2021 Top 5 RPG Roundup!


This is an unofficial community-wide Top Five roundup. Please post your personal 5 favorite RPG discoveries for the past year. Feel free to reference the 2021 Ennie Awards results to refresh your memory, but let’s see some variety! And you don’t have to number your choices; this “ranking” is just for fun. Some rough criteria:

  • Inspiration Matters - you can include full games, adventure modules or supplements, dice or miniatures, physical or digital tools, podcasts, blogs, or basically anything that has consistently inspired your play experience. Just make sure that it might be of interest to others in the Cauldron community, and please keep your list to only 5 items total. :slight_smile:

  • Experience Matters - bonus points if you used it at the table – let us know how much it mattered in actual play!

  • New To Me - your picks don’t have to be new, per se – just new to your personal experience of RPGs.

  • No Self-Promotion - please and thank you. Let’s spread the love with these lists!

My own Top 5 –

  1. Stygian Library by Emmy Allen – I ran about 8 sessions, with my weekly home group and a one-shot online. This has impacted my play more than anything else this year, in terms of sharpening my improv skills.
  2. Stonetop by @Jeremy_Strandberg – this new DW variant is still in late development, but I’ve used the Kickstarter preview edition for many months. It has influenced our group’s culture to think more deeply about how the PCs’ actions can always have consequences for people back in their home village.
  3. Mork Borg, the Swedish death metal RPG – for onboarding new players, I’ve had strong success with this light over-the-top game. I resisted the silliness of it for a while, but the system is honestly refreshing – somewhere between Knave and The Black Hack for ease of use.
  4. Large Dice from ViridianGaming – these are my current favorites. At 22mm they are noticeably bigger than standard, extremely easy to read from a distance. The “glittery” ones look like shiny metal, but they’re made of light, affordable acrylic. This series is vaguely superhero-themed: Robin, Beast, Spider-Gwen, etc.
  5. Portable magnetic Dry Erase Board – I have used this more than any physical RPG tool this year. The grid lines are faint, but very clutch for drawing dungeon maps with straight lines. There’s also a smaller 12x16 version. School supplies are great for gamers, too!
  • Holdfast Station by @Michael - It really helped me get into the groove of asking leading questions. I’m still learning to make them on the fly, but with some forethought I can now ask some good questions that build the narrative collaboratively.
  • WoDu Remix by @Tam - Remix showed me, not just told me, that it is possible to have deep, rich character creation without putting more load on the GM.
  • Trophy Dark by Jesse Ross - Trophy taught me that it’s fun to lose, as well as fun to self-sabotage.
  • Wanderhome by Possum Creek Games - Wanderhome made me realize I don’t need all games to be doom and gloom.
  • Necronautilus by Adam Vass - This game showed me that using your character sheet as a tool, not a solution, is a great solution to my common problem of not wanting players to rely on their character sheets.

These are the first 5 that popped into my head. I’m very surprised to see that all but Necronautilus are PbtA descendants, but all pretty much storygames. Maybe I’ll make a post exploring that, and maybe I’m not as OSR as I thought I was.


I haven’t gotten to play a broad range of new games this year, but from a combo of reading and a few one shots, my picks are…

ARC — Timed adventures with clearly foregrounded stakes and lots of great ideas. In particular, I’m a fan of how combat is ordered.

Blood Heist — Sort of a fast-and-ready Blades In the Dark, All Vampires Edition. Again, lots of great ideas and a distinct POV on how to run it.

DURF — Super-lite dungeon crawling with a breezy aesthetic, built for modding.

Haunted Almanac — Okay, so not entirely new, but the design is fantastic, and the announcement dropped at almost exactly the moment I was thinking I should buy a bunch of HPS stuff, so the timing was also top-notch.

Liminal Horror — Cairn, but the Ito is Junji, not Into the Odd. Adds stress and an occult magic generator to give backbone to modern cosmic horror investigations.

That’s the new stuff. The big new-to-me game was Blades In the Dark, which there’s probably no need to explain, but which I’m genuinely enamored with.


So here’s mine:

I stopped playing ttrpgs around the time 3e came out and got back into playing during the covid lockdown in 2020. 2021 was the year I found the old school/new school renaissance.

1 - Knock 1 & 2 by Merry Mushmen. Knock 1 was so incredibly cool to me that I got a map published in Knock 2, and can’t wait for Knock 3. Chefs Kiss. I can’t recommend Knock highly enough. Must have status.

2 - Mothership. Playing in a 20 characters x 5 player funnel of Mothership might have been the hardest I laughed in 2021, def the hardest I’ve laughed in an rpg this year.

