Dice Stories: Encounter Dice Debacle

The first project I ever backed on Kickstarter was called Encounter Dice, back in September of 2013. The creator of this project was Darren Barber, who called his company Pyre Studios, based out of Edinburgh, Scotland. His idea was simple yet robust: “dice with full colour RPG tropes on them that allow you to quickly and inventively generate NPCs, characters, adventures, items, treasure, locales, monsters, bosses etc...” The first set would cover Class, Race, Alignment, Armor, Weapons, and Loot. Additional sets that were planned were NPC Expansions, Dungeon Designer, Adventure Packs, Spell Dice, Critical Hit, and some other stretch goals. I pledged £18.00 for the NPC Pack Plus, which included the NPC Pack, all stretch goals, and PDF templates of the cards.

Unfortunately, interest was low by the general audience for several reasons and the project failed. It only raised $1346 of its $7279 goal with 48 backers. Darren canceled the project early, knowing that even a last-minute blitz would not put him over the top. He was going to set new goals by listening to the feedback he received and formulate a relaunch. Darren's plan was to make a few changes in strategy by presenting a smaller and tighter campaign, reorganizing the stretch goals, and focusing purely on the NPC pack. There would be room for expansions if the project exceeded its goals, but he would start with the single pack that had the most interest. His ambition was also going to be delivery in time for Christmas 2013, so he turned everything around within a few days, and relaunched on September 20th, 2013.

Now called Encounter Dice – The NPC Pack, Darren did exactly what he proposed. He cleaned out a lot of the distracting pledge tiers, set more reasonable expectations with the ability to grow if necessary, and dropped the goal value by around 75%. Fortunately for Darren, many of the original backers shifted over to this new project immediately, giving him a boost right out of the gate. This time, the project was successfully funded within only 3 days, and it ended on October 31st of 2013, where 145 backers pledged £4,314 of its ultra-low £1,800 goal. We unlocked 2 stretch goals, which included Gender dice and Social Position dice. Darren even projected a set of 2 dice that could still be available if more pre-orders came in, as the art assets had already been paid for and the production cost would be low, including the Treasure and Quest Type dice (which also had been stretch goals).

Throughout the entire campaign, Darren had been actively posting updates almost every other day, keeping everyone well informed. Halfway through the campaign, the artist that was contracted to finish the art assets, Carlos Cara, had to drop out as he had begun filming a movie for the rest of the month. Pyre Studios needed their art assets turned around in a short time and had to begin the commissioning process all over again. After only a few days they , landing on Canadian Artist Mel Tranchemontagne, who was commissioned for the Gender and Treasure dice. Then, a month after the campaign ended, there came a few more updates with bad news. First, in an update titled Shipping Delay (1-3 Days); T-Shirt F@#K up on December 4th, there was a problem at the dice manufacturer who reported:

“… we have had major issues with the digital printer in the past few days were we lose clarity of registration. While in the process of making your order we did have to scrap a lot of dice, having printed 5 faces and the 6th having the problem, which is incredibly annoying. But we are working 24 hours now and I am confident that we will have a part quantity to send to you this week with the rest to follow next week…”

This set the project behind, but it did not necessarily debilitate Pyre Studios. They laid out their plan on what they could ship and showed how they planned to stagger the delivery phases. Ultimately, their advanced planning helped mitigate the delays as there were still 50-80 complete sets of dice they could ship out to certain tiers of backers. In this update, the backers still felt informed and could see that work was being done to fulfill the orders, even with the delay.

Then, there was a foul-up with the T-shirts. The delivery date for Darren’s order was pushed back 2 weeks, which meant that people wanting their dice AND their shirts in one shipment would not be receiving them by the Christmas deadline. However, the dice began to arrive to his home address on December 10th, and Darren began fulfilling orders and shipping over the next 3 days with everything they were able to send. He was picking and sorting, bagging and packaging everything by hand, alone, which kept him quite busy for the next 7 days. The manufacturers were reportedly sending the rest of the order within the next week and any outstanding orders were be resolved then. The remainder would be closed out once the T-Shirts finally arrived.There were still about 68 backers that had not been sent anything up until this point.

David G. was a Superbacker on Kickstarter, who had some very good feedback and reviews about the dice that he left in one of the comments. The last line of the review, however, was this: “Over all I'm pleased, although if a 2.0 class die came out with warrior, cleric, rogue, magic-user, bard, ranger, I'd probably scoop that up in heartbeat.” He was a consistent voice in the comment section, along with myself, Superbacker Michael D., and a few others.

