Kickstarter Wonk: January, 2021

Welcome to the first Kickstarter Wonk of 2021! I’ve been waiting nine months to write that. Now, even though the state of the world is pretty much like it was in December, we’re still facing the biggest collective New Year’s Hangover in quite some time. That collective hangover may explain why there’s…four Kickstarters this month. January is often a thin month but this is thin even for January. Still, these four are good ones, and if you stick around I’ll also throw in some commentary about the RPG Kickstarter market as a whole in 2020.

Olde School Wizardry

If your favorite D&D spell is ‘prestidigitation’, this game is for you. Olde School Wizardry takes the adventuring party trope and turns it sideways: What if all the characters were, in effect, first-level wizards? Backing up this concept is a magic system based on nine verbs (the ancient runes), a potentially infinite number of nouns (the magical sciences, like goats and cheese), and hundreds of metamagic abilities (magical formulae). The result is that one crazy session where your wizard actually found a use for the Grease spell…but for an entire campaign. This is the sort of game that keys into what I remember about playing spellcasters in D&D, and looks to create not only a great game but a magic system worth using, hacking, and porting across the genre. $20 gets you a PDF. 

Cuticorium

Is Bunnies and Burrows simply too large in scale? Did you, like me, spend hours of your childhood playing SimAnt? In either case, Cuticorium is right up your alley. A game where the characters are insects, Cuticorium takes place in the eponymous insect city, and leans into a fantastic version of insect social structures like those of ants and bees, as well as a style called ‘gothic microcosmic’ which names Hollow Knight as one of several inspirations. Playing an insect is a push-pull between the need to find yourself and explore the outside world, and the danger of a world where everything is bigger than you. I don’t think I’ve seen a game quite like this (which is always a plus), and the setting seems to take just the right sort of artistic license to make the insect world even more compelling. $10 gets you a PDF.

Abyss

Powered by the Apocalypse is no stranger to the supernatural, with Monsterhearts, Urban Shadows, and Monster of the Week taking places among the best known games using the system. Abyss takes a more fantasy turn in and among supernatural horror, citing Devil May Cry and Castlevania as its influences. The studio previously made the RPG adaptation of Usagi Yojimbo, so they’re no stranger to using PbtA for more action-oriented ends. Nonetheless, and this isn’t the fault of Abyss itself, it feels like we’re getting to a point of genre slicing and dicing from which there is no return. Even so, this is a veteran team working with some solidly established PbtA mechanical tropes, so if supernatural action is up your alley it’s going to be worth checking out. $19 gets you a PDF, and that tier also comes with an option for at-cost printing, making it eminently reasonable.

Space Aces

Space Aces is taking the concept of Stars Without Number and removing all of the cruft. Though also an old-school style game with a love for random tables, Space Aces is zine-sized and designed more to get up and go in the vein of Troika or Mork Borg than the more involved games in the (*cough*) space. While not necessarily original, Space Aces is taking the right cues from both sides of the Indie/OSR divide to make the game quick and fun, and putting in a good dash of cheeky humor to boot. While Space Aces isn’t the final frontier of game design (Aaron, stop), it looks like a fun time in a small package. A mere $5 gets you a PDF.

2020 in Review

If you’ve been reading here, you’d be excused in thinking 2020 wasn’t a great year for RPG Kickstarters. In an absolute sense, that’s not true. Kickstarters brought in tons of money in 2020, still growing year-over-year despite the pandemic. However, the type and diversity of Kickstarters is flagging badly. My stats come courtesy of Shannon Appelcline’s excellent Year in Review over at RPGnet, which lists the 57 Kickstarter campaigns in the RPG world which netted over $100,000. Out of those 57, over half (30) were for 5th Edition material; four out of the top 5 were 5e material or 5e games (a caveat that the top campaign, a reprint of Monte Cook’s setting Ptolus, is dual-statted for Cypher System and 5e). There were still some notable indie triumphs (both Wanderhome and Thirsty Sword Lesbians made it into the top 20 of this list) and mid-market stalwarts (Pinnacle with a new edition of Deadlands and Fria Ligan with a new edition of Twilight:2000), but the Kickstarter market is looking awfully top-heavy. What’s worse, I don’t necessarily know how many of these campaigns are moving the hobby. No disrespect to Ptolus, but it is a reprint, and supplements with names like “Menagerie of Magic” and “Codex of Companions” are not pushes on the system but rather safe, familiar ways to get some of that Hasbro money. Does this mean they’re bad? Not necessarily. That said, Wizards made a choice to curtail the supplement treadmill for 5e and the market is saying no, product strategy be damned. I’m not saying this is a second coming of the d20 glut, but the curious should watch the hobby this year as all these supplement-style products start fulfilling.

The pandemic did have an effect on this to be sure. If 5e is anything it’s safe, and game designers need to eat too. A lot of indie titles aimed lower, either trying to reduce turnaround time or releasing on itch directly without a Kickstarter campaign. Both of these can be attributed more to the pandemic and financial risk aversion than any other overriding trend in the hobby, but it does lead me to ask what the Kickstarter landscape will look like once things start to improve. The PbtA game design engine seems to be running out of steam after nearly a decade, and its derivatives (Forged in the Dark and Belonging Outside Belonging) never did become big enough to fill in the gap. That means we’re seeing more breadth and more ideas…but fewer eyeball magnets to propel a project into the vaunted $100k+ space. Urban Shadows 2e is holding the vanguard for PbtA on the list, with offshoots like Wanderhome and Trophy showing that the push for innovation continues.


2021 is a new year, of course, and that means plenty of new games. While the torrent of 5e materials, good, bad, and ugly, will continue, there are still plenty of innovative designers making innovative games that will shine through the ever-increasing number of campaigns being launched in the Tabletop Games category. And if you don’t want to read through all these campaigns, know that I still will, and the editor here says my conciseness is “better”! In all seriousness, I aim to continue seeking out the best new stuff designers have to give, month in and month out. If you’re going to be looking for new stuff on Kickstarter in 2021, look no further than Kickstarter Wonk!

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