# Reviews

Tabletop RPG Reviews by David Schirduan.

I read WAY more tabletop RPGs than I’ll ever get to play. This review list exists to justify the time and money I’m spending on these things. I have NOT played all of these…but I did read them front start to finish.

Rather than giving a review or recommendation, I’m going to list games that I find interesting. I’m not saying that all of these games are good, or whether you should buy them. But I can promise you that each game has value and does something well.

## Troika!

PDF ($13.97) Print ($28 UK)

Amazon ($30 US) Created by Daniel Sell Toika is really good. I’ve written and re-written this review several times, and i eventually settled on just rambling about why I like it. I hope you can follow the meandering nonsense. So if you’re just looking for a review, Troika is a really interesting and fun RPG that provides a nice contrast to D&Dish games we see so much of. You should buy it. Be sure to get the physical copy if you can, because it’s VERY pretty and well-organized for use at the table. Read More ## Knave PDF:$3

Created by Ben Milton

I didn’t really like Knave at the time…but now it’s become my go-to system for running older modules.

Built to be compatible with old modules while distilling the rules down to a smooth shine, it succeeds beautifullly!

## Black Hack Second Edition

PDF: $6 Print:$40

Created by David Black

Wow.

I mean.

Wow.

This book is a gem y’all. I am completely blown away. So flabbergasted that the only way to continue this “review” is with random exclamations and disjointed commentary.

AHEM. Let’s begin.

## Vagabonds of Dyfed

PDF: $10 Print:$20

Created by Sigilstone Publishing

Vagabonds of Dyfed bridges the gap between OSR and Powered by the Apocalypse World games.

What’s interesting is the math. Most OSR games have slightly different rules and tweaks, but they all have the same math. The entire community tries to stay compatible with one another.

Ben Dutter, the creator of Vagabonds, found a clever way to blend the stats and dice math of OSR games with the loose narrative rules of Apocalypse World games.

## Index Card RPG

PDF: $16 Print:$20

Created by Runehammer Games

So named because of its print-and-play nature, ICRPG came out about a year ago in a flurry of excitement and fantastic artwork.

Designed by Runehammer games, the same team behind Drunkens and Dragons, it’s a simple, lightweight rules system with modules for fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and western adventures. What really impresses me, however, is how well it plays online! Read More

## Dungeon Crawl Classics

PDF: $25 Print:$40

Created by Goodman Games

This huge 500+ page book hides within it a straightfoward classic RPG game. Most of the book is filled with spells, random tables, GM advice, monsters, and two included adventures. Highlights:

Tons of spells, each with 10+ different outcomes. Spellcasting is wild and unpredicatable.

Surprisingly simple system, my group was up and running in about 25 mins.

Fascinating character creation. Players start with a handful of weak peasants, and whoever survives the first meatgrinder adventure upgrades to a “real” character. This also acts like a tutorial mission for the game itself. Brilliant!

I didn’t think I would like it at first, but this game is filled with so much heart and clever mechancis that I keep coming back again and again. So far it’s my favorite of the OSR genre, right up there with Into the Odd.

PDF: $10 Print:$20

Created by Mark Richardson

Headspace is a Cyberpunk roleplaying game about hyper-competent operatives fighting personal battles against the Corporations controlling the world. The twist is that all the characters are connected with a neural link. The upside is that one character can access someone else’s hacking abilities, or precision shooting. The downside is that emotions bleed over along with skills.

As emotions bleed over and the tension rises, things start going wrong. A character may act out in fear and endanger the mission, causing even more stress. Headspace preserves all the fantastic cyberpunk trappings we know and love, and adds another layer of emotional processing that makes it uniquely engaging. I’ve never played a game that handles this so well.

The biggest benefit is the structure of the game, particularly the way the character sheets are designed. Everything is clear and easy to follow, with markers and trackers helping the table stay on the same page. It actually resembles some kind of strange board game which supports the more traditional RPG elements.

Lots of really neat stuff going on here, and worth a look if you’re into cyberpunk action OR an interesting dive into handling emotions.

