The D&D Six Are Bad

D&D’s 3rd edition had, as part of their development process, a mission to find out what things were so core to D&D that the audience would revolt if they were changed, and which they could overhaul as completely as they pleased. For example, there had to be some use for all the funny shaped dice, because D&D players like their funny shaped dice, so you can’t switch everything over to standard six-siders even though that makes it easier for new players to get started. It was determined that numerical bonuses on magic weapons and armor were too beloved by too much of the playerbase to be dispensed with, so instead the game’s power curve was built to accommodate +2 longswords and such.

And they decided that they could not change the six D&D stats: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. This is too bad, because those stats are bad. They do a poor job of describing characters and a poor job of defining what parts of a character are expected to be under the player’s control and which are expected to be abstracted away by dice.

The need for some kind of perception-based roll is obvious. The GM can’t very well just declare that the monsters have surprised the party because they prepared an ambush – clearly, there is some chance the party might spot the ambush using their eyes and ears in a way the players at their tables cannot do, on account of the thing to be spotted being imaginary. Equally clearly, certain character archetypes, like the elf or the ranger, are much better at noticing these ambushes than, say, the fighter or the wizard. So your stats definitely need to cover spotting things like clues and ambushes, and definitely need to vary from one character to another.

But why is the associated stat Wisdom? You wouldn’t necessarily expect a perceptive thief sort to necessarily be extremely wise (though you wouldn’t expect them to be extremely foolish, either), but you would expect them to be very good at spotting ambushes and traps. Why is Survival associated with Wisdom? While that specific skill is from the 5e skill list, earlier editions also associated similar skills with the Wisdom stat, despite the fact that “impulsive barbarian who is nevertheless very good at hunting deer” is an obvious archetype (I have a fanboy compulsion to point out that this does not describe Conan the Barbarian as originally written by Robert E Howard, but it’s been a long time since Conan was the only or even primary inspiration for the Barbarian class and archetype). You can hack your way into it by giving the barbarian proficiency/skill points/whatever your specific edition uses to make skills improve with level, but a Cleric trained in Survival (or equivalent) will always be better. Characters with strong willpower are automatically better at working with animals, despite “easily startled animal lover” being a pretty straightforward Druid concept. You would expect someone’s Wisdom score to either increase or plateau with age (old fools exist aplenty, but they were fools when they were young, too), and yet eyesight and hearing get worse the older you get, starting almost immediately – few people can hear the “teen buzz” by the age of twenty, which is why it’s called that.

The division between stats is inconsistent. STR and CON are split apart, which leaves the conceptual space for the two stretched so thin that CON has no skills associated with it at all, and STR only gets one. CON gives HP and is a common save against nasty effects, but STR only contributes to attack and damage – DEX does that, and it has three skills (plus Thieves’ Tools, the rogue skill which has cunningly disguised itself as a tool proficiency) associated with it, and it’s associated with a common save, and it increases your AC in most armor. And there’s an obvious point of division between full-body agility and manual dexterity. Sleight of Hand, Thieves’ Tools, and ranged/finesse attack and damage would be covered by Dexterity, while Agility would cover the AC bonus, Acrobatics and Stealth proficiency, and get the saves against area attacks. Alternatively, combine STR and CON together to bring it up to par with DEX, which is probably better balanced with the other abilities (although as we’ve already discussed, WIS is a dog’s breakfast of concepts already).

Plus, while the mechanical function of Intelligence is fine, both it and Wisdom are named after things which should be coming from the player, not the character. A lot of Wisdom’s problems as a stat come from trying to tie together several unrelated mechanical functions, but also the basic concept of being too wise to fall for a trick is something the player can and should be doing themselves. Likewise, being smart enough to out-maneuver an enemy in a fight or politically or whatever should be based on player decisions. These kinds of decisions are the core of the player’s input into the game, strip them away and what game do you even have left? Roll an INT check to see if flanking that enemy is a good idea? Roll a WIS check to know if the princess is trustworthy (Insight already gets close to this)? At some point you’ve automated every choice a player can make and are playing a particularly cumbersome idle game.

The things covered by the INT stat – a collection of skills, casting for the Wizard and some wizard-flavored sub-classes, and a very rare save – would be much better represented by an Education stat. WIS needs to be redesigned entirely, either renamed to something like Perception (the skill would be cut and its functions turned over to Perception saves) or else cut entirely and its functions split up between other stats. Either STR and CON need to be combined, or else DEX and AGI need to be split (depending upon the balance considerations, which vary depending on exactly what edition you’re talking about – DEX is much stronger in 5e than in 3e, for example).

And also we need to move away from stats going from 1 to 20 with 10 being the average which gives you +0 and instead have a system that goes from 1 to 10 with 5 being the average which gives you +5, and then increase all DCs by 5 to compensate. This is the kind of thing that would break backwards compatibility so it’s a very bad idea at this exact moment, but whenever we’re breaking backwards compatibility anyway, please cast off this final remnant of the jank era of the 70s and 80s when people were still figuring out how roleplaying games worked and the resulting systems were overly complex and showed the scars of being on their twelfth revision when the creator finally said “fuck it” and pushed it out the door, ready or not.

