The novels, short stories, and graphic works of Neil Gaiman, the famous fantasy author, can best be described as modern-day fairy tales for grown-ups and children. The protagonists of his tales – demigods, magicians, anthropomorphic personifications, psychopomps, and everyday mortals – are people who have to deal with supernatural nightmares, awe-inspiring magic, and the crushing troubles of everyday life. Tabletop role-players who are fans of Neil Gaiman should definitively check out the following RPGs, with interesting mechanics for crafting stories of characters trying to strike a balance in their lives between the mundane and fantastic.
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Back in 2014, the Wits American Public Media group launched a “Bad Gaiman Challenge,” inviting listeners to submit their own sub-par renditions of Neil Gaiman-style stories. The “best” of the bad submissions, as expected, were hilariously awful – rambling, tangent-filled tales about tiny creatures who play poker on a tip of a needle, office workers who turn down a Valkyrie’s call to adventure, and a wolf boy named “boy” (because the name “Wolf” was already taken by a tree). Despite being parodies, these “Bad Gaiman” tales deftly demonstrate the key elements of a classic Neil Gaiman narrative: a conversational, “bedside story” narrative voice, surreal fairy-tale and nightmare imagery, and ordinary people bumping into monsters, gods, and other supernatural beings.
Each of the tabletop RPGs described below seem to draw a good amount of inspiration from at least one Neil Gaiman publication. Their settings are modern-day worlds filled with hidden realms of magic, divinity, and terror. The character creation and gameplay mechanics of these games also frequently de-emphasize “murder-hobo” violence in favor of the antics seen in the classic magic stories Neil Gaiman homages. In these RPGs, victory goes to clever, compassionate player characters more often than it goes to the strong, tough characters. Like the classic fairy tale protagonist, PCs need to be kind to strangers in need, polite to guests, quick to find a loophole in a contract, dumb enough to go into the woods at night, and daring enough to escape the big bad wolves.
TTRPG For Neil Gaiman Fans – Scion: 2nd Edition
Scion: 2nd Edition, published by Onyx Path, takes place in a world where the old Gods and their faiths never went away. With heavy similarities to the displaced immigrant divinities of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (with a dash of the Percy Jackson stories thrown in) the player characters of Scion: 2nd Edition must discover their heritage as demigod children, grow into their pantheon’s powers/responsibilities, and avoid both the snares of Fate and the agents of the Titans who seek to break free from their imprisonment. The world of Scion is like the real-world in general, but awash with magic, magicians, monsters, gods, and goddesses who co-exist with a humanity vaguely aware of their presence.
TTRPG For Neil Gaiman Fans – Changeling: The Lost 2nd Edition
One of the core titles of the Chronicles Of Darkness game line (itself an update of the World of Darkness urban horror RPG setting), Changeling: the Lost draws inspiration from old, more frightening fairy tales, where elves, goblins, and ogres were cruel, amoral alien beings with weakness for cold iron and a love of ensnaring mortals in unfair bargains. The player characters of Changeling: The Lost (also published by Onyx Path) are half-human, half faerie protagonists who were kidnapped and transformed by True Fae from the realm of Arcadia, but managed to escape back to the real world through guile and daring.
Thematically, Changeling: The Lost is a game about both healing from and coming to terms with trauma, as the PCs try to move beyond the abuse inflicted on them by their Keepers. This RPG has a lot in common with Neil Gaiman’s novel, Coraline, about a young girl lured into a magical realm of a hungry fae monster who wears the mask of a doting mother.
TTRPG For Neil Gaiman Fans – The Game of Sovereign Powers
Nobilis: The Game of Sovereign Powers is a must-play RPG for tabletop gamers who want to tell stories in the vein of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series, a saga about a family of beings who embody fundamental concepts of the universe such as Dreams, Death, Desire, Destiny, or Delirium. Each player character in Nobilis is a Noble who personifies and has great power over a concept of reality their players choose (with Subways, Internet Cat Videos, Cheap Diners, and Ink all being valid choices).
Magic and conflict in Nobilis, a dice-less RPG system, is less about swinging swords and shooting guns, and more about creatively interpreting the powers a PC’s domain grants, while enacting change in the normal world to weaken the concepts an enemy draws strength from (cleaning up a park, for instance, to weaken a Noble whose domain is Litter). Fans of Gaiman’s Sandman series will definitely want to check it out.
TTRPG For Neil Gaiman Fans – Rest Your Head
Don’t Rest Your Head, an early urban fantasy/horror RPG publication of Evil Hat Productions, is about people with severe cases of insomnia who get pulled into a realm called the Mad City, a supernatural metropolis filled with bizarre and frequently malevolent nightmare beings. Don’t Rest Your Head is very much a game about desperate survival against the odds, with player characters gaining supernatural powers as their exhaustion and madness accrue, trying desperately not to fall asleep in the world of nightmares or completely lose their minds.
Besides being heavily inspired by Alice In Wonderland, Don’t Rest Your Head also owes a lot to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a book about an everyman named Richard who stumbles into a strange magical realm called London Below, filled with strange supernatural creatures modeled after real-life London landmarks. Each of these TTRPGs should appeal to Neil Gaiman in fans in some way, and each one is worth giving a try.
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