Sunday, September 6, 2020

You've Got a Job on the Garbage Barge! (Zine Review)

You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge! is a zine by Amanda Lee Franck with a series of stretch goal collaborators, including Scrap Princess, Aaron King, Dungeons and Possums, Sasha Sienna & Jonathan Sims, and Zedeck Siew. The zine was funded through a very successful Zinequest kickstarter that had 700 backers. 

This zine is a system neutral campaign setting in 58 pages, a little world in a bottle that could, with a fair amount of work sustain a full campaign of retro-gaming play. The zine builds a sandbox (trashbox?) aboard a cyclopean multi-level dilapidated garbage barge that has been perpetually slogging up and down the coast, stopping to take garbage in exchange for fuel. The patrons and NPCs are a motley crew of down to earth laborers from tugboat operators named Irene (an AI) to dock workers, garbage sorters, trash miners and the like. As you might expect, there are people with a lot of pluck and grit, and not a few hearts of gold. There are also thieving racoons, fighting fish, talking bugs, evil interdimensional garbage wizards, forests of rebar, self-replicating frogs, and much more.

The Good

The setting has a heck of a lot of mystery: Who made the garbage barge and where did they go? What is the burning city and how did it get on the garbage barge? What is the lake of glowing orange gas? Is the trash in the barge infinitely deep? What happened to the third tugboat? I’m on record saying that every sandbox setting should come with big mysteries, so I certainly approve.


Another thing I like about the setting, admittedly under-explored in the already stuffed zine, is that it is a mobile campaign setting. The barge moves between different ports of call. The players can disembark the trashbox for brief episodic adventures or fun (all carousing should happen in ports). As someone who has run a thematically focused sandbox campaign for four years, I can tell you that these kind of episodic side hooks can be a lifeline. It's neat the way the setting builds in an "outside" to the sandbox for diversions like this.


The zine also has a lovely sideways cutaway map by Franck wryly labelled “The Known Barge”, which shows the relations of different locations, the terrain that lies between them, and also some different ways of getting there. As play starts many parts of the barge have just recently opened up by the discovery and magical enlargement of a defunct pneumatic tube mail system that intersects with a warren of raccoon tunnels. The opening up of formerly closed territory and the opportunity this provides for exploration and adventuring in the unknown is an excellent campaign starter. (The opening of Ultan's door is another instance of this type.)


The Mainly Good

The kickstarter for this zine had a festival air. The art and text were great. Quirky trash scavenging is reminiscent of themes with heavy circulation in the OSR during the heydays of Google plus, evoking nostalgia for earlier days of the scene that had giant sandbox ruined sea vessels (HMS Apollyon) and scavenging trash aplenty. As stretch goals were hit, the zine expanded from 32 pages to its current 58 pages. The large list of collaborators, some new, some old hands, gave it a feeling of a passing of the torch. 


The zine clearly gained a lot of heart through the recruitment of stretch goal collaborators. It also gained some amazing content. But through this process I suspect it became a bit more like the garbage barge it describes: from a tightly conceived and charming campaign setting, with each stretch goal it became a bit more like a motley assortment of ideas, art, writing tones, layout decisions, and presupposed rulesets, jumbled together, with quirky and delicious “finds” peeking out from a bed of rusted toasters and cracked porcelain.

Just look at this amazing toad king wearing a chandelier as a necklace, drawn by Franck. Badass!

The art by Franck and stretch goal illustrations by Scrap Princess are excellent. Franck is an illustrator whose work you can see here. Her illustrations in the zine run the gamut from charming to downright striking. I loved them! Scrap Princess works in their distinctive style, which fits thematically with the setting, but isn’t entirely in line with Franck’s style. The difference isn't jarring, but nor is it a perfect fit. 

This fox snake by Scrap Princess is pretty great.

Some of the other stretch goal contributions are wonderful. 

  • Scrap’s rules for running Kat’s salvage armory. You bring her useful scrap and she puts together jerry-rigged equipment—the settings very own scrap princess! 
  • Aaron King's extensive tables of different garbage smells  are also fantastic, especially when paired with the accompanying economy of smells mini-game, and the scent skald bard college rules (which seem to be for 5E). 
  • Zedeck Siew’s speaking bettas—a kind of noble and divine fighting fish--are evocative and fun, although the tone is different from the rest of the zine, and they seem a little over-powered as an optional PC class.

Other contributions worked less for me, including Scrap’s Yoo-Hoos--confused, amalgamated, pop-culture weirdos, and an adventure by Sasha Sienna and Jonathan Sims I’ll come to in a minute.

This brings me to an important point: collaboration is hard if you want to maintain a consistent vision and level of quality. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my zine, since I’m trying to open it up to greater collaboration. Zines, being so short and focused, are perfect vehicles for a singular vision, but they’re hard to collaborate on in exacting ways—because, hey it’s just a zine, and if someone is nice enough to throw their hat in the ring to support your vision. Franck paid her contributors generously, but in the DIY scene who wants to police the content of paid contributors like you were their boss? No one. 