D&D 4e Is Bad Actually

People occasionally try to mount a defense of D&D 4e. It was the edition war du jour from 2008 to 2014 when 4e was the current edition and Pathfinder was continuously pushing its teeth in, and that time frame being what it was, that edition war started off with people openly harassing one another over elf games and by the end had morphed into pretending that supporting the wrong elf game was racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever because it was no longer considered acceptable to harass someone over elf games, so people had to pretend that the other side’s community was guilty of some kind of actual wrongdoing. I bring this animosity up in advance because you will sometimes see people who are very committed to defending 4e or PF1, and they might wander into this post, and if they do I want everyone to know in advance what’s up. At some point, the broader 4e/PF1 community entangled their favorite TTRPG very strongly yet also completely baselessly with their sense of moral worth, and you still get lots of people who act like “4e was bad, actually” automatically implies “and therefore everyone who has ever enjoyed it is a bad person,” so instead of shrugging their shoulders and moving on they become a SungWon skit.

But anyway: Why did PF1 outperform 4e by such a wide margin? Why did 4e dwindle to nothing while PF1 consolidated nearly the entire TTRPG market around itself? PF1 got crushed by 5e just like 4e got crushed by PF1, so it’s clearly not that PF1 is some kind of unassailable holy grail of gaming. The math between skill points, attack roles, and saves are incompatible, so you can’t do things like rolling a spell attack against a Willpower save or whatever. The balance is a joke – PF1’s approach to making content was to produce huge amounts of it to the point where there are twelve different ways to make any given character concept and let the community figure out which of those builds is actually viable, to the point where their PC Shifter class is weaker than their NPC Warrior class, a class designed to be simple enough that the GM can easily slap levels of Warrior onto an existing stat block to make it stronger but not any more complex, and it’s not a huge deal if levels of Warrior are much weaker than levels of proper PC classes as a result, which they are – except the Shifter, which is a wreck. A lot of PF1 classes and prestige classes seem to have been designed by figuring out how many cool ideas they had, and then spacing them out from level 1 to level 20, while paying no attention to whether or not the abilities they were giving to a level 20 character were remotely on par with what the other classes got. And the power scale on PF1 was much more expansive than 5e’s, so a character build that fell behind too badly (and some of them did) wasn’t something you needed a calculator to notice, they were unplayable, totally unable to contribute anything to combat.

And yet, despite these flaws and the considerably larger starting capital available to 4e, 4e did not outperform PF1. 4e still does not outperform PF1, according to the Orr Group Industry’s report for Q4 2021 (the most recent as of the writing – they’re usually a quarter or two behind). 4e’s frequent use of aura effects makes it far easier to play on a virtual tabletop than physically, so Roll20 should, if anything, be giving it a slight advantage, and yet 4e is not only less popular than games still in print like 5e and PF2, not only less popular than its own competitor PF1 and predecessor 3e, not only less popular than non-English D&D alternatives like Tormenta and Das Schwarze Auge (which get some advantage in their home markets, but D&D is available in Portugese and German), not only less popular than indie spin-off games like Dungeon World and Savage Worlds (I think? Savage Worlds is listed twice, one more popular than 4e, the other less), it’s also less popular than AD&D, making it the least popular edition of D&D period. It is more popular than 13th Age, though, so it’s still more popular than games that attempt to continue iterating on 4e’s own ideas.

For anyone defending 4e, the first question to answer here is: Why do so few people want to play it? 4e benefits from the endorsement of Matt Colville and the Penny Arcade guys, and it’s still the least popular edition of D&D ever, even on a platform that makes running it quick and easy, where it’s cumbersome and difficult on most others.

Continue reading “D&D 4e Is Bad Actually”

Critical Success And Failure For Skills Is Bad

D&D 5.5e – they’re trying to call it “One D&D” but they tried to call 5e “D&D Next Edition” and I’m not playing along with the new dumb name anymore than I am with the old one – is mostly the same as 5e, but the beta test does show a couple of significant rules updates. One of them is adding in critical success and failure for skill checks: On a natural 20, you always succeed, on a natural 1, you always fail. This is a bad idea.

The reason why this idea gets support mostly seems to come from greentext stories about rolling a natural 20 and causing something insane to happen – the Bard seducing the BBEG mid-fight or a dwarf being too stubborn to fall in a pit or whatever. These greentext stories make great memes because they’re funny enough to be worth the two minute time investment it takes to read them. For some fraction of the playerbase, the point of D&D is basically to create an environment that generates these greentext stories. But that’s not a very big fraction. Most people balk at the idea of spending four hours playing a game in the hopes that a two-minute joke will fall out that they can post to Reddit.

