The Best Tabletop RPGs I’ve Ever Played.
Tabletop roleplaying games are all the rage in nerd culture these days. They’ve been an aspect of nerd life since way before nerd life was mainstream, but they’ve really got the spotlight now. I’ve blogged about this before, but I’ve got more to say today. This won’t be a reflection on the nature of popularity or me being an old nerd who was “liking something before it was cool.” In today’s blog I’m going to reflect on the tabletop roleplaying games that meant the most to me, in terms of storytelling, fun, how much it impacted me creatively, and how bonds of real-life friendship were formed.
HELL’S REBELS. I’m currently playing this one and I’m in love with it. Dungeons & Dragons may be the grandfather of tabletop RPGs, but Paizo’s PATHFINDER is where I hang my adventuring gear. I love the Inner Sea setting, I love this system, and I love how much of a spiritual successor it was (and still is) to the 3.5 d20 system. But that’s not why I love Hell’s Rebels. It’s set in a city instead of a sprawling landscape or twisting dungeon, so we never have to do the typical adventuring things like “setting up camp” or “finding an inn for information.” I was raised in the suburbs, lived for years in the Boston area, and have now returned to the suburbs. I know how to play in urban settings. It’s in my blood, apparently. Fighting to save the soul of a single city is a scope and scale that’s smaller than what I’m used to, but it hits closer to home. That, and I’m playing with only one other player and one GM. It’s an ultra-tight group, where we two players are each playing two separate characters. Decisions are made fast, our characters never step on each other’s toes, and most of the conflicts are better solved with quick wit and nonviolence than killing everything in sight. I’ve never had more fun playing a Bard and a Paladin than I have in this game, and we’re not even halfway through it.
MERCENARY SOULS. It’s because of this 3.5 D&D game that I had a webcomic to put online. Seventeen years(!) ago my friends invited me to be a part of their ongoing, original D&D adventure, which they called “Merc Souls.” I rolled up a diviner called Dominic Deegan and had the time of my life. I became obsessed with Dominic. I talked about him all the time. I made up little sketches of him. I even doodled comics about him, which were to become the very first comics of Dominic Deegan: Oracle for Hire. Sadly, I became so enamored with Dominic that my friends removed me from the game. I never did get to find out how their long-running campaign ended, but I did get to start my career in webcomics because of it. My thanks and apologies to my old friends, for them inspiring me and for my nearly ruining their game. Oops.
THE CHRONICLES OF CATTERICK. This was the one and only successful tabletop RPG where I was the gamemaster, using the amazing 7th SEA roleplaying game. I chose a town in the country of Avalon with little-to-no details, made up a bunch of my own, and let my players explore what I had to offer. This was the best swashbuckling adventure I ever ran, with plenty of intrigue and magic and twists. I’ve never felt as “on” as a GM as I did running this game, and I don’t think I’ll ever capture it again. The rule system of 7th SEA was so effortless that it let me do more storytelling than worrying about game mechanics. I had a cast of characters my players seemed to be genuinely invested in. I had story moments that left my friends in stunned silence, which I later learned was damn near impossible to do. This was not only the best game I ever ran, but the best game I ever wrote. I’ll never be able to do it again, but the memories of those games will be treasured forever.
LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO MY CHANTRY! I don’t know if this was the official name of the campaign my high school buddy came up with for his Mage: The Ascension game, but it was a comedic phrase he uttered once during a game, and it came to symbolize what the entire campaign was like for us. Mage: The Ascension was a serious game, but man oh man did we goof it up. There were moments of great drama and adventure, sure, but we were also a bunch of goofy high schoolers making “wouldn’t it be funny if–” remarks and turning them into the game world. What was meant to be a gothic magic setting turned into a sometimes-sitcom, and it was some of the most fun I ever had. Our friend, who ran the game, had a great cast of characters we were all hugely invested in. On a weeks-long trip to Europe, I brought a journal with which to write my character’s adventures in, so when I returned home to my friends, and the game, they would see what my Mage had been up to while he was overseas. This game was something special, because it was played during a special time in our lives.
DARK WORLD / NEW WORLD. I played this original 3.5 D&D campaign with another super small group of friends, and what made this one special was that we all took turns as GMs. One week, I would take up the helm of the story and leave it with a “to be continued” for the next person, who would continue on in a direction they felt was appropriate. Like my current time playing HELL’S REBELS, we benefited from a super-tight group of players. We were all on the same wavelength, and worked well with one another to craft a story and an original world we would be proud of. It’s the only campaign I played that got a sequel, where we continued adventuring in a world after it had been rescued from darkness, with new characters and a new set of challenges. It was nice to see our world evolve, because it was truly “ours.”