- Gnome Stew - https://gnomestew.com -

The 12 RPGs Every Gamer Should Play Before They Die

Sometimes when I meet a fellow gamer for the first time, I’m amazed that they’ve only played one or two games — and not from lack of opportunity (like having no group for several years, or something), but from lack of interest.

“I play X. Yeah, I tried Y once, but I didn’t like it. So now I just play X.”

Like what you like — I’m the last person who’s going to tell you otherwise. But when it comes to gaming, how on earth can you know what you like if you haven’t tried a bunch of different RPGs?

And more to the point, how can you see all the different crazy shit this hobby has to offer if you don’t, you know, get out there and experience it?

With that in mind, I give you the twelve RPGs every gamer should play before they die. I’ve made no attempt to be unbiased here. You will disagree with this list — and when you do, I hope you’ll tell me about it in the comments.


No dice. Instead, stats just have ratings, and unless you frame a conflict in terms that favor you, the higher rating always wins. Couple that with a rich setting and a competitive element — bidding against the other players at the start of the game to see who is best at what — and you have a formula that’s never been duplicated.

You don’t need to read the 10 Amber novels, but it helps. Family ties, backstabbing and insanely powerful characters all swirl around in an environment of high drama and intense roleplaying — it’s great.

Play it because it doesn’t use dice. There are lots of other good reasons, but honestly they all stem from that one. (The game’s in limbo, but here’s some info [1].)

Burning Wheel

Burning Wheel [2] is the quintessential indie RPG success story: one gamer’s passion turned into a genuinely great game through blood, sweat, tears and a willingness to give up sleep entirely. It’s quirky, it’s brilliant and it’s damned fun to play. It’s also not indie just for the sake of it: There’s a reason behind every element, and it all hangs together well.

It’s also the only RPG in history to make in-character debates fun, exciting and worthwhile — and to do so through actual rules. In every BW game I’ve ever played, the debate has been the highlight. A BW debate — properly called a Duel of Wits — with a table full of people who are really into it is simply one of the best gaming experiences you will ever have.

Play it because it’s indie without even a whiff of pretentiousness, and it does great things with engaging complexity.

Call of Cthulhu

In most RPGs, you spend your time trying to keep your character alive. In Call of Cthulhu [3], that’s all but impossible. It’s not about survival, it’s about fighting against impossible odds and losing — and having a blast while doing it. And sometimes, it can take you to some disturbing places.

Your character will go insane. If you get into a fight with anything more serious than a human cultist, your chances are poor — and everything you can do to increase your character’s power level only exacerbates the death spiral (Learn a new spell? Lose sanity!).

Play it because it turns the basic model of all RPGs completely on its head.


Dread [4] ignores dice in favor of a novel resolution mechanic: a Jenga tower. Every time you want to do something meaningful to the story, you make a pull; if the tower collapses, your character dies.

It’s a horror RPG with no stats (just narrative elements — it’s all about the roleplaying), and the Jenga tower adds a palpable level of physical and emotional tension that ratchets up over the course of the evening. An hour in, everyone is sitting three feet from the table for fear of accidentally knocking down the tower.

Play it because it will force you to think about in-game consequences in a new way.


There are so many flavors of D&D [5], and those flavors are — despite appearances — quite different from one another, that it’s tough to make this one any more specific. So we’ll leave it at this: You must play at least one version of D&D.

It’s the touchstone for the entire hobby, and it can be a blast. Every gamer you meet will have an opinion on D&D — it’s kind of like Star Wars, actually. You’ll meet at least one geek in your life whose never seen any of the movies, but just one.

Play it because it’s fun, because some of the rules have been so terrible that they’ll encourage you to tinker, and because it’s D&D.


Generic Universal RolePlaying System — could there be a worse name for a game? I mean, it even has “generic” in the title — and yet, it’s a gem. Sure, in trying to do everything it doesn’t do some things well, but that’s the blessing/curse of a generic system. You really can do damn near anything with it.

There are two things about GURPS [6] that every gamer alive needs to experience: the character creation system (which is a true work of art: point buy taken to its logical conclusion, and built in such a way as to encourage roleplaying decisions during chargen) and the wealth of information in its many, many sourcebooks (grab any one and check out the bibliography sometime). Whatever you play, GURPS books are one hell of a resource.

Play it because it will change the way you think about creating characters.

HERO System

HERO [7] boasts a complex system and takes a toolkit approach — throw in lots and lots of stuff, and let GMs decide what to use in their games. That’s pretty old school these days, but it makes no bones about it; you can stop a car with the most recent edition of the rules.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two kinds of gamers when it comes to system complexity: those who like math and interlocking systems, and those who like light, get-out-of-the-way systems. We’re all geeks, but an RPG like HERO is a great way to find out which kind of geek you are.

Play it because sweet Jesus is it complicated.


I know this is cheating, but about 50% of the LARPs [8] I’ve played have been homebrewed systems, so it gets a broader entry — and in any case, it isn’t the system that’s important, it’s the completely different experience offered by the format. There’s nothing quite like playing an all-social, all in-character game with a couple dozen complete strangers.

