Some of them are definitely entertainment for the amateur, but it’s still worth playing (or conducting as a master) at least once.
For most people who have even heard of tabletop RPGs, they tend to associate with Dungeons & dragons – the progenitor of modern NRI. She is famous for her stories of legendary heroes and omnipotent villains, eerie dungeons, lost treasures, gods, demons and irrepressible bards who try to seduce everything that moves. All these cliches have long been dear to the heart of any role player, and therefore it is no wonder that they slowly but surely seep into pop culture: after all, the classics are not aging, and the popularity of D&D is on the rise now.
However, the world of tabletop RPGs is not limited to fantasy or, for that matter, any other genre. With paper, imagination and a couple of cubes, you can implement an endless variety of ideas, settings and mechanics. If D&D, Pathfinder or some other popular system has already become boring and you want to slightly change the situation, why not just dig a little deeper? In this text, I have collected four rather unusual, extremely dissimilar tabletop RPGs. Some of them are definitely entertainment for the amateur, but it’s still worth playing (or conducting as a master) at least once.
Blades in the dark
IN Blades in the dark players will have to get used to the role of professional criminals who have just put together their own gang in Doskvol – a city in the aesthetics of the turn of the XIX and XX centuries, where the eternal night has come. In the distant past, an unknown cataclysm literally split the sun into pieces, plunging the whole world into darkness, and with it destroyed the gates to the afterlife. Now the only thing that separates the city from the endless wasteland, where the souls of the restless dead roam, is an electrical barrier, fueled by the blood of sea monsters. Once the “pearl of the Empire”, Soskvol balances on the brink between technology and magic, unheard of luxury and absolute poverty. The city is about to collapse under the weight of the class struggle, the strife between politicians gnawing each other’s throats in pursuit of power, and street gangs who are looking for their corner under the extinguished sun. No one is happy that a new player has appeared in the underworld: there are no free links in this food chain for a long time. But that won’t stop you, will it?
Series title theme “Peaky Blinders” authored by Nick Cave fits perfectly into the game. Not surprising when you consider that it was in him that Blades in the Dark drew inspiration.
While many NDGs offer the master to play the game according to a pre-prepared scenario, Blades in the Dark is almost entirely sharpened for improvisation. She gives the group at the disposal of the group a large, detailed “sandbox”, where the players themselves decide with whom to be friends, with whom to be at enmity and what crime to make a living – and from their actions a global plot is gradually formed. There are a thousand and one ways to rise from rags to riches in Moskvol, so Blades in the Dark is capable of telling exciting stories in a variety of genres: from action films to spy thrillers and even space horror. Players can create a gang of smugglers and smuggle illegal goods through the city’s canals. They can found a traditional mafia family, trading in racketeering, “patronage” of business and other 100% legal affairs. No one bothers to create your own guild of thieves in order to daringly rob banks, museums and mansions of the arrogant rich, or establish a collective of assassins with a strict code of honor. Or, like my group, you can go into business and accidentally offend dangerous people in an attempt to get the ingredients for creating a designer drug. On the way, a foreign embassy, a guild of merchants, a gang of petty thieves and one dashing admiral of a whaling ship were involved in the conspiracy, although it all began innocently. Who knew that in addition to the load of oranges, the guys would find girls locked in cages?
