almost thirty years now—I started my first fanzine while I was still at school—and I’ve run two conventional publishing companies, risking my own money both times. And in both cases I found myself at the mercy of distributors and retailers, who decided whether customers would ever get to see the game. They’re the gatekeepers of the marketplace; if they don’t like a product then the public never gets to see it.

Kickstarter completely changes that dynamic. It gives designers a direct channel to games players, and the chance to test how commercial an idea is before anyone’s put too much time or money into it. If your Kickstarter goes well, you’ve got a product that’ll sell and the funds to make it happen. If it doesn’t go well, then head back to the drawing board. And that’s really exciting at both ends.

I know the RPG market pretty well, and I was sure that Alas Vegas was a project that gamers would really enjoy, but that distributors—who tend to be a bit more conservative—might not want to stock. So Kickstarter was a natural proving ground for it. So far it’s proving me right.

The Fugue struck me as the most innovative and interesting piece of this game.  Are you telling me I’m basically going to have a blank character sheet at the start of the game?  With nothing more than gender and physical description?  (Since I’m naked?!)  All skills only come about after you flashback and “remember” using the skill?  

That’s basically it, your character starts the game with nothing. You describe what your character looks like to everyone else, and then the person on your right gets to add one thing about you that you forgot to mention. Then you draw a Tarot card, which becomes your character’s Signifier—like a lucky charm. If it comes up in play later, things get intense. Everything else, from skills to clothes, comes later. And you can’t be a ninja or a superhero or equipped with cybernetic back-up memories or covered in tattoos that explain what’s going on like the guy in Memento.

Your skills come as a result of flashbacks, but you can have several flashbacks each session, and for most of them you’re the person who decides when they happen and what goes on in them. For example, you’re being chased by thugs, and you spot a car. Can you hot-wire it? “I remember an afternoon in Pasadena. Beautiful Porsche parked at the kerb. Silver paint-job. Chas and me had the door open and were sparking the ignition inside fifteen seconds. Cops chased us all the way to the ocean.” So yes, you can steal the car—but now we know something interesting about you, and about Chas too.

As a “Rules-light” game specifically designed to be a “blast” campaign length how much replayability is there?  Sounds like once we finish our fourth game session we’d be done with the game!

Alas Vegas isn’t enormously replayable, and isn’t meant to be. It doesn’t set out to be a general-purpose RPG, it’s more like a feature-film or an HBO mini-series. While the PCs’ flashbacks and the past history they construct from them will always be different, their adventures in Vegas will mostly play out the same way--though possibly with different endings.

Having said that, thanks to the generosity of our Kickstarter backers we’re going to include at least one completely different setting and adventure for the Fugue rules. It’s called ‘Yet Already’, it’s by Gareth Hanrahan, it’s a fractured time-travel game and it’s quite brilliant. And as the stretch-goals continue to fall, there may well be more.

Why a Tarot deck specifically instead of just a standard deck of cards?  Since one of your stretch goals is to have all the Tarot card images to be done (and you’re almost there) will you add a new goal with a print and play layout of a whole deck?  You looking into actually printing out decks?  

The games I design all have stories to tell, and Tarot is an amazing story-telling tool, with strong archetypes, allegiances and hierarchies built into the structure of the deck. We’ve got the awesome John Coulthart to design us the major arcana of a Vegas Tarot deck—there’s never been one before. I’d really like to do a complete Tarot and an actual printed deck and a lot of people have asked for one. But a complete Tarot is 78 cards, that’s a lot of art, which isn’t cheap, and card-printing isn’t cheap either. If the Kickstarter catches fire then we’ll do it, but not otherwise.

The “Kinda off” Vegas setting is great in a lot of ways, especially for someone like me who basically grew up in Vegas, which decade version of Vegas is it?  Or is that up to the players?  

It’s a version of Vegas that has elements of all the city’s great eras. It’s meant to be an archetypal version of the city without just being the tourist hot-spots. And of course the web of power and intrigue and corruption always runs deep through the city, because that’s what makes RPGs interesting.

Elvis, however, has left the building.

I’ve only visited Vegas once, so this isn’t going to be a photorealistic version of the city. Your maps and local knowledge are useless in the face of a GM who’s making it all up.

How different from regular cinematic RPGs is ALAS VEGAS?  The plotlines sound a lot tighter than normal.  

Alas Vegas’s story is not enormously tight and it’s not meant to be constraining—it’s certainly not a railroad, and the PCs don’t have to follow a pre-scripted path. In fact their freedom to choose options that the game doesn’t specify is an important part of the mix. Each chapter of the game is designed to last one play-session, and the GM for that session will get a list of things that should happen during it, and the order in which things are supposed to happen, and then a more detailed description of how I’d run it if I was in the chair—but this isn’t meant to be prescriptive, it’s more a jumping-off point for the GM’s own ideas and the players’ reactions to them.

However each session does end with a cliffhanger, and the whole thing is building towards a particular climactic scene. It’s possible that the players may decide to go and do something else instead, but it’d be a bit like Luke Skywalker saying, “This Death-Star sounds a bit dangerous. I think I’ll go and grind my shooting skill on some womp rats for a few days. You guys go without me.”

