Don’t Walk in Winter Wood 2nd Edition
The original of this came out in 2004, an early indie storygame. This version expanded that original slightly (44 pages vs 36), adding clarifications, new rules, contributions from notable game designers, and striking art. It would be successful enough to get both a German and Italian translation.
Intended to emulate the feel of campfire stories, it is set in a vaguely defined Colonial America. Actually the A24 film The Witch feels like a great touchstone for this. In the game itself, there’s a lot of backstory, legend, and atmosphere creation before you ever get to the mechanics. You’re over halfway before you get a whiff of that.
There’s a GM, the Watcher, and players, the Walkers, who define their characters vaguely through concept and motive. Resolution is simple. Throughout the game you gain cold token for shock. When you want to find out what happens, you roll a d6 and try to get above the number of tokens you have. You’re out of play when you get your sixth token. It’s simple, but it gets out of the way of the atmosphere which is what it is really about.
Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game
It is wild to me that DCC is only 10 years old. It feels like such an evergreen product. Goodman had done well through the d20 boom with a line of sourcebooks and the DCC adventure series. Plus games like DragonMech, Etherscope, and XCrawl. They shifted seamlessly over to D&D 4e. But in 2011 they released the beta and starter for their own old-school system, Dungeon Crawl Classics, with the final version coming out the next year. This also shifted the DCC line of adventures over to the house system.
DCC has garnered a committed following, in part based the strength of the ongoing DCC series. They’ve also established a strong, distinct art style with the work of Doug Kovacs. His use of color, the pulpy images with buried references, and the way Goodman Games has put his work front and center have made this one of the most recognizable lines in gaming.
The other big concept to come out of DCC is the Funnel. Each player generates a random set of four 0-level characters. Then this horde descends into a dungeon to be slaughtered. A player can select a surviving character to advance to 1st level and make a standard adventurer. It’s a great concept which pokes fun at the genre and OSR conventions at the same time.
Yesterday I was shocked that it had only been 10 year since DCC’s release. Today I’m shocked about Dungeon World. DW’s the PbtA rpg with the largest volume of add-ons, new playbooks, fan sourcebooks, and third party releases. Seriously– check for the DW system on DTRPG.
It was also a PbtA game that sparked a ton of discussion about PbtA-style play and play in general. It emulates, for better or worse, the classic D&D experience, with levels, damage dice, etc., but it allows for fast play and rich collaboration.
DW’s among the really important first gen second gen PbtA games (along with MotW, Masks, MH). And our community wouldn’t be what it is without it. The Discern Realities podcast drew in a lot of people to us years ago.
A striking and potentially painful rpg, Durance has you playing two characters in a sci-fi penal colony. But the two occupy radically different positions in the hierarchy, Authority vs. Convicts and Top of the Ladder (Colony Leader, Criminal Overlord) vs. Bottom of the Food Chain (Conditionally free convicts, political prisoners). It has a great and quick system for building the colony and some interesting dice mechanics. It all feels very modern and it’s a game that would feel modern if it was released today (with some safety discussion added).
Durance was one of the earliest rpgs I played online. It was a pick-up game from some of us on RPGGeek. I remember it distinctly because when we got close to the end, my upper hierarchy characters forced a Sophie’s Choice on one of the PCs. One of those moments which makes me thankful we have safety tools around commonly now.
I liked the game enough to write and run an X-Men hack, a kind of Days of Future Past situation set in a Mutant Containment facility. It worked OK, but not great. (Part One) (Part Two)
Eldritch Skies (Unisystem)
A near-future humanity against the Elder Gods rpg, released after a successful early Kickstarter and the winner of a Judge Spotlight ENnie.
Now I heard a story about this particular version, which uses Unisystem (AFMBE, Buffy). This came from someone who worked with Eden Studios, created of Unisystem. All of this is allegedly and second-hand. But what he said was that the designers of Eldritch Skies had mentioned doing a game with Unisystem to them, but hadn’t followed up. The first they heard about the game was after its release and getting some attention. And at that point the folks from Eden apparently told them no.
Hence you can’t find the Unisystem version for sale anymore, though a Savage Worlds version came out a couple of years later. I don’t know how true this is. And I had a contract with Eden which they never paid me for, so I may have an axe to grind. But it’s a story anyhow.
