The Ennies are in September? I need to remember to not set my clock to the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. Fear not, the awards you care about are beholden to no gaming convention, large or small. 2021 zooms by and was honestly kind of a garbage year as well. These are still dark times, but perhaps a little brighter, thanks to the power of science at the very least. And certainly in terms of RPG books 2021 is shaping up to be another good year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming are here to make sure we stop and take notice of those books that were published so long ago you might ask yourself, “Why is Ramanan talking about them now?” Each year I create my short list of contenders, the books I think stood out over the entirety of the previous calendar year. Then I argue with the selection committee for months about which 3 books are those most notable in a field where there are many notable books. There aren’t many rules for these awards, but if there is one, it’s that there can only be 3 books.
“Players don’t need to read the rules if they don’t want to. They are simple enough to be learned during play.” Chris McDowall gets right to the heart of it with his followup to Into the Odd. Electric Bastionland is minimalist and terse. D&D stripped to the bone. The game is described in a handful of pages. The rest of the book is setting by way of backgrounds. They are funny and flavourful. The book concludes with advice for running the game: equally well done. The sort of gaming advice you can pick up and take with you elsewhere. Direct and to the point. Pragmatic. It’s quite impressive. The book like the game is beautiful. Alec Sorenson has done an incredible job bringing the setting to life.
I was a member of Luka’s Patreon at its inception. He would post his art on G+ and I liked looking at all his drawings so it seemed like a natural thing to do. He would mail out updates to his setting, which I might skim, but would mostly file away to read later. Except that later never came until the book arrived at my door. What a wonderful and imaginative setting. I feel like you can flip to any random page and be presented with some amazing science-fantasy. Like all good OSR visionaries, Luka did all the writing, art and design for the book. Incredible, right?
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2020: Gradient Descent by Luke Gearing, Nick Tofanni, Jarrett Crader, and Sean McCoy.
I am in the middle of writing a review of this adventure. I ran it the moment it came out, and again as part of a longer campaign. In a year when I was so demotivated when it came to tabletop gaming, Gradient Descent got me out of my rut, excited to play, and then facilitated my playing by making an adventure that was so simple to run. The braintrust at Mothership HQ asks the question, “Can you fit a megadungeon in a small zine?” Yes, apparently you can. Luke Gearing has delivered the goods. Sean McCoy has done a fantastic job of presenting such a complex space in a way that you can run straight from the zine. Really strong graphic and information design continues to be the most standout feature of the Mothership line. Jarrett Crader did the editing on the book, I assume no small feat given how dense the book is. Finally Nick Tofani’s art is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module, I would share it with my players often. Gradient Descent is the good stuff.
Normally I start off with some jab at the Ennies, but this year is too garbage to take cheap shots at anyone, least of all the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. No, we should be positive and celebrate when we can. These are dark times.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming exist to highlight truly standout RPG books. Each year it is a battle to whittle down my long list of books to a short list, and that short list down to the 3 books that will claim the accolades and fame. These choices are never easy. The arguments I have with myself are fierce. Still, this work must be done, because for reasons I can’t remember anymore I decided I’d only call out 3 books each year.
The books in contention arrived at my doorstep, or digitally in my inbox, during 2019. Before the Pandemic. A life time ago! Other than that it’s really the Wild West with these awards. Will the categories be the same as last year? Read on to find out!
Is it appropriate to give an award to someone I play D&D with here in Toronto? Of course it is: this book is great.1 Michael has collected all the one page dungeons he has made over the years—the ones with the cool isometric maps—redone the layout to make them all the more wonderful, and thrown in a bunch of extra tables and setting material and monsters and so much more to round out what would already have been an excellent book. This thing is dense and full of adventure. Great for campaigns or gaming emergencies!
