Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #1

Huzzah! We have arrived at long last at the end of the list of my top ten role-playing games. As is traditional with this sort of thing, let's run down the list before we get to my favourite rpg.

Unless you're reading this via a feed or Google Plus, in which case the preview image probably gave it away. Oh well.

#10 - Dragonlance: Fifth Age
#9 - Fighting Fantasy
#8 - Shadowrun
#7 - Cold City
#6 - Lamentations of the Flame Princess
#5 - 13th Age
#4 - Savage Worlds
#3 - Pendragon
#2 - Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

At number one, of course, is Call of Cthulhu, which is only appropriate given that it's the best role-playing game ever according to both rpggeek and the arcane magazine poll that inspired this series of posts in the first place. I am being facetious, but only a little, because it is my favourite rpg ever and has been since I first played it.

My group at school knew of another group a couple of years above us, in the nigh-mythical Sixth Form. We didn't mix with them -- they had cars and didn't even wear uniforms! -- but somehow we got in touch with Dave, and he had such sights to show us! He introduced us to RuneQuest and Cyberpunk 2020 and Star Wars -- the latter only played once because of a misunderstanding in which Dave thought we hated it for some reason -- and Call of Cthulhu.

My memories of that first session are vivid. Dave lived in what seemed like an ancient cottage -- it wasn't -- in what seemed like the middle of nowhere -- it wasn't -- and it was the perfect setting to introduce a bunch of impressionable teenagers to horror gaming. We played "The Haunting" because everyone starts with that -- unless they start with the upcoming seventh edition, but that's an exasperated sigh for another day -- and it was wonderful. Characters were thrown out of windows while my character tried to deflect attention by claiming that it was a comedy film in production, someone got possessed and shot someone else in the back, and in the end the haunted house was burned to the ground, as I suspect happens in the majority of attempts at the adventure.

It was great fun but it was also scary, in part because we were playing it in the dark in the middle of the countryside and in part because it was the first time we'd played a horror game. There were no monsters to hit and no special powers to use to our advantage so we felt more vulnerable than we had in any other game up until then, and we had no idea what we were facing, and to use an appropriate quote, the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

That first game had quite the effect. We pestered Dave to run more adventures and the discarded sheets of dead or insane characters piled up. I bought three thick Lovecraft collections, and grappled with his baroque prose, a trial which didn't do much for me but impressed my English teacher. We all rushed out and bought copies of the rulebook and Tim ran some games, then Paul ran a couple -- including another creepy adventure played out in the boondocks -- and Stephen ran a few, and then I ran Horror on the Orient Express for a year for two different groups. We played the heck R'lyeh out of this game and some of my happiest gaming memories -- and all of the scary ones -- happened while playing. My current group likes D&D a lot so we've played a great deal of that in the years I've been part of it but that aside, I've played Call of Cthulhu more than any other rpg and I will never get bored of it.

Do I need to describe the system? It's been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out -- how appropriate -- and hasn't changed much so I'm sure everyone knows about it by now, but if not, guess what? It's quite simple! It's more or less RuneQuest with most of the fiddly bits taken out and is based on percentile skills, so is intuitive enough to be easy for even newcomers to grasp; I've introduced a few people to role-playing using the game, as everyone understands what Persuade 65% means, and the resistance table aside everything is on the character sheet and there are no hidden player mechanics.

Player-characters are normal folk rather than the specialists or heroes of most other rpgs, and are as such somewhat fragile, becoming incapacitated through injury and -- more often -- insanity; the latter mechanic is often derided as "mental hit points" and while it may not present a nuanced and realistic view of mental health it does the job for a game about librarians and archaeologists fighting ancient evil gods, is consistent with the source material, and once again it's presented in a simple and transparent manner that anyone can understand.

Of course, since the game has been around since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and hasn't changed much it is a bit clunky in places, but just like a vintage car -- another motoring metaphor? -- a bit of affectionate tinkering gets it up and running and it's so light a system that there isn't much work required. I'm sure that my years of play mean that even I have managed to memorise at least some of the rules but I find I can run the game with a character sheet as a reference and that's a good sign, as it means the system gets out of the way and I can concentrate on the mystery and the horror, like that time that I got the players screaming in disbelief as an axe-wielding maniac started swinging at their characters.

I love this game to bits. It works for long campaigns -- I don't think it's as much of a character killer as some suggest, although I have heard stories of some proper meat grinders -- and it's an amazing fit for a one-shot scenario for a dark winter's night. It's a game in which the players feel actual relief when they finish an adventure, and the only game in which I've experienced actual fear. I have played it almost every year for almost two decades and I hope that I continue to play it for years to come until the stars are right.

Next: nothing! We're finished! I'm sorry it took so long but I hope it was a worthwhile and interesting series.


