When we look back at 2011, we can almost sum up the year in two words: 90s Nostalgia. Call of Cthulhu and Vampire: The Masquerade released anniversary editions. RIFTS updated Vampire Kingdoms. Warhammer 40K hit mainstream audiences via video games the same way SSI introduced a lot of people to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Speaking of AD&D, we even saw a rise in the number of games that were tributes to it and the original Dungeons & Dragons. Shadowrun had arguably its best year since Second Edition. Wizards of the Coast made Neverwinter its focus this year. About the only thing keeping 2011 from being a complete time warp was the lack of TSR rising from the game and reissuing the old FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes game.
Now that’s not to say 2011 was all about the old. A lot of great new products were released too. WotC tried its hand with a pretty fun board game in Conquest of Nerath. Several new high quality miniatures lines debuted. Cubicle 7 released things like Airship Pirates and The One Ring. Third party Pathfinder publishers continued tocome up with high quality creative materials. So on and so forth. So yes, even though 2011 was dominated by older games showing why they’ve stayed as popular as they have for decades, it was also a great year for new games that were able to stand toe-to-toe with the classics. As we end 2011 it’s time to pay homage to the best the year had to offer. Here now are the 2011 Tabletop Gaming Awards, with winners chosen by the staff at Diehard GameFAN. Winners were alerted a few weeks before publication and were given the chance to include an “acceptance speech” of sorts. Those that did have their comments after the award.
BEST BOARD GAME
I’ll admit that when Fantasy Flight Games brought back the Chaosium Classic Arkham Horror, I wasn’t really interested in it. I already owned the original 1987 version and I really not keen on board games with expansions to them. It wasn’t an investment I was willing to make in terms of either time or money. In talking to my friends who did own the new version, they said the game was a LOT of fun, but it also required a lot of space to play, a lot of time for a single game and even more time to understand how to play. I eventually did play it and I have to agree to all those issues, but it’s a lot of fun with the right crowd. Elder Sign is basically Fantasy Flight’s answer to all those criticisms. It’s cheap (less than $30 on Amazon right now), it is self contained (just one tiny box to play), it doesn’t take up a lot of room, it’s quite easy to learn, it can be played with a group of friends or by yourself, and it’s a lot of fun. There isn’t even a board. It’s all just cards and chips with the former making up an ever shifting playspace.
Elder Sign doesn’t play exactly like Arkham Horror 2.0, but there are definitely similarities. You’re trying to prevent a Great Old One or Elder God from entering our world, you use Elder Signs to try and shut the gateway, there’s a “doom track” of sorts that designated the time you have left and the game gets harder, the longer it goes on. However everything about Elder Sign is simplified and streamlined down to the core essence of what Arkham Horror is about. Not only does this make the game more accessible to the average person, but a single session is only an hour long which is a breath of fresh air compared to most RPG board games. It’s also a lot more fun according to people I know that have played both. Elder Sign has all of the things people love about Arkham Horror and none of the things that are commonly cited as problems with the game. It’s fast, frantic and fun and costs a lot less than comparable board games. If you like Arkham Horror, you’ll probably love Elder Sign. If you don’t like Arkham Horror, odds are you will like Elder Sign because of what it does differently from the game. It’s honestly the most fun I’ve had with a RPG themed board game this year (and god knows I’ve had to play a lot of them). If you’re a fan of Fantasy Flight products or the Cthulhu Mythos, you need to pick this up right away. You won’t regret it – even when a Dark Young is nibbling on your fleshy bits.
BEST RPG MAGAZINE
I have read White Dwarf magazine off and on for a decade and a half, but in 2011 the White Dwarf staff outdid themselves. The paper quality, art, and photography have always been at a high level, but this year the editorial content was a notch better than any other magazine on the market. Whether it was publishing the new rules for the Sisters of Battle or justsome of the best hobby articles in the world today. The truth is, gaming magazines are, as a whole, the best they have been in years. White Dwarf was just that much better.
