Kickstopper: That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternally Restructure (Part 1)

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.

Kickstarter fulfilment is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes, it’s also a relay race, when the original project creator has to hand over much of the process to someone else. In the tabletop RPG sphere, for instance, there was the Dwimmermount Kickstarter, in which project owner James Maliszewski quite understandably found himself overwhelmed by his father’s terminal illness and had to hand over the work to his publishers at Autarch to finish (though, less excusably, only after they had to go to a really undue level of effort to get in touch with him to find out what was going on).

In the case of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, the Kickstarter was begun and finished by Chaosium… but along the way Chaosium underwent an eldritch transformation. The overall effect, in fact, was much like the central identity switch of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Gone was the familiar Chaosium – eccentric, set in its ways, slightly ineffectual, but with its heart in the right place, rather like Charles Dexter Ward – and in its place was a new Chaosium, stronger, more confident, with the power of old magic behind it, just like Joseph Curwen. And just like in the story, the old Chaosium’s very success destroyed it, leaving the new Chaosium to take its place.

So complex is the saga of this Kickstarter that, for the first time, I am actually going to split a Kickstopper article in half. In this first part, I will cover the exciting Kickstarter fundraising process and the devastating delivery process, picking apart just what went wrong and just how everything went so right in the end. In part 2, I will deliver the actual swag I received.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The intent of the Kickstarter was to fund the production of the 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu, a tabletop RPG inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and other writers of Cthulhu Mythos material. This came hot on the heels of their previous Kickstarter for a deluxe rerelease of the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure Horror On the Orient Express, which had raised over $200,000 – convincing Chaosium that Kickstarter could be the solution to their cashflow problems (of which more later).

This new campaign raised even more money – $561,836, to be precise, hitting over 1400% of the baseline target. Stretch goal after stretch goal was offered up and then conquered, with the various reward tiers becoming even more tempting as a result. A side-effect of this was that the campaign rapidly became absurdly complex, to the point where this absurd monster of a chart had to be deployed to actually make it clear what was covered by each tier. If that wasn’t complex enough, the Kickstarter also had an “add-on” store, where if you pledged extra money you could obtain additional items here and there. This also lent into one of the major flaws of the campaign; the eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that each add-on someone bought from the store only increased one’s postage fee by $1.

This is a wildly optimistic estimate of how much extra weight and volume can add to postage (especially when customs fees are considered) – and as it transpired, Chaosium were already wildly underestimating their shipping costs for the project. Even worse, this was the second time in a row they had made that blunder – it would be later revealed that on the Horror On the Orient Express Kickstarter, the money they had raised was enough to produce the rewards in question, but wasn’t actually enough to pay the shipping costs (which were truly enormous, because that is one heavy product – I didn’t back the Kickstarter, but I’ve picked the boxed set up in game shops and it feels like it’s full of lead plates). How could they possibly pay their existing debts without eating into the money from this Kickstarter? Answer: erm… they couldn’t, and that left this Kickstarter in a jam, as we’re going to see under the Delivering the Goods section.

When you combine an underestimate of shipping fees with a wildly complex reward structure involving a dizzying array of different types of product, and add that to potentially being in the position of using the revenue of one Kickstarter to pay the debts of a previous Kickstarter… well, that’s when you shake hands with danger.

What Level I Backed At

Let’s drill down into this one a bit to illustrate just how carried away both Chaosium and us backers got during the Kickstarter campaign. Here’s the text of my reward tier as it stood at the beginning of the campaign:

NICTITATING NYARLATHOTEP, THE MESSENGER: the Mask of a Thousand Faces offers a Kickstarter-exclusive if you dare accept. Here are both the leather-bound CALL OF CTHULHU KEEPER’S RULEBOOK and leather-bound INVESTIGATOR HANDBOOK featuring thick leatherette hard-covers, with front cover and spine stamped with luxurious gold foil, and come in a complementary slipcase. These books are only available through this project. The interior pages will include all improvements, on high-quality paper. The binding is thread sewn, square backed, and each book is individually shrink-wrapped. You also receive a pdf of the book. (add base postage of $5/US, $10/Canadian, $20/other, +$1 per physical item in your order).

Note the absurdly low postage costs.

