When something this big happens, there is going to be a few blog posts about it. They say it is one of the top ten most profitable Kickstarters of all time. Two million dollars, just to write a game supplement – that is really something. Let’s do the math, shall we? Word count in a normal GURPS or White Wolf supplement hovers around 60K. Divide two millions by 60,000 and lo and behold – Matt Colville will earn $34 per word he types. It’s almost absurd. This right here is peak RPG profit margin if there was ever such a thing.
Between Arneson and Gygax who both ended their lives in near poverty, and Steven Erikson who received one million dollars for his entire Malazan Book of the Fallen (ten tomes and over 2 million words total), this Strongholds & Followers thing looks like an aberration. Erikson earned 50 cents per word – which is already a very sweet deal for a writer.
If Colville had been writing this blog post, he would have made $5,440 already.
But how can his book ever live up to its landmark profit margin? It’s unimaginable. The end result is bound to be a disappointment. Yes, I admit I am curious to see that “two-million-dollar supplement”. At least one of my friends will buy it, since he buys everything RPG. But I don’t need to buy it, since I already have Lion Rampant’s original Ars Magica.
Because that’s just it, isn’t it? Strongholds & Followers is really Ars Magica for D&D.
Ars Magica is a role-playing game of political alliances, political borders, diplomacy, intrigue, public relations with the “mundanes”, tribunals, and basically managing the resources of a covenant. The magi have Companions and Grogs – in other words, followers –, and they seldom have to trade and interact with other covenants. My friends and I played Ars Magica for a solid ten years, and it was awesome. Here’s a confession: sometimes you will skip the tedious upkeep and go straight to the next adventure. Who around the table is going to make contact with that old beekeeper who lives downhill from the covenant? Who wants to role-play the boring negotiation scene with the local fishermen? Vincent, you up for it? Fuck that. Just roll percentile dice and be done with it.
Sooner or later, the magi always end up going on yet another adventure anyway – and leaving the covenant into the (usually) capable hands of some NPC. So, the covenant or stronghold or temple isn’t the centrepiece of the game; embarking on adventures is still the centrepiece. True sedentary campaigns only work up to a certain point.
And let’s not forget vis. What is an Ars Magica covenant without a source of vis? For those who are definitely not familiar, what we call “vis” is the main commodity in Ars Magica. Raw vis consists of physical, storable, tradable “magic points” that need to be harvested in remote magical places (for instance, a sacred glade or mysterious cavern) at exactly the right time of year. Covenants usually have jurisdiction over one such magical place. Some covenants can control two, three, or even four different vis sources. Very powerful / influential covenants may control five vis sources – we’re talking between 15 and 30 resident magi here. And of course there are some “disputed” sources of vis. These may be located halfway between covenant A and covenant B, or maybe there was a very old clause in that covenant’s charter about the magi from the neighboring covenant being allowed to harvest a fixed quantity of vis once every seven seasons – but the head of the covenant has been replaced in the meanwhile, and that new master refuses to honor that outdated clause. Clashes often ensue. Sometimes, the dreaded Mage Tribunals are needed to settle disputes – and the votes there can be bought... with vis, obviously!
Now, tell me why in hell wouldn’t Matt Colville implement something eerily similar to vis in Strongholds & Followers, some kind of magic currency that will generate constant competition between neighboring Strongholds / Temples / Towers, and force the PCs or their followers to encroach upon the domains of rival Strongholds / Temples / Towers? I believe Colville would be crazy not to include that.
In the end, bringing higher level D&D characters into a geopolitical Ars Magica adjacent setting is not a bad idea. It’s the sort of thing DMs do all the time in their home campaigns. I had a friend who ran an extensive, multigroup campaign of HârnMaster set in Middle-Earth’s Second Age; he called it “Middle-Hârn”, and it was a good idea. I myself once ran a King Kull campaign using Warhammer Fantasy’s system and career paths. That, too, was a nice idea. Dungeon Masters have been doing stuff like this since 1974. It’s called a homebrew.
The difference now is that you can put your homebrew “idea” on Kickstarter, and pretend like Middle-Hârn is a fresh, never before seen take, while in fact it’s nothing more than Tolkien’s ideas plus HârnMaster.
If you look up “plagiarize” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it says, “to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”. I mean, look all around you. It’s everywhere. We have undeniably crossed the Rubicon––
Midnight, Texas is Grimm.
Deception is The Mentalist.
The Emperor has no clothes.
And nobody cares.