My Month Without Games: An Open Letter to the Small, but Mighty Jetpack Joust Community

I wanted to write a book. I love games criticism, but there’s a segment of my heart that has always longed for the rigors of storytelling. And so, I went off, jettisoning my duties as the chief jetpack jouster, to write a novel with countless other aspiring authors. National Novel Writing Month has been an amazing learning experience, with practical teachings that I’ll certainly apply to my work here; but perhaps most interestingly, it taught me as much about my approach to discussing video games as it did my approach to building fictional worlds.

What follows might be considered a revision of our mission statement, but hopefully it won’t be quite as boring.


This summer, the internet gaming community was torn asunder. We all know by what. I won’t bother to mention its name, because frankly, I’m not interested in stirring up any controversy and it’s been talked about much more eloquently in other corners of the web. What I do want to talk about is its effect on me personally; a syndrome that came in contact with a large number of my good friends.

It bummed us out. The yelling between the two sides became little more than white noise, containing almost no real meaning. The death threats, the trolling, the finger-pointing, the misogyny, the harassment; it soiled much of my enthusiasm for my favorite art form and for the community that’s gathered around it. I’m aware that it was a small minority participating in the more heinous activities, but the spillover into news outlets ranging from Kotaku to MSNBC was a kind of cultural saturation that made me sick to my stomach every time I thought about picking up a controller. That sucked. Lots of great games came out this year.

But one night, after a particularly harrowing session of Dungeons & Dragons, several members of the Jetpack Joust team stood together outside my house and proclaimed that we were so exhausted by all the infighting that we’d largely stopped playing anything. We were a bunch of wannabe games journalists who didn’t want to have anything to do with the format. Video games were tainted.

We knew our ambivalence wouldn’t be especially good for business or for traffic, but we plugged along anyway, largely shifting our focus towards tabletop roleplaying games and unsung indie heroes. However, there came a point when even that wasn’t enough to alleviate the stress and the burden that I was feeling. I needed to make an escape run. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, after all, and I knew that if I took a well deserved break, it would put the whole thing into perspective; I would reassess my relationship with video games and with the website.


So I wrote a novel, or rather, the better part of a novel, which I’ll be finishing over the next few weeks. I left behind the complex universe of gaming for something far simpler; for a girl, and a town, and a little bit of existential mystery.

For some time, I was quite happy. But I slowly grew to miss all the pixels and menus and belligerent online competitors and quirky indie soundtracks. I especially missed the small, yet mighty community that’s grown around Jetpack Joust over the last year. I like writing for you. I like making videos for you. I think I bring a unique, philosophical view to the discussion of interactive media, and as a man with a keyboard and a long history with both games and criticism, I’m happy to have my voice heard.

This year, we were just putting our feelers out, experimenting, and attempting to find our niche. Our Word Press was supposed to be a temporary skeleton site for us to practice and refine our craft, whilst gathering an audience. It became a bit more permanent than we’d predicted. Eventually, we will migrate to something prettier and more useful, but we’ve gathered plenty of experience and have grown to understand what Jetpack Joust is, at its core. November taught me just as much as the previous ten months.

As such, here’s what you can expect from us as we continue down our road of discovery:

Jetpack Joust is not a news outlet. We do dabble in the stories of the day, but always with an editorial edge. This means we’re subjective. Our opinions are our own and they should not be taken as objective fact. We value the interpretation of media through the personal lens of our writers. Our reviews are about more than whether or not a game is fun. We analyze their value to the medium and to society as a whole, because we believe that like all art, games can be powerful emotional tools that change the inner lives of people and thus, change the world. It’s a lofty goal, but one that we think is fitting with the strong traditions of academic and social criticism in film, literature, theater and art.

I’m not disparaging the entertainment value of video games, that’s a huge part of their appeal, but it’s not something we’re terribly interested in exploring with JPJ. There are other places to find that particular brand of review and if you’re not a fan of our approach, we happily understand if you don’t want to be a regular visitor. What we can promise is engaging material that will likely reflect our open-minded, progressive, humorous and intellectual approach to criticism. And sometimes, when a game is just a bundle of joy, we’ll talk about how fucking fun it is too. See: Hypership Out of Control.


We hope, regardless of your politics or personal opinions, that you’ll be a part of the discussion as well. There’s nothing that we enjoy more than a rousing debate, as long as that debate is friendly, humane, and informative. There will be zero tolerance for harassment and hate speech – and there has never been any, as far as I know – because we want to foster a positive environment, where everyone feels welcome. Gaming is awesome and we want to spread it as far and wide as we possibly can.

