Someone was talking about people’s lists of top ten worst RPGs. That prospect didn’t appeal to me, but I admit that I have a fondness for lists, so I thought I’d take the idea and turn it into something a little more productive. Thus, I present the top ten most educational RPGs (in a bad way).
10 Most Educational RPGs (In a bad way)
1. Secrets of Zir’an
This was a pretty awesome game. A pretty solid, non d20 system with some genuinely clever mechanics. It had a setting that was full of airships and final fantasy elements and other fun things. But an interesting printing idea which should have put subtle silver decoration behind the text ended up being printed so strongly as to render large portions of the text unreadable.
The Lesson: A printer’s proof is the best investment you can make in publishing your game.
Everway was a brilliant game, but it was best described as requiring that you “pack Jonathan Tweet in each box.” Produced by Wizards of the Coast, it was very much NOT D&D. A fantasy game with minimal setting and a notable absence of European influence, it was full of interesting hippie ideas like diceless resolution, inspirational cards. It was fantastic and critically acclaimed, but it was just a bit too “out there” for the target audience.
The Lesson: All the production value and distribution in the world won’t help if you go too far afield from your audience’s expectations.
Aria is a game full of interesting ideas about building cultures and generational play. Even outside of the broad strokes, there were clever little tricks to it, like the idea of “normal” stats as the ones that the character has not bought. However, it was written in a painfully academic style, and it completely reinvented the entire terminology of gaming in an intensely overwrought fashion (it wasn’t a game, it was the Canticle of the Monomyth). The use of jargon is so thick and painful that it’s almost unreadable.
The Lesson: Try not to reinvent all the wheels at once.
4. Amber DRPG
I love the Amber DRPG, and the lessons it teaches are subtle, especially because they are often taught by showing you the wrong thing so profoundly that the correction is goes in useful directions. Most notably, the game is a giant manual on how to gracefully and elegantly screw your players over as hard as possible for fun. This is, in fact, incredibly useful to know how to do, but the adversarial posture it promotes with it is outright mean spirited.
The Lesson: The lessons you teach go deeper than the rules of the game.
5. Nobilis 1e
Nobilis was brilliant but, to put is simply, utterly incomprehensible. If you’ve read second edition, and thought it was kind of trippy, I promise you it had nothing on the first edition.
The Lesson: The changes from first to second edition (besides layout) are almost all a result of a profound editing job. Bruce Baugh deserves a medal for the editing job he did in producing second edition. It is probably the clearest example of the value of a good editor.
6. Hunter: The Reckoning
Hunter was a nicely subdued game of fairly underpowered good guys trying to hold the line against the much bigger, scarier World of Darkness, or at least that’s what it was if you read the books. If you looked at the art, it was a game of huge guns, explosions, tattoos and boobs. This discrepancy was a little jarring, to say the least.
The Lesson: Art direction is really that important.
7. Gamma World 6th
Ignore the naysayers. This was a genuinely awesome, brilliant post-apocalyptic game that would have been broadly recognized as such if it had been called something other than Gamma World. To fans, GW is a game of metal bending rabbits, double brains and general wahoo weirdness. GW6 was a serious, thoughtful, often quite disturbing study of post-apocalyptic play, but that’s not what people wanted.
The Lesson: If existing expectations of what something should look like are passionately held, defying those expectations is risky at best, no matter how good the product.
8. Deleria (Not Delerium – I should have checked my bookshelf)
This was the right game at the right time. It came out just as Urban Fantasy was starting to experience a big resurgence. It promised something that felt like the World of Darkness, only through a lens of light, color, music and beauty. It had fantastic art, neat ideas, and it’s utterly unreadable (Edit: To be fair: Much of the fiction is just fine – it’s the rules that totally tripped me). It is really clear that it makes sense to the writer, but that personal understanding did not translate into something broadly approachable.
The Lesson: Write for yourself first, but don’t let your passion interfere with clarity.
9. Marvel Super Heroes
This is the recent one, which used stones as its diceless resolution mechanism. It did decently well, was kind of fun and playable, and all in all was a good game, and it died on the vine because it’s sales – while just fine for an RPG – were piss poor for a comic book (the yardstick its publishers were using).
The Lesson: RPG success is not that big in the grand scheme of things.
10. Most Licensed Games
Too many possible targets to pick only one, (and I have ulterior motives in being a little diplomatic on this) so I’ll just cut right to the lesson.
The Lesson: A generic game is almost always the wrong choice for a licensed product. The same licence that attracts and excites players creates an expectation for the game. The game needs to reflect the things that make the license exciting.