Kickstarter has been a huge boon to the roleplaying industry, playing a major role in the expansion of the industry that occurred in the ’10s. However, Kickstarter hasn’t always resulted in success. What follows is a listing of 10 of the most disastrous and high-profile Kickstarter failures of the ’10s. Many of them resulted from mistakes made by companies and individuals unfamiliar with the brand-new sales medium. Many of them wouldn’t occur today. But others would.

This listing orders Kickstarters by dollar amount, but they aren’t necessarily the top ten valued failures, just the top ten most notable. Though this listing is mainly of unfulfilled Kickstarters, some may be fulfilled by the time you read this. More than one Kickstarter has surprisingly completed after a half-decade of radio silence.

The Top 10 RPG Kickstarter Fails

1. Far West ($49,324)

Date: 7/11/11
Failure Mode: Goalpost Movement

In 2011, Kickstarter was a new tool for the roleplaying industry, and Gareth-Michael Skarka was one of the first to dive in, with a “Western/Wuxia Mashup adventure game”. Skarka had big plans for a “transmedia” project that included not just the core game, but fiction as well. Unfortunately, Skarka proved unable to release the book for over a decade, making it the longest-running KickFail in the industry. Skarka has cited mental and health crises over time, and the clearest explanation for the failure seems to be writer’s block. Which is why many later Kickstarters learned the lesson of at least drafting their core text before seeking funding.

Unfortunately, Skarka appears to have largely ruined his life and his career because of this failure. Though he’s occasionally gone missing for a year or more at a time, he’s spent much of the interim worrying away at the project, even offering daily updates at one point. Meanwhile, when he’s tried to work on other projects, such as a short stint on Star Trek for Modiphius, he’s had enraged backers petitioning against that work until Far West is done.

Generally, backers have proven very intolerant of failed Kickstarters, but that seems particularly true for Far West, possibly due to Skarka’s frequent tendency to suggest the game was days or weeks from publication. One site cites 79 different promises of publication, from December 2011 to early 2022.

2. Mekton Zero ($50,125)

Date: 5/23/13
Failure Mode: Refunds

The Mekton Zero failure is notable mainly because it was a failure from a major roleplaying publisher: R. Talsorian. The new edition of R. Talsorian’s original game had already been long-coming before the Kickstarter, with the first mentions appearing almost a decade earlier. But the timing of actually bringing it to Kickstarter proved unfortunate because it came several months after R. Talsorian started working with CD Projekt Red.

The public speculation is that R. Talsorian’s attention instead went into the RPGs related to that CD Projekt Red deal: The Witcher (2018) and Cyberpunk Red (2020) as well as the video game Cyberpunk 2077 (2020). Whatever the reason, after five years of treading water (and watching the Mekton Zero game bloat in size), R. Talsorian decided to offer refunds to all backers.

Backers say they would have preferred the book.

3. The Mountain Witch 2e ($68,593)

Date: 6/4/18
Failure Mode: Ghosting

Timothy Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch (2005) was one of the iconic publications of the early indie movement. Over a decade later, the indie style of play had grown much more popular, and Kleinert decided to leverage that popularity with a Kickstarter for a new edition of his game. After asking for $10,000 he received almost $70,000 to produce the updated games — clearly far more than Kleinert had ever expected, as he’d set stretch goals for $15,000 and $20,000 but no higher.

Following the Kickstarter, Kleinert made just two updates, one saying that he was editing the completed manuscript. Then, he disappeared. Ironically, The Mountain Witch was all about trust between different people with unknown pasts. Some suggest that Kleinert’s Kickstarter was the biggest trust game of all, one that he ultimately “won”.

4. The Castle Nystul Failures ($75,212 total)

Dates: 5/4/12, 7/27/12, 11/15/12
Failure Mode: Company Foundation

In the ’90s, Mike Nystul was best-known for his creation of a dark horror RPG called The Whispering Vault (1993), which was ultimately the entrant to the field for Chris Pramas and Green Ronin. Nystul left the industry following the death of TSR, but returned in the ’10s to try and publish some of his ideas through Kickstarter. He thus Kickstarted three different projects in 2012: Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon, the dwarf-focused Axes and Anvils RPG, and the fuzzy-animal Cairn FRPG. He would never publish any of them himself.

The main problem was that Nystul tried to turn the relatively meager funds from his Kickstarters into the seed for a company with at least two other employees. The funds quickly ran out under the monthly expenses, with none of the projects ever done. One of Nystul’s employees later took on Cairn in exchange for the RPG rights, and a fan, Andrew Shields, did the same for Axes and Anvils. Both were eventually produced, though with backers only receiving limited rewards from the new owners. Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon seems entirely dead, following a failed turnover of the same sort.

A few other companies have learned that Kickstarter funds alone can not be used to fund a company. Evil Hat was forced to let go some of their staff following successful Kickstarters for Fate Core (2013) and the The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017). John Wick similarly found that the million dollars brought in by the Kickstarter for 7th Sea 2e (2016) was insufficient to run a company; after trying to stabilize cashflow with an additional Kickstarter, Wick eventually brought 7th Sea to Chaosium instead. However, the most infamous example may be Goblinwork’s Pathfinder Online Kickstarter, which was run by Paizo and Ryan Dancey. The million dollars it brought in was never going to be sufficient to fund a computer game company, and some backers later felt that Paizo had used crowd funding to try and bootstrap the company up to the point where they could seek Venture Capital funding. (They failed.)

