Sunday 10 April 2022

[REVIEW] City of the Red Pox

City of the Red Pox
City of the Red Pox (2021)

by Benjamin Wenham

Published by Dark Forest Press

TROIKA! level

Hello, and welcome to **ZINEMASSACRE*2021**! Last year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 3, their third zine writing promotion campaign. This venture seemed to be ill-starred, as not only did many of the projects suffer from delays and disappearing authors (a.k.a. “the old cut and run”), but this may actually be the last significant venture under the name for reasons which are both funny and disappointing. These reviews will focus on the zines I funded AND which actually got released – let’s see how it goes.


* * *

The City of the Red Pox is a 36-page zine for the Troika! system, presenting the beginnings of a city setting ravaged by a deadly disease, and under attack by horrors from another reality. It comes in a lavishly illustrated booklet on high-duty colour paper, and looks generally fancy. Following the logic of such things, the zine’s layout is breezy, with generous empty space, large fonts, ample spacing and all the various tricks of the trade. That is to say, it does not contain as many letters as you might expect; in truth, it contains surprisingly few. Since no further issues have been published, this first issue thus has to be the basis of the review.

Favoured enemy: Dense, two-column text

The Serene Republic of Antar is basically fantasy Venice, one of the great settings for baroque skullduggery. It is currently enmeshed in chaos as a consequence of the plague, the breakdown of order, and extra-dimensional threats which do not receive much attention in this volume. This may even remind you of the great Dishonored and the city of Dunwall, which would not be far off either. In lieu of a traditional gazetteer or world guide, we mainly get “background through flavoured game rules”. Six Troika! backgrounds (character builds) are offered, a macabre lot which I genuinely like. You can be a Charonite Guilder (a gondolier who transports the rich and the dead alike), a Widow of the Veil (a teller of ill fortunes), or my favourite, a Once Trusted Butcher (these pig-masked freaks are family confidantes in matters both gastronomic and criminal). Then, there are twelve enemies, from cops to the damned, plague doctors, river wasps, the mysterious Stone Watchers (sphinxes that whisper secrets, and work for the State), and “the King’s Boatmen” – clad in “tattered, pale yellow robes”, and a sign that the one seeing them is marked for death. A more mixed bag, and does not offer much, but the pick is decent and moody – these are usually minor antagonists.

The best thing in the zine, no kidding!

A third section provides an introduction to the city, as well as sample NPCs with a selection of adventure hooks. This is, unfortunately, already past the halfway mark, so the material is not just meagre due to deft but wasteful layout tricks eating up those 36 pages, it is just a very shallow catch. You see some shiny ideas which would be great to elaborate on, but they remain as these little decent sparks, like the “funeral trade” of transporting bodies to and from Antar, or an NPC looking for the perfect glass coffin for the preserved corpse of his beloved. But a lot of it is stating the obvious without making it interesting and useful in a hypothetical game. Finally, we get six spells, not bad for two pages.

Then you get six spells on two very empty pages

City of the Red Pox also features what I assume to be the author’s anarchist politics. Well, fiction is a way to convey your ideas and pillory your opponents, so a little editorialising does not hurt. Unfortunately, nothing useful is being done with this aspect, except to hammer it home through the equivalent of marginal notes that the State, verily, is Bad; unjust hierarchies are inherent in Capital, and that All Cops Are Bastards. This is in a sense authentically zine-like (in that it reminds you of the Deep Thoughts & Poetry section of the authentic punk zines you may find in the wild), but it is all Tell without Show, and on the level of gems like “Hey, fucko, if Antar’s oligarchy of protocapitalists is so progressive, why is it about to collapse into violent revolt?” (Solution: because the Author made it so.) It is all so tiresome.

Fuckos: rekt

One Zinequest earlier, Visitor’s Guide to the Rainy City demonstrated how much excellent content can fit into a modest little volume, and how to convey the feel of a teeming, decaying metropolis during what may be its final weeks. City of the Red Pox does no such thing, because it barely does anything before calling it a day. The few genuinely nice ideas do not come together to form something great. It has a great premise, but the execution is lacking, and the material is too thin to be genuinely engaging and useful.

No playtesters are credited in this publication

Rating: ** / *****


  1. It's disappointing to see all that nice art go to waste on mediocre content :-(

    1. Agreed, why don't people who have such good artistic skills partner with someone good at writing , instead of wasting their skills on something like this?

    2. Yeah, the design is striking, and the premise was very promising (which is why I picked it up). It stumbles on execution - unfortunate; "corrupt fantasy Venice during a plague" has enormous campaign potential.

  2. I've always thought a series of supplements detailing fantasy cities or citadels that used real maps as a starting point would be fantastic. Venice and the Potala would make two great examples, seeing Venice last year prior to visiting you really drove home that point. I guess maybe the potential customer market doesn't justify the effort involved?

  3. Good to see Zinemassacre 2021 is continuing into 2022! Not so good to see anarchists are still smuggling ideology into their Kickstarter RPGs.

    1. Oh yes, I can imagine someone reading a RPG supplement, then charging the barricades foaming at the mouth, all in living colour. If indoctrination by RPG would have any real effect, I'd be a purple-haired antichrist hacking the system from a Siberian hideout by now, judging from all the edgy stuff I consumed in my romantic youth.

    2. Hey, the author here with a correction on these comments. Nothing is smuggled here.

      To smuggle is to "convey (someone or something) somewhere secretly and illicitly".

      City of the Red Pox gives indicators of its politics in all public facing materials.

  4. Hi Melan,

    I am sorry that the wider zine disappointed, and I agree that the section which introduces the city in more depth is weaker than I would like, but this was my first time writing in a troika like style, and I didn't pull it off as well as I would like.

    You are right, I do avoid "Dense, two-column text". As much as anything because I find it uncomfortable and tiring to read. The whole zine was an experiment in making a work that would be something *I* would be able to use at a table. Something that gave discrete space to single ideas (or small clusters of closely related ideas), but also gave space for thoughts to run on from it. A book for someone who's ADHD and/or Dyslexia manifests as mine does. I hope that context helps. I understand it may not be to everyone's taste but it is done with intention.

    Beyond this, it appears you missed or neglected to mention that the overt commentary is not exclusively anarchist, nor in the author's voice. In fact, it is a Socratic dialogue between different characters and the text. The extract you quoted is in response to this section, in which another character who is praising the city's democratic credentials.

    "Antar is a thalassocracy within its own context. As Lambert
    describes in Seapower States(2018), such states are a threat to those that surround them because their progressive politics and innovative nature is an existential threat to the relative stasis of universal monarchy and theocracy. Few empires are impressed with upstart democracies, as they represent an alternative social order, and a threat to the authority of gods, emperor, and kings alike."

    To answer the question "why is antar on the verse of revolt" with "because the Author made it so" misses the context that Antar is an analogue for La Serenissima. The Serene Republic of Venice through a large portion of its history a city who's democratic and authoritarian tendencies co-existed in profound tension.

    Anyway, thank you for the review.