Role-Playing Game Review
ver 1.0


Table of Contents:

  • 1. What is this FAQ?
  • 2. Advanced / Dungeons and Dragons
  • 3. Palladium
  • 4. Chaosium
  • 5. Champions
  • 6. FASA
  • 7. Tunnels and Trolls
  • 8. White Wolf

    This document last modified Mon Apr 20 10:28:40 1998

    1. What is this FAQ?

    This FAQ is a collection of my opinions and reviews of many of the major Role-Playing games available. As such, I've reviewed each setting and given it a 1-5 star rating based on my opinion of how playable and fun the world is (1 star being the worst). Naturally, a referee can make even the poorest setting fun, or the setting with the most potential boring. The rating therefore only reflects how detailed I feel the world is and the world's overall potential for a good game.

    This document is a review of the various worlds, places and games on the market. Note that it covers only games I have personally played or used, therefore, there may be many games that I've missed. I apologize if I don't cover a game you particularly wanted to hear about. Hopefully, most major games are covered. Specifically, I haven't covered GURPS.

    For each publisher, I've tried to cover a little background about the company. I describe their rules system. Having a lot of rules to cover every situation can make for a very realistic game, at the expense of some speed and playability. I also go into a bit of detail as to how well the various worlds published by the company are compatable with each other; that is, how easily players who are playing one game can 'import' their characters into another world by the same publisher.

    1.1 What is a role-playing game?

    A play without a stage or script, snakes and ladders without the board, a computer text-adventure game without a computer, a strategic game like Risk or Stratego with a billion more pieces... It's characteristically hard to define a Role-Playing game because it can be so many things.

    Generally, the following are true about most role-playing games. Each player creates a character in a fictitious setting. This is somewhat like a play or movie, the players are actors taking the part of a character. However, there is no set script; players are free to do anything they want. Good role-playing requires that players not do just /anything/, but try to do what their character would do. In the book, Moby Dick, captain Ahab is obsessed with killing the white whale. If a player was playing the part of captain Ahab, good role-playing would require the player to make decisions as if she were captain Ahab. This might mean having her character obsessively pursuing the whale across the oceans, even though the player might be a shy, retiring sort, or not even male.

    In a sense, it is like abstract acting. There is no stage or props, and the world is entirely inside the heads of the players and the referee. Typically, people who enjoy acting also enjoy role-playing games. Even people with no previous acting experience are drawn to the game though, some later go on to theatre, but many are content just to play and have fun.

    A character starts out as a bunch of randomly-generated numbers on a sheet of paper. Typically, players roll dice to decide how strong, intelligent, clumsy and attractive their character is. Then they construct a basic personality around the numbers. As the game progresses, and their character makes more decisions, the personality of the character develops.

    Ideally, the game is played with about four-to-six people and a referee. The referee is called many different things depending on which game you are playing, but most people will recognize the term "Game Master". The Game Master makes final decisions about the outcome of player's actions. The GM is the player's link with the world. S/He tells the player what their characters see, and what the consequences of player's actions are. Typically, the GM designs a basic setting for an adventure. A sketchy novel with just the outline filled in. Players use their characters to learn about the world the GM placed them in and to make decisions that will ultimately influence the outcome of the adventure. In that sense, the players are playing characters in a novel without an ending, creating the story as they go.

    Most role-playing games have descriptions and examples of how to play in the first few pages of the player's books. Each book describes a setting and the rules of play. The rules exist to make sure that the actions the characters take have realistic outcomes. Can your character scale a 20-foot wall with his bare hands? Will the evil mercenary hit you with his sword? The rules help create the world the characters live in.

    There is no final objective to Role-playing games, although there are temporary, short-term objectives. There is no point when the game has to end. It ends when the players and the referee decide it ends.

