Since its inception in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons has remained one of the most popular games in history, and it’s even recognized as the foundation for modern games that use a role-playing mechanic. However, it’s far from the only role-playing game (RPG) out there, so if fantasy adventures aren’t up your alley, maybe zombies or eldritch horrors or criminal heists are.
Dungeons & Dragons is beloved because it lets players create individual characters that are then led through fantastic adventures, facing peril and rewards along the way, at the hands of the person running the game, called the Dungeon Master (DM). In the game, both the players and the DM use dice to determine various actions and have a handbook to reference information for characters, actions, monsters, movement, and more.
For most RPGs, you will need to create a character. Unlike board games, where you simply use a meeple or other ready-to-use token, you’ll use a handbook or rules sheet to flesh out your character. This can include a name, possibly a backstory, and other elements like their class or skills. Class determines the general role your character plays, like fighters (this would include a warrior or monk), spellcasters (a sorcerer, warlock, or cleric), or someone that’s good at sneaking around (a rogue). Skills are your character’s ability to do things, like “sleight of hand” for stealing or “perception” for successfully looking around to see people, traps, etc.
Most other RPGs tend to follow this formula to some degree, though some have their own way of doing things, and that’s where things get fun.
Update, 2/24/22: Verified all picks and links still good.
Things to Keep in Mind with Tabletop RPGs
A Quick Note on Pathfinder
Mysteries and Horror, Oh My!: Call of Cthulhu
Cyberpunk Rebellion: Shadowrun
Fantasy Criminal Capers: Blades in the Dark
Card-Based Zombie Survival: Zombie World
Literally Just Bears Trying to Steal Honey: Honey Heist
Storytelling Gone Wrong: Fiasco
Live, Laugh, Forget, Kill: Thousand Year Old Vampire
If you’ve already played a tabletop RPG, you probably have a decent understanding of how they tend to work. But if you haven’t, here are a few things for you to think about before starting a game of your own:
- Number of Players: How many players do you need to play the game? Generally speaking, most RPGs are meant for small groups of roughly three to six people in addition to the Game Master (GM). Some games may state outright the required minimum or maximum number of players, while for others, it simply depends on what your Game Master (GM) feels they can accommodate.
- Time Commitment: Unless you’re playing a one-shot game, count on there needing to be multiple game sessions to complete the story. Be sure to talk with your group to find a time that works for all of you to get together (whether in person or online) every week or so to play for a few hours. You can play whenever, but playing on a regular basis helps the details stay fresh in everyone’s minds.
- Difficulty Level: Many of these tabletop RPGs are meant to be fun, lighthearted, and easy to play so that anyone—regardless of their experience with RPGs—can jump in and enjoy a game. Others might not be considered beginner-friendly and require an experienced GM and players to get the most out of them. Be sure to talk among your group to find a game that’s a nice fit and be willing to help new players get the hang of things as they go.
- Equipment: Each game requires a different combination of equipment; that is to say, things like dice (typically a six-sided die, called a D6, or dice with more or fewer faces like a D4, D12, or D20), character sheets, tokens, cards, and minis. And beyond the game, you might even need things like pencils, paper, and snacks.
- Content Type: The incredible thing about role-playing games is that they’re only limited by the participants’ imaginations. The open-endedness of these games means they are capable of encompassing literally any type of being or scenario, depending solely on the creativity of your Game Master. Make sure you’re aware of the types of content the game may contain or touch on, and talk with your GM if there are subjects they should avoid.
- Costs: Buying the books and equipment needed to play these games usually isn’t too costly. The vast majority of tabletop RPGs only tend to cost around $20-$30 for starter sets or basic gear for a single player. However, keep in mind that the cost of things like handbooks, dice, and minis can add up over time. And hey, odds are, someone you know probably already owns the game and is willing to use their copy.
