The Top 36 RPGs I Played in 2020, in Alphabetical Order – Part Four (Nice Marines to The Yellow King)

Okay, home stretch now. Here are the final games I played this year, covering us pretty much to the present moment. There might be one more session of play before the year’s end, in order to finish Warmer in the Winter, but that’s it for me for 2021.

Nice Marines

A couple of things from our page of session notes.

My knowledge of Warhammer peaked around ages 12-14, which I feel are the optimal ages to be a Warhammer nerd. When my friends in their thirties were all getting back into it, I didn’t really follow. I barely painted my units but I did name them. My brother came up with backstories for minions in Heroquest. I moved from Warhammer type games to RPGs as that helped me get what I wanted from that world, not miniature combat.

What I mean when I say all this is that I knew I was going into a losing battle with Nice Marines. My players would inevitably know far more than I did, but I’d be open with them about this and plough on through.

Nice Marines is the sole Grant Howitt game I ran this year, about space marines who saved a planet from alien forces and then the people who are there to help the recovery efforts don’t show up. With inspectors on the way, the space marines have to help rebuild, despite being made only for killing.

I only had two players, but they went in with gusto, helping and often breaking everything apart as they went. Whole buildings were toppled during the rebuilding efforts, one of the group put a hand through a diplomat while trying to reassure everyone and they will never get stains out of the Rhino the brought along.

Night’s Black Agents

Photo of Split’s convention setup by Graham Wilkes.

I’ve never played or run a Gumshoe RPG before, but I had Yellow King on my 2020 Bucket List. A friend, Split, was going to run Night’s Black Agents at AireCon and realised I could learn the system at the hands of a friend.

NBA felt a little like going back to my Spycraft days, with a lot of planning and scouting out places. The character sheets were all nicely designed and presented so we knew how to make use of everything. It started out light enough with some basic investigations, a bit of light breaking and entering, then a fight against a terrifying vampire in a graveyard. For a one slot convention session, it felt like we got a lot done.

I mainly know of the system from Trail of Cthulhu as an alternative to systems where the group might get stalled by the system. Players have Investigative Abilities which automatically give a character any relevant clues when they see or unlock them. There are also General Abilities which are for anything non-clue-based. Unlike Yellow King this has abilities called ‘Cherries’ (I admit I’m not 100% sure why they’re called that) which are extra abilities.

Later in the year when the Bundle of Holding came out for The Dracula Dossier, I ended up buying it because of my experiences here and a love of the concept of a sandbox game using Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a player resource to find clues.

World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game Pasión de las Pasiones

My attempt to unpack what the players created, along with a really awesome pen a couple of players gave me as apparently it suited my GM style.

Like Last Fleet, this used a QuickStart version of the game as it was only just done through Kickstarter when I ran it.

Pasión is Powered by the Apocalypse, but it does some fantastic things with it. You don’t have stats, but you have questions you ask. Each ‘yes’ you say is a +1 to your roll. Two questions are from the move you’re doing and one from your playbook. El Caballero has, “are you handling things without guile and head on?” This means that whatever you do, that question is valid. You also get props, such as an eyepatch or a horse.

I don’t know anything about telenovelas and a decade of watching Eastenders when I was younger didn’t really match up. Still, the mechanics and the writing of the preview rules really helped set the tone and allow me to do the same for my players.

The story we told involved an illicit dog-breeding operation and the trial for the murder of El Caballero’s police horse. There were strained reunions, evil twins who swapped eyepatches and a really tense date at El Jefe’s apartment where both players were constantly lying to each other and trying to coordinate their own schemes. Our group turned it into a bit of a Fiasco at times, but there were some spectacular moments of love, rivalry and revelation which had the whole group shouting in excitement. I feel sorry for the tables near us, but also proud of what we achieved.

Quest

Summersea, from my Exodus campaign setting and the adventure, “Dude, Where’s my Wizard?”

This was an interesting one. When D&D was going through yet more controversies and even the co-author of Dungeon World was acting objectionably enough that I didn’t want to run that anymore, I started looking at alternatives which weren’t as heavily descended from D&D. This meant no OSRs as they were in dialogue with D&D as much as Dungeon World. No Pathfinder as that’s basically still D&D. I remembered a Dicebreaker video about Quest.

Quest is a very simple RPG which uses a lot of fiction-first techniques as well as a very simple unmodified d20 roll for resolution. Characters have role-based abilities which help keep everyone unique and give them interesting rules to add into the fiction. The book looks lovely, has nice art and intends to not be the only RPG a person ever plays. As some streamers moved from D&D to Quest, the company involved got a bit more attention. They had made a couple of tonal choices with abilities which didn’t gel with the look the company and the game book were going for. The Adventure Guild put up things like free copies for teachers and a discount on the physical version if you buy the PDF. There was a little criticism about how people were treating Quest like it was to be the new D&D and that leaving D&D on racial grounds to then go to another RPG by wealthy white men was a bit odd. These are valid criticisms and it’s been reassuring to see Quest answer with their open source system that anyone can take part in and they’re helping promote, as well as stated in their book mentioning that there are other RPGs for people to move onto after Quest. It’s all a start, which is something.

