It’s been a busy, hard month, and Geek Native is kept alive by people like you. You’re here.
Geek Native’s Patreons contribute cash and get to help select publishers for the RPG Publisher Spotlight as a result.
Bandit Camp, the publisher of Wicked Ones, where you play the baddies, was picked for this month’s feature. Ben Nielson was kind enough to make time for me, then wait while I faffed around with the busy November, answering questions. The result is this feature on an exciting indie RPG publisher.
Ben has only been full-time at Bandit Camp this year. What a whirlwind of a journey.
It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a 340 and entirely free version of Wicked Ones.
Who are Bandit Camp?
Here’s a quick introduction to Bandit Camp, my questions and Ben’s answers. Ben is the lion’s share of Bandit Camp, but we’ll also see mentions of other vital names.
Who are Bandit Camp, and where did the name come from?
Well, my name’s Ben Nielson and Bandit Camp is the label I publish under. It’s mostly convenience, having a “company name” to refer to and create product pages, plus separate business and private stuff a bit. For the most part, I work closely with artist Victor Costa, though I’ve worked with several other artists here and there, plus Cass Rea who designed Undead Awakening and Ken Stine who worked on a few cards projects with me.
The name itself was actually created by a group of us who were initially considering working together as sort of a co-op, though I eventually pulled the plug on the idea as I realized that I strongly prefer working alone. It’s mostly just a personal preference. By that point, though, I had already branded all of my stuff as Bandit Camp and I do like the name and logo, so I decided to keep it.
A bit more about me, I suppose – I’m a 40-year old American guy that has lived in Japan for the last 15 years. I ran an English as a second language school for almost a decade before transitioning to design. It was kind of a lucky coincidence, as that transition happened just as the pandemic began, so as I experienced a business downturn, I had something else to spend my time on. As of January of 2022, I went full-time on tabletop dev and it’s been really satisfying so far. There are, however, vastly more boring parts of it than most people probably imagine.
What do you think you’re best known for?
The answer to this is easily Wicked Ones, a Forged in the Dark game where you play as fantasy monsters building a dungeon together. It’s heavily inspired by Dungeon Keeper. Following the model laid out by Kevin Crawford, I made a Free Edition of the game available, with a Premium Edition available for purchase that has about 15% more non-essential content. It’s worked out quite well for me and I intend to follow the model with future releases.
That said, for any designers thinking of pursuing that release model, I do think you have to be careful. The free version has to be rather overwhelmingly impressive and/or the premium content very enticing, otherwise you’ll undercut your own sales. I know I’m kinda blowing my own horn there, but Wicked Ones is a very large, in-depth book that captures its niche theme very well and is supported by an immense art budget, plus includes a huge amount of player and GM advice that’s applicable beyond just Wicked Ones. There are very few free books with the kind of content WO: Free Edition has. So you get that one shot to wow your audience and turn them into fans – and prompt them to support you by buying the premium edition. It’s a very delicate balancing act.
What would you like to be known for?
I make games that I want to play – that’s Bandit Camp’s “motto” and what I want to be known for, as someone that does what he does for the joy of it. I don’t make games for you – I make them for me. It makes me happy that other people want to play the stuff that I want to play, but if this job stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it. There are a lot of ways to make money in the world and a very small percentage actually get to enjoy what they do. I hope people know that I do.
Beyond that, I focus a lot on what I call cinematic roleplaying. This stems from the PbtA/FitD (and to some extent, Burning Wheel) “fiction-first” tradition, but the system I’m currently designing (Relic) focuses a lot on giving players a lot of room to narrate and paint scenes, GMs tools to set up scenes that flow into each other and offer interesting choices for players, and mechanics that tie it all together keep things flowing from scene to scene at a movie-like pace. I’ve experienced a lot of games that when we talk about them in retrospect, they sound like a cool tv show, but I want to capture that feeling in action in the moment as we play. That welling tension as you hit story beats, the “camera” (our collective imagination) flying around to different points of action with the players empowered to give their characters intention behind their actions, fulfilling character and story arcs. Then quieter moments of downtime, meaningful vignettes that help fill out those arcs, as well as narrating small moments that don’t need to exist but make me happier when they do.
