The Top 36 RPGs I Played in 2020, in Alphabetical Order – Part One (Adventures in Middle Earth to Comrades)

I started the year with a weekly roleplaying group and a fortnightly community night I ran for the Dice Saloon in Brighton. I was doing pretty good as far as opportunities to try out roleplaying games and attended AireCon, possibly the last of the UK cons we had this year before having to resort to digital spaces.

Then 2020 happened. My RPG community nights stopped right away, understandably, and it was a couple of months before I started to work out ways of running the sessions online. I was invited to a one-shot of Blades in the Dark and finally got to experience it as a player. The monthly group I had a year or so back started fortnightly sessions and a Blades one-shot I ran turned into a campaign. So I’ve got a weekly game, two fortnightly ones and a monthly game as well. That’s more than I had in the Before Times.

Running online’s not without its problems, especially as one of the perpetual victims of Virgin Media. So far only one game’s had to be bailed on from tech issues, although some came close. Most of my games were run with Discord for audio & dice rolls, then a Google Sheet ‘character keeper’ to keep character information. Sometimes I’ve used Jamboard for scrappy maps, and I’m finally getting used to Roll20 for my Blades & Deadlands campaigns as they have great character sheets to help automate things for players.

Adventures in Middle Earth

Our big fight and a LOT of fire.

Let’s get the D&D spin-off over with. My old London-based monthly group got together early in lockdown to play through Adventures in Middle Earth. The GM, Dom, is a big Lord of the Rings fan and brought a lot of knowledge and energy to the campaign. The rest of us had extremely variable knowledge of the subject, but it didn’t matter as the GM made it all accessible as a setting.

I played a surly elf survivor who I realised I’d made worryingly similar to Cloud Strife once I started playing FFVII Remake. He was eager to be brooding in a corner, but also pretty vain with it, especially when he won a gladiatorial fight. He grew close to and supportive of the group despite wanting so hard to be a dark loner. There was a great (if long) fight against an army and a troll which my character managed to almost solo-fight, which was good to have done, even though the fight itself was a bit slow.

The system was D&D 5E and even with the Lord of the Rings trappings still ends up having the same behaviours as a D&D game. There were some moments where I wasn’t quite sure what the original adventure writer wanted and that it was hammering us into fighting several endless battles which would get finished by a dues ex machina on one side or another. I went along to this as I loved the company more than I did the system, which is pretty much the only time I end up doing D&D these days.

After Hours

This was a playtest of a Powered by the Apocalypse game about supernatural creatures leading very mundane lives. Characters are made from two playbooks, reflecting the monster side and the mundane side. I was a hound of tindalos who’d decided to enter linear time and became a messenger. He was well-meaning and able to travel through angles in things. The other players were a vampire who worked in an off license, a dragon lawyer who channelled a bit of Eternal Law when he was pondering things from a rooftop with his wings out, and a witch doctor who was also a doctor to witches. We made an Under-London which had supernatural communities living there and a worrying growth of traditionalist vampires who didn’t want non-Euclidean horrors like my character lurking around in there.

The world-building for this game was stunning, with so many interesting ideas being thrown around. We only had a couple of stories with the characters as the GM was running multiple playtests and it sounded like it was getting a bit much. My character managed to consume a great many things and accidentally went full Cronenberg at one point in a nightclub when things went awry. I really look forward to seeing how the design of this game goes.

Alien

If you see this Alex, I’m so sorry about showing your hair yet again but this was the best photo I had of the game.

This was an impulse buy at Dragonmeet 2019 and for once I resolved to run the introductory game as soon as possible. It’s a trad-style RPG from Free League who make gorgeous RPGs I own and haven’t ever run or played.

This was a community night game, specifically using the scenario in the core book which was supposed to last for an hour. It didn’t. The scenario also came with pregens and a couple of backup NPCs… which turned out to be needed.

The game had some of my community night veterans and a player who was new to roleplaying and took to it like a duck to water.

My GM-facing map, far scrappier than the one I gave to the players and also one with the actual truth written on it.

Alien uses a dice-rolling engine where you full a pool of d6’s and aim to get even one result of a six. As play goes on you add Stress dice to reflect hyper vigilance and growing tensions. They can add successes, but a result of a one on a Stress dice makes you panic. The fallout from panicking characters added some great tension, had people spend all their ammunition firing wildly and even attack each other at one point. I only had a couple of xenomorphs in the demo and they were terrifying, unpredictable and deadly. Looking at the numbers, I was concerned the players would walk over the xenomorphs but in one round of combat my fears were assuaged and a character was dead. It was taken in good humour, especially with back up characters for the group to play.

