Monday, June 13, 2016

GenCon, Summer Beer

Hello! For a change of pace, I’ll talk about a bit of the game biz that starts to loom large in my mind every year around this: GenCon. If you’re a gamer, you know about GenCon. If you’re not, let me just say that GenCon is the biggest pure gaming show in the US, the flagship convention experience if you’re a D&D fan or a boardgame aficionado. There are bigger gaming-focused shows (PAX, for example) but they lean toward digital games these days—if you’re a tabletop enthusiast, GenCon is a must-do at some point in your gaming career.

Now, here’s the strange thing: I have never really attended GenCon as a fan. During my 20-year career with TSR and WotC I served as part of the company contingent presenting seminars, running demos and games, and generally making ourselves available to the fans. Since parting ways with WotC, I’ve attended 3 GenCons as Rich Baker of Sasquatch Game Studio. So I’m going to talk about what it takes to go to GenCon if you’re a tiny company.

First, GenCon is expensive. A small booth (10 by 10) costs $1800. If you want a premium corner location, that shoots up to more like $2700. You can get in quite a bit cheaper by choosing the “entrepreneur’s avenue” for $1000, but you’re going to be in a pretty remote part of the exhibit hall. Is the corner space or end space worth it? I think it is. There are *so many, many, many* exhibitors at GenCon these days that most attendees only ever see a fraction of the dealer’s hall. Your booth is one tiny little shining star in a big night sky full of stars just like yours. Seriously, you cannot imagine how lost in the crowd you’ll feel with your 10 by 10 booth. So anything you can do to get a good location is probably worth doing, and paying for the end space or a bigger booth is one of the few things that’s in your power (see below).

You can save money by sharing a booth with someone else. GenCon adds a stiff booth-sharing fee ($350) so you don’t get it at exactly half cost, but it will save you many hundreds of dollars if you can tolerate being in the same space with a friendly competitor for 4 days. We shared space with Wolf Baur of Kobold Press the first year we got a booth. You also get a nice price break if you can commit to next year’s GenCon on Sunday of this year’s GenCon and pay 50% up front.

You don’t get much control over where in the hall your booth will be. Don’t count on landing a spot right by the busiest door so that everybody walking in and out will see your booth. The primo spots go to companies buying gigantic booth acreage, followed by companies that have been coming to GenCon forever—there is a “priority point” system that means the smaller booths in good territory go to folks who have been coming to the show for many years. As a first-time exhibitor your booth is going to be in the “nosebleed” section. You can still do okay there if you have a name, a great product, or eye-catching booth décor, of course. But it might take you a couple-three years of steady exhibiting (or paying extra for an end spot) to climb the priority ladder and secure better booth locales.

The booth cost includes two exhibitor badges, a table, and a couple of chairs. You can get extra badges if you want them. It also puts you on the list for exhibitor housing, so you have a better shot at securing close-in accommodations for the show. But downtown hotels in Indianapolis get really expensive around GenCon, so with two plane tickets and a double-occupancy room and your booth rental you’re talking about $3500 to $4500 to get to the show and have a place to sell your product. If you can drive to Indy or if you have a place to stay in town, that helps quite a bit. We’re fortunate: Dave Noonan’s brother lives in an Indianapolis suburb, so we stay in the Sasquatch Game Studio Indianapolis Regional Headquarters each year. (Thanks, Doug!)

The convention hall in Indianapolis is run by an outfit called George Fern Exhibitor Services. George Fern makes available to you a number of booth upgrades like carpeting, extra tables, better network access, and so on. If you’re a small outfit with a 10 by 10 booth, you don’t need that stuff. I think it’s quite overpriced compared to what you can bring in yourself. (You are absolutely allowed to schlep in any reasonable furnishings you care to bring.) We fly in on Tuesday night so that we can use part of Wednesday for some CostCo trips or other booth-decorating expeditions, and we find that we can handle things pretty well ourselves.

A note about friends and visitors. This is hard to say, but I’ll say it anyway: If I’m in my booth and the Exhibit Hall is open, I’m there to interact with my customers and make sales. I love seeing folks I haven’t seen in a long time and I will happily make plans to go grab a bite of lunch when I take a break or spend the evening visiting. What I really can’t do is allow knots of friends to “form ranks” between me and my customers and then stay there all afternoon. So if you’re buying booth space at GenCon, remember that you’re paying $100 an hour or more to be there and be available to customers. It’s reasonable to take a few minutes to say hi or make plans to meet up after the hall closes if things are quiet, but then you can in good conscience shoo your visitors along.

