Throughout my career, I have attempted to swivel whatever meager spotlight this position allows and shine it on the tabletop RPG creations of ambitious artists and those designers ill content with producing yet another sword and sorcery rehash. By venturing beyond the familiar and comfortable embrace of six core stats, 20-sided dice and high-fantasy pastiche, you can discover a thriving ecosystem of ideas that would shrivel the pages of a Player’s Handbook in comparison.
This is the land of the non-Western RPG, free to redefine fantasy and myth unshackled by the assumptions of an anglicized point of view. This is the realm of the experimental ashcan, the game jam deep slice and the passion project published not to move books but hearts and minds. If you know where to look, indie RPGs (for lack of a better, generally acceptable term) showcase both the feet to range far afield from the known and the eyes to recontextualise it under a critical gaze.
This collection of games speaks to my own predilections more than an objective ledger of every expression. By dint of my identity as a white American, I often miss the work of Southeast Asia, Middle East and Northern Africa, and Latin American designers who still frustratingly lack access to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding storefronts. It is a flawed attempt under constant improvement, but I hope it opens the door to the wider audience these games deserve.
1. VOID 1680 AM
Encounter lonely hearts and curious souls while building an actual, bespoke playlist
Strong contender for my favorite tabletop RPG of the year, bar none, VOID 1680 AM channels the loneliness of solo tabletop play into the dubious fantasy of operating an AM radio station in the dead of night. Using a deck of cards, players construct a playlist of real songs that fill the airwaves in-between fielding calls from an eclectic cast of listeners – some bringing requests, others seeking connection amongst the transmitted waves.
There’s no ‘point’ to VOID 1680 AM in the traditional sense – no gaining levels or surviving a combat gauntlet. Even if you’re put off by the idea of prompt-based roleplay, I urge you to meet this game halfway. Cultivate your playlist, engage earnestly with the midnight callers and embrace whatever emotions come to you in your solitude. Then, if you’re brave, send it to creator Ken Lowery so he can broadcast your work on his functioning AM transmitter, filling the sky with a small, impermanent respite from the silence of being alone.
Buy VOID 1680 AM from Bannerless Games on Itch.io.
2. Salvage Union
Eat the rich or eat dust as you and a crew of salvagers pick life from the bones of society
Salvage Union’s combination of anticapitalist fiction and giant robots won’t break any aesthetic moulds, but the folks at Leyline Press use their latest apocalyptic mecha RPG to work through some Big Feelings regarding the current state of our world. Precarity, tech oligarchy, the cascading collapse of society? It’s all here and feeding into the portrayal of hardscrabble life outside the elites’ scant arcology enclaves.
But Salvage Union’s gameplay lens focuses more on day-to-day survival – garnering enough scrap to pay for meals and repair the mechs that keep your ragtag group of pilots in the Union’s good graces. This focus on subsistence in the face of global failure sharpens roleplay emotions to a knife’s point. Every decision is loaded with the fear of failure, combat is costly and dire, and the most trivial find can feel like a treasure trove. There’s a grim determination running through Salvage Union that keeps it from being yet another fantasy of overturning the world order. This is the post-apocalypse; we already failed. Collectivism just keeps the engines running for one more day.
Buy Salvage Union from Leyline Press on Itch.io.
Sometimes the most alien thing is being a teenager with access to galactic portals
The dream of the ‘90s is alive in Slugblaster: Kickflip over a Quantum Centipede. Or, at least, a slime-covered, ray gun-toting version of it. Evoking the excess of pre-millenium through the eyes of someone raised on Nickelodeon and MTV, this augmented version of Blades in the Dark trades desperate heists for inter-dimensional jaunts as groups of teenagers skateboard their way across psychedelic dreamscapes. It’s a lot, but in the best way – designer Mikey Haimm manages to keep the zany action and flagrant disregard for rules buttoned down just enough to make sessions feel as though they’re always one wrong move from flying off the handle.
Winner of IGDN’s Game of the Year, Slugblaster is equal parts nostalgia and ne’er-do-well, shopping mall rot and punk rock, childhood wonder and theme park veneer. Nothing is more important than expressing yourself, and the dangers of the world play second fiddle to the growing urge to buck authority at every opportunity. That Haimm manages to bottle this feeling is impressive – managing to keep it feeling fresh over multiple sessions is what earns Slugblaster a place on this list. Grab your hoverboard and remember a time when your greatest fear was being grounded and missing Warped Tour.
