Remodeling my game room gave me a chance to re-organizing my role-playing game collection and dig out books I haven’t touched in years. As I shelved them, I couldn’t help but start to mentally order my favorite and/or most influential games. This list is the result.
Perhaps the ultimate convention game, Paranoia takes place in a murderous dystopia in which your Friend Computer runs every aspect of the last city on Earth: Alpha Complex. You’re troubleshooters tasked with solving problems for Friend Computer. These problems usually end up killing you, but no worries — you can always decant another clone. Great fun, even if it’s not the sort of thing I’d want to run as an ongoing campaign.
19. Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
D&D 4E was a disappointment, if for no other reason than for how badly it split my gaming group. The exceptions-based powers mechanic coupled with its “no fighter left behind” lockstep class progression were deal breakers for my group. Since the playtest, I’ve grown to appreciate certain aspects of the game, particularly the skill challenge system and its easy-to-run monsters, but still, this is the edition that effectively killed my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and it’s hard not to be a little upset about that. On the upside though, it did pave the way for us to run Star Wars, which might never have happened if they’d released a more traditional D&D 3.0 game.
18. Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
My first ever science fiction RPG, and my first non-D&D RPG. Twenty-eight years after it was released, it’s still providing inspiration for my Star Wars campaign.
17. d20 Modern
d20 Modern never quite clicked for me; I think it was the base classes built around the different statistics (strong hero, smart hero, etc.) rather than true base classes that did it. There’s no denying its influence on the modern genre though, and it laid the foundation for what would be come the excellent Star Wars: Saga Edition
16. Fading Suns
I loved the medieval science fiction setting of Fading Suns, but I also liked the Victory Point System, in which you didn’t just have to beat a target number, but you also had to roll close to it. It was a nice mechanic, though ultimately we decided to run the d20 version instead.
15. Amber Diceless
Another game that I haven’t played, but nonetheless love the mechanics. I think story games owe a lot to Amber’s Diceless system because it offered a strong, playable alternative to your standard dice-based RPGs that focused on using narration rather than random numbers, to decide how your character won a conflict. It was all about framing the scene to take advantage of your characters strengths and exploit opponents’ weaknesses.
14. Pirates of the Spanish Main
One of my favorite games that I own, but never played. Pirates is powered by Savage Worlds, and it introduces a couple of cool new mechanics, including a fame/infamy track, new combat maneuvers for sword fighting, and ship-to-ship combat using the Pirates of the Spanish Main. If I could run any campaign right now, this would probably be it.
I think a hallmark of a good game is the stories you tell afterward. We only got through the first encounter (in which the entire party died horribly while trying to run a Nazi roadblock) but we still tell and re-tell the story of our Godlike playtest. There are aspects of the Godlike superhero rules I found a little wonky (like the “contest of wills” that supers engage in to negate each others powers) but overall I loved its dice pool-based One Roll Engine.
Technically, I’ve never played Risus, but it’s one of those games that you can help but tinker with once you’ve read through its three pages of rules. Building characters around cliches is a brilliant idea; making them functional cliches is even better.
Cyberpunk and magic? What’s not to love? I was in a regular Shadowrun campaign in college, and it was one of the first non-D&D games I played. The mana burn mechanic, in which you can actually hurt your character by trying to channel too much magic, was (and still is) great.