Interview: The Demon Collective, a ZineQuest kickstarter

I was super excited this week to interview DM David Shugars, the lead on a new kickstarter project. The Demon Collective is a set of four horror mobiles, served up old school zine format, and created by a team of LGBT+ writers, artists and designers.

The project has already been backed to completion, but there are stretch goals left to fill, and eight days to go. I got to chat to David about some of his creative process, favourite RPGs and the state of LGBT representation in RPGs today.

How did the team behind the Demon Collective meet?

The Demon Collective (and GMDK as a whole) evolved pretty naturally from a Discord server hosted by Mabel Harper. Officially billed as a place for us to work on a big project together, that quickly fell to the wayside and it became a place for a bunch of queer game designers to hang out and talk shop. These were the people who pushed me into publishing, and I knew GMDK’s first project had to include them in a big way.

What are the team member’s favourite RPG systems?

Comrade Pollux is a big Warhammer Fantasy fan, but doesn’t have as much patience for such a crunchy system these days. I think Mabel Harper has probably played more 1st ed New World of Darkness than anyone on Earth. Camilla runs a lot of 5e, because it’s where the players are, but has recently fallen in love with Mothership due to its ease-of-use and quick character creation.

I’m an evangelist for Whitehack, which I find to be the perfect marriage of old-school and freeform rules. It’s one of the few RPG systems I think I can run without changing a single rule. I even tore my copy apart and hole-punched it so I could stick it in my game notebook:

What comparisons do you think people will draw when they play the Demon Collective?

I suppose that would depend upon the module! Each of us is bringing something different to the table: these were all developed independently, with the only real instruction being “a short, system-neutral horror adventure.” We’ve got a talented editor to make sure everything is mechanically cohesive, but aside from that, they couldn’t be more different from each other.

There are some subtle nods to other genre’s/mediums, though. “Hush” has an emphasis on stealth, resource drain, and player vulnerability, drawing heavily from the “survival horror” genre of video games (in specific, the idea of having to avoid even looking at what’s chasing you was inspired by Amnesia: The Dark Descent). “Bad Faith” is a straight-up 80’s slasher gore-fest (with some alternate reality stuff thrown in), and “She’s Not Dead, She’s Asleep” is equal parts “Dracula” and “Don’t Wake Daddy.” It’s a far scarier combination than you’d imagine, trust me.

Are there any nods to earlier horror and RPGs that people might see?

Real old-school gamers might recognize the Vampire Princess as a nod to “Palace of the Vampire Queen,” the very first third-party RPG supplement. “Hush,” with its long-dead ruins and basilisk, is dedicated to Skerples’ dungeon “Tomb of the Serpent Kings,” which was the very first RPG product I worked on. Check it out, it’s great.

What is your favourite underrated RPG or module?

I think “Gardens of Ynn” by Emmy Allen was the best RPG product to come out of 2018. It’s an incredibly handy point-crawl generation system that I’ve used for everything from Feywild travel to Wonderland adventures. The ending hook is also one of the most interesting game mechanics I’ve ever seen.

How did your own RPG journey start? What introduced you to RPGs?

I played my first D&D game when I was maybe 7-8 years old. It was the 1994 Basic edition that my cousin had gotten from his brother after he upgraded to 3rd ed. I was a dwarf, and four sessions in I got eaten by a gelatinous cube. An ignoble death, if I do say.

I didn’t pick the game up for another 15 years, until 5e came out. I’ve been running regular games ever since, alternating between old-school, 5e, and V:tM.

Did releasing as a Zine influence the type of horror you decided to present?

Hm, good question. I don’t really think so, because I’ve always felt that the best horror is pretty short. Something like a Steven King can work as a thriller, but maintaining the edge that real horror requires over 300 pages is difficult. My favorite horror stories are short, sometimes even just a single chapter.

