What are the best recent pen-and-paper RPGS?
May 21, 2011 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I haven't look at a new pen-and-paper RPG since sometime in the mid 90s, but I'm kind of curious what's happened in the past 10-15 years or so? What are the best fairly recent pen-and-paper RPGs -- what are the most popular ones that are new. I assume stuff like D&D and World of Darkness are still around, but what are some fairly recentish ones that have gotten big followings? Have there been any that introduced really new mechanics or game play philosophies?
posted by empath to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
posted by p3on at 12:49 PM on May 21, 2011

If you lean in a Lovecraftian direction I hear good things about Trail of Cthulhu.
posted by Artw at 1:06 PM on May 21, 2011

The Savage Worlds core system, introduced in 2003 by means of its first game Deadlands, makes it easy for game world creators to create a rich and unique world without having to reinvent the wheel. The system itself is not nearly as complex as DnD but it does allow newcomers to rapidly develop fun-to-play characters and ensures a great adventure. Some popular settings include Hellfrost (fantasy in a deep winter setting), Lowlife (a post-nuclear freak show world where my last character was a sentient donut who thought he was a cowboy), Pirates of the Spanish Main, Sundered Skies, and the aforementioned Deadlands (cowboy horror).
posted by Meagan at 1:12 PM on May 21, 2011

Rifts, of course.
posted by surewouldoutlaw at 1:47 PM on May 21, 2011

The most important trend in RPGs in the last dozen years is the concept of indie RPGs. With the internet and print-on-demand and stuff, people are writing lots of RPGs on their own, without intending to target the large traditional RPG audiences. The effect has been that you get lots of crazy small games that cater to specific demands and can be really sharply targeted and distinct from the norm. That said, you can trace a lot of the innovation back to two concepts, "Narrativism" and the return to old-school gaming. I put "Narrativism" in quotes since it's kind of divisive, in part because there isn't wide-spread agreement on what it means, but in terms of practical effect it's led to a couple things.

First off, putting mechanics on things that weren't previously mechanized, and in particular on character relationships. The classic example here is My Life With Master, a game where you play (essentially) Igors under an oppressive Doctor Frankenstein, and the game is about managing the relationships you have with others to bring the game to a tragic or happy conclusion -- and you don't necessarily get to role-play your way there; you make choices and there are mechanics that determine how things shake out for you. Sometimes this gets called "System Matters" -- the idea that the mechanics of the game actually determine the style in which the game gets played.

The flipside of this is "rules focus" -- you put in rules for the things that are important and you gloss over the things that aren't important. Primetime Adventures, for instance, is about playing games that feel like tv properties, and its rules emphasize things like characters having "feature episodes" where the emphasis is on them and their issues, and tracking character arcs across a season of play; on the other hand, the specific types of conflict they have makes very little difference in the rules, whether it's a fistfight or a math exam. Going along with this is a ditching of "simulationism for the sake of simulationism". Trail of Cthulhu (which Artw mentions earlier) breaks with the older Call of Cthulhu RPG by saying, explicitly in the rules, that the investigators will always find the clues they need for the adventure to continue without having to roll the right number on the die or whatever. There is still the opportunity for cleverness and character skill, but failure due to bad search rolls is taken off the table.

The next important trend coming off Narrativism has been games about, basically, "moral issues". One of the most popular examples here has been Dogs in the Vineyard, a game where the PCs are traveling Mormon-analog gunfighters in the Old West, going from town to town and meting out justice for the demon-complicated situations the people have got themselves in. The trick here is that there is no objective morality given in the game -- whether the characters are in the right or wrong depends entirely on whether the players say they are. Especially for people who have hair triggers about Mormonism this game description can turn people off, but in my experience the game is a great engine for wrestling with moral and philosophical decisions without ever feeling heavy-handed. (Vincent Baker, the author of the game, is one of the breakout stars of the indie rpg scene.)