There’s this neat moment, when the story and mechanics click just right, I kinda lean back in my chair and marvel at it and just say “That’s so fucking cool.” It’s really satisfying, it just hits the exact right spot. The right mechanics allow us all to discover the emergent character and story arcs together – with the GM being just as surprised with how things develop.
What makes a good RPG, in your opinion?
Well, I answered what I think a good RPG for me is above, I suppose – but this question is different, isn’t it? The easy answer is a beautiful melding of design intention, well-oiled and playtested mechanics, and a smooth flowing story that the mechanics help create, whether that be in a lighter “get out of your way” style or a heavier “force you down a path” style. A good RPG will have you never fighting the mechanics to do the things you want to do…
And in that way, I guess clarity in conveying the type of stories the game wants to help you tell is the most important thing. Give me touchstones and examples to help prepare for the journey ahead and evocative art that matches well with the gameplay that the mechanics end up spitting out. Get me prepared for what the mechanics are going to lead me towards so that I don’t end up fighting it to do something it’s not built for and instead get in the right headspace to want to fiddle with the mechanics I’m being given.
Japan and challenges
Yeah, Ben’s been living in Japan for over a decade now. Doesn’t that make it a little harder to market in places like the United States, Canada and Europe?
What are the extra challenges you have to overcome because you’re based in Japan?
There’s a lot, actually.
First, Kickstarter has been essential for getting my books made. However, I face one very large problem – I have to take pledges in Japanese yen. This means that credit cards are charged in Japanese yen, leading to about 20% of backers to have card errors as their banks reject the sudden charge in a currency its likely never processed. A call to the bank clears it up generally but not always. A combination of Backerkit and Paypal then catches a lot of those that can’t get that worked out. However, in the end, we still lose between 5-10% of the funding. It’s just an enormous amount of extra busy work and makes me feel like I’m hounding people to get money out of them. I’m looking at re-establishing residency in the United States to process Kickstarter in USD, but that has tax implications I’d rather not deal with as well. It’s a small nightmare. That said, I am lucky that Japan is on the OK list for Kickstarter – I know a lot of SEA creators that struggle with no access to Kickstarter, so I really shouldn’t complain here.
Second, I can’t really pack up the car and go off to attend conventions. It’s an enormous missed opportunity to meet others in the industry and interact directly with my audience. However, I’m hoping to do something big next year like make GenCon, but we’ll see. Beyond conventions, if I lived in my home country (the US), I could make strong connections with local gaming stores and groups that would help with building hype, playtesting, etc. That just isn’t there for me.
Third, it’s really difficult to get a regular English-language gaming group together. The expat community here has a really high turnover rate, with most people coming in for 1-3 years, either as ESL teachers or as engineers on short term assignments from large companies. Very few settle longterm. So it’s a constant struggle of meeting people and keeping a group together – playing online has saved me here and has just been easier overall, so I prefer that these days I guess, but I still wish I had a solid, regular weekly group. I miss that.
There’s other small things like time zones not matching up well, especially when it comes to things like phone calls to printing or fulfillment companies (which tend to happen at about 1 a.m. my time).
How did and how is COVID-19 impact you?
I think COVID-19 led to an uptick in online sales, people moving to VTTs – which had them out of LFGS and buying online. This is where my sales flourish, so I’d say it’s an overall net positive on sales of my books. The pandemic also had people staying in, which I think saw them turning towards gaming or media, where they found TTRPGs on Youtube/podcasts.
I mentioned this above, I think, but the pandemic had a strong effect on my previous business but it happened to coincide at a point in my life where my passion in that industry was waning. In a weird way, the pandemic gave me “cover” to gently close down that business and transition over to design full-time. Up until that point, I had been rather successful in my previous career so it might have been a bit harder sell with my family than it was considering the bumpy road ahead that COVID was giving us.
The good in Bandit Camp
I think ‘bandit camp’, as a name, might conjure up images of baddies (wicked ones) huddled around a smoky fire and plotting their next vile deed. As it happens, Bandit Camp isn’t like that at all.
