Backroads: An American-gothic Horror TTRPG
A downloadable game
Welcome to St. Louis, the City of the Arch. Beyond Backwater and the border of the American Lands lies the City of the Arch, a diamond in the rough and a trove of Old World artifacts for those who wish to strike it rich, uncover lost technology, or shed light on this nation’s catastrophic history. Drawing curious researchers, skilled prospectors, and desperate scavengers from across the continent, the ruins of the old city are a vast urban jungle, crawling with danger but promising a fabulous wealth of knowledge, technology, and antiquities—for those who survive. Are you willing to risk it all, scavver?
Backroads: City of the Arch is the first expansion for the Backwater: Southern Gothic Horror tabletop roleplaying game. It describes the Outskirts of a post-apocalyptic America, which spans from Arkansas to the Great Lakes including the ruins of an abandoned St. Louis. This expansion is over 250 pages and focuses on exploration, over-land and under—beneath the City of the Arch. It includes new setting information, hexcrawl rules, and an adventure module, as well as new gear, animal companions, and monsters. It also includes new character options, including new archetypes, origins & ideals, traits, and ability modules.
Plus: you don't need the original rulebook to play. Backroads includes all character creation instructions and the full game system.
Backroads (ca. 250 pgs) available in PDF and Hardcover (8.5" x 11"). Hardcover is U.S.-only while in development but will be available globally via Lulu after.
You can preorder the game at $15 to receive the PDF upon completion. Or you can preorder the game at $75 to get the PDF with a promo code for the free hardcover.
PDFs will be fulfilled through itch. Hardcovers will be fulfilled through Lulu. The estimated delivery will be March 2023. How will you receive your rewards?
- PDFs: The PDFs will be uploaded here on itch, and we'll notify you by itch and your preferred email when they are ready.
- Hardcovers: We'll send you a promo code for a free hardcover along with a unique link where you can order your print-on-demand hardcover in advance of its public release. Shipping is not included; it will be approximately $5
Grabbed a copy of Backroads? Itch will automatically give you a discount on Backwater (215 pgs) and Backwater Adventures (107 pgs) for a limited time.
Donate a Community Copy.
Backers who tip contribute to a pool of community copies on itch.io for those who cannot afford the game and/or individuals with marginalized identities. Community copies will become available after Backroads is released on itch. For every $10-worth of tips, we'll add a community copy to the pool (ca. March 2023).
Backroads hit its funding goal on Kickstarter; however, we only hit our first stretch goal. Now, we've set up a preorder page on itch, and we thought we'd itchfund to see if we can hit any more stretches before the game releases . We're also on itch for players or fans who are ethically opposed to pledging via Kickstarter and missed the campaign.
If you grab a Backroads PDF or hardcover during the Kickstarter or through the itch sale, you'll get any of the bonuses that we reach below - for free.
- Stretch goal 1. $500: Bonus Adventure (PDF) + VTT Tokens for NPCs/Monsters
- Stretch goal 2. $1,000: Solitaire Adventure (PDF)
- Stretch goal 3. $1,500: Backroads Short-Fiction Piece (PDF) + Solo Journal Game (PDF)
- Stretch goal 4. $3,000: Short-Fiction Collection (PDF)
Itch goal 1.
$500: Bonus Adventure (PDF) + NPC/Monster Tokens
What do we get? A bonus adventure which can be used to connect a New Orleans game (Backwater) to St. Louis (Backroads). In this adventure, someone has made several attempts on the life of a prominent citizen, Hamilton King of the Providence Company's New Orleans branch. Your characters are hired to investigate... and to keep King alive.
Itch goal 2.
$1,000: Solitaire Adventure
What do we get? You'll get a solitaire adventure set in New Orleans, which continues the "Eulalie's Curse" solitaire. A corpse washes ashore along the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans, and it causes quite a stir when the gathered crowd realizes who it is...
Itch goal 3.
$1,500: Backroads Short-Fiction Piece (PDF) + Solo Journal Game (PDF)
What do you get? A solo journal game, which can be used to simulate travel between destinations in the Outskirts. It can be played outside a campaign for fun or within a campaign. It's another cool travel option for Backroads, which already has basic rules for exploration as well as for travel montages and hexcrawls. All of the options are at your fingertips.
Do you love the Backwater universe? At this stretch goal, all backers receive a piece of short fiction (ca. 60 pgs or 15k words) written by our very own Alex Johnson, set in post-apocalyptic St. Louis.
Itch goal 4.
