Kickstarter Corner: So Many Dice

Disclaimer: I have not backed or had any contact with any of the campaigns below, nor is this article an endorsement of any campaign mentioned herein.

During my look at Rising Sun and what makes for a great Kickstarter campaign, I mentioned that custom dice seem to be a perennial favorite among the Games section. I started writing Kickstarter Corner only a couple of months ago, but in that short amount of time I can't recall a week going by without a new set of random number generators going up on offer. At the time of my Rising Sun article my assertion about the popularity of dice was anecdotal, and in the time since that article's publication I've come to think more about backing up my assertion with hard numbers. Perhaps I was mistaken, and dice campaigns aren't as common as I initially thought. Alternatively they may be far more prevalent than I suspected. As the Internet loves to call out people for being wrong, it would behoove of me to do a bit of research on the matter. We might even learn something along the way.

The reason I focus on Kickstarter over, say, Indiegogo, is that KS offers easy and intuitive means of organizing campaigns, which allows for more thorough parsing of data from those campaigns. Finding how many live projects focus on custom dice was easy as searching for "dice" and sorting by "newest." Those two parameters performed most of the heavy lifting, leaving me with forty live projects among the several hundred under way in Games at the time of this writing. From those forty I decided sift out anything dice related or adjacent: no dice-based games (of which there are many), no dice towers, no dice pouches or other storage solutions, and no dice earrings (though admittedly that last item could work in a pinch). I'm only interested in dice, agnostic of any game system.

After filtering out everything that didn't meet my specifications I was left with a grand total of five remaining projects. Not an overwhelming number, not enough to necessarily be called a trend, but enough to demonstrate there's a new dice-based campaign about once per week and enough to demonstrate continued interest in the items among KS users. Below I've organized the campaigns from most to least recent. They are all still live, meaning certain factors can and will change even as I type this, but they will serve as a snapshot of the current dice atmosphere on KS. Let's take a quick look at what's on offer and see if we can pull any lessons from them.


Very nice. Also, esoteric.

Very nice. Also, esoteric.

By: Anvi Original Game Hardware  

Goal: $754

Current funds: $1,784 (236%)

Base Pledge: $15 (for two dice)

Overview: A collection of eight-sided, laser-engraved aluminum dice containing the symbols of BaGua, which stand for Heaven, Earth, Thunder, Wind, Waters, Flame, Mountains and Swamp.

 
B.F.D.20. Get it? Do you get it though?

B.F.D.20. Get it? Do you get it though?

By: Hal Zucati

Goal: $1,000

Current Funds: $1,484 (148%)

Base Pledge: $125 (for a 60mm d20)

Overview: A collection of extremely large d20 dice made from 6061 aircraft aluminum, available in 60mm (13oz.), 80mm (1lb. 15oz.) and 100mm (3lbs. 12oz.) sizes.

 
Sleek. Modern. The choice of a new generation.

Sleek. Modern. The choice of a new generation.

By: Eyepetizer

Goal: $1,488

Current Funds: $6,298 (421%)

Base Pledge: $36 (for one die)

Overview: D6 die crafted from GR5 titanium. Higher pledges net you additional d6's at increasingly discounted prices, topping out at $120 for six dice.

 
Among the offerings are these grid dice.

Among the offerings are these grid dice.

By: Kickstarter Stock

Goal: $2,135

Current Funds: $1,749 (80%)

Base Pledge: €12, or about $13 (one pair of classic dice)

Overview: An assortment of d6 dice crafted in a wide variety of unique styles, including numeric, delta, and grid (pictured left).

 
Tentacles, elder signs. What else would you expect?  

Tentacles, elder signs. What else would you expect?

 

By: Q-Workshop and Chaosium

Goal: $50,000

Current Funds: $141,174 (282%)

Base Pledge: $59 (one metal dice set, no stretch goals)

Overview: A full set of metal dice (d4-d20, and a percentile die) themed around Call of Cthulhu. So tentacles, elder signs and such. You know the deal. It's Cthulhu.


There we go. Now let's see what lessons we can learn from these campaigns...

The first realization that leaps to mind after reviewing these five offerings is that they all manage to stand out from one another, despite all offering functionally identical items. They each play with material, theme, design, even size, so that each appeals to different sensibilities. Frankly it's refreshing to see such variety within a common theme, as too often I see campaigns try to hop on one bandwagon or another while offering nothing unique. Remember that I didn't pull out the five most interesting dice projects, but merely the projects which are currently live. It seems, at least within this limited sample, that the people interested in making dice aren't out merely to earn a quick buck.