    1.2 What are minatures?

    Rather than playing the game without any aids, some people prefer to use small metal figurines to represent their character. This helps to show where characters are standing inside a dungeon, for example, and helps in combat or when deciding what some characters can or can't do. Purists argue that this detracts from the gaming experience and prefer to simply envision the setting and places in their heads.

    1.3 What's the difference between a war game and a role-playing game?

    A war game is a game of skill and strategy, like Risk, Stratego or even Chess. Unlike a role-playing game, players are not necessarily encouraged to take the part of a character or act.

    1.4 Who should I contact if I have any suggestions or comments for this FAQ?

    This FAQ is being maintained by saintly@innocent.com (Steve Zeck). Direct any comments, questions or concerns to him.

    2. Advanced / Dungeons and Dragons

    Publisher: TSR (now a division of Wizards of the Coast)
    Setting: Medieval Fantasy


    Company:

    Dungeons and Dragons is the granddaddy of the Role-Playing games. Originally published in the 1970s, it attracted a loyal following of people. Characters have many classes (occupations) and races to choose from; elves, halflings, dwarves, humans, gnomes, half-elves and others. It is set in a fantasy medieval world. There is no electricity, guns are just being invented and are extremely primitive and dangerous, knights in shining armor abound. There are also wizards and mages capable of flinging fireballs and opening gates to other dimensions. Many other role-playing games followed it.

    Rules:

    Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a simple game, excellent for beginners. AD&D is used more, and is much, much more complex. AD&D has rules to govern almost every situation your characters may chance across. Later versions of AD&D are best played with miniatures. TSR publishes separate books for the referee and the player. The main book for players is the "Players Handbook" (PHB), the main book for referees (Dungeon Masters) is the "Dungeon Master's Guide" (DMG). TSR publishes a series of books detailing each race and class available, providing kits to help players develop their characters more.

    Compatability: Seamless


    TSR's worlds are all compatable. Characters from one world can, and often do, go to other worlds. Conversion rules are not necessary, the worlds are similar enough that characters need not be adapted. Some advantages and penalties exist for going to worlds that are not your own.

    2.1 Greyhawk

    Overall: ** (Standard world)
    Detail: *** (A semi-detailed history and conflicts)


    This is the original setting for AD&D. If you're wondering who Bigby, Tenser and the other spell authors are, they are detailed in this world. This world is an example of a solid, well-designed basic AD&D world.

    2.2 Forgotten Realms

    Overall: ****
    Detail: *****


    This is a HUGE world with tons of surprises. There are underground caverns almost as huge as the surface world, detailed cities and races... Some other AD&D settings are theoretically based in the Forgotten Realms, Al-Qadim and the Kara-Tur settings take place here.

    2.2.1 Al-Qadim

    Overall: ***** (Lots of potential, really fun!)
    Detail: ****


    This is an Arabian Nights setting, complete with genies, mosques and desert caravans and nomads. TSR brought in many of the myths, legends and folklore about the Arabian Nights and successfully bound them all together into one intriguing setting. Changes have been made to most wizards, special wizards now have access to any spells they see. There are also astrologers, wizards who build clockwork wonders and many more interesting things.

    2.2.2 Kara-Tur

    Overall: ***
    Detail: ** (not that many books available)


    Oriental adventures. Ninja, samurai and spirits of nature are all commonplace here. Players can become the fighting monks or any other class they want. Some standard races are not available here, replaced by new ones.

    2.3 Ravenloft

    Overall: ***** (Excellent horror setting!)
    Detail: ***


    Gothic Horror. Werewolves, vampires, creatures of the night and the undead abound here. Even the land itself is evil. Peasants and serfs live in fear of the barons and rulers of the land. Ravenloft has a way of creeping up on players and sucking them in. Leaving is extremely difficult. Think of Transylvania, complete with mysterious gypsies, fortunetellers and the rest.