5. City State of the Invincible Overlord ($85,130)

Date: 3/24/14
Failure Mode: Bigotry

Though Judges Guild’s co-founder, Bob Bledsaw, passed in 2008, his descendants Bob Bledsaw Jr. and Bob Bledsaw III decided to keep the torch alive with a 2014 Kickstarter for a new urban sourcebook for the setting. Bob III sat on the project for four years, expending most of the Kickstarter funds in the process, without completing it. Progress improved when Bob Jr. took over the project and brought in new funds from Frog God Games thanks to their Kickstarter of another Judges Guild project, Tegel Manor.

But then in 2020 anti-semitic and otherwise bigoted social-media posts were revealed from both Bob II and (especially) Bob III; when confronted with them, the younger Bledsaws decided to die on the hill of claiming their material was “non-political” (meaning non-diverse). The Judges Guild material quickly became radioactive to the point where Judges Guild’s modern-day partners became hesitant to work with them, even from afar. Goodman Games would eventually purchase some of Jennell Jaquays’ creations from Judges Guild rather than continue partnering with them directly. Robert Conley of Bat in the Attic Games decided to maintain his license with Judges Guild only until sufficient deferred royalties had been logged to offset money he was owed due to his work on maps for the Kickstarter. That occurred in August 2022 and he ended his sales of all Judges Guild-derived products at the point when he would have begun sending Judges Guild actual royalties payments again.

As of that date, the City-State Kickstarter was still incomplete, though allegedly in final edits.

6. The Marmoreal Tomb ($126,109)

Date: 7/30/15
Failure Mode: Third-Party Bailout

The Marmoreal Tomb was Ernie Gygax’s starter set for his campaign setting of Duinnsmere and the Hobby Shop Dungeon, created in 1978. But Ernie Gygax and co-author Benoist Poiré ultimately proved unable to complete the product. Despite a few years of experience with Kickstarter problems, the principals had not written the manuscript prior to the crowd-funding. Health problems were also cited.

Stephen Chenault of Troll Lord Games became involved in 2019 when he Kickstarted a new 5e edition of The Lost City of Gaxmoor (2020), previously released as a d20 module (2002) by Luke and Ernie Gygax. During the new Kickstarter, Chenault was confronted as to whether the new Gaxmoor would face the same fate as the Marmoreal Tomb (which it would not). Afterward, Chenault reached out to Ernie to bail out the earlier project. Over the next few years he coordinated the work, eventually resulting in a multi-book release (2022).

Of course by then, Ernie was involved with Justin LaNasa’s company that called itself TSR. Beyond the general bigotry of that company, Ernie also made transphobic comments in an interview of his own. Thus, the interest in the product was likely much lower than it once had been, much as with the long-delayed City-State Kickstarter.

There are many other Kickstarters that were considered huge failures at the time but were later bailed out by other companies. As noted already, two of Mike Nystul’s projects were saved in that way, albeit with only partial support for backers. James Maliszewski’s Dwimmermount (2014) was saved more completely by Autarch.

There are even Kickstarters that were long considered failures that were eventually produced by the original creator, among them James Wallis’ Alas Vegas (2017), John Adams’ Appendix N Adventure Toolkits (2012-2019), Raven McCracken’s third edition of The World of Synnibarr (2022), and Brian Feister’s Open Legend (2017) — the last a Kickstarter funded on the strength of celebrity content by Matt Mercer, Ed Greenwood, and others, and ultimately held up on the promise of a GM Screen (2022)!

7. The d20 Entertainment Disasters ($177,905 Total)

Dates: 12/18/13 through 3/8/15
Failure Mode: Serial Failure

Ken Whitman has long been a controversial figure in roleplaying, from his oversight of the failing Imperium Games in the ’90s to the broken promises of his Rapid POD company in the ’00s, which was one of the major cracks that eventually led to the disintegration of the GPA, a roleplaying publisher’s organization. In the ’10s he decided to try his hand at business again with d20 Entertainment.

From December 18, 2013 to March 8, 2015, Whitman ran six d20 Entertainment Kickstarters. Three of them were to produce live-action entertainment shows: the “Knights of the Dinner Table: Live Action Series” and pilots for “Spinward Traveller” and “Castles & Crusades: Beyond the River”. The other three were for pencil dice, RPG pencil dice, and deck dice.

For the most part, the Kickstarters remain unfinished. At least one legal action has been filed against Whitman demanding an accounting of funds. At least two websites have been created solely to warn people not to fund Whitman or d20 Entertainment. Whitman’s bio on Kickstarter, updated during the COVID pandemic, simply reads: “My name is Ken Whitman and I am a bad businessman when it comes to figuring out how much money I need to create a Kickstarter. I started 6 Kickstarter, and have only managed to officially finish one to date. I am still working to finish them. Thank you for your patience.”

