Best RPG Books – Ever

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 –
pathfinder

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 –gurps4e800

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 –savageworlds

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) –cyclopedia

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 –starwarsrevised

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.

Number 1 – The Call of Cthulhu (any edition) – Chaosium Inc. –coc

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 ).

23 thoughts on “Best RPG Books – Ever”

  1. WEG SW d6 is still one of my fav’s. I don’t know that I still have my book, but I loved that system. D20 modern is one that could have made this list, and had WotC not be run by money grubbing Hasbro 4E could have made an appearance too. Monte Cook’s WoD was exceptional too see also Ptolus. Other than that I don’t think you should be hit upside the head with The World’s Largest Dungeon.

  2. You know, I never played the Monte Cooke version of D20 WoD. I was always curious, but I didn’t know anyone that would play with it.

    Ptolus is a stunning setting and source book, but not a complete RPG itself. Still, I agree with you good sir. (I always wanted to own the big ‘ol Ptolus book).

  3. I like this list. With the best feature of all, no CRAPPY vampire nonsense. WOD (except Mage) blows chunks like Lard Ass from Stand By Me. I think we can fully blame WOD for Twilight. WOD started the whole Vampire are sexy cool not monster, and then add Vampire LARP. SHUDDERS… Its a wonder how the RPG world got through it all.

    Right now I am playing a SW campgain using the D20 Sega edition. I have to say its alot of fun. I have not played the D6 version yet but so far I do enjoy the D20 version.

    Cthulhu in 2012

    K

  4. Ah, memories. This is a nice list, hard to argue with any of the choices I recognize. I am particularly pleased to see GURPS on here. I do have to say, I never found it overly complicated — matter of fact, it was damn near elegant compared to the random mish-mash of rules, numbers and freaky-ass dice that was AD&D. I never looked back, personally. Now you have me all intrigued about this Savage Worlds thing, though…

  5. Keith – I don’t think the Storyteller System is “crappy”. It sounds like your disdain for the WoD stems more from the “typical” player and not the game itself. (Though I agree, Mage was and is their strongest “setting”). As a system, I find the updated Storyteller system as quite elegant and flexible. However, as I stated about this list, I wanted to highlight the best books, as stand alone, rather than systems. Whew, that is a whole other beast that terrifies me! 🙂

    Also, I don’t blame White Wolf for the rise of “Twilight” folks. Indeed, Mark Reign-Hagen’s own admission, he was inspired by the Anne Rice novels to create Vampire: The Masquerade. Funny thing? HOL (Human Occupied Landfill) almost made this list.

    TIZA – You might be the only person I’ve heard that openly enjoys GURPS. I’ve tried. Many times. Each times it left me annoyed. That being said, the fan base for the system is strong and true. (I will admit to buying some source books, simply for the crunch material).

    As for Savage Worlds. If you enjoy GURPS, you might actually find the system a little too “simple”. However, the settings the system spawns allows for some seriously fun settings and concepts.

  6. Thats true the players for Vampire shudder. However the system is awesome. I like the system alot, and I have alot of mad love for Mage. I think maybe one the best games I have played. The flexiable nature of mage and the storyteller system is almost unrivial. Sometime it is hard to seperate the bad from the good in the WOD. It is alittle hard what with LARP and Vampire and werewolves. lol

    Now I want to play Mage darn it!! 🙂 And I want to try the savage world system.

    I wanted to thank you for bring to light the Savage world. I will look into it this weekend when I go gamming. Though I will have to say I do agree with your number one pick. Cthulhu is the best game to play, madness zombies old ones death and horror. Everything a growing gammer needs.

  7. After seeing the list, I was wondering if you ever tried Warhammer Fantasy? I don’t believe it became that popular, but trying it a few months back (it’s a good few years old), it was really fun to play. The combat system is very streamlined and makes it hard for you to be unstoppable. I prefer it over D&D any day of the week, but can be troublesome to use when doing long campaigns.

    Not knowing the Savage or Star Wars books, I say you setup a pretty good selection of pen and paper RPGS. Regarding the vampire craze, Vampire: The Masquerade made a horrible pen and paper game, but really nice video games if you check those out. All in all, nicely done.

  8. Every year since that came out, at gen con the d6 books are getting harder and harder to find AND the cost is going up.

    I believe I have all the books and am just missing adventures, but what they are going for it’s ok. I love those books for all the information and background pre ep1. My favorite is that in the Trilogy source book Uncle Owen is Ben’s brother. That had to get cleared through GL or some underlings but it was published.

    rock on.

  9. I picked up Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k. The system looks promising, but I never ended up playing a game. It looks really deadly and characters can die in very gruesome ways.

    Aaron I picked up Ptolus and absolutely loved it, you can basically run a game from 1-20 without much else the package I bought came with 2 digital modules too.

    Oh another good rpg book, especially this time of year is Return to Castle Ravenloft. Love going back into that setting, I’ve even updated some of it for 4E. How can you not want to play a zombie invasion scenario?!

  10. I never played the Warhammer Fantasy, mainly because I’ve never been a big war-gamer (mainly due to cost and time constraints). Plus, I knew very few people that played it. Although, I did play the demo for Warhammer 40k Dark Trader and found it to be a very fun game / system. It is on my buy list, if the dang thing ever comes out!

    As for all the White Wolf stuff, I ran a Hunters Hunted X-Files style game using the Storyteller System. To this day, it is still one of my favorite gaming memories. (This was before the HORRIBLE Hunter: The Reckoning came out… I just bought Hunters Hunted, Demon Hunter X, Project Twilight, and other random WoD source books. Worked great).