With functionality effectively a given, it becomes more important than ever to focus on form. The items above are all made of metal, which explains their price but also their appeal. Standard dice are made of light, cheap plastic which is solid enough but suffers from a lack of heft and personality. Turning to alternative materials excites the perspective backer with thoughts of the tactile experience that would come from using these dice. In addition to metal I've seen offerings in the past which were carved from bone or wood, and in every case I could imagine how they might feel to hold in my palm or twist around in my fingers, and I could hear the clatter they might make as they dance around a table. When I look at the Cthulhu dice above I can't help but picture running my thumb along the edges of each die and take in its texture as I play. It's said that a well designed product makes you want to touch it, and I'll be damned if each of those dice above doesn't do exactly that.

Such a level of design is necessary, as these campaigns wouldn't stand a chance without it. Dice offerings are both ubiquitous and affordable, to the point where even an interested hobbyist needs a strong incentive to drop the kind of money being asked for here. Anyone can go down to their local game shop and buy a handful of dice for just a few dollars (or they could buy 100 d6's for $8 on Amazon) and anyone interested in dice likely already has more than they can count. The most affordable of the options above is the Classic Dice Set at $13 for two d6's, or $6.50 each. That's a hard sell when the alternative is eight cents for a die which, again, will serve the exact same function as your fancy-pants hyper modern alternative. As it happens each campaign above succeeds in justifying its price point.

Finally, they all succeed in estimating the size of their respective markets. With KS it's a matter of not setting your goal too high, and in a traditional marketplace it would mean not ordering too much product at one time. The first four campaigns have goals ranging from $754 on the low end to a maximum of only $2,135. The Cthulhu dice have a goal of $50,000, but they have the benefit of both the Lovecraft association (another perennial favorite which will likely get its own article soon), as well as a partnership with popular tabletop publisher Chaosium. The others recognize how niche their appeal is and have set their goals accordingly, with three out of the four having exceeded their funding at the time of this writing. Even the one campaign that hasn't yet reached its goal is on track to do so with time to spare. There's always the chance of becoming an inexplicable viral hit (just look at this unremarkable jacket), but it's best not to bank on such an outcome.

Stand out from the competition, know your competition, know your market, and don't overreach. Very general lessons, and seemingly obvious as well, but they are easily overlooked and are applicable to any endeavor in life. See? We did all learn a lesson.

 
The more you know
 

Debrief: Final Fantasy V

Rawr.

Rawr.

  

I worked in a deli for about six months following my college graduation, and during my time as a meat-slinger I noticed an unusual phenomenon. A customer would approach our counter, look over the selections on display, and freeze. Our counter had both a hot and a cold section, each containing dozens of options for the customer to choose from: fresh fruits, cold cuts, fish, chicken, pork, beef, and enough desserts to rot your teeth at a glance. Any customer that didn’t come in prepared knowing exactly what they wanted would find themselves paralyzed by our offerings. After taking in all that we had to offer they inevitably approaching an employee to ask, with some hesitation, “What’s good?”

This phenomenon I came to call the “Tyranny of Choice:” when presented with too many options, one has immense difficulty making any choice at all. Even once a decision has been made an individual will often find themselves dissatisfied with their choice, solely because they can’t help but consider what could have been. Perhaps if they had chosen the bread pudding instead of the mango salad, their lives would have been changed forever. I’m not the first to have noticed this behavioral quirk: there are studies addressing this very issue which demonstrate that too many mutually-exclusive options leave us less happy than if we had no choice at all. That’s why you’re always happy when ordering from a place like Dick’s, where the offerings are limited: without room for choice there’s no room for doubt.

"What's good?"

"What's good?"

Final Fantasy V, with its job system, epitomizes the Tyranny of Choice. You are granted only five jobs at first, and these are straightforward enough in their roles (Knights are tough, Monks punch things, etc.) that you have no problem building a well-balanced party. They are simultaneously few enough in number (five jobs to four characters) that you don’t feel as though you’re missing out on anything if you neglect one or two. The limited number of initial jobs also encourages you to experiment with party composition, because investing time toward one role only to abandon it doesn’t feel like time wasted.  

