Who Can Resist Lists?

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.
2. Everway
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.
3. Aria
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.

14 thoughts on “Who Can Resist Lists?

  1. Graham

    This could be a complete fantasy on my part: but weren’t there two versions of Hunter? As I remember, the art changed, although the text may not have done.

    I seem to remember that the first focussed on people-as-ordinary-people. The second became people-as-awesome-defenders-of-humanity.

    I always liked the first better.


  2. Jeff Tidball

    Everway, I think, may look less successful than it actually was. At the time, I believe that distributors were forced to take way too much of it in order to get their Magic allotments, so it wound up getting remaindered a lot as those distributors tried to get rid of it.

    As an explanation for the academic style, I believe that Aria (or, perhaps, an earlier version of it) actually was Christian Moore’s dissertation at either Harvard or Princeton, I can’t remember which.

  3. Dave Bozarth

    I alway prefer lessons learned to just “this sucks” and lists are my friend.

    I personally loved the setting of Secrets of Zir’an and the only reason I got to read is because of PDFs. The book was beyond my ability to cope with.

    Aria… never heard of it, but it was made by Last Unicorn Games. It amazes me how cool their products were and yet it failed.

    Someday I need to play some Amber… nuff said on that.

    Delerium? I read Deliria by Phil Brucato a game of modern fairy tales. I’m always up for more Urban Fantasy if you could provide some direction.

  4. ndp

    Graham, there was Hunters Hunted, which was a shorter softcover supplement about truly normal folks (i.e. FBI, some faction of the Catholic church, a couple other organizations) who fought monsters but didn’t have any powerz per se.

    Hunter: The Reckoning is what Rob is talking about. And I agree, it’s one of my favorite oWoD games, but the art was just terrible and, in many cases, directly opposed to the content of the game.

    the new Hunter is actually really good at combining what i liked from both.

  5. Cam_Banks

    I have no idea what you mean by your #1 on this list because clearly every licensed property has translated perfectly to a roleplaying game format. Case in point: Bram Stoker’s Dracula the RPG, and Lawnmower Man. Classics of the medium.

  6. Reverance Pavane

    Which edition of Gamma World was the 6th? I kind of lost track there…

    Aria also could have definitely done with proofreading and making sure everything referenced was in there.

    You can have my Little Pink Book of Nobilis when you can pry it from my cold dead hand. Which is not to say the the Big White Book in not a beautiful object d’art in and of itself.

    Everway and Amber opened a lot of people’s eyes to the fact the rules were not the object of the gaming experience, but that is an inspiration aimed at the designers and gamemasters rather than the players (roughly 1/7th the audience).

    One is not fond of generic systems unless they have been tuned to a game (the old BRP was an example of this (Stormbringer, Runequest, Elfquest, Ringworld, and Call of Cthulhu all used the same basic system, but it was heavily tuned to the individual game); on the other hand the Mongoose Runequest I fails this as it tried to transport the same untuned Runequest game to other properties).

  7. Seth Clayton

    Great list.

    Aria knocked my socks off when I read it. However, it seemed like a whole lot of work for the players, and mine tend to be lazy. That said, I still want to try to play it at some point.

    I’m currently reading Amber for the first time, and it seems interesting. Though I do see what you mean about beating on the characters. It seems like even the guys with “Good Stuff” are supposed to get shat upon…

    I was a bigger fan of Hunters Hunted than Hunter:the Reconing. What I wanted was regular guys who stood against the forces of darkness; whose only advantages were planning and the element of surprise. I wasn’t a fan of the special powers or the “Calling.”

    I have Deleria, but I haven’t gotten to reading it yet. Artwork was great, and mine came with a CD of mood music…

    I’ll have to check out the others, as I’m always a sucker for both good and bad examples in publishing.

  8. D.J.

    Jeff – 95% sure that Christian is a Princeton man. And yeah, Aria, while dense and less-than-optimally edited, was a pretty darn impressive thing. LUG at one point talked about expanding the line, but nothing came of it that I recall.

  9. John Morrow

    With respect to Secrets of Zir’an, at least part of the problem is that they played around with metallic inks and even printer’s proofs may not have accurately reflected how metallic inks will behave on press. Metallic inks don’t behave like normal inks (e.g., they can dry more slowly) and I advise staying away from them unless you really know what you are doing, even with printer’s proofs that look fine.

  10. buzz

    Payane, GW6 was the edition produced by White Wolf. I would differ with Mr. Donoghue in that, while I agree it was probably more sober than what most GW fans wanted, it’s primary problem was that the d20 rules design was completely and utterly terrible. The books were produced by an army of freelancers, none of whom: a) seemed to have a basic grasp of d20, and b) were communicating with each other, or at least not being given any editorial oversight.

    Ergo, the lesson I would take away from GW6 would be: Don’t release a game for a major license that has neither been edited nor play-tested.

  11. Reverance Pavane

    Thanks Buzz. I think I preferred the Alternity version myself (which must be 5th ed, I suppose), although in saying that I’ve only glanced through the White Wolf version and never played it.

    Although the best Gamma World campaign I’ve ever encountered was pure 2nd ed (so good I gave him my 1st ed rules so he’d have a complete set). Although it was more of a hard science post-Singularity game than your typical apocalypse fantasy.


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