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Fitz, the owner/operator of Moebius Adventures was kind enough to send me a review copy of the latest in the one spot series, Dolothar’s Shrine, which builds upon the feedback I gave to the first three products in the series. I’ll get to that review in a little bit. But first:

This was the first actual ready-to-go product that I’d been offered for review for a while, and that realization made me aware of a trend that had been occurring under my nose, one that has the potential to change the way we, as consumers of roleplaying game products, interact with those products, and specifically the way they are marketed to us, and I thought that something worth exploring.

The Crowdfunding Consequence

Crowdfunding has become an accepted part of the landscape, and it has brought with it a subtle but profound shift in the way RPG products are marketed. Specifically, old-school reviews of the actual product being delivered seem to have fallen somewhat out of favor as a marketing tactic.

The impact of Crowdfunding, and especially Kickstarter, is that producers need to market their product before the product actually exists. Earlier this year there was a lengthy discussion in an industry group to which I occasionally have time to contribute about whether or not subscribing to a Crowdfunding project should be considered a pre-order in the legal sense, or an investment in seeing the product completed.

It makes a big difference in terms of what producers are obligated to do following a successful campaign. It doesn’t make any difference if a fundraising campaign is unsuccessful, because you are pledging support for a product; no money actually changes hands unless the campaign succeeds. But when the campaign succeeds, what are the legal obligations on the part of the product producer? What happens if they take the money and run (it’s happened) or simply underestimate the costs involved (it’s happened) or if one of the suppliers that they relied on simply can’t deliver at the quoted price, which was used to determine the price per unit and hence the crowdsourcing pledge levels (that’s happened, too)?

I know what we all feel the producer has an ethical obligation to do, and to the industry’s credit, every KS campaign I’ve actually invested in has been run by people that far and away exceeded that ethical minimum – even if they lost money in the process. It might seem that the least they could do was refund their investors money, but what happens if some or all of that has already been spent in the attempt to create the product? Is it reasonable for an individual or small company to drive themselves bankrupt refunding people for events beyond their control?

As you can see, the issues are far less clear-cut even taking an idealistic position, never mind from the legal obligation standpoint.

But, if all goes well, and the campaign is successful and the funding adequate, there is a product at the end of the day.

The Dangers In Pre-Product Marketing

Crowdfunding markets products on the basis of promises of what a product will be. Without traditional marketing follow-up, especially in the form of traditional reviews, there isn’t an avenue to actually look at how well the product lives up to those promises. Again, for the most part, Game Product producers are an honest and honorable bunch; if something is promised, we tend to do our darnedest to execute that promise to the very best of our abilities.

But the reduction in support for post-product reviews seems to be an open invitation for shonky operators to promise the earth and deliver gravel.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Successful marketing of a fundraising program means getting that project mentioned in as many places as possible. Some site operators may be reluctant to support the same project a second time through an actual review of the delivered product; they’ve already used their best material and might not have a whole lot to say (in the absence of a total failure of the product to deliver on its promises, of course). They’ve already reviewed the product once, in their minds – and its a position that’s hard to argue with.

And what if the product is delivered, but never goes on general sale, the producer moving on to their next project – in effect treating the fundraising project as pre-orders for the product? If this is the case, there is obviously even less impetus on the part of a reviewer to look at, and judge, the delivered product; it’s not as though sales will be helped or hindered, either way.

Granted, a lot of the above is pessimistic, worst-case stuff – does that mean that we should not guard against these dangers?

Solutions

There are three solutions to this problem. The first is that if a fundraising program delivers a substandard product that falls short of the promises, there will be a lot of grousing on social media – probably in direct proportion to the funding levels achieved for the product. It can be hoped that any shonky operators will quickly acquire a reputation that will protect the industry from future malpractices by that particular producer. But memories are short, and this smacks of hoping someone else will clean up the mess. And I’ve also seen at least one instance where a producer was vehemently (and, in my opinion, unfairly) criticized even though the failure to deliver completely stemmed from causes well beyond his control. Of course, it’s easy to see why someone looking forward to receiving a product that they thought was on the way might be bitter. So this is a blunted and not completely effective solution.

The second is legal. In Australia, we have consumer protections that cannot be signed away no matter what legalese is in a contract, and one of the key ones is that the product has to be reasonably fit for the purpose for which it is intended, as described by the producer. It’s not reasonable that your goldfish bowl doubles as a TV set (unless that’s exactly what it is supposed to be, of course), so buying a goldfish bowl for that purpose is not protected legally – but if you specifically ask the store or the merchant “will it do X”, they are bound by the response, and if it subsequently does not do X then you are entitled to a refund.