Later, after a swathe of stretch goals had fallen before the enthusiasm of the backers, new graphics were made to better show what you got at each tier. Take a look at where things stood then:

Note that yet again, the postage requested for this tier is incredibly modest for the amount of stuff being posted to you.

But wait, there’s more! Remember, to get a full breakdown of what you got at each level, you had to take a look at the enormous chart of enormousness. Note the bottom row: the amazingly low shipping rates weren’t just an extra treat for us big spenders, everyone got them. And the above chart doesn’t include the stretch goals funded after it – namely, the Lovecraftian bookplates mentioned on the cool Nyarlathotep graphic, plus the Mythos Stratigraph, plus the Eldritch Images set of art prints, plus (thanks to additional PayPal pledges over and above the Kickstarter funds, the Innsmouth Gold coin collection.

All for a postage price that shows a total disconnect from modern shipping prices.

On top of my reward tier, I paid a little extra to upgrade my softcover copies of the rulebooks to hardcovers, and also bought a fez from the Add-On Store. To be honest, I should probably have stopped and considered the amazing shipping costs, but my enthusiasm for the project ran away with me. Luckily, more or less every item I was actually excited about made it to me in the end – but at what cost to Chaosium?

Delivering the Goods

The original estimated delivery date for the project was October 2013, but with so many improvements to the core book funded and so many other projects getting their stretch goal funding too, in practice it was always a forlorn hope that the project would be completed to that schedule, even if you didn’t take into account the old Chaosium’s tendency to sometimes take things a bit slow.

Still, early on signs were positive. A PDF of the quickstart rules was released reasonably quickly, and eventually PDFs of the main rulebooks emerged. I got a fez in the post. It seemed to be taking an awfully long time to get the printing done, but progress did seem to be happening, however glacially, and a stream of freebies emerged from Chaosium to ease the waiting period. Backers got free PDF copies of the freshly-published 7th Edition adventures Dead Light and Cold Harvest – products which, in retrospect, I suspect were developed because they were fairly cheap and easy to roll out, in the hope that they would provide working capital to produce the rest of the rewards with. There was also the solo adventure Alone Against the Flames; though the PDF version of this was made freely available to everyone, not just backers, it still felt like another stopgap product along the way to fulfillment.

Suddenly, in mid-2015, everything changed.

Eldritch Origins

The story came out through various different avenues, perhaps the most substantive being Sandy Petersen’s interview with Call of Cthulhu fansite and Greg Stafford’s appearance on the Tales of Mythic Adventure podcast from Moon Design. To explain it in a way which will make it intelligible to non-fans, however, I need to step back a little and talk a bit about Chaosium’s history. Chaosium was founded back in the 1970s by Greg Stafford and a band of fellow West Coast gaming enthusiasts. After putting out some boardgames and third party Dungeons & Dragons supplements, Chaosium managed to gain a prominent place in the tabletop RPG market by publishing RuneQuest, a fantasy game set in Stafford’s homebrewed world of Glorantha (which he’d been tinkering with since the 1960s in various forms).

RuneQuest combined a distinctive and flavourful game setting with a then-revolutionary rules system based around percentile skills; restrictive character classes and levels were out, and characters could progress in any skill if they obtained training or through experience during play. (If this sounds familiar to some aspects of the Elder Scrolls games, that’s no coincidence, because that’s where they picked up their skill system from – indeed, Ken Rolston, who was lead designer on Morrowind and Oblivion, cut his teeth in the gaming industry writing material for Chaosium).

Whilst many of these aspects were individually not wholly unique to RuneQuestTraveller had wheeled out a rudimentary skill system previously, and Empire of the Petal Throne had a similarly rich setting – its particular implementation of them along with its unique contributions made it a truly standout release, setting a new bar for fantasy RPGs. (The 2nd Edition of Runequest, which followed hot on the heels of the 1st and incorporated a great many tweaks, may be the best-presented tabletop RPG of the 1970s in terms of clarity of rules explanations and the sheer amount of material it gives you to play with.)

