Hey, what are some of your favorite tabletop RPGs?
Hoo, boy - that’s a tough one!
Well, first off, I’m not too much of a gaming hipster to put Dungeons & Dragons on my list. I wouldn’t pick out any one edition as a clear favourite; I appreciate both OD&D and 4th Edition for the focus and rigour of their mechanical design, for all that they’re aiming at very different design goals, 2nd Edition is my favourite for setting fluff and general high weirdness, and I admire 3rd Edition’s purity of purpose, if not always its actual execution. I imagine I’ll even come around on 5th Edition, once it finally decides what sort of game it’s trying to be.
Beyond D&D, I’m not much of a fan of many big-name titles - I never said I wasn’t a gaming hipster at all! - so it’s mostly high-concept indie stuff from here on out. This shouldn’t be taken as any sort of top ten; they’re merely the first ten that sprang readily to mind. Here we go:
- Among the Beautiful Creatures (direct PDF link) - A playtest draft of an unreleased game about a world that’s perpetually ending, populated entirely by shapeshifting monsters who resemble nothing so much as Muppets. Picture Jim Henson does Fritz Leiber and you’ll be in the right ballpark. (Content warning for graphic descriptions of child abuse, including in the introductory fiction.)
- Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine - A game about young gods growing up in a pastoral small town. The core system is a downright fascinating piece of game design, basically taking the idea of XP rewards for roleplaying and driving it to its logical-yet-absurd conclusion: quests take the form of specific character development arcs, which you advance by invoking appropriate tropes and story beats. Conflict resolution uses a combination of blind bidding and semantic arguments (yes, really!).
- The Dance and the Dawn - A narrative game for 3-5 players who take on the roles of the Ladies of Ash, come to the crumbling palace of the Ice Queen to court the enigmatic Lords of Ice. (Or ladies, if you prefer; the default setup is admittedly a bit heteronormative, but there’s nothing that actually demands the Lords of Ice be men.) The game is diceless, with resolution employing pieces on a chess board.
- Fate Accelerated Edition - Unless you’re totally new to the tabletop roleplaying hobby and/or you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you’ve probably heard of FATE. FAE is a super-lightweight version of the game, perfect for casual or pick-up-and-play games. By default, it’s focused on YA fantasy adventures, though there are expansion packs available that adapt it for everything from giant robots to competitive cooking to a tabletop adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit - and no, I’m not making that last one up.
- Lady Blackbird - A fantasy space opera game that’s a true masterclass in minimalist design. The entirety of the basic core rules fit on your character sheet, so everything you might need to reference as a player is right there. The book is a game and adventure in one, with the default scenario revolving around helping the eponymous Lady Blackbird (who can be a player character, if you want) escape from an arranged marriage and meet up with a notorious pirate lord.
- Nobilis - A companion game to Chuubo’s (see above), this is a much higher-powered iteration of the same basic idea, focusing less on heartwarming small town life and more on punching the Sun. It’s in the running for the RPG with the most descriptively high-powered player characters; a correctly built starting PC is capable of performing miracles that affect the entire observable universe, and matters only escalate from there.
- Ryuutama: Natural Fantasy Roleplay - A localised Japanese game about people going on overland journeys; think Oregon Trail by way of Hayao Miyazaki. Fairly old-school in its design sensibilities; if you’re a D&D fan, you’ll find a lot that’s familiar here, along with a lot that’s not. The GM is an actual character within the game, taking the form of an invisible dragon who watches over and guides the party’s travels.
- The Shab-al-Hiri Roach - A competitive, GMless game of campus politics in a small New England university town. The twist is that any given character may or may not be possessed by an evil brain-sucking cockroach from the dawn of time; if you’ve got the roach, you’ll occasionally be subject to irresistible telepathic commands, represented by randomly drawn cards written in ancient Sumerian (with English subtitles, of course).
- Valley of Eternity - A game in the classic swords and sorcery mould, focusing on
gritty adventure in an unforgiving wilderness. Players
take on the roles of outcast warrior-philosophers, sworn to defend the
very communities that shun them, both through strength of arms and with
the aid of esoteric mental disciplines that allow them to craft cunning
illusions, manipulate objects from afar, or even imprison enemies within
their own minds. Also, all playable characters are penguins.
- Wisher, Theurgist, Fatalist (direct PDF link) - When folks talk about tabletop RPGs that are so high concept they’re barely playable, this is what they mean. Player characters inhabit a world that does not, properly speaking, exist, and it’s their responsibility to bring it into being. Includes rules for players declaring setting details, inventing new game mechanics on the spot, and even deposing the GM and taking her place!
Other favourites that didn’t get full descriptions only on account of I didn’t think of them first include Blades in the Dark, Blue Rose, Danger Patrol, Die For You, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Feng Shui, Golden Sky Stories, Hero Kids, Itras By, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, Paranoia, Perfect (Unrevised), Pokéthulhu, Risus, Sufficiently Advanced, Tenra Bansho Zero, Traveller, and Unknown Armies; I’ve included links to previous recommendation posts where the game in question is discussed, if available.