3 - Vaesen - The first non-dnd system I played in 20+ years. Both the setting and the mechanics were fresh air to “standard Fantasy” games. The art is incredible and the new Celtic/Anglo expansion set looks amazing.

4 - Patrick Stuart - Veins of the Earth and Fire on the Velvet Horizon were some of the first OSR titles I came across and OMG there’s an entire campaign idea spark on every page and Scrap Princess’ art is so chaotic…

5 - Beggartok - I stumbled into a community of indie rpg fanatics based on TikTok (#beggartok) that’s an offshoot of a Facebook group titled “I’m begging you to play another game (that’s not 5e)”. The folks on Beggartok, especially the discord channel folks, are 100% of the reason I play so many games and stay active in “the scene”. That discord is how I ended up here!

Honorable Mentions:
-Cairn rpg, didn’t discover it until November but it’s going to be my go-to for 1-shots (it’s replacing Knave)

  • Into the Wyrd & Wild - a cool fairy/Appalachian inspired horror BX/horror suppliment by Wet Ink Games
  • Book of Gaub - a cool spell book that would fit in a grimdark/Mork Borg setting that looks like an antique annotated bible by Lost Pages

This year was pretty big for me, in terms of indie rpg stuff. Before this year all I’ve played was D&D 3.5, 4e, and 5e, as well as Pathfinder and Call of Chtulhu and a curiosity about Mutant Year Zero. A lot of these are gonna be new to me entries, but it seems to have been a good year overall

  1. Online Play Platforms

If it wasn’t for Discord and Roll20, I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to play a bulk of the games I’ve gotten to dabble with, as well as discussing games via discord servers and other forms of social media

  1. Mörk Borg

The first non D&D/Pathfinder rpg purchase I made, introduced to me via Runehammer and reinforced by other channels like Questing Beast as a very flavorful departure from the standard fantasy fare that I’d become accustomed to (and still enjoy!). It’s also been a huge hit with everyone I’ve introduced it to, especially as a contrast for people accustomed to 3.x-style play

  1. ZineQuest

Stumbling onto ZineQuest this year was eye-opening. So much content for so many games and styles of play for me to soak in and consider. At the end of year, it’s been interesting to reflect on what I’ve backed from it, what I’ve used, what I’ve enjoyed, and what I regret not backing

  1. Mothership

Horror RPGs and Sci-Fi RPGs are areas I haven’t gotten much experience with, and Mothership is a great marriage of the 2. Streamlining the D% Roll-under system I learned from Call of Cthulhu made character generation pretty smooth in comparison, and other compelling mechanics around life and stress were really cool

  1. Cairn/The Black Hack

I’m putting these two here because the appeal here is on similar levels. The Black Hack because of what it does with a b/x frame, and how it lends itself to being hacked and messed with. I heard of Mecha Hack before Black Hack, which goes to show how it’s allowed others to breathe new life into a very great skeleton.

Cairn, similarly, is huge for me because of the hacking and hackability of it. While beforehand I was nervous to break the balance of 5e by importing rules for Masterwork equipment (not magical, but better than normal) from Pathfinder, but Cairn, and really all the games I’ve mentioned above, have allowed me to give myself permission to just throw usage dice into everything, for example, and together with ZineQuest give me the confidence to start homebrewing and messing with mechanics and it’s all been huge for my confidence in general

So, yeah, good year.

I might add some honorable mentions as. I ponder this more, too.


Online play platforms = super clutch for 2021. Totally agreed!

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Ooh! Tricky to pick a top five that I played in 2021 excluding my own games (I ran and played a lot of my own games) but I’ll put something together here:

Tales from the Low Cantrefs—my Game of the Year (see the Gauntlet Podcast episode). A brilliant little PbtA game of hearth fantasy coming-of-age stories. I’ve run it twice and played it twice, and told wonderful stories each time. In-development from Luke Jordan of Games from the Wild Wood. I wrote about it twice on my Substack, here and here.
Rebel Crown—an exciting FitD game of feudal politics and seizing your rightful throne. We played a two-month campaign using the shorter Oak campaign framework. We still had to jump ahead by a year of in-game time to finish out the battle for the crown—but the time jump itself was a super fun mechanic that introduced cool new twists into our story. The game is from Michael Dunn-O’Connnor and Eric Swanson. I wrote about the game here.
Bite Marks—an emotional PbtA game of messy werewolf pack dynamics. I ran a fun four-session series set not in the modern day (which seems to be game’s default setting) but on the gothic horror plane of Innistrad from the lore of Magic: The Gathering. The game stood up to the setting shift, and the werewolves indeed had a lot of intra-pack drama. From Becky Annison of Black Armada Games. I wrote about my series here.
Apocalypse Keys—Hellboy-inspired, PbtA game of monstrous agents fighting back against the darkness and wrestling with their big, dramatic emotions. This game creates huge moments! As a GM (Keeper in this game), I could never predict how volatile things would get as my players wielded their terrifying powers and bared their beating hearts. Designed by Rae Nedjani of SwordQueenGames, and forthcoming from Evil Hat. I wrote about my series here.
Alice is Missing—An extremely unique experience: a silent roleplaying game played via text message about a group of friends in a small town searching for their missing friend Alice. There’s a powerful arc over the course of the 90-minute playtime from teenage friction to intense suspense as you approach answers about what has become of Alice. Designed by Spencer Starke and put out by Hunters Entertainment. I wrote about playing it here.