It was in the hands of Sandy Petersen (who would go on to, among other things, be the co-designer of the original DOOM and Quake) that the RuneQuest system got Lovecraftian. In the early 1980s, Chaosium had the bright idea of producing a simplified version of the RuneQuest system – dubbed Basic Roleplaying, or BRP for short – which they could use as the foundation of a range of different games adapting the system to different settings. (This may be the first case of an RPG publisher producing a formalised in-house system; TSR had a de facto in-house system, since as well as Dungeons & Dragons they’d put out a lot of games which were recognisably based on greatly divergent takes on the Dungeons & Dragons rules – Gamma World, Empire of the Petal Throne, Metamorphosis Alpha and so on – but they hadn’t, to my knowledge, gone to the effort of producing a stripped-down baseline version of the system in the same way Chaosium did with BRP.)

The first two games to get the BRP treatment were based on licensed settings – with both properties being very popular among RPG fans of the time, thanks in part to Gary Gygax namedropping them as influences in the first Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a few years previously. There was Ken St. Andre’s Stormbringer RPG, inspired by Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, and there was Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu. Stormbringer did respectably well and retains a certain affection among fans to this day; though since unfortunately Moorcock had a serious business falling out with Chaosium the licence got pulled and the odds of a reprint are negligible. Call of Cthulhu, though, was a huge hit, instantly winning a range of industry awards and rapidly becoming Chaosium’s best earner, both in terms of their own products and through revenue from licensees for third-party products and international translations. (Apparently, the Japanese-language licence revenues alone are substantial enough to be an important income stream.)

Stafford Departs

However, Greg Stafford would be (and in fact has been) the first to admit that the Chaosium crew weren’t the most business-minded bunch, and a series of business missteps would cost them dearly over the years. An ill-favoured partnership with Avalon Hill to produce a third edition of RuneQuest left Chaosium in the unenviable position of not actually owning the RuneQuest trademark any more, and it ended up costing them dearly to get out of the entanglement. In the late 1990s, crisis struck again when an overinvestment in the collectable card game boom backfired, ravaging the company’s finances.

At that point in time, the major stockholders in Chaosium were Greg Stafford himself, plus Lynn Willis and Charlie Krank, who each owned just under a third of the stock in the company; the remaining slice of stock was owned by Sandy Petersen, who’d been given it as a going-away present when he left. In the wake of the card game crisis, Stafford departed, in an arrangement which allowed him to keep his stock in the company and gave him control over the Glorantha material; he would eventually partner with Moon Design Publications, a company formed by hardcore Glorantha fans, to produce the new Glorantha-themed RPG Hero Wars (later renamed Heroquest when that trademark became available to use), and once Stafford got the RuneQuest trademark back he also arranged for a new licensed version of the game to be put out, first by Mongoose Publishing and later by The Design Mechanism.

Meanwhile, Lynn Willis and Charlie Krank saw to the continued operation of Chaosium. Under this new regime, the company unfortunately developed a certain reputation for late payments and business incompetence. It was during this time, for instance, that relations with Michael Moorcock were allowed to get so bad that Moorcock pulled the Elric RPG licence. I don’t know the precise details of the dispute, but if it was royalty payments then Moorcock wouldn’t be alone in being left unpaid by Chaosium; once upon a time I played Call of Cthulhu with one of the co-designers of a significant campaign adventure released by them, and he’d never been paid for his contributions in actual money. It worked out fine for him because he was working on a hobbyist basis and was happy to just accept store credit – which turned out to be enough that he could still buy all of Chaosium’s new releases off his credit years after the adventure he co-wrote was published. As far as I am able to ascertain, this situation was far from uncommon at the time.

Where Chaosium’s erratic release schedule and tardiness with payments suggested financial crisis, other decisions of theirs seemed to be entirely out of touch with the realities of the market. For instance, there was the “monograph” project, through which Chaosium solicited homebrewed supplements and adventures for Call of Cthulhu and the Basic Roleplaying system from fans. Monographs would be published without internal editing from Chaosium and with fairly basic cover designs, and sold to customers with that strong caveat on them.

In principle, this wasn’t a terrible idea. Wizards of the Coast, for instance, are currently undertaking a similar experiment in providing a platform for the sale of homebrewed Dungeons & Dragons material through the DM Guild program. Providing this outlet for fan creativity meant that Chaosium could benefit from it financially without undertaking a great deal of work themselves, and for the fan writers involved it meant their material could get a bit more exposure by being published through Chaosium than they might if they’d self-published. On top of that, the cream of the crop could then be further developed as full-blooded supplements; one example of this is the Cthulhu Invictus alternate setting for Call of Cthulhu, which offers guidelines on setting the action of the game during Roman times.