BEST RPG BASED FICTION
Although I’m Editor-in-Chief here at Diehard GameFAN, I’m actually not a big fan of RPG novels. I tend to find most of them dull or constrained by the license and they story they have to tell rather the one they may want to. There are exceptions to these, but they tend to either be short story collections or a few of the Ravenloft books put out during Second Edition AD&D. Much like how movies based on video games tend to be terrible, it’s rare that I find a piece of RPG fiction that I can really get into. As such, it shocked me a few years back when I picked up Unclean in 2007 and found that I loved it. I didn’t even realize it was a D&D based book when I absent-mindedly grabbed it in Dreamhaven. Ithought the cover looked cool, enjoyed the back and bought it completely on impulse. Then I got home and saw a very small “Forgotten Realms” logo and groaned. Little did I know that this would begin the first real fantasy fiction addiction I’ve had since I was a little kid via The Coldfire Trilogy. Over the past four years I’ve completed the trilogy that book was part of (The Haunted Lands) and moved on to the quasi-spin off series The Brotherhood of the Dragon. In between releases I even went back and finished The Year of the Rogue Dragons series. Considering the praise The Spectral Blaze has received from reviewers besides myself, it’s easy to see just why the book won this year’s award.
The Spectral Blaze is a wonderful book for so many reasons. There’s a great deal of action with an emphasis on tactical strategy. There are a LOT of dragons and guess what? There’s finally a Dungeons and DRAGONS series that actually gives the Great Wyrms their just due – showcasing just why they are so fascinating and frightening at the same time. Out of the dozens of D&D novels I’ve read since I was a little kid, nothing has even come close to the depth or complexity Dragons are given in this series. Of course with The Spectral Blaze everything comes to a head and we learn far more about Draconic society, culture and madness than we ever have before. There’s a TON of political intrigue – more than in a dozen Vampire: The Masquerade campaigns. You have backroom deals, backstabbing. Human kingdoms squabbling with each other. All the Dragons of Toril wrapped up in one big machination that not even they seem to fully understand. Humans Vs. Dragons. Dragons Vs. Dragons. Humans Vs. Humans. Genasi Vs. Dragonborn. There’s even more chicanery than there is bloodletting in this book and I love it for that. I’m far more interested in the politics of a fantasy kingdom than I am in another book where “heroes take out a big bad.” But The Spectral Blaze delivers BOTH.
Then there are the characters. Several mainstays from the series here meet their death. Even though you know they are coming, you can’t help but be gleeful about one and somewhat sad about another. I won’t reveal who dies but there are so many great characters. Aoth Fezim may be a merc, but he’s slowly been making his way towards Good on the alignment scale for a century now, even if he himself may not realize it. You have the mad yet charismatic Dragon King Tchazzar. There’s Jhesrhi Coldcreek, an elementalist with more emotional baggage than an Afterschool Special. Gaedynn Ulraes the wisecracking archer. Khouryn Skulldark the dwarf that led the Dragonborn to victory over the war with the Ash Giants and so many other great characters. The Spectral Blaze is not only a wonderful read, but it’s the culmination of a trilogy that is easily one of the best and most memorable put out wearing the D&D franchise logo. A fourth book, starting a new chapter, comes out in early 2012 and I’m sure it’ll be a contender for this award as well.
These days, there are lots of gifted writers turning out excellent gaming novels, so I’m surprised, humbled, and delighted that The Spectral Blaze won this award. Thanks to everyone who read it (or any of my work), everyone who deemed it worthy of recognition, Susan Morris, who edited it brilliantly, Phil Athans, who first gave me the chance to write Forgotten Realms stories, and to all my friends at Wizards of the Coast.
-Richard Lee Byers, Author of The Spectral Blaze
My review of V:TM 20th was 3,500 words long. Yet as long as that review was, it took me even longer to decide what pieces of art to showcase in that review – that’s how good it was. Had I considered using some of the reprinted art from the previous three editions of the game – dear god I would have been sitting in front of my screen for days. In the 1990s when V:TM first came out, the one thing everyone talked about was the amazing art it contained – even if they weren’t a fan of undead protagonists or the Storyteller system. Now in 2011, it’s what we should all be talking about again.
Whether it was the photo shoots that Ken Meyer Jr. and Timothy Bradstreet turned into gorgeous representations of the 13 Clans or the other pieces of art that littered the 500+ pages of this new core rulebook, the visuals of V:TM brought me back to just WHY I loved V:TM so much in the 90s – even while some of the rules changes made me wince.
