Monday, August 3, 2015

The Sad, Sad Tale of Fire Mountain Games


Throne of Night promotional piece by Michael Clarke

Edit: Regarding print-on-demand options for Throne of Night on Drive-Thru RPG and RPGNow, I do not have any cited sources on this at the moment.  There is however, a print-on-demand option for Way of the Wicked Book Seven as of this posting, was offered as a presale via KickStarter as a stretch goal.

I do recall such an option existing at one point, but as of now I want to use claims backed up by links, quotes, and statements by companies concerning Throne of Night.

Even the stamp of a well-respected name is not enough to prevent a KickStarter scandal.  The creator of Mega Man is currently in hot water over his Red Ash project, whereas three years ago one of the most respected voices in the OSR lost virtually all the goodwill he had in the community over the Dwimmermount fiasco.

The Pathfinder community is no exception to this, although the major one in this fandom is not talked about as much in comparison to Dwimmermount or other failed RPG projects.  For that reason I'm making this blog post in the hopes of spreading awareness.

Let's start from the beginning

Fire Mountain Games is a third party publisher which received a lot of praise for its work, specifically the Way of the Wicked Adventure Path.  The basic idea is that the PCs are the bad guys for a change, working for the glory of Asmodeus and plotting to overthrow the Lawful Good nation of Talingarde.  The six-part series has many novel features: in Book Two the PCs maintain theirs own dungeon to guard against adventurers and do-gooders; a reverse dungeon crawl, if you will. In Book Three, there's an assault on a holy mountain temple which pit the PCs against celestials who otherwise are not typical monster encounters.  The Book Six finale even has a nation-building scenario where the party takes over Talingarde.  Way of the Wicked was also noted for its high quality in spite of only having one writer: it's no secret that Pathfinder's system breaks down horribly at higher levels, and many adventure paths don't go to 20th level anymore.  But Way of the Wicked managed to remain fun for many players to the very end.

Fire Mountain Games was a newcomer to self-publishing, beginning around late 2011.  It was a two-man operation, with Gary McBride as the business owner, writer, and handler of all non-art material, and Michael Clarke who illustrated many beautiful pieces for the books.  McBride was an active member of the community, interacting with folks on message boards and even writing articles for fan magazines such as Wayfinder.  By 2012 Way of the Wicked was nearly done, and McBride announced on the Paizo boards his next big project: Throne of Night.  It was intended to be a six-part adventure path, an underground sandbox where the PCs are either dwarven explorers or drow conquerors building territory and accumulating resources in pursuit of building a grand subterranean civilization.

Fire Mountain Games managed to release a new installment of Way of the Wicked every 6 to 8 weeks.  Although Paizo adventure paths were of similar length and released in monthly installments, McBride was a one-man writer.  In early 2013 Pathfinder's only evil adventure path at the time came to a satisfying conclusion with Book Six: the Wages of Sin.

Fire Mountain Games was in an enviable position among third party publishers.  McBride's work became a household name among Pathfinder players in less than a year and with just a couple books to his name.  Even other respected companies such as Dreamscarred Press didn't get to this level of acclaim without years worth of work and dozens of sourcebooks under their belt.  When the Throne of Night Kickstarter page came up, it surpassed its funding by leaps and bounds with $40,640 from 314 backers.


It all goes downhill from here


A lot of the conversation among backers can be found in this Paizo thread and in the comments section of the KickStarter page.  But the abridged version of events is that this turned into one of the worst communications between project-maker and backers.  Going by the updates list, McBride remained active and communicative all the way up to the funding deadline on May 7th, 2013.  The backer levels included PDF and physical copies of the Throne of Night series, as well as similar options for Way of the Wicked.  The estimated release date for Book One of Throne of Night was May 2013, with a new book coming out every two months according to the backer rewards.  The project's estimated time of completion was March 2014.

There were delays.  Not surprising, considering that as far as we know McBride is doing everything but the artwork himself.  But it was the lack of communication, along with backers not getting promised physical books, which began to turn people against Fire Mountain Games.  June, July, and August saw monthly updates and explanations that work on Book One is still being done.  It finally comes out...in October, 2013.