That means that, in theory, anyone making promises that they fail to deliver on can be taken to civil court for that failure, or even to criminal court if it is adjudged by the authorities to be a significant case of intentionally fraudulent behavior. That’s the door that all that discussion about legal obligations came in by.

But a legal solution may take years, might be expensive, and comes with no guarantees of success. Throw in the likelihood that the producer is in a different country to that of the purchaser, and it is also likely to be hideously complicated. Only the lawyers win. And (playing devil’s advocate) I would be constantly concerned with honest failures being targeted with the same brush as deliberate attempts to defraud – the same phenomenon that I alluded to a moment ago. In other words, the same flaws, plus some new ones on top, also limit the effectiveness of this solution. It’s simply too broad and simplistic a brush.

And that leaves only the third solution: the return of old-school product reviews, regardless of whether or not a product is going to be offered commercially, post-fundraiser. The gaming industry needs to foster an ethical attitude that mandates the assumed obligation of a subsequent review of the actual product delivered if a site has reviewed the fundraising program. Though it might be enough to only perform such a follow-up if the product falls seriously short of the promises.

And so to Dolothar’s Shrine

Moebius didn’t use crowdfunding to produce Dolothar’s Shrine. But having followed the above chain of logic to the conclusion stated, and based on the statement that much of the feedback provided in the earlier reviews went into shaping the new product, I consider myself ethically bound to review the new product, especially in reference to the problems perceived with the earlier products, even though Fitz sent me the sample as an FYI, specifically stating that I didn’t have to write a review if I didn’t want to.

Production & Layout

My biggest criticism of the first three products in the one spot series, discounting the problem I have with the in-principle logic of a Magic Shop, was with the production and layout, which seemed cramped and overflowing, to the point where it was difficult to find what you were looking for. I also disliked that one page had both player information and GM-only information on it, requiring more work on the part of the GM before he could actually use the product, and that one of the maps was so small to fit that it was hard to read.

I am very pleased to be able to say that these problems have all been resolved in the latest product. The five-page layout is clear and logical, the map is clear and legible, and the typeface is large enough to be quickly legible. There are no longer any barriers to the GM accessing the content. Ten out of ten in this respect, and kudos to the producers.

Content

Dolothar’s Shrine is an iceberg. Nine-tenths of its potential don’t show, and is not even visible on a literal reading. That’s because it’s full of little bits that are not explained within the text. Dolothar is a priest and healer who appears to have lived for a VERY long time without changing. He is never seen without his turban. He serves anyone who is sick or hungry, and sometimes seems capable of greater healing than anyone else. There are old men in the city who claim that Dolothar was an old man when they were children. And, at times, he seems capable of strange feats that no-one can explain, such as the (possibly-rumored) conversion of a group of thugs who tried to rob the shrine.

GMs can use the location as written, or can assume that all the goodness and light, all the generosity and civic-mindedness, are a cover for something much darker. Perhaps Dolothar steals a little of the lifespan of those he heals, and that is the secret of his longevity? There are suggestions that he conceals elvenness beneath his headdresses (normally the turban mentioned earlier) – but why would he need to hide that? If elves are not the subject of open discrimination – always possible – he must be concealing something else. Either way, explaining this circumstance will add greatly to the depth of any campaign using this supplement.

I kept having visions of a dark cult hiding behind a publicly-acceptable face, coupled with flashbacks to the revelation of the secret hiding place of Kuato, the leader of the Martian Resistance in the original Total Recall (I haven’t seen the 2012 remake, and reviews have left me unexcited about the prospect of doing so). But this is just one of many possible explanations for what is going on. Perhaps there is good reason for the subterfuge, and what looms as a hidden evil is actually a hidden force for good which has insinuated itself into a city secretly dominated by another hidden evil?

Playing the content as it reads gives the PCs access to low-cost healing superior to that available at most of temples and shrines, though perhaps more limited in scope – there may be things that Dolothar can’t or won’t heal, like supernatural injuries. This is a factor that the GM will want to take into account when integrating Dolothar’s Shrine into their campaigns. Not a bad thing, just something to be mindful of.

Wrap-up

In summary, like the previous One Spot products, this one is bursting at the seams with potential, and is well worth the price asked for it. You can read some more about it at the product’s announcement page, and buy it (currently US$2.95) from DriveThruRPG.

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