Welcome back to my Top Ten list! Last week I talked about my favorite board games, and today I'm going to shine the light on something else I'm very passionate about: role-playing games. I present this list with a caveat: I have not played every game on this list! As other RPG players know, its very difficult to play every new RPG that comes out. They require a dedicated group of people, preparation, and time.
Some of these I have played and, in full disclosure, some I have contributed to. However, none of them are my designers, property, etc. I don't stand to make any money off of any of these games or anything like that. What I have done is read them, made characters for them, studied them, and talked A LOT about them.
Here is my list of Top 10 RPGs in 2016:
10. Fantasy Age Bestiary, Green Ronin
I've loved Green Ronin's Age system back before Fantasy Age was even a thing (it is the same engine that powers the Dragon Age RPG). I love the Fantasy Age core book that they put out last year, and I'm glad to see them continuing the line. The Fantasy Age bestiary is everything you want out of a supplement. First of all, its huge and filled with amazing artwork. The graphic design is fantastic, they present a huge variety of monsters, and every entry is incredibly detailed, including ways to weave these monsters into your campaign. It is a great resource for Fantasy Age, or for anyone who likes looking at pictures of awesome monsters.
9. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed: Curse of Strahd, Wizards of the Coast
I am a huge fan of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. It made a lot of the tactical portion of the game (which has always been my least favorite, even though it is a draw for many others) optional and allowed players to focus on creating unique characters and telling cool stories. I love the character creation system and the streamlined mechanics. That out of the way, Curse of Strahd is the single best companion book they've released so far. First of all, it is a return to Ravenloft, my favorite D&D setting. The game is dripping in suspense, mystery, and danger. I won't spoil the adventure here, but the inclusion of one singular bad buy that acts as the party's nemesis throughout is a great inclusion. Unlike some of the other adventure modules that have been released, Curse of Strahd is a sandbox style game, where the players can explore the castle at their own pace, feeling a bit like Castlevania turned into an RPG. Seriously, if you're a fan of D&D or have been waiting for a reason to try 5th edition, this is your reason.
8. 7th Sea, 2nd Edition, John Wick Presents
At last, 7th Sea returns. After a record-breaking Kickstarter, John Wick, the original creator of the 7th Sea line, brings us a new edition of the classic RPG of swashbuckling swords & sorcery. For the most part, 7th Sea did not disappoint! 7th Sea was one of my most anticipated games of the year, and I was sure it would hit the top spot on my list. However, I wasn't prepared for everything else that came out this year! 7th Sea is a return to form, with heroic heroes and villainous villains, in a world that is maybe a little too black & white, but makes for pretty cool moments. The entire look of the world has been re imagined, and the book is filled with vibrant artwork that sucks you into the world of Theah. 7th Sea, 2nd Edition surpasses the first edition and is, simply, incredibly fun to play. Plus, you get to be a pirate.
7. Shadowrun Anarchy, Catalyst Game Labs
This year, Catalyst did the impossible. They made Shadowrun fun again. At least, fun for me. See, I've always, ALWAYS loved Shadowrun. It was one of the games that got me into tabletop gaming, way back in the day. You'll be able to tell from this list that I am a huge fan of cyberpunk games, and Shadowrun is responsible for most of that. However, the game just got too unwieldy for me. It requires a ton of planning, so much math (literally spreadsheets and tons of reference sheets are needed to easily play the game). I've grown to enjoy more of the indie-game story-telling method where the focus is on telling a story together instead of doing a bunch of math. Then here comes Shadowrun Anarchy, a game that takes indie story-telling mechanics and combines them with Shadowrun's math in a way that seems impossible but that ends up being incredibly elegant and, best of all, incredibly fun. Anarachy does not replace the main Shadowrun rules, so those who prefer the old way still have everything they need at their fingertips. But for me, I won't go back. I love the focus on collaborative story-telling, while still keeping the fun of building dice pools. Some of the more complicated aspects, like cyberware, hacking, etc, have been streamlined into a system of Amps, like Feats in D&D, that get added to your dice pools and allow you to pull off cool maneuvers. If you like Shadowrun but have also turned your back on the system, I think its time to try Anarchy.
6. The Sprawl, Hamish Cameron
Another cyberpunk game?? Yes, I do love cyberpunk. But that isn't what earned The Sprawl a place on this list. It is a brilliant implementation of the Powered by the Apocalypse system. I may be a bit biased here, because PbtA is my favorite game system, and so you'll see a few games using that engine on this list. But The Sprawl really shines in its adaptation of PbtA to a cyberpunk game not unlike Shadowrun. The Sprawl has you running missions with your team, at the behest of multinational corporations. The game includes a new concept for PbtA, called "Legwork," which is basically a montage of everything you did to prep for the mission. The better your Legwork, the more of an advantage you'll have on the mission. There are moments for drama to shine as well, as each character gains XP for different things that might pull them in different directions during a mission. (Yeah, sure completing the mission is important, but I want to level up too!)