Better late than never, some might say.  But the problem is that now there's a PDF and eventually print-on-demand options, which should mean that backers who pledged enough money to receive said copies should be getting one as soon as they become available according to the $120 backer pledge.  They did get their PDF copies, although the physical rewards are another story.

Fire Mountain Games also had a Creature Cards KickStarter set up before Throne of Night, and that too is riddled with its own problems of missed communication.  However, unlike Throne of Night it appears in the backer comments that more than a few folks received cards in the mail.  Some were satisfied, others remarked on the low printing quality of the cards.  According to the timeline the Creature Cards funded around November 2012, meaning that McBride launched the Throne of Night KickStarter almost as soon as his oldest one funded.

In another example of multi-tasking, Fire Mountain Games was making sheets for Ogre Nightfall, a table-top game headed by Steve Jackson Games.  The Nightfall sheets (which were FMG's responsibility) were not shipped out according to this thread.  In another Board Game Geek thread, Fire Mountain Games said that they'd ship them around May 2014, yet that never came to pass.

In early 2015 on the Ogre KickStarter page Steve Jackson Games picked up the pieces and shipped out Nightfall sheets to the backers who pledged for them.  The Nightfall fiasco was bad enough that Fire Mountain Games was added to Board Game Geek's wall of shame of companies known for delays, scams, and other troubling behaviors.

There is progress...of a sort

The Paizo thread, Throne of Night's KickStarter page, and Board Game Geek threads, all contain a running theme of any and all attempted communications to Fire Mountain Games not receiving any response.  Sometimes the KickStarter page updates are separated by months at a time, such as the dead silence from September 2013 to March 2014.

Naturally there's a lot of anger as well as speculation, in a few cases developing into threats of violence on the Paizo thread which resulted in bans and temporary thread locks.  Perhaps the most aggravating thing is that the KickStarter pages make apologies for lack of updates, that "it's been too long" with no explanation for said delays but he's hard at work, giving dates which end up getting missed and delayed time and time again.

The weird thing is that McBride has been active on KickStarter still, and as of this posting he last logged on July 24th, 2015.  Book Two of Throne of Night was released around April 2014, and the promised Book 7 of Way of the Wicked as a Throne of Night stretch goal was released in July of that same year.  He even funded and backed other KickStarter projects such as Grimtooth's Ultimate Traps during the normal radio silence, so he didn't drop off the face of the Internet.

The Throne of Night books were being sold on Drive-Thru RPG, RPGNow, and Paizo, with print-on-demand options in the former two stores.  Which brings us to another sticking point among backers: promised physical copies were not shipped to them, yet here they were for sale online.  Several days ago the Throne of Night books reverted to PDF-only purchase options.

The updates on the Throne of Night KickStarter page become more sporadic around 2014.  The majority of them focus around showing off new art, with no answers about shipping or progress reports on the Throne of Night adventures themselves.  August 2014 update promised a release for Book 3 around that year's December; here it is August 3rd, 2015 and still only 2 books are out.

One of the backers, Kevin_Video, said that he got into contact with the artist for the project, Michael Clarke, to discuss things.  Kevin posted the responses Clarke gave in the Paizo thread in these two posts:  First link.  Second link.

By July 2015, information was finally released on shipping.  McBride says he plans on finishing the remaining books, then printing out the physical copies to be all mailed off together.  This time there's no planned release dates, either for shipping or Books 3 through 6.

A compilation of problems

A long overdue estimated release date.  Lack of communication with backers and the vast majority of updates being artwork-related.  Selling the print-on-demand products online while not giving out the promised copies to backers.

The sad part about this is that Fire Mountain Games made an awesome track record with their books.  I purchased 2 of the released Throne of Night books and WotW Book 7; I can tell that McBride is still capable of putting together a well-crafted adventure.  But so much of this goodwill is squandered now, and a lot of his products are getting 1 star reviews of people pointing poor communication as well as accusing him of theft and fraud.

It is even more sad because I see this as a recurring theme among people who developed a sterling reputation in gamer communities, only to squander it all on a poorly-run KickStarter.  It is due to this why I've never backed crowdfunded projects myself in spite of all the good stories I hear.  Regardless of the reasons and circumstances behind Throne of Night, my best hope is that things work out and backers get what they're due.

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