Roleplaying Games Library Acquisition 2021-2022

Posted on January 17th, 2023 by Tyler Stefanich

In the 2021-2022 academic year, the Game Lab set out to expand its Library collection of Tabletop Roleplaying Games (RPGs). We acquired 88 RPGs, including game systems, standalone games, zine compilations, and modules or adventure books. Additionally, we acquired 11 Cyberpunk roleplaying games after interest from the Cyberpunk and Discontents seminar; 9 solo roleplaying games, to get an idea of this RPG form we were less familiar with; and 1 indie tabletop strategy game, Deepest Valley, colored-pencil illustrated by its designer and writer Caspar Dudarec.

Our goal in collecting these games was not to collect the largest, most famous, or historically important RPGs, instead we hoped to collect games that we felt exemplified the Lab’s goals of fostering aesthetic, formal, and political experimentation in games and would introduce students to the breadth of possibilities and potentialities in tabletop RPGs as a medium today.

  • Gamebook. Arc by Momatoes. Cover features a painterly scene of of a sea, a burning volcano, and full moon. Expressionist text over the image reads Arc in both black and white.
    Arc by Momatoes
  • Game book and game map. Beyond the Borderlands by Alex Damaceno. Book cover shows sunset over a white castle. Next it is a pen and ink fantasy map on worn looking paper.
    Beyond the Borderlands by Alex Damaceno
  • Gamebook. Witchburner by Luka Rejec. Shows a a person carrying a sword. Their face is shadow. A bonfire behind them obscures the silhouette of a person tied to a stake within the inferno.
    Witchburner by Luka Rejec
  • Game book. Haunted Almanac by Nate Treme. Cover shows a cartoony fantasy castle and hooded skeleton in door-shaped frame
    Haunted Almanac by Nate Treme

We focused on acquiring games made by individual game makers—where all writing, designing, and illustrating is all done by a single person. These games include Beyond the Borderlands by Alex Damaceno; Arc by Momatoes, Witchburner by Luka Rejec; and Haunted Almanac, a collection of many games and adventures by the prolific individual game maker Nate Treme (Highland Paranormal Society).

  • Game book cover: The Tragedy that Begot Ternwillow by Sean Richer, illustrated by Chin Fong. A woman in an elegant white dress stands in a junkyard, a mech stands on the horizon.
    The Tragedy that Begot Ternwillow by Sean Richer, illustrated by Chin Fong
  • Game book Cover. Picket Line Tango by Emily Weiss, illustrated by Roque Romero. Two blue abstract woodcut figures look at each other in profile. One holds a knife behind their back.
    Picket Line Tango by Emily Weiss, illustrated by Roque Romero
  • Game book cover: Where the Wheat Grows Tall by Camila Greer and Evlyn Moreau. Gold lineart on green paper, shows a pattern of wheat enclosing a circle framed image of a cicada statue in a wheat field.
    Where the Wheat Grows Tall by Camila Greer and Evlyn Moreau
  • Gamebook cover: Mörk Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr. A horned skeleton with bloody sword and shield on a bright yellow background with agreesive black brush painted text breaking of the book cover's edge.
    Mörk Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr
  • Eleven Game zines: A Thousand Thousand Islands Zines by Zedeck Siew and Munkao. Covers are various flat and faded pastel colors with black lineart in the center.
    A Thousand Thousand Islands Zines by Zedeck Siew and Munkao
  • Game book cover and materials folder: Silent Titans by Patrick Stuart, Illustrated by Dirk Detweiler Leichty. Cover features isometric illustrations of strange machines and places.
    Silent Titans by Patrick Stuart, Illustrated by Dirk Detweiler Leichty
  • Game zine Cover and handout: Black Knights Illustrated by David Hoskins with writing by Luke Gearing. Cover shows a baroque knight helmet printed in flat black in with red eyes and a red plume. The handout shows a tank tracked mechanical dragon breathing fire. Also in two color black and red.
    Black Knights Illustrated by David Hoskins with writing by Luke Gearing

Similarly, we also focused on games that were the product of close collaboration between a single writer and artist, where the artist’s aesthetic can come to the forefront and color the game and its world. These games include, Zedeck Siew and Munkao’s A Thousand Thousand Islands, Camila Greer and Evlyn Moreau’s Where the Wheat Grows Tall, Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr’s Mörk Borg, Luke Gearing and David Hoskins Troika zine Black Knights, Patrick Stuart’s Silent Titans illustrated by Dirk Detweiler Leichty, Emily Weiss’s Mothership module Picket Line Tango illustrated by Roque Romero, and Sean Richer’s Troika module The Tragedy that Begot Ternwillow illustrated by Chin Fong.

  • A game boxed set: Mausritter by Isaac Williams. Box, book, GM screen feature images of adventuring mice in perilous woodland.
    Mausritter boxed set by Isaac Williams
  • Four game zines: The Seed by Kelvin Green, Mouth Brood by Amanda Lee Franck, Eat the Rich by Ambika Kirkland, and Cabin Risotto Fever by Spaghetti Quester
    Manifestus Omnivorous adventures
  • Two Game zines: Altnyc 88 and Free Willy by Pontus Björlin. Both a risograph printed. Altnyc shows three gansters in front a grafittied subway train, one has an elephant head. Free willy shows a hairmetal looking guy on racing bike with a paisley suit and m-16.
    Altnyc 88 and Free Willy by Pontus Björlin

All of the rpgs we collected for the library are printed books. Some serve as interesting examples of printing techniques and production, for example, Pontus Björlin’s risograph printed ALTNYC88, Games Omnivorous’ lavish boxset for Issac Williams’ Mausritter, and Games Omnivorous’ Manifestus Omnivorous adventure series where they partner with a single illustrator/game maker printing the adventures in two colors. Many iterations of the lab’s Game Design Workshop class focus on making physical games. It’s useful to have many examples of physical game production, especially those produced by independent makers or smaller presses.

  • Belonging outside Belonging Games
  • Mothership first and third party zines.
  • Troika Sphere's and Core Book

In lab classes in the past, students have made their own roleplaying games by hacking existing game systems. Though game and system design is important at the lab, we emphasize how it can be used as a medium for expression or polemical points of view. Often basing game works on existing rules system allows creators to arrive quickly at the parts of game making most integral to what they want to express. As such, we also collected some indie RPG systems that have open licenses and large communities making modules, modifications, and hacks based on them, such as: Avery Alder and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s Dream Askew / Dream Apart, two games for the Dice-less Belonging Outside Belonging(BoB) system and a guide to designing with it, as well as Possum Creaks BoB based game Wanderhome. For Melsonian Art Council’s plane-hopping weird-fantasy game Troika!, we acquired a wide array of first-and-third party spheres, like Watts’s Werewolves of Wallstreet, Jakob Magbanua’s Prime Apes, and Evey Lockhart’s Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals: Permian Nations. For Tuesday Knight Games’ Sci-fi Horror RPG Mothership we also acquired many adventures and supplements like Anodyne Printwares’ Inferno Trilogy and Rimwise, an in-setting zine published by Anxietywizard.

