Assorted Thoughts On She-Ra

I caught episodes of the new She-Ra here and there, but recently I’ve sat down to watch the whole thing. One thing I didn’t realize until I started from the beginning is that Adora’s standard outfit is at least 80% Horde-issue. She has, at most, thrown a personalized red jacket (something which raises no eyebrows in the Fright Zone, so while it might not be standard issue, it’s not some act of defiance, either) on top of what is otherwise a Horde cadet uniform, and that this uniform makes her easily mistaken for an enemy is a plot point in the two-parter opening. And then she never changes outfits, even after seemingly weeks of working with the Rebellion! Fair enough if you want to keep the same white-top-grey-bottom-red-jacket look, but it would’ve been nice if the new white top were noticeably different somehow (we do eventually get a jacketless shot from behind that confirms she no longer has the Horde symbol stamped on the back, at least). Like, here’s a picture of Adora without the jacket:

This is actually a shot from the two-parter opening episode when she still has the Horde symbol, but from the front the shirt is the same. And here’s Adora with her jacket:

You can see that the only important part to retain between the pre- and post-Horde designs is that it’s white on the sleeves and the parts of the chest that are visible under the jacket. Those little red blobs on the sleeves are very Horde – every Horde cadet’s shirt is a white base with some kind of red accent. So the obvious thing to do when switching away from the Horde would be to replace the little red bits with a different color. Purple is pretty princess-y and also shows up in Brightmoon colors a lot (Brightmoon being the specific princess kingdom that Adora uses as home base), and the cool thing about white is that it goes with basically any other color. You could also change the shape, maybe to triangles or some kind of Princess Alliance symbol, and as long as it doesn’t go down far enough to be visible through the cuts on her jacket it’d be fine, and would immediately communicate from episode 3 onwards that Adora has kept her general style but is no longer wearing a Horde uniform.

Also, I realize that a show aimed at kids can’t depict enemy soldiers being dismembered and that the sword as a symbol of heroism is pretty baked into the She-Ra lore and you can’t just ditch it, which backs the creators into a bit of a corner with regards to She-Ra actually using her signature weapon, but the Horde soldiers almost all wear armor. She-Ra can hit them with a sword and just smack them around without cutting through, and then when you need her to cut through a tank or war drone, give the sword a little glowy fire effect to indicate that She-Ra has activated the armor-piercing power. She-Ra’s sword has glowy magic effects all the time, so this won’t be out of place.

Also, also, the heroes are sovereign nations resisting invasion, but they call themselves “the Rebellion.” This even though they have another perfectly good term that they use all the time: The “Princess Alliance.” I think the idea is that the Rebellion refers to all anti-Horde forces and the Princess Alliance is a specific coalition coordinating resources, but “Rebellion” sounds like it’s a specific organization anyway. Plus, they refer to princesses outside the Alliance as not being part of the Rebellion anyway, when the Horde is attempting to conquer all princess realms without exception, so presumably all princess realms are anti-Horde by default, even if they’re not cooperating with other anti-Horde forces.

Also, also, also, I really would’ve appreciated a map early on showing all the princesses and the territory they hold, preferably as part of the opening titles the way Avatar did it. I realize “try to be like AtLA” is advice that animated shows these days generally follow too much, but if your primary conflict is going to be about territory control, I would appreciate being able to see the territory being fought over. AtLA didn’t keep track of exact frontlines for the current state of the war, but it did show that the Air Nomads were totally eliminated, the Southern Water Tribe was under siege, the Earth Kingdom was contested, and the Northern Water Tribe was untouched for now. It gave us a scoreboard for the course of the war, so when the Earth Kingdom fell at the end of season 2, we got that this was a major blow to the good guys. It was only a matter of time before the Fire Nation consolidated their victory over the rest of the Earth Kingdom, the Northern Water Tribe was the only safe place left, and it was only a matter of time before the Fire Nation turned the full might of their forces against them. The finite number of countries on the map meant that I could keep track of the stakes of the overarching conflict.

