PAX Unplugged 2023 was a bounty of knowledge, new faces, and great games. I spoke to someone at nearly every RPG booth, and I am following up with an interview series on the design and production of roleplaying games. Below you can find some highlights of games I saw and creators I connected with, but first I want to give you an overview of the scene at Pax, and what it portends for the hobby as a whole.
The indies march on
I was humbled to see the growth, vitality, and diversity of independent RPGs on display. Groups of independent RPG producers have banded together to share intelligence and resources, getting more products of a higher quality out to a wider market. More creators than ever lined the convention center halls, and more than one booth was dedicated to independent trade organizations. Kickstarter has been a great democratizer of RPG production, but groups like the RPG Zine Club are working with creators to lower the barrier of entry and help even modest-sized products get off the ground and into peoples’ libraries.
Those games are stranger and more experimental than ever. Since 2020 gave us Thousand Year Old Vampire and time locked inside, the solo-RPG scene has exploded. I saw more solo games than I knew existed at Pax, and I will be covering a few in my upcoming interview series.
The many splashes of yellow and black proved the movement Mork Borg started is nowhere near over. With smaller scope, easier mechanics, and a parent company that doesn’t have a history of unilaterally revoking its agreements, Mork Borg compatible games and supplements were coming out of every corner of the convention. Duck Borg, Pirate Borg, Orc Borg, Vast Grimm, and Fish Borg were just a fraction of the books I saw, with more announced all the time. The complaints that Mork Borg is a mechanic-less artbook have not been borne out by the variety or quality of its compatible releases.
Cephalofair and the Gloomhaven RPG
Above you can see my interview with the Gloomhaven RPG’s lead designer Danielle Lauzon about translating a board game into an RPG. You should check her design notes to learn more about how the game shares Gloomhaven’s resolution system: pulling cards from the deck, adding your relevant stat, and shuffling the deck when you hit a critical failure or success. The more actions you take without reshuffling, the closer you get to potential catastrophe. With compatible rules, not to mention the art and lore, Gloomhaven has a strong backing as it gears up to release next summer.
Gehenna Gaming and Eldritch Automata
Cosmic horror, mech combat, and interpersonal relationships. After the emergence of outer beings ends the world as we know it, the few remaining enclaves use hybridized living mechs to fight back. The pilots have to maintain their sanity and protect civilians from collateral damage (which the pilots often cause), all while struggling to find and destroy those behind the fall of earth. Eldritch Automata uses the Year Zero Engine as its backbone, with subsystems that take inspiration from Cthulhutech and Bliss Stage, hoping to provide something with more function and longevity than either game.
Acheron Games bringing Italian culture and art to Tabletop
Making their way from Italy, Acheron Games is making a name for itself by pushing the boundaries of what 5E compatible products can do. I will be getting into the meat of their design soon, but until then their art more than speaks for itself. Brancalonia, a setting inspired by Italian folklore and history, and the Dante’s Inferno inspired setting book overflow with style and atmosphere. Adding to that, games in alternate history Rome, a fantastical apocalypse, and modern crime (with free 80 page quickstart) and I am sure we’ll be seeing more of Acheron as other people discover their work.
The Bodhana Group
The emotional experience of roleplay seems like a natural pairing with therapy, but not until I met with members of the Bodhana Group have I seen them paired with such zeal or professionalism. Boasting extensive training courses and resources for licensed mental health practitioners, the group applies therapeutic practices like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to RPGs, working to ease those seeking service into a different kind of relationship with their fantasies and their fears. Roleplay can be a safe, contained environment to explore personal issues, but that safety is threatened when exploring with friends or strangers who don’t know what they will uncover. Happens to first time players I will be covering this group more, and I hope you will look at their resources and learn more about what is out there.
John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/