I was recently lucky enough to travel back to my hometown, Kingston, Ontario, to spend a lovely evening with friends around the game table. My wife ran a game of Urban Shadows, which I think went pretty well, though we had a larger than usual group of players. I miss playing with those people, and the chances to do so just seem to get rarer every year. Anyway, one of my best friends, Dave, suggested that I do a blog on my top ten games. Since ideas are scarce enough in these parts that I would never cast one aside, I'll give it a go.
I wrestled a bit with this, wondering whether I should do several lists that gave a top ten based on different criteria (Personal Favourites, Most Innovative, Most Applicable to HTHD Play etc.), but I think I'm just going to talk a bit about ten games I think are straight-up great for various reasons and people can make of it what they wish. In no particular order, then...
EVERWAY by Jonathan Tweet
OVER THE EDGE by Jonathan Tweet
Discovering the games of Jonathan Tweet in the early 1990s was a revelation for me. Tweet had the amazing ability to boil down a roleplaying game to its most essential components, and these games were incredibly formative for me. EVERWAY was my first exposure to diceless roleplaying games, and though it took me a few goes to feel like I was running it "right", reading that game and thinking about the innovative way it structured character creation, as a function of drawing a series of cards with images on them, changed the hobby for me in ways I'm still trying to fully understand. OTE did a similar thing on a smaller scale, creating a claustrophobic setting of conspiracies and off-the-wall strangeness instead of cosmos-spanning high fantasy. OTE characters were mechanically simple, but drove roleplaying that was just as rich and creative. That was a lesson I would never forget.
APOCALYPSE WORLD by Vincent Baker
MONSTERHEARTS by Avery Alder
This was a more recent revolution in the way I thought about RPGs. As I've written before, AW slapped me across the face when I read it. It made me pissed off, made me reject it. And it made me come back to it, read it again, grapple with it. Eventually, I was forced to embrace it and accept that Vincent had reframed the whole role of the GM and how they should approach their tasks in a way that I would not be able to un-see. Avery Alder polished and focused the experience into something that was more political, more particular, and ultimately more revelatory for me in her excellent game of screwed-up teenage monsters. Avery helped me understand Vincent better, and proved to the world that RPGs were ready to explore sex and every other important, adult subject head-on and without fear. MH took the most important part of AW and made it central to the experience: the sex move. The hobby has been reeling and retreating from this innovation ever since.
PRIMETIME ADVENTURES by Matt Wilson
PTA wasn't my first diceless RPG, but it was the first that put the focus on intercharacter conflict rather than the nuts and bolts of what the characters were doing -- it was all about what people wanted, and what they were willing to do to get it. That stepped up my interest in dramatic play to another level. I think it's a game that has flaws -- I feel like it doesn't push back on the players enough, and I always found conflict resolution a little unsatisfying -- but there is no denying that it was a huge influence on our play style, and we got many good games out of it.
CALL OF CTHULHU 5th Edition by Sandy Petersen & Lynn Willis et al
An old favourite. Kenneth Hite has called CoC the greatest roleplaying game of all time, and who am I to second-guess him? CoC taught me the delights of historically-based roleplaying, the thrill of games that aren't entirely focused on combat, and the importance of atmosphere and tone in gaming. This is a game that is relentless and occasionally pitiless, and not for those who require their roleplaying to be uplifting. But it's still a game I hold close to my heart.
FATE CORE SYSTEM by Leonard Balsera, Brian Engard, Mike Olson, Ryan Macklin et al
I go back and forth about what my favourite version of FATE is. ATOMIC ROBO is awfully polished and improves on the presentation immensely, following in the footsteps of the DRESDEN FILES game (which is showing its age a bit, but still a masterpiece of design and layout), and I've probably run a lot more FATE ACCELERATED than any other version of the game. All the modern games descend from this Ur-document, though, and it's a masterpiece of powerful, flexible, but simple contemporary game design. It improves in almost every way on the earlier versions of the game, and casts an enormous shadow over the field of rules-medium RPGs for me. Once you have embraced the power of Aspects, it will change the way you see roleplaying games, and you may question the need to every play anything else other than FATE.
SMALLVILLE ROLEPLAYING GAME by Cam Banks and Josh Roby et al
The killer app in this excellent treatment of an early superhero soap-opera (which has become virtually a whole genre on the CW by now) is relationship mapping, which SMALLVILLE makes central to character generation. It's an involved process, but I know of no better argument for making the connections between player characters and their relationship to the world around them the focus of your RPGs. Framing it as a familiar television show was a stroke of genius. I found that MARVEL HEROIC got a bit too fiddly for my liking, and LEVERAGE is a bit too hyper-focused on "the job" to allow much room for drama, so SMALLVILLE is still my favourite of the Cortex Plus games.
THE KERBEROS CLUB by Benjamin Baugh
I know of no other RPG, past or present, that has a better treatment of the Victorian era than this essential sourcebook for WILD TALENTS by the talented Mr. Baugh. It is full of mind-blowing ideas and fabulous period detail that are worthy of stealing for any game set in the time period, even if your tastes don't run to Victorian superheroics. And just as a bonus, he gives us a short but sweet reworking of the WT system that simplifies skills enormously, a hack that I fully intend to use in any iteration of the One Roll Engine I use, moving forward.
DEADLANDS by Shane Lacy Hensley
The original game had mechanics I thought were clunky as hell, and I find SAVAGE WORLDS to be a bit too swingy for extended play, but there is maybe nothing on earth that delights me as much as a horror western. I have gotten many excellent games out of this setting over the years, usually porting it to another system. It has never disappointed.