Our other goal is to focus on quality instead of quantity. Jetpack Joust is an incredibly small operation, and I do much of the creative work alone. I started with the relatively ambitious aspiration of producing five pieces of content a week, but that was quickly derailed by my day job and by my desire to remain somewhat sane. Instead, you can look forward to a combination of three solid articles and videos week-in and week-out. This will give us an opportunity to actually play the games we’re writing about with a greater attention to detail and will hopefully lead to a better product in the long-run. With any luck, we’ll also add some new contributors that will assist us in filling in those blank spots in the schedule. This is a process that’s already begun.

It’s also likely that you’ll see a greater emphasis on tabletop experiences. We love our little indie gems, and even some of our big, explosive corporate behemoths, but the fact is that our readers adore board games, card games, miniatures games, and roleplaying games just as much as the digital stuff. It’s the topic that seems to have gained the most traction, if our metrics are to be believed, and we are here to give you what you want and sometimes what you need. If that means more dice talk, than we’re excited to deliver it to you.

Ultimately, little at Jetpack Joust has changed. This is more of an affirmation than a transformation. It’s important to remember that it’s still the best time ever to be a gamer. We have access to more content than I could have ever imagined as a kid playing my Sega Genesis in the early ‘90’s. And though things got dark, and there’s still some healing to do, the controversies of this summer have largely faded away and it’s okay to peak out your head and take a look around at all of the new goodies. There’s been enough division. It’s time to come back together in solidarity, for a better future for all gamers.


December is a month for playing catch up. There are plenty of games left to be played before we construct our “Best of” lists for 2014, so we’ll be digging into our backlogs and reviewing some titles that passed us by. I’ll also be finishing that novel, so bare with me if we’re a little slow.

Thank you so much for letting us take the last thirty days to clear our heads. We’re back, and we’re going to be better than ever, with podcasts, new episodes of fan favorite web series, and a renewed passion for the gaming medium. We love stuff and we hope that comes through in our writing.

Until next time, Bill Murray to you.

—Cory Stine, Editor in Chief

Hit the Table: The Coup Review!

“The Coup” is a micro-game that takes place in the world of The Resistance. Players take on the role of petty bureaucrats who hope to wield their power to assume absolute control. It’s a short, fun, strategic game that everyone should have in their repertoire. Watch the video for further analysis!

You can pick up “The Coup” at your Friendly Local Game Store!

Julian Reviews: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of Mordor has been tearing through video game critics; earning high marks from many journalists, who praise its innovative nemesis system and its unique twist on Lord of the Rings lore. However, does it hold up under the scrutiny of our new and amazing contributor, Julian? What is his take on this trip top Middle-earth? And most importantly, is Treebeard in this game?

All of these questions will be answered (except for maybe the Treebeard one) in the video review below. Welcome aboard, Julian!

Shadow of Mordor is on a ton of platforms, but you can find it on PC, here:

DM Advice: The Best D&D Nemeses (That Aren’t Dragons)

Every roleplaying campaign is in need of a dynamic antagonist; a puppet-master, psychopath, or tyrant that wreaks havoc as the heroes attempt to complete their journey. This villain can take the form of a treacherous God, a mad arch-mage, or a brutal criminal overlord, but the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons are also populated by more monstrous adversaries. Hidden beneath and beyond the earth, there are horrors that scheme and plan; to conquer, to dominate and to enslave. These figures can serve as permanent enemies in a campaign that lasts for years or temporary obstacles until the true mastermind reveals his face.

The Fifth Edition Monster Manual is filled to the brim with savage beasts of every stripe. But with such an enormous selection comes the anxiety of choosing the right nemesis for the story you’re trying to tell. It’s easy to suffer from a fiendish overload. Thus, we’ve collected some of our favorite monstrous scoundrels from the D&D universe: “boss” characters with interesting plot potential that we think could enhance your game.

We purposefully left dragons off of this list because they’re so iconic. Every player is bound to run into a scaly chromatic fire-breather at some point in his roleplaying career. Instead, we selected a mix of tried-and-true favorites and under-the-radar classics.

Low-Tier (1-5)

Orog (CR2, p. 247)


Orcs are often portrayed as dumb brutes, massive humanoids that think we’re their fists and mindlessly worship the savage god Gruumsh. This is largely a misconception. An Orog is a sub-set of the orc species and is superior in both size and intellect. With their deceivingly strategic minds, Orogs often serve as warband chieftains or frontline soldiers; quickly dominating their common brethren.

