This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
Update 28/03/2021: Luke Crane has now left Kickstarter.
Well, this is interesting. Folks, for the first time I am going to do a Kickstarter article on a project which successfully funded and where I received nothing save a refund. Even more interestingly, this is a project which seems, for the most part, to be in the process of delivering right on time.
Specifically, this is the story of how Luke Crane’s schtick started wearing thin, and how he responded to questioning of that with an unrequested refund.
Unusual Note on Methodology
Typically when I do these things, I have received some stuff to review. Obviously, I have received nothing, so nothing will get reviewed.
That said, as always I like to give a caveat that in any discussion of a Kickstarter I can only speak with authority about my own personal experience of the process. That goes double here, obviously, because Luke Crane didn’t fall out with all the backers in the same way he fell out with me and some others.
Burning Wheel is Luke Crane’s cult hit indie fantasy tabletop RPG. Offering up a range of highly idiosyncratic experiments in tabletop RPG mechanics and presenting a distinctive atmosphere, it has a small community of very devoted fans and has been through several editions.
Burning Wheel Gold is the core book for the latest edition, and is the version currently in print. The Burning Wheel Codex Kickstarter was intended to fund the release of, as the name implies, the Burning Wheel Codex, a supplement updating most of the material from previous editions’ supplements to full compatibility with Burning Wheel Gold.
The campaign was notable for two things. The first is that Luke Crane actually works for Kickstarter as the head of their games division. The second is that, for the purpose of writing the campaign page and subsequent comments and updates, Crane adopted a deliberately whimsical writing style, speaking as though he were some ancient sorcerer and the Kickstarter was a big ritual we were all participating in and generally keeping things cryptic. Some found this frustrating, but others found it fun and endearing. For my part, I enjoyed it… until a certain point.
What Level I Backed At
One copy of Burning Wheel Gold Codex and one copy of the Burning Wheel Gold Fantasy Roleplaying System hardcover books.
Delivering the Goods
Here’s where it gets weird.
To give him his due, Luke Crane seems to have got the books printed on time and commenced the delivery process during the estimated delivery month. Confusion has arisen amongst the backers due mainly to the rather long time it seems to be taking to handle the delivery.
So far as I can make out from cryptic updates and comments, and links to social media postings trawled up by other backers, it seems that Crane decided against using a professional fulfillment service to send out the products. This is a bit of a shame; many small press and one-person publisher outfits on Kickstarter ending up using such things, making use of such a service would have both been sensible (because they can dispatch large numbers of products in a reasonably compact time) and would have given Crane a chance to get a project creator’s-eye-view of how the service he used panned out for him. This is the sort of information which would be of tremendous use to him in supporting game-related Kickstarters.
Instead, the shipping process seems to be taking place out of a rented storage unit, and is going rather slowly. There’s some 2000 books to ship out and I have worked out that, based on how long ago the first backers started reporting getting tracking e-mails, they must have been averaging less than 100 books shipped per day – OK for one or two people working away in there, but still.
Now, when some backers report getting their books weeks before others even get their tracking e-mails, that naturally prompts a certain amount of consternation among backers. I was personally not too worried, but only because I had dug through the comments enough to piece together the above picture. Others seemed more concerned.
Various comments were posted, to my eyes mostly of a reasonably courteous nature. I posted one expressing dissatisfaction with the pace and expressing the view that it would have been prudent to budget for more help with the shipping process, as follows:
Not impressed at pace of shipping these things out. Yes, it was a big project with 2109 backers, but these things have been trickling out for over a month; even accounting for time off at the weekend, I figure that the pace of things being shipped out must be less than 100 per working day (assuming 20 working days), otherwise everyone would have got their tracking info by now. (I, for one, have not). That is not a particularly good pace, especially given that the numbers involving particularly intricate shipments are very small; for the majority of backers it is surely a case of slipping the relevant books into a standard-sized box, applying a printed label, ticking the backer off on the checklist and then handing the labelled items over to the shipping company.
I realise Burning Wheel is a small operation and Andrew is working on his own here, but budgeting to get help with shipping would surely have been sensible.
(Of course, it is entirely possible that Luke did, in fact, budget for that but arrangements fell through. But he hadn’t communicated anything to that effect to Backers.)
Then, after a few days and a raft of other comments about the delivery process were posted, Luke posted this:
All of you.
It is as if you were burning in the lake of fire—while all you do is attend your keyboard.
The truth is simple enough: You will wait; you shall receive your codex. That is all.
Mind your doubts and concerns yourself.
See archive here in case the comment gets deleted.
Now, this is basically a very flowery way of telling people to “shut up and be patient”. And in my view, it crossed the line. The whole “irascible wizard” schtick was fun up to a certain point, but now it was being used by Luke as a means of being rude to his backers in a way which flies in the face of the Community Guidelines – and remember, as a Kickstarter employee, and a comparatively high-profile one at that, it rather falls on Luke to try to exemplify the best of what Kickstarter wants to encourage in its project creators, not to be rude and dismissive towards his backers. Being rude or dismissive of backers is bad enough if a project is going badly – if a project is actually going well, it’s amazingly silly.
