Tabletop roleplaying has come a long way since Dungeons & Dragons debuted in the ‘70s. Long considered one of the best tabletop RPGs ever made, D&D is experiencing a golden age of sorts, popping up in the likes of TV show Stranger Things and wildly popular playthrough series Critical Role.
However, there are so many brilliant tabletop RPGs out there beyond the esrtwhile Dungeons & Dragons, which cover a broad range of themes, settings and playstyles. Whether you’re looking for a horror, sci-fi or dark-fantasy RPG - and much more besides - we’ve rounded up the best tabletop RPGs out there. You can play all of them right now, just get some dice, a sourcebook or three, and an amenable attitude towards crunching rules, should the glorious mantle of game master come to you.
Best tabletop roleplaying games
As well as the best tabletop RPGs out now, there are several great upcoming tabletop RPGs to keep an eye out for, going as far afield as Scandi folklore in Vaeson: Nordic Horror Roleplaying, or the RPG adaptation of Root - one of the best board games ever made.
That said, if you want to travel to other worlds - and try out the odd silly voice - there are plenty of tabletop roleplaying games out there to enjoy. Perhaps you’d like to summon eldritch horrors, murder all of your friends as an unfortunate clone-bot, wield one heck of a mean katana or even, gods forbid, fight a dragon with these brilliant tabletop RPGs. Pack those dice. Let's get rolling.
1. Dungeons & Dragons 5E
The original tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons was invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Armenson. It evolved from medieval wargaming and has gone through five iterations since its 1974 inception, not to mention countless settings. But even after four decades, D&D remains one of the very best tabletop RPGs you can play.
While its cinematic adaptations have always fallen short, the tabletop RPG itself has just got bigger, better and more varied over the years. Whether you’d like to scour the war-torn plains of the high-tech Eberron, explore the cursed jungles of Chult or drink cheap beer in the seedy streets of Waterdeep, there’s so many places to explore in D&D. Its current edition, Dungeons & Dragons 5E, prioritises storytelling and immersion more than ever before.
The tabletop RPG has persevered over the decades for two reasons: first, it features a range of lore-packed Dungeons & Dragons 5E RPG campaigns that can take you from the Nine Hells to a dread demi-plane full of vampires; and secondly, it’s just plain fun to play, a wonderful mix of creative storytelling combined with strategy. It’s also a fantastic tabletop system for creating your own stories in too, as it has a thriving homebrew community and is hugely adaptable.
Players struggling to find a group could consider trying online tools such as Roll20 - which allows you to play tabletop RPGs online from anywhere in the world, complete with digital stats, dice rolls and battle maps.
2. Call of Cthulhu 7E
Published by Chaosium in 1981, Call of Cthulhu is a horror tabletop RPG that pulls from the cursed mythos of author HP Lovecraft. As well as rolling from a pool of polyhedral die to combat and investigate, the tabletop RPG also sees you doing sanity checks in a desperate bid to avoid the inevitable madness that befalls your average Lovecraftian protagonist.
A game of mysteries and terror, you all play investigators. Although there’s ample opportunity to do battle with unhinged cultists and monstrosities from the great beyond, Call of Cthulhu is not one for combat-junkies - unless lots of death is your bag. Instead, it has arcane puzzles, maddening secrets and an awful lot of fleeing.
Call of Cthulhu’s adventures are typically set in the 1920s; however, it has a myriad of spin-offs that spice up the setting, such as Delta Green and Cthulhu Rising, which take the series to the 1980s and 23rd century respectively.
Classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns include Masks of Nyarlathotep, an epic multi-part adventure that in which you travel the globe in a bid to save the world from dark entities. There are also a raft of smaller adventures out there for the tabletop RPG, such as the Saturnine Chalice supplement.
As well as its physical incarnation, Call of Cthulhu is also available via online tabletop RPG platform Roll20. Fans of cosmic horror may also enjoy the recently released The Yellow King RPG, which is based on some of the short stories that inspired Lovecraft. It’s part of a raft of upcoming tabletop RPGs landing this year.
