Thursday 29 February 2024

A Review of Sinjin


Sinjin! A PDF (so far) adventure-game by M Diaz and Jackson Smith. Art by Scrap Princess, Julie de Graag, Jackson Smith, Katie Vasquez, and Alfred Stieglitz. 

Available here; 

Some nerds in late-Victorian Fantasy Florida accidentally killed Death and took their (her?) stuff leaving the netherworld bollocked up and bleeding through in a Florida swamp.

Now YOU must wander about finding stuff and not getting killed in a magic swamp that’s a bit (but not very) different every time you go back, with the very general aim of making things better, or at least not making them worse, and maybe even FIXING DEATH. 

(Note, criticisms or analysis are intended to have a neutral tone. I am not claiming I could do better (I haven’t), OBVIOUSLY this is the opinion of one man. I should not have to explicitly state something so fucking obvious and banal but the west has fallen so here we are.)


The Grand Concept 

Sinjin is an Indy game. Looked at from a D&D perspective, it’s an adventure with some decision processes attached, looked at from a storygame or AW-like perspective its .. perhaps the best description would be an object-and-location based game with an internal clock and some simple arrangements for resolving conflicts. 

It’s in the blurry boundary between a more hard-edged D&D adventure, a soft Gauntlet-style ‘scene’ based game and an actual story game. This might be a cognitive space that is actually quite hard to design for. When I come to things I would probably question about Sinjin, many of them seem to have roots in its vague and curious origins. It’s a gypsy child in a noble House!

The Sinking Swamp 

The adventure space is made up from the combination of two main concepts; the geographic shape of the Swamp in which you are wandering around, and ‘Depth’ a kind of transformation of the play area rooted, in the paracosm itself; in the slowly deepening and decaying power of the supernatural as the swamp is sucked into the netherverse, and in game design terms; in dungeon levels and things like Emmy Allens Stygian Library.


The Swamp 

We have causeways, a river system and swamps in between, with a small number of specifically-mapped distinct areas called ‘Landmarks’ and a variety of smaller less-specific minor landmarks.

With each new expedition the arrangement of the major Landmarks changes somewhat, but some aspects of the nature of the linkages between them remain, and the total number of major Landmarks doesn’t change and the details of their particular individual geography don’t change.

So for each adventure you have a rough idea of what places can be found, and of how to get there, but to fulfil your mission and get to, for instance, the abandoned sugar-mill, you will still need to wander around investigating etc. 

“The Territory is unfriendly and unpredictable, but the goal is for navigation to be challenging, rather than impossible. To this end, clearly communicate to players that the general locations of major landmarks don’t change relative to the primary river channel and causeways (e.g. the Fish Camp, Great Vine Barren, and Ritual Wellspring are all linked by the primary channel; the Old Stone Fort, Fish Camp, and Sugar Mill are connected to each other with a triangle of causeways).”

 So in effect a shifting linecrawl, using the river as a guide.

(One of the notable ways that the particular nature of the place, the environment, and surrounding and historic culture work their way into the game is how deeply and richly embedded they are into every aspect, from the locations themselves, to objects, abilities, characters, monsters etc.)



The Swamp is either sinking into the Netherworld, or the Netherworld is merging with the Swamp and expanding. In game terms, ‘depth’ makes reality more phantasmorgic, surreal, dreamlike and dangerous; 

“Depth 0

Sweltering days and balmy nights. You sweat, and the air hangs thick and damp around you. The land smells of orange blossom, wet grass, and, beneath the surface, the sickly sweet scent of decay.”

 “Depth 9-12

Quiet as the grave. By day, the Sun is dim and brassy; by night the Moon is actinic and painfully bright; you can see clouds pass behind both, and the sky feels claustrophobically low. Vast figures pace the horizon. Hair, fabric, and flora waft and wave as if buoyed by an invisible tide.

 Depth can be accessed by diving into the Ritual Wellspring (one of the main Landmarks). 

A great blue heron lies rotting near the reeds, one glaucous eye toward the sky. It whispers out to the first person who gets near it. It wants mullet from the Fish Camp. Each time it gets some, it’s flesh reknits a little more. After three times it will rise up– its neck still broken and slack, and will offer a Ghost Contract as a silent stalker.


You can also dive out of your depth and back up to your original. Depth also re-sets if you leave the adventure area and take a rest – you just come back in at whatever the current minimum depth is.

Some buildings and locations only exist at certain depths. To fulfil some missions or solve some problems you will need to ‘dive’ to particular depths and once there, find a specific familiar location, now presumably with much stranger and more dangerous things in it.