Screenshot of the Moskvol map from the campaign I’m running on Roll20… Each timer (the game calls it a “clock”) is someone’s insidious plan, threat, or long-term plan. And with drawings, the players marked memorable events where they happened
However, Blades in the Dark is interesting not only for its intriguing setting and freedom of action – the author of the game, John Harper, also made sure that the gameplay mechanics corresponded to the entourage of a gangster movie with elements of mysticism. There are few classes, but among them there is not a single useless or boring one: in the gang there will be a place even for a bogeyman with brass knuckles, even for an eloquent diplomat, an alchemist engineer, or even a seer who speaks with spirits. Each case that the group goes to is dynamic, like a well-edited series of TV shows. Players do not need to plan a conditional robbery for a long time: when faced with some sudden obstacle, they are in style Ocean’s Eleven can ask the master for a short flashback and deal with the problem in the past. Bribing a security guard at the entrance to the warehouse, forging invitations to a charity ball, preparing a sabotage – all this was already part of the plan, just behind the scenes. Blades in the Dark gives players a huge scope for improvisation, but instead forces them to take risks at every step and be prepared for the consequences of their actions, which makes the game in a good tense, unpredictable. And if you are not confident in your abilities, you can always ask the master for a real deal with the devil in exchange for an additional die – the only question is what price will have to be paid for it.
City of Mist
City of Mist Is a game about ordinary people with unusual abilities. She is close in spirit “American Gods” Neil Gaiman and the comics Fables (to the original source The Wolf Among Us), only here not fabulous creatures are trying to live a normal life, but on the contrary: normal people are trying to come to terms with something supernatural within themselves. The Nameless City where they live is like any other modern metropolis: its inhabitants go to work, dream, reconcile, quarrel, make friends and find love. But a mystical fog, supposedly possessing consciousness and reason, hides from them the shocking truth: the City is a place where legends come to life. The myths that have left an imprint on human history make their way through the veil of fog and are embodied in awakened people who become guides – possessing superpowers. In the City, a top manager of the largest bank can own the golden hand of King Midas, turning everything he touches into capital, and a boxer known for his remarkable endurance can easily turn out to be the incarnation of Hercules or Rocky Balboa himself. And what? Movies, books, games and music are also myths in a sense, and they also want to tell themselves.
Somewhere in the web of city intrigues and mysteries, the players live: a group of awakened, united for a common goal. Perhaps they wanted to use their powers for good, to fight crime, or, on the contrary, they are doing dirty work for some dubious but powerful organization. Whatever the group decides to do, it will in any case have a very “comic” detective story in the best traditions of neo-noir. The City of Mist system is primarily focused on the narrative: there is no clear class system and role-playing progression; the actions of the characters and their results often depend not on rigidly written rules or properties, but on how the players and the GM interpret them. After all, the concept of “myth” in the City of Mist is so flexible that your awakened one can serve as a conduit for any popular image, folk character or phenomenon. The gods and heroes of ancient legends are still flowers. How do you like a dentist who moonlights as a bounty hunter at night, wielding vintage revolvers in the style of the legendary Doc Holliday? What superpowers would a vehicle of the Biblical Grail or the Philosopher’s Stone possess? What about famous fictional characters: Hamlet, Victor Frankenstein (and his monster) or Sherlock Holmes?
At the same time, despite the fantastic nature of the world, the characters of City of Mist remain people with simple human affections. They have relationships with loved ones, work, dear belongings and memories, traumas of the past, hopes for the future – things that can be lost overnight, completely surrendering to the power of their myth. Investigating the countless secrets of the City and colliding with other guides, the heroes constantly risk losing their own humanity, but clinging to the echoes of “normal” life with excessive persistence is also impossible – otherwise the influence of the myth will weaken. City of Mist masterfully deconstructs pop-culture stereotypes about superheroes, and does it completely unobtrusively, giving all the freedom of creativity to the players.
City of Mist Starter Pack Characters
The quiet year
The quiet year it is difficult to call a table-top roleplaying in the usual sense of the word, because, in general, you don’t have to play any roles in it: you need to draw in it. The players together chronicle one year of the life of a small settlement that survived the apocalypse, using an impromptu map on sheet A4. Believe me, in practice it works much easier than in words: a party always begins with the group collectively sketching a common landscape. Let’s say one player can draw a forest somewhere in the corner, another will split the map in two by a long river, the third draws several huts along the coast – as a result, you will get a small fishing village. Then, on their turn, players draw a card from a standard playing deck and peek at the rulebook to see what happened in the settlement this week. Maybe a caravan of refugees arrived in the village – the locals accepted them with bread and salt, or drove them out of harm’s way? Or maybe a wave of pogroms swept through the village – what did the pogromists destroy and why did they decide to resort to violence?
