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The Best Role-Playing Game Releases Of 2018

by Matt Miller on Dec 29, 2018 at 11:01 AM

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Thanks in part to new avenues of discovery, role-playing games are experiencing a surge in popularity that is frankly astounding to players who’ve enjoyed the hobby for decades. After many years during which the hobby was a niche experience, the arrival of streaming gaming groups and increased community building through the internet has meant millions of new players entering the fold.

While much of that growth has been fueled by Dungeons & Dragons, other games and publishers have been also seen a Renaissance of creative output.

In previous years, this list of role-playing releases served as the second half of our larger article on the best board, card, and miniature games. This year, we’re splitting into two separate articles for ease of reading, but you should feel free to check out whichever interests you. Click here to read the sister article on the best tabletop board, card, and miniature games of 2018.

Even after separating out the two topics, you’ll discover that this list includes both traditional and non-traditional role-playing releases. In most cases, the games on this list skew toward player-driven storytelling and character progression, but the waters are muddy these days, and in the end it often simply came down to a judgment call for which list a given project might be considered.

As in previous years, the selections below represent everything from the spread of the RPG experience, including core game books, campaign settings, adventures, and more. If you’d also like to explore selections from previous years, you can investigate 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012.

Enjoy, and let us know about your favorite role-playing experiences of 2018 in the comments below.

Entries are listed alphabetically.

Choose-Your-Own-Adventure: House of Danger

Publisher: Z-Man Games
Who’s it for? Nostalgic readers who remember flipping through the original books, or new players looking to get a feeling for role-playing on easy mode.

For many years, choose-your-own-adventure books were a staple for kids looking to mix a love of reading with an enthusiasm for games and decision-making. 2018’s House of Danger board game is a revival of one of those books from 1982, now overlaid with cards, dice, and the ability to play with anywhere from one to eight players. While it might easily have also found its way onto our list of great board games, it snags a spot here because of its central focus on storytelling and choices. With very simple rules, this is an ideal way to flirt with role-playing games, but without the need for a game master, lengthy rulebooks, or adventure planning.

In the game, you play as a psychic sleuth trying to figure out the strange going-ons in a local mansion. Armed with your wits and a growing collection of seemingly innocuous items, you must confront one challenge after another and repeatedly decide how to overcome the challenges and investigations in front of you.

Retro design of the box and components recalls the game book that served as source material, but it’s the updated gamification of the experience that makes this worth a look, especially as a way to instill the joy of communal narrative crafting into a new generation of players.

Delta Green: A Night At The Opera

Publisher: Arc Dream Publishing
Who’s it for? Lovecraft enthusiasts ready for half-a-dozen remarkable, scary adventures

Delta Green grew out of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game and subsequently took on a life of its own, and eventually emerged as its own independent game. The Agent’s Handbook for the newest update to Delta Green made an appearance on this list back in 2016, and the game has since released the rest of its core content, and is fully available for exploration. For those unfamiliar, Delta Green follows a secret and rogue government agency in the modern-day world that holds back the tide of horror implied within Lovecraftian fiction.

For players eager to see the best that the game has to offer (after snagging the Agent’s Handbook and Handler’s Guide), A Night at the Opera is a phenomenal collection of adventures that showcases just how cool the game is. While available as six independent modules, A Night At the Opera collects them all together, and offers options for how to connect the storylines between them, leading to a complex web of conspiracy and terror.In one adventure, players must confront a rapidly spreading fungal infection that is more than it appears to be, before they become victims themselves. In another, the agents investigate a physics facility that may have stared too deeply into the unknown, and woken something incomprehensible. Each of these stories is thoughtfully constructed, and does a great job of showcasing the strength of the Delta Green game. If that sounds like fun, and you'd like to try your hand at this intriguing game, be aware that you can also track down Delta Green: Need To Know, an introductory product version of the rules that can get you in the door without the full commitment to the core rulebooks.

