Monday, August 20, 2007

The Best Role-Playing Games, Year-by-Year

This is some material I’d been working on for titangaming’s column before…you know [The site crashed and disappeared]. Culled from my work on grading my gaming collection, I’ll be talking about the best gaming products I own from each year since the hobby began.

In the beginning, it was all about Dungeons & Dragons. Chainmail, Dungeons & Dragons (specifically, the Men & Magic booklet, the crunchiest of the three), and the Greyhawk Supplement won for consecutive years, not because they’re perfect, but because there was no competition from 1973 through 1975. Each winner was TSR’s major release for that year and, by no coincidence, had all been written or co-written by Gary Gygax. Things went a little differently in 1976. D&D Supplements by different authors were pretty lame and the best product from ‘76 was, surprisingly, Strategic Review #7. This was a particularly solid issue of Dragon Magazine’s predecessor, anticipating the strong showing of another magazine in the years to come.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons began in 1977 with the Monster Manual and top marks for the following year went to the Players Handbook. To this point, game mechanics ruled. With 1979, however, Module T1, The Village of Hommlet, proved to be better than the Dungeon Masters Guide, companion volume to the two earlier AD&D rulebooks. With the rules for D&D/AD&D well-established, TSR wisely turned its gaze to publishing adventure modules, and it was modules that they did best for the next four years — B2, The Keep on the Borderlands; A3, Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords; S4, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth; and I6, Ravenloft just kept getting better one after another. With only two exceptions, Gary Gygax was the principle author of each book.

By 1984, Gary Gygax was too busy with office politics to write the next best thing. TSR was slowly going into decline, but was still able to produce a winner with the Marvel Super Heroes game. The game was the brainchild of a newcomer named Jeff Grubb. The rules, particularly the Battle Book, were elegantly simple. Each module and accessory that came out for it was at least good if not great. The following year, the MSH supplement New York, New York took top prize. It was written by Jeff Grubb, as had about half the support material for the campaign. Like early D&D and AD&D, it showed how important unity of vision was.

Not until 1986 did an AD&D module take the spot back, this time the innovative N4, Treasure Hunt. The year after that was a throwback to D&D’s glory days, as The Principalites of Glantri gazeteer for D&D’s Mystara campaign setting was the best-made product that year. This would prove the first time that a campaign setting sourcebook took first place. It reflected yet another shift for the industry. Long-term players now had plenty of rules and stand-alone adventures. Now the companies were providing new worlds to play in.

Dungeon Magazine debuted in 1986. Its selection of engaging/easily portable mini-adventures made it a strong contender, but by 1988 it outdid all competition for the first time (#12 being the best so far). The next year went to the Marvel Super Heroes game again, with the Deluxe City Campaign Set. The honors in 1990 went to a module again, Wildspace (far better than any other Spelljammer products). The last two winners were both the work of freelance author, Allen Varney. The best of TSR’s new blood at the time, this rising star rapidly diminished, his talents wasted on lame projects. For the most part, TSR was being flushed down the tubes by its new owner, Lorraine Williams, but Dungeon Magazine was still flourishing as if there was nothing wrong in the rest of the company. For the next three years, Dungeon blew away the competition (#31, 37, and 42 respectively).

For almost two decades, TSR had dominated the gaming market, not just in terms of sales but in terms of quality. Then, in 1994, R. Talsorian Games came out with Castle Falkenstein. No role-playing game had ever been so eloquent, so novel-like, but it never sold like it deserved. For the next two years, product support for Castle Falkenstein failed to live up to the high standards of the main sourcebook. Dungeon Magazine was again the best material on the market (#52, 57). Then, in ‘97, Castle Falkenstein bounced back on top thanks to Jeff Grubb and his Memoirs of Auberon of Faerie, showing how classy a “monster manual” can be.In 1998, a handful of TSR employees and volunteers from an energetic Internet fandom pushed to bring back Greyhawk as a campaign setting. “Team Greyhawk” produced a host of new products, best among them being The Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad. By the next year, TSR’s marketing division had messed up the revival by failing to categorize some Greyhawk modules as Greyhawk, while incorrectly placing other modules under the Greyhawk banner. True to form, Dungeon Magazine shone brightest (#72) when the rest of the company looked bad.