And for everyone who plays D&D to tell a full-length story at the table, rather than to boil it all down to one funny moment posted to Reddit, critical success and failure both have negative effects on the flexibility of the skill system. The possibility of critical failure means that no one, no matter how high their bonus is, will ever reach a point of being able to do extraordinary things as a matter of routine. A character with a +5 ability bonus, +6 proficiency, and another +6 from expertise cannot roll lower than an 18, which means DC 15 checks succeed automatically. Removing the tension from die rolls is usually bad (abilities that do things like allow you to reroll any roll below a 10 are usually bad), but the massive investment of character resources required to reach the point where a DC 15 check is automatic means that it’s not a common thing. It’s a high-level superpower, which arises emergently from the game’s systems. You can kludge that back in with a special 17th-level ability for Bards that grants them autosuccess on DC 15 skill checks for any skill they have expertise in (or whatever), but it’s much easier to just let it happen as an emergent property of the skill system, that way you don’t have to write another rule into the books to cover it.

And critical success is, counterintuitively, very disempowering for players. Part of the GM’s job is determining what’s even possible to accomplish with a skill check. Under the current system, skill checks can be capable of achieving some pretty spectacular results on a DC 30, 35, or 40 (the latter in particular achievable only by stacking buffs on someone who’s also got a very high passive bonus). You can make it possible to do things like climb rain up into the clouds or convince a guard that he’s been polymorphed into a wombat, because you can assign these things an extremely high DC, so they’re available only to very powerful characters.

But some things might just be flat-out impossible. No amount of Arcana lets you cast spells without a slot, no amount of Perception lets you observe things from ten miles away, no amount of Athletics allows you to strike the ground and cause an earthquake that levels a city block. Which of these things needs to be impossible no matter what you roll and which are possible but only at extremely high DCs is left up to GMs – and if a character always succeeds on a natural 20, a lot more stuff is going to be moved over into the “impossible no matter what your bonus is” category. Most people’s D&D stories have room for legendary Barbarians climbing rain into the clouds, but not for a random farmer who tried it every time it rained and got lucky after a month or two.

Critical successes and failures push D&D towards slapstick, and while that’s definitely a style of play, it’s also definitely not the primary style of play, and the default rules shouldn’t be supporting it at the expense of the standard high fantasy pulp-not-parody tone that most people play in. And if you’re creating optional rules to encourage a wakcy playstyle, critical successes and failures are a good place to start, but don’t go nearly far enough on their own.

Traveler’s Guide to the Goblin Fells Post-Mortem

The Traveler’s Guide to the Goblin Fells finished crowdfunding on August 16th. It had 268 backers and raised $4,415.

It’s not a particularly inspired panik-kalm-panik. A bad thing happened, then it went away, then it came back.

I’m going to try and give the Kickstarters more generic sounding names going forward, to see if that’s the secret sauce that made Elemental Chaos more successful than the rest. I’ve only got two books left before the series either lives or dies, and it’s starting to look like “dies” is just about locked in. It’s not over until October, when the final book of the first six Kickstarts, but it’d need to be a pretty dramatic turnaround at this point.

Marketing-wise, running ads on PodCastle is slightly profitable, so that was cool, although unfortunately there’s not really any way to make it scale. I learned about PodCastle by happenstance, there isn’t a larger network of podcasts I can branch out into (the PodCastle people do have several other podcasts, but they’re on other genres, which means my fantasy D&D book probably won’t get the attention there that it did on PodCastle, and the margins on this are already pretty slim). I also had a commissioned class from Alex Bobrow, the Caltrop Core person, and while that doesn’t seem to have brought in more than it cost, it did bring in some new backers, and might plausibly grow over time if I keep at it. Hopefully the time it takes is three months or less, because that is the amount of time that I have.

Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos Post-Mortem

The Kickstarter for the Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos ran from July 1st to July 16th. It had 326 backers and raised $5,900 on the dot.

Of course, I’m not out of the woods yet. For starters, I’m setting myself up for the third beat in a panik-kalm-panik meme, which I probably should’ve realized ahead of time when I used the panik face in the last one. Oh, well, too late now.

It’s possible that my guess from last time was correct: Darkwood benefitted from being the first book in the new series and getting pitched in updates directly to the entire Chamomile’s Guide to Everything audience. Drachzee picked up some momentum, but updates for it were only pushed to Darkwood backers rather than all thirteen Chamomile’s Guide books, resulting in a massive contraction. Now Elemental Chaos is picking up momentum again, with a 20% increase in backer count comparable to the 30% increase I saw fairly regularly during the ramp-up period of the early books of the first series. Comparing Elemental Chaos (the third book of the new series) to Bianca’s Guide to Golems (the third book of the old), Elemental Chaos is doing a lot better. It’s possible that the new series got a stronger start due to the success of the old, and is now rising up towards the old 400-450 plateau, with the rate of the rise being slightly slower only because the starting point was higher.

However, it’s also possbile that Elemental Chaos was a much stronger topic (the name, to begin with, is immediately familiar, as opposed to “the Darkwood” or “the rogue city of Drachzee,” which are designed to be evocative but which are not existing generic D&D locations). The old series stabilized at 400-450 for most topics, and it’s possible that the new series is going to stabilize at 275-325. That’s an average of 300 which is exactly sustainable (assuming other variables also stay consistent), which is probably not actually sustainable in practice. It’s much more likely that an unexpected event costs money than saves money, and without any extra profits to tuck away each month to absorb those expenses, my savings will dwindle away with each unexpected obstacle until there’s none left and the whole house comes down.

