Why do adventures beat systems?
Talking to the creator of Cloud Empress
A big part of what I’m trying to do with this newsletter is get into the nitty gritty about publishing in a longer format. To kick this off I wanted to share a conversation I had with one of my favorite up and coming designers, watt, about their new nausicaa/mothership inspired game: Cloud Empress. watt is a queer non-binary ttrpg writer and artist with a focus on climate change, body horror, gender, and humor.
Cloud Empress is launching on Kickstarter Tuesday, January 17th. You can follow the pre launch page here.
Thanks for reading Win Conditions! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Let’s dive into the interview.
Sean: Sorry it took me so long to get this scheduled. Do you want to start or should I?
watt: I can start. I’ve heard the origin story of Mothership a few times now, but I haven’t heard about your decision to make Mothership 0E Player’s Survival Guide free. When did you decide to make the Player’s Survival Guide available at no cost, and was there any pressure to monetize Mothership faster?
Sean: So, we set this precedent with our first game, Two Rooms and a Boom. Two Rooms became a sort of viral sensation early on because of three things:
Player count: It plays up to thirty players, which there are hardly any games that can do that and do it well.
Easy to acquire new customers: Because it plays up to thirty players that means with every game you have up to 30 new customers that can be converted. So someone can run a demo and boom you can make up to thirty sales!
Free print-and-play: We made the game free to print and try yourself.
There was a huge boom in board games at the time, and a lot of people were trying out print-and-play games. We were nobodies, so the main challenge wasn’t “can you make a good game?” It was “even if you did make a good game, how are you going to get people to try it?”
When we offered a free print-and-play version of Two Rooms, the game took off. People were printing it off for parties, youth groups, school, company retreats, conventions… and we were able to almost instantly get the game out there for thousands of people.
Legendary game designer Richard Launius (Arkham Horror) relentlessly teased Alan and I about this, saying that we were never going to make money, that we always gave our games away for free, etc. But Two Rooms made over $100k on Kickstarter as our very first game because people had heard of it and tried it and played it.
This really opened our eyes to the idea that there should be a free version of our games. Because there’s only a few different outcomes and they all seem good to us:
Someone tries it and hates it. Okay, maybe that’s a potential sale we could’ve gotten $20 on or whatever, and we missed out. But that person wasn’t going to become our customer anyway, they hate the game! I don’t think you can build a successful company on the backs of customers who hate your product.
Someone tries it and loves it but never buys the game. Okay, this is better than option 1 because if they love it, they’re playing it. And every time they play it they’re introducing it to new people, and maybe those people will buy it! So we lost $20 but now we have someone out there evangelizing our game. This is 9/10 better than if someone buys your game and shelves it.
Someone tries it, loves it, and buys the game. Jackpot! The system works. They tried it and demoed it and loved it and now they’re supporting us. A lot of these customers in our experience have a super high loyalty because they’ve hand made their print-and-play games. We trusted them to make a good decision about what games were right for their table, and they did!
So by the time we got to Mothership we had already done this with our other games and we felt pretty strong convictions about it. In an RPG all the points above apply even more! If someone gets a free copy of Mothership and plays it for life – think of all the people that will be exposed to the game! Do we think they’ll never pay for the rules and then never buy an adventure? No! We believe in the game, we believe in what we’re doing. We think with a free demo people will make the right decision about what’s best for them.
Even our Pay-What-You-Want version of the 0e rules on DriveThru and on DriveThru alone not counting our shop or itch, has made over $20k in profit since it was released. Free PDF makes about $5k a year, that’s pretty good! Being able to say “you can try the game for free, right now” has enormous value to most customers. It shows we have nothing to hide.
Rules/systems are classic “loss leader” products. Where the point is not to generate profit on the core rules but to entice players to play and then eventually sell them on other products (like adventures) later on. Video game consoles work the same way. That’s why the exclusives and monthly game passes, etc. are so important to them. That’s where they make their real money. Even restaurants do this to a certain extent, their profit margins are higher on drinks, appetizers, desserts, all those add-ons. The entrees have slimmer margins.
This doesn’t work if you only pump out systems. That’s why we go on and on about supporting your games. You’ve done the easy part, you made a system, give that shit away. People can find any system they want now and hack them super easily. You need to get to the good stuff: the adventures. That’s ultimately where you’ll monetize.
You and I have talked about this extensively. For Cloud Empress to work, you’ll need to support it long term, rather than make it a one-off setting for Mothership. Have you thought about how you’ll do that?
watt: It’s unbelievable how much talent and effort can go into the game only for it to disappear two or three months after a release. It’s a nightmare! I feel like the pandemic must have doubled the number of indie RPGs I see coming out now. I spent some time in the board game industry as a freelance game designer five years ago and the same thing was happening there with 2,000+ games released every year. It’s great to see so much passion, but it’s scary to realize this sea of new games swallows pretty much everything in a yearly hype cycle.