A horror rpg actively promoted and supported by author Marco Leon at the time. That year saw several small press and horror publishers come off badly in their social communications: rants, excessive defensiveness, insulting people who say anything remotely bad about their work, sock-puppeting, and so on. On the other hand, Leon seemed to know how to present himself. He set up a community on Reddit, and seemed to strike the right balance between advocacy and listening to input. I haven’t really followed it since then, but at the time it was striking to see a smarter use of social media.
Enter the Shadowside is a game of occult conspiracies, with an element of “rent veil.” The players have become aware of a reality known as the Shadowside. The characters bind and partner with spirits from these realms for power. Several different secret societies exist. I will say I had to hunt around to get a clear synopsis of this from a couple of reviews. The publisher blurb on DTRPG is evocative, but doesn’t do a great job of telling the reader what they’ll actually be doing. The resolution system is unique, using a table and a ruler to determine difficulty. There’s a really excellent and thorough write up of the game by the designer for the RPGGeek “Share a Game” Series.
EPOCH stands for Experimental Paradigm of Cinematic Horror. The subtitle for the game is “Character-Driven Survival Horror Roleplaying.” It aims to generate buy-in and terror through shared narrative control and player participation. Some other recent horror rpgs have worked to do this- often through compromises on how your character meets their grisly fate. EPOCH takes a unique approach through the use of special cards as a core mechanic. It has some generic cards, but there are also cards tuned to the specific scenarios and settings.
It’s striking and a really interesting approach. Imaginary Empire supported this with several scenario books with their own unique decks. What’s fascinating is that this was among the first rpgs we saw taking advantage of new PoD Card systems. Archipelago, mentioned earlier, had these. It represents a new design space that we started to see around this time– with the ease of actually getting cards as an element leading to games like Companion’s Tale, For the Queen, Zombie World, and more.
Fading Suns Player’s Guide (Revised)
This is technically the fifth edition, depending on how you count things– if you count the revised 2nd edition and d20 version. Done in trade paper (or so) size, this paired with the GM Guide which came out the following year. This edition would have only modest support (three supplements) before a new edition would come out in 2021 (the Pax Alexius edition). In any case, the book is dense and heavy– and more than a little off putting. I had a ton of early FS stuff, but when I flipped through this at Gen Con that year, I ended up putting it back. It was too much.
This edition is notable to tying in with the Fading Suns miniatures game, Noble Armada, which had come out a couple of years early. It echoes the cover and text design. That itself was a reimplementation of Mongoose’s A Call to Arms system (used for Babylon Five and Star Fleet).
Godlike (revised edition)
Godlike originally came out in 2001, a really strong and deep supers game with a distinct setting (World War Two) and a completely new core system. One Roll Engine, which would go on to power a number of games. A few years after (2006) the publisher would release a more generic, modern supers version, Wild Talents– and a number of interesting setting sourcebooks (like Progenitor and eCollapse). They revised Wild Talents in 2010 and then, based on that and 10+ years of experience, revised Godlike.
The gameline itself had incubated in a weird period when folks were first starting to release digital supplements & materials, as well as in the pre-Kickstarter days of “ransom pledges.” This 2012 edition of Godlike represents the high water mark for the game or maybe better to say the capstone, as the company hasn’t really followed up on the line since then. The same could be said for Wild Talents, which didn’t get much in the way of support (beyond the spin-off of Better Angels). But That makes sense given the huge success of the Delta Green rpg, which represented a major pivot point.
Hero Kids Fantasy RPG
This made a big splash at the time, with a nice boxed set and a Silver ENnie for Best Family game. In the years since it has been well supported with a ton of releases, mostly pdf, with new materials coming out just a couple of weeks ago.
Hero Kids points to a question I’ve seen pop up in different social media over the years. Not what’s the best Kids RPG– but what’s the best kind of RPG for kids. There’s a set of games, like Hero Kids, Adventure Maximus, and No Thank You Evil, which have been purposefully built to serve that audience. But some contend that kids don’t dig games explicitly for kids or where you have to play kids. They say more accessible rules in worlds which echo popular fiction (Tolkien, Dr. Who) is more effective.
