2013 is in the bag and you know what that means – it’s time to look at the best the year had to offer in the world of tabletop gaming. 2013 continued the previous year’s trend of Crowdfunding becoming a major source of funding for tabletop publishers. Everything from Call of Cthulhu‘s upcoming Seventh Edition to Palldium’s Robotech RPG Tactics saw crowd funding efforts. Heck there were even multiple attempts by Game Zone to make a 25th Anniversary Edition of Hero Quest! No doubt crowd funding will continue to be the wave a lot of smaller publishers use to get their products out to a willing audience and I for one am eager to see what 2014 brings us.
That’s not to say 2013 was solely in the realm of crowd funding. This was truly a great year for tabletop gaming across the board. It was meant to be the “Year of Shadowrun” according to Catalyst Game Labs but unfortunately, several of the items meant for 2013 were pushed back to the 2014 calendar. Still, what came out was pretty good and fans of the Sixth World are currently in the throes of Fifth Edition, and the inevitably spatting that comes with a new rules set. Wizards of the Coast had one of its best years in a long time in terms of quality, if not quantity. Besides releasing hundreds of products from previous editions in digital format, D&D Next really started to shine…and the core rulebooks aren’t even scheduling for purchase until 2014! The Sundering, both books and adventures, and weighty tomes like Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle have really hinted that D&D Next is going to make a lot of gamers happy.
We also saw a bunch of new franchises launch in 2013. Although chief amongst them was Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, we also saw smaller indie releases like Transylvanian Adventures, which uses a modified Dungeon Crawl Classics system and Pacesetter/Goblinoid Games even resurrected Chill as best it could (since they don’t have the rights to that specific franchise) via the exceptionally well done Cryptworld. We even saw the launch of Gygax Magazine, a publication by TSR meant to recapture the glory days of tabletop journalism. Of course we also saw fine releases from many other companies too, but you want to see the award winners and not hear me ramble in this year’s prologue.
So here they are: The Diehard GameFAN 2013 Tabletop Gaming Awards. Just remember these are OUR awards, which means these are the products and releases we thought were the best of the best in 2013 It is our hopes that you’ll either agree with us, or be inspired to pick up something that sounds unfamiliar or interesting. That said, it’s perfectly fine if you disagree with any of our choices or haven’t even played some of the winners and/or runner-ups. Of course, if that’s the case, you could always join the writing staff here at Diehard GameFAN and let your voice be heard in next year’s awards. Now, on with the show!
BEST BOARD/CARD GAME
Although we cover each Magic: The Gathering release here at Diehard GameFAN, it’s been a long time since any of us truly felt passionate about the world’s most popular CCG. Aaron and Ashe primarily play it in digital form on their PS3s these days and while I still enjoy it, I was always more an Illuminati, Mythos, Jyhad and RAW Deal in my youth. I mean, I was playing M:TG as far back as Alpha and I still have my original deck that I purchased, but I pretty much grew detached to the game around Homelands and now only play infrequently, or when review decks come in.
The above paragraph has been true for many years. However, all that changed with Theros. This was just such an amazing set that it reignited out passion for Magic: The Gathering in ways no set has in a long time. The card design, art work and fantastic combos reminded us all of why we loved Magic: The Gathering as well as why it has been so successful throughout the years. We went out and bought singles off Ebay, made crazy decks, Aaron talked regularly about buying full booster boxes. Even staffers who retired from Diehard GameFAN years ago like Cory Laflin came out of the woodwork to talk all the crazy new deck combos you could make with Theros cards, from hilariously cruel combos to theme decks. Hell, I’ve never once heard Hubbs talk about M:TG EVER, but Theros got him talking. When you have five or six of us on Facebook creating a thread fifty or sixty posts long about how awesome pure black (both in regular and unlimited) is with Theros, you know Wizards of the Coast has not just done something right, but something we haven’t seen amongst our friend and colleagues since Ice Age and that’s straight up unadulterated love for a M:TG set. Can Wizards of the Coast keep this level of quality going? We can only hope. So although there were a lot of excellent board and/or card games this year, Magic: The Gathering – Theros was the one that product in this category that we all universally had a blast with, and that pretty much secured it the award.
Runners-Up: Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, A Study in Emerald
BEST GAMING MAGAZINE
When 2012 ended, we all expected the upcoming release of Gygax Magazine to be pretty impressive. After all, the magazine not only the most famous family in gaming has its name, but it resurrected the TSR brand to boot! This one-two combination meant that not only were a lot of people extremely excited about this new quarterly gaming magazine, but it also meant a lot of people were expecting it to fail…or at least fail to live up to the hype. After all, it has been a long time since a product of any kind has gotten gamers across the board talking. We all tend to have our own particular niches or preferred products and systems after all. Gygax Magazine however made everyone wonder what it would be contain and had many of us waxing nostalgically for the glory years of Dragon, White Wolf Magazine and White Dwarf (with younger gamers fondly talking about Scrye and Inquest).