  • Knock! Issues 1 and 2
  • A spread from Jared Sinclair's Anti-Sisyphus
  • Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord by Tim Hutchins
  • In Play: Issue 1: Cyberpunk by the FKR Collective
  • A spread from d36 by Chris Bisette
  • Three issues of Micah Anderson's Penicillin

We also acquired many RPG zines and collections. Some speak to specific RPG design theories, communities or subcultures, such as The Merry Mushmen’s Knock!, a lavishly designed and illustrated compilation of Old School Roleplaying content and blogposts; Jared Sinclair’s obtuse, surreal, and insightful musings against game design and around play in Anti-Sisyphus; or Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord, a compilation of found dungeons made by teenagers in the early years of Dungeons & Dragons and edited by Tim Hutchings. Others compile the work of many creators, like Micah Anderson’s Penicillin zine, Chris Bisette’s d36, or the FKR (Free Kriegspiel) Collective’s rules-less community made zine In Play.

  • Sean Richer's Crapland books and zines
  • A spread from Tim Hutchings' Thousand Year Old Vampire
  • A spread featuring Munkao's Illustrations
  • A spread from So You've Been Thrown Down a Well
  • A spread from Fire on the Velvet Horizon

Many of these rpgs serve as strong examples of aesthetic experimentation in tabletop RPGs, see for example, Sean Richer’s angsty yellow and black scrawl in the suburban malaise inspired troika sphere Crapland, Munkao’s realist and research based line art renderings of southeast asia-inspired fantasy folk at rest in A Thousand Thousand Islands, Scrap Princess’s frenzied mixed media monsters in Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Madeleine Ember’s black and orange ancient greek earthenware inspired illustrations for So You’ve Been Thrown Down a Well, or Tim Hutchings’ found photography scrapbook collage in Thousand Year Old Vampire

  • Putrescence Regnant
  • Putrescence Regnant unfolded
  • Lay on Hands by Alfred Valley with cut and fold coin spinning pullout
  • Fruit of Law by Eli Sietz
  • .dungeon by John Battle and Pregame Lobby zines

Others incorporate different media or activities into tabletop games and expand what parts of life can be incorporated into the game. See for example: Putrescence Regnant, a vinyl record / bog crawl adventure for Mörk Borg; Alfred Valley’s post-apocalyptic solo RPG Lay on Hands that uses coin spinning to generate random results; Eli Sietz’s Fruit of Law, a storytelling game of world and law creation where players are prompted by cutting up and eating a pomegranate; or John Battle’s .dungeon, a fantasy game where players are paying people playing an MMO, where to learn spells as a wizard the player must mark-up their favorite book, where their animal companion must be based on their own pet, and where their own tattoos or piercings power their sorcerers spells.

  • Bunker Issues 1 and 2
  • Homebound by Aaron Lim
  • Shadow of Mogg by Leyline Press
  • Karanduun by Joaquin Kyle Saavedra

Many of these games also expand what games are thought to be about, broadening the politics, experiences, and perspectives games can address. See for example, Michael Pisano and Matthew Kopel’s Bunker, where the forces arrayed against the players are based on the realities of climate collapse, Aaron Lim’s Homebound, an anthology of games that deal with home, leaving, and the immigrant experience, Leyline Press’ Shadow of Mogg a dystopian post-brexit RPG about a society dwelling in the London Underground with voting-based game mechanics, or Joaquin Kyle Saavedra’s Karanduun, a game of dismantling deific oppressors inspired by Filipino folklore and myth. 

All of these RPGs and many others not directly mentioned can be found, examined, or played in the Game Lab and lab members and students can view PDF versions of all of the collected games on the Game Lab library site. We hope that these games give a wide look at what is being made in the realm of indie RPGs and can serve as objects of study, inspiration, examination, and critique.

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RPG Play Sessions at the Lab 2021-2022

Posted on October 4th, 2022 by Tyler Stefanich

In 2020, we began to host remote RPG game sessions at the game lab. In both a few sessions of Jason Tocci’s one page Dark Souls inspired RPG, Exhumed, and a long running campaign of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics[DCC]—run in a way that anyone could join in each week and continue an ongoing exploration of a vast dungeon, in this case the Lost City of a classic D&D module by Tom Moldvay—our goal was merely to have a space to play and socialize during the campus closures. In that, these sessions succeeded, bringing together current grad and undergrad students, staff, faculty, and lab alums—often for the first—to play some fantasy RPGs . This interest in Tabletop Roleplaying Games bled over into our remote classes. Large, many player sessions of DCC, Nate Treme’s Tunnel Goons, and Jared A. Sorensen’s Action Castle, became mainstay play sessions in The Game Design Workshop class. Eventually this culminated in a version of Game Design Workshop focused primarily on RPGs, students made One Page Dungeons, RPG rule sets, and implemented both in the virtual tabletop platform Roll20 that we’d used to run our virtual play sessions. All of these RPGs were compiled in book archived at the Lab and sent out to the students.

  • Dungeon Map drawn by Players in Roll20. Outlines and small drawings are all different colors.
    Player-drawn map in Roll20 of one floor of the lost city in our DCC game.
  • Map for game in Roll20. An isometric birds-eye view of city with many different player tokens and sketches scattered around
    Roll20 Map from our game set in Night City.
  • Side view map of a cave room in roll 20. Pile of manure in center. Many player tokens, plant-goblin tokens, and drawn in speech bubbles of yelling and roaring.
    Roll 20 screen shot from a Tunnel Goons game in Game Design Workshop.

This academic year, with the return to campus, we set out to delve deeper into the realm of RPGs in two main ways: the first was by expanding our RPG collection by acquiring indie, experimental, or small-team made RPGs for the game lab library; and the second is the subject of this post, running regular play sessions of indie RPGs in the lab. Unlike our virtual sessions, which were primarily for lab members, these RPGs were open to all in the broader D|MA and UCLA arts community and would hopefully serve as a first connection to new people curious about the lab. Further, instead of running a longer campaign, these sessions would be one-offs, with each session highlighting different games each time. We hoped to focus, like with the games we were collecting for the library, on indie games made by solo-game makers or small teams of, for example, one writer and one artist. As the year continued, the new game lab student events group, Game Lab Meet ‘Em Ups, invited some of these creators for artists talks. We’d a play a game from these artists before their talks, so interested people could experience the artists’ games in play. We also ran multiple sessions of Cyberpunk Red before Mike Pondsmith’s visit to the D|MA department. 

  • RPG Players gathered around a table at the Game Lab.
    Photo from our Ech0 session
  • Photo from our Ech0 session.

In the 2021-2022 academic year we held six RPG play sessions and one RPG making workshop. For some of these sessions, there are longer session summaries on the game lab blog detailing our actual play experience. Our hope with all these sessions was to give these games place to shine by seeing them in play, whether that meant picking the right rule set for a given adventure, devising a scenario for a given rules system, or even hacking our own system to fit our interpretation of module: 

In the first quarter, we hexcrawled through Alex Damaceno’s [@GnarledMonster, Brazil] Beyond the Borderlands—modern re-imagining of a classic D&D module Keep on the Borderlands—using Nate Treme’s [@NateTreme, US] rules-light fantasy game Tunnel Goons, and built a world at peace in Kai Poh and Elisha Rusli’s [Role Over Play Dead, Malaysia]  collaborative storytelling and map drawing game Ech0. In Beyond the Borderlands, our six strong gang of goons explored Damaceno’s colorfully rendered Wicked Paleovalley and double-crossed their benefactors to help a band of captured Kobolds. You can read a more detailed summary of our session here. In Ech0, our junkyard hangout friend group of 7 kids, 1 sentient slime, and 1 youthful appearing robot, gave the harddrive-bound, data-ghost of fallen mech pilot a final tour of the land they fought and fell in so long ago, before laying him to rest in graffitied hideaway made from the rusted frame of their own military machine. Read more about this session here.

