Unusual tabletop roleplaying games

I just got back from one of my favorite events of the year, a game day in which 50 or so folks gather at a state park, sleep in unpowered cabins in the woods, cook communal meals in a camp kitchen, and game constantly for about four days straight. It was exactly what my soul needed after an exceptionally terrible week (reasons I don’t want to go into).

Anyway, while there are usually some traditional games at the game day, there are always some unusual ones. I wanted to share a couple of my new favorites, and ask if folks know of other awesome ones.

KIDS ON BIKES: This is very much the “Stranger Things” RPG.

The dice rules are nothing special IMO, a basic dice-rolling game, but I played it with one of the creators, and the initial setup for a one-shot is wonderful. We chose from some very loosely-fleshed-out archetypes (brutish jock, weirdo loner, slacker, scout, funny sidekick, etc.), and the GM described the setting in very loose terms, then started asking us questions:
-What time of year is it?
-Where do you like to hang out in town?
-What time do your parents expect you home?
-What rumors do you know about town? (This one was great)
Then it got into the personal questions. Each of us chose another character and then said whether we liked or disliked them, then answered a random question, e.g., “What would it take for you to forgive her? What secret are you keeping for him? Why do you care about him more than he cares about you?”

These questions did a beautiful job at shaping relationships during the game, making us a lot more group-focused than goal-focused, which can be a difficult thing to accomplish during a one-shot.

Finally, during the game, a ton of stuff was under player control (“What does this room look like? What secret way is there to gain access to the complex? I don’t know whether your mom calls the school. What do you think she does?”), but the best thing was the single supernatural character that a story like this must have: players collectively controlled this character. There were something like 10 traits (2 secret supernatural traits revealed later on), and these were passed out to players: “Gentle unless provoked,” “Scrappy fighter,” “Loves animals,” “Afraid of middle-aged men (especially in suits)”, “Communicates only in gestures and grunts,” etc. When the semi-NPC communicated with a PC, someone would tap a trait they thought appropriate, and whoever controlled that trait would play the NPC for that interaction.

It definitely helped that I played at a table full of spectacular gamers, but it was also a tremendous story/character-focused game.

Microscope is barely a game, but good lord was it fun. It’s almost a four-hour writing exercise, in which you cooperate with the group to create an historical period and populate it with characters and events. Roleplaying enters into it in fascinating ways.

In the beginning, you establish your elevator pitch: “Let’s do a Children of Men thing, where humans stop having babies,” we said. You set the start and end to the historical period: “It begins when people stop having babies, and ends when the last human on earth draws their last breath.” You all contribute one or more things that you either want in the story (“Strong AI! Warfare! Aliens!”) or things you don’t want (“Cloning! A cure! Uplifted animals!”). You create some eras within the period (“The Collapse”, “The millennials take control”, “The Arrival”).

Then you put one person in charge of a round, who establishes a theme for the round (“Space travel!”). Then each person gets to create a new period, or an event within a period (“The bombing of the world’s top embryogenetic research facility by zealots”), or a scene within an event that answers a question (“Why did the facility get bombed?”)

It’s these scenes where roleplaying happens: whoever created the scene sets it up and suggests some characters that must appear (“Judith Ryan, the pastor the terrorists send in to pray with the mothers in the moments before the bombing”; “A health care provider”) and some characters that must not appear (“Anyone with a gun”, “Elon Musk”). People choose a character, or make one up, and then everyone roleplays through the scene until the scene creator decides the question has been answered.

Obviously this is a game for people who like worldbuilding. I was fortunate enough to play it with people who knew how to hit some pretty powerful emotional beats, and after four hours felt like I’d just read a crackerjack novel. So fun!

Those are my longwinded recommendations, anyway. Curious if others have played these games, or know of some other relatively new games that are worth playing.

Those both sound very cool! Kids on Bikes is on the RPG event schedule for Origins, but I’d not heard anything about the game.

These sound similar to Fiasco, which is a system that is mostly improvisational storytelling where the characters have found themselves in a Coen brothers movie. The framework is provided, but the details are up to you. It’s very light on mechanics.

Granted, it works best with creative types who are flexible and are good at the “Yes, and” style of storytelling.

I adore Fiasco! And, yes, it definitely takes the right group to play, but I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Kingdom, by the inventor of Microscope, is quite good. And there’s a variant of Microscope where you’re competing groups of time travelers, with competing goals, and that one is sort of like RPG chess. It’s quite fun.

Despite being deeply un-comic I have a very soft spot for Paranoia.

Fiasco is definitely one of my favorites (along with Dread, which if you’ve not played it you REALLY SHOULD).

I think I’ve played a good half-dozen Paranoia games in my life. One of them I played with a group of really kickass people, and I enjoyed that one because of the people. Otherwise, I kind of hate that game. It’s certainly well-made, but its theme of comic betrayal just isn’t any fun for me.

I’ll have to check Kingdom out!

Can you share info on this?

Boy, this is tame stuff for weird RPGs. :wink:

I submit some of the following:
The Shab-al-Hiri Roach - a game about a soul eating, telekinetic insect trying to take over the world by way of a bunch of competing professors at a university. (Actually, most of Jason Morningstar’s games are kinda weird – and yes, he’s the person responsible for Fiasco.)

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen; This one is definitely in the “barely an RPG” category, though it is inarguably a game. I’ve heard it described as a “game of competitive lying” – you turn to the person on your left, say something like “So tell me, dear Baron, about the time you circumnavigated the globe without leaving your house.” and then the have to BS up a story on that topic. There are rules for settling disputes and stuff, but that’s the gist of it.