Since you're running this Kickstarter from the UK do you think International shipping is a barrier to folks backing you? I notice you do have a full digital backer level which I appreciate, but do you think it limits you at all?

I’d go further: although there have been plenty of successful UK-based Kickstarter projects, even before Kickstarter launched properly in the UK at the end of last year, I don’t think it’s been properly assimilated into the Kickstarter ecosystem yet. Kickstarter UK doesn’t process payments through Amazon, it does it the old-fashioned way with credit cards. When I launched the Alas Vegas KS I was deluged with queries about why people weren’t getting the Amazon payments thing, and was something wrong. A few people even accused me of running some kind of scam.

In terms of response, whether the additional shipping costs are limiting the amount of take-up is impossible to say at this time, since Kickstarter doesn’t supply details on backers and their locations until the project is done. My sense is that there’s been some percentage drop-off from the non-free shipping countries, but at this stage that’s just a hunch.
One thing I learned when I was running a games-publishing business a few years ago is that there’s a discrepancy between the US and the rest of the world. If you’re shipping goods from the US, the customer is usually happy to pay for the cost of transport. If you’re shipping goods to the US, there’s an expectation that the supplier will eat the transport costs. I’m talking about the wholesale level here, within one industry in particular, but I think the mindset persists.

The Alas Vegas books will actually be printed in the US—because it’s close to the biggest RPG market in the world—and we’ve done a deal with a US shipper that’s set up to handle this kind of thing, to minimise costs to us and to the backers. However some of the Kickstarter reward items, mostly anything that needs to be signed, will need to be shipped to backers from the UK. So that means some of the rewards say ‘Add £X for shipping outside the UK’, which can be automated within Kickstarter’s systems, and others say ‘Add £X for shipping outside the US or UK’, which can’t. I foresee trouble ahead, but at least I’m ready for it.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is really interesting for me because since the 90s I’ve been talking about how the RPG world would benefit from a return to the subscription-publishing model of the 1700s, where people paid for books in advance so that the author could afford to complete and print them. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was funded that way. A few people tried it such as Greg Stolze and Monte Cook, with their ransom models, but Kickstarter has formalised it brilliantly, and it deserves every ounce of its success.

The first project I backed was a documentary called Plimpton! a couple of years ago. Still not received my DVD from that.

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

I’m keeping the main page lively with updates, and I’m adding new stretch goals and rewards every few days—as well as culling the rewards that aren’t attracting attention. And I’m responding to all feedback.

One thing I did that sparked a lot of early attention was asking pledgers what they wanted to see as rewards. That got some great response and a couple of excellent suggestions. I also learned that many people really, really wanted to see a Tarot deck.

There are more videos coming, as well as a free chunk of the game to anyone who’s pledged, along with a special bonus freebie that I’ve not told them is coming. People like free stuff and they respond well to generosity.

The trick is to turn your pledgers into evangelists. If you can do that, your stretch goals will fall like saplings in a hurricane.

ALAS VEGAS: an RPG of bad memories, bad luck & bad blood -- Kicktraq Mini 

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

Most of the media attention that Alas Vegas has had is from the gaming press. I’ve been quite bullish about using my social capital to set up interviews with podcasts and websites. Friends and professional contacts have been really good about spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve not set up specific accounts for Alas Vegas, but I’m using the big two-and-a-half and my existing networks to keep people up to date.

I’m about to start advertising the Kickstarter. We’ll see how that goes, but I’m very aware of the old advertising maxim that people need to see something five times before they pay attention to it. Right now I think Alas Vegas is at the transition point where people who know me or my work have backed it, but awareness of it hasn’t transferred to the wider games market.

And yes, Kicktraq of course. Though its data is pretty much useless for the first few days.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

Prepare! There’s a lot more to it than setting up the page. Kickstarter is just one element in what should be a properly structured project plan or business plan.

Listen to people! Read articles by folk who have run successful Kickstarters in your field. I’m lucky that I share an office with Pelgrane Press, who have run some very successful projects through Kickstarter—notably Robin D. Laws’ Hillfolk, a $93,000 result from a $3000 ask—and they’ve been fantastic with helping me launch the project. Beyond that, I’d single out Fred Hicks as a deluge of wisdom of the subject. Read what he says: he is wise.

Don’t expect Kickstarter to do the heavy lifting for you! I’m baffled by the number of people who launch KS projects and then don’t do anything to publicise them, and they inevitably don’t reach their goal. That is not Kickstarter’s fault.

Expect it to eat your life. It will. Specially if you’re chasing a reasonable sum of money, you should treat a Kickstarter campaign like it’s your full-time job. Clear space in your schedules for it and be ready to work past midnight, because you’re dealing with a fans and pledgers in every timezone. Which leads me to:

Think internationally. There are projects I’d love to back but they don’t ship outside the USA. That’s nuts. There are places like IPR that will handle your Kickstarter shipping for you, for a modest fee. Use them. The saving in hassle and your own time, and the potential expansion of your customer-base is completely worth it.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Kickstarter is a route to market but it’s also an amazing test-bed. And it’s a rush as well. This is the most fun I’ve had in the games industry for a long time, and I recommend it highly.

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

Many thanks for the chance to chat. We’ll speak again soon, I hope.


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