Welcome back to Kickstarter Wonk! As you may have noticed, RPG Kickstarter isn’t quite its old normal self in February, not since last year at least. No, February is ZineQuest, the celebration of the DIY zine as a harbinger of the indie RPG hobby from way back in the 70s and 80s. Kickstarter celebrates this DIY ethos for setting aside a month to encourage creators of all stripes to make zines, the old bifold, home-printed little magazines with around 24 pages and a bunch of new ideas. Indeed, here in the first week of ZineQuest we’re already near 50 campaigns, and there’s sure to be more as the month goes on.
But what then, you may ask, of the creators trying their hand at something more traditional? I’m not going to sugar coat it, running a traditional RPG campaign in the month of February is risky. Still, there are five campaigns which have caught my eye; two of these are licensed games which have a very different value proposition from zines, and three are indie games from known quantities in the space which are much more likely than others to ride the ZineQuest wave without a zine, per se. And beyond those five, what do I have? Well, if you read on, you’ll also get to take a look at over two dozen ZineQuest campaigns that caught my eye.
Blacksad is based on the award-winning comic written by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido. Blacksad is also intended to be a hard-boiled or noir work, though its setting in the early Cold War makes it late for traditional hard-boiled. I suppose it’s worth mentioning that all the characters are anthropomorphic animals…that’s not very traditional hard-boiled either.
Blacksad uses a relatively light d6-based mechanic that reminds me at least in passing of Technoir, with three types of dice and one that can cancel. The mechanics are not the same, I should note, but I appreciate that the designers drank from the well of both Technoir and Don’t Rest Your Head when considering how they wanted the game to feel at the table. Once again, I feel like a lot of what could make this game stand out will rest in the Game Master materials, where plot generation tools could make the game into a noir masterpiece or sadly fade into the background. €15 (~$17) gets you a PDF of this one.
Another licensed RPG, this one, like Blacksad, is more likely to introduce you to a new world than be picked up by an existing fan. The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a series of adventure fiction that takes place in 16th century Brazil. The RPG picks up this theme, taking a game in the otherwise saturated fantasy adventure genre and making it unique through its setting and incorporation of Brazilian folklore. The game has also already started gathering accolades; the standalone Player’s Guide won a Judge’s Spotlight Award at the ENnies last year, which is a strong endorsement of what the game can be. For HK$ 150 (~$20), you can check out a PDF of the complete game once it’s ready.
Cobwebs is a game of conspiracy horror, where 3-5 players get steadily deeper into the web until there’s no way out. Cobwebs uses a scene-driven structure similar to Fiasco, and though there are some elements of the game that can be driven in the same playset format, the game uses randomization more intensely, taking some of the impetus away from the players to figure out what scene is going to happen next (and while I love Fiasco, more structure seems like it could really be a good thing). Using three shared roles, the players deepen the conspiracy with every scene, until the horrible truth finally comes out. For creating narrative this looks like it could be great fun; it’s worth mentioning also that the designer is Adam Vass of the Brain Trust podcast, giving this game some solid indie pedigree already. $12 gets you a PDF, but the $25 physical tier comes with a playmat and tokens.
Trophy was originally published in the Gauntlet RPG zine Codex, and somewhat ironically for Zinequest it is leaving the zine format in this campaign. The full volume of Trophy will have three entries: Trophy Dark, a psychological horror game about treasure hunters in an ancient forest, Trophy Gold, a game of poor and desperate treasure hunters, and Trophy Loom, a setting guide that is aligned to the materials presented in both Trophy Dark and Trophy Gold. The games are built around incursions, non-linear sets of goals which are framed with the settings, threats, and treasures that the adventurers may encounter. While Trophy Dark is somewhat of a one-shot game Trophy Gold is more campaign-oriented, and the game includes overland travel rules, downtime rules, and of course, GM guidelines for creating additional incursions beyond those included with the game. The original game created some solid buzz when it came out in Codex, and this expanded version looks like it could scratch an itch at the intersection of indie and old-school. $30 gets you PDFs, but when considering cost remember that this will get you three books.
Dream Askew and Dream Apart, by Avery Alder and Benjamin Rosenbaum respectively, helped start a new fork off the Powered by the Apocalypse system, called Belonging Outside Belonging. Using ideas both from PbtA and Avery’s earlier games like The Quiet Year, Belonging Outside Belonging games are diceless and use character playbooks and their moves to share narrative authority through the use of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ moves, as well as stronger definitions of the outside forces and threats that the GM personifies. Venture and Dungeon are two games which use this framework to interrogate the typical D&D adventure. Venture, by Riley Rethal, is about understanding the motives and personal journeys of these characters, about what would make someone become a cleric, or a wizard, or a fighter. Dungeon, by Jay Dragon, is about D&D characters, sure, but you’re actually playing the players of D&D as they deal with the challenges and turmoil of high school. Very meta, and I like it. Venture and Dungeon offer two very different perspectives on the people behind a dungeon crawl, and looks to be well worth checking out. $15 gets you a PDF.
