Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Kickstarter delivery charges


Art by The Mycoleum

This is a controversial take, so bear with me; games publishers: please include up-front delivery costs with your Kickstarter campaigns.

That's the way Kickstarters always used to work, but in recent years most campaigns have switched to third-party services like Backerkit. When using Backerkit, delivery costs are not factored in when someone backs a campaign; backers are told that they'll be charged some unspecified amount at some point in the future, once the product is ready to ship.

As a result you may, like me, get hit with a $20 delivery fee on a $20 zine that you backed 12 months ago (and then forgot about). The result of that is that I can't back any more US-based campaigns unless they collect the mailing fee up-front.

The argument against up-front postage fees is that prices change. The zine that today costs $20 to post from the USA may, a year ago, have cost only $15. If the creator had charged $15 postage as part of the campaign, 12 months down the line they'd be taking a $5 hit per item sent internationally. And, given the current state of the world economy (in particular the UK economy), predicting prices a year in advance is far from easy.

But it’s not only mailing costs which are subject to fluctuation. Production costs are too. When I ran my first Kickstarter, I was quoted £300 for printing my zines. Just 3 months later, when I printed them, paper prices had gone through the roof. I ended up paying £500.

Obviously adding more uncertainty to your prices by predicting both printing and mailing costs is not what a small creator wants. All the same, somebody is going to have to pay the increased cost. Using Backerkit, the burden is shifted from the creator to the backer.

This seems crazy, as the creator is the person best placed to plan for fluctuations in both production and fulfilment costs. Stop trying to shift the burden to your customers!

Building in flexibility to allow for inflation does not mean you need to pump up the cost to each backer, just in case. When you set up a Kickstarter campaign you need to enter a funding goal. If the project doesn't hit that goal, the backers don't get charged anything. If your funding goal barely covers your expected costs then you are not acting responsibly.

The funding goal for my first campaign was approximately 200% of predicted production and delivery costs. I didn't charge any extra to my backers, I just made sure that I had twice as many of them before going into production. As a result, I was able to absorb the extra £200 printing bill. Even if my costs had shot up by 100%, I still wouldn't be out of pocket (I'd just forego any profit). 

(Admittedly the balance of local and international backers can skew postage costs, but the principle remains the same: build the uncertainty into your funding goal, don't pass the buck on to your customers).

Setting higher funding goals may mean that fewer projects get funded, which is a shame. But that's how crowdfunding works. Kickstarter is not a shop, it’s a platform for funding hoped-for projects, and there is always a risk that these projects will fail to deliver (incidentally I am still waiting on delivery for the first Kickstarter project I ever backed, almost 13 years ago).

By refusing to commit to prices from the outset, you are doing both your backers and yourself a disservice. Your backers may not be aware that there will be future costs (I realise that these costs will be pointed out somewhere in the original campaign blurb; but most Kickstarter campaign pages are the length of novellas, and if 28 years creating "content" for the Internet has taught me one thing it is this: people don’t read things [except for you; you have already read 5 paragraphs of this post; including this torturously long sentence; but then, you’re weird; you already know this]). Even when the backer is aware that they will be billed for postage somewhere down the line, they are more likely to under-estimate than overestimate; I mean: $20 postage on a $20 zine??? Come onnnn!

The negative impact of all that buyer confusion and disappointment is, for you the creator, two-fold.

Firstly you will waste a lot of time and stress batting away complaints from disgruntled customers. When Patrick Stuart’s recent Demon Bone Sarcophagus Kickstarter went into delivery mode, I witnessed Patrick respond to numerous complaints about postage costs, even though the original campaign description included a VERY CLEARLY LABELLED SECTION called THE HORROR OF POSTAGE. Seriously, I wouldn’t wish that kind of stress on any content creator

(I myself vented my spleen at the folks whose insane delivery bill recently emptied my wallet; when they subsequently [and very politely] replied to me, I checked: it really does cost almost $20 to ship a small zine from the USA to the UK! Sending an identical zine in the other direction costs me around $7. Crazy world!) 

Secondly, you will lose future custom. Like I said, I will not be backing any US projects for the foreseeable future. I simply can’t afford the postage. Perhaps I wouldn’t have backed this particular project in the first place if I’d known how much the total cost to me would be (perhaps I should have visited the US Postal Service website before placing my pledge), but at least I’d have made an informed decision.

You probably disagree with me. Most indie gaming content creators do. Meh, old man shouts at clouds.

But I give you this pledge, my dear once-and-future backers: I will always state my delivery charges upfront. No Backerkit for this old man.

In March I will be launching a Kickstarter for King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh, an illustrated retelling of a bonkers medieval tale. Find out more here. Postage included.

