I’ve spent a large portion of my life playing – and writing for – tabletop role-playing games. I have a few favorites to be sure, and I’d like to spend this week’s post talking about some of them – what I like about them, and why.
First up is the Big Daddy of all tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Have to say I’m super-pleased with 5th edition (the current incarnation). It streamlined a lot of the clutter from the 3rd and 4th editions, while still keeping a rich level of detail. It’s easily the most popular tabletop RPG, and for good reason: not only was it first in the genre and largely the default setting for tabletop RPGs, but it continues to draw a steady stream of new gamers into the hobby, some of whom discover other RPGs with settings they find more compelling and therefore supporting other companies as well. I’ve written a modest amount of material using the D&D system for a third-party setting, the Scarred Lands. My material was written under the community content program, known as the Slarecian Vault: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/4261/Onyx-Path-Publishing/subcategory/8329_29809/Slarecian-Vault
One of my all-time favorite genres for gaming is supernatural horror, and no game captures that genre as well as Call of Cthulhu. It was the first game to emphasize an investigative – rather than combat-oriented – approach to problem-solving. I’ve played (and been the game master, or Keeper) for this game MANY times, and while I do need a break from playing it periodically, I always come back to it. The cosmic horror aspect can be overwhelming: good Keepers will infuse one or two less mind-blasting mysteries from time to time for variety, taking a page from Scooby-Doo or even ghost hunters.
When Vampire: the Masquerade was first published, I was skeptical of the crowd that eagerly embraced it. I worked in a game store, and was exposed to the most unappealing elements of that fandom. Many years later, I finally played the game – albeit in a new edition called Vampire the Requiem – and found I enjoyed it. One thing the game tries to emphasize is the struggle to maintain your humanity, even though, as a vampire, you are no longer human. This struggle adds an element of poignancy to a game that could easily devolve into nothing more than a grim fantasy of carnage and bloodlust. Sometimes you just need to kill imaginary foes to blow off some steam; depending on the game master (or Storyteller in this case) your game can be a little of both. The vampire politics are often highly dangerous, and I found the Requiem edition to have a more interesting environment with political and religious factions vying for control of the vampire world – mirroring the human world in a way that reflects that quest to maintain humanity quite elegantly. I’ve written material for Vampire, both in print and in the community content Storytellers Vault: https://www.storytellersvault.com/index.php?src=sistersite
Though I haven’t played them in years, I enjoy forays into the world of superhero role-playing games, and while there are many good systems out there, my favorite is still Mutants & Masterminds from Green Ronin Publishing. Superheroes are not everyone’s cup of tea, which mostly explains why I haven’t played in a superhero game in so long. Still, M&M has the thoughtful flexibility built in so that you can create your own unique hero or you can build Superman or Batman and have adventures in Metropolis or Gotham City.
Shadowrun combines the high-tech dystopian future of the Cyberpunk genre with fantasy elements such as dragons, trolls, and elves, to create a fusion that I find intriguing. Shadowrun’s System uses a dice pool, meaning you have a number of dice representing each of your character’s skills and abilities. When faced with a challenge, you roll six sided dice for the skill required and for the ability it uses, needing a certain number of successes depending on the complexity of the challenge. Luck, therefore, is a major factor as in nearly all role-playing games, but it’s often mitigated by the care one puts into creating their character. A muscle-bound and augmented Street Samurai might have trouble hacking a hotel security system, but that’s not what a Street Samurai is designed to do well. I had the advantage of gaming with a designer for the game who was also a good game master, so that helps.
As a steampunk and a gamer, Victoriana scratched two itches for me at once – a rare thing. The system closely resembles Shadowrun in that it’s dice pool-based and uses six-sided dice, and elves, gnomes, and trolls are part of the population in this industrial fantasy take on the world. I loved the colorful world-building in this game.
Steampunks may be fans of dressing up, but sadly, they don’t seem to be fans of the printed word as it relates to their hobby. Victoriana was a fun game, but didn’t do all that well, sales-wise, and is now out of print, though PDFs can still be purchased from Drive Thru RPG. I highly recommend the 3rd edition of the game. https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/54/Cubicle-7-Entertainment-Ltd?keywords=victoriana&src=browse54
Bushido may be my favorite RPG of all time. Based loosely on D&D’s system and somewhat obscure, I came to it when I first moved to the big city. I was looking for a gaming group, and one that was recommended to me was playing this. Having at least a passing interest in Japanese culture, I signed on, and was gratified to have one of the best long-term gaming experiences of my life to date. I loved Bushido: meticulously researched, the material in the book is well organized, though potentially intimidating in volume. It does a decent job of blending the feudal Japan of samurai films with mythic Japan of folklore and legend. Bushido explores fictional Japanese culture to the degree that such a thing can, and I appreciated its occasional insights.
I’ve never had much success in recruiting people to play in a regular game of Bushido for any length of time: Mythic Japan seems too alien to most westerners. Also a downside; the publisher has a reputation for questionable contracts, making it difficult for the creators to exercise any control over the direction or even publication of their creations. Villains & Vigilantes creator Jeff Dee had to sue this same person to regain SOME of the rights to V&V, so it’s tough to recommend Bushido as a result.
Gaming can be a delightful pastime. Choosing a group of like-minded individuals is key for long-term success, and while some groups like to switch things up and play different games from time to time, some play one game for years – decades, even – and not tire of it. While role-playing games may not be for everyone, they offer something for nearly any taste or interest, so potential is there for anyone for an enjoyable, long-term hobby.