Year in Review: RPGs

I thought it might be entertaining to do a year in review of the various games released this year. Rather than do the traditional top 10, I’m going to do something a touch different. I’ve picked my favorite releases, but I’ve also selected some that I felt were important. Also, I’ve tried to highlight some games or trends that either didn’t live up to the hype or signal problems (for a company or segment). We’re going to start off with RPGs as I’m the most optimistic about this segment.
10) Vaginas are Magic for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (pay what you want) – I really like LoFP. I appreciate the visceral nature of the game, the raw brutality of it towards players. But this Free RPG Day sourcebook took the cake. First off, it’s hardcover. Seriously. Who does that? Even better, this is an old school supplement – it’s just 20 spells. Each illustrated with terrific descriptions. And they’re all inspired by classic heavy metal songs. This is a love letter to a certain style of gaming and you owe it to yourself to check it out (warning, a few of the spells are NSFW).
9) Torg Eternity by Ulisses Spiele – It’s a bit of a dirty secret that I love Torg, but that’s not why this one is on the list. US did an amazing thing with this Kickstarter. Not only did backers get all of the new product generated from the release, but they got nearly the entire back catalog as well! So much of that material is still relevant to the game and having access to it is huge for new backers. For me, this showed a real interest in feeding the fan base rather than making a quick buck on a new release of a beloved property.
8) Zweihander by Grim & Perilous ($10) – This game is both a huge surprise for me (I love it so much I’m running a game of it right now) and an important message to the industry. Zweihander is a loving re-creation of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG (1st/2nd edition) game. And I do mean loving. This game brings everything players loved about WFRPG and turns them up to 11 all while introducing some really interesting takes on classic fantasy tropes. But that’s not why Zweihander is on the list. Zweihander started as a fan project. And it became so popular that it turned into a 692 page, fully illustrated production that puts products from larger publishers to shame. The message? We’re at a point in time where if publishers leave their fans behind, their fans can keep going on their own. NOTE: I still want publishers to take chances and try new things, but they need to do so in a way that engages and involves their communities. Pathfinder was probably the first instance of this backfiring, but Zweihander surely won’t be the last.
7) Xanathar’s Guide to Everything by Wizards of the Coast ($50) – Speaking of engaging their fans, WotC is killing it this year. Xanathar’s is probably the best example of this in my mind. In one book, I get some great fluff, some default setting info, lots of player options and great GM options. And this is hardly the first time WotC has done this with 5E. Every single release seems to follow this pattern and I’m a huge fan. It doesn’t bleed the customer base dry every month for yet another splat book and creates a huge opening for 3rd parties for those who want more detail.
6) Unknown Armies by Atlas Games (you can probably snag all three books for $40) – This game ticks a couple of check marks. It’s a new edition of a beloved game. It’s a grandfather of the story game movement. It was created and maintained by industry luminaries. But it’s really on the list because it’s just plain awesome. Seriously, this is a great game of psychological development and horror in a universe gone mad. And this new edition is simply gorgeous – of all the games on this list, this is the one I’d recommend looking at getting in print.
5) Star Trek by Modiphius ($16) – It’s been a few decades since we had a Star Trek RPG and that’s a big deal. RPGs have seen several licensed properties over the years. Better yet, there’s been an uptick in the number of licensees. But Star Trek is the big one. And it’s return to RPG form really signals the health of the market. If you can afford that licensing fee, you’re doing pretty darned well.
4) Starfinder by Paizo ($10) – Time for another confession: I don’t really like this game. It feels a bit like D&D in space and the setting does not grab me. I’m still looking to play in a game, but it hasn’t grabbed me enough to run my own game. So why is it so high on this list? Gencon. I have never seen lines for a game like there were for Starfinder. And keep in mind, this is for a game that was available in game stores on the same day. If you doubt the power of Paizo to market a game to their fans and build excitement beyond that core community, you aren’t paying attention.
3) Tales from the Loop by Modiphius ($25) – Stranger Things the RPG. That should really be the tag line for this game. But beyond that, this game proved that creativity isn’t dead in RPGs. A unique setting with gorgeous art and elegant writing. Modiphius was able to capture lightning in a bottle with this game.
2) Liveplay – I’ve not thought much about the impact of Liveplay (broadcasting games on Twitch or YouTube). But two incidents have really changed my mind on this. The first was this article by the Verge on the phenomenon. For a relatively mainstream news outlet to consider the trend newsworthy is interesting. The second was hearing a veteran miniature wargamer talk about watching them during his off hours. This is someone who doesn’t play RPGs. Yet, there’s something about liveplay that grabs his attention and keeps him tuning in. There’s something here folks. I don’t think it’s going to survive in its current form, but someone is going to figure it out and it’ll have mainstream potential.
1) Invisible Sun by Monte Cook Games ($243) – Let that price sink in for a second. $243. And that’s just for the core game. MCG has destroyed my beliefs about what gamers are willing to spend on an RPG. And it’s not just the price. They’ve also destroyed my beliefs around what players are looking for from their publisher. This is real innovation and a real movement in what players are willing to pay for a unique experience.
I’m really upbeat about the RPG section of the gaming market. After years of holdrum products and minimal innovation, That said, I did note one negative trend: missed deadlines. Smart publishers either nail their timelines (by keeping padding) or don’t publish timelines at all. Yet this year saw a number of publishers miss their own deadlines. You see the same problem in the comic industry and it’s a constant area of complaint for fans. It’s also the sort of thing that really hurts the type of momentum that the industry is building.

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