For an easier roleplaying access point to the Cthulhu mythos, be sure to check out rules-light and storytelling RPG Cthulhu Dark, or take a glance at the numerous horror board games that draw from its slick tendrils.
3. Blades in the Dark
Blades in the Dark is a particularly unique fantasy RPG - one of our 2019 Games of the Year it turns out. You play a gang of criminals pulling heists in a filthy steampunk-style city. The whole vibe is twisted Victoriana, with plentiful ghosts, lightning and cruel bureaucracy.
Firstly, you all pick a horrible criminal archetype, which can see you speaking to ghosts, robbing shiny goods or summoning hordes of urchins - depending on your tastes. You’ll then band together to pull off shady heists as part of a long-form campaign, playing out the consequences of the last big job - whether that means the city guard are on your trail, or you’ve attracted the attention of a nastier, bigger underworld boss.
Blades in the Dark is also one of the less mechanically meaty tabletop RPGs out there. You assign stats appropriate to your class, then roll a d6 for each point in the skill you have. Due to limitations in class, each party member usually ends up being good at a few specific things.
Of all these mechanics, the flashback one proves the most conducive to storytelling. At any point in the game, you can pause and point out a thing that happened in the past relevant to your character. For example, you might have acquired an item, or spoken to a contact beforehand, that fact will turn the tides of battle right now.
In addition, you’ll get to construct your own criminal hideout, which expands as you hopefully accrue more ill-gotten gains. You can also build your own mad weapons over a series of heists.
We recommend Blades in the Dark for anyone who enjoys twisted fantasy worlds like His Dark Materials, and also folks who just love doing crime. For Blades in the Dark, you’ll need the sourcebook and a stack of six-sided dice. You can play with real-life scoundrels, or via online tabletop RPG platform Roll20.
4. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
First published in 1986 by Games Workshop, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay shares baroque levels of ultra-violence similar to the Warhammer Fantasy Battle miniatures game. That said, the focus on individual characters over large-scale armies makes things very grim and perilous indeed.
It’s set in a civilisation based on the Holy Roman Empire and includes your usual fantasy races like goblins and elves. In terms of technology, firearms are readily available but pretty damn dangerous and magic is genuinely reviled and infrequently used - it draws from the forces of Chaos, a malign energy that corrupts and mutates sentient beings. Any spells, even the lowliest, stand a chance of opening a rift reaching into its twisted realms.
In terms of mechanics, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay uses a d100 system and combat comprises a cacophony of contested roles. It’s known for being brutal. Most characters can’t absorb more than a few hits and, thanks to its extensive injury table, the odds of being crippled or permanently maimed are high. You may literally lose a leg because you got bitten by a badger, or mounted a horse wrong.
Unlike more heroic tabletop RPG titles like Dungeon & Dragons, most characters in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay tend to be ordinary. Superpowered heroes you ain’t. You pick a career like thief, peasant or minstrel. Among these, the rat catcher and their small but vicious dog prove one of the classes most likely to make it past first level.
In addition, upcoming tabletop RPG release Warhammer: Age of Sigmar - Soulforge, set in the new Warhammer miniatures setting Age of Sigmar, is coming to the tabletop later this year. It will do away with the d100 system and looks set to focus more on the epic heroism side of things - with plentiful gods, demons and monsters to battle across multiple plains.
Deadlands has been around in one form or another since 1996. The game plonks you firmly in the Weird West - an alternate history version of America in which the veil between the world as we know it and a mysterious shadow realm known as The Hunting Grounds has been worn thin.
The Hunting Grounds is home to The Reckoners, a group of malevolent spirits who feast on fear and want to turn the entire world into a nightmarish hellscape. Terrifying monsters and horrible apparitions stalk the shadows of the Weird West, making it a dangerous place for any cowpoke to live.
