Never underestimate the indie gaming community’s capacity to rally behind worthy causes. In Q1 of 2022, three huge bundles raised funds to support charities addressing pressing crises:
- TTRPGs for Trans Rights in Texas! launched in response to Texas’ anti-trans legislation and donated proceeds to Transgender Education Network of Texas and Organización Latina de Trans en Texas.
- Bundle for Ukraine collected donations for International Medical Corps and Voices of Children, both working in the midst of Russia’s war of aggression.
- The TTRPG Community Stands with Ukraine Bundle, also in response to Russia’s military action, gathered funds for the Canadian Red Cross Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis Appeal.
For a minimum of $20 all together, these bundles collectively contained over 1,500 downloads—and that’s a whole lot of content. Over the last few days, I’ve waded through the rosters, grabbed a bunch of stuff that caught my eye, and now I’m going to share some of my top picks.
Bundle for Ukraine in particular also contained videogames as well as creator resources and zines with nonfiction articles. To keep this post manageable, I limited my scope to TTRPGs and specifically short, standalone titles from smaller designers. I’ve focused primarily on games that use novel materials and resolution mechanics or with striking graphic design and layouts, but I’ve also included some with particularly clever or cute concepts as well.
Enough exposition. Let’s get to the games.
Sean Patrick Cain
Being a champion chess player sounds awesome, right? Unfortunately, it’s also a lot of work—unless you’re playing Fake Chess.
The game uses a chessboard to track progress, but players won’t actually have to compose or counter complex strategies. They just pick a game (a board layout) and then, on each turn, mark a square and move a piece. If you make in-character actions, you can choose an advantage to gain a strategic edge over your opponent.
It’s all the fun of being a grandmaster without any of the actual, y’know, work.
And if chess isn’t your thing but you like the idea of incorporating traditional games into RPGs, I submit for your approval…
Mirella Machacoses, Aryanna CTHK
Do You Remember That Day? uses dominoes as its resolution mechanic. Players take on the role of old folks in a Spanish bar on a Sunday afternoon. They’ll play a game of dominoes, and they’ll collectively recall a fantastic, shared story. The pieces they lay down will influence that story’s course and their characters’ relationships.
Gameplay, like the premise, will put you in mind of a warm, languid afternoon spent with old friends and cool drinks. The pamphlet includes instructions for actually playing dominoes, which is great for someone like me who’s never done anything with dominoes besides stack them into little towers and then use Godzilla toys to knock them over.
And speaking of stacking and knocking, how about…
This game wears its premise on its sleeve: you’re going to smash the system. Your characters will sneak into corporate HQs, rifle through secret files, sabotage infrastructure, and give those naughty oligarchs what-for.
To accomplish all this, players stack dice in towers. If their tower accidentally falls, they’ll count the 1s showing, and the quantity will determine how badly they’ve screwed up. Players also have the option of intentionally knocking their tower over in a blaze of glory, and the number of 6s determine how great an impact their actions have. (Dice flung clear of the table automatically count as 6s, so be sure to smash as hard as you can.)
Be honest—would you really rather roll than smash and slam? Of course not. And that brings me to the next game…
In Punch Town, you can punch all your problems away. It might be a tangible nemesis like the schoolyard bully, or it may be something abstract like social anxiety. Whatever troubles you, rest assured that you can punch it until it troubles you no more.
Play begins with creating characters and collaboratively describing Punch Town. After that, the action begins, and the punches start flying.
Punch Town’s cheeky approach extends beyond the premise, though. You’re not going to roll dice to hit. Instead, the non-puncher characters will use wooden blocks to build structures that represent the conflict, and then the puncher will fling their own blocks at those structures and try to knock them down.
This kinetic resolution mechanic is a clever inversion of standard block-tower suspense games where you want the tower to stay standing. Here, it’s all about using brute force to solve your problems.
If you want to take a more smarmy and lowdown approach to solving your problems, though, you may like…
Monte D. Monteleagre
This is a minimalist game about horrible people. The Trash Licker in Charge (GM) will put them in horrible situations, and they’ll do horrible things using their two stats (Getting into Trouble and Getting Out of Trouble).
Depending on cumulative success or failure, any given Shitbird may change their ways and stop being horrible, or they will persist in being a Shitbird and become too horrible for even the other Shitbirds to stand. Either way, they’ll exit the group and another Shitbird will take their place—you guessed it—being a horrible person doing horrible things.
