It’s week two of the lockdown, I’m running out of my meds (I love hoarders) and I’m losing my mind. There’s already so much that has gone wrong and it’s not even halfway done?
Every night, as a kind of salve, I’ve been playing a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) with my friends. Tabletop RPGs are also known as pen and paper RPGs since they don’t involve the use of technology like a video game. Instead of a console or what have you, you play through collaborative storytelling. It’s a lot of fun since you can fully immerse yourself in the game with the character you create and control with your friends. If you’re the game master (GM) or dungeon master (DM) of a campaign, you’ll act as the lead writer, director, producer and sound designer of the night, which is also fun in its own right.
I’m going to be honest, it’s a good idea to play a tabletop RPG if you’re already getting a bit sick of the people you’re quarantining with. You’re playing different people, and you get to adopt different roles and personalities!
You don’t have to be physically in the same room together while playing an RPG (though it would make it a lot better), either. You can check out platforms like Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds, or you can utilize any video conference app.
If you’re interested, here are some of my recommendations for games you can pick up during this quarantine. Do note that while I call these games out of convenience, they’re really more systems or platforms that you can build a story with using their complex (or simple!) rules and lore. Don’t forget: Most of these games have preset stories or scenarios that you can follow, but you can always customize them or make up your own.
Tabletop RPGs are infamous for being ripe with campaigns that can span multiple decades, but that doesn’t mean that every game has to be a huge commitment. One shots like these games are designed to be played in one sitting with minimal preparation.
Fiasco is unique in that it’s a GM-less RPG, which means that instead of having one person have overall control of where the story is going like a director, it’s the dice that decides. This also means that all the players on the table have equal control of the story. “During a game you will engineer and play out stupid, disastrous situations, usually at the intersection of greed, fear and lust. It’s like making your own Coen brothers movie, in about the same amount of time it’d take to watch one,” says the game’s description page. You can buy a copy of the game at DriveThru RPG.
Most tabletop RPGs make use of dice or cards to determine the outcomes of actions. With the horror game Dread, it mixes things up a bit by using Jenga blocks instead. How this works is that if you successfully pull a block from a Jenga tower, whatever action your character is about to do will succeed. If you decide not to pull a block, the action is an immediate failure. However, if you try to pull a block and the Jenga tower falls down, your character permanently dies. This raises the stakes a lot, and it helps build up the, well, dread, while playing a spooky campaign. You can buy a PDF copy of the game through DriveThru RPG, but the developers have also released a free guide to playing, as well as a few stories you can run.
Ten Candles is one of the funnest and spookiest games to play in the dark. Along with two sets of dice and index cards, all the players are surrounded with 10 candles that are slowly extinguished as the game continues. The setting of the game is a world in which the sun has vanished—“Ten days ago, the sky betrayed you. The world went dark. The sun vanished. Five days ago, They came. And now They’re coming for you. Keep moving. Don’t lose hope. And stay in the light.” It’s a tragic horror game, which means the goal isn’t to survive (there is no survival in this game), but to control how you live out your final moments, and how long you can go before reaching it.
Lasers and Feelings
If you’re not into playing serious stories and would rather play something wacky and silly, Lasers and Feelings is more up your speed. It’s a free sci-fi game that’s fun and easy to run. If you like watching space operas like “Star Trek” that don’t take themselves too seriously, you should really check this out.
Old Friends is by the same developers of Fiasco. It’s also a GM-less game, but this time, the game works around that by having one player be a facilitator who, while still being a player character, just helps facilitate where the story is going. Unlike Fiasco, which is often played with ‘70s crime noir settings, Old Friends revolves around a ghost story.
Grin is a free game system from the developer Arcana Games that focuses on survival horror. It involves the use of cards for the gameplay. Since the rules are pretty light, it’s easy enough to improvise a story, but you can follow the scenario that the developers have already provided (I hope you like abandoned hospitals and body horror!).
Systems for ongoing campaigns
Tabletop RPGs are most known for systems that can be used for long, ongoing campaigns. That doesn’t mean that every campaign in these systems has to be long (in fact, you can make a one shot using it). Still, it means that you can play one long-running game through the lockdown.
Dungeons and Dragons
Without question, Dungeons and Dragons is the most iconic and popular tabletop RPG out there. If you see a group of friends on TV playing a tabletop RPG, I can guarantee you that they’re either playing a D&D game or something inspired by it. It’s possibly the most accessible one here, too—there are leagues and events devoted to just playing this.
The concept of D&D is basically high, high fantasy, like “Lord of the Rings” or “Earthsea.” You have a set of races (like an elf, human, gnome, etc) you can play as, as well as different classes (say, you might want to fight enemies with pure strength or through magic).
— R. Talsorian Games Making Cyberpunk and Witcher (@RTalsorianGames) March 6, 2020
It’s the ‘80s and ‘90s version of the future, and the world is defined by high complex technology, hacker culture and a complete breakdown of social order. Think “The Matrix” or “Blade Runner.”
Cyberpunk Red is part of the Cyberpunk franchise by R. Talsorian Games, which started with the tabletop RPG Cyberpunk 2013 published in 1988. This particular installment was made to coincide with the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077 (Red is supposedly the prequel) and it’s set in a dystopic American megacity called Night City.
The full core book hasn’t been released yet (it’ll coincide with the release of the video game apparently), but the developers have already released a starter set which gives you enough information to play the game. I’m GM-ing a game right now and it’s a lot of fun. The game is currently on sale on DriveThruRPG to help people get through the worldwide quarantine.
Pathfinder is one of D&D’s most popular and youngest “offsprings.” “What makes Pathfinder so successful, Bulmahn said, isn’t the core of D&D-based, d20 rules. It’s the way that he and his team have changed the trajectory of character progression, and how they’ve brought in their own touches to create a unique role-playing world.” Originally based on D&D’s version 3.5, the game offers more character customization and many “adventure paths,” or interlocking adventures to help guide GMs in forming long-running campaigns for their players.
Paranoia is a classic sci-fi RPG with black comedy themes set in a dystopic future controlled by an AI computer. “[It] challenged players to survive in Alpha Complex, a post-apocalyptic, underground city ruled by an extremely paranoid, buggy Computer, where treason is punishable by death and pretty much everything is treasonous (including knowing the rules of the game),” writes Rob Bricken for Gizmodo. It’s pure chaos and so, so fun.
Blades in the Dark
Blades in the Dark is by the same person behind Lasers and Feelings. This system is inspired by Victorian London and Gothic fiction with lots of crime and action—if you’d like to play in a “Peaky Blinders”-esque world, this game is for you. “[It’s about] a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city. There are heists, chases, occult mysteries, dangerous bargains, bloody skirmishes, and, above all, riches to be had—if you’re bold enough to seize them.” It’s available on Evil Hat Productions and DriveThruRPG.
Are you watching “The Witcher” on Netflix right now? If you’d like to be immersed in that world more, you can play The Witcher Tabletop game, made by the same developers behind Cyberpunk Red and inspired by the original video game series. It’s also on sale at DriveThruRPG.