The land is slowly ‘sinking’ into deeper depths. Humans dying immediately increases minimum depth and leaving without completing goals also increases minimum depth. So the more adventures you have in the swamp, the ‘deeper’ everything gets. You can also bring Depth back up by achieving some goals or defeating some major foes. There is an end-point to all this – if Depth hits 13 then the curse escapes the area and spreads across the world. The game is built around this ‘ticking clock’.

While ‘Depth’ in Sinjin it has some relation to Dungeon Levels, Emmy Allens ‘depth’ in Stygian Library and Stygian Garden, Vandermeers ‘Annihilation’ and the Ballard and Stugatsky stories that prefigures it, and possibly some forms of madness in Call of Cthulhu, I don’t think I have seen or conceived of anything quite like this before. If you are into game design you are probably reading specifically for the combination of ‘depth’ and the semi-shifting geography.

I found the particularities and details of Sinjin as, or more, interesting but less scaleable since their deep interrelationship with this specific environment and situation is part of the appeal.

So. You are investigating a shifting version of the same place again and again. In effect, going back in to the ‘same dungeon’ again and again. While the ‘rooms’ shift around there are always the same rooms and growing contextual knowledge should help you both navigate between places and, in particular, make classic D&D style tactical use of the geographic particulars of each location, which never change.

But how would it feel to investigate the same ‘places’ over and over again, with them becoming ever more hallucinogenic and strange and populated by ever stranger and less comprehensible forms of the dead and undead? 

“The Territory is different every time players enter it. There are a handful of key constants, but players can never quite count on things being the way that they remember them.” 

This puts Sinjin in a complex relationship with the classic D&D-alike game actions of exploration and investigation.

Of course this is not D&D, nor intended to be so. It’s clearly a more drama-oriented ‘Gauntlety’ game. But many of these games that present themselves as ghost stories, soap-operas or interpersonal dramas, still have a lot of exploration, investigation and combat, and the interpersonal drama happens around those props. AW is built for the Soap Opera element in all of its parts but few of the ruleslights that draw from it are.

Would it be interesting or frustrating? Would the concept of ‘depth’ add depth or feel repetitious? There are enough supernatural etc connections and possible intrigues that might create a layered feel as you explore again, for different reasons, knowing where you will find but not what.


Diaz-Objects in Game Design 

When I talk about a Diaz-esque ‘elegant’ piece of game/world design, what I often mean is the use of natural language concepts and clear comprehensible idea structures in ways that allow complex gameplay without a lot of arguing or difficulties over how many points or whatever you have.

(I am of course assuming that most of these came from Diaz based on some familiarity with his previous work, though he is not the only author.)

Some Examples; 

Deaths Whetstone is a good call

The main factions of Sinjin are guilds of Necromancers, each of which is based around some item or tool they took from Death when Death died; a whetstone, inkwell and loom. Each of these is a creative tool that produces items with certain limited magical effects; sharpened blades, documents and cloth.

They are tools which create or alter other objects, and the originals are presumably eternal or don’t decay or wear but the objects they create do wear and can easily lose those qualities. To whit – sharp blades being blunted (it’s that particular sharpness and not the blade itself that has the magic), paper being burnt, lost or, in a swamp, rotting or the ink washing out, and clothes tearing and being worn. Presumably the main objects could be stolen or lost, and their creative capacity is focused into one useful and tangible modality.

Basing the factions around items, specifically around tools which create other items, themselves limited in both effect and in the numbers created, is a nice neat piece of game design. It unifies faction play with a neat in-game economy of access to magical items with highly specific uses which will themselves naturally degrade, and links that to the overarching theme or story of the game in a way that feels natural, functional, intuitive and right.

As a counter example imagine a faction with a portal, another with a magic book and another with say a non-creative tool like a spoon. In each case the effects produced are vague, hard to intuit, they don’t necessarily produce objects unless the game tells you, in which case another layer of abstraction is required to describe exactly what the guilds can do, (‘death points’ or something) and probably direct control of the tool is required to produce those effects, which then cannot be traded, lost, stolen or carried. (Unless you specifically describe that in the text; “you lose ten death points” etc.)

Necromancy in Sinjin

To put it very crudely, Necromancy in Sinjin is kind of ghost-Pokémon, or the indenture of specific incorporeal servants with specific skill and identity-locked abilities.

