Over at https://perplexingruins.blogspot.com/ I posted this review today.
One of the biggest pleasures about discovering tabletop gaming is the sheer amount of passionate effort and creativity on display. The DIY approach, the fear-not attitude, the GENEROSITY of the small gaming community is truly inspirational, motivating, and yes, hip.
Recently, I have encountered the work of a creator that clearly embodies these qualities. I am writing of designer Jason Tocci. The catalogue of material seems to demand my attention and perusal. There are small games like Grave and Exhumed, there’s the slim but full Troika!-based Aetherway, then Agents of the O.D.D., and most recently the 2400 modular series (plan to look into this series very soon). Prolific, interesting, good design.
But the subject of this review is the playtesting version of QZ: “A hack of Electric Bastionland and Into the Odd inspired by Roadside Picnic and Annihilation. ”
What! I have not read these books but have seen the films (Roadside Picnic was made into the film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky) and they offer some exciting opportunities for gaming! We shall read on.
Taken from the rear cover of this 73-page zine is the ominous and intriguing statement:
The Guard wants to control it.
The Lab want to understand it.
The Underground wants to profit off it.
You need to survive it.
Welcome to the Quarantine Zone.
The front cover offers a striking colorful image by artist BEEPLE of a foliage covered astronaut on a color field, all surrounded in black with elegant font. Readers will know that I have a strong draw to well designed covers. I find this highly important feature often gets lost in the DIY/Punk aesthetics. Sloppy does not always mean cool. Lack of clarity does not always mean brilliant. And let’s face it, Alvin Lustig and George Salter are famous for good reason. Moving along, this is a book you want to open based on covers alone – well done Mr. Tocci.
Table of Contents : The first thing one notices is length and breadth. A quick grab and go summation: Artifacts; Building the Town; Environment; Wasteland; Tunnels; Fungal Colony; Bonds; Lab Contacts; Wilderness Site Features; Tunnel Encounters.
This little thing has an awesome toolkit built in! This is significant. I want to come to the table to play, immerse, discover, enjoy, and the less resources needed at the table the better. This is a sweet spot situation, in which as a solo player, I largely want a game, an oracle, and maybe one other resource for building. I also don’t necessarily want a 300 page tome that requires constant flipping. The author actually uses the term “Toy Box.” In the beginning of the book there is a nice layout of how-to-use thoughts and philosophy. He calls it a “Cookbook” with ingredients and procedures. This can be a sandbox, a one-shot, a campaign, a conversation, a social gathering. (Herein shines the socio-generosio of what I have seen in the tabletop scene, a much-needed mental attitude of connectivity in the unfortunate dispersion-bubble we mostly find ourselves these days.)
Rules: Based on Electric Bastionland. Three stats, D20 roll on/under, roll attack weapon, subtract armor score, simple advancement rules. Most have seen these before, so will leave it there. Rest assured, if you are not familiar, just about anyone can learn these quickly and play.
Characters: You and/or your friends are building a team to enter the Quarantine Zone. You can choose Scientists, Soldiers or Scavengers. Teams is an interesting idea. The book encourages players to consider what is their aim. Are you: Authorized Expedition, Unauthorized Espedition, Zoner Team. Then, maybe roll a d20 Bonds table to see the links between PCs.
The next step offers the depth component of a character. Depending on what “class” is chosen, there is a roll mechanic that determines special skillsets. Anthropology, Earth Sciences, Missile Gunner, Medic, Scout, or there is a d100 table of other skills. You will generate a personal contact (good for narrative) and possibly a Compulsion (d20 table to generate character narrative). For Hit Points roll d6. If a 1 is rolled, the character can be compensated for weakness with a roll on the Alterations table (mutated abilities).
The Rest: Okay, the whole rest of the book is tools and tables for generating the world and interactions!
The game is built on the concept of towns that border the QZ (adventure site, dungeon, plane, X, Y, Z). The next multiple pages are tables dedicated to helping the GM build these towns. Rumors, Features, Specific Sites. These can create much for a party to do just in town! Then generate Lab Contacts, which are forms of “quest givers” and narrative drivers. The Guard, the militarized version of the Lab is an option. Finally, The Underground, a privatized version of the Lab and Guard. All these possibilities should give the GM many, many routes for motivating their players’ adventures! It is a cool and simple idea. Some of these function as retrieval quests, some are narrative driven quirky NPC requests. They all serve the purpose of unifying worldbuilding to play motivation. And there are so many to choose from!
After this comes many pages for developing the QZ. Wilderness, City, Wasteland, Tunnel. All loaded with features, encounters, built in creatures with stats. There is not a bestiary, really, but encounters that may include creatures. This is nice, because, as stated in the front of the book, it increases practical modular use (less flipping is more). Monsters would be easy enough to port in.
Finale: The book then ends with four adventure prompts. They are short one-page affairs. No maps, but find Hooks, Threats, People, Items. Elegant layout of material to generate some quest material.
With a nice and simple character sheet in hand, time to discover the QZ.
This book by Jason Tocci is and looks awesome. Which brings up another point. Throughout are many full-page pieces of enigmatic, totally appropriate art by BEEPLE for this book which can serve up some excellent inspiration for ideas. Add to the experience countless wasteland resources and imagery from films like Stalker and Annihilation, or music from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and it seems this could emerge as a real favorite. This is the playtest version, so after editing I can only imagine how cool this product will be. It occurs to me that so many of the great modular components of Mothership could be ported to this really nicely. Derelict ship crashed in the QZ; Drugs; Cybernetics; Black Market stuff.
Jason Tocci has created a neat game. It seems appropriate considering current circumstances. It has the awful realism of what could very well become our world, it is not “hey look we all live in space now,” its not another swords and wizards, and it tones down the comic style mutant element. And yet, add features from any of those elements and it just may well fit here! I printed mine out in black and white, but I really hope a POD version of this comes out to take full advantage of the art and texture of the whole package.
*this is not a play review but a first impression look at the book
Find game at: https://jasontocci.itch.io/qz