You’re spot on that long-term support and a considered product catalog are the only things that keep a game treading above water. Here’s how I’ve been thinking about Cloud Empress as a product line:
Long-term support for Cloud Empress really starts with the book's overall goal as a science fantasy Mothership campaign setting. This goal puts Cloud Empress in a unique position within the Mothership ecosystem.
You’ve drawn comparisons between the first edition Mothership box set to the DnD and Traveler box sets. At a certain point, I realized that D&D is known for some of its campaign settings which re-imagined Dungeons and Dragons in new worlds (Dragonlance, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms). Cloud Empress is an attempt to be Mothership's first ongoing, thematically distinct (from the Player's Survival Guide) campaign setting. To be fair, there are several fantastic reinterpretations of Mothership settings (Gordinaak and Blood Floats in Space come to mind), but right now they are single books. Ideally, players will be able to easily recognize a Cloud Empress title in the Mothership catalog and be able to explore the world of Cloud Empress for years to come.
A lot of creators, as you mentioned, don’t have an interest in working on the same idea for years. I get it, who wants to limit their creativity? I’m like that too. To counteract my pattern of jumping from idea to idea I tried to develop a setting that had enough freedom and a wide enough framework to support at least five years of annual releases. This meant a world with enough mysteries, locations, and characters that wouldn’t fully reveal themselves in a single book. The core of Cloud Empress is built around a trilogy of setting books from the polluted farmlands to the stars above in a world ruled by the patterns of giant psychic cicadas. Having a long-term vision in mind has been a great help for developing the books’ naming conventions, a clear visual identity, and the scope of the first two books.
The first big milestone will be the upcoming Kickstarter in January 2023, the scope of the campaign is quite large for a publisher my size, but I want the campaign to feel like a big welcoming event, especially for players just hopping into 1E. The first Cloud Empress campaign will include a rules mutation book, a setting book, and five pamphlet adventures. To counteract the size, I’ve front loaded most of the artwork and writing to make sure I can finish this thing on time.
With the five adventure pamphlets, I want to make Cloud Empress a setting that is bigger than just one person’s imagination. I can’t be the sole authority on the world because each RPG asks its warden/referee/GM to become their own authority on the setting each time they sit down to play. The world has to be flexible. I’ve commissioned five pamphlet adventures from five different writers (Alfred Valley, Joel Hines, Kienna Shaw, Sebastian Yue, and Sam Leigh). The pamphlets are going to be a highlight of the project for me.
These big crowdfunding releases are a lot of work though and burnout is very real! I’m not someone who wants to make a living as a publisher, writer, or game designer. I’m an artist who wants to see people look at their work and connect with this community. I have a bunch of smaller ideas for Cloud Empress adventure models, setting spotlights, and at least two mega-dungeons (one of which will be written during #dungeon23) I’ll likely launch in alternating years to avoid burning myself out.
Sean: That makes a lot of sense. It’s an interesting comparison talking about the sort of Spelljammer for Mothership question. Because I think one of the things TSR did poorly was open up all these threads in AD&D 2e which eventually made their line bloated and cumbersome. I think 3pp is sort of the perfect place to explore different inspirations and influences, like offshoot branches of the main line without making things unwieldy.
watt: Cloud Empress wears its inspirations pretty transparently. I use existing cultural touchstones to draw in new players, but I also make a ton of effort to subvert expectations and present unique ideas in my writing. Still, it can be scary to think that I might be devoting years of my life to the wish.com version of a popular IP. What benefits and dangers do you see using existing tropes in your RPG work?
Sean: The big benefit is sort of the sales-pitch. If you like XYZ then you’ll like this game. It’s an easy way to connect with someone. We’ve stuck with that formula ever since Two Rooms and a Boom (“If you like Werewolf, Mafia, or the Resistance…”). In the end, everything is a remix of something, so at least knowing what you’re trying to do is a good start. That being said, I don’t think just pure emulation is necessarily the highest accomplishment in RPGs. I think it’s a good starting place for sure, and a challenging one at that. “When we played it felt like we were in an Alien movie!” Is still a great compliment. But I think you pick up the baggage of your influences also, and you risk carrying their negative perceptions as well. So like all things, you need to read widely, draw from a diverse range of topics and authors, and become something greater than the sum of your inspirations.
watt: Okay, so thinking about other Mothership hacks, when someone sent me the link to null.hack (your currently sort-of-unpublished cyberpunk Mothership hack) I had the same feeling as when I found a Gundam Wing Geocities fan page in the mid-’90s. null.hack has been a real encouragement for me to hack the Mothership system too. What’s the story with null.hack?
