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 which hasn’t already been 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.

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

Part 1: The Background

Alas Vegas was supposed to be James Wallis’ triumphant return to RPG publication. Back in the 1990s, Wallis built his reputation in gaming circles as the head honcho of Hogshead Publishing, one of the few homegrown British RPG publishers operating during that time. In subsequent decades the British RPG industry has become much healthier, with outfits like Mongoose Publishing, Modiphius, Cubicle 7 and Chronicle City all turning out product regularly (with Modiphius and Cubicle 7 doing especially well, to my eyes), but in the 1990s you had Hogshead and a few desperate small press outfits and that was more or less it.

Hogshead’s cash cow was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, having obtained a licence to reprint the existing game materials and produce new supplements from Games Workshop after Games Workshop themselves tired of producing it directly. For all of its quirks and its somewhat aging mechanics, WFRP was a much-loved product line (especially in the UK scene, where an entire generation had been introduced to the RPG hobby via Games Workshop’s products) and being able to keep it alive when Games Workshop had apparently turned their back on it (and the RPG hobby in general) instantly got Hogshead some goodwill.

However, Hogshead was not exclusively about WFRP. It also had an interest in a much more “arthouse” approach to tabletop games, an approach which some WFRP materials occasionally approached with their refusal to pander to pulp fiction power fantasies but which had still been barely explored at the time. Oh, sure, the 1990s are known as the time of games like Vampire: the Masquerade, which claimed to offer a more intellectual and artistic approach to RPGs, but 1990s White Wolf tended to talk the talk without walking the walk; with occasional exceptions, White Wolf’s major products ended up revolving just as much around pandering to power fantasies as any 1980s fantasy RPG did.

As far as intellectual approaches to RPGs went, though, Hogshead was the real deal. As well as WFRP offering levels of sophistication which might surprise folk whose only exposure to the setting has been through the wargame, Hogshead also published a number of even more erudite lines. The magazine Interactive Fantasy made an earnest attempt to dissect, discuss, and analyse tabletop RPGs as though they were any other artistic medium. The New Style line produced, in the form of cheap 16-page pamphlets, a line of highly experimental games which went out of their way to stretch the definition of what an RPG could be, and arguably laid the groundwork for much of the development of indie RPGs and what have been dubbed “story games” in subsequent decades. (“Story games” being an apt term for games where identification with a specific fictional role is greatly downplayed in favour of being more of a co-narrator with fellow participants of the action in the game.)

Perhaps the most artistically ambitious product they released was a second edition of Nobilis, a game by Rebecca Sean Borgstrom which had previously seen a small press release as a small, idea-stuffed pink book and saw the light of day via Hogshead in a massive coffee book table presentation, offering possibly the most beautiful RPG rulebook the industry had produced to date.

However, I tend to feel that Nobilis is a bit of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation. The game has a reputation for being extremely, extremely clever, but on analysis I’ve always found that not to be the case; instead, it’s extremely, extremely obtuse, but obtuse in such a way as someone willing to suspend their disbelief could accept it as being clever. This is an issue I have with what I have seen of the design work of Borgstrom, or Jenna Moran as she’s presently credited on her work: in multiple products she has proven to be so intent on evoking a particular atmosphere she has entirely failed to offer a clear, concise, easily understood summation of what she’s talking about, which makes her games difficult to approach. Once you do make your way through the thicket, it often turns out that there’s not much of substance hidden behind the stylish facade after all – this was particularly the case for the flawed, over-fiddly wuxia RPG Weapons of the Gods, and I found that to be the case with Nobilis as well.

I tell this anecdote because in the long run I think it says something in turn about how Alas Vegas turned out. Nobilis earned a golden reputation in RPG design circles, partly because so very few people had read the original book and it had this air of mystery about it, partly because of the magnificent presentation of the Hogshead edition, but I don’t think it’s a product which actually deserves that reputation – it just happened to find the right voices willing to hype it up, and lo and behold it was hyped greatly but played… not very much.