The problem was that, whilst this made sense for monograph writers and Chaosium alike, it wasn’t such a hot prospect for customers. I personally didn’t mind the fact that the standard of material and the presentation was so variable – Chaosium were very assiduous about warning buyers that monographs were fan-written pieces subjected to only minimal editing. The issue is that, rather than doing the sensible thing and offering the monographs as PDF downloads or on a print-on-demand basis, Chaosium were actually fool enough to traditionally print the things and maintain a healthy stock of them at their warehouse. This is possibly the most expensive way to handle such a project for the company, and also probably cost them a lot of sales; most monographs were the sort of thing where paying full price for a hard copy just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but they’d be much more tempting if sold for a fairly modest price in PDF format.

(This isn’t the only instance of Chaosium being behind the curve technologically; in general, they were pretty lax about getting onboard the bandwagon of offering PDF versions of their products, despite the fact that PDF sales had become an increasingly important part of the RPG market.)

Time Up For Charlie Krank

Theoretically, the grand successes of the Horror On the Orient Express and Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarters should have put Chaosium back on an even keel, but as I’ve described above, the issues with the shipping costs seem to have put paid to that notion (and I suspect the overstuffing of the pledge levels may have eaten deeply into the projects’ profit margins as well).

However, time would soon run out for the old regime, though it took some sad circumstances to make that happen. In early 2013, Lynn Willis died; as per the Chaosium company by-laws, the company as a whole bought back his stock (rather than it being left to his descendants), and thus the percentage control of the remaining stockholders swelled to a proportionate extent. Now, Charlie Krank had just under half the stock, Greg Stafford had just under half the stock, and Sandy Petersen found himself with the deciding vote. Still, since both Petersen and Stafford had their own ongoing projects and businesses to tend to, they were happy to let Charlie Krank stay in his post, though they did decide to set up monthly stockholder meetings via Skype in the interests of being kept in the loop.

As time went on and both Kickstarters ended up increasingly bogged down, both Petersen and Stafford became increasingly worried about what they were hearing from Chaosium. Petersen, for his part, was especially concerned because he’d gotten back into tabletop games through his Cthulhu Wars wargame project, which he’d Kickstarted himself, and he feared that a major Kickstarter failure on Chaosium’s part could leave crowdfunding so contaminated in the eyes of the fandom that it would threaten the viability of future Cthulhu-related Kickstarters. (Of course, Petersen’s own Kickstarter projects had left him especially well-placed to spot where there might be issues with completing Chaosium’s Kickstarters.)

As Petersen tells it, matters came to a head in May 2015, after Petersen had asked probing questions at the latest stockholder Skype meeting and was troubled by the answers he got, at which point he discussed the matter with Greg and they agreed that a change of management was needed. All the parties concerned have been understandably cautious in their statements about what happened next – Charlie Krank, to my knowledge, hasn’t said anything about it at all to this date – but in June 2015 Chaosium issued a press release entitled “The Great Old Ones Have Returned!”

The news was dramatic enough to merit the headline: Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen had taken charge of Chaosium’s operations. Charlie Krank was out, a deal reached to allow the purchase of his stock; also out were his daughter Meghan McLean, who was a full time employee, as well as her boyfriend who occasionally put in part time work. Although I have no insider information beyond what has been put out there, my hunch from reading between the lines is that Stafford and Petersen agreed the stock purchase with Krank prior to looking over Chaosium’s books (which you would expect them to do before paying for stock in the normal order of things) in order to allow Krank to quietly depart without kicking off a dispute which Chaosium probably wouldn’t survive.

Such is the affection that Stafford and Petersen are held with by the gaming community, and such is the confidence and high regard that they have with their fellow designers, and such was the terrible state of relations with both customers and contributors that the old regime had allowed itself to reach, that the coup was by and large welcomed. Dennis Detwiller, co-designer of the revered third party supplement Delta Green, made a post on this forum thread (post number 182, should be towards the top of the linked page, username is dennisd) which I think is illustrative. Detwiller’s thoughts offer the most eloquent summation I have seen both of how many bridges the old regime at Chaosium had burned, and how much confidence people had in Sandy and Greg.

