Kickstopper: I Got Refunded By a Burning Wheel of Fire

by Arthur B

Luke Crane and Arthur ended up having a silly fight.
Well, this is interesting. Folks, for the first time I am going to do a Kickstarter article on a project which successfully funded and where I received nothing save a refund. Even more interestingly, this is a project which seems, for the most part, to be in the process of delivering right on time.

Specifically, this is the story of how Luke Crane’s schtick started wearing thin, and how he responded to questioning of that with an unrequested refund.

Unusual Note on Methodology

Typically when I do these things, I have received some stuff to review. Obviously, I have received nothing, so nothing will get reviewed.

That said, as always I like to give a caveat that in any discussion of a Kickstarter I can only speak with authority about my own personal experience of the process. That goes double here, obviously, because Luke Crane didn’t fall out with all the backers in the same way he fell out with me and some others.

The Campaign

Burning Wheel is Luke Crane’s cult hit indie fantasy tabletop RPG. Offering up a range of highly idiosyncratic experiments in tabletop RPG mechanics and presenting a distinctive atmosphere, it has a small community of very devoted fans and has been through several editions.

Burning Wheel Gold is the core book for the latest edition, and is the version currently in print. The Burning Wheel Codex Kickstarter was intended to fund the release of, as the name implies, the Burning Wheel Codex, a supplement updating most of the material from previous editions’ supplements to full compatibility with Burning Wheel Gold.

The campaign was notable for two things. The first is that Luke Crane actually works for Kickstarter as the head of their games division. The second is that, for the purpose of writing the campaign page and subsequent comments and updates, Crane adopted a deliberately whimsical writing style, speaking as though he were some ancient sorcerer and the Kickstarter was a big ritual we were all participating in and generally keeping things cryptic. Some found this frustrating, but others found it fun and endearing. For my part, I enjoyed it… until a certain point.

What Level I Backed At

One copy of Burning Wheel Gold Codex and one copy of the Burning Wheel Gold Fantasy Roleplaying System hardcover books.

Delivering the Goods

Here’s where it gets weird.

To give him his due, Luke Crane seems to have got the books printed on time and commenced the delivery process during the estimated delivery month. Confusion has arisen amongst the backers due mainly to the rather long time it seems to be taking to handle the delivery.

So far as I can make out from cryptic updates and comments, and links to social media postings trawled up by other backers, it seems that Crane decided against using a professional fulfillment service to send out the products. This is a bit of a shame; many small press and one-person publisher outfits on Kickstarter ending up using such things, making use of such a service would have both been sensible (because they can dispatch large numbers of products in a reasonably compact time) and would have given Crane a chance to get a project creator’s-eye-view of how the service he used panned out for him. This is the sort of information which would be of tremendous use to him in supporting game-related Kickstarters.

Instead, the shipping process seems to be taking place out of a rented storage unit, and is going rather slowly. There’s some 2000 books to ship out and i have worked out that, based on how long ago the first backers started reporting getting tracking e-mails, they must have been averaging less than 100 books shipped per day - OK for one or two people working away in there, but still.

Now, when some backers report getting their books weeks before others even get their tracking e-mails, that naturally prompts a certain amount of consternation among backers. I was personally not too worried, but only because I had dug through the comments enough to piece together the above picture. Others seemed more concerned.

Various comments were posted, to my eyes mostly of a reasonably courteous. I posted one expressing dissatisfaction with the pace and expressing the view that it would have been prudent to budget for more help with the shipping process, as follows:
Not impressed at pace of shipping these things out. Yes, it was a big project with 2109 backers, but these things have been trickling out for over a month; even accounting for time off at the weekend, I figure that the pace of things being shipped out must be less than 100 per working day (assuming 20 working days), otherwise everyone would have got their tracking info by now. (I, for one, have not). That is not a particularly good pace, especially given that the numbers involving particularly intricate shipments are very small; for the majority of backers it is surely a case of slipping the relevant books into a standard-sized box, applying a printed label, ticking the backer off on the checklist and then handing the labelled items over to the shipping company.
I realise Burning Wheel is a small operation and Andrew is working on his own here, but budgeting to get help with shipping would surely have been sensible.
(Of course, it is entirely possible that Luke did, in fact, budget for that but arrangements fell through. But he hadn't communicated anything to that effect to Backers.)

