This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.
Yes, it’s time for another Kickstopper, and yes it’s another gaming-related one because the tabletop RPG market has latched onto Kickstopper like an orphaned duckling imprinting on a new mother who poops money. This time, unlike my White Wolf-related articles, the subject matter isn’t so much an ambitious, fat book designed to serve an existing fandom, so much as it is a little book offering up a brand-new little game about playing cheeky little goblins.
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
Goblin Quest is a light-hearted comedy RPG designed by Grant Howitt. The basic idea is that you play endearingly incompetent little goblins on a quest – hence the title – and have fun seeing what sort of hijinks they get up to.
This is a simple concept, and to his credit Howitt doesn’t succumb to the temptation that often seems to strike Kickstarter project creators to overcomplicate things, even in the face of success. Grant only asked for £2000 to get the project done; as it panned out, he raised over £24,000. Many projects when faced with that level of success get caught up in a wild spree of overpromising, tacking on all sorts of additional stretch goals which make the process of actually delivering the goods far more complex than it would otherwise have been. Conversely, here the stretch goals almost all revolved around adding little bits of content to the main book – some took the form of guest contributions from various writers, artists, and game designers who agreed to pitch in a little something (but nothing so extensive that Grant would find himself hostage to them getting around to finishing the contributions in question), whilst other additions constituted Grant-penned “rules hacks” intended to reskin and modify the Goblin Quest rules to apply them to different game concepts, which obviously constitute a more involved project; importantly, though, none of them added new physical doodads or baubles which Howitt would have had to produce in conjunction with the main product, so beyond co-ordinating the various additions to the book Howitt wasn’t creating a teetering pile of extra work for himself. Just about the only stretch goal which wasn’t an addition to the main book was Grant and his wife Mary Hamilton producing a Twine adventure based on Goblin Quest.
What Level I Backed At
DELUXE HARDBACK. You’ll receive a SUPER-NICE high-quality hardback edition of the full game (and all rules-hacks), a PDF, and all the digital goodies from the SPECIAL EDITION level. I’ll stick your name up on my wall, but also in the book, to say thanks. (Please add £3 to ship outside of the UK or USA.)
Delivering the Goods
The delivery process endured three major hiccups. The first was that Grant spent much of it relocating, zooting off to live in New York for a few months before returning to the UK. This was a process which was disruptive even considering the extent to which it is possible these days to use print-on-demand companies to print and dispatch books; in particular, Grant found that he had to apply for a work permit to work on Goblin Quest whilst in the US, which added a bureaucratic delay to completion.
The second issue was that it took a good long while to get a proof from the printer that Grant was happy with; in particular, getting the cover properly aligned on the hardback turned out to be a royal pain.
The final major problem was that Grant was under the impression that the printers would offer fulfillment – shipping each individual book off to its destined address – but this wasn’t actually the case, forcing him to waste a lot of time finding an alternate solution, not least because (according to him) his contact at the printers was rather slow about responding to queries.
These issues affected delivery of the physical book far more than they did the PDF version. The PDF was originally due out in February 2015 and came out in April 2015, which given the permit issues isn’t that bad of a delay. The print books were originally listed as also coming out in February 2015; I didn’t get mine until January 2016. This delay was unfortunate but ultimately not as big of a deal as it might have been had we not received the PDF copies the previous Spring; we at least had the reassurance of knowing that there was a finished game and being able to read and play it from the PDF, so it was easier to trust that our print copies would come in the fullness of time.
Reviewing the Swag
Quirky little RPGs produced by small presses and independent publisher-designers are as old as the industry; Dungeons & Dragons itself began as a small press offering, early publisher Fantasy Games Unlimited put out a range of crucial early RPGs by soliciting and printing game ideas by solo developers, and amateur press offerings emerged early on in the fandom. The combination of the rise of the Internet, the increasing viability of using PDFs (especially in conjunction with tablets) at the gaming table, and the increasing user-friendliness of print-on-demand outfits like Lulu and Lightning Source have all made it more and more viable for game designers to self-publish their own work.
Whilst it is perfectly viable to produce an absolutely traditional RPG in an independent, creator-owned fashion, in almost all cases there is no point doing so. Maybe, just maybe, you have managed to reinvent the wheel in such a way that you think your system does traditional fantasy RPG stuff way better than Dungeons & Dragons does (or does Lovecraftian horror better than Call of Cthulhu, or Anne Rice vampires better than World of Darkness, or whatever), but even if you are correct, it’s one thing to put out a better system, and it’s another thing to put out a comparable amount of support material, attain the same level of buzz, and cultivate the same network of players that established mainstream RPGs have.
