So with the voting for this years ENNIES coming to a close I wanted to take time to choose my picks from some of this years nominations. You can't deny that the last year has been a weird one, the COVID pandemic has touched everyone and I think that you can even see the effects in this years nominations. The selection this year is in my opinion one of the most diverse, eclectic and least predictable set of nominations for a long time. That in turn makes it more exciting given what a difference winning, or even being nominated for an ENNIE can do for a product, its creators and publishers. You can find the full list of nominees here, but anyway here is my pick of the bunch.
In my mind this is the toughest one, there are no bad choices here they are all excellent, I've run some and played the others. There are for me two that just marginally edge it and which I found it really hard to choose between - so hard that I'm not going to tell you which way round I voted on this.
ALIEN: Destroyer of Worlds - For me this had to be good, writing for a setting like Alien where we've all seen the movies and the stories are already so vivid in our imaginations is a real challenge. It's too easy for Alien games to, in the words of PVT Hudson, be just "another bug hunt". Whilst you'll get your fair share of bugs to hunt in Detroyer of Worlds it has an immersive and solid storyline that will keep players involved beyond that. Yet it does this without compromising on the cinematic flavour that really makes the Alien game come alive. I've played this with friends online using the version available for the Fouindry VTT - which is worth every penny if you play your games that way. Its's also nominated under the category of Best Production Values where I also think it has a good shout in picking up an award. The box set is really very nice, remeniscent of those beautiful old Call of Cthulhu epics that Chaosium produced once upon a time.
OSE: Halls of the Blood King - I'll confess i wasn't expecting much from this, its just D&D after all, not the sophisticated modern 5e D&D either. No, its not, its the glorious Old School kind of roleplaying that I grew up with, the kind that isn't about clever rules but is about fun, fantasy, magic, fights, traps, monsters and treasures. Its's about a scenario that knows where it's going and how you are going to get there. Its the kind of thing that a GM will enjoy reading, imagining how his players will react and relishing the prospect of putting them through this highly enjoyable grinder. The dungeon maps are 5' squares, the bad guys are Vampires, it has encounter tables, rumors and competing factions. If fifteen year old me had picked this I'd have been almost as thrilled as fifty (something) year old me is. For me this adventure is one to add to the list of those classic A/D&D adventures. Maybe my judgement is clouded by the nostalgia; but I recently played this with guys half my age who hadn't grown up surviving The Queen of The Demonweb Pits, or having battled in the Hall of the Fire Giant King and I know they enjoyed it as much as I did.
Whilst both ALIEN: Destroyer of Worlds and OSE: Halls of the Blood King are also nominated in this category, which again I think will be incredibly tight, my pick goes to Undying Sands by Games Omnivorous. I've picked this for two reasons, one I love the concept and two because of the artwork, my only niggle is whether it's more artwork than cartography. It's true it is a map, so I guess that makes it cartography... But when you see it you will get what I mean. The Undying Sands is by its own admission "a weird desert setting in a weird format". The Sands are a wasteland, "filled with crumbling ruins, antiquated temples, lost technology, and pristine natural wonders". Where the weird format come in is that its not a book but a set of thirty punch-out modular card hexes with an accompanying GM screen containing "hex-descriptions, optional rules, tools, random tables, a mini-adventure and a detail of the Great City of Sand". There is also a poster map of the Great City and a cloth bag from which to randomly select your hexes. A system agnostic TTRPG tool its great fun to play with and the artwork, ahem... I mean Cartography, is excellent. There is one practicality with this product though, which is that you aren't going to play your way through the undying sands in a single session, so you are either going to want to leave the "map " out or at least don't clear away without noting the order of the hexes you have already drawn... its really annoying when you realise that too late!
