Kickstopper: Strongholds & Streaming

This is an article about a Kickstarter campaign which ended up offering two distinct things to two different (but significantly overlapping) audiences, and to my eye seemed to do pretty well at pleasing both of them – a high risk strategy which paid off in a big way.

Specifically, this is a Kickstopper overview of the Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter. On the “streaming” side of the equation, this is about a plucky young company’s attempt to obtain funding to set up a nice new studio space to livestream their gaming content from. On the “strongholds” side of the equation, the Kickstarter was all about making a book – Strongholds & Followers – intended to work the idea of building a stronghold and gathering followers back into 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, with the idea that the proceeds from the book would help get the streaming side of the equation going.

Stronghold construction and domain management are endgame features which TSR editions of D&D were very big on, but Wizards editions had largely discarded, creating a number of issues: for one thing, it meant that high level characters are still doing the same sort of shit that low level characters are doing in terms of their assumed activities, which dilutes the sense of progression. For another, it takes out one of the things which was at least supposed to balance out the whole Linear Fighter/Quadratic Wizard thing.

See, at lower levels of D&D the issue where spellcasting characters can, via their spells, do anything any other character can do but better is alleviated significantly by their limited spell slots; spellcasting powers can be extremely useful but judgement must be used in their use because if you spam all your spells you’ll be left hampered going forwards. (This works especially well if referees remember to actually fill the adventuring day with sufficient peril so that the wizards can’t just cast at will and then take a long rest between every encounter or two.)

However, once you get to the middle levels not only are higher-level spells unlocked, enabling utterly wild abilities which are beyond anything which the humble fighter is ever permitted to do (because magic is allowed to be highly unrealistic but fighters are, by a significant chunk of the fanbase, not allowed to develop unrealistic fighting abilities), but also the spellcasters are starting to get a significant number of spell slots, which means that they can simultaneously a) do way more and b) do it significantly more often.

Giving the Fighter an army at “name” level when their Magic-User contemporaries only get a few low-level apprentices was supposed to balance this, except actually an army of ordinary dorks is usually much less useful than some additional spellcasters who can act as extra walking spell slots for you. In addition, not to put too fine a point on it, but Wizards took this sort of thing out of the game because so far as I can tell very few people actually used the rules in question.

If you could update the concept, though, and put it out in a supplement designed for 5th Edition but with ideas you could conceivably tweak for other versions of the game, that would be something that the OSR and grognard crowd would be quite interested in. And if you have a YouTube following already and want to parley it into livestreaming gaming sessions for fun and profit (emphasis on profit), that’s going to get the attention of the significant new audience that Critical Role and the like have cultivated.

That, at least, was the plan of MCDM, the new enterprise spearheaded by Matt Colville. I’ll admit immediately that I don’t really watch or listen to much in the way of livestreamed games because it tends to involve a lot of strangers doing something which I enjoy much more when I am a participant in than when I am an observer of, so this article will focus exclusively on the book side of this equation, but the streaming series – The Chain – seems to be going strong so far as I can tell. Would the book side be just as strong, or would one half of the Strongholds & Streaming equation fall short?

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

If anyone’s career in the cottage industry of D&D third party content sums up the new importance of this scene to the game – especially when it comes to YouTube and other video platforms – it’s the rise of Matt Colville and MCDM Productions. Colville, a writer and designer on videogames in professional life, had gathered a bit of a following with a YouTube series on Dungeon Mastering tips and best practice. This Kickstarter was meant to be a means of him not merely getting his book out, but also to get starting capital to allow him to set up MCDM Productions and get into the professional streaming business.

The Kickstarter funding period ran from February to March 2018, in the course of which nearly 29,000 backers pledged a stunning $2,121,465, making it the biggest RPG Kickstarter of 2018 by a very sizable margin. (So far as can be ascertained, no other RPG Kickstarter from that year broke $600.000, let alone getting into 7 figures.)

What’s the secret of Matt’s success here? I think it was probably a combination of leveraging a YouTube audience, the astonishing extent to which RPG streaming his popular right now, and the fact that the book he was offering was providing something which was missing from Wizards-era editions of D&D and which Wizards didn’t seem likely to provide an official equivalent to any time soon.

5th Edition D&D enjoys a status as the “neutral ground” of D&D. As the current edition, it’s where most newcomers are found, and whilst other editions go harder in other directions than it does, it’s a version of the game which, even if it isn’t your favourite edition, is probably in the running to be your second favourite. The supplement, then, conceivably was of interest to several different groupings within the D&D fanbase.