PS. Come to think of it, what happens if Backerkit increase their charges in between the KS campaign end and the delivery phase? ...oh, ignore me, not a problem: your customers will pick up the tab.

Saturday, 14 January 2023

Becoming Borg

The kind of elf you'll find in any Wizards of the Coast book, but AI-generated
Once again a post from Monsters and Manuals about AI has prompted... thoughts.

I agree entirely with this statement:
The real 'threat' posed by AI is not that it will replace us, but that we will come more closely to resemble robots in our thoughts, behaviours, and opinions.
You can already see similar transformations play out in the worlds of pop music and movies: the ability to (relatively) simply produce anything within the bounds of our imaginations has resulted in a regression to the mean, creating soulless pap to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Generations who grow up knowing nothing other than these mediated mediocre media come to accept them as the norm, which will shape their own expectations, thoughts, and behaviour (this has already happened to expectations of sex as a result of easily-available hardcore pornography).

It's depressing, but it's going to happen. And there's nothing we can do to stop it.

But it won't happen for a while (and it might make sense for anyone writing about this topic to first have a play with the tools and discover the current state of the art).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I've posted a fair bit about AI (I really didn't set out to do this but... rabbit holes), and I have set up The Mycoleum shop for T-shirts etc. featuring images shamelessly generated by AI.

This is the flowering of a lifelong quest to get computers to surprise me. When I started programming in the early 80s, my best friend was the random number generator. I used it to choose and combine, and was delighted every time the computer gave back something which I hadn't explicitly asked for...

I lapped up Stephen Levy's book Artificial Life when it came out in 1992. I played with flocking algorithms and developed variations on the Sorcerer's Cave board game, generating random labyrinths and caves filled with arbitrary monsters and treasure. Sadly these, and my visual "flashperiments", are no longer usable since Steve Jobs killed off the App Store's biggest rival, Adobe Flash. But a couple of years ago I resurrected Flashperiments in the form of a JavaScript music visualiser, used to create this video for my friend Will's track Ice (inspired by the Donna Kavan novel of the same name):

Most recently, I created the Twitter bot Nanodeities, which populates templates with selections from a long list of possibilities. By nesting templates within templates within template within... turtles, the possibilities are virtually limitless, and yet each is generating by combining words and phrases which I typed out myself.

AI is the realisation of my lifetime's dream: finally, a computer can awe me with its unexpected creativity. Or rather, "creativity". Anyway, I can finally get a computer to go to places I truly would never have dreamed of.

And this phrase, "would never have dreamed of", is key. In the world of the Mycoleum, unpredictability is a feature. For most commercial creators, it is a bug.

The Mycoleum works because it is a world of unimaginable fantasy, inscrutable, understood only by the mushroom-folks who live there. It's almost impossible to express just how surprised I am by the computer's responses to my prompts. But what becomes clearer, with each picture that I try to coax out of it, is how little of my prompt it "understands". This is best demonstrated with examples (all made using Midjourney).

I noticed today that somebody on the Yoon Suin reddit had posted an AI image of a crab-man. So I decided to make one of a slug-man. Below are the images generated, labelled with the prompts that generated them (minus my special sauce that makes the style of a keeping with my other AI images):
The decadent slug-man ruler of Yoon Suin
The computer seems to have completely ignored the "slug" part of my prompt here, and gone with the slightly racist assumption that "Yoon Suin" must be some Fu Manchu-type character. I'll ditch that bit, and focus more on making my ruler more slug-like...
A half-man half-slug emperor
Still not seeing a lot of slug in this; wearing a slug is not the same as being a slug. Let's be more specific about the body parts I'm after...
An emperor with the torso and head of a man and the hindquarters of a slug
Oh FFS. I've no idea what's going on here. Perhaps I should ditch the "man" part entirely because, come to think of it, I'm not really after a slug-centaur, just some kind of slug-with-personality. Let's try...
A slug emperor
 You call those slugs??? I see frog, I see tortoise (at a stretch, if I squint, it could be a snail). I see aphid, iguana... bugger all slug. At this point I have zero expectations of success, but I'll see what happens if I add a bit of human back into the mix...
A humanoid slug emperor.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. NO!

This "artifical intelligence" simply does not speak my language. It recognises the odd word, but not how sentences work. I am painfully reminded of the time I outsourced the building of a website to India and what I got back was... well, I've no idea what it was, everything got lost in translation. (I should add that this was over 20 years ago, things have changed a lot; in fact, I am collaborating with Bangalore-based Jayaprakash Satyamurthy on King Arthur vs Devil Kitty, and I would recommend him without hesitation to anyone looking for editorial assistance; his novel Strength of Water and his short story collection Weird Tales of a Bangalorean are also excellent).

