The following article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in May 2006.
Game Designers’ Favorite Games
Every games designer has an inner games geek (sometimes not so inner) who spent hours playing the RPGs you know and love. We’ve all played D&D, GURPs and other big names, but what about the slightly obscure? Perhaps they are games you’ve heard mentioned, or seen online, but maybe you’ve never got around to trying them. The Pelgrane asked games designers, “What’s your favourite lesser-known game, and why do you like it?” and we got some surprising answers, and a year’s supply of potential gaming sessions to plan. How did I persuade them? Well, games designers and not noted for their agility, and none are prepared for a lightning aerial swoop. Most of the designers mentioned how hard it was to choose a game, but I dangled them above a squawking nest of pelgrane chicks, and they rapidly complied. I ripped out various soul-searching quotes, as seen below.
This is a long article, and I’d like to give the attention- (and time-) challenged the opportunity to jump to their favourite designers first.
We’ll start with Ron Edwards (Sorceror), who unasked my question with a Zen-like MU. Here was I expecting (and hoping) he’d list a bunch of his favourite indie games over at the Forge, but instead he thoughtfully undermined my assumptions. When he wouldn’t answer directly, I listed a bunch of Indies games I thought he’d have mention. Ron said:
“…Yeah but, see, to me, those aren’t ‘lesser known.’ I see them as well-known, well-played, highly-discussed, influential games. In order to answer your question the way you hoped, I have to pretend I’m someone I’m not, then look over at where I really am and say I like those games ‘over there’.”
“I’m really not trying to be argumentative. I simply cannot see answering the question from an “industry” point of view. Maybe if I just say, ‘Sorcerer, Primetime Adventures, Inspectres, The Mountain Witch, Dogs in the Vineyard, [quoting me back]’ and let the reader say ‘oh, those are little-known’… would that do? If so, those are my answers.”
At the very least, this will make me more thoughtful when wording my next question!
Naughty Andy Peregrine, creator of Pie Shop,couldn’t make his mind up and gave me four RPGs Amber, Nobilis, Maelstrom, and James Bond. Rather than choose between them (which puppy not to kill?) I’ve left them all here. After all, bytes are cheap.
“While just about every game tries to tell you it is ‘a totally new rpg experience’ Amber (1991 – Phage Press) actually is. It does itself an injustice by calling itself diceless, as it doesn’t just remove dice but uses a rules system that relies purely on storytelling. In one sense this is what all rpgs should aspire to be, although the system is hard to apply to just anything. With Amber characters being ‘lesser Gods’ they can get away with more than your average pc. This game is hard to get used to as you must ‘unlearn’ many rpg habits, but the experience is more than worth it.”
“Maelstrom (1984 – Puffin books) is the cheapest RPG ever written [hmm – this excludes a number of free games, and a number that can’t be given away]. Alexander Scott gave us a detailed 16th century historical rpg, with a magic system well ahead of its time for just £1.95! Everything about this game is simple and very clever. For instance, you note your wounds separately, and they heal separately, one point a day. So if you take 8/8 damage for a total of 16, and someone else takes 2/2/2/2/4/4 for the same damage the second guy is up in 2 days with 2/2 wounds and the first is still in bed nursing 6/6. Simple and brilliant. The magic system is basically the same as Mage, but written 9 nine years beforehand. On top of all that you get some excellent detail on the 16th Century as well as a solo adventure and an introductory adventure. Most companies have trouble getting that much into two rulebooks these days.”
“James Bond 007 (1983 – Victory Games) is of the earliest licensed products, and such a big license too. The system captured the flavour of Bond very well but sadly the license didn’t allow the company to use Blofeld and SPECTRE. The system is simple and inventive. You have a skill chance from 1-20 and it is multiplied by the difficulty (10 being easy and 1 being hard) to give a percentage chance for success. As long as you know your times tables this is a doddle (and it is printed on the character sheet just in case you don’t). The adventure supplements were based on all the movies. However they cleverly changed the details so you got into all the same situations Bond did, but if you assume you know the plan because you’ve seen the movie you will go way off track.”