Players might encounter an Orog early on in their campaign, mistaking it for a normal orc before suffering at the hands of its clever tactics. These creatures could lead an independent mercenary group hired to kill the adventurers or serve as Generals in a monstrous horde coming to invade civilized lands. Their physical might could even attract the allegiance of other bestial tribes: goblins, lizardfolk, or gnolls; allowing for a more diverse set of potential enemies during combat. Orogs are huge threats to newly created characters and if used appropriately, could easily become interesting figureheads for low-level quests.

Night Hag (CR5, p. 178)


Some creatures are less concerned with conquering the mortal world than seeing its righteous denizens corrupted. Night Hags revel in the downfall of moral beings, plaguing their dreams to insist that they commit acts of heinous evil. As the hag wears down the resolve of the hero, it can kill them in their sleep and transport them to a land of horrors and mayhem. Players might never encounter the physical embodiment of a Night Hag and thus be forced to confront her in the ethereal realm of dreams – where their real-world strengths may not be an advantage.

Night Hags represent a true psychological threat to a party’s characters. A lawful-good paladin could be temporarily transformed into a raving madman. A wizard could turn his magic against those he cares for most. A warlock might be tricked into changing his patron. This is a monster that destroys the foundation of morality that drives many D&D characters, providing harrowing moments of inter-party conflict and a defined goal of overcoming her temptations. Her flavor text is thick with inspiring details and though a single Night Hag might not be capable of decimating an entire city or world; their assault on the characters can become deeply personal. This is often a more interesting option than some far away tyrant who won’t be revealed until the players reach epic tier.

Cambion (CR5, p. 36)


Half-human and half-fiend, a Cambion’s heart beats with the evil of its Devilish parentage. Struck at a young age with a deranged superiority complex and a perverse desire to rule over mortal beings, Cambions often use their human intelligence to strategize and scheme; but are entirely capable of resorting to acts of violence to achieve their endgame. This goal could range from a small scale takeover of a local gang to a grand plan to ascend the ranks of the demonic armies of the Abyss.

Cambions are a versatile enemy that can provide a striking presence in an otherwise stereotypical role. Their horrifying visage would likely lead them to hide from society-at-large; but this secretive nature is perfect for a shadowy crimelord, a manipulative bureaucrat or a brutal serial killer. With a propensity for escalating cruelty, Cambions never learn from their behavior and will not quit, even in the face of heroic adventurers. Above all, they want to impress their parents, and this dedication to malice makes them perfect adversaries as players start to explore greater powers.

Mid-Tier (6-15)

Mind Flayer (CR7, p. 222)


Aberrant monsters are particularly useful because their origins and motivations are a complete mystery. As a blank slate, the Dungeon Master can use them to explore ideas that might fall outside the range of traditional fantasy: Lovecraftian horror, alien invasions, and psychic trauma. Mind Flayers, or Illithids, are perhaps my personal favorite aberration. Their bulbous, tentacled heads and hunger for gray matter make them especially horrifying opponents; but it’s the alien justification for their atrocious experiments that compels the attention of players.

Mind Flayers are deadly and manipulative, leaving a wake of destruction as they travel through inter-dimensional portals. Few have witnessed Illithid society and lived, so the structure of their civilization is largely the purview of individual DMs. A single mind flayer, a psychic puppet-master controlling legions of thralls, is a valid reason for a mid-level party to run-and-hide; but a large group represents a nigh impossible obstacle. Entire campaigns can be built around the open mythology of the Illithids, reveling in the strangeness and body horror of these sentient invertebrates.

Efreeti (CR11, p. 145)


The pop cultural representation of the genie is often a friendly servant whom happily delivers three wishes to the person who releases him from an extra-dimensional prison, often inside a lamp. By contrast, the djinn of Dungeons & Dragons are mischievous – sometimes malevolent – creatures that loathe any mortal who would force them into servitude. Amidst the Elemental Planes, they are rulers and kings; so to lower themselves into the submission of others is considered an untenable humiliation.

The Efreeti are beings of pure fire. The seething hatred they feel toward their captors is potent and unyielding. If they have succumbed to the domination of a mortal, they will hunt him until their vengeance can be quenched. This could be incredibly interesting in-game, because a character could discover the efreet in some piece of hidden treasure and excitedly ask to receive his wishes; not knowing the kind of punishment that will result from such an action. The efreet could then escape from captivity to seek retribution or to lead an army of flame to conquer the Material Plane. Using the players preconceived notions could bring some entertaining surprise and shock to the table, as they learn the true consequences of dealing with a djinn.

