Gravity Falls Has Terrible Dating Advice

In Gravity Falls S2E16, Roadside Attraction, one of the show’s twin protagonists, Dipper Pines, is trying to get over an unrequited crush on a significantly older girl. His friends recommend he try to date someone else, and his great uncle Stan, a professional con artist, gives him vague and confusing advice about talking to girls that eventually gets boiled down to the three Cs: Confidence, comedy, and something else that starts with C. Stan also advises Dipper to practice flirting with lots of different girls, particularly since they’re on a road trip and he’s unlikely to ever see any of the girls again. Dipper takes his advice and sees initial success, but it so happens that every girl he’s talked to shows up at the final roadside attraction on the trip, stumbling across him on his latest date and demanding an explanation. Dipper runs away, leaving them all fuming, one thing leads to another, and they end up fighting a drider. Dipper learns a valuable lesson about respecting women and erases all the phone numbers/email addresses he collected.

Except, uh, that’s bullshit. Gruncle Stan has his redeeming qualities, but none of them really apply here, so we can safely assume that he’s sleazy with women and would’ve encouraged Dipper to be the same, playing the field long past the point where it would’ve been disrespectful to do so. But the narrative acts like Dipper actually did this – he never even got within the same zip code of it. The one interaction with a girl we see outside of montage is a thirty second mildly flirtatious conversation that ends with her giving him his email. Even if we’re really generous with time compression for the sake of a twenty-two minute runtime, this is one conversation that ends with an invitation to a date, not even an actual date, let alone some kind of real commitment. Just because Dipper has been invited to go on a first date with one girl doesn’t mean he’s not within his rights to go on a date with another girl, or even that he’s obligated to tell the first girl (who he’s shared all of one conversation with) about the second.

If Dipper’s done anything even close to wrong, it’s that he doesn’t text or email any of the girls, when accepting their numbers/emails might suggest an intention to communicate more, but 1) his lesson-learned moment at the end is erasing them all, so apparently that’s the opposite of what the show wants from him, and 2) even that’s pretty presumptuous. If it were a boy giving his number to a flirtatious girl and later acting like he’s entitled to communication, we wouldn’t hesitate to call him self-centered and controlling.

Particularly since Dipper wasn’t even particularly flirtatious in the one interaction we actually see entirely. He suggests she pose for a funny picture and then he pretends to drop her phone, which is kind of dickish and the girl would’ve been justified in being mad about that, but instead she takes it in exactly the spirit Dipper intended it and gives him her email address with only a subtle prompt – an email address which Dipper goes on to ignore, so even if she felt that gentle nudge was obligating her to give away contact information she didn’t want to, Dipper never even used it.

Even when Dipper does accept a date from recurring character Candy, who he has no interest in (Stan convinces him he shouldn’t be picky – the one piece of truly bad advice Stan gives to Dipper), he’s showing poor judgment but hasn’t done anything wrong. Candy is the one being more intimate than Dipper is comfortable with (although we can’t hold Candy at fault either, because Dipper has been pressured by someone else entirely into pretending this is what he wants).

It’s realistic that a twelve-year old would lack the maturity to recognize that he hasn’t made any commitments and therefore can’t be held responsible for breaking them, and that his twelve-year old would-be dates would likewise lack the maturity to recognize that just because they feel jealous doesn’t automatically mean that feeling is Dipper’s fault, but the narrative doesn’t treat this like Dipper being buffaloed into thinking he’s done something wrong when he hasn’t. It acts like Dipper has been dating all of these girls steadily without telling any of them he’s seeing other people, or has been making out with them before riding off into the sunset to do the same thing at the next stop, or that he’s directly lied to them about how seriously he’s taking the relationship. The episode wants to make a point about pick-up artists being scummy, but the problem is that actual scummy behavior would be out of character for Dipper, so instead this is an episode about how if you ever crack a joke to someone, they now own you and you’re not allowed to talk to other people without their permission.

Using Poker Hands in TTRPGs

Every now and again, the idea of using poker hands as an RNG for a TTRPG comes up, usually in the context of some kind of western. How would that work?

Five Card Poker

The most obvious way to do this is to just deal out a full five-card poker hand to each player, then let them play a hand whenever they make a check. A better hand is more likely to succeed. After playing a hand, they discard it and draw an entirely new hand.

About 50% of all poker hands are a single, and about 43% are a pair, so you would probably want the standard TN for something anyone could accomplish to be Jack-high, and the TN for most things that you would expect to require expertise to be a pair of Jacks. Your odds of getting two pair or better are about 7%, which is pretty close to a critical hit on a d20. It’s unlikely, but not so unlikely that you don’t usually see one or two in every session. A three-of-a-kind, straight, flush, and full house are all much more rare but still common enough that you’ll very probably see them happen over the course of an entire campaign, loosely comparable to rolling triple sixes on a 3d6, which does happen now and then. Once we get into four-of-a-kind and especially a straight flush or royal flush, we’re getting into territory that’s technically possible but unlikely to come up even once across an entire mid-size campaign.

But this raises the question: How do you add in skills? If your gunslinger is real good at shooting, how does that get reflected in this system? The most obvious way to do it is by allowing them to draw more cards to make a hand out of, but working out the probabilities on that is a huge headache and the value of additional cards goes down the more of them you already have. If you want a narrow range of power between the weakest and strongest characters in the game, that can still work, but even a fairly mundane wild west game wants a deadshot to be much, much better at shooting than a shop keep with broken glasses, so this extra cards approach only works if every character in the game must be a gunslinger with more-or-less the same skills or else if you’re willing to have a game where characters draw 20+ cards to assemble a poker hand out of when they’re using their best skill. At that point, you don’t really feel like you’re playing poker at all.