Seriously, everyone involved with the visual presentation of V:TM 20th deserves a should out here. So congrats to Sam Arraya, John Bolton, Tim Bradstreet, John Cobb, Mike Danza, Guy Davis, Tony DiTerlizzi, Michael Gaydos, Meredith Gerber, Rebecca Guay, Scott Harben, Mark Jackson, Leif Jones, Paul Lee, Vince Locke, Greg Loudon, Larry MacDougall, Robert McNeill, Ken Meyer Jr., Jesper Myrfors, William O’Connor, Christopher Shy, Ron Spencer, Richard Thomas, Joshua Gabriel Timbrook, Andrew Trabbold, John Van Fleet, Jamais Vu, Kent William, and Zarli Win. Together, all of you put out the best looking RPG of 2011. V:TM 20th is a literal work of art thanks to you and even if you, the reader, have no intentions of playing Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition, you really should spend some time just flipping through it. It’s that gorgeous.
BEST OLD SCHOOL RENAISSANCE TITLE
When I started looking at RPGs again, I was both drawn to and repulsed by the Old School Renaissance movement. My favorite flavor of Dungeons & Dragons was the first that I tasted, the famed Red Box Basic Set. There was a purity and simplicity to it, the Red Box became my Platonic ideal for what a fantasy RPG should be. The OSR obsession with recreating classic D&D, be it White Box, Red Box, or first edition AD&D, makes perfect sense to me. What repulses me is the lack of spark. Too many OSR products feel more like talking about fun things you have already done than doing new fun things. There is a difference between recreating and rehashing.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Grindhouse Edition doesn’t rehash anything. Yes, at first blush, the rules are familiar, but they are tweaked and refined with a purpose. Every design choice has the intent of making the game a little darker in feel, a little blacker in heart. If D&D is like Kiss, garish, flashy, and cheesy, then LotFP is Ghost, dramatic, gleefully black in humor, and immensely engrossing. If I take one thing from LotFP, it will be the way it made the Thief class in the Specialist, giving a lockpick or footpad a reason to be in a dark dungeon.
The art direction of LotFP is like nothing else on the market. It was like seeing my middle school notebook rendered by professional artists. Bloody, grim, and slyly funny, LotFP moved the goalposts for fantasy art, indie publisher or no. Not being subjected to the nouveau RPG style, which looks like manga and Rob Liefeld made a horrible baby, is a pleasure. Is it for everyone? No, and that is the point.
When something is made for everyone, it is made for no one in particular. LotFP feels like it was made for me in particular.
2011 was a huge year for classic games getting updated. Call of Cthulhu released its 30th Anniversary Edition. RIFTS returned to its Vampire Kingdoms. Hell, even Warhammer 40K received a surge in popularity, although that is due to two highly regarded video game releases in Space Marine and Kill Team. At the end of the day though, the best of the 90s nostalgia pieces came in the form of Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition. Shrugging off Topor, V:TM 20th wasn’t just a re-release of a core rulebook with a new cover (Like COC 30th) – it was basically a Rules Compendium, finally uniting all the 13 clans, the multiple bloodlines, ghoul families and nearly every discipline in the game’s 20 year history. Before this you would have had to purchase roughly half a dozen books to get all this content in one spot, which was not only hard on your wallet, but made V:TM a bit difficult to lug over to a friend’s house if you want to cover everything from someone playing a Kiasyd to remembering the differences between Obeah and Bardo. Now it’s all in one gorgeous oversized book (or two once White Wolf gets the Print on Demand version up and running) and it’s all you really need to play the game.
Although the book uses Revised rules (boo!) and there is a lot of grumpiness around the changes to several Disciplines, Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition really is a love letter to the long time fans that have stuck with the game, even after White Wolf moved on to Vampire: The Requiem and an entirely new World of Darkness. Even where I was pretty harsh with the book in some bits of my review, I couldn’t help but love this thing for what it was. Rules quibbles aside, V:TM 20th really captures the essence of why Vampire: The Masquerade not only caught on, but was arguably the biggest RPG of the 90s. With 20th Anniversary bits coming for both Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension, it’s safe to say the Original World of Darkness has yet to meet Final Death.