Dungeons & Dragons: Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica

Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Who’s it for? Old-school players longing for the old days of varied campaign settings, and Magic card players ready to jump into role-playing in one of their favorite worlds

Back in the day, D&D players gloried in the varied settings available for the game. From Dragonlance and Eberron to Spelljammer and Dark Sun, these twists on the established high-fantasy milieu of D&D were always exciting to discover. Of course, from a business perspective, those multitudinous settings had an unfortunate side effect – splintering the community of players. Wizards of the Coast has mostly spent the early years of the 5th edition firmly focused on fleshing out different corners of a single campaign world (the Forgotten Realms). But with the recent success of the game, the publisher is increasingly flexing its muscles into new destinations, and I’m thrilled at the shift back to one of my favorite aspects of the game – a distinct and unusual world to play in and discover.

In 2018, that flexibility took the form of the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. This isn’t an entirely new world to discover; Ravnica has repeatedly featured prominently in the Magic: The Gathering card game fiction. But this role-playing incarnation really brings the setting to life, with in-depth descriptions of locations, settings, characters, creatures, and most importantly, the guilds.

Ravnica is a massive city world controlled and swayed by ten immensely powerful guilds, each of which control different aspects of the flow of military might, magic and technology research, entertainment, and more. By focusing in on one particularly vibrant part of the city, the setting book offers a wealth of adventure hooks and opportunities for deeper development by a dungeon master. Gorgeous illustrations bring life to new races and subclasses to play, maps help bring a sense of geography to the landscape, and a brief adventure helps get you started in your own campaign across the steampunk-with-a-twist city. 

Invisible Sun

Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Who’s it for? Experienced role-players looking for a trip into the surreal

Monte Cook Games bet big this year on the deluxe treatment for its new game, Invisible Sun. An expensive price point and a massive and mysterious black box seemed like they might have been hard sells, but the role-playing community recognized the potential for quality, and finding a copy of the game now might well be tricky thanks to widespread demand.

The unusual black box opens up and contains a treasure trove of gorgeous gaming materials, including a Tarot-like deck of cards, secret envelopes and other hidden curios, and critically, four full hardbacked books that describe the rules, magic, characters, and setting of this wildly original game.

In highly player-driven narratives, everyone at the table controls a magical being who has awoken from the shadow of normal modern life, and into a world defined by impossible dreamscapes and creatures. A vast and detailed mythology draws inspiration from real world occultism, but the chief draw is the truly surreal setting, in which ideas manifest as real things, and entire worlds are defined by emotional states and forces of creation. In my complete write-up, I described Invisible Sun as the role-player’s RPG; I’ve never encountered such an imaginative and challenging backdrop for deeply affecting character narratives.

Kids on Bikes

Publisher: Renegade Game Studios/Hunters Entertainment
Who’s it for? Kids-at-heart who want to tell their own story about a group of kids thrown into adventure over their heads

Fiction is filled with stories about kids and teens who find themselves caught up in dramatic exploits that defy the tedium of an otherwise normal life in their home town. Whether you look to Goonies and Stand by Me, or Stranger Things and E.T., these stories strike a chord through their relatability, friendships, and sense of danger. Kids on Bikes is a lightweight RPG that nails a lot of what’s best about those stories, letting a group of players craft their own setting and characters, and then breaking you loose into unknown peril.

As a game of Kids on Bikes begins, players take turns answering questions that help to shape and define the game they’re going to play in. What’s the time period? Where do you live? What’s the tone of the story? Through this process, and through the gameplay that follows, the game does an amazing job of enmeshing the whole player group in a part of the process often reserved in other games solely for the GM. Characters are defined by the tropes you choose for them, making them fit comfortably into narrative rules you’ll recognize from the movies, TV shows, and books that inspire the game.

