Roleplaying Games have been described as “Let's Pretend with Rules” or “Improvisational Radio Theater”.
I enjoy playing Roleplaying Games (RPG), both as a GamesMaster and a player, although I don't get to do either as much as I'd like. For a long time I was the the only one in my gaming group foolish or enlightened enough to GM, so I rarely got to play. Luckily, that changed, and the group I'm currently playing with has a couple of good GMs.
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What are Roleplaying Games?
If you've wandered into the conversation in the middle, and are wondering what roleplaying games are, here is a good introduction.
How I got started
My introduction to roleplaying games was the Christmas present from my parents of the Holmes Basic D&D boxed set. Soon thereafter I was playing AD&D with my brother's friends from high school, and a little later I was DungeonMastering myself. My gaming group ran across Traveller, but were still focused on fantasy and didn't pursue it. We also ran across Tunnels and Trolls, and had fun with it.
Sometime in the mid-1980s I borrowed a copy of DragonQuest, and found its flexibility so attractive I had to buy my own copy, and was soon running DragonQuest games, including the classic SPI adventure The Enchanted Wood. Sometime in the mid-1980's I stopped playing D&D and AD&D entirely (thus almost missing out on AD&D 2nd edition completely); At some time after this I found a copy of 2nd edition GURPS, and then 3rd edition, and started using it for most of my roleplaying games.
I tried a lot of other game systems, but unfortunately the game stores in my area usually didn't carry much beyond TSR's products, and if they carried anything else they rarely carried anything except the core rules. So, for instance, I found RuneQuest (3rd edition), but I never bought any RuneQuest supplements other than Griffon Island (probably because they weren't available locally), so I didn't really learn anything about Glorantha until running across it on USENET news groups and the Internet years later.
Some Interesting Roleplaying Games
Some RPGs I enjoy are the following (in no particular order):
Prince Valiant, Greg Stafford's 1989 game from chaosium based on Hal Foster's legendary Sunday cartoon strips, is the idea game for introducing folks to roleplaying games: it has simple rules, clear presentation, a setting that is known to almost everybody, and a number of short adventures included in the book makes it easy to pick up and play anytime, and easy for new players to understand. Too bad it is out of print. (This, by the way, was the original “Story Telling Game”.) Pendragon, Stafford's next Arthurian game, is a wonderful game for the confirmed gamer, but doesn't serve as well as an introductory game.
I've been following GURPS since the 2nd edition days, and have over 150 GURPS books. Oddly enough, I haven't bought anything for 4th edition GURPS except GURPS Traveller: Interstellar Wars. I guess the two-volume basic set turned me off, and I'm using simpler systems these days, anyway. I suppose I'll get back to GURPS eventually.
2017 Update: I backed the kickstarter for Steve Jackson Games Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG), and it prompted an interest in GURPS 4th Edition. I now have the Basic Set, and several of the other books. DFRPG looks good.
Bunnies & Burrows
I had never seen the original Bunnies & Burrows game, but I bought the GURPS version, written by Steffan O'Sullivan, and absolutely loved it. This was the setting I used in the first RPG sessions I did with the kids in the family, though I used the Fudge RPG system, also written by Steffan O'Sullivan. I was finally able to buy a PDF of the original Bunnies & Burrows game over the Internet in 2011.
Elric! & Stormbringer
Elric! by Chaosium (and Stormbringer, its predecessor and now (2001) it's successor as well), along with its companion games Corum and the past and future Hawkmoon. Here's some thoughts on why to game in the world of Elric.
Fudge, written by Steffan O'Sullivan and a host of USENET posters in the early 1990s and originally published in book form by Grey Ghost Games and now by many publishers, is both a complete roleplaying game for those who like free-form rules-light games and a construction kit for building your own custom roleplaying game for those who prefer something more crunchy. There is a community-maintained Guide to Fudge that is a distillation of of the wisdom of the Fudge Mailing List. Steffan has his own Fudge page with a lot of designer notes and links to other Fudge pages.
