It’s not uncommon to associate tabletop role-playing games with “Dungeons & Dragons,” partially due to the game’s representation in popular culture — such as in the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” and sci-fi Netflix original “Stranger Things.” The tabletop fantasy game lets players cast spells, loot treasure chests, slay dragons or do anything else their imagination desires. A commonly held belief is that mostly self-proclaimed nerds play it, possibly in their mother’s basement, while clad in robes and armor.
However, you don’t have to be in touch with your nerdy side to enjoy role-playing games. Whether slaying dragons isn’t your thing or you’re simply overwhelmed by the apparent time commitment of role-playing games, fear not — there are numerous styles of games, difficulties and worlds to explore. Some role-playing games have campaigns that can last a year, while others can be played in one sitting.
What exactly is a role-playing game?
A role-playing game is a cooperative game in which players use storytelling, dice rolling (usually, although horror role-playing game “Dread” uses Jenga blocks instead) and character sheets to engage in rich worlds and stories. Aside from being a lot of fun, role-playing games are an effective exercise in teamwork, logical thinking, decision-making and creativity.
One person serves as the gamemaster and must wear numerous hats. The game master is in charge of developing the game world, constructing and narrating captivating scenarios, enforcing game rules, mediating player decisions and more. Other players wield their creativity by developing a character and dictating that character’s actions.
Here are seven games, most of which fall into the indie genre, that encompass a wide variety of playstyles and interests and are ideal for the beginning tabletop role-playing gamer.
One shots are role-playing games that are played in one sitting. They’re convenient for when time is a constraint or casual players are involved.
1. “A Penny for My Thoughts”
One of the most unique games on this list, “A Penny for My Thoughts” is reminiscent of a theater class improv exercise and serves as a nice introduction to role-playing games. In this gamemasterless and diceless game, players all have retrograde amnesia and work together to help construct each person’s identity.
The instruction manual resembles medical files written by a psychiatrist and introduces players to the institute at which they’re patients, as well as the process they’ll be undergoing. Patients have taken a drug called mnemosyne that connects their unconscious mind with the minds of others who take it.
Players hand over pennies to symbolize their desire to assist in remembrance by building off of each other, responding with “yes, and…” to prompts and guiding questions from other players. The result is a uniquely constructed narrative of who you were.
2. “Ten Candles”
Revered as a stellar tragic horror role-playing game, “Ten Candles” is unique in that every player will die — it’s just a matter of what they will do with their remaining time.
As opposed to being pigeon-holed into a specific setting or time period, the game comes with tons of concise scenarios for the gamemaster to take and run with. If they so desire, they can even create bizarre new scenarios.
Ten burning tea light candles establish a ritualistic atmosphere, serve as a counter and allow players to burn their character sheets as they die. Speaking as a candle enthusiast, the tea lights are reason alone to guarantee this role-playing game a spot on the list.
3. “The Quiet Year”
Unlike most role-playing games that focus on characters and how they interact with the world, “The Quiet Year” is about the story of a place and is referred to by designer Avery Alder as the world’s first cartography role-playing game.
The game takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting and allows players to determine how they fare over the course of a year as they prepare for the Frost Shepherds (whoever they are).
Players (no gamemaster required) take turns drawing symbols or pictures in order to construct a map. Once the game world has been created and it’s determined which resources are plentiful and which are scarce, players take turns drawing cards. Based on the card prompt, players will start a project, hold a discussion or announce a discovery. The game sticks out because it lets players build a memorable community.
4. “Golden Sky Stories”
Intrigued by the storytelling aspects of role-play games but not so keen on dark or dire situations? “Golden Sky Stories” is an anime-style game that lacks combat and instead has players step into the shoes of a magical animal in a Japanese village. Players help fellow villagers with realistic problems — for instance, a lost little girl in the marketplace looking for her parents.
The game is a one shot, but could potentially be reworked for longer stories. There’s also an add-on game that provides players with an alternative setting in the English countryside and the addition of faeries.
Campaign style games have stories that take place over several sessions. Each session serves to further the adventure and allows players to carry over previous stats accumulated, relationships formed, and more.
5. “Tales from the Loop”
Likely one of the more popular role-playing games on the list, “Tales from the Loop” is reminiscent of “Stranger Things.” The game takes place in either Swedish Mälaren Islands or Boulder City, Nevada, in the 1980s, and is a combination of nostalgic-fueled ‘80s pop culture and secret government experiments. Players are cast as preteens and teenagers, who are determined to solve a series of mysteries that revolve around The Loop, a huge underground particle accelerator.
À la “Breakfast Club,” players can choose from character presets, such as jock, troublemaker, popular kid, weirdo and more, or players can create their own characters. The fun process includes selecting a character’s favorite song and iconic item, as well as what their key skills are. Perhaps the jock is secretly good at working on computers?
Though players in “Bubblegumshoe” are also teenagers who solve mysteries, don’t expect any of the secret military technology from the previous game. “Bubblegumshoe” characters are females in high school and the mysteries are more in the realm of figuring out who is scheming to sabotage the prom queen. The cases may seem rather insignificant, but one huge mystery connects them all — the mystery of the town itself. The game gives off serious “Riverdale” vibes.
When filling out character sheets, players can determine how good they are at detecting BS or how much they know about town lore. They can even engage in throwdowns, a type of social combat that may feel slightly familiar to some former high school students.
7. “The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game”
The only game on this list that has yet to come out, “The Princess Bride Roleplaying Game” is slated to release later this month. It’s inconceivable how quickly the officially licensed game rose to popularity on Kickstarter, although it’s likely due to the cult following of the 1987 film by the same name.
Players can take on the role of existing characters or build their own as they adventure through scenarios inspired by the movie and book. They might battle rodents of unusual size as they navigate through the fire swamp. Who knows, maybe players will have to engage in a battle of wits with a Sicilian who thinks he’s smarter than Aristotle (the key word here being *thinks*).
No matter what topics pique your interest, there’s sure to be a role-playing game out there for your individual needs and preferences. Now, go find a game to try and have fun storming the castle! Sorry, I had to get one more “Princess Bride” reference in there.