Once into the adventure, the game has mechanics in place that emulate the flow of these kinds of stories. Specifically, your limited ability set means that you’re likely to fail a lot in the early part of the story, getting you into deeper trouble with each step. But those same failures provide tokens that you can use to push extra hard against adversity in later conflicts, potentially saving the day in those critical final moments of the narrative. Throughout each encounter, the simple resolution systems encourage deep focus on narration and atmosphere.

Kids on Bikes has drawn comparisons to another excellent recent RPG called Tales from the Loop, which offers many of the same opportunities for narratives about kids confronting danger. While the two games are indeed similar in concept, Kids on Bikes distinguishes itself with the ability for the player group to shape their own setting, where Tales from the Loop has its own detailed universe preset. If the idea of communal setting development at the table sounds exciting, Kids on Bikes could be the project for you.

Legend of the Five Rings Core Rulebook

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Who’s it for? Players who delight in court intrigue, high romance, and a touch of magic inspired by the historical cultures of Japan, China, Korea, and Mongolia

Inhabit the lives of samurai and courtiers in this mythical setting chiefly inspired by feudal Japan. Legend of the Five Rings has had a long life ahead of this recent release in the form of both role-playing and other tabletop games, but the new RPG edition is especially striking in both presentation and gameplay.

The new RPG borrows liberally from Fantasy Flight’s excellent narrative dice mechanics, which do an admirable job of adding storytelling nuance to task resolution. But make no mistake; the core of the game maintains the focus on honor, romance, and impossible decisions that has always made this setting so appealing.

While combat and adventure is certainly in the mix, Legend of the Five Rings will appeal most strongly to players eager to explore character drama, court intrigue, and the ceaseless tension between honor and desire. Characters in the RPG must always contend with the weight of family expectations, duty, and the often-contrary pulls of love, freedom, or impropriety – the resulting table dramas are great fun, whether your chief inspiration are Chinese epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kurosawa films, or great novels like Across the Nightingale Floor.

The beautifully illustrated core rulebook has the full experience on offer. If you’d prefer to get your feet wet first, the Beginner Game boxed set offers pre-made characters, an introduction to the rules, and a great starter adventure.

Numenera: Destiny

Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Who’s it for? Players ready to settle down in one of the best RPGs of the last decade

The original release of Numenera ranks among the best role-playing game products of the last decade. 2018 saw a surprising release from Monte Cook Games, in which that original core rulebook was revised, updated, and re-released as Numenera: Discovery, and added a new companion book called Numenera: Destiny. With a core premise that flips traditional role-playing adventuring on its head, it’s that second book that gets a nod this year.

For those unfamiliar, Numenera catapults players a billion years into Earth’s future, where characters live in the detritus of incredible advanced civilizations that have come and gone in the many eons between now and then, utilizing wild technology as if it’s magic. Until now, Numenera focused on the characters setting out to uncover and seek out new places and items; Numenera: Destiny still encourages exploration, but shifts the focus to building and establishing communities, and helping to pull the world up out of ignorance and into knowledge.

New character types focus on those themes of growth, leadership, and defense, grounding PCs in a group, city, or locale for focused role-playing and an ongoing interconnected narrative. Build bases and vehicles. Establish a university or church. Embrace crafting and concoct new cyphers. For Star Trek enthusiasts, if the original Numenera (and its Discovery revision) is Voyager, then Destiny is a bit like Deep Space Nine. It’s a wonderful twist on expectation, and a surprising evolution of an already excellent game system.

Star Crossed

Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
Who’s it for? Experimental role-players ready to explore the vulnerability (and frequent hilarity) of forbidden romance

Some readers may recall a remarkable game from the mid-2000s called Dread; the horror RPG encouraged players to live out a horror storyline, pulling blocks from a Jenga tower to emulate moments of narrative terror. Star Crossed takes that concept in an entirely different direction; two players take on the role of individuals who are desperately attracted to one another, but for one reason or another, they cannot act on their mutual desire.

Perhaps you control two princesses from warring galactic dynasties whose only wish is to float off into space together. Maybe you encounter your soulmate, but she is queen and wife to your best friend, the king. Did you accidentally fall for the nascent artificial intelligence you just helped create? What will you do?