You’ll run into turtles who, inexplicably, refuse to roleplay; you’ll meet complete lunatics; you’ll form alliances with people you’d never look at twice on the street, as if you were best friends. And somewhere along the way, you might discover that you like LARPing better than tabletop gaming.

Play a LARP because it’s both a distillation of everything RPGs are about, and the complete opposite.


This is one of the silliest RPGs ever created. You play a stereotypical caveman with a handful of stats (“light” doesn’t begin to describe it) in a cartoonish caveman world, but the real beauty is the lexicon: cavemen only know 17 words — and in character, those are the only words you’re allowed to use.

If you can spend an evening running away from dinosaurs and shouting “Me go bang big hairy thing cave!” at your friends without having a good time, something is wrong with you. There’s really nothing quite like Og [9].

Play it because it takes a great gimmick and spins it into pure, ludicrous joy.


Every PC is tasked with killing commie mutant traitors…and every PC is a commie mutant traitor. You get six clones to bring into play one by one as the other players succeed in killing you off without getting caught themselves. And it’s all set in an Orwellian world gone even more wrong — as a comedy RPG.

It’s deliciously evil, and can be damned jarring if you’re used to groups where the PCs all cooperate because they met in a tavern and knew they needed to cooperate. Up the ante by following the rule my Paranoia [10] GM instituted in high school: Character sheets are evidence of your traitorous ways, so feel free to steal them from the other players.

Play it because it lets you cut loose in ways nearly every other RPG around frowns upon or outright forbids.


You know the phrase “the gold standard,” referring to the best of the best? Rifts [11] defines the turd standard, and everyone needs to play a really godawful game. You can derive fun out of just about anything, and if you don’t take it even slightly seriously, it’s possible to have fun playing Rifts.

Run it for the awesome robots and books full of guns and weird shit, and the crazy over-the-top setting. Then realize how awesome all of that could be if it weren’t grafted to one of the worst sets of RPG rules ever written, and if the sourcebooks didn’t all boil down to three pages of world material and 125 pages of new guns.

Play it because it’s a great illustration of how a cool, campy concept can be ruined by godawful rules and milked so long that instead of milk coming out, it’s actually blood.


Pick an edition, the fundamentals are the same: You drink blood, you’re kind of a dick, and it’s all about story and roleplaying. Next to D&D, Vampire [12] is the other touchstone of the gaming hobby — and with good reason: it’s a light system for playing in a dark world, and done right it can take you outside your gaming comfort zone.

Vampire and its other WoD and nWoD kindred (ha!) are the other touchstone of the gaming hobby — the anti-D&D, in many ways. I think that’s a pretty stupid description, but it’s certainly true to some extent: it’s a game of politics, backstabbing and no crawling through dungeons whatsoever.

Play it because it’s a fascinating story-first world with light rules that get out of the way and let you roleplay.

The Challenge

I’ve played every RPG on this list. Have you?

49 Comments (Open | Close)

49 Comments To "The 12 RPGs Every Gamer Should Play Before They Die"

#1 Comment By arthwollipot On November 17, 2008 @ 4:54 am

Haven’t played Burning Wheel, Dread, Og or Rifts. GMed a two-year Amber campaign once, and my players keep on telling me that I’m an awesome Paranoia GM.

#2 Comment By Vampir On November 17, 2008 @ 5:11 am

My RPG experience has been mostly confined to White Wolf games, I’ve played nearly all of them… except Mummy and Hunter, though I’ll be getting Hunter The Vigil when I’ll have the chance…

I heard a lot of good stuff about Burning Wheel and I’m willing to try. Other games I want to try would be D&D (because honestly, I feel odd when it pops up in conversation and I can’t follow it, especially since a lot of the guys I’m playing with right now seem anti-WoD), GURPS (although that’s for later) and HERO System (I’ll snatch 6th edition when it comes out)

Amber, The Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia and Dread don’t sound like something I’ll enjoy… while I might not be the best in crunching the system, I’m addicted to all those nifty numbers… and I don’t like my characters inevitably dying…

being an awfully shy person, I expect having trouble with a LARP…

#3 Comment By greywulf On November 17, 2008 @ 5:32 am

Awesome list, and spot on with the mini-reviews too. Especially the Rifts one 🙂

I’ve played all those except Og (which I’d never heard of until now) and Amber (which I owned, but never had a chance to play). I’ll humbly add a few more to the mix:

Mutants & Masterminds (of course)
Whether you love superheroes or not, this is a near-as-perfect d20 generic rules system as you’ll ever find. If you’re a hardcore 3e or 4e D&D gamer, this will open your eyes to the potential of the d20 system and leave you marvelling at a masterpiece of design that fits everything including monsters and GM advice into a single rulebook.