Beholder (CR13, p. 28)


Tyrants of the Underdark, Beholders are iconic D&D adversaries on par with dragons. Consumed with an otherworldly hatred for everyone and everything, these creatures are intensely domineering and xenophobic. This malice is acutely portrayed in their appearance: a floating sphere with a single massive eyeball, a maw of jagged teeth, and a crown of snaking eye stalks. Forced into seclusion because of their horrifying visage, Beholders dwell in subterranean ruins and caves where they seduce mortals with false promises or simply beat them into submission with their magical might.

Ultimately, I find Beholders to be more interesting mechanically than narratively. The bursts of arcane energy that blast from their eye stalks can be truly devastating to an adventuring party; leading to a tense encounter that won’t soon be forgotten. As such, Beholders are more interesting in combat and it might behoove the Dungeon Master to keep their identity a secret until the final confrontation. Perhaps the Elven king is just a pawn in the eye tyrant’s scheme to conquer a nation, perhaps the Doppelganger crimelord is only a front for his aberrant master. There are plenty of ways to implement a Beholder into your campaign and the final battle will be the kind of harrowing experience that permanently affects the player’s characters.

Mummy Lord (CR15, p. 229)


Trapped for centuries inside long-lost tombs, mummies are undead beings infused with a necromantic magic that awakens them when their home is disturbed. Many of these creatures are merely guardians of the treasures that lay within these ancient crypts, but occasionally the body of an oppressive monarch is mummified and allowed to keep its living memories and personality. These Mummy Lords are driven by the obsessive desire to resurrect their primeval empires; and once they escape their unholy bounds, are capable of leading legions of undead servants into battle. Mummy Lords are excellent “call-back” enemies: having players unknowingly release them early on in a campaign, only to be revealed as the true threat in higher levels.

Not every Mummy Lord has to be inspired by Egyptian mythology. In Dungeons & Dragons, the mummification ritual can be as common or uncommon as the DM decides. A Dwarven Mummy Lord might be revered as a hero in history, but unveil his true savagery when he’s returned to life. An Orcish commander might take up his old sword against the civilization that decimated his people. Regardless, Mummy’s offer an excellent chance to instill your world with an active past, making its lore more relevant to your players.

High-Tier (16-30)

Death Knight (CR17, p. 47)


Death Knights are terrifying mirror images of the player’s characters. They were once paladins who stood for the very virtues that the heroes of the campaign seek to protect; but having fallen to their darker impulses, have been transformed into hateful undead creatures of untold power. They cannot be destroyed by mundane means. Only by redeeming themselves from their corrupt ways can a Death Knight return to eternal rest. As such, these are essentially immortal beings that can hunt adventurers indefinitely, testing the martial skills of the characters in battle.

These creatures aren’t necessarily consumed by the desire to rule. Instead, a Death Knight is often a General in the army of a greater fiend or undead; perfect for the role of “sub-boss” late in a campaign. They are loyal servants and will fulfill their brutal duties without question. However, Death Knight’s do provide an interesting opportunity for complex moral storytelling, as players hope to be able to coax them into redemption. This is the only way to stop their deadly assaults and a nearly impossible task that, if successful, could be amongst a party’s greatest achievements.

Lich (CR21, p. 202)


Few beings are more rightfully feared and loathed than the Lich, a self-obsessed wizard who uses powerful magic to maintain his life-force after death. Their skin and bones decay as their mind grows more insane with thoughts of arcane knowledge and total domination of the world around them. In order maintain its form, a Lich must house the souls of its victims inside of a phylactery; and it cannot be truly destroyed until the phylactery is removed from existence. This adds an interesting to layer to the players’ confrontation with a Lich, as they must discover the ritual or magic weapon that is capable of shattering the unholy container.

A Lich is manipulative and scheming, capable of using arcane energy to raise an army of undead warriors. It lives in isolation until it feels as though there is power to be grabbed; political or otherwise. Despite having the superior intellect of a talented mage, its actions can be erratic and frantic as its mental capacities fade into madness. Still, a Lich should not be underestimated. It will do anything to uncover the dark secrets of the universe, commiserating with evil Gods and hateful demons to achieve its aims. Centuries of learning allow it a control of magic that few mortals could ever hope to acquire and it battle they wield this knowledge with deadly accuracy. Once the player’s have reached the maximum level, they may finally be ready to take on the Lich that threatens the existence of their entire world.