Hmmm… in no particular order

  1. MS Paint Jam and Scissors and Glue Jam for creating spaces for me to create using tools and skills that I actually have. It’s hard to create when you are not an artist, have limited time, and don’t have all the the digital tools.

  2. Waking of Willowby Hall: The first in a series of modules that I have been running for my group. Didn’t expect Scooby Doo vibes but that’s what we got. Now my players compare everything to this module because it is just so damn good!

  3. This post changed the way I see games and has dominated my ttrpg design thought space: Trilemma Adventures: Nothing at the Bottom: MOSAIC Strict RPG Design

  4. Bingo experience points are fun as hell, has no one done this sooner?Bingo Style Experience Points – Githyanki Diaspora

  5. The Bastionland YouTube channel for filling the first look and design discussion video void.


Here’s my top 5, I think. (A lot of overlap with @AlexiSarge, but then, we played together a bunch this year.) this is in chronological order.

  1. Tales from the Low Cantrefs: I ran about 18 sessions of this game in playtest this year, and it’s wonderful. PbtA hearth fantasy coming of age tale in the spirit of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, which was formative for me, along with other YA fantasy. It’s hopeful about finding love and joy in community while being largely pessimistic about the long term future, which is very much where I’m at this day. That bittersweetness is beautiful, and it plays so well.

  2. Urban Shadows 2e: There are changes in 2e that I don’t love, but this remains my favorite PbtA game, and the sessions I ran in 2020 were some of my favorites. A great group playing a game I know backwards and forwards, and exploring new tools hit my sweet spot.

  3. Rebel Crown: Rebel Crown may be a perfect game. It’s tuned to do exactly what it says on the box, succession crisis in a fantasy kingdom. It provides just enough setting info to grab onto, while leaving LOTS of room for the table to make the setting their own. ANd it’s the best distilled write up of core FitD play that I"ve read. A tremendous amount of fun.

  4. Checkpoint Midnight: Awesome PbtA game in playtest about supernatural agents in postwar Vienna. It was another situation where I had a perfect storm of players and game, and we had so much fun! I’m really excited to see how the game develops, and to run/play it again when it des.

  5. Under Hollow Hills: I’ve run about 17 sessions of this game total, 12 this year, and played in another 4 and I’m still not sure I fully grok what it’s doing. But I love it so much. It’s a PbtA game where you play as the members of a fairy circus traveling between fairy and the mortal world performing for different audiences and watching as the world, the PCs and the NPCs change in encounter with each other. Move design is very different from most other PbtA I’ve played (they feel a lot like really condensed Firebrands mini-games, which the Bakers have described as bigger PbtA moves), and I love them so so much.

Two observations here that point towards what I’d like my 2022 to be: 1) These are all games I ran, though I also played a bunch. I’m not sure if I’ve become a person who likes running games more than playing them, if I have more control of games I run, because I’m in charge, and so I end up running the things I’m most excited about, or if it’s just a coincidence, but I’m hoping to be really excited about more games I’m a player in this coming year (starting a 1 on 1 Burning Wheel campaign tomorrow that I’m real excited about and not running, so here’s hoping.)
2) These are all PbtA or Forged in the Dark games, which is largely because that’s what I played in 2021. That isn’t usually the case. There are a ton of NSR/OSR style adventures I want to play and run, and some systems I want to try out. I really want to return the the Hill Cantons and Dolmenwood (and return to my Trillemma Adventures roots!) at some point, probably with Cairn, run some sci-fi with 24XX stuff, so here’s hoping I make that happen more in 2022!


Nice! My copy of Rebel Crown should be arriving in the mail tomorrow I think. :smiley:


From late 2020 through the end of 2021, I 1) discovered and became enthralled by everything FKR, 2) joined a multitude of RPG Discord servers, participated almost exclusively in one (NSR) 3) discovered and became enthralled by PbP games, and played/ran several via Discord, 4) listened to a vast amount of RPG podcasts, and 5) started trying to do actually do some game design.

