Goblinville is Your Next High Tech Low Tech Popcorn Game

A few weeks ago I got the coolest little surprise in the mail: a copy of Goblinville Gazette #1. It’s the first of four ‘zines, published as part of Kickstarter’s Zine Quest promotion, and contains the complete rules for a little fantasy game called Goblinville. Michael Dunn-O’Connor has started a small press game design shop called Narrative Dynamics Press to get Goblinville, and I assume other little games, out into the world.

Free stuff is neat, right? But this little book sat on my desk a while, mostly so I could smile at the little note he’d included (thanks again Michael!). I flipped through the first few very dense pages and couldn’t get any traction on it. But when I did, whoa.

Goblinville is a very clever mash-up of several of my favorite games. There’s a very strong thread of Blades in the Dark in defining position (good/normal/bad), you spread your pool of dice and evaluate them on boxed elements of your task a la Psi-Run, your bedraggled antiheroes shuttle back and forth between dungeons and Goblinville a la Torchbearer, grind through light and food and conditions on an oppressive action schedule (Torchbearer again), hexcrawling a la Forbidden Lands (and other OSR games) to get to the dungeon. It’s a best-of anthology of the best RPG tech of the past several years, sitting innocuously atop a trivial-looking OSR-adjacent dungeon delving game.

Get a load of this goober!

We slapped together three hapless goblins last night in about, oh, 15 minutes or so. Characters are just collections of three traits (two you give yourself, one the other players give you), a title (given by the other players based on your retelling of an important experience in your one-line backstory), a job (that gives you insight about something once per session) and some gear. It’s ultra-minimal. Want to generate some goblins? Check out their goblin generator.

Monsters are equally minimalist, just a string of “moves” they make that both slot into the “danger” hole in the Psi-Run-style dice grid, and get crossed out as they get damaged. There are literally no mechanical stats for anything anywhere, just descriptive tags. That means the game is a constant evaluation of fictional positioning: is this dangerous? Did they achieve what they wanted? What twist might I offer, Devil’s Bargain-style, to the player to take another die?

My initial impression is two-fold: The core of play comes together really well, and it’s a little loose and incomplete around the edges. Having experience with the game’s inspirations is a huge help, because it doesn’t do a great job of explaining just what you can achieve in a single die roll. Sometimes we felt pulled between a big-picture “conflict resolution” style roll and a small-picture “deal with what’s in front of you” approach.

The goblin dressing on the game is very cute. Characters just beg to be weird and gross and ironically named. As we were figuring out our holding environment, one player offered up “we’re a Wes Anderson style goblin family” and that works perfectly well. Everyone’s quirky and dysfunctional but still tied together across generations.

I have no sense of how long one might play Goblinville. The Town sheet you fill out reflects the few buildings in Goblinville that you can visit when you get back from adventuring. Our Goblinville is comprised of a Hen-Legged House, a Town Square, a Scrapyard, and a Tavern. It does not have a Market! And that means they can’t buy most of what they need when they head back out of town. There are a couple ways the town can grow: you can level up to a point where you can spend 40 “scratch” and simply open a shop up (assuming you can find a boss to run it), and you can modify existing buildings if you can find “keystones” that power them up. The game only lightly touches on either shop-opening or keystone-finding. I’m sure, if we played a dozen sessions, we’d settle on something. More rules about towns will appear in a future ‘zine.

Goblinville is going in my go-bag for convention play. It’s fast, lightweight, very silly, and ran well as a one-off. It feels like either a streamlined trindie game or a built-out “game poem.” It’s a good format and I hope other little games like this crop up.

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