Aside from Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder is perhaps the most well-known tabletop RPG. However, its first edition was a modified version of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons; likewise, the fifth edition of D&D incorporated many of the advantages Pathfinder had over previous D&D versions. Because the two are fairly entangled, and because we want you to see a broader variety of tabletop RPGs, we aren’t going to focus on this title. That said, if you are interested in learning more about Pathfinder, that’s awesome, and you can view its resources on its publisher’s website.
Call of Cthulhu is a horror-fiction RPG created by Chaosium based on pulp horror author H. P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name. Where Dungeons & Dragons has classes like rogue, cleric, warlock, and the like, Call of Cthulhu has its one to five players, called investigators, take on occupations like detectives, scholars, criminals, hobos, and so forth. The game revolves around solving a series of occult-based mysteries.
Games are typically set in the United States in the early 1900s, but in a darker version of our world; but, again, things are ultimately up to the GM, and rules and statistics are provided for GMs wanting to set their game elsewhere/when. The game is skill-based—meaning they’ll roll dice to determine whether or not their “perception” action was successful—and players will improve their skills as the game goes on. There are no hit points or levels, and percentile dice are used to determine failure or success for an action.
Perhaps the most unique and exciting mechanic from Call of Cthulhu is sanity, which each player will need to maintain as they unravel the horrors of the world around them. In most cases, when they encounter a horrific situation or being, the GM will have them roll sanity, and it’s up to the dice to determine whether or not a player loses a bit of theirs. And remember, victory—or even sanity—is never guaranteed in this game, regardless of whether you play it as a one-shot session or spread your game out over multiple years.
The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is all new players will need to get started, as it includes a solo adventure, quick-start rules, scenarios for one to five players, and ready-made characters, maps, handouts, and dice. There’s also the Game Keeper Rulebook and Investigator Handbook available, along with various other expansions for veteran players.
Obviously, the game can be rather grim at times, with death, mutilation, and other mystic (and probably cult- or Eldritch-based) horrors abound. However, despite its darker tendencies, Call of Cthulhu remains one of the most popular historical RPGs to date and is tons of fun for anyone who loves solving mysteries, scary messed-up stuff, and Lovecraftian fiction. You can also hop on YouTube and listen to the many one-shots or long-running campaigns of the game.
Call of Cthulhu
Grab the starter set of this chaotic eldritch RPG on Chaosium’s site.
If it’s cyberpunk you’re after, delete your copy of Cyberpunk 2077 off your computer and start playing the fifth edition of Shadowrun. The game takes place in the near future of a fictional universe where fantasy, magic, and cybernetic beings coexist. Players will deal with elements of urban cyberpunk crime—like corporate warfare and industrial espionage—along with things like horror and conspiracies while playing detective.
Shadowrun‘s character creation system is slightly different from those of other RPGs. It doesn’t really have classes, but rather character archetypes you can work towards, like a street samurai. The priority-based system divides said priorities into attributes, skills, magic, and resources. Characters are created with contacts or acquaintances and friends within the character’s network, who will strategically unveil information or otherwise assist the character as the story winds on. Players can also negotiate for skills their characters lack.
Human and metahuman characters also need to maintain their essence throughout the game. Things like body modification or substance addiction can damage essence, although cybermancy does allow metahumans to survive if they have zero (or less) essence. Likewise, players will accrue Karma points that can be spent on building out skills or boosting attributes, which makes their character stronger or benefits them in other ways.
You can start with the Shadowrun Beginner Box Set is all you’ll need to get started. It includes pre-generated characters, simplified rules, dice, adventure hooks, a ready-to-run adventure, and a solo adventure for one character. Experienced players can opt to shell out for additional tools and adventures as needed.
As you’d expect from anything with a cyberpunk setting, you’ll be dealing with crazy technology, mega-corporations, body modification, and crime syndicates. But Shadowrun‘s addition of magic and fantasy (and a healthy dose of politics) is what makes it stand out from other cyberpunk games, and it’s an incredibly fun twist on what you’d typically expect from such an RPG.