Ten Candles - besides Dread, basically the only functional horror RPG I know of. And yes, it involves extinguishing candles as things get worse.

Swords Without Master has relatively “traditional” subject matter, sure, it’s Sword and Sorcery fantasy instead of crazy kitchen sink D&D fantasy, but that’s not really where the weird lies in this one. This is a game with mechanics about tone and narration. It’s pretty nifty.

Good Society is an RPG about… Jane Austin-style regency fiction, with lots of gossip and dances and the like.

But the winner for weird RPGs really has to be The Tragedy of GJ237b: A roleplaying game for no players. Link goes to the entire text. You be the judge.


I played this one a few times back in the nineties–the problem is that the mechanics, while super-flavorful, almost directly work against the storytelling aspect. If you play to win, the stories get worse. The only way we enjoyed the game was to abandon almost all the mechanics.

There was some other game that sounded a bit like this, but I forget what it was.

The others sound interesting, once the condescension is removed!

A few years ago, I GMed a short campaign of Dogs in the Vineyard. My high-concept description of it: *Supernatural *in 1880s Utah. The PCs are “Watchdogs” – young Mormons who have been assigned by the church to travel through Deseret (Utah), visiting towns and making sure that everything is going smoothly (and dealing with anything that isn’t going well). Of course, it’s not going smoothly, and the Dogs are invested with the power (and the supernatural skills) to fight demons, possessions, and heresy.

The dicerolling mechanics were a little weird, but we all enjoyed the setting a great deal, and I’d like to run it again someday.

I’m known as an RPG whore (I’ll play anything) except Paranoia. It’s a stressful game where you end up trying to screw over the other players. Which is cool in a board game but uncomfortable to me in an RPG. I’ll never play it again.

I still have a strong liking for the Watership Down inspired Bunnies and Burrows:

There were also some seriously crazy entries on the ‘worst RPG’ thread I made many moons ago:

Kids on Bikes sounds like it absolutely requires a very specific style of gamemaster, and that it’d drive any other sort of gamemaster insane very quickly.

And Paranoia really only works with players who have a fairly narrow window of knowledge about the game. Either too much or too little familiarity will ruin it.

I once played in a Fiasco game set in the Paranoia universe. There were a couple of pregenerated scenarios to choose from, and for some reason, at the table we were playing at, they wanted to play Paranoia, even though none of them were familiar with the setting. Liz and I who were familiar wanted to play something else. Because while Paranoia Fiasco actually has potential, it’s not going to work very well if the people playing it know nothing about Paranoia.

It was less unintentionally disatrous than I expected, but it wasn’t exactly a shining example of a Fiasco session.

Seriously, if you don’t know the setting, don’t vote to play it. Paranoia only really works when all involved understand the ridiculousness of the whole thing and how it was a parody of the 1980’s anti-Soviet zeitgeist. The author of the module clearly got it. The players at the table (none of whom were the author) didn’t.

Huh. I see how someone would think that’d be a good idea, but it sounds like a terrible match to me, missing the point of one or both games. Fiasco is supposed to be “big plans, poor impulse control,” leading to a slow, inevitable disaster. Paranoia starts off with everyone at each other’s throats and continues in that vein.

I’ve had some amazing fiasco games, with my favorite being (spoilered for folks who get bored by this shit):

[spoiler]A science-fiction game, where we were a crew of people exploring an alien planet. One player decided to play a terrible old man who had bodyswapped with a young, beautiful rock star. At some point during the trip, I set up a scene in which my character surreptitiously retrieved the bodyswapping technology–and, not having planned what that tech would be, I kind of panicked and said it was a gun.

The entire table realized at the same moment what a wonderfully terrible idea it is to make your bodyswap tech be a gun, because it leaves your victim holding the weapon. Boy howdy did we lean into that, and the rest of the game became a hilarious clusterfuck of people firing the gun at each other and at aliens and at sentient spaceships, trying to gain some sort of advantage.

But it wouldn’t have been so much fun without the first, fairly staid and traditional, Star-Trekkish exploration segment.[/spoiler]

Dude, how many smilies do I need in order to make a joke?

Did you remember that you’re not allowed to vote for yourself? Because it always seemed sortof impossible to “play to win” to me, rather than just “Play to be Kingmaker”?

Bunnies and Burrows is a game I always wanted to like, but which always felt like an awkward implementation of the concept (I mean, it’s basically GURPS).

Check out The Warren for a different take on the “Basically Watership Down” RPG genre. (Bully Pulpit Games, same publisher as Fiasco)


It’s been about two decades since I played it, give or take a couple of years, so I don’t remember exactly what the problem was. I believe the problem was with the “raising” mechanic, where someone could add a new complication by spending a coin, and then the target could refuse by spending another coin, and so on. This mechanic distracted from the game.

Now that I think more about it, the problem may have been that the mechanic distracted people from the real reason to add a complication to the story: because it’d be interesting. People would see they had some coins to spend, and just disrupt the flow of the story, adding complications in that didn’t make the story any better. Then if they got rebuffed, it’d turn into a macho-off with coins going back and forth.

When we removed this mechanic, just allowed people to throw in complications when they thought they’d genuinely make for a more fun session, the game improved.

Ah, that could be. Having a budget of things sometimes has a weird effect on people.