Been a while since I’ve fallen back on that long-time alley of the burned out pop culture writer. The Top-5! Wishing to combine sheer laziness with Internet anger, I tempt the gamer gods by penning the greatest RPG books ever published. Not the greatest games, but the books themselves. Books that give you the most basement time for your ever dwindling bucks. And so, without further ado (aka, word padding), I give you…
Honorable Mention – Pathfinder Core Rulebook – by Paizo Publishing –
The newness of the book is the sole reason for making Honorable Mention. As Wizards of the Coast (and their corporate overlords, Hasbro) continue to push D&D 4E, Paizo Publishing keeps OGL 3.5 alive and well. Taking all the best elements of 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons (now legally known as “The Worlds Oldest Role Playing Game” by everyone that isn’t WotC), and kept the game firm within it’s classic roots. And by classic, I mean stuffed to the brim with numbers, stats, and a strong knowledge of arithmetic to design an adventure. Combining a Players Guide and Game Master Guide (remember, DM is a trademark and Hasbro will come after your first born if you use it without their permission). While it doesn’t quite have everything a gamer needs to run adventures of high fantasy. It does present enough information that a skilled GM could never spend another dime and keep the game going for decades. Only time and playing will tell if this happens or not. Still, kudos to Paizo for giving WotC the big ‘ol finger and supporting a very strong customer base.
Number 5 – GURPS Basic System (any edition) – Steve Jackson Games –
See, I can give credit where credit is due. While our friendly neighborhood Geek can’t stand any RPG designed by SJG, he does recognize the usefulness of the GURPS Basic System. The first book to not focus on a specific genre, GURPS Basic System truly was the first attempt at a “this is all you need” RPG book. With an almost technical manual approach to role playing, the GURPS Basic System allows for near limitless customization and setting. However, it is that attention to statistics and mathematical charts is what also earned GURPS the nickname Generally Unplayable Role Playing System. This joke given stronger credence with our next entry on this list.
Number 4 – Savage Worlds – Pinnacle Entertainment Group –
Another relative newcomer within the RPG world, Pinnacle did everything with Savage Worlds as SJG did with GURPS. Only they did it cheaper, faster, and in this rarely humble geek’s opinion, leaps and bounds better. Designed to run a game like your favorite action, horror, western, or space opera with ninja alien zombies movie, Savage Worlds might be the first truly successful “anything goes” RPG book. Sure, you could buy any of the many supplemental books, complete with fleshed out settings, character types, and powers; but you don’t need to. With a rather simple but elegant system and only clocking in at $10 (for the thinned out “Explorers Edition”), Savage Worlds should be on your gamer shelf for a long time. From here on out, the list gets tricky. In fact, it boils right down to personal genre preference.
Number 3 – D&D Rules Cyclopedia – TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) –
The year was 1991, Dungeons and Dragons was pushing 20 years within the collective popular culture. In that time, it had gone from a simple booklet, to box sets, to Advanced D&D, and even a 2nd Edition of AD&D. Still, the little setting that could would come back for what would be TSR’s swan song. The D&D Rules Cyclopedia was throwback to old school RPGs. No special skills. No Class Kits. Just the Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Thief, Elf, and Dwarf. That was it. (Yes, races were a class back in the day). A more beautiful and complete RPG book you will be hard-pressed to find. It had it all. Rules, setting, monsters, hell, it even sported color maps of the game world. Essentially a “best of” book, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia combined all the greatest elements from “old timers” D&D. Sure, all you kids could go and play your Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But, by the time you whipped up characters and decided on a setting, the old schoolers were already ascending to the Immortal Plane! Of all the books on this list, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia is the hardest and most expensive to procure. Often falling into the hands of game book collectors, the book is still in very high demand. I kick myself for not buying one back when it came out… Such is the price I paid for being one of those snarky AD&D 2nd Edition gamers. Ah, hindsight.
Number 2 – Star Wars 2nd Edition: Revised and Expanded – West End Games –
Got D6? Good, because that was the only thing that didn’t come with this gem of an RPG book. Like the above mentioned Rules Cyclopedia, the 2nd Edition Revised and Expanded version of the Star Wars RPG was West End Games final attempt at remaining relevant within the gaming industry. Sure, they recently resurfaced, but it is doubtful they will ever see a return to their glory. Another hefty tome, the 2nd Edition R&E book had everything a Star Wars GM ever needed. Period. Didn’t matter if you wanted to run a game within the movie time line, take on Grand Admiral Thrawn, fight the newly resurrected Emperor, or help form the original Galactic Republic; the R&E book had you covered. In fact, I am willing to bet that with a little work on the GM and players part, the book would work for any of the myriad of Star Wars eras. With an entertaining narrative running through the book and gorgeous color interior art, the Star Wars 2nd Edition Revised and Expanded book still sits in a place of honor with long-time gamers. Indeed, I know of many a gamer that sold their WotC Star Wars books to buy used versions of this hard to find book.
When D&D first hit the gaming public, many smaller upstarts attempted to capitalize on this new hobby. Almost all where thematic clones of Dungeons & Dragons. Then came The Call of Cthulhu. Forgoing any need for separate books for player, Game Master, and adversaries; the Call of Cthulhu may have been the first true “all in one” rulebook. A rather bone dry and basic rule book by today’s standards, it is a testament to the original book that many a loyal CoC player still own all previous versions of the book. Although, technically, on it’s 7th edition, the Call of Cthulhu core book still stands strong as the greatest single RPG book ever published. Perhaps there is something to the whole, Cult of the Elder Gods!?
Think I’m rolling the hard 20 on this one, or has your friendly neighborhood Geek just land face-first into a steaming pile of 1s? Drop a comment and give your side! (And any offers to send me a copy of that D&D Rules Cyclopedia ).