On February 16th, 2015, I launched a Kickstarter for Dead Scare, a 1950s, feminist, fascist-punching, zed-bashing tabletop RPG by Elsa S. Henry. Today, almost two years later, Dead Scare is out to the public. It’s been a long journey, I added a business partner in Brian Patterson, and I’ve learned a lot during the process. I thought going over the lessons learned from the experience might be useful to those of you publishing your own RPGs.
Wanna check out Dead Scare for yourself? The PDF is available now from DriveThruRPG.
Lesson 1: Ask more questions than you think you need to
I have this problem, you see: I get super-excited about things. This is a fine quality, but not when applied without reservation to projects. It causes me to be blind the realities of things. I assume that excitement will carry the project through, and let it ride. That works alright when it’s my own projects because if I have a question or run into a roadblock, I can overcome it myself.
I can’t make those choices for other people. I also have no idea what their thoughts, problems, or roadblocks might be unless I ask them. With Dead Scare, I made a lot of assumptions. After all, everyone working on the project is good at what they do. I left a lot of questions on the table because when we all agreed on “1950s zombie apocalypse where you play the women and children survivors,” I let things ride. I should have asked more questions. Why? Beacaaaaaaaause:
Lesson 2: All skillsets aren’t immediately transferable
Elsa is an amazing writer. Dead Scare is her first tabletop RPG. By the time we’d agreed to do Dead Scare, I’d written three games and I flat-out forgot how hard it ts to make a game for the first time. This wasn’t a failing on Elsa’s part, at all. This was me not remembering what that first game is like. It takes time to work out how to take those initial ideas and turn them into something people can play at the table. My lesson here is that if I do this again, I need to give better support to the person making the game, especially in the early stages.
Elsa figured all of that stuff out and did an amazing job at it. In fact, she took real ownership over this project. This leads to…
Lesson 3: The vision of the project isn’t always under your control
When I’ve written my own games, I’ve been largely in charge of how the project proceeded. When Brian and I worked on Karthun, I adhered to his vision as a writer. With Dead Scare, Elsa’s vision was that the entire production staff would be women or non-binary people. I loved the idea. What I didn’t realize is how removed from the day-to-day this would make me. Elsa managed this project, in addition to writing and developing the game. It’s exactly the way it should have been.
For my part, this left me flailing a little. I was used to working directly with the production team. For Dead Scare, I went through Elsa to do that in order to maintain her vision. I ended up not knowing what to do with myself at times. I got unfocused and I ended up letting things slide. And what do you know, this leads right into the next lesson:
Lesson 4: Overload and depression are reeeeeal
There’s a through-line for these lessons. All of them are predicated on the first. I didn’t ask enough questions, I assumed Elsa would work in the same ways I did, and I wasn’t prepared to manage the project through someone else. All of that came to a head when I had an amazingly bad set of months at my day job, was overloaded with remaining Iron Edda and Karthun work, and when I fell into a major depressive pit. Dead Scare is over a year overdue, largely because I couldn’t bring myself to open the final draft of the text that Elsa sent me. Seriously. It sat in my inbox for months.
I ended up pulling out of the spiral and was finally able to get myself in gear. This is the real lesson, though: if you’re planning a project, you have got to be realistic about what life could throw at you. I couldn’t have predicted the bad work vibes, but I could have done far better than just assuming I’d be able to handle the work load of Dead Scare and Karthun. I couldn’t, and both projects suffered.
I’m honestly very happy to have learned these lessons. I feel like my earlier projects got completed because I just assumed I wouldn’t fail. That led me to make a lot of mistakes along the way. I’ve recovered from most of them, and I know how better to avoid them in the future. Publishing is hard. Publishing your own work is hard. Publishing someone else’s work is even harder. All of the things I could count on internally were instead externalized, and I didn’t know how to set up a framework to support them.
I hope that if Brian and I ever decide to do this again, we’ll be able to avoid these mistakes. We’ll make others, sure, but I’d rather not hit these particular pitfalls again.
Dead Scare is an amazing, timely game and better for taking the time to get it right. If there’s a silver lining for the delay, it’s that I can’t think of a more appropriate time in the world for a game about women fighting back against undead horrors in a 1950s McCarthy-run America. It’s a game of hope, resistance, and resilience, and I’m proud that Exploding Rogue Studios has published it.
If you want to check it out, here’s the PDF link again. Now go bash some zeds.