Five RPGs enter…five RPGs leave, because this isn’t the Thunderdome. There is only one winner though.
Until I’m allowed to pit RPG systems against one another in a series of trials, each more deadly and insidious than the last, candidates are instead judged based on how much of an impact they had on the gaming world, what they brought to the table (top), and which ones look like they could handle themselves in a fight.
While there were many fantastic nominees, in the end only one could be chosen to be the destructor form of Gozer the Gozerian, so come and join us as we separate the giant marshmallow men from the Slavitza Jovans.
Now you know this. This is a fact you cannot escape from.
In the year of the Sci-Fi RPG, there’s no doubt that Startin derived has made a huge splash. It’s Pathfinder, with tweaks, in space, sure. But those tweaks are fairly substantive, and they change the game, giving us a glimpse of what a revised Pathfinder might look like. Streamlined, but with added emphasis on customization. Starfinder gives players the tools they need, including a starship, especially a starship, to put the galaxy at their fingertips.
Cthulhu Dark puts the horror back in cosmic horror. This is not a game you play to tell a story of investigators overcoming the minions of the elder gods in two-fisted action with Tommy guns, dynamjte, and spells. It’s a game of investigators losing themselves. Losing the fight. Of dark settling in, and the terrible costs you’ll pay to keep the light flickering a while longer. If you want to run a horror game, if you want to ruin something that feels like Lovecraft’s stories–as opposed to something that makes you fight Lovecraft flavored villains, this is the game for you. And for me. With lush settings like Cyberpunk Cthulhu Mumbai, and 1849 London, and so on, this book really changed the way you can think of a horror game.
Blades in the Dark may be the best Powered by the Apocalypse game out there. It sets out with a very clear goal in mind and executes it perfectly. And that goal: creating the feeling of running a gang of scoundrels and ne’erdowells, is one that we don’t often see. This is truly a game about an ensemble–the gang itself has a character sheet. Characters have these checklists that they have to take care of between missions that squeeze character development out of them–which sounds terrifying but is actually great. It’s a new twist that puts regency rogues in the hands of your players.
Then of course there’s the Tomb of Annihilation, which is my favorite of the published adventures that D&D has put out. It’s easily the best of the bunch, with its characters that are full of love and humor, with quests that understand what it is to threaten players of characters, not just characters. This book is something special–if you want the archetypal D&D experience, this is a great place to start. Full of memorable moments, this campaign seems designed to showcase the fun and the drama you can have playing D&D.
Now we come to our number one finalist. This could easily be my new favorite RPG. We reviewed it only last week, but Tales from the Loop has made quite the impression this year. It delivers masterfully on the experience of one of those kids on bikes moments, packing it full of mystery and mundanity. When you sit down to play this game, got won’t realize how important a scene where kids get picked on by bullies can be, or how much a simple dinner with your dad–especially against a backdrop of robots and dinosaurs. But it makes those little moments shine and gives you a road to role playing you never knew you wanted.
Of course there can only be one winner. And Xanathar’s Guide is a huge update for D&D. Introducing new subclasses, spells, and feats for players–while at the same time finding ways to make the smaller, less rules intensive stuff like a description of how to use tools or a random background generator matter to the game even more than those things–Xanathar’s Guide is a phenomenal showing. It is what an RPG expansion should feel like. WotC is on guard against power creep, careful to keep story and character at the heart of the book, and they subtly get you b to refrain the way you think about each of the classes. Xanathar’s Guide sparks creativity and immersion in unexpected ways. As our RPG book of the year, it should.
I cannot recommend any of the bonds on this list hard enough. They’re all amazing, and deciding was tough enough as it is. With even more incredible releases lined up for next year, it is going to be a rocky road–full of cochise, ice cream, and deliciousness. You’d do well with any of these books–or take the challenge to play each of these games at least once in the new year.
What’s your top RPG for 2017?
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