5 Awesome RPG Video Games that Play like a Tabletop

It’s a fact of life. As we get older, we inevitably get busier. Soon, we no longer have time for the things in life that once made us truly happy.

While once you were able to meet with your buddies every Saturday to play tabletop games, now “real life” is busy getting in the way. It is nearly impossible to make plans with multiple people who have jobs, families, and boring responsibilities.

Does that mean it is time to give up on tabletop games altogether?

Absolutely not. Instead, make the best use of your well-earned free time by playing RPG video games instead. An entire genre of video games has been inspired and played by tabletop gamers, all of which are waiting to be discovered since Colossal Cave Adventure was first published in 1976.

The first unofficial computerized tabletop games may have pioneered as early as 1974, the same year Dungeons & Dragons was first published. Rumor has it that the aforementioned Will Crowther’s text adventure, Colossal Cave Adventure, was so wildly popular when it debuted two years later, that many students failed a year of college in their desperate attempts to complete the game.  

Over time, the RPG video game genre has developed from text-based adventure games to isometric games and the modern RPG powerhouses. And yet, even today, there are clear roots in pen and paper tabletop gaming.

There is a timeless appeal surrounding the rustle of paper, the clack of the twenty-sided dice, and mutterings of a dungeon master in a friend’s dimly lit basement. This allure makes itself known in modern RPG games if you know where to look. In the past five years, these games have topped the charts as some of the best video games that still play like a tabletop.


#1 Avadon: The Warborn by Spiderweb Software (2017)

Even though this game tops out as the most recent game release, it is produced and sold by a small company that has been around the block. It was founded in 1994, just when the industry was transitioning out of text-based RPG’s and grabbing hold of animation and graphics to draw in a wider audience. Somehow, amongst industry giants such as Nintendo and Sony, Spiderweb Software has also stood the test of time. They may release fewer games, but they have gained a dedicated cult following. Fans of the software company have come to expect intricate, well-developed storylines and detailed, re-playable worlds, all set amongst retro-style graphics.

Today, Spiderweb creates games for Windows, Mac, and iPad. Avadon: The Warborn, their most recent release in 2017, is the conclusion of their Avadon trilogy, and it is equally enjoyable whether it is played on its own, or as the final stage in a three-game journey. The first game of this story, Avadon: the Black Fortress, was published in 2011 and followed by Avadon 2: The Corruption in 2013, which makes this series the most recent full story released by Spiderweb. For new players, every game by this company begins with a sizable demo, which allows potential players to fall in love with the characters and the story before they make the decision to get the full game.

In Avadon: The Warborn, you play as a young apprentice who must choose to follow the ideas of his crazy master, or decide to betray the only life he’s ever known and join the opposing side. Meanwhile, the entire nation is at war, with invasions threatening the borders in every direction. The long-term influence of every decision you make in the story creates a strong replayability, with multiple endings to be discovered.

The best part about this game is its ability to challenge the player to make morally ambiguous decisions that affect story and gameplay, and this tactic is a major strength of Avadon: The Warborn. While the retro graphics may put some players off, over the years, the developer has maintained a classic look while still upgrading the detail and animation of the graphics.


#2 Knights of Pen and Paper 2 by Paradox Interactive (2017)

The sequel to the wildly popular mobile game, Knights of Pen and Paper, the Knights of Pen and Paper 2 does an excellent job on updating aspects to improve both visuals and gameplay, while maintaining the essence of the original. Both games have the feeling of playing a real tabletop, but unlike most games in the genre, they refuse to take themselves seriously.

The newest game is peppered with cultural references, such as allusions to D&D, Mythbusters (Jamie with the beret, anyone?), League of Legends and more waiting to be discovered, all of which would satisfy any true geek. The pixel adventure functions on a turn-based system, as you journey through the various quests, shops, and inns alongside the bearded and quirky dungeon master.

The tutorial sets the tone of the game by immediately pulling in a self-aware and self-described “end game content” monster, who whines that the player hasn’t even earned the right to fight him. Later, as you begin to choose your initial characters, certain deeper elements of humor sets in. Enough time spent playing around with combinations, and more creative players might find themselves making Rich Kid Thief or combining religion and science like a mad experiment with the Lab Rat Cleric.

Two major aspects control the direction of the game and how it is played. First, the game darts back to the “real world” between each major campaign, where you can buy upgrades in the gaming den such as couches, televisions, and arcade games. These purchases make statistical differences to all the saved games. Second, the crafting options are the next best tactic for a character to improve their skills throughout the game. With unlimited crafting plans and the ability to combine objects, the game stays fresh even after long bouts of play.