Before this project was put to bed properly, Darren then announced in an update that he had started working on his next project, Encounter Dice: Mythos. He planned to release a small range of Encounter Dice inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft; including: The Cult, The Ritual, Investigators and NPCs, etc. Artist Melanie Tranchemontagne, was kept on board for this project and had already done some work on art pieces for the dice The Cult set in particular. This project was even slated to include hand crafted leather dice cups, pendants and artifacts that can be used in game, as well as collector’s edition tome. He expected to launch this new campaign in early 2014. Then strangely, after weeks of daily updates, Darren went silent for a full month.

On January 22nd, in the 50th update for the campaign titled: Returning from the Void: Pt1, Darren revealed that his health had been suffering for months and that it would be continuing for some time, though he never revealed any explanations as to why or how is was unwell. He swore that he would be back on top of things, sending out all remaining orders within the next 3 days, and would work through his hundreds of missed emails as quickly as he could. Then he posted again pictures of more packets being assembled with a new tally of backer numbers shipped. With 25 or so backers still left unfulfilled. He also announced that the shirts were delayed again and would likely not be shipped out until late February 2014. He also promised another update the next day; which did not happen.

On February 18th of 2014, I personally messaged Darren through Kickstarter. I told him that I understood about setbacks and issues along the way, but I thought I should have received my set by that point. I asked him to somewhat explain what it was that was going on and to let me know if there was anything I could do to help expedite the process for him. I thought it was an upbeat email with a supportive tone, but it went unanswered.

Two months passed without messages or updates until March 16th, 2014, when Darren finally updated again in Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory. He complained that his health was continuing to decline and that his medication was not helping him be active for more than an hour at a time. He stated that as of the 14th of March, 100% of the dice had been shipped. The shirts were also half sent out, with the other half still coming in from the producer in about another week. He updated again the same day, providing a link to the PDF’s for the dice cards. To this day, that was the last that anyone supporting this Kickstarter has ever heard of him. He went completely silent.

Over time, more people began to report that they had never received their dice in the US and the UK. Then people began reporting that they had reached out to Darren a few times directly, and they messaged Kickstarter which reached out to Darren also, with no replies. At this point, I hadn’t received my dice either and I was surprised to go through all of the comment to read that everything had allegedly been sent out already. I messaged him again on April 14th. I told him that I was hoping he was getting healthier by the day and that I did not mean to pester him but that I was someone still waiting on my dice. I wrote again to him on May 9th, then again on May 31st, each time escalating the message a little until my final request read as this:

“I figured I would try to reach out to you one last time, Darren, to plead that you reply to your backers, especially me.

I am really disappointed that things devolved like this, especially after you had your project funded successfully. I was a backer in the previous project and was thrilled to support you again when you relaunched! I tried to bring others to support the project, especially during the last week it was open. I do not know how many additional backers it added, but I know there were at least a few.

So now I am having to walk away from this situation, feeling cheated and let down. I was hoping that Encounter Dice was going to be the start of a whole new success story for you and that I could use my dice and say to my friends, "Hey, these are the original Kickstarter dice before the company went big." I want to use those dice in my future games and feel that I supported a good guy and noble cause.

Here's hoping that you come around and do the decent thing by us.

I went back to the comments section and there were more and people who were still waiting on their dice. Superbacker, Michael D., commented that if people had not received anything by now, it was probably too late as Darren even took down his own Facebook page. I replied to him:

“Michael, that makes me so mad! I sent him a final plea last week, asking him to at least address everyone and let them know what the set back is. Not only am I out $30, but I don't get the merchandise that I have been waiting to get for months. I guess I will go report him again, to ensure he doesn't pull this garbage on anyone else!”

A few days later, after more research, I found the web-page for Pyre Studios which said, "The paperwork is being wrapped up and the process of settling any outstanding invoices will be completed over the next two months.” Although I had already reported Darren and the campaign to Kickstarter, I had now started actively encouraging others to do the same. We could not be sure about his alleged health issues (a common excuse for delay of fulfillment that I have experienced on several KS campaigns since then) and it made no sense that they would lie about sending stuff out when clearly there were too many people still waiting.