Empyrean (CR23, p. 130)


When the gods of the universe mate with each other or with mortals, they birth beings of equal power and glory: Empyreans. These children evoke the same beauty and wonder as the gods themselves and often live amongst their families throughout the Outer Planes of existence. Like their divine parents, Empyreans are prone to impulsive emotional outbursts, often engaging in complicated political mechanisms to consolidate their power over a particularly. Some choose to reside on the Material Plane, wandering the natural world or serving as a philosopher king to a valiant nation. Others fall to the temptations of the Abyss or the Nine Hells.

Only a few Empyreans could be considered truly evil, but even those with the best of intentions may not be able to comprehend the consequences of their actions. The child of Bahamut might believe itself to be meting out necessary justice, when really it is terrorizing a nation with devastating and oppressive laws. However, Empyreans who are seduced by gods of chaos and shadow can be even more horrifying enemies; using their tremendous might to invoke their will. These beings are as complex and interesting in their motivations as any mortal, making them some of the most intriguing nemeses in Dungeons & Dragons.


Jetpack Joust Plays: Kentucky Route Zero (Updated)

We’ve been slowly making our way through the phenomenal experimental adventure game Kentucky Route Zero; releasing videos almost at the same pace as Cardboard Computer releases new installments to the story. But we are so enraptured by the strange trans-dimensional bypass that we can’t help but push on. This is a collection of our longest running “Let’s Play” – that will be updated over time – allowing you to relive this ethereal experience.

Kentucky Route Zero is the tale of Conway, an aging truck driver attempting to deliver some goods to an antique shop in central Kentucky. Unfortunately, the road he must go down is one of bizarre characters and even more bizarre locales. This will be a night that the old man never forgets.

You can find Kentucky Route Zero here.

Episode One: Equus Oils

Episode Two: Meeting Marques

Episode Three: The Coal Mine

Episode Four: The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces

Episode Five: Is it an Office or a Cathedral?

Episode Six: The Museum of Dwellings

Episode Seven: Folksongs & Flying on Julian’s Back

Episode Eight: Conway Gets A New Leg

Episode Nine: Roadside Rescue

Episode Ten: It’s Too Late to Love You

Episode Eleven: The Hall of the Mountain King

Episode Twelve: The Moldy Computer

Episode Thirteen: Frustrations with Xanadu

Episode Fourteen: The Strangers and their Underground Distillery


A Bloody Walk in the Woods: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is proof that we’re entering a new era of gaming. It somehow conveys the deep immersion of virtual reality without support for the Oculus Rift. Every leaf feels as though it was placed lovingly by Mother Nature. Every path could lead somewhere real and tangible. Ethan Carter is a gorgeous testament to the power of Unreal 4, but it wows with more than tech; its free-form storytelling thrives on the kind of suspense that can only be created by genuine discovery. Sleuthing through the wilds of Red Creek Valley is an iconic experience that will amaze, frustrate, compel and illuminate.

Paul Prospero is a classic Lovecraftian hero for a classic Lovecraftian tale: a man who can see things that are just out of the view of most “sensible” people. He’s ostensibly a psychic detective and well-known enough to have amassed a legion of imaginative fans that follow his reality-shattering adventures. Prospero receives regular letters from a boy named Ethan Carter, whose knowledge of the occult and arcane is disturbing for his age. As the letters grow darker in tone, the detective learns that the boy has gone missing and is inspired to use his considerable skills to uncover the truth of Ethan Carter’s fate. It’s a decision that leads Prospero to the back country roads and abandoned railroad lines of Red Creek Valley, a forest of ominous beauty. From there, he becomes a vessel for the player; a tool for exploring the hidden world beneath the grass, the dirt, and the blood.


This game had the rare effect of blurring out the world surrounding my monitor. I was transfixed by the oppressive atmosphere and mystifying soundtrack, to the point that I’d have to take regular breaks to readjust myself to reality. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t explicitly a horror game – there are no monsters stalking you through the woods – but it induces a dread that’s equivalent to walking through a house you think might be haunted. You tell yourself that there’s nothing around the next corner, but your mind is never quite convinced. There’s a subtle madness to the game that creeps under your skin and stays for days after it’s completed. The weight of its story’s tragedy makes it feel like hallowed ground and at times it can be difficult to tell where Prospero ends and you begin.

I’m sure this sounds like hyperbole; but if you come into The Vanishing of Ethan Carter with the right mindset, it will dig its hooks into you as well.

