Thursday, July 16, 2009

Best of the Bunch (P. 2)

Continued from my last post, here are my Top Ten RPGs I Want To Play...including some "honorable mentions" well as why they got chosen. Enjoy!

#13 (Honorable Mention) Mechwarrior/Battletech (FASA, various): For a military campaign RPG, BattleTech is a great one. You can have all the pathos of lost units (destroyed mechs) while only rarely losing characters (pilots). However, it really is a hybrid-wargame (minis required) which knocks it off the list.

#12 (Honorable Mention) Amber Diceless RPG (Erick Wujcik): I love this game, have only had a chance to play it once, and still had a blast. Problem is I can never find folks who’ve actually read Zelazny’s books. I would prefer to play, not run this one.

#11 (Honorable Mention) Sorcerer (Ron Edwards): I so wish this game had been published (with all the supplements) circa 1986. That was the last time I was in a gaming group that had enough trust/intimacy to run something like this the way it needs to be run. My old gaming group would have eaten it up. Oh, well…maybe sometime down the road…

#10 Vampire the Masquerade, 1st edition (Mark Rein-Hagen): I was actually surprised this made it on the list. I ran two sagas with VTM (one through high school, one in college), quickly switching over to 2nd edition the moment it came on the market. Looking back I wish I hadn’t…hell there’s a lot of things I wish I could do over (we fell too quickly into the “Goth Superhero” trap). The original soft-cover book is beautiful, still has the excellent Bradstreet illustrations, but an overall “charcoal sketchbook” feel. It also feels much closer to its Anne Rice roots, before the move to Cyber-Goth and splat books. Props especially to the comic strip.

#9 Mutant City Blues (Robin Laws): Another surprise, this is the only “superhero” RPG that made it on the T10 list (I own many). It’s no surprise that Laws is here, of course…I own several of his great games. Pelgrane Press’s GUMSHOE system is incredibly cool (I also have Trail of Cthulhu) and I’ve been itching to run gritty low-powered heroes in a cool, narrative driven system. This may in the top 2 or so for “games never played that I want-want-want to play.”

#8 Maelstrom (Christian Aldridge): I searched the net for the author a year or so ago and could only find an investment banker. Too bad, because this game is incredible. I’d actually prefer running it to being a player, but it just has so much weird psychedelic potential. Also, I have found the Story Engine system to be the best PBEM system around. Anything with flying ships, crab men, and warp storms…not to mention the shrikes! Yow!

#7 Gamma World (James Ward): I grew up with the 2nd edition and prior to discovering retro-clones was working on my own GW7 project. I think the 1st edition is the most coherent about addressing the premise of the game (it’s all about technology: good, bad, indifferent, and rediscovered), but the 2nd edition has better systems. I love post-apocalyptic settings and despite the laser-eyed animals, GW has the best Post-Apoc RPG I’ve seen. Of course, I’ve never had the chance to read Aftermath….

#6 Traveller: Mongoose edition (Marc Miller+): the #6 spot is almost as tricky as the top four. Not because I couldn’t decide on an edition (I prefer Mongoose to Classic and would not play Traveller in any edition besides these two), but because I was torn between which would be #5 on the list. Traveller ends up lower because I would probably need to run it to play the way I wanted. But it’s still the best “space” game around (and the only one in the Top 10), and I soooo want to run a Firefly/Cowboy Beebop low-sci-fi game. This is the system with which to do so.

#5 Top Secret (Merle Rasmussen): NOT the SI edition, please God! For a spy RPG, there are actually quite a few things I prefer about the James Bond 007 RPG game system…it certainly works better for GM + solo player games. That being said, I have played both and I personally prefer the more old school Top Secret. Enough that I wouldn’t mind running it or playing. I think the chargen system provides enough randomness to give folks a feeling of difference while still making all characters viable. The class/level system has no restrictions so you can belong to whatever branch you want, while still feeling you have a “niche.” The hand-to-hand system is totally archaic, the gun-smithing is crazy-detailed, the random guard/capture tables and various ways of getting info from contacts are bizarrely old school of the oldest variety. And yet, like most OS games, one can throw out what doesn’t work as house-rule to taste. It’s the Cold War spirit of the game that is so damn cool. I just really dig it.

