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Destroy Ideas. Respect People.

Best RPGs and RPG-Related Products of 2018

Best RPGs and RPG-Related Products of 2018

For those who don’t know, TTRPGs are having something of a resurgence these days. You may have seen the headlines that 2017 was the best year ever for Dungeons & Dragons, and 2018 looks like it’ll beat that. The industry as a whole is doing better than it has since the d20 boom of the 2000s. But unlike then, RPGs have diversified. It isn’t just the big boys and then everybody else trying to eke by on their scraps. There are whole communities with entirely different design philosophies, catering to wildly distinct markets around the world. So unlike back then, picking a bare handful of “best” titles in a given year is HARD.

What’s more, the politics of these communities are byzantine and fraught. Each community has its heroes and representatives, and very often they are at each others’ throats. So putting together any list like this - a list attempting to draw from each community’s best output - runs the risk of really upsetting some people. Honestly, I’m ill equipped to comment on those things. I’ve spent hundreds of hours trying to parse truth from fiction, and I still struggle with it. So I’m not going to attempt that here. This isn’t a list of the Best People in RPGs. It’s a list of the best - or really just my favorite - products of the calendar year 2018.

But hey, I get that you can’t always separate those. I’m even amenable to the idea that you can’t do so ethically. So if some of these products make you uncomfortable - whether in their inclusion or just their damn existence - I get it. No judgement. But if you want to direct your ire at someone, if that helps you get it out, please direct it at me. You can find me on Twitter at @IHeartFargo.

One final note: writing is hard. For some people, it’s hardest writing about what they hate. For me, it’s hardest writing about what I love. Because it’s rarely ever the component pieces of something that make me love it. It’s the gestalt that matters. So what you’re getting here may be terse, or purely interpretive, or some other thing that makes for a less than great review. But these items don’t deserve reviews. They deserve features. You should check out every single thing on this list for yourself. Full stop. There’s not a bad one in the lot. Every one of them is exemplary in some way or another. So maybe, once you’ve expelled whatever emotions come up, give these books a chance. In the words of the great Gloria Foster, “I promise, by the time you’re done […] you’ll feel right as rain.”


Without further ado, let’s get to it.


Runners Up (In No Particular Order):

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Vampire the Masquerade

Writing by Karl Bergström, Martin Ericsson, Kenneth Hite, Karim Muammar, et. al.

Art by Mary Lee, Tomas Arfert, Sarah Horrocks, Mark Kelly, et. al.

Published by White Wolf Entertainment

Purchase Here

Okay let's get this out of the way. The new White Wolf shit the bed. They shit the bed worse than anything I have ever seen from a major developer, and I have been watching this industry for a long time. I mean, the stains were so bad that Paradox, the Swedish videogame developer and publisher that acquired them, decided they would no longer develop the line internally. You heard me right. Inside of three years they decided that a company was worth paying approximately $1.2M USD to acquire, and then that they COULDN'T TRUST THAT COMPANY TO DEVELOP THEIR OWN DAMN IP. Yeah… It's bad.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, the new Vampire the Masquerade core book is incredible. Yes, there are some unwise choices. Hell, some of them could be considered outright malicious (especially regarding the subsequent Anarch and Camarilla sourcebooks). I can't even really openly recommend this game as a whole product. There’s too much wrong. But if you can cut away a good deal of setting material, really just chop chop chop it away... Goddamn, it may just be the best iteration of Vampire yet.

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Mechanically, it’s both inspired and refined. It draws from decades of Vampire the Masquerade and a decade plus of Vampire the Requiem. And then, miraculously, distills all that down into a ruleset that actually - for maybe the very first time - really communicates how monstrous vampires are. To the layperson, that may seem obvious. Like hey, vampires drink blood and occasionally outright murder people. They think of humanity as chattel and treat them even worse. They’re monsters. But that has always been pretty far from what the mechanics of Vampire reinforced. It’s been a game about politics or a game about villains or many other things between. But now, after all this time, it’s finally getting to the core of the thing: vampires are monsters. You’re a vampire. You’re a monster. Full stop.

Now that might not be for you. It’s an incredibly rough experience and forces you to do things to survive that makes for some deeply uncomfortable roleplaying. But if that’s something you can handle, if that’s something you desire, if you can put all the other garbage aside… well it’s worth your time. Finally nailing that after decades makes me feel that the new Vampire the Masquerade deserves at least a mention on this list.