She-Ra has a similar conflict with similar stakes, but very stubbornly refuses to let them be kept track of. In the princess prom episode, we get that the Kingdom of Snows has a buffer between them and the Horde which makes Princess Frosta reluctant to join the Princess Alliance, but not who that buffer is and at what point of the Kingdom of Snows would be in danger. In the episode where we meet Princess Mermista, we get that the fall of her realm of Salineas (or even just the loss of the magic gate holding some kind of strait, although it’s not clear how much of Salineas lies beyond that strait) would allow the Horde unfettered access to the sea, but we have no idea which new fronts that would open up, what additional kingdoms would be in immediate danger were the Horde to succeed. Even stories that focus on a direct attack against a specific kingdom, like when Plumeria is attacked and Princess Perfuma has to learn the virtue of violent resistance, would at least benefit from knowing how many princess realms are left and thus how much of a blow against anti-Horde forces it would be if this battle were lost. Is Princess Entrapta’s realm basically just that one castle, or is that just the capital of a larger realm?

When Brightmoon is considering surrender to the Horde to protect the captured Princess Glimmer, that’s definitely a severe political defeat since Brightmoon is the leader of the Princess Alliance, and we know from the previous episode that Brightmoon is the single largest and most powerful princess realm, but it’s not really clear what other dominoes might fall as a more-or-less inevitable consequence of that defeat, the way the loss of the Earth Kingdom plainly spells doom for the entire world of Avatar. If Brightmoon surrenders, is Plumeria’s or Salineas’ position untenable?

I’ve had a bunch of nitpicky complaints in this post, so I’m gonna try and level things out with some things I loved about the first season of She-Ra:

-Swiftwind is amazing every time he shows up, even when he’s just a regular horse.

-I love the magical girl transformation sequence they have for She-Ra. They’re good about not using it so often that it loses its impact, too.

-Entrapta’s “hack the planet” line made me laugh. It took me offguard while making perfect sense with her personality and the conversation up to that point, it was great.

-The characters in general are all so much fun to watch. Princess Mermista’s too-cool-for-school routine is fun, particularly from a side character who doesn’t show up often enough for it to become grating, and the same with Princess Entrapta’s geeking out about First Ones tech and robots and stuff. Bow and Glimmer’s more excitable and fun personalities make a great contrast to Adora’s focused determination.

-The princess prom was fun. It was cute how Adora was preparing for it like some combination of a school test and a war, and I really liked the prom outfits for all the characters.

-In general, all the times Adora’s past with the Horde affects her present behavior and makes her a little dysfunctional are fun. It’s nice to see that being raised by a totalitarian military dictatorship doesn’t just inform her relationship with Catra and other dramatic moments, it also bleeds into things like how she only knows how to relax by hitting things. Her occasional moments of childlike wonder at princess-y things is so delightful.

-Catra and Adora’s episode in the Fortress of Solitude was fantastic.

-The reversals in the final battle where the heroes are fending off one attack after another and slowly getting worn down until all hope seems lost, only for one final reversal to save the day with the power of friendship is a paint-by-numbers way to run a final battle and I do not care, I am here for it and I loved She-Ra’s first season finale.

Conan the Hunter Was Ruined By Its Obsession With Gods

I did a live read of Conan the Hunter in my Discord channel rather than blogging about it regularly, but I’m going to put a summary of my thoughts here so it can be collected with the other Conan posts. Most of the post is gonna be summary, though, just so the series review will be complete by itself.

Conan the Hunter feels a lot like Conan the Bold. It’s deep into the Flanderization of Conan, but still gets pretty close to being a decent popcorn book (is there a more accurate equivalent term for “popcorn movie” as applies to books, seeing as how you don’t eat popcorn with books usually?). Unfortunately, it’s got one particular obsession which grinds hard against the themes of the character as laid down by Robert E. Howard’s originals, the books is bad in direct proportion to how often that obsession shows up, and that obsession dominates the narrative more and more the deeper you get into the book. For Conan the Bold, it was an epic fantasy struggle of good against evil in which Conan was the prophesied champion of the world against an evil space god whose minions sought world domination for the next ten thousand years, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean relativism of Conan. For Conan the Hunter, it’s the obsession with religion and gods providing salvation, in stark contrast to the Nietzschean anti-theism of Conan.

Conan the Hunter begins in Brythunia’s capital city of Pirogia. The Brythunian princess has been killed by an evil sorceress as part of a conspiracy to place a would-be usurper on the throne, and a thief involved in the scheme is looking to pawn the late princesses’ jewelry for cheap off to Conan, who doesn’t know where it came from, then set him up to take the fall for the murder, simultaneously throwing suspicion off of the conspiracy and collecting a reward for catching the princesses’ killer. When the guards arrive, Conan successfully resists arrest and sets out to track down the thief and make him pay for the set up. So far, so good. We’re not exactly embracing Conan’s philosophical depths, but neither did half the Robert E Howard stories.