Tunnels & Trolls
Almost as old as D&D and just as fun. T&T throws out such concepts as “balance” in favour of downright fun. If you want to play a party where the characters include a fairy, a balrog and a djinn, this is the one for you. It’s a blast to play, and even more of a blast to GM. A pure classic.

d20 Modern
D&D’s more modern younger brother, ignored by it’s parents and much maligned by the reviewers. It’s actually a darned good system that’s brilliant as what it does – deliver a high-action modern day rules system that’s perfect for running adventures. If you want to play where your character comes from the same clonefarm as Bruce Willis, Daniel Craig or Matt Damon, this is the one for you. The only criticism frequently levelled at d20 Modern is it’s Wealth system – usually by folks who have read but not played the game. It works in play. Don’t knock it 🙂

(shameless plug!)
3 stats. The rules on a single sheet of paper or printable as a booklet that fits in your back pocket. Compatible enough to run d20 adventures as is (just ignore the D&D stuff that’s not used) and an amazing fanbase which has taken the rules into genres that don’t even exist anywhere else. It’s a great system if you want something tiny, light and eminently hackable. Oh, and I wrote it 😀

#4 Comment By robustyoungsoul On November 17, 2008 @ 6:59 am

Fantastic list.

#5 Comment By DNAphil On November 17, 2008 @ 7:10 am

Awesome List!

The games I have not yet played are: Og, Hero, Dread, Call of Cthulu, and a LARP.

I have run 5+ campaigns of Amber, and I consider it the game that really made me understand what being a GM was all about. Without the safety of dice, the GM becomes solely responsible for the outcome of the game. Learning how to make a game exciting and fair, without any random element is a true challenge.

I have run several Vampire campaigns, but only during the 90’s when being a Vampire was “in”, and only at night. Seriously, you should never run a Vampire game during daylight hours.

I have also GMed numerous games of Paranoia, and it is the one game, where I can say that published material is often better than the homemade material. If you decide to run Paranoia, get published material, especially a lot of the 1st Ed works, they are true classics.

Adding one game to the list, I would say 1st Edition Conspiracy X. A setting like the X-Files or Fringe, and a simple point buy character system, the game is quite easy to play. Just don’t underestimate the combat system. This has a wonderfully brutal combat system, that will have your players diving for cover at the first hint of a gun fight. Add to that, what I think is about the coolest Hand-To-Hand system ever written, allowing for the creation of combo attacks, and defensive interrupts. It is a nail-bitting action/thriller game.

#6 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On November 17, 2008 @ 7:11 am

Huh. I’ve only played three of these (D&D, GURPS, and Paranoia), if you don’t count the one session it took us to give up on Rifts forever. I usually don’t. 😀

I’ve -owned- most of them at one time or another, with the intention to play or run, without ever doing to. I just got Burning Wheel, though, and that one I think I’ve got to try.

I’ve got to squeeze in some love for Shadowrun, Marvel Super Heroes, Star Wars, and Torg, even though I know full well it’s all about the campaigns we ran with those systems, not the games themselves.

#7 Comment By LordVreeg On November 17, 2008 @ 8:20 am

Not going to even answer the question, more a shout out to Martin for giving love and props to other systems.
I have always said rule #1 of setting design is,” Make the system match the game you want to play, or the setting WILL match the system”. In showing all of these different variations, you are giving people who have just played X the tools to follow that rule.

#8 Comment By Rafe On November 17, 2008 @ 8:48 am

From that list, I’ve played D&D, GURPS, CoC, Rifts.

Haven’t tried Burning Wheel but I’ve only heard good things. I would add Shadowrun to that list, as Darthkrzysztof said. Especially if one hasn’t played a decent cyberpunk system.

#9 Comment By perceptionistruth On November 17, 2008 @ 9:09 am

Good list 🙂 I would add Gangbusters.

Vampir – you’d be surprised about LARP maybe, depending on the game, the system or the people involved, being shy may not be a huge blocker. For a start, getting dressed up and putting on masks or makeup lets you pretend to be someone else entirely, which can sometimes overcome shyness. Doesn’t help everyone, but sometimes people are surprised.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 17, 2008 @ 9:35 am

I’ve only played three of the games on the list. Sad, isn’t it?

Actually, I find this interesting, because (as a fellow Gnome), I’d have a somewhat different list…

AD&D (1e or 2e) – Learn all about the history of gaming, with its patchwork rules, endless tables, oddball mechanics (THAC0), and utter lack of game balance, and why none of that matters if you have a good GM. Which leads to…

D&D 3.x – A simple and clean mechanic can be needlessly complicated by an endless progression of sourcebooks. Formulas for determining in-game challenges can go totally wonky when munchkins are involved. Defining the mechanics for everything in the game does not always make it a better game. Which leads to…

D&D 4E – More power is not always better, but ‘more fun’ usually is. Ease of GMing can be a major selling point. And while we all disparage computer RPGs, they did get some things right. The design progression of the D&D versions actually makes a great deal of sense if you’ve seen them all in play.

James Bond 007 – Better die rolls should give better results. Enter the Hero Point. Bid on chases. Seduction as a skill. And because it fits the genre perfectly.

Savage Worlds – Fast and fun does not mean simplistic. Interesting combats shouldn’t take hours to adjudicate. A complete core rulebook for $10 simply rocks. Love the d12 again. Because I said so.

