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 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.


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%


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%)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Arthur’s like “what the fuck.”

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

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

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

Celawyn’s Guide to Wilderness and Fey Post-Mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thaemin’s Guide to Gods and Miracles Post-Mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brac’s Guide to Piracy Post-Mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5e Adventure Paths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samurai Jack: The Time Portal Problem

I’ve recently been watching Samurai Jack, and because this is the future, I can watch all the episodes in whatever order I want at any time I want, and tend to get through two or three at a time going strictly in order. This is not the viewing experience Samurai Jack was originally intended for. Samurai Jack was originally intended for audiences who would catch an episode when it was on but would also miss episodes occasionally or even regularly. As such, Samurai Jack is extremely episodic and relies on continuity almost not at all. This doesn’t diminish the show at all. It knows exactly what it is, a story of a wandering samurai fighting the evil of Aku, shapeshifting master of darkness, in a distant future-fantasy world of robots, demons, and aliens.

Watching the whole thing all the way through, though, the sheer number of time portals Jack is able to find does get to be kind of ridiculous after a while. And this would not have been a difficult problem to solve! Explanations for the time portals, or minor rewrites to remove them so they’re not quite so dense, would have been easy to insert into early episodes without breaking the flow of either that episode’s self-contained plot. I’m only on season two right now, but here’s a couple of very minor tweaks I would’ve added to the first season to resolve the time portal problem. Although I have neither of the necessary skills and no intention to commission them, these tweaks are intended to be so small that a good copycat animator and impressionist voice actor would plausibly be able to insert them seamlessly into the show).

  1. Move episode 12, Jack And The Gangsters, back to episode 4. This places Jack still in the neighborhood of the city he first arrived in, presumably the same city where the gangsters hang out. This is presumably Aku’s capital (for now – it’s established in this episode that Aku can move his castle, and he does so after Jack’s failed assassination), so having Jack be able to show up to attempt an assassination makes it feel less like the world is so small that Aku’s castle is always within walking distance, and more like he flung Jack into his capital city when he was sending him to the future. This makes sense, since the capital would be Aku’s greatest stronghold and most likely to kill Jack more or less on arrival. It also makes sense that Jack would be seeking a means to finish his mission and slay Aku right now, since he hasn’t yet heard of any way to get back to the past.
  2. Move episode 5 (of the first season’s 13), Jack In Space, up to episode 8. This episode has faster-than-light time travel as a key plot point, and moving it deeper into the season helps make this kind of thing feel like it’s less typical.
  3. Move episode 6, Jack and the Warrior Woman, up to episode 12. In episode 4, Jack saves the Woolies from captivity, and in gratitude they tell him of a wish-granting oasis whose powers could send him back in time. This plot thread is tied off in episode 6. By moving Jack and the Warrior Woman up to the penultimate episode, the motivation of “I must get to the oasis the Woolies told me of” can replace “I must reach yet another time portal” as a MacGuffin.
  4. This means that episode 4, Jack, The Woolies, And The Chritchelites, is now episode 5, which will establish a “main plot” that most of the rest of the season will sort of follow, in that Jack’s presumed goal in other episodes is not to find a time portal which have apparently been left lying around like gravel, but rather is traveling in the direction of the wish-granting entity the Woolies told him about. Besides changing some expository dialogue near the beginning, this will not have any other impact on those episodes’ plots.
  5. Episode 7, Jack and the Three Blind Archers, is now episode 6. Establish in a throwaway line while Jack is talking to the pirate captain that he must pass by the Three Blind Archers’ tower because the only other routes north are too heavily guarded by Aku (if I expanded the thought experiment to allow for more drastic revisions, I would add an entire extra scene here that demonstrates how powerful Aku’s defenses are on the other routes north, which would be more in keeping with the show’s reliance on visual storytelling, but sticking to my “could plausibly be accomplished by a talented fan edit” restriction, a throwaway line will have to do). The well of the titular archers now grants martial prowess exclusively, which Jack could use to defeat Aku, but he instead destroys the well rather than risk whatever monkey’s paw curse would accompany the power up.
  6. In episode 9, Jack Under The Sea (now episode 7), the bait in the trap is not a time machine, but an underwater corridor that will allow Jack to bypass much of his journey (this is also something that can be established with a throwaway line, like “that tunnel would take me directly to the desert the Woolies told me of” – once again, if I allowed more substantial edits, I think giving Jack a map showing the path of his journey would help make this clear while relying even less on dialogue, especially since the destination can be marked with a swirly time-portal symbol). There is no tunnel, so the best Jack’s underwater allies can do at the end of the episode is deliver him to a convenient shore.
  7. Episodes 10 and 11 involve no time portal, just Jack traveling and happening across adventure. By coincidence, their numbering in the overall season isn’t even changed. Since the narrative of the season is now framed around reaching the desert that contains the magical oasis, however, Jack’s travel in these episodes now feels purposeful rather than like aimless wandering.
  8. Episode 13, Aku’s Fairy Tales, remains unchanged as well. The demonstration of the sense of hope that Jack is spreading amongst the populace and the hypothetical final confrontation between Jack and Aku at the end is a good way to end the season on a high note after the “main plot” ended in failure in episode 12.

So far, it’s been season two where the time portal abundance has really taken off, with Jack trying and failing to reach a portal to the past being a fairly common throwaway intro. I don’t really have any idea where I’d even begin fixing the problem with that one. Maybe I’ll have an idea by the time I reach the end of the season.