I love when people notice how much I talk about tabletop roleplaying games or a book on my bookshelf catches their eye. This is for the people whose follow-up question is “where do I start?!” These are picks from my bookshelf, based on their aesthetics, my experience playing them, and low cost/time-to-start.
Scum and Villainy
Scum and Villainy comes from a line of games named “Forged in the Dark” - the very first, Blades in the Dark, is a “…game by John Harper about a crew of daring scoundrels seeking their fortunes on the haunted streets of an industrial-fantasy city.” Scum and Villainy takes this idea of scoundrels and heists and puts it in space.
I think FitD games get the closest to replicating what people think TTRPGs are based on those descriptions of “collaborative storytelling” and other pop-culture one-liners. Each roll of the dice brings clearly outlined consequences and the game encourages players to workshop results together. These games are, at their core, all about failure (and I love them so much I wrote part of my dissertation about them - you can read an abridged version here), with each roll asking you to gamble and take higher risks for improved outcomes. Scum and Villainy isn't the easiest game to pick up because of its strong reliance on a creative group and an ability to keep several plates spinning, but it's worth the effort.
This game is perfect for playing pulpy space adventures and heists in the vein of Ocean’s 11, Firefly, and Han Solo. I adapted Mass Effect 2's Stealing Memory for a session of S&V and we had an absolute blast.
Mothership is the indie darling of the moment - this Alien-inspired RPG is all about the horrors of space. Quick to start and play, Mothership pulls no punches in reminding you that your characters are fragile and disposable. Its standout feature is the Stress mechanic which tracks your character’s impending breakdown with a single, unpredictable roll of the dice. I love the vibe of disgruntled union workers set against a backdrop of cold hypercapitalism and bleepy-bloopy, clunky tech.
Despite being relatively new, Mothership’s community sets the gold standard in writing. Many of the modules you’ll find for Mothership completely outmatch most other games with professional writing teams. It's fairly easy to pick up Mothership thanks to its well-designed flow chart of a character sheet, and the rules get out of the way for the most part meaning you can concentrate on the spooks.
Their introductory module, The Haunting of Ypsilon 14, sees players explore a mining asteroid haunted by an invisible body snatcher. We had a fantastic time playing through it - my friends slowly realising miners they'd met and chatted to were disappearing was a tense and deeply unsettling experience.
Mausritter is a joy from to start to finish: its rules are free to read online, though the physical version comes in a box set containing the rules, character sheets, and physical item cards you can use to build out your inventory. Its rules are really easy to grasp, and the item cards make for a tactile character sheet that sets Mausritter apart from other TTRPGs. I'm a sucker for board games with lots of bits and this absolutely delivers on that front.
You also play as mice going on adventures. That’s usually enough to get people hooked!
I've run several sessions of Mausritter at this point and most of them featured very few rolls and relied on the group's ability to come up with clever plans, which made it a great game to pick up while catching up with friends and having a pint and some snacks.
This is the game which swayed me away from D&D. Its heavy metal aesthetic, sardonic tone, and simple rules make it a good one to bring out if you’re just catching up with friends and want to explore the grossest, darkest recess of an apocalyptic world. It’s a proper gross out. I love it.
Much like Mothership, Mörk Borg's community is a joy and the team's strong politics make it a safe space in a way most heavy metal communities aren't.
Old School Essentials
OSE is a modern remake of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It is, at its core, the same game as the one from the 70s, but features modern design sensibilities and lots and lots of quality of life improvements. OSE is about daring adventurers raiding old tombs and trying to leave with as much gold as possible. What I really appreciate about this (and the other two games too!) is that it emphasises playing cleverly over rolling dice: the dice are fallible and can produce bad results where a solid plan doesn't.
Old School Essentials scratches the same itch as playing the OG Tomb Raider games. Corridors of swinging blades, spike pits, and subterranean tigers (??) all make an appearance.
Matt Sanders of Sealed Library publishes games that change the dynamic between Dungeon Masters and Players by making the prep stage entirely collaborative. I’ve got nothing but high praise for We Sail Beyond, a game in which you and your group make the world and the map in which you’re going to play together. I'd thoroughly recommend picking up one or two of these games to go alongside your fantasy game of choice - I've played We Sail Beyond with two different groups now and both times we made a gonzo world that everyone was excited to explore. And it meant I didn't have to do any prep!
This one requires a lot of brain juice and an invested group to play. Dialect is about language and how it dies. Together, you create an “Isolation”, a group of people who’ve become disconnected from the world, be it culturally, ideologically, or geographically. The Isolation will die out at some point, but their language will live on. Each turn you’ll draw from a deck of concepts, and you’ll have to figure out how your Isolation refers to those concepts and how relevant they are to their story.
In my first playthrough, we were a mining commune in the British countryside. Because the Isolation had lived underground, the timbers which held up their tunnels became a sign of safety and solidarity. The phrase “steady timber” became “stimber”, then “stimby”. Stimby is still an affirmation we use amongst ourselves today. This game rules.
Set in post-industrial revolution Sweden, you play as members of “The Society”, a secret organisation capable of seeing and interacting with rogue spirits. This 1800s X-Files, monster-of-the-week game emphasises non-violent problem solving and weird rituals, and features a neat Castle which you can upgrade to give you bonuses on missions. Very spooky and atmospheric.
I played this once and found the system a bit unforgiving - you roll several d6s any time your success isn't guaranteed, and you have to roll at least one 6 to succeed. Rolling several 4s and 5s feels kinda bad! I think part of this was my own inexperience running the game, and I think future sessions would go more smoothly.
This is a rogue suggestion. This game isn't beginner friendly at all. But it's so sexy! The art, the atmosphere, the tone of voice, and the rules all scream character. If you want to dig in to something a bit more complex, Cyberpunk's combat rules (named Friday Night Firefight) will have you roll to see how many bullets you fire, how many of those bullets make contact, where they make contact, and how much damage they do. It's a lot, but the two sessions I ran for friends (with classic Cyberpunk setups like back-alley-drug-deal-gone-wrong and night-club-firefight) were frenetic in the best way, filled with high-stakes, skin-of-your-teeth shootouts.
This is also the game that Cyberpunk 2077 was based on. Written by a Black man with radical politics, this is actual Cyberpunk and not some milquetoast corporate drivel.
It's a lot of work, but it is exhilarating. If you can, I'd recommend running this with a virtual tabletop which can take care of the bookkeeping and rolls for you.