Stafford and Petersen immediately took action, commencing a complete review both of Chaosium’s account books and of the materials they had in their warehouse. We don’t know the full details of what was in the account books beyond cautious mentions by Sandy Petersen of financial shortfalls here and there, but the shipping cost issue has been mentioned, and it’s also come to light that when the takeover took place Chaosium had something in the region of $10,000 in the bank – and would need to fork over ten times that much to get the new Call of Cthulhu books printed. (And word is they had plenty of debts aside from that.)

On the warehouse side of things, there were further surprises. On the bright side, a range of exciting documents and forgotten treasures from Chaosium’s illustrious past came to light – some of which later saw the light of day in conjunction with the “RuneQuest Classic” rerelease project. On the down side, it seems to me that there were a number of issues with Chaosium’s warehouse practices, not least the fact that they were maintaining a substantial amount of warehouse space at all – whilst that may well have made sense in Chaosium’s prime back at the height of the tabletop RPG boom, when RuneQuest was second only to Dungeons & Dragons in sales, it seems hardly sensible in 2015’s RPG market to maintain such traditional stockpiling practices for anything other than the most rapidly-selling high-turnover products.

That seems like the sort of reasoning the new regime followed too, because they’ve shut down the warehouse entirely and shifted to a distributed system where they have arrangements with various regional fulfillment centres – but not before a massive everything-must-go sale of the warehoused products. That sale, in itself, revealed that not only was the expense of maintaining the warehouse an issue, but the choice of what to keep warehoused seems to have been outright bizarre. For instance, stacks of monographs seem to have been gathering dust in there, providing further support for the notion that they were overpriced for what they were and would have better off being sold as PDFs.

Even more incredibly, in the fire sale you could buy copies of the entire Nephilim product line. Nephilim was an ill-fated attempt by Chaosium to jump aboard the Vampire: the Masquerade-inspired 1990s bandwagon of RPGs about a modern-day occult world where the player characters represent some flavour of the creatures of the night, and was a translation of a French game which used the BRP system under licence. I personally think it’s quite neat, but whilst the original French line thrives to this day, the English language line never got any critical or commercial momentum behind it and is generally remembered as a failed game, having been cancelled only 3 years after its core book was released. As happy as I was to use the fire sale to fill the gaps in my collection, I still think it is absurd that literal decades later Chaosium were still sitting on boxes of Nephilim books like some sort of corporate equivalent of those hoarders who rationalise their behaviour by telling themselves their trash pile will be worth something some day. The fact that the old regime hadn’t sold off those books at a steep discount already seems to me to be further evidence of ineptitude on their part.

Meet the New Bosses, Different From the Old Bosses

Stafford and Petersen taking a more active role in the company was a welcome turn of events, but both must have realised they couldn’t run its day-to-day operations themselves as a long-term solution – Petersen had his own projects to deal with, and Stafford was very aware that Chaosium needed business-minded people in charge if it was going to thrive. Thus, the next major development was bringing in Moon Design.

Moon Design, you may remember, had been the group of business-savvy Chaosium fans that Greg had partnered with to produce new Glorantha-based material. In that process, they had demonstrated that they possessed the rare gift of being able to balance a decent level of professionalism and business competence on the one hand and a fan’s passion for the material on the other. Moreover, they had a proven track record on Kickstarter, having successfully delivered the mammoth Guide to Glorantha project. Moon Design would thus become part of the new Chaosium ownership group, the announcement coming in late July 2015, and immediately set about addressing the backlogged Kickstarters as a top priority.

Rick Meints, as the new President of Chaosium under this arrangement, may not have won over every single one of the backers – in a project this size literally any decision you make will completely outrage or savagely disappoint someone, after all – but I (and I think most of my fellow backers) found his regular, informative updates and transparency with the backers a welcome breath of fresh air after the long silences, obfuscation, and outright lies that characterised the old regime’s idea of backer relations.

