RPGs, sweet RPGs, are what bring us together today. Whether they're traditional Gygaxian tabletop adventures or the most advanced video games, they're the things we argue bout and obsess over. We definitely fall asleep thinking about them. Read about our favorites after the jump, and then tell us about yours!
We're particularly delighted to add a special guest contributor to this week's Friday Five rollcall. Magnus Anderson lives and writes in London. He has made numerous appearances on Lollards of Pop on Resonance FM, discussing gaming and pop culture, and devised a cryptic treasure hunt which was published by Big Finish as part of a Bernice Summerfield anthology. He is currently working on a book due for publication in 2012.
Judge Dredd the Role Playing Game (Tabletop): Issued at the time when the comic was at its most sardonically playful, the mega-city’s bizarre criminals and futurisims lent themselves perfectly to the game’s source books, which which were liberally littered with comic art and came with cardboard miniatures of hundreds of characters. Colourful, gorgeous and thrill-powered.
The Hobbit (8-bit adventure): Innovative in so many ways, this made its mark as a proto-RPG with pioneering, autonomous non-player characters. Awe-inspiring in 1982, it also introduced frustrations that needed workarounds - after watching Thorin abandon the adventure to sit down and sing about gold too many times, the smart player’s strategy is to lure him to the troll’s cave and lock him in.
Fallout 3: A work of genius. It must be. I know this because it features hours of grindingly repetitive searches through metro stations and offices, punctuated by imbecilic conversations with pathetically inert characters and regular death-by-irradiated-mole. Yet I finished every possible mission, and want to play some more. Genius.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (Tabletop): When Games Workshop stretched its wargaming franchise into a role-play universe, they produced adolescent catnip: a rulebook with three hundred course pages of cod-Teutonic myth making, and a single, endlessly intricate campaign about the demonic corrupt in of royalty. Perfect for twelve year olds.
Maelstrom: “It can take months to recover fully from a fight. If a character is in bed, resting, each of his wounds heals at a rate of one point a week. If he continued with his normal life, the rate is one point per month.” And that’s how real RPGs roll.
Baldur's Gate 2: The beauty of the game wasn't the story (something something kill an evil wizard and become a demigod), but the parts of the game that weren't story related. At one point, you and your band of unquestioning minions are tasked with raising 10,000 gold. How you do that? Up to you. Robbing shopkeepers, fighting a guild war, exploring the sewers... there were dozens of possibilities, and you could take as long (or as short) with it as you liked.
AD&D - 1.75th Edition: For all its failings,"D&D" in its many forms has been the dominant RPG for decades. When I really got into it, we were playing a bastardized hybrid of 1st Edition and 2nd Edition, mainly due to being kids and only having a full set of books between us. 1st edition, of course, had all the wonderful old school tables for everything (including the infamous hooker table!), Oriental Adventures and Dragonlance. 2nd edition brought Spelljammer, Planescape and better multiclassing. I'm not sure I could choose between them (and glad I never had to).
Diablo: The Diablo series is the 10 year old me's version of role-playing. Some old man barfs a backstory at you, then you go kill goblins until you level. Then, quick!, back to the shops to find a better sword. Every five levels or so, there's a really big monster with better treasure. What's not to love? Diablo 2 was basically Diablo + extra classes + the Wilderness Adventures Handbook.
Marvel Universe RPG: The original one - back from the 1980s - utilised the hilarious "FASERIP" system and a series of goofily-named tables that let you compare "Unearthly" skills to merely "Amazing" ones. My adolescent desire for canonization loooooooved the supplements, as they gave the stories and the statistics for every single character in the Marvel Universe, including annual updates. I would spend hours pouring over every accessory, yet, I'm not sure I ever actually played the game...
Arkham Horror (Cooperative board game): Roleplay isn't a must in this tabletop Lovecraft "adventure board game," but it makes an already brilliant game even more fun. Especially if Jared's playing, because he refuses to play any character except for gumshoe Joe Diamond, who only speaks (huskily) of himself in the third person. Yeah, it takes forever to set up; yeah, the rules are a Kafka-esque nightmare, and yeah, you'll probably die horribly. But you'll die horribly because the King in Yellow ate your face. WIN.
Battlestar Galactica (Cooperative board game): I know I'm like the only person out there who doesn't like the show, but man is the game ever fun. It's the right mix of role-play, strategy, and traditional board-game activity. Like Arkham Horror, you don't have to role-play, but the game experience is increased exponentially if you do. Tip for the unwary: I'm always the Cylon. Every fucking time.
Iron Kingdoms (Tabletop): My favorite RPG campaign setting. When I first started gaming I found traditional high-fantasy settings frustratingly counter-intuitive. Why did I have to kill everything I fought? Why couldn't I knock my opponent out, tie it up, and then question it? Why was magic so incredibly lame? Iron Kingdoms, a steampunky take on the traditonal 3.5 stuff, really helped me wrap my head around how to play - and, more importantly, how to enjoy - D&D. There isn't a lot of magic; encounters depend as much, or more, on players using their brains and other non-magical resources (and, uh, guns) to overcome the zombie hordes.
Of course, the mother of RPGs that depend almost entirely on players using non-magical resources to, uh, eke by is Call of Cthulhu. Much like Arkham Horror (which is based on CoC), you're probably not going to make it out alive. Before your undoubtedly messy death, however, you're going to be faced with nightmarish scenarios and spectacular horrors, with nothing but your wits and terrible dice-rolls standing between you and the slavering beasties beyond.
Dragonlance (Tabletop): Jared ran this for our group as a birthday present for a friend, a one-day one-off. And you know what? It was awesome. Because we weren't invested in our characters and went into the game with no greater goal than to have a really good time... we did. Some of us were familiar with the original Dragonlance trilogy (the boxed set is the first book translated into a campaign), and gave the rest of us such handy tips as "Tasselhoff Burrfoot steals stuff" and "Goldmoon is a giant drip." We played our pre-made characters to the hilt. I'm sure the experience would have been very different had we entered into it in a more serious spirit. But, fortunately, we just wanted to have fun. And it wound up being one of my top gaming experiences.
Morrowind: Morrowind. Morrowind. I know – what a surprise. I loved everything about this game, even the things which made it a monumental pain in the arse to play, like the fact there was no fast travel so you had to plot your route between any two places by a combination of boat, stilt strider, propylon chamber, mage-guild teleport and mark/recall spell. And the fact that I know what those are and people who aren’t in the club don’t is why I want to be a member. Because I am an enormous geek.
When I cheat on Bethesda, I cheat on them with Bioware. I’ve enjoyed nearly all their games, but Knights of the Old Republic was what got me back into gaming after a long abstinence. I just didn’t know a game could be that big or that immersive, and after I’d played it there was no looking back.
I’m going to have to second Anne on Call of Cthulhu. I have shameful power-gaming tendencies, but CoC stamps on them hard. It’s all about shitting your pants in terror as you’re crushingly defeated by creatures you can barely comprehend, let alone fight. It’s great.
I seriously doubt anyone else is going to pick D&D 4th Edition, so let me fly the flag for tabletop games that really want to be videogames. There are all sorts of things wrong with it, but I’ve had a blast playing it, and I wouldn’t have met several great people if I hadn’t.
For those who haven’t encountered it, Echo Bazaar is a card-based social network game set in a Victorian-ish London which has been dragged underground to occupy the region neighbouring hell. The world is weird, deeply imaginative, fully realised and allows you to project yourself into it as you want, whatever your gender, race or sexual orientation. Bioware have made massive strides in that direction, but the folks at Failbetter Games are leading the way for everyone.