EZG’s Top Ten of 2016
I know, it’s getting later each and every year. I’m honestly sorry for that, but, in my defense, I do have a lot of ground to cover!
As always, let’s take a look at the rules for my Top Ten: In order to qualify, books may not have won a previous Top Ten spot (being a candidate is okay!), mainly to keep compilations and revisions from popping back up on the list.
Secondly, this list, while containing only excellent books, is very much a representation of my own taste – minor blemishes and the like are less important to me here than how much I enjoyed a given book, though they still need to hold up to my rather strict quality requirements.
Thirdly, I started branching out a lot regarding systems, so this year, we’re no longer looking at a pure PFRPG-list. My considerations for candidates do take into account what they do for their respective systems and how they enhance them. It should also be mentioned that competition has never been as fierce as this year – it took me forever to decide the respective places. As always, if I have not yet covered a book that would be potentially eligible for a spot, it’ll qualify for 2017’s list.
First, here are the honorable mentions:
-Eyes of the Stone Thief (13th Age) by Pelgrane Press:
One of the best, most evocative mega-adventures I have ever read, this translates well to other systems and while it has been released in 2015, I only got it last year. This would have made 2015’s list, but this year, competition was incredibly fierce. This a thoroughly amazing mega-adventure and well worth getting – even if you don’t play 13th Age. 13th Age fans should consider this to be THE must-own adventure.
-Letters from the Flaming Crab: Household Magic Catalog (PFRPG) by Flaming Crab Games:
I have never seen a product with such a dedicated and effective layout; if you need further testament to why a good layout is important, look no further than this gem. There is literally no better example of how you can elevate a relatively simple, conceptual pitch with layout, art and presentation.
-Last Gasp (5e) by Kobold Press:
This module was an eye-opener for me, showcasing the cool and distinct things you can do with 5e’s engine. This humble little module sets the bar higher for what I expect from a 5e-module and highlights perfectly the potential of 5e for roleplaying, of how its engine can be used to tell amazing stories.
-Wrath of the River King (PFRPG) by Kobold Press:
One of the best system-conversions I have read in a long time; a thoroughly amazing module and on any other year, this would have made my list. If you even remotely enjoy Midgard, fey or fairy tale-style modules, then consider this a must-purchase.
–The Rhûne: Dawn of Twilight Campaign Guide (PFRPG) by Storm Bunny Studios:
This may very well be my favorite campaign setting in a long, long while. Rhûne is mighty, evocative and absolutely glorious. If its editing was tighter and if its okay, but not too mind-blowing class-options were up to the awesomeness of the tech-rules and the glorious prose, this could have made number #1. I’m not kidding. If you haven’t checked this out, do it right now.
All right, got that? Great! Without further ado, here is what blew my mind in 2016!
#10 Four Horsemen Present: Mythic Kingdoms (PFRPG) by Rogue Genius Games
If you’re a busy forumite, you probably won’t be surprised by this one. When the Four Horsemen asked what we’d like to see in the future, I replied that we need rules for magical, truly fantastic kingdoms – well, there we go. Seamlessly blending mythic and kingdom building rules, this is not only impressive, Stephen Rowe’s booklet also is extremely evocative. It literally can inspire whole campaigns!
#9 The Tarot Variation (Castle Falkenstein) by Fat Goblin Games:
I am relatively new to Castle Falkenstein and when the Fat Goblin Games crew reactivated the system, I was pretty hesitant. That being said: A) This system needs a new edition RIGHT NOW. B) I have never seen a small, humble pdf enrich a system so thoroughly. The Tarot Variations in this humble booklet enhance the atmosphere of the game and the whole engine, making it more rewarding than it already is. For a buck. Talk about bang-for-buck-ratio. I’m never playing CF without this pdf again.
#8 The Lost Lands: Bard’s Gate (PFRPG/OSR/5e) by Frog God Games
This mighty, powerful city sourcebook makes the simulationalist in me cackle with glee; rules for social standing, owning houses, etc. make Bard’s Gate predisposed for all manner of intrigue and detail. Considering that I really hated the original 3.X-incarnation of the city, this book showcases perfectly why I consider Frog God Games to be a thoroughly amazing company.
#7 Akashic Mysteries (PFRPG) by Dreamscarred Press
Design difficulty. It’s a thing. It’s one thing to make a cookie-cutter archetype. It’s a completely different task to actually make an Incarnum-style system with a vast amount of moving parts work and maintain balance there. Michael Sayre’s Akashic Mysteries manages this monumental task, has camel-people, amazing flavor and ranks as one of my favorite subsystems for any d20-based game ever.
#6 The Assassin: A Modular, Momentum Base Class (PFRPG) by Interjection Games
Bradley Crouch is a brilliant designer. His classes are rewarding, complex and amazing and play in wildly different ways, tweaking ever new engines and innovations out of the PFRPG-chassis. Better yet, they work with high fantasy and really gritty games in equal measure, with pitch-perfect balance. The assassin portrayed here stands out even among his cadre of excellent classes, providing a versatile, extremely fun playing experience for the discerning connoisseur. This is pretty much my favorite PFRPG-class right now. That says it all, right?
#5 Creature Components Volume I (PFRPG) by Playground Adventures
Lavishly illustrated, this book brings more to the game that its simple premise would make you believe, codifying the claws, organs, blood and fur of all those fantastic creatures as items that can be used to enhance magic. You know, like magic’s supposed to act? This humble book vastly enhances the sense of the magical, makes each encounter and its creatures matter more and brings the game closer to a holistic vision of a living, breathing fantasy world. Daniel Marshall’s toe is ridiculously amazing. We need sequels. Plural.
