It would be incredibly arrogant of me to suggest that my choice of gaming systems is superior in any way to the tastes and preferences of others. My purpose here is to explain why I have what I have on the shelf, as a way to encourage others to critically think about what systems are worth their money to buy. I once had a much larger collection, but I culled it, which forced me to think critically about what systems I couldn’t do without, and what books to hunt all over the globe to acquire.
I feel I should also explain that I have an avid interest in system mechanics, which impacts what books I will buy. When I cleared out a lot of books, it was because those books offered me nothing new. I also have many systems not listed here that I picked up as oddities which I couldn’t part with. What I want to talk about here are the main collections and why I have them.
Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia
Let’s start with the system most people know. There are a great many iterations of D&D, with D&D 5th edition being the latest at time of writing. Each edition has its pros and cons. I like 5th edition, I loathe 4th edition, but my preferred version dates back to the 1970s and was primarily created by Dave Arneston.
The original D&D was created by Gary Gygax, who most people know, and Dave Arneston, who many people have forgotten. The break between the two of them was at least in part over differing design philosophies. Dave Arneston believed that Role Playing was first and foremost a tool for telling heroic tales and educating people. As for Gary Gygax’s philosophy, all you need do is to read or play a module written by Gygax to get a pretty good idea. Suffice it to say, I subscribe to the Arneston ideology.
System: You would be mistaken to think the D&D system has become better over the years; it’s just become different. The Rules Cyclopedia has all the rules from the old red/blue/green/black boxed sets. It is still one of the only versions that makes the Fighter a powerhouse damage dealer. It also offers some unique ways in which character classes are presented. Everything you need to develop characters into land owners, with pricing for castle constructions and rules for mass combat, is built into the rules. I could easily write an entire article on the virtues of this edition.
Setting: The world of Mystara is, to me (and many others) one of the most impressive and well balanced high fantasy worlds ever made. The Forgotten Realms comes a close second, but for me Mystara is just more vibrant and has more room for the Player Characters to become a meaningful part. It would be easy to say it offers little that’s unique, but that’s because it is one of the original three game worlds which have since become the template for most high fantasy since. The world of Blackmoor also has books under this edition. Blackmoor was created by Arneston, and the more well known world of Gygax’s Greyhawk was modeled on Blackmoor.
Why I keep it: While my first look at Role Play was 1st edition AD&D, the original Red Box from 1977 was the first Role Playing game I owned. Obviously there are strong nostalgic bonds, strong enough that I set out to collect every D&D module; a goal I completed a few years ago. What makes D&D great is that it’s easy to learn and play, which makes it the perfect tool for introducing new players to Role Playing. The world of Mystara still inspires and guides me in the creation of my own worlds, so it’s nice to revisit it on a regular basis. Most of all, I keep it because I love it, and it’s my best version of D&D.
I first played TORG around the time it was released in 1990. It has since been revised and I’m pleased to say the new version patches most of the gaps in the first edition. Annoyingly, within a month of me finally completing the entire TORG library, the revision was announced. Now I am compelled to collect it as well, but it is worth it as the system and overall production values are much better in the hands of Ulisses Spiele.
System: There is too much to mention to really cover it here but I’ll try. The dice system might revolve primarily around a single d20, but the way it generates ‘Adds’ and how those ‘Adds’ are manipulated by the other system elements is incredibly innovative. Incorporating special cards into a game is a red flag for me most of the time, but in TORG the fluid way those cards can be used to alter the game in countless ways easily trumps my normal avoidance of the tool. Through the interplay of Perks, Skills and Attributes, characters can be heavily customised to become unique individuals. Overall, it’s a very easy to play system that flows like wine even in the heat of combat.
Setting: Many systems try to be all things to all people by offering everything from playing a jungle savage like Tarzan through to a high tech ninja. Most systems fail (I’m looking at you Rifts). TORG gets it right by offering many different worlds that have all collided with a version of our modern Earth reality. Best of all, this mix of worlds actually makes sense, not just from a story standpoint, but from a system standpoint as well. Each world maintains a clear identity of its own, yet it can accommodate the PCs because the characters are special. This brings me to another good point; the Characters should actually feel like heroes. They matter to the world, and their deeds can truly change the path of world events.
Why I keep it: While I only purchased my first book years after it went out of print I certainly played a LOT of TORG. I keep it both for the incredibly innovative system, and to have a system that allows players to mix genre. If you have one player wanting to play a wizard in D&D while another wants to be a wild west demon hunter, then TORG can make both people happy. One other thing I really value TORG for is to have something newbie friendly. It takes everyone a little while to really get the card thing, but the basic mechanics of the system are very east to grasp compared to most systems.
I once had all the Rolemaster books, but they were systematically stolen, lost or just plain worn out from overuse. I replaced everything about a decade ago, hoping to grab all the books before the system went extinct. I didn’t manage to replace the Sci-fi version called Spacemaster though.
I came into Rolemaster as the natural evolution of playing MERP. Since then, I can confidently say that I’ve GMed Rolemaster at least as much as I’ve GMed all other systems combined (and that’s a lot of systems). I even ran one session for over 36 hours straight, handling all the table lookups myself. It is my solid go to for fantasy, and I’ve created at least four unique game worlds under the system.
System: So many people hate Rolemaster for the complex system and regular need to consult tables. For me, that complexity allows for incredible flexibility and diversity. The much loathed tables create countless clutch moments that change the face of the game and bring out the best in players. The critical system alone is a shining highlight of the game and makes mortality a constant threat. Every weapon has its own table to look up, but that makes every weapon unique, suitable for some situations more than others. If the GM handles the tables, and other people lend a hand with character levelling up, then the entry level for a new player really isn’t that high. Yes, it’s a much harder system than D&D, but Rolemaster is for grownups.