Then, while Conan is hiding out in the hut of his latest paramour, she fetches a healer for the injuries he sustained while resisting arrest, and that’s where the trouble begins. The healer is a priest of Mitra, which is fine, but he’s also a D&D Cleric who casts Cure Moderate Wounds on Conan using his holy symbol, and who must collect payment for an offering to the local temple of Mitra or else the spell won’t take effect, which is not how regular Cleric spellcasting works but does sound like something an amateur GM might come up with to explain why Cleric services in town charge a fee. It’s a functional (if uncreative) explanation for a D&D game, but Hyboria does not work that way. In Hyboria, this is plainly sorcery, and while you could have a sorcerer who’s a good guy in Conan, you wouldn’t expect Conan himself to just accept it like it isn’t even a big deal. Conan hates sorcery, but here the author seems to be importing the arcane/divine magic divide without even thinking about it, interpreting Conan’s spite for sorcery exclusively as spite for arcane magic (later in the book Conan will muse to himself that he doesn’t like getting entangled with priests and wizards, which might suggest that he does indeed more-or-less equate the two (as he should), but then the problem is that Conan doesn’t raise even the mildest objection to this sorcerer casting a spell directly on him).

This is the seed of the god-obsessed plot tumor that will eventually devour the book, but for now, it’s a pretty minor complaint. Conan’s blase acceptance of sorcery is out of character, but the idea of a sorcerer of Mithra who can heal people with supernatural speed is hardly unimaginable in Hyboria. Conan tries to track down the thief, and he gets chased by guards into a sewer, fights a sewer monster dianoga knock-off, and ends up breaking into the palace in hopes of catching the thief while collecting the reward for identifying the princesses’ alleged murdered to the guards. The action scenes here are all pretty good and if the book had been able to stick to this, it would’ve been a solid B.

While Conan’s closing in on the thief, cutaways introduce us to the king’s supporters on one side and the evil conspirators against him on the other. The king is a pretty standard good ruler for the book’s 1994 release date: He uses trade and diplomacy to bring peace and prosperity to his people, but uses force when necessary to prevent potentially belligerent neighbors from thinking he’s ripe for invasion. He’s a mix between standard Brythunians and some kind of hillfolk ethnicity. Having a biracial good king is kind of a blow struck against the race essentialism of Robert E Howard’s Hyboria, but only kind of, because the setting is ludicrously bio-essentialist but does not have a hierarchy of uber- and untermenschen. Gundermen are naturally adept with wielding pikes and Argosians are natural born sailors and that is racist and weird, but neither of them is especially superior to the other. Racial mixing also explicitly does not weaken races in Hyboria. The book implies that the king’s racial heritage informs how others view him but that his abilities are his own, which is very much a cry of defiance against the bioessentialism of Hyboria, but also it’s only implied, not stated, and it wouldn’t actually be out of place at all if it turned out that race mixing between Brythunian hillmen and the mainstream Brythunian ethnicity happened to produce a race of level-headed diplomats.

The king has three primary allies. The first is a hillman named Kailash, the king’s main bodyguard. It’s not totally clear how long they’ve known each other, but they were clearly friends before the king became king. The second is a captain of the town guard named Salvorus, a hero of the border skirmishes who’s been beating up on raiders from rival nations who’re probing for weaknesses, and got rewarded with a cushy job in the capital. Salvorus is loyal to the king, but spends most of the book as a gullible pawn of the conspiracy. The third major ally is that Cleric imported from D&D, who goes to the palace to report that he’s received a prophecy of an evil sorceress laying a curse upon the king, which indeed she has, slowly killing him.

With his queen (his connection to the Brythunian royal bloodline) and princess dead, the royal line is strictly speaking extinct, so if the king dies, it’s not clear who succeeds him, but the smart money is on a fellow named Valtresca, the general of the Brythunian army (apparently this iron age military has a supreme leader who is not the king, which goes unexplained but is not relevant to the plot so we don’t have to worry about it). Problem is, Valtresca is secretly evil, and the conspiracy against the king is trying to put him on the throne. An evil courtier Lamici (also a eunuch, something which never impacts the plot – the king seems to be monogamous, so why does Brythunia even have eunuchs?) is super racist and wants Veltresca on the throne because Valtresca is ethnically a pure city Brythunian (well, allegedly – racial purity is mostly a myth, but it’s not clear if the author knows that, and it doesn’t come up in any case), the thief Hassem is presumably in it for the money, although the book never really says for sure, and the evil sorceress Azora wants to spread misery and chaos throughout the world, and getting rid of a good king to replace him with some belligerent power-monger will hopefully get the entire region embroiled in war sooner rather than later.

