We are pleased to announce that the PDF of Strongholds & Followers has been released.
Here is a link to our online shop, where you can purchase the PDF or preorder the physical book which includes an immediate download of the PDF:
We are pleased to announce that the PDF of Strongholds & Followers has been released.
Here is a link to our online shop, where you can purchase the PDF or preorder the physical book which includes an immediate download of the PDF:
I have long believed I had a leg up on other game developers because I felt like I understood the nature of online communities better than they did. My first job in gaming was answering folks’ questions online about the Dune CCG, a game so complex it was basically impossible for any one person to hold all the rules in their head at once. This was not a unique feature of Dune, you understand, it was just the style at the time. Folks had lots of questions not covered in the rules, and it was my job to answer them.
I was terrible at it, many people complained about me and they were right to. But I learned a lot. My online life started way before that. In 1983 I got my first computer (a Coleco ADAM!) and a modem and I started dialing in to local (and not so local. A $200 phone bill??) BBSes. This was my first real exposure to fandom and nerd culture and it was pretty neat. I miss those days.
Then the 90s came along and the internet. I had something like 30,000 posts on RPGnet when they wiped the database and started over. I was among the top posters there, not because I was in the business but because I just loved that community and was a part of it. Someone made a T-shirt with the top 100 posters’ avatars and I think I was like number 13? I might have been higher up.
I watched other industry vets wade into that community whenever there was some controversy regarding their game and it simply never worked. Sometimes it never worked spectacularly. Their attempt to spin the issue was always transparently an attempt to manipulate thought and that doesn’t work anymore.
I had dinner at a friend’s house when I was in my 20s and her mom was an ad exec at a big food company and when I complained about what seemed to me a random annoyance—there were now ads on the little rubber bar that separated your groceries on the checkout conveyor belt from mine—she explained why.
“Each generation,” she said, “is more immune to marketing than the previous generation. So advertisers now fight and scrabble over every inch, trying to put ads everywhere, anywhere, desperately hoping to influence you.” You used to be able to go on TV and say “Hey smoking’s good for you, buy Camels,” and folks said “Oh, word? Well, they wouldn’t let them say that if it wasn’t true” and they’d dutifully go out and buy Camels.
Not anymore. People hate the feeling of being marketed to, being manipulated, and by and large it just doesn’t work anymore. That’s why “social” is so important. Why “viral” matters so much. If I can get you talking to your friends about my product, your friends don’t feel like they’re being marketed to. They feel like your recommendation is authentic.
And, by and large, it is, and that does work. This is killing a lot of marketing firms because nothing about social has anything in common with anything they’ve ever learned or understood, but they’re sort of in charge of making it work, and we see the failure of that every day on the internet. We’re always astonished when a company gets it right.
So having grown up online in a way most of my peers and even many people from the generation after mine hadn’t, having screwed up as the Dune NetRep and been a fantastic troll on RPGnet, I felt like I got it. I’d sown my wild oats, so to speak, and had settled down into what I perceived as a deep understanding of online communities and how to navigate them. Other people at Turtle Rock had to go through training to be trusted to post officially online, I was already doing it and no one was worried. Before anyone in the D&D community knew who I was, I was already a redditor with tons of sweet, sweet karma. I believe I now have enough to cash in and get one of those little plastic rings with a plastic spider on it.
I am not, in other words, one of those people you see online slagging off “The Internet” or “Reddit,” as cesspools. Before industry folks had Reddit (which I love) to complain about, they used the exact same language to complain about RPGnet (which I loved). I am not one of those people saying “Never read the comments.” Those people are wrong. They’re on the internet, popular because of the internet, slagging off the internet and trying to score points doing it. Screw those people.
Come the YouTube channel and as it grew, I could tell one of the reasons it grew was people liked the way I presented myself online. I didn’t answer every single question, but it felt like I was present, like I was engaged, and like I was authentic and that’s the one thing that always, always works online. Authenticity. I mean, if you’re an authentically terrible human being, that will also ‘work,’ just not in your favor. You can tell that some very popular people online got that way because they cannot tell the difference between good attention and bad attention. They do not know that a large audience is not the same thing as a good audience.
Things started to get weird on the subreddit and in the discord when folks started sort of obsessing over images of me. Memes, basically. And the reason that depressed me was because every time I saw someone post a screencap of me making a face, I would just get…yeah I think depressed is the right word because I thought “There are better uses of your time.”
I don’t (or, I haven’t for a while, but I may again, who knows?) use custom thumbnails for the videos because I just love the ridiculous poses YouTube’s thumbnail algorithm puts me in. I have no problem looking like a fool, if I did, I wouldn’t be making videos.
It’s just that feeling of, like…bro, what are you doing with your life? You are worth more as a person than this. Go read a book. Go make something. It’s not unlike my attitude toward games like WoW. I played a lot of WoW, I five-boxed for like a year. And when I quit cold-turkey…I wrote a novel. Which do you think I value more? I look back on my time in that game as time wasted in a way I don’t view other games.
I looked at other subreddits I’m on and I saw many of them just had a “no memes” policy, so we instituted that and that patched the problem for a while. Focus on content I said. Well, I got my wish.
