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Zine Quest brings tabletop role-playing back to its roots with tiny, affordable books

Third annual Kickstarter puts a spotlight on independent creators

First edition of the original three-volume boxed set of Dungeons & Dragons. Faux woodgrain, with the cover of a knight on horseback applied as a sticker to the top of the box. From the Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 2017.
A rare first printing of Dungeons & Dragons, on display at the 50th anniversary Gen Con reception in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in 2017.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Tabletop role-playing games started out small — quite literally. Dungeons & Dragons’ “white box,” released in 1974, contained just three slim pamphlets printed on regular sheets of paper folded in half. None of them were more than 40 pages long, but they helped change gaming forever. In February, Kickstarter is using the limitations of that small format to help give birth to new tabletop RPGs and supplements for existing games.

The campaign is called Zine Quest, and in helping to bring dozens of new worlds to life, it’s also making the crowdfunding platform feel a little bit like walking through an old-timey game shop. The brain child of Kickstarter vice president and head of community Luke Crane, himself an old hand at publishing TTRPGs, Zine Quest has helped 360 zines get funded since 2019. There are already dozens up on the crowdfunding website this month, with even more on the way. Best of all, the price of a zine in 2020 is somewhere around $15. That means you can pick up three or more for less than the price of a single mainstream RPG book at retail.

Here are just a few of the new projects we’re interested in so far.

A Complicated Profession from Jason Price is a story about spacefaring bounty hunters who fall on hard times and have to earn a living by working on a cruise ship. Takuma Okada’s Stewpot: Tales from a Fantasy Tavern, which was among our contributors’ favorite games in 2020, served as inspiration. You can grab a digital copy for around $9.

Running with that space theme, we also stumbled upon Rebel Scum, an “explicitly Anti-Fascist, cinematic RPG about a war in the stars.” The art style is strongly influenced by old Kenner action figures, so if you have a box of old Star Wars toys hanging around the house, you already have the miniatures you need to get started. Published by 9th Level Games, it uses the lightweight Polymorph game system.

Cover art for Thursday by Eli Seitz shows people gathered on a rooftop at sunset. Image: Eli Seitz

The Drain is a new game by Ian Yusem that gives new life to the so-called “funnel” mechanic that was often implemented in early RPGs. To begin, each player at the table creates an entire party of low-level player characters (PCs). Then they put those characters through a meat grinder, killing them off one by one until only the strongest remain.

“If embraced,” Yusem writes, “a funnel becomes a contest to achieve the most spectacular PC death. Players and [game masters] bond in murderous collaboration, anxieties surrounding character death melting away. PCs become resources to throw at problems rather than precious things to be guarded. Campaign-spanning legends of heroic sacrifice and bitter survival begin here.”

If you enjoyed Netflix’s Russian Doll or have a soft spot in your heart for Groundhog Day, then you’ll probably want to check out Thursday RPG, a game about time loops.

“The story begins at 10:00 pm on a Thursday in the city and continues until one of the characters dies,” writes creator Eli Seitz, “triggering a cascade that returns everyone to their starting arrangements with the benefit of the knowledge they have gained.” Tzor Edery, an artist based in Jerusalem, will be handing the art.

Art showing three teens walking through the woods on a summer day. The sky is blue. One wears a backpack, another carries a map. They’re smiling. Image: momatoes

Two Summers is another game about altering time, but with an eye towards emotional flashbacks.

“As teenagers in the 1990s,” its characters are “living an unforgettable adventure,” writes creator Côme Martin. Later in life, now in their 50s, those same characters return to that setting, “realizing the adventure is not over.” The diceless game allows players to switch between the two timelines at will “to avoid slowing things down and giving a maximum of narrative freedom to everyone.”

Finally, Zine Quest isn’t all about entirely new games. It also includes supplements that can be used in 5th edition D&D, Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, or whatever other system you and your friends are most familiar with. Some are small and focused, even more so than the zine format might require. The Haunted Hamlet — and other hexes, for instance, zooms in on four discrete locations that could be plopped anywhere on a traditional hex-based world map. There’s also Isometric Blanks, a kind of Mad Libs-style zine where you’re presented with the shape of a dungeon and have to fill in the blanks to bring your own adventures to life.

Other supplements are so ambitious that they could easily be the foundation for an entire game system. My favorite so far is called The Power Words Engine, which promises to give players the tools they need to create magical spells from scratch. Lots of the content of this campaign is obscured, either out of a desire for secrecy or because the details haven’t been finalized yet. But, as someone who has only recently started playing a magic user in my own home games, it looks like a very interesting idea that could be applied to any setting imaginable.

Zine Quest campaigns have a lower price of entry, but they also tend to run for a shorter period of time. Many only run for a couple of weeks, at most. Expect new projects to spring up on Kickstarter all month long.