Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3)

The story so far: James Wallis, old hand in the British RPG industry, takes to Kickstarter to fund his return to RPG design. His campaign is very successful, based largely on his good reputation among gamers; he then pisses away that reputation on a massively delayed delivery process which involved multiple broken promises, several long stretches of total silence and non-interaction with backers, and an honest-to-goodness tie-in with Far West.

Eventually, some products crept out of the darkness, and in this part of the saga I am going to take a look at them and then offer some final thoughts.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3)”

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Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 2)

The story so far: James Wallis, former head honcho of Hogshead Publishing and a bit of a RPG design celebrity*, runs his Alas Vegas Kickstarter to fund his new indie RPG – his return to game design after a long break. Asking for a humble £3000, he came away with just over £24,000. That’s not a huge budget, but hey, apparently the core text was mostly finished, so the production process would mostly be a matter of waiting for third party stretch goal contributions and the artwork to come in, doing the editing, proofing, and layout, and sorting out the process of printing. All these tasks are the bread and butter of an experienced publisher like Wallis, so there was no reason to expect any great difficulty. And yet…

* That said, his reputation is mostly built on his role in publishing the works of others – WFRPNobilisDragon Warriors – but he also is reasonably well-known for Once Upon a Time – a game he designed with a group of collaborators – and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which as I’ve outlined in my review of it is actually kind of a riff on Once Upon a Time‘s design ideas.

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Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 1)

This is a Kickstopper article I took great care in writing, and had to think carefully about publishing. Ultimately, although I wasn’t satisfied with my experience with this Kickstarter, I did end up getting my money back – more than my money back, in fact – and I could just walk away from all of this. However, at the same time I also believe there is a strong public interest component in laying out this information. I’m not, at the end of the day, setting out anything which isn’t to a large extent a matter of public record, or was disclosed to a sufficiently great number of project backers so as to dissolve any expectation of confidentiality – but the story has unfolded sufficiently long and slow that I think there is value in gathering the facts together and presenting them like this.

This article is necessarily going to involve a great deal of criticism of the actions of the initiator of the Alas Vegas Kickstarter project, James Wallis. Whenever people complain about the outcome of a Kickstarter they’re very quick to cry “scam” or “fraud”, but I don’t want to do that, not just because I have no evidence that it is the case but because all the evidence I have available to me suggests the opposite. On the basis of all of my interactions and research into this situation, I genuinely do not believe that James set out to cheat or defraud anyone, nor do I think anyone has been deliberately defrauded in the process of this Kickstarter. I believe that his intention was to do exactly what he said he was going to do and to meet all of his promises.

The fact remains, however, that it taken him extraordinarily long to do some of the things he said he was going to do, some of those things remain still not done even years after the fact, and promises and commitments he made to his backers have undeniably been broken. In fact, I think it’s a matter of general interest how someone who began a project with essentially good intentions, a reasonable plan for completion, and the core creative task for the project already largely completed could ultimately end up alienating a great many of their backers through their actions, communications, inaction and lack of communication.

Moreover, it’s also a case study of someone for whom Kickstarter success turned out to be more damaging than failure. It would be easy to write a hit piece if James Wallis seemed to be taking some sort of wry joy in frustrating and enraging his backers, but the truth seems to be quite the opposite. The process of getting the core Alas Vegas product finished seems to have been a living nightmare for Wallis. It injured him in a way I’ve rarely seen in other Kickstarters – or perhaps which other Kickstarter project owners are simply less transparent about.

Bizarrely, one of the reasons I’d never fund another James Wallis-helmed Kickstarter is because part of me feels like it would be cruel to do so – enabling exactly the sort of agonising process that Alas Vegas took would do more damage to him than his project failing to fund in the first place. If I saw Wallis attempting another Kickstarter in future, I think I’d feel about as bad as I would if I witnessed him committing an act of public self-harm, because on a certain level that’s exactly what it would be.