    2.4 Dragonlance

    Overall: **** (A good change of pace...)
    Detail: ****


    A fascinating and unique AD&D setting. Wizards here have to choose to follow one of three paths; good, neutrality or evil. Different paths provide access to different spells. Furthermore, magic is governed by the three moons (one each for the different paths), depending on the phase or alignment of the moons, wizard's magic may be diminished or enhanced. Dragons are particularly active in this world. This world also modifies two basic races; gnomes become "Tinker Gnomes", a race of genius inventors who never seem to build anything that really works. Halflings become "Kender", light-fingered 'borrowers' of other people's property, immune to fear, intensely curious about everything.

    There has been a major revision to Dragonlance; it is now "Dragonlance 5th Age." The system of magic they once used has been replaced entirely, the gods of the world are all gone. Although it now has a solid, entertaining system, I personally think the older systems were more unique and interesting...

    2.5 Red Steel

    Overall: ** (You'd have to work with this one)
    Detail: ***


    A non-traditional setting where people fight over the mystical substance Red Steel. The steel can bring many powers and abilities to the people who wear and wield it, but also curses and horrific doom. The only way to avoid the doom is to... you guessed it... collect more red steel.

    2.6 SpellJammer

    Overall: *** (a better war-gaming setting, but workable)
    Detail: **


    Players pilot ships that can fly through space. This expands the AD&D setting to asteroids and space-pirates. This setting adds many creatures and magical objects that make their home in space. Travel by spelljammer (flying ships) allows players to go to any of the basic AD&D worlds (except Ravenloft, which isn't in the same dimension as the rest of the worlds, however, Ravenloft can sneak up on anyone, anywhere... space or not). SpellJammer has rules for space combat that resemble war-gaming rules (it can be played with miniatures on a grid).

    2.7 Dark Sun

    Overall: *** (difficult, needs a lot of luck)
    Detail: ***


    A setting with many hardships. Set in a desert world, scorched and barren. It is so difficult, players start at 3rd level just to give them a good chance. Players are encouraged to have several characters (rules for this are given under the "Character Tree" options). Most people have psionic powers (mental abilities like ESP). Changes are made to almost all races except Humans. Elves become excellent runners who live in tribes. Dwarves gain "Life Quests". This setting adds the race of Half-Giant.

    2.8 Planescape

    Overall: ***** (Excellent work! Tons of adventure 'hooks' and potential)
    Detail: *****


    This setting ties all the worlds and dimensions together. It introduces ways that anyone can use to travel between the planes through fixed or temporary "Gates". It provides access to the outer planes to beginning characters, as well as introducing a new city that connects everthing to everywhere.

    3. Palladium

    Publisher: Palladium Games
    Setting: Varies, Medieval Fantasy to post-modern futuristic


    Company:

    Palladium is a respected name in the RPG world. Unlike TSR, Palladium publishes books intended to be used by both the Referee (Game Master) and the Player. Some sections of the books are not intended for players to read, which can get kind of awkward. Whereas TSR tends to stick to the same basic set of races and classes, Palladium introduces new races and occupations with every book. This is both a benefit and a drawback, as some new players are bewildered with the large variety of choice.

    Rules:

    Most of the material in the books details the worlds and setting of the game. Rules are relatively simplistic and designed to keep the game moving along, with some realism sacrificed.

    Compatability: Possible


    Palladium's worlds are all compatible. Players from one world can travel to another through gates, wormholes or wierd magic. However, characters from some worlds would be at a severe disadvantage in another. A Palladium elven warrior would be at a distinct disadvantage in Rifts, with it's super-armor and high-tech weapons. Palladium has several Conversion books that allow players to adapt characters to the new world.

    3.1 Palladium

    Overall: ** (Some classes will be downright offensive to some...)
    Detail: *** (A fairly basic world)


    The name of the company, the name of the first world. This is the original setting Palladium produced. This world has many classes, warriors, priests wizards and more. It introduces the summoner and diabolist, wizards concentrating on bringing strange creatures into their world, and designing and building protective circles and wards. Races available abound from Elves, gnomes, dwarves and changelings to wolven and troglodytes.