Now we’ve had the Kickstarter and one thing I’ve noticed is that even people who’ve been part of the community for a long time, no longer talk about me like I’m a person. Like I’m another member of this community.
They talk about me like I’m a product.
Well, folks need to be able to do that. There were lots of discussions online about the Critical Role comic in various corners of the internet and with a few exceptions, I stayed out of them because I wanted folks to be able to talk about the comic openly without worrying about another member of the community, i.e. me who just happened to be the writer, being offended.
Folks need space to talk about the products they buy (of which the entertainment they engage in is a subset) without worrying about offending the manufacturers. We call that space “the internet.” And as my audience grows, more people talk about me like a product. Perfectly natural.
So my “leg up,” my understanding of online communities, no longer serves me. It doesn’t help. Because now people feel empowered to describe me, physically, and my content, as thought it were any other product. As though I were an actor on a TV show. As though I was something they were consuming. And…they are. I produce content, they consume it.
And we are perfectly comfortable being very familiar with the products we consume. We don’t feel at all strange talking about how an actor is wrong for a part because of how they look or that we don’t think an actor’s performance was believable. This steak is the wrong color, and I don’t like the texture. We don’t expect the actors or the steak to care. We don’t expect either of them to even hear us.
I’m not different. I think Martin Freeman as Bilbo is terrible, because he seems miserable to me…and I think he was. That is not something I would say about almost anyone in real life. I would never say that TO Martin Freeman, or anywhere where I thought he was going to overhear me.
I would have to be really really good friends with someone before I would just casually toss off “You seem miserable.” Or “You look terrible, have you been getting any sleep?”
I don’t think there’s any middle way here. Being a member of the community means…well, it means reading a lot of comments. It doesn’t mean replying to them but it does mean reading a whole lot of them. The comments section of my YouTube channel is great, because I read the comments and kill the ones I think don’t contribute anything. That’s not special, by the way, all the YouTubers I follow have great comments sections.
But there are very few people online with the following I have who use the internet the way I do. I post a lot, I share a lot of the things I like. Like, dozens of times a day I tweet out stuff. I respond to a lot of people, I engage with a lot of people. The folks with larger followings than mine, all engage a lot less. They are all way more picky about A: what they post/share, B: how often they post/share and C: who they engage with.
Well, there’s a reason for that. I thought I could be different, I thought I was smarter and more savvy and I think maybe that means I got away with it longer? I got away with just being me online longer than most people would have.
But this is the end of that. My videos are a product (a salesperson would say I am the product, alright) and folks need to be able to say things about it like “You look tired, are you ok?” “You cut your hair too short,” “that sketch failed to build upon itself.” (there was a sketch?!)
These are certainly not comments I would make about any YouTube video, but they’re no different than comments I have made about other products. I think because I am a YouTuber I see other YouTubers as people, not products, and so I post encouraging things if I post anything.
My YouTube channel seems to be slowly dying. My subscriber rate is half what it was only a couple of months ago, and no surprise. I stopped making Running the Game videos.
Well, I just took a break. I’ve got a whole list of ideas for videos I’m really excited by. But it can take half a day, a whole day, to get a video done depending on the content, and I have this colossal fucking deadline I have to worry about. If you wait a couple of weeks to post a new video, it better be good!
I know there are more Running the Game videos coming, so I’m not super worried. And my subscriber rate is still amazing. Lots of YouTubers would kill for it.
And I know I don’t have to ONLY making Running the Game videos. I’m working on a video about Google and AI that I think folks will like. But the Kickstarter videos? Uploading twitch streams? Those don’t count as ‘videos.’ They’re not content. Those are basically ads, and an archive.
I don’t HAVE to talk about D&D, but I have to produce content, and I will and I am exited to. The Strongholds & Followers book is content. People will review it by saying “It reads like his YouTube videos sound” and for some people that will be a criticism and for others a compliment.
But if I compromise and put out a video that looks and feels rushed, because it was, even if I think the video was really good and had a lot of good advice in it, folks will critique it in a very familiar fashion. He looks tired, what’s with the camera, it tastes funny, there’s too much salt.
There are two lessons there. The first is “don’t compromise.” Because I never have before. I started with professional lighting and 1080p and 60fps and I think that had a lot to do with the success of the channel. In many ways, in most ways, I still have no idea what I’m doing. I know many editing tricks, but I can’t be arsed to deploy them, because I’m too impatient to get the content up. Basically, I hate editing and it shows.
Most of the production over here is amateur hour, but I’ve faked it pretty good. When I fake it badly, people notice and they say so. So, actually, I compromise all the time, but in a “do it well, or not at all” kind of way. I pick my battles, in other words.
The other lesson is “don’t engage.” It’s counter-productive. Folks need to be able to slag me and my content off just like it was a Twinkie, or a Blu-ray. Which means I can’t be in there with them. I can’t be part of the community that’s slagging me off. That doesn’t make any sense, no one does that.
