2021 has been a banner year for tabletop roleplaying games. Great RPGs are being played on tabletops real and virtual all across the world. Even so, it’s very easy to overlook some of the smaller designs that came out this year.
While there were plenty of awesome titles from big and medium publishers (Thirsty Sword Lesbians and Flames of Freedom earn honourable mentions here), the focus of this list are games put out by small publishers, one-person-shops and purveyors of fine zines. Any one of these is an excellent gift for the GM on your list - even if that GM is yourself.
I know, you know, you want to try this RPG
You’ve seen this show a million times: an odd couple pairing of a brilliant but eccentric detective and a straight-laced but caring partner bounce off of each other while solving mysteries week after week. Whether you are a fan of fake psychics, obsessive compulsive detectives or even will-they-or-won’t-they private eye duos, Partners offers an excellent way to play these procedurals with a small group.
Best mechanic: This game fits in the freewheeling association style of Fiasco, but the way card draws build and twist the mystery also makes it suitable for solo play.
Buy Partners on DriveThruRPG.
2. External Containment Bureau
Swamp gas? Weather balloons? YOU make the call!
Sometimes a great design comes when you smash together elements of other games. External Containment Bureau puts players in the well-shined shoes of the Men In Black investigating strange phenomena. It’s up to the players to decide if they are Will Smith or Anna Torv, but no matter the power level the players must identify, contain and obfuscate what they find. The game is run on a skeleton of Blades in the Dark while adding in a riff on the player-forward mystery mechanics of Brindlewood Bay. There’s nothing weirder than a player theory and this game capitalises on that idea to answer the questions the GM sets before them.
Best mechanic: Agents rack up something like Blades in the Dark’s Heat that they must deal with, but it’s more awful and more flavourful than the original game: during downtime they have to manage paperwork. Ugh.
Buy External Containment Bureau on Mythic Gazetteer's Itch.io page.
3. The Troubleshooters
A game for international people of mystery
It usually helps to be familiar with the source of a game’s inspirations. But with a game as aggressively charming as The Troubleshooters, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know much about European mid-century adventure comics outside of a few half-remembered episodes of the animated Tintin. This beautifully illustrated game features globetrotting heist-style adventures set in a fictional 1960s full of exotic locales, groovy technology and an evil organisation called the Octopus to thwart just before brunch.
Best mechanic: In the grand style of these comics, players are encouraged to accept getting knocked out and tied up by the bad guys by being given a massive amount of story points. All the better to enact a daring escape after they’ve blabbed about their evil plan!
Buy The Troubleshooters from Modiphius.
4. Bucket of Bolts
This RPG did the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs
Many RPGs offer something of a minigame in character creation. One of the most famous examples is Traveller, where you engage in a risk/reward game to give your character more skills and money without pushing too far and giving them a devastating injury, dastardly enemy or, depending on the edition, killing them outright. Bucket of Bolts is a solo RPG that makes character creation the whole game, centring on the type of beat-up old spaceship at the heart of stories like Star Wars and Firefly. The game takes the player through their ship’s history by asking questions about its noble highs and villainous lows. The game asks questions about captains and adventures that sketch out just enough history to keep the player thinking about the ship long after the session is over.
Best mechanic: The designer encourages players to use this game as an accessory to spacefaring games where they can create the history of the most important character, their ship, together.
Buy Bucket of Bolts on Mousehole Press' Itch.io page.
We’re going on a cozy adventure!
Most tabletop RPGs centre on some sort of combat, likely due to the genre’s wargaming roots. Wanderhome offers a diceless alternative, featuring anthropomorphic archetypes trying to get back home and have adventures along the way. There’s still action and drama, but the system is centralised on accepting trouble in the early goings to have tokens to spend for triumphs when it matters. The bright layout and illustrations make it look and feel like a lost children's book. It also seems like a good choice for parents who want to introduce their children to their gaming hobby without worrying about the implications of beating up goblins and other monsters.
Best mechanic: The Veteran offers one of the few chances for animal-on-animal violence in the game. They can unsheath their sword to solve a problem through bloodshed but, once they do, the character must leave the game, overridden with guilt about killing once more.