Those five offerings quickly expand into twenty before you've even finished the first half of the story (with a 21st job hidden in the last third of the game), and what started off as fun and freewheeling quickly shunts your brain into "What's good?" mode as you try to find the optimal party composition among a sea of offerings. I’m terrible at math, but with four characters in your party and 21 jobs available, there are either thousands of party compositions available to you, or millions. That isn’t taking into account all the different skills you can learn and assign to each class, which balloons the number of combinations even further beyond my computational ability. I do feel I can safely describe the number as “gigantic.”

This adds a wrinkle (or a thousand wrinkles) should you encounter a progression block in the form of a boss. More often than not in an RPG you would simply invest time in leveling up your party so as to better tackle the challenge, and while that’s an option here you also need to consider your party composition. Are you limiting yourself in any way? Perhaps you’re focusing too much on offense. Or not enough on offense. Or maybe your composition is fine, but you need to give each character a different complimentary ability. You could give your Knight !Mix and your Black Mage !Time to achieve greater flexibility of response from turn to turn, or you could make everyone Knights and assign each of them different magics to create a party of casters capable of surviving a harrowing physical assault. Or your party and ability composition is fine, but you simply need to strategize better. The rabbit hole goes deep.

To its credit, that complexity means you make your victory in FFV, whether through tactical genius or serendipitous incompetence. When I first played the game over 16 years ago I beat the boss of the Fire Ship in the least heroic manner possible. My party had been wiped out save for Faris, who was assigned the Monk job with !Chakra as her secondary ability. !Chakra allows for decent self healing, and I realized that by sticking Faris in the back row while guarding against physical attacks I could heal through the damage the boss was capable of inflicting through its own strikes. At the same time I could output damage of my own through the Monk’s innate counter-attack ability. That damage was minimal and infrequent, but enough that I would eventually emerge the victor. Thus for ten minutes my only actions were Defend and !Chakra while my counter attacks steadily chipped away at the boss, until it finally faded away to much fanfare.

I didn’t deserve that victory, but it was mine all the same.

...there are either thousands of party compositions available to you, or millions.

The sense of paralysis that comes from choosing between 21 different jobs does fade eventually, as greater familiarity with the roles teaches you that some are simply better than others. Five can be skipped over entirely: Bard, Dancer, Geomancer, Beastmaster and Berserker provide options that are either too weak or too situational to be of much use. Of the sixteen remaining jobs, nine are what I could classify as Warrior or Utility, and choosing between them is largely a matter of selecting your favorite flavor of Beefy Swordsman or Skillful Huntsman. Only the casters provide you with a diversity appreciable enough that they all warrant pursuit. By the end of the game you will have boiled them down into a simple, if delicious, roux comprised of several key abilities mixed together with Freelancers or Mimes.

Whatever flaws the job system may have, it is striking in its ambition and provides a nearly unparalleled system of character customization with the Final Fantasy series which wouldn’t be seen again in a mainline game until Final Fantasy XI. In fact, "ambitious" is this game in a nutshell, as at every turn the designers are striving for something great but always fall just short of their mark. The story is larger than ever despite not possessing quite as much depth as future titles; my recording captured 90 individual segments, yet I could describe the story to you in thirty seconds. The writers still stumble in their depiction of women and gender roles, but they’re clearly making an effort to depict their female characters (and their non-binary character!) with greater depth and self-reliance. The difficulty curve is more balanced than before, but the bosses you face are overly reliant on gimmicks: this leads to gigantic, if brief, spikes in difficulty wherein you fail simply for lack of precognition. Everything comes this close to elevating the game to classic status, but none of it quite succeeds in that aspiration.

Everything except the music, anyway. The music is bitchin’ from start to finish. But complimenting a Final Fantasy for its music is like complimenting sugar for being sweet.

Where previous Final Fantasy entries can only be recommended with significant caveats, I feel confident in suggesting Final Fantasy V without any warnings at all. Beloved though IV may be, V pulls well ahead of its predecessor with its unique gameplay and memorable characters. If it had been released stateside I have no doubt that it would have been lauded over, and I suspect that even now it would be a forerunner in the debate over which game is the best in the series. A dark horse candidate perhaps, but one which would always be breathing down the necks of its competitors.

Though it never quite achieves its ambitions, Final Fantasy V is the first entry in this series that I can recommend without hesitation. The job system, though byzantine and at times arresting, sets it apart from anything before or since, and allows the player to remix the gameplay experience as much as they like. Do it for Boko. Do it for Cid and Mid. Do it for Gilgamesh.
 