So now instead of being casually but carefully “me, just online,” I have to manage my online presence. We’re going to need moderators and probably a social media manager and that’s going to suck because no one I know, who is good at that, is available and the people I know who are available hate that stuff. :D
We’ll work it out. But it’ll be a transition and things won’t be the same. Something is always lost. The present is better than the past, the people who say otherwise are wrong. But the folks who say something valuable was lost, are right. They’re not mutually exclusive.
We created an MCDM Twitter account, https://twitter.com/helloMCDM expressly so I folks who just want updates about what we're doing, when we're live, when there's a new video, etc..., have an option without actually following ME and all my nonsense.
I’ll still be on twitter, just less and more carefully. I’ll still moderate the YouTube comments, but I’ll reply less. All this will save me time, and some of my sanity.
But…something valuable will be lost. Nothing good lasts forever...but then, neither does anything bad.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
ALL SUBSPACE CHANNELS
xCAPS AKHENATEN UTC1520827413
OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR
All the players in our play will have different memories of these events. These are mine.
There are a dozen threads that lead here but really I think it started back in August when Lars was pestering me about when we were going to get to play D&D again.
At the time it seemed impossibly distant. I knew I wanted to stream it, and that's an obstacle right there. I have a lot of reasons to stream our D&D game. There's an electricity in the air when we're playing live in front of an audience. And everyone at the table focuses a lot more on the game, less table chatter. That's nice.
I also love new challenges. They keep me focused and optimistic, especially during those times when the world makes it hard to be an optimist. I like having new problems to solve.
Well before Lars in August, Jerry came to me and said “I think we can fix our streaming problems.” I agreed. We’d tried streaming before, it was terrible. So we put our heads together. I laid out my standards. The viewers need certain things, it has to look a certain way. A certain bar of quality and I wouldn’t compromise. Jerry just took it all in and started looking for solutions. A good team, me saying “it has to be like this” and Jerry saying “Ok, I’ll figure it out.” The cameras have to be at head level, everyone needs to be able to reach out and move their own minis. Everyone watching needs to be able to see all of us and the battlemat and minis clearly. Clearly.
We streamed again, and it went pretty well. It went so well, we were just left with more ambition. The opposite of the first stream.
A lot of my early desire to stream came from my desire to show Matt and Liam that there were better ways to do what they were doing on Critical Role. Those guys built that plane in mid-air, they can't land it, take it apart, and put it back together. But we're not even on the runway yet, we can try things and if they fail, no big deal. We'll try something else. But if any of my ideas work, they'll be able to see it, and it won't seem like such a risk to them.
But there's something else. I've been playing D&D since the month this issue of Dragon was released and some amazing, astonishing things have happened on both sides of the screen that are now lost. Lost forever. And sure, the fact that they were temporary and fleeting made them rare and valuable, but I love the idea of our game having a permanent record. I love the idea of someone being able to watch the whole thing and see it unwind. And it would be nice if our game found an audience, even a small one. Probably better if it's a small one. :D Going online and seeing people cheering on my players and hoping for dramatic and epic outcomes for their characters is like a drug for a DM.
We’d had success with our second streaming attempt, but we'd been kicked out of our space. Turtle Rock was hiring more people and space was at a premium now. This meant we needed to find our own studio.
Of course everyone else thinks this will be easy. "I've got a big living room/upstairs loft/garage why not stream here?" Well, because we're going to have about $20,000 worth of equipment living there and I want access to that space whenever I feel like it and ALSO your space is nowhere big enough. Several friends of mine defiantly went home, measured their spaces, came back and said "Ok you're right. Seemed bigger to me."
So we needed our own studio space. Hm. So far I'd been out of pocket on the whole venture. I was lucky that, between being the Lead Writer at TRS and having a successful couple of novels (thanks entirely to a successful YouTube channel), I could afford to buy things like HD cameras and microphones and a mixing board, and computer hardware and lights. And now a custom table, oof.
But doing research into it, renting a space would mean signing a lease, at least three years, at which point we're talking about close to $100k in rent alone. That staggered me. I was doing ok, but if I signed up for that and not enough people were willing to pay to watch us play (pay for something we'd technically be giving away!) then I'd be on the hook for a lot of money. "I have to sell my mom's house" kind of money.
I just couldn't see how to make that work. I couldn't figure out where the money would come from.
And other things were in the way. I was on the hook for the Critical Role Comic, which I started writing in January of 2017, and here it was August and I think I still had three more issues to write! It was not easy, it was taking a lot of time, and it was something I felt like I wasn't getting better at. It wasn't getting easier (I think, with Issue 6, it finally got easier). I couldn't yet begin to concentrate on anything else, I had to finish the comic.
One of the things I couldn't work on yet was the Stronghold rules. I originally imagined I'd just clean them up and dump them on the DM's Guild, but more and more I wanted to make it a product. I spent 10 years working in the Tabletop RPG business, it seemed silly to spend all that time learning how to make and publish books and then never use that info again. I wanted it to be a product I was proud of.
I knew that meant paying for art and layout and printing and I figured a Kickstarter would do that. I actually never doubted that would work, I was 100% certain "the network," by which I mean the community, was robust enough to support that. And, even then, I had a dream that maybe the Kickstarter would be successful enough I could do all this full time. Make videos, stream D&D, write comics and novels full time. But it was just a hope, a dream.
