As with any creative medium, some of the most exciting new elements of tabletop role-playing come from experimentation. Once you’ve wriggled free from the bonds of Dungeons & Dragons, you’re able to better observe its smaller designers — the mad scientists and provocateurs working to push the form to see what they can do, or even just get away with. Each year, Zine Month is the perfect outlet for this community of creatives to let their freak flags fly, whether it be through Kickstarter’s Zine Quest or Crowdfundr’s Tabletop Nonstop.
The TTRPG zines of 2023 were incredibly diverse, featuring everything from whole games to 5th edition hacks and even to a few titles aimed squarely at children. But there were a few that really stood out, projects that tried to challenge not just players, but the very idea of what a tabletop RPG could be.
Expect these and other games inspired by Zine Month to reach backers throughout the balance of the year.
My Mother’s Kitchen
Tarot-based solo games are a big part of Zine Month and the itch.io design scene, but My Mother’s Kitchen by Fleet Detrik uses recipes to turn the tarot around a bit. You’re playing as a spirit in possession of a cookbook who’s trying to use written recipes to help recover lost memories.
In My Mother’s Kitchen, role-playing is as much about creating memory as it is fulfilling it. The drawn tarot cards help fill out the family tree and represent the people who will actually be doing the cooking. They also give players the ghostly power to help influence the success or failure of the larger family. Detrik said they designed the game to help come to terms with the helplessness they felt as their grandmother’s health declined due to age and took a turn for the worse, and how cooking helped them cope with it.
Border Riding is a collaborative history-building game that takes place in a small village, a rural place that exists near a border between two countries. The game was inspired by designer Jo Reid’s childhood growing up in the Scottish Borders, but it doesn’t need to be set in Scotland. As a group, players will chart the history of that town through the years, responding to events and examining questions of inclusion, xenophobia, and the way time affects communities. Players must grapple with determining who is “us,” who is “them,” and how and why those kinds of distinctions are even made. It all takes place on a large, hand-drawn, opaque map, with each new map stacking atop another to reflect changes over time. The instructions are even map-shaped, meaning you can fold it all up for later.
Strictly Between Us
Eli Seitz and Kristen Dabney’s Strictly Between Us is a live-action role-play for up to 20 players that uses blues dancing to examine a relationship. Players act out two narratives, Together and Apart, representing the start of a new relationship and the end of one. The dancing is quite literal, and rather than being just an action, the dancing is instead used to help players express emotions and feelings in a way that’s quite the departure from other games. It even has its own curated playlist to maximize the effect.
Taking inspiration from such easy-viewing films as The Human Centipede and Boxing Helena, Samuel Mui’s Horse Girl is a deeply disturbing concept for a game. In this solo TTRPG you play as a woman moving in with your “dream man,” wealthy and handsome, and having your own room in his mansion. The caveat? You must be turned into a horse. The game uses the slow, surgical transformation into a horse to examine the loss of self caused by systematic abuse. Many of the usual objects for solo journaling games are here (a deck of cards, a die, etc.), but one object sticks out: a red marker for drawing on your own skin.
Psychic Trash Detectives
You see a lot of found objects used during Zine Month. Coins, sentimental pictures, bones. Brigitte Winter’s Psychic Trash Detectives asks what you could do with something we all have but probably don’t think to touch: trash. Orange peels, empty cans, wadded-up tissues. You play as any number of trash-loving critters with a psychic connection to garbage, and the different visions that shape the story all use the trash to form connections: sketching the trash, writing poetry on or with the trash, or forming a memory of the trash. Anything can set up some improvisation, so why not make it a little trashy?