Long after The End descended upon the Old World...
Humanity started to rebuild itself, albeit wretched and forlorn. Survivors salvaged what they could of government in the form of the American Lands. They rebuilt roads, though in fewer numbers and inferior quality, and they reclaimed the skeletons of old buildings. Nowhere does humankind rebuild so desperately as in the humid swamps of the Backwater, where humanity battles itself and the natural elements to survive. You are a warden here—a roaming peacekeeper in the American Lands—tasked with exploring and keeping order at civilization’s southern reach. You travel the Old World’s crumbling roadways among mosquitoes and snakes. You tend to every small town’s big secret, and you quell strife between old families in a new era. Here in the bogs, you keep mutation at bay, ever-watchful for the wretched and grotesque cousins of ancient humanity. You protect mankind from supernatural horrors that have only started to emerge.
Welcome to Backwater...
where horror writes itself.
Backwater is a tabletop roleplaying game in the genre of southern gothic horror. It is in the style of survival horror. In January, Backwater will launch a Kickstarter for its core rulebook, which proposes an all-in-one rulebook, including
Character Creation Rules;
Game System Ruleset;
Setting Information for Players;
Setting Information for GMs; and
Threats and NPC Stats.
The southern gothic genre explores social issues relating to fear, poverty, religion, and alienation through its southern U.S. setting. Prominent among the genre's themes is a conscious criticism of superficial values and regional or familial history, depicted through the region's decaying structures and aristocratic families. It can contain monsters and the supernatural, though the true horrors are often humans themselves. Backwater is set in a post-apocalyptic future with a tenuous social order, and it reimagines the genre as a reflection on issues in not only American history but also our present world. Players take on the roles of either wardens or adventurers, who try to keep chaos and monstrosities at bay while uncovering secrets of bygone eras. They wander the Backwater ward, a region around modern-day Louisiana, Mississippi, and southern Arkansas, where centuries of technological know-how have been lost and where mystical and magical forces are beginning to surface.
Survival horror games are those in which characters are fragile. They require the player to think more carefully about their decisions, and they increase the pressure of stressful situations. In Backwater, characters are not so squishy as they are in cosmic horror tabletops. The monsters that they fight aren't all-powerful, but they are deadly, and the battles add up. Monstrosities—abnormally large and aggressive versions of beasts—patrol the wilderness; packs of skinless humanoids, Gores, hunt for unsuspecting travelers at night; and hordes of Hollow Men, slow-moving humanoids covered in fungal growths, stumble across ancient roadways. Your character may be squishy, but it doesn't mean they don't have abilities to survive against these horrors. Use your abilities carefully, and stay alive.
Backwater currently includes 20 human NPC types, 30 threat types, and 16 beasts. Some other threats include:
Conjurers and Witches
Skulks (vampiric undead with insectoid qualities)
Haints (small, impish fiends)
Swampfiends (elemental swamp monster)
Order and Chaos
Games in the Backwater frequently feature order and chaos. As wardens, characters are tasked with keeping order. Yet the people who give them orders are often cruel and immoral, while the people they serve may be victims of oppression or circumstance. A game master may accentuate the brutality of the nobles for whom they work in order to reflect that order itself is at stake in a world rebuilding after apocalyptic chaos or how order can sometimes go too far. Games may also center around plots to destabilize local or regional order, including political intrigue, assassination attempts, rising demagogues, or class rebellion.
Magic and the Supernatural
In the Backwater ward, wardens will hear common talk about livestock born dead or deformed, but they will also hear more dubious claims of large crops that suddenly perished, well-water turned to blood, or insect plagues set upon the land. Wardens may face paranormal characters possessing suggestive abilities who never reveal their true nature, such as a dæmon in a human form, a person driven to madness by a spirit, or a witch who knows better than to reveal her power. Or they may face the blatantly supernatural: a snake cult summoning a swampfiend, a mysterious and powerful conjurer coming to town with an undead horde, or a group of skulks settling a new nest.
Magic is not unheard of in Backwater. Some wardens may even have "The Sight," a natural gift that allows them to glimpse the future, speak telepathically, or commune with animals. Other talented folk may have knowledge of the dreaded Blood Magic, a type of sorcery that exchanges one's blood and well-being for power. Most common is the ability to turn your own blood into fire. The Sight and Blood Magic can be used for good just as easily as they can be used for evil, yet folks of the Backwater fear and distrust anyone who wields them openly.