$3,000: Short-Fiction Collection (PDF)
If we hit this stretch, you'll receive between three or more works of short fiction set in the Backwater universe, including New Orleans and St. Louis. Pieces will be written by Alex Johnson, Asa Olson, and a guest writer.
American Gothic Themes
Backroads broadens Backwater’s Southern gothic themes to incorporate elements of American gothic, including the irrational, puritanism, and fear of North America's unknown and expansive natural landscape.
In the northern Outskirts of a post-apocalyptic America, nature has reclaimed the land. It swallows whole the ancient cities devastated by the End. The hierarchy of human and beast has shifted, and greater, more monstrous forms of animals roam the swamps and forests. The wilderness is vast and dangerous. It engulfs and isolates the small, hardscrabble towns of the Outskirts. Those who brave the crumbling roadways of this inhospitable land are often driven by knowledge, searching for clues to what brought about The End of the Old World. Others hope to rediscover lost connections, locating new communities, towns, and resources. Perhaps the majority of these travelers are driven by a love or need for coin. It is these enterprising or desperate sorts who seek to uncover ruins like the City of the Arch, preserved well enough to harbor antique and profitable technologies.
The knowledge and technology hidden in these ruins hold great potential, and so Meecham—an expedition settlement on the banks of the Mississippi—was established. Yet, a growing number of people within and beyond the nation’s borders irrationally reject the Old World’s science and technology. In Meecham, the fiercest among them is a rabid and growing anti-technology movement. Led by Ludwig Finchley, these neo-luddites believe that no good can come from the Old World’s tech, and they boldly claim that this technology is what brought about The End. The group has set its sights on disrupting any operation and expedition into the ruins of St. Louis, making wild claims to bolster their actions: everything from the belief that electricity is made from hellfire to theories about its effects on children. At the other extreme are the pilgrims who have come to St. Louis to behold and revere the ruins’ “sacred” technology. Beyond all reason, these “Mechanists” believe that each person is a small part of a larger machine and that they are defined less by where they come from than by what they do—their function. Humans serve these machines and live on even after death, as their bodies decompose and are eventually recomposed as parts of another machine. Some go so far as to believe that one great technological entity controls these machines and their mechanisms, an All-powerful Intelligence. As word has spread about St. Louis and its expeditions, Mechanists grow more convinced that its ruins hold ancient truths about their faith.
Many of these groups follow codes of moral and ethical conduct that other citizens consider uncomfortably rigid, strict, and censorious, but none are worse than the puritanical Sticklers sect of the uncanny Founders Cult. The Founders Cult is a group who worships the constitutional founders and the line of Old World presidents. This religion is popular among powerful politicians, haughty aristocrats, and wealthy merchants, many of whom claim descent from one Founder or another and among whom antique (and almost certainly fake) relics circulate, like Washington's axe or Franklin’s kite. While most Founders are pompous but bearable, Sticklers are especially insufferable due to their strict societal beliefs and condemnation of nearly everything enjoyable. Their goal is to purify the religion, believing the institutions of their “Church” to be corrupt and criticizing it for its simony, wealth, and lack of political involvement. Among the other acts that they condemn are the Founders’ ornate and pyrotechnic-heavy celebration of the Fourth of July, consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and premarital sex. Sticklers who violate these principles are required to wear bright scarlet tunics, sometimes called Redcoats or Benedict Arnolds, as punishment. Unfortunately, an increasing number of City officials have fallen under the sway of these fanatical doomsayers.
Something creepily familiar prowls within the puritanical extremists and anti-scientific movements of the American Lands, much less a cult of the elite who worships the country's founders. But in Backroads, horror manifests itself in other ways. It is in the natural world—the creature that stalks you from the shadows, the truth revealed beneath the full moon, the consequences of losing the path, and the very real chance that you won't arrive at your destination. There may be horror in the stranger who offers you aid or the oasis among the waste. Who or what can you trust in a lawless landscape?
There is also horror in what you may find beneath the City's ruins, where it is always dark and where every twist and turn conceals dangerous potential. At times, it seems as though the Old World wanted these ruins to stay hidden, lost to time and safe from prying eyes. A bygone knowledge waits there, as well as technologies beyond your understanding, and there are those who seek to possess it, fueled by desperation and coin. What waits behind the next corner? What secrets will you uncover? Will they have consequences? And what will happen if they fall into the wrong hands?
In Backroads, horror is not in the unknown or unfathomable. True horror is in the questions they compel us to ask and the limitless theories we can supply.
For more setting information, please check out the more-detailed Kickstarter page.
New, New, New
Technologies Old and New.
