I thought I’d do a bit of a survey look at games today, sampling a bunch that I go back to again and again but have trouble finding people who are up for them. They are incredible games and tons of fun but for some reason they don’t get the love I think they deserve. Consider this my effort to remedy that!
The games below aren’t a list of my Top Games of All Time or even my Top Games Right Now. They’re maybe not the best in their category even but they’re really awesome games that people need to know about. Not your cup of tea? That’s fine but you should know their good parts before you decide. If you read them and decide you do like them, well… I’m also looking for group!
Low Magic Fantasy: Shadows of Esteren
It might be the Gaelic-inspired setting or the moody, dark feel of the game (redundant?) but Shadows of Esteren inspires me to further drama and detail. It doesn’t have classes, just skills and focuses, but it does have archetypes which makes character generation a little easier than wide open games. The books themselves are gorgeous with amazing artwork and immersive layouts that you can use as game props as well. They also do investigative, mysterious stories (as the Monastery of Tuath campaign attests) and they are due out soon with a longer campaign called Dearg that promises danger, heartbreak, and supernatural evil.
The things that make this setting great are just as good as the gameplay elements. First of all, there are no unlikeable countries in Shadows of Esteren which is a big plus for me. Other games have those corners of the world that are just filled with strange, dumb stereotypes that don’t make any sense. Every kingdom and culture in the land of Tri-Kazel, however, is interesting and you can see the motivations of the people. On top of that magic is found throughout the world despite this being a low-magic setting so you can have your druids and your alchemists and still have gritty fights with no potion of cure light wounds. There are only humans in this setting but the creatures they fight are from every corner of your nightmares so you can get your monstrous fix there.
In short, I love the epic tone and full setting of this game and more people should play.
High Magic Fantasy: Spire
I’ve just written a lot about Spire so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I love it. I won’t go into a lot of detail here (you can read my other two posts for that) but let me tell you why I think this game is great and offers a lot more than a D&D setting or 13th Age. First of all, humans aren’t at the center which turns a lot of tropes on their head. You can’t have another trope of Humans Are Special and other races are niche expressions of humanity. It’s a game all about the drow and so they’re the ones that are adatable and varied and interesting whereas humans are just magical tinkerers on the fringe of the story.
Secondly, while there are no lich-kings or vorpal swords (at least in the book as written) this is definitely a high-magic setting with parallel realms, strange and magical creatures, and potions (though they’re mostly drugs). You can do all your favorite magical things from airships to spell-duels but you get to play a heist movie while you do it and there is nothing I don’t like about that sentence. Since the campaign setting is, by design, flexible you can also add in whatever you think is lacking (including dragons, halflings, talking doors, etc) and disrupt very little.
This game has all your fantasy needs and more and you all should be playing it.
Action Thriller: Night’s Black Agents
This one is fairly well known already but in my experience Night’s Black Agents winds up on people’s “I’ve been meaning to try that” list. Don’t just try, do it! I understand the reluctance, though, since the elevator pitch for this game is… weird. The PCs are ex-secret agents who have found out that you’ve been working for (wait of it) vampires for years and now you need to stop them. So, Bourne Identity meets Bram Stoker. What could go wrong?
It seems like it’s a flimsy premise but the reality is a supernatural thriller that is amazing. I’ve actually written about this a few times but NBA has an amazing system for creating and organizing complex conspiracies that will leave you reeling. If it seems like it would be impossible to organize those wheels within wheels in an RPG you’d normally be correct but Night’s Black Agents not only makes it far easier than it should be but it makes it adaptable. The PCs can take actions against the conspiracy to shut them down, those actions have immediate and tangible effects with no scrambling or hand-waving, and the GM can (on the fly, mind you) adjust the enemy’s reactions accordingly.
This game has everything you could want in an action thriller, plus tons of hacks and campaigns. Play it now.
OK, so Masks probably doesn’t need the bandwidth but I want to pitch it to people who might not have checked it out. One issue of superhero games, from Mutants & Masterminds to Wild Talents to Mutant City Blues is that you can never really capture every power mechanically. The three games mentioned above do a really amazing job at achieving that (with varying levels of crunch) but there are always cases that are not quite what you’d hoped or that are effectively impossible because the mechanical builds are so arcane only a master could craft them.
Then there’s the “Avengers Problem” as I call it. When you watch the Avengers you cheer for the Hulk and Thor and (soon) Captain Marvel but the story is also carried by Black Widow, Hawkeye, and even Captain America who are just not as impressive powers-wise. Cap can pull down a helicopter with his bare hands but the Hulk can barrel through a tank and Thor is literally a god. This mix of street-level and cosmic is really tough to achieve in most systems and often the vigilante types wind up with more points than they know what to do with.
Masks overcomes this by not worrying about powers at all. Instead the playbooks (basically classes) embody specific roles rather than abilities. I really love this idea and feel like it should be taken up in more games. Imagine picking “the muscle” as your class and then saying “I’m going to be a high-kicking martial artist” or “I’m a spell-empowered warrior.” It means that you can do what you like in the game and the emphasis is on your personal journey, your relationship with your teammates, and your effect on the world. It’s great and wonderful and so solid I have yet to think of homebrew for it, which is saying something.
If you’ve ever wanted to play a superhero then break out this game and play it now.
There are lots of contenders in this category. I love Star Trek Adventures (obviously) and feel like everyone should give it a go. Infinity is another 2d20 game in the far future that’s a little more out there and crazy tech stuff. There’s Eclipse Phase as well which was my very-most-favorite game once upon a time but I’m waiting on a final version of the second edition to talk it up some more.
What I want to signal boost today, though, is Coriolis the sci-fi game from Fria Ligan that uses the same system as Mutant: Year Zero. Two major reasons why this is a science-fiction game I think more people should be playing. First of all it’s an Islamic-inspired game which is really not to be overlooked. Non-Western inspirations for games (like the recently-reviewed Orun) is both important for exposure to the gaming community and is a way to introduce something different for your players. I don’t know about you but every time I try for a sci-fi game things can quickly start to sound like Star Wars or, more often, Firefly. This setting has so much detail but its roots are so distinctly different that your characters, stories, and themes will be different and memorable.
Check this game out and start playing. I promise you will not be disappointed.
Last but not least is the post-apocalyptic genre. What do you play when you want a gritty survival game after the world has ended? Well, there’s always Red Markets which is by far my favorite zombie survival game. However, it’s not for beginners (something that the author writes in the intro) so I don’t know if I can really recommend it widely to everyone. Something I can recommend, though, is Degenesis (specifically the sixmorevodkas version), a game about the far future after meteors destroyed all civilization in Europe. There are transgenic horrors, reclusive cultists, degenerate cannibals, alien psychics… Jeez, how can they fit it all in one game?
I’m not sure, to be honest, but they do and somehow its incredibly coherent as well. Things are turned on their head in this world where the rich and powerful African cultures are colonizing and subjugating the poorer people of Europe. At the same time there are so many familiar aspects to the setting that players will have immediate hooks to grasp onto. It’s just so solid and detailed and there are advancement ladders for each cult and… Seriously I could go on and on about this game. But I won’t.
Just go play it.