PDF: Free

Print: $7 Created by Matthew McFarland First Fable is an RPG geared towards adults running games for their kids. Recommended for Ages 8-12, First Fable intrigued me because of it’s GM advice and clever simplicity. It’s not difficult to write a simple RPG. What’s more difficult is creating a game that let’s kids tell stories with JUST the right amount of structure and guidance. Not too much, not too little. The rules are straightforward, and the classes include “Pirate, Knight, Princess, and Animal Keeper” which is a great collection of basic classes. Characters have 3 stats (Strong, Fast, and Smart), some skills, abilities, and One Special Thing that can be used to overcome big challenges. The part I love is the advice on Running the Game. It is written with a solid understanding of kids and how they would like to play. Suggestions on limiting playtime, how to handle violence, dealing with failure, etc. Really fantastic stuff. If you want to play RPGs with young kids, the GM advice alone is worth a purchase. If you’re looking for an even younger audience, I’ve heard good things about Hero Kids, although it’s a little pricier. ## Unbound PDF:$15

Created by Grant Howitt

Unbound is a new game by Grant Howitt (Goblin Quest, Warrior Poet). My favorite games from Grant have a silly, light-hearted tone to them that I simply cannot resist. Unbound breaks from that mold a bit.

Rather than a long review, let’s just cover some cool bits:

No setting, the group creates it together during the first session

Each player has a deck that represents their character. They write abilities directly on the cards to help remember which cards do what.

Combat doesn’t use a grid, but instead interconnected areas; REALLY cool implementation that I will steal for Mythic Mortals and Dungeon World.

Character’s HP is the cards in their deck. Cool to see more games simplifying HP and stats.

Lack of setting means character abilities and powers can be reskinned in many ways, giving WAY more variety.

The artwork is just gorgeous. I can’t get enough of it.

Definitely check this out if you like world-building and innovative combat mechanics.

## 200 Word Alphabet

As this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge was ramping up I wanted to take a look back and review some of the lesser known entries from previous years. So every day I reviewed one entry for each letter of the alphabet. This was a fun way to force myself to look at games I might otherwise pass over. Check it out for 27 reviews of these bite-sized games.

PDF: $22 Free Preview Created by Dustin DePenning Kickstarted in October of 2016, Synthicide completely overwhelmed me on my first read-through. An absolutely gorgeous game, Synth is packed with player options, tactical combat, weapons, cybernetics, mutations, and more! There is a lot of interesting ideas here, but it struck me as “too complex for me.” I put it down, and walked away. A bit later I came back to it. On my second read through, I discovered something wonderful: Synthicide is a broad game with a specific premise. In spite of all the rules and the “crunch”, each game starts the same way: “Your group is on the run after committing a horrible atrocity: Murder of a holy automaton”. What a great hook! This unites the group, gives them an on-going goal (escape/survive), and turns up the pressure. With this setup, I could see myself learning the game with my group. A tight premise like this one keeps the group and the game together. Everything is viewed through that lens. Ship rules can focus on how good ships are at running away or defending, rather than how to orchistrate massive fleet battles (because your criminals on the run probably won’t command an armada). With that new focus, I had a lens to read the game, and was able to digest it much better. Synthicide is a great example of how important the initial premise is for pitching and playing your game. ## All Out of Bubblegum Archived Here Created by Michael “Epoch” Sullivan and Jeffery Grant, the same minds behind Everyone Is John. Bubblegum features the brilliant one-page wackiness you might expect. The rules are only a page long (just go read them), but they naturally encourage games that mimic action-movies. Unlike games like Feng-Shui, Bubble Gum doesn’t focus on combat as much as it focuses on violence as a solution. There are only two kinds of actions: Kicking Ass, and everything else. Bubblegum forces players to follow Action Movie cliches. As the game goes on and your supply of bubble gum starts to run low, you’re forced to solve your problems with outrageous acts of violence. This forces the game to naturally escalate. Instead of opening a door, you must smash it down. Instead of driving a car you leap through the windshield, punch the starter, and flashkick the steering wheel into position. Now are you gonna do something? Or are you just gonna sit there and read? ## Blades in the Dark PDF:$20

Created by John Harper

“Blades in the Dark is a game about a group of daring scoundrels building a criminal enterprise on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city. There are heists, chases, escapes, dangerous bargains, bloody skirmishes, deceptions, betrayals, victories, and deaths. You’re in a haunted Victorian-era city trapped inside a wall of lightning powered by demon blood.”

