Despite what I or anyone else thinks of it, Kickstarter has been a pretty amazing development in the democratisation of the creative commons. The crowdfunding model has empowered both individuals and small groups to realise their visions on a larger scale than previously thought possible, providing them with a platform and an audience hungry for the unique, the niche and the passionate. It’s wild success has seen it embraced by both independent operators and established businesses to the point where it has become near ubiquitous, towering over the hobby scene like a pulsating colossus and acting as the almost de-facto promotional and pre-order portal for all your shameful carboard and plastic fetish needs.
But of late I’ve started to notice a disturbing trend in not only who is utilising the platform, but how we as consumers react to and engage with it. And this shift bodes poorly for the potential of the site and system to continue to deliver on its core promise.
On numerous forums, websites and discussions I have seen the same discourse played out more times than I care to countenance. ‘Enthusiast A’ highlights a project they are interested in because it rings their individual bell. They espouse the personal appeal this project brings, and the fire it has lit within them, eager as they are to see their particular slice of culture codified, curated, sprued and sculpted.
In short order after this initial bout of enthusiasm we spy the swaggering entrance of ‘Pragmatist B’.
Pragmatist B has been around the block. He scolds Enthusiast A for risking their money on an unproven entity, citing their lack of track record, unrealistic expectations, amateurish campaign assets or a sweet and sour combination of all three. Enthusiast A counters with the assertion that the project looks really cool and is right up their alley but is swiftly chastened as Pragmatist B hammers them with a succession of statistics and horror stories about failed projects, money pits, dashed expectations, shipping manifestos, economic downturns, and general bum vibes.
Far better, he says, to hedge your bets. Put your money behind a proven performer with a track record of successfully fulfilled projects, a shiny promotional video, established manufacturing and distribution partners.
Enthusiast A, suitably chastened and now filled with dread at the prospect of his money disappearing into some mysterious Eastern European bank account, hesitates and perhaps instead of supporting their passion project instead invests in ‘Big Box of Zombies 7’ by Conglomocorp.
…and nobody wins.
Full disclosure though, I’m not as aghast as I may seem when it comes to the prospect of big box bling. I’m as big a sucker as anyone for a glossy campaign stacked teetering with minis, cards and enough tokens to bamboozle enough the most stoic cynic. Neither am I suggesting you should blindly back a passion project without performing a modicum of due diligence on the creator and his/her ambitions. But as these types of established efforts encroach ever further into Kickstarter’s public square, they’re casting a shadow so opaque as to be suffocating for the very projects this platform was conceived to create.
While the behemoths are raking in money hand over curling claw and hitting more stretch goals than Goatse, there are any number of projects that, given sufficient oxygen, could become the next Gloomhaven, Kingdom Death Monster, or, just as validly, the perfect experience for a small gathering of the faithful.
You can’t tell me that the likes of CMON need Kickstarter in the same way that ‘QUMF- The Game of Bicycle Seat Sniffing’, ‘Papercuts- The Baffling Print and Play Adventure’, or ‘Goblin Groomer- An Interactive Fantastical Salon Experience’ do. Yeah Ankh looks cool, but don’t you already have Blood Rage?
Perhaps even scarier and of more consequence than the dreams denied of hardworking grognards are the looming perils of conformity and what it means for the hobby and its evolution, for when we submit to the mainstream, slowly but surely homogeny becomes our primary reward.
The beautiful thing about crowd funding is the opportunity it promises for variety. Variety in theme, variety in aesthetics, variety in playstyles, scope, ambition and imagination.
A laboriously constructed, hand drawn manifesto with oblique mechanics and tables outlining the wind direction’s effect on a dragonfly as it recites poetry for the council of mermen is never going to get the big box treatment, but I kind of want to play it, don’t you?
One corner of the hobby in which this DIY spirit still burns bright on Kickstarter is the tabletop RPG space, particularly within the flowering climes of the Old School Renaissance. The reduced barrier to entry enabled by virtue of the theatre of the mind being less logistically fraught than the three-dimensional boardgame space has meant a continued wellspring of fan produced content, created in small print runs for small audiences. These endeavours not only satiate a hungry cabal of believers with their niche bounty, but act as an excellent learning and development experience for creators. By supporting these projects, we not only engender variety but we invest in the future of the hobby itself. We provide creators with a slim corridor of leeway to perfect their craft with some of the financial burden and bio-survival anxiety eased as they draw, plot and proliferate into the wee small hours, straddling a day job that still sits leering come sunrise.
There are any number of these projects live on Kickstarter right now. From the sublime to the ridiculous they sit there, smiling coquettishly and awaiting your gaze. And if you give, so surely you shall receive. A smaller scope means more capacity to engage, and you’ll be surprised at the connections, conversations and even friendships that emerge as you circle these worlds. You may even be drawn in yourself, beckoned by belief. No longer a consumer, but a participant.
So by all means, back that next big shelf-shattering monolith, with it’s thirteen expansions, cloth bag and oooh real metal coins! I probably will too. But perhaps while you’re waiting for it to be assembled and distributed by the calloused hands of sweatshop labour, take the time to dig a little deeper. Skirt the fringes. Follow some campaigns. Maybe check out a print n play. Take a risk. Try something different. Support somebody’s dream. You and the scene will be richer for it, both in pocket, play and prospects for all tomorrow’s parties.
You already have enough minis.