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Harlem Unbound

Writing by Chris Spivey, Bob Geist, Ruth Tillman, Alex Mayo, Sarah Hood, Neall Raemonn Price

Art by Nino Malong, Alex Mayo, Philip Jean Pierre, Brennen Reece

Published by Darker Hue Studios

Purchase Here

Harlem Unbound is an important book. I don’t say that lightly. Frankly, I don’t think most game books are important. I love them. I get pleasure from them. But I generally subscribe to Albert Brooks view of things: “It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” Except I don’t think Harlem Unbound will be forgotten. Not for a long time. And for quite a while after that we’re going to look back, at least those of us interested in this industry and how it changes, and look at the release of Harlem Unbound as one of those inflection points. We may forget this book in ten or twenty years. But the force of it is going to be felt for a long damn time after that. From here on out we’re living in its wake.

And like… fuck. This isn’t some art house game that pushes the limits of the design space or that makes you question everything you know through the sheer brilliance of its execution. Well, it may do that latter one. I won’t rule that out. It’s really that good at times. But at core it’s just a trad game supplement. Like it’s a dual-statted Call of Cthulhu-GUMSHOE book about a time and a place. We’re not lacking for those. Not to categorically shit on them or anything but not many of them stand above the fray once you’ve read enough.

But here’s the thing. That’s irrelevant. This is where review culture fails us. Because very little about what makes Harlem Unbound such an incredible force has anything to do with those neat little bullet points we often rattle off to explain a game. Sure, I can say that it has extremely clean and sharp layout. That the organization of the book is pristine in a way I rarely see. That you feel the hollowness and cruelty of humanity in the extremely minimalist presentation, punctuated by the brilliance of the sectioning page art dragging you screaming back into the world of the book. That the words could be all lorem ipsum and still it feels like you imagine Call of Cthulhu should. Or that Chris Spivey and company know their shit when it comes to system, that the entire book is tight. That this is the work of someone operating within mechanics they truly understand, but then uses them to subvert expectations in genius ways. Sure. That stuff is important. But it’s not why Harlem Unbound is important.

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Spivey opens the book with a foreword, and the last section starts with this line: “What if I screw up? What if I play ‘being a black person’ wrong?” It’s a question I’ve asked many times. It’s a question I’ll probably never stop asking. It’s an important question. When you’re playing someone unlike you, someone from a different background in some way, it’s the question. And truth be told, you’re probably always going to screw up somehow. Because empathy isn’t knowing. But that doesn’t mean you don’t work toward empathy. You never stop. You never get to. That’s the burden of being a decent person. But it not there at the front of the book just because it should be at the front of your mind. It’s there because it’s the central to understanding why this thing matters. Chris Spivey is saying “Here’s a vault full of treasure. It’s locked, but here’s the key.”

And really, it is a vault. There’s so much to it. In a way few books can honestly claim. But the treasure inside isn’t the literal content. That stuff is great, and it’s worth examining and using on its own merits. But that’s the fool’s gold. The real gold is in between the lines. It’s not what you can get, but how you can grow. Because there’s a great engine humming at its heart. You might not even notice it there, thrumming softly. We’ve grown so accustom to books that only attempt verisimilitude and so fall silent in the dark. But that’s just window dressing. Harlem Unbound shines because everything has context. Everything is situated in such a way that you must grapple with the reality of this period, with the horrors man perpetrated against man. Horrors that make the Eldritch nightmares of Lovecraft look tame by comparison. This is the rare game that forces you toward empathy, that grounds you in understanding. Every part of this damn book works toward that.

Imagine the most bigoted thing you can. Something that treats your fellow man with utter disgust and condemnation at every turn. Imagine, for instance, a book that has so little interest in understanding or compassion that even other profoundly hateful people think it absurd. I’ll give you an example: Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.” Now imagine the opposite of that. The complete opposite. Imagine something designed to so fully immerse you in the shoes of another person that you can’t help but understand. Something that fires on every Goddamn cylinder to take your biases and misinformation from you with brutal force, and then make you see the light of day once they’re gone. I say this about another game later in this article, but it’s true here as well: this game is an empathy engine. It’s just hiding in a sourcebook.