Deadlands is pulp action horror at its finest. You might be solving a pot-boiler murder mystery one session and fighting a werewolf in a dive bar the next. The atmosphere that pervades the game is three parts Deadwood, two parts X-Files and a pinch of Blazing Saddles. It’s easily one of the most evocative settings on the tabletop.
The real fun, however, comes from deciding how much your character wants to engage with the things that go bump in the night. Your gunslinger might be a complete greenhorn, having never seen anything supernatural or even stubbornly not believing in any of it; a grizzled monster hunter who’s killed more supernatural creatures then they’ve had baths; or, best of all, they might themselves be part of the weirdness that so characterises Deadlands.
Players can choose from a number of supernatural character builds, of which the best is undoubtedly the huxter. Huxters are essentially warlocks. Instead of entering into a pact with a patron deity, however, they play hands of poker against the creatures of The Hunting Grounds in order to harness their power and fuel their magic abilities. Trying to put the grift on an actual demon is quite the dangerous feat, as you might imagine, but, then, the Weird West is a dangerous place…
6. Cyberpunk Red
Whatever instalment of Cyberpunk you play, you’re guaranteed violent hijinks, filthy streets and lurid technology. All the tropes of the genre are here to be explored, from evil corporations that sit in glittering skyscrapers to Mad Max-esque street warriors and psycho maniacs all hopped up on steel and ultra-drugs. As well as fighting (and the combat in Cyberpunk is traditionally, pretty damn brutal) you can also set your steely fingertips to hacking - known as netrunning - in Cyberpunk.
In terms of themes, let's just say the future is bad. You’re unlikely to be a troupe of moralistic adventurers in Cyberpunk, more a motley of eccentrics, outcasts and criminals. The tone is dark, the combat punishing and the world itself cruel. That said, it’s straightforward enough for tabletop roleplaying newcomers to learn how to play the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG. Like the bulk of tabletop RPGs out there, Cyberpunk uses a set of polyhedral die, a sourcebook and friends with a taste for alternative settings.
Originally released in the ‘80s, the Cyberpunk tabletop RPG has rolled through a few editions over the years, Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk 2020. The latest upcoming tabletop RPG Cyberpunk Red, takes place in 2045 - making it a sequel to the previous instalments. While we wait for the full upcoming tabletop RPG to land, the stripped-down Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit is already available.
Blackly comic and Orweillian down to its core, Paranoia is a dystopian sci-fi tabletop RPG. Known as Troubleshooters, you are initially tasked with carrying out tasks for your psychotic robot overlord - a malevolent AI known as Friend Computer - based across gigantic futuristic city Alpha Complex. Most of these assignments involve dealing with perceived threats to society, such as mutants and secret societies (especially those Communists), but also involve more mundane errands like putting down a robot that has inexplicably learnt to feel pain.
The primary antagonist of Paranoia, Friend Computer is so murderous, it produces citizens in groups of identical sixes - meaning that you’ll be playing clones of yourself throughout. Additionally, happiness is mandatory in Alpha Complex. And like everything else, misery is punishable by death. As a game, it actually fits the competitive tabletop RPG mould, over the usual co-operative fare.
If you’re looking for a tabletop RPG that’s hilarious and also actively encourages you to murder your mates, this is the one for you. While the subject matter of totalitarianism might be pretty heavy, Paranoia encourages tongue-in-cheek theatrics more then it does weighty meditations on politics. Friend Computer’s directives, which mostly comprise contradictory, nonsensical demands feature throughout.
First published in 1984, the Paranoia tabletop RPG has seen several iterations over the years - including spin-offs, novels and the Paranoia: Happiness is Mandatory video game.
Paranoia requires a games master, and is definitely one of the heavier games on this list in terms of rules. Player-wise however, it's super straight forward. Plus, knowing the rules is actually treasonous for you in-game and as is tradition, treason is punishable by death. Thanks, Friend Computer. As such, Paranoia encourages folks to get involved finding ways to kill and betray each other while evading Friend Computer - as opposed to playing strategically.
