Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Best Roleplaying Games (You've Probably Never Heard Of)

Pathfinder. The World of Darkness. Call of Cthulhu. All Flesh Must be Eaten. These are the heavy-hitters every gamer has at least heard of, even if it isn't a particular player's game of choice. However, it's important to remember that while these might be some of the most popular games on the market, they are far from the only games available. For players looking for something a little bit different though, Improved Initiative is here to point you toward what might become your new favorite games.


Boy is it ever.

Originally released as part of the D20 Modern series, and re-released by Fantasy Flight Games with a stream-lined and simplified rule system, Grimm is a game of terrible tales and adolescent adventure. Players take on the roles of children (no younger than 9 and no older than 12) who have passed into the Grimm Lands; a place full of every monster and myth the brothers Grimm sentenced into their book of stories. They have to travel through the checkerboard kingdoms, seek out ancient items of power and try to find their way back home again.

Grimm's major advantages, aside from the great flavor of the world and the novelty of playing children who can take things like "Bully" and "Dreamer" as classes, is that the system is simple and easy to both play and run. There's no XP to grant at the end of a session, there's no complex feat choices, and all of a character's abilities are very simple and straightforward. All players, and the storyteller, need are two six-sided dice and the base handbook. That makes Grimm a relatively cheap investment, in addition to being something that can almost literally be run at the drop of a hat.

Lastly, and I feel this must be said, Grimm can be as dark or as cutesy as you want. If you want to have a Disney-fied game because players are a little younger, then that's perfectly possible. However, the game itself trends toward the dark and the traditional, with child-eating witches, murderous lunatics, and capricious magic that end up destroying sanity and warping flesh. Just because characters are children, that doesn't make this a children's game.


D20 Shaken, Not Stirred

For players who want to get more use out of their dodecahedrons, Spycraft is a game that's gotten very little love over the years. Whether someone wants a full-on "Mission Impossible" style team, or they want to take their cues from shows like "Leverage", Spycraft is the ideal game for players who would like something a little more complicated than just kicking in the door and killing the monsters.

What this game lacks in knights in shining armor it more than makes up for in the variety of roles and the sheer possibility of missions. Storytellers can run a Call of Cthulhu style game where government agents send in investigation teams to uncover and deal with extraterrestrial encounters and their associated cults of worshipers. On the other hand it's equally possible to run a Hong Kong action theater style game where a team of mercenaries goes toe-to-toe with a drug cartel in an exotic locale. The Cold War, World War II, Vietnam, nothing is off limits in Spycraft. The system is solid, and it makes a refreshing shift from monsters in dark alleys and riding through the woods to the next goblin raid.


This is how we roll.

XCrawl did something that no other game had ever tried to do before; it combined the dungeon crawling aspects of traditional Dungeons and Dragons with the glamour and drama of professional wrestling. The result is a modern fantasy gladiatorial death match reality TV show that runs of the base of any D20 system the storyteller prefers to run.

In all fairness, XCrawl is less of a game and more of a skin. It can work with any edition of Dungeons and Dragons, but it can also be paired with D20 Modern, Pathfinder, or any of a number of other systems. If it involves a 20-sided die and all of its compatriots, then XCrawl can invigorate players' imaginations and present them with something so far outside their normal sphere of play that it gets their hearts pumping while it kicks their roleplaying up a notch. The game requires showmanship, number crunching, and a dose of off-the-cuff bravado, but if a party can put that together the results will be stories that get told for a long, long time.


It is exactly what you think it is.

The last entry on this particular installation (I'm sure there will be others) is Pie Shop. For those of you who've seen Sweeney Todd, the title is a bit of a spoiler. You play a serial killer; that's it. There's no magic powers, no higher goal, you're just a group of deranged sociopaths looking to let a little blood and have a good time.

Pie Shop is refreshing in its sheer brutality... but it has one fatal flaw (aside from not being able to find the book too terribly easily). That flaw is that getting a group of serial murderers to all work together, unless they have a shared psychosis, is really difficult. The very act of creating a plot can sometimes mean putting together a scenario so ridiculous that it undermines the realism of the game. The government is capturing serial killers and using them as black ops agents? Sure! The mafia is recruiting dangerous, unpredictable mentally ill murderers as a special hit man squad? Eh, why not?

On that note though, if a storyteller can get over the hump of finding the right premise, Pie Shop is a game unlike anything else out there.

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