This year, I ended up reading a bunch of role-playing books. To date, I haven’t really ever played a tabletop roleplaying game1. They never really were a thing in my circles when I was growing up as far as I was aware and I wasn’t really ever interested in swords and sorcery that much.

Anyway, I wasn’t totally new to them. Like many others, I had been listening to an actual play podcast, in my case The Adventure Zone. I had, a long time ago, acquired through a Humble Bundle a bunch of Pathfinder2 books and had read them a bit. They did little to change my idea of tabletop RPGs being a bit complicated and limited to fantasy. However, I then randomly a Polygon review of Ironsworn’s space-faring sequel, Starforged. This did lead me to find the surprisingly free3 Ironsworn book.

I quickly started to realize, especially after reading through Polygon’s list of their best indie tabletop RPGs of 2021 that actually I had many of these books - and so many more - on through many of their huge bundles they had done in the past few years for charity. It helped that many of these modern indie RPGs are not as heavy on rules or based on number crunching as their older, satanic panic inducing predecessors. Some of them were literally one pagers4.

Here, in a rough order of reading, my quick overview of a bunch of RPG books I ended up reading this year.

Ironsworn, Powered by the Apocalypse, and SRDs

I was remotely aware of the Powered by the Apocalypse framework through The Adventure Zone’s season of playing Monster of the Week. However, what begins to quickly emerge is that the lineage of modern indie RPGs gets quickly very complicated.

Ironsworn was a pleasant introduction to this framework. Next from my library I found Escape from Dino Island, a Jurassic Park inspired one-shot, and FIST a booklet sized cold war -inspired paranormal action game that also introduced me to the OSR, or Old School Revival/Renaissance, movement. More about that movement later.

It didn’t take long to find Blades in the Dark5 as well. Like Ironsworn, Blades in the Dark is a well thought out, reader-friendly book with the world and batteries included. Both were really enjoyable reads for someone totally new to tabletop roleplaying games, not only did they include material on the world of the game, the complete rules of the game but also a lot of guidance on how to approach the game and how to play or run it. One thing that these games and many others wanted to make sure the players understand was that the experience was to be co-operative storytelling and both Ironsworn and Blades in the Dark warn repeatedly the game master6 not to prepare too much in advance as the story is very much in the hands of the players.

After reading either, it is much easier to understand lighter books like Escape from Dino Island which kinda assumes you have wrapped your brain around a PbtA game, not just the rules but the best practices of running such a game.

This improvisational angle seems to be a very common element in the self-standing indie RPGs and distance them from, say, D&D and Pathfinder which depend very much on their modules and Adventure Paths the players are not supposed to stray too far from away. Instead, these games demand all players to “play to find out what happens”. This shifts a lot of responsibility of the experience to the players and allows, for example, Ironsworn to be played without a game master or solo.

Another interesting aspect of these games (and FATE) is that they make the case for failing forward and success being boring. In fact, in most cases success means that you just do the thing you wanted but failing progresses your character. It is important to note that failure here doesn’t mean the opposite of success, ie. “you don’t do the thing” or “you died”, but complications or other obstacles that drive the drama of the game. In mechanical terms this means that the odds are usually against the player, however failing usually improves the players or gives a token of sorts that lets players even out the odds in the long run. Also, where as older RPGs took a lot of war gaming elements and would simulate each sword swing individually7, these games let you compress, abstract and zoom out whole battles if it makes sense for pacing or other story reasons. A whole war could be resolved with a die roll.

Blades in the Dark also introduces a flashback mechanic with the purpose of denying players plan in advance for contingencies that will never come to be and keep players in the action. These games also remind everyone that the players are competent professionals, no need to throw dice for everyday tasks. This makes these games, as their rules say, story first RPGs.

In fact, Blades in the Dark’s mechanics are so well thought out that it has started its own lineage of games: the Forged in the Dark games. Whereas Powered by the Apocalypse is a loose term that mostly means these games have more or less been inspired or borrowed elements from Apocalypse World (usually its move system), Forged in the Dark games are usually based on the SRD (or System Reference Document) of Blades in the Dark. SRD is essentially the abstracted mechanics behind the game, and seem to be also trendy at the moment8.

The main use case of SRD is to openly license it9 and allow other people to build their own worlds using the mechanics. As Wikipedia tells, the openly licensed SRD for 3rd and 3.5th editions of D&D formed the basis for independent role-playing games from other publishers, including the first edition of Pathfinder and this Open Game License’s success was amplified by the rise of electronic publishing. Other SRDs that I ran into were the FATE system and LUMEN.

The list of PbtA games is immense and growing, some other games that I looked into were the delightful Thirsty Sword Lesbians and Urban Shadows10. A Forged in the Dark game that I had in my library was CBR+PNK, a pamphlet sized one-shot take on the cyberpunk genre were the runners are on their last run. There is also a reverse dungeon crawling game Wicked Ones where you are the monsters building a dungeon and and keeping the heroes at bay.

A trip to the Philippines and wandering home

While many of the games attempt to reinvent the mechanics of RPGs, the genres and worlds are often the very familiar fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk ones. Some of the games, like Thirsty Sword Lesbians make a point about subverting these tropes but others attempt to introduce less western world views. Coincidentally, three in my bag of holding built their world around South East Asia and Philippines.