Call of Cthulhu
DragonQuest, originally published by SPI.
Space: 1889, by Frank Chadwick, the original steampunk roleplaying game, was originally published by Games Designers Workshop and has been republished by Heliograph, Inc. (I have a short description of Space 1889).
Big Eyes, Small Mouth
BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) from Guardians of Order, an anime RPG, is a good game even for those who aren't really anime fans. 1 The second edition is especially good, giving you a lite, flexible system that works reasonably well from normal humans to over-the-top superheros, as well as integrated robot/mecha/vehicle and magic design systems. If someone asked me to recommend a good universal roleplaying game that was simpler than the Hero System from Hero Games, better at high-power levels than CORPS, and complete in one book (unlike GURPS), I'd say BESM would be a good choice. Tri-Stat dX, released in July 2003, looks like a fairly comprehensive synthesis of BESM and Guardians superhero game, SAS. dX is a bit crunchier than BESM, and is completely generic (without the anime trappings of BESM), but at 10$US for the printed version and free for the PDF it's definitely a great value. I hope this does well for Guardians. Personally, though, I was glad that Guardians still supported BESM, since the addition of PMV s to Tri-Stat dX adds just enough extra complexity to the base system to turn some people off. I don't think it's actually that much more complicated, but it certainly gives that appearance. BESM's more-or-less effects-based powers system is pretty flexible, but the effects-based paradigm takes some getting used to; I remember being surprised and delighted when I learned that in BESM a AD&D-like thief backstab ability is something that you build with the standard Weapon Attack attribute with a couple of weapon disabilities. This system does seem to work well for anime-type characters, who may all have weird and unique powers. Mostly things are well defined, like Weapon Attack, but there are a few places where things are a lot more fuzzy. Overall it works pretty well, and is much simpler than Hero.
Big Eyes, Small Mouth, 3rd edition was published by the White Wolf division Arthaus division after Guardians of Order ceased operations, and I got my copies on 2007/01/30. On a brief but reasonably complete scan it looks like a good further development of BESM 2nd edition, gaining the benefits of the various Tri-Stat implementations while becoming only a little more complex, with options to reduce the complexity to about that of 2nd edition or perhaps even a little less. It is compatible in philosophy and spirit to the earlier editions, but characters are not directly compatible. It made me want to play it when I read it, which is always a good test. Except for that fact that it is already (at the end of 2007; at least it is still available in PDF) out of print it makes a good alternative to Hero or GURPS for those looking for something mechanically simpler. There were some minor errata in the first printing, and the author (and former proprietor of Guardians of Order) Mark C. Mackinnon made the corrections available.
BESM 4th Edition was launched with a Kickstarter in 2019, and supplemented with BESM Extras in 2020. All-in-all, I like the changes it made to the system, but dislike the graphic design of the books. (I preferred the third edition graphic design.) I wish that some of the things in BESM Extras were in the core rulebook, but overall I'm happy with the two books. It is still a little more complex than BESM second edition, which hit a sweet spot for me, but looks like it will be a lot of fun.
Story Engine, 2nd Edition by Hubris Games, used for their science fantasy setting Maelstrom. The game is dice and mechanics light and, as you might expect from the title, focuses more on the dramatic aspects of roleplaying than the simulationist or gamist aspects. The stripped-down but complete 2 version, Story Bones, used to be available for download at their giveway page along with a lot of other Maelstrom/Story Engine material, but the Hubris Games site unfortunately disappeared some time in 2003. I make some of those materials, including Story Bones, available here. Precis Intermedia Gaming now sells PDFs and physical books of the Story Engine and Maelstrom Storytelling lines. Yay!
