Upcoming tabletop RPG Swyvers boldly claims in its first line that it is a game about bastards, and the following pages of rules, tables and gorgeously rotten artwork gleefully backs it up. The work of designers Luke Gearing and Daniel Boyle, Swyvers takes the heist ‘n’ gang structure of Blades in the Dark and rubs even more smog, grime and British class cynicism into the mortar of its ramshackle world.
A quick internet search tells me ‘swyver’ either refers to drifters and ramblers or is vulgar slang for having sex. Regardless, it’s an apt description for player characters barely holding on to the edges of a filthy city known as The Smoke. Running as a gang, these forgotten bodies, subalterned by the wealthy Nobs closer to The Smoke’s festering centre, run heists, fence stolen goods and otherwise pick a meagre living from the bones and trash of their supposed betters. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they might rob a couple of mausoleums.
Swyvers pitches more than a simple Blades in the Dark reskin, expanding on John Harper’s acclaimed formula by tasking players with building their own version of The Smoke. Some districts will always appear - the Royal Goal, the Docks, the Palace and Mayoral District - but the creaking, swollen connective tissue (and the potential loot hidden within) will be unique to every group.
The core book contains plenty of tools and procedures that groups can use to create their grimy hideout, plan heists, acquire turf and properties, fence their ‘acquired’ goods and otherwise expand their criminal enterprises beyond desperate smash-and-grabs. Creating characters follows the old school RPG method of three core stats, a couple pieces of ratty gear and some traits - your character could be jammy, a venomous prick, proper bricky or “the kinda bloke that’d cut your feet off and watch you hobble around for a bit before shoving you in the river if you know what I mean?”
The Smoke, its myriad districts and the Midden below exist in a low fantasy world where disease and poverty will kill you long before some pixie or errant magic missile. That doesn’t mean there aren’t weird elements, as rogue sorcerers haunt the sewers and twist their victims into heinous flesh experiments, ratman clans claim neighbourhoods outside the corrupt protection of city officials and the Nobs hide sickness of the body and soul behind porcelain masks and the finest silks.
Swyvers’ stories will play like Peaky Blinders-meets-Into the Odd with a healthy dose of proto-industrial UK-does-cyberpunk. You can see the stewardship of the Melsonian Arts Council, publishers of Troika!, in this RPG’s bones and layout, and it trades the former's Pratchett-esque winking and nudging for an acerbic, cynical lens that will be extremely familiar to fans of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.
Luke Gearing is the author of one of my favourite Mothership RPG modules, Gradient Descent, and he just recently landed a role as lead writer at Tuesday Knight Games. It’s exciting to see Gearing join forces with Melsonian Arts Council and illustrator David Hoskins again - the trio last collaborated on the excellent Acid Death Fantasy - and this oozing, putrid RPG book looks like it will bear all of their combined strengths, yet again.
One of Gearing's blog posts shows that he's been ruminating on Swyvers since at least 2016, when he rebranded a former project called Dying in a Tomb and began finalising the project's artistic direction and themes. "Theres gonna be an actual version with actual art at some point soon i promise you'll be able to buy it," he writes in a full run-on sentence. To his and all of our benefit, that point has finally come.
The Kickstarter campaign for Swyvers launches in early February and will be crowdfunding a physical edition of the core rules. A free PDF of the quick-start rules, along with a link to the Kickstarter sign-up page, is available on the Swyvers’ website.