Monday, July 31, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part X: Running out of Time

Running out of Time (Old Skull/Gallant Knight)

$20.74 (PDF+soft cover)

What it is: The latest in the "Powered by Into the Odd Engine" games from Old skull and Gallant Knight, this one completes a trilogy of releases covering zombie survival, space horror and now cyberpunk survival. Running out of Time holds up nicely to its sister titles in terms of graphics and presentation, it is a good looking little book clocking in at 42 pages, the shortest in the series.

The System: The basics are identical to the other systems I have been reviewing, in that you have three stats, from 3-18, you roll saves against the stat or lower, and combat starts with damage so all conflict has immediate high risk. It's the same mechanical process as the rest, with a specific alteration in the form of Time as a life mechanic.

This is the first rulebook I've read in this series to have at least one noteworthy gaff....there's no stressful event table. Maybe they didn't intend to include one, but its not there and feels like it kinda should be.

The Setting: Running out of Time has its own gimmick, and surprisingly that is not being a condensed rules lite Cyberpunk experience. Instead, it is about a Cyberpunk world in which the currency that drives everything is time; the game requires PCs to roll 1D6 to start to see how many days they have left to live. You are presumably playing desperate people who have reached the end of their time bank. Run out of time....and you die. The game doesn't explain why or how this is, so I guess you as GM can decide....maybe its a nanovirus that shuts you down, or a chemical cocktail the releases in your system. Why does this happen? Also not really clear. It's a universe run by this gimmick that, to me at least, makes little sense in any justified context. Be that as it may, the game's entire economy, direction and even character advancement is driven by this concept.

This gimmick defines the setting and play focus, but not nearly enough time and effort is placed in explaining why the world is like this, which is really necessary for buy-in. As a result, it is so far among my least favorite of the "Into the Odd Engine" systems I have looked at. 

Aside from that, the book includes myriad charts for rolling up people, places, factions, corporations and events in your megacity. 

The Supplements: None for this one, but it could serve well as a resource to flesh out specific kinds of worlds in Screams Amongst the Stars.

Who is this for? Well, it could make for an interesting session or three at minimum, if you have a group willing to run whole-heartedly with the time as a vital resource concept, or flesh it out. I personally feel it is too gimmicky, and think the game needed to include enough useful data to make the time-as-resource/currency concept make more sense. Even a chart you could roll on for different explanations...anything. It's a stretch otherwise, and a gimmick I think that will run out its welcome quickly as it requires players to constantly seek more time in largely randomized job events....the intent might be to force forward motion on the group, but the reality (I suspect) might just be frustration and annoyance. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part IX: The Dead are Coming

The Dead are Coming (Old Skull Publishing/Gallant Knight Games)

What it is: Although this has been a general review of slim lite system indie zine RPGs, one could be forgiven for thinking this is a review series on "Into the Odd Powered games" or "games by Diogo Nogueira." Diogo has made no less than five of the games on my review list, and there are more I just don't happen to own. The Dead are Coming is a slim take on The Walking Dead and the broader survival horror zombie apocalypse genre, with an emphasis on the post-apocalypse, though I think you could tweak it a bit to start a game at the beginning of the apocalypse.

The System: The Dead are Coming equips you with the Into the Odd-derived mechanics necessary to make an excursion into a world overrun with the undead. Clocking in a bit shorter than Screams amongst the Stars at about 46 pages, its a tight focus on the subject at hand. The game morphs the rules in genre-specific ways: scars are critical injuries, and its a suitably gruesome table. Stress events are when you take critical damage on willpower, but its not really different from Screams. There are food, fuel, bullets and water you must track as depletable resources. A zombie bite that deals direct strength damage means you are infected, and three saves are necessary to live. 

In the spirit of the system there are rules on building up a band of survivors and turning them in to communities. This, along with the potential for some bonuses on critical checks on the scar and stress tables are the only potential for character improvement, so TDaC is a bit closer to Liminal Horror in this respect.

In terms of the game, the mechanics are otherwise very much the same as Into the Odd and Screams amongst the Stars. You get three stats, roll saves against them, have hit protection, and all combat starts with rolling damage and taking potential damage immediately. The book includes lots of spot rules for genre appropriate stuff, including the aforementioned depletable resources as well as vehicles, burst fire in combat, exploration and foraging rules, and more. 

The Setting: The implied setting is some time after the fall of humanity to a zombie plague. The game supports this with an array of useful charts and table for encounters and locations, as well as an array of possible foes: 9 zombie types that anyone familiar with video game zombies will recognize the origins on including spitters, exploders, zombie dogs, and so forth, along with 10 creepy living human survivor types to deal with including death cultists, raiders, cannibals, opportunists and more.

The many charts for the GM to roll stuff on the fly include a "What are they carrying" chart, a series of charts themed by area for landmarks, structures, findings and hazards, with sets for the countryside, small towns, and the big city. Finally we have an adventure idea chart and a D100 table of "things to do in the zombie apocalypse" which provides plenty of "Oh no, this happened, what will you do?!?!" events.

Overall there is enough here to run a nice mini-campaign or three in a zombie-ridden world. I don't know if it would hold up for much longer (in contrast to Screams Amongst the Stars which I think could sustain some meaningful campaigns), but you could also use this book for charts and inspiration while running a zombie apocalypse campaign using a more robust game system easily enough. I could easily see this book as a chart and idea resource for a BRP campaign, for example.  

Graphically the game is filled with evocative and decent imagery and art. A stylistic design on labels for titles and careful placement of text and font types makes the book interesting to look at but not painful to read. It's well organized and the location of information makes sense.

Supplements: like with the other Old Skull books, this one is stand-alone, but is fully compatible with other game systems. The monsters in this book could port to Into the Odd or Screams Amongst the Stars. The characters in The Dead are Coming could play with Liminal Horror PCs with almost no real need for conversion, just establish which setting rules take precedence (fallout vs. stress events, for example, and whether other spot rules such as resources, magic and such are mechanics you will need or not).

Who is this For? Its turning into a redundant question, but getting easier to answer every time. The Dead are Coming is for gamers who want a ultralight, portable rule system for zombie survival games. It's for gamers who do not like larger rule books but do like evocative and horror themed settings. It's great for anyone who has a Walking Dead campaign idea germinating. It's also useful as a resource for other game systems that can be easily subbed in, as most of the setting/inspirational content (mostly on the charts) is easily used without effort in other games.

All that said, it's still a zombie apocalypse simulator, and as a stand-alone book its usefulness is going to be limited to that specific subgenre. You could easily run this sort of campaign with other game systems with minimal or no effort, including Liminal Horror which this game is 100% cross compatible with. If you can only get one, I suggest Liminal Horror....but if you can get both, they will complement each other nicely.

Monday, July 24, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part VIII: Screams Amongst the Stars

Screams Amongst the Stars (Old Skull Publishing/Gallant Knight)

$24.87 in POD and PDF at

$20 in print+PDF at Exalted Funeral (when its in stock)

What it is: I've reviewed a lot of the big ones I was quite impressed with, so now its time to look at some of the more modest but also impressive zine RPGs out there. A trilogy of games from Old Skull Publishing and Gallant Knight games all have the distinction of taking the core game system from Into the Odd and adapting the lite rules to specific genres. Interestingly, the author of Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells as well as its predecessor Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, Diogo Nogueira, chose to use the Into the Odd system for Screams Amongst the Stars and its two companion games (The Dead are Coming and Running out of Time). This is an interesting choice, as I guess the intent is to specifically aim for the simplicity of the Into the Odd mechanics, but I would have preferred to see the SS&SS/SB&CS game system used for this horror universe of gaming, it would have been the superior system for the universe of cosmic scares invoked in Screams Amongst the Stars. But....the advantage now is that you can blend and borrow as much as you want from Screams Amongst the Stars, Into the Odd, Liminal Horror and the other games using this system as you want with ease.

The System: Like all Into the Odd-based systems, you have three stats ranging from 3-18 (Strength, Dexterity and Willpower), a hit protection score (1D6), a background with equipment rolls, and some additional personality and descriptor charts. New to this edition is an Oxygen score (Oxygen is precious in the universe of SatS), and when you take critical damage you are at risk of scars and crisis events. Both charts are neat, but not nearly as evocative as (for contrast) the crazy stuff you can get when rolling on Liminal Horror's fallout charts. 