The beauty of The Quiet Year is that these questions need to be answered not in words, but in deeds – more precisely, with a picture. Any decision made, any event must be marked on the map, even with one tiny symbol. If a pack of wolves approaches the village, then a palisade can be drawn around it for protection; a sudden harvest of berries will create a cute clearing in the neighborhood, and the elder’s funeral will leave behind a funeral pyre with a curly smoke. The once abstract settlement is gradually acquiring more and more clear outlines, and the schematic squiggles and pictograms have a meaning. Based on the drawings, the players instinctively think out the way of life of non-existent people, their traditions, even some important characters – it’s not for nothing that the elder was buried with such honors.
With each subsequent crisis, more and more details appear on the map, which are gradually woven into a single whole and tell a surprisingly vivid story. Not always slender or thoughtful, but from beginning to end, unique, understandable only to the artists who painted her. Joint creativity gives truly magical emotions, even if the collaboration is not always productive: after all, several people draw a map, and each may have their own ideas about the plot. Nevertheless, The Quiet Year will serve as an excellent leisure time for an evening with friends: minimum rules, accessible, extremely entertaining gameplay, maximum impressions. In addition, the resulting small world can be dragged into some other NRI as a setting or just an important location for a future campaign!
A thousand year old vampire
A thousand year old vampire, perhaps, looks a little strange in this collection: this is not a traditional role-playing game, but rather a hybrid of a board and a book-game, designed for one person (although, if you wish, you can play as a group). The player will have to keep a diary from the person of, as you might guess from the name, a thousand-year-old vampire, telling about the events from his mortal life and his transformation into the undead until his inevitable death. The gameplay itself is extremely simple: you just need to roll two dice, jump onto the dropped paragraph of the text and follow its instructions. Sometimes the game can ask a question: say, horrified by his transformation into a monster, the character avoids human society – where does he hide, what does he eat? At other times, A Thousand Year Old Vampire calmly confronts the facts that change the character and his environment: mad with hunger, your vampire killed a person close to him, or, even worse, turned him into a bloodsucker against his will. In the first case, the character will receive the “bloodthirsty” skill, and in the second – “pangs of conscience”.
You can describe these events in personal notes in as much detail as you like: someone will get by with one short sentence, and someone will begin to keep a full-fledged chronicle, getting used to the role. Indeed, in fact, A Thousand Year Old Vampire is not a game about vampires, but about oblivion and the inexorable passage of time. Each passed paragraph leaves an emotional experience in the character’s memory, and different experiences are gradually combined into memories connected by a common leitmotif. Unfortunately, sooner or later you will have to part with these memories: vampires are physically unable to remember everything that happened to them over hundreds of years of stormy life. Therefore, they have no choice but to forget. Forget about your past before turning into the undead: about a long-dead family, friends, first love, even your own name. Forget about the heavy burden of guilt and the ruined fate of people killed in a fit of rage, lust for blood or primal curiosity. Forget, finally, the face of a mysterious lady or gentleman who once gave you immortality and a scar from fangs on your neck that will never stop hurting.
Until his death, the character will retain only a few of the most dear memories, carefully written out in a separate diary, but what they will be and what will have to be sacrificed for them is up to the player. A Thousand Year Old Vampire shows the burden of immortality from an unexpectedly human perspective, full of melancholy, light sadness and black humor. It is infinitely far from the stories of glamorous children of the night intriguing in luxurious Gothic castles and VIP lounges in prestigious nightclubs. The game provides an extremely specific experience that not everyone will like, but the impression from it will remain for a long time. Perhaps for the next thousand years.
What about you? What unusual NDIs did you like, which ones did you play? I would be glad to hear your recommendations in the comments!
More on review