This is the fourth of my updates written for the (now completed) Kickstarter for the German edition of Designers & Dragons. Like the others, it expands one of my histories from the second edition of Designers & Dragons to reflect the changes that roleplaying companies have seen in the last several years. I’ve been previewing all of these updates here, in English, in advance of the German translation.
For the full story of Evil Hat, read pages 309-320 in Designers & Dragons: The ’00s, then continue here with the publication of The Dresden Files and what came afterward.
Enter The Dreden Files: 2010
After years of work and planning, The Dresden Files was finally released at the Origins Game Fair on June 23, 2010 as two books: The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game Volume One: Your Story (2010) and The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game Volume Two: Our World (2010). Together they totaled 670 pages. Players beyond the convention got to see the game for the first time on July 10 at the West Coast Release party, hosted by the EndGame game store in Oakland, California. The books became available through distribution shortly thereafter.
We spent nearly five years on it, didn’t compromise, and put out something that our friend Jim is excited about. We did right by him and right by what we believed we should do with the Dresden Files license.Fred Hicks, Interview, ennie-awards.com (October, 2010)
Six years of hopes and expectations touted on the internet could have caused the game to fail if it’d shown the slightest flaw, but instead it maintained the same high standards that Evil Hat had demonstrated throughout their publishing career. As a result, it won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game, the Golden Geek Award for Game of the Year, and Golden ENnies for Best Writing, Best Rules, Best New Game, and Best Game.
The production of the game also got accolades, including a Silver ENnie for Best Production and a Golden Geek for Best Artwork/Presentation award. This was thanks to plentiful full-color pictures, including chapter heads that portrayed notable events from the Dresden Files books; playful commentary “from” series characters Harry Dresden, Billy the Werewolf, and Bob the Skull running alongside the rules; and Fred Hicks’ always attentive layouts.
Today it’s easy to forget that Evil Hat was still a small indie company before the launch of The Dresden Files. Perhaps they felt a bit larger, because Evil Hat consisted of a team of creators publishing products by a variety of designers — something unusual for indie companies in the ’00s. However, their books were distributed solely through Indie Press Revolution, a small distributor of indie games, and they sold in the hundreds, not the thousands. In 2008, Hicks had finally started paying himself for his full-time work, but just $450 a month, which amounted to about $2.50 an hour. Beyond that the company was still $10,000 in debt to Hicks and Donoghue for money they’d contributed to get things started back in 2005.
The Dresden Files RPG changed all of that. It got Evil Hat into regular distribution and won them the attention of the larger industry. It even allowed Hicks to double his salary to $900 a month — now about $5 an hour, still a few dollars short of minimum wage. Hicks would later call it a pivot point for Evil Hat, something that allowed them to move from being a roleplaying company to being a gaming company.
Evil Hat had reached Phrase 2!
You can tell when you’ve hit a pivot point, because the clock gets reset to zero. We were back to a point where we were about to go and do something … and had no little experience in how to do it, just like we did in 2005.Fred Hicks, “The Pivot”, Deadly Fredly (August 2016)
Though Evil Hat’s great white whale has been harpooned, that wasn’t the end of the line for the Dresden Files line at Evil Hat. Evil Hat immediately released a few free “casefile” adventures and even Peter Woodworth’s Hocus Focus (2011), a Dresden playset for Fiasco (2010). Several years later, they also published a third core rulebook, The Paranet Papers (2015), which detailed Harry’s world. But, as promised, there was no series of splatbooks or other accessories.
As part of their move to becoming a wider gaming company, Evil Hat also considered expanding the Dresden Files gaming brand in a few different directions. A “Dresden Lives” LARP game was announced in 2014, but cancelled the next year due to a lack of resources and a desire to move the company beyond Dresden; Dresden LARPs continue to be run by Phoenix Outlaw, an enthusiastic group of designers in Jersey City, New Jersey. Evil Hat’s other Dresden projects went better, allowing them to publish Eric Vogel’s The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017) and the pared-down Dresden Files Accelerated (2017) RPG, both of which were the results of Evil Hat’s next innovation …
The Power of Crowdfunding: 2010-Present
By the ’10s, roleplaying publishers were starting to pay for their games with crowdfunding; this was the source of funding for Evil Hat’s next two original games, both created (and Kickstarted) by graphic and game designer Daniel Solis.