“Lies” is a strong word, but I consider it supported by the facts. On the 11th March 2015 update the old regime told the Kickstarter backers quite unambiguously that “the printer has the final files and has begun the printing process”, and a later update stated that delivery was expected in May. This is demonstrably not the case. Greg Stafford, Sandy Petersen, and Moon Design have been fairly careful about what they have said that the old regime had and hadn’t done, for probably extremely sensible reasons, but one thing which they did feel able to say very soon after taking over (before Moon Design were in place, in fact) was that:

This book is waaay behind what we have been told. It is not “at the printer.” We have not even received the proofs to review.

In subsequent updates Moon Design shed light on the various work they had to do before anything describable as “final files” for the printer could be ready, let alone getting the books actually printed; for instance, apparently all the files had the margins set incorrectly, which would require all the layout work to be redone, and whilst conceivably this might have been something caught at the proof stage, it certainly would be a large enough issue to preclude the full print run kicking off. Between that and other issues, to my mind Moon Design have quite thoroughly substantiated the assertion by the Greg-and-Sandy transitional regime that the process was at a far earlier stage than Kickstarter backers had been told.

This can only mean that the old Krank-era regime lied to us. I would be perfectly willing to believe that they were “white lies” – things which, whilst not true when they were written, the Krank regime had every hope that they’d be able to make true given a little time. However, relying on such “white lies” is a patronising and fundamentally dishonest way of interacting with your backers. It’s also deeply short-sighted: in the best case scenario you might get away with it, but the consequences if you aren’t able to get away with it and you are caught out in the lie are so dire that it’s a fundamentally foolish gamble to make.

In short, even given the best possible spin it is an act of someone in a desperate panic, focused only on clinging to survival on a short-term basis, and if nothing else the fact that the Krank regime resorted to such actions in and of itself demonstrates that they absolutely needed to go.

With Moon Design in place, progress was gratifyingly swift. Corrected files (with the margins set correctly, unlike the versions the Krank regime were trying to work with) were sent to the printers by September, and the printer’s proofs were reviewed and the print run approved by the end of the year. Shipping from China took a while, but eventually the boats reached Chaosium’s new fulfillment partners in the US, UK and Australia, and from those sites the books at long last made their way to backers in May 2016.

This initial shipment didn’t contain everything that was promised, but the first bulk set of items included an impressive amount of material – including the core books, the Nameless Horrors adventure collection, a Keeper screen and associated booklet of adventures, and numerous additional items. Later shipments would handle secondary items such as the Pulp Cthulhu supplement and the card decks.

Kickstarter Triage

That said, whilst the Moon Design regime at Chaosium (ChaosiMoon?) did their level best to deliver everything that was originally promised, in some cases they had to bite the bullet and make sacrifices here and there. Early on the decision was made that the Petersen Guide to Cthulhu Monsters and Petersen Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands should be combined into a single book – which I think was a good call, since the nature of the collections were such that they fit well together and this approach probably would have been much more economical than printing the two separately. (In fact, separated out the individual books would have been a bit thin, so the combined package is a more tempting product altogether.) Likewise, the Sense-Impacts collection of ambient music tracks was delivered in MP3 format rather than as a CD, though frankly this is actually a far more useful format for a gaming session soundtrack to come in anyway, so I can’t really feel that upset about that.

Come October 2016 – 3 years after the original estimated delivery date, for those keeping track – Chaosium finally announced that a range of minor stretch goals had been cancelled outright, or would only be delivered in electronic format rather than the hard copies that were originally offered. The bookmark set, Evidence File, postcards, and bookplates had already been provided in electronic formats. Both the Innsmouth Gold coins and the dice and dicebag had been produced by the third party companies involved in their manufacture and were on sale directly through them, but it simply would not have been economical for Chaosium to pay for them and ship them to backers. (The manufacturers of the Innsmouth Gold did offer backers a generous discount on purchases direct from them.) The special 1000% funded backer certificate and badge, the various t-shirts, and the coffee mug were all cancelled outright – the mug made it to Chaosium’s redbubble store with the publisher profit set to zero, and some of the shirts also made it on there, but as with the Innsmouth Gold you’d need to go and pay up to actually get them because it just wasn’t viable for Chaosium to buy a bunch for their backers and ship them.