Overall, my personal goal at GenCon is simple: See and be seen. I want to be at the show so that I can see what’s going on in the game business—what’s hot, what’s not, who are the interesting new publishers, what the industry leaders are up to. I also want to be at the show because it’s a powerful bit of marketing and brand-building for our little company, and an opportunity for fans to come and meet us if they want to. I’m not looking to make GenCon a profit center for Sasquatch (although I certainly want to do my best). I just want sales at the show to subsidize the cost of being there to see and be seen.

Summer Beer: Now that the weather’s warm, I find that my beer tastes change a bit. For most of the year I’m a big fan of smooth darker beers with nice roasty malt flavors. But in summer, nice refreshing crisp lagers and pilsners just can’t be beat. This year, I’ve stumbled across a couple that are very much worth your while. The first is Sierra Nevada’s Summerfest—reminiscent of a macrobeer but just better all around, which makes it very drinkable by my standards. The second is Hellas Bellas, by Ninkasi.  Ninkasi is known for their IPAs, but this excellent helles lager is just about my favorite beer on the planet right now. It’s smooth, crisp, refreshing, and complex, just what I’m looking for in an upscale lager.

When I can’t find the Ninkasi or the Sierra Nevada, or if I’m looking to save a couple of bucks on a six-pack, I sometimes turn to Red Stripe Jamaican Lager. Many years ago I drank quite a few Red Stripes at the Officer’s Club in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Definitely a step up from a canned macrobeer and usually quite affordable. Or sometimes I’ll pick up a six-pack of Peroni. You don’t think of Italy as a place to get a decent lager, but Peroni is very crisp and carbonated and goes down nice in hot weather.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Rebuilding Ultimate Scheme, Portland Beer

I’m back! I set my blog aside for a couple of months after finishing my tour of adventures I’ve written for various RPG systems, but now I’m ready to resume. I’m just going to wander around a few different topics for now, and we’ll see where this thing goes. I’m assuming that many of you read this because you’re interested in what I do as an author and game designer, but I intend to mix in a few thoughts about current events, pop culture, or politics as they strike my fancy. (God knows there is no shortage of things to say about politics this election season!)

Anyway, this time: Rebooting Ultimate Scheme, and brew pubs in Portland.

Ultimate Scheme
We’ve re-launched my Ultimate Scheme boardgame on Kickstarter! (When I say ‘we,’ I refer to Sasquatch Game Studio, the small game publisher I founded with Dave Noonan and Steve Schubert.)  Here’s a link—please, feel free to share it around and help me spread the word!

I designed the game back in 2014, and we’ve shown off different iterations to many people over the last two years. We took a shot at launching the game on Kickstarter back in January, and to our surprise, we just didn’t get that “critical mass” of backers. So, we took the game back to the workshop to see if we could bring it in at a lower funding goal, offer a better value to our backers, and change the emphasis on our pitch to make it about the fun theme of the game and less about the details of the mechanics. The mechanics are nice and clean, but the thing that people love when they see Ultimate Scheme is the idea that they’re playing an Evil Genius and they have a bunch of wacky plots to pull off.

We did some legwork to research potential manufacturers, and we eventually found an outfit that could produce an affordable print run of 1,000 units for us. While the business plan sure looks better if we assume we’re running off 2,000+ copies, we had to adapt to the idea that we might be looking at a $20k Kickstarter instead of a $50k Kickstarter—people know us for our RPG work, and we are still trying to get noticed in the boardgame market. The manufacturers we originally targeted weren’t interested in print runs below 2,000-ish copies, so we found an outfit that would work better for us.

We also took a hard look at the game components to see if we were making a game too expensive for its market. In my original design (and my prototypes) I used wooden cubes for the resource markers, mostly because I love Lords of Waterdeep and I thought that was the gold standard for what components we ought to shoot for.  The result was classy, but it meant more expensive manufacturing, leading to a MSRP of $50 or more. So we reworked the components to go to nice, heavy cardstock, linen-finish punchboard tokens instead. That let us bring the MSRP down under $40. And the tokens let us make better use of Lee Moyer’s handsome icon designs. You’ll have an easier time telling the Finance tokens from the Science tokens when one is clearly a dollar sign and the other is clearly a gear-and-atom than distinguishing green and blue wooden cubes.

The last big component shift was changing the box size. We originally planned a “square” box like Ticket to Ride. It turns out square boxes can be more expensive to ship, and shipping adds up fast. Saving $2 to $4 on each unit you ship can make a big difference to your bottom line if you’re mailing out hundreds of reward packages to your backers. So, we adjusted the box size to more of a “book”-type package, which involved reworking the cover and making some adjustments to the board design.