Sean: So null.hack was the game I was trying to make before I got frustrated and made Mothership. It’s my love letter to cyberpunk and to the city. However, I was trying to do everything from scratch. I was beating my head against the wall of a custom system, custom magic, custom classes, custom upgrades, everything. It was very much a heartbreaker type game, and ultimately it didn’t work. It wasn’t until I decided to strip down to the bone and make a game I could get to the table quickly that Mothership came about.
Cyberpunk was too sprawling, too big. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do with it. Ultimately, that was the right choice and Mothership is its own great thing. But following that road also solved my null.hack problem too, I know now what null.hack is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be the Blade Runner to Mothership’s Alien. I’ve been working on it a lot since Mothership came out. Me and a super talented urban designer, Konstantinos Dimopoulos, have put together an excellent city builder kit. We’ve got new standalone rules for the game that are compatible with Mothership, but have their own focus. We’ve even got a lot of art done. I can’t wait to release it.
watt: A cyberpunk city-builder kit sounds phenomenal especially given how rooted the genre is in the anxieties of city living and failed techno-corporate-ambition. Speaking of art, I started to think of myself as a “visuals first game designer” – developing a strong visual identity as a start to writing and gameplay development. First-party Mothership titles have a strong visual identity. How did the prominent color theming for first-party TKG Mothership titles Dead Planet [Red], A Pound of Flesh [Pink], and Gradient Descent [ectoplasm blue], come about?
Sean: For Dead Planet we just threw everything at the wall. That book is just a hodgepodge of everything that was in our minds at the moment. And then with every big release (even starting with Ypsilon) we wanted to make them visually distinct from what came before. That meant choosing a different color, looking at the books that came before, trying to find a way to make the palette constantly evolving while still feeling like they were a part of the same line. It’s a challenge. Every now and then we’ll get tired of the work we’ve done and throw out a new concept just to keep us from getting bored, and then on second pass it’ll be clear like “oh this isn’t Mothership, this is some other game.”
But, I agree, setting that visual tone is super important for the game. First, it’s true, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a kickass cover can get everyone on the same page a lot quicker than 20 pages of lore. And more than that, there’s a product identity aspect where you need to differentiate yourself from everything else on the market. How did you go about setting your visual language for Cloud Empress?
watt: I generally start creating a visual language from the themes, messages, and inspirations of the work itself. I think folks are looking for stories of ecological resistance in the face of climate change, but further, we need stories that offer new ways of living in our environment. Humanity feels we must survive, but how, and under what conditions?
Grappling with themes of ecological harmony and resisting nihilistic consumption, I keep coming back to the ecological messages of some of my favorite science fantasy titles. Star Wars, Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind, Final Fantasy, and Dune (at their best) upend current ways of living that harm their protagonists in a search for new modes of being. They’re also adventures that engage our inner child with the wonder of exploring unfamiliar places, meeting new people, and having the freedom to travel the world.
With Cloud Empress’ colors, textures, and font choices I’ve tried to evoke 1970’s science fiction. The Cloud Empress logo font (Orthodox Herbertarian) is used on several of the out-of-print Dune covers. My other primary font, ITC Serif Gothic, was used in the promotional materials for Star Wars: A New Hope.
The key art for the game is from an artist group called Kattapolka (two artists named Pbbeta and Garin). Pbbeta’s work in particular captures a lot of the despair and horror elements that I don’t often see referenced in Hayao Miyazaki’s films. It’s easy to merchandise a Totoro stuffed animal than it is an Ohm after all. To create the inhabitants of the “Hereafter” we used inspirations from Yoshida Amano, Andrew Wyeth, and Meobius.
Black and white line-art is really popular in indie ttrpgs so I differentiate Cloud Empress’ illustrations with this pretty bright orange color replacement. I wanted to make sure folks knew they were looking at Cloud Empress piece scrolling Twitter. The bright orange line art and tan color scheme are also a reference to the colors of a seventies Penguin Classics science fiction collection.
You see a ton of 3rd party Mothership titles. What makes a 3pp Mothership module stand out to you?
Sean: Initially it was the graphic design. I’m a designer, so that’s what I’m drawn to. However, we’ve seen a huge influx of designers in ttrpgs over the past few years since Mothership came out and so that’s no longer a reliable indicator necessarily of quality. I like a really good hook and material that I instantly want to put in my home game. Usually if I find myself thinking “Damn, I wish we had published this,” that’s when I really feel like something is a hit. In particular if I finding myself daydreaming about like “Oh, they could take the product this way, or do a follow-up module that way,” that’s when I know I’ve really found something special.
watt: I know what you mean. More and more I’m drawn to the underpinning ideas of a 3pp Mothership expansion and novel play experiences even if the presentation isn’t as slick. Though, there’s quite a lot of 3pp content that have both the look and the substance. When considering rules updates from 0e to 1e, were there changes that worked mechanically, but you felt changed the core Mothership rules too much?