I’ll be putting up my full review soon.

Band of Blades

Band of Blades was fantastic, albeit a little paper-intensive. Here’s some of my kit for it.

A band of disgraced mercenaries were brought in to help with a war against The Cinder King and arrived in time to see the empire fall. Now, they flee east to Skydagger Keep with a horde of the undead at their back.

Band of Blades is a fantastic grim fantasy RPG which sees players controlling a military unit like they’re playing a game of XCOM or Fire Emblem. They make command decisions and then select characters from a shared pool as they make their way across the map to a grand finale. This is the second Forged in the Dark game and a fantastic experience.

One of my players, Wade, is my chaos engine. Normally he can’t keep characters alive, but the moment he realised that losing people makes the whole army worse, he started trying to look after the rookie he was trusted with. Then as the quartermaster of the group he started working out how to make a mobile cannon unit.

We made it about a quarter of the way through the campaign before lockdown began and hopefully we’ll return to it one day, as the mission structure was very fun to follow and I wanted to see how the group would cope.

The initial mission was incredibly tense with the group having to bomb a bridge while waiting for refugees to cross and stopping their supernatural pursuers. They fled and made camp in old, long-abandoned trenches from before the front line moved. From there, the group moved quickly on to a road up to mountains. They recovered supplies from an old monastery which had been sacked and scouted a fort taken over by the Cinder King’s forces (based extremely vaguely on Cardiff Castle). They had to gather intel and resist doing too much to draw attention to their forces, using more rookies than anything else as the specialists were too injured and resting. The group rested at a mountain town and that’s sadly where things were left.

I need to go through my notes, but I’d love to make a session report for the campaign so far.

Blades in the Dark

A Jamboard zone map I put together for Blades, which feels like the easiest way to run it at the moment. I put it on Roll20 with tokens from a generator my friend Graham showed me. A lot of unconscious gang members, some ghosts and more question marks than the players would like.

This is one of my favourite RPGs and the first Forged in the Dark game. It’s about carrying out heists in a grimy, haunted city. I took part as a player in a one-shot, making a whisper who was too friendly with ghosts had some rough times trying to grip onto the side of a boat while summoning the drowned dead to cause a distraction.

My old GM, Graham, wanted to try Blades and I summoned some players to take part in a one-shot. They had enough of a fun time that we reconvened a month later for a second heist, then another. The group are using the premade characters I’ve put together for demos and we’re using a Roll20 environment I’ve built.

The themes of the campaign are beginning to take place with the Bluecoats up to something involving framing some of their own people, the Imperial Military moving in on their patch and Skovvish refugees fighting back against them. They’ve turned into a bit of a family unit and are beginning to see how the heists and the agendas of the gangs are changing Duskvol as the story continues.

The game has had the group start out trying to steal back a ghost-charming artefact a gambler was using to cheat at cards. There were some curious plans, but the group managed to steal the item and flee when a bit of a panic was caused. My next session had them planting evidence in a priest’s office in order to ruin the Imperial Military’s trust in him. The priest had been taking in Skovvish refugees and was far too chummy with the Imperial Military who were closing in on policing areas of the city which belonged to the Bluecoats. The mission went far better than the escape, which took a bit of cunning and some noise to gain the group some time to get out. The priest hung for the evidence which was found in the end, but that was after the job. Finally, the group had to break into some old Bluecoats docks being used by the former Bluecoats gang, the Grey Cloaks. They’d stolen evidence which would get an old Bluecoat convicted for his brutal actions at a protest and you KNOW they’re brutal if the Bluecoats are actually prosecuting someone. Some spooky mist summoned by the whisper, some distractions up top and drilling through into the basement meant the group were able to get in and out nicely. While the group weren’t badly wounded, I was pleased to note that most of the group had used up a lot of their supplies. I’m slowly increasing difficulty as there are six players and they’re doing far too well. We’ll see what the next year will bring.

I started a session report and need to see if I’ve ever just reviewed the game. If not, I’ll be adding it to my list.

Brindlewood Bay

The Murder Mavens. I think my favourite item one of them had was a VHS boxed set of their old television program, which even managed to see play.

This is one of two Gauntlet games I’ve run this year and both have really impressed me with the mechanics involved.

Brindlewood Bay is a kind of eldritch spin on Murder She Wrote. The players are part of a book group who meet to discuss the mystery novels of Robin Masterson. They also solve murders and as time goes on, will uncover a strange conspiracy in the charming coastal town of Brindlewood Bay.

