The January leak of Wizards of the Coast’s plans to amend the Open Gaming License rocked the tabletop role-playing game industry in ways that have been felt throughout 2023. Wizards’ misstep was good for the hobby overall, turbocharging the sales of other games and exposing players to a wide variety of different systems, settings, and styles of gaming. But Dungeons & Dragons continues to dominate the market, riding the success of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and Baldur’s Gate 3 to introduce new players to the game and reassure existing ones, many of whom were happy to go back to business as usual once Wizards backed down.
This list of the best tabletop gaming books of 2023 reflects the shifting status quo, including a mix of D&D books and excellent alternatives that allow players to explore original worlds and ones based on hit TV shows, video games, and even podcasts. Third-party publishers continue to put out rich supplements that prove why the OGL is so powerful, even as some companies have focused on developing new rules to fully disentangle themselves from Wizards’ shenanigans.
2024 is sure to be tumultuous as well, as several of those new systems are set for release along with revised versions of the D&D core ruleset. Hopefully this alphabetical list will provide a starting place for anyone interested in trying something new or improving your existing game as the hobby continues to rapidly grow and change.
Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game
Publisher: Magpie Games
Magpie Games understands that what made Avatar: The Last Airbender so good isn’t just its amazing fights but the depths of its characters and their emotional arcs. Avatar Legends: The Roleplaying Game uses the accessible Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset for a book that avoids getting into the minutiae of different bending techniques and instead focuses on how characters approach problems together and grow over time to achieve balance in themselves and the world. Drawing on the original series, The Legend of Korra, and the associated books and comics, the game offers opportunities to explore very different versions of the same rich setting.
Barkeep on the Borderlands
Publisher: Prismatic Wasteland
Taverns are a classic place for fantasy adventures to begin, but Barkeep on the Borderlands makes them the center of the story. Filled with charmingly silly art and ideas, the setting-agnostic book details an adventure where players go on a pub crawl in search of a lost antidote for a poisoned monarch. Of course, staying on mission is a challenge when you’re drinking heavily — running the risk of handing over control of your character to another player if you get too drunk — and there are endless strange happenings to sidetrack you, from striking fire elementals to a black dragon wearing a trench coat demanding free beer. The many bars can also easily be ported into other adventures for some goofy fun.
Publisher: Need Games
Inspired by JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Bravely Default and the Japanese TTRPG Ryuutama, Fabula Ultima offers players the chance to build their own party of quirky heroes trying to achieve their destiny and protect the world from nefarious villains. Jam-packed with genre tropes and charming art, the book nails its theme by making a character’s motivation and emotional bonds as core to the gameplay as the weapons they wield. It’s a lighthearted game where you’ll explore the wilderness with a magic tent to rest in but also offers satisfying mechanics for its numerous classes that are meant to shine over the course of a long campaign.
MCDM reaches back to the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons to reinvent the 5th edition Monster Manual. Flee, Mortals! makes planning complex combats easy on a Dungeon Master by grouping creatures into encounters where the combatants have their own distinct roles, powers, and tactics. The book also contains plenty of bosses and even entire rival parties you can build a campaign around, with special actions for the villain and their lairs to make the climactic fights even more memorable. Add in gorgeous art and this book is sure to provide plenty of inspiration when planning adventures of every level.
Heliana’s Guide to Monster Hunting
Publisher: Loot Tavern
Filled with puns, quirky characters, and epic boss fights that can be modified for multiple levels of play, Heliana’s Guide to Monster Hunting works well as both a book of one-shots or a lighthearted campaign well suited to a rotating cast. There are wild adventures — like a mimic that’s become so large it imitates a tavern complete with patrons — and the book also offers a rich crafting system for turning the powerful foes you defeat into unique magic items. The character options are equally fun, including a warlock based on Venom and a new class that lets you collect and fight with familiars like a Pokémon trainer.
Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition - Dungeon Delver’s Guide
Publisher: EN Publishing
Continuing EN Publishing’s excellent Level Up 5th Edition line, the Dungeon Delver’s Guide provides a bounty of resources for both game masters and players in search of a more complex dungeon crawl. There are fun and flavorful new ancestries, archetypes, and backgrounds if you want to play a mushroom person with an ooze familiar riding a giant spider, plus lots of advice for designing subterranean realms filled with traps, monsters, and treasure. Game runners will get plenty of example adventures, from a witch lurking in the sewers below the city to a submarine controlled by an aboleth, plus tables for rolling up your own dungeon on the fly.
The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying 5e
Publisher: Free League
Rather than feeling like a concession to players who don’t want to learn a new system, the adaptation of The One Ring to 5th edition transforms Dungeons & Dragons into a fundamentally different experience. With advancement capped at level 10 and an entirely new set of classes dubbed heroic callings, the book offers rules for a low-magic adventure where flawed heroes fight their inner demons and the encroaching darkness. Drawing lovingly on the source material, the ruleset offers plenty of opportunities for epic battles but also provides clever mechanics for long horseback rides, asking favors from stubborn kings, and enjoying a bit of pipeweed.
Old Gods of Appalachia
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
A great introduction to the Cypher System, Old Gods of Appalachia provides all the resources needed to tell stories in the dark alternative version of early 1900s Appalachia presented by the podcast of the same name. It’s a rich setting where digging too deep for the treasures hidden in the mountains has unleashed ancient terrors that prey on fear and greed. Players battle the corrupted agents of these dark forces using a mix of folk magic and their connection to their community and the land itself. While the Cypher Core Rulebook offers ideas for using the versatile system to run horror games, Old Gods of Appalachia builds on the base mechanics for a game of creeping dread and questionable dealings.
Pathfinder Player Core
Embodying the idea that you should never let a good crisis go to waste, Paizo opted to strip all traces of D&D from its Pathfinder 2nd edition core books after the OGL fiasco and used the opportunity to improve the product. The result is more approachable to new players, splitting the imposing original tome in two by giving game masters their own book and shunting off some of the game’s most complex classes to later books so they can get deeper overhauls. The Pathfinder Player Core also ditches several legacy elements, like ability scores and alignment, gives the fan-favorite witch class some much-needed love, and provides compelling fresh character options with the leshy, nephilim, and changeling ancestries.
Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
An expansion on the campaign first published in the 2014 Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, Phandelver and Below: The Shattered Obelisk provides a great way for new Dungeon Masters and players to ease into the full game. Having a strong base of operations for your adventuring means it’s easy to swap out players — useful since scheduling ends far more games than boss fights — and there are plenty of tools for keeping track of what’s happening as the players uncover the nefarious plots afoot. Its story and approach make it a nice transition into both other popular published adventures and the new rules being released next year.