“By the same token Nobilis [1999 (Pharos Press) 2002 (Hogshead)] is one of my favourites, everything I love about Amber with a stunning world background as well. It is sadly the most under-supplemented game available. One supplement promised in the original edition is still yet to appear. However, if you are looking for a work of art as well as a game, Nobilis is for you.”
Andrew Kenrick also enthuses about Nobilis –
“…for sheer blows-out-your-mind concept and execution, this is one of the finest books ever written, let along rpgs.”
“Playing Nobilis is such a unique experience in almost every way. You play a god who can do damned near anything, which rather widens the options available to the player, and means that the challenges you face are on a whole different level. No other game I’ve ever played in has involved such fantastical and epic foes, or challenged me so much. Oh, plus it’s completely diceless, and with good reason, which takes a certain amount of the frustration of failing to accomplish something out of the game.”
Diceless mechanics confuse pelgranes, who likes shiny things such as gem dice, so I lowered him nearer the chicks, asking “is it GM fiat – and the social contract with the players – which resolves conflict or is there an explicit mechanic which overrides the GM?” He expounded: “Each of the PCs has certain attribute scores, and depending on these determines what they can do and how many miracle points a miracle costs. A PC will automatically succeed at anything they try to do (they are gods, after all) unless another entity tries to stop them, in which case there are conflict mechanics for resolving this.”
Andrew mentioned two more games:
“Unknown Armies – following closely behind Nobilis, UA has the best magic system ever devised and hardwires so much coolness into one small book that it’s impossible to not have a good time when playing it.”
“Delta Green – technically a supplement, but DG packs in so much and changes the dynamic and style of Call of Cthulhu to such a degree that it really is an rpg in its own right. Another damned well written game.”
Staying with the British contingent, Marcus Rowland also suggested Unknown Armies, and added Ghostbusters: “Wonderfully simple rules that really worked well and designed with real humour by Chaosium and good production values from West End Games. Then WEG rewrote it for 2nd edition, dumped a lot of the stuff that made it a fun game, and it sucked.” Finally he offered Space 1889 – not a glowing endorsement, but still. “Wonderful background, shame the actual rules are a little clunky. Still in print from Heliograph Inc.”
Kate Flack was short and to the point with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles , Kult “for creature concepts,” In Nomine “for those great archetype descriptions: If <insert character class> was confronted with a drinks machine, it would…” and HOL “got to love the anguish factor, and the mad scratchy writing.”
Mike Williams gave me Teenagers from Outer Space, one of the few about which I know nothing.
“There are lots of lesser known games that I’m fond of for one mechanic or another, but if I had to pick a favorite I’ve got to go with Teenagers From Outer Space. Nothing is better after a bunch of “serious gaming” than unwinding than playing a teenager in a setting influenced by comedy anime turned up to eleven. It’s high school – you’ve all been there, and they’re all pretty much alike. But the alien kids have landed. A typical group of characters might include an average earth kid, a space princess, the football team’s new linebacker that turns into something that looks like godzilla’s big brother, a whatsit that’s easily confused for the stuff the cafeteria ladies claim is tapioca, a one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater, and the obligatory cosmic catgirl. The game’s exhausting, and more often than not a game session has tickled my funny bone enough that I’ve laughed so hard it hurts. Yeah, the game’s getting close to twenty years old now, but it’s hard to find a more fun time at the game table.”
Matt Forbeck plugs White Wolf’s Adventure! Whilst WW is responsible for a number of mainstream games, Adventure! is sadly not as well known. He says: “I’m a sucker for pulps of any kind, and the mechanic that allows players to back up and rewrite a scene is brilliant.”
Chris Helton (Battlefield Press developer of the Open Core System) nominates Lords of Creation from Avalon Hill.
“Despite some wonkiness that can really only be found in the best of old school games, it was really the first multi-genre game that I imprinted upon. And its special place wasn’t usurped until GURPS came along a couple of years later.”
“… [I]t promoted that wild and wooly style of wahoo gaming of by-gone days. I loved the fact that it not only had NPC stats for Billy the Kid and Morgan Le Fay but it also had illustrations featuring all the “historical” NPCs interacting. It was a fun gaming experience.”