Professor M.A.R. Barker's complex science-fantasy world, Tékumel, while heavily influenced by non-European cultures, is its own unique setting. On February 23, 2001 Guardians of Order announced that they'd be publishing a new Tékumel game, Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. As will surprise no fan of Tékumel, it's turned out to be a complicated project, and it has been delayed several times. The good news is that both Guardians of Order and the Tékumel experts who are writing the game are committed to a quality product Guardians of Order finally released its Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne roleplaying game in late February of 2005, and it is good.
The Dying Earth
The Dying Earth RPG, based on the Dying Earth novels by Jack Vance and published by Pelgrane Press is a delightfully quirky game that fits the world of the novels perfectly. Alas, Pelgrane decided to stop publishing the game in April 2009.
Skyrealms of Jorune
Skyrealms of Jorune, created by Andrew Leker and Miles Teves in the early 1980s, was an extremely detailed science-fantasy roleplaying game that went through three editions and sadly is currently out of print. It used the slogan “Leave your world behind”. There is a Jorune mailing list
Talislanta, created by Stephan Michael Sechi in 1987, is an exotic, quirky, fantasy roleplaying game somewhat influenced by Jack Vance's fantasy novels. It avoided the European cultural and mythological cliches at the base of so many fantasy worlds, and used the slogan “No Elves” in one of its best remembered ads. It was republished in a fourth edition by Shooting Iron in July 2001, and the first print run of 1600 copies sold out in only two months. The second printing became available sometime around November or December 2002. There is an active talislanta mailing list. A fifth edition was published by Morrigan Press.
Nobilis is R. Sean Borgstrom's roleplaying game of Sovereign Powers, the personfications of aspects of reality, such as Pain, Love, Nights, or Books. Orignally published by Pharos Press and later in an expanded second edition by Hogshead, the second edition is now now published by Guardians of Order, which hopes to publish additional supplements for it in the future.
Savage Worlds is Pinnacle Entertainment Group's “Fast! Furious! Fun!” generic RPG. I'd read about it and looked at the Test Drive several times, but it hadn't really clicked for me until I read grubman's 101 days of Savage Worlds of 2005-07-26 on rpg.net. I got the revised version in late 2005 and was delighted by its mix of simplicity, versatility, and moderate tactical detail.
Savage Worlds is designed for folks who want something that is easy to prepare for and easy and fast to run, and I think it suceeds at these goals very well. Characters start off competent and get better, but are never invulnerable. The core rulebook works well for fantasy, science fiction, historical, and pulp-level heroics and horror. It is not super detailed, concentrating on low overhead. The core rulebook is very complete, containing everything you need to play, including a nifty mass combat system, vehicle rules, a sampling of creatures, and so forth. It is well supported, with a line of interesting setting/campaign books (fantasy, fantasy pirates, super-villains, weird wild west) and a number of good PDF adventures (zombies, fantasy, 1930s, TV parody, Kids in Idyllic England), and there are third-party publishers who also produce for it, as well as a sizable fan community.
I've been playing Savage Worlds with my daughter and her cousins (occasionally with my brothers mixed in) and it has gone very well. I started out by playing a lot of short adventures, then ran Evernight, a fantasy campaign. To compare it to Big Eyes, Small Mouth, it has simpler character generation, more tactical options in combat, but actually less bookkeeping during combat. BESM has a more flexible powers/magic system, but Savage Worlds powers/magic system works well for most things, and can be easily expanded.
I've also played a number of Savage Worlds one-shots with my D&D gaming group, when the regular D&D game couldn't run for one reason or another.
Dungeons and Dragons
D&D is where I got my start, but I moved away from it during the ending of the AD&D years. At that time I was looking for something with more verisimilitude and detail and less arbitrary restrictions. To be honest, I was sick of D&D and that colored my reactions for years afterwards.
I've since come to see the pros as well as the cons of D&D, and though it's not my favorite RPG I can deal with it much better these days.