Buy Wanderhome from Possum Creek Games.
6. World Wide Wrestling 2E
The king of the PbtA ring returns
The best Powered by the Apocalypse games are also essential genre guides to their subject matter. World Wide Wrestling is, to borrow a catchphrase, “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be”. The game walks the line between the heightened world in the ring and the real life drama outside of it that can influence the show. This edition cleans up some moves, introduces an easy way to get narrative flow in matches and some light campaign rules for building a federation up from playing bingo halls to being the global leader in sports entertainment.
Best mechanic: Each match features a few big moves to wow the crowd. Success or failure isn’t about how much damage the characters do to each other in combat - it’s about how the crowd reacts. A hit means they cheer and let your wrestlers know they are entertained. A miss means they might be getting bored with the fight, the characters or - worse - both.
Buy World Wide Wrestling: Second Edition from NDP Design.
7. Broken Compass
(Drake’s) Fortune and glory, kid.
Pulp games are an enduring genre within the tabletop space. Broken Compass takes the genre and plants it in the modern context of video games like Uncharted or Tomb Raider. For those fans who want to punch Nazis while wearing fedoras, don’t worry. There’s a Golden Age book available along with a second round of new settings that have already landed in PDF, with Kickstarter copies dropping soon. The pick-up-and-play aspect of making characters and building set pieces with just a few minutes bouncing around Wikipedia looking for relics and trivia make prep super easy with a matching dice pool system that runs as fast as someone being chased by a boulder.
Best mechanic: It’s not so much a mechanic, but for each of the genres that this game has created a sourcebook for, they’ve redone the iconic characters in the style and dress of the genre. Even the setting that’s all dogs and the one that’s set in a world of cartoons.
Download the Broken Compass quickstart from Two Little Mice.
8. Haunted West
Tell some tall tales about your very own Weird West
This has been a pretty fruitful year for the Weird West thanks to a new Deadlands campaign coming out and Weird Frontiers taking Dungeon Crawl Classics out west. Haunted West got the nod for our list because it’s an absolute tome that’s useful as its own game or as a big supplement for whichever way you prefer your westerns. It’s got multiple systems, several mystic backgrounds and an alternate history to let game masters build their own off-kilter look at a time period where American myth and recent history collide. Most importantly, its expansive history section includes the perspectives of people often brushed aside by movies and games about the west, such as people of colour and LGTBQ+ pioneers.
Best mechanic: The extensive lifepath system here not only helps players answer questions about what they did during big historical events like the American Civil War, it also gives players choices to make when big events happen. Your character gets different skills, for example, if they decide to rush into their big homestead fire than if they decide to run away and start over.
Buy Haunted West from Darker Hue Studios.
Build your own apocalypse, then cancel it
Pacing a story is one of the advanced skills most game masters need to learn. The designer of Arc, momatoes, incorporated lessons on how to handle the advancement of plot into this RPG about fighting an apocalypse. The game can be set for an advancement every session or a faster countdown every hour or so for a shorter campaign. Add in a dash of unexpected extra ticks of the doomsday clock and players feel the tension as they try to stop the end of the world. Arc’s sense of timing and simple ruleset make it an ideal choice for streaming as well.
Best mechanic: If time runs out and doom arrives, the players choose what happens. They can narrate a sad ending for their characters, put them through hell and set up a new doom, or even rewrite time and try again at the narrative cost of something or someone their characters love.
Buy Arc from Exalted Funeral.
10. Hard Wired Island
A look into the 16-bit future
Cyberpunk has been going through a renaissance lately, but much of it has been through a retro future lens. Hard Wired Island offers a ‘90s aesthetic set on a space station in the far-off future of 2020. It also comes down hard on the punk side of the equation. The corporations are looking to slice the prosperous station like a juicy steak between themselves and it’s up to the players to keep the station free. A simple system and some fresh takes on classic cyberpunk tropes make this game stand out.
Best mechanic: What other game balances too much cyberware with having to fight off annoying ads and upgrade commercials in the middle of a firefight?
Buy Hard Wired Island on Weird Age Games' Itch.io page.