So why is it on the Runners Up list? Like… what the fuck? This is some incredible, brilliant, paradigm shifting, creative life affirming work. Harlem Unbound is a sea change. Yeah, well it also technically came out in 2017. Because otherwise it’d be in the Top 3 of this list. It’d probably take the top spot. But however much this book deserves all the recognition it’s gotten and more – and it’s gotten a ton, from inclusion in academic syllabi to award after award – this is ultimately a list of games from the calendar year 2018. I wanted this to have been a 2018 book. More than that, I want a book like this every year. The industry would be better, we would be better, if we got a book like this every year. But we don’t. I don’t think we did this year. But we did last year, and some people still haven’t read it or played it. So it gets a spot. Full stop.

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What Ho, Frog Demons!

Writing by Chris Kutalik and Luka Rejec

Art by Luka Rejec

Published by Hydra Cooperative

Purchase Here

If you aren’t enmeshed in the OSR - the Old School Renaissance (or Resurgence or Revival or some other “R” word of your choice) - you’ve probably never heard of Hydra Cooperative. That’s your loss. You are worse for it. Because they are consistently putting out better and more interesting fantasy material than basically anyone else out there. Three of their books - Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and Misty Isles of the Eld - deserve to be on the shelf of literally every single person who plays Dungeons & Dragons regularly. Their products are innovative, hilarious, fascinating, and, most of all, just highly damn usable. They’re made with DMs and players in mind, eschewing useless blocks of read-aloud text and other drudgery for material you can reference and use on the fly.

What Ho, Frog Demons! doesn’t quite rise to those lofty heights. It’s a damn fine book and adds great material to the universe Hydra Cooperative has been building for years. The adventures within are well structured and all pertinent information is provided in tidy lists. It’s also funny. Like really fucking funny. I’m convinced Luka included an image of Kermit the Frog in it. “The Rumors, Hearsay, and Gossip of the Rankest Sort” got me laughing well before I even had context to fully understand it. There’s a demonic beet plague slowly turning an otherwise peaceful village into a root vegetable nightmare. I mean, come on. Yes, please, I want to go to there.

But I dock it down to Runner Up for one cardinal sin: it’s really best used to hold together those three books I mentioned above. In a way, What Ho, Frog Demons! is here as a nod to the completion of Kutalik’s Greater Marlinko Canton. It’s a great book in its own right. But this is a list of best books, not best series of books released over several years. Now that may not be a problem if you’re already a fan of Hydra Cooperative’s material. It certainly isn’t a problem for me. But that’s not what this list is about. So it gets a shout out, and my hearty recommendation. Go buy this thing ASAP (along with the rest of their catalog).

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Numenéra: Discovery & Destiny

Writing by Monte Cook, Bruce R. Cordell, Sean K. Reynolds

Art by Bear Weiter, et. al.

Published by Monte Cook Games

Purchase Here and Here

I love Numenéra. I love the universe. I love the Cypher System ruleset. It’s a great game and a great product line. Has been for years. But it’s always had one massive problem: the endgame sucks. In fact, it kinda doesn’t even exist. You just get to a certain point of power in this brilliant and alien world, and then that’s it. Roll up a new character in a new area and start again.

Now you can play Numenéra for years and not run into that problem. Hell, you might run into it and just not mind. But it’s a problem I ran into early on and it essentially ended my Numenéra campaign. I lamented that for a long time. Here’s this incredible setting, somewhere I want to inhabit for as long as I possibly can. But I don’t just want to inhabit it. I want to expand it, to build a life in it, to use my power and my wealth to create change within it.

Numenéra - Discovery & Destiny finally does just that. Monte Cook Games heard my silent prayers and designed a system for creating settlements, for turning them into thriving towns and cities. They designed an endgame. There are other changes to the game, too. They’ve taken lessons learned from a half dozen other properties built on the Cypher System and integrated them back into Numenéra. It’s a stronger game overall, in basically every way.

That said, despite my love, it doesn’t quite beat out any of the winners this year. It’s a great game and, if you’re looking to move from something traditional like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder into something slightly stranger but still relatable, a great stepping stone into the wider world of RPGs. If you’re sleeping on Numenéra, stop. You shouldn’t be.