As such, small press indie RPG materials in recent years have tended to come in two major types. One type involves putting new spins on existing games – often those which through the Open Gaming Licence or some similar arrangement allow third-party supplements to be produced for them – in order to take advantage of the fact that the games in question have an existing audience who are already familiar with and enjoy the systems in question, and also a backlog of compatible support material. For instance, through his Sine Nomine self-publishing label Kevin Crawford has put out a range of games like Stars Without Number which take the simple rules of earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons and apply them to other genres and styles of game.
The other stream involves games which deliberately seek to depart from the traditional model of how a tabletop RPG is supposed to work. Whereas traditional RPGs are set up with at least some notion of using them for an ongoing campaign over the course of multiple sessions, some indie games are intended to be set up and played in a single session (and some others, even if they are not intended that way, end up working much better if you run them like that). The division of duties and powers between gamemasters/referees and players are often changed or even eliminated in such games, and on a similar level the assumption that the players are going to be exploring a world whose parameters are set beforehand by the game designer or referee rather than inventing details of the game setting as part of play can be questioned as well.
Many such games offer systems that focus less on providing a rigorous tactical challenge or modelling characters based on their skills and expertise and instead attempt to support the collaborative telling of particular kinds of stories, and model characters based on how they fit into the story. Some games go so far as to abandon the idea that each of the players has exclusive control of at least one player character, and instead present systems where players communally control a character, or whether there’s no identification between player and character at all and all the characters in the game setting are available for anyone to tinker with. Once you get far enough down this sort of route, you end up hitting games which tend to describe themselves as “story games” instead of “role-playing games”, because they’ve pivoted away from the idea of rooting the game in the act of playing a distinctive role altogether.
Goblin Quest takes its thematic inspiration from traditional RPGs (it describes itself as a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Paranoia), but in execution is very much a quirky indie RPG parlour game rather than a more traditional offering. It isn’t quite as radical in its departure from the traditional model of play as some indie RPGs, but it is getting there: the participation of a gamemaster/referee is completely optional, the system is set up to handle games that can be resolved in a couple of hours, and the system is sufficiently simple that running a highly tactical challenge in-game is outright impossible.
Goblins come in clutches of five; you only play one goblin at a time, but (in a concept borrowed from Paranoia) they have a handy set of near-identical backups, so between that and the short-term scope of the game there’s no need to feel too protective of them and you may as well enjoy getting them killed in imaginative ways – much is made in the text of how goblins have a one week lifespan to encourage this.
The character creation system is extremely simple, mostly involving identifying a few distinguishing features of your clutch such as what their dreams are in life and what particular thing they are marginally less incompetent at than other goblins. Once that is done, there is a collaborative process where everyone communally designs the quest the goblins are about to go on – not in niggling specifics, but in broad brushstrokes. Specifically, you pick an overarching goal, you break it down into three steps to the goal in question, you break those steps down into three sub-tasks, you distribute some random complications and then you assign points values to each of the sub-tasks as directed by the rules. (You don’t have to follow this model if you do not want to – it’s viable for one person to just plan out the adventure ahead of time themselves, especially if they are going to gamemaster it – but the game is made more suitable for spontaneous play by the inclusion of this system.)
Once play proper begins, the player character goblins take it in turns to take actions to try and tackle the first of the nine tasks on the list. As mentioned, each task has a score associated with it; this is the number of victory points the group needs to earn to complete that task. When it’s your turn, you describe what your goblin is doing and roll six-sided dice – at least one, sometimes more if your goblin’s skills or circumstances give them an edge. Each die that rolls high either directly gives you a victory point or gives you an edge which will help generate victory points on subsequent rolls; each die that rolls low will either hamper future rolls or unleash bad consequences immediately. (If you roll multiple dice, all of them take effect.) Once you have rolled, you describe what happens (potentially in collaboration with the gamemaster, if there is one), and then someone else takes a go. When describing your action and its consequences you are free to come up with setting-appropriate details to aid you in your descriptions as you wish – for instance, it might not have been specified that the two orc guards you are trying to get past are playing cards, but you can decide that they are if that doesn’t contradict what has already been established in other people’s turns. Once the goblins have completed all their tasks, the quest is won. If all of your goblins die, you get to play helpful NPCs instead; if all the player character goblins die, the quest ends in shambolic failure.
This whole “take turns to roll until you get enough successes” schtick remind me a lot of the game mechanics for skill challenges in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. This was a troubled game mechanic in a controversial version of the game; as originally presented in the initial release, it was flat-out broken (to the extent that supposedly easier challenges were actually easier to fail than harder ones), and despite extensive and numerous rounds of errata the designers never quite got them working right – the concept is entirely absent in 5th Edition, and in my experience even gamers who dig 4th Edition’s highly divergent take on D&D generally agree that skill challenges were a big mess.
