Even though technology is allowing for plenty of ways to try and keep your tabletop and boardgame groups going during social distancing, the fact of the matter is it’s really hard right now to actually play tabletop RPGs. That doesn’t mean you can’t spend some of your free time engaging with those worlds though, thanks to some choice rulebooks that are as great to just read as they are to build a new campaign around.
And as an added bonus, the vast majority of the recommendations on this list are currently accessible either physically—albeit with shipping delays, due to the ongoing global lockdown—or, if they aren’t, as downloadable PDFs, often included with a physical copy and delivered to you while you wait for it to show up. So if you don’t have these on your shelf yet, you don’t need to worry too much about having to wait a while for them to arrive!
What if you could basically play Stranger Things but it’s set in the world of Simon Stålenhag’s sumptuous, haunting sci-fi art? Well, not only can you do that, you can do so while getting what is easily one of the most gorgeous RPG books ever published.
Free League Publishing’s Tales From the Loop rulebook—and its recent, equally excellent followup, Things From the Flood, which added riskier mechanics for your cast of ‘80s kids, including the ability to actually die—is a gorgeous tribute to Stålenhag’s work, not only offering inventive, narrative-driven mechanics and plenty of great worldbuilding to dive into, but also art from and inspired by Stålenhag’s vast swaths of sci-fi themed paintings. It’s part RPG core guide, part coffee table display piece, and all damn fantastic.
The recent update to Paizo’s incredible fantasy RPG Pathfinder is perhaps the most overtly mechanical book on this list—it is primarily about establishing the rules of how the second edition works, and heavy on the act of explaining how to play games, build characters, and get a campaign going. But it also has an absolutely fantastic section dedicated to the lore behind the fantastical world of Golarion, dense with information that is not just fascinating to explore but supported by some utterly brilliant art.
Grant Howitt and Christopher Taylor’s urban fantasy Spire is set in a deliciously dark world of class privilege and societal malaise, a game of revolution in which players—Drow, who live as lower-class grunts in the titular spire-city—plot violent resistance against the ruling authoritarian High Elf elites. But as the game itself is heavily driven by storytelling rather than mechanics, its core rulebook is likewise filled with story ideas and setting details to draw you in as you navigate creating characters and campaigns. If you fall in love with its world of elven have-and-have-nots, follow it up with Strata, a sourcebook that doesn’t just add new classes and enhancements to Spire’s base rules, but fleshes out the titular city even further, detailing luxurious High Elf residential districts to the poorest parts of the city.
West End Games’ iconic Star Wars RPG wasn’t just a great tabletop experience, but its beloved accompanying sourcebook helped fundamentally influence the Expanded Universe as we knew it in the pre-Disney era, providing concepts and ideas that became the de facto standard of Star Wars worldbuilding for ships, events, worlds, and characters for years. It also provided a brilliant set of tips on how to tell stories in the Star Wars galaxy that still apply today. It’s out of print and incredibly hard to get, but thankfully Fantasy Flight Games recently released a 30th anniversary reprint that bundled both the core book and sourcebook together in a lovely cover that makes accessing it easier than ever.
That said, if you want a Star Wars fix that’s more recent, Fantasy Flight’s core rulebooks for its own Star Wars RPG—the smuggler-and-rogue-focused Edge of the Empire, the Rebels vs. Imperial flavor of Age of Rebellion, and the suitably mystical Force and Destiny—are just as solid reads, balancing mechanical system details with plenty of great worldbuilding and lore for the galaxy far, far away. Sadly, due to licensing restrictions, you can’t get these books digitally, so will have to procure the physical copies.
Abstract Nova’s Noumenon is a bizarre, mechanically fascinating tabletop game that is incredibly intimidating to get into—it’s definitely not for RPG newcomers, and lets you know that immediately. But its world of strange, reborn god-insects is heady and existential in ways that can and will make your head spin as the secrets of the mysterious Silhouette Rouge unfurl, refurl in a different shape, and then unfurl again before your eyes. If you want to dive into a setting that thrives on not only bordering on the surreal but embracing it entirely, it’s worth checking out—and if you’re unsure, you can get a brief tease in this free-to-read PDF sampler.