You’ve done a world of good for Child’s Play, but some readers might not have heard of them. Can you introduce them and what you’ve done for them?
Child’s Play is a charity created orignally by Penny Arcade that helps put games in childrens’ hospitals. That’s it in a nutshell, though they do a bit beyond that as well. They’re extremely well regarded (see their Charity Navigator review) and their mission is a clear and noble one. There’s something…tangible about donating to them. It’s easy to imagine where the money is going and something about selling games to get games for kids just made a lot of sense.
So when I ran the original Wicked Ones Kickstarter, I reached out to some companies that had made games inspired by Dungeon Keeper. One of them was Brightrock Games, makers of War for the Overworld (which I had already listed as an inspiration within my early drafts). They got their start on Kickstarter as well and a lot of people in their office are TTRPG fans. We had a very cordial back and forth. I was looking for help with a bit of exposure and their history with Kickstarter had them on board to help signal boost from the beginning, but we both saw an opportunity to do something a bit more interesting so we decided to collaborate. We also decided that the collaboration should benefit charity. DTRPG has a list of approved charities that if you donate 100% of proceeds to, they will also donate their portion as well. So it’s really a group effort here – Brightrock giving exposure and providing the IP, DTRPG giving a platform for sales and driving traffic to it, and of course myself doing the legwork to get the product made.
I ended up writing a supplement, a campaign setting based on War for the Overworld. They opened up their internal documentation for me to look over as I poured through the game. I had three main goals: to represent their fiction well, to get close to the main gameplay elements in their game, and to stay true to what Wicked Ones itself is. In the end, I decided to branch off from their fiction just prior to the start of their game, making an alternative storyline that allowed me to more easily adapt their fiction to how Wicked Ones functions. To sum it up, WFTO has people jumping from area to area, building dungeons along the way kind of as “forward bases” – you build dungeon after dungeon. This was scrapped in my conversion – Wicked Ones is a game about building one dungeon that slowly grows over time. Doing this again and again just wasn’t viable. So I instead focused on one single dungeon contained within a mountain, where you and other evil Underlords were imprisoned. This allowed me to compact all of the major good and evil factions in the game into one single sandbox map and have players create a static dungeon. That was the biggest challenge.
After that, it was just mapping different game units to Wicked Ones mechanics and using a flexible “build-an-ability” power in WO called Primal Ability to make stuff a unit in WFTO can do that you couldn’t previously do in WO. That process was relatively easy. Once that little alternative storyline trick was in place, the rest was pretty easy.
Anyway, I’m extremely grateful for the chance to collaborate with Brightrock Games. It helped bring new eyes to my project, allowed me to work with an established studio, and gave me valuable experience on what it was like adapting an already existing IP.
To date, donations from proceeds of WO:WFTO are nearing around $10,000 USD. I feel like that was worth the solid month of work that I put into the conversion.
Would you do it again, and if so, what would you do differently?
I don’t regret going down that path, but it did lead to me discovering a lot. My biggest takeaway is that although I enjoyed the WFTO game a lot and appreciate the experience, I have no interest in working with anyone else’s IP ever again. It’s just not for me.
I’d definitely be open to doing something for Child’s Play again, though – perhaps a smaller supplement that has broader appeal (WFTO was rather niche, mostly fans of the video game itself). It’s something to think on.
Are you being asked for advice by new publishers and designers just starting their own journey? What are your top three most common questions and answers?
I get quite a few questions and I’m always happy to drop a bunch of advice. There’s no guide for this career path and we’re all wandering around in the dark, stubbing our toes until we finally, slowly, painfully figure out the path that works. If I can just spend a bit of time answering questions to help people avoid the pitfalls that I hit along the way, it’d be crazy not to.
The top three questions is hard because they vary so much depending on how far along the people asking are. So instead of coming up with three questions asked, I’m gonna write up a “Marketing a TTRPG 101” paragraph really fast. We’re gonna skip the “How to build a good game” part – good luck with that. :) So how to build an audience…
- Make your game, get it about 80% finished and definitely to a point where you can show people, even if it’s just a Google Doc. Have a character sheet done and the game playtestable. Have a very good elevator pitch – a short description of the game that clearly tells players what the game is about. Don’t talk about mechanics – hype them on the concept.