Similarly, James Wallis as an author (as opposed to as an editor and a publisher) seems to have an exalted reputation in RPG design circles which he doesn’t really deserve, his accomplishments as an editor and a publisher perhaps opening doors which his skills as a writer and designer by themselves would not have opened (as is often the case in small, highly incestuous industries). After much sound and fury (though of a vastly more negative type than the gorgeous presentation that accompanied Nobilis), Alas Vegas finally emerged into the world, only for it to turn out to be vastly less innovative and interesting than initial appearances expected. (That said, whilst many read Nobilis and came away with the conclusion that it was flat-out incomprehensible, the actual production values on the Hogshead edition were universally praised – it really was an absolutely gorgeous book.)

(Update: On further consideration on being called out about the above, I realise that much of Moran’s work which receives praise these days a) postdates Weapons of the Gods and Nobilis and b) seems to get substantially more actual play. I’m therefore adjusted the text here to steer away from passing judgement on Moran’s whole career and focus more specifically on Nobilis. What mostly bugs me here is the way that, in the Kickstarter pitch, Wallis used his status as the ex-publisher of Nobilis to hype up his chops as a designer – citing his Hogshead track record under the section in the Kickstarter pitch labelled “the Designer” and everything. Regardless of what you think of Nobilis, there’s a certain amount of unjustified coattail-riding there: whilst Wallis can absolutely take credit for the physical form the Hogshead edition of the game took, that isn’t game design.)

Let’s hustle up the timeline. In the early 2000s Wallis was drained, and to be honest I don’t blame him at all for it. The RPG market had endured a severe squeeze throughout most of the time he had been running Hogshead; for much of the 1990s he’d had to contend with the CCG boom inspired by Magic: the Gathering, and then just as the decade comes to a close and it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, along comes D&D 3rd edition to shake up the market all over again in a way which wasn’t helpful for companies whose major products were fantasy RPGs that at least somewhat overlapped with D&D‘s style of fantasy. I can’t put hand on heart and say I wouldn’t quit under similar circumstances.

Having decided he’d had enough, Wallis surrendered the WFRP licence back to Games Workshop, gave all the New Style contributors and Rebecca Borgstrom the rights to their respective games back, and sold the Hogshead Publishing name to an eager beaver who wanted to get into the RPG publishing game during the boom period that followed the “open gaming” approach of 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons (in which the publishers, Wizards of the Coast, allowed more or less anyone to produce third party products for the game under exceptionally generous licensing terms).

The latter day Hogshead-in-name-only went on to produce some shovelware that failed to gather much attention and then quietly shuttered. James Wallis, meanwhile, recharged his batteries and then sidled back in the general direction of the industry via, among other endeavours, his small press imprint Magnum Opus press. As well as putting out a new edition of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, James Wallis’ own contribution to the New Style game line (and, next to John Tynes’ Puppetland, perhaps the most fondly remembered of the series), Magnum Opus also got into Hogshead’s old business of reprinting old British fantasy RPGs from the 1980s – in this case, Dragon Warriors, though the new edition has now drifted away from Magnum Opus and found a new home elsewhere.

Part 2: The Concept

The Alas Vegas Kickstarter seems to have been the next step in this comeback process. Billed on the Kickstarter page as Wallis’ first new RPG for 15 years, the central offering is a product of two halves – the Fugue system for playing the game, and Alas Vegas itself, a scenario designed to be played with the Fugue rules. As Wallis explained it, Fugue would be a radical experiment with the tabletop RPG format.

A basic assumption of the Fugue system is that is intended to be run for short, self-contained campaigns – not one-shot games where you play a single session or are done, not epic sagas in which you keep playing and playing indefinitely until you collectively decide you’ve reached a natural stopping point or just get kind of bored, but a small, set number of game sessions, by the end of which the story is resolved. Furthermore, each session is supposed to be refereed by a different person, with them taking on the traditional duties of an RPG Game Master for the space of that session. Lastly, the baseline assumption is that the premise of the game will revolve around a group of characters who all have some form of amnesia, or who are otherwise recovering memories over the course of the story.