Daniel Solis’ Happy Birthday, Robot! (2010) was a short-story game. At the time, it was one of the few RPGs specifically aimed at kids, joining Firefly Games’ Faery’s Tale (2006) and a few games by John Wick Presents in a small subcategory.
Daniel Solis’ Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple (2011) was a “slapstick fantasy storytelling game”. Inspired in part by Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008), Do lets players collaboratively solve problems to tell a story. Although not as kid-oriented as Happy Birthday, Robot!, it’s another light game that could be kid friendly. Years later, indie designer Mark Diaz Truman would produce for Evil Hat a Fate version of the game, called Do: Fate of the Flying Temple (2016); it shows how robustly Evil Hat supports even their small indies.
By 2012, with the Dresden Files release in the rearview mirror, Evil Hat was ready to try Kickstarting on their own. Over the next six and a half years, they would go to Kickstarter 13 times, almost exactly twice a year.
|The Dinocalypse Trilogy
|Race to Adventure!
|Designers & Dragons
|Don’t Turn Your Back!
|The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game
|Fate Dice & Fate Points
|Uprising: The Dystopian Universe RPG
The most notable aspect of Evil Hat’s Kickstarters is their breadth. Fulfilling Hicks and Dononoghue’s phase-2 promise, Evil Hat used their Kickstarters to expand the company into new categories of publication, including fiction, non-fiction, board games, and dice. Evil Hat has also used these Kickstarters to augment their roleplaying settings. This trend started with the short-story collection Don’t Read This Book (2012), but now with the power of crowdfunding, Evil Hat was able to do much more. The Dinocalypse Trilogy (2012+) of novels, the Race to Adventure! (2013) board game, and the Zeppelin Attack! (2014) card game were all based on the world of Spirit of the Century, while Don’t Turn Your Back! (2015) was a deckbuilding card game based on Don’t Rest Your Head.
Evil Hat also used their early Kickstarters to cleverly leverage the production of multiple products. Most obviously the Dinocalypse Kickstarter funded the production of three novels, while the Designers & Dragons Kickstarter paid for four Designers & Dragons books. However, there was just the start. The Dinocalypse Kickstarter also funded four additional Spirit of the Century novels, including Khan of Mars (2013) by Stephen Blackmoore and King Khan (2013) by Harry Connolly. The first Fate Dice Kickstarter resulted in eight different sets of dice (2013). Most impressively, the highly successful Fate Core Kickstarter resulted in the publication of seven different books: Fate Core (2013), Fate Accelerated (2013), Fate System Toolkit (2013), two volumes of Fate Worlds (2013), Strange Tales of the Century (2013), and the YA novel Sally Slick & The Steel Syndicate (2013). All told, Evil Hat used their first six Kickstarters to add over 25 items to their catalog. They would back off of this methodology in later years for specific tactical reasons, but for now it helped the company to bootstrap itself to higher levels of success.
Honestly, it was a pretty messy time. We got some great work done in that time, and I at least started getting smart (I’ll let you know if I ever actually succeed at that) about running the company …Fred Hicks, “The Pivot”, Deadly Fredly (August 2016)
These new categories of production and new styles of Kickstarting were the fruit of Evil Hat’s “experimental” years — and not all of those experiments succeeded. Evil Hat would later admit that fiction didn’t work as a “half-measures” thing; it required a lot more focus on the fiction market, something that even big companies like Paizo and Wizards of the Coast have realized in recent years. The board games were more hit and miss. It took years for Race to Adventure! to make it into the black, then Evil Hat’s 2018 Kickstarter for Channel A proved that it was even more difficult to expand into adjacent categories, like party games: even with a modest goal of $15,000, it just barely made its funding target. But Evil Hat’s experimentation also produced two huge hits: the Fate Core System (2013) and The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017). Those two massive successes would help Evil Hat to pivot twice more, as they continued to climb up the rungs of roleplaying success.
