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An RPG Classic Turns Up on Kickstarter

Cthulhu-rlyeh-risingStill on a high from the success of the Exalted 3rd Edition Deluxe Kickstarter, I stumbled across another classic game leveraging the crowd to fund a new product.  Chaosium Games’ seminal horror title, Call of Cthulhu is up for a 7th edition (is that an industry record?  I’m not sure…), and they ‘re asking for the help of the Kickstarter community to kick it off.  After my fervor for Exalted, you might think I’d be slavering all over this project.  But I’m not.

Peek below the fold to find out why.

Call of Cthulhu, first published in 1981, is a roleplaying game inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  Players typically assume the role of investigators—ordinary people touched by the supernatural, who must rout out mysteries and survive with their sanity intact.  It was the first game to really embody the horror genre, and most veteran gamers have at least a few sessions or campaigns under their belt.  CoC is one of those games that should be forever green, and it more or less has been for over 30 years—and I hope it is for 30 more.

All that said, I feel like this project doesn’t really belong on Kickstarter.

Chaosium is by no means a large company, but they are well established.  In over 30 years of operation, they’ve undoubtedly built a distribution and warehousing network, relationships with retailers, and the like.  It’s unlikely that they needed the help in re-launching their flagship product.  So why circumvent all those channels and turn to crowd to launch the latest edition of CoC?  Because it’s damn good money, that’s why.

My collaborator David has done a number of posts on the topic of Queen Games, and their practice of serially launching projects on Kickstarter.   By circumventing the typical channels of distribution—e.g. selling product to distributors at a substantial price cut, who in turn sell it to retailers, who in turn sell it to consumers—Chaosium, like Queen Games, stands to pocket significantly more per unit than they otherwise would.  And that isn’t of itself a bad thing.  What stinks is that Chaosium is choosing to sell their books on Kickstarter at full retail price.

You know as well as I do that Kickstarter campaigns are powered by the passion of the backers.  When you position a property with 30 years worth of fans as needing the support of the crowd, your project will succeed—there is no question of that.  But asking people to pay retail prices when you’re circumventing so much of your overhead is disingenuous at best.  I am all for creators getting a well deserved payday, but it’s shockingly easy for well meaning creators to take advantage of well meaning fans.  The people who turn out to support a project like this are rarely new to property—these are your core fans, the people who see your banner ads and read your forums.  You can’t cut them a break on the price?  If they could buy the selfsame book at their FLGS at the same price in three months time, or even cheaper on Amazon, you are doing it wrong, IMHO.

I’m also frustrated by the alarmingly growing trend of using Kickstarter as a place to sell preorders.  This is not a project that was at risk of never seeing the light of day without the generosity of hopeful fans.  These books were undoubtedly going to be in stores eventually.  In these types of projects, the Kickstarter serves as means to presell the product and build some quick capital.  It also serves as totally legit, face-saving way for a company to essentially solicit donations (remember, pledge amounts are open-ended…). I have to wonder if Palladium Books would have turned to Kickstarter during their “crisis of treachery,” had it been around back then, and if they had, would their critics have been nearly so vitriolic about it?

Now, I’m not suggesting that Chaosium is intentionally out to fleece the fans or anything like that.  What they’re doing makes good business sense: cut out the middleman and you get more of the moolah.   When you see the success of some of the projects that came of nowhere (Rappan Athuk comes to mind), as well as projects from companies that Kickstart their limited run deadtree editions (like Onyx Path), its hard not to want to jump on the gravy train too, but unless your work a) won’t see the light of day without the crowd, or b) you’re giving backers something they absolutely can’t get outside of the project, once again you’re probably doing it wrong,

All that said, there is definitely a shift in how businesses and individuals relate to Kickstarter and crowd funding in general.  More and more it’s viewed as just another ecommerce platform, and I think that’s to the detriment of the institution as a whole.  I don’t begrudge Chaosium for jumping on the bandwagon though—it’s hard to turn down good money.  I guess it all depends on your definition of “indie.”

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This entry was posted by Chris Avery.

5 thoughts on “An RPG Classic Turns Up on Kickstarter

  1. Yeah, this one rubs me the wrong way. As much as I’d like to support Call of Cthulhu, I’m not paying full price for something that a) will be released eventually and b) I can’t actually READ to see if I like the changes they’ve made. This could be like a CoC version of D&D 3.5, or it could be more like D&D 4.0. So, yeah, good for them getting the print run paid for in advance, but I’ll just buy it from my FLGS once it’s released.

  2. At least the leather bound variants of the books seem to be KS exclusive. But apart from that, it looks like a trend on KS to have backers be preorderers who get all the risk and none of the benefits (i.e. lower prices).

    I think it will still take some time to have people educated enough to not put their money into the “wrong” projects. People new to KS often seem to be in a backing frenzy first and only when the time of delivery comes start to slowly wake up. Why else would people back stuff where they pay full retail plus shipping and in the end get the stuff later than the buyers at a retail store.

    • It does look like the leather bound books are KS only this time around–but historically, CoC leather bound editions have been readily available. Hell, I think my FLGS has one on the shelves right now.

      I’m very sympathetic to the “funding frenzy” and I think it’s real thing. I don’t think this is a problem of the backers, however. It’s awesome that people love a game enough to turn out and support it in unconventional ways. It just bums me out a little when the company can’t give ’em a break… Thanks for posting.

  3. I feel you’re being a little unfair here, didn’t you just give Exalted a pass for essentially the same thing?

    If anything, the value for your dollar spent is much higher here then Exalted. You have to look at what’s been unlocked. If you go in at $70, you’re not just getting softcover copies of both of the books but a GM’s screen, bag of themed dice, map pack, bonus adventure, pad of character sheets, an ‘evidence file’ of GM handouts, plus whatever else gets thrown in by the end and whatever I failed to notice. That’s a boxed set right there.

    • I disagree. For the Exalted project, backers were funding the production of deluxe physical editions. The entire project was organized around that. That they gave PDF versions of the corebook out at a lower price point was to drive the numbers up–you’ll notice that they weren’t offering POD soft or hardcover versions, just the leatherette and metal cover deluxes. The deluxe Exalted books will be unavailable after their initial run.

      With the CoC project, they are essentially pre-selling books. They’re collecting pre-orders of books that will be available in stores (and cheaper to the backer) soon there after. It’s nice that they’re throwing in add-ons and the like, I guess (I’m $1 in, maybe I’ll be woo’d in the last 24–I dunno). My problem isn’t their similarities to Exalted’s project, it’s their similarities to Queen Games’ projects.

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