I ran a couple of one-shots and a two-parter with my regular group. As a first role-playing game to teach people, it’s wonderful. It moves smoothly along, gives GMs the right kind of resources and stays out of the way until the rules need to be engaged with. I can see it also being perfect for streamers in the same way.

For someone coming from D&D there’s a little learning (and un-learning) to do. For someone coming in with no knowledge it holds your hand nicely and if you’re used to indie RPGs, this will feel a little bit basic without any third party resource to help with adding a bit more complexity.

The first games I ran were connected one-shots, with the group having to chase down a flying castle. The first session had skeletons raining from the sky and building catapults to try and get back up there. The second session had the group break into a lord’s grounds and his magical beast hunt in order to use a shortcut to the flying castle. They fought off some terrifying swanbears and made their way to the castle. It turned out a storm elemental had been caught up in a lightning rod and was shaking the castle, knocking the skeleton guards down to the cities below.

The two-parter was a hunt through a mage’s festival to find a brick wizard who’d been on a bender there. The group made some fun characters and stormed through the tourist traps, revelries and the elusive brick wizard who had been up to no good.

I found both sessions of Quest really allowed me to engage my imagination and let everything go wild. I don’t know how it’d fare for a campaign, but it’s definitely what I’d want to use for my Exodus campaign setting in the future.

Squamous

I love this screenshot of the group’s immediate reactions to seeing a monster and the horrendous failures that followed. This is when it got a bit messy.

I mainly know Scott Malthouse from his solo games Quill and English Eerie. When I saw he had written a super-light cosmic horror investigation game, I was curious. I love Cthulhu Dark which is a similar creature, but where that focuses on the nihilistic horror, Squamous focuses on investigations. It’s no slouch when it comes to horror, either.

I ran a one-off session using the adventure in the back of the book and we managed to have some atmospheric fun with some terrifying moments near the end. I’ve got a review mostly written which I’ll be publishing soon, and my next experiment with the system will be running a premade Call of Cthulhu adventure using this system.

Trophy Gold

I’m not going to post any spoilers, so here’s the cover for Hester’s Mill, which fucking slaps. Go, get Trophy Gold and run or play this.

This was a game I really wanted to run all year. I loved Trophy Dark and went all in on the Kickstarter, but I was a little uncertain how Trophy Gold worked. I bit the bullet, ran the game and it was one of those experiences where the mechanics all fall together and spell out, “This is the good shit”. It was one thing reading them, but seeing them in play was fantastic.

Trophy Gold is a narrative take on desperate adventurers looting dungeons for gold. It adds a fantastically dark tone and ‘push your luck’ mechanics which encourage adventurers turning over every rock, knowing that trouble will lie under a lot of them. I’ve only run one incursion for the game, but it was the kind of situation where my players kept asking for another go at it, sure they’d be able to uncover the secrets of the place and leave with profit.

In Trophy Gold, you have debts and you need to pay them every time you go back home or your character’s out of the game (dead, in debtor’s prison, it doesn’t really matter). So you need some money automatically, but the more you stay, the more likely you are to find some kind of unspeakable horror that will harm you, the dark forces of the dungeon may murder you, or worse. Trophy Dark was a sublime system and this is a worthy companion. I have a review mostly written of Trophy Gold which I’ll post up soon, and I want to try a campaign of it next, to see how people survive a few incursions.

Warmer in the Winter

Our main cast for Warmer in the Winter.

This is another game from my 2021 bucket list. I’m not much of a Christmas romcom person, but I love the idea of trying to mechanise the tropes and beats of a romantic comedy into a roleplaying game. This is a beta, so it’s not finished and a little barebones, really helped by knowledge of Monsterhearts and Kids on Bikes.

Players take on roles like, “The Beloved” and “The Rival”, then play through a story, gaining and losing Heartstrings on each other, even Wishing on a Star in order to find out details about a person or a situation.

I’ve only played the first half of a story, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish that off before the year’s done. We have a stressed journalist having to return to her hometown in order to write a puff-piece about small town Christmases. The hometown hero and her ex, is trying to save the local ice rink. The rival is a factory owner looking to expand his domain and the youngster is his daughter who has been all-but-adopted by the hero. We had a supernatural character filled with festive cheer; in this case a haunted snowman. It transpired as we prepared everything, that the snowman’s ghost was actually the rival’s dead wife. She’s been trying to direct the journalist and the hero to work together to save the rink and possibly, remind the rival about the meaning of Christmas.

It’s light fluff, in a good way. Once the story’s done I’ve promised the designer I’ll report back, and I might turn it into a preview of the game for WDR.

Weave

This is literally part of the character sheet. How goddamn adorable is this?

This might be the first RPG I ran this year. Weave is a diceless RPG which involves colouring in patterns. You play a band of young magicians on a pilgrimage to find out about magic, which is all cast through weaving. Communities have items of clothes or accessories which are culturally relevant to them and by interacting with people, even solving problems, the group are able to learn about the item, then create a kind of representation which will gift them a spell.