Like Into the Odd, the combat system is short and brutal: you roll damage on an attack (no roll to hit needed), and apply to the target's hit protection, minus any armor roll. If you run out of hit protection (HP...) you subtract from Strength if its physical damage or Willpower if its mental damage. You make a check to see if you took critical damage against the affected stat. In other words: combat is guaranteed to have consequences and be brutal if you are not careful. 

Advancement is interesting. You get a chance of improvement each time you survive a crisis event. So the game rather deliciously (and perversely) requires you to take willpower damage and fail a critical check, thus inducing a crisis event, in order to advance in power. Truly that which drives you mad makes you stronger, apparently!

The rest of the 60 page book is filled with equipment, situational rules and hazards, starship rules which are rudimentary but they work, and frankly I could see using this as the basis for a lot of other RPGs with starships where the ship mechanics need to stay out of the way and be nice and simple. The rules are pretty comprehensive, and even touch on some of the larger conflict elements Into the Odd delved into, with rules for example on deploying larger units of soldiers to a planet's surface for time when a squad of marines are what you really need. 

The Setting: 27 of the 60 pages in this book are dedicated to setting and scenario content. There are several distinct alien species of various threat levels, each with a nice write up and a bunch of random charts to inspire the GM. Each of the alien write ups include a chart to roll on for rumors, jobs and events. 

First are the engineers, a progenitor species which has left many artifacts and big cosmic objects lying around to be discovered. Part of the engineers' mystery is if there are even living remnants of this species, as corporations seek to find their artifacts and understand them. The Promethean engineers of the Alien universe seem to hold some inspiration for this species, along with other inspirational sources (Heechee come to mind).

Next up are the Dreamers, who are tied to a mysterious pyramid and seem to induce hallucinations of waking dreams and nightmares through some sort of psychic manifestation. In reading on this species I got Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey vibes.

The Watchers at first glance feel like stand ins for Grey aliens, but in reality these odd cylon-looking things remind me more of The Day the Earth Stood Still for some reason. Enigmatic suited aliens with one red eye on their faceplate, they can intervene but seem content to observe more than anything....and are overwhelmingly superior in technology.

The Devourers are the bug race. A lot of Starship Troopers mixed with a bit of Alien and other resources make these the insect-like dire threat, and their first encounter with humanity was on the moons of Saturn, where they apparently are all over the place. The definitive "bug hunt" alien.

The Doppelgangers are the final main species provided as a threat in the book. Inspired by The Thing and Invasion of the body Snatchers these are the ones that duplicate and replace you, and the suggested plots and jobs revolve around fear, paranoia and uncertainty as to their motives and how far into human civilization they have infiltrated.

After the section on aliens we have an overview (brief) of the human governments and forces in space, as well as the corporations that are always present in this genre of SF. Charts for colonies, weird events, strange planetary events, alien ruins, job ideas and random events flesh out the GM section. You have enough weird charts here that I think any GM who is good with some improv can roll up a random scenario and have something workable within 15 minutes or so. 

Supplements: There are no supplements specifically for SatS that I am aware of, though you can borrow content from other games powered by Into the Odd. One could conceivably use other books in this line to populate specific worlds for the space explorers of SatS to discover and explore: Into the Odd's strange world affected by esoteric forces could be a good landing spot. A remote colony overrun by a zombie virus could be simulated with The Dead are Coming. A Cyberpunk world could be emulated with little effort in Running out of Time. So in a sense, all the games powered by the Into the Odd engine are sufficiently simple as to be cross-compatible and supportive of each other if you so desire.

Who Should Get This: If you're into other horror RPGs out there in this same genre, you will find this to be a welcome addition to your library. Even if you don't run SatS as-is, its many random charts and alien ideas port over easily (almost without effort, really) to both Mothership and Death in Space. You could even use it for ideas in the bigger-volume tome from Free League, the Alien RPG, if you don't mind veering off into decidedly non-canon areas of the universe. That said, it's still a fully functioning RPG on its own merits, and the brutal nature of combat in its base system (where every blow hits and it's all about mitigating damage) can make for a very suitable horror system where every conflict carries consequences. 

I do think if you happened to have this book and Liminal Horror, I would look at borrowing the fallout effects from LH to use in SatS. The Crisis Events in SatS are perfectly fine, but just a bit too mundane and uninteresting after I have read the way LH handles its fallout. 

My last comment on Screams Amongst the Stars is that it, like many games in this category, have the distinct advantage of being something you can stick in a back pocket (or in PDF on a tablet), and so long as you have a set of dice, paper and pencil you can get a game going pretty quick. It does not feel like a truncated or simplified game; this feels robust, like something you could run a good long campaign with. I like that feature a lot.

EDIT - A word about the art: I just realized I didn't comment once on the aesthetic look and design of the book. In short, this has a lot of stylish and consistent art, all very good, with a vaguely CGI-rendered quality. It's been out long enough that I don't think (but am not 100% sure, so take that for what it is) that any of it is AI generated. It feels too good for that. The layout is comprehensive and readable, playing with structure of words on the page a bit but never in a manner anyone will find confusing. 

Friday, July 21, 2023

Sidequest: The Role of Improv in Indie Zine RPGs

 While reviewing this various indie zine RPGs, I realized that an important component of this subgenre/style of RPG is the need for improv and emergent gameplay features. Most of the indie games I have explored in this style of game have a heavy focus on providing tools for unanticipated/unplanned gameplay elements, whether that be from randomized charts you roll on to programmed adventures which include very minimal detail to deliberately allow the GM to riff on the content. All of this leans in to the dominion of the field of improv, which of course goes beyond RPGs, but using improv with these kinds of games is facilitated by also aiming for simpler mechanics; fewer moving parts mean easier improvisation without rules causing a contradiction.

Improv is a necessity in any RPG, but for a lot of bigger name RPGs with more complexity in design and setting an emphasis is on providing a sandbox full of toys. While you can improv a random new monster design in D&D 5E by throwing out some stats real quickly, it's going to be mechanically harder to make it interesting than, say, concocting a new random monster in Mork Borg, Mothership or Into the Zone. 

Likewise, many pre-published modules for games like Pathfinder, Traveller, D&D and other big name RPGs are loaded with enough details that the GM often only needs to consult the module to get the needed answers, and we all are familiar with GMs who are not terribly good at thinking off the cuff and as a result tend to try and hedge the players in to "recognized" actions within the module. Honestly, not everyone is good at improv, and in my many years of gaming I can say that this is a key reason there are far fewer GMs than players out there. 

The indie zine scene modules are emphatically directed in the opposite direction, of course. I think part of this is because there's a large segment of the hobby that consists of gamers who do not actually find satisfaction in muti-hundred page tomes filled with elaborate and preset details. Improvisation in gaming can be immensely satisfying, and for many having a starting point from which to riff off of is much more satisfying than having to parse out an elaborate scenario where all variables are accounted for. I know this is what grabbed me when I ran the Haunting of Ypsilon 14, a tri-fold introductory module for Mothership 0E. The "aha" moment for me was realizing that the tri-fold was taking what amounted to exactly the same level of outlined module details I might make for my own game design, then repackaging it into a format that used the economy of design to improve its utility while necessarily requiring the GM to improv; a room might contain only one sentence with the key information you need to know about it, requiring the GM to elaborate as they see fit on extra details. The monster is basically described, primarily a stat block, so my version of the haunting creature is probably not exactly the same as another GM's would be. But the module goes even further in providing randomized events, including where the monster is in the complex in a given turn, who the next victim is, and so forth. It means that any time one runs the module, the play through will be different. In the end, a double-sided tri-fold module generated nearly four sessions of playtime for my group. I think the expectation is it will be good for one night of gaming....but between the sort of group I have and the level of improv I engaged with on it, the module lasted us much longer. 

In contrast, I tried running some Starfinder and Pathfinder Adventure Paths a while back and found them intensely limiting and restrictive. People complain about railroad type modules an gameplay, and unfortunately Adventure Paths tend to do this. Linear gameplay in this sort of module can be satisfying to a certain kind of player or GM, but it may not work well at all for players who are accustomed to having more directional control over their futures, or GMs who want to be surprised at what happens in play as opposed to preprogrammed narrators who might as well be reading from a pick-a-path programmed adventure book for all the lack of freedom the adventure path allows.