Finally, we also redesigned the cover. We thought our original cover was pretty good, but folks just gave it a “meh.” You hate to buy things twice, but when your audience tries to tell you something, you’re stupid if you don’t listen. So we went back to Claudio Pozas, our illustrator, and commissioned a new cover image from him.

So, the upshot of all these component adjustments and finding new printers and new outreach and marketing (I didn’t talk much about those, but we did some of that too) is that we were able to slash our Kickstarter funding goal from $30,000 in the original to $15,000 in our current Kickstarter, and we knocked $15 off the “baseline” pledge level that gets you a copy of the game.

It’s a weird truth of Kickstarter that you are a lot more likely to get $30,000 by asking for $15,000 and funding fast than you are by asking for $30,000 and hoping you just squeak over the finish line. People want to see that projects have a good chance to succeed, and the sooner you can put the audience’s minds to rest on the question, the better off you are.

And, if you haven’t done it already: Go ahead and share the link to our Kickstarter! We can use all the awareness we can get.

Brew Pubs in Portland: Last week I went on one of my semi-annual beer pilgrimages to Portland. I join a group of Boeing engineers who take the day off to take the train from Tacoma down to Portland, buy a transit pass, and try out new craft beer places. This time around we hit Pints, Zoiglhaus, the Horse Brass Pub, 10 Barrel Brewing, and Backpedal Brewing. All were excellent, but I really loved Zoiglhaus and Backpedal. Zoiglhaus had a great menu of German food (try the brat!). Backpedal was extremely basic—no warm food, just beer and tables, they’re the base of operation for the pedaling bar you see in town—but they were super-friendly and the beer was amazingly good. On a day when I drank a lot of good beer, the Red Druid at Backpedal really stood out.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 28: The Moon-Door

Well, I’m finally there! After almost a year, I’ve finished with my look-at-each-adventure retrospective. During the course of writing these 29 blog posts, I discovered that I did *not* have 28 adventures, as my first count indicated. Instead my final count comes to 33, since I managed to forget or overlook a few in my initial list, and I also wrote a couple of new ones during the course of the series.

My real total might be 34, because I skipped over my work on the 2nd Edition First Quest boxed set. I know I worked on an adventure for it, but I just cannot bring any details to mind and I can’t swear as to which of the adventures in that set are mine! I guess that’s a drawback to a long career—sooner or later you forget some things you worked on.

One more thing before I move to the adventure: If you haven’t checked it out yet, take a look at my Ultimate Scheme Kickstarter! We’re really coming down to the wire on this one, and we can use all the support we can get.

Even if it’s not for you, please—share the link and help spread the word!

#33: Secret of the Moon-Door
After finishing our work as the design studio for WotC’s Elemental Evil, my fellow Sasquatches and I realized that we had a good deal of 5e knowledge and an audience with a serious demand for more 5e content. After some brief deliberation, we decided to move forward with plans to present a new version of our Primeval Thule Campaign Setting compatible with the newest edition of D&D.  Not knowing if or when a 5e Open Game License would be made available, we looked closely at the 3e-era OGL, and we realized that it would work just fine for a 5e-compatible setting.

So, in the summer of 2015, we launched our second Kickstarter. This time we wanted to produce just one version of our Thule setting, not three in one book. For stretch goals, we at first planned to create more PDF adventure content for the 5e Thule game . . . but on thinking it over, we decided to provide a mix of bonus material, including a player-oriented book (the Player’s Companion) and a GM-oriented book with monsters and rules variants (the Gamemaster’s Companion). For the third book in the set we decided to collect the first two stretch goals—the adventures by Steve Winter and Rob Schwalb—into an Adventure Anthology. Better yet, we figured out how to make the booklets available as print-on-demand softcovers as well as PDFs.

That all seemed good to us, but I was dissatisfied with the Adventure Anthology because I felt it was pretty thin at just two adventures. I wanted to make sure we were providing good value for the dollar. So I talked with my partners, and we decided that we’d add a “bonus” adventure to the Adventure Anthology to make it a threesome instead of a duo. That became Secret of the Moon-Door.

Primeval Thule had its origins in my love for Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea stories—one small corner of the Cthulhu Mythos stories that happened to match up very well with my favorite game, D&D. Secret of the Moon-Door is my homage to Smith’s stories. In fact, the plot is based on a mash-up of Smith’s story The Door to Saturn and some parts of Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

(If you’re a fan of Lovecraft and D&D and you haven’t read Clark Ashton Smith, I’d really encourage you to do so. Smith’s Hyperborea stories feel like something halfway between Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar and Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. They are the most D&D-ish Cthulhu stories around. Some of the best are “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” “The Testament of Athammaus,” and “The Ice-Demon.” Smith’s Atlantis stories are pretty good, too. Check ‘em out!)

