The relentless pace of video game releases — even board game releases! — can make it feel like you’re always a step behind. Tabletop role-playing games, on the other hand, always seem willing to meet you where you are. Something about rolling dice and telling stories feels timeless, and an older TTRPG can bring a group of friends around the table just as easily as a new one.
We asked a dozen writers, designers, presenters, actors, and personalities from around the world of tabletop gaming to tell us which games connected with them and their players this year. These are the best tabletop RPGs we played in 2022.
Mats Andersson, lead combat designer at Fatshark (Warhammer 40,000: Darktide)
I don’t get to play as much as I’d like between adulting and work, so the choices usually fall on faster, more lightweight sessions. Fiasco, as a tabletop single-session RPG, is great as a more casual story generator that always derails and takes the players into fascinatingly weird places.
Dungeons & Drawings
I love system-agnostic resources that inspire me to bring new ideas to the table. So when I visited Gen Con this year, I had to snap up the unbounded delight that is Dungeons & Drawings: An Illustrated Compendium of Creatures by Blanca Martínez and Joe Sparrow. This book is a lush, hardbound book bursting with fantasy creatures and critters. Instead of complex statblocks, each creature is rated according to Combat, Magic, Smarts, Loot, and Danger. They would also be accompanied by lore description, which ran the gamut from amusing to imposing, an “adventurer’s tip” that gave advice on how to deal with the creature, and the centerpiece of each spread: a beautiful full-color illustration that gave life to imagination.
From centaurs to dragons, eldritch horrors and psychopomps, this book was such a treasure that sparked many fun games. Dungeons & Drawings is published by Andrews McMeel and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and hardcover format.
Thousand Empty Light
Chase Carter, freelance writer, news writer at Dicebreaker, and Polygon contributor
Choosing an adventure might feel a bit like cheating, but Alfred Valley’s Thousand Empty Light is so much more than a solo jaunt for the Mothership RPG. Launched as part of this year’s independent Zinemonth initiative, the 36-page zine grabs Mothership’s Alien-esque themes of corporate hellscape in space and plunges instead to the inky nadir of an alien ocean where the player’s prime directive isn’t survival but maintaining the light.
Instructions are presented in the style of a technical manual and employee induction booklet that looks like the product of an ancient dot-matrix printer. Scribbles in the margins and notecards photocopied on top of training documents hint at secrets uncovered by the extra-authorial curiosity of your predecessors. How they died is classified Hazmos information, but it was either faulty tech, the local fauna, or the crushing weight of being so damn alone down there in the dark.
Thousand Empty Light is an exercise in using atmosphere, mechanics, and that pre-sapient instinctual holdover that, when alone, transforms every sound and shadow into a threat in order to tell a story about something worse than corporate malevolence: apathy.
The Quiet Year by Avery Alder
Jay Dragon and Grub, Possum Creek Games
The Quiet Year is a constant on lists like these, a classic popular with everyone from community organizers to podcast fans and everyone in between. Wherever we go, from the mountains of Colombia to the hotel lobby of Indianapolis, it’s easy to introduce people and invite them into the creation of their own beautiful village. But it’s easy to miss the village for the trees — The Quiet Year is a game about leftist organizing, community discontent, and the challenges of caring for each other when sometimes your needs just don’t line up. There’s no game like it, in its elegance and effectiveness both as a delightful game and as a tool to understand each other.
Kids on Brooms
Madison Durham, senior staff writer at Reviewed/USA Today and Polygon contributor
This year, Dimension 20’s Misfits and Magic led me to Kids on Brooms, which has one of the best character creation systems I’ve played. It’s simple and delightfully collaborative, with an immediate emphasis on developing a space where players and game master will all get the most from the experience. If you opt for the “Complete Questions” character creation route, you’ll embark on an exploration of your character’s relationship with their peers, from the rumors others have heard about them to the times that your fellow players’ characters have stood up for your character. The game’s notes on inclusivity, player safety tools, and general sense of purpose make for nostalgic, whimsical gameplay that allows the player to experience a magical world on their own terms. The mechanics make it highly customizable, too — magic is magic is magic, after all.
