I’ve talked about Dungeons & Dragons a few times in this column. I’m a huge fan of tabletop role-playing games, and it’s undeniable that D&D is the game that has the biggest piece of the public consciousness--after all, it was the first big tabletop game, it’s still considered one of the best.
However, it’s far from the only tabletop game out there. There are tons of fantastic tabletop RPGs to explore. Today, I’m going to recommend a few of my favorites.
First off, I want to talk about one of my very favorite systems: Shadowrun. A weird mashup of science fiction and fantasy, Shadowrun is set in a cyberpunk future that prominently features magic, orcs, and dragons. Heck, there was even a dragon president once!
Shadowrun is interesting because it fully commits to both the fantasy and sci-fi elements of its setting. Your characters can be powerful mages, hackers, elf cyborgs--the works. The setting itself is intricate and fascinating, featuring global megacorporations, bizarre characters, and a wild political landscape.
Gameplay-wise, Shadowrun offers tons of flexibility in character creation, allowing you to create exactly the sort of character you want to play.
World of Darkness
The World of Darkness actually encompasses several different games, including Werewolf, Vampire, and more. Focusing on urban fantasy and horror, World of Darkness games put you in the shoes of various supernatural creatures.
There’s a surprising amount of depth to be found here, and for horror fans, these games are a must-have. Honestly, though, they’re still worth checking out even if you don’t intend to run a horror game; lines like Changeling, Mage, and Promethean offer incredible role-playing opportunities without the need to necessarily involve scary stuff.
Big Eyes, Small Mouth
Big Eyes, Small Mouth (or BESM for short) is a game meant to emulate popular anime and manga tropes, but the beauty of the system is its flexibility.
Unlike the last two games, BESM is setting-agnostic--there’s not really a default ‘world’ to play in, encouraging the Game Master to create their own world from scratch. By the same token, players are given free reign to design characters however they want. And I do mean however: character creation uses an in-depth, point-buy based system to allow you to craft bespoke skills and gear that make your character wholly unique.
While the system can be a little daunting to learn at first, the level of flexibility is truly incredible. Very few games give you the freedom afforded to you in BESM.
Looking for a sword-and-sorcery game that’s a little meatier than D&D 5e? Look no further than Pathfinder. Based on the chunkier D&D 3.5 ruleset, Pathfinder offers a deeper level of customization (at the cost of a more mechanically challenging system).
The original Pathfinder is great on its own, but I’d highly recommend the more recent Pathfinder 2e, which streamlines things without detracting from the diversity of player options. It also does some really interesting things with action economy, helping combat feel more tactical than ever before.
While you’re welcome to create your own homebrew setting, it must also be said that the default world of Pathfinder, the planet Golarion, is very well-written and cool. Plus, Pathfinder rulebooks are available as cheap, DRM-free PDFs, meaning there’s a pretty low cost to start playing.
Monster of the Week
Another game with a focus on urban horror, Monster of the Week seeks to turn classic genre television shows like Buff the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files into a fun tabletop experience--and it succeeds.
The bulk of a Monster of the Week session is spent investigating some supernatural threat, leading to a confrontation with a monster. It’s a rules-light system that encourages lots of roleplay and improv, and it’s wildly fun. It’s a great game for one-shots--single sessions that don’t form part of a larger narrative.
Character creation is fast and easy, and there aren’t too many mechanics to memorize, making it an excellent choice for players who are new to tabletop gaming.
There are dozens more games that I could recommend, but for now, I hope this has inspired you to try some new stuff at your table!
More articles and reviews by Ethan McIntyre can be found at rollwithit.blog.