I guess what I am saying is that I can see why this new market of indie zine RPGs lean heavily into playstyles that actively encourage improv and emergent, unanticipated gameplay experiences. This is a market that I think has been underserved for a while now. It's not enough to say something is "OSR" anymore, as OSR gameplay, while it can encourage a certain level of improv and emergent gameplay is still also incredibly restrictive in that most OSR products are slaved to a specific feel and approach of the early hobby defined by original D&D or AD&D, and is why so many OSR games are just different reskins of the same OD&D rules interpretations. In the end, with an OSR game you're still dealing with orcs, goblins, elves, dwarves, magic missiles and any myriad of OGL compliant D&D tropes. The new indie zine RPG wants to build into spaces untouched by game setting convention, and the best of these indie zine RPGs do exactly that. 

Okay, next week I'll review Into the Zone, Screams Amongst the Stars and probably Death in Space!

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part VII: Dead Malls

Dead Mall (Dystopian Publishing)

$5 on Exalted Funeral (print+PDF)


The Tunnel Goons Inspiration

What it is: Dead Mall is a tri-fold RPG in two double sided pages. It's the most minimalist RPG I've got in the review list, and is easily the shortest RPG I've ever attempted playing in terms of word count. There may be shorter RPGs out there (such as Dead Mall's inspiration, Tunnel Goons) but I've generally avoided them. Even the GURPS Ultra Lite rules may still be longer!

Dead Mall provides the core rules for running adventures of urban explorers who go to an abandoned mall to explore it. While they are there strange things happen. Maybe a zombie invasion takes place! Maybe a serial killer is hiding in the abandoned mall. Maybe its rabid dogs, or the mothman's lair. Who knows! The Dead Mall tri-fold actually doesn't tell you what it is, just that there will be something, and the GM (called the Mall Master here) should let their creative muse go wild.

The System: You roll for Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence, ranging from 0 to +2. You have a Health of 10 and Carrying Capacity of 6 items for your inventory. You get three useful or interesting pieces of equipment typical of urban explorers, so no AR-15s or other're playing a dude who does not expect to get into a brutal gun fight with Paul Blart, Mall Cop. You can get better over time. Whenever you do something, you roll 2D6 plus your ability modifier, plus an extra point if you have a useful item. All "things that cause problems" are just difficulty checks: long jump, spike trap, rotting floor, zombie, serial killer....all are difficulty roll 8, 10 or 12. Suuuuper simple.

Here's an example character:

Percy Walters, Gopro fanatic and aspiring Twitch Streamer

STR 0, Dex +1, Intelligence 0; Health 10, Inventory 6

Equipment: one gopro (headstrap style), flashlight, spirit box recorder

Done! That's all there is to it.

I forged a group on where Dead Mall has support. There's something rather visceral and fun about a game with such a tight focus and such essential rules: find some lovely scenery online to stich together an abandoned mall, find a nice mall map, some muzak to play in the background punctuated by horror music for when the monster shows up, and walla! Watch your players fret over the best three things to take exploring with them, knowing it can't include actual weapons, so they have to get creative. 

The Setting: Dead Mall's setting is the whole point, an abandoned mall. It provides exactly two useful items for the Mall Master to figure out their Dead Mall adventure: about four paragraphs on one side suggesting some ideas for the sinister threat, and on the other side is a lengthy chart you can roll on to populate your mall with 100 different mall-appropriate businesses. Though it doesn't suggest it, I think watching some videos on Youtube of urban decay explorers will help set mood and context (I recommend The Proper People, Dan Bell and Shiey from my own playlists). 

Support Material (and a Word About Tunnel Goons): There's an page which you can visit, and linked there is a cool random dead mall encounter generator that can prove to be a fine Mall Master tool for running the game. Beyond that, Tunnel Goons exists, and you can see what the fantasy (?) version of this looks like. It's the same dirt simple mechanic, but appears to be about exploring a world of tunnels, with goons, in some sort of simulacra of a fantasy experience. Or scifi. Or modern, it's not really that important to the concept, I think....genre is just a trapping to the descriptions for effect. 

The main reason I am reviewing Dead Mall and not Tunnel Goons is that Dead Mall is a simple concept I can see needing no more or less than the rules given, whereas Tunnel Goons doesn't really provide any guidance, and the tables provided to flesh out your goon imply some sort of "medieval decay with tunnels" setting, even as it also suggests laser wielding robots. I guess the point is: let your imagination go wild. But Dead Mall is just enough refinement for me to visualize a game scenario, I suppose.

Who Should Get This? I think anyone who likes the idea of a pick-up-and-play game and also groks the idea of urban explorers and modern decay, mixed with the suspense of something sinister stalking said explorers, will see the merits of a fun 2-3 hour beer and pretzels experience. I don't think it would be good for more than the occasional "substitution game"...but as a side note, if you ran a more "full featured" RPG and wanted a convenient random mall location generator, the chart in this book would work quite well!

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part VI: Liminal Horror

Liminal Horror (Exalted Funeral with Goblin Archives) 

$12 at Exalted Funeral (Print+PDF)

Goblin Archives on

See it here (free archive of the core rules)

Liminal Horror happens to be one of my favorite finds so far, and is one which I am poised to run games for, as soon as I can figure out when and how to squeeze it in to the already busy game schedule I have going. It’s an amazingly handy mini RPG for being about 35 pages in length, yet it can handle just about any modern horror concept thrown at it. Especially interesting to me are its sourcebooks, one of which I am tempted to try adapting to CoC/BRP  if I can’t convince any of my players to try Liminal Horror as-is.

What it is: Like Into the Odd, Liminal Horror is part of a subset of one RPGs which use the same base system that is noted not only for being minimalist in design, but for having a unique “damage based combat system,” in which all attacks happen automatically, and your character’s ability to survive is dependent on hit protection scores and damage dice, rather than an ability to roll to dodge. The result is that the game system works best when the underlying genre or setting wants too discourage combat, which always leads to potentially disastrous results. Liminal Horror just happens to be especially suited to this approach, as its emphasis on modern horror tropes means combat should, of necessity, be both a last resort and potentially. disastrous. Evasion or escape is preferred.

The System: Liminal Horror doesn’t come with a programmed setting, but it does contain the seeds of a strong implied universe. The rules are centered around three stats: Strength, Dexterity and Control. You also have a hit protection score (generally 1D6) and roll or choose on several charts to determine equipment and character traits. An Example character can look like this, rolling purely at random:

Percy Walters - STR 16, DEX 13, CTRL 14, Hit Protection 4, Age: 50, Background: Athlete

The Abyss Stares Back: Percy’s first encounter with the unknown was when he witnessed something in the darkness

Ideology: Morality is black and white

Significant Person: an NPC; Contact: a specialist

Description: towering physique, disciplined virtue, chiseled face, rude (flaw), squeaky voice, cursed (misfortune)

Equipment: smart phone, $138 cash on hand, notebook, pen, magic access, laptop PC and printer, a small old figurine, improvised weapon (letter opener!)

There are two additional rolls you can do to determine party info, where they meet and inter-PC bonds. Other than that…you are good to go. Note that a lot of the process above generates descriptive information, and it is up to the player and GM (called the facilitator here) to establish what it means. Optional flaws and misfortunes, for example, have no inherent mechanical effects, but they should have story effects. 

The character I rolled got lucky and gained magic. Magic in Liminal Horror is two pages of descriptive effect rules with some very basic mechanical guidelines. The idea is to combine two sets of key words (you can randomly roll) and that is your spell: the exact nature of the effect, within the limits of advised mechanical effect, are negotiable. For Percy’s starting spell I rolled ethereal effect+physical element, and from those lists I choose: “Scrying Crystal.” Since I am playing both player and facilitator in this example, I rule that the scrying crystal spell can, when used, reveal useful information about the subject, and may be from the past or the future.

Spells can be retained sometimes, and you can have a chance of failure, which can lead to omens and catastrophes. It can also lead to the game’s most interesting unique mechanic: fallout. Fallout happens whenever the mental stability of the person erodes. The fastest way is to take stress damage which wipes out hit protection and then deals damage directly to control. The PC who then fails a damage save on Control suffers fallout, which is a deterioration of the mind and soul of the PC. It’s conceptually in the same space. As Call of Ctulhu’s sanity, but instead of emphasizing the mental erosion of investigators, Liminal Horror deals with spiritual, supernatural and existential erosion. A PC suffering from fallout could  experience something as modest as horrific nightmares on down to believing they are in a mirror universe of evil, develop an insatiable hunger for the unusual, neural superposition of other dimensional realms on your vision….some really evocative stuff which can lead to entirely distinct stories all on their own for the PC. 