By 2014, Evil Hat was also taking advantage of a second crowdfunding platform: Patreon. Where Kickstarter crowdfunds one-time projects, Patreon instead allows creators to raise ongoing funds. Evil Hat leapt on this new crowdfunding methodology almost immediately, launching a “Fate Adventures & Worlds” Patreon that January, intended to produce a continuous stream of adventure and setting ebooks for Fate. Their first release was Brian Engard’s Venture City Stories (2014).
Evil Hat had previously seen limited interest in Fate adventures, and Patreon didn’t change that, but it did allow them to gather together their most enthusiastic fans and sell them Fate settings and adventures on a monthly basis. This typically hasn’t raised quite enough money to pay for the creation of the ebooks, not even with Fred Hicks laying them out for free, but ongoing pay-what-you-want sales on DriveThruRPG have tended to make them profit-neutral over time. Evil Hat released print copies of the first few books and gathered others into new Fate Worlds anthologies, but for the most part, Evil Hat’s Patreon adventures remain an electronic phenomenon.
By the end of 2014, Evil Hat was netting about $3,500 a book on Patreon from 700 patrons. There have been ups and downs since. Today, they net about $3,000 from about 600 patrons. Some of that drop was in 2016, most likely due to the maturation of the platform, as patrons spread their funds across more creators and as early credit cards expired; the biggest plunge came in late 2017, when bad decisions on Patreon’s part led to mass boycotts of the platform, resulting in most creators losing patrons. However, in the world of the Patreon long tail, Evil Hat’s 600 patrons make them one of the kings.
Enter Fate Core: 2013
Evil Hat’s Kickstarter for Fate Core was the first of two that would dramatically change the company. Financially, it was one of the most successful Kickstarters to that date for a roleplaying game. The few Kickstarters that had done better were: White Wolf’s Deluxe Exalted at $684,756; Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu 7e at $561,836; and Monte Cook’s Numenéra at $517,526. That put Fate Core into some pretty rarified company — amazing for a company that originated in the indie community and printed just a few hundred copies of its first book. And, those sales numbers don’t tell the whole story: Evil Hat’s 10,000 Fate Core backers were entirely unprecedented, more than doubling the backer count of any previous roleplaying Kickstarter. That were the result of another of Fred Hicks’ cunning plans, where he offered a full set of PDFs for a mere $10; although it added a just $30,000 to the campaign, it surely toted up much more publicity and general interest in the line.
Mechanically, Fate Core was the fourth iteration of the Fate roleplaying system; it started out as a generalization of the Fate 3.0 rules from Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files, but the rules evolved before hitting their final published form. Along the way authors Leonard Balsera, Ryan Macklin, Brian Engard, and Mike Olson rewrote the entire system from scratch, so that Evil Hat could entirely own the results rather than continuing to depend on FUDGE. They then released the results under the OGL and Creative Commons for use by others.
The Fate Core rules were divided among three major books. Fate Accelerated offered a quickstart; Fate Core provided the main rules; and Fate System Toolkit discussed how to hack the game. Besides being streamlined, the new rules also provided the first look at Fate as a generic gaming system since the 2003 release of Fate 2.0 — and the first-ever print version of those generic rules. In other words, Fate Core was exactly what was needed if Fate was ever to become a heavily supported generic system like GURPS or Hero.
To get to the point where we could shrug at $2000-5000 in printing expenses for a semi-experimental, but proven-by-KS add-on product [Fate Accelerated] took us a good 7-10 years of invested effort.Fred Hicks, RPGnet Thread (December 2013)
The success of Fate Core was also another “Dresden-class event”, allowing Evil Hat to pivot into Phase 3 of its development. Long-time ally Chris Hanrahan had joined the Evil Hat team of Hicks and Donoghue in 2012 as Brand Manager, but now Sean Nittner was brought in as Project Manager and Carrie Harris as Marketing Manager. This revamp of Evil Hat’s business structure would continue for the next two years as Hanrahan stepped up to become Vice President, and the company moved from being a “committee style” company to an actual hierarchy.
