End-of-year lists are a strange exercise on their own, and the notoriously fractured nature of the tabletop RPG industry makes condensing its creative output into an easily digestible, yet comprehensive article pretty damn intimidating. Outside of Wizards of the Coast, Paizo and publishers such as Free League and Chaosium, keeping track of release schedules can feel like a full-time job of scouring forums, social media accounts and crowdfunding storefronts.
How, then, do you write a list that will satisfy the d20 diehards, the Scandinavian superfans and those jumping on the growing wave of Japanese-influenced RPGs? I’ve crawled in the digital journalism trenches long enough to know you can’t. My list will be incomplete and nakedly reveal my own biases. It won’t mention this incredible RPG that only 400 people religiously played because its marketing budget was funnelled solely into Facebook ad placements. It will disappoint both camps on the Dungeons & Dragons divide, and many of you will find plenty of faults in every one of my selections.
These are not meant to be perfect games. Instead, they are the titles that managed to rise out of the information soup of my brain due to their novelty, their unique construction or because I believe they will prove influential to the future of this industry. Shout out your own kitchen-table stars so that we can all take some fresh experiences and exciting adventures with us into the new year.
1. Dungeons & Dragons 5E - Turn of Fortune’s Wheel
Live, Die, Repeat (kind of) in a sprawling fantasy multiverse from the biggest name in the business
Let’s get Wizards of the Coast’s entry out of the way up top. Despite weathering one of the most publicly fraught years in recent history (and currently embroiled in Hasbro’s massive layoff of 1,100 employees), Dungeons & Dragons managed to relaunch an obscure setting last visited in a 1999 computer game through a trio of books exploring the interplanar world of Planescape. Here in the 11th hour of D&D’s Fifth edition and the dawn of something new(ish), the preeminent tabletop RPG has created an adventure that feels like the roller coaster nobody rides because it leaves your bones aching for two days after.
Chunky adventure book Turn of Fortune’s Wheel tosses plenty of longstanding best play practices out of the proverbial window. Character death isn’t just commonplace; it’s expected by level 1 as players bumble their way through a land both goofy and threatening, only to reappear later as their alter egos from another dimension. This book isn’t perfect – shoddy pacing and threadbare connective tissue put a lot of storytelling weight on the dungeon master – but Turn of Fortune’s Wheel proves D&D can play fast and loose with its own assumptions, and I hope whatever comes next doesn’t forget that fun.
2. City of Winter
Diasporic communities spend generations travelling the length of a scroll in search of a new home
What do we take with us when we leave home, and – perhaps more important – what do we leave behind? The thoughtful and quietly tragic collaborative storytelling RPG City of Winter centres a community’s changing customs as they flee an unstoppable desolation, carrying enough provisions for the journey and whatever lessons they feel will help them survive.
Like Heart of the Deernicorn’s previous game, Fall of Magic, this title puts players on a stage to act out vignettes between personal rosters of characters, trading wisdom, resentment and wistful memories of what was lost. These characters will age and eventually die, taking with them the lessons of their forebears. New customs gleaned along their immigration fill the cracks, fundamentally altering the caravan as they search for the eponymous city. This game is neither bombastic nor thrilling, but nothing this year cut so keenly as this gorgeously constructed contemplation on accepting – and eventually celebrating – the impermanence of everything.
Buy City of Winter from publisher Heart of the Deernicorn's online store.
Sweden’s oldest tabletop game lives again as a white-knuckle dice-thumper with a serious funny bone
If there’s something tabletop RPGs love more than 20-sided-dice, it’s hearkening back to the ‘good ol’ days’. This halcyon era varies widely depending on your cohort, but the prolific designers at Swedish publishing outfit Free League pin it squarely on the 1982 Drakar och Demoner. Scandinavia's first tabletop RPG has been reborn as Dragonbane, and its odd brand of fast and brutal roleplay is well worth a shot on your table.
With a head full of the past but boots firmly marching into the future, Dragonbane performs an impressive feat of synthesising clear Old School Renaissance gaming tendencies with the lessons afforded by modern design – add a dash of the studio’s Year Zero Engine for spice. The Misty Vale setting feels alive without bogging down players with decades of worldbuilding because every bit of this game is meant to usher players out the door and into the path of adventure. From anthropomorphic duck knights to classic fantasy tropes such as dragon emperors, this game is the perfect system for adventuring parties who want to sweat and laugh in the same session.
Buy Dragonbane from publisher Free League's online store.
4. King Arthur Pendragon 6E
“Here lies Arthur, King that was, King that will be”
Knightly nerds have been waiting decades for the 6th edition of the historically obsessed and chivalric romance-bent King Arthur Pendragon RPG. Knights striving for glory, tragic tales of betrayal and corruption, courtly politicking and brutally swift combat – this title is a wrapped-with-a-bow gift to those whose fondest high school memories include reading The Once and Future King. Even as a starter set, Chaosium’s latest incarnation of Greg Stafford’s love affair with Arthurian legend delivers on player’s expectations.