The rest of the book includes some spot rules, monster stat blocks, scrolls and artifact information, spark and mystery tables to roll up story ideas, and a sample adventure. The monsters listed have some clear etymology….Plague of Frogs from the Hellboy series for the frog-men, Mother is most definitely based on Lady Dimetrisque from Resident Evil, and child of the spore is a cordyceps zombie from The Last of Us, for example. But hey, you get some simple but evocative stat blocks for 13 monsters.

The module is a blend of zine-style simplicity and a more conventional mystery approach, and introduces the idea of the doom clock, in which investigators have to work to try and avoid increasingly bad things happening over time. The introductory scenario is a neat one, worth playing.

The Setting: The implied setting is modern horror, with an emphasis on mystery and exploration. The risk of fallout from dealing with the horrors of the unknown mean that the likelihood is investigators will increasingly become paranoid, crazy, and out of touch with reality as they are consumed by the supernatural. Although the initial introduction suggests it does not rely on mental illness or trauma as a method of fallout, I don’t see how that can be avoided in a game of this subject matter, not to mention the fallout table is practically exploding with examples of both, so it seems like there may be some author expectations that are perhaps a bit unrealistic for the nature of the genre.

The game also does not provide for level/improvement mechanics at all. This means that the only way investigators can change is through what they do in play, and through what happens to them. This is not a bad approach, in that it means that every investigator is living on borrowed time before the Liminal Horror itself gets them in some way. 

The subsequent sourcebooks do a really good job of setting the stage for what the game is about, as we shall see momentarily.

The Supplements: So far I have tried collecting all the Liminal Horror supplements on Exalted Funeral. I've had some mixed success, as follows.

From Goblin Archives/Exalted Funeral:

The Bureau: This is a gem of a scenario and setting book, easily as critical to enjoying Liminal Horror as the core rules. Investigators are recent recruits into the mysterious title organization, which operates out of a vast complex called The Monolith. Something horrific has happened, and the Monolith is locked down, as an incursion from another dimension takes place. If you play video games then this may sound familiar as its the plot of the game Control. The Bureau calls out Control as well as a few other resources as inspiration....but Control is high on that list. That said, this is a fantastic modern horror/dungeon crawl with mysteries, puzzles and unnatural events in spades. There is also a mini set of the LH rules in this book, so you could run the game without the core book. This includes unique backgrounds and fallout effects that fit the themes of the module. 

The Mall: equally perverse and leaning in to inspiration ranging from urban explorer videos, Dawn of the Dead, The Void and a bit of The Thing mixed with Lovecraftian cosmic horror. A mixture of shapeshifting monsters, cults and factions trapped in a mall ripped out of time and space makes for another fine and perverse horror-crawl game. Like The Bureau, its got enough info to run the module without the core rules. 

Both of the above modules are fascinating enough that if I can't talk my group in to playing them under the Liminal Horror rules I will instead use the BRP or Call of Cthulhu rules, and just adapt the modules (using, as an example, the fallout tables in place of sanity effects). 

Other Third Party Products:

Tunnels in White: a haunted warehouse, mysterious mansion, being from beyond called The Sailor all tie in to a liminal horror tale with strong mythos thematics mixed with a bit of the Backrooms. 

Trapped in an Endless I-krala: Take a totally-not-Ikea business and turn it into a nightmare Backrooms scenario, and you have this module. The monsters remind me of mimics, but the book includes the base rules and provides a framework for exploring the many levels of the I-krala building. It's not as fancy as the prior three products, but it is worth looking in to for ideas.

The Fear Bundle: This monstrous folio contains about a dozen different zines, booklets, pamphlets and cards as well as character records and even odder stuff. About half of it is intended for use with Liminal Horror and the rest is generically compatible or coincidentally aligned with LH thematically. It's main issue is that the bundle costs a hefty $76 on Exalted Funeral, and the intrinsic value of the content, had it all been bound into a single book, would be closer to maybe $30-40 (if that). I suggest you get it if you're a habitual collector, otherwise see if you can find the parts and pieces separately, or as downloads on

Who Should Get This? Well, if you like horror RPGs in general this is a no-brainer. Lminal Horror scratches an itch I learned I had after discovering Mothership, and that is game systems which lean heavily into minimalist but effective mechanical reinforcement of the underlying horror of the campaign setting. More over, it's shocking just how effective Liminal Horror is at capturing an effectively complete system in 35 pages, and how well it manages to evoke modern horror tropes from contemporary movies and games. For better or worse, the horror zine scene is the only place this stuff is thriving right now, as the big boys (CoC, Kult, WoD) are too focused on the highly elaborate and often overly monetized universes they cater to. You're not going to find something like The Bureau and The Mall anywhere else anytime soon for a more conventional RPG.   

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Review Part V: Into the Odd

Into the Odd (Free League Publishing)

$39.99 (give or take for the SK to USD exchange rate) print plus PDF

Before reviewing Into the Odd, it is worth mentioning the history of this particular game system as I have stitched it together. Into the Odd's mechanics appear in the original game, and the one we are looking at is the revised version published through Free League Publishing. Into the Odd is a sort of prequel to another, larger game with the same core rules called Electric Bastionland, which takes place in the future of Into the Odd. In addition to these two titles, we see the mechanics pop up in a trilogy of games by Old Skull Publishing, including Screams Amongst the Stars, The Dead are Coming, and Running out of Time. Into the Odd's core mechanics are also the driving ruleset of Liminal Horror from Exalted Funeral, which is where I first ran in to it. I was initially thinking to myself of Liminal Horror "these are some bold choices for a horror game, I like it," but when I got Into the Odd and discovered that it stems from this more pragmatic decaying arcane steampunk universe, I found it utterly fascinating, for the intent and feel of the rules unique in how it likely drives player engagement, as you shall see below.

What it is: Into the Odd  is a game about an old world, with an ill-defined past that is either forgotten or best not spoken of; things called the arcana, curious devices and relics of either a forgotten age or another realm, are sought after by the adventurers of this world, which centers on one specific corner: the city of Bastion and its environs. Bastion runs on a steampunk pseudo/quasi-Victorian age of unusual technology with a bit of magic fused in, creating a not-quite-19th century and not-quite-D&D universe feel to the setting. It is its own beast. The adventurers of this world the power of these mysterious arcana, and find them in expeditions. When not on expeditions they build up their power base and reputation within the city. All of this is handled in about 57 pages total including the referee section, and the next 100 pages are setting, scenario locations, and an appendix of interesting optional rules and nonhuman player character options. 

An important thing to note about Into the Odd is its layout: this is a game system and scenario set which is deeply entrenched in a modern aesthetic using the economy of design to both get to the point of what you need to know and evoke the sense of the exotic without overwhelming you with unnecessary detail. This game, similar to Mork Borg, Mothership, Death in Space and Old-School Essentials wants you to play it and build on it; it does not want to dictate unnecessary information to you, or hamstring your ability to creatively expand the world as you see fit. 

The System: Into the Odd's system is dirt simple. Players roll three stats (strength, dexterity and willpower), determine Hit Protection (a different concept from hit points), and some equipment. if they are lucky the PCs get an arcana. Determining your starting powers is done by cross-referencing your highest ability score against your hit protection. Interestingly, you will only get unique powers or arcana if your highest ability score is low or average; the game assumes a high stat is reward in itself to start. This will cause no end of angst to players who seek to min/max things.

Arcana are things of various natures with short descriptors, ranging from utilitarian to incredibly potent. Some negotiation is expected, and this is the point of the system, to get players and referees thinking outside of the box. Arcana are effectively Into the Odd's magic system, and anyone can benefit from it.