- Start a Discord server and only make one or two channels. Don’t make a dozen channels – keep it simple so that it seems somewhat active. Organize all of your playtest games through this and try to talk about your game a lot on there. Make it feel active and open. When you have something new to share, drop it in there. Get your friends to join the server and ask them to engage with you a bit – more activity means more openness to others joining.
- Put your Discord link at the top of your shareable game draft doc. Don’t worry about people stealing your concepts – share this thing anywhere you can. Get involved in design communities or niche communities it would appeal to. Don’t spam, but try to be an active participant in those communities. It will pay off. Over time, you can work towards narrower circles but in the beginning you have to join larger, broader communities. Every time people open your doc, they should be greeted by the game title, discord link, invitation to playtests if they join the discord, and hopefully a cool art piece. You’ll slowly collect interested people.
- Get artwork. This might be better to do earlier – by the time you get ready to Kickstart the game (you will need to KS it if you want proper funding), you’ll need 4-5 art pieces and each of these will cost $200-300. You can get cheaper art, but it will show. If you want your game to be a success and not just a hobby, you have to spend this money. If you don’t have this money, save up for it. Like any business, the initial investment is a risk but almost any Kickstarter with a few good art pieces can get at least $2000-3000 in funding, so making your money back (if you don’t consider time spent) isn’t that big of a worry.
- Begin running playtests. If possible, run two a week. One of the games should be to practice longterm campaigns and to get deeper mechanics feedback with your regular group. The other game should be one-shots or few-shots. Use Reddit LFG or Roll20 forums to gather new players – always be on the lookout for new players. Invite them to your Discord – keep growing that Discord. Be active, encourage discussion.
- Through this playtesting process, hopefully train one or two people to GM your game as well and get them to spin off and run their own. This isn’t always possible, but it’s great when it happens.
- Now that you have a bit of momentum, start setting up your Kickstarter page. You now need to get your pre-launch page up – put that on page one of your game doc in a very clear, “CLICK ME” spot and keep sharing that thing. Get everyone on your Discord to sign up. Having social media helps (Twitter/Facebook tend to be best here, but Twitter is about to implode and Facebook…is awful. No good answers here). From this point forward, every time you have a chance to talk about your game, link your pre-launch page.
- Keep growing the Discord and social media presence. Fine tune your Kickstarter page – keep your first KSer simple. The very easiest thing to do is off two tiers. The first tier has the book PDF and an at-cost print code from DTRPG for $20-ish ($15-25). The second tier has the same plus some extra content, like a deck of cards or an adventure for $40-ish. This is a simple setup, easy to explain, and creates a clear, easy upsell from the first tier to the second. New creators make the mistake of creating a ton of complex tiers and such with no clear upsell path them and it’s just absolute chaos marketing-wise. The ideal setup for simple projects is more like $20 / $40 / $100 as you’ll have these three types of backers – base level, a bit extra, go all-in. However, it’s not always possible to produce something that has that $100 tier value when you’re first starting out. But structuring around two $20/$40 tiers is great. You should use DTRPG and their print-on-demand for fulfillment to minimize risk/complexity for yourself. Baby steps – learn how to make a game and run a Kickstarter first.
- Launch the Kickstarter at 9AM EST on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Your first day is really important and 9AM EST means America/Canada (where 80% of your backers will come from) will see it in the morning, lunch, and again in the evening. The UK (where 10% of your backers will come from) will see it during lunch and the evening. Immediately post links to it anywhere you’re allowed to, especially doing an @everyone on your Discord server. By that point, you hopefully have a few people there. Also, include a link to the Discord server near the top of the KSer page so people stream in and see the activity there – it’ll provide social proof that your game is worth backing. If they see months of conversations by various people, they’ll realize there’s a community for them to join.
- Things not to do:
- Don’t make your first project your magnum opus. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes and it’s going to be a big learning experience.
- Don’t focus on advertising – you’ll hear it a lot that Facebook ads are key. This is true for projects that make more than $40,000 – ads are almost useless for small projects. There’s a breaking point and if you need the above guide, ads are not for you. Forget about them. Kickstarter will bring some traffic to you and your own traffic building should have brought some attention to your project (if your game is worth backing – we’re just assuming that it is).