  • Beyond the Borderlands poster
  • Various zines, maps, and player sheets layed out on table
    Printed Materials for Beyond the Borderlands
  • Echo poster
  • Player-drawn map for Echo session

In the second quarter, we returned to remote play, doing an online session of Jason Tocci’s [@pretendogames, US] 2400: Inner System Blues, and in collaboration with Meet ‘Em Ups we hosted a remote workshop on hacking tabletop RPGs. Inner System Blues is a one page cyberpunk RPG, one of many games from Tocci’s 2400 project, that is both a series of sci-fi games and framework that other creators can use to make their own rules-light games. For our session, we played an original scenario I devised and mapped out in Roll20 for the Cyberpunk and its Discontents graduate seminar. The scenario was set in Night City, the famous California Metropolis from the second edition of R.Talsorian Games’ Cyberpunk, Cyberpunk 2020. Our down-on-their-luck gang of Cyberpunks, Cyborgs, Androids, and Psychics was hired by the amicable office administrator of a scientific and maritime research corporation to steal something from the back of a truck. Only after accepting the job and arriving at the site of their heist, did they learn that their quarry belonged to the NorCal navy. Chaos ensued as our gang coordinated over their agents to break into the truck, locked-down with armed anti-theft car alarm defense system [a standard feature in most cars in Cyberpunk’s collapsing and militarized US], while the exoskeleton clad drivers grabbed a artificial burger in a nearby food court. When they finally broke into the truck, they discovered that their objective was a navy dolphin, rigged up with a high powered laser and a brain wired screen for emote communication. Chased by the trucks guards, they used psychic trickery and the dolphin laser to make their escape, speeding in their hacker-pad van to the Night City pier to free this dolphin deserter. The session ended with a happy Dolphin returned to open ocean and the looming threat of corporate revenge for our cyberpunk’s rebellion. In our workshop, we relied again on Jason Tocci’s 2400 system as the basis for beginning to draft our own games, using the 2400 system reference document [a paired down version of the game, made with annotations to help in making your own games] and my own hack of 2400 made for the 24XX jam. I spoke about the utility of hacking a game, versus making a system from scratch, and went through the process of altering 2400, for my own version 24XX: Prepared Foods, that used this sci-fi adventure game framework for making a game about working in the prepared foods department of a grocery store. We then began to work together drafting our own RPGs, drawing from a wide array of experiences: interviewing for a Corporate Job in the games industry, getting groceries on the eve of lockdown, and roaming city streets as stray and wild animals. For each game we devised new methods of character creation, altered core mechanics to fit these radically different premises, and did worldbuilding through randomized encounter tables.

  • Inner System Blues play session banner
  • Hacking Your First RPG workshop banner

In the third quarter, each of our play sessions was tied into an artist talk from the creator[s] of the RPG we played. In the lead-up to a talk from writer Zedeck Siew entitled What does a dagger look like to you? That dealt with using language to recenter fantasy, we played the module Quiet Lake from Zedeck and Munkao’s[@RunWithCentaurs, Malaysia] ongoing South East Asian fantasy zine project A Thousand Thousand Islands. You can read more about that session here, and the artist talk here. After that, the Design | Media Arts department and the Game Lab brought renowned RPG designer Mike Pondsmith for a visiting lecture, and in preparation we ran two sessions of the introductory scenario for R.Talsorian’s[@RTalsorianGames, US] latest edition of Cyberpunk, Cyberpunk Red. The scenario, The Apartment, centers around the characters owning and maintaining an apartment building. After meeting their eccentric neighbors, this home—the Edgerunners only source of stability in this collapsing cyberpunk dystopia—comes under threat from the secret machinations of a telecom corp who want to demolition the apartment to build a communication tower. One session culminated with an impromptu rock show on the building’s roof in a attempt to stall the corpo demolition team, while the other ended with a breakneck chase through the apartment as the Edgerunners scrambled to capture a netrunner sent to sabotage the building’s systems. In his lecture, Pondsmith spoke of the centrality of neighborhoods to his design of Cyberpunk and Night City. The apartment scenario exemplifies this ethos, though the characters may not be able to change the whole world, they struggle to protect their community and those closest to them. In our last session of the year, we played Pam Punzalan[@TheDovetailor, Philippines] and Sinta Posadas’s[@diwataMANILA, Philippines] Public Utility Mechs[PUM], in advance of their talk about designing games from lived experience. PUM draws from Posadas’s experience of commuting via Jeepney in Manila. Jeepneys are a public transportation mode unique to the Philippines, owner operated buses originally converted from surplus US military jeeps sold off at the end of the American Colonial Period after World War II. PUM brings this concept into a scrappy vision of the future, where in the aftermath of a global alien invasion, the government offers licenses to allow everyday Filipino to convert their vehicles into transforming mechs. The game deals with resiliency of these citizen mech pilots and criticizes the bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency of this government run mech program, while also using this sci-fi alien invasion as a metaphor for colonialism. In our session, our small convoy of PUM pilots traveled the ill maintained highways—neglected by the political class in their walled metropole bastions—as they transported an elderly couple to a pilgrimage site near the ailing husbands rural birthplace. On this journey we had many encounters generated from PUM’s evocative random table’s, haggled at one of the many government run scrap yards that are an important site of bureaucratic inconvenience in PUM’s speculative world, and engaged in fast-paced grid combat with the alien invaders, called ironically Our Friends. 

  • A Thousand Thousand Islands poster
  • Printed materials for A Thousand Thousand Islands
  • Various printed materials, zines, maps and player sheets laid out on table.
    Cyberpunk Red poster
  • Public Utility Mechs Poster
  • Five Paper standees with pen drawings of transformed vehicle mechs.
    Public Utility Mech player standees
  • 7 Paper standees with pen drawings surreal aliens.
    Our Friends and Friends of Friends enemy standees

Although tabletop RPGs are of great significance to the history and conventions of game design and game making, these game forms, especially recent developments in the indie RPG space, are often overlooked. In our play sessions this year, we hoped to give just a small sample of these games—being made and released now by creators from many different places and backgrounds—a space to be experienced in play. As was emphasized by the creators themselves who spoke with us in Meet ‘Em Ups, RPGs are a unique game form relying heavily on the interpretation of the player at each and every table both in preparation and in play. For me as the person preparing and running these game sessions, I can say that I had a dramatically different experience of each of these works through running them and preparing them for play, whether that was sketching transformed taxi’s to make standee miniatures to facilitate PUM’s fast paced mech combat, or reading cyberpunk fiction with an eye towards interesting encounters and game elements I could pilfer for Inner System Blues. The players also brought their own elements to each session, creating eccentric characters for these fictional places, devising zany and rebellious schemes, and building worlds through play. Perhaps of equal importance to RPGs is the social aspect of play. It was great that a shared curiosity about these different games could grow the Game Lab community in a way they weren’t able to online, with a student and lab faculty member meeting for the first time as they built futuristic sci-fi setting, or a new students first social event in the department being spent delving the caverns beneath a lakeside village. As the mission of the Game Lab is to encourage new modes of expression in gaming, it is the hope that experiencing this sample of different games from an on-going and lively gameform and hearing from the creators themselves, will encourage new modes game making, experimentation, and thinking of play forms for the students and artists who participated.