Combat in the system is going to be a make-or-break for some gamers. It is readily one of the most interesting approaches to combat I have seen, and worth noting that it fundamentally changes the core conceit of many RPGs: within Into the Odd, when you engage in battle there are no rolls to hit, you just do. When you attack something, you go straight to rolling your damage dice, and your enemy must roll any armor or protection dice. If damage is dealt after subtractions, then it applies first to hit protection and then to your strength for physical damage or willpower for mental damage. When you take any damage to a stat you must make an ability check against the modified stat, and if you fail you are critically injured and will die eventually if not tended to. If you take a critical injury against willpower you are mentally broken until you get proper rest. If strength reaches zero you die right away. It is a simple and elegant approach, but it also means that because any engagement is almost certain to lead to harm for the combatants, one may consider carefully whether the combat is worth it. Luckily, recovering most damage is fairly quick....but surviving long enough to have time to recover is hard. 

The rest of the rules include the basic mechanics, which are roll-under for saves, and various basic spot rules. Samples of useful things including a handful of weird monsters, traps and lengthy rules for broader engagement and social buildup of the characters during downtime. Worth noting is that the rules provide plenty of information for new players and referees, so this book, while minimalist, has enough information (including play examples) to help new players figure things out.

One oddity is the level up mechanic, which starts at a novice rank and goes through several levels that require adventuring and later engagement within the city to advance. On the one hand it is neat in that it prompts players to do stuff outside of exploration, giving them a motive to build up a reputation and power base in Bastion or elsewhere. On the other hand, the "meat and potatoes" of the book is the exploration, and while there are rules for this downtime engagement, it is not quite as exciting as the exploration part, meaning some players may be facing a lower rank cap if they don't want to build a stronghold/go to war/engage in mercantilism or what-not. YMMV I suppose. 

The Setting: The bulk of the book is detailing the world in a series of regions written to provide exploratory crawls. Surprisingly little information is given on the city of Bastion, though Electric Bastionland which is set in the future provides a vast amount of information, but by virtue of its future setting point that won't be overly useful here. 

The book outlines a series of scenario locations. The format is concise and to the point, within the barest minimum of exposition. This sort of scenario is closer to an outline of an adventure than an actual adventure, but it is the sort of design that works extremely well for gamemasters who wish to riff on what is provided. If you are the sort of GM who prefers to have this exposition provided for, this is probably not going to work for you.....but if you much prefer to have the important elements up front and the exposition left to your own devising, then this is going to be a very comfortable format.

Lastly an appendix provides mechanisms for running mutants, simple folk, unhumans and alternative gear packages. This is a welcome addition worth adding once players are comfortable with the basic stuff, or right away if you have experienced players. 

Supplements: none so far as I am aware, though many other games as mentioned earlier use exactly the same rule system. 

Who Should Get This? Honestly, Into the Odd is a tight book which provides enough material for a lengthy campaign of exploration, and a surprising amount of "down time" reputational/power development for character position and status in Bastion. It is still very skeletal in its setting, despite having so much evocative imagery and descriptors. Much of the flavor will come out of the unique organic experience of play and interpretation....a thing which I rather admire and like, thus why I have this high on my list of game I would like to play with my group. 

I do not recommend this game for players who wish for deeper mechanical contrivance, elaborate exposition, and clear and unambiguous goals. If, however, your group likes setting their own goals, exploration for its own sake, and mysteries aplenty where the GM can riff freely, then yeah, try this one out. In fact....I'll talk about Electric Bastionland at a later date, but its really interesting contrasting Into the Odd against its successor. Into the Odd is, in my opinion, the better of the two books in so many ways, and maybe down the road its sequel can get a revision that brings it more in line with Into the Odd's economy of design. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Guide Part IV: Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells

Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells (Old Skull Publishing) 

$9.99 for POD+PDF on

I've had Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells and it's one sourcebook (the SS&SS Addendum) in my collection for several years now. Although I like the concept, it's never been played so my review is from a reader's analysis, not as a player. At the time I picked it up I was primarily interested in it from a collector's perspective. Only recently as I have grown fonder of the new era of minimalist systems have I reconsidered what it might be like to try running it.

What it is: Originally released in 2015, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells bills itself as a "rules lite" game in the spirit of the OSR. It shares a system with two other games: Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, and Dark Streets & Darker Secrets, both of which tie in to sci fi/fantasy and modern day/fantasy mashups. SS&SS is however a straight-up fantasy game in the by now traditional mold of a D&D-like, which is my term for any game which follows the pattern of a fantasy game as established by D&D through all of its iterations (party meets, goes on adventures, often in dungeons, and kills a lot of stuff, often because it needs to do so to progress). Unlike D&D, SS&SS lets you level up after a certain number of adventures are completed, so you don't need to tabulate XP from kills and such.

The System: SS&SS has some of its roots in The Black Hack, and definitely aspires to have an old school feel even if its core conceits are only nominally based in D&D conventions with classes and levels. The core system has you rolling 3D6 to determine your four stats of physique, agility, intellect and willpower. You get three archetypes (classes) in the form of the warrior, specialist and magic a sense, a list closer in origin to Tunnels & Trolls or reflective of current systems such as True20/Fantasy Age. Your archetype grants you hit dice for hit points, and a small number of special traits (closer to an AD&D style list than modern "get a new thing every level" styles of games). Everyone also gets a complication, which provides some story and background flavor to your character. There is no conventional skill system. 

Mechanically tasks are a roll against their attribute, with modifiers, to get under their stat on a D20 mechanic, nothing unusual here but it is highly traditional (roll high as a core conceit only appeared in D&D 3rd). Combat provides about as much detail as any older edition of D&D would, but in a clean and comprehensive set of rules in just under 5 pages. These rules work for exactly what is intended: a D&D-feeling OSR experience that gives some weight to combat but without too much detail bogging things down. 

Spells in SS&SS follow a typical pattern for contemporary reimagining, with a roll to succeed in casting and a risk of penalty for failure. Unlike other systems that do this (DCC, Mork Borg) the spell failure is more pragmatic than descriptive, but it does what it says. I am not sure where the spell failure concept comes from, it was not a thing in traditional OSR.....I think it has more to do with a desire for magic to be less predictable, and therefore more interesting, in order to evoke the feel of OSR back then when nobody had everything memorized to a fault. 

Either way, the spells are about five pages in length of very short descriptive lists. It accomplishes what is intended, with minimum rules and plenty of situational adjudication necessary. Likewise, a half page is spent on magic items with some loose guidelines for what a GM should assign to make magic items interesting.

Monsters and opponents get a few pages, mostly lists of monsters in short form, with little exposition or description. It reminds me greatly of the way Tunnels & Trolls did it. Here each monster has a hit die stat and a sentence or two of things it can do, and the rest is up to the GM to flesh out as desired (or not). The monsters are not really described, but their names and abilities are all very swords & sorcery in theme, comfortable in a Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter or Karl Edward Wagner inspired setting. 

The last section of the book (Appendix A) is an adventure generator, and is actually a cool section with plenty of details on rolling up storylines and antagonists. This is about all the book offers to the GM in terms of advice in running the game, but its actually a pretty cool section, and reflects the aesthetics of zine RPG style quite well. I don't know if SS&SS was officially part of the zine scene (not sure if it goes back that far) but this epitomizes what makes a good minimalist RPG with a density of useful information and a dearth of needless exposition or elaboration. To the point, and provides just enough tools to make the game rapidly accessible.

The Setting: There's no explicit setting here, but the implied setting is a traditional pulp era sword & sorcery aesthetic, evoked in the black and white art quite well. The cover is actually a bit anachronistic, actually, with what appears to be a trio of slightly cartoonish teen heroes with magic fighting a weird kind of fits, but the rest of the interior art holds a much more traditional swords, sandals, axes and sorcery vibe. As a side note, there are no nonhuman characters in SS&SS, it's entirely humanocentric and doesn't even address just is. 

Support: There's one book out for the game, called the Addendum, which is actually larger by page count than the core rules. The Addendum addresses some issues not covered in the core (for example, languages and nonhuman player races), as well as providing a bunch of optional additional rules for consideration, ranging from random monster generation and sanity rules to lost tomes and optional quick equipment options. Overall its a mixed bag of stuff, where any given group may find some of it useful and others will find it a burden to add to the core rules, which are elegant and simple without any need for modification. The Addendum feels very much like the sort of book that manifests when other players get involved in a product, but find the minimalism a bit too minimalist for their tastes and start modding....and before you know it, the rules have doubled or even tripled in size. So while I can see the Addendum as a useful resource for some, it's probably going to be less useful in total for any given table.

