With so many to choose from, starting your adventure can be difficult.
There’s a veritable ocean of tabletop RPGs out there, and it can be a daunting task to find the game that best fits your gaming group. Whether you’re looking for a new game to try or just curious what all the fuss is after hearing about that crazy Kickstarter for Critical Role, here are some of our favorite tabletop RPGs across all genres and systems.
Sword & Sorcery
If you’re looking for what many refer to as the “classic” high-fantasy tabletop experience, with brave warriors battling monsters and beasts alongside powerful magic users in a medieval(ish) setting, there are two main camps that most people fall into: D&D or Pathfinder.
Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition)
The progenitor from which all other tabletop RPGs descend, D&D has come a long way since it was first sold out of the back of some guy named Gary’s van in 1974. While other editions of D&D have featured more convoluted rulesets, the fifth and current edition of the game is by far the most accessible iteration we’ve seen in decades. Its rules are relatively simple to pick up and play, allowing for narrative flexibility while still maintaining a traditional d20-based RPG experience. Learn more from Wizards of the Coast or see it on Amazon.
For those of you who may prefer a little more focus on combat tactics and strategy, Pathfinder may be the game for you. While you can still tell the same long-form stories as you would in Fifth Edition, Pathfinder features more rigid game mechanics and complex rules. As an added bonus, while 5e has a good amount of published adventures, Pathfinder is based on D&D v3.5, meaning there’s a massive library of content to choose from if you don’t feel like writing your own campaigns. See more at Paizo or on Amazon.
Of course, there are always options other than just Coke or Pepsi. If you want to explore more “mainstream” fantasy worlds, why not jump into the “dark fantasy” world of The Witcher, or the Lord of the Rings RPG (after all, almost all fantasy tabletop draws inspiration from Tolkein’s world). If you want to get a little more out there, why not give Pugmire a shot: it’s still a high-fantasy world, but you’re all talking dogs.
A Little Science in Your Fiction
If you’d rather explore the cosmos or a grim techno-dystopia, there are plenty of excellent sci-fi themed roelplaying games.
The basis for CD Projekt Red’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, R Talsorian’s RPG set in a dystopian urban future has been around since the late 1980s. The “best” edition is arguably the second, also known as Cyberpunk 2020, through a more streamlined version called Cyberpunk RED is due out sometime this year. You can check out a full playthrough of the game, with its creator Mike Pondsmith, here or learn more from R Talsorian’s website.
Set in the far far future, Traveller features all the trappings of a “traditional” sci-fi adventure: space travel, aliens, and a ton of high-tech gadgets and gizmos based in hard science as opposed to magic. It also benefits from a 30-year backlog of adventures and lorebooks, meaning once you know the rules you can jump in with little prep.
If you’re looking for something in-between, there are options that combine both fantasy and sci-fi sensibilities – Shadowrun melds magic into a cyberpunk future, and Starfinder is literally just Pathfinder in space. If you’re looking for more familiar spacefaring adventure, there are plenty of licensed sci-fi worlds to explore, whether you’re into Star Trek or Star Wars (they recently re-released the classic 80’s RPG books), or if just really miss Firefly.
Bumps in the Night
Maybe you’re in the market for something more thrilling, or even downright horrifying? Here are some great horror RPGs to get you started.
Call of Cthulhu
The Lovecraftian grand-daddy of horror RPGs, Call of Cthulhu is now in their seventh edition since its initial 1981 release. Players create a team of investigators attempting to solve a mystery, while the DM (or Keeper in this particular game-verse) bombards them with enough cosmic horror to potentially drive their characters mad. If you’re not up for the tabletop version, you could always check out what we thought of the official video game.
The End of the World
Fantasy Flight’s The End of The World revolves around, well… exactly what it says, but the catch is that you have to survive the apocalypse as yourself. You and your friends fill out character sheets based on your own capabilities – your vitality, your charisma, your willpower, even your fears and insecurities – and fight your way through one of four apocalyptic scenarios: zombies, the Old Gods, aliens, or a robot uprising.
There are plenty of other excellent horror games, as well. Vampire: The Masquerade, the basis of the Bloodlines video game, focuses on the struggle to retain one’s humanity, while other games like Kult offer a more splatterhouse-ey vibe.
A Little of Everything
Maybe you can’t settle on one particular genre? If so, we’ve got good news for you – there are several excellent game systems designed to be used in multiple settings.
Apocalypse World is – or, rather, was – a stand-alone RPG with a highly narrative focus. It’s simple 2d6 dice system has since been adapted by almost 100 developers for use within their own game worlds. From the cyberpunk streets of The Sprawl to the Buffy-esque beast hunters of Monster of the Week, whatever sort of adventure you’re looking for can be powered by the Apocalypse.
EvilHat’s FATE system feels similar to the Apocalypse system, though with a bit more mechanical complexity. There are dozens of “FATE Worlds” are available, be they the Masters of the Universe-inspired Umdarr or the conspiracy-filled Secret Life of Cats (who knew housecats dealt with so much intrigue?), or you can use their core system to design your own.
Regardless of where you eventually end up, we hope this list has helped kickstart your journey into the realm of tabletop roleplaying. If you’re looking for more TRPG content, check out how Cyberpunk’s creator feels about adapting his game for CD Projekt Red’s latest title, or watch Scream’s Matthew Lillard help us unbox a massive D&D kit of his own design.
JR is IGN’s Senior Editor of Features, and earnestly believes the world would be a better place if everyone played a tabletop RPG now and again. You can find him proselytizing about it on Twitter.