I couldn't reconcile the needs of the streaming space with the work I had in front of me. I couldn't see a path to us playing D&D, live on stream, in our own space, that didn't involve selling my house.
It was Jerry who said "Just roll the cost of the studio lease into the Kickstarter." What?
Could we do that? Could we launch one Kickstarter for two unrelated products? Seemed...seemed like cheating. But maybe...maybe I could figure out a way to charge enough for the book, that the proceeds would pay for the space? Maybe. Maybe if we had good stretch goals. But the stretch goals would have to be good, they'd have to be things I would pledge for. A lot of Kickstarters have crap, thirsty, desperate pledge goals I would never back.
Ok, well...I need to figure that out.
So it's August and Lars says "Matt if you wait until everything else is off your plate, it's never going to get done. Let me produce this. What do you need?"
I needed research. We had too many questions and no answers. I made a list of successful Kickstarters in this category, big ones, small ones, some specific to 5E, some not, and asked Lars to datamine all of them. How many pledge levels did they have, how many people backed each, how much revenue did each pledge level generate? What were good/popular ideas for pledge levels? What pledge levels did people tend not to back? I think I listed like 12 Kickstarters.
Lars didn't wait. That night he had populated the entire table, and suddenly we had good data. And not just good data, good data anyone could see. Lars suddenly knew more about what made a successful Kickstarter than me! Jerry was the first person to really throw in with me in all this, because he wanted to help produce the stream. Solve the tech and logistics stuff. He watches a lot of twitch streamers and wanted to help make that happen. None of our streaming stuff would happen without Jerry.
Lars was the next believer. He volunteered to produce the Kickstarter. Sorta starting to feel like...we had a team.
Ok so now we start to feel like the nature of the Kickstarter is taking shape, we know some of the things we want to offer, but not others. The trick was, could we roll ~100k in studio rent into stretch goals for a book?
I couldn't figure that out. I had for some reason convinced myself that we couldn't do a Kickstarter for two completely different products. "A smart-watch and a children's book!" What? With this block in my head, I felt like I had to hide the cost of the studio in the cost of the book. That seemed impossible. And I wasn't comfortable with it.
It was a Skype call with my friend and former coworker Jeff Tidball (currently at Atlas Games) that solved the problem.
"Don't try to hide it, don't do that. That's bad. Figure out everything you need, everything, and then just go to Kickstarter and ask for it. Be transparent. Tell everyone everything you need and let the network decide what, if anything, that's worth."
This was a huge breakthrough to me. INSTANTLY I knew he was right. And Atlas had done some successful Kickstarters, he said absolutely we could do book and stream, ultimately we were just asking the network for money. As long as we were clear about where the money was going, we could ask for anything. Wow.
Then it was just a question of doing it. Thanks to Lars, I could hand off production of Shirts, Stickers, and Minis to him. He was opposed to doing minis, "stick to our core competency." Good advice! But I already knew how to do all these other things, I wanted something new, and minis excited me. As a backer! I believed they'd excite the audience. And I wanted to learn how to make minis. Unlike Lars, I'd backed mini Kickstarters before, really small ones, mini Kickstarters with 145 backers and I was like "If some random dude in the middle of New Zealand can make minis in his basement, we can do it." Well...there’s a difference between 145 backers and...whatever we ended up at. A many.
We needed a company for tax purposes and legal protection. I had done this before, I knew it was no big deal, but it seemed like a big deal to the team. Three friends of mine started our own tiny company after Pandemic Studios collapsed under its own hubris. I knew that starting an LLC was just filing papers. We did that.
The LLC needed a bank account. Jerry's wife Gina helped with that. Our corporate account officer asked a lot of questions, good questions. He started doing some back of the napkin math on how much money we might make streaming if we got a streaming audience a FRACTION the size of Critical Role's. Suddenly he was really interested in this company and this Kickstarter.
We have no quotes for cost of goods. I used to know a lot of this like the back of my hand, but it's been 15 years since the DUNE RPG and two Star Trek RPGs, a disc game, a card game, a Lord of the Rings RPG boxed set. Everything’s changed.
So we started looking for partners. Thanks to Jeff Tidball, we got a reference with a printing company and that was easy. I knew that lingo, I was able to get a quote, easy. And Jeff gave me another invaluable piece of advice.
"Start a webpage for folks who want to be alerted with the KS goes live. Tell them you need their email, but you will only ever email them ONCE to tell them the KS is live. It's going to be months before you launch, you've got 150,000 subs on YouTube, spend this time plugging the KS and sending people to that site."
Another instantly obvious piece of good advice. A day later Jerry had the site up and it was working. Ultimately we had over 8,000 people ask to be alerted. Seeing that number hit 3,000, then 5,000, then 8,000 I started to think this might all work. Jerry, monitoring that list and seeing how quickly it grew, was the only person who correctly pegged how successful the Kickstarter would be. "We'll raise $50k in 46 minutes," he said. We raised it in 32.
But I get ahead of myself....
Stuff was moving forward, but I couldn't start the Kickstarter until the Critical Role comic was done. One problem at a time. At lunch with Matt and Liam, when I laid this out to them, they just rolled their eyes and said "You'll hit your goals in the first day." I hadn't even told them what those goals were!!
