Monthly Archives: December 2019

Willow’s List: Top 10 Roleplaying Games of the 2010s

It’s been a great decade for roleplaying games, with many quality releases, both big and small. This is my personal list of the top ten games of the 2010s, based on actual play delivered at the table. I took a number of qualities into account: how innovative is the game? How vibrant is the community it has fostered? But most importantly, how fun is it?

Only included are actual games, no supplements, expansions, or adventures. Also absent are any reprints, re-edits, or re-releases of any kind. New games only. Also, none of the games that I personally released are on this list, even though they are all excellent. And despite my best efforts, I have not managed to play all the games that have been released this decade, so there are likely some games that have passed me by.

#10: Microscope (2011, Ben Robbins)

Ben Robbins was originally most famous for his D&D experiment the West Marches, an epic hexcrawl game featuring multiple players in the same world, dropping in and out of fluid groups. This same world building drive is seen in his later games, Microscope, Kingdom, and Follow.

I don’t even like Microscope. I think it’s too dry, too easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the game to avoid caring about the emergent story. But I can’t deny its brilliance, or the ambition of its premise. In Microscope, you and your fellow players create a timeline of events, regarding any topic you agree on before the game begins: the rise and fall of an empire, the ongoing war between the gods, or the history of a single city. Players take turns creating events on a timeline, and then zooming in on key points to play them out. These scenes are the only in-character play Microscope features, and risk end up being stilted. The end result also ends up being pretty gonzo, because while there’s some exercises at the beginning to get everyone on the same page, and generate a list of elements that are encouraged or disallowed, after that there is not supposed to be any player-level negotiation. Don’t like what someone did? Play somewhere else on the timeline. If players can’t harmonize their visions for the timeline, Microscope goes off the rails. But despite all this, Microscope serves as a roadmap for many of the worldbuilding games that followed.

#9: Mythender (2012, Ryan Macklin)

Do you want to roll a bunch of dice? No, even more dice than that. No, keep adding some. Oh dear, I think you may have to buy some more dice. Okay, you can stop now. Let’s go kill some gods.

Mythender is a frickin’ metal game of epic heroes on the cusp of godhood themselves going out and killing some tyrant gods. In the tutorial adventure, which teaches the ropes of the game, the heroes get to kill Thor, and there’s rules in there for pruning the whole Norse family tree, or the pantheon of your choice. Narrate impossible stunts, get a ton of dice, use those dice to get even more dice, then blow up a god. You can always draw upon your own mythic strength to get more dice and cool powers, but you risk becoming a god in the process… and becoming the next Myth that needs to be Ended.

This is the game that I wanted Exalted to be, high-powered, high-stakes action. The mechanics are essentially a die pool system, however a very unique one that is a bit unintuitive to take in all at once, but the tutorial adventure introduces these mechanics in a very logical series of events. The game also properly establishes the mindset for the GM to treat the players with the respect their characters deserve, addressing them as Lord or Lady Mythender, and acting almost like a game-butler. This game does just one thing, but man does it do it well.

#8: Dungeon World (2012, Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel)

The first Powered By the Apocalypse World on this list, but it won’t be the last. Like Microscope, Dungeon World isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it’s impossible to deny Dungeon World’s impact. Dungeon World was originally envisioned as a way to adapt D&D for the indie crowd, but what it really ended up doing was adapting indie techniques for the D&D crowd. All the familiar D&D tropes are there, with a streamlined system that makes improvising for the GM easier and focuses on establishing interesting consequences for failure, resulting in the sort of dungeon antics that people remember fondly and talk about for years.

As a player, Dungeon World often feels too easy for me, and as a Gamemaster, a touch too freeform: I seem to prefer concrete challenge in my dungeon delvers. However there are a lot of people whose tastes differ than mine, and if you enjoy the tropes of D&D but find the mechanics cumbersome you should give this a try. (It’s one of the few games I’ve gotten my parents to play; they both loved it, and my Mom even asked if we could keep playing after I suggested we wrap up for the night.)

#7: Dungeon Crawl Classics (2012, Joseph Goodman et al)

Dungeon Crawl Classics exists in the orbit of the OSR (Old School Revival/Revolution) returning to the roots of D&D, back before editions were numbered and the dice had to be filled in with crayon and the road to the dungeon was uphill both ways and by golly that’s how we liked it. Rather than serving as a fan edit or remix as many alliteratively titled OSR games do, DCC builds on what the designers viewed as the principles of OSR gaming and the narrative style of the fiction present in Gygax’s original Appendix N: Further Reading, while using the 3rd edition D&D SRD as a foundation for the rules. This is the swords and sorcery fantasy of Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance, with seven sided and twenty-four sided dice to bring back that sense of wonder you felt the first time you picked up those polyhedrons the first time around.