The major problem with skill challenges in D&D was that they were this odd little subsystem that was mostly divorced from the rest of the game and didn’t really draw on its strengths. Those who enioy 4E prize it for providing a balanced and nuanced tactical combat experience that works great with miniatures; skill challenges are a mostly abstract process of resolving tricky non-combat situations demanding co-operation between characters, with no real tactics beyond “pick a skill you can justify using to resolve the situation and roll it”. The whole setup was a weird afterthought (I seem to remember someone at Wizards of the Coast admitting that they cooked up the system at the last minute and didn’t have much of a chance to properly test it), and felt like it was tacked on solely to provide a bit more meat on the bone as far as non-combat stuff was concerned.
Goblin Quest salvages the mechanic by cutting it out of its original context, giving it a polish, and then constructing a new game around it. As it turns out, a game mechanic which was pretty lousy for the purposes of providing a compelling challenge in a game very focused on interesting game mechanical challenges works out quite well as a platform for improvised storytelling on the theme of silly goblins trying to enact a goofy plan. The aspect of D&D skill challenges where they fail if you fail too many rolls is absent, which takes out a frustrating aspect of the original system (and one which inadvertently encouraged groups to exclude characters who lacked applicable skills from participating) and aids the comedy by dint of the fact that there’s no limit to how deep a hole the goblins can get themselves into. Allowing everyone to roll one die and adding extra dice if they have special advantages, and having each die potentially yield victory or disaster, means that even someone just rolling a dice has a meaningful chance of contributing something useful, and even those rolling a bunch of dice could end up with mixed results (or a huge disaster!), which is more interesting than the binary pass/fail results possible in 4E skill challenges.
Moreover, the “everyone takes turns to do a thing” aspect of skill challenges works nicely as a means of sharing out narrative responsibility when it comes to declaring what your goblin is doing, adding stuff to the setting, and describing the results of your actions. Some games focused on shared storytelling make control of the story into a kind of competition, but Goblin Quest isn’t into that, sharing the spotlight evenly by default but allowing the group to deviate from that distribution as they see fit.
Indeed, one of the nice things about the system is that it is genuinely capable of being run with or without a gamemaster as the group sees fit; the major distinction is that in a gamemastered session the group is likely to delegate a certain amount of decision-making about the world and/or the results of actions, and tracking of the rules, to the gamemaster. (Exactly how much will depend largely on the preferences of the participants.)
Not only does the book provide a section discussing this, but it also provides alternate options for distributing responsibilities from the traditional player-gamemaster split. For instance, instead of (or in addition to) a gamemaster you can have a “facilitator”, who is tasked with explaining the rules to others and helping set the game up but participates in the same way as everyone else as far as gameplay goes. This is an idea I have seen in other indie RPGs – Fiasco does it, for instance – and in general I think is a particularly good idea for Goblin Quest.
Many RPGs seem to be written with the assumption that every player in a game will buy a copy of the rulebook and read it to understand the rules, but in my experience this is rare in practice. The games which get the most successful play are those where not having read the book is not much of a barrier to participating in the game. As far as traditional RPGs go, this is usually viable – if nothing else, a complete novice can fall back on the good ol’ “you tell the gamemaster in plain English what you want to do, the gamemaster tells you what system bits you need to have and what rolls you need to make to do that” approach. However, in indie RPGs and story games, this level of detachment from the rules is often less viable; since they often devolve gamemastering responsibilities among the players, they often assume each player has a level of understanding of the system commensurate with that, and when the position of gamemaster is abolished outright there’s no one specific person whose responsibility it is to explain the system to you, which often leads to either a paucity of advice being offered or a confused mess of different interpretations of the system being offered. Having a facilitator onboard greatly helps with that.
I playtested the game by gamemastering a session, and found it reasonably easy to teach to people who didn’t have the book to hand. One thing I noticed about the system in playtesting is the way penalties and bonuses often end up persisting between rolls means that the goblins can be a bit prone to runs of good or bad luck; sometimes when they’re lucky, they’re really lucky, and sometimes they just can’t get a break until someone finally makes a roll that clears the black cloud that’s come over them and restored equilibrium.
The setting offered is a fairly simple one – the forces of darkness have a big army that masses in the Great Battle Camp and periodically heads out to fight the forces of light, the wizards who rule the Great Battle Camp invented goblins as a source of cheap, disposable slave labour and cheap troops, goblins who don’t die on quests get killed within a week by heading out to battle, between that and a few notes on the wizards and other baddies who the goblins are likely to interact with in the vicinity of the camp that’s about it. The setting is nicely pitched so that it has just enough details to provide a foundation for making stuff up whilst not constraining things so tightly that your improvised details keep contradicting things.
