Whether you’re new to the scene or you’ve been rolling dice and crafting adventures for years, 2023 had no shortage of wonderful games to pull you into other worlds. It’s an excellent time to get together with friends, gather around the table, and tell a story together, and each of the games that follow will take your group to surprising new destinations.
D&D – Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse
1994’s Planescape campaign setting was a refreshing change of pace back in the day, providing a link that connected the various worlds of the D&D multiverse – an early take on the multiverse concept for anyone keeping score. Planescape found increased popularity thanks to the stellar Planescape: Torment video game in 1999. This year’s return to the classic D&D locale does justice to those earlier iterations but isn’t afraid to strike off in new directions.
Released as a three-book set (along with some other goodies), Adventures in the Multiverse introduces several new features to your 5th edition game, including an exploration of the fantastical city called Sigil, as well as a wealth of new creatures and characters that fit the weird destinations of this cross-dimensional meeting place. There’s also a healthy selection of new player options.
However, the included adventure steals the show, catapulting players through an array of outlandish destinations, and pushing forward character death as a way to explore transformation and character development in ways that feel fresh and rewarding to longtime D&D enthusiasts.
This new English edition is an evolution and adaptation of Scandinavia’s earliest big role-playing game, entitled Drakar och Demoner. The game self-describes as focusing on “mirth and mayhem,” and our playtests find that description apt. Adventures are often quick one-shots filled with extreme danger and a high likelihood of death, but encounters lend themselves to surprising moments and sudden turns of fate. Simultaneously, the game has a whimsical and uproarious nature – typified by a player race of duck-like mallards – that keeps the tone light and fun-loving.
Dragonbane is easy to pick up and start playing quickly, thanks to a skill-focused d20 rules system that is as simple as rolling under your overall skill value at a task. And rather than a sprawling world, the game focuses on a single fully fleshed-out valley and the conflict at play there so that you can be confident in a rewarding campaign with little to no prep. Add in art by the highly talented Johan Egerkrans, which helps bring the game world to visual life, and this is an easy win for an all-around great new RPG to bring to your table.
Dreams and Machines
Modiphius often uses the flexibility of its 2d20 role-playing system to adapt popular properties like Star Trek, Fallout, or Conan, each with unique modifications to fit the theme. Dreams & Machines is an original property, but with its vibe of a post-apocalyptic world of mechs and lost technology, the publisher is offering a beautifully realized setting with a lot of potential for growth and exploration.
While the setting is intriguing, the approachable implementation of rules wins the highest praise. Dreams & Machines is deep without being complicated and offers plenty of choices without feeling overwhelming, making it an excellent choice for playgroups of mixed experience levels. While other games can boast those same traits, few also offer such an original backdrop to discover as you dive in together to play.
Explicitly built as a way to emulate video game JRPGs in a tabletop format, Fabula Ultima manages to be a vibrant and nuanced experience on its own merits, even as its art and rules ably call to mind video game franchises like Final Fantasy and Xenoblade Chronicles.
Instead of providing a static game world to adventure in, Fabula Ultima actually has the gaming group establish that world as play begins, but in a way that is guided by pillar concepts that are central to the JRPG concept, like “A World in Peril” and “Ancient Ruins and Harsh Lands.” Player characters rarely die, but when they do, they can sacrifice themselves to accomplish a nearly impossible task. Central villains are given lots of opportunities for their development, including a mechanic through which they evolve into a new form, rejecting redemption to become an even greater threat.
In short, it’s a game with clear ambitions that succinctly captures what we love in these types of video games, and it’s the best option we’ve yet seen for inviting those particular JRPG video game players to the table.
Several things set ink apart from most tabletop RPGs on the market, but the main idea is that the game opens in the same place that most other games might end – with the character’s death. ink challenges players to take on the role of ghosts seeking their eternal rest. You’re already dead, but now you must uncover the path to what comes next. You control these spirits as they journey and battle to accept and lay down their burden.
Along the way, this innovative system lets you control a character in two parts – a Spirit that is made up of personality and memories and a Shadow that is the dark and unbridled emotions at the root of that Spirit’s death – inextricably tied together. To borrow a video game term, the game also leverages an almost rogue-lite approach. When the party dies, you all return to an earlier state but level up and improve to face that task ahead.
Rules are approachable and quick to pick up, the black-and-white art is playful and fun, and the overall themes deal a lot with acceptance and moving on, adding up to one of the most innovative and thoughtful RPGs of recent years.
Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game
While plenty of tabletop RPGs have explored the superhero genre, few have been adaptations of any of the big actual comic universes. Fewer still have emerged as enjoyable. But Marvel Multiverse is the exception to that rule, offering a fully featured and action-packed system that fully embraces the breadth and history of the Marvel comic book setting.
The RPG’s best feature is its ability for groups to mix and match pre-existing heroes and villains with ease. If you want Spider-Man and Wolverine to join up with your buddy’s dream of creating Echidna Man, you can all go take down Kingpin together.
The rules system is straightforward and fun, emphasizing brisk conflict resolution, big heroic moments, and catastrophic failures that swing the narrative in new and exciting directions. For Marvel fans, the core rulebook is also great fun for all the characters, locations, and Marvel lore it packs in. If the movies or comics are a big win among your friends or family, this game is the chance to carve out your own take on the ubiquitous Marvel storyscape.
Old Gods of Appalachia
Based on the creepy and atmospheric narrative podcast of the same name, this new standalone release from Monte Cook Games is powered by the same Cypher System that governs games like Numenera and The Strange. Here, it’s used to impressive effect to tell tales of folk horror in the Appalachian region of the Eastern United States.
Set in an alternate history of the early 20th century, players control mostly poor rural folk trying to survive strange and supernatural happenings that threaten their lives and kin. While the setting shares cosmic horror qualities with the Cthulhu mythos, gaming groups will find a refreshingly distinct setting rooted in family, the dark mysteries of nature, and the unknowable truths that hide in the ancient places of the world.
Like most Cypher System games, gameplay puts narrative over mechanics and strongly emphasizes player and GM cooperation to tell a story. It’s a game tailor-made for anyone who enjoys the popular podcast, but even without that familiarity, it’s a thematically engrossing game that offers plenty of heart and scares.
Pathfinder Player Core: Second Edition
After a full second edition back in 2019, this year’s remastered rules move it even further away from its D&D roots (and the related license issues) while offering an especially clean and thoughtfully organized presentation of the game. Splitting into separate books for players and GMs is undoubtedly more expensive, but Paizo has filled the extra space to offer robust options for players to craft and play the character they want.
As a system, Pathfinder: Second Edition remains a fantastic alternative to 5th edition D&D for classic fantasy role-playing, and now easily competes for depth of worldbuilding, flexibility of character options, and breadth of available content. While the differences between the two have led to endless debates among RPG faithful, it’s enough to say that Pathfinder leans into complexity and customization, but always in approachable and smartly implemented ways.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse 5th Edition
For a particular breed of role-playing gamer, the World of Darkness games (and their predecessors) encompass an entirely separate tree of the hobby, most loosely understood to be focused on a dark narrative and the interplay between supernatural and real-world situations – often to bleak ends. Werewolf: The Apocalypse is a fresh take on one branch of the mythology, casting players as Garou (werewolves) who seek to protect an Earth under assault.
While the game ensures plenty of opportunities for brutal and vengeful combat, there’s plenty of fictional backdrop to sink one’s teeth into, exploring the distinct werewolf tribes and histories and the grim consideration of fighting a war that is already effectively lost. This latest iteration on Werewolf is a good pick for those looking for a mix of horror and potentially intense violence, all wrapped around a radical fantasy of environmentalism taken to the brink.
Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast
This fascinating release from Possum Creek puts players into the shoes of the residents and guests of a bed and breakfast run by a heartless witch. There’s no character creation; in each session, players take over one of the often whimsical or unusual people who pass through the house, and advance their story.
The game borrows elements from legacy board games, as there are aspects of the actual book and game that don’t open up until other things happen in the game, leading to a gradual unfolding of the story and the place. It’s also a game that is unafraid to be silly and endearing. For instance, a core mechanic is around playing out individual characters’ “Whoopsies” (a bad habit or fault) or “Bingos” (moments where they assert who they are) to move the plot and relationships forward.
Individual sessions are small slice-of-life experiences about kids having fun around the house, individuals doing laundry, or the witch losing her shadow – a mix of seemingly everyday and magical moments that always surprise and delight, often with gameplay interactions that are unique to that situation, and defined by the game book. As these episodes play out, Yazeba’s Bed & Breakfast transforms into a game about finding one’s identity, being part of a community, and the small interactions that become defining memories.
Are you looking for more excellent recent tabletop RPGs? Feel free to peruse selections from 2022 and 2021. And if you’re looking for the other side of the tabletop hobby, don’t miss our picks for the Best Board Games of 2023.
Source: Game Informer The Best Tabletop RPGs Of 2023