Best Settings and Adventure: Patrick Stuart and Dirk Detweiler Leichty for Silent Titans (with layout by Christian Kessler and editing by Fiona Maeve Geist)
Silent Titans is really quite incredible. Patrick’s writing, Dirk’s art, and Christian jamming the art and writing together have resulted in a really stunning book: pretty enough for a coffee table! The world Patrick describes and Dirk illustrates in his abstract style is so thoroughly weird and unique. I was worried it was perhaps too weird: how do you even run this thing? But no, that was a foolish concern! I’ve been running this adventure straight from the book! It’s worked out great. The world we were promised.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2019: Zombie World by Brendan Conway and Mark Diaz Truman
It had to be Zombie World. I love this game! I’ve been obsessed with it for ages now. Zombie World is not really a book, I suppose. Like a game from days of yore, it came in a box with cards and markers and play mats. No matter! Zombie World is such a simple and well executed game. At its core it’s just another Powered by the Apocalypse game, but somehow all the bits and bobs that make the game come together so perfectly. It’s the most OSR Powered by the Apocalypse game. You heard it here first! I’ve ran it a handful of times and it was so effortless and enjoyable. Zombie World is the game you should all be playing. Yes, you!
All my love to Mork Borg by Pelle Nilsson and Johan Nohr; Girl Underground by Lauren McManamon and Jesse Ross; Dirk’s Mystery Zine (that would became Super Blood Harvest) by Dirk Detweiler Leichty; The Demon Collective Volume 1 by David Shugars, Camilla Greer, Comrade Pollux, and Mabel Harper and Fungi of the Far Realms Alex Clements and Shuyi Zhang. Mork Borg has a special place in my heart for being such a wonderful OSR throwback, but with some fucking blinding and beautiful graphic design.
I fought the urge to give all the awards to Warcry. Games Workshop didn’t disappoint. Chef’s Kiss Emoji. Painting miniatures is keeping me sane while the world implodes.
I’m not sure you will ever get impartial judging with these awards. Is that something people even want? I assume not. We already have the Ennies where we decide awards using the power of aggregation. ↩
I used to try and get my awards published before the Ennies announced their winners. I was worried a book I liked winning an Ennie would take away from my also giving that book an award. But then I thought, “the Ennies are really stupid: they should be racing to beat me.”
Just when I think the Ennies are getting their shit together they go and nominate Dirk for best cartography, but not for best art? And then both Troika (Best Game of 2018) and Silent Titans (short-listed for 2019) don’t win anything? Come on! I do see more names I know getting the recognition they deserve, but the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG industry will never truly provide what I am looking for.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming continue to be a beacon of shining light in the darkness that is the table-top role playing game scene. The judges have deliberated at length about the merits and artistic achievement of each book, agonizing discussions that run for months on end. No votes or pandering: voting gets you Trump and Brexit.
The books in contention were all bought by myself in 2018, or fulfilled as Kickstarter rewards or pre-orders that year. Basically, if I didn’t have it in 2018 then it’s not on my long list for these awards. That’s basically it. I know what you’re saying: “Ram, 2018 was so fucking long ago.” Look man, I don’t make up the rules. (Actually, what you’re probably wondering is why the 2019 awards are for books I grabbed in 2018. Now that’s a good question.)
David Black’s simple rules for playing D&D, the eponymous Black Hack, felt like a real part of the zeitgeist with its initial release. People have always been hacking up their games of D&D, but now all of a sudden those hacks became This Hack or That Hack. The second edition of the Black Hack takes everything that made the first edition so great and refines it neatly. The game is still clear and concise, but with some refinements that makes the game stand out a bit on its own. The new book is a lovely hardback, with enough tables to keep you gaming for some time. This is the good stuff.
I was, to put it lightly, maximum hyped for the release of Operation Unfathomable. Jason Sholtis would share all his illustrations on G+, presumably as he wrapped them up, and I would +1 those posts so hard. It felt like he was drawing for ages and ages. And then there was a Kickstarter and finally a book. True joy. In many ways this book exists in contrast to the Veins of the Earth (Best Setting of 2018). Both books present the horrors of the Underdark, but Operation Unfathomable has a sort of goofy cartoon charm that I love. There is time travel and laser guns and bug monsters: all the good stuff. That we have two glorious visions of the Mythical Underworld, each bizarre and unique in their execution, is a testament to the creativity within the OSR. Jason’s adventure is a good introduction to what could be a longer jaunt in the underworld. (His players apparently said no thank you to the terrors of the deep, forcing him to develop the next overland adventure he plans to publish.)