Aside from the Addendum, there are approximately four PDF resources I could spot for SS&SS on Drivethrurpg that provide setting material from third party publishers. The dearth of resources fo the game suggest to me it didn't really take off or get the attention it deserved. At the time it came out (2015) D&D 5E had been out only a year or two, so interest in the New Big Thing would have been great enough to make it hard to release a rules lite system in 5E's wake, so maybe Old Skull might consider the possibility of a revamp in today's climate, where 5E-alternatives are starting to get more attention in a 5E-bloated market.

Who Should Get This? Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells suffers from being an obscure OSR-inspired rules lite in a bloated market dominated by the big 5E, but it could easily appeal to someone who likes the idea of a ruleset that can fit in your coat pocket and can be learned after about an hour of reading. 

The game works, but it does lack support in odd ways in the core rules; even a single page of sample magic items, for example, or an appendix with some simple alternative species for players rules for those who want such would be helpful (the Addendum's section on adding nonhumans is a bit floaty and holistic, suggesting you use other alternative rules on vocations). More recent games have dived deep in to evocative alternative and weird interpretations of fantasy and other genres, but SS&SS is steeped in an era of sword & sorcery that has no shortage of  representative games out there on the market. Honestly though, this game does lend itself to a bit of kitbashing and modding easily enough, so if you are someone who likes a good core starting point from which to make it your own, this system is probably a good fit. 

A tighter second edition of this game with just a few tweaks could be very appealing. As it stands, though, this is a fine little system that could be fun for a campaign or two before it starts to wear out its welcome. Its biggest failing is really that it has no special unique flavor or style in today's market, which is dominated by the super giant 5E on one side, and a plethora of artsy and unique zine RPGs on the other....SS&SS is just perhaps a bit too retro for its own good. Contrast it with its closest cohort, Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells, to see just how the exact same system can be transformed into a 400 page book of endless weird space adventure straight out of the 1970's era of SF. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Guide Part III: A Grim Hack

A Grim Hack (From Monster at my Desk)

Resource Page here on 

$12 from Exalted Funeral or PWYW on 

I snagged A Grim Hack on a lark, during one of several random "that looks interesting" expeditions in to Exalted Funeral's amazing webstore. Honestly, after reading it the first time I more or less forgot about it and stuck it on a shelf until recently when I got a free code for the book and resources over at, which prompted me to dig it out again and explore it a bit more. Here's what I discovered.

What it is: A Grim Hack is nakedly straight up in its goal: to provide a slim alternative rulebook the Zweihander Grim & Perilous Adventures, which is in turn an unabashed retroclone of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st or 2nd edition, I am not sure which). So in theory the goal of A Grim Hack is to provide an easy ruleset that I suppose could work as a substitution for sourcebooks and material from either of its related systems.

The Rules: A Grim Hack is an incredibly dense summary of the core conceits of the Zweihander/Warhammer mechanical expressions. You have eight stats, a percentile resolution mechanic, skills, professions, ancestries (which are basically personality traits), lots of combat rules, and a dense but useful magic system. It hints at other ways to use the rulebook. 

A Grim Hack is also an unabashed "basic rules only" overview. You will need to go to the page linked above if you want the stuff a GM will need to actually run the game (monsters, NPC rules, a scenario). You could probably use the other books it is a condensed clone of as resources, but the GM PDF supplements really do help. I rather wish that A Grim Hack had published a second volume with these rules in print, but it looks like for now they are on PDF only through

The Setting: not a single whiff of setting detail, outside of what you make of it, with some hinting that A Grim Hack would make for a fine medieval life simulator (and I think it would). It talks a bit about games without magic, or games with rare magic, and that's about it.

The game has some decent black and white art, ranging from "zine quality-okay" to decently evocative, such as the cover. A couple illustrations fall in to the "back of the high school notebook" category, but it has no impact on the product's presentation, which is emphatically about cataloging a set of extremely condensed rules.

Support: exclusively on, where several pay-what-you-want PDFs can be found with some mundane and fantastical monsters, NPC design rules and a scenario. 

In the end, A Grim Hack stands out as being distinctly unlike a lot of other digest size zine RPGs in that its mechanically complex and dense, surprisingly so for the size of the rules at 40 pages. But, as the developer freely admits, his goal was to have a ruleset that he could pull out which did not scare players away with 400-500 page rulebooks.

Unfortunately I am not well versed in any of the base systems A Grim Hack riffs from, so I do not know if its works well as a substitution rulebook or not. It definitely seems like it can stand on its own two feet, if you download the free resources to provide GM content.

Who Should Get This? I suggest that if you are in the same boat as the author, and like the mechanical style of Warhammer/Zweihander but would rather have a 40 pages rulebook than a 400 page rulebook then you might like this. Alternatively, if you want a gritty, surprisingly deep (for 40 pages) character and combat system, and want to run your own weird medieval campaign then this may be up your alley. 

Up Next: Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells

Saturday, July 8, 2023

The Indie/Zine RPG Guide Part II: Mork Borg

Mork Borg (published by Free League Publishing in the US)

Developed by Ockult Ortmastare Games and Stockholm Kartel

$40 MSRP in print (a very nice edition with gold and silver foil, ribbon markers) or $25 PDF on

Mork Borg Resource Page

Before reviewing Mork Borg (which is Swedish for Dark Fortress), I wanted to make some comments: the first is that this is possibly the first RPG of this style in the US (Sweden, maybe, too) and it, along with Mothership, codified the concept space of these sort of zine scene/arthouse rpgs. It is a decidedly old school product: this game bears little direct resemblance to the OSR from one view, but it is deeply rooted in the OSR concept space from another angle. Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics was designed to evoke that sense of surprise and mystery that D&Ders experienced in the seventies by adding weird dice, random magic charts, an emphasis on non-standard monsters and a higher risk of death and doom for PCs early on; Mork Borg accomplishes this right out of the gate: making the experience of fantasy gaming weird, new, interesting and entirely unpredictable. 

What it is: a fantasy RPG that uses exotic graphic art design reminiscent of apocalyptic Catholic and medieval imagery, Swedish death metal album cover art and stuff you might find doodled on the back of a high school notebook in the 80's and 90's (or maybe any generation for all I know) to inform and explore a minimalist game world on the brink of a nightmare apocalypse. The game also evokes a sense that too many From Soft games were played in the making of it (Dark Souls and Demon Souls specifically). 

The System: Mork Borg has a very simple mechanical design at its heart with four character stats, and a roll-high mechanic where you roll D20 plus modifiers against static difficulty checks. It randomizes almost the entire character creation process, and most monsters can be defined in two or three lines of text. The game's base magic system consists of scrolls, and anyone can cast them if they want to push their luck. The spell system, including the failure charts, is all of four pages but grants incredible power with high risks. The optional classes may also gain some unique magic talents.

Mork Borg does not require character classes, and human (or something akin to human) is the only racial option. The optional classes are evocative of the setting,wracked with madness and mystery. The Fanged Deserter is a warrior who honed his natural bite to perfection; the Gutterborne Scum is the rogue, but one born to the grim city and twisted by it; the Esoteric Hermit just emerged from a cave with dark powers; Wretched Royalty deal with the legacy of their noble family; Heretical Priests seek to escape the persecution of the official religion of the Two-Headed Basilisk; and the Occult Herbmaster brews strange and deadly concoctions. More optional classes appear in the official books Feretory and Heretic, as well as many third party sourcebooks.

The system includes rules for character advancement, which is awarded at GM whim, with a focus on improved abilities, a chance to boost hit points, and some loot you might find. The real advancement comes from emergent gameplay; you can find powerful scrolls, discover hellish artifacts, be transformed and transmogrified by horrible spell failures, and develop a fearsome reputation over time. If you can keep a character alive in Mork Borg for long enough, it can grow impressively in power. 

The Setting: Mork Borg spends the majority of its art and about half the book outlining the grim world at the center of which is the vast, warped city of Galgenbeck, surrounded by horrid realms such as the Forest of Sorkash, the Valley of the Unfortunate Undead and the coastal city of Grift. Every region reads like a worst-case scenario for a D&D Ravenloft campaign if the dark lords became unhinged, and if you've ever delved into the lore of Dark Souls you will sense that some interesting inspiration is afoot.

