For me 2019 was largely defined by tabletop games. From discovering new solo games through itch.io, participating in game jams, and finding my way through making my own tabletop games. I have hosted and participated in video game jams in the past, and while those are often a great way of exercising creative muscles, I am often acutely aware that I am a small part in a much larger and complex machine. One that often feels like it doesn’t need me.
I’m a writer, I don’t have much experience with visual art or design, and I have learned little patience for coding. But with tabletop games I feel like I am in control. I’ve been telling stories all my life, and tabletop games let me define rules that let other people tell those stories.
But let’s talk about the games I’ve played first.
BEST SOLO RPG EXPERIENCE
I usually game once a week with people I met on the internet. Meeting with my local friends often feels like an impossible task. We have jobs and partners and families and no time. This year I started working a job that occupies many of my evenings. If I want to experience that ttrpg high, that feeling of spontaneous genesis of story and characters and stakes, I’ve gotta do it myself. In 2019 I was overjoyed to discover that many single player RPGs exist to address this specific problem.
I played a lot of these this year, so I’ve got a few I want to talk about.
1. Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls
I have spent several nights recovering from my day job by spelunking in all manner of dungeons and towers, using a deck of playing cards. That’s all you need to play Matthew Lowes’ Dungeon Solitaire: Tomb of Four Kings. This free game provides you with all the rules you need to turn a deck of cards into a solitary dungeon crawl full of monsters, locked doors, traps, and treasure hoards. The game is based on a point system tied to how much treasure you have when you escape the dungeon. Like some of my favourite cooperative board games there are several ways for you to lose. You could get trapped behind a locked door, killed by a monster, or run out of light and be lost in the dungeon forever.
The rules are easy to internalize and the mechanics are light enough that I could imagine myself struggling through a tower that defies the laws of time and space, or a group of kobolds on a daring heist, or just tried to min-max my way to the best high score possible.
But the game really shines as Labyrinth of Souls, a version of the game that uses tarot cards and comes with its own custom tarot card deck with extra arcana. In this version of the game the basic mechanics are augmented with companions, dragons, litches, and cards that represent the soul-crushing despair of the dungeon. I picked up my copy earlier this year and I still take the cards out for a quick dungeon run every once in a while.
2. plot ARMOR
This deceptively simple 1 page solo RPG can let you spin incredible tales of mechs, war, and destiny. This was the game that really showed me what solo RPGs could be. I will admit that I don’t quite know enough about mech anime to appreciate all the tropes the game calls upon, but its still a revelation.
plot ARMOR by DC is a game where you play out your own multi-episode mech anime. Your character, through whatever means, figures out that they and their mechanized armor are immortal, and you play to find out what happens.
My first experience with this game involved expanding empires, betrayal, ontological destruction, and death by hubris. I was surprised by how easily I could envision the events of each episode after each die roll, as well as the logical, inescapable final episode. It was beautiful.
3. Gentleman Bandit
I fear my mother’s kind rebuke
I hear my father’s deathly knell
I search for that distant sunrise
Running from what? I do not know
I could have picked one better life
But I do love this Devil’s Dance
From train car theif, to drink, and back
To filling life and eyes with sin
Far distant from rebukes and bells
Distant from all kith and kin
I’ll never leave this Devil’s Dance
No miracle can clean spent brass
No prayer can rest this weary head
Gentleman Bandit lets you write poetry based on poker hands about a verbose bandit in the Old West. That’s it. That’s the game.
Runners Up: Ironsworn, REDACTED
BEST GAME THAT EVOKED THOSE CLASS WAR FEELS
“And, for an instant, she stared directly into those soft blue eyes and knew, with an instinctive mammalian certainty, that the exceedingly rich were no longer even remotely human.” – William Gibson, Count Zero
My new day job, the one that takes away my evenings, is the first one I’ve had in the restaurant business. I’m a host at a pizza place. It sucks. So when I do have free time I often want to spend it stealing from the rich, tipping the scales of the world against those who don’t tip the people I work with.
Winner: The Sprawl
This is the game that let me imagine myself as a get-away driver, jacked with silicone chips that let me drive my car like a second skin as I evaded autonomous tanks and drones, chasing me and my crew through the streets. The Sprawl let me and my friends imagine our own cyberpunk dystopia and how exactly we wanted to save ourselves from it. We risked all our cred for better rewards, we abandoned our hacker friend to a criminal syndicate, and we got catharsis.
Runners Up: Hack the Planet, Blades in the Dark
BEST FORGED IN THE DARK GAME
Blades in the Dark has become my favourite RPG system this year. It doesn’t put pressure on the GM to do hours of prep before each game, it ensures that the game is a conversation between all the players, and it creates a world unique to every group. Games based on BitD are called Forged in the Dark and I got to play and read a few this year.
Winner: Antiquarian Adventures
I love treasure hunting dramas. I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on VHS over and over as a kid. I love the Uncharted Games and stories that pull on the marginalia of history and ask “what if?” What if the holy grail was real, and it wound up in San Diego? What if El Dorado was real? What if… fish people?
Antiquarian Adventures by Ashton McAllan is everything I want in a pulpy adventure RPG. The rules are light, the character archetypes are perfectly on point, and it effortlessly leads you towards familiar tropes and stories. The big bruiser can use a gun to just end a sword fight. You have stats like BIFF!, SCHWING!, and BANG! And yes, there is always an enemy organization with more assets and goons than you do, always hunting the same thing.
Best of all, there is one of those rare, perfect let’s play videos of the game run by Ashton herself. I’ve watched it at least 3 times and the American accents, incomprehensible Welsh, and bumbling acts of daring-do only get better.
Runners Up: Hack the Planet, Scum & Villainy (Special shout-out to Jet, my Jedi-school drop out character from Scum & Villainy. Godspeed you incredible gay disaster. I hope I get a chance to party with you again soon.)
BEST GAME I JUST WANT TO TALK ABOUT TO ANYONE WHO WILL LISTEN
Look. Sometimes you just can’t find people to play a game, but you’re still blown away by its design and the experiences it can promise and this is my list and you can’t stop me.
Holy shit. HOLY. SHIT. Hey, do you like weird time travel stories? Did you watch Primer? Did you get it, like really get it? How about Looper? Yeah, well how about Timecrimes? Really? Well have I got a game for you.
I found Abkronos because of my own work in amateur tabletop game design. I have found so many creators I respect and follow because of my increasing interest in this hobby, finding creators on itch, and new servers to silently occupy on discord. Calum Grace is one such person I have come to admire and he did something amazing with Abkronos.
It fits on 3 pages but it will let you create stories that threaten to go off the rails in paradoxes, time loops, and contradictions almost immediately. I played this game once by myself and realized after the very first move that I had to figure out how I imagined time travel working else be lost in open loops that would unravel these poor characters I had created. Abkronos is an engine for novel experiences in a pure and concise way that still leaves me shaking my head in wonder.
Runners Up: PLAY ABKRONOS!
This year I processed a lot about the world through RPGs, especially the ones I have made myself.
I finally closed dozens of tabs about the incoming climate apocalypse by making a game about rising sea levels. I got to evoke 90’s hacker aesthetics and give homage to some of my favourite solitaire games. I made a hopeful but difficult game about the distant future of humanity. I built a game about telling stories about first contact by analyzing my favorites like Contact and A Story of your Life. I put my foot down about how characters define the world in tabletop RPGs, and not the GM. I made a game about how the Fast & Furious movies are ridiculous and amazing.
And I found a way that I can spend my nights imagining a world where me and my friends can rob banks and kill rich people, rather than spending them trapped at a pizza place.