    3.2 Rifts

    Overall: ***** (Anything can happen, lots of resources and conflicts)
    Detail: ***** (Every region and conflict has its own book)


    This is set in a post-massive-world-war devastated world. Earth now finds itself home to hundreds of alien races, not all of them well-intentioned. There is magic and sorcery, as well as advanced technology. Warriors can pilot large robots and flying vehicles capable of Mach 8 and beyond. Rifts is cut off from space (the reasons for that are detailed in a Rifts supplement), but otherwise a fascinating world with gates and doorways to other dimensions. Supplements to Rifts expand the view of what happened to Earth and what various regions of it are like. They also provide a view of other dimensions connected to Earth.

    3.3 Heroes Unlimited

    Overall: *** (They basically copied their other books)
    Detail: ** (Almost no setting. But then again, it's Earth... read comics!)


    This is set in an alternate-modern age. 20th century, but with mutants and super-powered beings (like Superman and Batman). There are also fiendish enemies and organizations for your heroes to overcome. There are rules for generating powerful characters, whether mutants, aliens or robots... Unfortunately, if you have bought other Palladium books, Heroes Unlimited simply replicates information in them; worse yet, the information is condensed and major parts have been removed. Reading through this book, I didn't see any new rules or equipment. You can create powerful mutants using a condensed form of the TMNT mutant creation system. You can create cybernetic heroes using a condensed form of the Rifts rules. Other hero creation rules have been taken from Ninjas and Superspies and even Palladium. If you own the other books, this book won't be that useful to you.

    3.4 Robotech

    Overall: *** (Better for combat than role-playing)
    Detail: *** (Reasonably well done)


    Also set in an alternate 20th century. A huge robot-battleship has landed on Earth, and hordes of nasty aliens are here to get it back. Humans find advanced weaponry and technology aboard the ship, and must learn enough about it to repel the invasion. One of the main new features is the Veritech fighter. A robotic ship capable of transforming from jet to humanoid form. Special biological components of the Veritech give the human pilots exceptional reflexes and mobility.

    3.5 Ninjas and Superspies

    Overall: *** (OK Role-Playing ideas, more emphasis on combat)
    Detail: ** (It's Earth again, present day)


    This would be a good expansion to Heroes Unlimited. Set in the present 20th century, this setting allows you to generate characters according to the current state-of-the-art. You can generate super-ninjas or James Bond type characters. Excellent Martial-Arts system and combat.

    3.6 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT)

    Overall: **** (Especially with an imaginative GM, good ideas)
    Detail: *** (Poorly detailed, except in some expansion books)


    Based on the comic series and the TV show. Good rules for designing mutant animals. Play the part of mutant animal characters with special abilities and fight the evil that threatens the world. Good rules for creating player teams... This setting is fun for kids and older players alike, although older players may overlook it at first.

    4. Chaosium

    Publisher: Chaosium Games
    Setting: Modern horror & occult


    For people who like the dark side of role-playing. For people who like role-playing without all the hack 'n slash. Chaosium's games require a lot of thought and good ideas. Chaosium publishes relatively few books compared to TSR and Palladium. Like Palladium, the books are intended for both the referee (called the Keeper) and the players.

    Rules:

    Chaosium's books have very few rules. Like White Wolf, this company has forgone attempts to create a detailed and comprehensive rules system in favor of a strong emphasis on Role-playing and acting. In the 'Call of Cthulu' setting, combat with evil creatures is essentially suicidal anyway.

    Compatability: Possible (characters are likely to be antagonists)


    Chaosium's settings can be combined, both are different views of the world. The combination would be interesting and perhaps a little convoluted, but an imaginative Referee should have fun with it. There are no explicit rules or suggestions on how to integrate the two however. Unlike other RPGs, there aren't any player 'Levels' with set amounts of experience to the next stage. Instead, players improve skills that they use - providing smoother play and a slightly more realistic view of experience.