BEST NEW GAME
The problem with a lot of tabletop RPGs is that no matter your preference, you’re going to end up having a lot of thick, heavy books to lug around when you play. For something that spreads its rules across multiple oversized hardcover books like Dungeons & Dragons, it’s almost impossible to bring along to play on a hike or, you know, into a war. At the same time, you could get something like a Kindle and get all your books turned into PDFs, but then you run into the problem of losing EVERYTHING when that device dies along with the fact some games don’t have PDFs that you can obtain by legal means.
That’s where Compact Heroes comes in. The entire game is a deck of cards. No, this isn’t a customizable or collectable card game like Gloom or Magic: The Gathering. It’s an honest-to-god actual RPG that is made up of cards the size of a Bicycle Poker pack. You get races, skills, weapons, magic items, monsters and even a quest in the core set and there are already three expansions available on Sacrosanct Games’ home page. There’s also a new master set contains cards for the core box and a few from some expansion packs with a price point of $29.99. No matter how you choose to purchase Compact Heroes, you’re getting a highly innovative game that is easy to learn, offers an enormous amount of character customization and is highly portable. Even after playing the game a few times I’m still shocked that no one had come up with this beforehand.
Compact Heroes was designed to give men and women in the Armed Services a chance to play an RPG after being shipped out. There’s only so much they can bring. Now, anyone with a single die and a pencil can play a complete RPG…and it fits easily in your pocket. It’s a great idea AND a great system and that’s why it wins our “Best New Game of 2011″ award.
BEST NEW MINIATURES/WAR GAMES RULEBOOK
I have gushed over Tomorrow’s War several times over the course of this year. There is no war gaming book that I have ever been quite so enthralled by. Tomorrow’s War is like no other game on the market. The action is faster and more furious, thanks to the Action/Reaction system. The whole stereotype of war games being slow and tedious affairs, with long periods of inaction, falls apart after playing a game of TW. There is a slickness to the rules that becomes abundantly clear during play. On equal standing with the great rules is the book itself. Published by Osprey Publishing, every aspect of the hardback volume feels and looks much more expensive than it is. The paper is magnificent, the art and layout are gorgeous, and the binding is literally perfect. Tomorrow’s War is a game so engrossing that I started collecting a whole new scale of miniature to take advantage of it. I cannot recommend it more.
BEST NEW MINIATURES LINE
In order to be considered a serial killer, you have to kill three people. Mad Robot has only released two products in 2011, but I think it is safe to say they created my favorite line of the year. The Tachyon Mercenary Corps are among the best science fiction human soldiers in 15mm that I have seen. The Harook are excellent alien troops that have a dozen uses in science fiction games. What puts both over the top and makes them truly special is the uniquely Mad Robot aesthetic they represent. The TMC have small flourishes on their jetpacks that bring to mind Flash Gordon without aping anything outright, creating a feeling of familiarity and uniqueness that can be hard to find amongst the Halo Master Chief clones that have come to dominate. The Harook, with their prominent beaks and domed carapaces have one of the unique silhouettes you will see on a 15mm tabletop. I don’t know what Mad Robot has planned for 2012, but I am excited to find out.
I honestly feel that the third party Pathfinder bits are better than the first party ones. There’s so much creativity and imagination to them. They’re also generally much cheaper and unfettered by corporate red tape. #30 Haunts For Objects is a wonderful example of how a small publisher and a good writer can create something magical. For three bucks you got thirty plot devices – all of which were creepy and perfect for a horror minded campaign. As someone who preferred Ravenloft and Planescape for his D&D experiences, Haunts for Objects was just the sort of thing I was would want for a Pathfinder campaign. The objects in this supplement are of varying Challenge Ratings and you could even run an entire campaign around finding, collecting and destroying these objects if you wanted to…although that would be too close to Friday the 13th: The TV Series I think.
Whether it’s the cursed necklace that randomly animated a corpse once a day to attack its wearer, or the Worm God itself, Haunts for Objects was the best overall supplement of 2011. It was cheap, it was high quality, it was creative, it was useable in any campaign or setting you think of, and you can get an amazing amount of mileage out of it. Most of all, it was a lot of fun and well worth picking up.