Oddly enough, there are few traditional mechanics to speak of in this game. You don’t play Ethan Carter so much as you experience it. Travelling along the overgrown trails, you search for clues to unravel the events that lead to the child’s disappearance. It doesn’t take long before you spot the hastily thrown together traps, the blood-stained train engine, or the severed legs on rusted-out tracks. But the mystery isn’t laid out clearly in front of you. Information is purposefully withheld and you’re forced to piece together the disparate elements in your mind. Prospero is aided by his unique vision, but ultimately the game refuses to hold your hand. If you miss a crucial clue, you could easily come to the wrong conclusion. This may be a bone of contention for impatient players, but is actually Ethan Carter’s defining strength. Its slow, deliberate pace allows even more time for the terror to settle in.


This existential horror is bolstered by the game’s intense realism. I’m not one to marvel unwittingly at graphical upgrades, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does much more than demonstrate the power of its engine. Every perfectly placed pixel enhances player participation, conjuring the emotional resonance that makes the game so special. This immersive quality comes directly from an innovative technique that allowed developer The Astronauts to translate photographs into a digital environment.

Red Creek Valley is an amalgamation of real world locations, strung together to create the illusion of wholeness. As such, there are no repeated textures or recycled assets. The forest feels alive and natural, filled with old-growth trees that have retaken the structures of men. The trees don’t look as though they were haphazardly planted by game designers to suggest “forestness”, they seem as though they’ve been there forever. The ruins of old homes, churches, and train stations are lived-in and decaying, occasionally making the game feel like an urban exploration simulator. Lighting, animation, resolution; everything comes together perfectly. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter looks real, but it also feels real; as if it’s somehow crossed the uncanny valley. It’s a difference that really needs to be experienced to be fathomed.

…but perhaps that’s why I spent half my time in the game trying to take the ideal screenshot.


With its rampant attention to detail, Ethan Carter is an open-world on a small-scale. It only takes fifteen or twenty minutes to bound across its quietly disturbing landscape, yet somehow the game manages to convey a scope that dwarfs the massive environments of Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption. Standing on the edge of a stone bridge, eyes retracing my steps along the lakeside cliff face, I was truly in awe of the distance I had travelled. I could practically feel my muscles aching from the journey. It’s a sensation that no other game has accurately represented; at least not in such a richly dynamic fashion. Ethan Carter feels larger than it is, explaining the calls for a “fast travel” option from many of its fans. But the perceived expanse of Red Creek Valley is as charming as it is frustrating and could become permanently soiled if The Astronauts bow down to this demand. Getting lost is part of the fun and backtracking increases immersion. There’s no need to water-down this mentally challenging experience.

This frustration is partially due to the games “level” design: there is none. Ten distinct and interconnected mysteries are strewn about the valley, but there is nothing to notate where one set of clues begins and another ends. The player can move between stages freely, meaning that the story can easily unfold at a truncated pace. If you miss the traps at the beginning of the game, you might not have the context you need to understand the events in the stave church graveyard or the mines. Even after everything becomes clear, you’ll have to sequence together the events in a logical pattern. You’ll have to investigate some of your own theories and interpretations. Ultimately, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter takes place as much in your mind as it does your monitor. There’s a story to be told, but it’s as much yours’ as it is the boy’s.

This is the beating heart of what the game is trying to get at. Ethan is a creative kid who lets his mind wander and race; his head is always in the clouds. These stories save him as his family disintegrates and Prospero bears witness to it all. The conclusion will be talked about for ages, criticized and pulled apart and analyzed for its deep look into our collective storytelling psyche. It will probably lead to more questions than answers, but that’s the way I like my endings.


The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the culminating masterpiece of a genre that’s been spreading its wings in the last few years: the first-person adventure. There is no combat to speak of, no blockbuster action pieces. Instead, the game weighs on your soul and worms its way into your mind. Like Gone Home and Ether One, the joy is in exploration and discovery; in finding that final clue to solve the case. But this game is superior in its execution and surmounts its predecessors in nearly every category. It will likely leave you feeling a bit hollow and disturbed, but it will also provoke hidden thoughts buried in the back of your head. This is the first game to perfect the essence of the natural world in digital form, but it won’t be the last. In all of its bleakness, there is a bit of light; at least for games of its kind.

Lovecraft would be proud.

