There are libraries worth of rule books, supplements, and help guides out there for role-players. Whole rule systems and universal tips; but there is something you just can’t get out of a book and that is experience. Nothing beats experience in your ability to role-play, improvise, and come up with new characters and stories (as a player or DM). But game experience takes time, developing these skills over many sessions and many years. Variety can be difficult to achieve, even for a DM, and nothing increases experience like variety. However, there is something out there that is both fun and amazingly helpful in boosting your ability to role-play and improvise at the table: other games! With so many out there these days some can be classified as RPGs in and of them selves and others are story telling games that can be infinitely helpful.
Gloom (Atlas Games)
Gloom has to be one of the best games for this kind of thing. Gloom is a story driven card game where the goal is to make sure that, in the end, your family was the most miserable of the them all. Each player has five family members and mostly transparent cards are stacked on those characters to make them miserable or happy. You want to be sure to use that positive energy on the other players though and save death cards for when you’re truly sad. See, characters will eventually get killed and their levels of misery locked in. Once an entire family has died the game is over and you score the points. The family with the least wins.
What makes this a perfect game for role players is the fact that the cards are life events. A story unfolds as you place the cards and it is difficult not to add on to that story whether in the actions of your characters or another players. Because it is a card game, there is an aspect of randomness that give you different cards at different times each time you play, so the stories will never be the same. Finally Atlas Games has release a number of games and expansions including a Mythos (the one I own of course) version and a Fairy Tale version. As a result there are just that many more stories to tell. The only drawback is the game becomes less fun with fewer people and, while it can be played with only two, it takes four people or more to make it shine.
Forbidden Island/Desert (Gamewright)
This is a bit of a two-for-one, but deservedly so. Gamewright has made many, many games over the years that I love from Chomp! to There’s a Moose in the House. Two of there best games are cooperative games that pit players against the game in a fight for survival. In Forbidden Desert you must combat sands and heat stroke, trying to find the parts to an airship so that you can makes your escape before you die. In Forbidden Island you must collect four relics before the island sinks and they are lost forever, and then escape with your lives of course. Both games have multiple levels of difficulty to play at and can range from very easy games or truly difficult ones that may make you think the game itself hates you.
Aside from being cooperative games that pits you against a common goal, just like any RPG, this game also has roles for each player to take. Each role has special abilities that will help you get through the game. Due to the randomness of the game, however, some might be more helpful than others each play through. The catch? There are more roles than there can be players. Which role you decide not to fill could be the best choice or the worst mistake you have ever made. The games give you the chance to take on a variety of roles in a game that is both very much the same but completely different each time you play. Thus you get to work on strategy and tactics, practicing on utilizing your own abilities to the teams advantage and figuring out how others can work with you. These lessons are all great use and practice for the D&D table.
Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (Paizo)
It is hard to make this list without the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game being one of the first things on it. This game is basically a campaign in a box without the need to make characters, draw maps, find miniatures, DM prep, or anything else an RPG may require. It amounts to a cooperative, deck-building role-playing game. There is a bit of randomness that goes on with the game so that repeating the campaign holds surprises, but a structure to the game so you can plan your deck to certain extent. Characters are maintained and throughout the adventure your deck changes and grows. This game is a great example of an RPG turned down or a board game turned way up. Depending on how into it you wanted to get, you can role-play fully while playing it or just focus on the tactics of building the decks to get through the adventure efficiently.
The main downfall of this game is the cost. At an initial price approaching $100, you will still have to shell out $10-20 on each arc of the campaign beyond the first, and there are around 10 arcs to complete it (I believe). If you want more items or character options, buy the add-on packs. If you want to play another campaign you need to put down that initial investment again. The game gets very expensive, but there is a value there. You can replay the game and it provides a significant amount of entertainment time. As far as I know, characters and items are generally interchangeable through campaigns too, so each one you get gives you more options for future play-throughs. If you have regular game nights that aren’t RPG nights, and the money, it is definitely one worth getting. But wait for a sale!