    4.1 Call of Cthulu

    Overall: ***** (Excellent for Role-Playing, low emphasis on combat)
    Detail: *** (Earth's "real" history and setting...)


    The world is secretly inhabited by evil, hideous alien beings. Most are so hideous, even looking at them can cause characters to go insane. This is a very dark setting. Players need to thwart the powerful evil creatures as best they can. This setting emphasises good role-playing, creativity and investigative skills. It is almost impossible to confront the evil creatures directly. Characters who learn too much about the evil Cthulu and the true history and workings of the world go permanenty insane.

    4.2 Nephilim

    Overall: **** (Especially if you like killing the puny mortal humans ;)
    Detail: *** (Good history, but a little strange and unwieldy)


    Players take the persona of the Nephilim... a race of disembodied creatures who inhabit the bodies of Humans and control them. Competing against secret Human societies who are out to imprison and kill the body snatchers. This is very much a role-reversal game.

    5. Champions

    Publisher: Hero Games
    Setting: Modern mutants (like X-Men, Superman)


    Rules:

    Almost the entire book details character creation. Combat is simplistic, and there aren't many other rules. Expansion books detail new worlds and settings somewhat, but still- the emphasis is on building a powerful character.

    Compatability: N/A


    As far as I'm aware, this publisher only has one line of RPG books...

    Overall: *** (Emphasis on combat, but imaginative...)
    Detail: ** (Much more emphasis on designing a character.)


    Ever wanted to play the part of a mutant with strange powers? This game is especially unique in that creating players involves no dice. Instead, you have an allotment of points that you use to build the character you want. Players can build literally anything they want, still coming out with reasonably balanced characters. The only dice used in the entire game are six-sided.

    6. FASA

    Publisher: FASA corporation
    Setting: Futuristic and medieval fantasy


    FASA produces a few games, not nearly as many as the main publishers, but their games are still excellent, top-quality works. Some books are intended for both players and referees (with split sections), others are intended exclusively for the referee.

    Rules:

    Battletech has a strong, extensive combat system, but almost no emphasis on role-playing. Earthdawn is just the opposite; a fairly simple combat and rules system (albeit a bit more detailed than Chaosium or White Wolf) and a strong emphasis on role-playing and developing your character.

    Compatability: Not possible


    Fasa's worlds are not compatible with each other. Battletech characters would be at an extreme advantage in Earthdawn. Likewise, Earthdawn characters would probably get squished or fried to a crisp within minutes of combat in the Earth of Battletech.

    6.1 Battletech

    Overall: * (Much more emphasis on Combat)
    Detail: **


    Battletech is more of a strategic war-game (like Risk or Stratego) than a role-playing game, IMHO. In the far future, you can pilot large robots and shoot other robots. Big on strategy, low on plot and behind-the-scenes emphasis.

    6.2 Earthdawn

    Overall: ***** (Lots of potential)
    Detail: **** (Excellently written and designed)


    An excellent setting in a fantasy world. The world was recently in a time of chaos, huge, powerful and really nasty creatures called Horrors roamed the world, destroying and terrorizing the inhabitants. The various races hid inside magically-walled cities for generations. Now the magic tides of the world have ebbed, most (but definitely not all) Horrors are gone, and people are emerging to once again inhabit the world. There is magic (some of it dangerous to cast), flying ships, a few dragons and a dozen or so races. Earthdawn uses some rules and methods of handling combat and spells that are unique, and probably unfamiliar to players of other RPGs. In Earthdawn, you use your experience points to "buy" skills, rather than all skills improving as you progress through fixed levels.