Zinequest 2 is turning out to be the same embarrassment of riches that Zinequest last year was. There are around 70 campaigns live as I write this, and there’s no way I’m going to cover them all. Instead, let me give a few highlights if you have no idea where to start.
First, my friends: I met Joe DeSimone when we were camp counselors, and he and I were tasked, along with another unfortunate soul, with running Dungeons and Dragons for a gaggle of ten, eleven, and twelve year olds. Both of us stayed in gaming, somehow, and now he’s putting together a zine of interviews with game designers. Not Pretty, But Wonderful is definitely worth checking out, and I am backing it. Also check out Fruit of Law, by Eli Seitz. I met Eli through the Boston Area Game Designers meetup, and Fruit of Law is a gorgeous little game about designing a society by writing its laws…and also pomegranates.
Games that start with T: First, if you just read my full-length campaigns, you might have been intrigued by Trophy. There’s a zine of new incursions for Trophy Dark, called Mycelium, and a Trophy-based game, Candlelight. Next, check out The Gælæffa Guide to Troika, which should tell you what game it’s for. Also for Troika, and with fewer special characters, is Ten People You Meet in the Undergarden. Another RPG I quite like that starts with T, Torchbearer, also has a zine being produced called The Grind Turn 2: Mistvale Nights.
Maps and the Like: I like maps, there are some zines about maps. Beak, Feather, and Bone is a “competitive map-labeling RPG” and I’m intrigued by that. Hunters in Death is a hexcrawl in zine form, and that sounds pretty cool…so cool I’ll highlight another zine hexcrawl, Spirit of Adventure. If you just want straight-up maps, there’s Zine-O-Map, which is in fact just straight-up dungeon and location maps. In the same vein is Thirty-Six Stranger Chambers, a zine of 36 intriguing rooms.
Old-School Oddities: There is no lack of zines aiming for an OSR vibe, meaning they should be compatible with not only the thirty some-odd D&D incarnations now out there but also games which venture a bit further afield like Maze Rats, The Black Hack, and maybe even Dungeon World. Getting right to the heart of the matter is Old School and Cool. Also just going on the theme “old-school” is Phylactery, a zine of various and sundry game resources. More focused is The Beloved Underbelly, a faction-driven old-school adventure. Also in the ‘vein’ of a focused adventure is Sinister Red, apparently set on a “vampire planet” Perhaps too focused is Passages of the Living, an “existential horror” old-school zine. If you want to dip your toes into old-school gaming, Monty Haul aims for the OSR attitude and spirit but is compatible with D&D 5e.
Those that stand alone: Despite the limitations of the medium, there are a solid number of complete RPGs in zine form. A Touch of Glamour is PbtA “Fey Mayhem”, which is a good sell for me. Green Dawn Mall is about teenagers exploring an endless mall, and it’s a horror game, at least if you take my view on shopping. No Stone Unturned is a GMless game of settlement building and environmental impact. Rock and Roll is a musical RPG, specifically about a form of poverty more glamorous than freelance game design, touring musicians. Palanquin is an interesting high-concept game about an Heir escaping from a coup. Mage Against the Machine is about time-travelling wizards and a robot apocalypse, a lot of gonzo in a small form factor. Nova Commonwealth is a diceless RPG about magitech research, The Company is a game of “corporate survival horror” and, last but not least, The Artefact is a solo RPG about the history and fate of a unique magic item.
In this rapid-fire overview, I covered somewhere in the neighborhood of one third of the zines that are currently running campaigns. Does this mean that these are the best third? Not at all! These are campaigns that caught my eye, and that means this list is subject to my biases, which include original games, maps, and Troika. It is worth going and checking out what’s on Kickstarter at any time this month.
Speaking of any time this month, one unique thing about Zinequest is that the games can fund for only two weeks instead of the more typical four. This means that by the end of February, all of these will have already been through their funding, as well as a bunch of other campaigns that haven’t even started yet. Recognizing this, I’ll be back in two weeks with Kickstarter Wonk Redux: Zinequest Wonk! On February 19th I’m going to be hitting a whole brace of zines that are running campaigns, and they will be completely different than the ones I’ve listed here. If you know of a zine that’s going to launch later, fear not, I’ll get a chance to cover them in the next round.
On one hand, I only wrote capsule reviews of five games. On the other hand, I highlighted over 25 Zinequest campaigns, and this is just the beginning. Check out all these zines and all the others I didn’t have a chance to talk about and come back in two weeks for a supplemental, extra-special Zinequest bonus edition of Kickstarter Wonk!
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