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2018: Mothership & Dead Planet by Sean McCoy, Donn Stroud, and Fiona Maeve Geist
Technically, these are two different books. I don’t give no fucks. I got both zines at the same time, I read them at the same time, and I fell in love with them at the same time. With Dead Planet and Mothership we are given a sufficiently creepy scenario to freak your players out with, and the rules you’d need to run a sufficiently creepy science-fiction horror game. They are both short zines: an excellent format for games. Both books really stand out because of their graphic design. Sean has said he took his inspiration from magazines rather than books, and I think the approach works well. Mother Ship and Dead Planet are so visually engaging as you flip through them. Dead Planet in particular is a very colourful affair, but that colour is used to great effect. Mothership reminds me of Alien, while Dead Planet reminds me a bit more of that crossed with Warhammer 40,000. What’s not to love?
My love of Warhammer continues unabated, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give Kill Team a shout out. So much of my last year has been spent playing games of Kill Team or building and painting miniatures in preparation for those games. Warhammer has helped keep me sane. Warcry is out right now, so 2019 RPG authors you are once again on notice.
Are the Ennies good now? I certainly recognize more of the books and people that get nominated. I’m not sure that’s a sign they are good, or just a sign that the scene I love is getting the broader recognition it deserves. With that recognition comes a shit show of grief as the older darlings of these awards lament being cast aside for new D&D stupidness.1 I suppose that’s the problem with being the Teen Choice Awards of RPGs: teenagers are fickle creatures.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming are my answer to the Ennies. They are a reflection of my singular tastes. Are my tastes good? Yes. Yes they are, obviously. (Why else are you reading this dumb blog post?) These are all books I love for inscrutable reasons that are mine alone. Maybe you will like them too.
To be considered for an award a book must have been purchased by me in the previous calendar year. The books mentioned are all from 2017. Maybe you’ve blocked that year out. It was a pretty shitty one. Anyway, that’s basically the only rule here. Most everything else is made up as I go.
Best Game: Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan for Troika
There is something captivating about Troika. Daniel has managed to capture the weirdness of 80s UK fantasy in this love letter to Advanced Fighting Fantasy. Troika is a simple game with delightful art by Jeremy Duncan. Much of the book is filled with backgrounds for characters, and this is where the weird British fantasy is at its strongest. If you just want to play D&D, you can steal these backgrounds along with Troika’s superlative initiative rules and take your game to the next level.
Best Setting Book: Patrick Stuart & Scrap Princess for Veins of the Earth (with layout by Jez Gordon)
The most expensive book I own, perhaps. One of the most beautiful. It’s comically thick. Scrap Princess’s art falls on almost every page, which has been typeset with care by Jez Gordon. Patrick’s writing is excellent, as usual. This is best book Patrick and Scrap have done. It’s such an imaginative retelling of one of the most common parts of D&D: the mythic underworld. Everything in this book feels new and fresh. Patrick’s Olm and Knotsmen should become as iconic as the Drow and Ithilids of D&D. This book includes some of Scrap’s best artwork. She manages to hint at the horror that exists in the darkness of Patrick’s underworld. There is so much going on in this book it can be overwhelming. It’s a delight to read and re-read. Patrick is such a fountain of creativity I look forward to what he will produce next.
The Dark of Hot Springs Island is exactly the sort of book I love: it’s well written, well laid out, the art is great, and the book itself is pretty fucking fancy. The Dark of Hot Springs Island is a refreshing take on how you write and publish a hex crawl, and perhaps adventures in general. Many recent hex crawls look to take a lot of inspiration from Carcosa (itself taking inspiration from old Judges Guild modules). They are terse and compact. You are expected to divine a lot about the world by reading the descriptions and making connections between them.2 In contrast to something like Carcosa, Hurst presents his world with far more clarity and verbosity. Jacob has thought hard about what work a DM would need to do to run his adventure, and figured out how to make that task easier. There are tables and useful locations and advice throughout the book. It’s very clear how to use the book to run the setting presented, something many books don’t do well. This is what I found most compelling about the book, and why I ended up picking it over Veins of the Earth.3 This book is engineered to encourage the sort of emergent story telling people enjoy about OSR games.4
All my love to Adam Poots for making Kingdom Death Monster, Fever Swamp by Luke Gearing, Maze Rats by Ben Milton, Fleshscape by Emanuele Galletto, Bluebeards Bride by Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson, and the Chromatic Soup zines by Evlyn Moreau. Fever Swamp in particular was on the cusp of taking one of the top spots. It’s a lovely dense little adventure that looks like a weird children’s book. But, like the Highlander, there can be only three.