When Paizo reintroduced haunts for the PFRPG rules, I knew I wanted to play with them. The mechanics were clean, but using the rules as written, I couldn’t create the same effects of an average horror film or many ghost stories. In 2011, Rite Publishing gave me opportunities to work on several haunt related supplements. I’ve tried to do something different with each one.
The supplement #30 Haunts for Objects filled the GM’s toy box with life-draining mirrors, creepy mannequins, rotted food that appears fresh, and lockets that remembered their heartbroken former owners. Many of these haunts draw upon themes from novels, films, and television. These too expanded the PFRPG rules, which, as written, allowed spaces to be haunted, but not objects.
My favorite part of writing #30 Haunts for Objects, though, was the Temple of the Worm God. Something appeals to me about that poor druidic bastard, trapped by spiteful villagers in a dank hole with only vermin for company, maintaining the old traditions, demanding sacrifices, making a bloody mess of his muddy cavern, then growing more powerful by dying. There is something murky within me that wants to believe in malevolent and ancient sentient things that survive under the earth “once forbidden, now forgotten” waiting for the curious, foolish, and greedy to crack the seal on their earthen tombs.
-Trevor Gulliver, writer of #30 Haunts for Objects
BEST ADVENTURE (SOLO)
You know Shadowrun had a good year when it was practically a coin toss as to whether Anarchy Subsidized or 99 Bottles would win this award. They were both incredible, but in the end, Anarchy Subsidized won for three reasons. The first is that the adventure is quite long, taking up a full year of in-game time. The second is that Anarchy Subsidized is a very diverse adventure that not only requires a lot of different skill sets to succeed in, but the goals you need to accomplish are pretty bizarre and unique ones -even for a Shadowrunner. Finally, the adventure was well written and takes into account many different situations that could occur if/when your players go off rail. The adventure even uses a point system not unlike what you sometimes encounter at a convention or tournament. You team’s point score determines the end fate of your run and I really liked how well it worked here.
J-Pop, recording contracts, fake babies and the like aren’t things you usually think of when Shadowrun is brought up. The fact that Anarchy Subsidized is so completely outside the norm for a Shadowrun adventure and yet manages to encompass everything that a Shadowrun SHOULD be is a wonderful accomplishment. The gang at Catalyst Games Labs outdid themselves here and if you’re playing Shadowrun, this adventure if well worth buying to read through even if you’re not going to actually play it. That’s how good it is. The fact a twenty+ year old game can still churn out extremely creative and engaging adventures is a testament not only to the Sixth World itself, but the writing it currently has going for it.
BEST ADVENTURE COLLECTION
Coming in at 288 pages in PDF form, Shadows Over Scotland is massive. For your $19.99 (Or $39.99 if you want the paper version), you not only get six adventures covering 150 pages, but you get a full 135 page guide to Scotland in the 1920s. Well, not the REAL Scotland, but a version tinged with the Cthulhu Mythos and Scottish folklore come to life. Hell, the guide to Scotland was so good it was a definite contender for “Best Campaign Setting.”
This award is for the adventures however and all six of them are top notch. Back when I reviewed the book as a whole the only negative thing I could say about any of them is that they might be a bit too combat heavy for some CoC players. There’s a murder mystery that may or may not involve werewolves along with a community of starving ghouls. There’s one that revolves a cult of insidious Serpent People. Another adventure pits players against a community of 50,000 Deep Ones. Yes you read that number correctly. A fourth gives you a spooky castle along with the side show of a few dozen undead Vs highlanders. The fifth takes you to the Isle of Rum to solve a string of mysterious disappearances and the final adventure takes you to Skara Brae where Investigators will duke it out with Colours From Out of Space. The collection as a whole is not only the best in the Cthulhu Britannica line so far, but it’s one of the best things Cubicle 7 has put out – period. For less than twenty dollars you get half a dozen extremely well done adventures that could serve Call of Cthulhu players for quite some time. Hell, a good Keeper could even string them together into a fine campaign.
Call of Cthulhu is the oldest running system still going strong today (unless you want to count the various edition of D&D that have little in common with each other) and it’s because of adventures like the ones you’ll find in Shadows Over Scotland that has kept this game so popular for so long. You’re not going to find a better adventure collection published this year, so read our full review, buy the PDF, and see just how much fun it is to go stark raving mad in Scotland.