There were those for whom 5E wasn’t necessarily their cup of tea, but liked the idea of a robust set of stronghold rules and were familiar enough with 5E to have a crack at converting the material to their favoured edition. There were those who liked 5E and thought the supplement would be a good addition to it. There were grognards nostalgic for the TSR days when this sort of stuff was in the core game. There were gamers who’d never played an edition of D&D where this stuff was an option, but liked the sound of it. Combine that with 5E simply being the most popular RPG right now, and it’s no surprise that there was a significant audience for what Colville was offering.

What Level I Backed At

S&F Hardcover, PDF + Stickers: The book in hardcover AND the PDF and some stickers! The book will be high-quality paper and binding.

Delivering the Goods

The delivery estimate on my tier was September 2018; I got my hard copy of the book in July 2019.

To be fair, some slippage on the estimate may well have been inevitable. The delivery estimate was the same for all tiers – a despicable, filthy practice which Kickstarter should outright prevent you from doing if you have a mixture of all-digital tiers and tiers with physical rewards, as this project did, because the digital rewards are always going to be faster and easier to deliver than the physical ones.

In addition, this was MCDM Productions’ first time doing anything like this, and naturally delays they didn’t anticipate popped up. The PDF did at least drop in December 2018, which took a lot of the sting out of the wait for the physical book, and Matt did a good job of keeping everyone appraised of how the printing process was going.

December 2018 also saw the livestreamed game kick off, which was probably a big help too: it meant that MCDM Productions were putting out new content and getting eyes on them, which prompted Patreon signups, post-Kickstarter preorders of the materials, and other monetisation possibilities. Doubtless it was a big help for these to come onstream just as the printing process began.

Reviewing the Swag

Strongholds & Followers

As Colville notes in his introduction, the idea of player characters obtaining some form of stronghold, guildhouse, hideout, temple, or other form of base with associated minions to preside over was taken for granted in early editions of the game. In OD&D it isn’t explained why you’d want to do this – it’s just naturally assumed that this is the natural progression of play, a precursor to the shift to mid-to-high level characters becoming increasingly involved in local politics and larger-scale events than the small-time dungeoneering they’d been focused on before. Then you get some more levels and then the progression just sort of stops.

Colville doesn’t get into the reasons why this should be in the book, but it’s actually quite simple: the assumed career progression of adventurers in OD&D from dungeoneers to property owners managing an associated community more or less reflected the action that had unfolded in Arneson and Gygax’s home campaigns, and the reason OD&D is vague about what where you progress from there is that they hadn’t worked that out through play.

Many, many longstanding oddities and issues with D&D ultimately can be traced back to the peculiar circumstances of Arneson and Gygax’s home campaigns – primarily Gygax’s, since he was the one who took on the lion’s share of the work turning Arneson’s game format and loose notes into a product you could sell on the market. For instance, the much-vaunted “caster supremacy” problem where spellcasters tend to be just plain better than non-spellcasters from mid-level onwards was less evident in campaigns where a) it was assumed that you would have more encounters per day than most modern play groups actually implement – if you have more encounters, spellcasters have to be more sparing with their spells and so upstage things less frequently, and b) it was normal for most participants to have a personal stable of PCs they drew their character for the evening from at a whim, so anyone who wanted to play a caster could have a caster.

Anyway, Colville is experienced enough with modern gamers to note that PCs in a D&D game these days are unlikely to seek to create a stronghold unless there’s actually a compelling reason for them to do so, and so the supplement is designed to give them those reasons; above and beyond the obvious advantages of having a place of your own, strongholds offer enhanced class features and a certain amount of control over their immediate environment, which can play out in special powers available to rulers. (If you’re antsy about there being no narrative reason for these powers existing, just chalk it up to the longstanding idea in folklore that rulership over the land gives you a supernatural connection to and authority over the land.)

Colville is also conversant enough with 5th Edition to spot how all these strongholds and followers can fit into its ecosystem. One of the notable things about 5th Edition is that, especially in a long-running campaign, there isn’t actually much you can spend your ill-gotten treasure on. In both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition there was a certain assumption that you’d have magic items of particular potency at a particular level, and the idea of buying suitable magic items with your earnings was in-vogue.

In TSR-era editions of the game, obtaining treasure was tied into earned XP in various ways – a concept which was removed from Wizards-era editions, with the unfortunate effect that it meant that slaying monsters was the only activity that was guaranteed to get you XP. 1E AD&D in addition had rules which required you to spend a bunch of money on training before you gained a level, though I’d be knocked-on-my-ass astonished if more than a small percentage of gamers actually bothered with that particular complication.

More popular seems to be the house rule among some OSR circles for “carousing” – the idea that you only get your XP for treasure obtained once you’ve spent the money, so if you can’t think of anything you want to spend your money on the best way to level up is to go on a bender and blow all your cash on hard liquor and fast living, like Conan and Fafhrd and the Mouser used to do back in the Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber stories.