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RPG Play Session Summary: A Thousand Thousand Islands

Posted on February 14th, 2022 by Tyler Stefanich

For our fourth RPG session at the lab, we got back in person to play Munkao and Zedeck Siew’s A Thousand Thousand Islands[ATTI], specifically their introductory adventure module, Quiet Lake, a preview for their forthcoming book Reach of the Roach God. ATTI is a Fantasy world-building project that draws on visual and textual research into the history and ethnography of Southeast Asia, the myths and stories of the region that the creators grew up with, and their own daily experience. Before Reach of the Roach God, the project existed as a series of zines each representing a place, for example: Hundred Red Scales, a few islands peopled with monitor lizards featuring a temple where weaving and dyeing is taught; or Ngelalangka, a trade route and the regional market it leads to. These places are detailed with Zedeck’s writing and Munkao’s illustrations. Beyond rollable tables to randomize certain elements, there’s no rules in the sense of stat blocks and special abilities, the rules (if we want to call them that) are the realities of the places described and illustrated, the social relations of the place and its peoples.

  • Four character sheets with character portrait drawings.
    The character sheets for our game.

Quiet Lake is the first adventure module for ATTI, an entry to the vast underground caves (filled likely with many roaches) that will make up Reach of the Roach God. Like previous ATTI zines, Quiet Lake beautifully details a particular place: the titular lake surrounded on all sides with limestone cliffs, the various people and roaches of the underground who’ve traveled to the surface and make residence in the surrounding caves, and a small lakeside village on edge after one of their goats has been taken.  

Here, I’m going to summarize our session with Quiet Lake. Because it’s an adventure module, I’m going to focus more one how the adventure helped me GM it, what tools it gave me, and what I did to run it. We also had the great fortune of having Zedeck Siew come to speak with us the week after our session. His talk, What does a Dagger look like, to you? focused on how Siew and Munkao create A Thousand Thousand Islands, countering two poles of fantasy related to South East Asia, one, an orientalist colonizer fantasy and the other a nationalist fantasy of idealized warriors. He used the example of always using a common english word versus a specific one, a dagger not keris, both as an act of re-centering fantasy and countering these two poles of representation. 

ATTI is what’s called system-agnostic, meaning that it isn’t written to be compatible with a particular RPG. Although it is written with oldschool fantasy games in mind, people have played it with a wide variety of games. I opted to go oldschool-inspired with it, adapting Bonito(@dreamboatactual)’s Project Shinobi Gang to ATTI, by merging it with Zedeck and Munkao’s house rules for running ATTI in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.

  • Spread showing Ginta's Tea Stall and some of the NPCS.
    Spread showing Ginta's Tea Stall and some of the NPCS.


Project Shinobi Gang is a hack of Luke Gearing’s OD&D reference document, adapting it for games inspired by Akira Kurosawa or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Its sparse and elegant rules, worked well to merge with the ATTI house rules. For example, Bonito’s game has a similar use of language to ATTI. Just as in ATTI, where there are daggers not kerises, in Project Shinobi Gang, there are swords not katanas, masterless warriors, not ronin. I did make some changes though, I removed the rules for armor and changed around some of the equipment to better fit with ATTI, looking towards items that are mentioned in other ATTI zines. I also made starting equipment random, both to remove a fixed currency and to speed up character creation for our one-off session. I kept many of the procedures. Of special note was the elegant stealth rules, that assume as a baseline being unnoticed. These originally drew me to the ruleset, and proved useful for our session. 

Characters were rolled randomly, but players were able to be whatever they wanted. A lot of ATTI’s art features both animals and people as characters. Entities defy categorization, a cat might be a pet, a merchant, a ruler, a god. If players wanted some inspiration, I had out our other ATTI zines for them to leaf through, especially to look at the world building done through Munkao’s illustrations.

  • Spread showing the forest encounter tables from Quiet Lake and an image of someone suprised by two cockroach soldiers.
    The forest encounter tables from Quiet Lake.

Our characters were Neha, a crocodile shaman; K.C., a mousedeer who survives by stealing from the military; a Pentakill, a failed but cocky pirate; and Bo, a mild-mannered fisherman whose boat the others absconded with, after robbing a village up river. Our characters arrived at the small village as night fell and heard a keening in the sky and a baby crying. 

Some hijinks ensued as the group docked, our pirate tried to make off with the boat, but didn’t get very far. The commotion drew Iba, a villager, to the shore. In a brusk, monotone, she directed our party to Ginta’s, a lamp lit tea stall in the village center. There the village gathered, anxious and alarmed after a goat was stolen.

  • Map from quiet lake showing a forested path and a cliffside cave.
    Our path through the forest from village center to Horsehead Cave.

The village in Quiet Lake is defined by these gathered people, each with little details of their actions at this gathering, their voice, their mannerisms. Galak Deng, the village healer, sticks paper charms on the players as they enter the tea stall. Ghikri, the goat herder alarmed and quick speaking, shows them his thumb, pricked by a chitin spike lodged in his fence post. These descriptions create little conflicts and threads to follow, Galak warns in a phlegmy cough, to not go near quiet lake, but Iba goes there every day. Munkao’s portraits and the character descriptions gave me everything I needed, actions to describe, voices to do. The stats are just plain language. Lura, the Worried Mother, whose baby they heard crying is ordinary and hale, skilled at weapon arts, drinking, and surviving. She has a battle axe, and is unprotected. 

After having some wine and betel nuts with Ghikri to calm his nerves, our party accompanied him to his goat shed, and were shown the spike still lodged in the fence and a trail of blood leading into the forest. Galak would tell them the path it followed ends at a nearby cave. Though our party hoped for some of Ghikri’s goats as reward for finding whatever made off with one of his flock, they decided to wait till morning to track it, and spent the night on the floor in Ginta’s.

In the morning they set out into the forest. In Quiet Lake, you always encounter something whenever you leave the village center. What you encounter, however, can vary wildly. The set-up for the encounter tables in Quiet Lake is three adjacent d6 tables, the first and last are animals, people, natural phenomena, or weather. The middle one is an action. They link the two together, so you might encounter a rooster spooked by a swirling updraft of leaves. This process of fitting three disparate results together makes the encounter table a dynamic sort of oracle, how do these things interact?

  • A spread from Quiet Lake showing Ma Blat, a cockroach queen looking like a centipede made of roaches conjoined at the head. A person on their back shields their face frightened as Ma Blat Rears up.
    Spread featuring Ma Blat.