BEST CAMPAIGN SETTING
The winner of Best Campaign setting first saw the light of day in Zak S.’s web series, “I Hit It With My Axe.”Â Vornheim, with its fortune telling Wyvern and hidden zoo of immortal animals, left an impression all that watched the show. It was different from your standard fantasy city. It is a dark urban setting with hidden dangers everywhere. Those three young ladies walking down the street? They are ancient witches. The socialite the lives a few doors down? She’s a medusa. In Vornheim things are not as simple as they appear on the surface. There is always more to every story and it will keep your player’s wondering what is really going. It provides a gritty urban environment, far different than normally seen in a fantasy game.
What makes Vornheim: The Complete City Kit the best campaign setting of the year, isn’t just the unique city Zak S. created but the tools he gives you to flesh out Vornheim and make it your own. You are presented with a general layout of the city, with the important building and sites detailed, but a lot of minutia is left out. Do really need to know the location of the cobbler in town? Unless your players are looking for shoes, you do not. So Vornheim: The Complete City Kit”Â does not bog you down with insignificant details. Instead it provides you with a way to quickly place the cobbler on the fly. Vornheim is more than just a setting; it’s a city creation toolkit. One that is easy to use during a game session. No longer do you need large maps detailing the location of every blacksmith or baker. Using the methods provided, you can quickly generate that at the gaming table and your players will be none the wiser. It is a truly ingenuous system that can be used by anyone that runs game.
With Vornheim you are really getting two products in one: a dark urban fantasy setting where the skin on snakes used as books and a simple but effective city generation system. When you combine the two, you end up with a book that transcends game editions and provides a memorable backdrop for any gaming session.
The best Core Rulebook of 2011 came out of nowhere. Before reading Abney Park’s Airship Pirates, I was unfamiliar with the band Abney Park, so their name didn’t mean much to me, and I had no experience with the work of Cakebread and Walton, purveyors of fine steampunk RPGs. No, this was a whole new property for me and it was a revelation. In a year in which nostalgia was the dominant theme, Airship Pirates was a breath of fresh helium. From the novel approach to party composition and character creation to the beautiful binding, Abney Park’s Airship Pirates was not just a great book, it was the start of a great adventure.
RPG OF THE YEAR
2011 was an awesome year for gaming. Old classics like Call of Cthulhu, Vampire the Masquerade and Rifts: Vampire Kingdoms made a comeback. We had new products like Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Hell, I even enjoyed some of the Dungeons & Dragons releases this year and I’m not a fan of Fourth Edition at all. With 2011 coming to an end though, there was one franchise that stood head and shoulders above everything else. It released a slew of products in 2011 and all of them ranged from “not very newcomer friendly, but still well done” to “Holy crap, I can’t believe I’m getting this level of quality for this little Nuyen!” That game…was Shadowrun.
I don’t even know where to begin. You had an amazing string of low cost but high quality adventures with Shadowrun Missions This year’s season, in the old classic standby of Seattle were top notch adventures that you and your friends could play through in a single evening – complete with top notch production values and full cover art. Add in the $3.95 price tag and no other series of adventures could touch what Catalyst Games Labs were putting out. High quality + low cost? Seriously, nothing came close. Then you have full length adventures like 99 Bottles, Anarchy Subsidzed, New Dawn and more that were a little pricier, but a lot longer and still holding to the same quality. Awesome. You had sourcebooks that catered to long time fans like Conspiracy Theories and things that were campaign changers like Artifacts Unbound. Everything with the Shadowrun label that hit this year wowed me. I haven’t been this much of a Shadowrun fan boy since FASA was running wild with Second Edition and I was regularly playing the old Sega Genesis video game based off the tabletop product.
When I can honestly sit here and say that I enjoyed literally EVERYTHING from the Shadowrun franchise this year, it’s a hallmark of quality. Yes the 90s had a comeback this year with classic titles getting pushed strongly, but while I had fun reading the anniversary editions of Vampire and Call of Cthulhu, it didn’t make me want to go out and PLAY THEM. Everything Shadowrun put out however, was something I couldn’t wait to experience with other gamers. If you’ve never played Shadowrun, this is the best time to start. If you haven’t played in some years, it’s time to return to the fold. You won’t be disappointed. It’s the best RPG of 2011 after all.