Any White Wolf/World of Darkness Game – Advantages and disadvantages of a meta-plot. How melodramatic can you be? Own a lifetime supply of d10s.

Any Over-Designed Game of the Early 90s – This way lies madness, but it must be seen to be fully appreciated.

Any Homebrew System – One does not respect game designers until one has attempted to walk in their shoes.

#11 Comment By bielmic On November 17, 2008 @ 10:41 am

be prepared for the fanboy onslaught… i just posted this on the Palladium/Rifts forums. i agree with about half the system comments here as those are the ones i tried (the others i can’t comment on). rifts has a GREAT storyline brought down by rules that feel like they were typed in 1982 and updated with 20 years of post-it notes.

#12 Comment By Karizma On November 17, 2008 @ 11:10 am

Of this list, I’ve only played D&D. However I’ve played AD&D, AD&D2, and D&D3, so I don’t feel TOO bad (I love AD&D1 Bards). I’ve been without a group for quite a few years now, but I’d like to get around to playing most of these someday (first thing’s first, I’d like to get a group together!).

I’d actually been interested in playing Rifts when I read about the setting (Techno-Wizard is probably the greatest profession ever conceived next to bard. Make him a parkour runner by day and a rocker by night, and I’ll be set for eight campaigns). I plan to give it a shot, and hopefully with my background on Rolemaster I can enjoy it (disclaimer: Deep down I believe I’ll always be an Iron Crown fan, despite the criticism).

#13 Comment By nblade On November 17, 2008 @ 11:35 am

I’ve done several on this list. Call of Cthulhu is one of my favorites, although I think that was most due to the really odd people we had play it. I’ve never done Rifts, but I’m familiar with the “system” that its based one. Champions (Hero System) is still the game I want to play more of, but most people are put off my the character creation rules.

@Karizma – I too have done a lot of Rolemaster. While, it has a special place in my heart, I no longer have the desire to attempt to roll a 66 on an E critical. The RMSS madness finally got to me and the other members of my group at the time. I don’t think any of them want to play Rolemaster ever again.

#14 Comment By deadlytoque On November 17, 2008 @ 11:43 am

I’m an indie gamer at heart, and so my list of games is pretty different. I’ve never been big on crunch, and I find too many numbers really takes away from my enjoyment of the game. That said, this list is pretty much exactly what I would recommend to anyone who wanted a broad sampling of the hobby.

My 13-spot would probably go to Polaris, because it will break the minds of most standard RPers, because of just how far afield it is.

And I would find a way to get Dogs in the Vineyard on the list. Because Dogs rules.

#15 Comment By davethegame On November 17, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

Everything but Og and Burning Wheel (and I own Burning Wheel.) My Amber experiences are a bit of a cop out because they were LARPs, but I’m counting them anyway.

Good list. My only addition/substitution would be Mage: The Ascension, since it’s a setting that can rewire your brain.

#16 Comment By JackSmithIV On November 17, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

This post reminds me just how much work I have to do… 😀

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On November 17, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

I’m a little over 66%, though I do wonder at why GURPS and Hero both make the list. I can imagine specific implementations [like Champions for Hero, and anything with an awesome worldbook for GURPS], but the cores are each point buy 80s design. What made you give them both space on your list Martin?

I was a big fan of Amber in the early 90s– I ran and played a couple of campaigns and loved the characters. It’s interesting to see what happens when you can’t point to the dice as the source of misfortune.

I appreciate everyone’s additions to the list, but it’s easy to see that the “critical” list gets very big very fast with a kitchen full of cooks.

Your support for Dread has moved it up into my must read/play pile. For my 13 slot, I’d probably pick Primetime Adventures for the “table full of GMs” feeling. Universalis would be an acceptable alternate.

#18 Comment By thelesuit On November 17, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

From the list I have not played Og, Burning Wheel, Dread, or Amber (though it sits on my shelf). I would have to add a shout out for the following:

Runequest (3rd Edition, before AH got a hold of it): This is another classic game — same era as D&D and T&T.

Traveller (old edition): What can you say about a game where your character can die during Character Creation and that has no rules for character advancement.

Cyberpunk 2002: Nothing like playing a dark future game set in the past.


#19 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 17, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

I have not yet played Burning Wheel, Dread, Gurps, Hero, or Paranoia.
Of these, I’ve been jonesing to play Paranoia since it came out, but have yet to get my hands on a copy and be able to sell it to a group.

I have played OG. Frankly, I didn’t know it was big enough that anyone BUT me had played it. I will say it’s an absolute blast and that everyone SHOULD play it.

As far as Rifts goes, I wouldn’t put the onus that you’ve pointed out solely on the shoulders of Rifts. Every Palladium game I’ve ever played (Rifts, Nightspawn (Yes NightSPAWN, no not NightBANE dammit!), and TMNT) suffer from the same exact problem, so I’d say it’s a safe bet that ANY Palladium game could go on that list.