The game has mysteries which have a setup, murder and some leading questions to help the players frame things. Then the Keeper has a list of clues and locations, but not the answer to whodunnit. Instead, you seed clues based on the ‘Meddling Move’ the murder mavens perform, fitting them into the scene. The players then work out how to link the clues together and make a Theorize move which will, more often than not, be the correct answer.

I ran a one-shot of this and three mysteries with my weekly group. It ended sooner than I’d have liked and one of the players had a little difficulty being proactive with the clues, but overall I really loved running this game. I’d love to see a full campaign of Brindlewood Bay and to play with the increasing level of strangeness which happens as the game goes on.

The one-shot was The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soulless, with the group making their way through a B&B to find their friend’s murderer. Time passed and a few revelations at night meant a mad dash to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The campaign started with Dad Overboard, where the patriarch of a family has died ‘accidentally’ while on the family yacht. That took a couple of sessions for the group to finally resolve after a failed Theorize. We then did Lies & Dolls, which the group investigated one specific direction of and didn’t touch the rest of it. This mystery, about an academic found dead in a doll museum, didn’t ever finish, although I seeded the characters into the next scenario. Finally, we did Dead Man’s Hand which went down the best with the group. A bit more of a ‘bottle’ episode, with everything taking place around one small area, the group really dug into the mystery. I love my current group, but I feel this needed a bit more of a ‘leap before you look’ attitude and I wonder if the group might fare better returning to it, knowing that there’s mechanically no wrong answer to what you do.

Carolina Death Crawl

My printed deck of Carolina Death Crawl, paper for notes and you’d better believe we had an X Card to hand for the game with this kind of brutal subject matter.

This was the first game I ever reviewed for Who Dares Rolls back in the day. I was stuck working out what to run for a community night and found my cards for this game. It’s a tale of desperate Union soldiers who are native to Carolina, making their way through their home, destroyed by war and occupied by the Confederacy. The group are generated with a couple of cards and run through scenes as they flee back to headquarters after committing atrocities. As the game goes on, characters die one by one, then haunt the rest.

The group started out fairly light-hearted, but there were some painful reconciliations with family members and a strange encounter with a travelling circus who had got lost. The last time I hosted the game I wasn’t sure whether I had the emotional stamina to revisit it. I did this time and would be interested to return to it again in the future, but aim to die early as I ‘won’ my first game and came very close to being the last survivor this time.

My original review can be found here and my in-character account of the events here.

City of Mist

My group, The In-Fighters, at the Dice Saloon.

This was the roleplaying game whose book kicked my arse again and again. I was given a review copy which is a nice, rare occasion. It promised a kind of mystical version of the Marvel Netflix type stories. After an initial skim, it looked like it would be more like Fables meets Marvel Netflix shows, as the group are all powered by fairytale and mythological concepts.

I powered through reading the massive tome (I had the original combined edition rather than the split one, and bought two of their starters as this has had a few re-released and new starter kits). It felt like it wanted to merge Powered by the Apocalypse style indie RPGs with some elements of traditional games. It had some good elements, but a lot of bloat.

I ran one of the premade mysteries for my weekly group, taking a couple of sessions to get through. It was good, but for the amount of work, I know there are better games out there for this sort of thing.

Some of my players’ notes, a tag card and underneath it, the playbook.

The mystery started off quite nice and simply with the group in their terrible dive bar, summoned into helping a couple of friends in a scenario which saw them sneaking in an empty school at night, getting embarrassed by shitty teens in a coffee shop and uncovering a giant horrible flesh ball made out of people. It went bizarre and a little horrific near the end, but was all round a fun investigative game.

I wrote a series of articles on the game, on reading it, running it and the selection of alternatives and expansions to it.

Comrades

In the glamdark future there are only extraneous facial tattoos and scowls.

This game was on my ‘2020 bucket list’ before 2020 became all… 2020. I was tempted to scrap it from the list as it felt like it might be a bit of a bummer for folks. I had a revelation and ran a game set in the X-Men’s Age of Apocalypse event. This was when Legion went back in time to kill Magneto, accidentally killed Professor X and Apocalypse used this advantage to take over America. The group played humans who were stuck on Cortez Island (formerly Staten Island) and planning to disrupt Fabian Cortez’s parade in honour of a statue of himself. I only had two players, as Jessica Jones and a depowered Loki. Together with J Jonah Jameson, they managed to secure some explosives and blow the statue up right at a pivotal point of the parade.

The system doesn’t do anything incredibly different from other PbtA games, although there are some fun campaign elements based on the actions of the group. Still, thematically it was really fun to do and a game I’d be curious to try out again. If I get a bit more time with the game, I might review it.

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