Thursday, February 6, 2014

One Hero Can Change Everything in Scarlet Heroes

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  I am pleased to welcome independent game creator Kevin Crawford who is here to talk to us about his latest project: Scarlet Heroes.  Thank you for joining us today Kevin.

I'm glad to have the opportunity, James.

Scarlet Heroes at first glance just seems like a generic fantasy RPG, what is it about your system that has attracted so much attention?  

The fact that it's designed to support just one or two players plus a GM. Scarlet Heroes lets you run your favorite classic adventures or newer OSR materials without needing to edit the adventures, change the character, or wrap them up with a bodyguard of henchmen.

It works both as a stand-alone game and as an overlay you can drop over your own favorite old-school game. And for those occasions when you don't have time to get even one player or GM on hand, you can use the GM-less solo adventure system in the back to brew up your own game.

Being able to play with just one or two players plus a GM is a pretty big departure from standard roleplaying systems.  Beyond the old James Bond 007 RPG I can’t even think of one that was specifically designed for a low number of players.  What made you want to create a system with this in mind?  

A lot of us just don't have the time or opportunity to get four or five friends together for gaming the way we used to twenty or thirty years ago. Sometimes our schedules only mesh with one or two friends at a time. Aside from that, there are always spouses, kids, and curious bystanders who want to try out our hobby and deserve a personal introduction that's most easily handled one on one.

Beyond that, sometimes the most interesting and elaborate campaigns can come out of very small or singular player groups. The fewer players, the more time the GM has to focus on their choices, actions, and interests. It's almost always at least theoretically possible to do this with a given RPG, but it's a lot easier when the system itself is supportive of such small groups.

How important was it for you to have a beta version of the game ready to go before coming to Kickstarter?  Has it saved you from being asked lots of questions about the game system since you can just say, “Pledge a dollar and see for yourself?”

Having a beta version ready for distribution is mandatory, as far as I'm concerned. It's not so much about saving myself questions as minimizing every source of calamity possible before I pull the trigger on a Kickstarter.

Kickstarter offers a creator the wonderful opportunity to get everything possible finished before you ever expose yourself to risk. I can spend all the time I want writing, editing, doing layout, and preparing the details of the Kickstarter before I even set up the project on the site. Sure, there's a chance all this effort will be wasted if it turns out the public doesn't want the product, but even in the worst case situation there I'm only out the money and time I took to prep things. I don't sacrifice my reputation or incur any long-term obligations.

With a beta version complete, I can stop worrying about the writing process before I even start the Kickstarter. I can focus on the next step of development and put a floor under how bad things can get in the case of unexpected problems or sudden disasters. Even if I get hit by a truck tomorrow, my backers all have playable PDF versions in hand.

Can you give us a brief description of the rules system you have for those of us who haven’t paid the dollar to look at your beta rules?  Will we need mountains of dice or is it a single die type system?  

It's an old-fashioned "Old School Renaissance"-type game with rules very similar to the classic games of the late seventies and early eighties. Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, Tom Moldvay and Zeb Cook were major and obvious influences on the game, and the vast majority of RPG players who pick it up will feel right at home with the basic mechanics.

The differences appear in how those mechanics are used. By altering the way those old-school statistics are read and rolled, a classic adventure can be engaged by a single PC without the kind of near-certain doom that would normally attend such foolhardiness.

As an old school RPG fan myself I enjoy the black & white you have up as an example.  Was going full black & white a practical choice, a thematic choice, or a bit of both?  

Both, really. As a small RPG publisher, keeping production costs down is the key to actually making a profit on these games. Black and white line art averages about half the price of color work, and the print price differences are even more drastic for high-quality color printing. One of my print backers will be able to order a b/w softcover from DriveThruRPG for about $6 plus shipping. If that softcover were in premium color, he'd be paying at least twice as much.

Also, as an art director, I'm familiar with black and white illo (Illustration -ED) use. I know how to use them in a layout and how to prep them correctly for printing. I haven't done a lot of color work, and I'd want more practice before I felt comfortable directing an entire book in color. In addition, the artists I've worked with before have been chosen based on their black and white production. I'd need to develop or reevaluate existing artists for their color work, which is again the sort of thing you don't want to do for the first time on a major project.

Thematically, black and white also tends to fit the old-school idiom better than color, in my opinion. My audience tends to have a particular format and style of book they like, and so it behooves me to make sure they get it that way.

Looking at your rewards levels you’ve not focused on print options, but a “print on demand” discount option.  Why is that?  How’s your experience with POD from places like DriveThruRPG?

I couldn't offer print products without DriveThruRPG's POD services. The numbers simply do not work for conventional short-run printing and distribution costs. The quality of the books is excellent and the ability to tie PDFs and print products together is really indispensable for me.

I've chosen to offer self-serve POD, where the backer receives a coupon to buy the book at-cost from DTRPG, rather than the conventional "Pay now and I send you the book later myself." I did this because I am not a fulfillment house. Mailing things is not my business and not my field of expertise. Projecting printing and shipping costs four or more months in advance is not a thing I want to spend time getting good at when there are other, more fruitful uses of my effort. It's better for everybody if I offload this on professionals who actually do spend all day with this work.

By doing self-serve POD every print buyer can choose their own shipping method, their own chosen print format, and get it from Lightning Source's international network of printers. The money never leaves their pocket until they're ready to spend it and I don't have to worry about half my Kickstarter profits vanishing when postal rates suddenly spike a month before the print version is ready.