Inspired by the same base rules as Dungeon World, Blades add two major twists that really grabbed me:

1) Focus on Flashbacks. One of the key tenants of Blades is that you jump right into the action. Even on a complicated heist, your group only works out the most basic details: “We go in the back while you attack the front.” Then the heist begins. If players ever bump into an obstacle that they didn’t expect, they can have a short flashback detailing how they planned ahead for this. “Oh no, the door is locked? Well good thing we knew to pack climbing gear 5 hours earlier.” This keeps the game fast and loose.

2) Gangs and Turf. In addition to character sheets, your gang also has a sheet. The players can perform jobs, pay bribes, or intimidate other gangs to spread their influence. As your gang levels up you can tackle bigger and bigger jobs. Maybe one day you’ll run this godforsaken place!

The flashbacks and the focus on expanding the gang prevents players from spending the entire session making a plan that will fall apart. It cribs a lot of great ideas from board games by keeping players engaged mechanically and in the fiction. I absolutely adore it, and since Dungeon World, this has become my new darling.

Softcover: $22 Created by Ben Dutter As a huge fan of Vow of Honor, I was a little dubious about Belly of the Beast, which uses the same mechanics. BotB is set inside the guts of a ginormous world-eating monster from space. It is SO big and so huge that entire cities have been swallowed whole, and the survivors struggle to rebuild society. This guts of The Beast have their own weather patterns and echo systems. Fresh water is rare, and eating the flesh of The Beast will drive a person mad. While Vow of Honor revolved around a strict code of behavior, BotB gives every scavenger a list of Instincts and special skills that they can draw upon to survive. The game is structured around “Pulls” or missions to recover supplies, artifacts, and so on. With such an incredible setting and a unique concept, Belly of the Beast really grabs the imagination. I could see this being run as a dark, gross game of survival, or as strange, trippy game of exploring old ruins in a weird world. ## The Indie Hack PDF:$7.70

Created by Slade Stolar

After my review of Into the Odd, I find myself moving from story games to old-school systems. I couldn’t resist when Slade mentioned he was working on a game that combines the two! Similar to Dungeon World, The Indie Hack aims to simulate that classic DnD feel while keeping the flexibility of story games. However, The Indie Hack takes a completely different approach: Details Are Everything.

Whenever players interact with anything, they do this by adding/changing details. Hard details are drastic changes, soft details might be minor or temporary, and scene details can affect multiple things in the area. Attacking an enemy allows you to add details like Bleeding, Crippled. Disarmed, and so on. Objects and enemies can only contain so many negative details before they fall. So an enemy might have 5 “health”, and after 5 details are added, the creature falls to the ground, broken, bleeding, disarmed, insulted, and confused.

The variety of which details are added and how they are added keeps the game simple but engaging. A great choice for anyone who’s looking for something with low overhead but high flexibility. Two other mechanics worth mentioning. When you take a long rest, you can turn your injuries into scars, which add some neat flavor to the game.

But my other favorite idea is how relationships are handled. When someone tries to help you, you both roll dice. If their dice are better than yours, you accept their help, and your relationship grows stronger. Yay! But if their dice were worse than yours, you reject their assistance, and your relationship grows weaker. I just love the idea of someone trying to help pick a lock, but just gets in the way, frustrating the player who needed help. Brilliant!

## Goblin Quest

PDF: $15 Softcover:$25

Created by Grant Howitt

Goblin Quest is a game that makes death fun, and has some of the most humorous writing since Baron Munchausen. The artwork is also amazingly charming. Seriously, look at it!

The game itself is very simple and easy to get behind. Each player controls 5 goblins (one at a time), working together to accomplish some mundane mission: make breakfast, steal a wizard robe, catch a fairy, and so on. The problem is that goblins are prone to dying in horrible and unlikely ways (which is why you control 5 of them). You’re trying to roll some dice above a certain number whilst describing your cunning plans.

The game treats each mission like a heist, allowing players to plan each step of the mission. During each step players roll dice and can fail miserably. Failure means death. LOTS OF SILLY DEATHS! This is a fun game for silly/drunk adults, and the perfect game for silly/caffeinated kids. This is the kind of game that my 12-year old self wanted to play.