Well, Gygax Magazine lived up to the hype and then some. The magazine not only covered a wide range of gaming topics and system, but the vast majority of articles were well written. Even if you didn’t play a particular game, or hasn’t even heard of the franchise in question, you could still read each article and enjoy them for what they were. Whether you had articles about old school D&D or modern releases like Argyle and Crew, there’s something for everyone in each issue of Gygax Magazine. Sure there were a few stumbles here and there, but this is true of every new publisher and their first few releases. What matters is that Gygax Magazine managed to cover all facets of tabletop gaming and it has made the industry better by simply existing. Can Gygax Magazine continue to impress in 2014 and beyond. We certainly think so.
Runners-Up: The Unspeakable Oath, The Savage Insider
BEST TABLETOP BASED FICTION
2013 was a great year for tabletop fiction, especially short stories. As you can see, the winner and the runner up are two excellent anthologies you need to track down. It’s very hard for an Anthology to win this award, much less be nominated because unlike a novel with has a single author, a single voice and a single tale being told – all of which you can pretty much give a thumb’s up or thumb’s down to, an Anthology has a cacophony of voices and no two people will like the exact same pieces of work in a collection. So for an anthology to take the top two spots in gaming fiction really says a lot about the sheer quality assembled for both books.
So, Shadowrun Returns wins? I’m sure some of you are saying, “Isn’t that a video game?” Why yes it is. Shadowrun Returns was not just our Game of the Year winner on the video game side of this site, but remember, the game is not only set comfortable in the era of Shadowrun, Second Edition, it also features a lot of familiar faces, locations and antagonists from that version of the Sixth World. The exact same can be said about the Shadowrun Returns Anthology. Unlike the current rendition of the game, which is set in the 2070s, this collection of short stories is set in the 2050s and features some of the best Shadowrun writers from past and present. Together the collection not only fleshes out the back story of characters from the video game, but also makes the 2050’s come to life in the same way as old Shadowrun novels by the likes of Nigel Findley, Robert Charrette and Tom Dowd. Heck, Tom Dowd even contributed to this collection! Along with other familiar names like Patrick Goodman, Russell Zimmerman, Jason Hardy, Steven Kenson, Jennifer Brozek and more, the Shadowrun Returns Anthology contained stories that could have won this award on their own, but as part of a bigger collective, the combined force of these pieces easily secured them this award. Perhaps the biggest compliment I could give this anthology is to say is the best collection of Shadowrun fiction since Into the Shadows and that’s pretty telling indeed. So while Shadowrun Returns Anthology might be a video game tie-in, it’s also a tabletop tie in and a must have for any tabletop fiction fan.
Runners-Up: The Strix Chronicle Anthology, The Adversary, The Sundering: Book III
SHADOWS OF ESTEREN: BOOK 2 – TRAVELS
Art is extremely subjective. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s chicken scratch. Sometimes though there is just an artist or series of artists that blows everyone away. We saw that last year when Shadows of Estern: Book 1 – Universe came out and had everyone oohing and ah-ing over the amazing artwork. It was no surprise that it won our award for “Best Art” last year and now Book 2 gives the franchise back to back wins in this category.
As I said last year, “I’ve yet to encounter someone who wasn’t blown away by the art in the Shadows of Esteren books, even if they haven’t played the game. The level of detail in the pages of these titles is so gorgeous that even people I know that haven’t played a role playing game in their lives wanted to flip through the pages and take a gander at what Nelyhann brought forth.” The same still holds true. A year on, I’ve heard nothing but universal praise for the art team behind Shadows of Esteren. Whether it’s a full page piece showcasing a character in some dramatic action, or a scenic portrait of a coastal village or rocky cliff covered in snow, each piece of art in Travels is so gorgeous your jaw may become sore from the countless times it will drop while perusing the pretty pictures lurking between this book’s covers. It’s worth picking up a Shadows of Esteren release just for the art…although I can’t deny the actual game is pretty great too.
Runners-Up: Numenera Core Rulebook, Cryptworld
BEST OLD SCHOOL RENAISSANCE TITLE
The Codex Celtarum just might be my favorite Castles & Crusades release ever and considering I’ve been getting pieces here and there since first edition, that says a lot. Castles & Crusades had a fine year, with releases like To Kill a King and Tome of the Unclean, but I fell in love with the Codex Celatrum when it was released and it’s been hard to get out of my mind sense. The codex is part sourcebook and part campaign guide, but all masterfully done. The book is a one stop shop for all things Celtic Mythology-wise. Everything from creation myths to new character classes is covered here. It’s simply a fantastic piece and it can easily be used with other retro-clone system like Swords and Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, Mazes & Perils and so on, with little to know work by the GM.
The Codex Celtarum one of the oldest and best OSR systems available. Whether you want to run a Celtic themed campaign in this or any other system, I can’t think of a better resource available to you than this book. Heck, even if you never plan to run a Celtic themed game, the Codex Celtarum is worth picking up and perusing simply to see how well written and organized the book is. Truly, this was not just the crown jewel in Castles & Crusades this year, but across all OSR games.
