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SYFY WIRE Tabletop Games

Beyond D&D: The 12 TTRPGs you're not playing, but really should be

By Kristina Manente
BALIKBAYAN main image

When it comes to the world of tabletop roleplay games, everyone knows Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. However, taking a step away from the big leagues of TTRPGs opens up a world of intricate and beautiful interactive stories just waiting to be explored.

The act of collaborative storytelling is a rewarding experience not only in terms of gameplay, but also in regards to expanding one’s creativity, as well as slightly traumatizing your friends. As such, it’s only natural that people would want to create their own narrative-based roleplaying games, throwing in dice and cards, creating mechanics of their own, or building off existing rules.

Whether they are created by small crowdfunded studios or by individual narrative designers, there are so many indie tabletop roleplaying games being made every day that are very much worth your playtime. Sites like Drive Thru RPG, itchi.o, and Indie Press Revolution are great resources to find indie TTRPGs, but we’ve rounded up a dozen of the best for you to sink your teeth into. May all your 20s be natural.


01. The Quiet Year

Created by the astounding Avery Alder of Buried Without Ceremony, this card based map game takes you through a year in the life of a community after the collapse of civilization as we know it. Every card in a 52 card deck represents a week in The Quiet Year, bringing along with it different events, omens, and changes rife for roleplaying exploration.

The Quiet Year is a beautiful game, not only in terms of the cartographic way it is played, but in the collaborative nature of its storytelling. This GM-less game is about building off one another's ideas as you create this post-apocalyptic community, making it perfect for those who love world building. It was awarded “Most Innovative Game of 2013," and the most recent version of the game came out in 2019. 


02. Blades in the Dark

Evil Hat Productions is one of the most prevalent TTRPG indie creators out there, but of all their games, John Harper's Blades in the Dark is a must-play. In it you will play a motley crew of scoundrels and thieves, looking to make their way (and their fortunes) in an industrial city filled with fantastical elements.

So often TTRPGs are about being the heroes, but in Blades in the Dark, you can be everything from an anti-hero to an outright villain, meandering the criminal underworld rilled with rival gangs, nobles, and ghosts galore. Create your character from  archetypes like the Leech, Lurk, or Spider, and build out your criminal crew from the likes of Assassins, Hawkers, or even some cult members. Plan out criminal operations, tinker and brew alchemical experiments, and decide the fate of the haunted city of Doskvol.

Masks A New Generation

03. Masks: A New Generation

Superhero fans will love the daring and delightful Masks: A New Generation by Brendan Conway for Magpie Games. As a player in this TTRPG, you take on the role as a young burdgeoning superhero who doesn't entirely have everything together. Together with other players you discover your powers, your characters, and how to protect Halcyon City.

This isn't your typical hero saves the day roleplaying game, in Masks, you'll get to decide if your hero is a savior or more of a dangerous power-hungry messiah. The possibilities are endless, and with add-ons like the Deck of Influence and Secrets of A.E.G.I.S., the sandbox potential for this TTRPG are great indeed.

Magpie Games are also behind telenovela TTRPG Pasión de las Pasiones and the Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game, now on Kickstarter.


04. Balikbayan: Returning Home

Created and designed by Jamila R. Nedjadi, Balikbayan: Returning Home blends Filipino folklore with cyberpunk for an outrageously stunning story about a post-apocalyptic Earth, magic, machines, and rebirth. The blend of the supernatural with the technological is what makes Balikbayan particularly noteworthy. This is a game crafted with deep respect and love for Filipino culture, introducing many players to a world they have probably never experienced.

Players are Elementals seeking to bring back magic to Earth, all the while on the run from the machines who enslaved them and The Corp, who is hunting them. Fans of dystopian adventures will thrive in the setting, and those who like a bit of pressure will love the ticking clock mechanic. Yes, time can run out. For a suspenseful, meaningful, and token-based game, don't miss out on this one.

Brindlewood Bay

05. Brindlewood Bay

Murder mystery and knitting fans unite! Jason Cordova's Brindlewood Bay is a tabletop roleplaying game unlike any other. Players assume the roles of the elderly women members of the local Murder Mavens mystery book club who find themselves becoming real-lief detectives. Inspired by the likes of Murder, She Wrote, Brindlewood Bay is as charming as it is fascinating.

Part H.P. Lovecraft, part procedural drama a la 1980s, Brindlewood Bay is a cozy TTRPG with lots of murder, mystery, and badass grandmas ready to throw down the law and a few cookies while they're at it. It also now has a supplement, Nephews in Peril with six new mysteries to solve.


