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.

5e Adventure Paths

I’ve run most of the first-party 5e APs at this point, and I don’t have extremely detailed thoughts on them, but I can probably squeeze a post out of sticking them all together.

Tyranny of Dragons: A grand tour of the Sword Coast is not a terrible premise to have for your very first AP of a new edition, and using dragons as the main villain also makes sense. The weird rules inconsistencies that exist as artifacts of having made the campaign while the rules were still in flux are forgivable. Less forgivable is how much of a massive railroad the whole thing is. I wish it had been more open, like Storm King’s Thunder.

Lost Mine of Phandelver: This is a really good, fairly open adventure that focuses on a specific area and really builds your connection there, while also seeding in connections with the five player-facing factions of the game, which serve as recurring allies (some shadier than others) throughout all the APs, which is a cool idea by itself. There is one major flaw: Your employer being kidnapped but possibly still alive in the hands of some nefarious goblins gives you strong incentive to try and track him down ASAP. This is a terrible idea! You’re supposed to bum around the area chasing side quests for a while to get another level or two first. It would really benefit from the employer being saved (or confirmed dead) immediately after the initial goblin dungeon, and the party being given a less urgent but still pressing objective of “find out what these goblins are up to.”

Princes of the Apocalypse: I haven’t run this one. The cults of Elemental Evil are all individually cool in concept and look neat, but the adventure itself seems like it might be a bit of a slog by the end, with four consecutive dungeon crawls? As mentioned, however, I haven’t actually run it, so it might have more momentum than I’m guessing or I may even have completely misinterpreted how it works (I’m not rereading the entire adventure for this quickie blog post, so I’m going purely off of memory of having read through it once to see if there were ideas I could pillage for other campaigns/projects). I do like that it again has a fairly local focus on the immediate environs of Waterdeep, which (hopefully) allows you to get feel more involved with the area under threat, with personal connections to specific NPCs, rather than just “innocent people as an abstract concept are in danger.”

Out of the Abyss: This is one of my favorites. A fairly open exploration of the Underdark full of interesting NPCs, strange locales, and making good use of both demons and dark elves, who are both pretty solid villains. My only major complaint is that the climax involves an apocalpytic confrontation between demon princes that happens almost completely without player involvement, and then they just mop up Demogorgon at the end. While having a boss rush of all eight demon princes in the book would almost certainly TPK anyone, I think having a cataclysmic confrontation in which the PCs must navigate Menzoberranzan while it is being attacked by all eight demon princes at once, each of whom is also fighting the others, would have been a great place to showcase each of the eight demon princes’ forces (or themselves) in action, while the conflict between each other and the dark elves would’ve given the PCs an edge in getting through without being too beat up to take on the last man standing at the end.

Curse of Strahd: Another one I haven’t run, although in this case that’s because it’s so popular that everyone has already played it. Other people have talked about the problems with the Romani-coded Vistani, and this one-paragraph summary isn’t really big enough to get into it except to say that yes, that is a problem. Overall, this is a very open adventure in a setting that I love with a tragic villain. It’s not a surprise that it’s amongst the most popular, and I hope I get a chance to run it sometime.

Storm King’s Thunder: This is another open adventure, this time taking place across the Sword Coast, but it has a baffling design decision (which we haven’t seen the last of) in that it has multiple points where you can do one of three or five different quest hooks and not the others. Three towns get attacked by giants and it is expected you can save one of them, and you can get access to the storm giants’ palace through any one of five different giant strongholds and have no reason to visit any of the others once you do. What’s the purpose of this? Do you think people are going to replay the same campaign multiple times like it’s a video game? D&D is way too logistically difficult to waste sessions on replaying the opening of a campaign you’ve already done just so you can get to the new content later on. The campaign should be restructured so that it makes sense to do all the content in one playthrough (although you should be able to skip some of it if you want – five is a lot of giant strongholds).

Tales From the Yawning Portal/Ghosts of Saltmarsh/Candlekeep Mysteries: These are all adventure anthologies, often with different authors. This is a neat idea since individual adventure ideas can either be torn out to use in other campaigns or be stitched together into one narrative, within an anthology or between them. It does mean that there’s not really a whole lot to say, other than that Ghosts of Saltmarsh’s ship rules were disappointing and the anthology adventures gave basically no reason to ever use any of them anyway.

Tomb of Annihilation: All the content in this adventure is individually awesome, but the hexcrawl is a trainwreck. Less than 10% of the hexes have encounters in them, the survival mechanics are more bookkeeping than interesting choice, and you can spend a lot of time bumping into random encounters, which can be absurdly lethal for low-level parties (who very much are expected to go out into the wilderness – that, or they did a terrible job of signaling that you should stick to the starting port until level ~5). Revamping this adventure into a pointcrawl drastically improves it.

Dragon Heist: People love the hook of owning your own tavern and of an urban heist adventure. I’m in the minority on this, but I think this adventure actually does a pretty bad job of delivering on both of those promises. This adventure also continues Storm King’s Thunder’s weird trend of having lots of good content split up into different, mutually exclusive versions of the campaign. Instead of having four different antagonists after the same thing, they demand you pick one. The Alexandrian has a remixed version that uses all four villains simultaneously.

Dungeon of the Mad Mage: Megadungeons are always tricky. The concept is great, it takes the most iconic setting of D&D (“dungeon” is in the name!) and expands it out to an epic scope. Many D&D campaigns are essentially a dungeon anthology where a metaplot strings lots of 1-3 level dungeons together. Why not stack those dungeons on top of each other? Rappan Athuk does this really well. Dungeon of the Mad Mage does not. There’s just not enough interesting stuff in here to justify fifteen levels of dungeon, and the path through the dungeon is too linear, without enough connections between levels, side-levels, or hidden entrances leading to deeper levels. Amateur game designers used to talk all the time about making their tabletop game like Dark Souls, and they always talked about making it lethal or, even worse, trying to make a group game lonely. What people should actually be looking at is that game’s level design, which actually does have some very good lessons to teach about making dungeons.

Descent Into Avernus: The hook on this is fantastic. Baldur’s Gate is the single most popular D&D city ever (courtesy of BioWare) and the basic concept of going into Avernus to piece together the history of its tragic angel-turned-archdevil ruler by way of recovering her hollyphant companion’s lost memories is pure gold. Unfortunately, it’s also an interminable railroad. When I ran it, I edited it to be much more open, which I think worked pretty well.

Rime of the Frostmaiden: This is a really well designed adventure. As with the other hits on this list, it’s very open and has tons of interesting content to be discovered in that open space. It does narrow down in the second half becoming much more linear. You want some amount of racing towards the climax at the end, but I think the linear sections drag on way too long to serve that purpose. The problems with the linear ending notwithstanding, this is another focused exploratory adventure in a new and fairly unique setting, which has reliably been the key to success at least for first party adventures (it’s hypothetically possible, I think, to have a good linear adventure – but I think anyone who can do that will write novels instead, because novels aren’t attached to a specific edition of a specific game and become less valuable when that game becomes unpopular).