#4 Tome of Beasts (5e) by Kobold Press
I’m a monster-snob. I confess. At this point, I’ve seen so many critters out there, it’s become really hard to impress me. The only reason I get the first bestiary for any game is that I need it for reviewing. I usually end up bored by them. This is where the massive Tome of Beasts comes in: With challenging, diverse foes, a vast assortment of unique beings and truly astonishing creativity, it takes Kobold Press’ impressive canon, expands it and makes 5E more challenging and more rewarding. I’d take this tome over the vanilla Monster Manual any day of the week.
#3 The Dracula Dossier & Dracula Unredacted (GUMSHOE) by Pelgrane Press
You are smart and well-read. So are your players. You are looking for a means to challenge them, their astuteness and minds. You are looking for an epic-length campaign-toolkit. Look no further. This is the Night’s Black Agents system seller campaign, pitting the PCs against a superbly modular and customizable, well-researched Dracula…and it has the most amazing handout I have ever seen: Rewriting the classic Dracula-novel to make it, with annotations and new content that unobtrusively fits in, a massive handout, this saga is purely glorious and is worth getting for the reading pleasure alone.
#2 The Northlands Saga Complete (PFRPG/OSR)
Did this surprise anyone??? If so: Seriously?? A massive, gritty campaign, set against a Sword & Sorcery version of the Northlands, with mass combat, challenging modules and pitch-perfect tone? Surprise, Endy loves it to bits! Kidding aside, even when divorced of my personal preferences, this is a fantastic campaign and a glorious reading experience. The one downside (beyond the “only good” class options in the PG) I can find here is that it ends at one point. If I was rich, I’d throw money at the frogs to write a direct sequel, Northlands Saga II. I mean it. After almost 1000 pages, I still don’t have enough. I’m honestly missing reading a couple of pages before going to bed. I don’t have enough. Just thinking about this book makes me smile.
#1 Seven Sinful Tales (PFRPG) by 4 Dollar Dungeons & Nightmares on Parade (PFRPG) by Playground Adventures
Okay, so I’m cheating! It’s my list! Kidding aside, there is a reason these two books occupy my top slot for this year. They have more in common than you’d think: Both Richard Develyn and Stephen Rowe are superb adventure designers and AUTHORS; their adventures are amazing reading experiences. But these two modules go one step beyond, in that they exemplify, to me, all that is good about roleplaying games – and I don’t mean that exclusively as a measure of quality, but as pertaining the moral concept of goodness, as far as it can be ascribed to forms of media. These two modules have in common that they actually enrich your life by playing them; they teach, unobtrusively, life-lessons. Stephen Rowe’s “Nightmares on Parade” focuses on young gamers and kids (though it still is a blast for adults!), while Richard Develyn’s “Seven Sinful Tales” does the same for adults and adolescents.
Now, yes, all roleplaying games have in common several aspects that enhance the respective person’s skills: Beyond social skills, math, other cultures and history and even languages, these two have something to offer that I have never seen before, they literally make you better for having played them.
Let me elaborate: “Nightmares on Parade”, to me, is a Bildungsmodule – the concept of Bildung does not really translate to English, since it encompasses more than lifelong education and self-improvement. Its connotations speak of an active act of becoming, of consciously forming yourself while being formed, all in the effort to become what you want to be, with an emphasis on humanist ideals, moral integrity and intellectual self-consciousness.
I have never seen a module drive life lessons home this effectively and unobtrusively. If I one day should have kids of my own, this will be on my must-play-list for them.
Richard Develyn’s “Seven Sinful Tales”, in contrast to that, deals to an extent with the disappointment of expectations regarding parents. There is an adage, which states that parents are gods to kids, and I am inclined to believe that to a degree. Now, at one point or another, we, as imperfect human beings, are bound to disappoint our offspring; we are bound to be disappointed by our parents. Heck, chances are you can relate. I know I can.
This module, then, could very well be considered to be a form of therapy, if you will. It depicts, with heart, sympathy and without judging, actions and consequences of parenting (or rather: Lack thereof in some instances) and its pitfalls. It extends a sympathetic hand to troubled youths, can potentially help adults see flaws in their own behavior and does so while portraying a thoroughly versatile, extremely well-crafted adventure. It can offer a form of personal catharsis.
Both of these modules, each in its own way, transcends the limitations of the roleplaying hobby, dares to make a difference, dares to try to make the world a better place. Both are thoroughly immersed in humanist ideals, both are more than enlightening entertainment. They can be just that, sure…but they can also be so much more.
To me, these modules represent a maturing of our hobby – to the realization that our favorite past-time can be more than just an amazing time spent with friends; that the media we consume as part of our playing experience, that we partake in, can leave us as better persons, all while providing more fun than any another medium can hope to convey. These modules, in short, have an inherent intellectual and moral value that makes them, literally, valuable from a Bildungs-perspective. They also represent a diversity of emotions and themes and transcend hitting things with the pointy end of your stick. They are, in short, paragons of their craft and it is my fervent hope that we’ll see more modules with this much moral integrity, this much guts. These belong into the collection of any GM.
All right. I…don’t really know how to end this, so let me close with a heartfelt “Thank you” that goes out to all my readers, all the authors and publishers that send me their work…and in particular, to my patreons.
Without you, my amazing ladies and gentlemen, I couldn’t do this. Without the support my patreons provide, there would be no more endzeitgeist, no new Top Ten, no rambling essays.
I may just be bleep in the internet’s ether, but it is my fervent hope that, at one point or another, I have managed to brighten your day, enrich your games, conveyed some knowledge and, perhaps, made one or two folks out there better designers. I may not be able to do this forever, but, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you all. You are my inspiration, my motivation to keep going. You are the fuel for the fire that burns in my heart. I am very much your creation.