Winners (In A Very Particular Order):

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10) Offworlders

Writing by Chris P. Wolf

Art by Olivia Gulin

Purchase Here

I’ll be very up front about this: I know both Chris and Olivia personally. Chris is a good friend and I’ve met Olivia several times. I also playtested an extremely early version of this game, back when it was a slapdash Dungeon World hack Chris put together in his spare time. But that was nearly five years ago, and Offworlders has morphed into something entirely different since then.

I’ve seen it described as a rules-light Traveller successor, and I’m not sure I can encapsulate it better. It’s a slight game. The entire thing is barely thirty pages, and that’s with splash pages, art, and generous use of whitespace. But that’s fitting, since it’s a World of Dungeons hack at core. For those who don’t know, that game fits comfortably on two pages. But that by no means implies there’s a lack of depth. Offworlders manages to include everything you need to run a full campaign: classes, rewards, rules for ships, and more. It’s an incredibly tight game that packs a ton of potential.

It’s also a very attractive book for one with minimal art and done entirely in black and white. Olivia is a talented designer and illustrator, and her sensibilities bring both lightness and levity. The decision to use a variable column layout – shifting from two through four – is an interesting decision that helps aesthetically even if the four-column pages are a bit tough to read.

But really this book gets this spot because of that pithy description I couldn’t beat. I love Traveller. Sure, it’s an ugly game with horrendously opaque rules. But it’s also still the high watermark for hard science fiction in RPGs, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a feeling to that sort of play that you just don’t get elsewhere. Somehow, and I really don’t know how, Offworlders gives me that feeling, too. Except I can actually get people to play it, and it’s simple enough for me to hack most any science fiction module I want into it. I think I’m going to be playing this game for a long time.

If you pick it up, I figure you will, too.

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9) A Thousand Thousand Islands

Writing by Zedeck Siew

Art by Mun Kao

Purchase Instructions Here

As described by author Zedeck Siew and artist Mun Kao, A Thousand Thousand Islands is “a Southeast Asian-themed fantasy visual world-building project.” In four tiny zines - Mr-Kr-Gr: The Death-Rolled Kingdom, Kraching, Drawings: Part One, and Hantu! - two guys from Malaysia have created something incredibly new. Instead of looking at an Asian setting through the traditional Western fantasy lens we’ve gotten for years, A Thousand Thousand Islands looks at a fantasy world through the lens of Southeast Asia. It feels new and real. It looks beautiful and evocative. It’s material that sets your mind racing with ideas. Altogether the books have only a fractional word count of your average supplement but they give you an order of magnitude more. It’s raw fuel. It’s alive. Hell, I can’t bestow enough praise upon these books.

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 Okay, effusive praise out of the way, you might wonder why something I love so much isn’t further down the list. Frankly, it’s simple: the books aren’t terribly usable at the table. They’re fantastic inspiration. The ideas are different and new within the context of fantasy RPGs, enough to earn them a place on this list. But they can be difficult to integrate without some work in advance, and ultimately there’s just not that much hard information within the books. All good modules come with a certain element of hand holding. They guide you from concept through execution. I’d have liked a bit more of that. But ultimately, that’s not why it only occupies this position and not higher.

Zedeck Siew works with these ideas better than I can and Mun Kao illustrates them better than I could imagine. That’s both a blessing and a curse. This is 100% my own Anglo-centric whiteness, but they’re beautiful windows into a world I can’t really understand. Beyond the mechanical utility issue, there is my own… let’s call it cultural utility issue. I ultimately, and even without meaning to, fall back on running “exotic” Dungeons & Dragons. This is where it really gets tricky placing this book. Because it’s brilliant, truly. I could see it occupying pretty much any slot on this list from ten through four. And I don’t know how to reconcile placing it this far back because of what is ultimately a personal failing. But ultimately, I can only review this as me. Placing this material within my own frameworks is difficult without guidance. Maybe in time it won’t be. I hope so.

You might be better at that task than me. Hell, I’m certainly better than I was, and I work to continue improving. But even if you’re not, they’re phenomenal texts. They deserve a place on your shelf.