DCC is just plain weird, in a way that many D&D imitators aren’t, featuring a magic system that feels strange and mysterious, interesting crits and fumbles, and a series of adventures that are some of the most imaginative around. DCC is particularly famous for the ‘0-level funnel’ type of adventure, where each player starts with 4 characters who have a d4 hit points and not much else, trying to survive by their wits and luck. This style of play is very divisive, much loved by some, hated by others, but certainly worth trying at least once.

My main issue with DCC, which prevents this game from being higher on this list, is the holes in the rules, areas where things are a bit unclear, or a common situation results in a difficult to assess situation. (An example: any Wizard with a luck modifier rolling on the 1d100 Mercurial Magic adds or subtracts modifiers in increments of +/- 10, meaning that rolling off the table becomes statistically the most likely result. I would not recommend taking that as a result of 1 or 100, as they are extreme.) In the OSR community these sorts of things are often viewed as an advantage, giving each individual gamemaster a way to put their own unique stamp on the game (no two GM’s I’ve played with seem to do Luck exactly the same, for example), but I am a firm believer that clarity is one of the most important things for a rules text, and making sure that rules can be universally understood is especially important for a game with as large an organized presence as DCC has. The game is gonzo as hell and I love it, but this clunkiness holds the game back.

#6: Dungeons & Dragons, (5th edition, 2014, Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford et al)

The only new edition of a previously published game on my list, many will be surprised at its placement at the number 6 spot. D&D is the behemoth of the tabletop games industry, easily the most visible and most played of any rpg. (The 2nd most visible and played is Pathfinder, which is now the 4th edition of the 3rd edition of D&D. After that it drops off sharply, in practical terms, there is no number 3 in market share.)

D&D 5th edition is the least innovative game on this list, taking it’s mechanics from earlier editions of the game. There’s something for everyone in here, no matter their favorite edition. Those ‘old-school’ gamers who felt betrayed by the design choices of 3rd and 4th editions find a return to the frameworks that they were used to, while keeping the best mechanical innovations of 3rd edition and a fair number from 4th. This is a ‘big tent’ game, designed to be approachable to all players, which means it does a lot of different things, but isn’t great at any of them. In terms of sheer polish, this is the best D&D yet, and Wizard’s commitment to quality rather than quantity of source books has been refreshing. The published adventures present months of viable play, and are generally excellent. This version of D&D happens to coincide at the same time as the rise of streaming play, allowing prospective new players to watch a game of D&D before playing it, resulting in an expansion of the hobby like never before. While there’s no reason that another game can’t or won’t be someone’s entry to the hobby, D&D has decades of name recognition behind it and dominates the rpg conversation.

#5: Torchbearer (2013, Thor Olavsrud & Luke Crane)

Like Mouse Guard (2009), Torchbearer is a revision of the core Burning Wheel rules: simplified in many extents, with a specific focus on a single style of play, and in this case that style is dungeon delving murderhobos. Torchbearer is a well oiled machine that chews up adventurers and spits them back out, hungry and tired, chasing that next big score. One of the best mechanics is the Grind, which by every four turns (a turn being one die roll or conflict) resources get used up and adventurers get worn down. Torchbearer demands skillful play of its players, both in interfacing with the dungeon environment and in mastering the game mechanics, which not everyone is willing to put the time and energy into, but is highly rewarding. Like Dungeon World, this is an old school dungeon crawler with modern mechanics, but where Dungeon World will fight you on an exploding steampunk zeppelin, Torchbearer will shiv you in a back alley for spare change.

#4: Blades in the Dark (2016, John Harper)

Easily the best system for heist games I’ve played, Blades in the Dark casts the players as a band of criminals in a game of an industrial magical world of perpetual night. The system uses a pool of dice with the best number taken, 1-3 being bad, 4-5 being okay, and 6 (or even 2 sixes!) being best. The system takes some getting used to, since it involves the GM setting stakes on two axis before the roll: how effective is the action being taken (Effect), and how bad are the consequences for failure (Danger). Because of this I find Blades challenging to run, and one of the few games that I prefer playing to running. The setting of Duskvol is well established in the book- perhaps too well established, since it can create an intimidating wall of information to process, and everything is linked directly or indirectly to everything else. Challenging to process, but resulting in a dark gritty world that feels alive with its own story and flow, existing despite the schemes of the players. The core of the system is the ‘Forged in the Dark’ system, which has already produced the excellent Scum and Villainy (planetary space rogues) and Band of Blades (military fantasy, reminiscent of The Watch.)

