Running the numbers: What happens when a tiny indie RPG hits the front page of Polygon?

So, I had a bit of good fortune, my optimistic space opera TTRPG Return to the Stars was prominently featured in an article called “The Future of Tabletop Role-Play is Hope”  on Polygon, one of the largest gaming sites on the web.  Like most tiny indie publishers, that’s a bit a outside my realm of experience, so I thought there might be some value in looking the impact,

I’d really encourage you to read the article, which is a pretty cool survey of hopepunk TTRPGs “that prioritize care, community, optimism, and joy.”  You can see how the author spent a lot of time not only discussing the game, but reaching out to the creators. In my case they spend a full half hour on the interview, and came in prepared not only knowing about my game, but also having read entirely separate essay I had written on utopian fiction.  As someone who has occasionally interacted with the press in a healthtech day job, and can say that this amount investment in writing a piece is pretty rare.  This is a serious article, not some simple listicle.

I want to make it clear this the piece is covering a range of interesting solarpunk and hopepunk games.  At the same time Illustrations from my game were the first two pieces of art for the article, and was the graphic presented on the Polygon home page.  Mine was the first game covered, and I was the designer that was first and last quoted.   I’m not saying this to brag, but give the context for looking at the numbers driven by the article—this was substantial exposure for my game.

(To squee for a minute, it was pretty surreal to see the art from my hopepunk space opera game show up alongside all the articles Polygon has on the new Zelda game!)

So, what did this prominent placement do for visitors and purchases?
The article landed debuted on Friday, and stayed on the front page through Sunday evening.  As of Monday, it is available on the site, and visible from the tabletop gaming section, but no longer “above the fold” or immediately visible on the front page of Polygon.  This chart show this the referrals this generated to my website, either directly from Polygon, or because people (presumably because of the article) are Googling the name of my game.  I had previously published an essay on hopepunk, by the author who coined the term, and that is linked as a source in Wikipedia.  So we’ll also count the Wikipedia referrals as driven by people who “wanted to know more about this hopepunk thing” after reading the article.

So, 450 referrals to my website.  Not bad at all.

The front page of my website had a link to an itch sale I created to celebrate being recognized in Polygon. 

There are 268 click through from my website to the sale page I created—that seems a reasonably high conversion rate.

I did a few other things to get the word out.  I sent a thank you to my Kickstarter backers—the game exists because they were willing to take a chance on it long before there was coverage in Polygon or an Indie Groundbreaker award nomination.   I thanked some people on social media, and squee’d a bit.

Probably most significantly,  I reached out through itch to the people who had downed a ‘zine I had written on hopepunk.  I let them know about the article, and about the sale.  Of the 9000 people who had downloaded the zine, half opened the e-mail, and there were only 171 unsubscribes.  Pretty reasonable.

So, to sum up, there was traffic driven by the Polygon article itself, and the article provided a good reason to reach out to people who already cared about a ‘zine I published about hopepunk.

Here you can see the views for my itch account:

What did this do for sales?  Since this article was published, I’ve had 70 sales (of the game and/or zines that I’ve published.  That’s $762.62 in sales, and hopefully a few more gamers having fun playing my game and painting a better future in bold, primary colors.

So, what are some takeaways?  First off, I’ll note that tabletop RPGs are very niche, and micro-indies like mine are a niche within a niche.  And some people are just going to resist the very idea of hopepunk as a genre.  Heck, some old farts will object to anything ending in the suffix “-punk”, as if that ship didn’t sail with the coining of Steampunk in the late ‘80s.

I can easily imagine a different type of game, or a tabletop RPG that was more mainstream, getting a lot more lift from this sort of exposure.  At the same time, the article itself, the game, and the connection to people who downloaded my zine only existed because of my interest in hopepunk, and the notion that there are exciting stories to be made about people taking risks to care for others.

Anyway, I hope this analysis was helpful or interesting to other RPG creators.  Let know your thoughts or questions!