The second most obvious solution is to convert the poker hand into some kind of total number, to which your skill bonus is added. The problem here is that it’s hard to find a conversion that works across all poker hands. For a single or a pair, the answer seems obvious: Just add the cards together. This way a pair is, on average, worth twice as much as a single. Here’s the problem: Two pair (a hand with four cards to add together) is much more common than three-of-a-kind, and four-of-a-kind is less common than every five-card hand except the straight flush and royal flush. To make the convert-to-number method work, you have to give special conversion methods to most hands (although not the most common hands, at least) to make less common hands more valuable. For example, with two-pair sevens and threes, instead of just adding 7+7+3+3 for 20, you might add 7+3 and then multiply by 1.25 and rounding down for 12. Since three-of-a-kind is on average worth 1.5x a pair, having two-pair be worth on average 1.25x one pair is mathematically sound, but also now you have multiply things by 1.25. Then you have to find some similar conversion for the straight, flush, and full house that all give average results between three-of-a-kind and four-of-a-kind, even though four-of-a-kind is only 1.33x the value of three-of-a-kind. Or you can add a multiplier to four-of-a-kind beyond just adding all four cards together, at which point you’ve sacrificed what little consistency this system had.

The best way (of these three that I’ve thought of, anyway) to incorporate skill bonuses into a poker-based RNG is to have skill bonuses just promote the kind of hand you have. If you have a pair of sevens and a +1 skill bonus, your hand is now two-pair of sevens and some other card that is lower than sevens. With a +2 skill bonus, it becomes three sevens. With a +3 skill bonus, it becomes a seven-high straight. With a +4 bonus, it becomes a seven-high flush. With a +5 bonus, it becomes a full house, sevens over something else.

Two things you’ll notice about this system: First, it’s possible to get normally impossible hands through skill bonuses. If you get a pair of twos with a +3 skill bonus, you now have a two-high straight, which is normally impossible. If you have a pair of sixes with a +4 bonus, it becomes a six-high flush, which is normally impossible because the only way for six to be the highest card of a flush hand is if it’s a straight flush. This is weird, but doesn’t really impact anything. Just roll with it.

Second, we only ever care about the number value of one card in any hand. For two-pair, we only care about the value of the higher pair. For full house, we only care about the value of the triplets. For a straight, we only care about the highest card of the straight. This makes things simpler to resolve anyway. Instead of having over a hundred different combinations of a full house each of which represents a minutely different TN, a full house represents the same two-through-ace scale as every other hand. Jack is the default difficulty, but minor circumstantial bonuses or penalties can nudge the difficulty up to a Queen or down to a ten or whatever.

Hand Building

Another way to do this is with hand building. That means that when you make a check, you don’t discard your whole hand. You discard only the cards used to make the check. You can play a single card to get it out of your hand, taking a dive on whatever check you’re making to try and build up a stronger hand. If you’ve got two-of-a-kind, for example, you could hold onto that and junk other cards until you’re able to get three, or two-pair, or a full house, or something. Building a flush would mean taking a dive on a lot of checks, but it’d be much, much easier to build a flush than to draw one straight from the deck. In fact, it’d be easier to build a flush than a straight, since each card you replace when building to a flush has a 1-in-4 odds of building your flush, but only a 2-in-13 (or slightly worse than 1-in-6) odds of building your straight. Actually, the odds aren’t quite 1-in-4 or 2-in-13, since the cards you’ve already drawn from the deck affect the odds in ways that vary depending on exactly which cards are in your hand, but the basic math still works out: Drawing a flush straight from the deck is less likely than drawing a straight, but building a flush when you get to select which cards to replace will usually go faster than building a straight.

And this also encourages players looking to get rid of junk in their hands to find skill checks that don’t matter so they can safely take a dive on them. This leads to players interacting with the mechanics instead of the narrative, attempting tasks which are challenging enough to warrant a check but which have nothing to do with anything just to manage the abstract, game mechanical resource that is the cards in their hand. Proper game design should be making mechanics and narrative harmonious, so we’ve definitely gone off the rails here.

Hand building sounds interesting, but really only works in board games where you can tightly control when checks are called for in order to guarantee that all checks are relevant and you can never safely take a dive. Then hand building is about minimizing the damage of getting rid of junk, rather than wasting time with actions that totally negate the damage. Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of a TTRPG makes it basically impossible to prevent players from finding things to do that call for a skill check while having no real consequences for failure. They can try to play a fiddle and the worst that’ll happen is they aren’t very good, try to chat up the ladies at the saloon and the worst that’ll happen is they’ll get slapped in the face. They can even throw out some junk cards on activities that could hypothetically cause great harm, but won’t do so except for catastrophic failure. They can try to swim a river to get rid of an unneeded seven of clubs, and while they won’t make it to the other bank, they’re probably not going to straight up drown unless they play a two.

Texas Hold ‘Em

The last RNG idea I’m going to look at here is Texas Hold ‘Em. Each player gets a hand of two cards, and there’s a river of between three and five cards shared between them. With a seven-card hand, the odds of a pair or better are 82%, which means you can make pair of Jacks the base TN for challenges that an ordinary person might struggle with but will probably be able to manage. The odds of three-of-a-kind or better are 15%, which is a pretty good spot for something that experts can manage easily but ordinary people will struggle with, which means you have two pair in between if you need more granularity in the “routine for experts, tough for ordinary people” space. A flush has about 5% odds, making it the natural 20 of the system, and even a four-of-a-kind is not so unusual that you wouldn’t expect to see it once or twice in a campaign. Only the straight flush and royal flush are so rare as to be unlikely to come up across an entire campaign.