This is the problem I'm wrestling with. Well, one of the problems. :D I'm surrounded by people who seem to believe, whatever I decide to do, we can do. This is not true. If we continually set loftier goals for ourselves, we will eventually fail. It makes it hard to judge risk when everyone's acting like we can do anything. We must manage risk. Focus on the battle in front of us.
The Critical Role comic finally wraps up and it's January and Lars and Jerry have been working for months. We just need a couple more data points. Quotes on the minis, mostly. We know everything else. We are paranoid. Other Kickstarters have failed, raised more money than they asked for, but had nothing to show for it, or even owed money in the end. This could happen to us. We need quotes for shipping. We need estimates of print runs for everything. Do we have ANY data we can use to make a projection on where we're going to be sending all this stuff?
Unlike other first-time Kickstarters, I thought the answer for us was “yes.” We had my YouTube metrics! Could we not assume that folks would back roughly in proportion with how they watch? At least in terms of how many people live where, where will all these orders be going?
It didn't really matter if this was a good metric, it was a metric, an objective one, and the only one we had. So we used that. Exported the list of which countries my YouTube audience is from. It's early days, but right now it looks like that metric was within 3% of the actual number. If we could have gotten shipping costs down, I think it would be exactly the same.
Finally, we were ready. But it didn't seem like we were ready. It seemed like we were guessing at a lot of things. But we had to guess. All costs of goods depend on how many things we're making, and we don't know that. Sometimes it seemed, especially to the other folks on the team, like we didn't know anything.
I had to say "Guys, the Kickstarter is going live next Friday." Because I knew if I didn't pick an arbitrary day, we would just continually try to find new, better oracles to consult, hoping somehow to resolve all uncertainty. But there was no way to do that, except launch. T-minus one week.
We worried about everything. We worried about the language in the video, on the page. One thing no one on my team has ever tried to do; edit me. None of them have ever tried to tell me how to make a video or what to say to folks. But I worry about it.
We made the Kickstarter page. Kickstarter is not user-friendly, everything is difficult. It is a clear example to me of a company that met with instantaneous success and so has never felt the need to improve anything. It's a mess. My team and I were constantly wrestling with it, trying to get it to behave.
Something we learned, Kickstarter is not what people use it for. We here in the tabletop category--I think by FAR the most successful Kickstarter category, howevermuch Kickstarter might wish that were different--want to use Kickstarter like a store, and that is not what it is for, and I don't think it ever will be. In spite of the fact that this is how it IS used.
That has a big impact on how we word and structure our stretch goals and in the end, even though we tried to be clear, the goals were not clear. For one thing, even though on the Pre-Release Page, we have control over where the different levels go, so we could for instance group all the Unlockable Pledge Levels together at the bottom of the list. Once we launched, Kickstarter reordered them by dollar amount making the list more confusing than we intended. By the time we discovered this, people had already pledged at every level, and it could not be changed.
Happily the graphic saved our ass. That was the Universal Solvent to almost every question. Thanks to Töm whom you'll meet on the stream for the graphic design work.
I really want to launch on Friday but that graphic isn't ready yet. Kickstarter says it takes on average three days for them to review your campaign and approve it. If we don't submit by Tuesday night, we won't make Friday morning. I don't know why I thought Friday morning was the magic day and time. I just felt it. It's the day before the weekend, everyone's feeling optimistic. And I did not want to wait a week.
I don't wait for the graphic, we don't need the graphic to get the campaign approved. I click "Submit for review" and post on twitter saying "We have submitted. It takes approx. three days to get approved. Everyone cross your fingers."
I clicked "send" on the tweet, and got an email from Kickstarter saying we'd been approved. They have an automated system that scans your text for problems and only if you fail this do you go to personal review that might take three days. It’s only been five minutes and we've already passed. I didn't mention this on twitter, let drama build. :D
The day before launch, Jerry asked if I had a Magic Number. I knew what he meant. Did I have a number in my head that was "if we make this amount, I'm going to do this full-time." I don't say "quit Turtle Rock" because I love those guys and love writing for them. But they don't need a full time writer and maybe never will again. Few developers do.
"Yeah," I said. "The magic number is $300,000." I figured that was enough to rent the studio, pay for the book, and give me enough to live on for like a year at my current cost of living. Longer if I switched to Ramen Noodles. :D
As it turns out, I think we need more space than we imagined. And it will cost more, so the magic number probably should have been something like $500,000. But we blew past that in a single day.
The day before we launch, I do not sleep. We pick 8am Friday morning as the launch time, a time when I am normally awake, but most of my team is not. We are all awake. We're all sitting there in Discord watching the clock waiting for me to Press The Big Red Button. There isn't a big red button, I just like the metaphor. :D
It's 7:50am and we're all in the Discord waiting to go live. I have not slept. I have to go to work today. Why are we waiting until 8am again? No reason, other than it's what I said we'd do.
I press "go live" on the Kickstarter and switch windows to YouTube. I'm in the process of changing the settings on the YouTube video from Unlisted to Public, have not yet finished this, it's been maybe 30 seconds since the KS went live, no announcement, no social media, 30 seconds since I said "go" and Jerry posts in the discord.