Oh come on, as if this list wouldn’t have a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons on it! There are plenty of great campaign setting sourcebooks that you can dive into to experience D&D’s beloved worlds (Eberron: Rising From the Last War says hi), but understandably a lot of them are more about the mechanical structure of D&D than they are setting information, even if they’re still pretty rich in the latter.
Volo and Mordenkainen are the inverse; source lists for player races, regions, and monsters to fight that are about the history and character of those things first and how they would be integrated into a ruleset second. Volo deals more with lower-and-mid tier adventure foes, while Mordenkainen is aimed at settings for more experienced groups, but they’re both great, lore-heavy reads.
Modiphius’ excellent Star Trek RPG has a core rulebook that does a pretty solid job of nerdily diving into Trek’s 24th century. But the real meat of its worldbuilding thrives in its sourcebooks, one for each quadrant of the Star Trek universe—the fourth, based around the Delta Quadrant, only just released. As well as adding interesting mechanical flavor based on the worlds and species of the beings in those Quadrants, these sourcebooks provide a ton of details about Star Trek societies, histories, and beings to flesh them out. And in the cases of the Gamma and Delta Quadrant books, they even provide context for those regions based on what happened after the events of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. If you love Star Trek, you are in for a treat.
Swordfish Island’s high fantasy, almost piratical island adventure is a system neutral set of handbooks for players, so it understandably leans less on specific mechanics and way—way—more into detailing its teeming amount of island settings and societies for you to be inspired by, providing a freeing sense of worldbuilding in the process. The books themselves are also just absolutely gorgeous, so if you’re a fan of having remarkably pretty shelves, they work in that regard, too.
Is it too reductive to say “What if you just re-read what I wrote about Pathfinder but replaced it with a sci-fi setting instead?” Yes. But also: not entirely inaccurate. Paizo’s sci-fi spin on its tried-and-true RPG ideas is as bewitchingly good as Pathfinder’s fantasy, and that just as equally applies to the section of Starfinder’s core rulebook detailing the future of the wider galaxy Golarion was part of (it, uh, sort of vanished). In fact, it’s arguably more story-driven, teaming with a cast of fascinating characters who help introduce players to Starfinder’s world for you to meet.
Riotmind’s Trudvang Chronicles in and of itself is a great RPG—an enthralling fantasy world infused with Celtic and Nordic folklore inspiration. But its first sourcebook released last year, detailing the titular, harsh region of Trudvang’s Stormlands and the creatures that dwell within its forests, takes the rich legends and folktales permeating the core rulebooks and just runs with it. It’s practically a tome of knowledge, lovingly fleshing out the Stormlands from top to bottom, literally mapping it with teeming pages of sumptuously-presented maps. If you’ve played Trudvang Chronicles, it’s essential. If you haven’t, it’s a perfect way to get sucked into its naturalistic, magically melancholic world.
OK, so these aren’t RPG sourcebooks. They’re rulebooks for the factions of Games Workshop’s latest edition of its fantasy tabletop miniatures game, Warhammer: Age of Sigmar. But while they are indeed rulebooks, the Battletomes of Age of Sigmar are (a lot more so than Warhammer 40K’s equivalent Codexes) just as equally lore books for the respective factions of the recently-reforged Mortal Realms.
These books flesh out timelines, events, societal structures, and cultures for these different races, covering how they’re connected to the destroyed world of Warhammer Fantasy, and how they’ve changed and grown over the different epochs of the Mortal Realm’s own rich history. Essentially, they’re designed to hype you up, from a lore perspective, to start building an army of their respective factions—to the point you could just as easily find yourself buying a Battletome for an army you’d never consider collecting, just to learn about them. Age of Sigmar is a much wilder, weirder, and more narrative-driven version of Warhammer compared to the “old world” of Warhammer Fantasy, and it thrives in these Battletomes.
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