On the one hand, it’s good that more hands are coming up. There’s more granularity in the scale of TNs, since more of the potential results are actually achievable, compared to the five-card probability spread where singles and pairs totally dominated the space with only 7.5% of the entire scale left over for anything better than a pair. With seven cards, we have TNs that are 80%, 40%, 15%, 10%, and 5% likely to be hit, and then four more TNs higher than that which are mostly the domain of people with skill bonuses, although an untrained person can still hypothetically hit them. This is a pretty good spread. It gives you room for characters with bonuses ranging from -1 to +3 where each step on that scale is a big deal, so you’d expect this to be the kind of game where you probably don’t level up much, which makes sense. You don’t usually get zero-to-hero stories out of the old west.

The problem is that it’s kinda hard to do the Texas Hold ‘Em thing with three different rounds of revealing cards on the river for every single check. Probably you’ll just put five cards on the river all at once, and then replace them all once a check is made. You could replace just one card, with a first-in, first-out system so that the card that’s been in the river the longest gets removed, but then you get into all the problems with hand building and the bizarre meta-gaming behavior it encourages, with people trying to make useless checks to get the river moving when it’s bad, and trying to avoid all checks to keep the river still when it’s good.

Conclusion

I don’t have one, particularly. I just had a string of disconnected thoughts about how to do some kind of poker-based RNG for a TTRPG, and since I have no plans for any game along those lines any time in the future, this blog post was the only outlet.

Caspar’s, Ozaka’s, and Cora’s

I haven’t done a Kickstarter post-mortem for a while. Partly, that’s because they were getting kind of old. For the first six or seven, I didn’t have a whole lot of data points for what to expect, so each Kickstarter gave new information about how the next one might go, and I would speculate about what the next one would indicate based on how well or poorly it did. By Caspar’s and especially Ozaka’s, the numbers were pretty much in and there wasn’t much speculation left to do.

It’s also partly because what speculation remained was about whether things were going to stay the same or get worse. Improvement was basically off the table, as Caspar’s dwindled from Kessler’s 442 down to just 402 backers, and then Ozaka’s stabilized at 400. Cora’s is currently at 426 with six hours left on the clock, so it seems like 400 to 500 is the range I can reliably bring in, probably trending closer to 400 to 450, since Harlequin’s was likely benefiting from a short-lived after-effect of the Witchlight spike that benefited Celawyn’s.

This is pretty solidly middle of the pack compared to the data I have on 2019 Kickstarters, although the project I sourced the data from got 2020’d so I don’t have any more recent data to go off of. For now, my assumption is that I am indeed doing pretty average (in the category of people who run successful TTRPG Kickstarters at all) with regards to everything except the frequency of my projects. The good news is, that’s firmly enough to live on. The bad news is that I crunched the numbers and it’s gonna be pretty tricky to save for retirement on that, especially since I’m doing my best to pay my freelancers a reasonable amount, something which I’m struggling to do even with the small team I’ve got working with me right now.

Plus, there’s the looming problem that the series is almost over. Cora’s is the second-to-last book in the series. The last, Orrinyath’s Guide to Dragons, will Kickstart in January, because my year is blocked around the pagan calendar for its evenly-spaced holidays, which means it starts at Imbolc on February 1st. That seemed totally fine back at the start of 2021 (and in 2017, when I first switched to this system) because my schedule affected basically nobody but myself, but now it means the climax of my series comes in January and not December. Is that good or bad? Maybe it’ll mean that I’m the only one building to a big finish in January and I’ll stand out, or maybe everyone will be all climaxed out (Archer joke) and won’t have any energy left over to get excited about dragons. Or maybe even any money. I’m not super concerned about that, because the books are only $5, so surely most people can manage that even in the aftermath of Christmas, but you never know, world’s getting crazy.

However Orrinyath’s turns out, the big question at this point is how the new series (as yet unnamed) is going to turn out. It’s going to have fairly similar content to Chamomile’s Guide to Everything, with new classes, sub-classes, races, and so on, but it’ll be a lot more location focused and a lot less generic, with an emphasis on an open source setting to go along with all those open source illustrations I’ve been releasing. I think a big selling point for Chamomile’s Guide to Everything is that it’s content you can drop into whatever game you’re running right now, and while I’m going to try and make the open source Weskven setting something that’s easy to disassemble and drop each individual piece of into a homebrew campaign setting, it’s really hard to bring that across in a title and cover illustration. Maybe this combination of more story and worldbuilding along with more player options and GM content (including new monsters and the like) will prove to be even more popular, or maybe this is where it all falls apart.

Sarah Lynn Was Always Going To Fall Off The Wagon

That’s Too Much, Man, the episode of Bojack Horseman when Sarah Lynn dies of a drug overdose, is really good. I’m guessing people rewatch that specific episode way more often than they rewatch season 3 in general, because every time discussion of Bojack’s involvement in Sarah Lynn’s life comes up, someone says that Bojack is responsible for Sarah Lynn falling off the wagon, and nobody ever corrects them. But Sarah Lynn’s really clear a few episodes earlier that the only reason she’s sober is so that the drugs will hit her system harder when she starts using again. She has a shelf of alcohol directly behind the calendar tracking her sobriety, a big bowl of Vicodin just lying around, a painting made of LSD, and a bunch of cocaine lying around somewhere.

Bojack walks past several opportunities to potentially save Sarah Lynn’s life in that episode, including one where all he had to do was nothing at all, as Sarah Lynn gets bored of the bender and wanders off. It’s unclear whether she’s going to keep going on her own or if she’s done, but Bojack uses the promise of the Planetarium, the spot Sarah Lynn’s been trying to drag the bender towards for weeks, to keep her going. Famously, he waited to call the ambulance for her in order to cover up the fact that he was present when she died (although I’m still pissed at the show for retconning that in several seasons after the fact).