One I’d have on my list that you don’t is Torg. Torg had a lot of things that made it noteworthy. First, it manages to find a reasonable (in it’s own way) excuse to have all genres of character, world, and play in the same game. It’s got a simple one-die system (innovative in it’s day). It’s got a scaling system that’s coherant and makes sense and allows you to easily and quickly adjucate such things as “What kind of roll exactly DO you need to damage a tank with a spear” as well as makes them possible. It’s got a template driven purchase point system. It’s a bridge between RPGs and play by mail campaigns (back when it was new, you could subscribe to a regular pamphlet and write in about what your group did and if they had followed up on any of the adventure rumors that had appeared in previous issues. If enough groups HAD, those events became cannon. These pamplets were eventually compiled into books of errata, notes, history, and even new realms that had been discovered. Eventually, this system led the Torg’s downfall when a majority of groups reported defeating the major villians of the setting, those events were now cannon. The Infinity War had been won!). Of course, to get your hands on a complete set of Torg books nowdays is a pricey affair, though there’s supposedly a re-release on the way…

#20 Comment By BryanB On November 17, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

That is quite a list…

I have played 7 of “the 12.”

Amber – No dice… er I mean I haven’t played it.

Burning Wheel – I haven’t had the chance to play it and one must understand a game in order to run it. My nose gushed blood after page 60.

Call of Cthulhu – A classic. I don’t run horror games but this is the one that I have enjoyed playing in on several occasions.

Dread – I’ve never heard of it before.

D&D – Absolutely. I have played every version of the game except the original Brown Box Set. All versions have their good and bad aspects.

GURPS – I’ve had fun playing it at Cons. I wouldn’t run this system if someone bought me the books for it.

HERO – I’ve been thru PC gen in this system and played it a few times (older edition). I don’t have any interest in a repeat experience.

LARP – I really have very little interest in this.

Og – I have never heard of this before.

Paranoia – This game is hilarious and a lot of fun. Best for one shots.

Rifts – What a fantastic setting hodge podge, unfortunately encased in a system that redefines craptastic.

Vampire – Having played this several times, I’m really not sure I like the storyteller system mechanics all that much, but I have had a few good games of it from a role-playing standpoint.

I’d want to recommend Spirit of the Century as my 13th game. It is a game that every gamer should play before they die.

I might have mentioned D6 Star Wars several years ago, but I feel that Saga Edition does it better these days.

#21 Comment By Grogtard On November 17, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

Let’s Amber, Burning Wheel, Dread and Og are the only ones I haven’t played. It’s a pretty great shopping list too.

#22 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 17, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

Holy crap, I’ve played all 12… How the hell did I ever get married to a beautiful woman and have kids when I’m such a geek?

Martin, great list, but have you played the following?

Savage Worlds – Think GURPS, only you can learn and play it in about 5 minutes.

Fudge – You can play anything, and there is a ton of great material out there for it. FATE/SotC are close enough spawn of Fudge to give you the general idea, but unique creations with their addition of Aspects.

Don’t Rest Your Head – Another Evil Hat Productions game. Just play it. Its like your stuck in the Call of Cthulhu insanity downward spiral with a chic punk theme. Very cool.

My Life with Master – Paranoia without the goofiness, but still loads of fun.

Dogs in the Vineyard – I like mine to have a bit more of a holy war element to it, but its great no matter how you play it.

And going back to your intro – yep, there are so many great games out there and too many gamers who won’t try them. One thing that I love about conventions is that you can try games out for the cost of a mere event ticket. And that is where I have played many of these games. If you end up loving the game you buy it. If you hate it you just move on. What I don’t get is when gamers go to cons just to play what they play every weekend anyhow. That’s like eating nothing but vanilla despite the 30 other flavors all being available for you to sample.

To take it a step further – play things other than RPGs too. I used to stick to just RPGs, but I’ve been trying more and more board games and card games out. These are some great ones.

Snorta – You are a barnyard animal. You make a certain type of sound. From this point on hilarity ensues. Played it at Gen Con 2008 (thanks Telas for introducing me to your friends who brought this game), and had a blast! Bought it to play with my family, and I still have a blast! Good childish fun!

Hex Hex – Hot potato with curses. Enough said.

BANG! – Another one Telas’ group turned me on to. Spaghetti Western with cards. Perfect way to past the time, and play with people’s heads.

FLUXX – The rules just keep changing, and changing, and changing…

Zombies! – Ever changing layout of streets and buildings. Never ending supply of zombies. Limited amount of health and bullets. One, and only one (unless you get the add-ons) helicopter. For fans of the zombie flick genre, this one is a must have.

Can’t wait to see what the next great game is!

#23 Comment By DocRyder On November 17, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

Amber – Couldn’t get into it as deeply as I’d liked, but enjoyed the sessions I was able to make.

Burning Wheel – I’m with Bryan B. I’m not sure I’d care for the task resolution.

Call of Cthulhu – The BRP engine works well, and I’ve played it many times (for RuneQuest and others). The GM who ran it for me sucked, though, and I never got the proper feel.

Dread – I’ll skip the Jenga game. That will favor freaks like the ones I used to know who can rock Jenga. I do not.

D&D – Been playing D&D off and on since 1979. “I is a grognard.” I’m looking at running 4e as my next game.

