Thursday, July 27, 2017

[CRIT] Top 5 Roleplaying Games

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw my 40-Tweet strong thread in which I divulged what I consider to be my favorite tabletop roleplaying games, and why. I figured I’d articulate those thoughts here as well, for people who don’t use Twitter, and for people who get agitated being spoonfed reviews 140 characters at a time.
But before I get into all that, I have some loose criteria that I use to determine whether a tabletop roleplaying game is “good” or not:
  1. I don’t have to house rule it. It is extremely rare that I find a game I don’t have to tweak to fit my style of storytelling. I mean, just look at what I did to D&D 5e and Lamentations of the Flame Princess and World of Darkness. So I take it as a very good sign when I pick through a system with a fine-tooth comb and can’t find anything I want to change.
  2. The game does what it set out to do. There are a lot of systems out there that just can’t convey what they’re supposed to! Oftentimes, these games either carry over way too much baggage from a bygone edition or era, or their designers put pen to paper with a half-baked vision or a loose grip on game design.
  3. What the game does is wholly unique. So what if a game does what it’s supposed to when the thing that it does is boring or derivative?
  4. It changed how I play. I would only ever a game to be the creme of the crop if it revolutionized how I view tabletop roleplaying in general. This might be a high bar considering the rest of the criteria that follow it, but hey, we are talking about the best here.
So without further ado, here are the picks for Kinks & Crits’ Best Tabletop Roleplaying Game Ever (So Far), all of which meet the above criteria in spades.

5th Place: Fiasco

Written by Jason Morningstar
Published by Bully Pulpit Games
Fiasco is basically a Coen Brothers’ movie in a box: a bunch of flawed assholes screwing everything up and getting what they deserve (read: each other). Playing a game of Fiasco is about building up a comedy of errors until it blows up in everyone’s faces; if you get out unscathed, you were playing wrong. The bigger the explosion, the better!
A game of Fiasco takes 4 hours, and there’s no GM involved. One-shot, no prep. If you keep the book, some d6s, and a couple of playsets tucked away in your backpack, you’ll never have a boring game night. Or any night, really.
The magic of playsets is that there’s infinite replayability. Playsets are typically designed to evoke popular films and TV shows, which means almost everyone gets what’s up regardless of how experienced they are with roleplaying games. And it is a roleplaying game, the kind that pairs well with best friends and booze.
Fiasco was the first roleplaying game that showed me just how much mileage you can get out of a character-driven game. All you need is established relationships and shared needs within an initial stable of PCs and NPCs, and you’ll have enough material to keep your game running for months. Once you play Fiasco and apply what you learn to other games, it almost feels like you’re cheating.

4th Place: Symbaroum

Written by Martin Bergstrom, Mattias Johnsson, and Anders Lekberg
Published by Järnringen
It always bothered me how low fantasy D&D is impossible. The system is so entangled in Magic User supremacy and unwieldy power scaling that keeping death a constant threat and martial classes viable is too much of a hassle. And even though I have a deep appreciation for low fantasy, I don’t want to hamstring my players to emulate it.
But Symbaroum fixes all of that. Magic is powerful, but corrupts its casters. Death is always a possibility; the strongest and the weakest really aren’t that far apart, which means every unplanned combat is a coin toss; monsters are monstrous, not fodder for a roving band of murderhobos. The world is a scary place, and the moment the players lower their guard, they’re finished.
What really kicks ass about Symbaroum is its setting: there’s barely any of it, just enough to provide a baseline that any GM can riff off of. It’s like being given a set of Legos: you may be building a specific type of structure, but at least you don’t have to mold the blocks out of plastic yourself. What’s more, just looking at the assortment of blocks you have can make your brain piston-fire with inspiration. This level of lore is my sweet spot, and I wish more games did it.
The system itself is extremely elegant and conducive to both theater of the mind and light GM-prep. Besides, who needs a map and figures with such evocative book art? Symbaroum has its own identity, and it flaunts it. When the players so much as skim through the book, they look at each other warily from across the table. They know that it’s fucking on.
If you’re into grimdark fantasy like I am, you have no excuse to not own Symbaroum.

3rd Place: Dungeon Crawl Classics

Written by Joseph Goodman
Published by Goodman Games
Dungeon Crawl Classics takes everything that isn’t fun about D&D and says “fuck it.” It is the beer & pretzels tabletop roleplaying game. Nothing could reflect the spirit of DCC better than how characters are created: you roll up four random 0-level characters per player, and whoever survives is your character. DCC is one of those games you sit down at with a stack of extra character sheets. This isn’t because it’s lethal and brutal, it’s because it just doesn’t stop.
DCC is nostalgia-inducing to me because it brings it back to whipping out a sheet of graph paper, scribbling up a map, rolling up some dudes and gaming until the crack of dawn at your friend’s house. And since DCC’s mechanics are friendly towards those inundated with d20 systems, you won’t have to be a grognard to appreciate what made old school D&D so great.
By the way, the title is very misleading. Dungeon Crawl Classics isn’t a dungeon crawl, it’s a hack-and-slash. In fact, it’s my favorite Kobold-slaying simulator of choice. It doesn’t even pretend to focus on resource management; every design choice complements the frenetic pace of the game established from the death of your first character.
Finally, the icing on the cake: support for DCC is only rivaled by Paizo’s Pathfinder. Goodman Games has scores upon scores of zany, experimental modules that you won’t find in any mainstream fantasy roleplaying market. Goodman Games’ independent status allows them to be subversive, and they use that to their advantage. Just look at all those weird tables and funky dice!
Needless to say, I’m hella excited for Mutant Crawl Classics. I feel like Joseph Goodman will give us the Gamma World we were supposed to get.

