A group of friends lean in; it’s the final battle, the end of an epic campaign, years in the making. The only thing that stands between them and the ultimate triumph of good over evil is the roll of a single die…
Well, that’s how Dungeons and Dragons does it, anyway. But genre games are as varied as genre fiction, and most don’t require the time or monetary investment that a thick, rules-heavy D&D campaign often asks for. The stories told around the table (or over Zoom!) with your adventuring party can rival the great works of fiction, and have been oft-cited as sources of inspiration. But with the advent of experimental lyric games, journaling prompts, and new systems for mechanics—including using tarot cards, betting structures, or even a Jenga tower—genre tabletop games have never been more diverse or more exciting.
In honor of this glorious, beautiful, multitude of games that are just begging to be played, I’ve set up a few tabletop roleplaying games with some new pieces of genre fiction. I tried to pick out games that have been written recently, and none that originated in the 70s! Take a look, and maybe support a game or two. We’ll start with Fantasy, diving right in with games and books that go from epic to short, historical to urban, so take a deep breath, and let’s dive in.
The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood
The Unspoken Name landed on my doorstep early this year and while I might have mistaken the novel for a doorstop, I quickly devoured this massive, epic, queer fantasy debut. Larkwood’s prose is sharp, the worldbuilding expansive, and the villains dastardly. It makes use of many fantasy tropes, but never in the same iteration, and while many folks might suggest a classic swords-and-sorcery RPG, we’re challenging ourselves to go deeper, to think in specifics and broad strokes.
There’s a lot of movement through magic portals in The Unspoken Name, and so to start, I recommend What’s So Cool About Magic Portals? by Chris Bisette, a choose-your-own game full of prompts to guide you on your journey through magic portal after portal after portal…well, you get it. Next, if you love figuring out ancient, magic heirlooms, create your own with Artefact, by Jack Harrison, a marvelously well-designed game about creating a history for an object, as well as its ultimate fate. After creating your magical object, you’ll need to guard it. That’s where Sentinel, by Meghan Cross, will help you play through the long, lonesome years of standing guard over an object, or culture, or ruin, of great and terrible power. Lastly, for Unspoken’s darling lesbians who are really bad at relationships, and slightly tragic, I suggest the short, lyrical and devastating You Will Destroy Something Beautiful, from Samatha Day. You are the beautiful or the destroyer, and no matter how you play, you will end shattered, sad, and desperately seeking a sequel.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a delightful, compact, fast-paced stunner, full of Chinese and Malaysian fantasy worldbuilding, queer characters, and a loosely wuxia-inspired plot. Set against the background of a revolution and resistance, the book explores the ways that you can never really escape your past, or hide your true nature. If you want to play out these wuxia fantasy tropes, complete with romance and found family, check out Hearts of Wulin, a playable version of which is currently available right now as a playtest—an unfinished preview of the game, which I hope entices you to preorder the full book!
Now, because a tropical mythical island vibe echoes throughout Pure Moon, which is full of jungles, shrines, spies, and references to Malaysian history, let’s dig into some Malaysian game to help fill in the shapes of many people’s cultural understanding. Keris & The Dream by Nana, a short single-person game about a symbol and sacred object is perfect for Pure Moon, which also trades in sacred things. When dealing with colonialism, one of the ways to both understand and dismantle it is to look at maps. Borders are invented things, and never is this more clear than in a country bound up in foreign-drawn boundary. Orichalcum is a map-making game by Justin Quirit where the Empire has been destroyed by their own folly in a land not their own. You play as Exiles, and work to remake the map in the image of you and your ancestors. Another map-making game, this one about queerness, safety, and travel, is Across This Wasteland With You, by Diwata ng Manila and Pamela Punzalan, both pillars of the #RPGSEA (Role Playing Games of South East Asia) community. This two-person game is about queer lovers striving to reach The Safe Place, and paired with the queer bandits, nuns, and surrounds of Pure Moon, this is the game you play after you finish the novel and want to know what happens next.
By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar
Imagine if you take the Arthurian legends we know (and love to rehash) and make it dark, dirty, and maybe even a little scummy. By Force Alone reimagines King Arthur, and his round table, as bastard gangsters, fighting for the shattered strands of power left behind when Rome abandoned Britania. You can see that this makes for great games. With sharp steel and sharper tongues, the mob boss and his cronies seize control, even as the world desperately searches for heroes. The big daddy of scummy mob skirmishes has got to be Blades in the Dark, by John Harper, which will probably allow you to play out By Force Alone beat for beat. The great thing about BitD is the mechanic that allows you to go back in time and ‘prepare’ for a fight, and then re-enter the fight, equipped with a keen blade and an eye for blood.
To echo some of the scrabbles for the throne, I recommend The Sword, The Crown, The Unspeakable Power, which turns the game towards ascension, and allows for an easier way to play with magic. While you can change the setting, in every game of SCUP there’s always a power—a god, a demon, a well of magic, a sword of kings—and those who try to control it. Last, since we’re already familiar with Blades in the Dark, and want to stick with kings thwarted, I suggest Rebel Crown—all the heisty fun you want plus courtly intrigue and a set of rules that surround the would-be-regent who has been ousted, betrayed, and robbed. Play as allies and knights, and see your claimant rise to the throne, or take it yourself.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Rebecca Roanhorse came into the larger fantasy spotlight with the Sixth World books, Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts, a pair of futuristic dystopian fantasy novels with deep ties to her Dine’ heritage. Now, Roanhorse is back, and this time with second-world fantasy, Black Sun, an expansive pre-colonial interpretation of Indigenous American mythology and history. With magic and love at every corner of this book, it is a profoundly Native story, given as a gift to the rest of us. In line with Roanhorse’s heritage, I strove to find games based on and written by Indigenous people.
The first game, which is still in development, but heading to Kickstarter soon, is Coyote and Crow, a game set in an alternate future where Columbus never landed on Guanahani. Second, for those who love intricate, intimate games with conflict resolution based on spirituality and Native understandings and not combat, Ehdrighor (Allen Turner) is the perfect vehicle for long campaigns. To tell the stories of the characters of Black Sun, we need loneliness, individual separations, and deep understandings of destiny. Beth LaPensee is a prolific writer, and her game, Survivance, is about storytelling and survival. It’s the perfect reflection game after you finish a book like Black Sun, which gives you everything you want and leaves you gasping for more.
Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell
When I realized that magic in Kingdom of Liars cost memory I had immediate flashbacks to Advanced D&D and had to go lie down (this rule is on pg. 40, if you want to do the digging). However, the magic system in this book is sweeping and strange, and it takes on significant importance as the moon rains down on the hollow, the court begins its marriage court, and the city of Hollow takes on a character all of its own. First, check out Night Reign, by Oli Jeffries. You play as guards of the recently deposed royal family, a guise perfect for our “hero” Michael Kingman. If you want something super light and easy to pick up, but will still be able to adapt to a rage-filled city of magicians and beasts, I recommend Pacts & Blades by Lucas Rolim. While the full book falls at 40 pages, the entire playable ruleset fits on a single page. Super simple, accessible, and expansive.
Finally, let’s focus on building out Hollow with Aurora by Adam Vass. Out of all the games, this might be the best to play while not at the table with your friends. It has the added bonus of using mail as a mechanic, so if you want to save the post office, pick this game up! You create an oracle deck using various parts of a mailing address and later interpret the signs from other players. You create a communal deck, and then use it to create a city, its problems, and its people. Aurora is incredibly ingenious, and a fantastic game, perfect for the Kingdom of Liars and you.
Originally published October 2020.
Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.