But when people show up at her funeral with the attitude “well, this was bound to happen,” they’re totally correct. Bojack is at least partially responsible for Sarah Lynn dying on that specific night, but she was not on a path of recovery before he came along. She gave him an open invitation to go on that bender weeks before he took her up on it, she was thirty-the-fuck-one years old and responsible for her own decisions, and Bojack was even a moderating force on the bender until the last few hours of it.

It’s not surprising, ultimately. Bojack does bear some guilt for Sarah Lynn’s death, because again, all he had to do to potentially save her life was not say anything when she said she was leaving. It’s not clear whether she was going to go home and sleep off the bender or continue by herself (she says the former, but she might’ve been lying to get Bojack to leave her alone so she could continue without him – he was being a selfish buzzkill). And of course the internet can’t do nuance, so if Bojack isn’t totally exonerated of all blame for Sarah Lynn’s death, then he must be completely responsible, and Sarah Lynn was just helpless putty in his hands, like she never grew past the age of three.

Kessler’s Guide to Dungeons Post-Mortem

Kessler’s Guide to Dungeons pulled in 442 backers and $9,443. That’s noticeably fewer backers than Harlequin’s, yet also significantly more money. What happened?

The source of the extra money is plain as day. I’ve always offered signed copies of the books as add-ons to these campaigns, but have avoided offering digital or unsigned physical copies, because those are available via Itch and DTRPG already. Offering to sell these books for less than I already am isn’t really a viable business model, but offering to sell the books at full price to Kickstarter backers who will have to wait until money is confirmed at the end of the campaign when they could be getting them either downloaded immediately (for digital copies) or at least put in queue to print immediately (for physical copies) seemed kind of…odd, somehow.

Not dishonest or shady, because the option to buy from Itch/DTRPG is there and always has been, but because it’s there, I’d be kind of worried about anyone who actually took the clearly inferior option to buy a book as a Kickstarter add-on instead, the same way I worry a little bit when someone talks about waffling on whether they want to back at a certain, higher-end reward tier. The reason why I track success by backer count is because I want to succeed by a large number of people paying whatever amount of money they can easily spare, not by juicing a small amount of people for as much money as possible and thus restrict my audience to a combination of the rich and people whose poor money management I’d be taking advantage of.

Ultimately, though, people who do that kind of thing are adults and it’s not really any of my business what they do with their money. When they bring it up, I remind them that my main measure of success is backer count and they shouldn’t feel like they have to spend any more than the $5 for the core product, sometimes they decide to spring for a big fancy $50 or $100 reward anyway, and even if that turns out to be foolish, it would be more foolish for me to act like I’m in a position to make that decision better than they are. I tend to worry about things in general (you can probably notice from these post-mortems that I’ve almost constantly got an eye on how things might go wrong), and a lot of the time the answer to those worries is to embrace stoicism and let it go, particularly in this case, where the alternative is to turn my Discord into a scary dystopia where I try to make people’s financial decisions for them.

Similarly, I took the effort to add in copies of previous guides in the series as add-ons this time, there were a huge number of extra buyers, and ultimately I’ve decided to shrug my shoulders and let people sacrifice weeks of time waiting for their copy to arrive in exchange for the forty-five second convenience of buying from Kickstarter instead of opening a new tab for itch.io. I’ve had the latter option for six campaigns and I would get a couple dozen takers every time, but offering it as an add-on got me three times as many and netted a nearly 50% increase in total money raised (slightly less in terms of total profit, but it’s a rounding error – I very slightly increased the price of physical copies for these guides after a bunch of people in Dark Lord mentioned increasing their pledge to try and support the project, which actually accomplished nothing because I’d set my .prices so that digital, softcover, and hardcover copies all got me about the same profit, with the difference in price being purely in terms of printing and shipping).

Rumination on business ethics aside (but continuing with the neurotic over-analysis, because that’s what these posts are), the extra money is obviously good, but the decreased backer count suggests bad news long term. This is especially true because of exactly which books the extra money came from: There is an almost 1:1 correlation between how early in the series the books are and their ranking in terms of sales as an add-on. This strongly suggests that people who started following the series partway through are picking up books from Kickstarters they missed. That means that some of the add-on money is a one-time surge. The good news is that it’s possible that as much as half of the add-on money came from new backers who were buying the entire series, so at least some of the additional money-per-backer should be retained going forward.

Now that growth has very definitely stopped, there’s another looming question: Peak or plateau? Am I going to bounce around the general 400-500 range for the rest of the series, or steadily dwindle back downwards? The dwindling would have to significantly accelerate to derail the series completely, but it could take things down low enough to make surviving the switch to a new series in 2022 seem very unlikely. Even if things do plateau, I’d have to retain most, if not all, of my audience going into the 2022 series, or else that one will die and I’ll have the same problem, just a few months later. It’s starting to look like this might be a one-year ride and not a long-term career.

This brings us to the question of why. Kessler’s was on target to exceed Harlequin’s until a disappointing finale, especially the penultimate day. This was almost immediately after the reveal of a “next evolution” of D&D coming in 2024 for the 50 year anniversary. It’s possible that some people were expecting 6e, and didn’t want to buy 5e books. None of the buzz so far suggests 6e, and in fact WotC themselves don’t seem to know what they’re going to do for it, so hopefully that’ll sink in over the next few weeks and won’t hurt the next book in the series (particularly since there’s 3 years of current version D&D, so it’s not like someone who buys my books as they come out won’t have time to use them).

Kessler’s might just be a weak topic. It’s most similar in tone to Natalia’s, which was the weakest of the Kickstarters, but the strongest of the add-ons, which strongly suggests that its release position is obscuring the strength of its topic completely, making it weak early on when few people knew about the series but stronger later on when the expanded audience first saw the add-ons and filled out their collection. Without any solid evidence on what other topics might be more popular (except that piracy is definitely a weaker topic, the evidence for that is just piling up), it’s hard to know how plausible the “Kessler’s underperformed because it was a weak topic” theory is, but the fact that it was outperforming Harlequin’s up until a bizarrely weak finish makes me skeptical. On the other hand, Natalia’s also had a bizarrely weak finish. What’s causing this? I have no idea.