Setting: One major failing Rolemaster had was that it didn’t have a strong setting. I first used it for Middle-Earth and we all had a heap of fun for many high school years. The official setting is Shadow World, and I played in the setting for a couple of years. I had a lot of fun, but was never tempted into buying the Shadow World setting. For me, the real power of the system is the versatility to plug it into other settings.
Why I keep it: If I’m going to play a pure fantasy game, whether high or low fantasy, then Rolemaster is the grown up choice. D&D is perfect for lighthearted fun games where you kill monsters, get loot, then rinse and repeat. Once you start trying to force D&D into more complex story telling, then you find yourself having to keep falling back to attribute checks as the actions fall out of the scope of the skills. For me, Rolemaster as a system can be pushed harder and into deeper levels of Role Playing. As I said above, the power of Rolemaster is to be able to plug into any other setting. With Spacemaster and Cyberspace, you can seamlessly blend fantasy all the way into Space Opera.
It’s difficult to describe Wuxia, but if you’ve watched many action Anime, then you have seen a version of it on the screen. I am a fairly devout watcher of Anime, so to have an RPG which covers almost all things fantasy, Anima is a real blessing. I have every book released in English, including the highly elusive Those Who Walked Among Us. This game originated in Spain and is still much loved through much of Europe. It even spawned a good tabletop miniatures game. Unfortunately its transition into English was, to say the least, fraught with woe. Fantasy Flight was the last to print it and they have simply left it to die, leaving at least two books I know of, never translated into English.
I do not own any books more beautiful than these. The pages are filled with the most outstanding artwork. Even though many artists were used, there is a consistency to the style that means no pictures stand out as jarring. The production value and binding are also top notch, meaning they can survive years of table use.
System: Echoes of Rolemaster can be seen in the overall system construction, yet it branches in a whole new direction. It uses the ‘open ended’ percentile for skill resolution, while a d10 is used for certain other tests such as Attribute tests. There is also an extensive set of Advantages and Disadvantages to allow nice character sculpting. Built on top of that are unique systems for Martial, Magic and Psychic abilities. Between these systems, you should be able to make any fantasy themed Anime character you’ve ever seen. The one notable criticism is that many people find the system complex, especially when it comes to advanced character building. As someone with a background in Rolemaster I find it easy enough, but even I needed to read over some things a few times until I got it.
Setting: You would think that an Anime inspired game would be set in an Asian setting, but that would be very narrow minded. Just like in Anime, the world of Gaia covers a huge array of cultures and people. There are Chinese/Japanese like people, but they are shoved all the way to the east in a nasty little island. So, if you want to play an Arabian assassin, or a freaky psionic test subject who escaped a German laboratory, then you can, and so so much more. The diversity of potential character ideas is legion. Better yet (for the GM), no matter how powerful characters get (and they get really powerful) there are always things in the world that can smack them down. The monsters are truly terrifying, and the world is so packed full of secret factions and nefarious machinations that no GM should be stuck for plot hooks.
Why I keep it: The beauty of the books, the elegance of the system, the endless potentials for both GM and player, they all play a key part. Ultimately though, I think it’s because I love Anime, and while I’ve looked at many Anime RP systems, none had the finesse and elegance of Anima. In fact, most of the Anime systems I looked at felt kind of kitschy, or devoted to niche Anime genres.
My collection is far from complete, though let’s face it, no collector is ever done. One thing I’m seriously lacking is anything for Sci-fi, or Cyberpunk. I just don’t like the options on the market, sometimes because I hate the setting but usually because I hate the system. As a result I just recently started a search for Spacemaster books, but my hopes are not high as I recall those books deteriorating swiftly. I think I’ll also get The Expanse by Green Ronin when it’s finally out.
Here are a few other systems I have and why, though these are just systems we might play a session or three with, not for a campaign (yet!). There are many other odd little gems on the shelf, but I’ll just talk about the main ones.
Iron Kingdoms RPG: I came for the miniature combat, but stayed for the world setting. Once they moved away from trying to adapt it to the d20 system and made their own, their system holds up pretty well. It plays smoothly and gets the job done. The reason it’s on my shelf though, is the world setting. It’s a vibrant world filled with adventure potential. My one criticism is that the strong dominance of the war, which is needed for the miniature game, puts a strangle hold on many party compositions or locations. Of course, for your campaign you can change the hostility levels and redraw borders so it’s not a big gripe.
Dragon Age RPG: This is one I have for both the setting and the system. The way players can customise their critical rolls by spending points from their ‘Dragon die’ really intrigued me. The system is as simple as D&D, but with a little more potential customisation of characters. I learnt about the setting through playing the computer games, and I was curious about how well the tabletop game could replicate the world. The book excels and surpassed my expectations. I especially appreciate that you’re not stuck in roles like the computer game, though you can play that way if you want. I especially appreciate the system for running organisations, which almost write a campaign story by themselves.
Through the Breach: I have to be honest, I really haven’t played or GMed this enough to give an honest appraisal, but I can say why I have the main books. I was intrigued by both the setting and the system because of the miniatures game Malifaux. I was eventually able to play the game with a GM who already had an established campaign with another group. I found that the system was indeed filled with unique potential, and would work best with good players willing to work together on everything, including character building. I feel the game really needs a dedicated World Book, as I can’t get the full ambiance of the world through the books I have.