The good news is that it looks like I’ve found a replacement for the $25 tier that’s actually going to work. The first series used signed copies, which worked well until I hit the cap of 100 copies for the first book in the series, which I’d established to make sure I never had a project bottlenecked on a massive signing and shipping process. This proved to be wise, because addressing the signed copies proved to be extremely time consuming, but also popularity of the signed copies noticeably declined (and completely collapsed for back copies) after the complete set was no longer available. I tried to replace it with low-tier vanity content, a mention of a character in a vignette, but these have been very unpopular.

But serendipity struck when I realized that if I reprinted everything from Caspar’s Guide to Elementals that’s relevant to the Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos – what I usually do to make sure new backers get a complete experience – I would be reprinting nearly the entire book. So instead, I offered both books for $10 in .pdf and $25 in print. It was a very popular option, and the average pledge increased from about $14.50 in the first two books to $18.10, slightly higher than the $17.50 that the first series usually got. So I’m definitely using future books to spotlight a specific earlier book from Chamomile’s Guide to Everything in the future, to hopefully keep that average back high.

Ongoing advertising adventures are pretty inconclusive this time. I reached out to several people on Twitter in hopes of commissioning work from them, which they could then drop a tweet or two about. One of them was too busy, three of them never responded at all, and one of them was too busy to have anything ready in July, although they will be contributing to a stretch goal in August, so we’ll be hearing more about them in the next post-mortem (hopefully in a good way). I guess this month the advertising takeaway is that if you do not spend $200 on advertising, you will have an extra $200 at the end of your campaign. Also, possibly people were seeing the ad campaigns I was paying for in the first two books and actively deciding not to support me, but that seems unlikely.

It remains unclear whether this series can sustain itself, but I have a roadmap out to book six and should be able to get at least that far, and cap things off on a reasonably satisfying note if I do have to shut down there. Plus, the latest campaign is only weak evidence in favor of a sustainable series, but it is evidence in favor of a sustainable series.

Drachzee Post-Mortem

The Traveler’s Guide to Drachzee finished funding on June 16th. It had 276 backers and raised $4,237.

I’ve already got the Traveler’s Guide to the Elemental Chaos written up, so I may as well Kickstart that and see how it does, but this isn’t sustainable. The series can hypothetically go for two dozen books, but if 250-300 is the new plateau, I’ll probably have to shut it down sometime around book six. That does give me some breathing room to try and find a solution.

It’s possible that two of my previous speculated scenarios were true simultaneously: This series is picking up steam over time, but is also benefiting from a lot of returning readers from the first series who only looked at the first book of the second series. It’s worth noting that I did not post updates to the old series announcing the second book in the Traveler’s Guide series, but did post updates for the first. Theoretically, everyone who wanted to support the new series would’ve done so and gotten the update announcing the Drachzee book because it was posted to Darkwood, but it’s possbile some people expected updates for other books in the Traveler’s Guide series to be posted to the Chamomile’s Guide series. The final updates to the Chamomile’s Guide series explicitly stated this would not be the case, but you can really only be confident that an audience has received a message if you’ve told them at least three times (if you need to get something across immediately, tell people three times one right after the other in a single paragraph). These people might drift back into the series, and it might rebuild momentum over time. The series is presently unsustainable, but the first series didn’t really hit sustainability until book six (four and five were borderline, where whether the books were covering my monthly expenses depended on exactly what my monthly expenses were that particular month). Drachzee did way better than Irena’s.

I’m also accelerating my plans for what will hopefully be actually effective marketing by commissioning people who are popular enough on Twitter to hopefully expand my audience but not so popular that they won’t accept commissions. Drachzee’s marketing outreach was, and it was also clearly a total failure. There was some kind of problem with their Facebook, so they offered me a partial refund and ran the campaign purely on Twitter instead, but also their press release was so clearly written from a template intended for video games that I had to edit it for accuracy to remove things like references to a gripping plot and characters (I guess the Traveler’s Guide series does strictly speaking have sort of a plot and a few characters, but they’re a faint outline intended to be fleshed out by GMs, not a major selling point intended to stand alone). My original plan was to give three of these crowdfunding advertising services a shot just as due diligence before writing them off as useless, but with the series’ health critical, I need to pivot immediately to things that are at least somewhat more likely to work.

The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood Post-Mortem

The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood crowdfunded from May 1st to May 16th. It got a total of 347 backers and raised $6,007. This is a 20% contraction from the average 437.2 backers I got for Harlequin, Kessler, Caspar, Ozaka, and Cora, the five books of the previous series where I’d hit a plateau and was getting fairly consistent results. We’re in a new series now, so it’s not clear how much data from the old series applies, which means we’re back in speculation mode.

It’s possible that the series is totally unsustainable, kept as high as it is only by the momentum of the previous series. If this is the case, my backer count will steadily decline until it falls below the 300 backers (ish) needed to justify the ongoing existence of the series and it shuts down halfway through.

It’s possible that I’ve immediately hit the plateau for this series, and 300-400 is the new normal. This is going to be extremely punishing on my budget, because that is enough to justify the series, but barely.

