Monday, October 21, 2013

Get your Wu Xia and Kung Fu action on in FATE with TianXia!

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined by Jack and James from Vigilance Press who are here to talk to us about their Kickstarter Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade.  Thank you both for joining us today.  

James: Thanks for having us!
Jack:  Greetings, True Believers! (Hands Stan Lee a dollar).

That’s quite the evocative title you have there, can you tell us about Tianxia?  

James: I’ll let Jack tell you about the setting a bit, but the title I can talk about. Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade wasn’t our first choice. Originally, it was going to be simply “Tianxia,” but then we started talking about more books, and we realized we needed something that emphasized that this would be the first in a series. Expanding on the idea of a subtitle, and throwing names at each other for the various books, we settled on a three-word subtitle format that would evoke each book’s unique elements and be evocative of the setting as a whole. Blood, Silk & Jade refer to the violent, dangerous part of the Empire, Shénzhōu, the first book covers. The players will find themselves in the wild lands of Jiāngzhōu, along a major trade route where bandits and other devilish martial artists prey upon the weak. Silk and Jade reference the trade routes and other elements of the setting.

Jack: Yep.  Tianxia means “All Under Heaven” or “the whole world” if you’re less poetically inclined.  It’s based on a concept attributed to the Qin emperor who sought to unite all of China under one ruler.  If you’ve seen Hero (Li, not Hoffman) or The Emperor and the Assassin, you’ve seen this story dramatized.  James tackled what the subtitle signifies.  
As for the setting, the main focus is on the Empire of Shenzhou.  It’s very much China, but not exactly China.  We went with this approach to allow historical types to have plenty they were familiar with or even stuff they could yank out and put into a pure mythic China setting if they wanted but that wasn’t a serious barrier to new players or people who think that wu xia or kung fu films are cool and a game based around that stuff sounds great, but who don’t care about the difference between the Xin and Ming and Duck Dynasties (I honestly have no idea what Duck Dynasty is really, I’ve just heard the name.  I suspect its like Meerkat Manor but with mallards.  If the truth is less fun than that, please don’t correct me).

The main book focused on one of the nine provinces in the empire, a border land in desperate need of heroes.  Later we hope to flesh out the rest of the Empire, which does get general description in the book as well.

The game is at its heart a mashup of two genres that a lot of people figure are the same thing: wu xia and kung fu action-drama.  I’m not going to bore you with an essay here, though I talk about the distinction some in the book.  Suffice to say they’re distinct but very compatible genres and though Tianxia discusses the differences, the rules and game allow for favoring one over the other, balancing both equally, or ignoring the distinction entirely if you like.
Chinese Wuxia is a classic setting for role playing games! Did you have to do anything with the Fate system to adjust it for the setting?  

James: Fate was a great fit for Tianxia. We really wanted to use Fate Core “as is” as much as possible, to make adding Tianxia to your own game as simple as opening our book and reading the new rules section. You won’t have to re-learn a special approach to Fate for Tianxia. In fact, we don’t even reprint the Core rules, you’ll need the Fate Core book to play. What we do add is a set of additional rules that add onto the existing Fate Core System rules to create the fun and feel of martial arts. You’ll find things like the Jianghu ranking system, the Kung Fu rules, and the new Chi skill, but all these are designed to be additive to the existing game.

Jack: Yeah, there are new rules for wu xia and kung fu action specific things but generally it’s about using the existing rules in new ways.  I didn’t want to design something that took a newly released game system and immediately threw a bunch out.  If that had been required I’d have likely used a different system.  Which speaks to the flexibility and utility of Fate Core.  Also the Kung Fu system alone is a pretty big addition and getting it to work with Fate Core seamlessly was a major focus on the rules sections.  

That said I include optional rules for initiative, dynastic play, different dice resolution, tweaking how quickly stress is accumulated, include some things that give the rules a slight defensive shift to emulate the genre, and so on.  There’s a good number of optional rules, but you can always ignore them and just use the base rules in Tianxia and Fate Core with no problem.

Well it seems like you’re doing something right!  You’ve hit your goal in the first  day!  That’s great! Congratulations!  What do you credit your quick success to?  What’s next for the campaign?  

James: We are so excited to have come so far so quickly! The fans of Tianxia have been talking about this for months because we’ve had the playtesters working with us since earlier this year. This book has been in development for a while, which gives us several advantages in the Kickstarter campaign. For one thing, the PDF is 95% complete. There are a few pieces of art that are placeholders, and there’s room for expanding some rules explanations or adding new sidebars, but for the most part we’ve got a very solid manuscript and layout ready for people to see when they back. Anyone who backs with at least a dollar can see the playtester PDF and see just how amazing this book looks already!