In 2000, the RPGA took over the World of Greyhawk and produced that year’s best product — The Living Greyhawk Gazeteer. The RPGA had placed Greyhawk in the hands of the best and the brightest of its own fandom, for a time creating a second Greyhawk Renaissance. But the mediocrity of the RPGA soon whittled down the enthusiasm of the best and the brightest. Dungeon Magazine, too, was looking tired and worn out, but it still managed to produce some gems, such as #92 in 2001.

Wizards of the Coast had bought D&D from a now-bankrupt TSR back in 2000. WotC produced a mediocre new version of D&D, invested heavily in hype, and somehow took the gaming world by storm. For the next few years many companies rode WotC’s coattails, but none did so as ably as Kenzer & Co. They had been making a strong showing quality-wise since 1994, but their Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign setting just wasn’t catching on. Kalamar harkened back to a simpler Greyhawk. Their module, Deathright, was nearly the best module of 2001. The Invasion of Arun’Kid became the best module of 2002.

So what does the future hold for gaming? 2003’s best game was Testament: Roleplaying in the Biblical Era from Green Ronin Publishing. This emphasizes the move, begun by Kenzer and R. Talsorian, of the best-quality games coming from smaller companies. For the foreseeable future, though, D&D is going to still attract the creme of the game designers.


The best gaming products of 2004 and 2005 were both Dungeon magazines — #105 and #124 respectively. This continues the trend observed earlier about small companies, since Dungeon is published by Paizo instead of Wizards now.

The role-playing industry is either in decline or I need to start buying different things. The best thing I own from 2006 is Dungeon magazine #139, and I only give this issue a B. Again, this is mainly for the latest, inventive entry in Kuntz’s excellent “Maure Castle” series. I was not impressed from skimming the “Savage Tide” installment and think Ron [my future DM] has a lot to overcome there when he runs it. There is also a Forgotten Realms adventure that is utterly forgettable between them.

1973 - Chainmail
1974 - D&D: Men & Magic (booklet 1)
1975 - D&D: Greyhawk supplement
1976 - Strategic Review #7
1977 - AD&D: Monster Manual
1978 - AD&D: Players Handbook
1979 - T1 The Village of Hommlet
1980 - B2 The Keep on the Borderlands
1981 - A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords
1982 - S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
1983 - I6 Ravenloft
1984 - Marvel Super Heroes boxed set
1985 - MSH: New York, New York (maybe tied with T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil)
1986 - N4 Treasure Hunt
1987 - Principalities of Glantri gazetteer
1988 - Dungeon #12
1989 - MSH: Deluxe City Campaign Set
1990 - AD&D: Wildspace (Spelljammer)
1991 - Dungeon #31
1992 - Dungeon #37
1993 - Dungeon #42
1994 - Castle Falkenstein
1995 - Dungeon #52
1996 - Dungeon #57
1997 - CF: Memoirs of Auberon of Faerie
1998 - AD&D: Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad
1999 - Dungeon #72
2000 - Living Greyhawk Gazetteer
2001 - Dungeon #92
2002 - D&D: The Invasion of Arun'Kid
2003 - Testament: Roleplaying in the Biblical Era
2004 - Dungeon #105
2005 - Dungeon #124
2006 - Dungeon #139

Addendum:  I haven't bought many new games since making my own, and leaving H&H off the list entirely leaves me with --

2007 - Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine #134
2008 - Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine #146
2009 - Hackmaster Basic
2010 - Stars without Number
2012 - Swords &Wizardry: Complete Rulebook
2014 - Delving Deeper: Reference Rules Compendium

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