2nd Place: Torchbearer

Written by Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane
Published by Burning Wheel Headquarters
Like I said, D&D never did the whole “dungeon crawl” thing too well because its resource management was way too clunky. This isn’t Gygax’s fault; he didn’t have decades of development in the roleplaying game industry to draw from (I mean, he’s the guy who made RPGs a thing, he had to break ground somewhere). Dungeon Crawl Classics recognizes this and rebuilds the system to be a murderhobo engine. But Torchbearer asks: what might have been?
Torchbearer isn’t only a love letter to the oldest school of D&D, it successfully modernizes the dungeon crawl. Resource management is centered around “The Grind.” You really do feel The Grind, and it organically forms hard choices that could mean life or death down the road. People have been debating over how to best handle lighting, movement, encumbrance, and time tracking for years, and Torchbearer shuts those arguments the fuck down. All there is is The Grind, pressing down on you mercilessly. Every subsystem is based around that principle. Save an arm, and lose a leg.
Adventurers aren’t glorified whatsoever. Most D&D parties are murderhobos that have the moral imperative simply because they are PCs. But in Torchbearer, the dungeon crawl doesn’t stop even when you’re out of the dungeon. You have to peddle loot just to scrape by, sleeping in the stables because the innkeepers don’t want any trouble, sifting through odd jobs for a couple months to finance another expedition, holing up for a week because you just can’t shake that crawling sickness. The world is a brutal one, especially when everyone sees you for what you really are: an opportunist.
When I need to run a dungeon crawl, I grab Torchbearer off my shelf. Other retroclones don’t hold a candle to Torchbearer because they duplicate the rules; Torchbearer emulates the Gygaxian spirit.

1st Place: The Burning Wheel

Written by Luke Crane
Published by Burning Wheel Headquarters
I’ve rewritten this entry dozens of times. To be honest, I get intimidated whenever I try to write about Burning Wheel. I’ll never quite do it justice, nor can I properly articulate the journey I’ve taken with it. I can try to tell you about this game, but the best way would be to show you: spend a few patient months with this game and a group of friends willing to learn it with you, then come back. You’ll see just what I mean.
The Burning Wheel is hands-down the most fun I’ve ever had reading a rulebook. Luke speaks with a voice that is very self-aware, waxing poetic when appropriate, and always challenging you to play the game as it was meant to be played. What looks like generic Tolkienian fantasy on the surface is actually a deep study of character-driven storytelling.
Metagaming is encouraged by The Burning Wheel, which is extremely refreshing. You are rewarded by throwing yourself into dramatic situations, and in order to properly construct these situations, the GM lays the goings-on of the world bare. In The Burning Wheel, you don’t run adventures, you weave epics, and this is too much weight for the GM alone to bear.
The rules don’t present a system to be gamed, but a crucible to be braved. Each and every rule was lovingly built from scratch, and interact with each other seamlessly, giving the game meaning. Roleplaying is hard-built into the mechanics, meaning that everything from how you grew up, to how you lay out an argument, to what you believe has gravity in the system. The learning curve of The Burning Wheel is notoriously steep, but it’s the only steep curve I’ve felt this rewarded for climbing. Once you have achieved system mastery, the game practically runs itself. I haven’t found a game since that my game group was so eager to learn.
Campaigns in Burning Wheel are meant to last a long time, because you don’t “get through” a session, you marinate in it. You critically examine the roles of the characters, the implications of their interactions, and the meaning behind it all. There’s a cosmic ebb-and-flow to it all that takes time to discover and fully appreciate, and I find those patterns in every other game I run. Extra Rotam Nulla Salus.

Honorable Mentions

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

When I first read the D&D Next playtest material, I saw what Mike Mearls was trying to do. I knew it was going to be big. I should have bought stock in Wizards of the Coast right then and there.

Urban Shadows

It’s like World of Darkness hit the gym, and got rid of its rules bloat, its lore bloat, and its system bloat. I wish I had been running all of my World of Darkness games in this. Oh, it’s also super duper queer, which is basically the new “punk.”

World of Darkness: The God-Machine Chronicle

There’s a running joke in my game group that every antagonist is the God-Machine. This setting is responsible for the highest-acclaimed game I’ve ever run; my players still constantly talk about it to this day. It’s an esoteric cosmic engine that I will treat like a tinker toy long after I stop playing World of Darkness.