A big bugaboo of mine with every Kickstarter campaign is the budget breakdown as this spells out to potential backers what the money is intended for.  Why don’t you have one?  Since printing costs aren’t really a major part of your campaign, is it safe to assume the $3,000 goal is mostly going to the artists?  

The "Why Do You Need The Money?" section of the Kickstarter really is as simple as it sounds. I have done everything necessary for this product except the art, so the money is to finance that. To be precise, the current art cost projection is $3,007.50, though 12 of the 62 pieces have yet to get final quotes in, so that number may wobble a hundred or so either way.

As an RPG veteran creator on DriveThruRPG and the like do you think that PDF based service with a POD option is a good way for new creators to start out?  (Full disclosure, I have/do sell things through DriveThruRPG)  

I think it's currently the only way, practically speaking. OneBookShelf, the company behind DTRPG/RPGNow is the 500-lb gorilla of small publisher RPG sales. I get multiple orders of magnitude more sales through them than anywhere else I've tried. A newbie publisher can put something up, and if it dies he's only out the time and effort he spent making the project. He doesn't have a head-high stack of unsalable printed copies sitting in his garage and he's not chained to a publisher who may or may not remember he's alive, let alone allow him to walk away with his IP intact.

A newbie publisher with no following is doing respectably to sell 50 copies of a product over its short-term life. That number can work if they're doing all their own work and buying stock art for illos, but it could never work with conventional publisher and it'd never be worth a larger publisher's time to pick it up. If the publisher does good work and starts to build an audience then they can expand from there with very little in the way of capital investments or unsalable product risk.

Now this isn’t your first rodeo having created and published several games already.  What made you come to Kickstarter this time around?  

It's a nice early warning system for unviable RPG projects. I was confident that people wanted Scarlet Heroes and that it was worth my time to throw my efforts behind it, but there's no substitute for an actual answer from the market. If I couldn't even raise the $3,000 I needed to make the project break even, that would've been an excellent hint that it was time to eject. Conversely, if the backers climb all over it, then that's another good hint that I should be spending more time with the product.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

Through the earlier waves of RPG Kickstarters being bandied about the community. I spent some time watching them to see what the successful ones did right and the unsuccessful ones did wrong, and then I stepped in when I was ready to try it myself.

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?

My marketing-fu is weak. I'm not big on backer engagement, marketing campaigns, social media drives, or all the other things that a properly skilled marketer wields to push a product. All of the things you've mentioned are worthwhile and valuable additions to a Kickstarter, but they're also the sort of things that make me tired just thinking about doing them.

My strengths are in content production. A glance through the Sine Nomine product list will show three full RPGs and more than a dozen major supplements created in the past three years, to say nothing of another dozen-odd freebies and small squibs. Scarlet Heroes will be my fourth full RPG in about three years. If I have something to say to my audience, I say it in the form of a game.

Right now I try to compensate for my lack of marketing skill with the brute forces of ubiquity and production. Constantly creating new material, constantly building new games and new amusements, I've eventually just been around long enough and loud enough for people to start paying attention to what I make.

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?  

It's only been two and a half days since I launched the KS, but I've gotten some generous buzz on Google+ from a lot of kindly fans and backers, and I've been keeping people abreast on Twitter as well. Mentions on blogs such as those at Tenkar's Tavern are starting to crop up. My mailing list through DTRPG has about 14,000 people who are kind enough to take my emails, so they've been notified as well.

I'm not convinced that conventional banner advertising has a sufficient ROI, and videos are also something I just don't want to take the time to produce, even though they'd be helpful. As for Facebook, the whole place gives me hives. I should use it more, but it's just not worth it to me. I've got Kicktraq up to compare this campaign to my prior KS for Spears of the Dawn, and it's been useful in giving me an idea of what my backer curves might look like.

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

For an RPG Kickstarter, complete everything you possibly can complete before you start asking for money. All the writing, at a bare minimum. Yes, there's a chance it'll prove unsalable, but that's the part of the risk you shoulder, not your backers. If you can't complete the manuscript with unlimited time and no pressure, how can you possibly get it done with a 4-month deadline and your reputation on the line?

Things will go wrong during a Kickstarter. The question is not if, but what. The more you do beforehand, the more contingencies and backup plans and emergency pull-cords you build into your plans, the less likely that these problems will derail you. Assume the worst and plan to deal with it.

Minimize your exposure to calamity. Identify the places where things could go wrong or other people could let you down and then eliminate as many of these as possible, even if it costs you some upside in your eventual Kickstarter take. Yes, you could probably get another X thousand bucks in backer cash if you promised jewel-studded t-shirts. You will also slave your entire shipping schedule to those t-shirts because two waves of shipping would wipe out your profit. If those t-shirts don't materialize you will either wait forever to ship your finished product or you will tell your backers that they're not getting what you promised. Avoid these situations. You can run another Kickstarter for a new project; you can't run one to get back your reputation. Minimize the points of failure in your plan.

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

Kickstarter is a great tool for boosting RPG projects and enabling small publishers to put out well-produced niche games that might not get attention or funding otherwise. It's possible to run these Kickstarters with very little chance of failure- but the creator has to put in the time and the effort to bring their project as far as possible without outside money before they can take full advantage of Kickstarter's possibilities. You can reap the rewards, but you've got to do the work beforehand.

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

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