It’s possible that the new series just needs to build up momentum and get exposure effect working for it just like the old one. If this is the case, we should see at least 10% growth from each project until a plateau is reached, most likely in the same 400-500 range that the last series plateau’d. A backer count of at least 380 (roughly 10% growth) in the next project would indicate this is the case.

There’s also another variable, which is that I’ve started experimenting with buying advertising services. The idea is to buy some ad services’ fairly affordable packages and see if they’re profitable, and if so buy a more expensive package and see if it scales. Today’s candidates are Olivia and William, the “duo expert crowd funders” who send lots of Kickstarter messages to everyone who tries to crowdfund anything. That certainly suggests they’re not the most effective crowdfunding marketing that exists (when you’re the best, clients usually come to you), but I probably can’t afford whoever that is anyway, and they don’t have to be literally the best ever to be worth it. If sending a DM to every crowdfunding project on the platform works, then that means they have successfully advertised themselves and can probably do the same for me.

But the results are looking pretty grim for them. It’s impossible to say for sure how much worse the project would’ve gone without their support, and from the analytics they sent me, they did successfully get three thousand people to click through to my project. If we assume that 1% of those clicks actually pledged and the vast majority of them are being hidden in the “direct traffic no referrer information” category, then they might be responsible for as much as 30 of my backers, for an average of $520. Considering I paid $200 for a 10-day advertisement package, this most optimistic estimate suggests that they were worth it, albeit barely, and that there’s little room to scale for a project that only lasts 15 days anyway.

But that’s blindly assuming that 1% of all clicks turn into pledges. More careful examination paints a more pessimistic picture. A little over 400 of the clicks came from Twitter. Only one backer came via Twitter (backing at a fairly standard $17). If we assume a standard rate of 1 backer per 400 clicks backing at an average of $17, that’s about $127.50, which means they aren’t even making me back the money I paid them for the campaign.

This assumes both that the rate for other pledge sources (which are too vague in Bitly’s dashboard for me to draw firm conclusions about) had an identical hit rate to Twitter, masked by Kickstarter’s “direct traffic no referrer information” category, and that the one Twitter backer actually came from this advertising campaign and not from my own tweet. My Twitter presence is really bad so this is a reasonable assumption, but as a counterbalance to the very optimistic $520 scenario, there is also the very pessimistic $0 scenario where that one Twitter backer was a lucky pick-up from my own tweet and the entire advertising campaign accomplished nothing. Certainly the only tweet that ever mentioned me (and it came from an account I’ve never seen before that does nothing but tweet about crowdfunding, so I assume it’s part of Olivia and William’s campaign) got a grand total of four likes, one of which was from me, so while I put my money on the $127.50 scenario being closest to the truth, I think the $0 scenario is more likely than the $520 scenario. In fairness, I was biased that way from the beginning – my thought here was always “I should at least check if these things work” rather than “surely this is the missing ingredient to push me over 600 backers!”

So long as the budget permits, I still intend to try other advertising services to see if some are more effective. I’m worried that effective advertising has a floor cost of several thousand dollars, which my campaigns just don’t make enough to justify, but it’s possible that effective advertising that works at small scale does exist, even if it’s lost in a sea of mediocrity. For that matter, if this second series does pick up momentum over time, I might give Olivia and William a second chance. It’s possible that this first campaign was let down by a weak product rather than a weak advertising campaign.

Twelve Kickstarters In Twelve Months

Kickstarter Momentum

As Dark Lord was wrapping up its real content generation and entering the editing, proofing, printing, and shipping phase – all of which require some direction from me, but not a lot – I started thinking about what my next move should be, and I realized that I wasn’t really building any momentum. Almost nobody realized that the Petals and Thorns guy and the Dark Lord guy were the same person, because those Kickstarters were over a year apart and neither of them were so apocalyptically massive that anyone was still thinking about them after that much time had passed. Likewise, whatever new Kickstarter I was going to launch, even if I had it ready within a month, wouldn’t benefit much from the success of Dark Lord.

I needed projects small enough that I could launch a new one within six weeks of when the old one finished, so that people who’d been browsing the tabletop category on Kickstarter or who had seen it linked in a Discord or whatever would still remember the last one when they saw the new one. Due to the small scale of the projects and because the middle two weeks are often disappointing anyway, I decided to go with a fifteen-day schedule, and as per standard Kickstarter wisdom, I decided to make sure I was starting and ending in the same month, because having an end date in the same month as the current date makes the project seem more urgent and encourages people to back immediately, which helps build momentum in the early days.

What all of this added up to is that if I ran every other month, I’d be pushing the limits on the six week news cycle, the amount of time it takes for people to forget something’s relevant. The alternative was to run a Kickstarter for fifteen days out of every month, to be running a Kickstarter about as often as not. And the content I had was, when broken into the smallest reasonable chunk, a ‘zine-size sourcebook with about 30 minimum pages of content, plus wrappers (cover, table of contents, backer acknowledgements, etc. etc. – stuff that needs to be added but isn’t in my Google Docs draft). And it’s not like I’d have the whole month just two write the content. I’d also need to leave time for formatting in order to ensure that backers received the .pdf version of one book by the time the second one was launching, because no way would anyone back my second project if the first was still outstanding on even the digital version. Plus I’d need to assemble the actual Kickstarter campaign for the book on top of writing the content for it.