8. Shadow of the Demon Lord
Hungry for carnage? A horror-fantasy tabletop RPG steeped in lurid ultra-violence, Shadow of the Demon Lord places you in the last days of a dying fantasy world. This one of the best tabletop roleplaying games for folks that want to cut down deranged cultists, horrifying demons and the kind of entrail-monsters that previously existed only in nightmares.
It can be played as more of a slow-burn dark fantasy, or you can go all-out apocalyptic terror with templates that lay out exactly how the entire world is falling apart, moment by moment.
Essentially, evil cultists have summoned a horror from the great beyond, bringing demons spawned from the void, among a host of other horrors. The gibbering cries of the mad run through the night, hungry dragons wheel overhead and devils torment men - leading them to the darkness.
You play outsider heroes, like mercenaries and dark priests, who have come together to stop it all going to hell. Races number some fantasy staples like dwarves and orcs, but also include the eerie ‘clockworks’ - souls stolen from the Underworld that are bound to mechanical forms - plus changelings, who use faces to conceal their true form: a humanoid formed of dirt, sticks and rocks, with glowing green eyes in a featureless face, who can wear a creature’s visage during battle.
In terms of mechanics, you’ll predominantly be wielding d20s and d6s, while making contested rolls against the game master. It’s ideal for fans of heavy metal music, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (a clear influence on Shadow of the Demon Lord) and the fang-tastic Ravenloft Dungeons & Dragons setting, which was resurrected from its unearthly slumber Dungeons & Dragons 5E campaign Curse of Strahd.
9. Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game
Originally created as a collectible card game, the Legend of the Five Rings tabletop RPG is fantasy meets samurai drama. It's set in a world that pulls from predominantly Japanese myth and philosophy, but also other Asian cultures.
It’s a land where honour will get your further then loot, and where spirits and bloodthirsty ronin alike roam. All is protected by a giant wall that fends off terrible monsters, while powerful houses wrestle for supremacy. The Legend of the Five Rings universe garners inspiration from the samurai films of auteur Akira Kurosawa and Japanese manga like Lone Wolf and Cub. You all play members of the samurai social class, but this might be a monk, magic-using priest or spy.
One of the most distinctive things about Legend of the Five Rings is its use of the titular five rings (which represent elements) as basic attributes, which makes players contemplate their moves in a unique way. For example, if you’re stealthing around, doing so cautiously would require an earth dice, however, recklessly running through when no-one is looking would take rolling some fire die.
Legend of the Five Rings makes a great choice if you're looking for a fantasy RPG that breaks the mould, have ever wanted to wield a katana or are a fan of Asian mythology.
10. Star Wars Roleplaying
There are a trio of Star Wars roleplaying games to enjoy from publisher Fantasy Flight, each of which has a different theme and type of character. However, all employ the same dice and core mechanics.
In Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, you get thrust directly into an ongoing galactic civil war between the sinister Empire and the Rebel Alliance. In this instance, you might play Rebel fighters engaging in guerilla warfare, or scour for intelligence as a Rebel spy.
You’ll have a ‘duty’, which outlines the specific role your character plays within the Rebellion. The more duty points you accrue, the more your central your role within the Rebel Alliance becomes.
Meanwhile, folks looking for something a little more grim and gritty can enjoy the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Roleplaying Game, where-in you ply your trade as a smuggler, scoundrel or general outlaw type in the vein of deadpan bounty hunter Han Solo. Instead of a duty, you’ll start with an obligation that compels you. It could be a bounty on your head, or a humongous debt owed to a nasty slug-like Hutt. It promises plentiful thrills on the fringes of the Star Wars galaxy.
Last but not least is Force and Destiny, where you, unsurprisingly move down a potential Jedi path. You’ll take part in the epic conflicts of the Galactic Civil War, while learning the ways of the Force yourself - for better or worse.
All three Star Wars Roleplaying Game systems are cross-compatible, meaning game masters can draw from modules across the instalments to create one overarching adventure.