The Definitely Could be Better 

The zine looks good, quite good, but there are some eyebrow raising layout decisions. Not a big deal--nitpicks really--but I thought I'd mention them. Like the zine contains this table with fonts of all different sizes, including some that practically require a magnifying glass for aged eyes. Don't ever vary fonts in a single table, and don't go this small ever.

Or, again, here's a table for "New Items" at Kat's salvage shop that looks like it was laid out in MS Word, with a box around the whole thing, including the title, and then broken up between two page spreads. This also doesn't look great. 

Look at Franck's great drawing of that raccoon!

Retro-gamers loves tables. My take away from this is that you can't just throw any kind of table into a zine. Think about cutting your tables down, or doing a table that can be presented as a numbered list rather than a multi-celled table, or presenting the same material without a table at all. Even if you're laying things out in MS Word, you can probably make it look pretty good if you remember you're writing a zine and not an a4 sized book, and there are some constraints given the format. I struggle with this in my own zine, even with the help of layout people using InDesign. Try not to split tables across multiple spreads, especially if the table is in a box. 

A Difference of Play Style

Initially, I thought that a more significant weak spot of this otherwise wonderful zine is that the keyed locations it provides on the map, while fun and interesting, with factions and mysteries aplenty, are not written up as sites for location-based adventures.This is the main business of a map in the style of retro-gaming that I'm accustomed to: it presents locations for adventure in the mode of dungeon or pointcrawl that can be discovered through geographical exploration. (To be fair, there are a couple of candidate locations. For example, the three bilges deep in the vessel are easy to imagine building out into full locations for exploration with excellent treasure opportunities; but that’s about it.) 

At first I was very confused about this--how could the zine do such a good job in general but miss this?--but then it became clear to me that I was misunderstanding how Franck envisions play proceeding. The problem lay with my assumptions rather than the zine itself.

I got a clue from both the title of the zine and the two included adventures, both of which have PCs taking a job for a boss to go do a specific thing. The envisioned mode of play of the zine is less self-directed exploration of the unknown in search of treasure (salvage) and more taking  job offers from patrons to go to specific locations and do specific work under the threat of various hazards and complications. The location entries are not really written as seeds for imagining a dungeon or point-crawl to be explored by free-wheeling PCs as I had assumed, but rather as fuel for imagining jobs that the PCs might get hired to do.  The two adventures in the zine, one by Franck ("your first job on the garbage barge") and one by Sasha Sienna and Jonathan Sims, probably are intended to give us some sense of how this might go. 

Franck's adventure involves the players taking a job to vent a concrete enclosed gas lake that's gonna blow. It seems promising given that it's a sort of "hands on" job dealing with weird decaying situation that fits the setting well. Unfortunately it is marred by a confusing presentation. Despite several readings I had trouble understanding how the two maps included were related to one another and to the description of the site. Franck also presents things in a disorienting order, omitting entries for several numbered locations. She also mixes in important NPCs and generalized threats in the middle of the key for the map, rather than pulling them out and presenting them at the beginning. But the adventure is flavorful, industrial, and useful in that it gives you the general gist of how this whole getting hired to do jobs thing might go.

The other adventure, by Sienna and Sims is a riff on Journey to the Center of the Earth. It has the players taking a job to help crew a drill ship that is to explore the question whether the trash on the barge is in fact infinitely deep. The adventure is well-written and presented, with a nice set of characters on the drill ship, and a simmering open-ended plot involving a plan by some of the crew to mutiny and steer the vessel elsewhere. But unfortunately the adventure does not seem to be written with sandbox style play in mind. For the different "locations" the drill ship encounters as it goes down read more like a series of amusing planned encounter scenes, admittedly with a lively cast of characters and (at lower levels) things getting suitably cosmic. The adventure is not really compatible with retro-gaming play: the rails are there plain to see in the set sequence of encounter scenes at various strata, and the space of creative anarchy is in the struggle that takes place within the railroad car hurtling along its otherwise fixed course.

The problems with the adventures aside, for a retro-game analogy, I think the setting if run as intended would feel a lot like Traveler, which is less focused on exploring unknown locations, and more focused on picking between jobs for various patrons (some shady) that drop the crew into complicated situations with various factions. Even in retro-D&D, hooks consisting of patrons wanting players to do jobs for them are a staple. But so is self-directed exploration of location-based open-ended adventuring sites. The zine gives you tools to do the former, but not so many to do the latter. 

This seems to me like a missed opportunity, since the map and the conceit of the newly opened pneumatic tubes suggest so strongly that one of the pleasures will be exploring the unknown, crawling through tubes and raccoon tunnels to new locations that can be explored for salvage and wonder--and getting their before rival salvage crews. To be clear, it's not that there's anything incompatible with this kind of play in this zine, but it also doesn't do much to help you to do this.

How I Would Use This Zine

This zine could be the foundation for an amazing campaign. Here's the work I would do to lay launch such a game. 