Then, after a few days and a raft of other comments about the delivery process were posted, Luke posted this:
All of you.
It is as if you were burning in the lake of fire—while all you do is attend your keyboard.
The truth is simple enough: You will wait; you shall receive your codex. That is all.
Mind your doubts and concerns yourself.
See archive here in case the comment gets deleted.

Now, this is basically a very flowery way of telling people to “shut up and be patient”. And in my view, it crossed the line. The whole “irascible wizard” schtick was fun up to a certain point, but when it was used by Luke as a means of being rude to his backers in a way which flies in the face of the Community Guidelines - and remember, as a Kickstarter employee, and a comparatively high-profile one at that, it rather falls on Luke to try to exemplify the best of what Kickstarter wants to encourage in its project creators, not to be rude and dismissive towards his backers. Being rude or dismissive of backers is bad enough if a project is going badly - if a project is actually going well, it’s amazingly silly.

So, I told Luke I thought he’d crossed the line and reported his project using Kickstarter’s internal systems for breaching the Kickstarter community guidelines. Specifically, here is what I said:
OK, your schtick for communicating with Backers has been fun so far, but for a Kickstarter employee to take that tone with backers on their personal project goes too far. I am going to contact Kickstarter about this.
On his Twitter account he started making deeply unprofessional moaning noises about project backers daring to express doubts about the project - never mind that these were backers who were still waiting for tracking e-mails literal weeks after other backers got their deliveries. I noted there that he claimed to be issuing refunds on people who he considered to be complaining too loudly. The combination of commanding people to shut up and refunding people (which of course forces them to shut up, because once someone has been refunded through Kickstarter they can no longer comment on your project page) prompted me to try and engage him, at which point we had this conversation.

During that exchange several interesting things happened. He declared to prioritise delivery over communication, which sounds fine but I don’t think those things are actually mutually exclusive. He declared that he didn’t consider his backers to be his patrons, which rather flies in the face of how Kickstarter’s cofounder has expressed his view of the creator-backer relationship. He said that he was doing this project for himself, not the backers, which rather raises the question of “why involve the backers in your personal vanity project in the first place?”

And he refunded me, without me asking him to, including this snotty little note with the refund:
Hi Arthur, I'm sorry you're unhappy with your participation in this project. We work extremely hard to deliver as good a book as possible—sacrificing more than I care to admit in the process. In order for this process to be worthwhile for us, I require the faith, support and good humor of our backers. Anything less simply isn't worth it. Considering that we have never failed to deliver on anything—ever—and that books are shipping on time to backers, I believe we are in the right here. And clucking about worries, concerns and doubts demonstrates that we're not on the same team when it comes to creative projects. Therefore I've issued a full refund and wish you the best. -Luke
I agree with Luke that we are on different pages. He is on the page which says “do not let the peons question you”; I am on the page which reads “Speak truth to power and don’t stand up for people being rude and dismissive towards you or others.”

I sent additional Feedback into Kickstarter, wrote this article, and called it a day. A bit later, when I was finishing up this article and just about to post it, Luke posted that tweet towards the end of the Storify about how he agreed with me on all my points. I asked if this meant a change in approach or whether he was content to be the guy who’s sometimes rude to backers and free with the refunds; he playfully said “Only time will tell!”

Which is a shame, because if he’d given a definite answer I could assume he was sincere about that agreement, but the coy playfulness suggests that anyone backing future projects of his may end up encountering the same abrupt refundage as I did. So I finished up this article and hit “publish”.

Higher, Lower, Just Right, or Just Wrong?

On previous articles on this sort I have posted about whether I thought my backing level should have been higher or lower, or was just right, or was just a mistake.

Technically, I should have gone Higher. The change in the pound/dollar exchange rate since I backed the project means that I have made a profit on the refund, and the profit would have been greater had the amount I backed been higher.

However, I think it would be more consistent with the spirit of the thing if I said my involvement in this was Just Wrong.

Would Back Again?

No, not least because I suspect Luke won’t let me back a future project of his.

Final Thoughts

Flipping out at people and abruptly punishing them for doubting you is a horrible trait in politics, as anyone who survived Stalin’s Russia will tell you. But what is a force for great evil in dictators becomes, frankly, rather comical and ridiculous in artists.

I take my excommunication from Mr Crane’s inner sanctum as a badge of pride. But I would warn anyone else thinking about backing a future Kickstarter from him. Don’t, whatever you do, try to speak up if you feel like he’s starting to treat your fellow backers like dogshit; it will end badly.

