03 March 2023
We chat with two of the nicest people in the indie game scene and find out how their metal-adjacent online shop became the home of indie RPG publishing
Words by Christopher John Eggett
I start by asking what it’s like to be a pretty big deal? Cristin and Matt Kelley laugh at the idea that they’re any sort of deal at all. The pair seem constantly surprised with their position in the games industry. Yet, Exalted Funeral is the go-to for many looking to pick up an indie roleplaying game, or publishing one, or getting their game into other players hands at all. Exalted Funeral has gone from an excuse to bulk-buy some roleplaying games that Matt liked into a fully-fledged cornerstone of the indie RPG scene.
“It’s surreal,” says Matt, “it’s kind of odd that the trajectory of the business has gone from just selling out of our house for extra cash to being this… giant operation.”
“Matt’s job is the razzle dazzle – talking to creators, approving project, reaching out to creators of course,” says Cristin, “and I tell people I’m the copy and paste CEO,” before the pair laugh. Cristin is the logistical heart of the operation, ensuring everything that needs to happen, happens. This kind of charming self-deprecation peppers a conversation that shows that the nicest people make the darkest looking and most ‘metal’ a reality. We sat down with the duo to chat about how it all came to be.
BLACK LOTUS SEED FUNDING
“It started out with Sean McCoy of Tuesday Knight Games, and Mothership,” says Matt, who read the game and immediately got in touch with McCoy to ask for ten copies, “he was still hand selling them out at conventions and such.”
Matt and McCoy went back and forth over Google+ (the now defunct attempt at a social media platform from Google that hosted much of the indie roleplaying game scene before its demise) and began the process of getting those books out to more people.
“I was just hand picking certain games and certain publications I thought were cool,” says Matt. Cristin tells us that part of the goal was to get international creators into the US – shipping in a copy of Trokia cost as much as the book itself did – “it was always important to us to not change the RRP, so we’d buy in bulk to get the shipping price to a good point where it would still make sense. The whole purpose was to make the ‘zines more accessible.”
“Ordering quantities was kind of a leap of faith,” says Matt,
“You know, everyone talk about print being dead and how everything’s digital now – but we see something completely opposite,” he adds, in an interview with a print magazine.
The actual reason the couple started the company was because Matt was thinking about their two children who, as other parents may be able to attest, “need a lot of stuff.”
Initial funds for the company came from an amusing source, “I sold my entire Magic: The Gathering collection, my cards,” says Matt with a laugh, “that’s how I got funds to start. The time and funds to do something like a collectable card game dwindle very quickly when you have to pay for diapers and formula.”
The store started out with Matt just selling through Instagram to begin with. Once the site was up and running, around the holiday season, it just took off. Every time the couple put together a five year plan they’d look around eight months later and find they’d already done it.
“Every quarter there is exponential growth,” says Cristin, “we’re constantly moving beyond capacity.”
From the outside, it looks like Exalted Funeral at are the centre of this explosion in indie roleplaying games. We suggest that they’ve done something quite big in the space – while there were always loads of people publishing their own games and selling them direct, it was fairly difficult to look at them all together. In the wake of the death of Google+, there was a need to centralise a lot of those lost connections. Matt and Cristin seem to have done that one email at a time, collecting and collating the best that the scene can offer. Similarly to Knock! a periodical intended to offer a kind of preservation for “dusty internet pages,” (as Olivier Revenu told me at Dragonmeet 2021), Exalted Funeral is a somewhat organic outgrowing of the community itself.
“I think we tapped into the vein really,” says Matt, “you could see there’s no distribution.”
“When Matt pitched it to me, he said ‘there’s all these people on there talking about cool stuff, but it’s just not affordable.’” adds Cristin, “so I asked ‘what part, how much of our tiny house do we need to devote to this?’ I’m the pragmatist.”
“We do have a really good direct to print ‘zine programme that our project manage Jared spearheads,” she adds, “he contacts creators on [popular indie games site] itch.io to see if they want to get them into print – because a lot of time the games are not in print because creators don’t have the funds. We also have a wholesale rep to get it in its physical form in multiple stores.”
The company has been running for nearly five years. In that time they’ve set out a model for independent creators, and brought many, many projects to life. Cristin tells us about the number of times they’ve reached out in the hope of stocking a game, and finding that there’s not enough copies left. While some would shrug and say ‘call me when you do another print run’ Exalted Funeral seem more inclined to increase their requested number so that it becomes worthwhile creators going in for the second edition.
“It’s a nice thing to be able to support creators,” says Cristin, “we don’t want to take advantage of any one, and we want them to feel supported.”
“A lot of people say this is the golden age of RPGs,” says Matt, “because there’s so many creators and so many people can make something. But no matter what the art form is, the distribution is
Much of what Exalted Funeral do is take the pain out of putting games out there. Yes there’s curation, but one of the biggest things they did at the start was free up creators to create – rather than packing, posting and promoting. Of course, for a pair of people who always just go that little extra step for whoever they’re working with – if they believe in the game – the next step, naturally, is to just become a publisher.