I set out to provide a party of Thulean heroes with plenty of Smith-like touchstones such as a wizard trafficking with Things from Outside, subhuman savages, and an expedition to an alien sphere to bring justice to an evildoer who thinks himself far outside the reach of any human power. More than that I really can’t say without dropping major spoilers (I probably spoiled a bit already). But I think there’s a nice mix of mystery-solving, a simple puzzle, and a truly far-out setting for the adventure’s climactic scenes. I hope you enjoy it!

Next Time: Beats me! Having just finished a long stroll down memory lane, I’m inclined to spotlight a few of my favorite games from my collection and talk about why I like them. But if you have something you’d like me to blog about, let me know! The topic spinner is spinning.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 27: The Giant’s Tribute

I’m slowly getting close to finishing up my adventure retrospective. It’s been a busy few months; during the summer and fall I was working like crazy on Primeval Thule 5e and my new sci-fi novel Valiant Dust (coming in 2017 from Tor Books). These days I’m pushing hard on ULTIMATE SCHEME, my new boardgame. We’re planning on sending files to the printer at the end of February, and there’s a zillion things to do!

Let me take a moment to engage in some naked self-promotion: ULTIMATE SCHEME is awesome, and you should back it now at Kickstarter. It’s a lighthearted game that mixes some resource management and worker placement mechanics with a fun theme of global mayhem through villainous plots. If you’re into good Euro-style mechanics, nerd culture references, and lots of replayability, I think you’ll like it. And tell your friends, too! We’re fighting to get the word out and we can use all the help we can get.

Here’s the link:

Don't make me melt the icecaps to get your attention!

#32: The Giant’s Tribute
As you have no doubt noticed by now, the overwhelming majority of my adventures have been published by TSR, Wizards of the Coast, or my own little outfit, Sasquatch Game Studio. But last year my friend and occasional collaborator Robert Schwalb asked me if I’d be willing to pitch in on his Shadows of the Demon Lord project by serving as a stretch goal adventure author. Since Rob had just committed to doing the same thing for me by helping out on Primeval Thule 5e, I was pretty much obligated to say yes. But I was also real curious to see what happened when Rob managed to slip the leash and run off to do anything he wanted.

As it turns out, Rob asked *everybody* to do short SotDL (that’s Shadows of the Demon Lord) adventures, and he was clever enough to stagger out the schedule of adventures so that no one got buried early on with the landslide of adventures he arranged. My turn didn’t come up until about five months ago. By that time, Rob was looking for SotDL adventures suitable for high-level characters. Since I didn’t know all that much about the setting, I asked Rob if there was anything he felt was under-served by the previous adventures. Rob thought about it for a moment, then said, “No one’s done much with giants yet.”

So, giants it was!

I read through Rob’s excellent setting and the interesting rules set for his game, and thought hard about what a “Demon Lord” giant adventure ought to be. The classic D&D giant adventure is, of course, the G1-G2-G3 series (Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, and so on). But the giants you fight in those adventures are not really all that unnatural or horrifying. Sure, they’re big and they have lots of hit points, but they really act like big 10th-level orcs. You cut them down four or five at a time, and you feel pretty mighty about it.

I asked myself what would make a giant horrifying, and I thought about the classic giants of myth: Wicked, sinful brutes that gleefully devoured children or ground your bones to make their bread. SotDL giants are pretty stupid, but something that is big and filled with evil cunning and an instinct for petty malice . . . that’s a little more interesting. It reminded me of the Raver-possessed giants from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, and I found my hook: (SPOILER ALERT) What if the PCs found out the hard way they weren’t dealing with a dull-witted brute, but a demon that had possessed the biggest, strongest thing around?

The nice thing about the format for the Shadows of the Demon Lord adventures is that they’re pretty short. A short adventure is just the right format to challenge the PCs by presenting a situation they think they understand (a giant is demanding tribute from a village), put a nasty twist into it (the giant has a demon’s magic and wickedness), and deliver on an exciting finale. If you have a chance to play it, let me know if the adventure delivers!

Next Time: Secret of the Moon-Door, the last in my series!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 26: Elemental Evil

As you might guess, I took a nice holiday break and let the blog slumber for a few weeks. I meant to start things up again last week, but I’ve had a hundred things going on with finishing up the stretch goal projects for Primeval Thule, prepping our Ultimate Scheme Kickstarter, and beginning the rewrite on my novel Valiant Dust. The blog seems to be the item that always slides to the bottom of the list.