Runners-Up: Castles & Crusades: To Kill a King, Dungeon Crawl Classics #78: Fate’s Fell Hand,
Werewolf: The Apocalypse had an amazing resurgence this year. Besides this core rulebook release, we also saw sourcebooks like Rage Across the World and Changing Breeds, a fiction anthology in When Will You Rage II: Rites of Renown, an adventure entitled Skinner and even a W:TA themed cookbook. All of these extra books were only glimmers in the mind’s eye of Onyx Path publishing when they had a Kickstarter for W:TA 20th Anniversary Edition in October of 2012. Over 2,000 gamers pledged to make all these books a reality and everyone was very well done. Of course, it’s the core rulebook that matters most. This mammoth 555 page tome covers everything you could want to know about the Old World of Darkness’ war between the Wyrm, the Weaver and the Wyld. All the Garou tribes? Here. The lost tribes? Here. The other shape-shifting races? Here. Full character creation rules? An in-depth look at every bane and fomori and Black Spiral Dance you can think of? Here. A collection of the best classic art from W:TA along with all new pieces commissioned just for this anniversary edition? Here. Onyx Path did a magnificent job honoring Werewolf: The Apocalypse in the same way it did Vampire: The Masquerade, whose 20AE won this very same award two years ago.
Don’t think that Werewolf: The Apocalypse is just going to be a niche piece that appeals to older gamers who remember when White Wolf was king of the mountain for this industry and who miss the madcap 90s style of a game that has been dormant for more than a decade. No, this is a book that appeals to new and veteran gamers alike. W:TA is the release that brought fellow staffer Mark B. back to tabletopping. Hell, he’s running a W:TA 20AE campaign right now! This is the book that got Matt and Crystal (two more DHGF staffers for those of you who are only checking out the site for the rewards) to play a tabletop RPG for the first time EVER! So while this gigantic core rulebook might be big enough to bludgeon your fellow man to death with (A rare few even have metal covers!), don’t think that just because it is an “Anniversary Edition” that it’s only good for nostalgia. Pick this up and you’ll see why the game has had such a strong fanbase even while the game lay in torpor (Isn’t that supposed to be Kindred?) all these years. Everyone involved did a fantastic job. Now…where’s Mage 20AE?
Runners-Up: Cryptworld, Ravenloft: Van Richten’s Guide to Vampires (AD&D Second Edition)
BEST NEW GAME
Well, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Numenera first debuted as a Kickstarter project in August of 2012. It raised half a million dollars and the hype on Monte Cook Games’ first release was through the roof. Numenera even managed to secure itself a video game deal (due out in 2015) before the core rulebook was officially released. That’s a first for this industry! A year later, the core rulebook was finally available to the public and much like Gygax magazine (another award winner this year), the end result did not disappoint! By the end of the year, we had a core rulebook, two adventures, a short story collection, a GM screen, multiple supplements and two sets of decks for easy reference. That’s eleven pieces, and all since June (The short story collection came out two months before the core rulebook).
The Ninth World turned out to be a wonderful blend of science fiction and fantasy. Set one billion years in the future, the current residents of Earth must not only make do with the world as they know it, but the remnants from previous cultures whose scientific leavings are as alien and wondrous as the GM’s imagination allows. The core rulebook focuses on character development and exploration over hack and slash combat. The players and GM work cooperatively to creature a cohesive story. The dynamic between the two roles is symbiotic, with each giving up control or allowing the other to decide a factor in the shared story, while also getting something back in return. Character creation is quick and simple, but still allows one to have a very detailed back story. The Ninth World itself is fascinating which has just enough pinned down canon that you have a sense of how the world looks, feels and works, but the majority is left up to the GM’s imagination, promising the weird and more outside the box your ideas are, the more enjoyable and memorable of an experience Numenera will be.
The art is fantastic, the Cipher System is one of the more unique and enjoyable set of mechanics I’m come across and I can’t emphasize enough how much I love the way Numenera fosters a “Players + GM working together audience” rather than a “Players Vs. GM,” “Players Vs. Players” or the “An adventure is something to WIN” mentality a lot of other games push out, intentionally or otherwise. Playing Numenera is simply a breath of fresh air and I find myself recommending to everyone. I’ve seen friend who gave up tabletop gaming a while back fall in love with the Numenera Core Rulebook. I have a friend who is using this with his daughter as her first roleplaying game. The system is so well designed that gamers of any age and experience level can sit down and have fun with Numenera. With every new release for Numenera, be it a supplement, a short story collection or adventure, I feel my love for the Sixth World growing. I honestly can’t remember the last time a completely new IP or mechanics system thrilled me the way Numenera does. Go read our review or even our entire collection of Numenera coverage and see why Diehard GameFAN feels this is easily the best new game of 2013. Better yet, pick up the core rulebook and experience how awesome Numenera first hand! Monte Cook games has outdone itself and with more Numenera and its spin-off slash parallel The Weird on its way, 2014 might be an ever bigger year for the fledgling company which boggles the mind when you think about it.
