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The world of horror TTRPGs has been eating well recently. The Magnus Archives is getting a tabletop adaptation. The Crooked Moon is on its way to being one of the biggest tabletop successes on Kickstarter. Then there is the launch of the new Backwards RPG Kickstarter, which hopes to expand the gothic horror style from the bayous of Louisiana to the roads of St. Louis to other regions of North America.

We just spoke with Asa Olson and Alex Johnson on this new creative endeavor. While we have connected with both of them in the past on the development of Backroads, discussing the deft hand it takes to develop horror entertainment, this newest creative project is bigger in scope.

Backwards RPG Interview – Creating Backwoods and Backchannels

Ready to travel the backroads?

Essentially, the Backwards RPG Kickstarter is for the development of two additional TTRPG books set within the team’s post-apocalyptic horror setting. Backchannels is set in post-apocalyptic Florida, and Backwoods is set in the more rural parts of New Hampshire.

Much like Backwater and Backroads, these two new books are completely self-contained TTRPGs. Each book contains everything you need to run a game. But each individual book contains a unique history, lore, and even special rules and systems based on that setting.

But any creative endeavor takes a lot of time, energy, and dedication. Whether you are whipping up a one-shot for your home game, creating a homebrew system or mechanic for D&D, or even publishing your own TTRPG requires a lot of mental and emotional investment in the project.

And Olson and Johnson decided to helm two. At the same time.

Naturally, the first question I asked the duo was whether or not this gradual expansion was always the plan. According to them, it was a process that happened naturally.

The series developed naturally out of Backwater. At first, we were just trying to create an original game in an appealing setting, built on some of our preexisting ideas. At the time, we hadn’t intended for it to turn into a series, although we definitely imagined what the setting looked like in other regions. After the project successfully funded, we received a request to start a Discord community around the game, which we did. And it turned out that some of the folks who played it were really interested in exploring the universe, discussing what it looks like in their respective regions. By then, Alex and I were already pondering a second book. He proposed the second setting and pitched some ideas, and we decided if this funds too, we’ll keep it going.

A character sheet from Backchannels as part of Backwards RPG.
Quite an elegant character sheet.

Of course, expanding any such setting does hold its own creative challenges. While Olson did remark that it is easy to build up ideas for a bizarre post-apocalyptic America, a major challenge is choosing which ideas to cut and which ones to keep.

Another challenge is that while Alex and I have lived in some of the regions that we’ve written about, we don’t have the same knowledge and experience to draw from that some of our newest writers and artists do. Yes, we’re trying to invoke the fictional regions and local color of American gothic literature, but we also want folks on the project who can speak to the real culture, region, and cities being featured.

This considerate design is consistent with Olson and Johnson’s approach in the past. When developing Backwater, they consulted with sensitivity readers since the setting had strong historical ties to institutions of racism and slavery in US history.

Artwork from the book Backchannels, showing a woman in a rowboat in the middle of the night
What is she getting away from? What is she putting away?

Backwards RPG Interview – Different Towns, New People

That mindfulness is something Olson and Johnson always keep in mind when doing their research for these books. And when it comes to their creative interpretation of history, they do a lot of research; their goal to balance the fictional representations of the different regions with their historical reality.

In addition, Olson and Johnson have worked hand in hand with various collaborators on this book. Some of whom have lived in these regions, bringing a level of lived authenticity to the material.

I did ask Olson and Johnson if there were any myths or stories that caught their attention during this research period, and quite a few came to mind. For Backwoods, there is the iconic tale of the headless horseman, a story that’s been adapted by everyone from Disney to Tim Burton.

In addition, Zach Walsh of the Scheduled For Launch podcast clued them in on the tale of the Hidebehind within the lumber industry of New England.

Artwork of a couple confronting a figure in a top hat with horns at a crossroads from Backwoods as part of the Backwards RPG series
Horns? Crossroads? Where have I read this story before?

Alternatively, research for Backchannels unearthed the tale of the Skunk Ape, which got its own creative spin in the book courtesy of writer Basil Wright.

That same history and cultural difference also influences the unique systems tied to each book. For example, Backchannel for example will include vehicle rules, with an emphasis on ships, sea travel and combat.

Given Florida’s connection to the history of piracy, this makes sense.

Alternatively, Backwoods emphasizes social elements. In this area, a character’s “credit,” fashion choices, and faction alignment matters more than in other areas.

But when you expand a setting, there is always that danger of scope creep. If you don’t have a strong focus on what your horror setting wants to embody, there’s that risk of losing that human element.

Olson and Johnson aren’t concerned about these risks. Each of their books so far have focused on a singular local setting in their world, focusing entirely on that region’s “local color.” Second, the emphasis of their systems is character-forward, encouraging players to emotionally invest within their characters.

In fact, when asked if this means if any region may get the Backwards treatment, Olson and Johnson weren’t against the idea. While they do have some ideas for different parts of the mainland USA, that doesn’t mean they won’t expand to other parts like Alaska or even Hawaii.

Book artwork of Backwoods, featuring a man in the woods with a spindely long-limbed monster behind him
Does he turn around…or should he?

Backwards RPG Interview – Building Your Audience

As for that character-forward focus, it has garnered a solid fanbase, courtesy of some well-received actual plays. The result has been greatly beneficial to the Backwards RPG audience.

It’s fun to see our audience expand every year, and it’s even more fun to see what sort of realities that folks dream up in their actual plays and other content. We hear a bit about it in our GM channel in the Backwards discord server, and we love to see it in the 20 or so actual plays that are out there, some of which we are running, of course. There are games that really lean into the bizarre.

Olson even cites The Crossroads Games, a YouTube channel which hosted a showcase video of Backwoods. Titled The Headless Horror, it did a wonderful job leaning into the New England setting.

Overall, what I think we enjoy the most is seeing the characters that emerge from these games, which always seem fully fleshed, complex, and part of the world that they are playing in. That’s mostly a credit to the great cast of players in these games, but I do like to think the system facilitates that a bit too.

This growing interest in Backwards RPG I believe is a testament to the discipline and and craftsmanship by these developers. The tabletop hobby only continues to expand over the years, and people are always interested in trying something new. As the old adage goes, “if you build it, they will come.”

The Kickstarter campaign for Backwards RPG concludes October 28.

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