old ramblings #2

Also from August, during the last few weeks of King Machine production. This game has since been published and you can grab it at DTRPG with all our stuff!


So what is The King Machine? Well sit down and I’ll tell you a story.

After we built Diaspora and could be forgiven to think we could design a game or two, we started designing more games. Hollowpoint was early out of the gate for weird reasons but Soft Horizon was my personal white whale. For almost ten years I have been fighting with this idea of plane-hopping psychedelic fantasy. Strange places, local happenings with larger, even multi-versial implications. Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius stuff — elegant imagery over stream-of-consciousness plotlines and constant anachronistic and common-sense defying collages of material with constant political undertones about freedom and class and self-actualization.

I have come to realize that the reason it has been stopped and started so many times is that it is just too big. Others have since taken a stab at it and none of the results are satisfying to me. None of my results have been satisfying.

So I decided to focus and write what I will call “scaffold games”. These are tight and tiny little games with a paste-on absurd setting just to test mechanism. To see how robust and simple a system I can use and still deliver the imagery. First was Sand Dogs which was successful for what it was. Then King Machine.

King Machine has had creative traction with me, though. It has grown into a complete game. It has forced artwork from me largely unbidden. It inspired some layout choices that I am in love with (it’s okay to be in love with your own work, right?). So what to do?

Well, right or wrong, smart or dumb, here’s what I’m going to do.

I am going to publish The King Machine as a standalone game explicitly linked to a nebulous thing called the Soft Horizon. It’s not about the multiverse but it’s a place in the multiverse.

Then, in the same format and with the same system, I am going to finish and publish Sand Dogs. Each is complete in itself. Each is linked to the other through the idea of the Soft Horizon.

Then I will write a Soft Horizon Handbook, which will be mostly tools to build your own game connected to the Soft Horizon. It will detail how to adapt the system and how to generate and elaborate new worlds. And how to connect them to other worlds.

And then for as long as I can think them up, I’ll make more worlds for the Soft Horizon. Each a self-contained game. You never need more than one book.

Whether this is a good idea or not, it’s a way to practically get this thing out of my head. And hopefully into yours.

who’s stealing my eyes?


Kickstarter has been a Very Big Deal for the indie RPG crowd. Where Print On Demand democratized the means of production, allowing anyone to enter the ring with a minimum (or even zero, if you do all the work yourself) capitalization, Kickstarter lets you capitalize and promote all at the same time. Kickstarters move massive numbers of eyes on any product sufficiently pretty to meet the Kickstarter bar.

This is a tremendous step backwards technologically and politically. It’s great for gamers and publishers.

Where POD opened up a whole new way to do business — you don’t need to do fulfillment, you don’t need to warehouse books, you don’t need a distributor — Kickstarter reinforces the old way. You will get enough money to print a bunch of books, manage warehousing, and (unless you want to be in a fairly special hell) hire someone to do fulfillment. POD simplifies and automates. Kickstarter enables the old mechanism to kick over one more time.

This comes with an undertone of disdain. Whereas in 2009 when we published Diaspora through then-revolutionary Lulu, POD publishers were the front line in the war to bring you more games, now they are increasingly seen as not publishing “real” books. And that’s only because now there’s a way to capitalize (interest free, though not fee free) old publishing methods so that you can do all those things “real” publishers do, but in your basement.

Let’s kill that right off the bat. Kickstarters are still amateurs (mostly) figuring out the things they need to do with the capital to get things done. They didn’t miraculously become pros while we slept. That’s why many of them fail when they could have succeeded with POD.

Here’s what you need to do to get a book into customer hands with Kickstarter (and this is not a criticism of any of these things; I only point out that each is a risk):

  • Succeed in a Kickstarter campaign (meet your goals). This should have it’s own bullet list of things because this is not simple. Anyway if you don’t do this you have no capital and you spent a lot of time to go nowhere.
  • Develop a relationship with a printer.
  • Do all the stuff you need to do anyway to make a book, whether POD or otherwise.
  • Finish without spending your profit.
  • Warehouse a thousand books.
  • Get a thousand books into envelopes and shipped to customers (and hope shipping fees don’t eat your remaining profits).
  • Get your remaining books into stores or sell them out of your basement.

The whole point of POD, often overlooked, was to reduce risk and capitalization. The marketing phase can fail and not hurt you because each book you sell goes directly to your bottom line right away, so if you’ve shouldered all the burden of writing, art, editing, and layout yourself then that’s just profit. Sell 1 book and you made money. Sort of; you spent your time. And that’s the heart of it: if you made the book yourself because you loving doing that, capitalizing a print run is all risk. If you can get rid of that bit then you’re finished and can go to the next project.

All of this is good for independent publishers of course. Any way you can get your vision into the hands of others is great. But there is an enormous political difference between POD and Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is conservative. Maybe not quite regressive (1), but not progressive: what it does is help you capitalize. The core methodology did not change; it’s still pure investment capitalism, you just have access to a bunch of pre-sales money with which to do all the usual capitalist things. It invites you to the table, which is a step forward, but it’s the same old table. You get to be a tiny Boss.

POD is progressive. It lets you convert your labour directly to benefit without turning you into a Boss, and without investment. You’re beholden to no one until you sell. And that’s important: you are free as in birds. Once you take a stack of money on the promise of production you are beholden to others until you deliver. Those are chains.

Those might be chains you’re cool with. Personally I have to ration that particular kind of stress–there are enough demands on my heart without it. I just want to make games and get paid a little by people who decided it was worth it after it already existed. When they can read reviews or see their friends’ copy. Not based on a promise conducted with the purpose of gaining your trust.

Oh, and POD need never go out of print. To keep your book available forever just ignore it. That also was progress. But the system thrives on scarcity as much as it does on speculation.

You will probably sell more books with Kickstarter. You might make more money. There is space for the books to be much prettier.

With POD you’ll just remain free.

(1) I think it actually is regressive but in this fashion: we got a progressive technology that let you actually change the process — you don’t need capitalization (that’s a big big deal) and you don’t need to manage the details of print, production, storage, nor fulfillment. With Kickstarter you are back to needing to care about those things. That’s the backwards step.