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Role Playing Systems

Updated on July 1, 2011
The arbiters of role playing fate.
The arbiters of role playing fate.

The Books You'll Need

Like pen and paper role playing but had enough of Dungeons and Dragons? If you feel as I do that DND churns out generic fantasy and uninteresting play (or if you just have an interest in other gaming systems) here is a review of the many systems I'm familiar with, ranked according to my preferences, but with a special note first. RPG corebooks are pricey and many of these systems have corebooks that are long out of print. In some cases I have links to in print additions that are quite different from the older systems I review. I can't make any guarantees as to their quality.

#1 Mage the Ascension

This game is quite unlike any other. The basis of this game is that reality, far from adhering to unchanging static physical rules, is in fact quite fluid. It can be altered provided that one has the will and enlightenment to do so. All human beings possess an avatar, the magic part of themselves. When this avatar is awake the human becomes a mage, able to bend reality according to some extremely basic rules and the discretion of the game master. Whereas other games offer lists of spells that when cast always have the same static effects, the mage can bend reality to their specific needs.

Let’s say you want to get someone to leave work under the impression that they have a dire illness. In DND you might use cause disease and then revoke it. In Mage on the other hand, you could simply heat up the area around the target to make him think he has a fever without harming his health whatsoever. Of course, bending reality is a tricky business that often accumulates paradox (reality pushes back). But just like magic, paradox is also left to the imagination, and the appropriate situation.

If you’re not catching the three selling points of Mage let me spell them out: Imagination, Imagination, Imagination. The only limits in this game system are the energy and creativity of the players and game masters.

#2 Paranoia

You ever get tired of games where you’re forced to work together, where stupid/impulsive actions can derail a well thought out campaign, where you’re full ready to betray the interests of the party but you can’t because the other players are your friends? Well, welcome to the world of Paranoia. Unlike every role playing system I’ve encountered, paranoia thrives on players that act in their own interests rather than the group, where stupidity is amusing, and betrayal has a constant presence.

The world of Paranoia is that of Alpha Complex which is run by an all loving (read sadistic) computer that sends the characters on impossible missions in its own honor. Remember all those bland games where the PC’s meet in a bar? Well Paranoia characters meet in a briefing room, except they’re never given its location. Many characters have died as a result of trying to find the briefing room and the game master (as the Computer) is being soft if a character doesn’t die on the way to the briefing room. But don’t worry, you have clones. Yes, much like an impossible video game, you’re given extra lives (6 clones). This means single backstabbing causes no out of game conflicts, though the back stabber is often called to defend her actions.

So basically, this game turns role playing on its head. It allows you to indulge in actions you dread in other games. As an added bonus, this game is incredibly easy to run and lends itself well to single session role playing. I have made the comment, and I stand by it, that even the game master does not need to know the rules, provided she understands life in Alpha Complex

#3 Vampire the Masquerade

This is a well developed world, full of possibilities from missions, intrigue, mystery, and combat. It is a solid system. The reason I rank it third, however, is because of its popularity. Many people do not know of many games beyond DND, and this is the most visible game to most. A familiar system brings with it the greater ease of finding players. It also brings with it players who know the universe better. Ask a gamer the difference between the Akashic Brotherhood and the Order of Hermes (Mage) and they’ll probably ignorant stare. But ask a gamer the difference between a Ventrue and a Brujah and there’s a chance they’ll know. The better a player knows the setting and themes of a role playing system, the more intricate their responses. This leads to better and more nuanced gaming. While I maintain Mage and Paranoia are better games, if you’re just starting out you might want to go with Vampire instead.

#4 Gurps

Gurps is an acronym for General Universal Role Playing System. Most games come with some sort of theme. Call of Chthulhu, based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, is a great example. Now, you could use the system book (which has loads of source material about the 1920’s) to run a campaign where the characters are all bootleggers that never hear a whiff of Chthulhu. But why bother? The system has been set up in order to play Lovecraft inspired adventures. Now Gurps doesn’t have a general theme. It is, as its name says, universal. I was regrettably absent when my friend Ryan ran a steampunk version of the War of 1812 with the characters as Canadian soldiers. Where else was there a system that accompanied such zaniness? Gurps

#5 Shadowrun

Let’s face it; pretending to commit crime is fun. The world of shadowrun is set far in the future, when corporations have eclipsed governments, and where agents known as shadowrunners are sent out to do various forms of dirty work. There is both the thrill of planning some villainous plot, and then responding to the complications that follow. Fair warning however: if you play too much Shadowrun you will start thinking like a criminal (though this in itself does not lead to the act of crime). Great fun.