Shadowrun (5th Edition)
Be an industrial spy and fight crime in this cyberpunk RPG.
Do you have a deep and abiding love for 19th century Victorian London and Gothic fiction? If so, you’ll definitely need to try your hand at Blades in the Dark. The urban fantasy game puts players inside a criminal organization and has them seizing money, property, and even infamy as they work their way up through the city’s criminal underbelly.
In Blades in the Dark, a cataclysmic event has destroyed the sun, causing the city of Doskvol to be cast in perpetual night. Naturally, this makes it easy for crimes to go unnoticed and criminals to become increasingly brazen. Characters take on archetypes like thieves, smugglers, fighters, mechanics, alchemists, or (of course) nefarious merchants of goods that have been, uh, let’s say, otherwise acquired. They then come together as a small crew of criminals (which itself uses a communal character sheet), which gains influence within the world and has the ability to provide bonuses to be shared among the group.
The game itself is relatively fast-paced and has rules and mechanics that are clearly defined and that leave little room for discussion or feeling unprepared. This means you’ll always be right in the middle of the action, and it makes the game super approachable for anyone new to RPGs or who doesn’t relish the experience of spending hours planning and debating things. All players need to do is decide which type of plan the characters will execute as one is needed.
A typical Blades in the Dark session will feature one or two major events along with various side-story elements and can be finished in anywhere from two to six hours. Within the game, characters will have tasks and goals (called scores) to complete, but they’ll also have downtime for indulging their vices or dealing with the repercussions of previous actions.
Everything you’ll need to play the game is included in the box, like rules for creating characters and crews, and a setting guide. Overall, Blades in the Dark offers fuss-free fantasy criminal capers perfect for experienced and beginner players alike.
Blades in the Dark
Be a criminal in Victorian London in this RPG, available now on Evil Hat’s website.
We here at Review Geek think zombies are the bee’s knees, which is why we are excitedly recommending the card-based Zombie World. The game focuses on a group of people who survived a zombie apocalypse and are now dealing with the aftermath and just trying to continue surviving one day at a time.
Within Zombie World, you’ll use cards to create characters and situations as well as to resolve conflicts. And good news for beginners (and impatient people): It only takes a matter of minutes to create a character. No more spending hours rolling out characters … not that that isn’t fun.
You can opt to buy either the Core Box or the Full Set. The Core Box includes the 36-page rulebook; playmats for the GM, enclave, characters, and basic movies; a dry erase marker; 110 cards (including advantages, population, and enclaves); and 16 Pasts, Presents, and Traumas alongside a Survivor Deck, a Bite Deck, and a Fate Deck. The Full Set includes everything in the Core Box in addition to 18 Population cards, 27 Identity cards, 4 Advantage cards, 4 Fate cards, and 2 Enclave cards. There are also two expansions if you want additional enclave options.
Zombie World lets you fight the undead and rebuild society.
The concept of Honey Heist might be silly, but the adventures waiting to be had in this tabletop RPG are seriously fun. Honey Heist is a one-shot tabletop RPG wherein every player is a bear, and everyone works together to heist delicious honey from a stronghold. The one-page rule sheet, character sheets, and disguise sheets are available on the creator’s site with a name-your-own-price prompt.
The specific details of the heist are generally left up to the Game Master, or in this instance, the Honey Master, but a basic framework is included on the rules sheet. Creating characters is a quick and straightforward process, only requiring players to choose what type of bear they are (grizzly, panda, etc.), a descriptor (rookie or washed-up, for example), and a specific role (driver, brains, muscle, and so on). There’s also a bonus hat table you can make use of if you want your bear to wear a hat, which is great just for fun as well as for disguises.
In the game, bears start with three points and have two ever-changing stats: bear and criminal. Bear is used for mauling, running, climbing, taking damage, and, not surprisingly, doing bear stuff. Alternatively, criminal is used for doing stuff that’s not bear stuff. When your bear gets frustrated, such as when a plan fails, you’ll move one point from criminal into bear. Likewise, you’ll move a point from bear into criminal when a plan is successful.