Print: $25 Free Version created by Adam Koebel and Sage Latorra Dungeon World has a terrible name but a wonderful system. Although the setting and the characters are common cliches, Dungeon World brings something new to the table that completely changed how I run games. The system relies on the concept of “moves”. Players can simply describe what they’re doing, and the mechanics don’t click in until they trigger a move. Walking across town, finding the bar, and talking to the sheriff won’t trigger any moves. Moves look like this: When you attack an enemy in melee, roll two 6-sided dice and add STR: • On a 10+, you deal your damage to the enemy and avoid their attack. At your option, you may choose to do +1d6 damage but expose yourself to the enemy’s attack. • On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you. This means that most of the game is very rules lite, and the mechanics only kick in for interesting things. It has become the gold standard for me, and is my go-to game system. Also, the GM advice in this book is PURE gold. Any aspiring GM should pick it up and give it a skim just for the GM section alone. ## Dread PDF:$3

Quickstart: Free

created by The Impossible Dream

If you haven’t heard about this game, prepare yourself. There are a lot of great horror games out there, most of them fairly complex, and all of them difficult and dangerous. Most horror games rely on high-risk dice mechanics to create that tension and danger that is so necessary for good suspense. But not Dread. Dread replaces traditional dice with a Jenga Tower.

And this works beautifully! The rules are dirt simple: whenever someone wants to perform a risky or dangerous action, they pull a Jenga tile. Refusal to pull the tile, or stopping halfway means your character fails that action. If you can pull out a tile, then your character succeeds. BUT! If the tower falls when you’re taking your action, you DIE. Death. ouch.

In most games, your HP or sanity represents how close characters are to death or insanity. In this game, the current state of the Jenga tower represents the groups mental fortitude and courage. It get’s REALLY intense when the tower is leaning to one side, and the mutant with the axe is chopping down the door, you don’t think you can pull a brick, but you HAVE to, otherwise he’ll get inside and then….

You get the idea. The book has a lot of great examples, GM advice, and scenarios included, but if you had to, you could just run the game with the quick-start rules for free on the website. Check it out if you want an intense and pulse-pounding game session!

Also, I wrote a little Sci Fi adventure for Dread, if you’re interested.

## Numenera

PDF: $20 Print:$60

Created by Monte Cook

Numenera is the brainchild of famed Tabletop RPG writer and creator Monte Cook. The result is incredible, brilliant, and singular. Much like a movie with the same director, producer, and main actor, Numenera is Monte Cook inside and out; no filters from the publisher or printer. And it shows, in both the good ways and the bad.

The Good: The worldbuilding, universe detail, theme and setting are absolutely incredible! I’ve never read an RPG with such a rich world just begging to be explored. Every sentence in this book promises incredible people, places and adventures. Numenera is set millions of years in the future, in a world where humanity has lost its former glory, and explores the mysterious and powerful remnants of its past. The whole game is built around the idea of exploration and discovering incredible things; and for the most part, it does its job admirably, with one notable problem…

The Bad: For a game that is so focused on exploration and adventure, all of the player abilities, skills, and gizmos are heavily focused on combat. So much so that whenever I run the game, I prefer to use a different system (like Dungeon World) so that my players won’t feel so useless outside of combat. And the combat mechanics themselves are very reminiscent of 3.5 (which Monte Cook also designed.) This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I found them very obtuse and unsatisfying.

Numenera is the most beautiful world I’ve ever played in, and one that I will be coming back to again and again. The system, however, may not return to my table.

Print: $25 Created by Brian Engard This game mixes up the traditional RPG setup. One player takes the role of a hero, while the other players each assume the roles of the Fates, giving the hero trials, troubles, and adventures. Each of the Fates has their own motivations and abilities. They try to turn the Hero into something else, while the Hero tries to maintain their character in spite of these trials. There is a lot of information for making your own heroes, quests, and fates. This is a very interesting system, focusing on motivation and roles. Everyone has a defined role, and is expected to act within their roles. I really like this archetypal setup, with clear boundaries on either side. I also like how this game embraces cliches and archetypes, and in fact relies upon them. This game requires a LOT of dice, at least 60+ if I read the rules correctly. It also requires that players do not stray too far outside of their goals and limits. There are not a lot mechanics, but strict roles and motivations. This is great for the story-telling game, but depends upon a disciplined group of players self-refereeing and keeping themselves in line. It is also limited to 4 players, no more, no less. ## Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple PDF:$10

Created by Daniel Solis.