#3 Crimson Shroud by Level 5 (2012)

This game has been on the market for a few years now but remains a major recommendation amongst the RPG player community. Crimson Shroud by Level 5 came about from a collaboration with the famous Yasumi Mastuno of Final Fantasy tactics. Just having such a powerful force behind the helm of this tactical role-playing game should be enough to convince any player that it is worth picking up, but the game has some unique twists beyond that fact.

It features a heavy anime influence in the artwork and is playable on the 3DS. While most modern RPG games put the random roll of the dice hidden deep in the programming, this game brings the thrill of rolling actual dice back to the forefront… literally. Key moments and decisions in the game are decided when you roll a set of dice with a flick of your stylus.

The story features a young man named Giaque (choose your favorite pronunciation here) who brings his two friends, the classic pretty young mage and a daredevil rogue, on a quest to discover the mystery that is the Crimson Shroud. Similar to The Knights of Pen and Paper 2, the gameplay puts a heavy focus on crafting over leveling to improve character stats. And like Avadon: The Warborn, this is also the third installment of an anthology by Level 05 called Guild01, and yet it is also playable on its own.

Crimson Shroud adapts to the limitations of the smaller 3DS console while appealing to veteran tabletop gamers by offering a text-heavy experience. Players can let their imagination to run wild without restrictions by another artist’s interpretation of the story. It does only offer ten total hours of gameplay by only three playable characters, which seems ridiculously small when compared to other RPGs that are available. Of course, this miniaturized version of an RPG is available at a fraction of the price of a larger RPG.


#4 Shadowrun Returns by Harebrained Schemes (2013)

A year after Crimson Shroud made its debut, a little project funded on Kickstarter burst onto the RPG gaming scene, raising an impressive $1.8+ million dollars by eager players looking to continue the legacy built on the original Shadowrun tabletop games. The first tabletop game taking place in the world of Shadowrun began in 1993, and ever since the world has had a cult following eager to play in the realm via anyway they can.

The story of Shadowrun Returns combines elements of magic and futuristic science fiction, all landing in Seattle in the year 2054. Multiple species can be played, from humans, orks, to elves, but you always play as a shadowrunner living on the fringes of society. Shadowrunners are mercenaries known for doing whatever it takes to get the job done, much like Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly, and as you go through the story, you must complete quests while also using basic survival techniques to stay alive.

There are multiple expansions available to this popular game, including Shadowrunners: Dragonfall and Shadowrunners: Hong Kong. Best of all, for creative types, there is an edit mode available in the Steam Workshop, where you can make your own stories come alive.

The company who built Shadowrun Returns, Harebrained Schemes, has followed up their success by teaming up with Paradox Interactive, the creators of Knights of Pen and Paper 2, to design and release their newest game, Battletech.


#5 Roll20 by Roll20 (2014)

While this isn’t technically a stand alone RPG game similar to the other games on the list, it still deserves a chance in the spotlight, since Roll20 offers a unique set of digital tools for hardcore and newcomers to tabletop gaming alike. These tools can either expand on an already existing tabletop gaming experience or completely replace the whole game and place the entire pen and paper process onto the internet. In short, this website can streamline the more time-consuming aspects of tabletop gaming so that players can focus on the best parts of the story.

It has been available online for three years, and already the site has over a million users who have discovered how its convenience can change the way you view tabletop gaming. It even offers video chat within a game so you can imagine you are sitting around a table with friends, even if geography separates you from your friends. They have a wiki in place for newcomers looking to learn about the program, and advanced users can take advantage of the optional art to supplement their gaming experience.

Don’t worry if you don’t have enough friends to start your own D&D role playing game online either. Roll20 offers an advanced search, where you can filter games based on if new players are welcomed, cost, style of communication (text-based, audio, or video), preferred language, and more. Either way, this revolutionary website is changing the way we compare traditional tabletop gaming to video games.


That’s Just the First Quest

This list falls far short of being a comprehensive account of every excellent RPG on the market that finds strong roots in tabletop gaming. Some honorable mention games are still incredibly popular today, despite being released decades in the past, such as Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate (both 1 and 2). Other fans swear by the Neverwinter Nights series. In turn, other tabletop games are being made to draw video game geeks into the world of tabletop gaming. No matter where your stage is in life, take advantage of your laptop to keep your beloved tabletop culture going.


Valerie Bragg

Valerie finds time to immerse herself in geek culture while traveling the world and caring for her small family. She got her B.A. in 2010 from Grinnell College, and since then she has lived in China and Mexico, soon to be Nicaragua. No matter where she is in the world, the geek community makes sure that she never feels far from home. She makes her living teaching and writing online.

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