The Top Ten of 2018
Is it that time again? Yep, looks like it – with the by now traditional half a year delay, this is my Top Ten of 2018!
As always, there are a couple of rules: Only products I actually reviewed are featured in the list; any products not yet covered automatically become eligible for partaking in the best of list of 2019. Since I can’t review everything (though I do try!), rest assured that books not featured here still have their chance to show up on future Top Ten lists!
Secondly, compilation products that had a component feature in a previous best-of list are excluded; being a candidate does not suffice, but winning a top ten spot does. The exception to this would be a meaningful expansion and/or revision of the content presented that exceeds 50%. Only raw content counts for this purpose, because I’ve always valued substance over style.
Thirdly, and most importantly – this list is a representation of my personal tastes. More so than my usual reviews, where I strive to be objective, this is a representation of my very personal tastes. Any product on this list is imho worth its price tenfold – they are all, in one way or another, exceptional, and all of them are very much worth owning.
All right, since it’s an exceedingly hot summer and I don’t have air conditioning, without further ado, my Top Ten of 2018:
The Future’s Past AP is shaping up to be a true milestone – so far, it has been an all-killer, genius ride, but since the final adventure hasn’t yet been released, I’m waiting for that; the entire AP will probably receive a spot on a future list. Brilliant and smart, it so far looks like a likely #1-candidate.
And here’s the entry that absolutely nobody ever was surprised by. I’ve never made any pretensions of liking 4e, but similarly, there are design components I adored. Skill Challenges, unsurprisingly, are one of them. I’ve been a huge advocate of them in PFRPG, and seeing them come to SFRPG this early in its life-cycle ultimately meant that the system gained a huge amount of appeal for me. The expert redesign and rules for creating new ones really help the GM integrate the system, and if there was one crunch-book I’d consider to be absolutely essential to my enjoyment of SFRPG to the utmost, this’d be it. Had the Skill Challenge Handbook not won last year’s Top ten, this’d have won this years’ list. Consider this to be on par with a #1 spot.
It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for covenant magic – it has been one of my favorite variant magic systems for a while, right next to pact magic and psionics. This, the definite tome on the subject matter, not only manages to iron out a few snags, it also features expanded content, a streamlined presentation, and an overall appeal that cannot be understated. This is a gem of a rules-supplement, and the only reason it’s not higher on the list is, that I just can’t get enough – I frankly would have loved to see even more. Then again, Porphyra RPG is coming, so here’s to keeping our fingers crossed! Had its components not already featured on my Top ten lists, this’d be a hot contended for the top spots. If you remotely like occult classes, this system is basically the OG of their design paradigms. Check this out!
Sometimes, there are small holes in the rules that irk you to no end. The lack of jury-rigging rules in SFRPG’s core book were such an example for me. There are plenty of repair options, but nothing to represent jury-rigging. This humble pdf delivers and fills that hole – and yes, it’s jury-rigging, not repair – there’s a difference. What’s not to like? Oh, yeah, more jury-rigging options would have been awesome.
Okay, I’ll come out and say it – I really needed something funny this year. Real life has been pretty bleak, and this utterly ridiculous satire-module/setting hits the sweet-spot perfectly for me. It is incredibly playable; no, its humor doesn’t always hit home. But it often does. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but neither is it just a laughingstock of an unusable book; it is very focused on actual use at the table, and is one of the very few genuinely funny such books that works for me. And yes, as a reviewer, I was pretty hard on the poor book, but as a private person? Man, I’d be hard-pressed to mention any book that made me chuckle and even laugh as much as this one did. The absolutely glorious satire-adventure needs to be played to be believed. Oh, and as an aside – this ties the other excellent Hill Cantons-books together.
And sometimes, you happen upon a small and humble ‘zine – you open it, and even if you’ve been expecting the highest quality content, as I have, you’re still blown away. Wormskin has been a true joy to read, and the eight installment can be considered to be the pinnacle of the series so far, even surpassing the exceedingly high expectations I had of the series. This also has one of the most disturbing creatures I’ve read in a while – particularly when contrasted with the exceedingly cute artwork.
I have always valued innovation rather highly, and any sense of jamais-vu paired with a great gaming experience is something I really appreciate and adore. This lovingly-crafted homage allows you to play a King’s Quest-style pen and paper puzzle rpg, and represents a formula I love. Kid-friendly, creative and somewhat bonkers, this is a truly unique book, one that works particularly well in its 5e-iteration. For once, embark on a wondrous quest that is a delightful trip down memory lane that rewards brains and unconventional thinking over brawns.
I am a foodie. I cook, because I don’t like frozen food; I know the best restaurants around, and I’m one of the guys who’ll eat ramen for a week just to be able to afford this one super-deluxe steak or top-tier sushi-binge. Quality food makes me genuinely happy, and thinking about e.g. my time in New Orleans makes my mouth water. As such, I not only enjoyed the Culinary Magic Cookbook and the rules for its recipes, I also absolutely adore how it managed to also broaden my culinary horizon. I’d love to see sequels! Do yourself a favor – banish those Doritos and cook something proper for your table!
I absolutely ADORE both the Tome of Beasts by Kobold Press, and the Creature Components series. What happens when they meet? Genius, that’s what. The brilliant notion of harvesting defeated creatures for their components is just as strong as ever, and with panache aplomb, this wrings a whole new facet of coolness from the much-beloved Tome of Beasts. What’s not to love?