Two Science Fiction films, and a documentary

A few SF film recommendations from screenings at IFFBoston:

The Pod Generation an amiable satire about technology, nature, parenting and relationships. A high performing manager (Emilia Clarke) receives a promotion, and a benefit–access to The Womb Center, where you have a kid without burden or stress marks, thanks to portable artifical wombs called pods. While she values the quality of this luxury experience, and her company see this as a way helping their highest performers lean in, her husband (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a botanist, is very dubious about technology replacing nature, and is disconcerted that his wife committed to the procedure without consulting him. Strong performances, a Sundance Award winner, well worth catching.

At the other end of life, Plan 75 imagines a Japan in the not too distant future where a voluntary euthanasia scheme is put in place to reduce the imbalances caused by an aging population. The focus is on the minute details of the scheme in practice–following a salesperson for the plan, an aging woman who becomes a client, and a Filipino nurse who becomes employed in providing the service. This isn’t a film about shouting politicians or activists–it is a minute slice of life examination of what happens when a society decides this is what it wants to do–a film about setting up the pop up display a community fair and explaining to seniors the benefits that come alongside deciding to end your life. If The Pod Generation is broadly comic, Plan 75 has a very dry sense of humor.

Confessions of a Good Samaritan is a documentary, but it offers very similar “science fiction style” pleasures as the films above do– an autobiographical documentary by a film maker who had decided to be an altruistic organ donor, offering a kidney for an unknown stranger. A wonderful exploration of medical ethics, technology, social beliefs and the neuropsychology of altruism.

Icebreaker: a micro RPG

I released a tiny new game today. Icebreaker was created as part of the Pleasure-not-Business Card RPG Jam a contest where you create an “RPG related thing” that can fit on a business card.

Icebreaker is a micro RPG where you play newcomers to a science station on a frozen planet. It is designed, literally, as an ice breaking game that you can play to make new acquaintances while you are attending a gaming or SFF convention. The game PDF is formatted with margins and bleed so that you can have Moo or another printing service print the game on a standard business card, so you have the option of affordably printing a large number of copies, and creating a improv micro LARP at your event. Of course, you can simply download the game, and play a five minute game with friends, perhaps as you are waiting for a late player to arrive for you tabletop roleplaying game.

The game is free, but if you like the idea, please check out the my Indie Groundbreaker-nominated optimistic sci fi roleplaying game: Return to the Stars.

sci fi snowscape, and the title Icebreaker

My 2020 Nebula Award Nominations

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is nebulaawards2020banner-1.jpg

One of the pleasures of being a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is the privilege of nominating work that you admire for the Nebula Awards. I’ve had a chance to read/watch/play a lot of great SFF this year. Here’s a list of the noteworthy stuff I’ve nominated. I’m really looking forward learning about about more cool stuff when the ballot comes out!


Beowulf: A New Translation, Maria Dahvana Headley
Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir
The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson
Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Providence, Max Barry


Lone Puppeteer of a Sleeping City, Alura Ratnakar
Two Truths and a Lie, Sarah Pinsker

Short Story

Tea with the Earl of Twilight, Sonya Taaffe
Tony Roomba’s Last Day on Earth, Maria Haskins

The Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

Elatsoe, Darcie Little Badger
Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, Carlos Hernandez

Game Writing

The King In Yellow RPG
This Discord Has Ghosts In It

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Shadow in the Cloud
World of Tomorrow Episode Three

Return to the Star is a 2020 Indie Groundbreaker Nominee!

I’m very excited to let people know that Return to the Stars has been nominated in the Best Setting category for the 2020 Indie Groundbreaker Awards!

The Indie Groundbreaker Awards, are designed to shine a spotlight on excellence in the indie game design community. The awards recognize “exciting game designs that push the boundaries in innovation, in promoting diversity, and in expanding what it means to be “indie.””

Happy to able to be at the table alongside other cool indies. And glad to be able to spotlight optimistic science fiction in challenging times.

The Indie Groundbreakers Awards ceremony is normally happens at the IGDN Social held at Gen Con, this year the ceremony will be held online (streaming details to follow).

To celebrate the Indie Groundbreaker nomination, we’re throwing a sale!

