We are here yet again with System Hack! Cyberpunk Chimera is a construction project that’s really gotten off the ground; all the important parts that turn a series of articles into a game have at least been sketched out or brainstormed. There are some key elements, though, that shift the focus of the game in the direction that I’m most interested in. There are two parts of the Cyberpunk genre which are often overlooked in RPG mechanics, either because they’re considered “setting elements” or because they aren’t part of what makes the genre science fiction. These are the cities and the corporations, and their centrality is just as true in games as it is in literature and film.
In theory we all know what worldbuilding is. The process of creating a fictional world isn’t technically related to role-playing games, but it has become inextricably intertwined with the hobby, given the preponderance of science fiction and fantasy settings in the most popular games. In considering and examining worldbuilding, I’m not going to spend a lot of word count talking about what it is, or even how to do it well. Instead, I’m going to talk about how worldbuilding affects RPGs specifically, which boils down to a lot of mistakes, missed opportunities, and general poor form.
They say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. I don’t know about the second part, but with the last vestiges of ZineQuest, it’s definitely come in like a lion for Kickstarter Wonk! Like last month, I’m splitting this article into two sections. First, I have five full-fat Kickstarter campaigns which you should definitely check out. Then, looking at the end of Zinequest, I called out roughly 25 interesting zine projects which you should check out as well. But first, let’s go to the big projects! From mechas to telenovelas to princesses, there’s something for everyone here.
Forged in the Dark keeps on keeping on, and Beam Saber brings it into the world of mecha. Here, while you pick an archetype like you’d imagine, instead of a crew you have your squad, building the foundation for both the premise and the eventual drama of so many mecha anime series. It doesn’t look like Beam Saber is looking to make waves with how Forged in the Dark is structured, but already in the project description I see that the designers have a solid awareness of how the existing mechanics can slot right in to the tropes of their chosen genre. If you want to see how development’s going so far, backing will get you a copy of the rules as they currently stand. C$30 (~$23US) gets you a PDF.
Horror, especially horror in RPGs, has flirted with trauma for a long time. Seeing the evolution from, say, Call of Cthulhu to, say, Eclipse Phase, you can pretty readily come to the conclusion that mental health representation in RPGs has gotten better…but that’s not the same as saying it is good. The Midnight World aims to change that. Characters in The Midnight World are the Touched, those who have seen horrors from “Beyond the Veil of Reality”. The key mechanical emphasis here is that while games like Call of Cthulhu have mechanics for when a character is broken by their experiences, characters in The Midnight World will have their psyches wounded, and there will be emphasis on how they recover (and what scars the experience might leave). Designer James Davey is a veteran LARPer but also a combat veteran, experiences which align well with the subject matter The Midnight World aims to examine. $20 gets you a PDF.
Just when you thought PbtA had nothing new to show you, here comes Pasion de las Pasiones. Admittedly, Brandon Leon-Gambetta’s game of romance and betrayal has been bumping around in ashcan form since 2017 or so, but this is the first time it’s going to be coming out in fully realized form. To be more clear, this is a telenovela RPG. Telenovelas are somewhat similar in structure to American soap operas, but with their own strong tropes and grounding in Latin American culture. Their use of archetypal characters to help guide viewers through long backstories and intense plot twists has the side effect of making the genre perfect for PbtA. In addition to the typical playbook-driven character generation you know and love, the game also uses Playsets, bolt-on rules and start conditions to help drill down exactly the sort of drama you want at your table. I say, bring on the web of lies and deceit! $15 gets you a PDF.
I was a Teenage Creature is not the first teen monster game, nor is it even the first that tries to lean into the tropes of teen monster TV shows (both Monsterhearts and Monster of the Week play in that playground). What interests me, though, is a dynamic attribute system that isn’t unlike one used in Greg Stolze’s lesser-known ORE detective game A Dirty World. In I Was a Teenage Creature, characters have four pairs of emotional attributes. These attributes are ranked along a scale from one to ten. You roll dice according to the value of a few more traditional stats, but how you determine success depends on your emotional state. For the positive attributes, you’re looking to roll high. For the negative attributes, you’re looking to roll low. I’m always down for games that ask you to look deeper at your character’s emotions, and this one definitely brings them to the fore in an interesting way. $15 gets you a PDF.