GURPS – Accounting aside, we had issues with SJG’s definitions of reality. They didn’t match ours.

HERO – Hated the accounting. Every time I spent three XP, I had to completely refigure my character, as I was constantly finding mistakes.

LARP – Former Camarilla member, from 1998 to 2002. It does turn your idea of what an RPG is on its ear.

Og – Not played.

Paranoia – Played once, I think. Wasn’t impressed.

Rifts – Haven’t played, but I know the system sucks. Great setting.

Vampire – Setting definitely trumps system. My favorite was Mage the Ascension, and if it wasn’t that I now hate WWGS’s business practices (remember, former Cammie), I’d probably still be playing either Ascension or Awakening.

#24 Comment By Swordgleam On November 17, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

I’m curious about Amber. I first got into the hobby through just plain RPing with no G thrown in there. No dice, no stats, no DM, just what you think your character is like, and what they do in regards to other people’s characters. There was a depth to those stories that I’ve yet to recapture in any RPG.

I wonder if all the rules-light systems aren’t just attempts to mimic that feeling, by people who don’t understand that just plain roleplaying is an option.

For me, if I want to play any character I can imagine, that’s what I do. I roleplay. If I want to play a game, I play D20, because it has numbers and loot and a great combat system. The narrowness is part of what I’m looking for; it’s part of the challenge, part of the game. There are plenty of great in-between systems, and I’ve played some of them, and they are a lot of fun. But unless they have something that makes them inherently fun to play, a system that’s just designed to let you play anything.. why do you need a system for that?

And something you need to add to your list: Wushu. Hilarious, really encourages swashbuckling combat, rules-light enough to learn in twenty minutes, and all-around awesome.

#25 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 17, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

I love your lists.

I love how insanely constructive your comments are.

I love that folks can look at this article — which is tongue in cheek, but also 100% serious — and take the challenge itself seriously.

I love this site. 🙂

[14] – Being shy and trying a LARP is actually a perfect mix. That’s what getting out of your comfort zone is for. 🙂

[15] – I’m actually reading the M&M 2e core book right now, and loving it. It’s been on my to-play list for a couple years now.

[16] – Your rule of setting design is incredibly well put. And totally accurate!

[17] – I know you well enough to be completely unsurprised at how different our lists are. 😉

[18] – 1982…Post-it notes…perfect. Just perfect.

[19] – I included GURPS and HERO because I took very different things away from both of them. From GURPS I took loving point, loving fine-grained character control and loving mechanics-driven roleplaying choices; I more or less hate the actual system. From HERO I took away a nice reminder of how much I hate math, and more than a decade later it’s pretty clear to me why I’m not a HERO player. 😉

[20] – I’ve only played one of the RPGs on your list: Savage Worlds. I actively want to try Dogs and MLwM; I can’t ever bring myself to pay the cover price for Dogs (it’s just so thin…). Fudge and Head I’m less tweaked by, but a strong recommendation is a good start!

#26 Comment By flatvurm On November 18, 2008 @ 3:46 am

Awesome post, Martin. I love how you get right to the heart of things. Well, okay, Rifts. 😉

I’ve also got 8 of 12, apparently with the same experience as Grogtard. 🙂 Makes me excited about the others.

Your mention of high school Paranoia gave me the warm fuzzies. 🙂 If I had to add to this list, I’d throw in Unknown Armies, but I can’t really justify that. I just really dig the setting.

#27 Comment By Vampir On November 18, 2008 @ 5:25 am

One day I might try LARPing, but for now it’s just too far away from my comfort zone (which is getting bigger lately nonetheless)…

#28 Comment By ChattyDM On November 18, 2008 @ 7:24 am

As I read through your highly entertaining list, I couldn’t help realize how Monogame-ous I am.

Played Gurps in the 90’s. Bacj then I craved the fine grained aspects. Not anymore.

Played various incarnations of D&D, from 1st to 4th. Skipped Basic/Expert (no players) and 2nd (left it for Gurps).

Played 2nd edition of Paranoia when I was a teenager, loved it, read Paranoia XP and hated it… not sure why.

My free time being extremely limited and having players who aren’t all that interested in trying new games, we stick to D&D.

As Dave mentioned on Critical Hits recently, trying new games requires a big buy in from all players and the GM.

I’ll try to play more of those at Gen Con. Og in particular!

#29 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 18, 2008 @ 10:09 am

Yes, definitely try out Og! Or should I say – “You. Now. Go.”? 🙂

#30 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On November 18, 2008 @ 10:50 am

@ChattyDM: Monogame-ous? Brilliant! AD&D 2nd Edition was also the version that sent me looking for other systems.

@Martin: I -think- Dogs in the Vineyard is worth the money (recently bought it on a gift certificate) – I’m picking up ideas from it that would work in other systems – but I haven’t played it yet, either. Anyone interested in trying a chat-based Dogs game?

#31 Comment By txcelt On November 18, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

Amber – Never played – no excuse, loved the book series, need to get it and rope my gaming group into it to try it out.

Burning Wheel – meh – never played it, not sure it looks like a flavor for me.