Summary


final fantasy v   published: 1992 (Japan; 1999, anthology collection, na)   finished January 25th, 2017

Kickstarter Corner: Mages of Mystralia

Ooooooh.

Ooooooh.

Disclaimer: I have not had contact with any member of the development team for this campaign, but I have backed it at the base pledge level of $25 ($19 U.S.).

A good way to grab my attention is to show me something that makes me go "Dawww!" Present a charming art style, a playful hero, or a goofy bird, and I'll give you at least five minutes of my time. A great way to hold my attention is to couple that element of "Dawww" with something that sets my imagination running. Demonstrate a robust gameplay system, an engaging story, or music with the power to still me for a time, and I'll trust that you're showing me something special. When sifting through Kickstarter each week I sometimes go through dozens of projects which manage to grab my attention but fail to hold it for a significant period. They have bait, but they lack a hook. 

This morning I happened upon a bait with an ample hook, which I must admit I shamelessly gobbled up (I was the 8th backer on the campaign): Mages of Mystralia, the first project from Borealys Games. Mystralia is an action RPG where you are cast in the role of a young mage in exile who is learning to control her powers as she explores her world. The creators describe it as The Legend of Zelda meets Harry Potter, which alone would be enough to grab my interest. Add in an art style which is appealing in its vibrant simplicity, a story crafted by Forgotten Realms scribe Ed Greenwood (who looks like a wizard himself, by the by), and a musical score orchestrated by Shota Nakama (an example of which is what ultimately sold me on the project), and you have my attention.

Pictured: Ed Greenwood, the type of person I want writing about magic and such.

Pictured: Ed Greenwood, the type of person I want writing about magic and such.

The main draw of Mystralia is a free-form spell casting system which allows the player to craft their own unique spells by combining a few simple spell types with various runes to modify the behavior of those spells. The four spell types are Immedi (close range effects), Actus (ranged orbs), Creo (conjuring physical objects), and Ego (self-affecting); the three categories of runes are Behavioral (e.g. make it move, bounce, or hone in on a target); Augments (e.g. change the timing, size and the like); and Triggers (e.g. when the spell will activate). These can be combined further with one of four standard video game elements (Fire, Earth, Water and Lightning), allowing the player to adapt their spells to any situation.

Those who have played Magicka may be thinking of that game's spell creation system, wherein players combined a handful of elemental and physical properties types to craft one of a huge number of spells on the fly. Where these systems differ is the sheer scope of spells available in Mystralia, as well as the ability to save created spells in this game. A single spell type can be combined with multiple runes of each variety to create multi-faceted spells capable of remarkably complex actions. The example given within the campaign is that of an ice sculpture which initially acts as a decoy, but when combined with the Periodic rune that ice sculpture can be linked with a previously crafted fireball spell, allowing the sculpture to periodically cast the second spell while still acting as a decoy. The theoretical number of combinations is staggering, and I can't think of another RPG whose systems grant this level of freedom and accessibility.

My only reservation with this project is that the campaign itself is seemingly unnecessary: the developers themselves admit that instead of pursuing the common tactic of using the campaign as a proof of concept before seeking outside funding, the game has already been funded and developed to the point of being playable from start to finish. You were right if you thought it odd that a project with such significant names attached was asking for less than twenty grand in funding. The goal of $18,787 is merely intended to finance a couple extra months of development so that the team may polish the game further and implement some ideas they've acquired during feedback from the various conventions they've attended. The game will likely release regardless of the success of the campaign; this is, for all intents and purposes, a pre-order.*

 
Sure is pretty though.

Sure is pretty though.

 

*Note: Kickstarter is not a store, and this is not literally a pre-order for the game.

Despite my reservations I feel comfortable focusing attention on the project. What we're presented with here is already charming and whimsical, and if a modest amount of additional funding can make it even more so then I'm happy to throw my money behind the project. I appreciate the transparency as well: too many game projects use the Kickstarter platform to prove consumer interest to an outside funder without disclosing that intent until after the campaign has ended. To be in the reverse situation carries its own bitter taste, but sometimes bitter things are good for us, and I feel we could use more games like Mages of Mystralia. In this situation I wouldn't fault anyone for skipping the campaign and waiting for the game to release, but if you would like to chip in you have until April 15th to do so.


Mages of mystralia   By: borealys games   base pledge: $25 ($19 U.S.)   est. delivery: june 2017