Patronage markets at Kobold Quarterly

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Along with getting back into playing D&D over the past year, I've started catching up on the world of 3rd party publishers. One really interesting publisher is Kobold Quarterly, which seems to have developed over the course of a year from a one-man gaming zine to a respected publication with big-name contributors like Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb, and Skip Williams.

The biggest thing KQ is doing, though, is their patronage-based Open Design adventures. KQ puts out the bare sketch of an idea, with a couple of big options left open. (The current project, Halls of the Mountain King, has 3E and 4E versions competing.) Patrons sign up via paypal; when one of the competing options hits a dollar target, it goes into development, and other options' patrons get the option to join the winner or else get a refund. The project then commissions writers, a cartographer, and artists, and the patrons are given access to private forums to discuss the project, guide its development via polls, or propose ideas to the writers and other patrons for inclusion into the project. At the end, the patrons each get copies of the project - and nobody else does. It's a limited run, private work, and it appears that the total commission is in the few thousand dollar range, though I haven't been able to find totals anywhere.

A few of these projects have been produced by now, and apparently have strong enough reputations (either through word of mouth or simply by association with the publicly available KQ content) that people are desperately trying to find ways to get back issues. The site's public forum is abuzz with grumbling about unavailable projects, questions about first-sale doctrine by patrons over their copies of old projects, etc. KQ's editor has expressed substantial frustration over the fact that some copies seem to have been leaked online, which he sees as some patrons breaking their social contract with the authors and artists, but particularly with the other patrons.

It seems like this problem should be surmountable, and it'll be interesting to see whether KQ's patronage market system matures into a two-tier public/private product market. My expectation is that holding things private forever would be impossible (do a search sometime for D&D books on Bittorrent...), but that some mechanism for rewarding patrons (investors, early adoptors) is certainly needed. Simplest, from a prestige standpoint, would be raw recognition within the project - similar to the Ypsi Symphony Orchestra or UMGASS's program listings of supporters (patrons). A game material bonus could also work - patrons get the product a year before it goes up for public distribution, or get some extra piece of product that's left out of the general release (though these solutions lend themselves to black marketeering just as the original product does). More complicatedly, the patrons could be treated as investors in more of a shareholder approach - in addition to general recognition, they can get paid a share of general market sales of the product proportional to their patronage level. (I expect this would most likely be in the form of credits usable towards future KQ products / patronages, rather than trying to move actual cash around.) Regardless of the system, though, it probably wouldn't be back-applicable, but would have to be instituted at Time N for all future products - considering KQ's view of the strong social contract of exclusivity around existing patronage products, they'd (rightfully) want to have the terms of patron vs. public access to the product laid out at the time that patrons join, rather than retconning it.

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Free Time?

Jeez Murph, what did you do for your week and a half off? Play D&D the whole time? You do about 6 posts a year these days and you use two of them on D&D. What a nerd! I think this may seriously cut into your requests from the Issue Media Group for future bloging requests.

patronage

Why stop with the symphony's model when you can go all the way back to the composer's model? Tell your patrons / investors / early adopters that you'll work their ideas or their characters into the material. Use their character concepts for illustrations, or retell episodes from their campaign to illustrate mechanics, or have their characters as kickass NPCs in one of your settings. If they want to invest up front, you can put them in from the start; if they want to buy it after it's complete, you can work them into a later version, perhaps also including excerpts or suggestions from when they played with the material.

If your shout-outs to paying customers won't be added until later, that also gives them an incentive not to leak the material early. If the public release is going to tell all about about the totally awesome campaign you and your friends ran, that's the version you'll want the world to have!

symphony / composer

Nice analogy!

It sounds like the way that KQ has it set up does allow for some amount of idea generation by the patrons - the lowest tier folks just get to vote on the ideas for what goes in, but the higher dollar folks actually get to put their ideas into the votes.

And, actually, it would be very possible to do the vanity work at any stage along the way. If you're letting your big money patrons playtest the material during development, they're obviously going to have characters that fit the material. From there, it's a very small step to inject them into the official version.