Welcome to Indie Frontiers, the new article series spotlighting up-and-coming Indie RPG designers and their games. This is the place where we will explore the cutting-edge of game design; the place where we fearlessly read the most experimental RPG’s you can find! Join me on my Sisyphean quest to read all the games emerging on itch.io, and become a part of the Indie RPG revolution.
Today we will be looking at four designers: Jared Sinclair, Jay Dragon, Riley Hopkins, and Kienna Shaw. Let’s get started.
Our first spotlight is Jared Sinclair, author of academically mystical works such as Waiting for Godot the RPG, A Quick Primer in Goblin Cosmology for Non-Goblins, and Jared, a Role-Playing Game. He is also the creator of the Libre Baskerville Jam, a game design challenge that saw 63 RPG’s channeled from The Outside. I would describe Jared’s writing as “What if you were reading a book, and that book was mad at you, and also the book had really strong opinions on obscure philosophy”. Overall his stuff is a lovely self-referential romp, with some rare but shining moments of earnest emotion.
Have you ever read someone’s writing and instantly realized that they are far smarter than you, and that is a good thing? Jared’s essay A Quick Primer In Goblin Cosmology For Non-Goblins did that to me right away. It is the most intricately wild bit of academic fiction that I have ever seen. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the essay gets into the mathematics, numerology, and religious symbolism of a fictional goblin society. It’s inspired by the thoughts of Epidiah Ravachol, author of Dread, so you know it is good.
The first actual RPG I want to highlight naturally splits people into two camps: People who know things about seemingly important mid-twentieth century plays, and people like me. Waiting for Godot, the RPG is a joyfully confusing game about saying inane things to your friends with varying inflection until you start to imagine the things you are saying make sense. The premise is simple, say things from a list until you don’t want to anymore. Godot feels like a gamified version of the “Who’s On First” gag, a smattering of simple prose made clever by the circumstance. I’m sure I’m largely missing the point of this game, but I still like it.
I think the real highlight of Jared’s catalog is, exhaustingly, Jared, A Role-Playing Game by Jared Sinclair. Past the quite funny self-referential humor, JaRPG is a pleasant little game about dating, insecurity, and identity. Make some less-than-aspirational characters, grab some snacks, and date your friends. Jared has released a few more games, but I’ll leave a little mystery to his rather indescribable oeuvre. You can find Jared’s games on his itch.io storefront, and you can follow and then instantly unfollow him on Twitter at @infinite_mao.
Next up we have Jay Dragon, author of both whimsical and horrible games like The Rake, Games for Lost People, Queer Messes, and Sleepaway. Jay’s writing is focused on interpersonal connection, queerness, and lights shining in the darkness. They are a great example of how independent designers are innovating!
Jay’s small game collection, Games for Lost People, is the perfect sampling of these themes. It is as much an essay on fear, friendship, and mental illness as anything else. These are games to play when reality leans in too close. “How to Build a Magic Forest” stands out to me as the most whimsically interesting game to actually play in this collection—over the course of many years you will paint symbols on trees, until you have created something mystical. For a more serious game from the set, “Play this instead of Killing Yrself” challenges you to wander in the face of grave pain. It is a compelling read. Jay has also released a followup collection, Games for the Breakdown, which is full of the same poetic design.
Outside of the small games collection, The Rake is a nightmare inducing game of fire and blood. It is a larp for 3+ people, in which unwitting teenagers summon a murderous monster during a sleepover. This game seems like it would be an absolute blast to play. It’s reminiscent of the childhood game Redrum, and it takes place in a dark home with a lot of matches—you should certainly give The Rake a read. If you have ever wanted to be a creeping, lumbering monster hunting your friends in the dark, then this is the game for you.
If horror isn’t your style, but sleepovers are, Queer Messes is an interesting, emotional game about queer teens approaching a change in their friendship. This is a game which reminds me of my friend group spending time together as high school drew to a close. Luckily we held ourselves together and stayed close. Will you do the same, or will you sever the strings that bind you?
Finally, Sleepaway is a Belonging Outside Belonging game, a derivative of Avery Alder’s Dream Askew, and is packed with an exciting setting and cutting edge design. Sleepaway is a collaborative game about camp counselors and their greatest fear—the Lindworm. You embody staff who are invested in protecting the campers from the mysterious monstrosity that haunts the woods. The game is jam-packed with interesting characters and consequences, and it adds to Belonging Outside Belonging’s structure with new mechanics that drive the mysterious monster, and rituals which bring emotional experience to the forefront. Sleepaway was a recent Kickstarter hit, with over 500 people backing the game. I can’t wait to see the final version, but for now there is a great playtest document on Jay’s itch.io storefront if you want to see how awesome their design is, or check out their other games. You can also follow them on twitter at @jdragsky.