Call of Cthulhu – Sounds like one that I’d want to learn to play only in an experienced group.

Dread – meh. another one I’ll pass on for now.

D&D – Have the old white boxed set of small books. Had the blue covered ‘basic’ edition. Had AD&D. *LOVED* them all. Then 3x came out and I decided it was time for something different. Have come back into the fold with 4e.

GURPS – Fantastic sourcebooks! So-so gaming experience. See my Hero System comments below…

HERO – Got into a gaming group that played every genre imaginable with Hero. They had lots of experience in it, which made MUCH easier to get into. Had some members that were number crunchers that were also pretty good RPers. Some of the best times gaming that I can remember, whether it was Pulp, Teen Supers, Mid-level Supers, Ancient Greek, it was all good. MAKE EVERY ATTEMPT TO LEARN WITH AN EXPERIENCED HERO SYSTEM GROUP! It will be waaaaay more fun that way.

LARP – Played werewolves and vampire LARPs in mixed environments, and had a *blast*. Then I got married to a less serious gamer. 🙂 Maybe someday again…

Og – Game hear good! Want!

Paranoia – Hmm… Maybe. Sounds intriguing.

Rifts – Dunno, maybe someday.

Vampire – Cool, but liked tabletop werewolf a little better. But would play either again.

A couple I’d add:

RISUS the Anything RPG – Free RPG-lite. About as simple as you can get in mechanics. All you need is a storyteller with an outline of ideas and 10 minutes to make a character, and your on your way. [21]

Deadlands – the original (pre-d20) – cool variation on RPG mechanics, using playing cards instead of dice amongst other things. Very cool world to play in, if you like Cthulhu, and/or Briscoe County, and/or any Western movies.

#32 Comment By megrimlock On November 18, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

Of those 12, i’ve never played or heard of Og, Dread, or Burning Wheel.
Of the other 9, i enjoyed/still enjoy all of them both as a player and a GM, except for LARP (just not my thing). altho i will say that with amber and paranoia it really depends on the type of players in the group more than the actual game system itself.

gotta disagree on Rifts (i love the over the top cheeziness of that game), but you pretty much nailed the others.

Personally, i’d add Torg, Shadowrun, and Gary Gygax’s Dangerous Journeys to the list.

just my 2 cents.

#33 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 19, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

I added a link to each of my list entries — something I should have done in the first place. Sorry about that, folks who went looking for Dread and found the OTHER Dread. 😉

[22] – It’s great to hear from you. 🙂 Stephan’s Paranoia game stands as one of my favorites for sheer lunacy — that was such a blast. My one Unknown Armies experience was with him as well, and inspired me to buy the core book; I’ve never done anything with it though — but I did come close to including it on my list.

[23] – Playing Og with you at GenCon would be fantastic!

[24] – I’m sure you’re right about Dogs being worth it, I just can’t bring myself to buy it. I know I should, though.

#34 Comment By flatvurm On November 19, 2008 @ 11:39 pm

[25] – *squints hard* I…I think I was there for that Unknown Armies experience. There…there was a golem involved? Maybe?

Anyway. Yeah, I haven’t had nearly the opportunity to play around with that game as I’ve wanted. Still, it warms my heart, that one. 🙂

#35 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 20, 2008 @ 7:33 am

[26] – Yep, that sounds familiar, and I think you were. That was probably the last time we gamed together, now that I think of it.

Okay, there’s a bummer that needs to be rectified!

#36 Comment By Teabee On November 20, 2008 @ 8:16 am

Great List, although I don’t know many of those games listed and would have included others. How about Shadowrun, Deadlands or my beloved Alternity?

#37 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 20, 2008 @ 8:39 am

There are some [27], for those interested in seeing a distinctly indie perspective on games to play before you die. 🙂

[28] – I think it’s fair to say that everyone’s list looks different — if you took something fundamental away from a game, good or bad, it belongs on a list like this.

I’ve played SR and DL, but not Alternity (though I’ve read some of the old Dark*Matter stuff); what grabbed you so much about it?

#38 Comment By Blotzphoto On November 22, 2008 @ 10:06 am

I can nail down about half the list.
Played tons of Hero system.
I also agree with adding Torg to the list. At the time it came out, Torg was the most innovative system I’ve seen.

Games not on the list I would reccomend:
Twilight 2000: Reminisce about the Cold War. Stump your younger friends with such geographic oddities as “East Germany”, and “The Soviet Union”

Albedo: Mostly for fans of the seminal indy “furry” comic “Erma Felna EDF”( [29]). A really sophisticated social interaction system is the centerpiece. If you’ve played Ironclaw ( [30]), this is one of it’s spiritual antecedents. One of the creators is an old gaming buddy I haven’t seen in years, (Hi Jason, its Lou!)

Fringeworthy: I’ve never actually played Fringeworthy, or any of its sister Tri-Tac Games. But I own it and love flipping through it. Excellent flavor.