Success in Blades in the Dark is hard fought: most of the time there will be consequences for success, meaning any victory will come at a cost and be fleeting, which is fitting for the grim and perilous world of Duskvol, and has the potential to create an avalanche of play as things go wrong and repeatedly escalate. The danger in play is feeling like you are under the sole of a boot stamping on your face forever, unable to get out from under it, which is damn appropriate to the setting, but is it fun? It can be, but it can also get repetitive.

#3: Itras By (2012, Martin Bull Gudmundsen and Ole Peder Giӕver)

The best game you’ve probably never heard of. Or you have heard of it, in which case you are a person of distinguished taste. Itras By is a Norwegian noir surrealist roleplaying game, set in the titular city of Itras By, which exists in a dream and feels like something straight out of The Dark City or early-mid 20th century dystopian sci-fi. The book is beautiful and full of exercises to get the reader thinking about surreal game play techniques, including ones that encourage the reader to write in, deface, or otherwise physically modify the game text. Play is essentially improv, punctuated by cards featuring responses like “Yes, but…” or “No, and…”, the same system used in games like Archipelago, for when an impartial resolution is needed. The other mechanic that influences play is the Chance Cards, which impart a bit of surrealality into the experience. Each player can draw one each session, and they have effects ranging from the subtle – your character gives a monologue to the audience about their inner thoughts – to the absolutely bonkers – objects and abstract concepts animate and begin to talk and interact with the scene. Play is super fluid, and can go from heartfelt to strange to silly to serious and back again seamlessly. Every session I’ve played has been a joy, and incredibly unique.

The Itras By Menagerie (2017) adds even more Itras-ness, with essays on play, new card suggestions, new setting stuff (including a section by yours truly), and is even thicker than the original book. This game is worth checking out, if only to see just how weird roleplaying can get if you let it.

#2: Monsterhearts (1st edition 2012, 2nd edition 2018, Avery Alder)

Monsterhearts is a game of teenage monsters, and being a teenager is often the harder part of that. Think of all your favorite tropes from media like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and other Teen Monster fiction, put them in a blender, and turn the melodrama up to eleven. Powered by the Apocalypse, each of the different playbooks (“skins”) is a different type of monster, with all your favorite monster mashers featured: the Ghost, the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the most evil of all monsters, the Mortal (who has the power to get into toxic relationships. It’s awesome.) The rules reinforce that the characters are teenagers and don’t have the best control over themselves, creating messy storylines of love triangles and property damage, as hearts and bones get broken. My favorite rule is that of The Darkest Self, a paragraph on each playbook that turns them into a giant raging asshole, and a threat to everyone else, under certain conditions. The Werewolf wolfs out, the Witch goes mad with power, and the Ghoul goes on a feeding frenzy. Darkest Self gives you permission to be that guy who is like “I’m just playing my character,” – nay, it requires you to be that guy, and it’s liberating. This is a twisted game that results in twisted stories, and I love it. It is also the most queer-positive game out there: every character is queer by default. (Hint: the whole ‘becoming a monster’ is a metaphor for coming to terms with ones own sexuality.)

This is my favorite game to run for a con one-shot; in four hours it delivers a delightfully murderous time, every time, but the campaign games are just as fun, allowing for more of a slow burn story, dangerous secrets coming out (pun intended) and as much anticipation as waiting for next week’s episode on the CW. (A campaign I ran resulted in the “A Very Monsterhearts Christmas” session, which will forever live in Infamy in my playgroup.)

#1: Apocalypse World (1st edition 2010, 2nd edition 2017, Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker)

Already beloved in the indie scene for games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent Baker struck game design gold at the beginning of the decade with Apocalypse World, which spawned the Powered By the Apocalypse system, taking off and inspiring dozens and dozens of new games. Teaming up with his wife Meguey Baker (1001 Nights), this vision of the Post-Apocalypse is dark and gritty, painted in broad strokes with careful word choices, encouraging and demanding the GM and players to collaborate on building their own post-apocalypse wasteland, but fortunately giving everyone the tools needed to do just that.

Where to start with this one? The dice system is simple: roll 2d6 and add a modifier. 7-9 is a success, possibly with a consequence, 10 or above is a full success, and 6 is a failure. However each die roll is a scripted ‘Move,’ with explicit rules for what happens at each level of result. This means the GM spends less energy interpreting results, and more time getting to be creative about how they’re going to screw you over when you finally do roll that 6 or less.