A masterstroke of a modular toolkit, Legendary Fighters manages to not only present a vast assortment of tweaks and options for the fighter, it teaches the reader about shortcomings of the base class, explains its design decisions and allows you to make informed choices about which components you’ll want to implement, and to what effect. This, in short, represents a formal revolution of the presentation of class redesign books, teaching the reader to make informed choices. I love this book to bits.
And sometimes, something weird happens. Like, you think that you’ve seen all that a rules-lite game has to offer, that an engine can provide – and then, suddenly, this small, humble pdf flutters right on top your virtual desk. It’s branded as a Sabrina-themed supplement, and you don’t expect that much – only to have your mind duly blown. This supplement is much more than a Sabrina-tie-in for Vs. Stranger Stuff Season 2 – it is a smart, concisely-presented and well-crafted spellcasting engine that borders on genius. It vastly enhances the appeal of VsM Engine-based games for me, and does so with panache aplomb. If you even remotely enjoy the VsM-games, get this. It’s absolutely essential.
I can’t recall when I’ve last seen a system this simple, and yet this powerful. This humble mini-game has it all – its presentation is beautiful; its rules are easy to explain and to adapt into a wide variety of contexts, and it inspires. I can’t recall when I last felt this compelled to start writing and expanding a given system. This is basically a remedy for writer’s block, as far as I’m concerned. If anything, it has one weakness – it sells itself short, arbitrarily restricting itself to a narrow vision. With 20 more pages, this could have expanded its vision to encompass literally almost everything regarding winter survival. With even the most rudimentary of design skills, you not only can adapt this to pretty much any game, you can also expand upon it – the engine could carry sagas à la Frostpunk or Banner Saga without any issues, and even high fantasy food creation via magic can be accounted for rather easily by playing a numbers game. Heck, you could combine this with a kingdom-building engine and make it about surviving an ice age. Or, you know, you can just use it as provided – it works perfectly well in its presented form. But…you know, it has so much more to offer. You know you want to tease more out of it. This is a true hidden gem.
And sometimes, a book comes out of left field and utterly rocks your world.
When this campaign setting/engine-hack for PFRPG was first announced, I have to admit to not being that blown away. A 7-level-based horror/occult-themed setting in our modern world? Why bother with a d20-engine at all?
I mean, d20 Modern etc. worked fine, I guess, but they never managed to truly excite me. And Storm Bunny Studios so far had genius settings, sure, but rules-wise? Less impressive.
Neither the prospect of the mechanics, nor managed past d20 Modern games to blow me away, so this vanished for a long time in the depths of my hard drive. When I read it, I was genuinely surprised and blown away.
The genius of this book like in a variety of aspects. For one, its rules-tweaks, from armor to how magic (and the reaction to it) behaves, are exceedingly smart. More importantly, it champions a singularly exciting vision and sticks to it in all meticulous aspects of its world-building, in all of the cultural components that suffuse this strange take on our world.
This book is not perfect. Not by a long run. There are inconsistencies, like a missing feat and the like; and some of them are painful; frankly, on a neutral level, I shouldn’t enjoy or like this book half as much as I actually do. But it has managed to execute a playstyle with a d20-based game that I have never seen done even remotely this well before. This game (and, let’s face it – it is its own game in all but name and reference of PFRPG-rules!), in view of its lackluster kickstarter performance, could have languished as a half-baked minimum-effort book, and yet, that’s not what happened here – we have since its inception seen plenty of supplements released, and the book, in its detailed construction, in its razor-sharp focus, oozes passion, a sense of genuine faith in the execution of this vision.
Passion by the buckets. From the visuals to the themes, this book showcases not only a ton of effort that went into it, it also presents one of the most sensible and easily adaptable takes on the subject matter that you could fathom.
In hindsight, I am crestfallen I haven’t started reading this earlier – from Dresden Files to Joel Lane’s brilliant visions to Clinton Boomer’s “The Hole Behind Midnight” to Persona to Esoterrorists or Fear Itself, this setting can account for all things I love about (dark) fantasy and horror in a modern context. The book also didn’t just use “occult” as a stupid tag; it really is a leitmotif for the entirety of this singularly unique vision. Even if you’ve grown bored with Pathfinder’s first edition, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out this book. It’s a stand-out achievement that has triumphed over adversity, courtesy of genuine passion for a vision; it may not be perfect, but few books have made me, time and again, smile and nod knowingly as they tick off, both in narrative and design, check-box after check-box of things I wanted to see from such a tome. It has made a system that I’ve known for years feel fresh and novel again, all courtesy of its vision.
Okay, so that’s it – my personal Top Ten of 2018. I’d like to take a moment and thank all the designers that create; all the layout artists; all the developers; all the editors; all the publishers – you create the magic that enriches our games, you create the joy that suffuses our lives. I’d also like to thank all my readers and my patreon supporters in particular, as well as everyone who has in the past, or plans to support my patreon in the future; everyone who has sent me books, donations, or kind words: Thank you. Finally, my thanks go out to all the amazing people playing roleplaying games all over the world – may your stories resound through your lives, and if you will, I’d consider myself honored if you thought about me once in a while.
Thank you for your support, your kindness, and your passion. I can’t properly express what you all mean to me.