I also have to give an extra special shout out to Games Workshop for their Dark Imperium boxed set. Warhammer 40K has me enraptured. I was tempted to pivot these awards so they were just selections of the best miniatures of 2017. RPG nerds of 2018: you are in competition with Necromunda and Kill Team. Don’t fuck it up.
Just so we’re all on the same page: I love these sorts of books. ↩
The drafts of this post has had the two books trade spots several times as I got closer to my deadline to publish. They are very different books I love in very different ways. Veins of the earth is unbelievably creative. It’s so good I want to eat it. But, at the end of the day, the idiot part of me will always love a book that holds my hand when playing D&D. Also, how many times does Patrick need to win the top spot? The man needs to share the love. ↩
The companion players guide is also fantastic and deserves a shout out for being one of the few times I’ve read enjoyable game fiction. ↩
The competition for my time and attention (and money) grows fierce as indie publishers and amateur authors continue to push out better books than the big names in RPGs. We are in the middle of an RPG golden age. I found it particularly challenging this year to narrow down the list of books I wanted to call out, and harder still to pick the three for that most special of distinctions.
This award exists in contrast to the Ennies, the RPG scene’s Teen Choice Awards. The Ennies are lovely, i’m sure, but they are very much a product of letting a bunch of randoms vote on what’s good. Sometimes they pick what you like and you think, “man, these awards are great.” Sometimes they pick something you’ve never heard of and you think, “what is even the point of this thing?”1
To be considered for an award a book must have been purchased by me in the previous calendar year. So the books below are all from 2016. (Remember 2016? All the famous people died and Americans elected Trump for their president.) That’s basically the only rule.
Jeremy Duncan was tasked with finishing up the art for a book originally done by Gwar’s David Brokie. That’s no easy feat. Brokie’s cover is amazing, but Duncan’s interior art ratchets everything Brokie was doing up to 11. I had previously described the art as “bright, colourful, messy, detailed, crude, psychedelic, cartoonish, gory and intense,” and reviewing the book today I feel the same way. It’s so vibrant and unique. I just picked a random image from the book for this blog post. I could have grabbed any. They are all so totally nuts.
This felt like a quiet release for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It was stretch goal for another adventure James Raggi published, No Salvation for Witches. While I liked NSWF just fine, I loved World of the Lost more in every way. It seems a shame it hasn’t garnered more attention and praise. World of the Lost is such a well engineered hex crawl. The book is so well organized. The layout is fantastic. Everything about the book is in service of a really interesting and evocative setting. It’s full of useful random tables and generators. Running an adventure from this book is easy. This is such a solid release it’s a shame its print run was so small.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Book of 2016: Patrick Stuart & Zak Smith for Maze of the Blue Medusa
I thought picking Maze of the Blue Medusa for this award would be easier than it turned out to be. There were so many great books in 2016. World of the Lost and Towers Two were both out before Maze of the Blue Medusa and both captivating in their own way. By the end of the year there were several more books that stood out, most notably Broodmother Sky Fortress. But the heart wants what the heart wants.
I love Maze of the Blue Medusa. The writing from Patrick is excellent. Like his other works it feels like a mix of game text and post-modern fiction. You can read Maze of the Blue Medusa and enjoy it as a book full of lovely writing, or use the book as it was intended to run a crazy adventure. The layout of Maze of the Blue Medusa is stellar.2 Everything about how the book has been put together is designed to help orient the dungeon master in the dungeon. Zak’s map that brought the project to fruition is beautiful, and the art of the map is scattered throughout the book. Finally, the book itself feeds into my love of a well made book. Satyr Press made the nicest book I bought in 2016. Easily. Maze of the Blue Medusa is everything I love about RPGs in one place.