The odd one out was Dog Eat Dog, a game about colonialism. One player, the wealthiest, plays the occupying force and others play individual natives of a small Pacific Island. The game interesting mechanics where it subverts the basic RPG action loop to emphasize the power dynamics. It has few rules, but stresses that these rules need to be enforced as the balance of the economy is an important mechanic in the way it makes the game play out.

Another one of these was Gubat Banwa, a tactical combat and war drama RPG with “a unique Southeast Asian-inspired Fantasy setting”. It’s also a different from other games here that as a tactical game with rules from D&D 4e, it is more way more about tactical combat than any of the more story driven games here. As a contrast, Balikbayan: Returning Home is willing to throw dice out of the windows. It is based in part on the Belonging Outside Belonging system which focuses on marginalized groups and world building instead. The story is fully created by players’ collaboration.

Another game that leans heavily into this system was Wanderhome, pastoral fantasy role-playing game about traveling animal-folk. As travelers, the players are not part of the communities they visit and are not on a quest to save these communities or solve their problems. The book is gorgeously illustrated and the references to the works of works of Brian Jacques, Tove Jansson, and Hayao Miyazaki are easy to see, although no Moomins in sight. The rules are very open-ended and leave a lot to the players. The characters have a bit similar playbooks as PbtA classes and have traits, hopes, and dreams and fulfilling some criteria can lead to retirement of that character.

It’s really easy to read either Wanderhome or Balikbayan and be left wondering where the game is. Curiously, Dog Eat Dog on the other hand is a biased economy mechanic fleshed out into a RPG to make a very specific point.

A virtual interlude

Although tabletop RPGs are called “tabletop” to differentiate them from role-playing video games11 they are more and more played on virtual tabletops through Discord or dedicated services like Roll20.

Continuing on the homecoming theme, Alice is Missing is a game that really fits for remote play as it is to be played in strictly 90 minutes and in complete silence: the players interacting exclusively through text messages instead. The GM who is also one of the players comes back to his hometown to find their titular high-school friend missing and starts messaging their friends to figure out what’s going on. Through these messages and the ensuing 90 minutes, the players will find out what happened.

The game is not totally silent, though. Before the gameplay starts, each player records in secret and in-character their last voicemail they sent to Alice. These are then played at the end of the game for everyone. Although the game doesn’t feature any dice, it does have a deck of cards that does a fair bit on randomizing the gameplay.

Old school punk and darkness

Not content in just evolving and progressing RPGs, there is also the aforementioned OSR movement. These games harken back to the nostalgic days of “old school” RPGs or first editions of D&D where player agency was king, rules were light, and everything could and will kill the player.

Whereas FIST had this zine feel that also seemed to be trendy with indie RPGs, Mörk Borg goes balls to the wall with graphic design. Its physical book is an art piece first, but it also has a “bare bones” text-only edition available. The world of Mörk Borg is dark, the apocalypse is coming - and soon - and there is no hope: character names are optional as are classes12. The rules are concise and to the point, and in style of the world of the game. This is very much a style-first RPG.

Continuing on the grim and hopeless style, there is Mothership. Instead of medieval fantasy, you guessed it, the players are trying to survive in the place humans were not meant to be: outer space13. While not as stylish as Mörk Borg, Mothership takes a turn to horror and wants to keep its players on their toes. Space always complicates things and so Mothership also has rules for spaceships and ship-to-ship combat. However, like so many other games, this was Mothership Edition 0 and the final game was still in development.

The big difference between these games and some of the PbtA games seem to be that while both see failure as essential and a source of growth, and they fully agree that actions have consequences, the difference is how punishing that failure should be. I think similar distinction can be seen in video games, where some games try to avoid player death and abhor player losing progression, there is another end where death is an expected part of the gameplay loop.

On to the next year

I was pretty surprised by the games I read, not only the breadth of different systems and approaches to storytelling but also the varying depth of gameplay mechanics that attempt to support the storytelling and create drama. It’s interesting to see how tabletop RPGs venture deeper and deeper into the territory that is still very much difficult for computer games to replicate: non-linear narratives with full player agency.

Another surprising thing was how many of these RPGs were available for free, it seems that indie RPGs are living in similar ecosystem to open source software, where ideas flow back and forth and creators encourage others to fork off from their work. However, unlike games or software, the monetization is focused more like music and art in general on charging for physical artifacts. It’s easy to imagine that for the hobbyists money is not the biggest obstacle and, on the contrary, they are willing to invest a lot for a premium experience. With actual play podcasts and video streams, and even animated streaming TV series based on them14, it’s clear that RPGs are having a strong resurgence.

I don’t see myself reading as many RPG books next year, as they do start to feel repetitive and without a clear intent to ever play them, also a bit aimless. I do not believe just dry reading these books does any justice to the games themselves. However, few games seemed to have deep systems that would interact with each other creating their own dynamics instead of most systems playing for or against the players. A notable exception this were the faction and world systems of Blades in the Dark that reacted to players actions and thus creating new situations for the players to react in turn to.

I hope to have time and company to play at least one of these games in the future15. Even if I won’t, I don’t really think reading all these books was for nothing. They really opened my eyes to various ways of storytelling and in how a unique position RPGs are in creating them compared to other games and media.

Let’s see in what rabbit hole I end up next year.