Grab a free Return to the Stars 4K sci-fi cityscape to use in backgrounds for video conferences

As we’re all sensibly distancing, it’s nice to mix up the backgrounds on our video calls. So here’s a free 4K image free for noncommercial use. This illustration of the Convention was drawn by Yog Joshi,  who specializes in environment illustrations and background layouts for games. A figure prominently featured with the own full page illustration in the Return to the stars rulebook appears in miniature here. Can you find them?

Props rules released under Creative Commons Licence

Return to the Stars was possible because Evil Hat released an SRD for the core rules of their game. To pay this forward, I’m releasing Props rules listed in this post under a Creative Commons attribution licence, so other designers can build on it.

Creative Commons License
Props rules by Mark Sabalauskas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Fate is a game about people who are not defined by the stuff they carry. Still, loot makes players happy. Props are gear that you can have fun collecting, but which are only used a single time for a dramatic effect. Like an intriguing prop in a well-made science fiction movie, it provides a moment of cool that shakes things up and advances the story, and then you don’t see it again.

Props can only be used once and then discarded afterwards. However, if a GM has an NPC use a prop against the PCs, it should still be available for players to loot if they defeat this foe—turning a resource against the antagonists is a staple of pulp fiction.

Props are found during adventures, they are never purchased.

A PC can keep as many props as they have refreshes—if they exceed that limit, they can give a surplus prop to another player or discard it.

Players always know what the props they’ve acquired do. Sometimes props come with FAQs, or sometimes the characters just figure it out. Struggling to identify what your cool new toy does isn’t fun, so we don’t waste any time on such tasks.

Props often work in a manner similar to stunts, but will often have a more dramatic effect. If a prop seems really in character for a PC, you might decide to make it a more permanent part of the game by converting it into a stunt. But this may require that both
player and GM have a conversation about potentially reworking the text to bring the power in-line with other stunts. Alternatively, you could consider translating the prop into an aspect or extra.

Here are some examples of props you can add to the game:

Cos-Med-Kit—use this as a free action in combat to clear all stress, remove a minor consequence, and reapply your makeup.

Neo-Tape—get +3 to a single attempt to repair something

Self-Destruct Sequencer—use this prop when you concede a conflict. The Self-Destruct Sequencer forces your opponents to take a major consequence. Discard this prop after

Do rules matter?

If you want to rile up most RPG designers, tell them “rules don’t matter”.

But, occasionally, players do say this. I think they often mean perfectly understandable things:

• Rules lawyers make my table worse, and rules arguments and systems/edition wars make my online experience worse, therefore I hate rules.
• I don’t even know the term “freeform play” exists, yet it is what I actually value about the roleplaying.
• Setting, theme and/or strong adventure plots drive my purchase and play decisions, not rules.
• People who say “I loved playing Ars Magica for a decade, but it is a lousy game” are not being nearly as clever in arguing for the importance of rules as they think they are.
• My “generic” system (Fate, GURPS, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, Bunnies and Burrows, whatever) is good enough for my purposes, your bepoke system isn’t worth the cents of electricity it would take for me to read it.
• I reject the claimed continuity between explicit rules, “rules” of style, and “shared understanding at the table”
• Rules provide a minor oracular compliment to my agenda as a player; therefore, I want them light.
• I hate the way the rules I’ve encountered limit my descriptive freedom to accomplish my goals.
• Ummm, many RPG designers keep talking about how you aren’t raking in the Benjamins, and lots of us players keep telling you that rules aren’t the most important thing, yet you focus on….rules.
• if I want a structured experience that applies rules to achieve an aesthetic end, I will play a video game, thank you very much.
• Watching actors and improvisers stream playing D&D is much better than playing myself.

As for myself, I think that rules clearly matter, and that this can easily be demonstrated by trying to play an rules set that that badly suits the genre of story or the creative agenda of the players at the table.

That being said, I believe the trend in the RPG creation community is imbalanced in valuing game mechanics over narrative design. Story, adventure, setting, and art direction are more than equal partners in creating meaning. Luckily, we can all make the games we want, and it is easier than ever to make them available to people.