Wait—what’s the point of this thing? Patrick’s won something 3 years in a row now. (I actually made an off hand remark about this very situation occurring last year.) We’re half way though 2017 and Veins of the Earth has come and gone, which made picking this years awards tougher. I can see into this award’s future: I can’t imagine not Veins not making my short list next year. That made me second guess my picking Maze of the Blue Medusa for awards this year. There is likely something structurally problematic in how I construct my long list. I’m always going to buy Patrick’s new book: I love what he does. So, he’s always guaranteed a spot in my long list. (Well, until he starts writing dreck.) I pick up all of LotFP’s adventures for the same reason, so they are overrepresented in my long list and have a better chance of making it to my short list. Should I penalize people for making good books, though? As I said last year, every scene needs their Daniel Day Lewis. In 2016 I picked up a lot of games from people i’ve never heard of, for systems I would have never played, so it’s not like i’m knee deep in the same people’s work, but this is still something to keep in mind. At the end of the day this award will always simply be a reflection of what I like. I mean, I named them after myself. ↩
I still think the rooms are a bit too wordy, but you can’t praise someone for their prose and then complain there is too much of it. ↩
Ennies voting has come and gone. What are these books even? As is often the case I find their picks lacking—in other words I don’t recognize them. The Ennies are the Teen Choice awards of the RPG scene.
What follows are my favourite books of 2015. To qualify for contention your book must have been purchased by myself in 2015 (and ideally published in that year as well, but I honestly don’t give that many fucks about that). Winners were chosen all by myself, based on my feelings about gaming at this moment in time.1 As you read on you might say to yourself, “Ram: these categories are totally different than last years!” Yeah, they are. If you want consistent award categories the Ennies have you covered.
Yoon-Suin: The Purple Lands takes Vornheim’s approach to world building—copious random tables—to an extreme. Rather than describe Yoon-Suin David McGrogan shows the reader how to create their own version of his world. The setting itself is comprised of several regions, each interesting and unique in their own right. Yoon-Suin could have been 4 or 5 books, but instead it is a single epic tome. The scope and vision of the book is incredible, and is as unique as the world it describes.
(I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Matthew Adams and the wonderful art he has provided for the book. One of the few complaints I have with the work is that there isn’t more art from Adams.)
The Perilous Wilds is Dungeon World crossed with all sorts of OSR inspiration. I love hex crawls and wilderness exploration in my D&D. This book is a nice focused look at the subject, coming at the topic from a completely different direction than i’m used to.
There is a fair bit of Basic / Expert D&D in the tone and feel of the book, and also in how the book has been laid out. B/X was very smart when it comes to presenting information, and was seemingly ignored as a design to copy. Well, people copy the trade dress while missing what actually makes it compelling. Perilous Journey’s isn’t so foolish. Almost everything in the book is a tidy spread. It’s a pleasure to flip through and use. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making it useful in a fast improvisational game.
The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Book of 2015: Scrap Princess and Patrick Stuart for Fire on the Velvet Horizon
Fire on the Velvet Horizon is unlike any other D&D book I’ve read or seen. It is a monster book without stats, a coffee table book you can use in your D&D game, some sort of new-wave fiction. Stuart’s writing is captivating and thoroughly weird. Each of the pages in the book, produced by hand by Scrap, is a piece of art. There are some stand out examples of her “she’s just scribbling god damn it!” style. Seeing so much of her art in one place, and stuff in colour, it really nice. As I’ve said before, there is nothing else like her artwork.
This book is such a great example of two people following their own artistic vision without letting anyone else get in their way. Fire on the Velvet Horizon has the airs of something art-house, but once you dig in it is clear it was written with an eye to towards the gaming table. The book is thoroughly uncompromising in every way.2
This blog post has been a draft for months now. I knew fairly early on what books I wanted to call out, but it has been agonizing trying to pick one book over another for the big award. That said, in my heart I probably knew who the winners were the moment I read their book. One of the biggest reasons this was a hard choice was that Patrick won an award last year and I was worried these awards were just going to be “Ramanan’s annual blog post where he tells Patrick he’s awesome.” And now the mother fucker wrote Maze of the Blue Medusa so I am already stressed for 2017—pressure is on everyone else. Still, you should win if you are doing good work. Every scene needs their Daniel Day-Lewis. ↩
Including how small they were willing to typeset the text. ↩
I want to limit myself to calling out three books a year. Maybe that’s dumb, but I think focus is good. I hope people don’t think my Honourable Mentions are also rans. These are all really stand out books in my mind. ↩