My Current Top 10 RPGS

by | Jul 7, 2023 | Articles

The Miskatonic University podcast usually takes off the month of June but this year decided to release a two part, Top 10 list of their favorite RPGs. Some listeners have followed suit and have been posting their own Top 10’s on the discord. It got me thinking about the games that I’ve played or read and what my own Top 10 list would look like.

Part of the problem, for me at least, is that those games, books and settings are intrinsically wrapped up with the people I’ve played with. It’s really more about the stories we created and the experiences we shared. So that the game itself may be somewhat superfluous to the experience. Herein lies my difficulty. Of course games that I have only read through stand on their own merit, for better or worse.

So with that as our jumping off point I will attempt my own list.

10. Aliens

The first two Alien movies are fantastic. Everything after that is a bit sketchy though. When Free League announced that they had acquired the license I was intrigued. I pre-ordered everything and then waited. The lore in the book is fantastic and worth the price admission even if you never play it. The art is very good and the book itself is high quality. I’ve had the opportunity to play a few times and had begun running a short campaign that tanked due to scheduling difficulties.

I typically go the skill monkey route in games but the skill list is pretty short and there are some fiddly mechanical bits I didn’t care for. The panic table is too generic or maybe geared more towards encounters with xenomorphs. The community was quick to create new panic lists associated with each skill which helped things. My biggest problem I guess is the cascading panic effect. It does replicate the feel of Aliens to a certain degree but at some point it become almost unplayable.

I’m also not a fan of the dice system. In theory the more dice you have the easier it is to have a success. Unfortunately it’s not uncommon to roll 10-15 dice and come up with zero successes. Yup it’s a game and rolling the dice represents the vagaries of Fate but it really sucks when you fail and worse yet when you also trigger some panic effect on top of it.

The base game also isn’t really set up to support campaign play. The new colonists book that’s coming out should rectify that to some degree and the colonial marines book has a campaign included. I think the game makes it’s bones as a cinematic one shot style of play. This is the game you run when taking a break from an ongoing campaign in another system.

9. Trail of Cthulhu

Gumshoe, where you get the clues by default and it’s up to you to determine what they mean and what to do with them. I’ve only played this once or twice so I don’t have too much to say about it. Games about Lovecraftian horrors are always going to make the list.

8. Iskloft

I’m not a huge fan of D&D 5E but I have played my fair share of it. Iskloft is a viking style setting using the 5E rules set. I’ve read through it and wanted to give it a try but we haven’t been able to put anything together. I picked this up while still watching Vikings. I don’t know that I’d want to play it long term but I certainly wouldn’t mind a short term campaign.

7. COREthulhu

This maybe cheating a little bit since I wrote it. COREthulhu is based on the CORE RPG system and is my own spin on Cthulhu gaming. I tossed out “sanity” as a mechanic and replaced it with Shock and Trauma. I’m pretty proud of it and I’m currently working on expanding it to a full book. CORE games are meant to have a more cinematic bent to them and are rules light/medium. It’s a blending of traditional and narrative gaming that allows players more narrative control. It also generates a scale of success or failure instead of a binary yes or no result.

6. Dark Heresy / Only War

I had to drop these two together. My rationale being they’re both kind of at the same power level. Essentially they’re street level games. The players are at the bottom of the power scale trying just to survive from day to day. Because of the low power scale it changes (or at least it should) how you play the game. Things like cover and surprise are much more important when your best skills are only like 40%. Obviously there’s a ton of lore and background material but we tend to ignore canon unless it serves our own story purposes.

5. Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Most people hated it but I very much enjoyed 4th Ed. Part of it is the fact that 4th brought me back into RPGs and introduced me to podcasts. I played from 2008 all the way to 2015 in various campaigns. I both ran and played. At higher levels combat sucked. It took entirely too long but there were hacks for it. I did enjoy the resource management involved, trying to determine the best time to drop an encounter power or a daily. Minions were a great addition as well.