So, I told Luke I thought he’d crossed the line and reported his project using Kickstarter’s internal systems for breaching the Kickstarter community guidelines. Specifically, here is what I said:
OK, your schtick for communicating with Backers has been fun so far, but for a Kickstarter employee to take that tone with backers on their personal project goes too far. I am going to contact Kickstarter about this.
On his Twitter account he started making deeply unprofessional moaning noises about project backers daring to express doubts about the project – never mind that these were backers who were still waiting for tracking e-mails literal weeks after other backers got their deliveries. I noted there that he claimed to be issuing refunds on people who he considered to be complaining too loudly. The combination of commanding people to shut up and refunding people (which of course forces them to shut up, because once someone has been refunded through Kickstarter they can no longer comment on your project page) prompted me to try and engage him, at which point we had this conversation. (EDIT 17/05/2020: Alas, Storify shut down, making a complete copy of that conversation no longer available. I have updated to a link to the archive.org copy, which alas only has the start of the discussion.)
During that exchange several interesting things happened. He declared to prioritise delivery over communication, which sounds fine but I don’t think those things are actually mutually exclusive. He declared that he didn’t consider his backers to be his patrons, which rather flies in the face of how Kickstarter’s cofounder has expressed his view of the creator-backer relationship. He said that he was doing this project for himself, not the backers, which rather raises the question of “why involve the backers in your personal vanity project in the first place?”
And he refunded me, without me asking him to, including this snotty little note with the refund:
Hi Arthur, I’m sorry you’re unhappy with your participation in this project. We work extremely hard to deliver as good a book as possible—sacrificing more than I care to admit in the process. In order for this process to be worthwhile for us, I require the faith, support and good humor of our backers. Anything less simply isn’t worth it. Considering that we have never failed to deliver on anything—ever—and that books are shipping on time to backers, I believe we are in the right here. And clucking about worries, concerns and doubts demonstrates that we’re not on the same team when it comes to creative projects. Therefore I’ve issued a full refund and wish you the best. -Luke
I agree with Luke that we are on different pages. He is on the page which says “do not let the peons question you”; I am on the page which reads “Speak truth to power and don’t stand up for people being rude and dismissive towards you or others.”
I sent additional Feedback into Kickstarter, wrote this article, and called it a day. A bit later, when I was finishing up this article and just about to post it, Luke posted that tweet towards the end of the Storify about how he agreed with me on all my points. I asked if this meant a change in approach or whether he was content to be the guy who’s sometimes rude to backers and free with the refunds; he playfully said “Only time will tell!”
Which is a shame, because if he’d given a definite answer I could assume he was sincere about that agreement, but the coy playfulness suggests that anyone backing future projects of his may end up encountering the same abrupt refundage as I did. So I finished up this article and hit “publish”.
Higher, Lower, Just Right, or Just Wrong?
On previous articles on this sort I have posted about whether I thought my backing level should have been higher or lower, or was just right, or was just a mistake.
Technically, I should have gone Higher. The change in the pound/dollar exchange rate since I backed the project means that I have made a profit on the refund, and the profit would have been greater had the amount I backed been higher.
However, I think it would be more consistent with the spirit of the thing if I said my involvement in this was Just Wrong.
Would Back Again?
No, not least because I suspect Luke won’t let me back a future project of his.
Flipping out at people and abruptly punishing them for doubting you is a horrible trait in politics, as anyone who survived Stalin’s Russia will tell you. But what is a force for great evil in dictators becomes, frankly, rather comical and ridiculous in artists.
I take my excommunication from Mr Crane’s inner sanctum as a badge of pride. But I would warn anyone else thinking about backing a future Kickstarter from him. Don’t, whatever you do, try to speak up if you feel like he’s starting to treat your fellow backers like dogshit; it will end badly.
Mr Crane attempted to defend his behaviour to me by pointing out that a bad-tempered wizard was his schtick for the Kickstarter. In a tabletop RPG context, excusing bad behaviour towards real, flesh and blood people by saying “but it’s what my character would do!” is generally frowned on. From a figure with as much respect as he has in the indie RPG community, I expect better.
POST-PUBLICATION EDIT: On being offered right of reply. Mr Crane stated “Only that I wish, in the interest of complete honesty, you had posted your precipitating comment.” As of yet he has not specified the comment he means; I have added both the comment I posted in immediate response to his “silence” comment and a comment I posted earlier about the slow pace of shipping. In the event that he means a different comment, I will add that in too.
I will note that both said comments were available in the archive.is snapshot I provided of the Kickstarter comments page. I will also note that a fair number of comments were posted and several days passed between me posting my comment about the slow shipping process and Luke posting his “Silence” comment, so to characterise it as the “precipitating” comment when there were ample comments preceding and following it asking about the delivery process seems odd to me.