Runners-Up: Mummy: The Curse, Transylvanian Adventures
BEST FREE RELEASE
Everyone loves freebies, right? They’re a great way to get a taste of a gaming system without investing in a system. After all, gaming can be a VERY expensive hobby, with some books costs between fifty and a hundred dollars. With the first taste being free however, publishers can potentially gain new customers and players can try out new systems without going broke. Usually freebies are relegated to short little PDFs or Quick Start Rules packages. However all of the nominees, and especially the winner, really went above and beyond this year, creating pieces that were equal to or even better than products with an actual price tag attached to them. Not surprisingly, all of these were products made for Free RPG Day. People close enough to a aparticipating retailer could pick up one or more (depending on the store) pieces of free content and discover a game well worth playing. Some of these were old favorites like Tunnels & Trolls, Shadowrun and Pathfinder. Reap the Whirlwind marked a quasi-return to brick and mortar stores for the World of Darkness and one, which just also happens to be the winner of the award, broke all the rules for Free RPG Day while also breaking our conceived notions of what a free product is.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess is not a game you would want to start a gamer off with as their first ever delve into our industry. It’s pretty out there, the art is as visceral as it is well done and the game delights in its high PC mortality rate and explicit content warning badge that the products wear proudly. It is definitely a niche product with a very fanatical audience. Our own Chuck Platt is one of the faithful in James Raggi’s flock. So it was quite the shock to everyone what LotFP made Better Than Any Man for Free RPG Day 2013. Several retailers I talked to did not put the product on display in case of any children or teenagers walking in and flipping through it. It was hidden from site and had to be asked for by name. Although I can see where they were coming from, only long time gamers would even know to ask for it if they didn’t see it, thus defeating the whole purpose of letting newcomers find a game that is oriented to their particular tastes. It’s a shame too, because Better Than Any Man wasn’t just the best release of Free RPG Day 2013, it was perhaps the best free offering the industry has ever seen!
As mentioned most freebies tend to be Quick Start Rules, really short adventures or something cute but ultimately forgettable as one moves into the system proper. Not so with Better Than Any Man. With this release, you didn’t get just an adventure, you got an entire freaking campaign! Better Than Any Man consisted of a large open region which players could exploit at their leisure and without any railroading from the GM. You have a rough timeline the GM has to keep track of, but otherwise the game is as opened ended as some video game RPGs. It can take players multiple sessions to even get to the halfway point of this collection. Even better, you’re given a link to download the entire core rulebook for Lamentations of the Flame Princess! Sure it’s an art-free version (and the art is half the fun of any LotFP release), but let me repeat that: The entire core rulebook FOR FREE. That’s insane! Totally insane. Cthulhu bless JRIV for throwing common sense to the wind and doing this for an audience who may have not even heard of this game until now. Even more insane is that Better Than Any Man is nearly 100 pages in length. Look at some of the pay to play releases from LotFP! Dungeons of the Unknown? Five bucks for thirty-eight pages. “The Monolith From beyond Time and Space?” $7.25 for forty-eight pages! So on and so forth. While these are all very fairly priced for what you get, it just drives home how incredible of a deal this is. 100 pages of content and a digital copy of the Core Rulebook – FOR FREE! How can anyone top this? How can anyone even try? The LotFP crew did something amazing with Better Than Any Man this year. It’s a feat not likely to be repeated and I doubt any gamers will be spoiled by this incredible act of generosity, but this was by far the easiest choice to make out of our awards this year.
Runners-Up: Reap the Whirlwind (Vampire: The Requiem), No Security: The Fall Without End
BEST MINIATURES LINE
This probably shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After all, 2013 was the year all the Bones made from the first Reaper Kickstarter came out. You know, the one where 17,744 people pledged nearly 3.5 million dollars. Bones have proven to be a great option for miniatures fans. They are durable, they are well sculpted, they don’t require an undercoat and they’re very cheap. All of these are pluses. I’ll admit, even for those of us who grew up with Ral Partha or Chainmail minis. I love the wide variety of figures offered, from Pathfinder to Cthulhu Mythos characters. I love that they are super hard to break. Usually if a pet gets a hold of a mini or it takes a fall, something on it breaks. Not so with Bones. These things are crazy durable, even ones with many long dangling parts. They’re cheap enough that if you horribly mess up the paint job that you won’t feel like you’ve wasted time and money. The sculpts are fantastic. I’ve substituted some of my Warhammer Fantasy Tomb Kings army for the Bones mummies. I’ve used some of the Swamp Things as lizardmen and Deep Dwellers as both Deep Ones and for use in my DeepWars armies. As soon as I am done the writing and editing of this piece for the site, I have a giant undead skeleton from the Bones line that will be painted. Hell, I have an entire box of figures waiting to be painted. I probably won’t be done with them all by the time my pledge from the second Reaper Kickstarter gets here. Ah the life of a reviewer, eh?
Reaper released so many figures for Bones this year, I can’t even think of a time when a company was so prolific with their minis. The fact that all the sculpts are fantastic and hold their paint far better than you would expected from a bendy plastic material makes it all the better. Reaper gave us both quantity and quality this year, with a wide range of figures sure to please anyone who uses and/or paints miniatures. Sure some of us will always prefer metal, or pewter or resin, but even they can’t deny the level of dominance Reaper had thanks to Bones this year. The only question is whether or not they can do it again as the end of 2014 should see the figures from the second Kickstarter make it to market.
