1,254,120 gold pieces is approximately the value of the hoard of a great wyrm blue dragon. The bed of gold and jewels and magic artifacts upon which the hateful serpent slumbers. If you and your party of adventurers — let’s say, for sake of argument, a human fighter, a human thief, an elf wizard, a halfling ranger, a human bard and a dwarven cleric — traveled out to the desert, puzzled through its command of illusions and hallucinations, braved the beast’s frightful presence, dodged it’s lightning breath, battled it tooth and claw...and tail slap and wing buffet and crushing scale and spell — remember, it casts as a 17th level sorcerer, plus access to several cleric domains — and then finally triumphant, claimed the vast Smaug-like treasure trove for themselves, that is how much you’d get from the Dungeon Master. The halfling, being a sneaky little sociopath, probably took the Arkenstone for himself. You know how that goes. $1,254,120 is also how much money Rich Burlew of Order of the Stick raised when he started a Kickstarter to fund a reprint of his graphic novels.
You probably know what all the words in that last sentence mean, but just in case, let me give you the cheat sheet. Order of the Stick is a roleplaying game parody comic that has been running since 2003, the first strip being about the change from Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition to the updated “3.5” Edition. Like most strips of that stripe that run for long enough, it has ceased to be a straight forward satire and has become a story focused around the meta-narrative that originally supported the spoof. The difference between Order of the Stick and a lot of similar comics that move on to deal with plot and characters is that Order of the Stick is still really funny, and still really good. It didn’t end up tangled up in the contrived drama of a soap opera. When the hardcopy collections of the web comic went out of print, they sort of fell into a deep, dark hole. One that required a bunch of upfront capital investment to get out of...which is where Kickstarter comes in. Kickstarter is a pledge based fundraiser site; folks pledge money, creators offer bribes, and if the pledges meet the goal, bang, you are in business.
Order of the Stick is a stick-figure comic (you know, like XKCD) that has consistently hit the right notes to appeal to the gamer zeitgeist. He goes from the shallow shoreline of making fun of the bard’s singing to the deeper waters of goofy monsters of earlier editions — the Lawful Good flying jellyfish Flumphs being a particular target of good-natured ribbing. Maybe that is the key; that it works on so many levels. Or maybe it is just Long Tail economics and the “1000 True Fans.” The Long Tail is the part of the distribution curve where things get interesting; not the big blockbuster must-have stuff that everyone sees, but the smaller projects, the ones with limited stock and distribution and a tiny consumer base. “1000 True Fans” is Kevin Kelly’s theory that with a loyal enough group of fans willing to spend an average of one day’s wages apiece, you can make a modest living off the Tail. In an interview with Singularity Hub, Burlew attributes his success to building a loyal fan base by providing free content for years. That, and the fact that he kept “tending” to the Kickstarter project, answering emails and updating with new rewards as goals were met. and you can see it in the graph he drew; as lofty goals were reached, he just put another pie in the sky prize up, almost daring people to go after it.
Cory Doctorow cautions, over at Boing Boing, that this isn’t some sort of herald of the end of business models as we know it. The success of self-publishing superstars like Rich Burlew is more equivalent to winning the lottery or becoming a rockstar. A fair enough point, but the difference, I would argue, is that this isn’t random chance, or studio-driven. If this is gambling, it is poker, not the lotto. There are elements of luck and marketing at play, but there is also something else. There is the — pardon me if I get a little sappy — the interplay between a creator and his audience at work. The play, as a crazy Danish guy once said, is the thing. The Order of the Stick made a million dollars, and that is pretty cool. Rich Burlew had more than his 1000 true fans, and when the time came to cash in his chips, they came through.