You can also voluntarily move points back and forth between the two categories as needed by either doing a flashback scene or eating a load of honey. If one of your stats reaches six, however, that’s the end for ya.
All you’ll need to get started are the downloadable PDF guides, character sheets, disguise sheets, and perhaps some honey to snack on. There’s plenty of room for hilarious honey hijinks in this game, and it’s perfect for your go-to RPG group or even for kids!
Honey Heist allows you to name your own price, so be generous! Trust us, it’s worth every penny!
Everyone likes cinematic tales of capers gone disastrously wrong, and that’s exactly what you’ll get with Fiasco. In the game, you’ll tell stories about people with lots of ambition and poor impulse control. And in the process, you’re extremely likely to damage reputations and live, but you might also gain a little wisdom. Hopefully, you fare better than your opponents.
Fiasco is a GM-less game for three to five players that can be completed in a matter of hours. You’ll have everything you need to start your game in the box, including the folding game board, rules book, Fiasco Engine deck, three 54-card playset decks, and player reference cards. You will need four D6 of two unique colors in addition, though.
You can choose from multiple playsets depending on which specific setting you want to play, with options like Main Street, Tales from Suburbia, Boomtown, and The Ice, although more are available in the Core Rulebook. Every playset includes a description of the setting and six groups of relationships, needs, notable objects, and notable locations. Players take turns rolling and choosing the D6 to Establish or Resolve various aspects of the game to progress the plot. At the end, with each player having played four scenes, the outcome for each player is determined by rolling the collected dice.
The game relies heavily on storytelling and collaborative role-playing, so be sure everyone in your group is comfortable with this (and is hopefully even excited about it). Fiasco tends to venture into themes of black comedy and counts on characters having powerful ambitions, stupid disasters, and poor impulse control, so make sure your players are comfortable with Coen-brothers-style content before starting.
Fiasco is packed full of storytelling opportunities, dark humor, and disastrous situations.
Well, we’ve covered Lovecraftian horrors, cyberpunk criminals, zombies, and bears so far, but there’s one very important creature we have yet to touch on: vampires. Luckily, Thousand Year Old Vampire has a vampire and doesn’t take a thousand years to play. The unique game is designed as a solo journaling RPG, but it can also be played with a group of friends.
Thousand Year Old Vampire comes in the form of a book (and kind of resembles a scrapbook), with room to write down your responses to prompts. However, we recommend writing everything down separately, like in Google Docs, if you want the game to remain legible for future playthroughs. In the game, you’re chronicling the centuries of your vampire character’s life, starting just before they are turned. Gameplay is semi-random and prompt-driven, allowing you to create a unique story. For each turn, you’ll roll both a D6 and a D10, and subtract one from the other to move forward or backward through the prompts accordingly.
Every prompt changes your vampire—affecting things like their resources and companions—and has you add a new experience to your character sheet, which can be as lengthy or as short as you want. You’ll also link three experiences together to create memories, although your vampire can only remember five memories at a time (though the diary expands this to four more). So throughout the game, you’ll constantly have to be choosing which memories to keep and which you’ll need to “forget.”
Prompts are the heart of the game, and for the most part, they increase the number of characters coming into your story and grant you additional resources and skills. Eventually, however, you’ll start to lose some, and when you lose everything, you’re dead. By the game’s end, you’re left with a life path spanning centuries that’s filled with the many mortals and immortals you met along the way and the memories you decided to keep.
Thousand Year Old Vampire seamlessly blends role-playing with creative writing for a unique RPG experience. The game is certainly a balancing act between creation and deletion. And while it all comes down to the few memories your vampire retains throughout their life, the game, much like life itself, is really more about the journey than where we end up.
Thousand Year Old Vampire
Enjoy this journaling RPG available on the creator’s site now.