You can grab certain ghosts in certain situations and command them, but only in ways limited by their core nature or their prime or central function in life. There is also a material cost if you want to achieve material ends. So necromancy doesn’t create something for nothing, but instead is a transformer of one kind of generalised resource (ritual, sacrifice) into something more specific. It’s a Bank Account, or like having a clade of invisible servants with specific skills who can be called on to do things relating to those specific skills. You can re-interpret what those skills might mean or how they might be used but you don’t need to argue with someone over whether you have +5 to your Necromancy roll or whatever.

You can also grab animal souls or murderers souls, and even a flock of crows.

Key Diaz-esque aspects of this are that;

-        It’s all in natural language, no numbers.

-        It uses directly comprehensible real-life concepts (the soul of a Blacksmith, the soul of a flock of crows) with inherently obvious and clear limitations and abilities etc.

-        It directly embodies all of this in the paracosm; i.e. you have to take an hour to burn herbs at sunset rather than spending +10 Death points for a death surge.

-        Its relatively self-limiting and encourages thinking of new uses for the ‘tools’, (souls) you have and different interactions between them and the environment.

Expeditions, Treasure and Rewards

You start each game with a mission (taken from one of three generated by the DM), for one of the Guilds, for which they will offer a specific treasure, all of which are magical tools, often with limited uses, which will help you doing stuff in the swamp.

The possible expeditions are; Establish, Scout, Rescue, Recover, Collect and Hunt. Only one of the six core mission concepts involves necessary violence, the others involve investigating and getting, or in some cases schlepping big heavy things to places.

The rewards or treasure you get for these have a nice American Arcana feel; 

“Bragging Coat. A coat embroidered with boasts and depictions of great deads. Once per expedition, you can attempt a single act of superhuman strength or aptitude (jumping a great distance, kicking down a barn wall, picking a lock with a pine needle, telling a joke that makes a corpse laugh).” 

They feel like elements from a ‘Silver John’ story, though I don’t know if those tales were an influence, probably any independent investigation of American folklore would produce things ‘a bit like’ Silver John.

Having specific missions is a good idea because quite frankly, Players are basic as shit and unless you actively point them at a thing they a specifically meant to do, they will just wander blather and get lost in decision fatigue. Being able to pick from three different missions of different difficulty and lethality from three different factions is neat, as is starting the game in media-res with the PCs already in-country.

Hopefully the combinations of missions will play a part in adding depth and texture to the repeated missions; if the Guild of Scriveners paid you to set up a camp in one mission or grab a hostage then the results of that should still be in play organically in future sessions.

As well as the core reward for completing each mission there is a ‘Wandering Devil Merchant’ who wants to sell you various trinkets, and treasure, or ‘salvage’ which can be discovered in places you are likely to find it according to DM judgement. This is mildly sketchy, and somewhat gamic, with a touch of ‘Death Points’, but the actual Salvage are all in-world self-limiting Diaz-Objects; 

“Black Heron Spyglass. Once per expedition, you can look through this spyglass to see yourself at the location you’re observing. When you remove the spyglass from your eye, you will find yourself in that location.” 

So there is that gypsy child again. 


Monsters and Encounters

The creatures are universally interesting. Broken up into ‘The Living’ ‘Lesser Dead’, and the ‘Greater Dead, which are mindbending ‘final horror’ semi-inexplicable nightmares. There are some stand-outs. The Sabal Sphinx, one of the ‘Lesser Dead’ has some very good ‘D&D-esque’ rules;

“62 Sabal Sphinx

A human and panther corpse twisted and crushed together. One of its human hands holds a palm frond before its doubled face, and its four unmatched eyes peer out between the pinnate leaves. Its ruff erupts into palmetto, mimicking the leaves of its namesake. The killer and the killed, the eater and the eaten, existing in delightful amity forever and ever and ever.


Traits: wise, strong, large, fast, resistant to mundane weaponry

Weakness: lazy, gluttonous, harmed by salt, silver, and holy water


Disappear into and emerge from any two palm fronds in the Territory.

A Sphinx sequentially reveals its eyes to anyone who can see in the order that is most advantageous to it. Once it’s full face is revealed it may use any of its abilities at will.Reveal right human eye: Charms a person it can see into fighting for it

Reveal left human eye: makes a person bleed from their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth

Reveal the right panther eye: Terrifies a person it can see into fleeing

Reveal the left panther eye: Paralyzes a person it can see

Full face revealed: Anyone who sees it is gouged with invisible force as if with panther claws.!”


The Living are less modernist monsters: alligators, cutthroats, packs of wild dogs and rival exorcists, honestly you could go a long way with just these, especially the cutthroats and rivals, and if a party is small or wounded, the wild dogs.