The End of the Old World
The ruins of the Old World and its technology should haunt the wardens as reminders of what once was a supposedly edenic existence and what it has become: a disfigured society struggling to take root in the midst of the Old World’s stony rubbish. Technology has regressed. Besides the few Old World technologies that can be restored, modern devices and firearms resemble those of the late Victorian era with rare exceptions. Society has returned to a time of horse-drawn carriages, candles, and natural medicine. Electricity is nearly extinct, as are the fuel and items needed to use advanced technology. There are no means to build the powerful weapons of the twentieth century. Instead, they base their firearms on those of former eras, with models preserved by collectors and in museums. Old remains of cities and towns exist in the swamps of the Backwater harboring information for those daring to seek it. Some of the elite with money to spare and a desire to know more about the Old World may pay wardens handsomely to scour the ruins for ancient texts written in the Old Speech. Perhaps most pressing to some is what happened during The End. Various religions claim that their deity or deities loosed fiery rain upon the earth, while others claim that disease and plagues descended on humankind. The truth is that the Old World was not so idyllic as stories suggest, which wardens may soon uncover.
Outsiders and Bloodlines
Clothes, accent, and gestures matter to the people of Backwater. They reveal a person's origin in the American Lands. Wardens are frequently outsiders, and outsiders are rarely welcomed. The precarious stability of communities lends itself toward distrust, especially when there is a sense of local or regional competition between economies. Citizens from every part of society can be prone to ignorance, but whereas members of the working class may act out of fear, the elite may act out of willful ignorance and the merchants in condescension. A suspicious resident may subtly ask for a family name, hometown, or connections by kin. A warden who refuses to answer usually draws more suspicion.
Bloodline also carries a lot of weight in the Backwater. Whether patrician class or working class, a person’s family name may get them aid in an emergency, an enemy out of spite, unique privileges in a particular region, or access to elite circles. Bloodlines are so important that it is a determining factor in upper and merchant class marriage. Marriages between families frequently establish political or business alliances. Moreover, to improve socioeconomically, many merchant families who have money but not land or political power negotiate marriages with a shrinking elite, who in some areas are desperate to hold on to their estates. Among the elite, blood and surname remain so important that some families arrange marriages between cousins at an early age. Generally, the working class looks down on these arrangements, and many servants have shared whispers “below stairs” about their employers, spreading dubious tales of illicit and incestual relationships.
A Statement on Race and Racism
Much southern gothic fiction has confronted the South’s ugly history of racism. It has sought to undermine idealized, antebellum values relating to slavery, reflecting society's moral decay in crumbling buildings and conflict-filled families. It’s a pointed focus of more recent works within the genre, as some early literature reinforced racism in the process of confronting it. Racism is not a theme in Backwater. Backwater seeks a careful balance: to establish a setting in which everyone can comfortably roleplay, without erasing or ignoring centuries of oppression.
The American Lands emerged from the apocalypse just as racially and ethnically diverse, by modern day’s standards, especially in New Orleans where many residents descend from African American and/or Haitian, German, French, or Spanish, Vietnamese, and Native American ancestry. Many stereotypes and inequities built around skin color and regional ancestry faded after the world reset in Backwater—they are not built into the game. Of course, the past may be buried, but it never dies. Figurative ghosts of slavery and racial oppression haunt the American south as a setting, including its structures, monuments, and cemeteries. We cannot forget this history or pretend that it did not happen, and we strongly encourage game masters to first consider the implications of, for example, a plantation setting. If a game master and all players desire to adapt Backwater in a way that overtly addresses these themes, we suggest they first converse with one another and that they use John Stavropoulos's X-Card system to edit out uncomfortable or triggering content.
A Statement on Deformity and Disability
Backwater departs from southern gothic fiction in its treatment of characters with deformity, disfiguration, and disabilities. Although characters with short or tall stature, missing limbs, and affected cognition are commonly represented in southern gothic literature, some fiction including southern gothic, sci-fi, and fantasy depicts deformity and disability in the style of the "grotesque," which invites audiences to gaze with fear, pity, or disgust. A common theme in southern gothic dictates that bodily disability is an external manifestation of an inner or regional corruption of morals. More recent literature seeks to disrupt these ableist notions. We hope Backwater can do the same while representing a diversity of people with disabilities.