The basic problem with most of these items is that they involved Chaosium branching out into areas which, frankly, weren’t their ballpark. As Rich said in the update announcing the cancellations, “Chaosium has learned the difficult and painful lesson of straying from its core strengths. We are a game company, and need to focus on the games we make, not producing t-shirts, jewelry, mugs, and other similar items.” Because of this, there’d be no way for Chaosium to produce them themselves; they would have needed to do so in partnership with experienced producers within those realms, and it would have not been viable to ask those producers to take the sort of financial hit that Chaosium could take by themselves for products like the core books.

Obviously this was a mild disappointment for some backers, but it didn’t kick off the sort of shitstorm that I initially worried it might. It helps that more or less all of the cancelled items were just random bits of additional tat, rather than truly key items in the Kickstarter – and since it had become apparent by now just how close we had come of not even getting the core items shipped, any stretch goals that made it out felt like a bonus. I genuinely don’t think there is anyone out there for whom, say, hard copies of the bookplates made even the slightest difference to them in their decision to back at one tier level or another, and these are all minor items of that nature.

Moreover, Chaosium didn’t flat-out leave us high and dry there – far from it. For those backers who had bought cancelled items through the add-on store, therefore spending extra money on top of their existing pledge for them, they provided them with a refund of that money either via PayPal or as store credit. On top of that, any backer whose pledge included physical items (which would cover more or less any backer owed one of the cancelled items as part of their pledge’s package, rather than as add ons) received a PDF copy of Doors to Darkness, a brand-new adventure collection, and any backer whose pledge (like mine) included the fancy leatherette core books – and therefore was owed the mug as part of their pledge – got a nice hardcover copy of Doors to Darkness at that.

Thus, whilst Chaosium didn’t quite order the full package of materials that the Krank regime had promised, between the addition of Doors to Darkness, the various extra freebies the Krank regime had given out (Dead Light, Cold Harvest, and Alone Against the Flames in PDF), and the sheer amount of stuff that between them the Krank regime and the new order did manage to deliver, you’d need to have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of the Kickstarter to notice what’s missing in the first place – and for my part, I reckon I actually like having the extra book and the adventure PDFs more than I would have liked having the cancelled stretch goals anyway.

By any objective measure, in fact, those of us on the Nyarlathotep tier came out ahead in the end. Rick did a bit of maths in the Kickstarter comment section when a fellow Nyarlathotep-level backer started whining about the cancellations and offered these stark figures:

NN Backers pledged $333 and have received:
$300 Slipcase set of leatherette books
$70 softcover keeper rulebook and investigator handbook
$45 hardcover Pulp Cthulhu (this month)
$35 hardcover Petersen Guide
$35 softcover Nameless Horrors
$30 Keeper Screen Pack
$35 hardcover Doors to Darkness (this month)
$30 set of 4 Keeper Decks (this month)
$20 Numerous other PDFs that have some value, at least $20 bare minimum.
Total: $600, probably higher if you increase the value of all the PDF only products.

Note that Rick hasn’t even included the art prints or the Mythos stratigraph that ended up being delivered with the Keeper decks. Moreover, for that handsome stack of goodies you’d have paid a total of $7 in shipping if you were in the US, at most $22 shipping if you were outside of North America; these days, that probably isn’t enough to pay a post office worker to carry a box containing all of that stuff from one side of the room to the other, let alone actually get it shipped to you, and of course the actual shipment ended up being split into several waves.

Were it not for a combination of Chaosium’s unusual corporate structure allowing Greg and Sandy to push out the Krank regime, and Moon Design being willing and able to take on the enormous job (and, oh god, all those associated debts!) of cleaning up the mess, I wouldn’t have received a fraction of the above, of course. As it stands, I and everyone else on my tier have made out like bandits, and Rick and the gang have served it all up to us with a smile. If that doesn’t earn them some customer loyalty, nothing will.

Final Thoughts For Part 1

This could have got really, really ugly. I’m repeating myself a little here, but it really is incredibly lucky that Chaosium’s corporate structure allowed Greg and Sandy to gently but firmly push Charlie Krank aside and bring in a team who were able to get the job finished at long last. Everything that has emerged since then suggests to me that if they hadn’t, there was really no reasonable route open that would have allowed Chaosium to pull it together and get the job done. It is conceivable that Krank may have been able to sell the project off to some other publisher, but not guaranteed.