This is a game designed for kids 12+, which includes me! Players travel to strange lands and try to resolve problems. To create a character, each pilgrim writes down how they tend to get into trouble (curious, talkative, easily distracted, etc) and how they help people; usually relating to how you get into trouble (investigates where other’s don’t, talks people through their problems, notices things people miss). Pilgrims receive a letter detailing the world that needs help, and what the problem is. And then they go do that.

“You take the bag of 40 stones, 20 white, 20 black, and on your turn you’re the storyteller, everyone else is termed as troublemakers. You draw 3 and then you get to pick the white or the black stones. You have a marker with two sides. One of them indicates you’re in trouble. One that you’re not. There’s a handy little table that tells about how many stones you keep vs how many you put back in the bag.

The results either put you into or out of trouble, and you write a sentence using goal words from the letter depending on the results. If you manage to eventually cross off all the goal words, you get a parade ending. Things turn out good for you guys.

If someone gets 8 or more stones before you get all the goal words, you get a pitchforks ending, where things aren’t so good, and you get driven offworld for your meddling in their affairs. There’s some cleanup stuff after everything is done to change or retire characters, but that’s basically the idea.

Who writes the sentences (troublemakers or storyteller) is determined by what you choose to keep. So you’re trying to keep as few stones as possible while crossing off goal words. There’s a handy dandy letters book (of which I wrote a couple!) for premade letters too. :) The system for writing them is pretty simple.” – Description from AskJames

Really neat to see a game that encourages kids to embrace their faults and use their skills to overcome problems.

## Durance

PDF: $10 Print:$25

Created by Jason Morningstar

A futuristic sci-fi game taking place in a distant colony on the edge of civilization. People become colonists for a host of reasons, and embrace the chance to start anew in a harsh environment. One fun part of the game is the difference between how things are advertised, and how things ACTUALLY are. All colonies and situations have a public, clean description, while the reality is often darker and murkier. Instead of quests, characters have oaths that they must keep or break, and play out situations until the fun starts to run low.

This game has some of the best world and colony generation that I’ve seen. There are tables that you randomly roll up to select environments, planets, colonies, and threats. Everything blends together well, and no matter what combination you are guaranteed a great, grisly situation. This game also has some of the best political and social interaction/setup/focus. There are no combat rules, since combat is just one way to solve a problem.

Along with the stellar random generation tables, Durance succeeds at making situations that are physically and politically dangerous. It’s good to see games tackle more mundane, familiar struggles. The harsh environment just helps amplify everything that happens.

Book 2: $17 created by Agate RPG Book zero is available for free, and lays down the setting and basic mechanics for this system. Self-described as a dark, low-fantasy grim world where magic exists, but usually manifests in dark curses or shadowy specters. No wizards or elves here. Instead of the traditional stats based character options, Esteren focuses on different aspects of a character’s personality, motivations, and goals. I like the idea that characters aren’t based around what they are most proficient at, but what they want, or how they solve problems. If two men are equal fighters, then it all comes down to personality, motivation, and dedication. How far will you go t accomplish your goal? Also, skills and feats are laid out in a large tree, allowing for branching paths of character customization, rather than picking from long lists of abilities. ## Stars Without Number PDF is Free Core:$20

Created by Sine Nomine Publishing

A sci-fi role-playing game that portrays a universe where space travel has altered humanity over the course of generations. These mutations result in a groups of humanity manifesting psychic powers. After a horrible spacial anomaly kills all the psychics in the universe, humanity is recovering and re-building without the aid of interstellar travel. Worlds are stranded from each other, small leaders vie for power, star charts are mostly out of date, and tales of strange alien beings spread far and wide.

The OSR leaning is familiar to most gamers, and the sci-fi trappings work well with the ruleset. The main reason it’s on this list is the incredible generation tables.

Planets are generated with a atmosphere, temperature, population size, tech level, and so on. Star Systems, alien races, adventures, galactic factions, and more can all be rolled up and spread across the galaxy. Many games feature random generation tables, but Stars Without number does it extremely well with interesting results.

## Conclusion

Thanks for reading! I hope you found these games as interesting as I have. Please feel free to send me any suggestions or thoughts; this list is constantly growing! If you’re still not satisfied, you can check out some of my own games, many of which I find interesting, although I am a bit biased.