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.

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