Our group followed this blood trail into the forest. At a bend in the rough path they spotted some motion in the underbrush, near a large mossy boulder a stick like thing was waving in the air and rustling. Hiding, they observed it for awhile, eventually the stick disappeared and they heard a creepy, cackling voice: some creature taunting something out of their sight. Eventually, our mouse deer crept forward with the fishermans blowpipe to go check it out. They saw a cat sized cockroach, poking with a spear that looked suspiciously like the spike that was embedded in Ghikri’s fence post, trying to torment a black and yellow striped snake hiding in a gap underneath the boulder. Thinking this roach was likely the culprit of the missing goat, they planned to try to incapacitate the roach with a dart from a blow pipe, but the dart and its poison proved lethal for the small and already injured roach. 

Our party left the snake be, and traveled on to the cave. There in a mess of roach droppings, they found what remained of the goat. At the back of the cave was a small (as the text describes it office-vent-sized) passage. Our intrepid group decided to squeeze through there into the cave system beyond. 

  • Map of the village. Many small buildings surrounded by forest. A river on the bottom corner with small fishing boats up on shore.
    Map of the village

Like encounters in the forest, both the sections of the cave and the encounters within them are generated randomly. Each passage always has an encounter, meaning entering the cave network under the quiet lake is both unpredictable and dangerous. Our group got quite lucky, finding mostly other animals taken by the roaches as food. The section of cave they were in was determined to have an underground river of shallow water, fed by many cascades. As our party had only a single paper lantern to light their way, they had to be careful, and traveled (along with a nervous goat they guided out of a roach covered passage) on the back of their crocodile fellow, using an an oiled fabric to keep their lantern dry under misting waterfalls. 

Eventually they came to a cave chamber decorated with scratched and black goo painted images of swarming roaches led by a great creature, like a rearing centipede of roaches fused at the head. In a fortuitous result of the random room generation, this creature Ma Blat, aspiring queen of these roaches would be in the next chamber. When our group entered her chamber, she crawled down from the ceiling, surrounding them circling the chamber walls on her many legs as she prodded them with questions about their ‘daylander’ society.

  • Printed materials from Quiet Lake laid out on a table. There are many maps, a printed zine of the adventure, and a printed zine of the ruleset
    Materials from printed from Quiet Lake and laid out for running the session. The small zine at left is the rules we used.

This is one of my favorite details of Quiet Lake, Ma Blat is starting a new society. She’s a rebel against the Roach God, and wants new ideas from her prisoners. The text gives us her values, that her brood will constantly expand, that those weaker than her are food, and some sample ethical questions, “What is power? Who has the right to rule? How many babies is it moral to eat?” These kind of conundrums, lead, for me, to some of the most exciting interactions in RPGs, as the players build their world on the fly but also have to deal with their aims and the conditions, namely, in this case talking to a fearsome and hungry queen formed of many roaches. Our group tried to pull a fast one on her to get her to stop stealing the village’s goats. They tried to convince her that their society was very austere, that power could be gained by relinquishing things, that not owning things like goats is a sign of great virtue. This ploy half worked, though Ma Blat believed that they believed this, it only made them weak in her eyes. If they didn’t desire any goats, well then she could just take them all. Though our group protested, fearing they might become food instead, they accepted, and offered to bring the village’s goats to Ma Blat’s cave. 

Our group returned to the village in low spirits, fearing there was little they could do in the face of Ma Blat and her growing roach brood. The situation only got worse when they returned.

  • A stack of small character sheets and a small stack of zines
    Character sheet and rules handout, all the art is by Munkao from ATTI.
  • A spread from the rules hacked for this session. Shows rules text for game procedures and art of a character with a spear and a rooster on their back.
    A page from the player rules summary. all the art is by Munkao from ATTI.

In Quiet Lake, an encounter with a roach in the forest ticks a timer, leading to new events in the village, keeping the tension and the threat of these invaders high. When they returned, Musun, one of the villagers, was missing, a trail of beads leading to another cave on the banks of the river. Now with little faith that the roach raids would stop, even with a supply of goats to appease them, our group quickly informed Lura, who’d taken to guarding the village, of all they’d seen in the caves. They then sped off to this river cave themselves, hoping to catch Musun’s captors. 

In the caves, our group passed through a disgusting chamber where the roaches digested their own to use their bodies as tools, and arrived at Ma Blat’s chamber from the opposite direction. They could hear Ma Blat interrogating Musun, as she had done to them hours before. Using the roach dissolving acid flung from their trusty oilcloth, our group was able drive Ma Blat away long enough for them to grab Musun and flee the caves. Though they triumphed from their quick thinking, they returned to the village still in fear, having likely drawn the ire of Ma Blat further.

With that brief victory, our session ended. I hope we can return to Quiet Lake at some point. One of the great strengths of the adventure, it’s ramping tension and the way the threat of the invading roaches grows, made it really easy for me to run as an exciting one-off. But the focus on this particular thread also means there’s a lot more to explore. There’s a lot of quieter parts to Quiet Lake too. What of the keening our group heard in the night as they guided their boat to the lights of the village? What of Iba’s journeys to Quiet Lake? 

I’ve wanted to run ATTI for a while, and I hope beyond returning to Quiet Lake in the future, I can run some of the other zines as well. Zedeck spoke in his talk to us about ATTI being a project of inviting people into his (and Munkao’s) home. I think that as an adventure, Quiet Lake really exemplifies that to me, Ginta’s tea stall, rendered as it is with Munkao’s line-art of its lantern-lit facade, and the five villagers with their gossip, their tension, and their small actions, was the perfect entry into ATTI

I think Quiet Lake also surfaces one of the tensions of running these one-off sessions. Zedeck spoke to us about how when an ATTI zine is done, it’s done. And from it the players will create their own version of ATTI, of Quiet Lake, in their game and at their table. Reading and running Quiet Lake, that way of thinking, of making games, really comes through. Everything is articulated as your first encounter, the first scent in a cave chamber, or the snippets of your first conversation. Even the escalating roach raids are illustrated as a new event, not how those events might resolve or lead into each other. It’s great that in our brief session we got a bit of this, making our own world by crafting our characters in it, figuring out what the village is like next morning. But I do think the magic of the groundwork laid in Quiet Lake happens more as that process of creation and play continues. What travelers arrive at Ginta’s tomorrow night? What lies two more days down river? And of course how will our village deal with Ma Blat’s brood scuttling out from beneath their feet?

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RPG Play Session Summary: Ech0

Posted on January 13th, 2022 by Tyler Stefanich

For our second RPG Play Session, we played Ech0; a Gamemaster-less map drawing and storytelling game. In Ech0, one player [me in this case] takes on the role of a fallen mech pilot from a war that ended many years ago, their mind saved in a small harddrive called an Ech0 drive. The other players take on the role of children during peacetime who find this Ech0 drive. In dialog with the pilot’s digital ghost, the players tell the stories of the long ruined mechs the children play around. Through storytelling and map drawing the players create a world at peace, and craft fragmented memories of a past war. 

Ech0 was inspired by the designer’s childhood memory of stumbling upon the wreckage of a Japanese fighter jet. It is designed by Kai Poh with graphic design and layout by Elisha Rusli, collectively known as Role Over Play Dead. Beyond publishing their own games, Role Over Play Dead is a platform that highlights the Malaysian RPG scene through game reviews, creator interviews, and actual plays. 