We also have Riley Hopkins, a stellar game designer and podcaster who has developed some really emotionally charged games, including Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined, If Not Us, Then Who?, and Anime is Real and it’s My Boyfriend. I’ve read a bunch of Riley’s games recently, and I can confirm they are all really special and innovative. Their work tends to draw on the storytelling tropes and emotional beats of cartoons, anime, and video games in a really charming and evocative way.
Riley’s flagship game is Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined. On the surface it is a PbtA game inspired by Kingdom Hearts, but underneath that is some of the most interesting and complex interpersonal mechanics I’ve ever seen. Interstitial takes the interpersonal mechanics built into a lot of PbtA (Example: History/Hx in Apocalypse World and Bonds in Dungeon World) and pumps them way up. In Interstitial, characters generate “Links” with other PC’s and NPC’s. Links correspond to the four relationship stats: Light, Dark, Mastery, and Heart. Players spend most of the game generating and using these links. Despite there being mechanics for fighting and questing, it’s really the gamification of relationships that shines. I think this game is representative of some of the wild places PbtA games are going in the future!
If Not Us, Then Who? is a game about transforming teenage hero shows. Think Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, or Animorphs. It’s unique in that it is more about the narrative structure of this kind of show than individual actions. The episode-structure prompts that Riley has written are spectacular, and really evocative. Get ready to play though holiday episodes, bottle episodes, crossover eps, and more! This game is just begging to be hacked to play through some other types of procedural show. Also the villain of your story can be “Yule Lads,” so you know this is a great game.
And finally we have Anime is Real and it’s My Boyfriend. AiRaiMB is an anime-inspired PbtA game that lets you craft your own appropriately over-the-top anime Moves to teach your character. AiRaiMB is a lot more freeform than most PbtA games, but if you want to get into the weeds of move design, I think this would be a great game to try out!
All of the games I have talked about and more can be found on Riley’s itch.io storefront. Riley also has some really great micro games on their website, but I will let you explore those! (Seriously you should look though. There is a very cool Quiet Year hack, and a Firebrands hack that I really want to play) You can also find Riley on twitter (@RevRyeBread), and on a bunch of podcasts, including “Interstitial: A Kingdom Hearts Inspired Actual Play”, “Halcyon Station” (@HalcyonStation), and “RPG Design Friends” (@rpgdesignfrog).
Finally we have the creatively engaging writing of Kienna Shaw, designer, streamer, and co-author of the incredible TTRPG Safety Toolkit. Kienna specializes in small, intimate games about navigating relationships, both internal and external, including Heaven Nor Hell, Your Magic Circle, and Life in the Machine. Their embrace of tension is evident, and the games they write give breath to the voices inside everyone’s heart.
Heaven Nor Hell is a two-player freeform story game about forbidden love between supernatural beings spanning the entirety of time. It allows you to play a surreal version of Romeo and Juliet while creating an ever-changing world for the setting. The game itself is structurally simple: narrate your occasional secret dalliances on Earth, where your respective families (or gods or something) can’t see you. It’s an old tale rehashed in a way that makes it easy to play out in a single session at the table. The real flavor comes by way of the questions and prompts that drive your scenes: you will set scenes based on a die roll, and then you will repeatedly be forced to say goodbye for now. Heaven Nor Hell has a lot of heart, and is a great addition to your romance RPG library.
Your Magic Circle is a small but beautifully designed meditation on the construction of a space for play. It encourages you to feel the magic and possibility that exists at the table when you play games. It’s a bright and uplifting read. The most interesting thing about this project is how it exists within an ongoing conversation among RPG players and designers about how we create environments for storytelling, and how our environment changes our experience.
Finally, Life in the Machine is a game written for the Emotional Mecha Jam earlier this year, and updated for the recent Your Move Jam. It is a light PbtA game for two players about the relationship between a mech and its pilot. The game uses rhythmic trading of narrative authority to cement its themes—one player is always in control of the story, and if the other wants to make a decision they must wrest control from their partner by rolling.
Kienna has these great games and more on their itch.io storefront, and you have the opportunity to get them for a discounted price for the next few weeks as they raise money for convention season. You can follow Kienna on Twitter @KiennaS, and I would also suggest checking out the TTRPG Safety Toolkit, a collection of some of the most popular safety tools around. Kienna co-authored the compilation alongside Lauren Bryant-Monk, and it is a useful addition to any table.
Thank you for joining me for the first issue of Indie Frontiers! Expect more analysis of indie design here in the coming months, and feel free to add your name to my list of designers here if you want to see yourself in one of these articles.
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