Broken System #000 (OSR)
The first issue of the Broken System-‘zine clocks in at 14 pages, with one page devoted to the front and back cover, one page blank, leaving us with 12 pages of content. However, we actually have twice that length in pages, i.e. 24. You see, each page of the pdf contains 2 pages of the ‘zine: If you print it, you can trim the white borders of the page, and then fold it up, making a little ‘zine DIY, without any hassle: Print the pages on both sides, fold them in the middle, trim the border, staple, done. It took me literally 5 minutes to do so, and I’m notoriously bad at anything even remotely related to crafting.
Anyhow, as far as rules are concerned, we have a pdf that subscribes to the “generic” brand of OSR, which here means that creatures get HD, the number of attacks, a damage value, and a number of creatures appearing. AC and movement is noted with analogues –“MOV: As pack animal”, for example. While this approach is notoriously bad for making crunch, i.e. intricate rules, it works here, considering the scope of the ‘zine. You see, each page of the ‘zine (half page of the pdf) is self-contained in a way, with all pertinent information contained on it. The title is program: The material does not necessarily seek to evoke a singular setting or genre-convention, instead providing what I’d think of as a fractured multiverse, shattered and reassembled. You can take the contents of individual pages and use them, or go for the totality, for it is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ‘zine that the “broken System”-world actually feels plausible in its disjointed manner.
For most groups, this will serve the function of a GM’s miscellanea, a means to add to the game, to jumpstart the imagination. You get the idea. But what can we find within the pages of this ‘zine?
Well, let’s take a look! And on first glance, you’ll witness something about the aesthetics here that makes this special: In many ways, this is depicted as true punk-aesthetic art, using public domain artwork and photography, grainy filters, and text assorted in blocks, in uncommon directions; the atmosphere evoked is one of a well-crafted collage in the tradition of 80s’ zines, but without compromising the functionality. If that art-punky aesthetic is not up your sleeve, it might still be worth checking out!
We begin with a page of typhlotic isles; singular lines tell us that d10 are nearby, d100 minutes by rowboat; a paragraph tells us of waters unstained by star or sun, locked below, isles calved from walls; an artwork is overlaid with the words “d8 * 50 meters across” and an isle has a 70% chance of once having been occupied, with only a 5% chance of current occupants; a table of 20 impressions of a dead culture and 8 materials of the isle complement this exciting backdrop generator, with a brief prose-paragraph, as an explorer’s log, adding a bit of flavor. On the opposite page,w e have the great tuber – a dangerous plant monster drifting in the wind, its leafy funnels draining ability stats and personality/intelligence from those touched – and yes, this includes a brief table of what the tuber drained recently. And yes, I consider them to be remarkably disturbing.
The special form of the layout and its use of text alignment is particularly interesting on the next page, where we have the Vertical Urban Habitat, a somewhat surreal skyscraper-like apartment complex, where star-crossed lovers communicate through candles, steppe warrior girls party on the roof, and the mail boxes are perpetually empty, but still checked. It has a disjointed sense that jumpstarted my imagination in thousands of ways, reminding me of the strange anachronistic fantasy/horror scenario of Pathologic HD. I love this, and I’d gladly pay for a whole setting that manages to capture this sense of foreboding symbolism and unease and strangeness.
The other page here presents a public domain artwork of a three-headed demon: “it comes to you, answering the summons. It does not speak but you know you must choose. You can choose one of the heads, or the items held in one hand – the claw of prey, though, leaves only dust. 4 entries are presented per named head and for the hand. The pdf then presents the tower, perpetually changing (d10 table provided), potentially taking you along; this did remind me very much of China Miéville’s writing in the best of ways. The opposite side depicts a lying spirit, who imitated a god, demanding sacrifice, and the priesthood listened. Now, only calcified skulljars and he spirit remain, with d8 sample lies provided.
What about the singing knives that never break, so long as they are spoken of with respect? They were more powerful back then, when the knives were sung from rock, but now, they are incensed, conjured from rock by war drum provocations. See, this is a good example: Mechanically, this is all but irrelevant: “wielder harder to hit” – yaw. The selling point here lies in the context, the association sparked. Less subtle would be the siege dragon, made and not bred, a thing of cannon and iron.