Best Game & Best Rules
Two categories and only one pick for me Alice is Missing. This was something entirely new, a 21st century play by mail maybe? A real departure and something that just perfectly summed up roleplaying and staying connected with friends in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Alice is Missing is a "silent role playing game" that focusses on the Alice Briarwood, a high school junior who has gone missing in the sleepy Northern California town of Silent Falls. (If you are my age you are now thinking about Twin Peaks - yes? Hold on to that thought). In playing the game, players use their phones (or other devices) to send text messages (or any kind of instant message) to each other as they find clues to what has really happened to Alice. You can play Alice is Missing over a period of two or three hours (depending on how focussed players are), there isn't really a GM so everyone gets to play, although somone will need to facilitate the rules. In the first part of the game (forty-five mins to an hour), players create their characters, build relationships to Alice, and with each other. The next ninety minutes play out in the characters’ "text message" conversations. It's a truly genius game, great fun to play, and super simple to pick up and run. Whilst at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a one shot game, however it's possible to play it over and over given that there is a random card drawing element to the game. I've now played it three times and I wouldn't hesitate to play it again. You need at least three people to play and a maximum of five. The game is a available as a print & play PDF (on DriveThruRPG), a physical box game and also on Roll20. It works beautifully online but also surprisingly well as a murder mystery style party game - you just won't talk to each other (about the game) a great deal!
Best Setting & Best Writing
Yet again two categories and, for me, one clear winner. With nominations in three categories The Stygian Library: Remastered can't fail to be one of my picks. Described as a "big spooky library full of dangerous knowledge, spiritual automata and ghost-fueled computers" .The Stygian Library is a dungeon set in the extra-dimensional space that exists between every library in the universe. It exists because knowledge is power and books are concentrated knowledge. When there are enough books in one place space time becomes distorted creating this pocket realm, sustained by the sheer power of books. The library is "procedurally" (randomly?) generated with each foray into its depths creating its own route, allowing players to experience new locations with every visit in their quest for adventure and forbidden knowledge. I love libraries and I love this setting; the book contains a minimal amount of stats and game mechanics and is intended to be largely compatible with almost any old-school RPG systems, in my opinion it could be easily adapted to any fantasy RPG, I've even toyed with the idea of using it as a crossover experience to move players from one game to another. It's a setting with a myriad of possibilities for the creative GM. When playing the Stygian Dungeon, as a GM you will have the urge to "generate" sections ahead of your game - my advice is don't do this, get comfortable with the book and create it "on the fly", if you are comfortable and familiar with Beth book it actually adds to the sense of the "magic". Player Characters navigating the Stygian Library are always faced with three options; to STAY HERE in the current location, GO DEEPER into the library or to GO BACK, it sounds simple but as you play and the library grows and you double back on yourself it becomes more and more complex to navigate, some exits to areas may even disappear as the bookshelves rearrange themselves. The Stygian Library is both totally complex and beautifully simple, its also highly compulsive to play and explore.
Product of the Year
This is the big one and in my opinion the line up for product of the year is really strong. I've already said how much I like Alice is Missing and The Stygian Library: Remastered and I will confess that I really hope that one of these is the winner for product of the year. There is however something that I think could give them a run for their money in this category. Nominated in two other categories; Best Aid/Accessory – Non–Digital and Best Supplement is Arium: Create. A world-building system that is designed to allow a group to collectively define their world (or "Arium"). The idea is that they do this in a single game session, the game effectively starts with building the world and every player takes part in doing so - it's no longer something that a GM does alone. Arium: Create is itself system agnostic, that is you can take the resulting Arium and use it with any game system. That said there is a second book Arium: Discover which provides a d6-based rules system which uses mechanics for Boons and Banes to to give a simple, yet focused and flexible roleplaying experience. I've played around with Arium: Create and I can see its appeal to creative roleplaying groups, it won't appeal to everyone, but I see it as a very strong contender for an ENNIE.
Now I guess I just have to wait for the the ENNIES Ceremony and see how right or wrong I am! Winners are announced on September 17th, 2021 at 8:00 PM EDT.