Welcome to the first Kickstarter Wonk for 2020! Although January is often a thin month for RPG Kickstarters, with designers suffering the same holiday hangovers as the rest of us, this January, January of 2020, is likely to be the worst one so far. This isn’t random, not at all. Last year, Kickstarter threw an event called Zinequest, where game designers were encouraged to put out zine-sized games and RPG supplements in a recognition of the legacy of RPG zines from the 70s and 80s. This was wildly successful, and inspired Kickstarter to throw Zinequest 2. When is Zinequest 2? Next month. What are all the game designers doing? Getting ready for that. How many campaigns does that leave me? Very few.
This was not a situation where there was nothing to review like back in September, even though I was never going to get to ten campaigns that I both liked and that follow my self-imposed guidelines. So, instead of stretching to ten and doing a disservice to the readers, I’m going to pick a half-sized batch this month, and start 2020 talking a bit about how I go about picking Kickstarters.
My primary standard for a Kickstarter campaign is whether or not that campaign is for a fully standalone role-playing game. I try not to review supplements or campaign settings, though both have made the list in specific circumstances. I also try not to review new editions of old games, though I regularly make exceptions for old, out-of-print games coming back to press.
Why only standalone games? Part of it is preference: I’m not one to seek out campaign settings, and if I wouldn’t buy it myself it’s hard to write about. Part is also utility: supplements are marketed towards people who already play the game for which the supplement is intended. This is why the exceptions to my supplement rule have been for games I’ve already recommended, or for games that are already popular. Matt Colville’s Strongholds and Followers and Kingdoms and Warfare don’t really fit my standards, but they’re adding a lot to D&D and stand on their own better than many other supplements do.
As I did mention back in September, most of the games I strike from the list are either badly marketed in their campaign or just don’t come across as being any good. The easiest way I can determine your game won’t be good or at least not be worth the money is if it becomes clear that the designer has never read an RPG that wasn’t D&D. That might sound extreme, but I read one of these campaigns a month, minimum, and worse, some of them fund.
Fortunately, I usually have to take more time deciding between two games I do like. Sometimes this is an arbitrary decision: if I really can’t pick I may go by days left in the campaign, because having a link be relevant for eight days drives more clicks than if it’s relevant for three. Usually, though, I’ll go for either the one I’m more likely to actually fund (admittedly I fund less than one campaign per month on average, my shelf is full enough as it is) or the one that seems more original. It’s a very subjective determination.
While this month I wasn’t able to get the number of campaigns that fit my criteria up to ten, by paring the list down to five I’m able to talk about campaigns that all meet my standards; all of these games look like they’ll be interesting and fun once they come out.
Dungeon Party takes the term “beer and pretzels” very literally, printing all of the rules cards on bar coasters and also playing like a hybridization of D&D and, well, quarters. While not a traditional RPG per se, Dungeon Party sits in the design space between something like a D&D and most board games, nestling in nicely along such board games as Gloomhaven. Of course, Dungeon Party is neither as serious nor as expensive as Gloomhaven, but still offers more depth than most games that are easy to set up at a bar. There is no PDF option as this is a physical game, but the base set is an impressively cheap $19. That said, due to the size of the next tier up and the presence of stretch goals, I’d personally go for the $39 tier. Still only one third of a Gloomhaven.
Casting the Runes
Casting the Runes is an investigative RPG using the Gumshoe ruleset, much like The Yellow King. Also like The Yellow King, Casting the Runes highlights an occult author not named Lovecraft, in this case M.R. James. Gumshoe has already proven to be a handy ruleset for ghosts, ghouls and the supernatural, and in fact Casting the Runes is already essentially finished; the Kickstarter will pay artists to replace the public domain art in the pre-production version. Casting the Runes will be published by The Design Mechanism, best known for Mythras, and should be a great addition to any mystery or horror RPG shelf. C$20 (~$16) gets you a PDF, as well as immediate access to the pre-production version.
Taking themes seen in Battlestar Galactica and The Last Jedi, Last Fleet is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about a human fleet fleeing from the Corax, a fungal alien which wiped out the Interplanetary Commonwealth. As is appropriate for a game about this sort of pursuit, the mechanics of the game center on pressure, and aim to tell stories about people pushed to their breaking point. With the primary playbooks based on astrological signs (and actual roles on the ship taking a secondary role), it’s clear that conflicts of personality and grave decisions are going to be central here. A PDF is going to be £15 (~$20), though there are retailer and hardship tiers at lower price points.
Did you know Nobilis is over 20 years old? I didn’t. Nobilis is arguably the magnum opus of Jenna Moran, a game designer whose credits include that, a number of different games and supplements for White Wolf, and Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine. Glitch is Moran’s newest original RPG, and a return to the mechanics of Nobilis, albeit with years of refinement. Glitch is intended to be a bit more accessible than Nobilis, but still has the capability to go hard on the stories it tells. Beyond the game, the intent of the Kickstarter is to present the game in a way that’s at least on the level of Nobilis, which was a crazy book with square pages. Glitch is the newest piece of work from an utter barnstormer of a designer, as well as a clear must-back for any Nobilis fan. If you really just want the game, the $20 pre-release tier will do just fine. That said, even though the $30 PDF tier is fairly dear, it will be something above and beyond what’s in the pre-release.
I’ve said I’ll never cover Kickstarters twice. Fortunately for Librete, I didn’t actually cover it back in September when it was canceled, as it was one of only two or three campaigns that month I found worth reading. Lucky for us then that it’s come back around! Librete is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about children surviving in a ruined city with no grown-ups. It’s a dash of Peter Pan and a dash of Lord of the Flies; the designer has added a mechanic, Bile, for tracking characters’ inner darkness. Originally released in French in 2016, Librete is a new English translation, and has been edited and re-focused after the cancellation of the original campaign last September. It’s an interesting concept, and it sounds like the team has put in the work to get results this time. $12 will get you a PDF, though there are digital tiers above that you should check out.
A new year means new games, but designers take vacations too. Even so, taking a moment to describe how the sausage is made is a good way to start 2020, and helps highlight the decision making process which brought these five campaigns to your attention. Next month is a different thing entirely; between the continuing year and the spectre of Zinequest, there will be a lot to talk about. In the meanwhile, click on some links and let us know what you think about this month’s Kickstarter Wonk!
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