    6.3 Shadowrun

    Overall: ***** (Emphasis on role-playing, but combat is well supported)
    Detail: **** (Creative and well-designed)


    A futuristic earth setting. Large corporations rule the world, players can enter the world of computers to change or steal information like hackers. There is some magic, lots of tough warriors with futuristic guns and equipment. This can be a fascinating and exciting game to play.

    7. Tunnels and Trolls

    Publisher: Flying Buffalo Games
    Setting: Medieval Fantasy


    If you're looking for a simple clone of D&D, here it is! Much simpler rules and character-generation. This setting could lead you into playing more complex games, or beginners could enjoy it and stick with it. Relatively unremarkable otherwise.

    Rules:

    Simple and straightforward. This is a beginner's RPG system, and isn't very popular. Few people have even heard of it.

    Compatability: N/A


    The company only has one line, as far as I know... and the company may no longer be in business.

    8. White Wolf

    Publisher: White Wolf Game Studio
    Setting: Modern Gothic-Punk


    White Wolf is a respected publisher in the RPG arena. Although they publish relatively little compared to TSR, their books are packed with useful ideas and rules.

    Rules:

    White Wolf games use the Storyteller system, the large emphasis is on role-playing, very little attention has been given to combat and rules. Perhaps 10 pages or so in each of the core books have been given to rules (and the rules system is the same for all their games) the rest of the books have adventure tips and ideas.

    Character generation is by the Point system. The only dice used in the entire game are 10-sided (although you need a LOT. Think like 30 or more)

    Compatability: Seamless (characters are likely to be antagonists)


    All the main White Wolf products; Mage, Vampire and Werewolf share the same Earth setting. Each group has their own aims and goals, which frequently puts them at odds with the other groups. Players from one group would probably find themselves the antagonists in another group. It would require good role-playing to play a mixed group, but then- that's what the system is about. Each set of books presents another side of the same story and has the potential to add a lot to the game.

    8.1 Mage: The Ascension

    Overall: ***** (Great for role-playing, lots of resources)
    Detail: ***** (A well-detailed world)


    Mages are humans who have Awakened. They can cast potent spells and are not to be taken lightly. Mages seek to Ascend; to reach a state of personal fulfillment. This will rarely be accomplished by the player and usually marks the end of the campaign. Mages seek to draw upon the magic essence of the earth to cast their spells. Although they are capable of casting the flaming fireball and lightning, they prefer to work in more subtle and indirect ways. Mages occasionally work with Werewolves, and both groups tend to despise the Vampires. More often though, the Mages prefer to be left alone to their own agenda and only bring their powerful spells to bear on obstacles in their way.

    8.2 Werewolf: The Apocalypse

    Overall: ***** (Just as good as Mage, maybe a little more fun)
    Detail: ***** (Well detailed and fascinating)


    Werewolves are the famous lycanthropes of legend; able to take the shape of wolves, men or a half-wolf/half-man combat form. They AREN'T the bad guys this time; Werewolves fight to defend the earth from the corruption of the Wyrm. The Wyrm seeks to destroy the earth and defile it. Werewolves compete for special magic-rich areas with the Mages and Vampires. Werewolves see Magic as the lifeblood of the Earth, and Mages as the people who would shamelessly exploit and drain the powers of the world. Think of Native American tribes as a model for both how Werewolves interact socially and feel about nature and the environment. Although they occasionally work with Mages, they absolutely hate the Vampires.

    8.3 Vampire: The Masquerade

    Overall: ***** (Play the bad guys! Tragic heroes)
    Detail: ***** (Truly interesting)


    Vampires are the creatures of darkness, the symbol of the Wyrm. They drink the blood of others to survive. Many vampires did not choose to be made, but are now forced to exist as the undead. There are many heroes among the vampires; people struggling to maintain their humanity and conscience. A heroic vampire struggles against vampire society as well as the beast within. This is a true tragic system, the players are ultimately doomed (except for the very few who have some small chance of regaining their humanity). Vampires struggle in the eternal Jyhad, a war directed by the oldest vampires.






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