Runners-Up: Stonehaven Miniatures: Gnomish Adventurers, Warhammer Fantasy: Lizardmen
The split between Rogue Genius and Super Genius Games aside, one can’t deny that the “Christina Stiles Presents” series of supplements for Pathfinder have been top notch. Whether you talk about Cackle of the Gnolls, Hair of the Dog or Emergence of the Aardvolk, these releases have been detailed, incredibly creative and really fun to read. Didjer’s Crab House might be the best of the lot. It’s a wonderful look at what goes in a tavern. They’re most often used as generic places to start fantasy adventures, but Didjer’s Crab House really fleshes this location idea out, making it an important part of whatever campaign world it shows up in. The NPCs that staff Didjer’s Crab House are given very detailed back stories and there are numerous story threads that can come from this motley crew of characters. Heck, they even throw in an entertaining four page mini-adventure that revolves around the Crab House and its specialty dish. You’re also given everything from the layout of the establishment to a menu, two creature stat blocks and full color maps. Didjer’s Crab House is still my favorite release for Pathfinder this year, which is especially telling since we get a glut of Pathfinder products every year AND this one is only twenty pages long. There is so much content (and all of it high quality) packed into this little supplement that it makes you sad when you realize there was only a single Waysides follow up after this one. Here’s hoping winning this award changes that, as the “Waysides” product line has so much potential to still fulfill.
Runners-Up: Shadowrun: Parazoology 2, The Trollmanac
If you’ve skipped ahead to review the runners-ups then yes, this was a clean sweep for Onyx Path Publishing. They were all about the sourcebooks this year and the runners-up don’t even include Rage Across the World, Changing Breeds, and Smoke & Blood (although that one is honestly more a remake of the V:TR core rulebook than a sourcebook). This was the best year for sheer quality that we’ve seen from White Wolf/Onyx Path since the mid 90s and it really shows here. Out of all the top notch sourcebooks released for the WoD, both old and new, chief amongst them was The God Machine Chronicle.
I have to admit, it’s hard to think of something new to say about the sheer awesomeness that was The God Machine Chronicle. My original review was eight pages (5,000 words) long and I don’t think anyone needs me to really rehash that entire thing. The short of it is, that The God Machine Chronicle single handedly changed the entire New World of Darkness line. I’m not just talk about the update to the WoD rules, which both subtly and dramatically changed how the game is played. I’m also not talking about how OPP gave away the rules update FOR FREE. I’m talking about how the God Machine completely changes how you look at the New World of Darkness, even though it’s always been there (via retcon). It’s easy to look at The God Machine and try to describe it as Lovecraftian, but I feel that does a disservice to both the God Machine and the Cthulhu Mythos. As I said in my original review it’s as if someone took the mood of Lovecraft and Chambers, mixed it with Clive Barker’s Cenobites, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the technocracy from Mage: The Ascension, and a bunch of Alan Moore at his craziest, threw it in a blender with the atmosphere that separated Black Dog books from White Wolf ones, hit puree and this is what would come out.
Besides giving you a strange and extremely surreal set of machinations affecting the world around your characters, The God Machine Chronicle gives entire adventure and even full campaign seeds for your players. Some of these seeds are contradictory in terms of what the God Machine wants or is trying to do, and that’s on purpose. The whole point of the God Machine Chronicle is to give each Storyteller a plethora of options to craft their own version rather than tie anyone down with a specific canon or set of guidelines in how to play something so alien to human thought and concept that anything we think of would be inherently wrong. Just the vague descriptions and the plots that at times may seem utterly nonsensical to a PC just help to heighten the horror that neither mankind nor the supernatural entities that also inhabit the World of Darkness are alone. The question is which is more terrifying – when you’re being ignored by the God Machine or when It has a specific plan involving you.
The God Machine Chronicle is as intrusive or hands-off as you, the Storyteller want it to be. It can show up at any time to throw a curve ball or new story seed at your players. It is something never truly defined or described, yet detailed enough in this book that it can be used not only to reinvent your WoD game but it’s nebulous enough a concept that you can throw it in anywhere. Mark is using it subtly with his W20 campaign that he has been running, for example and I’d love to use it with Paranoia or even something completely off the wall like a low fantasy RPG or Victoriana or even RiFTS! The only limits one has with The God Machine Chronicle is your imagination. It’s such a beautifully designed concept that it’s almost a shame to tie it down to a single gaming system.