Conan is captured while in the palace, an internecine disagreement between Valtresca the general and Hassem the thief leads Valtresca to try and tie him off as a loose end, so he beats Hassem senseless and orders Salvorus (the guard captain) to take him to the dungeon for execution on the morrow. Hassem attempts escape and poisons Salvorus, then goes on an evil villain rant to the imprisoned Conan about how Valtresca is totally going to usurp the throne, before Salvorus turns out to be alive, stabs Hassem in the back, releases Conan, and then collapses. Then the book remembers that it wants to have a Cleric in the party and has Conan meet up with the priest from earlier only to then immediately backtrack to right where they were before, in the dungeons standing over the poisoned body of guard captain Salvorus. There’s a Cleric now, though, who heals the captain just in time for Valtresca to show up with a bunch of guards and try to tie off all these loose ends at once. Conan and Salvorus fight the guards (including another captain, a hulking brute mini-boss), Valtresca and Salvorus both die, and Salvorus asks Conan to protect the king from the conspiracy with his dying breath. Conan, indebted to Salvorus for saving him from Hassem, takes up the quest.

This probably seems like we should be heading towards an immediate climactic confrontation with the evil sorceress now. And indeed, we definitely should be. We are halfway through the book, and most of what stands between us and the climax is stuff that should’ve just been cut.

Kailash, the king’s bodyguard, believes Conan’s and the priest’s story about the conspiracy, and the priest breaks the evil sorceresses’ curse on the king. Conan’s job isn’t done yet, though, because the sorceress can always call up another demon to finish the job so long as she’s still alive. The priest’s healing has bought the king time, but only killing the sorceress will permanently save him, so Conan’s on the hook to do that in order to fulfill his oath to Salvorus. Conan, Kailash, and the priest set out to confront the evil sorceress in her secret lair in the city, a ruined temple to some god named Talgor who never shows up in any other Conan story.

This could’ve been a perfectly good climax, but instead the priestess teleports (literally teleports) halfway across Hyboria all the way to Shem, leaving Conan, Kailash, and the priest Madresus to clear out an empty dungeon, and this is where the trouble really begins. The final boss waiting at the end of this dungeon, having been vacated by the actual main villain, is instead a demon she summoned. When the demon is defeated, the demon’s boss shows up. Conan and Kailash are dominated by the demon and turn on Madresus, and then the actual literal god Talgor shows up to stomp the demon lord because of an unrelated grudge. It’s a literal deus ex machina.

Madresus is able to figure out where the evil sorceress has gone, so the party sets out across Zamora and into the deserts of Shem to chase her down, and if it feels like this post is really starting to drag on that’s because the book really starting to drag on. The evil courtier Lamici shows up to kill Madresus, Conan and Kailash chase him across the desert to the witch fortress out in the deserts of Shem, the evil sorceresses’ role as main villain is usurped by an evil sorcerer from eons ago who’s been revived and then impregnates the evil sorceress with an evil sorcerer baby which magically reaches the third trimester overnight and it’s exactly as jarring and fetishistic as it sounds. The final assault on the witch fortress ends with Kailash and Conan overcoming some traps and some gargoyles, getting split up during the gargoyle fight, and Kailash confronts the evil sorceress while Conan confronts the new sorcerer guy who came out of nowhere. Kailash is seemingly killed by the sorceress, only for the sorceress to be killed by the gargoyles because she wasn’t properly whitelisted as not-an-intruder. Conan kills the sorcerer. There is absolutely no reason why the sorceress couldn’t have (seemingly) killed Kailash, the stupid whitelist mishap couldn’t have been cut, and the sorceress couldn’t have gone on to confront and be killed by Conan afterwards, which means there’s no need for this evil sorcerer to come out of nowhere.

