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Friday Five: 5 Best Non-Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Games from the 90s

This week's host is Ben Blattberg, a freelance writer currently living in Texas. You can find him blogging about movies and story structure and making jokes on Twitter at @inCatastrophe.

"You’re all a bunch of perverted little Attilas" - Greg Costikyan, Violence (1999)

I should probably title this Friday Five “I was a geeky teenager in the 90s, let me tell you about my character.” But let’s pretend this isn’t just about me -

And maybe it isn’t; after all, it’s hard to imagine Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson telling D&D players in the 1970s that they were genocidal maniacs, like Greg Costikyan did with Violence; or telling them they looked good in eye-liner, like Mark Rein-Hagen did with Vampire. The 70s may have invented roleplaying, but in the 90s, roleplaying got weird.

Weird and awesome. While TSR’s behemoth tarrasque AD&D fought with Wizards of the Coast’s card-game/money-printing-scheme Magic: The Gathering over fantasy gaming, the rest of the RPG world was inventing some great non-fantasy games.

Here are five of the best.

VampireVampire: The Masquerade, 1991

No longer were roleplayers pale because we didn’t play sports - after Vampire: The Masquerade, we were pale on purpose. Vampire did more than bring emo-Goth kids to roleplaying and a Spelling-produced vampire show to prime-time TV; most importantly, it taught us new SAT words like “celerity” and “obfuscate.”

Vampire also changed some basic assumptions we had about roleplaying, emphasizing the “role” beyond the somewhat abstract notions of alignment or sanity. Instead, the Humanity mechanic not only allowed us to angst out over our beastly natures, but it also captured the central metaphor of the game perfectly - of belonging and being excluded. Which, now that I put it that way, sounds like the Platonic form of nerd-bait.

Counter-argument: Maybe Vampire took itself a wee bit too seriously at times.

Runner-up: Aberrant, 1999: Same basic concept, but for superheroes: with great power, comes great distance from baseline humans.

Over the EdgeOver the Edge, 1992

If your tastes run less to Tolkienish fantasy or Anne Ricean vampire angst and more towards William S. Burroughsian aliens who get an erotic charge from your asphyxiation, then I’ve got the perfect RPG for you. (Also: some advice on how to use Craigslist.) Over the Edge takes the surreal horrors of Lynch, Borges, Dick, etc., and places them all on the strange island of Al Amarja, where just about anything goes.

Seriously: just about anything. For instance, here are some example player concepts: unsuspecting tourist; were-jaguar; ex-Green Beret; socialite runaway; incarnation of Atlantean high priest; etc. In other words, if you can think of it, you can play it.

Which Jonathan Tweet and Robin D. Laws manage with a great character creation system of inventing traits rather than picking established classes/skills. Feel free to abuse this system and make a combo alien-dragon-superhero character - on Al Amarja, the more powerful you are, the more everyone will want a piece of you. And not everyone plays as nicely as the erotic-asphyxiation aliens.

Counter-argument: None.

Runner-up: Unknown Armies, 1998: Mind-bending adventures in the occult underground. (Also, mind-bendingly, an early adventure depicts an attempt to crash a hijacked airplane into the Twin Towers.)

Feng ShuiFeng Shui, 1996 / Deadlands, 1996

Both these games include magic, but they don’t fit in the fantasy genre--or any single genre. Both games mash several movie genres to create unique settings.

Feng Shui blends all Hong Kong/Chinese movie genres into a time-hopping battle between ancient wizards, future cyborgs, and John Woo-style cops-&-triads. It’s an action-heavy, cinematic RPG, where (to give one example) players can do more damage with pump-action shotguns if they mime pumping and make a “KA-CHINK!” sound.

Deadlands describes itself as “A Spaghetti Western… With Meat!” And by “With Meat!” they mean, “With Zombies!” And steampunk. And a system of magic where the player has to play poker to cast a spell. It’s basically what would happen if Joe R. Lansdale and The Wild, Wild West had a child together.

Counter-argument: Deadlands’ spin-offs spun out of control; the new edition of Feng Shui isn’t out yet!

Runner-up: All Flesh Must Be Eaten, 1999: A generic, customizable zombie game - another example of the non-fantasy cinematic turn in RPGs.

Baron MunchausenThe Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1998

Before I tell you about this game, I think I deserve an award for not writing this in the game’s grandiose style. James Wallis has such infectious fun writing this 32-page rulebook in Munchausen’s voice, that by the end you’ll feel very Munchausen by proxy.

OK, just the facts: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a competitive story-telling game where players take turns telling about their totally true and not at all ridiculous adventures. Adventures like -

The occasion on which you gave birth to an elephant.

Why members of the Prussian army salute you...

How you righted the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Somewhat like Wallis’s card-game Once Upon a Time, other players may derail/enhance the storytelling with objections or additions. Liquor is recommended. So, except for the standard inebriation of game night, it’s a stretch to call this a RPG. But I can stretch pretty far ever since the Turkish sultan -

Counter-argument: What the hell is this? I tap my Black Lotus to get back to a real game.

Runner-up: Any New Style game published by Wallis’s Hogshead Publishing:

  • puppet horror, Puppetland;

  • unplayable meta-game and middle finger to RPGs, Violence;

  • competitive storytelling, Pantheon; and

  • epistolary Lovecraftian dread, De Profundis.

Dark MatterDark•Matter (Alternity), 1999

About when TSR lost to Wizards of the Coast - though some partisans in the Wisconsin jungles refuse to admit the 90s Fantasy War is over - TSR produced a science fiction game called Alternity. Like D&D was to fantasy, Alternity was meant to be a generic science fiction game, able to model space opera starships, cyberpunk hacking, or post-apocalyptic mutations.

I don’t remember any of that.

What I do remember is the Dark•Matter setting, which took every conspiracy theory and mixed it up into a delightful meringue of paranoia. Freemasons, gray aliens, satanists, the Bilderberg Group, UN black helicopters, nanotech “Sandmen,” underground lizard-people, ghosts, Yeti, Men in Black - they’re all real in the Dark•Matter world.

Or maybe not: the core setting offers alternatives for every conspiracy, revealing your world-wide satanist church as alien dupes or powerless wanna-bes--or not actually real. It was a delightfully open and inventive world that balanced paranoia with the potential for heroism.

Counter-argument: Warmed-over X-Files clone. Yawn. (Which is what we said in the 90s before the invention of “Meh.”)

Runner(s)-up: Delta Green, 1996 / Conspiracy X, 1996: Delta Green was a 90s-updated, conspiracy-laden setting for Call of Cthulhu, taking the standard Cthulhu Mythos and brilliantly adding government cover-ups, alien encounters (suspect Mi-Go), and resurgent Nazis. Conspiracy X takes the same material - and makes the players responsible for containing or covering up the conspiracies.

What other great non-fantasy RPGs came out of the 1990s? Share your favourites in the comments!