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8) Mothership

Writing by Sean McCoy

Art by Sean McCoy

Published by Tuesday Knight Games

Purchase Here

Every year I spend the first morning of GenCon walking up and down the aisles looking for anything that I don’t already know. There’s usually a few things. Mostly stuff I’d heard about but not yet seen. And then there are one or two things that just immediately stand out above the rest. Things that make me run to my friends because I can’t contain the elation I feel at just seeing something so great. For me, this year, Mothership was that thing.

“What made it so fantastic,” you ask? So fantastic that without even reading it I bought a copy and then made other people buy copies (some of whom I’d literally just met the night before)? Well, hear me out because it’s a weird one: information density.

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Now you might be wondering, “Information density? What the Hell is that and why should I care?” You know the feeling of dragging a 500-page core rulebook to the table and then flipping through it desperately looking for the right page for the right rule during play? Yeah, that feeling sucks. Information density is one of many ways around it, along with things like a good index and layout, and structuring your prose to prize clarity over jamming a fictional narrative down your players’ throats. It’s also the hardest one to pull off. You can fuck it up very easily, and people normally do. Mothership doesn’t. More than that, it packs that information into a beautiful package.

Mothership puts an entire game into a book the size of a zine. Every page is distinct. Every page is usable. When you run the game you know exactly where to look when you forget something. It takes seconds, and then you’re back playing. After years of running and playing games, of reading a new rulebook every few weeks, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. It’s pure gold.

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7) Role-Playing Game Studies - A Transmedia Approach

Writing by Sebastian Deterding, José Zagal, et. al.

Published by Routledge

Purchase Here

I’ll keep this one short because, honestly, there’s not much to say. Role-Playing Game Studies - A Transmedia Approach is a textbook. It’s an academic work and everything that brings to mind is true. It’s dry and it can be a real slog at times. It’s also a foundational work.

I’m a big believer that we barely understand what RPGs are and what they can be. We’re still in our infancy, learning to walk, when it comes to really getting to the heart of why RPGs are so damn important. This book is the best attempt yet at pinning that down. Every essay and article within it is great, even if it takes a while to relearn how to read academic English. Hell, even if you’re already fluent it can be rough. My schooling and my day job see me reading a lot of academic texts, and I still had to carry this thing around for the better part of a month to get through it.

Well, “had to” is strong. I wanted to. I needed to. Every day I looked at my many bookcases and thought “Wouldn’t a novel be nice tomorrow? Or maybe a new game. You love new games.” But no. Nothing won my affection until I finished reading this tome cover to cover. And it is a tome. You could beat a grown man to death with even the softcover version. But buried in those spartan and seemingly endless pages is a greater understanding of this hobby than in any dozen RPGs combined.

If you care enough about roleplaying to read this list, you probably care enough to read this book. Go pick up a copy. Go learn and expand your horizons. Knowing is half the battle.

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6) Art & Arcana: A Visual History - Special Edition

Writing by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer, et. al.

Art by Just like fucking everyone who has worked on Dungeons & Dragons

Published by Ten Speed Press

Purchase Here

So here’s an idea: get together a couple of the most learned researchers who have looked into the history of Dungeons & Dragons. Michael Witwer, author of Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons? Check. Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World? Check. Okay cool. Now get them access to some rare and never before seen troves of art throughout the history of Dungeons & Dragons, from the house collection of Wizards of the Coast to the works held by private collectors around the world. Got it? Cool. Alright now produce a book featuring that art and a detailed retrospective of its evolution through the past four and a half decades and make it just really damn nice and beautiful. Like coffee table book beautiful. Sound good? Awesome.

Oh and let’s throw in some prints and even a reprinting - with attention paid to verisimilitude - of one of the first and most important modules ever created. Just for good measure. Don’t want people to think we’re skimping out on them.

Got it? Okay cool. Now go buy it.

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5) Spire

Writing by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor

Art by Adrian Stone

Published by Rowan, Rook and Decard

Purchase Here

So here’s the deal: Drow suck. Drow suck so hard. But they shouldn’t. They should be awesome. There’s so much to work with there, but so few people work with any of it. Decades of work and the overall output is “Here are these cartoonishly evil elves. They live underground. Boo!” I mean most Drow make the Dark Eldar in Warhammer 40K look nuanced. Do you know how hard you have to screw up to make Games Workshop look nuanced!? There are a couple books that have done well with Drow to date; like there’s Deep Carbon Observatory and Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart, but that’s pretty much it. Well it was. Now there’s Spire, too.