Although the setting, through short introductions and evocative art is quite inspiring, the core book does not linger for long, preferring to inform by example and through the use of many random tables and charts. The book includes 12 example monsters that set the frame for how different a monster can be in Mork Borg....goblins, for example, also known as the seth, are grim beasts which mark those they attack, and then flee. If you don't find and kill the goblin which marked you within 1D6 days your body shrivels and warps as your consciousness is consumed by the presence of your new mind, that of of a goblin, and you remain trapped, helpless as it carries on. Another example is the Aland Wickhead Knife Wielder, a grim humanoid with a lantern for a head which stalks victims, ignites its head as it attacks with a filthy knife, then escapes once more into the night.

Why does the goblin work like this? What made the Aland and what drives it? These are questions for your GM and group to decide or ignore as you see fit; the point is that the grim universe of Mork Borg is so close to the apocalyptic end that beasts like this are just everyday menaces for you to deal with.

The core book does include a starting scenario, which is also a good introduction to what Mork Borg scenario design looks like. It's also design for brevity, and eschews excess expository text. If you ever tried to read any typical modern module with pages of backstory and lead-in that are ultimately useless to actual play, this module avoids those long blocks of "information on the backstory only the GM gets to know about" kind of stuff. It falls somewhere between "written for a large audience" and "my personal notes and outline of a game that only I can make sense of," turning instead into a decent but very to-the-point module that can be run after about fifteen minutes of reading for prep. In fact most of the Mork Borg modules work like this.

A key thing to understand about Mork Borg's setting is that it is meant to provide evocative inspiration, but practically everything is meant to be a spring-board and avoid burdening the GM with excessive details. Indeed, it is a game which a GM who likes to expound improvisationally from a starting point will greatly enjoy. It is not going to appeal to someone who would like to have the setting carefully outline and explain all of these details, though some 3rd party sourcebooks try to do this; it's actually really hard to restrain ones' self from over-writing in a game where brevity is a target goal, and a lot of the third party content fails on this mark.

Support: Mork Borg is disgustingly well supported with all sorts of weird stuff. Aside from the official books (Feretory, Heretic, the GM screen and the Ikhons boxed set prop) there's just a ton of inspiring weird content out there in both PDF and print. Stuff I have picked up for the game include:

From Free League:

Feretory  - an offical book, with new classes, scenarios, random table, a monster generator and artifacts. Indispensable sourcebook. 

Heretic - the second official book. Has a cult generator, unheroic feats (a system of granting new abilities to non-classed characters), more scenarios, a class, monsters, and Mork Borg's take on wishes. Also an indispensable resource.

Ikhons - Another Free League offering, this is a little black box filled with four pamphlets that can represent a tome captured in the game, which when held in possession grants random powers through the summoning of ancient and sacrilegious folk gods that can do terrible things if you sacrifice enough. A bit pricey for what you get but worth it if you fall in love with the game. 

The GM Screen - a five panel screen with two extra inserts you can clip in, filled with useful tables (some of which I think are only on the screen) and rules summaries. A very handy, sturdy screen with great foil-based art on the player-facing side.

From Exalted Funeral: 

Bestiary - if you are craving more monsters but are lacking the mental aberration necessary to visualize what such beasts would look like in the Mork Borg universe, then this is an excellent resource for you. 64 pages of weird monsters and lairs in Mork Morg appropriate art style.

The Valley of Forbidden Churches - lovely location book, a grim valley in which various increasingly hideous and depraved cults set up shop and then descend into chaos, followed by the Demonworm Tunnels and the twisted Silver City. The module and maps work out to make a great hexcrawl styled adventure for Mork Borg.

From Steve Jackson Games:

Calo's Book of Monsters - this oddly sized tome contains elaborate write-ups of the eponymous wizard Calo, 20 or so monsters and Castle Skullrot location. The book's most endearing and entirely inappropriate feature is that it provides copious details on its entries, with lavish Mork Borg-styled illustrations. The reason this is entirely inappropriate is that I am dead certain this book has a larger word count than the entirety of the Mork Borg rule book plus Feretory combined. As a result its a great book, lots of detail, but reads and feels more like a traditional RPG sourcebook, missing the ethos of brevity characteristic of Mork Borg by a slight bit. Still worth a buy! Phil Reed does a lot of generic supplements, but his content for Mork Borg is incredibly useful and evocative...most is under his own publishing label, but he did this one through Steve Jackson Games (where he also works) for some reason. Maybe to advertise all the cool dice and dice bags SJGames sells to Mork Borg players? 

There are other supplements out there I seek to acquire, but this is what I have so far.

Who is Mork Borg For? Well, my suggestion is the following people will find Mork Borg worth checking out:

1. You want a rules lite system with a grimdark aesthetic that has lots of dynamic emergent gameplay and effects/affects that change the PCs every game.

2. You want a game that gives you just enough to riff from, but makes painstaking efforts only to inspire you with the setting, rather than dictate it to you. You like the idea that one of the things you do at the start of a campaign is roll dice to find out how many years, months, weeks or days are left before the apocalypse happens.

3. You do not have difficulty parsing out text from exotic artistic layouts and weird fonts. This is critical; read the many, many comments from people on the drivethrurpg page for Mork Borg to see just how perplexing the layout was to some. Good news is: the Mork Borg site has a free no-art version of the entire text for people who need it. be honest....the game kind of needs the art, it is incredibly important to establishing the game's tone and style. In this game, the art speaks volumes, and is critical to the experience.

4. You want fantasy, but you would like to see something that is in a new concept space previously unexplored or otherwise untouched by more traditional fantasy RPGs that have let D&D act as the benchmark for too many decades. 

So: I highly recommend Mork Borg if you want to see something genuinely different and weird. 

Next: The Grim Hack!

Friday, July 7, 2023

A Brief Guide to Indie/Zine RPGs - Part I: Overview

My recent obsession with the zine scene has left me with lots of reading, pondering and contemplating how to introduce my graming groups to this weird corner of the hobby over which I am now almost entirely obsessed. I can't even think about running something as mundane as D&D 5E right now, it just feels so....tiring. Worn. Plebian? Been there and done that. The following games? Not at all.

The market for this weird indie corner of the hobby is a bit hard to describe. The term Zine RPG seems to fit best, because a nontrivial number of these games come from various Zine challenges over the last few years leading to ways for designers to create compact but full featured rulesets in limited page counts. Not all have been successful, but the ones that are really stand out. Some of these have devolved from zines to brochures...the trifold pamphlet corners a significant chunk of the scenario and expansion market on Exalted Funeral, for example, and about half of the supplements out for Mothership are in the form of these tri-folds. They are an interesting way of taking a tight space and making it work for what is needed, while also rethinking entirely what it takes for a module to be considered "good to go." 

While Zine RPGs have their roots in indie games, I hesitate to use that term to describe them because some of these systems have big budgets and big followings (or feel like it). Mork Borg is indie only in a spiritual sense, Into the Odd, Ultraviolet Grasslands....indie, sure, but they are also closer to "zine RPGs" than might be obvious. Into the Odd, for example, is the same mechanical system as you will find in Screams Amongst the Stars and several other RPGs that are definitely "zine RPGs." But....we'll lump these larger non-zine sized RPGs in to this group. One could also call these the "" genre but usually that's the fermenting ground for many, who then become popular enough to elevate to print products of greater value elsewhere.

Features all of these games tend to have in common include:

1. Brevity of Design - the game provides a very small footprint from "picking up the book" to "we are playing the game." These games often cut out anything even remotely looking or feeling like filler text and expository text, assuming the reader either knows all that stuff or doesn't want it to begin with.

2. Artistic Liberties unseen outside of music album covers; these games often feel like a guy with a vision for a game met a buddy with an artistic streak of madness and together they produce something that can be simultaneously brilliant and difficult to parse out. The end result can just be a very satisfying game that doubles as a coffee table art piece on down to something which appears to be a graphic designer's submission for graduation from art college, with words approximating a game hidden somewhere within.

3. Weird. Weird! REALLY WEIRD. These are all games that defy genre conventions by taking the established norms and inverting them in as many interesting ways as possible. Mothership takes the tried and true formula of a game like Traveller and recreates it as an Alien/Thing/Body Snatchers simulator. Mork Borg takes D&D fantasy and says what if Appendix N was actually just a list of heavy metal album covers and lyrics mixed with grim Catholic imagery. Liminal Horror grabs the contemporary zeitgeist of modern horror and shows how The Backrooms can be melded to a game like Control with themes from Hellboy, and turned into an even stranger, darker and grimmer experience than the classic Call of cthulhu. If you've got a weird take on a genre that kills all the darlings, it fits here.