Score: 10/10

An Otherworldly Travel Guide: The Best RPG Campaign Settings

World-building is one the great joys of tabletop roleplaying. Bringing to life an entirely new realm of existence is both empowering and satisfying. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or dedication necessary to develop their own home-brewed setting; a massive undertaking for both players and Game Masters.

Luckily, game designers seem to love world-building as much their players do and forty years worth of RPGs have supplied gaming groups with hundreds of in-depth campaign settings. Complete with complex histories, warring factions, diverse cultures and detailed characters, these worlds are easily inhabited and formed by some of best authors of fiction and fantasy. Campaign settings take the storytelling weight off the shoulders of the DM and provide the kinds of inspiration necessary to entertain and engage their players at the table.

But not every campaign setting is created equal. Some have an astounding level of detail. Others are left open to interpretation. Some build huge, expansive continents, while others focus on the minutiae of a single town or city. What follows is a collection of our favorite RPG settings; the ones that spark our creativity and stimulate our senses, the ones that live and breathe. If you’re looking to start a new campaign, this might provide a few good places to start.

The Forgotten Realms of Abeir-Toril (Dungeons & Dragons)


Let’s get the no-brainer out of the way first. While Dungeons & Dragons began in Gary Gygax’s personally crafted playground of Greyhawk; its Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms have truly stood the test of time. Abeir-Toril is perhaps the most fervently realized fantasy setting in all of fiction, encompassing five distinct continents, scores of independent nations, and thousands of years of history. Faerun is by far the most popular of the Forgotten Realms’ locales, an exquisitely rendered medieval setting of Tolkien-esque proportions. It’s managed to survive all five editions of D&D because of its versatility and timelessness, eventually becoming the central setting of 5E. Kara-Tur and Zakhara are equally as detailed, though they take inspiration from Asian and Arabic mythology respectively.

While the Forgotten Realms lacks the deep originality of some of the other worlds on this list, the vastness of its scope is impossible to ignore. The possibility for adventure is nearly endless. It’s a setting crafted lovingly since 1968 and Ed Greenwood’s attention to detail truly shows. Lots of gamers will start a campaign this year and many of them will contribute to Faerun’s history.

Ptolus (d20 Systems)


Ptolus takes the exact opposite approach to the Forgotten Realms’ ever-expanding multiverse, choosing to intensely focus on a single city bordering the collapsing nation of Tarsis. As with Ed Greenwood, creator Monte Cook (a name you’ll hear numerous times on this list) did little more than put the setting of his home campaign onto paper; 672 pages of paper to be exact. Few campaign settings have ever dwelt so wholly on the microscopic level; defining a city down to individual streets and districts, populating it with compelling denizens of every type. The Ptolus sourcebook might be the most lavish roleplaying guide ever made, designed to look like a travel guide and complete with some of the most detailed fantasy art ever printed. Few settings have so potently and effectively redefined the tropes of the genre. Even though Ptolus remains a cult hit, it deserves far more attention from the gaming public. If you’re persuaded to buy into just one of these magnificent worlds, I hope it’s this one.

Planescape (Dungeons & Dragons)


Not every adventuring party remains tied to the soil of their respective Earth. Some are compelled to cross the Astral Sea into the dominion of gods and other divine beings: the Planes. Planescape started as a natural extension of the original Manual of the Planes. Laid out like a Great Wheel, these infinite heavenly bodies are home to sects of angels, demons and otherworldly creatures that can hardly be described. The hub where they meet is known as Sigil, or the “The City of Doors”, and is often the starting place for any major campaign; as it connects directly to the Material Plane. Warring philosophical factions make their home on Sigil and beyond, representing the diversity of the planes as they battle for the fate of the multiverse. Planescape is a setting where the imagination can run wild, where magic reigns supreme and no idea is too abstract or extreme. This can be intimidating at first, but many Dungeon Masters have found the prisons of the Nine Hells, the gardens of the Celestia, and the cog works of Mechanus to be creatively freeing. Compatible with just about any D&D setting, Planescape is a realm that every gamer should have the chance to explore.

The Dreaming (White Wolf Storyteller Systems)

What is even vaster than the infinite planes of Dungeons & Dragons? Our dreams. And in White Wolf’s Changeling: The Dreaming, players are whisked away by fae creatures to a land where creative thoughts are made flesh. It’s a world where literally anything is possible, where pleasant daydreams and nightmares co-exist. Technically, the Dreaming is part of the greater World of Darkness mythos, an interwoven setting that includes Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension and more. But ultimately, those games are darker and more brooding in tone, with a definite tinge of horror. The Dreaming can certainly have its moments of dripping fear and dread, but its openness allows for some light at the end of the tunnel. Beauty is as welcome as ugliness. For that reason, it stands apart from the rest of the White Wolf line, even if its primary conceit could still leave you lying awake at night: the fae kidnap human bodies to use as vessels for their souls. Try not to think to hard about that one. I love the entirety of the World of Darkness, but the Dreaming is particularly wonderful.