- Do not offer rewards that let backers participate in the creation – it’s never worth the hassle (IMHO) – your backers want your content, not some random person’s that gave you an extra $10.
- Don’t set your funding goal high. Basically just set it to whatever your initial art budget was. The key here is to be able to “fully fund” within the first 3 days of your Kickstarter running.
- Don’t create a ton of fake stretch goals. This is my personal advice, mostly from an ethical perspective. Be real with your backers. In fact, I really like the tactic of creating a Stretch Goals section that says “We are considering stretch goals and will announce them after a day or two into the campaign”. Then after two or three days, you can estimate where you will end up funding wise and what’s possible. Create your stretch goals at this point and keep them low-effort on your part (don’t take on a ton of extra work for no reason) and high-value in the cool factor for your backers. Upgrading the things they already are buying is neat if you budget it correctly (like extra art pieces). But stretch goals can kill projects. Go light on them.
That’s a basic guide for…well… for people who need a basic guide. There are other paths to greater success and I could write about this endlessly, to be honest, but if you do the above your game will do okay – as long as it’s pretty decent and/or you have good art.
The future of Bandit Camp
As regular readers will know, I don’t like to miss the chance to (at least) ask about the future… Or, recently, about the next generation of D&D.
It’s a little off the beaten track, but I’m taking this chance to ask designers and publishers about One D&D. What are your hopes, if any, for the next evolution of Dungeons & Dragons. What do you think Wizards of the Coast should do next?
This isn’t so much what I think they should do – but I’m more or less on team chaos for this one. Here’s what I hope happens.
I’m looking forward to their VTT which hopefully blows any other 3D VTT experience out of the water. I want to see a mass migration of the D&D crowd away from Roll20 and other VTTs – a strong splintering of the market. I want D&D to become a closed playground so it can be what it is without its influence always spilling over on indie devs. It is tiresome to have everything compared to D&D or every VTT’s first concern being D&D compatibility.
I want there to be D&D and Roleplaying Games – just two separate things, instead of D&D = Roleplaying Games. I want D&D to be a vastly different experience than other roleplaying games could even possibly offer and only Hasbro has deep enough pockets for that. And it’s clear they’re going all in on it as well – look at that D&D Beyond purchase! Even more telling is that they didn’t do something like purchase Roll20, even though they have to be desiring its userbase. Roll20 then immediately hedges by partnering/quasi-merging with DTRPG, who is also under threat of perhaps losing DMSGuild if WotC goes full closed-playground. Those are the other two big players and them joining up looks like they see the writing on the wall in regards to their relationship with WotC, but time will tell on that one.
What will Bandit Camp do next?
I’m currently making Relic, built on its own cinematic fiction-first system that I discussed up above. It’s a game of titan slaying, with rather normal human characters climbing enormous titans and bringing them down. It’s a game about careful planning, camraderie, and success against all odds. It’s heavily inspired by Shadow of the Colossus, obviously, but also Princess Mononoke, Breath of the Wild, and Monster Hunter amongst others.
While the theme is one I really want to see a game made of, I’m very happy to be working on the core system. My plan is to build all of my future games on this system, focusing on creating cinematic experiences with touchstones that are very important to me. And for the foreseeable future, I’m hoping to work alongside Victor Costa (Wicked Ones/Relic artist) – our working relationship is great and I’m his biggest fan.
But anyway, as I said above, I make games for me and that’s what I’m going to keep doing. It just makes me happy that others come along with me on that ride.
Latest Bandit Camp Products
You can browse through Bandit Camp’s goodies on DriveThruRPG, and there’s no shortage of free content to help yourself to. Sorting by the most recent changes, we have;
- 1st October, 2022 Evocative Sandboxes 2.
- 1st October, 2022 Dungeon Drawing Guide.
- 1st October, 2022 Wicked Ones; Undead Awakening: Playesheets.
- 1st October, 2022 Wicked Ones: Undead.
- 1st October, 2022 Evocative Sandboxes 1.
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