Mr Crane attempted to defend his behaviour to me by pointing out that a bad-tempered wizard was his schtick for the Kickstarter. In a tabletop RPG context, excusing bad behaviour towards real, flesh and blood people by saying “but it’s what my character would do!” is generally frowned on. From a figure with as much respect as he has in the indie RPG community, I expect better.

POST-PUBLICATION EDIT: On being offered right of reply. Mr Crane stated "Only that I wish, in the interest of complete honesty, you had posted your precipitating comment." As of yet he has not specified the comment he means; I have added both the comment I posted in immediate response to his "silence" comment and a comment I posted earlier about the slow pace of shipping. In the event that he means a different comment, I will add that in too.

I will note that both said comments were available in the snapshot I provided of the Kickstarter comments page. I will also note that a fair number of comments were posted and several days passed between me posting my comment about the slow shipping process and Luke posting his "Silence" comment, so to characterise it as the "precipitating" comment when there were ample comments preceding and following it asking about the delivery process seems odd to me.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
I had a similar experience. I've played RPGs since D&D was released in '73. Marine friends of my Dad taught me. I've been collecting them for a long time as well and have a good many on my shelves, several hundred - including BWG.

When Luke finally, in his obfuscatory and cryptic prose revealed the shipping of the tomes (I pledged both) I made a final statement that did me in. I lamented the lack of a PDF, as every other KS RPG I've backed has included such, their base levels start there. I commented the upon odd format of the text itself, as it really doesn't fit with the rest of my instruction manuals and observed that it was likely to languish upon my shelf.

Apparently the thought of the BWC sitting unloved on my shelf was too much for Luke to bear and he booted me off with a refund. I have RPG books filling my shelves the way you see board game boxes filling the shelves behind Tom Vassel, but more so. I have about 500 of the things. Did he truly expect me to cuddle up to it?

In my forty plus years of gaming I've never had the "pleasure" of playing with a group that spoke in character anything like Luke did in his KS. If I had I think I would have slowly backed away and made my exit. But to each their own I suppose. I saw a demo of BW with Luke on Youtube and he made exhibited no such ridiculous pretenses.

Too bad, maybe I'll find it at retail
Arthur B at 11:23 on 2016-08-30
The lack of a PDF and unusual formatting for Burning Wheel are things which Luke is pretty insistent on.

As I understand his statements on the subject, he regards the physical book itself as a work of art in its own right, and to go with a more conventional* format or to offer a PDF version would wreck that.

On the one hand, I tend to view that as a creative decision which is entirely in his court. On the other hand, it does inevitably limit his audience for what he is doing - in particular, I remember a while back someone on asked whether there was any hope of getting a decently-formatted PDF of Burning Wheel because they had vision problems severe enough that they simply would not have been able to use the paper version. I had heard that something had been worked out under the table in that respect to sort it, which is great, though if that is true requiring people in that position to come to you to specifically request an accessible version whose existence you don't widely advertise isn't really great from an accessibility perspective. (If it isn't true and Luke left them high and dry, of course, he's basically taking the position that he is fine with people with vision issues being locked out of the experience. Which is, again, his own creative decision, though one I am not sure people will have enormous sympathy for.)

Of course, it's one thing to say "This is not for everyone, I am doing this my way, I realise that this is going to make my rulebook a bit of a niche product and miss out on a lot of custom but for this specific game line I have decided that staying true to my vision is more important than making it broadly accessible. If that does not sound like something you would like, don't give me your money." It's another thing to say "You clearly don't appreciate my vision, here's your money back".

* "Conventional" according to the unusual standards of the RPG industry, that is - IIRC in other contexts it'd be seen as a standard trade hardback size)
James D at 13:17 on 2016-08-30
This is why it's not a good idea for sensitive artist types to run the business end of things. I'm honestly appalled by the glee with which he tells prospective fans to get the fuck out - these people who liked his UNFINISHED IDEA enough to give him money - based on complaints like these.

He probably doesn't need the money and is just doing this for kicks and THE ART, so I guess if it requires him to engage with the tiniest bit of unpleasantness or personal friction he'd rather just not bother? Yeah, considering how many artists/authors in general would kill for an audience like his, and how many Kickstarters in particular, it's pretty disgusting how flippantly he treats them. It's like a small-scale Justin Bieber spitting on his fans.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in August 2016