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Zine Quest 4: Tiny indie games about outlaws, outer space, and an animal drag race

More short-form tabletop role-playing games from the premier online festival

This year’s Zine Quest has been a contentious one. Founded in 2018, the annual celebration of small-format tabletop role-playing games traditionally takes place each February, helping independent game designers kick off the year with a little cash on hand. This year the hosts at Kickstarter elected to place the event in August instead to better line up with Gen Con. Designers were not happy, with many jumping ship altogether in favor of Zine Month. Consequently, Zine Quest 4 has been a comparatively subdued affair. But while there aren’t as many projects filling the associated tag, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some bangers in the mix.

One of the best things about Zine Quest, whatever and wherever its iteration, is seeing relatively unknown artists come out of the gates with a killer idea that fits the small-book format and two-week funding period perfectly. We’ve selected some standout RPGs, adventures and supplements from the current entries that carry the torch high.

1400 Lo-Fi Hi-Fantasy

A two-page spread, blurred so you can’t read it. Image: James Lennox-Gordon

One of the largely hidden gems of the indie RPG scene is Jason Tocci’s 24XX system, a modular ruleset that the designer has massaged over dozens of genres and story structures. 1400 Lo-Fi Hi-Fantasy follows suit by packaging five micro-games all designed to a low-fidelity, high-fantasy setting — exactly as it says on the tin.

These five tiny games from designer James Lennox-Gordon have been available digitally for a minute, but this is the first opportunity for players to grab them bundled together in a physical zine. Quest is about as classic D&D adventure as you get, while Planes leans into a more interstellar fantasy. Sneak and Mage aim to replicate their respective classes’ experiences in a contained game, and Below delves into dungeons both dark and dangerous. All five can be easily plugged into each other in any combination (along with other 24XX titles), and instructions and aids will be included in the zine.

Ball of the Wild

What if RuPaul’s Drag Race took place in the Amazon jungle? Take Dragula (the Boulet Brothers’ show, not the Rob Zombie joint) but fill it with the denizens of a zoo. That’s the essential premise of Ball of the Wild, a collaborative storytelling RPG where everyone plays as animals dressing up as other animals. Designers Nat Mesnard and Adriel Wilson are not shy about the title’s inspirations and describe the experience of play as embracing silly performances that ultimately allow our true selves to take center stage.

Players alternate between animals, the judge, and Mother Nature, who awards prizes to the top performances in a number of categories. Since it uses the Polymorph system, each player will take one die from a standard array as their only tool for rolling throughout the game. Each die comes with its own role and rules that determine success and failure, but everything is geared toward improvisational play and emergent narrative. Ball of the Wild is adamantly queer and celebratory of loud, public gender performance — whether that matches or deviates from the daily lives of these animals — with a simple but clever metaphor providing set dressing.

Flying Ostriches & Floating Castles

Two men on improbably ostriches engage in armed combat among the clouds. A trio of bridged minarets rises in the background. Image: Jeff Williams

It’s not every day you see a competitive RPG. It’s less often one crops up with such a wonderfully silly name and premise as Flying Ostriches & Floating Castles. This RPG can be played solo or as a PvP game where players are knights straddling flying ostriches and holding jousting matches among the clouds. Its rules are derived from Melsonian Arts Council’s Troika!, but doesn’t require that book to hit the table.

Players can explore an overarching narrative regarding the cloud castles and their enigmatic builders, the giants, or they can simply hop across the procedurally generated hexagon-tile map to search for mountaintop treasure and dismount enemy ostrich knights. Character building and combat is kept simple so that Flying Ostriches & Floating Castles remains a lightweight experience, but there are plenty of additional systems — including a castle exploration game-within-a-game — if players want to fully embrace an evening of ridiculous role-play.

Notorious

A bounty hunter lands on a dust-swept planet, all alone save a trusty weapon at their side. They have a name, a species, and their target’s supposed crimes with which to track them down. The nearby townsfolk’ll know more, but they don’t trust interlopers — armed interlopers even less. Bounty hunters bring trouble, noise, and death, no matter what that supposed Nomad’s Code dictates. The bounty hunter will need to work — or pay — their way into the town’s good graces to find their target. Catching the scum and villainy of the galaxy isn’t the hard part, it’s making sure they aren’t pulled down into the muck along the way.

Notorious is a solo tabletop RPG where players embody interstellar bounty hunters known as Nomads. Sessions play out as above — track down a target using minimal information on one of six planets before ultimately deciding the outlaw’s fate. Two six-sided dice comprise all of the game’s checks and skill rolls, and session lengths are largely up to the player. Notorious allows ample opportunity to indulge in world-building through journal entries. Players choose from one of six different Nomads, each with their own combat strengths, as the central figure of a story that’s equal parts Star Wars, Cowboy Bebop, and Blade Runner.

One Breath Left

The past couple of years has produced a bumper crop of indie RPGs for lovers of confined quarters and the pitch-dark vacuum of space. One Breath Left, the debut game from designer Ian Howard, fits snugly in that paradigm with its stories of a solo survival aboard derelict and abandoned space vessels full of mystery and danger. As contracted Explorers, players must comb the ship for useful tools, hints at what exactly happened, and ultimately for the ship’s manifest. All the while their oxygen supply is ticking down, putting a finite clock on their expedition into the dark and dangerous unknown.

A deck of room cards will randomly generate the layout of a given Wreck, and every action costs oxygen levels. Players encounter perils along the way and ultimately have to decide if pushing forward is worth the risk of running out of breathable air… or worse. In between sessions, their pay can be used to fulfill desires and ultimately purchase a way out of this dangerous line of work. One Breath Left’s book emulates technical manuals from the 1950s and ’60s, giving the whole game a feeling of chunky and perhaps unreliable tech that might fail at the worst possible moment.

This Ship Is a Tomb

Adventure modules are a mainstay of Zine Quest, especially for popular systems such as Mothership. This Ship Is a Tomb sets itself apart by touting a procedurally generated, possibly demonic colony vessel that players will build as they explore. Groups board the Advent Dawn to discover what happened to the massive craft’s mission to distant stars. Its experimental drive allowed it to slip into the spaces between dimensions in order to cut down on travel time, but it seems something sinister and wholly alien came out the other side with it.

The book’s 72 pages will detail over 20 locations, dozens of unique monsters and threats, and plenty of twists on both as the Advent Dawn morphs around the group. Imagine Event Horizon’s preoccupation with occult horrors lurking in the quiet stretches of space combined with a classic dungeon crawl where the players will struggle to keep their wits handy and their eyes sharp. It’s a perfect fit for Mothership’s panic mechanics and already looming sense of dread.

Under the Autumn Strangely

I’m over this interminably hot summer and long for the season of falling leaves, crisp cider, and a chill wind heralding the spooky season. This transitional period is a time for stories that remind us of necessary decay and the bitter aftertaste of life’s joys, and Under the Autumn Strangely looks to capture that exact tone. Graham Gentz’s “game of pastoral horror” for a group of shared storytellers draws heavily on the animated series Over the Garden Wall and embraces the contradictions of cozy ghost stories.

Players will alternate between the role of the Traveler, who narrates the characters passing through the liminal landscape of the Never Was; the Arcadian, who embodies the land itself and its many strange inhabitants; and the Terror, who is both the evil threat looming in the shadows and also its influence and calling cards. Each role can interact with the other two in set ways, affirming, contradicting, or augmenting the story as it moves forward. This push and pull creates a conversation and, hopefully, births a story rife with both spine tingles and heartwarming moments.

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