"We have two backers."
WTAF? I mean really, what? Two backers in the first 30 seconds and we haven't told ANYONE the project is live. No email has gone out, nothing. Best we can figure, because I told folks on twitter when I submitted the project for review and that it would take three days, they reverse engineered "Friday" and have been refreshing the Kickstarter New Campaigns page. Later, folks on twitter would confirm this is what they were doing.
I wish everyone in our private Discord luck, and I go to work. I need to be away from this for like an hour at least, I can't sit there monitoring the page. I'm exhausted.
On the way to work, I start crying. For a few reasons, including the music I was listening to. But I am aware as I leave MCDM Productions behind and head in to Turtle Rock offices, that this is the end of something. The end of my time as a full time writer at TRS. My home since 2011. More my home than my actual home. All my games live there, my best friends work there. They will always be my friends and I will always be their writer, whenever they need me. I poured everything I had into Evolve, we all did. But that was in another country; and besides the game is dead. Time to move on.
I get to work, and the project is already funded. I have no idea what's happening, I can't believe it. I'm in a dreamlike state. Something extraordinary is happening. And it seems like no one but me is surprised by this. I'm getting texts from Matt and Liam, from everyone.
We hit all our stretch goals in two hours. Good lord. Now what? Do we do more stretch goals? Worth thinking about but...we've promised so much already.
At work, it's just another day. One friend of mine asked how things were going, and for the only time that day I indulged myself and showed him the Kickstarter. Which he knew nothing about until that moment. He could not process what he was seeing. I explained it. He said "Let's go to Vegas! I mean seriously, right now, screw it! Let's go! Hey you want a car? Let's go buy a car!"
"I'm learning a lot about you right now, Mr. O'Driscoll," I said.
"Oh yeah my wife said a long time ago it would be a disaster if we ever won the lottery!" One of my favorite people.
By the end of the day, but really only the end, word has gotten round to a few people at the office. I'm getting texts from coworkers.
The GM at TRS is texting me. I am unsure how he will take all this, but I have reason to believe he will take it well. He and I have been players together in my friend Phil's D&D game, he's a supporter of my YouTube channel, he knows what we're trying to do. He's the one who kicked us out of the space we were using and he said several times "If I could give you the space, or rent you some space, I would."
He's freaking out in texts, worried that I am unprepared for this success. Which I am.
"Do you have a trademark lawyer?"
A minute passes.
"Ok we have a meeting next week with a guy. Do you have a tax attorney?"
The trademark lawyer used to be a competitive M:TG player and later semi-pro Call of Duty player, by the way. I am in good hands.
Already it's clear I need partners. Our GM says "At this rate you're gonna raise about $2m in investment capital without giving away any of your company." He is putting things into perspective for me. There's more going on here than meets the eye.
"If you can do that, with no investors, imagine what you could do with...." Is the sentiment I start hearing from folks I know high up in places. "One thing at a time" is my repeated mantra. Fulfill our promises. Grow slowly. Organically. I've seen other organizations suddenly explode with content no one was asking for. We're not making that mistake. We're gonna make all new mistakes!
In the days before the Kickstarter launched, one of my players and former coworker Anna starts helping to organize things. She builds the company discord. Starts taking all the information Jerry and Lars and I have and organizing. Some of this stuff was already well-organized, but a lot of it lived in our heads. Not anymore. There's no sense of urgency here, she just wants to help.
Now that things are Real, and Crazy, Anna goes into overdrive. She is up all hours helping to manage the Kickstarter, coordinating everything I don't have time to do. There's a lot of communication and planning required. With Jerry and Lars, I knew we could do this. With Anna I start to relax. I can focus on the project.
The week the Kickstarter launches I realize I can't ignore how much weight my cat Muffin has lost. She goes to one vet, then another, then finally an expensive third. And I notice a second cat is also losing weight. I will spend the rest of the Kickstarter giving two cats 8 different medications several times a day and driving them across Orange County every week. It's unclear if they will make it...but who does? Nothing about this surprises me. My grandfather taught me long ago, it's never all good or all bad.
The first week we're incredibly popular with everyone. Suddenly everyone wants to be in bed with us. Folks who wouldn't return Lars or Jerry's calls are now eager. Of course they are. My friend Ryan Dancey lays it out.
"Everyone's going to pressure you to add stretch goals. Do not listen to them. You've already overpromised on a very weird Kickstarter. Just deliver on that." Good advice.
We have a team meeting, I explain what Ryan said. We all talk about stretch goals. If we do any, they have to be good. We have a couple of ideas. What if we partnered with the guys who made the castle terrain I used for the Battle of Castle Rend to make an ACTUAL Tower? Terrain for the game. That was a good idea. Probably the best stretch goal we had.
Lars is opposed. Anna is opposed. Jerry is opposed. I understand why. I've just finished relaying Ryan Dancey's advice. They have no idea who he is, but I do.
"Ok, I just want to explain something to you all. I agree with Ryan. But. What we're looking at here is something extraordinary. Thousands of people are telling us ‘we believe in you.’ There is a tremendous amount of goodwill. It would be a mistake to ignore that. Those people want to see us do something extraordinary. We should at least consider it."