  1. I would steal the coastline from a published map, maybe something by Judge's Guild or any fantasy (or real) map you could find by googling online. I would put a series of ports (maybe 6) on the coast if they weren't there already. Eyeballing the map, I would assign a number of downtimes between adventures that would have to pass before arriving at each port. I would next write three sentences describing each port, and list one adventure opportunity at each. For these adventures, I would simply plop in my favorite adventures. I would definitely use carousing rules, but only for ports, and if I was feeling ambitious, might write up different carousing tables for different ports. 
  2. Since I like dungeon-crawling and site based adventures, I would place a bunch of (ideally free) written site-based adventure locations on the map. Michael Raston's Tower of the Weretoads would definitely fit, and maybe even Pollute the Elfen Memory Water with some heavy reskinning. I would probably use Dyson Logo's Challenge of the Frog Idol for the Toad Hotel location, treating the Toad King as the idol, the troglodytes as Yoo-Hoos, nixies as dryads, and so on. 
  3. I would develop several (probably three or four) rival salvage crews (rival adventuring parties). I would write a short system for rolling each downtime to see what kind of exploration or work they had been doing, if any, and how they had fared. I would use this system to make jobs disappear if they players didn't take them, and also to pressure the players to race ahead to new sites before they were already looted for salvage by other crews. I would be sure to have at least one rival salvage crew work for patrons the party ends up siding against, as a sort of enemy party.  
  4. I would look at all of Gus's HMS Apollyon posts on Dungeon of Signs for further inspiration in general for running a salvage-based sandbox on a giant rotting ship, and for some suitable location and monster writeups.
  5. I would come up with a bunch of starting hooks that would direct players to these different locations, and I would also follow Franck's lead and list a few "jobs" that PCs could take for pay. I would use the NPCs and factions she provides to develop a set of possible patrons at the starting location with opposed interests and schemes.

And then I think we would be ready to go. 


I've decided to adopt a stars system. Five stars is the max.
*         Bad
**        Mediocre
***      OK
****     Good
*****    Excellent

I give You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge **** four out of five stars: it's good. If a quirky campaign setting in a trashbox sounds appealing, where PCs will get hired as laborers to do dangerous jobs, definitely pick it up. It is a zine with a lot of heart, stuffed with cool ideas that fit its distinctive vision. it's well worth the cost. Get it here. 


  1. It's interesting how even in what is still claimed as the "OSR" space the interest in and perhaps knowledge of how to create a site based exploration adventure - a dungeon crawl - has been subsumed by or discarded for scene based or 5e style moment/encounter based design.

    The influence of both indie/story scene and contemporary WotC design seem ascendant, and who am I to say that's wrong? It's the same process that transformed early exploration play into adventure paths full of Hickmanism. At least this time it seems like the people involved have much more interesting ideas and the indie influence of genre emulation and player input allow for a more cooperative storytelling experience.

    This sounds like a neat zine, thanks for reviewing it - I'll pick a copy up.

  2. This has been on my radar for a while - thanks for reviewing it with such thoroughness. Looks like the zine's concept harkens back to Metamorphosis Alpha and its giant drifting spaceship, seen through the "grubby dirtmonger fantasy" aesthetic.

    The design approach is interesting. I believe situation-based scenarios (including "missions") can be reconciled with sandbox gaming as long as the situations are flexible, the outcomes are based on play dynamics, and they are located in a reasonably open environment. You have a starting point (the setup), you may have some rules/constraints to complicate things (physical or social limitations), and you have a desired end point (the goal). Then, the way the players move through the surrounding environment in the way they prefer. For an episodic game where sessions are expected to be largely self-contained, it even looks like a worthwhile direction to take. (I have learned some game groups take some nudging to get them into the action - after the initial push, they are competent problem-solvers, but they need to be given at least a general goal.)

    The real problem comes from the way mission-based play has been imagined in the modern adventure design philosophy - as a series of connected scenes where the players are tested in pre-defined setpiece situations, before moving on to the next setpiece through a strong lead. That kills off the potential of mission-based design.

    One peculiar example is a city setting I have been reading recently (but have not reviewed yet). It is well written, filled with interesting conflicts and adventure hooks, and the base would make for a superb sandbox setting, but it was obviously meant for a different mode of play (as proven by the super-railroaded scenarios published for it). Accordingly, it is missing things which are considered essential for an old-school sandbox, even elementary things like rumours, encounter tables, and most tellingly, an overview map. It is a fairly odd experience to see something that is both accomplished and deficient.

  3. Very comprehensive review. I love the basic idea of this zine. I remember back in the 80s or early 90s when a garbage barge traveled up and down the Mississippi trying to find a place that would let it dock. Initially, NOLA was going to let it dock but then there was an outcry we were just a dumping pit for other places. Don’t know what happened to it eventually, but this zine gives an interesting possibility. My biggest issue is I’m skeptical of the value of system-neutral adventures.

    1. I think there is a bit of 5E vs. B/X (or other OSR retro-clone) design ambiguity here. But it's not really an obstacle. As long as you're using a rules-lite system, like any OSR type retro-clone, this should work very well and be easy to stat up.

    2. So why not include stats to begin with? That’s what I don’t understand.