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Kill Some Time (And Possibly Monsters) With These 6 Innovative RPGs

Christmas is near which means you and your friend group will likely be coming into some vacation time. Sure, you could spend it caroling, baking cookies, or visiting family. Oooor, you could put all that free time to some really good use and clock some extra hours with your RPG group!

Gloomhaven: The Role Playing Game – Backerkit (April 2023)

Let’s start with the big news.

As previously reported, Cephalofair Games had announced a Backerkit campaign for Gloomhaven miniatures to replace the cardboard standees found in the base game. But then came PAXU 2022 and a massive announcement: in addition to the miniatures, backers can also purchase a copy of the Gloomhaven Role Playing Game.

According to the press release, fans should expect all of their favorite mechanics to remain in place while simultaneously being expanded and improved upon. For starters, players can now combine ancestry and class when making a character. “You can be an Inox Spellweaver, an Orchid Cragheart, or anything else, and both classes and ancestries have their own set of cards so that you can create a truly unique ability set,” said Isaac Childers, the game’s CEO and lead designer. Also, don’t expect any d20s to show up. Combat will still be handled via cards and hand management. Only now the combat cards will have a third “skill check action” attached to them for some truly heroic derring d0.

Still not sold? In the RPG of Gloomhaven, GM stands for “Gloom Master”. If that doesn’t bring it home, I don’t know what will.

Subversion – Kickstarter (February 21, 2023)

A Dystopian cyber-punk future where humans, live alongside elves, orcs, and dwarves. Guns and magic of all kinds can be bought for the right price, and corrupt mega corporations are doing most of the buying.

No, it’s not Shadowrun, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. That’s because Fragging Unicorns Games was founded by O.C. Presley, co-designer of Shadowrun Sixth World Edition, Shadowrun: Anarchy, and multiple other Shadowrun source books, supplements, and adventures. But Subversion, like its name suggests, aims to upend your expectations of what a dystopian cyber-punk fantasy should be about.

While Shadowrun often feels hopeless, with players just throwing more runners into the meat grinder of the mega corporations, Subversion’s goal is to empower players to fight back against authoritarianism and rampant capitalism. Remember, this is also the company that published the hardcore punk RPG Misspent Youth which is all about youth in revolt.

Subversion’s basic mechanics will look very familiar to anyone who’s played Shadowrun. When faced with in-game challenges, or Test, you will roll a number of six-sided dice (d6s) in an effort to hit a Target Number. Based on how many Ranks a character has in a skill, you can roll that many d6s plus additional dice based on whichever Attribute corresponds to the skill being used. Add up your 3 highest dice to see whether you succeeded or failed.

However, it’s not just your character who determines how successful you are in the game but also your Community. See, each character is an Envoy for a shared Community which you and the other players will create. It’s populated by various characters with differing skills but who share the same ideals. After each game, players must check their actions against the goals and ideals of the community. Players who stick to their moral guns will increase the Regard their community has for them, strengthening the community members and by extension the characters. If you and your crew deviate from your Community’s moral code, though, then your Regard drops and community members are less likely to help you.

*The Saltreach Isles Part 1: Oscana – Kickstarter (December 23, 2022)

Probably the most common trope in RPG settings is “The Broken World” where some violent cataclysm has rent the world apart and heroes are trying to rebuild it. But what about a setting where the cataclysm happened so long ago that the world has moved on? Not a broken world, but a world reborn.

In this new 5e campaign setting, that is exactly what’s happened. An ancient race of advanced beings, once the dominant species on the planet, realized their race was doomed thanks to the unfortunate side effects of their genetic modifications. Rather than just die off, they instead encapsulated themselves in preservation pods that were then buried deep underground.

Though sleeping, these advanced beings, known as Ashani, were still able to psychically influence the fledgling species emerging in their wake. They were able to cultivate a sense of cooperation among even the most warlike species, and now harmony is the word of the day.

Trolls are not slavering people-eaters, but gentle giants fond of crafting but not open flames. Orcs oversee lucrative salt mines and make a fortune providing the other species with the valuable spice in a climate where food spoils quickly. Dragonborn warriors ferociously protect the other species from the annual depredations of The Swarm. The other species, elves, gnomes, dwarves, halflings, dwarves, and humans, while geographically distinct, all co-exist relatively peacefully.

Now, that could be the Ashani influence, but you could make a case that these harmonious relationships are born out of necessity. That’s because the Salt Reach Isles are home to many vicious monsters and surrounded by harrowing seas. Those who tend to work alone also tend to end up as dinner.

To keep everything above board, I did want to disclose that I worked as a editor on this project.

Drama Llamas – Kickstarter (February 28, 2023)

Browse around the Button Kin website for even the shortest amount of time, and you’ll quickly realize you’ve found a special corner of the RPG world. That’s because its founder and lead designer, Yvris Burke, is creating some of the most unique RPGs on the market that put the emphasis on the players’ creations as much as the GM’s.