Earth 2050 (Shadowrun)


Before Shadowrun, few properties had though to marry the awe-inspiring magic of the fantasy genre with the out-of-this-world tech of science fiction. Taking place almost fifty years into the future, Shadowrun posits and Earth at the end of Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. As the clock ticks down, magic makes its return to the world, transforming human beings into Orks, Trolls, Elves and Dwarves. This cataclysmic event shifts borders and sees the rise of new nations who can control ancient spirits. Simultaneously, huge corporations take advantage of the chaos to bump up their profits and innovate at levels never seen before. This fusion of cyberpunk and mythology is an incredibly unique vision of the future, where shadowrunners are hired by these Mega-corporations to solve conflicts and steal secrets from competitors. Some of these mercenaries even choose to take the hard road and work against this fascist system of business and government. Shadowrun is brilliant at translating its story elements into mechanics and is a happy medium for groups whose preferences split between sci-fi and fantasy.

Eberron (Dungeons & Dragons)


Eberron asks a slightly different question than Shadowrun: what if the technology we enjoy today was the byproduct of magic instead of science? What if airships were powered by massive elemental creatures? What if magic could infuse constructs with the spark of life? In Eberron, all of these things are made possible by artificers, spellwrights and wizards, who are often caught up in an arms race between four warring nations. For a fantasy setting, the politics are particularly interesting: a hundred year conflict has just ended and the governments are in a state of cold war. Spies cross borders to retrieve information, internal strife threatens stability, and massive organizations known as the Dragonmarked Houses profit off of the suffering of others. Meanwhile, ancient clans of demons and dragons plot to undo all of civilization and the Dreaming Dark conquers the minds of the ignorant. Eberron is a campaign setting built for complex intrigue and political machinations. It has everything you could want from a Dungeons & Dragons world, while deconstructing the fantasy genre with new and fresh ideas. My current campaign takes place on Eberron and my players are quite happy with the result.

Athas (Dungeons & Dragons)


Athas might be the polar opposite of Eberron, a post-apocalyptic world ruined by magic and transformed into a burnt husk of desert and wastelands. The world of Dark Sun is depressing and grim, where cannibalistic Halflings scavenge the countryside, dwarf-human hybrids are valued for their use as slaves, and dragons have been all but destroyed by their lifeless surroundings. Magic has been outlawed, because wizards known as defilers drew their power from the environment; thus leading to the ruination of this once blue and green paradise. Even divine magic is taboo, as there are no gods to speak of; if there ever were, they left Athas to rot. As such, players who choose an arcane class are often viewed as dangerous outcasts and are shunned by “proper” society. Dark Sun might be the grittiest setting to ever be published under the Dungeons & Dragons license, but it’s hardcore following has only been bolstered by the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic media. This is effectively Fallout with a hint of high fantasy, a combination that truly bursts open the imagination. There are tons of storytelling possibilities on Athas, especially if you’re looking for a darker vibe for your campaign.

 The Ninth World (Numenera)


The Ninth World is my favorite campaign setting. It’s the place I go when I imagine the potential of RPG storytelling. No setting has ever brought me creative joy in so many inspirational ways; and even though I have rarely played Numenera, the Ninth World is constant source of fresh ideas for my own gaming group. Numenera takes place a billion years into the future, on an Earth that should’ve been destroyed dozens of times over. And yet, it stills circles our sun and humans continue to dwell on its surface. This should all seem impossible, but the Ninth World is built on the ruins of eight previous civilizations; each reaching new heights of technological achievement. Denizens of the world view these devices as implements of magic or divine will, but they are most certainly machines; machines that bend reality, warp time, and cause miracles on a daily basis. Numenera is a game about exploration and the unknown, about mysteries we might not be able to solve. It’s focus on “the weird” makes it seem wholly unique: as giants with cities for heads wander mountain passes, ultradimensional horrors seduce unknowing victims, and strange mutations are cultivated by the rich and powerful. There are always more questions to ask about the Ninth World, a fact that will likely keep players coming back for more and more and more.

What is your favorite campaign setting? Comment below!