OUT IN THE ULTRAVIOLET GRASSLANDS
Much of what Exalted Funeral sell is a bit metal, but their first Kickstarter project was something a little different. Matt expected to be crowdfunding a long time in the future, but the opportunity turned up in the beautiful and weird Ultraviolet Grasslands and The Black City by Luka Rejec. This book, a kind of psychedelic Oregon Trail for adventurers that simply gushes style and charm, with its Moebius-like art style and strange, playful (nearly bashful) writing was the company’s first Kickstarter.
“I just didn’t want to pass up on the opportunity,” says Matt, “because if we didn’t publish it, someone else will.”
The campaign brought in $100,000+, and set the team on a course where they’re regularly putting out crowdfunding for big projects.
Ultraviolet Grasslands was the point where the pair feel like they’d ‘made it’, “I’d always wanted to publish something,” says Matt, “and I thought we’d get there eventually, but it came way early. That’s when we weren’t just a store anymore, we were a legitimate publisher.”
“Although we still didn’t have a warehouse then,” adds Cristin, who, personally, packed every UVG box and folded every shirt for all backers in the United States.
“I mean UVG came to our home in a semi-truck. It’s crazy because we needed, you know, $40,000 of dice. All the suppliers are asking ‘where’s the warehouse?’ and we’re like, ‘it’s just our home.’”
They joke about having to tidy up laundry to take pictures of the pallets arriving, or clearing mac and cheese off the table after dinner to make room for packing and posting. It was after that first Kickstarter that the pair could quit their jobs and make Exalted Funeral a full-time gig. After that first successful Kickstarter the company was suddenly further cemented as one of the central points of the indie side of the hobby. The store picked up and soon they were being approached by designers who want to be published.
After that, things got even bigger – with Gavin Norman, the writer of Old-School Essentials (a reworked Basic/Expert ruleset with classic dungeon crawling) reaching out to run a couple of Kickstarters with Exalted Funeral, the first pulling in $291,000 and the most recent, a box set of pretty much of all of it, hitting $772,000 in funding. This brought in a different kind of gamer, those more interested in classic retro-clone gaming. Norman, wanted to just create – and this is part of what Exalted Funeral set out to do.
We asked Cristin and Matt to choose the book they’re most proud of publishing.
“UVG. For the quality of it, I’m so proud of the way it turned out. It’s printed here in the United States,” says Cristin, “and I had the most contact with that game.”
“Mine is probably Old-School Essentials,” says Matt, “because I think when Gavin [Norman] chose us it made perfect sense to him as we were already working together. But for the customers they were asking ‘who?’. But all of those different people got exposed to loads of different games, with a whole different crowd.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
“When we first started up our UPS driver was like, ‘that funeral home is getting a lot of packages,’ and had to be told ‘oh no, they make weird books or something,’” says Cristin, which is not the only mistake that’s made. The name, a Black Sabbath reference, has landed them with a number of catalogues for funeral home suppliers and crematorium kit. A bold prop for a games evening, but maybe a step too far – although branded toe-tags are mentioned.
The pair tell us a few stories about the, to them, unbelievable reactions people have to their stuff being out in the world. Cristin’s brother calling from a farmer’s marketf to tell them about someone stocking their work, or old friends suddenly mentioning that their brother buys tons of stuff from them. They remain surprised at their success, despite it being built entirely on their good natures and willingness to help people.
“Justin [Sirois], of Severed Books, was at Origins and said how excited everyone was to see the Exalted Funeral banner,” says Cristin.
“And I tell them,” says Matt, “the emails they delete, it’s on there.”
When asked for a manifesto, they point to the Epic Levels’s Andrew Bellury who recently created a tagline for them – “Exhuming the best in RPGs”.
“And it’s true,” says Cristin, “everyone is digging on the team. Creators have always been the most important for us, as they’re trusting us as a partner to help it come to fruition. I think it’s like, supporting indie creators and making cool stuff. And just being genuine.”
Discovery is clearly part of the mission for Exalted Funeral, helping people find new cool stuff (even down to the tags in the sidebar on the website) is what they do, even if they want to pretend it’s about dragging skeletons out of the ground.
Land of Eem funded on the new Backerkit platform – an interesting move away from Kickstarter. The game is also one that seems only slightly out of step with the metal-and-metal-adjacent vibes of much of the rest of the catalogue. This is something that Matt worries about “some people are like, ‘this is not on brand’, but I’m like ‘if it’s good, it’s good’.”
The game is pitched as ‘the Muppets meets the Lord of the Rings’ – which, like all the best pitches, tells you whether you’re going to buy it or not without even looking at it. While it might be a little tonally out of step, it’s not too far really. A teased top secret project looks to set the company up in the vein of slightly silly outing.
Visit https://www.exaltedfuneral.com/ to stay up to date with upcoming Kickstarters, Free RPGs and dig up some new stuff.
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