Princess World is a game that takes the Disney Princess tropes you may be familiar with and blows them up, leaving something both bigger and better to work with. Using the Powered by the Apocalypse system, Princess World is a game for kids that provides a framework to get younger players into the elements of worldbuilding and player-facing mechanics which make Powered by the Apocalypse so compelling for gamers of all ages. While Princess World is leaning into modern princess tropes as seen in works like She-Ra and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, princesses as they appear in the game need not be girls or, for that matter, human. Rather than looking for a gendered take, the game focuses on the themes of empowerment, responsibility, and teamwork. $25 gets you a PDF (there is a $10 tier for financial hardship), but I’d suggest at least looking at the $40 physical tier because the book is also a coloring book.
Even More Zines
That’s right, even more zines. Zinequest only runs through February, but the 29th is the date by which you have to start, not end, your project. As such, there are still zines running into March, and if you stopped looking already, you’re missing out.
More Games that Start with T: Trophaeum is a horror game that, like several across Zinequest, is ‘Rooted in Trophy’. My other favorite T game, Troika, is represented by the thematically appropriate “So You’ve Been Thrown Down a Well”. Also at least mostly representing the letter T, and a perfect follow-on to a well-centric zine is The Treasure at the End of this Dungeon is an Escape From This Dungeon and We Will Never Escape From This Dungeon. Cheerful!
Even More Apocalypses: Man, it’s like something’s going on out in the world. Apocalypse Survive is a straight-up post-apocalyptic zine, while Bunker is a more OSR approach that imagines the apocalypse as a catalyst for the rebirth of high fantasy. Affliction gives us that familiar zombie flavor we all know and love. Shadow of Mogg is a “post-Brexit RPG” arguably the most realistic and depressing take on the post-apocalyptic genre. Covert Wars is pre-apocalyptic, a Cold War RPG, but as it made me, an American, think about politics, it gets listed in this category.
Let’s Turn It Around. Here Are Some Cute Animals: Eat Trash. Be Free. is a game of being a gang of (probably cute) suburban animals stealing from garbage cans. Stitches and Stuffing is the sock puppet-based RPG you didn’t know you needed. Fabled Dead is somewhat less cute than the others, but according to the art you’re definitely a rabbit, so there’s that. Dungeon Pets features pets. For when you’re in the dungeon. Battle Beasts takes a Pokemon-esque art direction, as well as the same for its implied mechanics. Last and the opposite of least, The Great Bork Team is an RPG about sled dogs. 15/10, would mush.
Finally, a few I just find interesting: Indie luminary Paul Czege is campaigning a narrative project called We’re Just Friends. Agile, Anxious, Attached is a lyric game project about negotiating memory through the lens of RPGs, something that speaks to me personally. Kingdoms is a game employing generational mechanics, another personal interest. Viral.exe looks like it was designed for the AIM generation…which includes me. Finally, I can’t not mention the attention-grabbing, delightful nonsense that is Seance and Sensibility, a Jane Austen/Eldritch Horror mashup.
Zinequest has been fun, but it is good to get back to normal. The conventional projects here all look great, and now that the zines aren’t attacking your wallet like so many compelling narrative headcrabs, you could actually back one! We’ll be back to the normal ten campaign articles in April, but for now these 30 some-odd projects are worth perusing. Other thoughts? Something I missed? Let me know below, and I’ll see you all next month for another Kickstarter Wonk!