I don’t love direct quotes but I’m gonna use one here. Because I can’t introduce this game better than it introduces itself.

”This is Spire. A mile-high city in the land of Destera, ruled by cruel high elves, in which the drow – you, and your family, and your friends – have been oppressed for centuries. A nightmare warren of twisting passages and structures, built and rebuilt, atop itself. A city of a thousand gods. The furthest bastion of a terrible and burgeoning empire. A structure of unknown make that houses a blistering, rotten hole in reality at its centre where the sane dare not tread.”

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I mean, come on. COME ON. That’s such a fucking good prompt. I don’t need to know any more. The rest of the book could be absolute trash and I’d still want to play with that idea. But it’s not. It keeps going. It keeps getting better. Fuck… I mean the book has its faults. The design could be improved - that spiral background repeats throughout and can be a real eyesore after a while - and frankly the layout is pretty basic and uninspired. And… well, actually, that’s it. I think those are my only two quibbles. Damnit. This book is good.

Because that opening paragraph isn’t just window dressing. It suffuses the entire game. This isn’t just a hack of D&D or some other generic fantasy RPG. It’s a game built from the ground up to make you feel like you live in this nightmarish tower-city as a repressed member of the underclass. The mechanics reinforce this. The player options reinforce this. Even the art - and I guess I could use more of the art, but it’s just so damn good - reinforces this. And damn it’s hard to fault a game for taking its theme to heart, especially when it’s such a good theme.

So for making Drow cool once again, and for sticking to its guns when a lesser game wouldn’t, Spire earns its place on this list and more.

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4) Masks of Nyarlathotep – Super Deluxe Limited Edition

Writing by Larry DiTillio, Lynn Willis, Mike Mason, Lynne Hardy, et. al.

Art by David Ardila, Caleb Cleveland, Victor Leza, Eric Lofgren, et. al.

Published by Chaosium & The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

Purchase Here and Here

It feels weird to put Masks of Nyarlathotep on this list. It first came out nearly 30 years ago. One of the authors has been dead for over half a decade. This is the fifth edition of the campaign. There’s a lot that doesn’t sit well with me.

It’s also maybe the single greatest campaign ever written for any game. Ever. It puts things like Gygax’s The Temple of Elemental Evil and Queen of the Spiders to shame. It is a fucking work of art. I mean, just, fuck… If you haven’t experienced Masks of Nyarlathotep, or at least read it, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s a reason this thing has been in relatively continuous publication since 1989 and why basically every major designer worth their salt has publicly sung its praises at least once. And well shit if Chaosium hasn’t produced the best version yet.

But even that alone wouldn’t get the 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu Masks of Nyarlathotep onto this list. Maybe onto the Runners Up section. But certainly not fourth best product of the year. It fixes a lot of issues the campaign has retained over the years, both tonally and structurally. It brings the entire product – and it is a massive product – fully into the modern era of “trad” RPGs. There are obvious changes like a new introductory session to better hook players when the campaign starts, and more subtle ones like making the whole thing much less racist. But still, not quite there.

Then I saw the Super Deluxe Limited Edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep, produced by The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, and wow. Just wow. Turns out you can get quite the haul for $919.00 (the MSRP of the set). I mean there are 100+ props, six CDs of audio drama, passports, statuary… it’s a lot. And yeah, you read that right. This thing runs nearly a thousand dollars. That’s ludicrous. That’s “get you to work in NYC for a year” money. That’s “yearly rent in the middle of the country” money. But it’s also “bring to life the greatest campaign ever written for a roleplaying game” money. And hey, I’m an addict with a horrifying and crippling addiction to games. For me, that’s money well spent.