Take her first game Bumbling, for example. In this solo RPG, you are a newly hatched bumblebee leaving the hive to explore the world. As you go about your bumble business, you’ll draw your own world, encounter other animals, discover flowers, and learn the secret dance of your hive in order to communicate your experiences.

Then there’s Psychic Night School. In this GM-less RPG, you are a fledgling psychic taking a night course on the divinatory arts. You’ll meet other psychics, find out if you’re cut to be a psychic yourself, and even create your own tarot cards.

Drama Llamas combines this love of player creation with the genre we all love to hate – reality tv. Every session is an episode of a llama-centric reality show with challenges and finales. Each player starts by choosing a different reality show archetype. Will you be the conniving backstabber, the saccharine llama-next-door?

The game is then broken up into 3 phases, starting with the GM announcing a challenge of their own creation! You and your fellow contestants will then have time to interact, explain how you’re going about meeting the challenge, and create just enough drama to keep the show interesting. The final phase will see each llama explain their creation to the judge (GM) followed by a roll to see if they successfully me the challenge. This roll will be modified based on your drama meter, though, so hopefully you’ve hit that sweet spot. Create too much drama, or not enough, and you’re liable to get voted off the show. Great as a one-shot or you can make it a whole season!

The True OSR – Kickstarter

Remember when we were talking about RPGs with messages of community, righteous struggle, and cute animals? Yeah, set that aside for second.

OSR, or the Old School Revival, is a movement in the RPG world that has been gaining some serious traction of late. OSR games try to recreate the feel of RPGs at their inception: soft rules, adventures that are hard as nails, and art that looks like it was pulled off of a GWAR album cover. The most forward-facing of these has been Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classic which pits parties of 0-level characters against merciless dungeons to weed out the adventurers from the background characters.

The True OSR – Obsolete Sh**ty Rules takes this push for hardcore nostalgia to new heights while also parodying many of the genre’s tropes. For starters, the game’s art takes aim at the Satanic Panic of the 70s and 80s that saw parents burning their kids’ RPG books out of fear for their immortal soul. It’s over-the-top grim and gory, but always with tongue firmly in cheek.

One of the OSR’s hallmarks is putting the PCs in situations they can’t possibly survive based purely on the rules and forcing them to get creative. The GM then often decides whether they survive or not based on how creative their solution is. The True OSR takes a battle axe to this notion, relying only on the rules and actually pitting the players against the GM in an epic showdown. Yes, you read that right.

While some player/GM conflict is not unheard of in RPG session, The True OSR makes that conflict the literal focus of the game.

Each player starts the game with a secret Achievement only they are trying to accomplish and a party Achievement that they are working towards together. Achieving these goals results in awards of XP which players can use to make re-rolls, level up, or use special abilities. The GM can gain XP as well, though, by thwarting the Achievements of the characters. Like the characters, GMs can also spend XP, though in this case to make the characters’ lives miserable. Finally at the end of the adventure, the players summon the GM and must face them in combat. Remember all of those D&D characters who died at your GM’s hands? Well, now it’s time for some payback.

Sound Realms: Mace & Magic – Kickstarter

Sound Realms: Mace & Magic is another homage to old-school RPGs, only this one is aimed at solo players. Traditionally, solo gaming in RPGs is a bit fiddly. Even when you’re playing with others players and are just having to worry about your character, there’s still a lot to remember. But when playing a solo RPG, you add all of the GM responsibilities to your mental load as well. Even with the cleanest game “AI”, that’s a lot to remember and invariably rules get forgotten.

To help with that, Mace & Magic eschews pen-and-paper and takes a digital approach. You simply download the app, choose your adventure, and you’re off. Designers Oscar Carlquist and Gustav Sundin are self-professed ” heavy metal-loving, old school RPG fanatics”, and it shows. The game opens with a choral tidal wave, the epic score very quickly setting the mood. Each encounter and cut scene features gorgeous pencil-and-ink drawings adorned with more skulls than you can shake broadsword at, and the adventure is of course set in the castle of an ancient wizard.

Never one for solo gaming, it’s a testament to the design that the digital aspect had me hooked right away. The voice acting is done in the classic “fantasy narrator” style, the vocals deep and gravelly, and the sound quality is crisp. The free version features pre-made characters which I didn’t mind at all because it jumped into the action so quickly. I was reminded very much of the old 8-bit dungeon crawlers of my childhood, only with better art and narration. For anyone who came up playing RPGs in the 80s and 90s, get ready to make a save against a 10th level nostalgia blast. Everyone else, if you’re a fan of metal t-shirt aesthetics, dungeon crawls, and epic fantasy scores, then make sure to click that free download link above. Because it’s almost Christmas, you can even forego the “Thank You” letter afterwards.

*Disclaimer: Author of this article is also a freelance editor on this project.

By Zane Messina

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