In other words, Phase 3 of Evil Hat’s development, enabled by the success of Fate Core, was all about allowing Fred Hicks to delegate. It was about turning the gaming company into a professional organization with the ability to manage dozens of projects and to do so while successfully maintaining a schedule. In the world of business, this type of organization might seem obvious, but it’s often not even possible in a field where most companies are run as part-time hobbies.
Following the release of Fate Core, Evil Hat rebuilt their company (again!) around their new product. The Patreon setting and adventure books were all thanks to Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Evil Hat’s Fate Dice, Fate More, and Fate Point Kickstarters all continued to expand this successful new game line. Evil Hat produced several standalone Fate games, some licensed and some based on their own properties, including: Atomic Robo (2014), War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus (2015), Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, Young Centurions (2016), Dresden Files Accelerated, Kaiju Incorporated: The Roleplaying Game (2017), Uprising (2018), and Tachyon Squadron (2018).
So, Fate Core did far more than turn Evil Hat into an organized, professional company: it also gave them the core of their modern publication. That’s definitely a pivot point.
The Indie Future: 2015-Present
Though Evil Hat’s focus is now on Fate Core (with a minor in The Dresden Files), they’ve continued to pay attention to the larger indie industry. This comes in part from the fact that they’re in a relatively unique position as an indie company that has risen up to become a mainstream roleplaying publisher. This means that they have the power to publish and support other indie games. The Burning Wheel HQ is one of the few others to similarly seek out and publish the work of their fellows — ironically including Evil Hat’s Sean Nittner, who produced his Stone Dragon Mountain (2017) campaign for Burning Wheel’s Torchbearer (2013) in conjunction with that company.
Evil Hat’s support of other indie creators goes all the way back to their origins and the production of books like Paul Tevis’ A Penny for My Thoughts, Chad Underkoffler’s Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, and Daniel Solis’ Happy Birthday, Robot! and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. However, as Evil Hat has leveled up in recent years, their indie production has too.
After a few years focusing more on Dresden Files and Fate, Evil Hat returned to its small-press indie roots in 2015 and hasn’t let up since. That began with their publication of Monster of the Week (2015), an urban-fantasy monster hunting game by Michael Sands and Steve Hickey that had previously been published (2012) by Sands’ New Zealand-based Generic Games. The game was built using the Apocalypse World (2010) game system, and Evil Hat got questions about whether they were converting it to Fate, but no … Evil Hat was just interested in giving better attention to existing indie games, as they had been since reprinting Diaspora some years earlier. (Fred Hicks even wrote a new Monster of the Week playbook, The Spell-Slinger, loosely based on the Harry Dresden archetype.)
One of the many influences for Monster of the Week was the teenage vampire hunting show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003), and that was also a touchstone for Evil Hat’s next indie-ish release, Bubblegumshoe (2016), by Emily Care Boss, Kenneth Hite, and Lisa Steele. This game built on Pelgrane Press’ GUMSHOE investigative system, which had debuted with The Esoterrorists (2006), but now it was directed toward high school mysteries, from Buffy and Veronica Mars (2004-2007) to Scooby-Doo (1969-1975+). The game had been in process since 2011(!), when Fred Hicks, Will Hindmarch, and Ken Hite began talking about improving the link between GUMSHOE’s resource management and its story telling, but the wait was worthwhile. Bubblegumshoe went on to win a Best Family Game Gold ENnie, showing the power of Evil Hat’s willingness to take the time to get a game right. (Evil Hat’s other potential GUMSHOE game, a ghost-detective game called The Revengers, by Will Hindmarch, has never come to fruition.)
That brings us to Evil Hat’s third pivot point, leading into their Phase 4 development. It started once more with a very successful product launch, this time the Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game, which brought in half-a-million dollars following the end of its Kickstarter on May 19, 2016. Jump a month later to June 18, 2016: Saturday night at the Origins Game Fair. While talking with Mark Diaz Truman, owner of his own company Magpie Games, Fred Hicks realized that he was still running Evil Hat like an indie company — despite its move six years earlier into standard distribution, despite a few years of Chris Hanrahan working to turn Evil Hat into more of a “real” business, and despite nine successful Kickstarters, two of which had earned about half-a-million dollars each.