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And that’s really the thing. It does bring the campaign to life. Because it’s difficult – nigh impossible – to keep the charade going for as long as this campaign demands. It can easily last a year of weekly sessions, assuming the entire party doesn’t die horribly. That’s a long damn time. Especially for an investigation heavy game that requires methodical play and pretty serious note keeping. Any Keeper (the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of Dungeon Master) who has made it to the end without their players kicking and screaming has done so by breathing life into the externalities of play. Which is just a fancy way of saying they’ve made their own damn props. Sometimes those are great – I’ve seen some incredible things over the years – but that takes time and effort and money. Not everyone has the time and the effort. So if you don’t, but you have the money, and you want to give your players a literally unrivaled experience over the next year… well, this one is for you. Plus there’s a slightly less awesome version that’ll only run you a couple hundred dollars. You know, for the discerning buyer on a “budget.”

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3) Dialect - A Game About Language And How It Dies

Writing by Kathryn Hymes, Hakan Seyalioglu, et. al.

Art by Jill de Haan, Erica Williams, et. al.

Published by Thorny Games

Purchase Here

I honestly had to check that Dialect came out this year. I’d been waiting for it for so long – it had been touring on the indie circuit for so long – that really it could’ve been as far back as 2016. But nope. After what seems like forever, it finally came out this year. Not that I’m complaining. The time and effort paid off. It paid off with a gorgeous book. Like museum quality attractive. And with brilliant mechanics. I’m talking “teach this to game design MFA students” genius. It’s a play experience wider and more open to abstract creativity than pretty much anything in the past decade. It’s a masterwork. It’s the kind of book that you could quit after making. Hell, you probably should quit after making something this good. How do you follow this up?

Dialect is a game about the end of the world. Or, more specifically, about the end of your world. I’ve played sessions of it about doomsday cults that treat Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus as a prophetic holy text. I’ve played sessions about Mars colonies running out of air. I’ve played many more. But they’re all about what happens when your world is ending, and what that does to how you communicate. It’s a heady theme, to be sure, but it’s so damn elegant in action.

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This isn’t The End of the World from Fantasy Flight Games or Mutant: Year Zero by Fria Ligan (both games I love, by the way). It’s not so simple as that. It’s a game that makes you confront how everything around you, even the language you use, is predicated on some past normalcy and stability. And about what happens when that all goes away. What happens when that dies.

And yet, somehow, it’s not a grim game. Oh sure, it can be dark. Incredibly dark, really. But it’s not a game about grinding you down into nothing. It’s the complete opposite. Because as your life changes irrevocably, as everything you’ve come to know and love begins to fall away, something new and wonderful blossoms in it’s place. You learn new words. You create new words. Ideas you never knew you needed get expressed for the first time, and you grow with them.

There are a lot of beautiful themes out there. There are a lot of beautiful games out there. Sometimes those two meet up in one. But not often enough. Dialect is one of those times. It’s powerful and beautiful and brilliant. Let it illuminate your life, and teach you how to walk into another one.

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2) Midnight at the Oasis

Writing by Catherine Ramen

Art by Jesse Ross

Published by The Gauntlet

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I don’t cry much. That’s not a manly statement as far as I’m concerned. I wish I cried more. I’d be healthier if I cried more. I could process my shit in better ways and be a better person if I cried more. But I don’t. Sometimes I think I can’t. But damn I wish I could.

Midnight at the Oasis makes me cry.

I don’t read a lot of games like Midnight at the Oasis. Which is to say two things. One, I don’t read many games this good. We’re in something of a Golden Age for tiny brilliance in games, so it’s been higher lately. But generally, I’d say I read four or five truly stellar games annually. Maybe twice that number of great supplements. I’m a tough judge and it’s hard to pin down what elevates a game from good to great, but I know them when I see them. This is the lesser reason.

The greater reason is I don’t read many games that speak to me personally. Because, well, why would they? That’s not what most of this industry is about. It’s about escapism, and power fantasy, and just feeling okay for a few hours once every other week. And that’s fine. Fuck, that’s great. We need more of that. But that’s not where you get personal resonance. You get that from feeling seen.

Midnight at the Oasis makes me feel seen.

I grew up in New York City during the AIDS crisis. My parents were fixtures in the party scene of the 1980s, which is to say the LGBTQ+ scene of the 1980s. They rented out the Limelight and were members at Studio 54 and all that jazz. I hear it was a good time. I’m glad my parents were interesting people.

It also means I grew up around a lot of death. I grew up loving people who I might never see again and not understand why. I grew up surrounded by caring people who knew the pain of being different. These people wore those scars proudly because they often meant freedom from something worse, from having to live a daily lie and die from a thousand cuts. But I also grew up around a lot of doubt. Because you can’t always give everything up and become reborn anew and not still look back. It can haunt you.

