Welcome to Kickstarter Wonk for September! Back to school, post-GenCon rush, none of these events make sense this year, at least not in the normal way we usually understand them. Some of the pent-up demand for Kickstarters is starting to appear in the marketplace again, but everything remains muted, and likely will for some time. The five project article is going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, though luckily we’ve gotten past the point where getting five projects together took effort. Nonetheless, it’ll be a few months before we get back up to the quantity (of quality) that I was used to back when this series started. Even so, fear not! These five projects are worth a look; I even backed a few myself.
Arium, named with the suffix found in “aquarium” or “terrarium”, is a two-part game focused on worldbuilding. Arium:Create is the first half of the system, and is designed to facilitate group worldbuilding constrained to the length of a single game session (shorter, actually, the campaign uses two hours as a benchmark). While Create results in a world which is portable to other RPG systems, Arium:Discover can be used as such a system and also incorporates player-facing mechanics to continue player involvement and investment in fleshing out your world. The mechanics center around ideation structures similar to ones I’ve personally used in corporate settings (the demo video even uses Trello), and break a world down into logical components that can be ideated against. While Arium is just slightly bigger than a zine, the campaign indicates that the team has developed some smart mechanics which make it easy to bring in ideas from a group of players. If worldbuilding is something you’d like to see take center stage, you should check out Arium, an interesting addition to a small corpus of games that are built around it. A mere $8 gets you a PDF.
If you need proof that Zinequest is a positive force in the RPG world, here it is. Jack Harrison, using the DBA Mousehole Press, gained well-deserved recognition in the ZineQuest trenches for Artefact, his zine about a living weapon. Clearly emboldened from that triumph, Jack is back with Orbital, another small RPG that shows his continued creativity and vitality. Using the No Dice No Masters system, Orbital is also a game of Belonging Outside Belonging, meaning it both uses the abovementioned system and is also tackling the subject matter of a subjugated, isolated, and/or independent community. In this case the community is a farflung space station, separated from but undoubtedly affected by a massive interstellar war. Players build both their characters and the station itself, and play through scenarios which threaten the station’s livelihood, independence, or both. No Dice No Masters is starting to come into its own now, partly indicated by distinguishing the broader mechanical system from the tighter set of themes associated with Belonging Outside Belonging. While last month’s Wanderhome is a tough act to follow within this ecosystem, Orbital both looks intriguing and also benefits from the recently built reputation of its designer. £8 (~$11) gets you a PDF.
Legends of Avallen is one of many recent games leaning into Celtic mythology, looking at the origins of many of the tropes of Tolkienesque fantasy instead of getting focused on the repeated bastardizations of them. While described as an “indie RPG” the game doesn’t have much to set itself apart in terms of mechanics or aims, though it does have more of a focus on narrative than most other fantasy RPGs. The randomizer used in the game is a deck of cards, but what piqued my interest was the promise to “start from the beginning” and have each character be built from a rather normal peasant or laborer from the era in which the game is set. This is, of course, the way in which many fantasy heartbreakers failed, but if Legends of Avallen can provide a solid system to describe the ascent from commoner to hero *before* play in a way that enriches the story of the character, it could be accomplishing quite a lot. £20 (~$27) gets you a PDF, ready to take a leap of faith?
Locus is a horror game that looks to common horror tropes as the source of its genre emulation. The trope that Locus uses primarily is one well-represented in many media but not so much RPGs: the use of place as the antagonist. Thinking about it for only a few moments you should be able to come up with some solid horror examples (Pan’s Labyrinth and Silent Hill are used in the campaign), but the translation to the tabletop realm is less readily apparent. Also bucking RPG trends is a steadfast commitment against investigating the tropes and patterns of HP Lovecraft (no offense to Chaosium, but it’s real played out), which is also a positive in my book. The game takes its horror inspirations all the way to the mechanical root of the system, where attributes are based not on strengths but on weaknesses, as weaknesses determine failure in horror much more than strengths determine success. I’ll admit the campaign for Locus didn’t wow me on first glance, but reading further I found a system that was both focused and incredibly smart, two things which could have been front-loaded better. That said, this isn’t Marketing Wonk and I still think you should check out this game. £9 (~$13) gets you a PDF.
Twilight:2000 is GDW’s classic “during-apocalypse” military RPG. First released in 1984, Twilight:2000 set its players in the shoes of a NATO military unit cut off from command somewhere in Eastern Europe as the nukes were launched. This new version is from a different publisher, using a different system, and framing the premise a bit differently. Free League Publishing has taken their Year Zero Engine and recast it for use with more gritty play assumptions, including the re-inclusion of some favorite mechanics like hit locations. Meanwhile, the game, while it still takes place in “the year 2000”, is shifted significantly to alt-history, a good choice considering how, ahem, differently the world worked out compared to what GDW’s designers were envisioning back in ‘84. This seems to be the right mix between nostalgia and update, and I’m here for it. SEK298 (~$35) gets you a digital version, but act fast: the campaign ends this Thursday (9/3/20), and at over half a million dollars they’ve hit a whole mess of stretch goals.
Way back when at the beginning of 2018, I described a bit about the Kickstarter projects I try to highlight in Kickstarter Wonk. The base rules are that projects should be complete games, new unless the revised game is more than 15 years old, and preference would be given to original systems. Needless to say I’ve made exceptions to all of these rules, covering a few 5e supplements, a lot of reprints, and often favoring a good PbtA game over a bad wholly original one (something I did not anticipate when I started: the worst games are almost always whole-cloth). But beyond those rules (Barbossa-style, more like guidelines), how do I pick games to feature? What makes the cut?
The simplest first rule is that the games I cover I have to like. I’ve covered games with snark in the past, but something about either the idea or the execution had to make me appreciate it. Fact is, there are a lot of bad games on Kickstarter, and even some publicity darlings are unoriginal, poorly executed, or just not fun in the case where they provide alpha material. I don’t write about them, and my guiding principle above all else when covering games, in these articles or elsewhere, is “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. It’s one thing to slam a specific element of a game you otherwise like, it’s entirely another to take a Kickstarter campaign, that the authors have clearly put a lot of emotional energy into, and describe it as devoid of value, derivative, or even plain bad in a public forum (and I’ve read plenty of campaigns which fall into all three of those categories). Making a bad RPG does not make you subject to public ridicule, and I don’t enjoy writing it.
The second rule is that the game has to do something I’m interested in. Take Arium, from this month. Worldbuilding games are a weakness of mine. It helped that Arium also had a good campaign and that I liked the execution, but even if it was middling (I backed it, so I believe it’s better than middling) it still had a good chance of getting covered just because it does something I personally like and want more of. Map-based games and revisions of games I already love are other clear examples of places where my bias shows.
My third rule is I like things which are different. While PbtA has been *the* system to hack for years now, its general indifference to a lot of RPG norms means it’s been a gold mine of interesting games. Pasion de las Pasiones, Flying Circus, and many others started on Kickstarter, games which would have never found a foothold if it weren’t for the flexibility of PbtA. There are others, for certain. Whether it’s a different sort of game or a genre that I’ve never seen, ‘different’ definitely gets my attention.
So there you go! Not an exhaustive list by any means, but some of the core things that I look for when reading Kickstarter campaigns. I don’t know when I’ll be moving back up to ten campaigns a month, so for now reading a lot and choosing only a few is the typical procedure, making these kinds of subjective standards pop out more when it comes to the articles. Feel free to comment with your thoughts, and be sure to join me next month when we have another Kickstarter Wonk!
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