Jack: I think a lot of factors combined to get us up and running so quickly.  Our backers’ enthusiasm in telling others they’re supporting us, people who’ve been looking forward to this for awhile and are promoting it to others, some wonderful friends in the industry who have spread the word, having a playtest copy to look at right away, Denise’s wonderful and evocative art, the general lack of this sort of genre/setting combo in FATE Core at the moment. It’s no one thing, but a good combination of many factors.

As for what’s next? We’ve got the announced books, which ends with the fiction anthology that I’m super jazzed about.  I know that sometimes gaming fiction doesn’t work out, but the list of contributors we’ve got is top notch and there’s such a lack of wu xia and kung fu action inspired fiction in English, as anyone who’s tried to track down a non-fan translated of a Louis Cha novel can attest. Actually you can at least find him, there are various comics and novels that are as far as I know impossible to get in English.  So a collection of stories by genre savvy authors to go along with the game seemed like a natural thing to do in this case.

After the announced stretch goals we’ve got some ideas for other books, though there does reach a point where I’ve fleshed out the setting as far as I want.  I don’t want this to be a supplement treadmill forever, though I do have a lot of stuff I want to bring in.

What kind of Characters can I look forward to playing in Tianxia?  Will there be fixed classes or can I create my high-speed calorie-burning warrior-of-doom?  

James: There are social classes in the world of Tianxia, but no character classes. Your merits as one of the Jianghu are entirely based on your Kung Fu mastery and general awesomeness. If you look at the sample characters, you’ll see people who range from a nun with a pet monkey to the son of a famous general seeking to prove his worth. We’re closing in on our first stretch goal as I type this, so I expect the Lifepath Generator will be available as one of the PDF bonuses for people backing us at the 15 dollar mark or higher. I’ll let Jack talk more about the Lifepath Generator, but it’s basically a way to jumpstart your ideas for character creation.
Jack: Yeah, the Lifepath Generator is my love letter to games like Mekton and Pendragon that had great random chargen that led to a fleshed out character that was “random” but also very well developed and easy to play.  Of course it can also serve as a idea jumpstart; someone could look at the Lifepath and never roll a die and just pick stuff that inspires them.

How would you sell the setting to someone unfamiliar with wuxia films?  

James: Do you want to learn Ghost Tiger Kung Fu? Do you want to punch bandits through temple walls? Do you want to race across the rooftops of a village battling evil Kung Fu masters with a full moon overhead? Tianxia’s your game.

Jack: Heroism. Action. Drama. Superpowers. Intrigue. Exotic Locales. Monkeys, because who doesn’t love monkeys?  Tianxia has a lot of things a non wuxia or kung fu action fan can focus on.  Honestly, I think in some ways it’s like superheroes.  Someone might not care for certain tropes, common conceits, and so on but can still find a flavor of it they can have a lot of fun with.

And non-wu xia or kung fu media can serve as great inspiration for games, plots, or characters.  Like Game of Thrones?  Add Kung Fu and you’ve got a great Tianxia game.  Love Avatar?  Honestly, its not hard to see the ability to manipulate the elements as either a new Kung Fu style or a Lost Technique.  Also, Seven Samurai always works…

Of course if you don’t like martial arts and over the top drama?  Tianxia probably isn’t for you.  That’s cool, nothing is for everyone.  But you don’t need to be a serious wu xia fan to enjoy Tianxia or understand the setting.

Are the Fate Core books required to play Tianxia?  

James: Yup, you’ll need at least the Fate Core System to play. We didn’t want to spend a lot of time and effort (not to mention page count and artwork) recreating the Fate Core System, when Evil Hat Productions has done such an amazing job with it already. I know the tendency for most Fate games is to create a standalone book with all-new permutations of the rules, but I wanted to go a different route with this book.

I really see this as a supplemental book for Fate Core, it is 100% compatible with Fate Core System and works very well. Since our book is shaping out to be 200 pages without trying to recreate Fate Core, I think it would have been over ambitious to try and cover that territory as well. We would have had to cut large portions of the setting material in order to add in the rules recap, and it would never have been better than what Fate Core offers.
Jack: Yeah, as James says you’ll need Fate Core.  If we’d added the rules it would have been basically reprinting recently produced rules that are just fine as is and having to devote time, art, etc… to rewriting example, layout, and other stuff that just seemed less useful to devote time and resources to than doing new material.

Your campaign mentions that the setting was designed back in 2000 using a different system but it never was published.  What has changed in the industry to make this the “right time” to bring it back?  How much of that original work now lies in Tianxia?  Any of the art assets?