The series might also just be running out of steam. Some number of people may have simply decided they’ve had enough of my work. Unfortunately, I can’t really cool the series off. I’m the only writer, my margins are too slim to switch to a completely different topic, and I can’t just go dark for six months to let interest build back up for a while. So long as I’m getting only 400-500 backers per book, I need a new release every month, without exception. Only by building up to at least 600, preferably 900, can I start putting significant amounts of money away to ride out a cooldown period like this. It did occur to me that going for twelve books instead of nine might’ve been a bad idea. The ninth book is Kickstarting next, so if I’d stuck to the original nine-book plan, fading momentum might be overtaken by hype for the series finale. It’s way too late to switch tracks now, though. There’s only one book I’d be willing to cut, and the symbol for it has been in the sigil for months now.

I do have a ~secret plan~ that will hopefully drive some interest in the new series that I plan to announce when the current one is closer to wrapping up. There’s no telling whether or not this will actually work, and in general anything new you’re trying is more likely to fail than not, so I’m not counting on it. I also have more immediate plans for an actual play show that will showcase the content of the books, as well as an open table game that will make use of them. Much like the ~secret plan~, this is more likely to fail than succeed just on the grounds that I haven’t already succeeded at it, but it’s two more rolls of the dice and there’s no other way to load the odds in my favor except to make lots of attempts. Or be born to generational wealth, but unless I’ve got a millionaire great-uncle I don’t know about, I think that ship has sailed.

Harlequin’s Guide to Cities and Poison Post-Mortem

Harlequin’s Guide to Cities and Poison got 470 backers and raised $6,659. That’s about 80% of what Celawyn’s Guide to Wilderness and Fey got by backer count, but I always knew I wouldn’t necessarily be able to consolidate the spike in interest from that book coinciding with the upcoming release of The Wild Beyond The Witchlight. If we assume the Witchlight spike concealed some amount of reliable growth, that indicates that both Celawyn’s and Harlequin’s got about 15% growth. Some people have suggested that cities and poison is a bit of a dud topic just like piracy was, so maybe it was 20% from Celawyn’s and 10% from Harlequin’s, but I don’t want to bake that kind of speculation into my stats (especially not when I’m already speculating about the effects Witchlight spike as it is), so I’m writing down 15% for each.

It’s not as straightforward as all that, though. Harlequin’s Guide started even stronger than Celawyn’s. For the first two days, it looked like the Witchlight spike had been consolidated and we were going to grow even further from there. Things always fall off after the first two days or so, but Harlequin’s fell off harder than normal, the gap between it and Celawyn’s closing pretty quickly. I did some math to try and figure out why. The reason for comparing the first 28 hours versus the last 68 hours is because I start my campaigns four hours before midnight according to Kickstarter servers, which means my first “day” is only four hours long, my last “day” is only 20 hours long, and the final 48 hours (exactly) are spread across the last three “days.” This means, in order to capture the final 48 hours, I also have to include another 20 hours extra. Since this is true of every campaign I’ve got data on, however, it shouldn’t impact our results much.


FIRST 28 HOURS AS A PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL BACKERS

Natalia’s: 36.7%
Irena’s: 33.8%
Bianca’s: 38.1%
Brac’s: 33.2%
Thaemin’s: 39.5%
Celawyn’s: 26.3%
Harlequin’s: 40.5%

AVERAGE MIDDLE BACKERS-PER-DAY (AS A PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL BACKERS)

Natalia’s: 5.4 (3.4%)
Irena’s: 6.9 (3.2%)
Bianca’s: 8.6 (3.0%)
Brac’s: 10.4 (3.4%)
Thaemin’s: 11.7 (3.2%)
Celawyn’s: 22.8 (3.9%)
Harlequin’s: 13.6 (2.9%)

FINAL 68 HOURS AS A PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL BACKERS

Natalia’s: 22.1%
Irena’s: 30.0%
Bianca’s: 27.6%
Brac’s: 28.5%
Thaemin’s: 24.8%
Celawyn’s: 29.9%
Harlequin’s: 27.5%

From this, we can see that Harlequin’s had a stronger than average start (40.5% of backers in the first 28 hours), but not much stronger than Thaemin’s (39.5%). In fact, Celawyn’s was an unusually weak start (26.3%, far behind the second lowest, Brac’s at 33.2%). The final 68 hours were extremely typical (nearly median, in fact – the median is Bianca’s with 27.6%, and Harlequin’s is only one tenth of a percentage point lower). The relatively much stronger performance of not just Harlequin’s but also Thaemin’s (the latest campaign that did not receive an obvious spike from uncontrollable, external events) could be indicative that I’m approaching a plateau, with more and more of my backers coming from people who know instantly that they’re backing the campaign because they already know my work.