In the City of the Arch, you can find all the gear that you did in Backwater and more. In fact, some of the gear that you can buy is more technologically advanced, thanks to the corporate greed of the Big Three and the ingenuity of Arkwright. Many scavvers rely on the new technology that Arkwright produces, but it doesn’t come without risks. Some of this gear is experimental with unexpected and occasionally useful effects. Other gear has gadget-like features, so that you can use them for multiple purposes. Of special value is a masterwork item, which is so well crafted that it is likely to last longer or work better. From computer kits and grappling guns to gas masks and multi-purpose monkey wrenches, scavvers will be amazed at what they can buy in Meecham.
New Character Archetypes.
In Backwater, you can play Savants (the brains and the faces), Seekers (the explorers and thieves), Seers (the psychics and magic users), and Slayers (versatile fighters). Backroads provides four new archetypes:
- Sparklocks (tech wizards with steampunk magic)
- Spelunkers (dungeon-delving tech experts)
- Spiritualists (healers and orators with some divine favor) and
- Steadfasts (defensive combatants).
These character types determine a character’s starting abilities and a path of potential modules for future abilities; however, types do not pigeon-hole a character. Your spiritualist can be as good with a wrench as they are with a book. These characters draw from pre-existing ability modules and four new ability modules.
New Animal Companions.
The types of adventuring you do here may require a different set of items, as well as a different set of companions—companions of the animal variety. Beneath the ruins and among Old World infrastructure, it’s hard to know whether it’s safe to breathe the air until it’s too late. Your little canary pal can help with that. Just be sure to buy them a resuscitator. And then there are the rats—not the monstrous kind that ate your cousin in Backwater, the kind that can sniff out traps and explosive mines. They also make surprisingly good pets. Yet on the open road, you may find more utility in the minkrat, a popular (and adorable) mink/muskrat hybrid with amazing swimming and climbing skills. You may even be able to tame one yourself, as they’re not uncommon in the Outskirts, where their hardy nature helps them survive in even the most polluted environments.
In Backroads’ featured adventure, you and a team of experts follow a loose trail of evidence to uncover what happened to the famed Meecham Expedition.
The first major expedition to St. Louis ended with everyone involved becoming exceptionally rich. Such spectacular success spawned a host of imitators. The most infamous of these was the Meecham Expedition, led by the decorated commander Sir William “Bill” Meecham. With 700 soldiers and support staff, Meecham planned to head deeper into the ruins than any past (or present) expedition, hoping to find vast, untouched heaps of technology. A group of settlers arrived after several weeks had passed with no contact and discovered the base camp empty. A relief force dispatched into the ruins came back empty handed, and no sign or indication of the expedition’s fate has ever been discovered… until now. Recently, a lost and drunken scavver fell into a system of ancient tunnels, where they found a tattered journal with Meecham’s increasingly erratic expedition logs. The Providence Company has provided you and your crew with an exorbitant payment to explore these tunnels, and Meecham’s journal will be your guide. For a lengthier description, see Update #3!
Statement on Racism
Racism is not a theme in this game. The Backwater series seeks a careful balance for its post-apocalyptic U.S. setting: to establish a setting in which everyone can comfortably roleplay without erasing or ignoring centuries of oppression. It also aims to reject racist and problematic depictions of Native Americans in the American gothic genre, especially those connected to white colonizer’s anxieties around the North American landscape. Early authors of American gothic fiction describe the landscape as unoccupied, largely negating the existence, histories, and experiences of various Indigenous peoples. Other fiction depicts the “untamed” natural landscape as a threat in contrast with civilization, and in these works authors commonly depict Native Americans as a mysterious “other,” reduced to merely another threat of the landscape. Within this formula, authors offensively represent them as uncivilized or “savage” in contrast with White European colonizers. Even supposedly sympathetic representations romanticize and exoticize American Indian characters as silent, stoic, and “the last of their kind.” These inaccurate and stereotyped depictions present a monolithic idea of “The Indian,” ignoring the diverse cultures and traditions that vary by region, tribe/band, community, and mixed racial and ethnic ancestries.
To avoid and disrupt these themes, Backroads intends to include characters with various native (primarily Caddo and Choctaw) and mixed-race backgrounds, representing these backgrounds throughout the setting and in multiple contexts, not only in the content related to New Americans from Backwater, whose history and leadership is indebted to Choctaw activists. Although Backroads expands upon the American gothic anxiety around the natural landscape, it consciously rejects the offensive and reductive depictions of Native Americans within this context, instead emphasizing the culture, resources, and assets of Native American characters and communities. Finally, in its setting, Backroads also seeks to identify and describe important landmarks and locations that recall original and ongoing stewardship and habitation of American Lands by Native American peoples.