[I]t was time to really, fully put people into jobs instead of treating all the work of running Evil Hat as something folks could just fit into their available time whenever.Fred Hicks, “The Pivot”, Deadly Fredly (August 2016)
A few weeks later, Hicks opened Evil Hat’s books to Truman, who was able to point out some deep secrets of accounting, including the fact that Evil hat kept too much cash on hand. So Evil Hat pivoted a third time, doing something that very few roleplaying companies are able to: it brought multiple staff members on full time. Chris Hanrahan and Carrie Harris went full-time in their positions as Vice President and Director of Marketing. Sean Nittner was promoted to Director of Projects and granted two staff reporting to him: Stephen Bajza helped to automate check-ins with project teams, and Sophie Lagacé began working on Fate projects. Brian Patterson came in as Evil Hat’s “artist in residence” and later became their art director. However, Hicks said that the change wasn’t just about raises and titles. It was about: “shifting our perspective on how we handle our product releases, our crowdfunding strategies, and more.”
This was what brought Evil Hat’s huge product-line-creating Kickstarters to an end. Though they had been great for Evil Hat’s catalog, they had been tough for retailers, distributors, and even fans, who found themselves suddenly required to purchase a half-a-dozen books at once. And, that was just one or many changes required for Evil Hat to transform itself from a company run like an indie to one that more appropriately treated itself like a mid-tier roleplaying publisher.
A few months later, Evil Hat revealed that this new pivot wouldn’t change their role as a hub for indie publication. On September 13, they announced that they’d be taking over publication of two more indie products that had been successfully Kickstarted: Blades in the Dark had taken in $179,820 for an indie thief RPG and Karthun: Lands of Conflict $42,859 for a systemless setting based on a popular web comic.
Both Kickstarters had seen scope creep due to stretch goals during their crowdfunding. It hadn’t been ruinous creep, as it was mainly constrained to content, but it was enough to slow production, with both projects now being a year overdue. John Harper of Blades in the Dark was happy with Evil Hat’s ability to get his book into game stores, but the creators of Karthun acted like Evil Hat was entirely saving their project, saying: “We thought we were going to transition from two guys working on stuff together into a business. We didn’t reckon on the amount of time effort, and focus that would take.”
Blades in the Dark (2017), by John Harper, released first in May 2017. It seems likely to become another of the most notable indie games. That’s in part because it concentrates on very specific tropes and excels at their use — as many of the most successful indies do. In an evocative world of steampunk and spirits, Blades in the Dark details thieves and their heists. Meanwhile, the tension is ramped to the max by what Harper describes as a “pressure-cooker situation”. Because the city of Duskwall is protected by lightning walls, no one can get in or out, which makes thievery a zero-sum game: anything that the players’ gang takes comes out of someone else’s pocket, creating enemies in every session. And, killing them isn’t much of an option, since they’ll come back as ghosts.
The indie mechanics of Blades in the Dark are centered on ideas of player agency. Players get to plan their own heists in a sandbox environment. The GM supports these off-the-cuff sessions by asking questions, but he’s ultimately spinning the tales that the players want to hear. Blades in the Dark also has plenty of other clever indie mechanics, such as flashbacks that shortcut the usual problem of eternal planning in roleplaying games and a resource-management system that balances stress and harm. It cretes a fast-paced, organic game where the players are truly in control.
Blades in the Dark was successful from the day it hit Kickstarter, and it has only gained more attention and acclaim since Evil Hat’s publication. Fans immediately started creating supplements, something that Harper and Evil Hat further supported in December 2017 with the release of a Blades in the Dark SRD that allows the publication of variant “Forged in the Dark” games. The first of these is the rebellious science-fiction game, Scum & Villainy (2018), by Stras Acimovic and John LeBoeuf-Little of Off Guard Games, which was also published and distributed by Evil Hat.