For that matter, the entire trip across the desert and fake-out final dungeon with the demon lord could’ve been cut completely. Instead, the evil sorceress could just have a secret fortress in the Brythunian countryside, evil courtier Lamici could’ve killed the party Cleric in the palace immediately after the Cleric healed the king, and Conan and Kailash could’ve gone to fight the evil sorceress the next day. This also solves the problem where the narrative goes out of its way to insist that the king is still in danger, only to have the party spend the next month tracking down the evil sorceress to the other side of a desert, where the original conspiracy plot is forgotten and instead a totally unrelated plot about hyper-rapidly breeding an army of evil sorcerers to menace the world pops up, complete with a brand new unrelated villain to take over the role of big bad.

Removing the fakeout final dungeon and skipping directly to the fortress assault at the end also gets rid of the bizarre deus ex machina moment where some random god shows up to save Conan – Conan the barbarian – from a demon lord. This being the same Conan who tells anyone who asks him about gods or prayers that Crom does not answer prayers. He gives Cimmerians the strength and wit to fend for themselves and then ignores them.

This isn’t even the worst intervention of a god. Madresus, the Cleric, has an old mentor guy he meets with at one point for an entire chapter’s worth of exposition dumping on exactly what kind of evil sorceress he’s confronting and how he’s the last of an ancient order who wiped out this particular kind of evil sorcerer thousands of years ago but now they have returned. It all has so little impact on the plot I didn’t even bother to mention it in the summary, but this mysterious mentor figure later on shows up to save Kailash from the witch fortress once it starts collapsing, after he’s seemingly been killed along with the two evil sorcerers. And then it turns out that this mysterious mentor figure is Mitra in person. Just showing up to spit on the themes of Conan super directly for a bit, not even in a way that affects the plot at all, Kailash could’ve just been slightly less injured and been able to stagger out of the collapsing fortress under his own power, but instead we’re shoving another deus ex machina in there.

This book has lots of good individual scenes, but its pacing is atrocious (especially in its second half, when it seems like the climax of the original story is yanked away so that an entire second Conan story can be shoved in to meet wordcount requirements) and its obsession with gods and priests drags the book down every time it comes up, which is unfortunately fairly often and at a couple of crucial points in the plot.

Was 2021 A Good Year For Movies?

Just before the apocalypse, I tossed out a blog post about how 2019 was a good year for movies, cleanly beating out 2015, 2016, and 2017, and getting a less overwhelming but I would say still decisive win over 2018. 2020 was an absolute trainwreck of a year for movies, of course, with the frontrunner being…what, Birds of Prey? New Mutants? Wonder Woman 1984? Sonic the fucking Hedgehog? These are movies that would usually struggle to make it into the top five, and they’re fighting for first place. I have no idea what the final top five movie would even be. Monster Hunter? Mortal Kombat Legends? Onward? We’re basically just grabbing something out of the garbage and shoving it onstage to make sure the live action Mulan doesn’t get it. Maybe we should give fifth place to Xiran Jay Zhao’s YouTube video about why Mulan 2020 is bad. Maybe we should give first place to Xiran Jay Zhao’s YouTube video about why Mulan 2020 is bad.

What about 2021, though? Can it compete with 2018 and 2019? Does it at least hold up to 2015, 2016, and 2017, indicating a recovery from the damage the pandemic did to the film industry? Our standout films of the year are definitely Dune and Encanto, and I think that combo holds up well against the one-two punch of Joker and 1917 that pushed 2019 so high in my estimation. Spider-Man: No Way Home even provides solid competition to Endgame in its fan-service-done-well niche. 2021 also provides a pretty standard share of solid popcorn movies to round out the top five: Shang Chi, Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, No Time To Die. I’ll even call out Free Guy and Jungle Cruise as being fun even though they’re not top five material in this or any other year, but I think it’s worth noting when even the bad films are good enough to pass ninety minutes if (for example) you want to hang out with your little sister for an hour or two while she’s visiting for Christmas.

Still, the top five contenders for 2021 are a bit weak compared to what we’ve had in years past. 2017’s also-rans included Wonder Woman and Lego Batman, 2016 had Rogue One and Zootopia, 2015 had the Martian.

Most years have one stand-out film, and 2021 had both Encanto and Dune. On the other hand, the trailing films compare pretty poorly to most other years and get absolutely pulverized by 2019’s top five contenders, like Knives Out, Endgame, Toy Story 4, Detective Pikachu, the Lego Movie 2, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Overall, I think 2021 in film holds up well against most other years, and might even be joining 2018 and 2019 in The Best Three Years Of Film Which I Have Bothered To Investigate Even A Little Bit, just on the strength of Dune and Encanto, but it’s doing so as a clear third place behind the other two.

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.