As the tabletop gaming hobby continues to age and mature, titles of all stripes are put on the shelves, many of which fall by the wayside. In a lot of cases, this is a good thing. Just because a core book is printed, doesn’t mean it’s worth your time. However, several of these obscure games are sparkling gems amidst the clutter of mundanity, and I’m going to tell you about the most intriguing four.
1. The World of Synnibarr, Second Edition
Ever wondered what a combination of D&D, Cyberpunk, and a fever dream would look like? Look no further than Synnibarr, the brain vomit of one Raven c.s. McKracken (yes, the c.s. is lower case) and a few of his compatriots. The core book is all you’ll ever need, or want, in order to play the game, and contains every single ridiculous rule you can think of. These rules are cobbled together in the most convoluted way, with a ton of bits that an enterprising GM can simply strip from the game without issue. Once you get past what I view as the worst rule system ever created, however, you find yourself with the most hilarious and wondrous setting imaginable. The classes a player may choose from (so long as their character creation rolls are high enough) range from Ninja to Bio-Syntha Cyborg and everything in between. Each class has its own special abilities with no balance whatsoever governing them. One character may struggle to shoot a gun at point blank range, while your Cyborg buddy creates a sword out of pure energy and cuts him to pieces before you can blink.
Damage in this game can go into the MILLIONS, and armor you wear does not reduce incoming damage via subtraction, like most systems. No, Synnibarr armor removes 0’s from your damage amount (transforming 10,000 damage into 10 damage, for instance). This particular system quirk led to my favorite moment, wherein the party was fighting a horde of nuclear bees (do not adjust your monitor, you read right), proceeding to knock them into the air so they explode harmlessly away from the group. Our Giant, whose armor and strength were leagues above anyone else’s, grabbed the last of volatile insects and spiked it on the ground in celebration. The whole party died, except for the Giant, who took about 5 damage while the rest took about 50,000. If you’re of age, I recommend alcohol be taken liberally with this particular pick for best results. Oh, and one last thing. Giant Flying Grizzly Bears, with Chi Eye Beams. And did I mention the world in which you play is hollowed-out-Mars-that-was-turned-into-a-spaceship-because-reasons? That is all.
2. Anima: Beyond Fantasy
Originally Spanish made and produced, Anima made it to North America via the publishing power of Fantasy Flight Games. Even with this powerhouse of a partner backing the product, the game did not really gain traction in the main market. Luckily, it remained popular enough to warrant several expansion books, each of which add significantly to the setting of Anima and its systems. In stark contrast Synnibarr’s mess of rules that work against one another and barely interrelate, Anima’s various systems work together in perfect, fantastic harmony. The setting isn’t half bad either, and gives a new twist on the fantasy genre. Instead of half-orcs and elves, Anima gives us Nephilim, human offshoots born with the souls of ancient magical races. With Anima, you can truly build your perfect Anime-inspired or fantasy-born hero. Be it Jedi, Witcher, or Z-Fighter, no concept is off limits. The game allows three separate systems (Magic, Psychic, and Ki), that each feel completely distinct, to work together flawlessly. Build your own technique tree with Ki, mixing effects to achieve the perfect series of abilities that define your character. Your friends can choose a book of magic and hurl spells, while other party members can play brain-bending psychics and have limitless reserves of power, but at a higher cost. The combat system is variable and fluid, and relies as much on the speed of your character as it does their power.
The game even allows GMs to create their own NPCs and enemies from scratch. To top it all off, everything I’ve mentioned is in the core book! Add in the extra books for more creatures, magic spells, and artifacts, and you have a robust game that makes combat feel exciting every time, and exploration incredibly rewarding. The only negative worth mentioning is the complexity of the game. I must warn that this is not a system for beginner GMs. Get a few games under your belt, then give this high-octane fantasy-fest a go. You won’t regret it.
Need a break from the rules crunch? Think you can do a better job at crafting crazy teen drama than Twilight? Of course you can! Monsterhearts is a role-playing game that’s light on rules, yet heavy on the storytelling. What few rules exist (derived from the Apocalypse World engine) in the small core book help establish a framework within which players will build their monster. They establish connections and social standing, and pick their flavor of creature. During the course of the game, players and the MC (the game’s name for the GM) work against one another and use their special powers to gain favors, or strings, and the trust of other characters. You can use these strings you collect to influence scenes by manipulating the characters in them. Be careful, as each monster has a trigger!
The goal is to create the sexiest monster with the most influence, and watch the drama and comedy unfold. I recommend taking a step back from the controls on this one and let other characters and story threads pull you in various directions. You’d be surprised just how much fun it can be go back to high school, albeit this time with incredible powers and crippling vulnerabilities.
4. Delta Green
Call of Cthulhu is one of the oldest and greatest role-playing games. This is an undisputed fact. The X-Files is one of the greatest television shows to grace the airwaves; another undeniable truth. For the benefit of all nerdkind, Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy, and John Scott Tynes united these two concepts, and managed to do it a full year before the X-Files even aired (most likely by receiving forbidden foreknowledge through their dreams). This setting uses the same rules as Call of Cthulhu, but allows you to play as a member of a secret organization committed to hunting down and eliminating (or at least covering up) various Mythos-related incidents. You play as a member of any government organization, from the USPS to the NSA, each with its own list of associated skills and special attributes. Don you trench coat and your favorite code name and track down horrible beasts, crazy cultists, and the sinister agents of MJ-12. The truth is indeed out there, but is it worth the price to obtain it?
For those of us who simply HAVE to know, a new edition was backed on Kickstarter just last year. Quick start rules are available for pay-what-you-want. With an award winning system powering it and an incredible setting filled with intrigue and conspiracy, Delta Green is a title that no aspiring gumshoe should miss!
So there they are: four tabletop games that shouldn’t go quietly into the good night. Let me know what you think, or if this article inspires you to check any of them out. Which less popular titles are your favorites?
Drop me a line; my website is listed down below! And of course, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not provide you with links to the games:
The World of Synnibarr (no official site that I could find): http://www.amazon.com/World-Synnibarr-Raven-c-s-McCracken/dp/1881171000
Anima: Beyond Fantasy: http://cipher-studios.com/AnimaBB/
Delta Green: http://www.delta-green.com/
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, check him out at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.