Speaking of the blog, I’m finally getting close to finishing up my tour of old adventures I’ve worked on. It’s time to pick a new theme. An obvious one would be novels or game sourcebooks, but I’m a little tired of talking about myself, so I’m considering a more or less random tour through Games that Rich Likes.  Got any suggestions for things you’d like me to write about? Let me know!

One current event of note: The world is a less interesting place now that David Bowie has checked out. I discovered “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” when I was in college and played the hell out of that record. I had a few other Bowie albums and liked them pretty well, but Ziggy Stardust is genius, pure and simple. Everyone knows the title track, but I always liked a couple of the deep cuts like “Starman” and “Moonage Daydream” (both picked up recently for movie soundtracks, incidentally—I guess other folks like them too). Anyway, it really caught me off guard. Bowie was great, there was nobody like him.

#31: Princes of the Apocalypse
Shortly after I knocked out my work on the D&D Starter Set, Chris Perkins of Wizards of the Coast approached me to sound out Sasquatch Game Studio about WotC’s new “studio” model for producing big D&D adventures. Taking on a huge Forgotten Realms project wasn’t exactly on our radar—our plans post-Thule were centering in on my Ultimate Scheme boardgame—but we were intrigued by the idea, and we recognized that it would put Sasquatch “on the map” for the general gaming audience with a much bigger and more prominent product than we could pull together on our own. So, we decided that we were in. Focusing on the Elemental Evil campaign meant pushing Ultimate Scheme back, since El Evil (as I came to call it) would require 100 percent of our manpower and resources for six to nine months. In fact, that’s why we’re just now getting to an Ultimate Scheme Kickstarter; if we hadn’t done Elemental Evil, we would have launched the boardgame last year.

Dave, Steve, and I met with the D&D team at WotC (primarly Greg Bilsland and Chris Perkins) to dig into what they had in mind for Princes of the Apocalypse. The first thing that surprised us was that WotC wanted the Elemental Evil adventure to be set in the Forgotten Realms. “Really?” I asked. “I mean, really really? Because that’s always been Greyhawk, and people are going to holler about getting the chocolate in the peanut butter, aren’t they?” (Possibly a bad metaphor on my part, since chocolate and peanut butter are awesome together. It’s a reference to an old Reese’s ad campaign.) But Wizards was very sure about it: They wanted Elemental Evil in the Realms, and they even had a good idea of where they wanted set: The North.

Our first reaction was a bit of skepticism—after all, I know the Realms quite well, and I can tell you that there is more set down in print about the history of the North and every flyspeck village along the Long Road than just about any other corner of Faerûn. But as I looked at the area that Chris and Greg had identified, I realized that there was indeed an opportunity here where we could develop something really new and interesting for the Realms, while anchoring it carefully in the existing continuity. Wizards had also worked out the broad storyline of the adventure. What we had to do was to translate that story document into “actionable” plans. For example, Wizards asked us to make sure each of the four cults had a “surface outpost,” but we used that guidance to create sites such as Feathergale Spire and the Sacred Stone Monastery.

I wore a lot of different hats for Princes of the Apocalypse. First off, I wrote large sections of the adventure, including Rivergard Keep, Sacred Stone Monastery, the earth and water temples, and the temple of the Elder Elemental Eye. I was the art director for Sasquatch, which meant that I created the art orders for the book, contracted illustrators, and provided feedback to help develop sketches into finals. (Kate Irwin at Wizards was tremendously helpful in that task.) And finally I was the overall project manager for Sasquatch, which meant I was trying to ride herd on all the designers and editors, keep up with WotC’s deadlines, field WotC’s extensive, extensive, feedback, review everything that was being written, and pull together the book’s design turnover. I was originally going to write the earth and water nodes too, but I had to hand them off to talented freelancers Jeff Ludwig and Steve Townshend—I was just buried by the amount of things I was trying to do. Let’s just say it was a crazy nine months or so, and I learned some hard lessons.

While the process was brutal at times, I’m very pleased by the way the adventure turned out. As I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog series, I’m a big fan of sandbox-style play. Princes of the Apocalypse is the biggest and most ambitious sandbox adventure I’ve ever pulled together, and there are enough storyline events and investigations between the adventure sites to allow the players to feel like the adventure is naturally developing from the choices they make. I have a few regrets about things—for example, we needed to do a better job at helping the DM identify where NPCs and clues and story elements appear or recur. As it stands, the DM needs to study the adventure pretty carefully to get the most out of it. But Princes of Apocalypse rewards that effort with a great campaign.

Next Time: My Shadows of the Demon-Lord adventure, The Giant’s Tribute.