But I don’t have to speculate about that. I keep track of which backers are new versus returning for every one of my books, as part of extending special thanks to those who back me consistently. There’s a minor flaw with this, which is that people who never fill out the survey or who wish to remain anonymous are not counted, but these are both pretty tiny fractions of the total population for any given Kickstarter, so it shouldn’t badly impact the data one way or another. There’s also a major flaw, which is that it relies on survey responses, which usually take a week or so to come in. This means I don’t actually have data on Harlequin’s yet, and I’m too impatient to put this post off until I’ve got it. The data on what part of the campaign backers come from (i.e. first 28 hours vs. final 68 hours vs. the middle) was already showing warnings signs with Thaemin’s, though, so let’s look at the percentage of new backers for each book up to Celawyn’s and see if Thaemin’s is a noticeable aberration:

Natalia’s: 100%
Irena’s: 67.6%
Bianca’s: 58.9%
Brac’s: 55.8%
Thaemin’s: 50.2%
Celawyn’s: 58.5%

Looks like no, Thaemin’s doesn’t stand out. The total number of people who’ve never backed before is going steadily downwards, but that’s to be expected. My audience is drawn almost exclusively from people who back things on Kickstarter a lot, and people who back D&D-related things on Kickstarter a lot are ever-more-likely to have backed at least one of my projects as the total number of my projects increases. Some amount of my growth is coming from converting people who catch my books whenever one happens to catch their eye into people who back all of my books because it is me writing them, and that was always going to be the case.

So that leaves the question of the weak middle. There are many potential explanations why the middle may have been so weak:

-Poor stretch goal structuring. I always mark out my stretch goals in advance, rather than doing the standard slow unveiling thing. The slow unveiling thing is definitely effective (no one is ever motivated to back for a higher amount or convince others to back my project because the stretch goal after the current one might be something cool), but it interferes with my “fire and forget” approach to Kickstarter projects. Bad enough that there’s no way to schedule updates so I have to remember to post them. In any case, I usually structure the stretch goals around encouraging people to try and make the current project more successful than the last. This time, I actually structured them around just matching the last project, since I knew that consolidating the Witchlight spike could potentially be challenging or even impossible. It turned out to be the second one, which means only the $5,000 new art goal was hit. The lack of steadily hitting stretch goals may have harmed momentum in the middle. I should definitely switch to $2,500/$5,000/$7,500 for the next project.

-Running out of add-ons. Related to the above, there are no longer any signed copies of Natalia’s Guide to Necromancy being offered as add-ons, as all 100 are now spoken for. This led to fewer people buying signed copies (it is now impossible to get a complete set from scratch), which meant a lower amount of money-per-backer. This means that me and my freelancers are getting paid less for our efforts instead of more for the first time, but we all knew that the Witchlight spike might be impossible to consolidate. More relevantly, it means the number that most people pay attention to, total money raised, looked pretty weak compared to previous campaigns, especially compared to the higher stretch goal amounts. I should probably give add-ons for unsigned copies, including digital copies, going forward. This might end up just shuffling money around, since I already have a link to a page showing all of my work so far in the FAQ, so maybe I end up getting less money from DTRPG and more from Kickstarter. Also, it’s kind of weird to ask people to wait until the end of the Kickstarter to buy things that are available immediately from DTRPG. Not everyone sees the FAQ the way they do add-ons, though, and adding a few extra clicks (click through to the list of my complete work, click through to individual books’ DTRPG links, click through to buy from DTRPG) might be driving down sales.

-Being a “project we love” is actually harmful. My project was marked a “project we love” by Kickstarter staff, which was a neat feather to have in my cap, but it doesn’t seem to have done anything (except maybe driven a higher early surge in backers?). In fact, there’s weak, correlative evidence that it may have harmed the project, but this is so counterintuitive that my current assumption is that it’s coincidence.

One final confounding factor is that a cross-promotion with another Kickstarter yielded at least 10 backers. The boost from that cross-promotion bled into the final 48 hours in a way that makes it hard to say exactly how many backers they brought in, but it could plausibly be as many as 50. It’s possible that actually steady growth is winding down, with projects getting only 10%, not 15%, and it only looks like 15% because this project had a cross-promotion spike that covered up data on steady growth just like the Witchlight spike. Unlike the Witchlight spike, this suggests an obvious course of action: Do more cross-promotions.

A Real Story From Le Morte d’Arthur, Lightly Edited

It’s Arthur and Guinevere’s wedding feast, just a couple of years after he pulled the sword from the stone. Nothing else super weird has happened since then. A bunch of rebel lords challenged his right to rule, calling Merlin and his sword a fraud, and the succession was resolved with bigger army diplomacy, which is a totally standard way for a medieval king to spend the first couple of years of their reign. Now that his rule is consolidated, Arthur is looking forward to hopefully at least a couple of years of feasting and jousting and generally enjoying kingship without having to kill anyone over it.

He’s appointed Kay, his adoptive older brother, as his seneschal, so Kay would’ve been in charge of organizing the wedding reception. Kay is often depicted as a brute by Le Morte d’Arthur because even though Thomas Malory is English, his work is a product of the continental tradition, and the French for some reason thought Kay was two parts beatstick to one part buffoon, but apparently he’s perfectly capable of managing a giant wedding reception all by himself. Like, Arthur is undisputed king now and the text mentions some podunk knights here who will get famous later but right now are total nobodies, so it seems like the entire noble class of England was invited. Probably Kay was also in charge of security, so maybe that’s where the beatstick thing comes in, but his main responsibility would’ve been arranging the food and gifts for the guests (when you’re king, you give gifts to the guests at your wedding reception instead of the other way around), so he’s apparently a pretty competent manager. Take that, the continental tradition.

It’s in the middle of the feast on the first day of the celebration when a white hart comes running into the great hall, leaping over tables and running between the benches. Before anyone can do anything about that, a white dog comes running in chasing after the white hart. Before anyone can do anything about that, no less than sixty black dogs come charging in, completely overrunning the great hall, getting up on all the tables and knocking over all the wine goblets and eating all the best parts of the duck.

The white dog bites down on the white hart’s flank, but the hart knocks the dog off and into the lap of one of the knights at the feast. That knight grabs the dog and skedaddles while everyone else is too busy trying to clear the three score black dogs away.