I didn’t play quite as much as I wanted, but I thought, read and worked on RPGs more than ever before.

Top 5 (in no particular order)

Chris McDowall’s Primordial posts and YouTube vids

After months of reading anything FKR related, I was primed for Primordial. Reading it pulled into focus the way careful descriptive language about the rules of a fictional world can function in game-like ways and structure play, without the assistance of mechanics or quantification.

Lost Bay podcast

I love the way @Iko both probes the analytical thinking of game designers and their more ineffable thoughts and feelings. Each episode of the Lost Bay offered rpg design and play insights, along with glimpses into some of the more personal reasons behind the interviewee’s work.

Jay Dragon, Wanderhome

I agree with @SageDaMage that Wanderhome proved rpgs didn’t have to be all doom and gloom. It also demonstrated how an rpg doesn’t have to be all about drama and action. Observation, quiet conversation, and shared creation can be enough.

Jon Petersen, The Elusive Shift

An intellectual, cultural history of the beginning of role playing games. Opened my eyes to how many of the core RPG ‘problems’ were laid out in the hobby’s first few years. And, more importantly, how role-playing is a set of practices with no clear center, no necessary rules, no single philosophy, rather something giving rise and then quickly eluding definition after definition.

PbPs (on Discord)

I’d never played PbP RPGs before winter 2020, and I discovered I loved the form. It is a totally different experience, more of a short daily practice than an immersive social ritual. It allows for a kind of slow thinking about your shared world and your characters lives that allows it all to take up a quiet consistent residence in your daily mental life.


Wow. Sage, I can’t believe I made that list - Wanderhome is so phenomenal, and Tam’s work I now need to go buy.

I’m currently in final edit, and trying for elegance and true zero prep is a mind-bender. My questions owe everything to For the Queen, which is a master-class in deconstructing RPGs.

Much love!


Thank you! I’m so glad the Bingo XP variant is speaking to you. I’d love to hear how it works if you use it and have the spoons to write a bit about it.

Dyson’s Delves I and II: I’ve owned these books for 7 years now and never used them. Finally, I have a campaign where they are right at the cornerstone and I’m writing on the notes pages. Love it.

Wanderhome: The playbook design and writing is so damned good in this book. Dag. I’m in awe.

The Affinity Software Suite (Designer, Publisher and Photo) and also Canva.com: I love being able to design things for games and blog posts about gaming. Really fun and easy to learn.

Wyrd Science and Knock!: The gaming magazines I always wanted. Love that these cool-ass things exist and that I get to read and use them.

The Dark Iron Hexbreaker Iron d20: Holy shit, this thing looks and feels cool.

  1. 5 Torches Deep - Starts as gritty OSR but the expansions get more wholesome. 5e light.

  2. Broken Compass - Just the most fun I had with an RPG for a long time. So exciting and easy to play.

  3. The One Ring 2e - great continuation of a good RPG line, improved in many places.

  4. Neon City Overdrive - Such a good Cyberpunk system. Light and easy, as I like it.

  5. Vaesen - immaculate style and a nice system. Haven’t dug in too deep yet but will play more soon.

Overall I am inspired by the ease with which new designers create and release top notch games. 2021 felt like a great indie year to me.


I gave Dyson’s Dodecahedron to a friend as a Christmas gift. Great stuff! I should check out the Delves, too.


No particular order here as well!

  1. ARC - Such a beautifully illustrated and laid-out game with great mechanics. I love the real-world clock.

  2. Luka Rejec’s output - Everything Luka put out this year was phenomenal. Longwinter is one of the coolest adventures/settings I’ve run into. Amazing art in everything he does. I can’t wait for SEACAT to come together. It’s already such a cool system.

  3. Cairn - It’s so good, and it really inspired me to make my own game.

  4. DURF - Well-designed, rules-light, and has a bunch of cool stuff from the DURF Jam. What’s not to love?!

  5. Nate Treme’s output this year - definitely culminating in the haunted almanac, which is so cool. It’s one of my favorite books that I own, just a great showcase of how cool of a designer and artist he is. I especially loved Dogtooth Valley!


Oh hey! I didn’t know you are on here!

We just switched over from Gold XP but I will let you know once I have more data!


2021 was a rough year for me in regards to playing new games that really resonated.

I think the two games that were new to me, hit my table AND could make a “best of my year” list were The Skeletons and Mork Borg.

Top five new to me games that I read in 2021 but haven’t hit my table yet (or hadn’t, until 2022):

Brindlewood Bay
Electric Bastionland
The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power

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