Whether or not you care for the rules changes that The God Machine Chronicle brought to the New World of Darkness, the core concepts, the mood, the atmosphere and the top notch writing this book contains makes it one of the most memorable releases in the history of White Wolf/CCP/Onyx Path Publishing. So the next time a close friend to a PC brings a bowl full of three goldfish, each directly descended from the previous, into a Chuckee Cheese that still has their Rock-A-Fire Explosion band hooked up and orders a pizza with no cheese or toppings, only sauce (perhaps double or triple sauce. THERE CAN NOT BE ENOUGH SAUCE TO MAKE THE GOLDFISH HAPPY), remember it might not be dominate or even an Owl behind the seemingly bizarre behavior, but the gears of the God Machine grinding away…
Runners-Up: Vampire: The Masquerade: The Hunters Hunted II, Mummy: The Curse: Guildhalls of the Deathless
BEST ADVENTURE (SOLO)
When it comes to Castles & Crusades, I tend to love the corebook books, but find the adventures lacking. Not so with To Kill a King. This was not only the best adventure I’ve seen written for one of the oldest D&D retro-clone systems out there, but it was by far the best adventure of the year. There was a lot of competition this year too. We could have easily done a top ten solo adventures for 2013 list and we still would have had to drop some favorites off. In the end To Kill a King won because it was the best stand alone adventure for your gaming dollar, as the adventure opens up enough subsequent story potential to let your GM turn this the fallout into a long running campaign. The adventure features some great writing, including covering all the ways the adventure can go completely off-rails. To Kill a King is pretty much prepared for all the choices the PCs could make and how to run the adventure accordingly. The majority of published adventures tend to really railroad characters into a set path and so it was refreshing to see how truly open ended To Kill a King could be, and doubly so that it was prepared for all the possibilities. It’s one of the best thought out adventures I’ve ever encountered and since it came out in July it really has been the litmus test for every other adventure I’ve played this year.
Besides the writing, it’s great to see an adventure that caters to both good and evil aligned PCs. After all, the title of the adventure does imply an assassination attempt and it’s wonderful to see an adventure where the Assassin class features so strongly in the game. I can’t remember the last time an Assassin PC got the chance to take center stage in a published adventure. Usually retro-clone pieces focus on warriors, mages and clerics. Again, the adventure can still be pulled off if you don’t have an Assassin amongst your PCs, but this is just another way To Kill a King was a breath of fresh air.
Even if you don’t play Castles & Crusades any fan of old school style systems should pick up this adventure just to see how it is written and/or laid out. To Kill a King is pretty much the gold standard for how to design a non dungeon crawl adventure for your D&D style games. Definitely take it upon yourself to see why.
Runners-Up: No Security: The Fall Without End, Deadlands Noir: The Old Absinthe House Blues
BEST ADVENTURE (COLLECTION OR CAMPAIGN)
To be eligible for this award, a product must contain a collection of adventures, either interconnected or stand-alone. They must also be new releases rather than reprinted adventures. Obviously, the collection also has to be good. It’s hard to really get a solid collection of adventures for the same reason that it’s hard to do a really solid anthology – everyone has different tastes and so no two people will like the same exact adventures in a collection and certainly not to the same degree or for the same exact reasons. As a reviewer, I know that when I tackle a collection, I talk about each adventure on its own and then give it a thumbs up or thumbs down. Usually there will be some I like, some I dislike and some I’m neutral to. I’m sure that’s the case of anyone who writes about similar products. Well, The Island of Ignorance was a special case. For the first time that I can recall, I enjoyed every single adventure in a collection. That’s a pretty amazing feat especially since The Island of Ignorance is the first ever release from a brand new publisher: Golden Goblin Games. From the start though, you knew The Island of Ignorance was going to be something special. From an extremely successful Kickstarter campaign that actually came out by the original promised delivery date (Another rare occurrence), to the assembly of some of the finest Call of Cthulhu adventure writers, The Island of Ignorance was one of those pieces that seemed to please even the most jaded fan of mythos gaming.
Was The Island of Ignorance perfect? No. It was more than just an adventure collection. It had a series of articles and essays for Call of Cthulhu as well, and there I found a few pieces I didn’t care for, but this is an award for adventures and The Third Call of Cthulhu Companion offered five high quality adventures I couldn’t find any major faults with. In fact, if I was to say anything negative about the adventure side of The Island of Ignorance it is that there is a sixth adventure that was a Kickstarter backer exclusive download. It too was a fine adventure but I’d like to see this released to the general public. I’m not a fan of con or Kickstarter exclusive content. I’d rather see as many people get high quality releases as possible, you know? Who knows? Maybe to celebrate this award Golden Goblin will put The Owlglass up for sale so everyone can enjoy it.
Bottom line, when you can put out a collection of adventures where I can honestly say I liked EVERY SINGLE ONE, that’s not only a rarity in and of itself, but pretty much guarantees your product will be holding this award come the end of the year.
Runners-Up: Dungeons & Dragons: Murder in Baldur’s Gate, Dungeons & Dragons Next: Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle
BEST CAMPAIGN SETTING
So the choice of Murder in Baldur’s Gate as our favorite campaign setting might be odd to those of you who haven’t picked this up. You’ll be sitting there saying, “Isn’t that an adventure? How would it win for ‘Best Campaign Setting?'” For those that DID pick up Murder in Baldur’s Gate, you’re probably nodding empathically right now. You see, while Murder in Baldur’s Gate was indeed labeled as an adventure by Wizards of the Coast, it’s actually three pieces in one. You get the full ten part systemless adventure (It’s really a campaign actually), an extremely well made DM Screen and most of all, the campaign guide to Baldur’s Gate. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say this guide is perhaps the best new release put out for Dungeons & Dragons in a decade. The guide is gorgeous to look at, with excellent art on nearly every page. The guide is laid out wonderfully, making it a breeze to find the snippet of information you are looking for and it is a comprehensive guide to the entire history of this Forgotten Realms city. The history of Baldur’s Gate is all here. References to 1E, 2E, 3E, 4E and the current era are all here. Want references to the old PC video games by the same name as the city? The campaign guide is chock full of them (as is the adventure) while writing them seamlessly into the tabletop history. Want a quick aside to Spelljammer? It’s in the guide. The campaign guide to Murder In Baldur’s Gate is a wonderful homage to the history of not just this important piece of Toril, but to the history of Dungeons & Dragons as a whole. No matter what edition of D&D is your favorite, the campaign guide to Murder in Baldur’s Gate is something you can pick up and just fall in love with.