The final trend is I guess what I'd call "playing hard". D&D and Vampire and older games tend to be written under the assumption that the GM will ease off when necessary to avoid killing people, and similarly characters will hold off on creating broken builds or hogging the spotlight just because they can. On the other hand, something like Burning Wheel -- a sort of stripped-down and turbo-charged take on D&D, with special emphasis on making elves and orcs and dwarves that actually feel like Tolkien's elves and orcs and dwarves -- is written with the assumption that everyone will play as hard as possible, and it doesn't actually work that well unless they do.

This is a good lead-in to the other big trend, old-school gaming. In part as a reaction to 4th-edition D&D's embrace of some of the narrativist trends, and in part as a reaction to 3.x-edition D&D's Huge Pile Of Rules model, there's been a big push towards getting back to the basics. In many cases this has been basically clones of the original games, whether it's as far back as Basic D&D or as "recent" as first edition AD&D. I think probably the Swords and Wizardry site is your best place to look for these.

I'm not as familiar with the games in this space (and I think part of the point has been to get away from system), but it seems to me that the trends have been towards more randomness, whether in character creation or leading to characters dying in combat because life is short and exciting, more unashamed embrace of D&D tropes but with some attempts to think about them seriously (it's not a game and it's NSFW, but the Playing D&D with Porn Stars guy's blog is a great reference here), and less attempts to quantify things -- you don't have to have bought the carpentry skill to rank 10 to build a door, you just have to convince the GM that your background would reasonably allow it and then you roll the dice.

Anyway, this post is super-long but I've just touched on what's out there. There's a whole range of new RPGs in the scene, some obscure (Montsegur 1244 is set in a castle under siege from the Albegensian crusade) and some more mass-market (Spirit of the Century is a pulp-adventure game where the system is both light enough to be moddable but heavy enough to be tactical and interesting). As usual the best place to start out is reading blogs and podcasts. RPG.Net, Story Games, and Grognardia are all good places to begin.
posted by inkyz at 1:58 PM on May 21, 2011 [31 favorites]

I'm a big fan of Unknown Armies. It's a game of 'post modern magick' loosley inspired by Tim Powers. Skills are freeform, so you can use your 'Good Mother' skill to bandage somebody's wounds. Power comes from obsession (so alcoholism is a magical school) or from embodying a universal archetype. The largest magical group is a loosely spread network of McDonalds employees.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:43 PM on May 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not entirely sure if it's popular, but it's certainly one of the best-- d10 roll-and-keep, sword-and-sorcery alternate European history system of 7th Sea, most of it now sadly out of print, but still adored by a dedicated cult following.
posted by WidgetAlley at 5:07 PM on May 21, 2011

Eclipse Phase is a transhumanist sci-fi RPG noteworthy for being released entirely under the Creative Commons Licence. And contrary to any expectations that might instill, it is actually really, really fucking good.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2011

Eclipse Phase is so awesome. I wish I had a good local game.

I'm a personal fan of Dark Heresy, but that's because I'm a tool for the Warhammer 40k fluff. When I do play, I tend to go for fairly low-power characters with heavy RP and only occasional and stay away from, say, Deathwatch, which is power-armored Space Marines who can take out Hive Tyrants in one round.

Pathfinder is great; it's basically D&D 3.75.
posted by Heretical at 10:58 PM on May 21, 2011

On the innovation tip, Inkyz is right on the money, there's been an explosion of small press rpgs, that are very, very different than older rpgs.

James West's The Pool (free .rtf file) has a nifty mechanic where players get to take over the GM's role to describe the outcomes of events during rolls. What this means is, a GM can never railroad play, as a core part of the rules is that players can step in and change the world directly whenever the dice get rolled.

Inspectres is a Ghostbusters as a 90's startup company game that takes that idea further. (The full game costs money, but you can download the "Startup Edition" for free and see the core rules).

The Shadow of Yesterday is a funky fantasy game that was released free as HTML with a Creative Commons License, though you can order a hardcopy at price at the first link. The game uses "Keys" which allow players to pick HOW their character earns XP, and thereby, direct the story. If one player chooses things like "Key of Romance" and "Key of Friendship", they get experience for pursuing those things, while someone who has "Key of Vengeance" or "Key of the Quest" gets points for those as well.