Although Echo is a GMless game, it does have two distinct roles. One person is the pilot, the rest are the children. Short questions provided in the game book help to inspire these characters. These prompts are phrased in the character’s present, long ago for the pilot and now for the children. The pilot only knows up to when they died, their last mission, who they loved and left, who they fought for. The children are created around what they were doing when they found the drive, how they know each other, and their names and ages. The world comes after, as a gap filled in between these disparate times and people.

  • Ech0 Hex-map with marker drawings of loactions added by the players
    Our map at the end of play session.

Our pilot was Jeb, Rust Devils unit, Serial number 107. They were the 23 year old pilot of a medic mech, small unarmed mechs made squat and sturdy so they could carry downed mecha back to the back lines. They died in an ill fated push to take a mountain fortress. They were on the invading side.

Our group of children was large. Including me, we had ten players: 

  • IV Max. Age 13. Training to be an exoskeleton boxer. We found out later he delivered mail by motorcycle to neighboring towns
  • Jo. Age 17. They always wanted to be a mech pilot, but couldn’t because of an accident. They don’t know what to do now.
  • Not Here, Not there. A slimy thing. Otherwise average in all regards.
  • TC. Age 17. Just came out of the closet. We found out later that they were interested in nuclear waste management.
  • J6. An Ancient Android. They don’t know this. They present as a 6 year old boy, wearing a retro ballcap.
  • Wes. Age 12. Thick Glasses. Likes collecting flora, fauna, and sea specimens.
  • Cusbo JR. 11. Works at a hydroponics lab with his father Cusbo Sr. Wears a chemical pesticide brand t-shirt. 
  • Strubert. 13. Has a hustle hacking and modding animatronic pets. 
  • Duckegg. 9. A chef’s apprentice. 
  • Drawing of the characters home town and an adjacent ruined mech. A Junkyard, market, and hydroponic water tanks are all visible.
    The Children's hometown.
  • Two map hexes. One contains a giant robot hand with a grill and cowskull. The other contains a large spaceship engine looming over a tiny village.
    The engine mesa and mech hand coming out of the ground
  • Hexes containing a large town near a sheer cliff face.
    The cliffside town.

Our kids were from all walks of life, so the child players wanted to find the Ech0 drive in a place where all could feasibly come together. They decided they all hung out in the town’s scrap yard. So while exploring in the scrapyard over summer break, they saw a light blinking in an old pipe. Not Here Not There slimed in to check it out and retrieved Jeb’s Ech0 drive. 

This is where world creation begins. The child players draw on a blank hex map where they found the drive. Then they decide if the world is Advanced or Low Tech, “Are there windmills?” 

Because Jeb had mentioned that during the war their girlfriend broke up with them via a letter, our group decided we’d be a Low-tech world. All the androids, robot boxing rigs, and hydroponics set-ups became older and rustier. Beaten steel and lead paint. As we continued to make this world we found it had regressed even further from the time of the war, subsisting on scrap and cattle.

  • Map hexes containing craters of ruined mechs
    Wrecked mecha.
  • Drawing of the dome of our pilots mech. Overgrown and covered in graffiti.
    The dome of our pilots mech.

Ech0’s next prompt again starts small, asking the children to define their own hometown. This is the first introduction of random tables, a list of few entries where you roll a die to pick an entry at random as inspiration. In Ech0, each table has 9 results, 3 for low Tech, 3 for Advanced Tech, and 3 that work for either. We got a low tech one, and our town became a lonely oasis in dry scrubland. 

The next prompt was large and we took the most time with it. Ech0 asks about the scars the war left on the land and the adults in our children’s lives. From this prompt, the children told Jeb that the Generation Ship that carried their invading army had crashed in this scrub land. Its titanic engine is now a climbable mesa, and the source of the town’s scrap. We learned of Cusbo’s grandfather’s service in the infantry. How the children’s land was once resource rich, but now stripped clean by war effort production. We learned too of a resort town—built on the hillside Jeb died trying to take—now a supplier of milk and butter beer to our children’s home town.

The form of Ech0 as a map drawing game, helps to draw out the material effects of war. It’s mentioned that there were artillery mechs during the war; so there should be craters. There was this huge loss of life from this Generation Ship crashing; there would be a memorial for it. So a small memorial is drawn in the center of a town in a crater. These legacies become inscribed on the map and slowly become connected to each other—either with roadways, rivers, or trade routes drawn on the map or by inspiring a new location.

  • Player notes and sketches of a four-legged mech and small habitation.
    Player Sketches and notes
  • Player sketches of repurposed mech wreckage and a vista with a crashed spaceship.
    Player sketches.

In the last section of the Ech0, the children take the Ech0 drive around their world to the wreckage of various mechs. The details of these wrecks are also prompted by random tables; one for the mech’s description and one for its fate [how it’s used today]. Each child player rolls and leads the group to one of these sites. The evocative descriptions lead to further examination of the world’s present and the way the war is remembered. So a wreck leaned against a cliff face as sight of pilgrimage with incense and candles, leads into detailing the spirituality of our people and how the war affected it. A giant, mecha hand used as a gathering place, leads us tales of barbecuing food, seasonal festivals, and discarded beer cans. Through a wreck stripped and repurposed as a secret hideaway, we learn of smuggling born from over extraction and hardship. And from two wrecks, one from either side, strung together with flags of peace, we learn of the reconciliation and remembrance by those elders who took part in the war. 

The final mech in Ech0 is always the pilots own. It is rolled on the same tables as the other wrecks, no greater or lesser than the ones that came before. We found that Jeb’s mech, its geodesic dome cockpit sticking out of the ground, had become a hidden play spot for children— covered in faded love notes and anti-war graffiti from when the wounds were still fresh. The children told Jeb of coming there, of taking turns sitting in their rotting pilot chair, of their helmet being taken home by a neighborhood kid. As Jeb’s battery began to die, the children told them of how they learned about the war in school. What they got wrong and what they got right. As the Ech0 drive failed, the children buried it, not too deep, thinking maybe other kids might dig it up years from now.

  • Six people gathered around a table playing a map drawing game. A hex-map is in the center of the table and dice, markers, and game booklets are scattered around.
    Playing Ech0 in the lab

At the lab, I’ve tended to play and game master adventure-type games. Especially for new players, I tend to rely on making them light, silly, and weird. I’m going to play as Two Goblins in a trench coat, you’re gonna be a giant slug with a top hat, and we’re all gonna mess around. Ech0, I think, asks for a different tone: more reflective and grounded. Of course a lot of what made this session work was up to our players diving into this world, but in it’s few pages of rules Ech0 gives many tools to help this along. 

By translating Echo’s real world inspiration into the realm of mecha, it gives a place for all the weird and hyperbolic ideas to go, especially in character creation. Yes there are robots a kilometer high, yes there’s android kids and alien slime, yes there’s a crashed spaceship. But the game text, with its focus on fishing boats, grazing cattle, quarrying machines, rust and ritual, asks that all these things be brought back down to earth. If there’s a crashed spaceship, what happened to those who lived under it, how do you rebuild from that, how do you memorialize it? The action of most mecha fiction is a war or battle, in Ech0 this war is long ended. The world is at peace. All the trappings have a place to go, but they’re not used in the same way. You might have a giant railgun, but Ech0 doesn’t care how powerful it is. It just cares about what happened to the spent shells. 