5. Epyllion, Marissa Kelly
Another PbtA game on my list? Yes. But this one is about dragons. Scratch that - baby dragons. The setting, theme, and artwork in this game should be enough to draw you into it, but the gameplay itself is very solid. It has you taking on the role of semi-typical baby dragon archetypes, like smart academic, the risky daredevil, the brave warrior, etc. The goal of the game is to explore your world (and solve mysteries) while making friends and collecting friendship gems. But eventually, you will have to face the sad truth that you can't stay a baby dragon forever: eventually it is time to grow up and take on your adult responsibilities. The game does a lot of cool things with PbtA, including the addition of the Royal Dragon Houses, which grant different bonuses to your character, not to mention that everything about it is pretty dang adorable. Its a great game to play with kids and families.
4. Bubblegumshoe, Emily Care Boss, Ken Hite, Lisa Steel
The Gumshoe system came out a year or two ago and presented a system that focused on investigation. Normal RPG trappings, like combat, take the backseat to investigating crime scenes and looking for clues. The system is responsible for great games like Trail of Cthulhu and Timewatch. But Bubblegumshoe is my favorite. Bubblegumshoe is Veronica Mars meets Scooby Doo. You are a team of high school investigators solving crimes in your small town while dealing with normal high school stuff, like how cool you are, and who your best friend is taking to prom. The game focuses on social combat through a verbal "Throwdown" that pits two characters against each other in an argument, insult contest, or, in the case of one of my games, a rap battle. It is a more lighthearted take than say Trail of Cthulhu, but it isn't all sunshine and daisies. The game also deals with your character's relationships with their parents and other characters in the world around them, which can lead to some intense drama situations! If you like teen crime solving shows like Veronica Mars or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, this game should be on your list.
3. Undying, Paul Riddle
Another Powered by the Apocalypse game on my list? Yes. Spoiler: it isn't the last one either. I've said it already, but I'll say it again: I absolutely love this system, and I love seeing games that use the system in a unique one. And Undying is maybe the most unique RPG I've ever played. Players choose their playbooks from a list of fairly standard vampire tropes. After that, they compete for hunting grounds, stalk their prey, and try to drink as much blood as they can. Undying is interesting in that it is a dice-less RPG. Yes, no dice at all. Instead, every vampire accumulates blood, which they can then expend to take certain actions. The more blood you are willing to spend on an action, the better your result. In contests that pit vampires against each other, each vampire secretly bids an amount of blood to spend on the altercation. It is really a unique system that turns blood into a much-needed commodity. Undying focuses on the political side of being a vampire, like Vampire: the Masquerade originally touched on. Vying for control of the ruling house and picking the best hunting grounds for yourself will ensure that you have the most blood and power. The game is also unique in that time can pass very quickly. Since the characters are immortal vampires, when an action scene is done, decades may pass before the vampires re-enter the world to enact their newest machinations.
2. Blades in the Dark, John Harper
If you know what Blades in the Dark is, then you know what it is on this list. It is one of the coolest, most innovate RPGs I've seen in awhile. It is an "industrial-fantasy" game where your characters are members of a thieving crew trying to make a living for themselves and build a criminal empire by carving out a piece of the haunted city Duskwall. (Yes, you live in a haunted city). The game is split between various phases: planning the mission, executing the mission, and investing back into your empire. The game will see you fighting other games for territory, taking control of new buildings and locations, and being dastardly thieves, right from the beginning. You start at the bottom rung and fight your way up from there, with the goal of achieving some sort of notoriety for yourselves. It is brilliant, beautifully designed, and puts the focus on the amazing, and often dark, deeds your characters pull off. It is seriously worth checking out, and is not only near the top of my 2016 games of the year, its close to the top of my favorite games of all time.
1. Headspace, Mark Richardson
If not for Headspace, Blades in the Dark would be my number one game. It was a touch decision on how to place these, but Headspace just barely nudges Blades out. Headspace is a cyberpunk game utilizing the Powered by the Apocalypse engine. What a minute, didn't you just read about this game? Yes, Headspace is similar to the Sprawl. When they first came out, I wasn't sure there would be room in my life for two PbtA cyberpunk games. But I was wrong. While Sprawl focuses on the corporate intrigue and mission based running, like Shadowrun, Headspace goes to a much deeper place: emotions.
The premise of Headspace is incredibly interesting. It is a cyberpunk future where your team is able to connect their minds together remotely, in order to hear what they are thinking and to access each other's memories, a bit like the TV show Sense8. See, in Headspace, every character can be compared to Jason Bourne. When they are doing what they are specialized in, be it hand-to-hand combat, driving, piloting, using weapons, etc, they are the best at what they do. But when one character is forced to do something they have no skill in (like the pilot needing to fight their way out of a situation), they have to rely on their mental connection and borrow the skills from another character. This turns them into somewhat of a badass, but every time you do this there is emotional bleed, which is one of the coolest things I've seen in an RPG. See, every character has an emotion linked to their skills that represents some past incident. Maybe fear, or guilt, or anger. When someone borrows your skills, they experience the linked emotion too. If they experience too much of a linked emotion, it can drive them crazy. The game also presents a "Ghost" player to borrow from. Right before the action of the game, one of your teammates dies. But their consciousness still exists, trapped in your neural network, still experiencing the same emotion they felt when they died. They will speak to you, offer guidance sometimes, and allow you to use the abilities the rest of your party might not have. Headspace is a roller coaster of emotions. It isn't about doing the mission and getting paid, its about telling a story full of drama and coming to terms with your past actions. It deserves its spot as number 1, and it is a must have for every RPG library.