What is an RPG? There’s a question that could send you down a rabbit-hole. At least one person per possible answer is already out there, ready to spew hate at you from Twitter. What’s an RPG book? That one, in theory, should be a little easier. An RPG book, whether we mean a physical book or a PDF, is the document that enables you to play an RPG. These can be core rulebooks, they can be setting books, or they can be supplements for either the setting or the rules, but they are, broadly speaking, the documents in which an RPG is contained. So what does that look like? You may be imagining text, some tables and charts, and probably some pictures. As much as these books vary, you probably think you know what the next RPG manual you crack open is going to look like. That’s why you need to crack open Mörk Borg.
A good RPG campaign usually takes on a life of its own. The longer you play, the more the characters, the places, and the events of a game overshadow the rules which you use for the game. Ironically, it’s this shift in importance away from mechanics which can sometimes reveal that the mechanics you’ve been using aren’t going to work for an important part of your ongoing game. In another situation, your campaign has taken a dramatic, albeit temporary, turn. Your grizzled heroes find themselves masquerading as schoolteachers, or your starship crew finds a rip in the space-time continuum, or your cyberpunks have to chase a villain into a virtual reality game. Whether it’s a mid-story diversion or a permanent change, sometimes you’re going to want to jump systems.
Few segments of the RPG fandom are as misunderstood as the OSR. At least, that’s what they keep saying on Twitter. The OSR, or “Old-School Renaissance”, are gamers who appreciate both the mechanics and implied playstyle of older editions of D&D, any of the TSR versions but usually Basic D&D and usually the versions of it (B/X, BECMI, or Rules Cyclopedia) that existed roughly from 1981 to 1991. The real problem with the OSR is a marketing problem; in the past it has been hard to distinguish those genuinely interested in the play philosophies of older D&D from those who were merely retreating to older games. Every time I’ve tried to look into the OSR and OSR games, I’ve come away asking the same question: “why are there so many hacks of Basic D&D and why exactly should I care?”
The sun starts to go down, dusk begins to fall, and the stars start to come out. As true night begins, the star begin to flicker . . . and if you’re lucky and have a sharp eye, you just might spot a shooting star! Sounds like a pretty great night, right? Well it’s also a pretty great board game, where the first person to spot five shooting stars wins! This is The Stars Align, designed by Matthew Radcliffe and Sean Fenemore and published by Breaking Games!
Continue reading A Glimpse Into The Vault: The Stars Align
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.
A nefarious Black Dragon has imprisoned six innocent magical creatures deep in its cavernous lair, trapping them with its crystal magic. You are their only hope: you must explore the caverns, find the creatures, and free them by using the Dragon’s own crystal magic against it. Along the way you might find treasure to aid you in your efforts, but beware. Even if you free all of the creatures, you’ll still have to deal with the Black Dragon itself, and it won’t go down without a fight. Brought to us by Light Heart Games and Zafty Games, this is the single player puzzle and card game of fantastical creatures and crystal magic, Crystallo!
There’s an amazing thing with seeing yourself in the works you enjoy. It’s beyond just making you feel seen. It shows the strength within you. That you can do it too. That there’s people blazing a path, waiting for you to join. That you belong. That you’re not alone. Now, before I get really into waxing-Shonen anime, I think it’s important to delve into today’s article. Yes, it’s another Masks: A New Generation topic. Yes, it’s an actual play podcast. And yes, you’re gonna freaking love listening to it.
Where Critical Bits is phenomenal at matching the bizarre and wacky with serious and satire, this podcast excels at the grounded feeling of so many things. Growing up in a new school. Being a trans girl. Having friends who you can depend on. And being a superhero student.
Wait, the last one’s only true if you go to U.A. Or in the case of these three girls, Phoenix Academy.
This is Unlabelled. And it is in my opinion, the brightest rising actual play right now.
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!
Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? First, you can follow me @LevelOneWonk on Twitter for RPG commentary, relevant retweets, and maybe some rambling. You can also find our Discord channel and drop in to chat with our authors and get every new post as it comes out. Finally, you can support us directly on Patreon, which lets us cover costs, pay our contributors, and save up for projects. Thanks for reading!
Having a con ‘season’ of sorts is a new experience for me, with PAX East 2020 following close on the heels of PAX Unplugged 2019 (thank goodness attending South wasn’t remotely an option), meaning that I’m going into this work week pretty darn exhausted . . . and with oodles, noodles, and toaster strudels of new content to write about! Let’s talk a bit about the con at large, and then get down to the details with some games.
“Welcome to Heavendale, a City of Clouds.”
We’re about to get REAL weird. And you’re gonna enjoy every moment of it.
In a world suffocating with podcasts attempting to become the next Critical Role/High Rollers/Adventure Zone, it becomes so unique for an RPG actual play that is so unapologetically its own thing. That doesn’t desire to replicate Matthew Mercer’s NPC acting skills, but can make you feel as immersed in the world through sheer personality. A podcast that can make you revolted in the best way, but also tug on your heartstrings like a lute player, oftentimes in the same sentence. A podcast that is about the characters, not the situations they often encounter. Although those situations are pretty good too. A podcast that involves superheroes, body horror, and corndogs all in equal measure.
This is Critical Bits. And it is my favorite RPG podcast in the world.