This moves the needle. Lars agrees. It's at least worth looking in to. Jerry agrees. Anna still thinks it's a mistake. I ask for a Go/No Go vote. Anna is No Go.
This isn't a democracy...but what's the point of having good people and ignoring them? I kill the Tower idea. Anna objects, reminds me I'm in charge. I know that, that's why I'm deciding to listen to my people. Jerry does some rough math and points out that an Actual Tower would be ridiculously expensive at any cost. We could probably do it with someone, and it would generate a lot of revenue but could we charge enough to make it generate profit? None of us think so. It makes it easier to leave the idea behind.
Jerry points out that the "most funded" tabletop RPG before this one was John Wick's Seventh Sea 2nd Edition. Most of the team have no idea who John is, but I do. We’ve known each other for decades now, gamed together at Last Unicorn Games. Jerry says “John’s last stretch goal was just the PROMISE that they’d do a boardgame Kickstarter. No reward, just ‘we will at some point do a board game.’”
I already know we want to do more products, we’ve talked about this. Such a stretch goal, a no-strings-attached stretch goal is popular with the team. I ask for a vote, everyone votes yes.
I run the idea by Ryan. He doesn’t see the point in it. We’re already going to raise so much money, so much more than we need. Stop trying to get “more.” This is sensible. Again, I take Ryan’s advice.
But I have my own idea. What about a silly stretch goal? If we beat John’s record, I’ll include rules for a pirate ship stronghold. I already sort of know how it would work, it would be very little writing (maybe an hour or two) another no risk goal. And we’re going to beat his number, anyone can look at the public KS data and see where it’s going.
We revise our “no strings attached” goal from the promise of a second Kickstarter, to adding pirate ship strongholds.
On old forums where folks have been talking about D&D for 20 years, people are trying to reverse-engineer our success. None of them can fathom what’s going on. They’ve never heard of me. Is there really this much demand for a Strongholds & Followers book for 5th Edition? Have we all been doing this wrong the whole time?
I am a member of these forums. On some of them, I had tens of thousands of posts back in the late 90s and early 2000s. Back when that industry was my job. None of these people remember me, and why should they? They’re all newcomers from my point of view, and I’m a nobody from theirs.
Some people try to frame the discussion in terms of Streaming. “The Rise of the Streamer.” None of these people know who streams what, so they assume I am a popular streamer. Some of them know I’m not but in their minds, being on YouTube and being on Twitch is the same thing. I’m watching the birth of a new generation of Grognard.
I interject and try to explain. The success of the Kickstarter is the success of the YouTube channel. There’s no way to understand it otherwise. I don’t think they’re really interested in my opinion. What do I know? I’m no longer part of that world. I feel very little connection with folks in tabletop now. I realize to me, now, this hobby is something that happens at the table, but the community happens on twitch and youtube and reddit and twitter. Those are my native environments. I’m pretty sure most of the posters on these forums have no twitter account. They talk about twitter like it’s a sign of the downfall of western civilization. What would they have made of Elvis and his swiveling hips in the 1950s? Would they have been on the right side of history then?
As a team, we head to OrcCon. It’s a spontaneous thing. A local L.A. convention I’ve attended on and off since the mid 90s. We’re headed up there mostly so I can show my team what a real (i.e. not video game, not the interminable E3) game convention is like. I also have people up there to meet and introduce them to.
I expect to be able to wander the dealer room and buy stuff. Support local vendors. And there are a lot of local manufacturers. I intend at some point to go find John Wick whom the schedule indicated will be running 7th Sea.
Instead about 5 minutes into the con, John finds me.
“MATT COLVILLE!” he shouts and suddenly I’m in a bear hug and it’s like we just saw each other last week instead of 10 years ago. He has a lot of advice, basically all the same stuff Ryan said. No surprise. Because of John’s exclamation and irrepressible theatrics, suddenly the entire area is crowded with people who want to shake my hand. Some of them know nothing about the Kickstarter, it’s only a week old, but they’ve seen the videos. Far more people in the room have no idea who I am or what’s going on but surrounded by friends and fans, I can’t see those people.
I try to deflect and explain this success is the success of the network. Of the YouTube channel. It’s the only answer I can offer. This thing is huge and bigger than me.
John relays the story of his Kickstarter, which we already know (remember Lars’ research?) and says “We raised $300,000 in one day!”
I indulge myself for only the second time in the Kickstarter. “$300,000 in one day!?” I exclaim. “That’s adorable.” John howls with laughter. He takes the joke in the spirit in which it was meant, and blesses our Pirate themed stretch goal. I never mentioned explicitly what Kickstarter we were trying to beat in my videos, I felt like calling it out would be déclassé, but John knew, obviously. I wasn’t trying to hide it.
My friend Geoff arrives, one of the people I’ve driven up here to meet. A friend and former coworker and one of the smartest people I know. He had a lot of advice and ideas. He’s that rare person; an idea man who can back up his ideas with experience. When he pitches us stuff, it’s not hypothetical. They’re things he knows we can do, because he’s seen it done. By people with less experience and smaller networks than us.