  1. Great series of posts! I have to say, I enjoyed every bit of it (even though I really don't care that much for Shadowrun, but still, a great read) and now I have to blame you for wanting to get my hands on Pendragon, Cold City and WFRP (which reminds me, do you know Small and Vicious Dog? Does it compare?) ... Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Jens!

      I do know Small But Vicious Dog quite well. It's a D&D hack designed to make that game play more like WFRP and it does a good job of it.

      The best thing about SBVD is the writing, which is sharp and witty throughout. It's one of the few rpg books that is worth reading for pleasure.

    2. I do wish +Chris Hogan would start blogging again...

    3. Me too. I miss his wit.

  2. An excellent series indeed, and pretty close to my own Top 10 (were I to make one).

    As much as I'm enjoying running Pendragon, I can't wait to get back into some Cthulhu gaming in 2015.

    (Also, we'll have to agree to disagree about the choice to drop The Haunting from the core book. ;D)

    1. Dropping "The Haunting" is okay, because it is available for free, but there are only two adventures in the core book and one of them is for advanced players; who puts an advanced adventure in the core rules?

  3. I recall my first foray into the Cthulu world. I felt like I'd been dumped into a pitch-black room of unfamiliar design and told to find the light switch. It was horrible - but in the good sense. I remember thinking I could destroy anything with my shotgun. Oh how wrong I was. Fataly wrong.

    Second time round I ran a lot. Away. Scared shitless.

    It's a brilliant game if run well and players commit. For the first time in over two years I'll be DMing a one-off session with my old rpg group on the 3rd Jan. Like a dusty, rusted old machine, my imagination is slowly straining to illicit an idea to fit in for a one-evening-only event? Funnily, I sent out 6 invites, expecting maybe 4 to say yes - but they all said yes. No room at the table for me. Time to improvise.

    Loved the post, sir. Has made me wish I could run a Cthulu session, but alas I possess (not an intentional joke there) neither rule books or otherwise. Maybe I could throw a Cthulu-esque theme into a DnD mix? Creatures never before seen or encountered? Weapons have nil effect and magic very little? Could be a way forward. I mean, we all know that one-off session characters never get to live. Don't we?

    Happy new year, sir - have a great 2015. :)

    1. Thank you, and happy new year to you too!

      The link up there to "The Haunting" goes to a free set of quickstart rules so you could give that a try.

  4. ...and I still run the odd Call of Cthulhu session today. Just earlier this year my group was in Innsmouth getting devoured by Deep Ones. It's a great game. I'm less into the BRP system these days, it's far too fiddly, but the setting is perfect. I am envious that you've played Horror on the Orient Express, I've never had the chance. It's on my RPG bucket list.

    1. Hello! Look everyone, it's the aforementioned Dave! Thank you for introducing me to my favourite game. It's all your fault.

      HotOE was good fun but it has some major flaws, the biggest of which is that ll the mystical doohickeys you're supposed to be collecting all just happen to be located along the path of the train. If you can get over that coincidence and the literal railroading that it brings, you should be fine.

      There is a new edition out soon or perhaps now.

    2. I remember first learning about Call of Cthulhu from when White Dwarf was still good (in my opinion, anything before roughly issue 110). They had some articles and adventures for the game which piqued my interest. I remember one NPC having the skill "Dynamite - 85%". What? That was new. From that I picked up a copy of selected Lovecraft works and the 5th edition rulebook, the latter of which is still on my shelf. There is a diagram in the book that depicts the various sizes of all the Mythos creatures, you know the one I mean. I was mesmerised by it. The sheer bleakness of the setting was so rich. This wasn't a game where the good guys could win, they could only postpone the inevitable demise of the human race by a week or two. That's if they didn't end up as Great Old One chow in the process. I believe in the playthrough of The Haunting Kelvin is referring to one of the PCs fell down some stairs and sustained a badly sprained ankle. I remember the guys being a little shocked by that. The PC didn't just lose a few hit points, he sprained his ankle! That was real! That happens to real people! A simple dice roll revealed how fragile these characters were. Suddenly being in a haunted house seemed like a bad and scary idea.

      Last anecdote on CoC: I played the same scenario with another group late at night. They opened the door to one of the rooms. I started to describe what they saw but needed to swallow half way through the sentence and had to pause.

      Dave: "Sitting in the middle of the floor..."

      Dave: "... is the knife you left there earlier."

      I can't imagine what evil thing they thought might be sitting on the floor waiting for them but part of me wishes it had actually been there.

    3. Ah yes, the sprained ankle. That sort of thing didn't happen in Tim's Shadowrun game.

      In contrast, a few weeks later when playing "Spirit of the Mountain" from White Dwarf #99 my character was trod on by a Lesser Other God while trying to rescue Tim's occult researcher. I remember you let me have a Luck roll to see if there was enough left for a funeral.

    4. I bring a whole new level of "Being Lucky" to the table.