Whitman’s explanations for the failures of the Kickstarters are voluminous, as is the back and forth of promised, but failed release dates. He has accused fans of cyberstalking him and corroded relationships with his partners. Thus Knights of the Dinner Table creator Jolly Blackburn said: “From telling me my dead daughter is burning in hell in one PM to ‘you will never see your precious movie’ to ‘your fans are whiners and assholes’, Ken will always be Ken.”

At one point, all of the files for the live-action work were thought destroyed in a barn fire, but afterward Whitman continued to promise release of “Knights of the Dinner Table” at a premiere event at Gen Con Indy 2015. Mind you, he didn’t have a venue for the premiere event, nor had he invited actors or backers. Zombie Orpheus Entertainment (ZOE), who represented some of the actors and were friends with Blackburn, stepped up to make sure the event and a backer’s afterparty happened. Rough cuts of three episodes were shown. ZOE also ended up working with Kenzer & Company to produce a “rescued” edition of the three “Knights of the Dinner Table” episodes, combining raw footage, the Gen Con rough cuts, and YouTube trailers. ZOE then delivered DVDs to backers.

Since then, Whitman has said he’s recovered the original live-action content once thought lost, allegedly sending “Spinward Traveller” to Marc Miller and offering to recut Knights of the Dinner Table for Blackburn. A few other rewards from Kickstarters, such as some pencils, have also trickled out.

8. Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary ($195,480)

Date: 8/17/12
Failure Mode: Lawsuit

In 2012, producers Andrew Pascal and James Sprattley and director Anthony Savini Kickstarted a documentary on Dungeons & Dragons. Its foundation was entirely innocuous. Pascal and Savini had been playing D&D together since the ’90s, when they both worked on Law & Order. They eventually decided to create a film about their hobby.

Unfortunately, there were creative disputes over who would control the film’s narrative from the start. Pascal and Sprattley ultimately decided to Kickstart a competing film called “The Great Kingdom”, while Savini continued on the original with a new partner, Cecily Tyler. Savini filed a lawsuit when he learned what Pascal and Sprattley were doing.

This resulted in a four-year hiatus for The Great Kingdom project, but in the years afterward their work continued. Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary has not posted any updates since the conclusion of the lawsuit.

9. Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Catastrophe ($769,640)

Dates: 8/15/12 & 5/28/13
Failure Mode: Catastrophic Success

Chaosium got into Kickstarter in 2012 and 2013, when they Kickstarted first a new edition of their classic Horror on the Orient Express adventure (1991), then the seventh edition of Call of Cthulhu (1981). The Horror Kickstarter made all the mistakes possible in an early Kickstarter, setting low shipping costs in advance, burdening the project with superfluous add-ons, and offering stretch goals that dramatically increased the cost of the project. Among the most ridiculous add-ons was a $115 “seasoned traveler” steamer trunk. Then Chaosium decided to send two of their staff-members to Turkey for additional research for the project.

Raising $200,000, the Horror project suffered a catastrophic success. Due to delays in the project, shipping prices had dramatically increased by the time of fulfillment, which was made worse by shipping some rewards in waves. For European shipments in particular, Chaosium was paying $60-$140 for shipping after having collected $20 from most of those backers. The company was paupered as a result. It then became unable to fulfill the seventh edition Call of Cthulhu Kickstarter.

At that point, Chaosium came under new management, in part due to their increasing problems with fulfilling the Kickstarters (and the latter one in particular). The new Chaosium owners were forced to put additional money into the company so that it could print and ship the seventh edition Call of Cthulhu book (2015).

10. Robotech RPG Tactics ($1,442,312)

Date: 4/18/13
Failure Mode: License Loss

As a strategic combat game, Robotech RPG Tactics just marginally fits into the RPG Kickstarter Failure category, but it was designed for use with Palladium’s latter-day Robotech RPGs (2008), so call it a high-end roleplaying-related failure.

The heart of Robotech RPG Tactics was the creation of miniatures for the Robotech mecha, a job that Palladium subcontracted to Ninja Division/Soda Pop Miniatures, who had previously worked on successful Kickstarters with Games Workshop, CMON, and others. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line their expertise proved insufficient to adequately control the miniature production process.

According to Kevin Siembieda’s latter-day discussion of the project failure, first the 3D sculpt files proved to be in the wrong format, and then the cost of tooling the miniatures dramatically escalated. Meanwhile, the costs of shipping also notably increased as the project was delayed. In the end, Palladium ran out of money before they could produce all of the miniatures. They thus broke the project into two “waves”. The first wave of miniatures was shipped, but Palladium had no money to produce or ship the second. There was some hope that a solution could eventually be found, but Harmony Gold decided to recover their Robotech license, perhaps due in part to the increasing damage being done to the brand by the failed Kickstarter.

(Ninja Division was also involved with the failures of the Starfinder Masterclass Miniatures Kickstarter. After Ninja had laid off their entire staff by the end of 2018, Archon Studio took over the project and began fulfilling it in waves.)

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #69 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat and was written to be a part of the upcoming Designers & Dragons: The Lost Histories and The ’10s.

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