The Independents: Goblinville Gazette

Here lies Lump, Expert Lamplighter, Goat Rider, and The Iron Gut. He was a good goblin, and a better friend. He once let me borrow his shovel, and was barely even mad when I sold it for mushrooms. It’s unfortunate that he was killed by a gelatinous cube, and even more unfortunate that the cube was then eaten by a giant cave lizard. We bury this lizard mess in remembrance of him. To Lump!

Welcome to Goblinville Gazette, a game of bumbling adventure, shiny loot, and the ever-approaching threat of calamity. If you’ve ever wanted to play as a lovable band of misfit monsters, Goblinville has something special for you. Strap on an eyepatch, grab your rusty knife, and get ready to build the best goblin town that anyone has ever seen—which, to be fair, is a pretty low bar.

Goblinville Gazette is a new game by Michael Dunn-O’Connor about a town of goblins gathering all the gold, goods, and experience needed to transform their home from a ramshackle campsite to a veritable goblin metropolis. It was funded as a part of Kickstarter’s Zine Quest this past February, along with a slew of other amazing games, essays, and modules. Goblinville wears its inspirations on its sleeve, and owes a clear design debt to games such as Torchbearer, Blades in the Dark, and Psi*Run, welding the three together on top of an incredibly rewarding town-building minigame. The game is perfect if you are looking for a short-to-mid length campaign with a goal-oriented focus and some interesting character management rules.

Goblinville is actually a collection of zines—three to be exact—the first of which has already been delivered. I’ll be talking about Issue #1 of Goblinville, which contains the core rules and an example adventure, but I’m already excited for the next two issues which will tackle expanded character options, more trouble, and variant rules to tweak the game to your liking. You can pick up your copy of Goblinville on Dunn-O’Connor’s itch storefront, located here.

Art & Setting

What is a goblin? In most games they are puny green obstacles, only truly threatening in large numbers. If you’ve played many fantasy RPG’s, you have probably smashed goblins into cavern walls, blown them up with fireballs, and sliced, diced, and skewered them by the hundreds. They are the mischievous fodder of adventurers everywhere. But, once they have cleaned up their fallen brethren, dug dozens of small graves, and held a flurry of ineloquent funerals, where do you think they go? To Goblinville of course, where strict social hierarchy, entrepreneurial spirit, and a can-do attitude rule over all else!

In Goblinville your goblins are still diminutive monsters with a penchant for pillaging, but instead of being generic cave dwelling enemies they have names, jobs, titles, fashion, and bosses who they have to answer to. Goblin society is a complex and multifaceted affair, and its members are as unique and varied as they come. Eric Swanson, Goblinville’s layout artist and illustrator, has done a great job of delivering a well-divided text framed by charming greyscale depictions of the titular town. A bevy of hand drawn goblins dot the pages of the zine, and are as unique as the characters you can create. Chop is a stocky, hirsute goblin who wields a pointy stick and wears a large knitted scarf. Hock is a tough looking goblin with an eyepatch and a pet rat. Gobta is a youngish goblin who wears a butcher’s smock which is always mysteriously covered in blood.

Speaking of goblins, one of the most important parts of the Goblinville setting is the actual goblins you can create to play as. Dunn-O’Connor has crafted a set of character generation tables which assure you will never be stuck playing the same character twice. You will randomly roll or choose from a table, acquiring items such as a broken bottle, a handful of herbs, or a goat skull, and traits such as “extra green”, a job at the local soup kitchen, or the ability to talk to dead people. While reading through the rules, I took the time to create my own goblin, and came away loving Pindrop the Everliving, a greybeard sawbones who wore nothing but fancy shoes stolen from an adventurer.

The town of Goblinville is just as lively as its inhabitants, despite starting out empty save for a few businesses. Each session of Goblinville centers around a quest to improve the town by securing the resources needed to construct a new building, rescuing a goblin to work the various jobs, or stealing artifacts which upgrade your buildings. By the end of a long campaign, your town may be filled with fighting pits, markets, taverns, and latrines—all the products of your hard work. But don’t get too comfortable, every time you enter town there is a risk of something going wrong! If you are unprepared or unlucky, you may find your hard work falling apart around your pointy green ears.

Rules & Systems

On the surface Goblinville is a humorous game with high stakes. It takes serious resource and risk management rules and attaches them to a relatively incapable adventuring party with surprising cohesion. The game takes mechanics from Torchbearer, Blades in the Dark, and Psi*Run, three tonally disparate games, and combines them into a bumbling dungeon crawl where failure is as fun as success.

The primary resolution mechanic of Goblinville is a d6 dice pool where you roll one die for every factor in the check, and then assign dice to each factor to decide their success or failure. These factors include the action you are trying to undertake, the danger that action might cause you, actual physical harm, and a variety of other interesting twists. Most rolls in the game will require at least some compromise, but it’s up to you to decide what you are willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals. This conflict resolution mechanic is a clear descendant of Meguey Baker’s amazing psychic-fugitive game Psi*Run, which also features a dice-pool-compromise structure. This is honestly one of my favorite innovative dice mechanics because it specifically puts the stakes and fallout in the hands of the players—if you want better chances of succeeding at your main goal, you can put other trouble on the line to assure some success, just be aware you will often be saddled with a difficult choice to make!