If you’ve ever dreamed of playing out your own Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia storylines, this is the game for you. You’re still a Shitbird, though.
If you’d rather do horrible things in a (slightly) less realistic setting, turn to…
In the distant hyperfuture of the year 2022, you play a reaper. You harvest organs. You drop the organs into the post. You get paid. You use your money to pay bills. But the bills never end, so it’s time to go harvest some more organs.
Burnout Reaper is not an optimistic game, but the writing is rife with black humor that keeps the tone from being too terribly oppressive. Besides being fun to read, it’s delightful to look at. The instruction and character sheets are crowded and busy, recalling Tristan Tzara’s advertising-inspired visual poetry and beautifully fitting the capitalist dystopian setting.
Is all this talk of working for a living getting you down? Take a break with…
This is another solo game, but instead of writing, it leans into arts and crafts. Play follows from the premise that you’re sitting at your desk when a small being pays you a visit and distracts you with various demands—drawing a picture of them, building a tiny home from office-space materials, and similar small diversions.
The game’s instructions and prompts use a no-frills visual presentation, which aligns nicely with the mundane character of most workspaces. The various sections are hyperlinked, making it easy to move back and forth from work to new activities.
On the other hand, if you’re sick of being stuck at the office, some recreation is in order. That means it’s time for…
As you may already suspect, this game is strongly inspired by The Big Lebowski, and that alone warrants its inclusion on this list. But thee dudes go bowling is way more than a riff on a great film. It’s a somber-yet-absurd game of relationships and reflections.
And it’s about bowling, of course. On each player’s turn, they roll a d10; the result will determine their bowling score as well as the course their conversation takes, and it will influence the intrusion that occurs at the game’s midpoint. It’s a simple, straightforward mechanic that elegantly marries the game’s manifest content with its true substance.
The writing is full of dry humor and entertaining digressions, and its extreme prejudice against capitalization contributes to the irreverent and rather melancholy tone. Trust me—it’s worth your time even if you don’t like bowling or dudes.
And if you really don’t like dudes and want to see them suffer, you should consider playing…
In this setting- and genre-neutral game, players and characters both huddle around a fast-failing light source. Characters strive to survive until dawn. (They won’t.) Players sit around a tea light, narrate short scenes, and then answer questions that elaborate on the action.
Conflicts are resolved by rolling dice, but the rolls’ numerical results are inconsequential; instead, players try to roll on a mandala placed beneath the tea light (a good outcome) but without hitting the candle or another die or letting their die land in the shadow of another die (bad outcomes).
When the tea light burns out or all game tokens are distributed, everyone dies.
This isn’t a particularly happy game, but the premise and the mechanics make it a compelling one. It runs about an hour and a half to two hours (your tea light’s mileage may vary), so if you have time left over, you may want to pair it with another, more uplifting game like…
Lynne M. Meyer
Unleashed’s subtitle says it all: it’s a game of playful pets. It’s designed for two humans, though more can join in as a GM or audience members. The characters are a cat and a dog who spend a day getting into mischief like sneaking outside, stealing food and toys, and visiting friends. They’ll run into distractions like other neighborhood pets, sprinklers, and hairballs, but they may luck out and get some extra treats along the way.
The tone is thoroughly lighthearted and fun. The mechanics are very simple and intuitive, and a session can encompass as many or as few hijinks as the players want, making it perfect for any pick-up-and-play occasion.
But for a more serious and visceral pick-up-and-play experience, try…
If you’re looking for an accessible Bloodbornesque tabletop experience, look no further. (There are probably others, of course, but they weren’t in any of the bundles, so I’ll have to talk about them another time.)
Bloodstone is packaged in just two beautifully designed pamphlets. The Hunter’s Scroll provides fast character-creation rules and play mechanics for a dark, dismal night spent hunting a powerful foe through a decrepit city. The Game Master’s Scroll provides lightweight but versatile guidance on making the hunters’ lives as violent and miserable as possible.
The visual aesthetic and writing are both fantastic. They’ll give everyone plenty of grim inspiration for a frenzied, bloody race against dawn and destruction.