Is that rate of content generation even possible?


Natalia’s Guide to Necromancy started crowdfunding on February 12th, 2021, and finished on February 28th (this one was actually sixteen days, because I hadn’t totally sorted out the long term plan at this point). It was digitally fulfilled on March 13th, the print versions were sent out March 26th, and signed copies were sent out April 5th. The .pdf version was 39 pages long, although this includes wrapper content like the cover, table of contents, etc.

Irena’s Guide to Intrigue and Illusion started crowdfunding on March 16th, 2021, and finished on March 31st. It was digitally fulfilled on April 14th, and the print version was sent out April 30th. As of the writing (May 1st), I’m still waiting on copies to arrive for signing, but that part’s not hard, just time consuming. The .pdf version was 44 pages long.

Bianca’s Guide to Golems started crowdfunding on April 15th, 2021 and finished on April 30th. The .pdf should be delivered no later than May 22nd, due to a planned delay during which Megan Bennett-Burks, my formatter, is attending some kind of family function. Bianca’s Guide is easily the biggest book yet, and although I won’t know a final page count until it finishes formatting, it will likely strain to remain within the 64 page maximum I’ve imposed for shipping reasons.

The draft for Brac’s Guide to Piracy is completely written and edited, the Kickstarter is complete except for the intro and update videos, which have all been scripted and are waiting on cover art for recording and animation. I’ve intentionally kept it from bloating out as much as Bianca’s, to try and maintain a final page count of somewhere around 40-50 and avoid pushing up against my limits.

And Brac’s Guide to Piracy was on a subject I had mostly not even thought about until the project was already underway. None of my campaigns had done anything resembling piracy for years, and the one that did briefly flirted with the idea before giving up on it long before I had to actually do anything. The writing for Brac’s Guide to Piracy was finished over a week ahead of schedule, and it was easily the hardest book so far, and will probably be one of the hardest for the entire series. The future is always uncertain and it’s possible one of the other eight books I have planned will end up being the one that derails the series, but right now, the train looks unstoppable.

So I’m committing to the plan publicly. Twelve Kickstarters in twelve months, digitally fulfilled within 30 days, physical copies shipped within 60 days, and signed copies shipped within 90 days – and those are maximums, the standard plan is half that.


Since the goal of the Kickstarter marathon is to get people to remember who I am, the measure of success is backer count, not money. So let’s talk about how many backers is a decent amount. I’m Kickstarting a tabletop project, so we don’t care about non-tabletop projects, and I’m Kickstarting sourcebooks for the most popular system on the market right now, so my upper limit shouldn’t be any lower than the cap of what the category can accomplish (the top decile is usually dominated by first party releases from brands started in the 80s or 90s, but if MCDM (established 2018) can break through that, then in theory I can, too).

So let’s look at some data from 2019, because that’s the last time someone gathered it all up and sold it for like $10:

Bottom decile: 0-77 backers
Ninth decile: 79-115 backers
Eighth decile: 117-170 backers
Seventh decile: 173-234 backers
Sixth decile: 235-318 backers
Fifth decile: 323-448 backers
Fourth decile: 457-622 backers
Third decile: 625-858 backers
Second decile: 865-1273 backers
Top decile: 1281-21735 backers

From these numbers I derived some goals:

0-99: Total failure. Only niche projects should be getting numbers this low, otherwise either the project itself was bad or it was presented poorly.
100-199: Poor. Hovering around eighth decile, this is firmly under average. Broad appeal projects like 5e sourcebooks should not be getting numbers this low (except from first-time creators with no reputation, at least, but that’s not me anymore). If a single book in the series hit this low, that might just indicate that specific subject was unpopular, but if it two in a row hit it, that probably means the project has no momentum.
200-299: Mediocre. Covers seventh and sixth decile, this range starts mediocre and tops out fairly average, but I gave it the “mediocre” label because I don’t like to settle. I decided early on that if this was all I could sustain then that wasn’t great, but it might be something to work with, especially if the series wound up having a long tail – maybe the original Kickstarters would be only mildly successful, but I’d end up getting a lot of passive income once I had 10+ books on the market. This bracket was my initial goal for the first project.
300-449: Good. Mostly conforms to fifth decile, this is high-average and suggests a successful project. This is the highest bracket I’ve ever reached as of the writing, and it may theoretically be my limit.
450-599: Great. Mostly conforms to fourth decile, this is firmly above average. A single project spiking upwards to this number would probably just indicate luck with the Kickstarter algorithm or the memosphere, but if the series gets this high on a steady upward trendline, that would be definitive success for the momentum building plan.
600-899/900-1199: Amazing. Mostly conforms to third and second deciles, respectively, and has clearly broken away from the pack. Far enough ahead of where I am right now that I haven’t much thought about what their implications would be (the graphic I commissioned to mark progress doesn’t even have a divider between these two, though I’ll probably have one added if we ever threaten to actually reach it), but the ultimate goal of the series is to get at least one book to this level.
1200+: Crazypants. I’m rounding down to get the start of this bracket to be exactly twice 600, for the sake of the graphic I had commissioned to measure progress. At some point in this bracket things transition to absurd numbers where the success of the project is clearly built off of some other project, usually an existing RPG that’s been around for at least fifteen years and often thirty or more, but sometimes it’s something like the Root RPG based off of the fairly recent Root board game, or the MCDM Kickstarters that draw their success heavily from Matt Colville’s YouTube channel.