Goblinville’s most central mechanic is an interesting take on the defining characteristic of Torchbearer, The Grind, modified to feel quite different than its predecessor (check out the CHG in-depth analysis of Torchbearer here). Instead of HP, characters in Goblinville have a list of conditions that they accrue as time passes, rolls are failed, and enemies attack. These conditions track whether your goblin is exhausted, panicked, sick, injured, or dead—and with such a short list of conditions to mark, your characters are always just a few bad rolls away from demise. Luckily, unlike Torchbearer, conditions don’t impose a mechanical disadvantage on your goblins. While The Grind traditionally tends to punish players with a death-spiral as they accrue conditions, Goblinville knows that its bumbling cast will get knocked around quite a bit, and offers enough room for characters to recover from their injuries as long as they have enough scratch to spend. Goblinville also uses an inventory system similar to Torchbearer—your characters have a strictly charted number of inventory slots with which to carry supplies and treasure. Don’t get too greedy hauling all that gold out of the abandoned mine, because you very well might need those torches just to survive your trip back!

Combat in Goblinville is unique and carries an interesting narrative-centered design. Instead of health, enemies in Goblinville have a list of moves. A weak enemy may have only a couple moves, while a powerful one may have upwards of 8. Every successful hit against an enemy removes one of these moves—and if you get rid of them all, that’s lights out. This creates an interesting interplay where enemies become more and more limited as they are worn down, and run the risk of fleeing if they run out of relevant moves. For example, the prewritten enemy “Stone Spider” has the moves Climb, Leap, Flurry of Bites, Bind in Silk, and Venomous Bite. Not all of these moves would necessarily trigger a harm roll for the goblins, but some special moves like Venomous Bite prove extremely dangerous to your players. When combined with a simplified fictional positioning mechanic inspired by Blades in the Dark, fights in Goblinville have a surprising amount of depth for such a narrative focused combat system.

Finally, Goblinville Gazette’s town building system deserves some exploration. Goblinville is home to industries such as a scrapyard, docks, a warg farm, and many others. Each location in town provides a tangible benefit to your adventurers: usually the ability to buy new items or get new jobs. Towns start with only a few buildings in working order—specifically the locations that your characters are employed at. Most of your quests in Goblinville will center around repairing or upgrading the facilities of the town. If you decide you want your town to have a tavern, you better be willing to go look for a cook. If you want better armor and weapons you are going to have to find a way to steal an anvil so that your forge can function. Want to protect your town from monsters? You will have to secure a special item which can upgrade your watchtower to prevent monster attacks. It is a constant push to keep your town growing, but the rewards are tangible and exciting.

 

Conclusion

Goblinville is a wonderful little game that packs a surprising amount of complexity into a small, focused package. It is a great primer for players and GM’s looking to dive into a buffet of mechanics that straddle both sides of the traditional line. It also does a great job of creating rules for something that is so often ignored or done poorly—the development of a colorful and dynamic home-base for your characters. I expect the followup zines to the first issue will add even more content and customization to develop your burgeoning goblin haven. Dunn-O’Connor does a great job of giving life and purpose to these often overlooked monsters.

I think the biggest hurdle that Goblinville faces is that without careful planning on the part of the GM, the mechanical systems run the risk of feeling more oppressive than engaging. The Torchbearer style grind seems especially difficult to balance for players who don’t have experience regulating the pacing and punishment this kind of system fosters. That said, character death is also much less punishing in Goblinville, since character advancement is rather limited. In reality it is the developing town of Goblinville which is supposed to represent forward progress and advancement more so than your goblins themselves. It seems like the game would be a great fit for drop-in drop-out style campaigns where attendance is a little bit less consistent.

Whether you are a traditional gamer wanting to explore a new system or an indie fan who wants a taste of masochistic crunch I would heartily recommend picking up a copy of Goblinville Gazette #1. It is a study on fitting a full-sized RPG into a zine-sized package, and is bursting with both comical and mechanical charm. It plays with the tropes of traditional fantasy in an entertaining way, while also being innovative and exciting in its own right.

You can currently purchase Goblinville Gazette by Michael Dunn-O’Connor on the Narrative Dynamics itch storefront and begin building your very own monstrous society. The first issue, which contains the core rules and a prewritten adventure, will run you $10. Also keep an eye out for the next two issues, both releasing at the end of this month. If you enjoyed this kind of game, there are a ton of others that were also produced as a part of Kickstarter’s Zine Quest. You can follow Dunn-O’Connor on Twitter, and check out his game studio at Narrative Dynamics.

Do yourself a favor and take a trip down to goblin town. Keep your eye out for scratch, and you just might thrive.


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