It’s hard not to heap praise on the campaign guide for Murder in Baldur’s Gate. The follow up, Legacy of the Crystal Spire was an excellent campaign setting as well, which gives me high hopes for D&D Next. For those of you that have fallen out of love with the most famous RPG of all time, consider picking up Murder in Baldur’s Gate. It should rekindle some fond memories.
Runners-Up: Call of Cthulhu: Secrets of Tibet, All Flesh Must Be Eaten: Band of Zombies
BEST CORE RULEBOOK
Unfortunately several of the new rulebooks we were expected to be contenders for this award didn’t actually make it out. Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, Call of Cthulhu 7e, Robotech RPG Tactics, and many others were delayed, as is the norm for our industry. Thankfully, what did come out was fantastic. We received new versions of Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Vampire: The Requiem and Shadowrun. Indie companies put out excellent titles like Numenera, Ages Past, One Shot and Transylvanian Adventures. When it came down to it though, the big winner was Mummy: The Curse.
Although Mummy: The Curse has only seen its core rulebook and a sourcebook entitled Guildhalls of the Deathless released so far, what has been released is perhaps the most innovative and truly original role playing game that we’ve seen in decades. Mummy: The Curse really redfines the dynamic between players and Storyteller like no game before it. It’s a game of self-exploration and awareness more than anything else – a sharp change from the usual “PCs team up and stop NPC antagonists” which we see in well, every other RPG out there to some extent. Here, the characters are their own antagonists and the players are completely in the dark of much of their PC’s life history. It has been lost to the sands of Irem. Sure they can try to regain it, but do they want to? Is their previous self more important than their duty to their lost culture and the Gods they serve? What do they serve and why? So much of this game is exploration of what drives a character and how we are sometimes our own worst enemies. At the same times, Mummies are by far the most powerful characters in the New World of Darkness, perhaps strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the God Machine itself. This is ironic, because so little of the game ever focuses on the sheer metaphysical strength of these beings and also because the characters power slowly dwindles away as a return to deathless sleep draws nigh.
Mummy: The Curse is an exceptionally esoteric game and requires some very good roleplayers as well as a fantastic Storyteller for the game to live up to its potential. In the hands of a lackluster or unimaginative troupe, adventurers will be humdrum like “Go find this relic that was stolen/uncovered” and players will resent the control the Storyteller has over the past and personality of the character they are playing. In the hands of a well seasoned group though, Mummy: The Curse is a magical, almost revolutionary experience. The game turns every trope and core concept we have about RPGs on their ear and forces everyone involved to rethink not only what a roleplaying game is, but what they want out of one. Again, Mummy: The Curse is a niche product – I can’t over-empathize that ENOUGH. It is however, the most unique, bizarre, groundbreaking and innovative core rulebook I’ve read, played or used in a very long time. Even if you never play the game, you owe it to yourself to read it and see just how unique Mummy: The Curse is by doing almost everything differently and yet holding just close enough to the RPG (and especially White Wolf) trappings we all know to make the game feel like something that should have been made ages ago. Again, this little collection of paragraphs doesn’t do the game justice. Go read the review or better yet, go buy the game.
Runners-Up: Numenera, Shadowrun Fifth Edition
SYSTEM OF THE YEAR
A lot of systems had memorable years. Dungeon Crawl Classics had a strong output of adventures from Goodman Games and third party developers. Catalyst Game Labs showed us what Shadowrun, Fifth Edition, could do. Pathfinder had an enormous amount of content as always, including the new card game. Call of Cthulhu, Labyrinth Lord, and many others had fine releases as well. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition aka D&D Next had an amazing good year thanks to a series of excellent releases, even though the core rules haven’t been 100% locked down yet. Numenera burst onto the scene with a series of well made releases that captured the imagination, but when all was said and done, one system had a year that stood out above the rest and that was Onyx Pass’s New World of Darkness.
It’s worth noting how special this year was. If you asked many of us on staff what our favorite games were, not a single one would mention a NWoD product. Me? I’m a Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, V:TM and Ravenloft gamer primarily. Mark? Werewolf: The Apocalypse and D&D 4e are the ones he plays most. Matt Faul? AD&D 1e and Heroclix. Will? Pathfinder and Call of Cthulhu. Ashe? Pathfinder. Packer? Traveller and Legend. Justin? He likes to dabble in just about anything. Chuck Platt? Lamentations of the Flame Princess and retro clones. Aaron? Primarily D&D and CCGs. So on and so forth. The fact that none of us list a Storytelling System game amongst our favorites should really highlight just how good this year was for the New World of Darkness. The releases were so well done in all respects (art, writing, innovation, creativity and fun) that a system we like but don’t LOVE overshadowed even our own personal favorites to the point where it was the shoo-in pretty early on this year with nothing ever really catching up to it.