Then a lady rides into the great hall, like, on a horse. She must’ve seen the knight who stole the dog on the way out, because as soon as she comes in, she shouts – so as to be heard over the black dogs, who still haven’t been evicted – “hey, that was my dog, someone get me my dog back!” Before anyone can ask her what’s with the hart or if she happens to be the owner of the sixty black dogs that just ruined the feast and if maybe she can get them outside, a knight in black armor riding a full-on warhorse charges into the great hall, hefts her off the saddle, and carries her away.

And Arthur’s like “what the fuck.”

And Merlin says “it’s a quest hook, Your Majesty. You’re supposed to send knights to figure out what the fuck.”

So Merlin helps Arthur pick some knights out to chase down the stag, the dog, and the lady, and slowly Arthur realizes that he’s being given a tutorial and this is his life now.

Malory never says one way or another, but I think we can safely assume that Kay was blackout drunk for all of this.

Celawyn’s Guide to Wilderness and Fey Post-Mortem

Celawyn’s Guide to Wilderness and Fey got 574 backers and raised over $10,000. Going by backers, that beats Thaemin’s Guide to Gods and Miracles by nearly sixty percent. This is totally unprecedented, and I see four possibilities for what might happen next. Unfortunately, due to the anomalous nature of this growth, it doesn’t tell me much about where the plateau might be, but that’s a cloudy lining on a big pile of silver, so I’m not complaining.

The spike behind Celawyn’s probably came because Wizards of the Coast announced their next adventure path, the Wild Beyond The Witchlight, was going to be Feywild themed, and I happened to have fey-related content positioned to take advantage of that just about perfectly. In a worst case scenario, the Witchlight spike may have carried me far past my plateau point, and I can’t get that high without some kind of special opportunity like this. In this case, the next guide, Harlequin’s Guide to Cities and Poison, will likely do worse than 425 backers (although it’s possible that the plateau happens to fall in one of the other ranges here, making it easy to confuse for an alternative scenario).

Just using the data from Natalia’s to Thaemin’s and ignoring the anomalous performance of Celawyn’s, you would expect Harlequin’s Guide to Cities and Poison to get somewhere between 425 to 525 backers, depending on whether you take 10% or 20% as the average growth. If it does indeed land in that range, that could indicate that all the additional backers from the Witchlight spike were purely a one-project thing, and that growth is continuing at the same rate without them, but it could also indicate that the plateau happens to be there. This would be a very nervous-making range to hit, because it could indicate that I’m on target for massive 1,000+ backer success by the end of the series, but it could also indicate that I’ve hit my limit. At least that limit is firmly in the range where it’s worth it to continue producing books to the end of the series, though.

There’s a weird gap here where if Harlequin’s gets between 525 and 600 backers, that indicates a plateau, because it represents trivial growth (or shrinkage) compared to Celawyn’s but is still far ahead of what you’d expect given the trendline without the Witchlight spike. 600 is one of the magic numbers, partly because it marks entry into the third decile from the top, which would indicate that I am actually quite good at this and have reason to feel confident in continued success, but also because it’s double the 300 needed to make these books worth it on absolute value (assuming average amount backed doesn’t decline). This means that when I transition to a new series in 2022, I could lose half my backers and still be making enough money on each book to justify the effort. Hitting a plateau just under that number would be unfortunate, but it would still mean that the series can most likely consistently hit numbers in the 500s through to early 2022, at least.

If Harlequin’s gets between 600 and 750 backers, that indicates growth in line with the 10%-30% that the series has been getting so far, which would indicate that the series is retaining the growth from the Witchlight spike and then continuing to grow at the usual non-Witchlight pace from there. This would be fantastic news, as it would indicate that the plateau is at least as high as the 600s and that, if the plateau doesn’t hit me first, I’ll be getting well into four-digit backers by the end of the series, which will again make it easier to transition to a new series without losing so many backers that it stops being worth it.

If Harlequin’s gets more than 750 backers, then that would be roughly 40% growth over Celawyn’s. That would indicate that the release of the Wild Beyond The Witchlight is actually coincidental, and what drove the success of Celawyn’s was just hitting some kind of threshold with backers where the Kickstarter algorithm looks favorably on me and starts showing my project to more backers. This is very unlikely, but if it happens, it could mean that this explosive growth is the new normal, at least until I hit the plateau (and the plateau – or the peak – has to be somewhere, even in the most ludicrously optimistic scenario).

Thaemin’s Guide to Gods and Miracles Post-Mortem

Thaemin’s Guide to Gods and Miracles’ Kickstarter just wrapped, and I’m putting the finishing touches on the primary draft for Celawyn’s Guide to Wilderness and Fey now. It should be Kickstarting July 16th. Thaemin’s Guide had 362 backers, making it just 3 backers short of being my most successful Kickstarter of all time by backer count. It had 20% growth over Brac’s Guide to Piracy, and made over $6,000.

Five times in a row my success has increased compared to a previous book, sometimes by not quite 10%, sometimes by as much as 30%. It’s just not plausible at this stage that, despite having tried to mix popular and unpopular topics together to avoid petering out or launching DOA, I happen to have picked my topics in exactly ascending order of popularity. The fact that the latest book increased by 20% rather than the last book’s 10% also suggests that piracy was indeed a niche topic. My success cannot reasonably be purely topic-driven. Momentum must be at least a partial factor.

The question for the future is now firmly: When will growth taper off, and will it plateau and continue on level or peak and begin to descend? Have I already begun approaching my limit, with growth at 10%, but gods and miracles happened to be a popular enough topic to mask the slowdown? If so, Celawyn’s will likely do about as well as Thaemin’s did, continued momentum allowing it to catch up (but not exceed) the strength of Thaemin’s topic.

Is my growth beginning to slow, but the problem looked worse than it was because Brac’s was also a niche topic? If so, then Celawyn’s will likely do about 10%-20% better than Thaemin’s.

