As a hardcore collector, I have a few games on my shelves that I’ve read but never played. Not nearly as many as I thought when I started this blog, but they are still around.
Fortunately, many of them are worth reading even if you have zero intention of playing them. Some are even a step better than that and are excellent for sitting down and reading like any other book.
When I decided to make this a top 5 list, I realized I would have to slight a lot of games that I really love and a lot that I enjoyed reading in order to highlight the top 5.
Here are my top 5, in no particular order:
Transhuman Space (Steve Jackson)
Very little game material and incredible amounts of setting material for a transhumanist setting in our solar system. Reading this was like reading a good science fiction novel and is a great read for people unfamiliar with transhuman science fiction. Many of the supplements are also a goldmine of awesome, topped out by Toxic Memes, a book about fads, cults and memetics. This game should be mandatory reading for science fiction game players and authors – it manages to build a huge intriguing setting that spans the whole solar system while feeling wide open.
Unknown Armies (Atlas)
A setting where conspiracies of magic users in the modern era use strange magics to become as gods. And yet the game manages to feel like it is happening in the real world and we have just been ignoring these strange nutjobs who have real magic. It might have something to do with their real magic being triggered by drinking too much, or having sex, or obsessing over famous places. This is one of the few RPG books where the fiction opening each chapter is really worthwhile reading. The book is entertaining and easy to get caught up in – somehow the authors managed to write the book in a way that gets you involved. And the mechanics rock too, but that’s not what this article is about.
Ex Machina (Guardians of Order)
Even if you hate the tri-stat system you should read this book. It offers a great overview and analysis of cyberpunk fiction and games, how they are played, what the themes are, and how to make the themes come out in your games. Then we have a section of rules (that you can just skip over, you are still getting your money’s worth). The GMing section isn’t about mechanics, it is about adapting rules to play to the needs of the genre you are playing and a lot of tips on running a game that feels cyberpunkish and not “just” science fiction. Finally more than half the book is settings. Four of them. Completely different cyberpunk settings that play the genre each in a different way. If you thought cyberpunk was dead, this is pure awesome. If you play other cyberpunk RPGs, this book is a goldmine of great advice, background and ideas.
Human Occupied Landfill (Black Dog / Dirt Merchant)
It is entirely written by hand and heavily illustrated. It is insane and dark. Difficulty scales between Easier than a Cheap Streetwalker and Bogusly Difficult. The character creation rules are in a seperate volume published a year later. It is genious. Dark, criminally insane genius. I actually can’t describe the book in a way that gets across the sheer awesomeness that is the H.O.L.
Earthdawn (FASA / Living Room / RedBrick)
A fantasy RPG done very very differently. It is founded on an original and inventive magic system and a setting that lets you play a classic D&D-style game and yet feel that the setting makes sense. I love D&D, but Earthdawn was chock full of fresh ideas and new implementations and even better, the whole thing fits nicely in one big book that is a very pleasant read (the newest edition is in two books, but the 1st and 2nd editions only needed the one book to play). From parasitic/symbiotic armor implants to Adpets of a huge variety who each have a different use for magic – turning their talents towards combat, mysticism or spellcasting. Magic items in Earthdawn advance as you research them, becoming more powerful effectively as the character becomes more powerful. A goldmine of fantasy RPG goodness, particularly appropriate to a points of light style game.