As in reality, the people of Backwater have disabilities; many of these disabilities are invisible; and they make people unique without necessarily defining them. Physical, cognitive, and psychological disabilities are even more ubiquitous as a result of The End and the American Lands’ harsh environment. Backwater represents a world where disability does not necessarily equate to suffering and people with disabilities are consciously represented—not only as victims and villains but also as heroes and everyday characters. We recognize that our efforts do not explicitly confront ableist notions or perform advocacy, but we do hope the game represents disability respectfully. We encourage game masters to carefully consider how/whether they incorporate these themes in Backwater, perhaps beginning a discussion with the players and ensuring that they do not accidentally represent disability or deformity as the “grotesque” of bygone art and literature. Again, if a game master and all participants wish to address these issues in a game, we strongly suggest the use of John Stavropoulos's X-Card system.
The Backwater game system is original. It uses a 20-sided die for everything except combat damage. It is intended to be relatively intuitive and streamlined. The foundation of this system is a set of four basic attributes that provide both a modifier (which you add to rolls) and a score (which others roll against). When you attempt a skill roll against another character, you simply roll against one of their attribute scores, for example:
When you threaten or deceive a character, you roll against its Intuition score.
When you hide from or sneak by a character, you roll against its Vigilance score.
When you make a Melee or Ranged attack a character, you roll against its Reflex score.
When you tackle or trip a character, you roll against its Build score.
Unique Survival Elements
Characters have both Health Points (physical health) and Resolve Points (mental health), but they are relatively low to reflect human fragility. Combat scenarios can move quickly as a result, and they often require careful strategizing to mitigate damage or defeat threats rapidly. One especially unique element of the system is its Health rolls and Resolve rolls. Players must try to roll under their current Health or Resolve with a d20 to avoid suffering a condition, like the Bleeding condition. The more damage or duress that a character receives, the more likely it may suffer the condition.
Flexible yet Thorough Character Creation
Character creation is meant to be flexible and robust. It incorporates minor details that flesh out a character in the creation process, such as where a character is from (Origins), their values (Ideals), their socio-economic status (Family Fortune), and any unique qualities (Traits). It also incorporates major details, such as character types for wardens:
Savants (the brains and the faces)
Seekers (explorers and thieves)
Seers (psychics and magic users)
Slayers (ranged or melee fighters)
Types do not pigeon-hole a character. There is plenty of opportunity to play as a Seer with ranged combat abilities, for example.
Backwater also has an abundance of skills, which requires a greater diversity of character types. The book provides extensive descriptions of each basic skill as well as examples for its use. Backwater has three specialty skills, which indicate a character's knowledge of certain subjects, languages, or item production; characters usually gain two or so specializations for free during character creation. In total, Backwater has 22 basic skills (including Melee and Ranged combat skills) and three specialty skills (Craft, Language, and Lore), each of which have between five and twelve specialties to choose from.
Characters can gain skill proficiencies every time they level. Occasionally they also gain Mastery (increased chance of critical success) and increase their Health or Resolve. Otherwise, characters develop mechanically in two main ways: Achievements and Ability Modules. Achievements are minor bonuses that characters earn by accomplishing specific tasks throughout a game or campaign. Ability Modules are groups of abilities from which a character can select every four levels. A character's warden type determines which modules they can choose from. Characters can accomplish up to 25 possible Achievements, and there are thirteen Ability Modules total with eight potential abilities each.
Animal Companions, Items, and Item Customization
Players can customize their characters by selecting from a vast array of and animal companions. The source book supplies nine animal companions and almost 200 items, including books, clothing, light sources, elixirs & brews, kits, body armor, ranged & melee weapons, and item accessories. Characters begin with a slightly more limited selection and can expand their inventory as they level. Characters can may also customize many of their items, cosmetically and statistically. Finally, characters may discover some magical or legendary items throughout game play. The source book provides 20 items for them to discover or seek out.
We suggest some of the following works as inspiration for southern gothic games and fiction. The following list is curated rather than comprehensive.
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
The Toll by Cherie Priest
Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young
The Vine that Ate the South by J.D. Wilkes
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
Blackwater by Michael McDowell
Harrow County written by Cullen Bunn and Illustrated by Tyler Crook
Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, Denys Cowan, and John Floyd
Swamp Thing by Allan Moore
Southern Monsters by Kevin Snow, et al.
Authors of Southern Gothic Classics
William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Flannery O'Connor, Ralph Ellison, and more