Ech0’s framing creates a wide open space for play. By framing the conversation across disparate times, the intervening years are open to be filled in. Further, because both sides of this conversation have imperfect information—the pilot only knows the course of the war up until their demise, and the children only know the present at peace and how they learned about the war—there’s space for disagreement, for ambiguity, for facts lost to history or deliberate misinformation. Further, by having the information on the present come from children, there’s more freedom for wondering, misunderstanding, and getting it wrong. They didn’t experience the war, they experienced its wrecks as playthings and monuments.

  • 8 small character sheets for Ech0. Each contains a handrawn portrait.
    Some of the character sheets with character portraits.

By being GM-less Ech0 distributes the game text to all at the table. If the conversation lags, Ech0 fills the gap with clear images and pointed questions, moving one’s imagination into new places, and digging deeper into the player’s feelings about this world. 

Ech0 also flips the structure of a game-mastered RPG. Although Ech0 is gmless in that there’s no player at the table with final say over the world or its inhabitants, Ech0 does have two distinct roles, one performed by a single player, the pilot, and one performed by everyone else, the children. This structure also differs from many other GMless games, where either all players have the same role or roles are frequently switched in turn. Because of this, I’d almost describe Ech0 as a reverse game-mastered game. Here it is the single player, the pilot, being led on an adventure across the children’s world. It is the group with more members that largely describes the world, though both groups ask questions of each other. I think this reversal is further exemplified by the form Ech0’s rules and gameplay take. Ech0 relies heavily on prompts from random tables and the main inscription of play is done by the child players drawing on a hex map. These actions mirror, to me, the session prep traditionally done by a game master for an RPG, using tables and map drawing to generate a world for the players to interact with. As a frequent game master, who normally does these things in isolation, it’s compelling to see this process of imaginative interaction opened up to the players, and become a mode of collective play itself. 

Although Ech0 is a wide open game that poses more questions than it gives answers, I think it’s from its specificity and clear images that it draws its strength. No matter whether the pilot invaded from another planet or the war was fought between neighboring towns, there’s always rust or bird droppings or scrawled graffiti. There’s always scars and new growth.

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RPG Play Session Summary: Beyond the Borderlands and Tunnel Goons

Posted on November 8th, 2021 by Tyler Stefanich

For the first of many biweekly RPG Play Sessions at the Game lab, we played the hexcrawl, Beyond the Borderlands with the free-form fantasy game, Tunnel Goons.

Beyond the Borderlands is an on-going Zine project by Brazilian illustrator and gamemaker Alex Damaceno (@gnarledmonster) to re-imagine the beginner Dungeons & Dragons adventure Keep on the Borderlands.

Tunnel Goons is an award-winning fantasy game by Nate Treme (Highland Paranormal Society). Its freely available, rules-light system is the basis for countless new games in a variety of genres.

I had planned to run Damaceno’s related dungeon, The Kobold Lair, as well, but each Hex in Beyond the Borderlands is so full of life in so few words that we had almost 4 hours of adventure journeying across only 3 hexes. What follows is both a summary of play and commentary on both of these awesome games.

  • Beyond the Borderlands Player Map. Black ink drawing on weathered paper. Depicts a valley with various sites of interest, including a tree holes resembling a face, a windmill, a dragon, and a large river and swamp.
    Beyond the Borderlands map insert

First let’s introduce our cast of characters. Tunnel Goons is a compact game; all its rules fit on half a letter sized sheet. To make characters, you roll on 3 tables, one tells you about your character’s childhood, one their profession, and the last what they did during the war. Beyond that, there’s not much else, no list of classic fantasy races, no character classes. This mix of quick evocative prompts and wide openness (like being able to start with any one item of your choosing) leads, every time I’ve run Tunnel Goons, to some pretty fantastic characters. Today our duplicitous goons were:

  • Powell: A ghost of a UCLA librarian who perished fighting for the rebels during the war.
  • Howard Tarius Esquire: A Sentient, long-armed snowglobe with a very large hat
  • Loynis: A Winged Titan, capable of throwing bolts of lightning. The most learned of our goons.
  • Not Here, Not There: A strange ooze. Capable of transforming from solid, to liquid, to gas.
  • Mo: A worm with a cloak of shape shifting and rebellious streak.
  • Buff Pigeon: the name says it all. Flies with buff bird arms and smokes a laser cig. 
  • Gigi: a two legged amphibious goldfish. Incredibly strong.
  • The Hex Map from Beyond the Borderlands. Each Hex contains isometric illustrations of landmarks and fantasy creatures, like frogmen or a giant spider.
    The Hex Map from Beyond the Borderlands. The Hunting groves are the area farthest northwest with orange ground.

Driven to the edges of civilization by the war suggested in Tunnel Goons’ backgrounds, our eclectic band of goons began on the gallows-flanked road leading up to the Stronglaw Keep. Despite a kind and formal greeting delivered to the Gate Guards by Howard Tarius Esquire, our adventurers were told no beds were available in the local inn and to inquire again tomorrow. However, these Watchers of the Church of the Holy Sun did tell our goons about some work: 20 silver each if the goons could find the lair of some creatures that have been raising nearby farms and pillaging livestock. Our out of work travelers gladly accepted.

Although Beyond the Borderlands suggests that players begin with a blank sheet of paper, I decided that I was already keeping the Hex Map to myself, so I ought to give the players the illustrated grid map as hand out to track their travels. When given the map, the players debated briefly about whether to abandon their work and instead chase the dragon drawn on the center of the map. They did decide to stick with the task at hand, heading towards the mountains at the north west where the guards indicated their quarry would likely be located. Though they did hope to investigate the spooky tree drawn on the map on their way.

  • Staplebound, half-letter Beyond the Borderlands zine. Cover Depicts a castle in the wilderness at sunset with winged rams flying above. And Tunnel Goons rule printout. Cover depicts a cute fantasy adventure carrying a lantern and a sword.
    Beyond the Borderlands Zine and Tunnel Goons Printout

I hadn’t specified the weather at the start of the adventure, so I used the weather table in Beyond the Borderlands to see whether the sun would persist during the course of the adventure. I rolled for heavy rain, so with storm clouds rolling in from over the mountains, our goons set off.

Their first stop was a Crossroads, where the goons found a Veteran Watcher cursing and hammering, trying to fix the knocked down direction sign. The goons offered to help fix the sign. They melted down Not Here, Not There’s empty magic lamp with Buff Pigeon’s laser cig to make a sturdier base for the signpost, while Loynis collected tree’s to build a wall around the sign. Powell, chatted with the veteran watcher about rumors in the valley and learned that the watchers believed the windmill nearby was haunted. So naturally, after fixing the sign and fortifying it with uprooted trees our goons headed straight towards the haunted windmill. Powell, himself a ghost, hoped to meet a kindred spirit.