Karthun: Lands of Conflict (2017), by cartoonist (and Evil Hat art director!) Brian Patterson and designer Tracy Barnett, released two months later in July 2017. The Karthun designers had met some time previous when Patterson illustrated Barnett’s School Daze (2012) RPG of high school drama. Two years later, in 2014, they partnered together as Exploding Rogue Studios. One of their first goals was to take the Karthun setting hinted at in Patterson’s d20Monkey webcomic (2010-Present) and turn it into an RPG supplement. They launched their Kickstarter in September 2014, and now a bit less than three years later, the book was on shelves. Although not as revolutionary of an indie production as Blades in the Dark, it’s nonetheless been lauded as an evocative world.
And that isn’t the end of Evil Hat’s work as a producer and distributor of top indie games. They are continuing to work with John Harper and his One Seven design studio, with their next released being a second edition of Harper’s RPG of Greek heroes, Agon (2020?). It’s being co-designed by Jason Morningstar, another indie stuperstar.
Meanwhile, Evil Hat’s own home-brew systems remain at the center of the company’s production. Fate Core got a particular boost on February 15, 2017 when Geek & Sundry’s TableTop (2012-2017) covered it — one of just two roleplaying games that they featured in Season 4. The resulting spike in sales included not just hundreds of copies of Fate Core, but also tens of thousands of Fate Dice, forcing Evil Hat to go back to Kickstarter to reprint them the next year.
Why am I sharing these two graphs today? Both show solid-performing products that suddenly started outperforming the trend by a lot due to online exposure involving actual play. Which goes to the title I put on this post: Streaming is the new best way things get sold. Conventions still a factor, sure. But, seriously, look at those graphs.Fred Hicks, “The Importance of Streaming and Actual Play Online in Modern Tabletop Publishing”, Deadly Fredly (February 2018)
And finally, the Evil Hat staff continues to change and grow, showing the company’s maturation. Though long-time Fate developer Leonard Balsera stepped down from that role due to his work as COO and Creative Director of John Wick Presents, Sophie Lagacé has filled that position, while Brian Patterson has become the company’s Senior Art Director.
Evil Hat has come a long way from that first free release of Fate online, and their ambition may just keep leveling them up in the ’10s and beyond.
Some late news came out the same day this was published. Read Getting Too Big for Out Hat.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #20 on RPGnet. It was written for the German edition of Evil Hat’s four-volume release, which was a sort of version 2.1 of the series.
Expanded Bibliography & Thanks
Barnett, Tracy and Brian Patterson. 2016. “Karthun, Evil Hat, and All of It”. Kickstarter. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sandandsteam/karthun-lands-of-conflict/posts/1680593.
BGG Posters. 2013. “RPG Industry Professional Interview: Michael Sands”. Board Game Geek. https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/156833/rpg-industry-professional-interview-michael-sands.
Bunge, Nicole. 2016. “Evil Hat Brings Successful Kickstarter RPGs to Trade”. ICv2. https://icv2.com/articles/news/view/35493/evil-hat-brings-successful-kickstarter-rpgs-trade.
Evil Hat. 2014. “Fatereon: Year One”. Patreon. https://www.patreon.com/posts/fatereon-year-1396304.
Harper, John. 2016. “Announcing: Evil Hat Partnership! Plus: Production Timeline”. Kickstarter. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2080350433/blades-in-the-dark/posts/1676582 (backers only).
Hicks, Fred. 2015. “Delegating and Reorgnizing for Growth at Evil Hat”. Deadly Fredly. http://www.deadlyfredly.com/2015/07/delegating-for-growth/.
Hicks, Fred. 2018. “How I Got a Full Time Job in Tabletop Games”. Deadly Fredly. http://www.deadlyfredly.com/2018/06/how-i-got-a-full-time-job-in-tabletop-games/
Hicks, Fred. 2016. “The Pivot”. Deadly Fredly. http://www.deadlyfredly.com/2016/08/the-pivot/.
Riggs, Ben. 2018. “This Year-old RPG About Thieves is Already Hugely Influential — Blades in the Dark”. Geek & Sundry. https://geekandsundry.com/this-year-old-rpg-about-thieves-is-already-hugely-influential-blades-in-the-dark/.
Fred Hicks, Sean Nittner.