If you’re looking for a larger, lighter, but still supernatural space to roam around in, you may be interested in…
This road-trip game adapts Chinese landscape paintings into maps. Character creation and resolution mechanics are simple and lightweight, letting the players and the narrator focus on what’s important: astonishing stories inspired by timeless art and folklore.
Each map has a unique list of locations and encounters, and the game includes tables of encounters and entities you may meet along the way. It also features some translations of Chinese verse that nicely complement the artwork.
In the course of your journeys, you may need to take a pit stop. Have a quick rest with…
This is another game about road trips, but it inverts the normal formula. By definition, well-crafted narratives focus on events that cohere into a meaningful, escalating plot; Pull Over, I Need to Pee does not. Instead, it presents slice-of-life moments that happen between major events.
Pull Over, I Need to Pee can be played on its own as a standalone game, but it’s also designed to work as a supplement in any other game that accommodates travel. It’s a great way to fill in those quiet gaps between important scenes and flesh out the character of the places you visit along the way.
Okay, pee break’s over. Let’s get back on the road with more East Asian arts as we head toward…
Orizuru is a storytelling game about becoming a bird. It can be played solo, and like many solo games, you’ll write responses to prompts. But Orizuru’s twist is that you’ll write them on a piece of origami paper. As the game progresses, you’ll fold the paper into a crane, and your actions’ outcomes are determined by the text visible on the paper.
Orizuru is a somber, reflective game. Maybe you like the idea of becoming a bird, but you long for something a bit more active and less structured. In that case, may I recommend…
This is a lyric LARP about being a bird in dirt. That’s really it. You’ll play a bird, and you’ll roll around in dirt, and you’ll love it.
You can also opt for a cleaner experience by using pillows or bedsheets instead of dirt, which will be a good choice if you plan on playing this next game right afterward…
Wasteland of Enchantment Games
Gamers love having snacks while playing. This worldbuilding game incorporates snacking into the game’s formal mechanics.
Yes, it’s everyone’s dream come true.
Players take turns writing facts about the world on index cards. If someone particularly likes what you’ve written, they’ll give you a piece of candy. You can eat a piece of candy to introduce a major event into your world. If you want to contribute more events (or just eat more candy), you’ll have to write another fact that someone likes.
Talk stories with friends. Eat candy. Brush and floss when you’re done.
Hey, you know who really loves candy? Fairy princesses. Yeah, it’s a BS transition, but it gets me to the next game, which is…
If you’ve read the title (which you have, I’m sure), you know basically what to expect. You’re a magical princess with butterfly wings and a sword, and you’re on a mission to restore order to your utopian woodland society.
You’ll accomplish your goals using your four attributes and some dice. But you’re not going to just roll your dice. No, this is a Richard Kelly game, and rolling dice would be way too pedestrian. Instead, you’re going to curl them.
You know—curling. The sport with the ice and the brushes and the circles and the stones. You’ve probably seen it during the winter Olympics.
But I digress. Butterfly Princesses of the Swordlands is a lovely fairytale-esque game with yet another novel dice-throwing mechanic that’s a marvelous step outside the ordinary.
Besides candy and curling, you know what else fairy princesses love? Books. Another terrible transition, sure, but I’ve run out of ideas, and we’ve got one more game to cover. That game is…
Xander Hinners (again)
This is actually a set of 4 bookmark games that fit on a single sheet of letter paper, front and back. They all use actual, physical books of your choosing.
Dead Between the Lines tasks the reader/player with characterizing and telling the story of a spirit that’s haunting the chosen volume.
Subtext is a ruleset that lets you discover and play an RPG within a non-RPG book. (For extra meta- weirdness, you can probably also use an RPG book.)
Writer Wrong? asks the reader/player to adopt a persona and make predictions about what will happen next in the book’s plot. Like the game says, it’s a game “as old as novels”, but now you can score points (even if you probably can’t win).
Shred gives the reader/player carte blanch to destroy a book they hate. You’ll strike passages and tear out pages, and then you’ll use your revised version in mortal combat against the vengeful author piloting a book-mech. Freakin’ sweet.
That’s it. Those are all 18 games. (21 if you count Lit RPG Set as 4.) By the time you read this, the bundle deals will probably all be over, but don’t let that stop you from grabbing these or any other great games, or from contributing to organizations doing good work in terrible times.
In space, no on can hear you yawn.
For partygoers who want to kill some time and themselves
A summary & discussion of my paper about RPGs and art