It’s Tabletop Tuesday again, and this time we’re doing something a little different. Normally, I would talk about a tabletop that I have played. But today, I’m going to talk about some that I haven’t.
As a kid growing up, I’d heard all about Dungeons and Dragons. I even played video games that emulated it like Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, and Dungeons and Dragons Online. But it wasn’t until college that I learned there were other tabletop games out there in the world, a realization I came to when I played my first tabletop game: Mutants and Masterminds.
Since then, I’ve played a combination of tabletops both official and fan-made. These include D&D, Dungeon World, Pokemon Tabletop Adventures, Star Wars RPG (not the cool ones by Fantasy Flight), and Dread. Now that’s a decent number of tabletops, particularly considering that a lot of people tend to find one version of D&D that they really like and just play that forever. But even though I’ve experienced quite a few tabletop settings, there are plenty more I want to try out too. So today, to honor those mysterious worlds that I have not yet experienced, I’m going to talk about my top 5 tabletop games I want to play. In no particular order, of course.
I first learned about Numenera through a Youtube series called RollPlay R&D. If you’re interested in tabletops and like to watch Let’s Plays on the internet, you can check out the channel here.
Numenera is set in the far-flung future of our own planet Earth. So far-flung, in fact, that eight civilizations have come and gone. The world is in its ninth age, a technologically-deficient time when what’s left of society is ruled by a religious elite that keeps everyone in their place. Leaving the safety of civilization is tantamount to suicide, for unknown and magical forces wait outside – or at least they seem magical. It’s up to your characters as explorers of this vast and historic world to discover the truths of the numenera, ancient technology so advanced that to the archaic minds of the ninth era these devices appear to be magic.
Numenera is all about exploration and discovery, making it a sort of futuristic Indiana Jones. Characters discover small bits of old technology with just enough juice to do some fantastic things, and they use these devices to learn more about the world around them. This setting sounds absolutely awesome and is the main reason I am drawn to Numenera.
Character creation is both simple yet highly customizable. Characters can be summed up in one sentence: the _____ ______ that _______. The combination of a class (one of three), an adjective (a wide selection of these), and a focus (another wide selection), creates a unique character with all sorts of abilities based on the descriptions you chose. Statistics exist as pools of currency that you can spend – even XP works this way. So choosing how to invest your abilities is key, as your resources are limited until you have the opportunity to rest.
The devices and numenera in the game seem like a ton of fun. Numenera themselves are longer-lasting pieces of technology that can function for long periods of time. There are also one-off devices that have powerful effects, but burn out immediately after use. Managing the technology in your inventory and using it at the proper time is all part of the game’s strategy.
With such a fantastic setting and what seem like fun gameplay mechanics, Numenera is definitely high on my list of games to try.
Call of Cthulhu
This tabletop RPG is one that has been around for quite some time. Inspired by the mythos of HP Lovecraft, the game casts you as an investigator of the unknown who is faced with the daunting task of stopping insidious cults and alien gods from ravaging the sanity of the world.
I’ve never read Lovecraft and as a result am not super familiar with the truth of the Cthulhu mythos, but basically the idea behind this genre of horror is that there is more fear to be had from what you DON’T understand than what you do – as the player. For the characters, it’s the other way around, and the more their minds are exposed to the monstrosities this world has to offer, the more their sanity is torn away and they descend into total madness.
Mechanically, the game runs on a percentile system using varying degrees of difficulty. For any given task, you roll a percentile between 1 and 100 and hope that you roll below your skill total. However, the harder the task, the less of your skill you get to use, and investigators will find themselves rolling at half or even a fifth of their attribute scores. Skills level up when you use them – at the end of session, for every ability you actually utilized, you roll percentage and if you rolled higher than your skill, you can increase it.
I like how in Call of Cthulhu your abilities increase through usage rather than having to get a set amount of XP from arbitrary actions. I also enjoy the setting – games like Mansions of Madness and even Dread have taught me to appreciate the Cthulhu mythos and I love the whole idea of fighting against monsters that are so incomprehensible and awful that just the sight of them can lead to madness. This game also has a darker feel to it and seems very difficult – recovery happens at a slow, realistic pace. Dying or insanity can remove your character from the game world, and investigators are considered expendable in the battle to stop Cthulhu’s ultimate plan.
