by Mike Gorgone |
Dungeons & Dragons has become a ubiquitous term, like Band-Aids or Kleenex. It is a brand name that has become so associated with its product that most use it interchangeably. What most folks are describing when they say Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPGs) of one form or another. Broadly, they involve a group of people coming together to tell a story with certain narrative elements left up to chance via the rolling of dice.
So when it’s said that D&D has seen a meteoric rise in the last few years, let us be clear that while Dungeons & Dragons (a game published by Wizards of the Coast) is included in the conversation, it is by no means the only game we’re talking about. D&D is a shorthand. It conjures images of dorks sitting around a table attacking the darkness with magic missiles using colorful polyhedrons and plastic miniatures. Those kids from Stranger Things certainly didn’t dim that image.
Especially in the last year though, when human connection suddenly became a valuable and limited resource, TTRPGs and their popularity have exploded. From your standard high-fantasy adventures to eldritch noir and dystopian thrillers; the types of stories people are telling through different game systems are as varied as the folks playing them. If there is a world you want to escape to, then there is a TTRPG for you!
Whether you have just dipped your toe into the D&D ocean or have decades of experience with the game, now is one of the best times in history to start broadening your horizons. Dungeons & Dragons might always have the spotlight due to the common use of its name but let’s take this opportunity to spotlight a few recent games that can serve as fun diversions or the new standard in your gaming group.
From Homer’s The Odyssey to Supergiant Game’s Hades, Greek mythology has had some of the longest staying power in terms of stories told in western popular culture. Agon by Johon Harper and Sean Nittner capitalizes on just how deeply cemented these tropes and motifs are by putting players on their own mythic quest among the isles of the Aegean. Gameplay consists of short (by TTRPG standards) quests to save islands from peril through several phases of play, each decided by quick decisive rolls made in a declarative fashion. “I shall slay the serpent of the reef!” a player might say in their best Leonidas impression and their success or failure is decided by a few simple rolls as opposed to playing out a meticulous combat scenario.
In long-term campaign-style play, Agon features an interesting character progression that revolves around cementing a Hero’s place as a figure of legend. When you are eventually forced to retire your own Atalanta or Odysseus, will their name fade into history or be immortalized by the gods? It is an interesting system that involves pushing your luck to achieve greater glory in the end.
Turn of the century supernatural investigation is not exactly a new genre in the TTRPG space with games like Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium having been one of the more popular D&D alternatives for forty years now. Vaesen by Free League Publishing offers a Nordic twist on these proceedings though and does so in a uniquely beautiful book. Based on the art book of the same name by John Egerkrans, this game presents an alternate history perhaps just off-center from our own in which trolls, spirits and many varieties of fey folk lurk on the periphery of a rapidly industrializing Scandinavia in the mid-to-late 1800s. Players take on the roll of investigators with the ability to recognize these creatures as they emerge from the shadows of myth and come into conflict with spreading railroads and the fringes of our civilization. The centerpiece really is Egerkrans’ artwork here, as it provides enticing and moody glimpses at the creatures that players will come into conflict with.
Using the same “Year Zero” game engine that many of Free League’s other games utilize, Vaesen characters will roll a number of six-sided dice on each roll based on their personal stats. Success and failures being determined by the number of sixes you manage to roll. It makes for far less math than your traditional D&D while character attributes and strange supernatural knowledge can make for a wide range of character options within the ten standard archetypes provided in the book.
Designed to be more of a toolset than an up and down game system, Cortex Prime by Cam Banks has the rules you need, no matter which genre you choose. No. Really. That’s the whole pitch here. Modular rule sets make up the bulk of Cortex Prime’s beautifully laid out Game Handbook, crafted specifically to be dropped in and out of your game depending on which systems work best for the story you are trying to tell. Using different sized dice to indicate character trait values, Cortex Prime is all about building up handfuls of your best Math-Rocks and rolling high numbers. Need a magic system for an urban fantasy setting? You can assign dice values to generalized magic traits or make it as granular as you want (I have a d12 in Necromancy but only in d4 in Controlling my Undead Creations). Need a social dynamic system for treacherous space politics? Create traits representing emotional connections to other characters or loyalty to specific factions and make those senate scenes much more engaging!
Cortex Prime is a flexible but engaging system that gives you a very tactile sense of how good your character is at a given ability or trait because of the assigned dice. It bends over backwards to give both Game Masters and Players the options they need to craft any story they want and roll lots of dice. Really, what else could you want?
And these are just some that came out last year! More and more TTRPGs are being produced and published every day, with enterprising enthusiasts like yours truly discovering something new every time I get online. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot of love for good old Dungeons & Dragons. I never want to know how much I have spent on both first and third-party D&D books. But there is a whole universe of Tabletop Roleplaying Games out there and the name-brand stuff isn’t always what I’m looking for.