March 25, 2014

My 10 Favorite RPG Products

There was this thing tapping into the blogosphere last week where bloggers were giving us their Ten Favorite RPG Products of All Time. Dyvers started the chain and others jumped on board. Here are my personal selections and why. I have many, many book racks of gaming material, but these sit on the book rack closest to my desk where I keep all my "most important" books. And now, in no particular order...

Dungeons & Dragons 1E (Holmes)
This is where I started. This is the game that showed me what role-playing games were all about. Sure it has flaws, but as a beginning to rpg games this is a superb way to start. In fact, those flaws taught me one of the most fundamental things about rpg games; a person and/or group can make a game their own, changing it to their own views. That is not something you can do with a novel or movie or really any other sort of entertainment. Also, many of the core fundamental concepts of rpg games was presented to me with this product. Sure, other games may improve on some of the systemic mechanics or concepts, but the underlying groundwork of this product allowed for everything that followed, at least for me.

Feng Shui
This game is gonzo without turning into silly. It has a concrete setting and concepts that allow for a wide range of game play and styles. It creates a setting where the crazy makes sense. And it is a lot of fun. I remember my wife making a karate kid who could jump up and do a running windmill kick to the face and keep kicking for 10'. I remember my friend playing a secret agent whose special ability was getting captured and having the bad guy reveal his evil plan. The game allowed for a wide range of character types (sorcerers, cyberwarriors, secret agents, gunmen, martial artists, archers, etc). Also, my favorite NPC of all time came from this game: Hugo, the monster who could only say one word, his name, but he could say it with so much inflection and tone to convey entire sentences. My wife still asks me at least once a year to run a game again.
This is also where my rpg man-crush on Robin D Laws started.

Lords of Creation
This was my first "kitchen-sink" rpg game. It was released in 1983 and written by Tom Moldvay. In it you were allowed to play a character from any time period and genre. It was also an epic setting that, at the time for me, set it apart from every other setting. In it you could meet famous people from the past and future, as well as interact with the gods from our mythology. There was nothing a character could not run into. For me it was a broadening of my rpg horizons as to what an rpg could do. The rules were a bit clunky (or outright didn't cover something important) but the setting was one that ignited my imagination and made me want to run it.

Of course, the best part is that Sir Richard Burton (the explorer) is in the game as an NPC!

A couple of weeks ago I started rereading the rules and all of the released supplements (3 adventures). It all came across very dated and fitful. The adventures were railroads and suffered from deux ex machina too often for my tastes, but with some tinkering they would make epic adventures. Will I ever run it? Probably not, but the game still strikes a chord with me that keeps it as one of my all time favorite games.

I have a love/hate relationship with this game. I love it as a player and hate it as a GM. As a player, I love the setting, the character options and rolling fistfuls of dice. As a GM, I hate creating encounters because I can't seem to strike the balance between running a complete push-over or it being so hard all the player characters die horribly. However, I keep coming back to the game. The system is fairly solid and interactive. It is possible to make different types of characters and have them all be useful. There are so many options (sometimes too much) that a player or GM can keep everything fresh for years to come.
And I love the setting. I love the fusion of cyberpunk and modern fantasy in a near future that makes it science-fiction but still keeps it close enough to our modern day to make it all feel comfortable. Similar to the rules system, the setting has a lot to work with.

Our group just started a new Shadowrun campaign; the first night of actual play is this Thursday. I'll be running it and hopefully, I'll get a handle on the challenge level. For now, I am excited to be playing Shadowrun again.

Flashing Blades
This is a Fantasy Games Unlimited game cast firmly in the genre of the Three Musketeers. I feel it is one of the better FGU games produced when the company was going strong. It does an excellent job of capturing the genre perfectly. In addition, it has a pirate supplement that also is excellent. The rules are simple enough to follow, though these days there are probably better, or at least more smooth, systems. However, the rules do what they are meant to do well.

The best part of the game is their system for character advancement in the various careers available to the player characters. There is a progression system for each career wherein the character can gain prestige and political power. For example, a priest can rise all the way up to become an Archbishop and/or Minister of France. Instead of the usual character advancement seen in games up until this one, wherein character advancement was tied to gold and items, this one offered something new.
I still want to run this game and so far is still my go-to system for a Three Musketeers style of game.

Lace & Steel
Similar to Flashing Blades, this is a Three Musketeers style of game. Unlike Flashing Blades this one is set in a unique world, has magic and centaurs/fey creatures are a major race. At first glance this could be dismissed as a Three Musketeers game with magic but it brings some new elements that I liked to the system. First and foremost is that verbal sparring is an integral part of the game. Sure there are rules for regular combat, but social interaction is as much a part of the game as combat. It is this level of elegance and eloquence that enriches the setting, making it something more than the typical hack-n-slash game. This is very much a game of intrigue and courtly manners, with a good amount of combat thrown in.