These characters, locations, and the larger lore will be written and illustrated by a writer and an artist with similar identities to the characters and culture. Backwater Games also plans to hire up to three sensitivity readers to review Backroads, one of whom will have a relevant background to review these characters, locations, and lore.
Built with Backbone
Backroads uses the same original system that Backwater uses, now called the Backbone Tabletop Roleplaying system. In addition to its unique setting, Backroads includes all of the core rules for the Backbone game system, so you do not have to purchase Backwater separately. You can also find most of the essential rules in the Backwater Quickstart Guide. However, each book has distinct options for character origins, archetypes, ideals, and items, as well as its own unique setting and characters.
The Backbone game system is original. It uses a 20-sided die for everything except damage. It is intended to be intuitive and streamlined. The foundation of this system are four basic attributes that provide both a modifier (which you add to rolls) and a goal score (which others roll against). When you attempt a skill roll against another character, you simply roll against one of their attribute goals, for example:
- When you threaten or deceive a character you roll against its Intuition goal
- When you hide from or sneak by a character you roll against its Vigilance goal
- When you attack a character you roll against its Reflex goal
- When you shove or trip a character you roll against its Build goal
Characters have both Health Points (physical stamina) and Resolve Points (mental fortitude), and they are relatively low to reflect human fragility. Combat scenarios are consequential and can move quickly as a result. 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. To learn how to play, try our solitaire game, which is free during the Kickstarter. You can also check our actual plays:
- Backwater AP w/ the Creators
- Backroads AP w/ Role Less Taken
- Backroads AP w/ Toddmoonbounce
- Backroads AP w/ NerdswithDice
Character sheets for the Backbone game system are form-fillable PDFs. The Backbone system also has its own GM sheet for note-taking and tracking. We are also building a character sheet on Roll20.
You can find more information about Backroads in the following links:
Asa Donald (he/him) & Alex Johnson (he/him) are the creators, developers, and primary writers for the Backwater series. They became friends years ago through a friend's ttrpg group. They remain friends after moving to different wards in the American Lands. Icons by Collin Wilhelm.
Carlos Eulefi (he/him) is a concept artist and illustrator from Santiago Chile, painting creatures and fantasy stuff since 2005. (Artstation)
Sonya Henar (she/her) is a mixed race Asian-American artist who specializes in character design and illustration. She’s done comic work, illustrations for the "Tales of BarBEARia" board game, the successfully Kickstarted "2022 Baby Bestiary Calendar," concept art and illustration for a mobile game, and a children’s book. In the world of TTRPGs, you can find her work on the upcoming Quest RPG adventure "Bone Appetit" and on the cover of "The Princess Project" and "The Heart of the House," which are available on the DMs Guild, as well as "Unbreakable: Revolution" and the upcoming "Unbreakable: Pathways," "Unbreakable Vol 2", and "Unbreakable Vol 3." (Website, twitter)
Olajide Ajayi (he/him) is a concept artist and illustrator from Lagos, Nigeria. (Artstation)
Aaron Radney (he/him) is a Fantasy Illustrator based out of St Louis with an overriding love of stories from around the world and believes good storytelling can (and should) broaden our empathy and ability to understand others. To further that idea, Aaron specializes in illustrations that center marginalized people in fantasy and hopefully broadens the landscape of who feels included in the genre. Also as a lover of classic fantasy stories that include a map in the front of the book, he’s picked up skills in fantasy cartography to add another dimension to his stories and worldbuilding. (Website, Patreon, twitter)
Shay Snow (they/them) Writer is a Native professional tabletop author and editor and has contributed to several lines, including Pathfinder, Starfinder, and Coyote & Crow. When they’re not writing or working, they’re often gaming either at a table or on their Twitch channel with friends. They’re Caddo and Swampy Cree and most of their inspiration for writing comes from their culture and the experience of reconnecting. They’re based out of Seattle, WA, where they live with their spouse and orange cat, Beans. (website)
Get exclusive access to this game by purchasing while quantities last.
Get a Backroads PDF at a discounted price and before the public release! Available on itch.io for $22 upon release.
Get your Backroads PDF and a promo code for a free Hardcover, more affordably and in advance of the public release.
The hardcover price does not include shipping, which you'll pay independently upon checkout with your promo code (approximately $5).
You will get access to the following files when they are released:
- Newsleter - Backwater GamesAug 16, 2022
Leave a comment
Log in with itch.io to leave a comment.