The thing is, I don’t think Wallis is unique. The creative process is different for everyone, and for a very few it can seem, from the outside, little different from self-torture. The mistakes and questionable choices made during the Alas Vegas Kickstarter include some decisions which I cannot fathom the logic of, but also a great many which are completely understandable, and which other creators could well make in similar circumstances.

On top of that, I think a number of the issues the Kickstarter ran into arise not from any actual objective mistakes made by Wallis and are more of a byproduct of his preferred method of working not really being right for the Kickstarter format. Perhaps by telling this story, other creators can take this experience and apply it to their own projects and their creative process, and make a call on whether Kickstarter is actually the right platform for their ideas.

On the other hand, Wallis also made a number of unforced errors, and his behaviour towards his backers is about as far from “best practice” as it’s possible to get. I don’t think he is a scam artist or a fraudster, but I do think he’s deeply unreliable and highly unprofessional, and in particular exhibits avoidant behaviour which makes it very difficult to discuss matters with him when things are going wrong. This isn’t even an isolated incident – in the course of this saga we’ll encounter at least one situation where he exhibited all of those traits in relation to a completely different project.

In the unlikely event that Wallis attempts another crowdfunding project, I think people need to know how this one went so they can make an informed choice as to whether they support his future endeavours. Personally, I wouldn’t.

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The Ludonarrative Dissonance of the Late, Late, Late Show

Stellar Games are by and large one of the great also-rans of the gaming industry, putting out a few products which have gained some attention but with none of their game lines ever quite catching fire to the extent necessary to sustain them in the long term. You may have heard about their Nightlife RPG, which rolled out the whole “vampires and wizards and werewoofles kicking about in the modern day” concept before Vampire: the Masquerade and its kin did, but not in any way which really captured people’s imaginations. (I don’t see people getting anywhere near as excited about that game’s setting lore as I do about the finer points of the Camarilla vs. Sabbat feud, for instance.)

Out of the whole Stellar Games roster, the game which seems to have prompted the most discussion over the years – not much, at least in the Anglosphere (apparently the Japanese translation was a minor hit over there), but at least it’s been namedropped here and there – is It Came From the Late, Late, Late Show. This came out in 1989, the same year that saw the nationwide cable debut of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and there must have been something in the water at the time promoting geekdom’s already well-ingrained love of cheesy movies – for Late, Late, Late Show is an RPG of playing through crappy Z-movies.

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The World is Your Setting Guide

At the moment I’m involved in running Anarchy, a LARP set during the 1135-1153 civil war in England between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. As I’ve found running Ars Magica, the advantage of running a historical RPG – in whatever format – is that there’s stacks of material out there you can use for reference material. Here’s an overview of some of the materials I and others on the GM team have found useful as resources.

The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

This doesn’t quite have as wide a scope as the title might imply – it specifically focuses on life in medieval England and France in the span of 1050-1300 – but if you are looking for a general overview of that place and time, this isn’t bad. The emphasis is less on reciting the sequence of historical events so much as it’s to offer an overview of what everyday life was like in the era. Usefully divided into subject-specific chapters, it offers a solid foundation and a useful jumping-off point for deeper inquiry.

Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury

This is a brief and highly readable summary of the history of the period we were looking at. It wasn’t perfect – it’s arguably a bit pro-Stephen, though where the line exists between being partisan and treating Stephen fairly lies is hard to judge. Nonetheless, it’s useful with this sort of project to have a main reference you go to to set a baseline before you incorporate other features or make alterations, and for that purpose it’s pretty good.

The Oxford History of the Laws of England Volume II: 871-1216

As an academic reference work, this obviously has a bit of a price tag on it, but I’ve found it fascinating. It gives an overview of the development of English law ranging from the Anglo-Saxon era all the way to the end of King John’s reign. John Hudson, who wrote this volume, writes in an extremely accessible style, arising from the necessity of making law intelligible to historians and history intelligible to interested lawyers, so this is really handy if you want to depict the legal procedures and norms of a particular era within the time period covered.