For many backers, that is where the story ended. They were just another casualty of the inherent risks of supporting crowdfunding projects, with no real recourse for their lost money. But I was not satisfied and I thought to myself, what have I got to lose? Thus, I continued to investigate every lead I could find. I tried doing internet searches for Darren, which turned up very little. Darren did not have any additional contact information, no email address, nothing! He was much harder to track down as he was from the United Kingdom and I could not find much of a trace of him anywhere. I researched Encounter Dice, finding interviews with Darren, but none of the profited anything new. While brainstorming, I remembered Darren thanking a small handful of people were involved in the project somehow, giving them credit back on the Kickstarter, so I started looking for them. I scoured every page of the Encounter Dice and Pyre Studios websotes that I could find, eventually locating something interesting on a page of their now defunct website. It listed out the staff members, including sales and marketing, as well as graphic design. Out of these 4 people, 1 of them actually replied to my email, and that was "Stu".

Stu was the Ops & Shipping manager for this project, who also worked for Black Lion games. Darren's Pyre Studios had been a game design studio that was leasing trade space within Black Lion Games, which was a game store located in Edinburgh, allowing Darren to demo the games he sold. In June 14th, 2014, Stu actually replied to me and asked what I was still owed by Pyre Studios, telling me that he would see that they get sent out to me. Stu told me that Darren was currently in the middle of moving to a new house and that the stretch goal dice were packed away and unable to be retrieved until later.

Sometime in mid-July, the Encounter Dice – The NPC Pack finally arrived and they were exactly what I had hoped they would be! The print on them was a little dark, but I still thought they looked incredibly cool. On August 3rd, 2014, I replied back to Stu that the dice had arrived and I asked about the other 2 dice still pending. He said he was going to poke Darren and have him get those sent out ASAP. I was excited that I had the regular dice set and I was happy to see that my requests were being taken seriously. I didn’t hear back from Stu again for another 5 months.

It was January 31st of 2015 when I reached back out to Stu. I kept everything very friendly and as positive as I could, but I inquired why I hadn’t heard anything back. Stu replied and told me Darren had also been really bad about getting back to him lately. I waited a few months more and wrote back in May, then once again in June. Stu eventually replied on June 18th when he said he was seeing him again for Darren’s stag party, as Darren had moved out of town. I thought I had read before that Darren was married with two children, but I may have read that entry incorrectly or that may explain more of the story than has been publicized thus far. That was the last I heard back from Stu.

Over time I had just chalked everything up to a cautionary tale. Do not put up more money than you are willing to lose and do a little bit of investigation before backing a project, especially for a creator’s first attempt. I went on to supporting other campaigns in the years since, getting some exceptionally cool dice, such as Halfises Dice from Gate Keeper Games, Trap Dice by Uber Dungeon, and Monster Dice by Trilania. I look for the smaller creators and I still try to support them, while memories of the ordeal faded away. Until just a couple of short weeks ago, when i got a strange message on Facebook.

Responding to another random message I had received, I noticed a pending message that had escaped my awareness for several days. It was pending because the sender was not already a friend of mine, nor did they appear to be anyone that I had communicated with previously, but the text of the message caught my attention this time.

"This is out of the blue, but are you the Cyrus that backed Encounter Dice on Kickstarter long, long ago?"

Their name did not register right away, so I replied back and asked how I could help them. While waiting for a response, I looked back at the comments section from the Encounter Dice campaign and I recognized the name, David G. He was the Superbacker that had provided a lengthy and informative review of the dice. When he wrote back to me, he was asking if I had ever received my dice. I told him that I had, through inventive means, but that there were still elements that I was missing. He said that he had really liked the idea of the Kickstarter but he was sad that it had died so prematurely. He also said that he had done something....

David had taken up where Darren had left off, implementing his own suggestions and having new sets made. There were 5 dice in total, covering Race, Class, Weapon, Armor, Treasure/equipment, and Alignment. He had done his own research, contacting Carlos Cara and commissioned him to do all new art. He placed an order through thegamecrafter.com, and now has 25 sets being made which were to be available sometime in late-September.

He passed a link along to me where I believe I can order a set myself, although I will stay in contact with David for sure because I would really love to get my hands on a set of these. They are the 2.0 version that David was dreaming of and they look fantastic. From the pictures alone you can tell the colors are a little lighter so they read better and the soft nature of the art style comes out clear and gives these dice the ambiance they need. They look even better than the originals, and I am excited to one day set them side by side to see the differences!

While I will be concluding the story here, this is likely not the full end of the tale. I am certainly going to review the dice whenever I can get them and David's initiative has inspired me and I will be following up with him over the next few weeks with some ideas, if he is interested. Doing more research for this blog, I also found a few more leads and I am still looking to track down a pair of those stretch goal dice!!!