I ran a few sessions and it felt relaxing, even with the problem the group had to face of wolves threatening any of the local farmers and the young mayor being too much of a drunk coward to fend them off as local customs dictated. One of the group spent most of his time working with a blacksmith, another one helped out the tanner, and they soaked everything in before moving on. Tonally it felt like if Avatar: The Last Airbender was about clothes, and a bit Studio Ghibli-ish. Admittedly discussions between myself and another player about Flying Circus had us tagging that whole aesthetic into this game.

I was certain I’d reviewed Weave, but apparently I didn’t. I’ll have to remedy that.

Wreck This Deck

A water demon, going in the freezer. Once it’s slowed down, I can deal with it.

The second journaling game I’ve got, and I need to do more with it. Rather than typing it out and transcribing, I’m trying to write straight to a notepad and keeping things sparse, keeping them sketchy.

Wreck This Deck is a game about people who trap demons in playing cards. You need a deck you’re fine ruining, a journal and a pen. There are different actions you can do to prompt entries, cast spells and capture demons. Some involve shuffling and drawing from the deck, others involve picking specific cards and doing things to them.

I made Kind, who I’ve not specified much about at the moment. They hang out at The Level, a patch of square grass including a skate park. They look after the skaters, the people passing through, the dog walkers and most importantly, the dogs.

So far, Kind’s been keeping an eye on a pair of community support officers who have been bothering some of the locals in the park. By cutting an eye shape into a card, Kind could see a strange influence over them. Kind followed the officers to a building site on Market Street, only to find them talking to a demon who got stuck in a hole. When the underground river down Lewes Road flooded, it washed in.

I wasn’t sure what to do for the capture and after a bit of thought, I decided to chuck the card in the freezer. I warned my partner what I’d done and subsequently lost the card. After a bit of a search it had been stuck between shelves; the demon probably didn’t want to be caught. Still, I recovered it, then steamed the card and the demon was left inside.

I need to carry out another draw to see what adventures Kind can get up to. I like how this game gets you to think creatively with not only the tarot-style interpretations of the cards, but also what physical actions to carry out. It reminds me of the weird transgressive joy felt when I first played Pandemic Legacy. You’re not supposed to rip up a card in a board game, but we did. That was exciting, and there’s something kind of fun about ripping, burning and cutting cards in this deck.

The Yellow King

A collage from my Yellow King presentation to my players.

Finally we have one of my roleplaying white whales. The Yellow King isn’t just one game, it’s four. Also it’s a system I’d never run or played at the start of the year. I’ve no idea why, but the three-column layout that Pelgrane Press use on their big books is something I can never get used to in PDF. Fortunately this game had a one column layout on four smaller books in a slipcase which also doubled as a fold-out GM screen.

The Yellow King is based on Robert W Chambers’ short stories and specifically not HP Lovecraft’s interpretations (and especially not August Derleth’s). It’s a game of weird, existential horror, starting out in Belle Époque Paris. This sent me down a lot of research holes both in art and weird art horror.

I learnt a bit about Yellow King and Gumshoe by watching some Actual Plays on Pelgrane’s YouTube channel and playing Night’s Black Agents at Airecon. I used Kanka to start setting up a space with all the locations and NPCs which I might use, including having AI Gahaku change the photos of actors into weird painted versions.

As an example of the ‘painted’ faceclaims, here is Jason Mantzoukas as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

I’ve only had a couple of sessions, which was an extended session zero. We made characters and a bit of the world, then ran through a short investigation as the group had to rescue Henri Toulouse-Lautrec from a debt collector who was going to give him a sound beating. They went from Le Veau Gras, a student haunt, to Moulin Rouge and then the Olympia Music Hall where they saw Henri in a private booth where he’d locked himself in while the gangster’s goons clambered up some shaky scaffolding to get to him.

My extremely intricate and complex scene layout.

The fight mechanics had looked weird and potentially clunky, but was actually really nice and simple. I feel like I’ll need to remind the group how it works, but so far I’ve been enjoying the system and look forward to seeing how the rest of the campaign goes. I’m kind of hoping that we’ll get to play all four campaigns over time, but we might need to have a gap between each of them to play something else.

And that’s it for 2020. A lot, as it turns out. I’ve no idea how many more or less I played last year, but in an overall stressful and weird world, roleplaying games have been a wonderful refuge.

There are three games from my 2020 bucket list which I wasn’t able to get round to:

DIE: I read this on the way to AireCon and it looks fascinating. I’ve loved the comic it’s based on and meta-fiction in general. I know it can be run online, but it feels like it’d do a lot better in the real world, at least for the first time trying it. It probably won’t be on my 2021 bucket list, but I still want to try it.

Good Society – I love a good period drama and this looks like an incredible game. I can’t help but feel it’ll be a really hard sell on my main weekly group. Hopefully I can pressure my writing group into a few sessions of it, as they like Regency era fiction.

Quietus – This one’s on me. It’s a melancholy horror game for 1-2 players. I should have had it in my back pocket for times when I only had one or two players as that happened more often than not this year. I’ll try and get it ready to go in 2021 in case I get a chance to try it.

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