There’s an important caveat to be added here, which is of course that – to my knowledge – we haven’t heard Krank’s side of the story. If we did, we might have a very different picture of what happened here. However, the fact that Charlie hasn’t spoken out does invite comment. Given the undeniable implications of the story that has come out, it is hard not to see it as a serious question mark over Krank’s capabilities as a businessman – whether or not he was directly responsible for the problems that occurred, they occurred under his watch and at least a few, like the shipping issues, really should have been foreseeable, so whether you conclude that this arose from crookedness or incompetence it doesn’t look good for Krank.

If Krank disagrees with the narrative that’s come out, his decision not to dispute it seems odd. It is possible that he agreed not to make any public statements about Chaosium as part of the deal to make him leave and take the money for his share of the company – but it’s hard to see why he would agree to such terms unless the situation were substantially as the new regime has painted it, and accepting a gag order seemed like a reasonable price to pay in return for getting out of the hole he and the company were stuck in.

Given that Chaosium received over half a million dollars to complete the project, I don’t see how it could have gotten to a position where accepting such an agreement would have seemed reasonable to Charlie unless the funding shortfall really was at least in part as bad as it’s been explained as being, and I don’t see how the shortfall could have possibly been that bad without some sort of major failing on Krank’s part. Even if what is said about him is not the whole story, it cannot be entirely false, because otherwise the project should never have come as close to failure as it did.

Moreover, given how angry the backers had become before the takeover took place, Krank may have reasonably come to the conclusion that there was no point pleading his case – many of the backers wouldn’t believe him, and given how appallingly vicious people online can be even when they have no real reason to feel personally wronged by someone, there’s something to be said for not further opening yourself up to abuse and denunciation when people may actually have a sound evidential basis for thinking you’ve behaved badly towards them.

It is, of course, also possible that Krank is being quiet because he knows that the story as given by Petersen, Stafford, and Moon Design is basically true, and that contradicting them would be pointless. If this were the case, I think it’s a shame that he hasn’t seen fit to apologise to the backers for it on behalf of the old regime. Then again, what would be the point? Just as with defending himself, he would just be opening himself up to further condemnation and calumny, and whilst apologising might be a step towards mending bridges with the gaming community, it may be too late anyway.

By my estimation, Krank is pretty much done as far as the gaming industry is concerned. Under his regime Chaosium burned too many bridges with writers, artists, and others, and the stories of late or altogether absent payments have become so widespread that the genie isn’t going back into the bottle there. Even worse, through the Kickstarters the Krank regime burned bridges with their own most passionate customers, and – as the roasting I’m giving the old Chaosium in this very article illustrates – when you burn the people who support your work the most, your best fans can become your worst detractors.

I cannot see how, unless they actively failed to do their due diligence, anyone in the gaming industry would agree to take on Krank as a business partner, or even as an employee with any significant responsibilities, and if he went into business for himself he’d have the disadvantage of not having the Chaosium name about him and have an infamous enough history that it would be hard to persuade anyone to agree to work for him. And, of course, if he tried to mount another Kickstarter, the fallout from this one and the similarly troubled Horror On the Orient Express one would make backers understandably reluctant to trust him – or, for that matter, any project that had his name associated with it.

The reputational damage from the Kickstarter is, I believe, genuinely that bad, which is kind of a shame. Krank seems to have had a decent run with Chaosium, and he’d kept it ticking over for nearly two decades after Greg Stafford left, and I want to believe that the shortfalls and the collapse of the old regime didn’t come about through malice or greed on his part or on the part of anyone he supervised. At the same time, the sheer number of the old Chaosium’s unforced errors – the unpaid contributors, the souring of the relationship with Michael Moorcock, the weird handling of the monograph project, the bizarre stockpiling of unsold Nephilim books, the misleading statements in the Kickstarter updates, the general failure to adapt to the new realities of the industry and, in particular, the fact that Chaosium botched the shipping costs on two Kickstarters in a row – speak to a basic incompetence, either on his own part or on those he gave major responsibilities to. And that’s the best possible interpretation of the known facts. All this suggests that Krank’s retirement from the industry is best for all concerned.

Click on for part 2, where I will actually cover the materials received.

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