4. High Concept and Low Budget. These are often quite gorgeous but the vast majority of the books are also print and staple affairs, and even the high budget games emulate the "We made this at Kinkos" look on purpose. Not all do this, but the deliberate melding of a brevity in design with highly atypical art styles gives all games in this weird subgenre a unique look. 

5. Advancement is through play and not the rules, and are also brutal in this process. Most of the games in this style of design are unflinching in providing grim worlds, worst case scenarios as a starting point, mechanics which encourage character strife and death or genre-appropriate behaviors, and almost without exception they tend to eschew the notion of playing heroic and successful types (at least to start). They are often built around rules that avoid advancement and improvement entirely, or make it very hard or make it something that happens entirely through emergent play. The key goal seems to be to move the game space away from carefully codified concepts (like D&D's classes and species) and to force everyone to think outside the box. If your sorcerer in Mork Bog misfires a spell and is liquefied into a living skeleton: that's a good thing! It builds character. If your Mothership character is now host to a race of alien parasites: we call that growth, in more ways than one. 

Okay! End part one. Next up we'll start looking at these games (or at least the ones I have). For reference, here's what we'll take a look at:

Fantasy Games:
Mork Borg
Into the Odd
A Grim Hack
Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells

Science Fiction Horror Games:
Mothership (along with several hundred supplements)
Death in Space
Screams Amongst the Stars
Vast Grimm
Zyborg Commando RPG

Cyberpunk Games:
Running out of Time
Dancing with Bullets Under a Neon Sun
NooFutra (Mothership cyberpunk hack)

Horror Games:
Dead Malls
Liminal Horror
Liminal (not the same as LH)
Into the Zone
The Dead Are Coming

Hard to Classify:
Ultraviolet Grasslands
Electric Bastionland
Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells (it's maybe space fantasy?)

There are a few games I debated including on this list, but ultimately left them off. If they didn't quite fit the following criteria I excluded them:
1. Did I look at the rulebook initially and go "I have no idea how to start reading this," and then an hour later said, "That can't be the entire ruleset, can it?"
2. Did the game have a two page summary of the entire ruleset buried somewhere within?
3. Is more than half the game random charts? 

If none of those qualified (see, for example: Ryuutama, Tri-Stat, Rogue Element, etc.) then I excluded them even if they definitely felt "indie." They just weren't "zine" enough for this list.

Although Old School Essentials and Dungeon Crawl Classics both feel in the spirit of this genre of games, I feel that they are too traditonal in their ways to count. That said...OSE and DCC both arguably have an influence in this genre. 

We'll start with Mork Borg and the other fantasy systems next!

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

The Asus ROG Ally Part II: 25 days in

 I mentioned I'd do a part II to this last time, and here I am. Has it really been 25 days since the device came out? Dang, time flies. Anyway, plenty of time to make the following observations. I'm just going to bullet point all of this for fun:

1. The TL;DR Winner of Handhelds: If you just want cheap gaming on the go and aren't particular, get a Switch. The Switch is still the king of this corner of portable gaming, hands down. But if you want to see your console library unlocked on portable devices, then of course the Steam Deck and Asus ROG Ally are requisites for you. What you're really choosing is "Linux or Windows" so pick wisely.

2. Battery Life: The Switch is the only device of the three that could probably keep you entertained for a full 2-3 hours before recharging becomes necessary. Both Steam Deck and the Ally are going to require fiddling with the settings to squeeze more than an hour of life out of their batteries. This essentially makes them portable in the sense of "I can plug this in to the hotel when I get there," but not "I can play this on the airplane/bus/tram/fishing boat/subway during commutes." I mean....the Deck and Ally could probably work here, if your commute is an hour or so. 

3. Updates: After 25 days and countless updates the Ally is working quite well. But my understanding is the Steam Deck had a similar growing pain phase in its initial release. Just make sure you are updating this thing for Windows 11, the Asus firmware, the bios and the Armory Crate and all will be fine. 

4. Heating Issues: I have never had an issue with overheating on the Steam Deck and of course the Switch would need to have a proper flame applied to it to overheat, but the Ally does have some overheating issues. Specifically, it has placed the MicroSD chip slot directly above one of the key heat vents. Asus has apparently released a firmware update that works on better fan output to assist here. Though I have had no issues other than some obvious stuttering in a game I tried playing from the MicroSD card that acted like it was having issues due to overheating,* stories are out there of people getting their microSD cards cooked. How common this is I am uncertain, but the good news is I have not experienced the overheating issue since the latest bios and firmware updates that just came out. But....the placement of the microSD was a poor choice on Asus's part.

MicroSD Formatting PRO TIP: Make sure if you get a MicroSD to format it in NTFS format if you plan to load any Xbox for PC games on it. I popped my 1 TB card in, saw it was preformatted, but did not realize it came formatted in exFAT which my understanding is better for photo storage, while NTFS is better for large files such as games. 

Outside of those specific points its been a fine experience. I have spent some time testing out various games, including Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War (and Vanguard), Outriders, XIII, Killer is Dead, Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance, Octopath Traveller, Halls of Torment, Diablo Immortal and Assassin's Creed Origins....all worked great, and to varying degrees each translated well into handheld mode. I have had the most fun with Destiny 2 on the Ally, interestingly. 

Honestly.....I would have felt less keen on investing in the Ally if it had been possible to play Destiny 2 and other games I had in my GOG,, Xbox and Epic Games libraries on the Steam Deck. You can get some working....I did get a few on Epic to work on the Steam Deck with some painful effort. Xbox games was a bigger pain, and not all would play nice in the linux environment. GOG was a nightmare. allegedly would work on the Steam Deck with the right proton downloads but every tutorial showed a completely different process that was often incomprehensible or didn't align with how my Steam Deck was working. 

Being able to just load all this stuff on the Asus ROG Ally and play it has been nice. There are some games I have which are especially suited to the "play while wandering around, or at the dinner table, or on break, or on a trip" style, such as incredibly long titles like Assassin's Creed Odyssey which has otherwise been a difficult title to pin down due to the time demand it calls for, so I am loving having it for spot play on the Ally. Destiny 2 is naturally suited for pick up and play like this. Likewise, being able to replay a Call of Duty campaign or load a private game with bots to pass the time is fun. I have not as of yet been brave enough to try live multiplayer, assuming I would get slaughtered. Have not loaded Modern Warfare though I'd like to, but that is a notoriously large download size (215+ GB as I recall). Stuff like Halls of Torment, Diablo and Octopath Traveller are practically made for the Ally. Alas, Torchlight II did not like the control scheme and was a real pain so I pulled it from the Ally. It's Switch version of course works just great.

I've encountered a few games that fall into the "this is fun, but the graphics are too tiny for me to really dig playing this in handheld mode" category. Champions of Alaloth is one, with graphics too dainty and text too precise for my eyes. Outriders borders on it, with text too small to read, but luckily a big chunk of that game is about the shooting, not reading. Torchlight II and III both ran like crap on it, no nice way to put it, though II probably because the PC edition has never been controller optimized, and Torchlight III is a bit janky and broken on anything you play it on, anyway. 

FYI Diablo IV is great on the Ally, but I am not playing it on the Ally because I want to enjoy that game for the time being on a nice big screen monitor.

Okay, that's it! I have too many hand-helds, but if someone made me ditch all but one I think I'd probably give serious consideration to making my decision in favor of the Asus ROG Ally. That would be a very close decision between it and the Steam Deck as well as the Switch, which still manages to nail the "carry and play on the go" thing best. 

*In the Ally's defense I had been running the device for like 10 hours straight filling up the 1 TB card and doing loads of updates. So by the time I tried out that game it was quite hot. Probably a good sign not to run it for 10 hours straight, maybe. I tested a game located on the C drive for contrast and it ran just fine, and after letting it sit for an hour off to cool down the game (Outriders) then ran without any issues, so it was definitely an overheating issue affecting the MicroSD. Bad form, Asus. Some Youtube videos I've seen suggest that breaking in to it and installing a SSD card larger than 512MB might be the way to go, but we'll see. If you do that, make sure to register and back up your device in the ASUS cloud.