Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Prettiest RPGs You've Never Read

There are so many RPGs out there that one can never really be sure where to begin, when deciding to branch out beyond the game or games that initially brought you into the hobby. In my experience that usually means some flavor of Dungeons & Dragons, or White Wolf's Vampire series. It definitely seems like most people enter the role playing hobby through one of these two gateways. It was the D&D Basic series for me, first the Moldvay books, then the Mentzer colored box series. I remember fondly looking at my teenage bookshelf to see all five boxed sets sitting there in their glory. I only wish now that I still had them, for both nostalgia and collectors value. A quality non dented box is really tough to find these days. --And now I think I'm starting to sound like a comic book or action figure collector, so I'll go ahead and stop right there.

Back to the real topic - other games. In the course of my own inter-game explorations, I've come across many systems. One of the properties I have seen vary the most, but consistently improve over the years is the production value, also known scientifically as the "prettiness" of the book. A hard cover with pages that didn't fall out would have been considered great production value 15 years ago. My how things have changed since then. Nowadays, if you aren't pimping it out with full color, non standard sized glossy heavy paper stock, it seems like maybe you just aren't trying hard enough. Or perhaps it is the books that are doing that that are trying too hard? Tough to say. I have seen many beautiful, nay absolutely gorgeous books hit the shelves in the past few years. Several of these have even hit my own shelf. But unfortunately many of them have seemed to meet with no commercial success, and others have not even found critical success, outside of the acknowledgement of their design and production efforts.

It is with this in mind that I present to you some of the prettiest RPGs you've never heard of - all of which are sitting on my shelf right now.

Alpha Omega
A dice pool based primary game mechanic and a free form magic system taking place in a kitchen sink, post apocalyptic earth, in the years just preceding an alien v alien war in which Earth is the central battleground. For me the magic system, and the capability of the game engine to simulate Matrix-Like sequences, in which some actors are immensely faster than others, makes it worth taking a look. The system isn't for everyone, and is definitely on the crunchy side, but I don't find it to be bad crunch.
The monster manual for the game could easily function as a coffee table book of fantasy and sci-fi art, and is worth its purchase price for the inspiration it can lend, if nothing else.
Example Art:
This piece really highlights the tone of the game, showing the remains of Eiffel Tower set in front of the new Arcology, with wild growth all around outside of the fortress of civiliation that is the Arcology.

The Game book: 
The Encountered (The monster book)

Eoris Essence
I first discovered this one at GenCon about 5 years back, and preordered on the spot. They had an interested world idea, in which relative morality would be explored. The meta plot set the forces of god (in this world, a young girl) against well, itself. The idea was that god wants to die. But if she does, will the world cease to exist? "What is more important, god or her creation?" the text wonders. Another home grown system runs this game, focusing on the mental physical and emotional status of the PCs, trying to mechanically enable stress and demeanor along with the players' own role playing.

As with others in this post, the books are simply gorgeous. Set into 2 volumes, one for the game rules the other as a world book, they are both full color, glossy pages, and like Alpha Omega, laid out in hardcover landscape fashion, setting them apart from other books, but also making them handy at the table, since they fit a little better. The books ship in a slip case to contain both volumes as well.

The Books:

Example Art:

Nearly every third page contains a piece of art similar in quality as this!

Hell, even the character sheets are pretty:

Shadows of Esteren
This game may be one you have heard of if you are a Kickstarter junkie like myself. They have launched 2 KS's, and been wildly successful with each, far exceeding their goals. The initial game book is available to all now and in distribution, I believe. I bought a copy directly from the studio at GenCon this past year. A system focused on mystery and terror, and unease is what the creators have tried to create. The game is set within a world of gothic, medieval style horror, enemies and monsters that are equal parts folklore and reality, the games are set are mystery, intrigue, and exploring the areas of the world that men were not meant to see.
The Book:

Example Art: 

Mouse Guard

Mouse Guard is based on the David Petersen comic, using rules based on the cult favorite system The Burning Wheel. Its ideas surrounding a character's beliefs and what they fight for is about as perfect a match you could find for the game of valiant guard mice, who range their lands, standing against nature and enemies alike to protect their realm and those within. A square shaped volume with thick, earth toned colorful pages, it is among my favorites. 
As if the book were not already pretty enough, it is also available as a boxed set with dice, the obligatory GM screen, cards, and tokens to round out the package.

What these games all have in common beyond their beauty is that they are all built on their own unique and independent game systems. The originality of the auhors' vision for their games presentation seems to also come out in their expression of the game rules. I won't pontificate on whether or not the rules are good, bad, or otherwise, but I will note that these games have all had limited success thus far. There are far too many factors to consider as to whether or not rule design takes away from its success, but for the same reason, we cannot say whether or not the games' beauty contributes much to it either.

What do you think?