As the story of your impossible romance unfolds, discrete moments will ratchet up the tension and attraction between you and your partner across the table, necessitating a pulled block from the wooden tower. If the tower falls, you give in to your ill-advised desire, and the game’s rules help determine how it all turns out.

Star Crossed is a fascinating two-player RPG that has obvious value if you and your romantic partner are both into the hobby, but particularly comfortable friends could also get a big kick out of the experience, perhaps even with an audience. While it’s frequently funny and ridiculous, Star Crossed can also be melancholy, tragic, and sexy, sometimes all in the same game. This is a game that is meant to make you feel uncomfortable and surprised, and its greatest triumph is how well it emulates that feeling of not knowing if it’s going to work out with someone.

This crowd-funded project released to backers already this year to secure consideration here, but watch for a broader release in the coming months.

Starfinder: Pact Worlds

Publisher: Paizo
Who’s it for? Established players of this sci-fi/fantasy RPG who are ready for a deeper dive into this richly drawn universe

The Starfinder Core Rulebook was one of my top picks from 2017, and that’s definitely the place to start if you want to invest in this awesome RPG. There, you can wrap your head around this sci-fi setting, which sees the high fantasy of the Pathfinder role-playing game catapulted into the distant spacefaring future. If you shared my delight at the creativity and depth on offer in that initial book, the Pact Worlds book is the next step on your discovery of the universe.

While Starfinder campaigns can sprawl across distant stars and other strange locales, the centerpiece locations of play are the 14 planets of the Pact Worlds. Sketched in brief in the Core Rulebook, this new Pact Worlds book offers far more detail to help fuel your session planning. I love the focus on distinct alien cultures, the details of which make for the fictional texture that helps bring a game night to life.

Beyond fleshing out the individual worlds, Pact Worlds offers tons of new options for players, including new archetypes, starships, character themes, and even new races, including the chance to play as a plant! Starfinder is one of the most flexible new game systems of recent years, and this supplement proves it has the flexibility to continue its growth.

Vampire: The Masquerade: 5th Edition

Publisher: Modiphius
Who’s it for? Gothic enthusiasts willing to explore the darker side of the role-playing spectrum

Vampire has a long and tortuous history in the role-playing world, with its many incarnations spawning equally varied opinions. It’s enough to understand that the game has always appealed to a specific niche in the gaming community, for whom heroic adventuring isn’t nearly as interesting as an exploration of darker storylines about politicking cabals, the melancholy of immortality, and the unceasing hunger for the forbidden. If that sounds intriguing, the new 5th edition is a beautifully crafted entryway into a vast fiction.

You play a Kindred, a vampire living on the edge between your need for blood and a humanity that is quickly fading in the rear view mirror. In many ways, Vampire: The Masquerade’s focus on story-over-rules was ahead of its time; that trait remains consistent in the new edition, letting groups set their own approach to play to match how much dice rolling they want to do (if any). My favorite aspect of the game is the Memoriam concept, which sets aside dedicated opportunities mid-session for your immortal being to cast back into his or her memory, and relive essential moments from decades or even centuries earlier. For returning players, the 5th edition also advances the metaplot of the universe up to today, offering new fertile ground for conspiracy-laden tales.

Decidedly mature themes about blood, sexuality, and corruption weave throughout Vampire, and it’s not a game for everyone. For those who are ready for its horror vibe, the new 5th edition is a thoughtful streamlining and well-organized synthesis of what makes this such a nuanced universe.

The role-playing landscape is richer than it has ever been, and this year’s selections only scratch the surface of what’s available. If you’re looking for a new RPG to try, or if you’re looking to get into the hobby for the first time, feel free to drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to offer some personalized recommendations. You should also feel free to peruse the backlog of Top of the Table by clicking into the banner below, where you’ll encounter several other role-playing games that might strike a match in your imagination.