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New card-based RPG from Fiasco creator tells folk horror stories about dying badly

The Quiet Year and For the Queen meets “a dark and unmerciful heart”.

The minds behind the classic improvisational game Fiasco are crowdfunding a pair of card-based RPGs set in the bitter winter of 1888 and telling claustrophobic stories where nobody is safe from death and betrayal. Desperation follows the no-prep mentality of its predecessors and shifts the narrative focus from what happens to who makes it happen.

Designed by Jason Morningstar and Bully Pulpit Games, Desperation is both the two GM-less RPGs played with their own deck of cards as well as the name of the mechanical engine driving their gameplay. Between one and five players can crack open one of the decks and follow simple set-up rules to begin weaving folk horror tales set in unassuming locations that harbour smouldering grudges.

All stories told in Desperations have a tragic end - the designers explain on their Gamefound page that the mechanics are more interested in establishing the knotted connections between the cast of characters and allowing players to decide who fills each role in the inevitable events. Over the course of an hour or two, the players will flip through a deck of cards that escalate the tension and twist the knife just a little deeper. Complications, betrayals and bloody means are all par for the course.

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Dead House takes place in the sleepy town of Neola, Kansas as its inhabitants attempt to knuckle through an unrelenting blizzard. Survival and natural disasters will make monsters of ordinary folk as they place their humanity aside for the sake of survival. The deck of cards will gradually populate the microcosm caught in the storm’s icy grips and place townspeople at the scene of crimes yet to be discovered, or else in the middle of tensions one wrong word away from snapping.

The Isabel follows a similar tack - its cast are a bunch of interconnected outcasts with secrets to hide, but these are trapped aboard a fishing schooner in the Gulf of Alaska and heading straight for a storm destined to destroy the ship. These stories revolve around the selfish actions of individuals facing annihilation and the sins they might commit to evade death for at least one more day.

Anyone who has played Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year or Alex Roberts’ For the Queen will be familiar with the process Desperation uses to lead players through its gameplay. Many of the cards contain story prompts in the form of open-ended questions meant to drive collaborative discussions as the group fills in the details of their chosen setting.

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“This game—these experiences—are unusual, and at first blush a little out of sync with our troubled times,” the campaign reads. “What we’ve found, though, is that embracing the darkness can be cathartic, and that people routinely have the best time making the characters miserable.”

This is the first time Bully Pulpit Games has crowdfunded a game outside of Kickstarter, and the Desperation campaign on Gamefound will remain open until May 25th. Backers can snag the physical box - which includes both games’ decks, but both a digital and Roll20-compatible version are also available. Bully Pulpit expects fulfilment to begin in May 2023.

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