Buy Slugblaster from Wilkie's Candy Lab on Itch.io.
Get creative and messy as you help some hopeless Jurassic drivers navigate life in car-centric modernity
Something that grognards and tabletop avant garde snobs have in common is a disregard for RPGs designed for younger players, and it’s a constant shame that we don’t celebrate this hobby’s ability to embrace both the young and young-at-heart. Enter: Dinocar, a map-making game where players must create the roads and landscapes surrounding a car full of dinosaurs who, having been wished back into our world, must now commute to their mundane jobs. And it turns out dinosaurs are dismal drivers.
This whimsical premise sets the stage for a collaborative storytelling-meets-craft project as the group connects important locations – the office, coffee shop, dog park, ice cream stand, etc. – with the regional landscape surrounding it. Dinocar encourages abstraction and chaos, embracing mistakes, paint spills and coloring outside the lines as essential parts of the expressive process. Designer Julie-Anne "JAM" Muñoz has released a game I’ll happily recommend to my young niblings as well as every friend with a burgeoning collection of washi tape.
Buy Dinocar from Dinoberry Press on Itch.io.
5. Barkeep on the Borderlands
Solve a grand conspiracy or crack open a dozen cold one with the boys in this rowdy fantasy setting
Sometimes a well-executed classic can hold its weight against the most audacious swing. Prismatic Wasteland’s Barkeep on the Borderlands proves that the tired trope of “You begin in a tavern” still has tread on its tyres, in the right hands. This adventure positions a group in a city replete with watering holes, bars and speakeasies, tasking them with completing a legendary pub crawl disguised as the search for an antidote that will cure the very rich monarch of The Keep.
Barkeep on the Borderlands’ excellence is in its iteration on a theme. Dozens of uniquely designed establishments offer different challenges, both social and physical, patrons that run the gamut from rowdy to weird, and a robust ruleset for determining how player-characters are handling their liquor as the night rages on. Whether used as a contained adventure or stripped for parts in a separate campaign, Barkeep on the Borderlands is one of this year’s best and most versatile tools - recognised by being one of our finalists for Best Roleplaying Game at this year's Tabletop Awards.
Buy Barkeep on the Borderlands from publisher Prismatic Wasteland's online store.
6. Songbirds 3E
Deliver death as a merciful gift in this clever twist on classic dungeon-delving
Fantasy heartbreaker done right, Songbirds 3E is the latest and greatest iteration of tabletop RPG designer Snow’s self-professed perfect dungeon-crawler. Players embody Songbirds, deathless emissaries of the reaper tasked with ushering lost souls grown monstrous to their final rest. It is a game about death that expertly sidesteps every inclination towards traditional dungeon-crawling, e.g. amoral mercenaries with swords seeking treasure in the bowels of a crypt.
Instead, Songbirds 3E treats players to a synthesis of whip-smart rules and melancholy imagery, tongue-in-cheek tables, and Snow’s gorgeous poetry. Power is a blessing and a curse, and every character option is heavy with narrative hooks and pitfalls. The layout showcases Snow at the top of their game, and the tone of the writing slides amongst blithe, blistering and somber with equal poise. Songbirds 3E is a joy to read, but I promise you’ll want to throw it at your players as soon as possible.
Buy Songbirds 3E from Snow on Itch.io.
7. Gubat Banwa
Filipino folklore-meets-Tactics Ogre-meets-Jin Yong stories that welcomes all comers
I’ve been waiting for JK Saavedra’s Gubat Banwa since the beginning of my professional career covering tabletop games, and the years have been worth it. This proudly Filipino melange of Wuxia melodrama, martial arts and tactical combat revels both in the rich folklore of its creator’s culture and the sheer joy of fantasy stories. Old narratives feel reinvigorated when recast by player-controlled Kadungganan (honour, noble) and set amongst the gods and mythical creatures of Southeast Asia.
But Gubat Banwa is so much more than a rare inclusivity success story in the tabletop industry. Its Thundering Tactics system trucks the best design lessons from Dungeons & Dragons’ Fourth Edition into a Fire Emblem-esque grid where position is everything. The worldbuilding and thoughtful curation of oral lore from Saavedra’s home country is wide open to those non-native players willing to expand their vocabulary and think beyond their calcified assumption of how fantasy stories should be told.
Find the latest about Gubat Banwa on Kickstarter.