Em Friedman, associate professor of English at Auburn University and Polygon contributor
For the third year running, Brindlewood Bay continues to be my go-to role-playing game. Whether I’m putting it in front of longtime role-players or brand-new players, this cozy, spooky game appeals to just about every gaming group. Inspired by Murder, She Wrote, H.P. Lovecraft, and the last half-century of television detectives, players are a group of retirees solving mysteries in the titular town.
Character creation is quick, flavorful, and collaborative, and every mechanic rewards thinking creatively. A perilous situation can be saved by cutting to a role-played commercial, or a stroll down memory lane.
Each of the game’s mysteries are contained in just two to seven pages of setup, vivid NPCs, and clues. The mystery mechanic developed by Jason Cordova means there’s no one solution. Instead, the group “meddles” to collect clues, then works together to craft a plausible solution. The more clues found and included, the easier the die roll to determine whether your Mystery Mavens nab the bad guy and save the day. The results are by turns weird, hilarious, and suitable for any red-string conspiracy board.
It’s one of my favorite games to get to know a new group, or shake a long-established group out of its rut.
The One Ring Starter Set
Charlie Hall, senior editor, tabletop at Polygon
2021 was the 20th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, and it was also the year that we decided to share them all with our kids. Following an epic movie marathon over the holidays, we returned in January to find Polygon’s review copy of a rebooted version of The One Ring Starter Set right in our mailbox.
Free League Publishing puts out some of the most unique and beautiful art in the business, and this release does not disappoint. After a giddy few hours playing hobbits roaming around the Shire as a family, the set’s gorgeous map now adorns our living room wall.
The Wagadu Chronicles
Gabriel Hicks, senior game developer at Steamforged Games, Mythic Grove Productions
Getting to play in fantasy worlds that are heavily inspired by African mythology and experience is something I still rarely get to experience, but The Wagadu Chronicles dropped me into this world and it was everything I could have asked for. With lore focused around spirits and leaning into magic that isn’t simply European arcana, it’s a whole new side to tabletop role-playing games. Hopefully it will inspire people to see ways that others applying their cultural experiences and history to the worlds they play in can take you to worlds truly beyond what we ever imagined in the best way. It’s also such an interesting experience because you can both play through this game as a video game, and then also use the free 5th edition supplement to play at the table — so you not only get to experience it as a pen-and-paper game, but you can experience it digitally at home on your own.
Bathwater Heights on a Particular Tuesday
Timothy Hutchings, game designer, author of Apollo 47, and assistant professor of game design at Bradley University
In Bathwater Heights on a Particular Tuesday by Jackson Tegu, players remotely share a single lightly structured Google document and contribute to it all at once to tell a story about a handful of people having a perfectly average and therefore surreal day at the Cafe Bon Temps at the corner of Giaever Street and Mouth Avenue.
Sounds simple, right?
The story springs up as you play, a half-dozen people at a time typing in different parts of the document. Words are appearing all over the place, typed fast or slow, with misspellings or not. It’s like watching a dozen knowledgeable monkeys fly a plane — they are hopping all over and it is beautifully anarchic, but the plane stays aloft because it is the good sort of anarchism where the people love each other and want to see everything succeed.
It is easy to shift gears during the game — feverishly type, then sit back, and read, and enjoy. The passive reader seldom stays such for long, because reading reveals the bumps and questions. “I better steady the plane by adding in why Ms. Ng’s scooter disappeared between the Dinner and Night sections.”
It’s the best half-hour I spent playing games during my pal Rainbow’s birthday this year (and every year).
Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy
Jess Kung, production assistant, NPR’s Code Switch
Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy is a two-player storytelling game by Lucian Kahn that takes the form of a resurrection ritual. You play as friends; one is raising the other from the dead. A focus on dramatic tension keeps the game on track as players answer prompts determined by tarot card draws, developing the characters’ stories up to their current conflict. While the structure is tight, texture like the setting and tone are completely open-ended. One of my favorite scenes we set in the dumpster of a seedy desert casino, another within a drug trip in a space station ventilation shaft.
Two-player RPGs intimidated me at first. I tend toward lighter games for bigger groups, and these seemed intense — too intimate, too small. Dead Friend helped me understand the appeal: It is intimate, with space to bounce ideas around without being overwhelmed, with well-balanced agency between players in asymmetrical roles. And, in a year that made it hard for me to keep games on my schedule, having Dead Friend on deck as a self-contained, two-to-three-hour experience helped resurrect my ability to play at all.