The slug-emperor attempts were portraits, which is actually one of the things that AI does best (see elf-maiden pic above). As soon as other elements are introduced, you're more likely to roll a 1 on a d10,000 than you are to get what you want. Describing a scene and having the AI render anything even vaguely approaching what you had in mind: forget it. Yesterday I spent an hour trying to get it to draw an oak sapling growing beneath a gorse bush. It couldn't even draw a gorse bush. Even with very simple bog standard D&D prompts, it fails: 
D&D magic-user casting fireball at an orc
When I started writing the adventure Ship of Theseus (now Ship of Thorsus) I had planned to use royalty-free art from The images I sourced were scarcely representative of the adventure content, and they were also used across many other OSR games and zines, but they were free. Once I started playing with AI art, I figured I could use that to generate images which were also free, but which were original and which more closely matched the adventure content. Could the AI draw a Viking ship whose every inch of surface bristled with vicious thorns? Could it heck as like.

There is certainly an art to crafting prompts for the AI, but even the most artful prompt-crafter in the world would struggle to get an AI to paint a scene like "the slugman emperor of Yoon Suin riding on a palanquin borne by crabmen through dusty streets lined with obsequious crowds of humans; the emperor bears a sceptre and an ivory back-scratcher".
the slugman emperor of Yoon Suin riding on a palanquin borne by crabmen through dusty streets lined with obsequious crowds of humans; the emperor bears a sceptre and an ivory back-scratcher.
This is the current state of play. But it will change. How long before an AI is able to approximate a scene in the manner in which its overlord intends? It could be anything between a year and twenty years, but I would estimate around 5.

Once that happens, the Borg will have arrived.
By the way, over at my personal blog I've just posted a look back over the (mostly) non-gaming aspects of my last year. I also have a new email newsletter.

Thursday, 5 January 2023

Favourite books of 2022


some good books
This is just a blog post to send you to another blog post. I have a personal blog which I post to roughly once per year (it's been running for nearly 22 years now, so is older than some of the readers of this blog).

Over on t'other place I've just posted a list of my favourite books of 2022.

Monday, 2 January 2023

Cadero 002: West Plaza

 (Yesterday's post, and today's, may have given the impression that I'll be posting these daily on my blog; I won't).

Here's today's entry - you'll have to read my scrawl as I've not time to type it up (actually, typing it up is the easy part, it's the temptation to edit that is the real time-killer):

And here's the spark table for LICENSED PICKPOCKETS in the Cadero mall:

1Urchin (£ d4)"Oh look! Over there!"
2Shellsuiter (£ d10)Bumps into you and bellows "OOPS! SORRY" in a deranged voice
3Monstrosity in disguise (£ d20)Drops shopping all over the place
4Spiv (£ d100)Ability to shift self by 10ft
5Hipster (£ d100 x 2)Almost invisible
6Aristo (£ d100 x 20)Has a very cute pet

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Nobody Asked for This!

I have a new email newsletter!

The more observant of you may have noticed that I also have an old email newsletter (sign-up boxes to the right and to the bottom of this post). This new one is utterly different.

It’s called Dan Sumption’s Mycoleum Mind, and each week I post a short idea. Sometimes a particular way of looking at the universe, other times a lifehack, or just some gentle advice. Very importantly, it will always be short. You ought to be able to read it in a minute or less. I explain why here.

I have posted three emails to the list so far, so take a look at the archive for a better idea of what I’ll be writing about. If you like it, please sign up. It’s free (the Substack website will probably try to push you into buying a paid subscription; ignore that). 

The old Peakrill Press newsletter (sign up boxes on the right and on the bottom of this page!) will still remain, but I will use it for very infrequent posts about Peakrill projects. Dan Sumption’s Mycoleum Mind is a completely different kettle of mushrooms.

While I’m here, I’ve noticed a questionnaire doing the rounds which people are calling Questions Nobody Asked Me. Bizarrely, I first saw one just after deciding to title this post “Nobody Asked For This”. So below are some other things you didn't ask me (Because I took a 30-year sabbatical from roleplaying, answering some of these was a bit tricky).

First store where you bought a an RPG?

It will have been either Games Unlimited in Kingston, or Games Workshop in Hammersmith. Both sadly gone long long long although, as I'm sure you're aware, Games Workshop still exists in a highly bastardised form that has almost nothing to do with the Dalling Road Store road and Tim, the lovely Canadian guy who used to run it.

Favourite RPG game world?

The older I get, the harder it becomes to pick a "favourite" anything. If you'd asked me this 30 years ago, the answer would definitely have been the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying world: it was humorous and British, both things in short supply in RPG-land. Nowadays, I guess Bastionland

A published NPC who has made a lasting impression on you


I guess that means none of them have. Although the name "Wanda Weltschmerz" has been stuck in my head for several decades (she was a PC though, from the WFRP adventure Death on the Reik).