James: Jack can tell you more about the rules, but all of the artwork is new. Denise Jones has illustrated the entire book (aside from graphical elements created by our amazing designer Daniel Solis), and she began working on it in January of this year. She only finished the last of the color illustrations this month, it’s been a long ride for her already. And what an amazing job she’s done! I couldn’t have asked for better.

Jack: Yeah, I don’t think James has even seen those old rules, though a select number of the backers are also people I playtested with back then and some of them have their copies.  As for what makes this the “right time”?  Okay first things first: Kickstarter.  Being able to gauge interest and adapt plans by crowdsourcing is invaluable. But other than that?  I got better and know more people to help make it happen, or at least got old and crazy and think I did.

But the setting, characters, etc… is mostly all new.  And the rules are designed around FATE.  So...I guess the biggest commonality is the idea, the modular martial arts system, using Lost Techniques to supplement the styles, focusing on characters over gear, and some other things I’m probably forgetting.

Your campaign is set up eerily similarly to Fate Core’s successful campaign.  Did you talk to Fred Hicks before creating your campaign?  What other sources of Kickstarter tips and tricks to you consult before launching your campaign?  

James: Fred Hicks is an awesome guy. I have consulted with him, and he’s been amazingly helpful, especially helping me understand the licensing aspects of Fate Core System. He’s also taken it upon himself to field some of the concerns people have about shipping costs and other real-world issues that have come up on various forums. He’s not on my payroll, but sometimes I feel like he ought to be!

I definitely modeled my campaign after Fate as closely as I could, though we aren’t in the position to offer a lot of “swag” style options. We wanted to focus on the thing we knew we were good at: creating great game supplements. So, with that key difference, we set out to focus on the core book and the stretch goals, and not to worry too much about trying to do dice, posters, or other swag-style add-ins that would take too much energy away from producing great game supplements and stretch goals.

The most important Takeaway I got from the Fate Core Kickstarter campaign was the value of offering up the playtest PDF to backers right from the start. I know that when I first checked out their campaign, that PDF was so useful to me as a customer, I immediately went back and upped my pledge to get more out of it. Also, as each stretch goal is hit everyone backing gets more. This will hopefully encourage more people to share their excitement and enthusiasm, and build more momentum for the campaign.

Jack: James and I talked a lot about various Kickstarters.  FATE Core came up a lot because it was so well done.  We also looked at ones that did badly and why.  There’s no reason to make a mistake you see someone else make; you should save your energy making your totally unique mistakes!

One of the key things I like to see in a Kickstarter project is a simple budget breakdown.  This basic business tool shows some of the planning involved in the project and you even mentioned before the interview that you were thinking of working on one.  Are you planning on adding one later to the campaign?  What is the $10,000 slated for?

James: The budget breakdown is something that I’ve decided to hold off on for the moment. Not because I mind talking numbers, but because they’re a bit in flux right now. This is our first Kickstarter, and I’m still learning how some of the math works, so I don’t want to state one thing, and then have to adjust my numbers later. I just want to be honest.

In general, I can say that the initial funding goal is mostly going to help recuperate the original cost of creating the PDF, and to pay Jack and Nathan (Nathan Kahler, our editor) for their work. They worked all year on the assumption this Kickstarter campaign would be successful, so we’re all breathing a sigh of relief at this point! Honestly, the total production costs of the original PDF won’t be paid for until we hit the third stretch goal or so, but my share of the money is mostly going to printing and distribution. I probably won’t be making money back on this project until we start selling books in stores and as PDFs online. The Kickstarter Campaign is really important, but it isn’t the end of the journey for Tianxia. It’s the beginning.

Jack:  Not much for me to add except that yeah, Nathan and I worked on “spec” here.  Because we believed in the project.  And for me at least I wanted to take the biggest risk aside from James here by basically writing the whole game upfront.  It just didn’t seem right that if I was the guy with the old idea he thought would still work and crazy plan that I wasn’t right up there taking the risk.  Course, if people are happy with what they see here, that also means you don’t need to wait for a “Give the team a raise!” Stretch goal (nothing against those, just we’re using a different model).  Just get your friends to look at it, spread the word, and the more of you that enjoy and back this, the better it comes out for us.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

James: Gosh, I don’t remember exactly. I think I’ve backed 40+ projects at this point, so it’s all a blur now. More than likely it was through friends who were promoting their own projects, or projects they were backing. That seems to be how most people discover it. It’s always a reality-check when I’m talking to strangers about what I do and the topic comes up. Frequently people haven’t even heard of Kickstarter yet, so there’s a big audience out there still waiting to find out about it.