Stellar Beacon: Serendipity Issue now available

A new issue of The Stellar Beacon. a gaming ‘zine that’s also interested in the broader culture is now available. This issue features:

First Contract: Petram Explore what happens when the first outsiders in over a century visit a thriving world of religious experimentalists, in this adventure for the space opera RPG Return to the Stars.

Sympathetic Magic A complete guide for a Fate magic system based on symbols and relationships between things and concepts. With rules for magical actions that characters can undertake in timebound conflicts to powerful rituals that can take campaign arcs to complete.

Missive from a Woman in a Room in a City in a Country in a World Not Her Own An essay by India’s first Hugo nominee, Mimi Mondal.

Forging Fortunes Novelist S.T. Gibson shows you how you can employ the Tarot as a tool for world building and storytelling.

Making Your Own Trouble Check to see if your Fate character has strong double sided aspects that can be compelled.

No Preparation Fate Accelerated One-Shots Jochem van ‘t Hull shares his tested method for a fun, zero-prep Fate adventures-even if your players have never played the game before!

Get your copy today!

The Uses of Optimism: Utopias

Roy Thomson Hall
Shiny postmodern buildings: the go-to visual metaphor for utopias

Utopias use ambitious world building to get to the root of some truth about society. They imagine a better world to explore what could be fundamentally different about our own. Utopias, then, differ in tone but have a similar purpose to serious dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale. Utopian and dystopian traditions, at their best, are partners tidally locked; circling, facing and influencing each other.

Herland, a story written in 1915 about three male explorers encountering a remote advanced civilization made up entirely of women, gave Charlotte Perkins Gilman a way to interrogate gender roles, and vividly imagine how women could thrive if they were not forced into an unnatural state of legal dependence on men.

In The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells wrestles with the specters haunting the 1930s, imagining a future historical process by which war and want are defeated, and religion and the state have been abolished. It is a world where all humans are geniuses, and there is no underclass.

You might have noticed that Wells is imagining a world populated exclusively by people very similar to himself. Some utopias have an earned reputation for intolerant universalism. But the imaginative exploration in a utopia isn’t necessarily and always a literal plan of action, it can be a move to abstraction to bring certain ideas into focus. This may have been clearer when utopias were set typically set in vaguely located distant lands, before globalization pushed them into the future, with its implications of progress and teleology.

Regardless, some utopian visions are cosmopolitan and embrace plural conceptions of the different ways good lives can be constituted. This is even true of pop culture stories that imagine human progress while also being concerned with telling an interesting yarn. Sometimes this is as simple as the original Star Trek’s celebration of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. As Roddenberry described it, if we get to the 23rd century: “We will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.” If this has a whiff of articles in bourgeois lifestyle magazines, it is still opposed to the ethno-nationalisms of its time and ours.

The challenges of cosmopolitanism can also be explored in more depth, as in the nuanced way Iain Banks in the Culture novels grapples with an advanced post scarcity utopia interacting with other societies. A particularly amusing example is his short story The State of the Art which inverts the prime directive dramas of Star Trek by having an advanced society encounter 1970s Earth, with characters arguing about how best to deal with such a violent and inequitable world. In the end, our planet is left alone and uncontacted. We will be a control group used to judge the impact of their interventions helping other civilizations. Samantha Power would not be pleased.

In writing the Return the Stars space opera RPG, I wanted to make sure that valuing and respecting difference was an important concern for the player characters, and so is universal respect for human rights. There can be a lot of drama and perhaps something to learn when transcendent ideals clash. Taking a Sophoclean (philosophically, if not dramatically ) approach may not be a normal move in game design, but hey, that’s why indies exist!

Some object to utopias because they see fiction itself as disconnected from social issues (the “get your politics/existence out of my <insert media category here>” mobs.) Others, perhaps, are concerned because they worry that utopias are a species of escapism that promotes quiet acceptance of the way things are.