#6 Teenagers from Outer Space

This is an epic caricature of the rather unglamorous place called High School. The added mix is that now there are aliens. The advantages here are just as they are in Paranoia. Characters don’t have clones but have bonk scores and when they take enough bonk damage they’re paralyzed for a short time. Bonk can be physical damage, but it could be a humiliating put down, etc. I've seen a number of scenarios tried. The school play (which the characters try their hardest to ruin) is a great one. Clone High was a popular set up, where characters pretend to be teenaged versions of famous characters. Great for the fun and laughs.

#7 Call of Chthulhu

This is a perfect system for running games with Lovecraft flavor. The system is solid and well thought out. There are tons of source materials, especially for the 1890’s and 1920’s (Lovecraft’s era). This game has much the advantage that Vampire has. Basically, many of your players will have read some of H.P. Lovecraft and know the universe. As a horror game lethality is expected and can in fact be quite satisfying. (This can be difficult to pull off in other systems.) However, if character death is too much expected it sort of loses its glamour. I rank this down not so much because it’s a bad system but because you probably want to look elsewhere if you don’t want a horror game every time around.

#8 Rifts

This was the first RPG I was introduced to. It’s on the bottom of my list because the rules are overly complicated for new players, and players need to know some of the setting to get the most out of it. However, it certainly takes the cake for best source material. Rifts is set on earth after a post apocalyptic future, where high technology meets a resurgence of magic. World books cover every last place on the globe. They are generally fascinating and are worth reading for their own sake. Rifts has the danger of becoming a collector’s rpg where the prospective Game Master buys books with little hope of running an actual campaign from any of them. I admit it took a decade from learning about the game and running a campaign, though that one campaign was really awesome.

I suppose I will close with a brief chart of the advantages of the systems, any of which I’d prefer to Dungeons and Dragons:

  • Most active responses from players: 1) Mage 2) Paranoia
  • Easiest to run: 1) Paranoia, 2) Teenagers from Outer Space.
  • Most visibility: 1) Vampire, 2) Call of Chthulhu
  • Best source material: 1) Rifts 2) Call of Chthulhu
  • Highest Learning Curve 1) Rifts 2) Mage
  • Most flexible: 1) Gurps 2) Shadowrun



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    • Caramus profile image


      7 years ago from Chicago, IL

      I love Rifts for its futuristic world setting. Great for Sci-Fi. For Fantasy the same company makes Palladiun which I also highly recommend.

    • starvagrant profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Missouri

      I do know the difference a good DM/GM/Storyteller can make. My worst gaming experiences came from Vampire and Call of Chthulhu (both of which I endorse) with terrible GM's and newbie players. I admit there's probably a great deal of other character classes and settings outside the core books. (Though I'd prefer to get one book that has everything you need.) I've just found the system to encourage sloppy DM's and sloppy roleplaying.

      Why pretend to be an awesome diplomat if all you have to do is roll a sense motive check to catch innuendo? Why go to the bother to bluff and intimidate when you have 8 ranks in it already? Why bother to make an awesome boss when you can just roll one up from the monster manual? I know that every long term player and leader has borrowed if not outright stolen ideas for games. The thing is, lack of creativity isn't a problem with D+D. I'm aware this can hold true for other games as well, but it's been my experience that D+D is the worst offender. Part of the reason is that it's typically the first system beginner's use but I still the system is part of the problem.

      As for Werewolf I never played the game proper, but the setting does hold a special place for me. I was introduced to it by the ill fated card game Rage, followed by a collection of stories: When Will You Rage? As a young teenager I was starting to notice that what my parents told me and the real world were different things. So I read this book where God was replaced by Gaia, Heaven and Hell were replaced by the Umbra, and Satan was replaced by the Wyrm. After entertaining this fantasy for a time, something clicked--I didn't believe in the former the same way I didn't believe the latter. Of course my rejection of Christianity is a long and complicated story, but Werewolf turned out to be the final nail in the coffin (props if you caught the Vampire irony). So beware of White Wolf parents out there! It might encourage your children to think for themselves.

