Tabletop roleplaying games are a site of boundless creativity. The fact that the processor that runs them is a series of human brains rather than a computer means that any given instance of a tabletop game can venture much farther from what its designers had in mind than a PC or console game is likely to support, but more than that, whole new games can form much more easily. In addition to venerable institutions like Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, and Warhammer, with huge bodies of accumulated resources and long histories, numerous smaller games populate the less mobile shelves of gaming stores. These don’t often get their due, even with demonstrations and endorsements from the likes of Wil Wheaton.
There’s a tier below that, though, of roleplaying game rulesets released to the public without any hope of eventual profit. Some folks write entire new roleplaying games and turn them loose on the Internet for fun and notoriety, and these efforts are fascinating, unusual, and (importantly for us) don’t cost anything an RPG enthusiast hasn’t already paid. They represent monumental undertakings in conceptualizing, integrating, and devising game material, without even the glimmer of profit that might someday visit the games that do get formally published.
I’ve come across two of these in particular that are now freely available online, extraordinarily different in tone, scope, and intensity and worth every tabletop gamer’s time at least once: Pokémon Conquest and Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf.
It’s a Pokémon tabletop RPG.
Specifically, it adapts the premise of the Pokémon Conquest video game to tabletop form. For the uninitiated, Pokémon Conquest is a crossover between the Pokémon universe and the Nobunaga’s Ambition video game series, and therefore combines Pokémon training with a quest to unite the warring kingdoms of a fictionalized version of 16th-century Japan called Ransei. Humans can form bonds with individual Pokémon and travel with them, combining their own talents as samurai, monks, performers, merchants, or ninja with the powers of their bonded companion. Further, the human characters of Pokémon Conquest (both the video game and tabletop game) are expected to ally with other human-Pokémon pairs for safety in numbers and to better achieve all of their goals.
In the tabletop version, the video game’s quest to subordinate or replace Ransei’s 17 warlords under a single leader and thus bring about the return of the creator deity Pokémon Arceus is firmly optional. A party of Pokémon-bonded adventurers instead pursues whatever goals they may have for themselves and/or events the Game Master places before them. Such adventurers can pursue quests of honor, glory, gold, spiritual enlightenment, or any other motivation they might have, all the while solidifying the bond between them and their Pokémon and, eventually, causing it to evolve.
Those who have ventured into the guts of Pokémon video games know that the math that runs behind the scenes during Pokémon battles is much more complicated than a tabletop game can easily support. With that in mind, the Pokémon Conquest Tabletop RPG uses its own, tabletop-friendly ruleset. While still more complicated than some other games on the market, these rules have the unusual benefit of relying on publicly available data on the statistics of various Pokémon. In this way, the Pokémon Conquest Tabletop RPG can support most of the hundreds of Pokémon that currently populate the Pokémon universe without having to explicitly translate all of their statistics and capabilities into its own rules. RPG veterans may be happy to hear that chance is injected into gameplay via rolls of a 20-sided die (d20 in tabletop parlance), as in the past several editions of Dungeons and Dragons and many other tabletop RPGs, making sure that even the more unusual mechanics have some baseline familiarity.
Unfortunately, the edition of the Pokémon Conquest Tabletop RPG with which I’m familiar predates the sixth generation of the Pokémon video games, and so does not integrate the Fairy type or mention Gen-VI mythical and legendary Pokémon in its detailed mythic history.
If you’ve ever wanted to take on the persona of a questing samurai with a dutiful Oshawott squire, or a good-at-heart thief with a globe of toxic gas for a best friend, or a secretive assassin who travels with a devious Sneazel, the Pokémon Conquest Tabletop RPG will serve you well.
Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf
At the opposite end of the complexity scale, there is the Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf micro-RPG. Based on this priceless video, the Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf micro-RPG has a ruleset that consists of one page for the players, one page for the “Shia Master,” and an example of play. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons, the Pokémon Conquest Tabletop RPG, and many other games, Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf is designed to resolve in a single evening or less. This simplicity makes this weird and amazing game well-suited to parties of curious ingénues who have a fondness for absurdist horror and building a shared narrative event.
The players take on the personas of ordinary people in an ordinary place, such as a national park, slum, or airport. The Shia Master sets the scene and also controls Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf, a superhuman, elusive, occasionally quadrupedal, “possibly naked” monster of a man who seeks to devour them. How the scenario unfolds depends on the creativity of the players and Shia Master in choosing and resolving their characters’ actions, and what objects the player characters chose to have at their disposal during character creation.
The surreal, genius ridiculousness of this premise, and the careful simplicity of the game mechanics make the Actual Cannibal Shia LaBoeuf micro-RPG an adventure every gaming group should try at least once. The rules can be found here.
I am itching to try both of these games and look forward to the chance.