If the nature of the production pipeline didn’t demand I have the cover for Irena’s already paid for by the time the Kickstarter for Natalia’s Guide to Necromancy was finished, I might have quite foolishly called the whole project a failure after Natalia’s and called it off. Natalia’s made money, but not enough to justify the effort, and it only brought in 158 backers, a poor showing. I expected it would do better and at least get very close to 200 backers, but the final 48 hours were very disappointing compared to the standard explosion as Kickstarter sends out reminder emails to everyone watching the project (and also I think the algorithm boosts projects in their final 48 hours more maybe?). Since I already had Irena’s mostly ready, I decided I may as well put a bow on it and get some return for the investment and effort, even if the project was now perilously close to going no further than two books.

My hypothesis at the time was that there’s not very many people on the fence about a project whose core product is $5. If they’re not sure, they back $5 for the .pdf immediately rather than coming back later. Thus, no final 48 hours explosion.

This hypothesis has been pretty thoroughly falsified by the final 48 hour explosions for both Irena’s Guide to Intrigue and Illusion and Bianca’s Guide to Golems (the latter is just entering its final 24 hours, but there’s clearly been a boom already), so I have no idea what was up with the final 48 in Natalia’s.

Regardless, Irena’s scored 210 backers, mediocre in absolute terms but very promising in that it was 30% growth over Natalia’s, while Bianca’s ended with 278 backers, which was 30% growth over Irena’s. Recklessly extrapolating these three data points into a fundamental and inviolable law of the universe, I would reach the crazypants bracket by book nine. I figure I’m very likely to hit a saturation point sometime before then, but who knows when it will be.

Maybe necromancy is actually unpopular, and people are dying for content for the social pillar and magic item crafting. Maybe the plan to build momentum is working really well. I’d say by the fifth or sixth crowdfunding project, we’ll know.

The Future

At this point, I have Brac’s Guide to Piracy totally drafted and the Kickstarter set up and ready to launch as soon as the cover art is finished, which it mostly is, so that’ll be going off on May 16th as per the schedule. Piracy seems like it’ll probably be another popular subject, so if the growth so far has been driven mostly or completely by subject choice, this one might continue that trend even without indicating any long term growth at all.

I’m never committed to the next book in the series until I start fleshing it out properly, which I don’t do until I’m sure the previous book will be a success (usually about halfway through the crowdfunding), but right now the June book is probably going to be Thaemin’s Guide to Gods and Outsiders. The last book I anticipated being a hard sell wasn’t, especially, but I’m even more confident that Thaemin’s is going to reveal how much people like the series as opposed to this one book, which I imagine would do pretty mediocre by itself. Thaemin’s Guide to Gods and Outsiders is going to have some new classes like the Summoner and the Healer, but you can tell the second one is basically intended as a replacement for Clerics, and while I have an argument as to why the Cleric is bad and you should replace them, I doubt most people will want to hear it (both classes are still fully compatible with having a Cleric and the Healer is also way better for new players).

I have no firm plans for the other seven books in the series. I do have a list of probable subjects picked out – I wouldn’t be committing to twelve ‘zines if I hadn’t already picked out twelve subjects I’m confident I can write 30+ pages on – but I don’t have outlines or pagecount estimates or anything, so I don’t even have a particularly good guess as to what books past Thaemin’s will contain besides “something to do with fiends and warlocks” or “something to do with dragons” and so on. This makes it hard to guess what books might be more or less popular, but the data should be fairly clear by the time we get that far, and if it isn’t (if, for example, Brac’s follows the 30% trend but Thaemin’s does about as well as Brac’s – I’d be unable to tell if I’ve hit my limit or if Thaemin’s has an unpopular premise that’s canceling out growth) then I’ll have the next book or two outlined and hopefully at least one mostly outlined by then, which means I’ll be able to make new predictions.

Overall, the future remains uncertain, but current indications give reason to be optimistic.

Calmer GM: 5 Guidelines For Skill Checks

These are relatively easy to write, so let’s try another Calmer GM. This time we’re calming down and cutting down Five Simple Rules For Dating My Teenaged Skill System.

Skills are often poorly handled in tabletop RPGs, which can lead to boring results and skills being viewed as an uninteresting and tedious means of conflict resolution. Follow these five guidelines, though, and your skill resolution will be much more interesting.

#1: Every Player Action Must Ask A Question Or Declare An Action

If a player asks if they can roll a skill at a situation without declaring a specific action or asking a specific question, ask them to elaborate on what they’re actually doing. If someone wants to roll Diplomacy at a guard, that’s probably fine, but ask them what they’re actually saying. A summary in lieu of a word-for-word statement will work, just as long as they are describing an action (or asking a question, like “what do I know about mind flayers?” which might call for an Arcana check or you might just tell them the information).