    Patch – Dude! I totally remember the Uncle Own being Ben’s brother, I also remember Mace Windu as a smuggler. I think he’s in Galaxy Guide 8 – Tramp Freighters. (Yes, I remember the title, don’t laugh suckas. Old school Star Wars D6 was the shit and worth remembering).

    Hyperion – Talking about Ravenloft?! Dude, you in my wheel house. Back in high school, we had a rotating DM’ing system. To prevent DM burnout. We all picked a TSR setting and ran with it. Being the resident drama fag, I went right to Ravenloft. (Plus, I was able to fool my parents into thinking Ravenloft was the game and NOT D&D…he,he,he). Anyway, I ended up DM’ing about 80% of the time. Even kept it up a few years after high school, before I moved to Portland. My buddies still talk about the “fun” to be had in the Demiplane of Dread! 🙂

    And, yes, I did run Return to Castle Ravenloft. (Though I think you meant Expedition to Castle Ravenloft). I am addicted to that adventure. I own every version. From AD&D (even “Ravenloft II – House of Gryphon Hill) to House of Strahd, to the TSR Silver Anniversary version, to the 3.5 hardback. Hell, I bought the 4E undead book just because it has updated stats for Strahd!

    Damn, now I’m really dying to roll the dice again.

  11. Ah yes Expedition that’s what I meant exactly. Love that module.

    On Warhammer Fantasy though, that’s an RPG system based on the the wargaming line. You should check it out if for nothing else but to see the gruesome crit descriptions. Basically you can be killed at any level by one lucky/unlucky roll.

  12. Yeah, I should have been more specific about the RPG. I didn’t know anyone into the war game, which led to me not knowing anyone that played the RPG. But, I have flipped through it, damn thing looks brutal and fun. (Although Games Workshops items always feel way too expensive, probably due to import costs).

    Gruesome crits reminds me of the AD&D 2nd Editions / Skills & Options book: Combat & Tactics. Sucker had crit charts that were brutal – Mix that with one of Monte Cooke’s first adventures, Labyrinth of Madness and you got PC death every 15 minutes! 🙂

  13. Well there are crit charts for each weapon type in WHF. Basically you crit then roll a d8 to determine the severity of the crit. 6-8 is pretty much always a kill with 7 & 8 being usually instant death via skull puncture or full combustion. It’s funny to read.

    On the subject of alternatives to WotC’s D&D there’s a 3.5 system out there where the level cap is 6. Basically it breaks down that anyone who’s ever existed is probably less than 6th level. Once you hit level 6 you start gaining additional feats and other ways of character advancement. Feats like toughness (5 hp) become insanely good when you’re only 6d12+24 total. Very interesting concept that I have yet to try, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it’s called.

  14. Warhammer the mini game is terrible. played it 3 or 4 times before I got that lesson beat into me. Warhammer the RPG is sweet. It is a great world if you like fantasy but low magic. in fact you could play it without magic at all and never even miss it.

    If anyone wants to play SW d20 Friday sept 11 there is game going on here in Portland. Its a club, and we play SW every other Friday, anyone is welcome to come by and join in the fun. we can always use new blood and real role-players. If Aaron says its okay I will write the address in another comment.

    Ravenloft is so much fun though, I had the orginal module before it ever became a series or famous. It was so much fun and you could die so easily it was great.

    Monte Cook rules! Iron Might is great DnD book. All about playing heroes in the time before history. Lots of cool martial powers. Everyone is a fighter and classes are what type of fighter you are: Armour guy who wear armour all the time, A weapon master, a tactial genius… great fun to play.

  15. If you get a chance Keith, take a look at Monte’s “last” RPG book. The Book of Experimental Might. It is basically EVERY “house rules” idea he ever tried in his own gaming group. As balanced as possible, but by Monte’s own admission, he loves big and over the top stuff. Not all of the material is usable, it is all fascinating though. Especially when you consider Monte applies and almost scientific method to his game design.

  16. hmm I have not heard of that one. I will defentily be looking at it then. Though I did pick up Savage World. It looks really cool. I like that you get to play a Pulp style genere type of game. I think I see hords of Sky Captain and Dr Jones running across the universe.

    I think Monte Cook is just cool. Over the top and big and wonderfull. Its over-the-topness is what makes it alot of to play. Even the idea he has for the campgain worlds are great. I think he is the only Game developer (on a major game system not indepent) that I have heard of. The other one is Bruce R. Codell (spelling??) He did the Psionics for the 3.0 edition of DnD and has done all the really cool magic stuff.

    Though there are a couple of Game designer here in Portland that are just great. The indie game people do some really good work. They go to the convention around town and usually have the best games to play. Though only Cthulhu might be a bigger draw during the cons.

    Will you be running any of these games during next thursday Guardian games adult game night? How cool would that be!!!

  17. This list definitely brings back memories. I wish I still owned the coveted Rules Cyclopedia. It was a great book. I’d add Talislata’s 4th edition tome to this list. I also heartily recommend Savage Worlds to anyone interested in giving it a try. It’s great for one-shots.

  18. Arduin, first 4 volumes or so, original publications. Just for the sheer pleasure of reading the jumble of madness. So many chunks of the various volumes made it into our various RPG system games simply because they were just the shot in the arm that the moment needed. The Dirty Dorg’s menu is still one of the best erm racially inclusive offerings around… admittedly we weren’t really tempted to actually use the system rules, but for lounging and tossing around world dev ideas they were splendid ammunition. Even the size and strangely handmade quality of the first editions made my inner imp cackle in glee at at the feeling that hands were full of illicit materials and chaos just waiting to happen.

    And I agree with Matt… <3 Talislanta. And Arcanum, which had one of the most instantly playable rule sets that we had occaion to use. And and …

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