Actually, scratch that. The Giant, from DCO.

First RPG you bought from its creator

No idea, but it was probably this century.

RPG you've played the most

AD&D, almost certainly, but all of it last century. This century it must surely be BECMI D&D, purely because of noisms' regular-as-clockwork(ish) Three Mile Tree games.

A favourite RPG character you've played

Circa 1985 I rolled a dwarf with 4 intelligence, and I had a hell of a lot of fun playing him (and pissing off the other players). Not long after that I entered a play-by-mail game, the name of which I've forgotten, with a character called Vizbamboom, a vegetarian chaos necromancer. Vegetarian because he though that eating meat is a waste of bloody good corpses! He collected dead cats, and drank a lot of tea. Playing Viz was fun! 

Wait, wait, wait wait, no no no, how could I forget about Bleaklow? Bleaklow was the best! I hope I get to play him again some time. 

The RPG you've spent the most money on but never played

Probably one of two comics spin-offs that I bought in the 1980s: either the Elfquest RPG or Teenage Mutant Ninja Heroes and Other Strangeness. I was about to add TSR's Top Secret, but I think I actually played that one.

Favourite RPG for its art

I hate hate hate mainstream RPG art. Stuff I love... I can't think of a particular game, but there is so much good art coming out of the indie gaming community at the moment, the best of which is so closely bound up with the feel of a location that it is as essential to is as the text: Scrap Princess's work with Patrick Stuart, Munkao's illustrations to Thousand Thousand Islands, Alec Sorenson's illustrations for Electric Bastionland. Also, although it's not entirely my cup of tea, visually everything about Mörk Borg is just perfect. 

Favourite RPG for its writing

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. I'm not sure I would stand by this now, but when it was first published in the mid-80s it was such a breath of fresh air (mainly because it had jokes in it). For the second half of the 80s, Warhammer was my game, and that is almost entirely down to the writing. Nowadays, anything written by Patrick Stuart gets my immediate attention.

Have you played a journaling game?

Yes, but only once or twice, I would love to do it more often. I had a lot of fun playing Solitary Defilement, the solo version of Mörk Borg. My favourite thing about the directed-writing required by journaling games is that they provide a context and prompts for creative writing. Sometimes I may take something written during a journaling game and repurpose it for a different context. 

Have you played a hexcrawl?


Have you designed a dungeon?

A fair few of them. Very few of which I've had the chance to inflict on players.

Have you played a LARP?

I went to Labyrinthe down Chislehurst Caves a 3 or 4 times in the mid/late 80s. About a decade later I saw some folks running around with rubber swords in a wood on the Wirral and though "oh, folks do that outdoors now, do they?" I've been very slightly tempted a few times since, and last year promised a friend that I would come to one of his Empire LRP meetups. So I guess that'll happen. 

Favourite object one of you characters has owned

A swimming pool. (When our party finished the TSR A-series, we took over the slavers' fort and flooded the dungeon layer so that we could have our own swimming pool.

Memorable relationship one of your characters has had

I'm sure I could come up with many, given time, but I think the most memorable was between Starmoss, the half-elven ranger I started playing on my 30-year return to D&D, and the rest of his party. There really was something special about that campaign, the players, and the player-characters, it generated incredible camaraderie.

Do you collect RPGs by a certain designer?

Not sure about "collect", but I will buy anything written by Patrick Stuart (I really tried to resist the £50 reprint of his blog, but caved just as the Kickstarter was about to close). 

RPG you really want to play in 2023

Brindlewood Bay

Most memorable monster/villain you've confronted

Most memorable villain was actually another PC, in the same campaign where I played Starmoss. Hellerin (I think that was her name) was the absolute essence of Lawful Evil, and her player roleplayed her to perfection - in fact, the best roleplaying I've ever encountered. Everyone in the party knew that she was evil, but she was just so bloody effective at getting things done that we couldn't get rid of her. 

Ever experienced bleed?


How did you get into RPGs?

New Year's Day, 1980. A Woodcraft Folk hike. My friend Joel told me about this game, Dungeons and Dragons, which one of the older boys Jono played. I asked Jono about it, and the next three-hours or so of the walk passed in a blur as Jono, Joel and I talked about all of the things you can do in Dungeons and Dragons. I got Jono to run a game as soon as possible and, about a week later, I played for the first time. And my magic user was, in almost no time, killed by a manticore. 

Now don’t forget to head over and subscribe to Dan Sumption’s Mycoleum Mind.

Cadero 1: The Entrance Hall

Entrance to The Cadero
As per yesterday's post, this is my first #Dungeon23 entry.