The Burning Wheel
This game is a fantasy RPG inspired by the works of renowned fantasy authors like Ursula K Le Guin, Stephen R Donaldson, and JRR Tolkien. So classic fantasy elements like elves, dwarves, and orcs are present here. But the driving premise behind the game is the belief system your character holds – what they stand for is what the game is all about. As such, The Burning Wheel has a deep character creation system defining many aspects of your character’s life and what the character believes in.
Mechanically, the game uses d6 dice. You roll as many d6 as you have points in the appropriate attribute, measured against an obstacle rating defined by the GM. If you get a number of successes (4-6) equal or higher than the obstacle, you succeed. Of course, there are plenty of factors that add to this; you can get advantages (increasing your dice pool), disadvantages (increasing the obstacle rating), and shades (reducing the number needed on the die for a success). This makes the mechanics deceptively simple, but they also seem pretty rewarding.
You get special points called artha for good roleplaying, and these points allow you to push your character to their limit fighting for what they believe in. Belief is central to the idea of the game, and as such your beliefs define your motivation, abilities, and even your advancement in the game.
I like the idea of a character-driven narrative, and I also like some of the mechanical ideas that Burning Wheel utilizes. In particular, the Let It Ride rule, where one check represents the character’s best effort until the circumstances change in a significant way, is an awesome rule to have in place for any tabletop game. The only thing that makes me uneasy about The Burning Wheel is that it seems heavy on rules, and I tend to enjoy a style that is more narrative than gamist or simulationist.
The Fate system is a pretty generic system designed to be able to run any kind of game. So whereas most of what I have talked about so far has a pretty specific setting – sci-fi, horror, fantasy – this game can be any of those or a mix of them. The Fate Core is a general system designed to allow any kind of character to exist in its universe, and as such the rules are pretty light and open.
Characters are described with a series of six attributes: Flashy, Forceful, Quick, Clever, Sneaky, and Careful. The modifier of the appropriate attribute is applied when rolling, and you can fail, tie, succeed, or succeed with style based on how your roll compares to a target difficulty number. All characters have aspects, statements that describe an important part of who they are. Aspects can be things like Captain of the Gorvian Guard, Archmage of the Arcane Guild, Sword Champion of Kreshnor Kingdom – the possibilities are effectively endless. Aspects can be used to give you an advantage or they can play to the enemy’s advantage – this is highly situational and depends completely on the unique aspects your character possesses.
This very open-ended system allows for pretty much endless potential when it comes to character creation. Your aspects describe who you are and what you are capable of, and without a specific list of tags to hold you back, you can be anything you want to be. This is ultimately what draws me to the Fate system, along with the idea that you can play in any genre. Being flexible with genres means that they can even be mixed, and mixing genres is one of my favorite things to do as a writer and creator.
Prowlers and Paragons
Sound familiar? Yeah, this superhero tabletop may not have much going for it in name originality, but the style of play sounds very cool. This is a rules light game using mainly d6. The game is primarily narrative-driven and focuses on having different players take turns describing the scene.
Dice rolls are made using a number of d6 based on your attributes. Every even number is a success, and 6’s allow you to get a success and reroll to try and get another one. You can also do a “routine check” by spending two of your dice for one automatic success. Your number of successes is compared to your target’s in order to describe the degree of success.
When you take an action, the degree of success decides who gets to describe what’s happening – the person taking the action, or the recipient of that action. A good roll by the actor means they get what they want – but if it isn’t quite high enough, the target gets to embellish and add little details that are advantageous for him or her. Of course, just because you’re given creative control on a success doesn’t mean that you have to make your character look awesome – you can describe how you fail at a task in exchange for game-changing resolve points.
Resolve is the real difference between a player character and an NPC, allowing the heroes to push their limits and defy the odds to succeed. Of course, the GM has Adversity, the opposite of Resolve and the thing that allows villains to escape at the last moment or succeed in their evil schemes just before the heroes can stop them.
This back-and-forth exchange of resolve versus adversity, and the balance of who gets to describe the action and who gets to simply embellish it a little, makes the game very collaborative and gives everyone some creative control. This is an aspect of Dungeon World that I have really enjoyed, and it seems like P&P brings collaboration to the table in an even more direct way. The rules-light system is definitely up my alley, as in my mind rules should only be there to facilitate creativity and fun, not to stifle them. The less rules there are to worry about, the more time can be spent enjoying the game.
So there you have it, the five games I want to play at some point. Do any of these tabletops sound fun to you? Do you have any you recommend, or an experience with one of the ones I mentioned that you would like to share? Feel free to discuss it in the comments, as I’m always happy to talk tabletops with a fellow gamer.