If you are infested by one of the foul spirits that abound, there are 6 quest-worthy ritual suggestions to purify the host. The Old Man Shade are roughly canine things, using their plumed tails to protect the litter on their backs, but with d8 individuals who want the tail, conflict is ascertained. The half-spirit Shuruppak, named for the Sumerian city, which was destroyed by the rebellion of spirits in this iteration; the entry comes with 8 spirits surviving in the codex and stats. Opposite to it, one can see the Dolmenwood-esque costume of the shaman, with their pyramidal head, and a d6-table of northern artifacts and their new uses; 6 spirits and spheres of influence help here, and much to my joy, you can cross-reference spirit and sphere on a table for a custom glyph.
Somewhat cryptic would be a page that talks of ghouls and their drumming, of territorial goblins and the inquisition, as well as of the fungus-infested king’s orders and the secret messages passed between inquisitors. The Dreamlusts of the Eastern magnate are more straightforward – artwork illustrates the trade, and a table the decadent pleasures he longs for tonight; this lone begs to be used for Yoon-Suin. As do the kidnap crabs, who come with a list of notable victims, a d8 table to determine what’s in their pods, 1d4 boons for their strange mother of pearls, and 1d4 benevolent parasites – the latter two being potential treasures found. Awesome. The Nilfenbergian Helmets are forced onto defeated people, demanding forevermore obedience at risk of permanent disfigurement, though rogue countertechnology has been known to be able to subvert the power of the helmets.
Downriver from everywhere are the ghoul fields, which use a gridded background to provide discernible context for the warning gongs, as the pdf notes that moods and commands are determined by food: Marrow, iron, fat…Protein fiends lurk…”more eyes and more hands than one would ever want to find in the wet clay on a night like this.” This inspired environment is faced by the Geostructure – with d8 rumored functions and d8 actual purposes, a more straight forward, but no less intriguing offering.
The Fog Barons presents a grid-laced field, with 4 factions and the fog; the fog is an anomaly and moves, territory in unclaimed,d8 determines fog-direction, and a matrix tells you how The Hunting Duke and Baron Solipsis get along. This is as minimalistic as can be, and yet really excited me. I’d want that as a fully developed setting/module/book. The mist-eel works rather well with it, once more sporting not only stats, but inspired prose as well. Further creatures include the burdened beast and the fiction raptors.
“If you dig up these bones, this is exactly what you must do…” comes with d8 What and d8 Whys – and they are inspiring. Did I mention the caged worlds, the 6 strange cages – and THE CAGE, which comes with a d12-table to determine “Why such a cage, so great and cruel?”
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout is very much ART, and shows what you can do with talent and an art-budget of zero; this ‘zine may be substance over style in many ways, but it is certainly stylish; I loved the presentation more than many vanilla rpg-supplements. The layout and artwork employed, including the whole presentation, is an example of an impressive way of using very minimalist descriptions and overall presentation to kick the imagination into high gear. The pdf has no bookmarks, which is a comfort-detriment for the pdf, but then again, you are supposed to assemble this yourself for the full experience of flipping through it.
Luke Gearing and Alex Chambers deliver perhaps one of the most inspiring ‘zines I have stumbled across in quite a while. In many ways, this managed to evoke the same sense of wonder and excitement I felt when I first read Deep Carbon Observatory. The precise use of words and art, the whole blending of form and function, is genuinely impressive. If this pdf doesn’t manage to inspire you in some way, shape or form, then I don’t know what to do. The ideas range from the weirdly symbolic that I adore to ideas that can be seamlessly plugged into more conventional campaigns for an infusion of strangeness. The one weakness of this ‘zine would be evident in the items, where the lack of commitment to a specific rules-set shows the limitations of the mechanical aspects, which otherwise take more of a backseat to the ideas.
Oh, and guess what? This is PWYW. This is certainly better than a whole array of ‘zines I have read; it inspired me to a huge degree, and made me smile ear to ear. This is worth leaving at least $3-6 for, though the official suggestion is a humble $0.00. I strongly recommend downloading this ‘zine, assembling it, reading it, and then leaving a donation for the authors. Much to my chagrin, this currently is the only issue of Broken System; I certainly hope I have not seen the last of this incredibly compelling and inspiring vision. 5 stars + seal of approval. Oh, and this gets my “best of…”-tag, denoting it as one of the finest ‘zines I’ve encountered.
You can get this fantastic, inspiring ‘zine for PWYW here on OBS!
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