All of that went into shaping Lady Blackbird, a completely awesome, free, steampunk game that's great to just pick up and play.

Then there's a whole lot of games without GMs at all.

1001 Nights is a game where the players all play different servants in the Sultan's court, who pass their time telling stories, and trying to one-up each other for the Sultan's favor. When you're telling the story, you can recast each character as someone in your story ("The brave warrior looked a lot like you, Ahmad the Calligrapher..."), and the other players shape the story by asking questions ("But did the warrior choose to keep the vow, or his principles?"). It's an amazing game that's easy to pick up and play.

Universalis is a highly structured GMless game, where the players set up facts about the world and the characters by spending points in play. When the players conflict about outcomes, dice are rolled for the outcomes, which produces more points to define the world. I'm always amazed at how well this game works, every time. It's crufty in it's writing, but great in play.

Other varied games:

Agon is an awesome rpg about Greek heroes questing the world to complete tasks for the gods. The game is explicitly about competing- the players use their characters to try to get the most Glory though outdoing each other and being the best hero of the party. That said, the PCs also end up earning Vows from each other, which the players can cash in, strategically, in order to swoop the best Glory at the right moment. It's very gamist, and about winning, but mixes cooperation and competition in a really neat way.

Diaspora (Free html version, minus setting, here) is a hard sci-fi game based on the FATE engine (which, is based on FUDGE, if you ever saw that during the 90's). Diaspora does hard sci-fi without getting caught in deep crunchiness. It has really neat abstracted rules for tactical combat, political manipulation, social schmoozing, and more.

If there's specific things you like in your games, I can make more specific suggestions, but there's a lot of options there to play with.
posted by yeloson at 12:14 AM on May 22, 2011

This was my intro to our current Eclipse Phase game. Great world, average system (though it has some great bits).

Picture Earth a fifty to a hundred years or so from now - technology (including the ability to fabricate anything you can imagine with nanobots and upload your consciousness to a computer/robot/vat-grown body/uplifted octopus) has gone pretty wild and we've just invented artificial intelligence!

Whoo hoo!

But also - boo!

Because the AIs have gone psycho and are bombing us and plaguing us and making saw-equipped flying robots to cut off our heads and steal our brains! Curse those pesky AI!

So, war, explosions, megadeath. You know the drill.

Or rather you know the diamond-edged circular saw, because that's what the decapit-o-bot just used to cut off your head.

Now it's twenty years later. Humanity is down to roughly a billion people spread around the solar system in a deranged profusion of domed cities, spaceships, hollowed out asteroids. Everybody else is dead. Earth is fucked.

A sizable percentage of the living are actually just 1's and 0's on a database somewhere, as there's not enough space or bodies for them. You can get synthetic (robot) bodies reasonably cheaply, but they're looked down on by most people.

That said, things are looking up. You've still got all your hypertech, so that's nice. The TITANs have gone, yay, transmitting themselves off (with roughly a billion and a half stolen consciousnesses) to parts unknown and leaving behind Pandora gates - a handful of teleporters that can transport matter across the galaxy to strange and alarming places. The System is divided into dozens of enclaves, factions and points of view. Lots of opportunity to make a space buck for those willing and unscrupulous enough to do what needs doing.

posted by Sebmojo at 3:03 AM on May 22, 2011

BESM came and went. Best anime-RPG that's ever been on the market. Works on an interesting 2d6 system. (They *also* released a d20 system, but it has some serious game balance issues.)

Exalted is the White Wolf (the people who make World of Darkness) attempt at "sword and sorcery". It has anime-esque influences (like the manga-style stories at the beginning of each chapter) and it encourages you to an all-around bad-ass. Classic WoD d10 system.

Iron Kingdoms is a Steampunk/Magitek fantasy world where coal-powered robots twice the size of humans are the favored weapons of the day. The best part? There are models to represent characters... and a minis game too, if that's your thing. Simple d20 system here.
posted by Yzerfan at 6:53 AM on May 22, 2011

« Older Do you this Poem?   |   Lien on me... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.