One of Beyond the Borderlands many strengths is the way it describes hexes with what you see as you enter. There’s an immediate vista as you move from one hex to another, always with some landmarks to explore or some action in progress. It gives the feeling that you’ve emerged from a forest or crested hill, spying the next space or situation. 

Walking through farmland overgrown with weeds, our goons arrived at some abandoned peasant huts. They decided to search inside to investigate the source of this supposed haunting. Finding only dust and old farm tools, Howard grabbed a pitch fork and Powell loudly set about hammering a banged up shovel back into shape. Loynis, too large to fit in the house, waited outside and Mo, wormed their way back outside to look for any signs of life. Mo noted that there seemed to be no animals around, not even other worms or ants. 

Though the storm clouds were still a ways off, as Powell hammered, a dark shadow was cast inside the peasant hut, as though the sun was suddenly obscured by clouds. Most of our goons high-tailed it out of the house, only Gigi, brawny and courageous, remained with Powell.

A Skeletal Spectre floated out of the wall, and Powell, unperturbed, immediately started chatting with it. Asking it why it remained in this place and what could be done to lay it rest. The Spectre was happy to see another ghost and the two got to talking. It explained to Powell that all the farmers of these fields perished in a raid, abandoned by the Watchers who were supposed to come to their aid. It said for them to rest, their bodies, still laying in the fields, would need to be given a proper burial.

Our goons set off to the fields. Using Loynis’s height and Mo’s closeness to the earth, they were able to locate the uninterred peasants lying in the weeds. As the goons set about digging graves, the rain storm arrived. Mo shapeshifted into a tarp to keep our goons and the worksite dry. Leaving only Mo and Loynis exposed to the elements. As the rain let up, the goons finished digging and buried the slain peasants allowing their ghosts to rest easy.

As the goons continued their trek into the red forests of the Hunting Groves, I rolled a random encounter. Beyond the Borderlands has an elegant method for generating random encounters, it begins with a familiar 1-in-6 chance every time the player characters enter a hex, but for each hex entered the chance increases by 1, then resets to 1-in-6 once an encounter happens. This means encounters happen frequently, adding another layer of activity to an adventure already packed with situations everywhere players might look. Further, these random encounters vary greatly, from traditional wandering monsters (the FIRE BOAR), to mundane scenes (A herd of animals grazing), to chaotic hijinks (A bored noble shooting anything), to ongoing actions the characters might bypass or intervene in. We rolled one of the latter; Watchers fighting invaders from the Scarlet Forest.

  • Paper handouts and game books on a white table.
    Materials for running the game

So as our band of goons crossed into the Hunting Groves, they heard clanging and shouting. Loynis spotted over a hill a band watchers fighting some small, rat-like creatures (kobolds). The goons waited with Loynis acting as their eyes. A lucky shot from the kobold leader riding around on a giant rat, slew the leader of the watchers. Our goons decided to intervene on the side of the watchers (they were their employers after all).

Combats in Tunnel Goons shake up easy and fast. If a character is trying to accomplish a dangerous task, like fighting an enemy, they roll 2d6s and try to beat a set difficulty number. This difficulty number is also the enemy’s hit points. If the roll is higher than the difficulty number, the difference is how much damage the enemy takes, lower and the difference is how much damage the player takes. These rolls are modified by the player’s attributes, players also get +1 for each thing they’re using that might help them. This leads to players looking at their sheet, their items, their character’s portraits, the scene as it is set, for anything that might help them in their present circumstance. These easy to allocate advantages drawn from the players observations of the situation and the lack of any list of standard actions, means players are always devising clever and zany solutions to problems and plans of attack. 

Loynis the titan threw Howard, the sentient snow globe at some far off kobolds. Not here, Not there, turned into a wave of liquid to help Gigi, a fish swim to reach the kobold leader faster and tackle him off his giant rat. Mo and Buff pigeon ambushed some kobolds that had not yet joined the fray, with Mo shapeshifting into a snake wrap one of them up and buff pigeon flying away from attacks with muscled bird arms. Powell attempted, without much success to possess the Kobold leader’s rat mount. After a few turns of tussling, our goons efforts worked and eventually the kobolds surrendered.

However, as the Watchers began to tie up the Kobolds, Mo began to talk with one of the kobolds about why they were fighting the watchers. The Kobold told Mo of the watcher’s raids into the paleovalley and the Keep’s nobles pillaging their hunting grounds. Mo decided our goons had taken the wrong side. Before all the kobolds were tied up, our goons hatched a plan with the kobolds to turn on the Watchers. Though the kobolds disagreed on who would get to keep the watcher leader’s magic sword, they approved of the mischievous plan. Our goons surprised the watchers and quickly forced their surrender. Freeing the captured kobolds. The session ended with Loynis competing with the Kobold leader in a game of dice poker to decide who would get to keep the magic sword. Though our duplicitous goons had great fortune in-battle they were bested at dice and ended the day empty handed, though with a new friend in this band Kobolds.


  • Four Tunnel Goons character sheets, each has a pencil drawn portrait of the character on it.
    4 of the Tunnel Goons: Buff Pigeon, Not Here Not There, Gigi, Mo the Worm

For this first RPG Play Session at the lab, I wanted to run something fast and fun, quick for new players to get into. Something that gave a taste of classic fantasy gaming. Both Tunnel Goons and Beyond the Borderlands were perfect for this.

Tunnel Goons I’ve run before, I’ve run it for a group of twelve players most totally new to RPGs. I’ve run it in one hour impromptu sessions, where I’ve been able to generate a site for adventure using Nate Treme’s Eternal Caverns of Urk, in the same time it takes players to come up with their goons (about ten minutes). It’s a fantastic system, play begins the second everyone is given the character sheet. I’ve never found anyone who hasn’t come up with a great goon by the time they’ve rolled their 3d6s to determine their character’s background. Or who hasn’t had a single idea by the time I’ve explained that the last starting item is anything they can think of. 

Beyond the Borderlands was great to run as well. According to its page, it began from Damaceno’s notes for how he’d run Keep on the Borderlands for his home game. It feels like that. The writing is conversational, like another gamemaster who’s run their own borderland a hundred times is giving you the best notes and tools from their many campaigns. Each hex description is clear and quick, with strong visuals and compelling situations. They’re written like how you’d describe what was going on to everyone at your table, but with only the most vivid and compelling sentences left in. One top of the hexes, there’s a huge array of random encounters, just to make sure you’re never without an emerging situation. And this is just talking about the writing, you could run an adventure just from looking at the unique isometric scenes, spaces, and creatures drawn on every hex.

There’s a groundedness and subtle realism to Damaceno’s writing and nice subversion of fantasy tropes. In these borderlands, frogmen sit by a river descaling fish and cooking soup. Goblins gather vegetables. Animals graze. Bungling and blood-thirsty nobles stimulate the keeps economy through lavish hunting expeditions. In the related dungeon, the Kobold Lair, there’s also a damsel in distress who needs your adventurers help: A giant spider forced to work on a loom. These details and twists not only breathe new life into a classic module, they keep play surprising and unexpected. 

Tunnel Goons quick freeform approach combined with Beyond the Borderlands chaotic hexes and encounters were the perfect way to jump straight into play for year of RPG sessions at the lab.


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