Monster of the Week
Cody Pondsmith, game designer, R. Talsorian Games (Cyberpunk Red, The Witcher TRPG)
This year I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a lot of great games, but the standout has to be Monster of the Week by Evil Hat Productions. This rules-light RPG uses a variation of the Powered by the Apocalypse system to tell the story of an eclectic group of monster slayers using their various tricks, tools, and magical powers to hunt down creatures of all shapes and sizes. The game’s playbooks (pre-generated character templates) allow you to create a wide range of characters by making a series of set choices and start playing in minutes.
Growing up with more system-heavy RPGs like Cyberpunk 2020 and Pathfinder, it’s a nice change of pace to play a system-light game with a heavy focus on storytelling sometimes. Monster of the Week’s streamlined resolution system allows you to focus on playing your character and moving the story forward without getting slowed down by additive math and complex rules. Of course, the trade-off is that the game relies heavily on the game master to adjudicate when rolls should be made and what the results of those rolls should be, but the open-ended system gives solid guidance when things get tricky.
For the Queen
Elise Rezendes, co-founder of Mythic Grove Productions
I’ve never defended the queen; not once. If that phrase makes you giddy in your seat and hungry for more collaborative storytelling, then you have more than likely played For the Queen, the card-based improv RPG by Alex Roberts and Evil Hat Productions. I’ve become ensorcelled by the mechanic of turn-based role-play that this game definitively masters. No one knows what character they play until a card is turned and a question is asked. Only then can you create whole-cloth your character and the world around your retinue of trusted individuals. Though the queen may be leading this journey, they are a character that never acts except through the scenes described by players. The questions are poignant, and at our tables have come to have almost prophetic import, always appearing perfectly to drive the story along. When a thing is said it becomes true, which makes generous storytelling boundless. Often the best plot twists for my characters have been given to me through the stories of another at the table. Face love, betrayal, uncertainty, and unwavering faith as your party struggles to come to terms with whether or not your queen is worthy of being defended!
Blades in the Dark
Abubakar Salim, actor (Assassin’s Creed Origins, Raised by Wolves), Silver Rain Games
Blades in the Dark is an incredibly tense, beautiful, and accessible game. Truly conjured up to have the players and the Dungeon Master on the edge of their seat. What’s so brilliant about it is just how easy it is to pick up and feel like you’re in control. An easy game to involve yourself in, but a tough game to master. Fantastic game design.
The Quiet Year
Keerthi Sridharan, freelance writer and Polygon contributor
The Quiet Year has made the rounds in TTRPG circles for years, but I only got around to playing it a few months ago. Our group planned on running it as a world-building prologue to a new campaign. It quickly morphed and grew into a beautiful, touching, and uniquely funny journey, and we spent four hours immersed in debates between factions of surfer wizards and cowboy skaters, sketching out cursed mountain ranges, ultimately crying over a mysterious sickness that snuffed out the lives of every child on the map overnight. The Quiet Year deserves its flowers as a stand-alone play experience, guiding players through the game with a deck of gorgeously illustrated cards, appropriately creepy skull tokens, and prompts that put the weight of a world — your world — on your shoulders. The game can also be played with a standard deck of playing cards and the Oracle, a reference sheet that tells you what prompt each card represents.
B. Dave Walters, writer, content producer, lead designer of Into The Mother Lands
My favorite TTRPG of the year was my beloved Battlelords of the 23rd Century.
I’ve been playing Battlelords since 1st edition when I was in high school, and the current 6th edition is the best one yet. The original Battelords tagline was “roleplaying something besides elves,” but I have often described it as “Aliens meets The 5th Element,” where an incredible assortment of fascinating alien races are waiting to explore, such as:
- Eridani Sword Saints: Basically Klingon space samurai; my favorites.
- Phentari: Murderous squid people who eat humans as a delicacy.
- Cizerak: Intelligent big cats that mount cannons on their backs like tanks.
- Fott: Genetically engineered redneck rabbits that may well be the ultimate warriors.
And so very many more.
If you want to scratch that sci-fi itch in a new and different way, I HIGHLY recommend checking out Battlelords of the 23rd Century!