Either way, during the 5E game design process it became apparent that magical items received as-of-right, which you had no choice about getting because they were necessary for making the maths work, weren’t actually that popular among playtesters, who pined for the days when getting a magic item was a rare and exciting event rather than being just part of the regular grind. Magic items in 5E therefore became scarcer, skewed much more towards quirky utility items, and generally returned to the niche they had in 2E, and it was no longer assumed that they’d be purchasable. This meant that when characters obtained windfalls of money, there wasn’t much specified in the system for them to spend it on – as we discovered in the Planescape campaign I played a while back, where at a certain point we pretty much had more money than we’d ever need.

Strongholds & Followers, in this case, works as an elegant solution to this – the construction costs for strongholds and upkeep costs for followers provide something for players to spend their treasure on which has clear benefits to their characters. The installations described in the book come into various different categories, and different types correspond to different purposes. Keeps provide a platform for raising an army, Towers allow their owners to do magical research which enhances the properties of their spells, Temples allow the worshippers that use them to seek extraplanar aid, and Establishments are places which raise funds and do information-gathering (quite likely of an espionage-based variety).

Any character of any class can make any of the above types of stronghold (and strongholds can be combined together into a Castle if your party/posse/polycule wants to have their homes in the same place), but obviously flavour-wise some classes are likely to get more out of some types than others. For instance, if you want to raise an army, regular folks feel much more comfortable signing up to go fight under a fighter or paladin than, say, a sorcerer or warlock, so there’s good reasons for your fighter to make a Keep whilst your warlock builds a Tower or Temple.

This ties into one of the other factors which have driven caster supremacy in D&D over the years; because Wizards-era editions of D&D dropped the whole strongholds and followers thing (and, admittedly, because many groups in the TSR era either ignored those rules or didn’t really do anything with them), the idea of the fighter being the best class at raising and leading armies fell by the wayside.

Of course, this class feature is only useful if your campaign actually features a significant number of battles in which the units the PCs can bring to the fight are meaningful, and as such Strongholds & Followers also provides a simple mass combat system. The difference between the mass combat system presented here and that provided with, say, Chivalry & Sorcery is that Colville’s is very much designed as an adjunct to the action of a roleplaying game, with the assumption being that it’s there to handle the stuff happening off-stage whilst the player characters have their own encounters in the battle.

This arises from Colville’s observation that it’s rare that everyone in an RPG group will actually be interested in fully wargaming out the battle; to paraphrase the way he puts it, most groups will have folk who are really into the idea, folk who are indifferent to it, and folk who really won’t enjoy it at all. I suspect this may be different if you recruited a group with an eye to running a campaign that switches between roleplaying and wargaming modes as the action dictates, but admittedly this seems to be a rarity.

In fact, there’s two distinct systems offered here – one fairly simple one, and one really simplified one for when your players absolutely, positively just want an answer to “which army wins?” without fussing on things in any more substantial level of detail. The warfare system here is open game content too, which hopefully should allow for it to be polished and refined further by other hands. It’s a bit brief, but the forthcoming Kingdoms & Warfare project will likely provide more meat for these bones.

Between these system additions and a fairly substantial adventure showcasing them, Strongholds & Followers offers a nice take on its subject matter. I particularly like how Colville keeps the actual practicalities of keeping track of everything at the table in mind when he comes up with his additions to the game – for instance, retainers have “health levels” rather than precise numbers of hit points to track, precisely to ensure that their inclusion in a scene doesn’t horrendously inflate the bookkeeping needed. Game supplements adding new layers of complexity to a game are ten a penny: game supplements which show obvious signs of having been written with actual play in mind are rarer, and all the more precious for it.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Just Right!

Would Back Again?

Yes, and I have: the next book, Kingdoms & Warfare, is being produced as a result of a Kickstarter which raised over $1.3 million. That’s a bit of a dip from the first project, but that’s only to be expected – some people would have inevitably found that Strongholds & Followers wasn’t to their taste after all and would have dropped out, and with MCDM’s streaming setup now operational, there’s less urgency this time. Still, pulling in over a million dollars on an RPG Kickstarter is always a significant achievement even when you’ve done it before. I am personally looking forward to Kingdoms & Warfare, which promises to tackle full on domain-level play – the next tier above running your own stronghold, after all, is running your own country…

2 thoughts on “Kickstopper: Strongholds & Streaming

  1. Your timing is impeccable; I just purchased Strongholds & Followers yesterday after stumbling across a bootleg copy, reading the warfare appendix, and deciding that it was just about exactly the balance between detail and abstraction that I’d been looking for.

    I’m looking forward to the Kingdoms & Warfare book now, though not pre-ordering.

  2. Pingback: Kickstopper: The Old School Distilled – Refereeing and Reflection

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