I don’t know where I stand. I mean, I started when I was seven and loved trying to come to grips with the weirdness of games which were clearly not meant for me. When Marvel Supers came out, I dismissed it in part because it seemed aimed at kids….rather than edgy(?) teens like me…
I was super excited for Hilfolk when the Kickstarter came up. I backed it because I’d enjoyed Robin Laws’ Hamlet’s Hit Points and was curious about how that approach would be applied to table play. Full disclosure– I contributed to one of the DramaSystem pitches in Blood on the Snow.
When I finally got a chance to play DS, I liked, but didn’t love it. I liked the way the dramatic scenes played out, but the structure sometimes felt constraining. The procedural scenes were a bigger issue, with a weird resolution/resource mechanics which felt overly complicated. That being said, I know some smart players who dig the whole package.
For me, the best part of Hillfolk (and BotS) are the pitches. They’re a great way to encapsulate a tight campaign premise and a great resource. I’ve used that model for several things– many of them are great for other games like Kingdom.
Honor + Intrigue
There are a few games that always pop up when I ask for recommendations. For anything tangentially related to Swashbuckling or Pirates, there’s always someone suggesting Honor + Intrigue. While aimed at Hollywood-ized 17th Century play, it can be shifted earlier or later.
H+I was a Judge’s Spotlight winner for the 2012 ENnies. The game itself is based on Barbarians of Lemuria, a sword & sorcery frpg from 2008 (but which had been around even earlier than that). After a gap of several years Honor + Intrigue has been supported with several releases in the last couple of years.
Iron Kingdoms Full Metal Fantasy RPG Core Rules
By 2012, Warmachine had been around long enough to be a solid rival to Warhammer’s dominance of the miniatures market. Ironically, that game had come about because of the success of various 3.0/3.5 supplements which detailed the world.
This version ditched the SRD in favor of a house system which looked more like the engine powering the minis game, but distinctly wasn’t compatible with that. It is a thick, dense and rich book– and this was before Privateer had developed the Hordes parallel line or added more factions to the setting. It won four ENnies in 2013, including the Gold for Best Game.
The game itself has lots of detail, with many classes, normal and advanced, and a system which really needs a battle map. So, like Fading Suns, this is one of those games I’d tried to figure out how to hack– maybe Fate? Maybe Dungeon World? Ironically Privateer has pivoted, with mixed reaction, to a new D&D 5e version of the setting which just came out.
Itras By (Revised English Edition)
Interesting that this came out the same year as the fancier edition of Archipelago. Itras By, by and large, uses that game’s core system, but to a very, very different effect.
It is a game taking place in a surrealist, dreamlike metropolis. It’s great concept and the writing is super evocative. However I found myself butting up against some of the contradictions of it. We have a game that seems like it ought to be an improv, collaborative potpourri. But it has a highly detailed setting. I mean, you can ignore or elide it, but it begs the question: why have it?
There’s also the challenge of drama, plot, and purpose in a game which aims to be surrealist. Like are those compatible? IDK I only know I couldn’t really find the through line when I went to run it.
I have an old review of it from Age of Ravens. But I suspect my opinions of it now may be pretty different.
Kuro (English edition)
Kuro’s an interesting game, originally released in French and given this English translation in 2012. It’s the first of trilogy, with the other two spelling out a meta-plot (which imho deflates some of the wonder of the original premise). It got some attention and then went out of print when Cubicle 7 split with Le 7eme Circle. It's available pdf but not PoD.
The premise is an attempted near-future nuclear strike against Japan is stopped by something supernatural. The rest of the world blockades Japan, thinking they have some special tech. But in fact it’s a bleed over of the fantastic. So play takes place in a cyberpunk, isolated Japan which is starting to be overrun by horrors, but everyone’s trying to look the other way. I have an overview of the setting here.
I like the concept– especially how it uses J-Horror and mixes it up with some great cyberpunk world building. The system is waaaaay to granular with a wild exploding dice resolution system. But that weirdness actually works in its favor. Lead designer Neko also designed two other rpgs which use Asian elements: Qin and Shayo. I’m unsure what Neko’s cultural background is, but there’s a real absence of culture advisors, consultants, or even obviously Asian names in the credits of Kuro. I don’t know if the same holds true for these other rpgs.