#2: Only Roll When There Is A Chance Of Success, A Chance Of Failure, And A Risk Or Cost To Failure

Almost anything is possible with a high enough skill roll, but many things are not possible with the skill bonuses that characters actually have. The Persuasion skill is not Dominate Person, and the Athletics skill is not a climb speed, so there are some people who cannot be persuaded to do certain things and some surfaces that cannot be climbed with a skill check that’s possible for playable characters. Do not bother rolling dice for situations where success is impossible even on a 20.

Likewise, do not call for rolls for simple tasks. A 5e character with expertise can have a bonus as high as +17 and will be unable to fail skill checks of DC 15, so there is no need to roll. A character attempting to tie their own shoes can’t really plausibly fail, so there is no need to roll. Less intuitively, a character who is trying to pick a lock and is under no time constraints cannot plausibly fail. If nothing stops them from trying over and over again until they roll high enough to succeed, then don’t bother rolling at all. A character who needs to pick a lock fast or quietly or without breaking their fragile improvised lockpicks needs to roll dice. A character who does not care about speed or noise and who is using proper thieves’ tools does not.

Side note: The “penalty for failure until you fail forever” is not a good solution. There is no reason a character should receive a -2 (or whatever) penalty to picking the same lock every time they try. If you don’t want a character to succeed automatically at lockpicking, put something on the other side of locked doors that will be other taken off guard by a quietly picked lock or have a readied attack waiting for the first person through if the lockpicking was noisy.

#3: One Roll Is Usually Enough

It is very rarely a good idea to require two rolls as part of the same task. If someone is trying to sneak by guards, one roll is enough, even if they need to sneak past two separate guard posts. If someone is trying to climb a tree to a bird’s nest before the bird returns, even if the nest is particularly high and the tree particularly tall, one roll is enough.

The guideline is usually for a reason, and exactly when it’s right to call for another roll is as much art as science. One fairly straightforward example is when the players can see the ticking clock. If they know the guards are getting closer and by how much with every failed lockpicking attempt, or they know the dark ritual is to happen at midnight, that it’s 11:37 PM now, and that each additional attempt costs one precious minute, then repeat die rolls remain interesting.

#4: Ask For Knowledge Checks At The End Of Description When Appropriate

If the party has broken into a sinister cult’s lair and found a mysterious symbol on the floor, you do not need to wait for one of them to ask if they recognize it. You can just go ahead and ask them to roll Arcana or Religion or whatever skill is appropriate. Consider also using passive knowledge scores the same way 5e uses passive perception scores. It’s more to keep track of, but it means you can weave which character knows what directly into description and players are not tipped off to the presence of unknown information by their failure to know it.

#5: Differentiate Approaches By Their Consequences

Consider a guard the party needs to get past. They have decided not to attack him, so we’re using skill checks. The obvious skills to use are Deception, Persuasion, Intimidate, or Stealth. You could just decide this guard is a DC 15 sort of fellow and let the party roll whatever they’re best at and hope for the best, but it’s more interesting to give different options different consequences. If you fail at Intimidation or Deception, the guard may become hostile. If you fail at Stealth, the guard will almost definitely become hostile. Trying to talk a guard you’ve never met into letting you through (Persuasion) is going to be much harder. You could add a bribe to bring the difficulty down, but now there’s the possibility that he’ll be angry if you fail, and if you succeed you have to actually pay a bribe. Even a relatively simple encounter like this can be much more interesting than just picking whichever relevant skill has the highest bonus.

Calmer GM: How To Make Better Traps

The Angry GM has a tendency to write 500 words of good GM advice buried under 5000 words of schtick and digressions. Calmer GM (props to Captain Person for the name) is an Angry GM article with the schtick written out. Occasionally this results in interesting but irrelevant anecdotes on like the history of video game emulation or whatever being left out. Usually it just means cutting entire paragraphs of effusive self-praise that’s supposed to come across as comedic hyperbole but which make you start to wonder if maybe this guy is an actual narcissist after the third straight paragraph.

Today’s Calmer GM is Traps Suck (original). I don’t know if there will be more.

The Problem With Traps

The standard way for adding traps to D&D is to have lots of dice rolls, at the end of which someone is either hurt or not. You compare the trap’s detection DC to the party’s passive perception, then you have them roll a DEX save or whatever to avoid the falling blocks, then you roll 3d6 bludgeoning damage against everyone who failed. Player interaction is basically nil, which is why rather a lot of groups have stopped bothering with traps altogether.

The easiest solution is to just not have traps.

Telegraphing and Reaction

If you think traps are super cool and are willing to put the work in to have traps that are actually fun, there’s two important things you can do to make them interesting: First, telegraphing. Make placement of traps predictable by limiting the resources of the trap makers in some believable way. This allows your players to figure out where the traps are located via pattern recognition and work out a countermeasure. Second, reaction. Have traps which require players to make some kind of horrible decision when they’re triggered.

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