There were three big reasons why the Storytelling System won: The God Machine Chronicle, Mummy: The Curse and Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle. Since the first two books have already won individual awards, we probably don’t need to rehash those. Blood and Smoke, although scheduled more much earlier in the year, squeaked out with less than two weeks of 2013 left on the calendar. Perhaps if it had come out earlier and more people had been given the chance to really dig through the material, it would have won its own individual award as well. See what delays get you? Anyway, Blood and Smoke may be labeled a “sourcebook” but it’s actually a new core rulebook for Vampire: The Requiem, rebuilding the game from the ground up the same way the 20AE books for the OLD World of Darkness line have done for those games. Similar to how The God Machine Chronicle‘s rules update rebuilt the entire core World of Darkness. Similar to how Mummy: The Curse changed the way gamers think about how a roleplaying game is played and/or run. Blood and Smoke gives you all the core rules you need to play V:TR, to the point where you don’t need the actual World of Darkness rulebook or even The God Machine Chronicle rules update. It’s the first true stand-alone for NWoD and IT’S ABOUT TIME. You’re given all the core rules including all the V:TR Clans and even some of the extinct bloodlines (but not all). The core way Humanity is portrayed has changed. It’s a more immersive and character driven experience rather than “Oh, roll some dice. You failed. Now you’re more of a bastard.” The same is true for how sunlight affects a vampire. Humanity and the age of the vampire have a huge effect on how much damage they take. The rules are all really well done and make the game more accessible to those who prefer to roll the dice as little as possible while still leaving the need to roll multiple d10s intact for gamers that like it that way. From Conditions to social interactions to Touchstones, Blood and Smoke is a massive step forward for V:TR. I’ve always felt it was the weakest of the New World of Darkness lines since its original inception (Which is probably because it was also the first. The later games for NWoD were able to apply lessons learned), but over the past two years, it’s probably become my favorite thanks to the combination of better rules and better writing.
Chief of all though, is the redefinement of the Strix. They’ve gone through several incarnations over the years, such as specifically attached to the Juli to having their entire history wiped away and being unstoppable and undefined boogeymen that ended up being used by bad Storytellers as a way to kill off characters or turn their V:TR game into “ST vs. Players,” which never ends well, regardless of system. The Strix have been severely overhauled here and given a uniform set of antagonist creation rules similar to character creation for PCs. The Strix are still horrific enemies that can sew chaos into your campaign and are enough to give any supernatural entity pause. They are monsters to scare the playable monsters after all. You are however, given a solid set of guildlines towards how the Strix powers work, how they can be harmed and roughly two dozen sample Strix to give you a wide variety of premade Owls who have different motivations, thought processes and personalities. They aren’t just nameless generic sources of dread, which until now, is sadly how many portrayed or ran them. The Strix really needed this overhaul and while they are still powerful creatures whose core past is as shadowy as what passes for their bodies, they are defined in a way to make them easier to use in a campaign but not so defined that they are just going to gut the coteries they encounter. They’ve been given the same treatment the Inconnu had in V:TM during first and second edition of that game (But not third edition sadly…sigh) and it really works on all levels. Kudos to the Blood and Smoke team for really turning a game several of us poo-poo’d at times into something we’re really excited for.
So after the praise we’ve gushed on these three books, it’s easy to see why the Storytelling System was the clear winner this year. Of course these weren’t the only releases for the NWoD this year. There were multiple sourcebooks, a fine fiction release and many other. Plus, Onyx Path had a great year with the original Storyteller system as well (For those unaware of the differences think Basic Roleplaying to Call of Cthulhu. The latter is based off the original mechanics-wise but is difference enough that you need a character conversion process and completely different world backgrounds) from the Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary Edition and all of its sourcebooks that came out this year, The Hunter’s Hunted II for V:TM and a few Convention books for Mage, the Storyteller system had a fine year as well. We’d be remiss if we didn’t tack on a bit of praise for the other World of Darkness.
So there you go, between Smoke & Blood, Mummy: The Curse, and The God Machine Chronicle, the New World of Darkness and its Storytelling System not only had the best year overall of any system this year, but it might have just been the best year ever for the NWoD as well. The only question is how Onyx Path is going to live up to 2013 with this year’s offering. Here’s a hint – with something demonic, perhaps?
Runners-Up: The Cypher System (Numenera), Dungeons & Dragons Next
So there you go. This has been the Diehard GameFAN Tabletop Gaming Awards for 2014. Whether you agree or disagree with our choices for this year, we hope you’ve had fun reading the piece. A big congrats to all the winners and runner-ups and by all means, please continue to join us here regularly for our reviews and features on all kinds of tabletop gaming products. Who knows? You might even decide you want to write here.