Making it a zine did require slimming down the word count, but I feel it’s all for the sake of performance. We’ve got a lot of art in this book (12 original pieces) so we offloaded some of the narrative onto that. It’s much more interesting to show a group of adventurers hacking through cultists than it is to describe it, and we wanted to portray things like atmosphere and dread without resorting to irritating read-aloud box text.

What should we expect the first time we play these modules around the table?

Our highest aspiration is for players to leave the table having had a great time, and for the GM to look forward to running it again with others. Each of these stories have been designed and edited to be easy to grasp, easy to read at-the-table, and easy to run, while still being unique to everything else that’s on the market.

What state do you think LGBT representation in RPGs is in?

Honestly? Pretty bad. I started GMDK because, looking around at my own gaming group, I realized how little we were represented in the greater gaming world. It’s not from a lack of gamers, but a lack of opportunity and recognition. I don’t want to see straight white cis guys writing stories about trans and POC problems for an audience of other straight white cis guys, when we’ve got marginalized creators who’ve been putting out great work for years and not been paid for it. They’ve got the stories and the art and the ideas; all I’m giving them is the audience and production values.

Do you feel works like the Demon Collective help improve marginalized creator’s visibility?

The KS statistics show that only about half of our current funding has been from outside referral; that means that 50% of our support has come from people who didn’t already know who we are. It’s my hope that the other writers and artists I’ve got working on this project go on to land other gigs from the publicity this brings them.

You have volume 1 in the title, are there plans for volume 2 already?

There are! The plan currently is to continue releasing these as small zines, maybe two/three a year, and collect them periodically into a larger, hardcover edition. If the money is right, we might even be able to do something like a subscription service: small adventures delivered regularly, right from us to you.

As well, I’ve been considering forming each collection around a particular theme: Volume 1 is new game mechanics, maybe Volume 2 will be body horror, or a weird twist on classic fairy tales, or adventures based on historical events. There’s a lot of room for innovation when you’re working with a large group of talented writers.

The Demon Collective has an optimized PDF stretch goal. Can you tell us a bit about PDF/UA and what it means for players?

PDF/UA is something that I’ve wanted to do for an RPG book for a long time. Basically, it means that your PDF conforms to the highest standards of accessability, allowing it to be read by the largest possible audience. It means your content can not only be parsed accuractly by assistive technology like screen readers, but that it doesn’t rely on any visual stimuli to deliver information.

This can be a lot of work for the designer, because they have to go through the entire document tagging every bit of information logically, writing up descriptions of images, and ensuring that text breaks evenly: even a single misplaced tag could cause the entire thing to be read out-of-order. It’s time-consuming, but if our rallying cry is “RPGs are for everyone” then it just makes sense to do it. It’s also inobtrusive: the features are laid on top of the original PDF, so it’s unnoticeable unless you need them.

You’ve mentioned aspirations for GMDK on your blog. Will we see GMDK launch as a full indie publisher in the future?

Absolutely. The Demon Collective was the first project, and it’s succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve already got a few projects lined up, but my goal is to eventually open up submissions so others can get their story out there.

What are you planning next that excites you the most?

Fiona Geist is writing her own dungeon that’s going to use a lot of PDF trickery like embedded comments and automatic calculations to make otherwise-difficult mechanics incredibly simple to use. It’s some of the most interesting RPG material I’ve ever read, and we’ve got an excellent painter on board to illustrate it.

What would you tell anyone considering backing the Demon Collective?

Foremost, thank you. When we first started this project, we had no idea it would have such a profound reception. Also, if you’re a marginalized gamer yourself, consider backing at the “Doomed” level so we can use your likeness in the game’s art. Representation matters, and its our goal to have that reflected in all aspects of our work.

Supporting the Demon Collective

If you liked the sound of the Demon Collective, you can back them on kickstarter here. You can also follow them on Twitter for updates on future projects. I’m personally super excited to see what they do next.

Images provided by GMDK. Used with permission.

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