    • profile image


      7 years ago from Port Byron

      Well, as much as I love RIFTS and totally agree with you about the GM dream-world (my wife is an avid gamer, and she won't touch RIFTS...) I'm going to have to defend D+D. Now, 4th edition I haven't checked out. After spending several hundred $'s on books and mini's and so on, I just couldn't do it all over again when they came out with 4th edition (and I still felt robbed when they came out with 3.5, even though it's a MUCH cleaner and more efficient system).

      However, In my own experience, D+D games depend on a good DM, not the system itself. I've played V:tM (and loved it! Brujah for life! Not as a rabble-punk, but I'll make a Brujah Financier, Brujah Musician, ect. Not just the typical "Brujah Bounty Hunter bad-a$$ in a black leather trenchcoat") And I've actually had the great pleasure of playing a good Rifts campaign (and Baby Dragons are WORSE than Malkavians!). I've played Amber: Diceless I've even played some Shadowrun. All in all, D+D has given me the most consistant fun. It's easier to find games, and if you find a GOOD DM, you'll have a lot of fun, and never worry about any "lack" of classes. In 3.5, I'd estimate there were over 100 classes, and probably at least 50 different races to play. The combinations are endless! Yeah, the d20 system has it's drawbacks, but the good outweighs the bad.

      So the setting is a fairly medevil fantasy world. The Lord of the Rings was too. So was The last Airbender. Sure, you can't build an actual "airbender" with D+D (that I know of, but there's rules for making your own class!) but even without that there's still plenty to do, and plenty of new ways to do it.

      All in all, I contend your lack of enjoyment from D+D comes from lack of inspireing DM's, not the system itself.

      Oh yeah, you had M:TA and V:TM, what about Werewolf? White Wolf also put out Changeling, but I never tried it and never heard anything good about it, still it was easy to port over characters from the other systems, as they all ran ABOUT the same.

    • starvagrant profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Missouri

      I haven't really played D&D that long. The lack of setting, the limited character classes, and the terrible randomness of the D20 seem to me enough to create a generic game. I have enjoyed two D&D games, once in which there was a unique setting (hell) and classes unique to that setting; the other a Scourge of the Slavelords module (2nd ed.) run on Warhammer 40K game mechanics. By comparison typical D%D is boring.

    • Porshadoxus profile image


      7 years ago from the straight and narrow way

      I wonder if the idea that D&D produces 'generic' fantasy results from the system being overplayed. If a player is weaned on D&D, and plays the system for years, then the adventures produced for that system will certainly begin to feel 'generic'.

    • starvagrant profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Missouri

      Marker Jones,

      If I can ever get back to gaming again I'd look it up. As for Rifts the system itself is not stellar, it's more of a GM dream world (that is, the GM buys lots of world books and fantasizes about running it. I was introduced to it when I was thirteen and have only run one campaign. But the world is intricately detailed and fascinating.

    • starvagrant profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Missouri


      Yes, the paranoia I'm fimiliar with does have what is labeled 3 playing types: Classic, Straight, and Zap. Straight is a version where Alpha Complex obeys the laws of physics, and characters have to worry about equipment, evidence, buying clones etc. Zap is pure silliness. A standard Zap scenario requires you to travel to a restricted area with your clearance papers inside a box that's treasonous to open. Classic is in the middle. Straight is best for ongoing campaigns, classic for limited campaigns, and zap for single sessions.

    • markerjones profile image


      7 years ago

      I have to agree with this list. Mage and Paranoia have always been favorites of mine, as has been Vampire the Masquerade (no Requiem crap here).

      One missing from your list is the new Eclipse Phase, a wonderful sci fi game about how humanity surives losing Earth to a domineering force of machines. In summary, it sounds cheesey, but the game is amazing and certainly one every sci fi roleplayer must have. You will never touch Rifts again.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great picks. I never tried RIFTS or MAGE, though. What I really enjoyed were STAR FRONTIERS, (1982, straight science-fiction, fast-paced combat system dealing with lots of weapons and also vehicle and aerial combat on the same time-scale) and CYBERPUNK 2020 (cyberpunk atmosphere: high-tech, low morals.)

      I heard that, since the PARANOIA editions had slightly different atmospheres from serious to very silly, the latest edition lets you choose which way to go. Is that true?


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