#4 Hollow Earth Expedition (Exile Studios): From the earliest old school RPG to a decidedly New School one, HEX is #1 on my list of games not played that I really REALLY want to. It is a trifle clunky. Its characters are a bit under-powered for my preferred pulp setting (easily adjusted, though). It does have a bunch of skills to track (which I hate). But I LOVE the setting. I love “lost world” stuff but I especially enjoy the whole “modern explorers finding lost cities underground” thing. I was never into hollow earth stuff with D&D…one already has fantasy; when you combine it with MORE fantasy you get “cheese.” But 1930s Depression era explorers finding weird science and ancient Atlantean magic? Hell yeah!

#3 Ars Magica 4th Edition (Jonathan Tweet & Mark Rein-Hagen): Yet another game I really wish I’d had back in the mid-1980s when I had a gaming group that ran multi-year campaigns. I’ve only had a chance to read and play the 2nd-4th editions, and of the bunch I find the 4th to be the best and most stream-lined. Plus it’s FREE from Atlas. There’s just so much to love about this game; not as whimsical as D&D, not as serious as dark as Sorcerer (& Sword), not as crazy-deadly as Warhammer Fantasy RPG. It’s simply one of the best games around. Plus, it runs just fine when you have the occasional no-show player.

#2 B/X Dungeons and Dragons (Moldvay/Cook/Gygax/Arneson): it does what I need it to do. It can be as whimsical or as dark as you like. It has great efficiency of game design. It is fun. It is simple. It has objectives. It has an endgame. It has kickass adventure modules. It is easy to teach. It is easily customizable. It has hidden depths. It has heroic potential. It was my introduction to the RPG hobby. ‘Nuff said.

#1 Boot Hill, 2nd edition (Brian Blume and Gary Gygax): What?!! You heard me. If someone said, “You can run or play any game you want,” I would probably choose BH. I absolutely love this game, and I never get to play it. The rules include everything you need to adjudicate a few systems (gambling, shooting, brawling, dynamite); everything else is role-playing. The 1st module (BH1: Mad Mesa) introduces Reaction tables similar to D&D but these are optional. All five modules for the game are excellent. Larry Elmore’s western art is excellent. I understand that Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils is perfect for one-off Western games that are intensely story driven (say to emulate a film like High Noon or Unforgiven). But for an on-going series (say Bonanza, the Rifleman, or Deadwood) or over-the-top film (Silverado, Young Guns) Boot Hill is your game. Both BH3: Ballots and Bullets and BH5: Range War! make great starting campaigns, BH4: Burned Bush Wells is a dramatic “who-dunnit,” BH2: Lost Conquistador’s Mine is the BH equivalent of a dungeon-crawl, and BH1: Mad Mesa is a small sandbox.

Combat in Boot Hill is fast and deadly (kind of what you’d expect) where only the quick or the lucky survive. But since character creation takes all of 5-10 minutes, who cares? As with any RPG, your mileage will vary based on how you approach the game. Boot Hill can be beer & pretzels dueling shoot-outs or a long-term “Sims Cowboy.” All I know is that I’d like to play more of it!


  1. Too bad you don't live in Eastern Ontario, I'd run a game of Top Secret for you in a heartbeat. I'm also actually running a Gamma World 1/2e game and both running and playing in B/X games.

    I love what's been done with the Chargen in the Mongoose ed of Traveller and would definitely love to play a game of it soon.

    I love the look and feel of Vampire 1st edition, but Revised was my favourite mechanically. I prefer the stats chosen for the nWoD game (the 3x3 grid of stats is far superior to the old stats), but love the setting of classic Vampire at least as much. Plus it's the one I know best so it's easiest for me to run from the seat of my pants. 1st ed had some real weirdnesses in the combat system that made it so Celerity was a penalty if you were fighting someone who was in any way better than you in combat.

  2. I agree that VTM 2 was better mechanically (I remember celerity), and easy to run...I ran all trait rolls using a TI graphing calculator with a "Random #" button...would give me ten integers from 1-10 and we'd count from the left. Combat and such was a snap.

    However, the game is (frankly) incoherent regarding its design objectives and what it facilitates. While I've kept most of my WoD stuff (for a rainy day) I don't intend on running a saga again anytime soon.

    Though a one-off session, with the right folks, and the right scenario....

    Another Canadian...and none of you are from BC, even! Sheesh!