The D&D Rules Cyclopedia is an amazing feat: one book that encapsulates the best of traditional D&D in an amazingly complete package. This book makes me wish I'd run or played Basic/Expert/RC D&D. I've since found that several of the Basic/Expert D&D modules are classics (thank goodness for inexpensive PDFs of out-of-print games!), and the combination is almost enough to prompt me to run a few RC D&D games. Almost. (Maybe I'll run a Savage Worlds game using those modules.)
First edition AD&D has a quirky charm that 2nd edition lacks, perhaps largely due to Gygax's odd but educational writing style. Reading later editions of D&D puts me to sleep in only a few pages, but even when I'm confused by Gygax's prose it never puts me to sleep.
On the other hand, 2nd edition AD&D is definitely easier to understand.
Third edition D&D and the more-or-less minor update 3.5E D&D are very well designed and designed very tightly, but they're not the first game I'd reach for when I wanted to play something. Mechanically they are more complicated and less flexible than I prefer at this point in my life (although much more flexible mechanically than 1st or 2nd editions), and they encode a great number of things in the core rules that I'd prefer to leave out. Many of these things make D&D characters seem less real to me: it's hard to squeeze a real character into a “1st level rogue”. On the other hand, for the type of game-play for which they are designed, they're excellent, and I'd not hesitate to play in a 3rd or 3.5th edition campaign. And while I'd not prefer not to write my own campaign from scratch (3.0E and 3.5E stat blocks are things of horror) I've happily run one from prewritten modules.
4th edition looks interesting, mechanically. It looks like it has been tightly focus on making all the base classes much more fun to play in the tactical battlemap-and-miniatures mode. Unfortunately, it also seems to have shifted entirely to supporting gamist play, leaving nowhere for simulationist play. As for the fluff and fluff related mechanics, such as the selection of races and classes and the changes to alignment, I'm quite displeased. I finally played 4E in 2009, and while it is fun for the type of game for which it was designed, it has a much more narrowed focus than earlier editions.
Tunnels & Trolls
Tunnels & Trolls, also know as T&T is another early RPG that is a lot of fun.
I bought a number of Hero books in the 4th edition days, and have the 5th edition Sidekick (a marvelous distillation of the system), and like the infinite customizability of the system, but it's a bit more complicated than I've felt I could get my players to swallow. I keep thinking I should pick up the main core rulebook and some of the genre books, but haven't got around to it yet.
Mutants & Masterminds, 2E and True20
Two of the many good things to come out of the D20 era are Green Ronin's OGL game Mutants & Masterminds and it's cousin True20 . I have the second edition of M&M, and while I haven't played it yet, I think it would be a wonderful generic system along the lines of Hero and GURPS, though slightly simpler than either. I actually like it better as a generic system than True20, though True20 has the advantage of simpler character creation.
I keep thinking about running a fantasy campaign with M&M. I think I'd like it better to play than D&D, although the prep work in creating everything from scratch is a bit of a drawback. Wizards & Warriors, while useful, doesn't really provide enough to eliminate the prep work.
As time has gone by, I've noticed that my tastes in roleplaying games have broadened from the relatively complicated (GURPS) to the relatively simple (Story Engine). This is probably due to the decrease in the amount of time I have to devote to fiddling with rules. At the same time, my tastes in background material have changed from relatively simple backgrounds (Greyhawk) to backgrounds with more depth (Glorantha, Tékumel). I still enjoy games like GURPS when I have time for the details, but when I don't I'm happy with games like Fudge and Story Engine. More recently, they've swung to the middle ground, to systems like Savage Worlds.
Some things I've done
I've made some roleplaying game materials from my campaigns available.
I used to run a Swiki for my local gaming group to use for discussions and records, and a mailing list that was mostly used for scheduling games.
I have written down some incoherent thoughts on various matters pertaining to roleplaying games.
Some Things Others Have Done
I've got some archives of material that was available for download elsewhere, but has unfortunately disappeared from the web.
The following are some roleplaying game resources that I particularly recommend.