Utterly without shame, Aaron Rosenberg discusses his own baby: Asylum.
“…first game I produced myself, Clockworks’ first product, and still one of the most fun to play. I’ve played in it and run it many times, including at cons, and it’s always a hoot. Despite being written with allowances for both serious and silly play, it always winds up being very silly and very funny.”
For form’s sake, he also adds the SAGA version of Wizard of the Coast’s Marvel RPG.
“The book itself is a bit of a mess–no real character creation, no explanation of things like initiative–but the powers and the card-based game mechanic (and the deck itself) make up for it.”
Steve Kenson (Talon Studio) is also a fan of SAGA, a sadly unrated system. He also contributed to it.
“[SAGA is] a lot of fun to play and to run. SAGA first showed up as the rules-light story-driven engine for the Dragonlance: Fifth Age game from TSR. Later, after Wizards acquired TSR, a streamlined and updated version of SAGA became the engine for the Marvel Super-Heroes Adventure Game, still one of the best superhero RPGs ever, in my opinion.”
“I was such a fan of SAGA at the time-writing SAGA articles for Dragon and Wizards’ website-that my group got to playtest the Marvel game and we had a blast! It was fast-paced, easy, fun, and the card-play offered some cool mechanics, like damage forcing “discards,” reducing the size of your hand and neatly reflecting “damage penalties” without any additional mechanics. I even wrote a couple things for Marvel, namely the “Avengers: Masters of Evil” Adventure Book and some stuff for “Reed Richards’ Guide to Everything”.”
“Unfortunately, the card-play element turned many people off, particularly when they associated “cards” with Wizards’ “Magic: the Gathering” (which was, after all, annoying many old-time RPGers).”
“Sales were modest, especially by Wizards’ standards. Once D&D 3e got rolling, it was all d20, all the time, and SAGA was no more: the Marvel and Dragonlance games were canceled, with Dragonlance eventually updating to the d20-based D&D rules. Still, I had a lot of fun with the game while it lasted!”
“I picked the game up on a lark in 1994, and the lovely blend of surreal conspiracy and modern occult weirdness has been a fond part of my gaming memories for over a decade. I still have a number of the supplements for the line, and hope to one day get another group together to play it again.”
Keith Baker (Eberron, Dying Earth) has no doubt that Over the Edge is his favourite, too.
“I’m just starting up a new campaign myself, after a two or three year dry spell… and despite the fact that I make my living writing for D&D.”
“The relatively simple rules and (more or less) modern setting make it an easy game to spring on non-gamers. The setting allows for a wealth of story opportunities and styles of play, and I find that the rules help focus attention on roleplaying instead of number-crunching… in particular, Robin Laws’ Cut-Ups Method is my favorite all-time game mechanic. “
Elizabeth McCoy, In Nomine Line Editor suggests – In Nomine.
“I like the characterization most — the way that the game can be done silly, straight, gray, black-and-white, bright or dark… As a GM, I really, really adore the Intervention mechanic. It’s not just a critical failure or success, it’s an actual Divine or Infernal Intervention and just about anything can happen so long as it connects reasonably.”
“I’m a sucker for redemption stories, too. And playing the cute little proto-angel reliever NPCs is also fun. Death by cute!” To atone for the self-aggrandizing nature of her choice she says “I’m especially happy about the entirely free “lite” adventure, with all the rules needed to play.”
Caias Ward (Uncommon Character) suggested Run Out The Guns.
“Forget 7th Sea. This was the Pirate Game of all Pirate Games. It encouraged large groups of players (one convention session had 14 players around the table). You got to use the Rolemaster savage critical hit tables. No noble causes for you; you spent entire sessions stealing the sword and pants of the Governor of Puerto Rico after you drugged him on ether at a state party, seizing spanish ships and ransoming their crews, and trying to cure your dose of the clap you got due to the Vice table (well, that was one session).”
“Yes, the vice table. Every time you hit port, you had to roll to see if something bad happened while drinking, gambling, or carousing. That in and of itself meant you often didn’t need a story; just getting out of your latest problem with the law or outraged husband or father was enough to motivate the crew.”