I’m not sure I’d enjoy it as much today as my tastes have changed over the years. D&D does one thing well, combat. It’s what it’s designed for. You can tell other stories of intrigue and social complexity but the system isn’t going to help you do that. You’re doing that in spite of the system. Which is fine, we do that all the time. Like a lot of other games you’re stuck with a handful of skills that you’re good at and that’s it. Characters get better at the things they know but rarely pick up new skills, regardless of their “lived experience”. It’s a knock I have with other systems as well.

4. Rogue Trader

Like 4th Ed, I was introduced to Rogue Trader back in 2008. I was fortunate enough to be able to play on the Nerdbound podcast in a series of pick up games. We also played Dark Heresy and Deathwatch, all fun games. The book is laid out for shit but there’s a ton of information. Super crunchy rules set but easy enough to manage since it’s a d100 system.

Years later when I started Legends we started another Rogue Trader campaign with Neil as the GM. Again despite massive amounts of lore we played it home brew, using some bits and tossing others. As crunchy as the system is we would play entire sessions and not roll dice. There was an antagonism between the crew members (PCs) that was extremely fun to play with. Rogue Trader also let you customize characters better than other systems as far as skills go.

3. Delta Green

I’ve only read Delta Green but I really like it. It’s dark and gritty and nihilistic and sits right in the space I like to play in. There’s a descent amount of crunch but it’s a d100 system so roll under your skill and your good. Pretty simple on a macro level. The darkness is what really attracts me though. At some point we have got to play this on the podcast. I’ve listened to a lot of actual plays of DG and they are almost always fucked up. It’s kind of the vibe I’m going for with COREthulhu.

2. Call of Cthulhu

I mean it’s a classic right? We’ve played quite a bit of CoC and it’s always a good time. Normal people exposed to strange situations, shake things up and see what happens. It fits my aesthetic. I like playing normal people and figuring out how they react. It’s cathartic to some degree I guess. It allows us to engage with the terror, horror, inhumanity, unknowable and emerged unscathed but not untouched. It becomes part of the stories we tell. This is the stuff that makes RPGs great.

1. CORE Noir

This is also a selfish listing. I’m currently playing CORE Noir with my good friend Kurt who produces the MFGCast. We are in our 4th season of following the story of George Armstrong, a private investigator in New York. It’s a one on one game with me playing our luckless investigator. It has been a tremendous amount of fun to play and I even write a journal from George’s perspective which is released with each episode.

CORE Noir is currently unpublished but uses the CORE Micro rules set. CORE Micro is a setting agnostic SRD that you can use to run any style of game, kind of like Savage Worlds. Based on your particular setting you could tweak the rules to get where you need to be. In theory Kurt and I will be publishing CORE Noir at some point in the future as a stand alone book.

Well, there’s a lot of Cthulhuesque gaming represented in my Top 10. I guess it’s somewhat unsurprising considering the company I keep. The value of playing a normal person who is forced to engage with the unknown can be so cathartic it shouldn’t be underestimated. I much prefer that over over playing a fantasy hero type. Sure it’s fun sometimes and I’ve done it a bunch but it’s not where I’m vibing currently.

Honorable mentions:

Blade Runner – Falls into that moral gray, Noir territory. Haven’t played it yet but I want to. I feel like it has a lot of potential.

Wandering Heroes of Ogres Gate – As a kid who grew up watching Sunday morning Kung Fu this has been on my list for awhile. It’s a crunchy system and a big book but looks like it would be a lot of fun. Not sure I’d want to do it long term but certainly a short campaign.

A Single Moment – I’ve breezed through the book once before. The Fandible podcast did a session of it, tweaking it for their Star Wars game. Definitely a one shot game that’s a bit more improvy than I’m comfortable with. Has the potential to tell a great story.

Eclipse Phase – Super crunchy system. Maybe more than I’m willing to play at this point. The idea of the blending of humanity and technology is super interesting though. The idea of what makes a person human is fertile ground to play in. I think the second edition is more streamlined but still fairly chonky.