Pendragon’s knightly characters are creatures of two reigning virtues – greedy, chaste, cruel, merciful, etc. – and their trevails will pull them between these two ideals to the point that they will be literally unable to carry out acts that betray their own heart. The starter set’s campaign situates players in the time just after Arthur the boy-king pulls Excalibur from the stone and ascends the throne. How they react to this momentous change, and the dramatic legends that ripple outwards from it, is what makes Pendragon such an electric experience on the table.
5. Vaesen: The Lost Mountain Saga
Tabletop RPG-turned-podcast-turned-RPG supplement is more than the sum of its parts
Vaesen has quietly emerged as my favourite tabletop RPGs over recent years, and this year’s supplemental release The Lost Mountain Saga delivers the best experiences that this mystery-meets-folklore system has yet offered. Directly adapting Ellinor DiLorenzo’s actual play podcast of the same name (which is powered by Vaesen in an Ouroboros-esque turn of events), this collection of five mysteries delves into the psyche and imagination of its Swedish-American creator to pick at the scab of oral traditions, politics and a Nordic region on the verge of global change.
It feels pat to applaud a Vaesen book for its art because consistent illustrator and co-creator Johan Egerkrans consistently splits the uprights with his depictions of both empathetic creatures and monstrous people. But Lost Mountain Saga is a high water mark of layout, visual design and cartography that invites players into a slightly different version of the Mythic North than other Vaesen books have portrayed. Luckily for us all, the magic remains firmly intact.
Buy The Lost Mountain Saga for Vaesen from publisher Free League's online store.
6. Break!! RPG
Equal parts Legend of Zelda and Ghibli dreamscape in a tightly designed and beautiful package
Decade-long labour of love Break!! RPG should be everyone’s go-to recommendation for those players wanting their tabletop sessions to feel a bit more like watching the latest isekai anime. Familiar D&D design roots belie a clever amalgam of old-school nods and innovative ideas into a roleplay experience that emphasises exploration, character expression and portraying a world that is at once both wondrously new and comfortably nostalgic.
Playing Break!! feels like walking through a mosaic of anime tropes in the best way - parties will likely contain catboys, quirky robots, magical girls and dimensional outcasts who were on their way to school before landing smack-dab in the middle of a field. Despite its derivative nature, this RPG manages to convey the love and care its creators obviously carry for the source material – Break!! wears its heart on its sleeve, and players will not regret dropping all pretence and following suit.
Pre-order Break!! via its Kickstarter pledge manager page.
7. Apocalypse Keys
Stop your enemy-turned-lover from kickstarting a doomsday scenario with a stolen kiss
Rae Nedjadi and Evil Hat’s Apocalypse Keys melds BPRD’s best moments and the acrid sting of tragic queer stories into an unforgettable creation. Boasting a devilish augmentation of the classic Powered by the Apocalypse design ethos and asking players to sacrifice either their bodies or the bonds between each other to stop a seemingly inevitable collapse of reality, how could you not want to sink your teeth deep into this experience and relish the bittersweet taste?
Players portray monstrous agents shunned by society and collected into found families of outcasts who might just be the key to saving the world. This well-known setup twists the knife by bestowing impossible choices and devil’s bargains in every piece of their kit. Do they reach for power they know will corrupt every fibre of their existence to save a friend on the edge of death? And when that same friend tries to pull them away from embracing oblivion, will the ties that bind them be enough to redeem a soul convinced of its own damnation? I keep returning to find the answer.
Buy Apocalypse Keys from publisher Evil Hat Productions' online store.
8. Fabula Ultima
Loving dedication and satisfying systems vaults this Japanese-inspired title above lesser pretenders
As a reformed World of Warcraft player, Final Fantasy XIV always felt out of step with my MMORPG proclivities. That didn’t stop me from attempting several times to allow Hydaelyn to sink its hooks into me, but they never found purchase. That might change with Fabula Ultima, the award-winning tabletop RPG love letter to Square Enix’s mega-successful video game and a title that - like Break!! - shatters the mould of simple imitation.
Fabula Ultima’s core system adapts Japanese tabletop RPG Ryuutama’s two-dice contests that ask players to draw on their connections for support, whether those bonds are supportive or antagonistic. Rigid class structures are eschewed for a more adaptive character identity that reflects their societal position in the RPG’s familiar melange of high fantasy, magitech and anime influences. Connections are the name of the game, both for combat and storytelling. And like the best Final Fantasy XIV storylines, Fabula Ultima sings when players lean into the intimate melodrama amongst all those bombastic spell effects and massive, god-killing weapons
Buy Fabula Ultima from publisher Need Games' online store.