If you want a book which, whilst still quite detailed, is substantially easier to digest (and easier on the wallet), John Hudson’s The Formation of the English Common Law might be a good option. Covering the span of time from Alfred the Great to Magna Carta, it’s quite good at teasing out how the law developed over that period of time. Whilst this subject can seem quite dry, it also opens a window onto how people generally saw their relationship with the law and their rulers, and thus is a bit of a snapshot of society in general, and so is particularly useful if you want to think about how society changed over the time period in question (and change it very definitely did). Such considerations are really important if you want to avoid treating the medieval period as just one big generic blob of time.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

As a historical document, this is available in various translations into modern English; I’ve got the one that is translated and edited by Michael Swanton, who provides all the different variant texts of the different chronicles presented in a nice clear way, and also extensively annotates them to help unpack matters which the monks writing entries don’t explain very well, offer additional insight, and point out outright errors or propaganda. The time period covered in detail ranges from the coming of the Saxons to Britain to nearly a century after the Norman Conquest, including the events of the Anarchy. What it lacks in precision, neutrality and accuracy it more than makes up for in flavour.

The Domesday Book

A rather dry prospect if you attempt to read it cover to cover, this is another text which is mostly handy for inspiration – just dip into it anywhere and you get a snapshot of just how much individual character William the Conqueror’s surveyors managed to capture of each manor and holding in England.

The Bible

If you are running a historical game set in a time period and a culture where Christianity is a significant force, then you’re going to want its base text, of course. For actual quoting purposes I like to use the New English Bible from 1970 which I picked up second hand – it casts the text in modern English, distinguishes neatly between text that seems to have been intended as poetry or song and text that seems to flow better as prose, though it isn’t especially gender-inclusive and uses a default “he” to a greater extent than the original text necessarily mandates.

However, any edition of the Bible is a dense old text to look stuff up in, which is why it’s nice that some of my co-referees got me the Illustrated Family Bible from DK. This thick, handsome book boils down a surprisingly large number of Biblical stories into easily-understood two-page spreads, with useful sidebars providing additional historical context. This is very handy to look up the broad brushstrokes of an idea in before you look up the full-fat text in your Bible of choice.

The History of the Kings of England (by Geoffrey of Monmouth)

This is absolutely wackydoodles, so it’s perfect either for emphasising how confused medieval scholarship could get or for mining for a mythic history of Britain that didn’t happen.

Heresies of the High Middle Ages (ed. Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans)

This is a translation into modern English of various first-hand sources on the subject, ranging from Church condemnations of heresies to heretical texts themselves. (Cathar fans note: this has got the full text of the Book of the Two Principles which was quite significant to Cathar theology.)

 

Devil’s Gulch, Amateur’s Layout

So the new regime at Chaosium are still purging their storage space of old product which was stacked up under Charlie Krank’s watch. (For a full breakdown of how Chaosium’s leadership has changed, who Charlie Krank was, and why it’s probably kind of a good thing that Charlie’s no longer running Chaosium, see the first part of my overview of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter.) The upshot of this is that sometimes when you’re purchasing from their website – say, to get your shiny hardcover copy of the brand new edition of RuneQuest – you’ll notice that they’re selling, say, back catalogue items from their fiction line for less than $5 a pop.

Thus, when I got my RuneQuest I also bought a bunch of old Chaosium products I’d semi-had my eye on which were going for a reasonable rate. Devil’s Gulch was not discounted, but it did jump out at me since it’s meant to offer a complete Western town with an eye to using it with the generic Basic Roleplaying Big Yellow Book system for Weird West, Deadlands-style adventures. Obviously, this is a product which may well have useful synergy with, say, Down Darker Trails, but whereas that product showed professional, modern production values and a thoughtful take on its subject matter which was well worth the praise it won, Devil’s Gulch is… not.

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