Advocacy. I'm also interested in how society at large regards roleplaying games and in their social effects. Some information on this is available from the unoffical CAR-PGa site.
Web Forums. I find Web Forums much more painful to read than newsgroups, but I understand why most online discourse on roleplaying games has moved shifted to that medium.
RPG.net's Roleplaying Open forum covers general roleplaying much better than any of the general roleplaying forums on any of the D/D20 sites. It has a lot of interesting discussion, as well as a lot of drivel.
The Forge's forums emphasize independently published RPGs and have a more analytical approach to gaming.
The Guardians of Order Message Boards were very useful for anyone playing BESM, Tri-Stat-dX, or SAS, but are long gone now.
The Masters Council is a gamesmasters Workshop forum, for those who want to learn to be better gamesmasters, but doesn't seem to get much traffic.
The Pinnacle Entertainment Games forums have a lot of discussion of Savage Worlds and settings and their licensed games.
Steve Jackson Games' Pyramid is the best on-line gaming magazine I've found, and it's well worth the yearly subscription. It's a weekly magazine that covers all of Steve Jackson's games, but also has a good selection of articles for other games and for non-game-specific roleplaying. It also has a very high quality set of web forums that are (Joy!) also available as newsgroups for NNTP access.
Places to Go, People to Be always has an interesting slant on roleplaying.
On Saturday, 11 September 1999, I played my first game of AD&D, 2nd edition. It was fun, in a nostalgic sort of way. I have to admit that I won't be running any campaigns using it, but I was glad to find out it was still fun, and I'd certainly play it if I knew good group playing it.
On Saturday, 4 December 1999, I played my first game of T&T in many years. I found it to be even more fun than playing AD&D, and much simpler. I may actually run some hack-n-slash games with it.
Sometime in 2006 I played my first game of D&D 3rd edition; it was probably in August. It was fun, and lead to playing D&D and Star Wars D20 regularly, and to buying the core books and a number of D20 supplements.
I'm coming to have a greater appreciation for some of what's called “Old School” gaming: classic BD&D and AD&D modules, Judges Guild modules like Dark Tower and Tegel Manor and supplements like City State of the Invincible Overlord and Wilderlands of High Fantasy.
I have really enjoyed playing Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry with the kids. We've run through numerous short adventures (sometimes with one of the kids as the Labyrinth Lord), and I've run a campaign for the kids using Labyrinth Lord and eventually the Advanced Edition Companion that started in B2 — Keep on the Borderland, ran through the Swords & Wizardry version of The Spire of Iron and Crystal, and ran through I3, I4, and I5. (The kids were glad to be out of the desert at last when I5 ended. :)
Out of Print Games
I have a lot of out-of-print games, and I'd play most of them again anytime. There is one problem with out of print games, though: when you are playing one with someone new to gaming, and they are really enjoying it and turn to you and say, “This is great! Where can I get a copy?” and you have to say, “Well, this game is out of print; you might be able to find it at one of the online used game and book stores...” I had this happen to me when I was playing Chaosium's Prince Valiant with my nephew and one of his friends. Sure, if you are an adult and used to dealing with online gaming stores, you can often track down a copy, but for someone who is just getting started in the hobby, especially a child or teenager, it's a lot more difficult. So now when I know there is going to be a player in the game who is new to the hobby I try to stick to games that are in print, just in case.
Roleplaying with Kids
I regularly run roleplaying games with my daughter and her cousins, at ages ranging from 6 years to 15 years and above and occasionally as low as 4 years old. They enjoy it, and the out-of-state cousins always want to play when they visit. Some of the kids GM occasionally, which is lots of fun.
I've also been known to play other games on occasion.
When I originally wrote this, I hadn't seen much anime. Now I have, and I actually like a fair amount of it. BESM probably encouraged me in that direction.
Complete meaning that it includes all the rules you need to create characters and play. It lacks many of the elaborations of the full Story Engine.
Not to be confused with the popular board game Heroquest.