One useful thing provided with the setting is a simple-but-funny map of the Camp, which provides just enough detail to be a really handy aid to creativity. During the playtest, at one point the goblins needed to obtain some dragon repellant in order to infiltrate the wizards’ tower to pilfer their store of delicious brains; one player noted that the bugbears who act as the Camp’s main spies have a dog kennel, and so decided to collect the smelliest and most offensive dog poo in the kennels to repel the dragon with – a juvenile and mildly disgusting plan, and so one eminently suitable to goblins.
This, in turn, provides a nice example of how the game’s tendency towards sudden reversals of fortune and the randomly-seeded complications can help the group take a player’s idea and go crazy with it – since some sort of magical accident was due in the turn that the dog poo was being collected, I decided that this would take the form of the poops animating, growing little fecal legs and tails and running around and barking like the dogs that produced them. This in turn led to the dragon being chased around the wizards’ dungeon maze by the magical poop-dogs, like some sort of crazed scatological take on Pac-Man. Likewise, one of the complications rolled for during the quest planning stage mandated that the goblins should be outwitted by super-intelligent rats; since the goblins were going for the classic “stand on each other’s shoulders and wear a big coat” school of disguise for infiltrating the wizards’ tower, I decided to have the rats show up wearing a similar disguise.
This sort of one-upmanship is the basis of how the game’s comedy works in practice: you’re not only encouraged to come up with funny, out-of-left-field contributions appropriate to the task at hand, but the combination of the random complications and the way the dice rolling system can make a cunning idea fall apart abruptly or make a silly idea succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams means that you often take a basic joke and send it beyond the surreal event horizon to return in a mutated and, often, funnier form. Poop is kind of funny, but magical poop-dogs chasing a dragon is amazingly funny.
As far as the stretch goal content goes, it’s all quite handy. The dozens of quest ideas offered by various contributors range from short paragraphs to the superbly laconic “What can we do with all this poo?”, and the rules hacks are entertainingly imaginative – they include concepts where you play kobolds enacting a very goblin-like plan but specifically building a wacky machine to accomplish it, one where you are Star Trek-style redshirts trying to survive an away mission, one where you are regency ladies out to bag a husband, one where you are playing Sean Beans seeking the legendary movie that at least one Sean Bean may survive in, and so on.
The overall package is a parlour game RPG that I find I enjoy much more than typical indie RPGs; most especially, it doesn’t have any pretension of yielding rewarding stories of some deep inherent worth, or teaching you what it was really like to be a child soldier in the Warsaw Uprising (yes, one indie RPG – Grey Ranks – really did try this, though I suspect even with the best intentions it can only really shine a light on the personal preconceptions of what being a partisan was like you, the group, and the designer hold and if you are really interested in the subject doing some research and reading some first-hand accounts is the way to go). It doesn’t claim to offer anything more than a couple of hours of silly fun, and more or less delivers on that.
That Twine Game
So, when I was preparing this article I got in touch with Grant to see what was happening with this, since I couldn’t find any mention of it in the updates. As it turned out, he’d forgotten about it – as had everyone else, since I was the first person to even ask about it. (In all fairness, I’d forgotten about it too – I only remembered it existed when I checked the Kickstarter page.)
On the other hand, it’s a free game which will eventually be available to everyone. I may post a comment here when it comes out, but based on Goblin Quest itself I predict that it’ll probably be worth at least one playthrough if Grant can bring comedy writing of the calibre of the rulebook to the table.
I have no qualms about being listed as one of the people making this pocket-sized bout of silliness possible.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
On balance, I reckon I got this one Just Right; Goblin Quest is successful enough that I count it as one of the few indie RPG parlour games that I’m particularly glad to own in print.
Would Back Again?
I would definitely consider backing another one of Grant’s projects in the future. The reason I’m not giving an unequivocal “yes” is that he currently has a project running that I have already consciously chosen not to back.
But that said, my decision not to back is based on looking at Unbound and deciding that I’m not keen on it. And I probably gave it a closer look than I otherwise would have if Grant hadn’t been involved, and I’m reasonably sure most of those who do back it are going to be happy with the result.
There’s always been a bit of a disparity in the indie RPG scene between light-hearted, silly parlour games and a brand of artsier games that attempt to provide a deeper and more meaningful experience using a similar page count and depth of design. The latter I can take or leave, but the former are great fun to have onhand, and Goblin Quest is a great example of that type. I can only hope more indie RPG designers follow suit.