06. Ryuutama: Natural Fantasy Roleplay

The best way to describe this TTRPG is to marry the world of Studio Ghibli with Oregon Trail. Ryuutama explores the lives of typical NPCs — your bakers and blacksmiths — and follows their adventures in the wide-open world. This game is more for those who enjoy exploring a world rather than combat, as the focus is much more on the wonder of an NPC on a grand adventure, as well as incorporating mechanics like camping, foraging, and travel.

Ryuutama is perfect for TTRPG newbies, as it was specifically created to help get people into tabletop roleplaying games in Japan. First-time GMs will appreciate the guides and resources made available, and new players will appreciate the simplified combat and focus more on storytelling.

Originally created in Japan by game designer Atsuhiro Okada, Ryuutama finally made its way over to the English-speaking world and was translated by Matt Sanchez and Andy Kitkowski along with layout artist and game designer Daniel Solis.


07. Magical Girls & Mecha

Sometimes you just need a tabletop roleplaying game about magical girls and giant robots. Thankfully, that's where Margaret Catter's aptly named Magical Girls & Mecha comes in. You gain magical powers and get a giant mechanized companion to aid you in your fight against evil. What isn't to love about that?

This diceless game was created with remote play in mind and is based on using Discord as the tabletop. Play by post offers creativity in an entirely different way than most ttrpgs, and is perfect for those wanting to stretch their writing muscles a bit more.


08. Heart: The City Beneath

Fans of dungeon-crawls and darker fantasy need to pick up Heart: The City Beneath for a story-forward adventure that "focuses on what characters have to lose in pursuit of their dreams in the chaotic darkness beneath the world." Created by Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor, Heart tells of the nightmares beneath the city of Spire, the first game in the on-going TTRPG series, but doesn't require you to have played that game.

Players create a team of delvers who are exploring the terrifying and bizarre City Beneath, a location that can shift as much as the GM prefers. With an entirely unique mechanic system and classes, Heart is in a league of its own when it comes to indie game design. 


09. A Cool and Lonely Courage

There is no doubt that roleplay can be an emotional experience, but then there's Alex White's A Cool and Lonely Courage. This World War II-set TTRPG puts you in the shoes of the extraordinary women of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), and from the very beginning, the stakes are high. The game begins being captured by Nazis and through cards and decisions with fellow players, you explore your operative's relationships, life through flashbacks, and ultimately, their fate.

It's an emotionally complex game that stays with players long after they've finished. Instead of dice, cards are used to determine what each scene focuses on, be it love, success, failure, or even death. Plus, it highlights the real-life women who fought in the secret wars of World War II, making the stories you tell even more poignant.


10. Magical Kitties Save the Day

A Kickstarter favorite and a whimsical delight all around is Magical Kitties Save the Day, a TTRPG where players play kittens who help solve the problems of their humans, all while living in a world populated by everything from witches to robots and hyper-intelligent raccoons. Not every TTRPG has to be super serious, and if anything, Magical Kitties assures that, because the kittens cannot die. It's simply not allowed.

With a range of difficulty levels and multiple home town add-ons to choose from, Magical Kitties Save the Day has great replayability as well as wonderful sandbox potential. Produced by Matthew J. Hanson, Justin Alexander, and Michelle Nephew at Atlas Games, Magical Kitties Save the Day is a fun romp through the fantastical and weird for new players and veterans of all ages.


11. Journey Away

Journey Away by Jacob S. Kellogg is a fantasy based adventure TTRPG with a twist. Story progression doesn't come from challenges in this game, instead, players roll to engage in situations with the dice determining how many and what kind of developments arise in that situation. Whether they're positive or negative depends on the roll, but the point of Journey Away is shared storytelling, with players deciding how dramatic or lighthearted their journey will be.

Characters head out into the wide open world of Adhara, filled with new magic, from their sheltered lives in a small village. What they will encounter and do along the way is up to the players and GM, making Journey Away a great game for those more interested in story and character development than combat.


12. Lancer

If you've ever wanted to be a pilot in space, Lancer is the out-of-this-world TTRPG for you, where players take on the role of mech pilots in a galaxy newly won by the human race. With full mech customization mechanics, anyone who enjoys giant robots, never mind robots in space, will enjoy this game.

Lancer can be a gritty affair, heavy on the battle ship and lasers type of sci-fi, but also has a great mythic science fantasy feel, making it a great blend for fans of all science fiction. The different player backgrounds give great depth to who players can choose to be, as well as the choices they may be faced with when it comes to who to support and who to trust. Lancer is published by Massif Press, an indie publisher run by Tom Parkinson Morgan and Miguel Lopez.