Legend of the Five Rings/Ceremony of the Samurai
This is the pseudo-Japanese game which introduced the roll & keep system. Herein players play samurai characters from a variety of unique clans in a setting plagued by a powerful evil. I particularly liked the roll & keep system as it gave some control of the dice to the players for narrative purposes. In one game, my wife's samurai "failed" to lie to a person when she chose to take the lower rolls because she felt her character would not lie to that person despite the rest of the party attempting to force her to. The rules set and setting make for an excellent game.

However, despite the fact I like the game a lot, the best thing the game brings to the rpg world is its introductory adventure, Ceremony of the Samurai. To me, this is the best introductory adventure ever written. It does exactly what such an adventure is supposed to do and then some. It introduces the game mechanics to the players, covering virtually all of what a character can do including sub-systems. It introduces the world setting to the players showing them how the important interactions work. It provides a challenging adventure where failing is not the end of the campaign (it revolves around a tournament). However, the actions of the players can affect the setting in a significant way (a minor clan is on the brink of elimination). It teaches, challenges, is relevant, and is actually a lot of fun to play. This is how all introductory adventures should be designed.

Necessary Evil
This is another adventure/campaign book. It is designed for the Savage Worlds system and was the first superheroes genre book for that system. The setting is about what happens when Earth is invaded by aliens and they kill all the superheroes, leaving only the supervillains to save the world. Player characters are those villains.

This book is a text-book example of how to run an "evil" campaign and avoid many of the pitfalls of such an endeavor. While the characters may be villains, there is a greater evil that they must overcome even if it is just for self-preservation. This greater evil is insurmountable (or at least appears so) forcing the characters to work together and trust each other if they are to succeed (thus avoiding the usual party in-fighting in most evil campaigns). There are opportunities to do "good" so characters can actually change and evolve over the course of the campaign instead being static characters like in so many other superhero settings. While the book provides adventures it makes no assumptions as to how the players will react to situations - positive results can result from both good and evil acts.

Overall this adventure/setting pushes all the right buttons.

2E D&D produced many settings. My favorite is still Birthright. It is also the best system and setting for running a campaign focused on political rulership. It provides a setting where a player character does not have to be the ruler of a kingdom, but instead can rule in other areas. They did this by taking rulership down one step from kingdom rulership to the components of a kingdom. This new level included control of the Land, control of the Armies, control of the Money, control of the People and control of the Magic. This allowed for a divergent class selection on the part of the players, while still allowing them much the same level of rulership. It also allowed for rulership that would not necessarily impinge on the rulership of the other player characters. This allowed the PCs to actually work together to overcome problems.

The setting also was built around this concept of rulership. Monsters, magic and culture derived from rulership in one form or another. This acted to reinforce the rulership mini-game, keeping it in the forefront, even while PCs might be doing "smaller" things like adventuring.

Every once in a while I'll dig these books out and reread them as I prep for another Birthright campaign. I've converted the rules and setting to other systems, such as Rolemaster or HARP, as I believe there are better fantasy systems than 2E D&D. The trick is how to get my potential players to buy into the concept.

This is a "kitchen sink" setting wherein the Earth is invaded by beings from other cosmos determined to suck the energy out of our planet. With them, the invaders brought alternate realities such as fantasy, cyberpunk, pulp, spies and horror, supplanting Earth's realities with theirs. This created a mish-mash setting where players can choose from a variety of genres and play them in one huge interconnected game. I know my players loved the options available to them and that they never knew what they might be facing. One of my regular players still says this is his favorite game and wants me to run it again.

However, as fun and exciting the setting is, one of the more innovative things the game brought to our gaming niche is the concept of as evolving campaign setting as dictated by the players. Each month the producers of TORG, West End Games, would release new adventure hooks. Players would then report to West End Games how their individual groups did following up those hooks. West End Games would then incorporate the results into future releases. It all made for a very dynamic setting.

And here is where I sneak in an 11th Favorite Product disguised as a continuation of TORG. The Masterbook system came out of the TORG system. It is a generic game system designed to accommodate any type of genre. In my viewpoint, Masterbook does this both the best of any generic system and the most elegantly. Masterbook is the best rpg game system ever written.

Honorable Mentions
Here follow a few systems/supplements that I think are above the rest and among my favorites. They just didn't make the top 10.

White Wolf World of Darkness
Ultimate Toolbox from AEG
7th Sea
Savage Worlds

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Outstanding list! Feng Shui AND Lace & Steel on the same list. Crazy cool.