Characters in Apocalypse World are larger than life, incredibly competent, and bound to make their mark on the setting around them, which is good- we want to be interested in them, right? People expecting a gritty system where death can come for you at any moment may be disappointed. Scarcity is everywhere, and death surrounds you, but the player characters are survivors by nature, burdened with enduring this broken world.

One of the best things in Apocalypse World (and it’s a game full of best things) is the chapter on GM advice, laying out very specifically what techniques to use in running AW. It’s concise, specific, and not optional: a lot of GM advice takes the wishy-washy tack of “here’s some techniques you can use, if you want, I guess,” and Apocalypse World takes that stance out back and shoots it. AW tells you specifically to Be A Fan of the Player Characters, to Ask Questions and Build on the Results, to Say What Honesty Demands, and best of all, to Barf Forth Apocalyptica. These mandates foster an environment of trust and collaboration between GM and players, and instruct the GM in how to run a killer game of Apocalypse World. The game is worth the price of admission for the GM advice alone; even if not running an AW game, much of the advice is widely applicable, and considering it carefully will make you a better GM even when running a game that demands the exact opposite of one of its Principles. I frequently see Principles (or statements clearly like them) transported into other games, especially ones not Powered by the Apocalypse, and I think this is great, calling attention to how to GM the game for maximum enjoyment, and a mark of this game’s lasting influence.

In addition to making a damn fine roleplaying game, the Bakers have called attention to and codified roleplaying procedures that a lot of us had been doing anyway, and given us the vocabulary to talk about them in simple terms. Vincent Baker’s thoughts on the structure of roleplaying games is like the discovery of the Atom, opening up advances in design in myriad directions. If there is a game that has defined the collective game design of the decade, this is it.

Honorable Mentions:

These are all fine games deserving of your notice, in no particular order except the alphabet.

13th Age (2013, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet): A simplified reimagining of the D&D 4th edition experience, 13th age scraps the battlemap in favor of narrative flexibility. Full of cool ideas, mostly buried under the hype of D&D 5th edition.

Dog Eat Dog (2013, Liam Liwanag Burke) a game about Imperialism and the effects it has on indigenous societies, Dog Eat Dog is fast, lean, and insightful.

Fate Core (2013, Leonard Balsera et al) The generic system of choice for designers putting out essentially a setting book, Fate is well refined but bland. The earlier Spirit of the Century was a bit clunkier, but had a lot more spirit. Easy to adapt, a one-size-fits-all approach.

Forbidden Lands (2018, Eric Granstrӧm) The only game on this list I haven’t actually played, Forbidden Lands is a dark fantasy Hex Crawl, using the same d6 system as Mutant Year Zero and Tales from the Loop. The boxed set is beautiful, and features a double sided Hex Map with stickers, making every group’s Hex Crawl unique and generating a unique artifact to prove it.

Ghost Court (2017, Jason Morningstar) Is it an rpg? Is it a larp? Ghost Court is advertised as a ‘party game,’ but let’s get real, it’s a larp about ghost courtroom drama. Judge Judy with ghosts. You know you want it.

Mars Colony (2010, Tim Koppang) A roleplaying game for two players, with one of them an administrator trying to save a failing Mars Colony. (Hint: it’s a metaphor for real world politics.) It uses push-your-luck rolls to try to get progress, and issues ripped from whatever piss you off about politics in your country.

Scum and Villainy (2018, Stras Acimovic, John Leboeur-Little) It’s Star Wars Forged in the Dark. I actually like it more than Blades, since it feels a little more accessible.

The Black Hack (1st edition 2016, 2nd edition 2018, David Black) An OSR game with razor-light rules, and tables chock full of weirdness. Already has spawned many Hacks of the Hack.

The Clay That Woke (2014, Paul Czerge) Shouldn’t you be thinking about minotaurs? Probably the weirdest resolution system of any game I’ve played, bidding tokens into a bowl and then drawing them out and comparing the results to a table. Worth buying just for the strange setting, and has some interesting things to say about society and masculinity.

The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power (2018, Todd Nicholas et al) Game of Thrones powered by the Apocalypse. That should really be all you need to know.

The Watch (2017, Anna Kreider) Military fantasy Powered by the Apocalypse, and the player characters are all women. And the shadowy enemy is Literally Patriarchy.

World Wide Wrestling (2015, Nathan Paoletta) I’m not a wrestling fan, and I loved this game. PbtA, the rules create a great narrative of in- and out of ring action. Just don’t break Kayfabe.