To play a Fugue you need a framework to work in; Alas Vegas-the-scenario was the framework Wallis had in mind for the project, some stretch goals involved other scenarios penned by other game designers using the Fugue system. In order to not spoiler yourself, when it’s your turn to run a Fugue session you can only read the sections of the scenario which relate to your session and the preceding sessions. In the case of Alas Vegas itself, the game casts the players as four strangers who dig themselves out of shallow graves just outside of a weird alternate version of Vegas riddled with Tarot imagery, and who must journey into the city to find out what’s happened to them. (Wallis assured backers that he thought of this before Fallout: New Vegas did it.)

By Wallis’ own admission, the intent behind the project was in part to test-drive Kickstarter as a platform for funding his work before attempting more ambitious projects there. Given the outcome of this project, it seems highly unlikely that Wallis will return to Kickstarter in future. At the time, though, Wallis seemed to be doing it more or less right. For one thing, though the project had a plethora of stretch goals involved, the amount of actual extra writing these would require of him was actually minimal.

James Wallis’ responsibilities in terms of writing original content (as opposed to obtaining art, doing layout, securing print runs and doing the other chores of editing and publishing the book) consisted of writing the Fugue game system which Alas Vegas would run on, the Alas Vegas setting and adventure itself, and a novelisation of the story – and the novel was going to be published separately from the main game book. John Coulthart was signed up to do the art. More or less all the stretch goals entailed bonus content to be produced by others – a veritable who’s who of the RPG design scene (particularly that part of the scene which had come to prominence in the 1990s), thanks to Wallis’ wide range of industry connections, with contributions ranging from a cool card trick you can incorporate into the game to alternate settings and adventures to play with through the Fugue rules system.

Of course, relying on such a wide galaxy of people for your stretch goals carries with it its own risk – namely, that one of them might flake the fuck out and fail to provide what they’d promised. That said, it’s a stretch goal, not the main course – barely anyone is going to buy into your project solely and exclusively because they were really excited about that one specific extra thing someone was going to write, and for those few for whom that really is a breaking point you can probably afford to refund them without utterly wrecking your project budget. Ultimately, if a stretch goal author shits the bed, then in extremis you can just say “OK, I did my best to make it work with (whoever) but it’s clearly not happening, and it’s not fair to delay the book any further on their account – if they ever get the work in we’ll distribute it in PDF format to all backers who were owed it in any format, but we’re not counting on it”. It’s far less central than the core text.

On top of that, Wallis seemed to have the core text down pat; the Kickstarter page very specifically said “Alas Vegas is plotted, structured, designed and mostly written. It’s in playtest right now.” That meant that Wallis must have written most of the material he needed for the main book (remember, the novel was going to be a separate product): after all, to run a meaningful playtest he’d have needed to have written at least a first draft of the Fugue rules, and the Alas Vegas setting and scenario details, and because of the rotating-referee format then for playtest purposes he’d have needed to develop all of those to the point where parties other than himself could read and interpret them at that. And if you have a text you can hand over to other people and expect them to competently run a game from it, viola, you’ve basically performed the core task of writing RPG text.

Based on this information, I backed feeling that there was really only so far the project could go wrong. After all, if the text of the game and its associated system was already more or less finished, then it was just a matter of waiting for the various stretch goal contributors to either turn in their work or their apologies for failing to get the job done and for Wallis to edit, lay out and print the final product. Sure, there’s plenty of potential points of failure there… but at least, in the case of an extreme delay, Wallis would be able to, say, provide a PDF of the text of the core game to tide us over until the final product was out.

After all, the core game was mostly written, right?

Wrong…

Tune into part 2, once it’s up, where I’ll be covering the multi-year saga of the slow, creeping emergence of Alas Vegas.

What Level I Backed At

LIMITED-EDITION HARDCOVER. A limited-edition hardcover of Alas Vegas, signed and numbered by the author. We will only print as many copies as there are backers for this item: this is a very strictly limited edition.

BONUS! At this level of pledge you also get your name in the book as a ‘Card Sharp’; plus
the Alas Vegas art portfolio PDF;
the Alas Vegas full game PDF; and
the Alas Vegas pre-release rules set PDF.

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

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 2) – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3) – Refereeing and Reflection

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