Jack: I remember Greg Stolze’s ransom model well when he first started talking about it.  When someone basically weaponized that concept into crowdfunding I took notice in an academic way but...let’s see.  I think the first project I backed was Jerry Grayson’s HELLAS: Princes of the Universe book.

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?

James: Great questions! Right now, we’re creating some bennies that we hadn’t thought of before the campaign, and getting ready to release them as a big “Thank you” to people who’ve backed already. We’re listening to backer feedback for ideas on how to help spread the word and thank people who’ve backed us already. I think the low backer buy-in for the playtest document is a big help. Lots of people have backed at that level and then upgraded their pledges after seeing how far we are along. I’m looking to set up a google hangout game where we can demo some of the mechanics, and I’m also looking to schedule interviews and podcasts.

With our Updates, we’ll be revealing more about the stretch goals (in fact, our first of these updates just went out today) and about the setting itself. We’ll talk more about the people involved in the project and try to humanize things as much as possible. We want the backers to know who they’re helping, and how much we love them for their support!

Jack: I think one big engagement here is the playtest copy.  We want people to read, play, enjoy the game even now. Let us know about your awesome games and such!  And as James said, if you really want to see something let us know.  We can’t promise we can provide it, but we’ll listen and see what we can do.

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?  

James: I’ve been watching Kicktraq, but it’s a bit early in the Kickstarter for the data to be super-useful. I’ll be paying more attention to it after the first week is up. I’m going to try and start adding more social media as we go forward, but right now my focus is on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. It’s mostly me doing all that work, so I only have so much time in the day to devote to that kind of internet legwork. I have to be careful not to overextend myself while still managing the project!

Jack:  I’ve been hitting Twitter, some websites, Facebook, etc… My big “job” here is to engage people I know and get them talking.  Engage with new people and see what they’re liking, wanting, etc... So I guess if James is the straight-laced “big picture” agency head I’m the quirky maverick agent who’s always gumming up the works with my screwball antics.  Strategy v. tactics, maybe? Something like that.

As for Kicktraq, it’s awesome eventually, but kinda useless at this point.  Actually that’s not true.  I used it to scare Nathan on launch day...we were having coffee during my Seattle trip for the annual Green Ronin Summit and I called up Kicktraq and it showed that we were projected to get like a billion dollars, a new puppy, and a special satchel that would let us summon up Hostess fruit pies at will.  Then I said “Okay, so that’s crap.  We’re not likely to get all that (especially now that Hostess has gone under) so let’s get that out of our systems.  Now in a few days we can compare our success with that of other Kickstarters at various points in their backing schedule and such...that’s gonna be super useful.”

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

James: Prepare. Talk to people who’ve run campaigns that succeeded, and some that failed. Listen, look, and inquire. Back some campaigns yourself, see what you like about the process and what bugs you. Plan for what happens if you fail, and what happens if you succeed, and what happens if you succeed at a ridiculous level. The more professional your project is out of the gate, the more likely people are going to invest. Don’t treat Kickstarter like a pre-order storefront, this is an investment for people and they want to see a return on their investment. Be aware of your costs and how the math works. And prepare for things to go wrong! There is always something you didn’t think of, so design your goals with a healthy budget to deal with surprises so you’re not caught without enough money at the end to deal with problems.

Jack: Wait until November 18th, 5:42 PM EST.  And what James said.

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

James: Kickstarter is a great new way for people to reach directly out to their fanbase, and to create one if they don’t already have one. If you haven’t heard the term “1,000 True Fans” you should probably Google that and read some articles on the idea before running a Kickstarter. Basically, the idea behind it is that if you can get a thousand people to give you a hundred bucks a year because they love your stuff, you can make a career out of that. For a publisher like me, that number isn’t exactly right because I have to pay for my contributors and such, but the core idea is that you need fans to make a creative venture work… but the number isn’t unknown. If you plan things out and work towards your goals, it is achievable. We’re using Kickstarter to connect with our fans and deliver something we know they’ll love. We plan to do it again with new projects coming up. So keep looking out for us! You can always find out what we’re up to and check out preview art at our website:

Jack: Man I’d love to say something super profound at this point’s been a week.  So I think I’ll end with this: If you want to make media? Consume it.  If you want to consume more cool media for stuff you like? Support those who make it.  It’s basically cycle and we’re all in this together.

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

James: Thanks! We’re already having fun with it, so I expect things to get even more exciting from this point forward!

Jack: Thank you.  Hopefully we’ve got a lot of cool stuff to still expand on and talk about going forward.

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