The modernism and abstraction of some of the monsters and Greater Dead makes them excellent art pieces and good elements for a fancy horror movie, or for a written narrative, but perhaps a bit challenging to actually run.

Is this going to be another game/adventure where the flavour text promises encounters with impossible entities but the most fun you have is trying to escape a pack of angry dogs? Nothing wrong with that if it’s the case but…


There is a curious dissonance between the items, fictional structures, the imagined idea-space of the game, which is solid in conception and simple to relate, clear and interesting, and the decision-forming process of the rules of the game itself, which are very ‘Gauntlet-ey’ with lots of ‘just discuss it with your players’ and ‘the DM will inform you if you are in immediate danger of death’ which isn’t quite the same as a player choosing to do anything at all if they have only one HP left

Auto find soft salvage just for burning time looking in appropriate areas; not sure about this one.

Is this just another adaptation of the basic decision concept of Apocalypse World? Basically a quite soft conversational system. Same with Harm & death, very McDowallian, big on simple roles and clear communication of risk.

A foldable coracle in opening equipment, but we don’t know how hard or difficult travel will be (yet), but the ‘Car Problem’ from Urban RPGs might be a thing.

No list of names or likely surnames and no PC-relation chart instead you just talk about it. Honestly random PC connection stuff is something I like from Bakerish or McDowallian games.

This is probably because Sinjin itself is a synthesis of rules and concepts from the two main creators with a chunk of the ‘engine’ taken from here; 

The rules on pg 4-5, the For GM note on pg 10, and the Advancement rules on pg 14 are adapted from from 24XX CC BY Jason Tocci.”

 I have no idea who or what that is. Man I am out of the loop.


Its competent. Not my preferred style. Moody black and white photography. Pen and ink drawings. The individual art is good taken on its own terms! Just not my preference. (Obviously I like Scraps stuff).

‘Sinjin in colour’ would be a good call, especially considering the hallucinatory nature of reality as ‘depth’ increases .. and of course, Florida should be bright! More Florida Man energy! More Jorodowski less Ansel Adams!

The maps are competent and useful.

My Judgement

I like all of the parts of this and I find its elegance of conception and arrangement very pleasing.

I like the environment, which, in its details and processes seems drawn from life.

I like the worldbuilding through factions, items, foes and greater organisations which are honed to the point of interaction.

There are mild elements I would not disapprove of but perhaps question;

“There are many details we have elided or only gestured at, most significantly the precise nature of the disaster that created the Territory and the way to mend the damage it has caused. This can be an unresolvable mystery or the primary goal of the players.”

Hhnnn the disembodied spirit of Jason Cordova rises in the shadows cackling mysteriously. “Why the players decide!”

No! Get they behind me thou serpent!

If there is a chance the game could be an investigative one about a big central mystery then the policy of feeding off the players improv & feeding it back to them is one I don’t really like. Its ok in a soap opera like AW but fake investigations only really work if people can all intuit they are fake investigating to tell the story of the investigation and this is not fun for me. If a big mystery is part of the game there should be an Actual Truth and clues and layers of shit to finding out what it is.)

The Gypsy child feels slightly awkward to me. Wil they fulfil their destiny & save the manor with their honest heart or end up baked and syphilitic in an opium den? YOU decide of course! By purchasing and playing Sinjin! Available HERE!!!!




  1. I'm not convinced I'll be able to run this game, but just for inspiration alone you sold it to me immediately

  2. Thanks for pointing me towards this game, very much up my alley! For reference, 24XX is a very stripped down ruleset designed as a "you can adapt this to any setting" engine, which you can find here:

    It got popular through the magic of being short to read, and collecting a bunch of modules/releases for different settings with great cover art. See here:

  3. Thanks for pointing me towards this game, very much up my alley! For reference, 24XX is a very stripped down ruleset designed as a "you can adapt this to any setting" engine, which you can find here:

    It got popular through the magic of being short to read, and collecting a bunch of modules/releases for different settings with great cover art. See here:

  4. This part made me laugh:

    "Hhnnn the disembodied spirit of Jason Cordova rises in the shadows cackling mysteriously. “Why the players decide!”

    No! Get they behind me thou serpent!"

    The intertextuality and discourse (directly and indirectly) in this scene (and subscenes) never ceases to intrigue and entertain me. Thanks for this haha

  5. Did a big lol at the spirit of Cordova

    As someone who's played a fair bit of Public Access, I feel kinda strongly that you shouldn't knock the players provide the solution to the mystery until you've tried it. It worked great for my table of largely trad TTRPGers

    That said, Jason is his own special thing.