DISCLOSURE: A copy of the PDF was provided by the author for the purpose of this review.
Over the past several years, I’ve been intrigued by the assortment of modern pen-and-paper role-playing games which favor speed and storytelling over hundreds of pages of rules. I thoroughly enjoyed Dungeon World and would happily return to it if I ever found a regular group to play it with me. Others I’ve explored have been the revised edition of Fate, and the charming, kid-friendly Dungeonteller and Adventure Maximus.
Goblin Quest, written by Grant Howitt, is a recently-published rules-lite RPG that casts its players as the hapless fodder of an army of evil. Its level of complexity places it closer to Risus or Kobolds Ate My Baby than it does Fate or Dungeon World. However, its approach to character longevity brings to mind another classic: Paranoia.
As in that game, Goblin Quest players control not a single character, but a clutch of five, functionally-identical duplicates that appear in sequence as their broodmates quickly meet with humorously gruesome death. According to the game’s fiction, the goblins are the lowest caste of warriors in a Great Battle Camp that certainly isn’t the Land of Mordor. They spawn rapidly because they must; their average life-span is a mere week. But in that short window, those goblins seek glory and foolishness, not necessarily in that order.
Goblin characters have a handful of attributes, which include an Honorific (or surname) for their brood, an Expertise (e.g. “Ganging Up on Things”) and a Quirk (“Covered in Stolen Hair”). Each clutch of duplicates has a shared Dream, and fortunately for them, their short life’s ambition is relatively simple. They also get an Ancestral Heirloom which has been passed down for generations…meaning that their great-great-grandgoblin probably found it a few weeks ago.
Oh, and two hit points.
Task resolution comes down to a simple roll of a six-sided die. A result of 1-2 is an Injury (mark off a hit point!); 3 is Something Bad (the next goblin to act gets -1 on its roll); 4 is Something Good (which grants a +1 instead); and 5-6 is a Victory. If one of your attributes might help in the situation, you can roll an extra die…but both dice count, meaning that victorious death is a not-unlikely outcome.
The storyline–which is intended to run its course in a single game session–is cooperatively defined by the players by asking each other what they want to do and what they’ll need to do it. Each quest is broken up into three tasks of increasing difficulty, each further broken into three stages. To complicate things, a party of dead-goblins-walking will face three pre-generated misfortunes while in pursuit of their goal.
And…that’s really the gist of it. Your intrepid goblin will die, to be instantly replaced by one of its fellows lurking just off-screen. With just enough cleverness and luck, you might see the quest through before you run out of fodder.
This scarcity of rules is mitigated by plenty of fun-to-read background fluff and lots of full-color art, but the real value of the PDF is still to come.
For one, the game includes contributions from a murderer’s row of RPG designers, including Rob Heinsoo, Ken Hite and Robin D. Laws. They provide story ideas, character concepts and “alternate misfortunes.”
The biggest bang for the buck is the second (and slightly-longer) half of the book, which features six rules hacks and one stand-alone minigame. They include:
- Kobold Quest – similar to the core game, but with kobolds combining forces to build a wacky contraption in hopes of fulfilling the decree of the Mighty Dragon King.
- My Name is Inigo Montoya, Jr. – a swashbuckling game of revenge, inspired by you-know-what.
- Sean Bean Quest – a wonderfully bizarre premise in which all of the players are actor Sean Bean attempting to survive one of his films and thus break a curse of infinite death.
- The Cthulhu Files – a serious, campaign-oriented spin which simulates the encroaching madness of the traditional Lovecraft game.
- Neither Super Nor Heroic – a group of inept supers brought together as a last resort against evil, whom generally make things even worse.
- Space Interns – think Redshirts.
- Regency Ladies – unrelated to the core rules, this is a bonus minigame of courtship in Jane Austen land.
This toolbox of ideas alone makes Goblin Quest well worth investigating, and the core rules themselves will please gamers who take perverse delight in playing easily-dispatched avatars.
You can purchase the PDF of Goblin Quest directly from the author a minimum price of $15.00, and you can also find it at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.