Begum Rokeya
Begum Rokeya

But consider the case of Bengali feminist and political activist Begum Rokeya, who fought for women’s education and employment. Her 1905 utopian satire Sultana’s Dream reverses traditional society and portrays a world where men are forced into seclusion while women run the world. It not apart from but rather stands as a part of her activism writting essays, founding schools and the Muslim Woman’s Association. Every year Bangladesh celebrates her accomplishments by awarding a prize in her name to women for outstanding contributions to society and the empowerment of women.

While Bangladesh honors Begum Rokeya, few Americans today even remember Edward Bellamy, although he is arguably one of the most important, influential and successful authors in the nation’s history. His 1888 utopia Looking Backwards demonstrates all the imaginative innovation that would, decades later, be the hallmark of the so-called “golden age” of pulp science fiction. He foresaw that by the next millennia there would be credit cards, shopping malls, and even a sort of on-line communication derived from the then newly invented telephone.

But these ideas were in the service of a broader agenda—fighting the inequality, wage stagnation and corruption of the first gilded age of robber barons.  Looking Backwards thrusts its protagonist a century into the future, where capitalism is abolished and industry nationalized. It is a world where “The nation guarantees the nurture, education and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”

the front cover of Looking Backwards

It is hard to overstate the contemporary impact of Looking Backwards. It was the second American novel (Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin being the first) to sell more than a million copies. It is said that the book could be found in every union hall. Within a few years, a mass movement of at least 165 political clubs across America were founded to spread the book’s ideas. Tolstoy called it “exceedingly remarkable” and insisted that it must be translated. It was. Widely. Looking Backwards was one of the first works of western science fiction published in China. John Dewey and Charles Beard both ranked it  second only to Das Kapital among the important books of their time.

In 1890, a young Charlotte Perkins Gilman joined a Bellamy Club, and quickly became a featured speaker, starting her career by writing poems and essays in the movement’s publications.

She was not alone. The clubs and the associated People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were short lived, but they were the catalyst for the next 30 years of progressive politics—and nearly every important progressive activist, politician, and union organizer of the era read Bellamy. Prime Minister Clement Attlee described the eventual socialist government in Britain as “a child of the Bellamy idea.”

It may be hard for you to imagine any novel, much less a science fiction utopia, being anywhere near as influential today. If so, consider how doggedly the post war establishment worked to destroy the vital connections between culture and politics. Blacklists and the House Un-American Activities Committee were the stick.  The “professionalization” of writing was the carrot.

As Eric Bennett describes in Workshops of Empire money poured into MFA programs from foundations (and, in one noteworthy instance, a CIA front organization) as part of the cold war agenda to create a de-radicalized literature that values “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.” It is perhaps telling that Paul Engle, longtime director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, wrote in a proposal: “It is important that these most articulate of all their generation should write and study far from both coasts, where foreign students have tended to concentrate. Here they will learn the essential America.”

If today we fail to see the full potential of both utopian and dystopian genre fiction to strengthen and inspire people working to create a better and more just world, it may be because we have been carefully taught that interiority and artful subjectivity are the true hallmarks of literary fiction, and that the only real purpose genre can serve is entertainment.

Speculative fiction is a great way to explore political ideas and cultural norms. Utopias are part of its toolkit. I believe there is value in picking up this tool and trying to learn how best to use it.

Sensible Gen Xers enjoy this video ironically, if at all. I do so unreservedly.


  • Utopia is a unclear/contested term. People who express a dislike of utopias or otherwise differ with what I’ve writting may have in mind a definition different the one I express in the first sentence. (Alternatively, I’m more than capable of being wrong.)
  • Note specifically I’m considering utopian literature to include better worlds, not only thought exercises that imagine “perfect” futures without any conflict or struggle.
  • Hat tip to Mimi Mondal, who wrote an article that led me learn about Sultana’s Dream.
  • It will not surprise you that as a man who lived in the 19th century, Bellamy had some problematic ideas. One thing that is interesting about him is that he was willing to change his mind and grow in response to feedback. Looking Backwards had a very sentimental view of women. Three years later he would write “Some men oppress other men, all men oppress women.” It is interesting to speculate how he might have continued to evolve and grown if he hadn’t died of tuberculosis in his 40s.
  • You may be interested to compare and contrast utopias with hopepunk.