Did I happen to pick two dud topics in a row that stymied what was otherwise consistently 30% growth? If so, Celawyn’s will likely do 30% better than Thaemin’s.

If Celawyn’s Guide to Wilderness and Fey does worse than Thaemin’s, then I have no idea what that means. I don’t know what scenario goes from five straight books of growth to a sudden, immediate peak less than halfway through the series, and I don’t consider it a strong possibility anymore.

And since 300+ backers is the minimum absolute value of backers to make this series worth it, even if I plateau immediately, it’ll still be worth it. At this point, even my neurotic obsession with contingency planning is beginning to discard the possibility of an immediate reversal of fortune. Although I suspect any follow-up series in 2022 will struggle to retain the audience built up over 2021, and it remains to be seen how much growth is possible in the original run of twelve books, I am at least fairly confident by now that only black swan calamity can derail the series entirely.

Brac’s Guide to Piracy Post-Mortem

The Kickstarter for Brac’s Guide to Piracy, fourth of my series of twelve Kickstarted D&D sourcebooks, is finished. After both Irena’s (the second book) and Bianca’s (the third) got 30% improvement in backers over their predecessors, I was somewhat hopeful Brac’s might be able to continue the trend, especially since I’d hoped pirates in D&D would be a pretty killer hook. This didn’t happen, although Brac’s did still grow, but by slightly less than 10%. At the same time, this put Brac just barely over the 300 backer threshold for an acceptable Kickstarter according to my original goals. I always knew the series was unlikely to start this high, and my goal was to push to a point where I could hit these numbers consistently. I don’t like how razor-thin my grip on that threshold is, though, as Brac’s had exactly 301 backers.

My community pointed out in my Discord that pirates might actually be a much more controversial hook than I’d expected, and it might actually be turning a lot of people off. With the exception of Pirates of the Caribbean, no one’s really released a popular pirate movie since, like, the 60s, and there were no efforts at imitating PotC, or at least, none that succeeded well enough to break into the mainstream (contrast the Star Wars sci-fi revival that lead to movies like Terminator and Robocop in the 80s, or the fantasy revival led by Lord of the Rings that led to the Chronicles of Narnia getting their own series, or even Warner Bros. constant efforts to replicate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t even have failed imitators on the big screen).

Video games haven’t fared much better, where again only Sid Meier’s Pirates! and AC: Black Flag are titles I would expect anyone to actually know, and even if you count the 1987, 1993, and 2004 iterations of Pirates! separately, that still gets you about one game that anyone cares about per decade. PotC got a few video game spin-offs that were okay, but I’d expect someone’s reaction to them to be “I guess it makes sense they made those” rather than “I actually remember those,” and I’m pretty sure it’s pure dumb luck that I happen to have rented The Legend of Black Kat back in like 2003 when video game rentals were a thing, rather than any indication of market relevance. Even westerns seem to be doing better than pirates in the video game scene, with both Red Dead Redemption and the Juarez games.

And pirate TTRPGs seem to be represented pretty much exclusively by 7th Sea and people who decided to play Blades in the Dark on a ship, who are apparently not numerous enough for anyone to have bothered making a TTRPG specifically about being thieves who have a ship.

Going into Brac’s, I figured that, what with “let’s be pirates” being the stereotypical game-derailing objective players dream up for themselves, a book that lets you easily say “okay, sure, you are all now pirates” would have a big audience. In retrospect, though, I can’t remember the last time I heard a story of someone who actually tried to go and be pirates.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that piracy is a really popular subject, and it was actually necromancy that I was wrong about. I thought Natalia’s Guide to Necromancy would be a strong start to the series, and that didn’t pan out. Maybe I’m not really building momentum at all, and it’s just that magic items and pirates were popular subjects, necromancy was unpopular, and illusion and intrigue was middlin’.

As a third possibility, maybe the specific subject of the book makes relatively little difference, and my momentum is just running out as I approach (or have arrived at) a plateau.

The fifth data point provided by Thaemin’s Guide should give me a pretty good idea of which of these three possibilities is correct.

If Thaemin’s Guide does poorly, closer to Irena’s or Natalia’s than to Bianca’s, that suggests that the range on my success is completely topic-driven, and celestials and paladins was an unpopular or middlingly popular topic compared to magic items or piracy. I wouldn’t close up the series immediately, but I’d strongly consider winding it down before the planned twelve books, since in this scenario only some small fraction of the books will do well enough to justify the pressure of writing a whole sourcebook in 1-2 weeks.

If Thaemin’s Guide does better than Irena’s but not better than Brac’s, that suggests that my success is completely momentum-driven, but that I’ve reached the peak of what my momentum can get me. This would make me nervous. 300 backers is enough to make the projects worth continuing, but I’m barely at 300 backers with Brac’s and I’d like to have more breathing room.

If Thaemin’s Guide does slightly better than Brac’s (another 10%-ish increase), that suggests that either my success is completely momentum-driven and I’ve nearly reached the peak of what my momentum can get me, but may have a few more 10% gains left before I hit my maximum, or else that my success is partly momentum-driven and partly topic-driven, but that both piracy and paladins were unpopular topics that inhibited growth, or else that my success is completely momentum-driven, but the minor delays in fulfillment on Bianca’s and (probably) Brac’s were enough to tamp down that momentum. This situation is the most open, but all three likely possibilities from this situation are at least a little bit positive, so it’ll mainly be a question of “is my situation kinda good or really good,” which I wouldn’t complain about.

If Thaemin’s Guide does much better than Brac’s (20% or 30%), that suggests that my success is partly momentum-driven and partly topic-driven, and that piracy was a uniquely controversial topic that inhibited what is otherwise a very strong growth trend. This would obviously make it a no-brainer to continue the series for at least the currently planned twelve books, and start seriously considering what my follow-up would be afterwards.