“Although mathematically complex at time and requiring charts, it also was a true example of the Golden Age of Piracy and much fun to play.”
Fond though the Pelgrane is of viscera, Larry D. Hols’ first choice might offer a little too much information for some. Ouch!
“Sword’s Path: Glory by Leading Edge Games. SP:G breaks combat down into increments of 12ths of a second, details exactly which organs or bones get struck, and so forth. LEG used a watered-down version of the SP:G rules in its Phoenix Command line and other games.”
“Powers & Perils_ by Avalon Hill. A very raw game from a design point of view–some really interesting bits surrounded by a lot of ill-conceived and/or -developed dross. The separation of experience and expertise is likely the most interesting aspect.”
“I found the detail in the character definition to be most enjoyable in P&P. There are ten characteristics and generating them involves both random luck and player choice. The background event tables allow for a whole host of good or bad things to have happened to the character before play–from special teachers to special items to crimes accused of to special abilities. The player can choose to have more experience or more expertise or more wealth for the starting character. The game explicitly supports a great deal of variety.”
I lowered Ed Stark (Game Designer and Special Projects Manager, RPG R&D WotC) particularly close to the my offspring’s snapping maws, and that had a salutary effect. He couldn’t stop talking – he suggested seven games, modestly suggesting only three that he worked on himself.
“I worked on TORG, MasterBook, and Shatterzone for West End Games. They all used the same basic system, and I liked them a lot. They certainly had balance issues, but they were just darn fun to play. Very pulp-action oriented, very fun.”
“I also enjoyed WEG’s Ghostbusters game. It had a “brownie points” mechanic and a general whacky fun.”
“Outside of WEG, there was a game called Psychosis I enjoyed playing … once. It had a tarot-card mechanic that was very interesting, but the game was incredibly structured. It would be nearly impossible for a GM to create his or her own adventure; the story-based system was too complex.”
“I don’t know if it’s obscure or not (maybe to our new audience), but I loved playing Rolemaster, particularly in its simpler form: MERP (Middle-earth Roleplaying). I liked the attack roll system and its wild critical hits. The magic system was also interesting, and allowed you to play a character in Middle-earth who could “cast spells” but didn’t feel like he was totally breaking from the Tolkien-style world (not a fantasy world rife with high-powered spellcasters).”
The polymathic Alex Stewart (Warhammer, etc), offers Forgotten Futures.
“[It’s] been far and away the most popular game with my regular group ever since I introduced it to them, and it’s become my system of choice for running pretty much everything regardless of genre or setting. Quick simple mechanisms, easily tweakable if necessary, and more GM resources than you can shake the proverbial stick at.”
“I’m also hugely enthused by 2nd edition WFRP at the moment; the design team have done a brilliant job of streamlining the mechanisms to make it far more playable, while keeping the feel of the original and bringing the background into line with the current Warhammer continuity. From the GM’s point of view it’s felt like trading in a Cortina for a Porsche.”
“And I’d have to put in a vote for Classic Traveller: I cut my gaming teeth on it a couple of decades ago, and still find it fun.”
Finally, I was very pleased to get a thoughtful response from Paul Czege of Half Meme Press. The Pelgrane has played a number of versions of his estimable My Life with Master, including My Life with Santa, My Life with Jesus, and My Life with Tony. And what’s best – this game is free.
“My favorite lesser-known game is James V. West’s The Pool. Playing it in 2001 changed the way I think about roleplaying games. It remains my absolute favorite system for unplanned roleplaying, and always a contender when I get caught up with setting ideas and need a system. In so many ways it just suits me as a GM. NPCs have no stats, so I can improvise them at will. And I never have to set target numbers, because adversity is instead modulated by how many bonus dice I give the player. Every game I’ve designed since The Pool betrays its influence.”
So, go out and try these games! Some are just a mouse click away, others you’ve bought and are rotting in cupboards or on shelves, still more lurk on Ebay. Seek them out. SAGA, In Nomine, Ghostbusters, and Over the Edge get special mention for being nominated multiple times. It would be an interesting exercise (one for the student) to see how this list differs from a similar one compiled from the preferences of the average punter.