I was apprehensive about introducing the team to Geoff. To them, he could be perceived as an interloper. I don’t want the folks who helped me get here feel threatened by him. I needn’t worry, he charmed the pants off them. Everyone immediately feels like even greater things are possible thanks to Geoff.
But still…one thing at a time. Dream in the time of dreaming, cut in the time of cutting. And this is neither. Now is time for Production.
It becomes critically important to me we preview everything before the KS ends. It’s becoming obvious this Kickstarter is a phenomenon and a lot of people will be backing who have no idea who I am or what kind of designer I am. I’m confident we can make a book the YouTube audience will like, but I want to make a book all the backers will like. Time to set some expectations.
About 12,000 words are already written, all the charts for followers are done. I start making videos. We make 19 videos and 4 livestreams in 28 days. I show people everything, how the strongholds will work, how the followers chart works, how the different kinds of followers work, how the Warfare system works, in its basic form.
People engage with the design. Some folks are confused, but mostly I can tell this is because they don’t have the actual rules. Very few questions I don’t already know the answer to. They ask lots of questions, good questions, and I can see where the playtest will go.
It might work. The rules might work. When people challenge things it’s generally what I consider details. They rarely question the high-level assumptions. Some people aren’t happy, but you can’t make everyone happy. It’s obviously not clear to the audience, but it’s clear to me there are solutions for all the questions folks have.
Utility is another issue. It remains to be seen if this is a product people will actually USE. But folks are engaging with the rules already. Someone ran a battle using the warfare system the day after I uploaded the video, and only had one question after. I’m surprised, there’s a lot of that system still in my head. Including stuff you need, like victory conditions. I made a one-page handout for my players because I knew that I would be there while the battle was running. The fact that folks can use the system with just that handout is remarkable to me. But I know they’re not destruct-testing it. They want it to work, so right now they’re making it work. The actual playtest will be rough.
We close in on the final goal. Folks are excited to see if we’ll break $2m, but all the projections have said we would and in the end, to me, the difference between $1.9m or $2.1m doesn’t matter. Both are ridiculously more than we asked for. More than we need to do what we want. Ridiculous for me to focus on numbers like that. Since we launched, I’ve never looked at the number. I look at how many backers we get each day, does a video or update move the needle? Do all of them move it equally? It’s not the total I watch. It’s the generosity of the community I’m thinking about.
I worry all the time. Folks tell me not to, but that is their prerogative. It is not mine. It’s my name on everything. It’s me hiring folks and renting space. If we fail, it’s me everyone will talk about as the guy who rented space to stream a game no one watched. Made a book no one used.
People would tweet stuff to me like "I don't have a lot, but I scraped together enough to get…." This stuff kills me. I don't want people to feel like they're sacrificing something to support me. I'm going to be ok! I was doing pretty good before the YouTube channel! Spend that money on groceries!
But I don't have control over how people spend their money. And I certainly have spent money unwisely in my life. And resented it when people told me to do otherwise. But I wasn’t the one on the hook for it then. I hate thinking of people supporting me who are having trouble making ends meet. This isn’t important. The book, the stream aren’t important. Save your money.
The Kickstarter is now over. It’s time to begin the process of finishing the book. I have an outline, 12,000 words written, but tomorrow I’ll start on the playtest checklist. Focus on the rules we need to test. Get them in shape. Start working on the list of art needs so the artists can get started. Look for a partner for the adventure. Someone who’s put out some third party stuff I think is good. I could write it myself, but I’m afraid we’d miss our deadline. Folks expect my writing and design, so I’ll do the outline and edit the final text.
There’s a colossal amount of work to do, but it’s just the mundane work of writing and producing. Lots of people have done this before me, including me. :D
If you pledged, thank you. You were part of something extraordinary, I think. Something important, in ways I honestly don’t understand yet. I know to some folks it sounds weird to talk about this like it’s important. Obviously in many ways none of this matters. I’m reminded of that twice a day when it’s time to give my cats their medicine. But if it were just a book and a RPG Stream…we’d have done maybe $100k - $300k and still felt like heroes. This is way beyond that. Folks want to see more. More videos, more products, more novels, more comics.
I hope I don’t let you down.
In the end, it all seems to have very little to do with me. It’s the community of viewers and players. It’s Anna and Jerry and Lars. People continually tell me how much the YouTube channel means to them, how they are now enmeshed in this transformative hobby because of me. I sometimes think I’m the only person who knows that’s not true. You had everything you needed. You didn’t need me. You just didn’t know you didn’t need me. But I did. I believed in you, before you believed in you. :D
The kickstarter lasted 30 days so, by my count, I thought "I wish my mom had lived to see this" about 300 times. I'm not sure she would have been able to wrap her head around it. My entire career in games never made any sense to her. It seemed like me trying to avoid something to her. Any time I reached a new level of success she'd smile and say "well, if you're happy." But...maybe the YouTube thing would have made more sense to her. In fact, I'm sure it would have.
Lars said “This will never get done if you have to do it all. I’ll produce it. Give me something to do.” So I did. We thought we were building a plane, but we were building a rocket ship.