Sean: A little bit, moreso there’s just a lot of ground to cover in sci-fi games – like planetary generation, sector generation, missions, NPCs, colonies, ship building, ship combat, cybernetics – there’s all this stuff that’s sort of expected from big sci-fi games and a lot of my time over the past few years has been sifting through that and going, okay does Mothership offer a unique perspective on this thing that say Traveller or Stars Without Number, the other two giants in our genre, haven’t already tackled better? Usually that answer was no. And we tried our best, when we thought we couldn’t outdo something that had already been done, to, rather than just replicate that work, to take our work in a different direction. You’ll see this in the ship-to-ship combat rules in 1e which are a huge departure from basically every sci fi game on the market.
watt: How do you navigate that: what Mothership is and isn’t? Especially now that you’re an established brand.
Sean: It’s tough, honestly. The big thing is that we’re sci-fi horror specifically. That’s our niche. So always going, okay this idea is cool and all but where’s the horror? What’s scary about this? That helps keep us honest. I think there’s a lot of cool weird Mothership stuff and a lot of cool badass Mothership stuff, but we always want to be pointing back to the horror. That’s my biggest advice for people wanting to come up in the 3pp scene: if you want to make a splash, write something really scary.
watt: You’ve told me about building a Mothership ruleset ecosystem that could be used for settings outside of science fiction and branded as the “Panic Engine.” What are your hopes and plans for the Panic Engine?
Sean: We haven’t released it publicly right now, but a lot of our third party games I’m encouraging to go as Panic Engine releases rather than Mothership content. Specifically, I want people to focus on Mothership 3pp content that can be dropped into a bog-standard Mothership game tonight without any disconnect. “Vanilla” Mothership, essentially. For everything else, new fantasy games or whatever, I want to start directing people to the Panic Engine, which is just a stripped down version of the upcoming Mothership SRD. These should be standalone games, with their own lines and their own settings. Games that you wouldn’t particularly know are related to Mothership in any way. You and I have had this back and forth a couple of times actually. I pushed, I think, for you to do Cloud Empress as more of a Panic Engine thing, but you’ve stuck to your guns to keep it as a Mothership expansion. What guided you to that decision?
watt: I’ve gone back forth several times about whether Cloud Empress would be a Panic Engine game or branded Mothership content. I may change my mind later, but for the Kickstarter launch (and foreseeable future) Cloud Empress is designed as a Mothership experience (instead of a Panic Engine game). Here are the four primary reasons (ranked in priority) why Cloud Empress is a Mothership expansion:
Horror elements: The Cloud Empress hex map and adventures are filled with a bunch of scary, disturbing stuff. There’s some freedom to avoid certain horror locations in its world, but Cloud Empress’ regularly plays with the body horror of creating magic, the horrors of war, ecological extinction and some giant psychic cicadas. There’s humor and adventure throughout, but horror is just as crucial an ingredient.
Current Mothership community: Although it sounds like a lot is planned for the Panic Engine, there’s currently an active Mothership Discord, subreddit, and 3rd Party publishing community. These elements all form a powerful infrastructure.
Mothership wide-reaching audience: With Mothership 1E coming out in 2023, there’s this big new Mothership audience looking for new content. My primary interest in crowdfunding and physically publishing games is to get them to a wider audience than who I reach with digital releases. Many folks I talk to at conventions recognize the name Mothership, but would need an explanation about the Panic System underneath the hood. I’m happy to ride on the coattails of success you have created, and create new avenues of play for a hungry audience.
Making a better game: Finally, Mothership is a treasure trove of great content. There’s so many great resources, generators, tools and rules I can currently point to when writing Cloud Empress (like the Warden’s Manual for example) instead of needing to take up space in my books, where I would likely be writing redundant content better covered elsewhere.
Sean: That’s awesome. I feel like this is a great place to leave it. Thanks so much for doing this talk with me and best of luck on your kickstarter!
watt: Thank you! Looking forward to it.
Cloud Empress is launching on Kickstarter Tuesday, January 17th. Follow the pre launch page.
And that’s that! I’ll be getting into some more Mothership and #dungeon23 content later this month, as well as lining up some more interviews with creators I think are doing cool things in the ttrpg space. If there’s someone you’d like me to talk to, let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for joining me! Talk to you all next time!
Thanks for reading Win Conditions! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.