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It is time once again for System Hack! Last time we took a look at the Cyberpunk Chimera, we thought about character creation and saw a lot of things come together. Now, we’re examining one of the more emblematic elements of a near-future or modern RPG: the gear. Cyberpunk 2020 was more than fine with giving players access to all sorts of goodies, like gatling shotguns, net guns, and various high-caliber borg droppers with recoil so powerful you needed cyberarms just to wield them. There was also plenty of other equipment detailed, from electronics to vehicles to cosmetics, not to mention the cyberware. Most of this equipment was either finely detailed (weapons, vehicles) or not detailed at all (pretty much anything that wasn’t implantable, driveable, or could kill people). So when building out a new system and looking at equipment, we need to ask the question: What actually matters?
Two weeks ago, we cut our regularly scheduled Kickstarter Wonk broadcast a bit short to bring you a sampling of projects from the second year of Kickstarter’s celebration of all things DIY and RPGs, ZineQuest. As February rolls on so does ZineQuest, with many RPG Kickstarter aficionados like myself already bemoaning the dent in our wallets made by this onslaught. As you may remember, ZineQuest campaigns are limited to a two week run time, so by the time of this posting the campaigns I featured in the first article should be already done, hopefully funded and ready for their creators to get them out into the world. Fear not, though, because here at the midpoint of ZineQuest there’s a whole new batch of campaigns just waiting to drain away even more of your paycheck. Like before, I’m going to try and overview as many campaigns as possible, grouping them either by content or theme. While I won’t claim to be complete (or unbiased), hopefully I can give a rundown that’s more useful than trying to scroll through the roughly 125 projects currently live.
At the end of 2018, The Gauntlet released “Dark 2”, the December issue of their zine Codex. Within that volume was a game by Jesse Ross called Trophy. Trophy was based on Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley, adapted with the dice mechanic from Blades in the Dark. But listing out a series of games which were hacked down the road into Trophy doesn’t give the game quite enough credit. Trophy is, like the best games coming out of the OSR, a reflection and deconstruction of the dungeoneering/ adventuring trope. In Trophy, the adventurers are treasure hunters, following in the footsteps of so many games that came before. In Trophy Dark they are doomed, and their doom comes through a sequence of narrative steps, or rings. In Trophy Gold they are bound by their own debts, and must keep going deeper until they can pay what they owe.
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.
The strong increase in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons brought about both by the increased accessibility of D&D’s Fifth Edition as well as the growth of the nascent streaming and actual play communities has meant that there are a whole lot of people getting introduced to D&D. Now that this growth has been going on for a few years, there is burgeoning realization that role-playing games as a medium are capable of a lot more than dungeon crawls and Tolkien derivatives. This is great news for everyone, right? We all know there’s a whole world of RPGs out there, from the big glossy traditional games to indie zines and everything in between. Well, something’s getting lost in translation for some, and in the #dnd world on Twitter you’ve likely seen questions like this:
“How can I make John Wick in D&D?”
“What can you do to run Star Trek in D&D?”
“It would be really cool if I could run Harry Potter in D&D!”
Fortunately, these all have easy answers: Don’t, please don’t, and I don’t think it would.
“Hitting close to home” is not necessarily a goal of most game design. When meditating on the dominance of D&D, one could logically conclude that being as far away from home as possible is what people are into these days, even when that particular brand of fantasy is getting a bit creaky. It’s striking, then, that a game about disenfranchised gig economy workers would make such a big splash on DriveThruRPG, already in the top 10% of all products on the site after only a month. I should mention, though, that this is a game about disenfranchised gig economy workers hunting monsters. The game of course is #iHunt, and its writing and agenda are backed up with a thoughtful and rather complex adaptation of the Fate system. Written by Olivia Hill and Filamena Young, #iHunt takes place in the dark future that is modern society…and very few serial numbers are filed off.
Welcome back to System Hack! Now that the real timeline has caught up with Cyberpunk 2020, it’s time to start pinning the Cyberpunk Chimera down. We have attributes and skills, we have ideas about a combat system, and there’s some hacking, some cyberware, and even some meta-mechanics. What don’t we have yet? Oh. Right. Characters.