Midnight at the Oasis haunts me.

I know I haven’t told you much about the game itself. Well, it sounds like I haven’t. But I have. Midnight at the Oasis is a seven-page game published in the Codex zine (Codex - Glamour, to be specific). It’s a game for five people that takes a couple hours to play. It’s about crossdressers in New York in the 1990s. All of this is true. But it’s not really true. It’s an empathy machine. It’s a tool to remember your pain, and to grow from it. It’s a gorgeous thing, whatever you choose to call it.

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1) The Gardens of Ynn

Writing by Emmy Allen

Art by Arthur Rackham, Virginia Frances Sterrett, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley, et. al.

Published by Dying Stylishly Games

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I don’t play much D&D anymore. I know, I know. Vancian magic got old and frankly there are too many other games I miss out on to pine for something I already know. Hell, I don’t even really care for fantasy RPGs in general these days. Realizing that was a crushing blow. I’ve been playing D&D since I was six. It offered me respite from some really dark times growing up, and I’ve used it to provide that same shelter for other kids in more recent years. There’s a part of me that will always be wrapped up in D&D, that will cherish it for how I once felt. But it hasn’t been how I’ve felt about the game for some time. I’m not sure when that happened, or what first started that change in me, but it did.

 And then The Gardens of Ynn came along and the lights went back on. I hadn’t even really noticed they were off. I’d just gotten used to the dark. And then I could see again.

No hyperbole, Emmy Allen has created something that stands up there with the greats. I’m talking I6 - Ravenloft, Jaquay’s The Caverns of Thracia, B2 – The Keep on the Borderlands, etc. Well add The Gardens of Ynn to that list. Because good Goddamn is this thing a powerhouse. Every piece of it is fresh, and usable, and wondrous. It brings real magic back into a game that feels like it lost the Art long ago. AND IT’S NOT EVEN THE ONLY AMAZING BOOK EMMY ALLEN PUT OUT THIS YEAR. Talk about making an entrance.

But what makes it so great? So great that it gets to the top of this list? Well a whole Goddamn lot. For one, it’s the finest Planar adventure ever written (e.g. an adventure module that deals with another plane of existence). The titular Gardens are a place of ruined wonder and madness, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by way of Arthur Machen or Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a plane ruined long ago by an apocalypse of the mind, The Idea of Thorns, and there’s a lurking horror to the entire thing that’s as subtle and powerful as anything I’ve read in a game. It reminds me of Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything, where a mimetic disease is so dangerous and corrupting that even knowing about it risks contagion. The Idea of Thorns alone might earn The Gardens of Ynn a place on this list, as it’s among my favorite representations of the wider “zombie” theme I’ve seen, but there’s so much more.

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The cartography of the Gardens is brilliant. Distance is measured in Depth, and everything gradually shifts as you go deeper into the greenery (and you can pretty easily repurpose this mechanic for your own settings, so add a + to that A). Something that has killed the magic of planar adventures for decades is simply that other planes of existence just don’t normally feel like they’re happening anywhere but here. They feel mundane, and the outer planes are supposed to be the literal opposite. Allen accomplishes this the best out of anyone I’ve ever seen. Travel here feels magical. There’s no real sense of space or time to your travel. It feels like being lost, driving ever deeper to figure out what might lie ahead. It feels like a fairy tale.

But it’s not your friendly fairy tale. It’s fairy tales as they were first envisioned, warnings against the dark and the deep woods and the things that live there. You always start somewhere relatively benign - there are doors to the Garden located all over - but the deeper you go, the nastier and more terrifying it becomes. The hold of the Idea of Thorns grows stronger and more complete the farther you venture, and the landscape reflects this wonderfully. But it’s not just the landscape. It’s the creatures, too, and the treasure. Everything. Every part of this module is thoroughly and brilliant constructed. There’s a clockwork genius to the whole thing, each part inspired but even more so as a whole. Even the art - and this book is easily the single greatest use of Creative Commons art in RPGs - feels perfect.

That’s the word. Perfect.

The Gardens of Ynn is truly perfect.

And We're Live

And We're Live