Rolemaster or Arms Law: Back in the ’80s there were essentially 4 “major” systems. AD&D, Hero (mostly Champions), Runequest (and many other variants on Chaosium’s game engine like Stormbringer) and Rolemaster. In many ways the Arms Law variants were considered the “grown up” games of the time. Often needlessly complex, with an experience point system bordering on the insane (a GM could if he chose award experience points for the # of miles a character traveled each day). Still could be a real blast to play. I think every gamer should bet the chance to roll an “E” Critical.
Tolkien fans should see if they can find the Middle Earth RPG which uses a watered down Arms Law ruleset, actually a good intro to the basics of the system. Added bonus, the supplements for MERP are some of the best ever printed for any game. the maps are works of art.

I could go on and on, (i’ve been a gamer since 1978), but I’ll end on Toon: Just get it and play it. Great Convention game.

#39 Comment By Blotzphoto On November 22, 2008 @ 10:12 am

Oh yeah…
Star Frontiers: Bad game. Very Bad Game. And yet Still Fun to Play.

#40 Comment By mxyzplk On November 23, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

Must play:
Feng Shui (a good “first indie” game to expand the minds of those weaned on D&D, GURPS, HERO, and their ilk)
Over the Edge (for real freeform… Amber too I guess but it can get too Zelazny-ey)

Remove from the list:
Burning Wheel (way overrated, more hype than reality)
Dread (replacing dice with a weak gimmick is not all that illiuminating really)

Also, I’m not sure you have to play HERO *and* GURPS – I’d say one or the other depending on the genre you like will give you the “hardcore rules” flavor sufficiently.

Definite good calls on CoC and Paranoia.

#41 Comment By Samuel Van Der Wall On November 24, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

I just had to chime in about the Rifts review. Palladium has such rich games, too bad their ruleset is completely unbalanced and poorly written. Pretty much everyone I know just uses Palladium books for ideas and occassionally some cool pictures. It’s to bad too. I was one of their biggest fans for a long time. Now I neither play nor run their games.

#42 Comment By zerfinity On December 3, 2008 @ 1:40 am

I’m feel like I’m in the happy medium of RPG-geekdom. I’ve actually played 5 of those games.

How about a new version of this review “Top X games that every GM should run”. IMO, Fudge would have to be at the top of that list because it gives the GM every chance to run everything the way they want it (a knife that definitely cuts both ways). I found Fudge and I was done, it was love at first sight, it was like Christmas and I got everything that had ever been on my GM wishlist.

Anyway, I can’t wait to try Og! and Burning Wheel despite the fact that it will ruin my happy medium RPG-geekdom.


#43 Comment By DDC Trent On December 14, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

I’d like to add one of my all time favorites.. Deadlands Classic.
The Savage Worlds system is faster, less complex version of this but there is something to be said for using Cards and Poker Chips in a western gaming filled with Zombies and all sorts of things that should not be.

My games were always a bit more Lovecraft inspired than Wild Wild West, but my players liked it that way

#44 Comment By Lord Inar On May 28, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

Fun list!

Although I think there is the oversight of a game that blends tactical combat with the RPG.

I think GURPS and Hero may do this, but you mentioned them for other reasons.

Rolemaster and The Fantasy Trip (really different systems!) both have that tactics element that I really like.

#45 Comment By Pruneau On February 23, 2010 @ 4:38 am

I have only played CoC and Paranoia from this list. They’re both brilliant games. I have tried a few flavours of AD&D, but never connected well with it.

I have, however, played a lot of other RP games I enjoyed, including Tunnels and Trolls, Chivalry and Sorcery and RuneQuest/HeroQuest. I prefer the latter. I think the world of Glorantha is magnificent. I love the mix of history and myth, the blend of ancient and dark age culture with well structured myth, and I still love playing in it, be it with RQ, HQ, Hott, Dragon Pass or any of the other manifestations.

But I’m definitely gonna give Og and Amber a good try. I am kind of a neanderthal myself, so the grunting bit won’t be hard, and I loved the Amber books.

#46 Comment By Roxysteve On April 14, 2010 @ 8:56 am

What, no mention of Empire of the Petal Throne? I know that for years it simply used D&D rules (and after that tried hard to become uber-AD&D), but still, it’s setting is unique and historically it was the first deep immersion game setting. The maps alone were worth the cost of the thing.

#47 Comment By gurpsgm On December 11, 2012 @ 5:56 am

The only ones I’ve never played are Burning Wheel and Og. I’d like to at least try Burning Wheel, but the Og game just throws me the wrong way. The only things I’d add are RuneQuest and EarthDawn. I’d at least consider adding Star Trek and/or Star Wars. My game of choice should be obvious. 🙂

#48 Comment By stephantravels On August 21, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

I was looking through the site and wondered if this list still held true for you? It has inspired me maybe to get people together to play Paranoia soon.

#49 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 21, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

Inasmuch as such a biased list created at a specific point in my development as a gamer can ever hold true after that point, absolutely.

If I made a list of 12 RPGs today some of them might be different. I’d probably just make the list longer, though — to add, for example, Apocalypse World, Fiasco, and a couple of others. But rereading it again now, the reasons I feel these 12 are important are still important.

And man would I love a chance to play Paranoia again with you!