While I don't share Catacomb Librarian's often-vitriolic distaste for big name game systems, I do share his love of obscure gaming systems. I missed the proliferation of smaller RPGs of the late 70's and early 80's and by the time I became aware of smaller games, I was more or less done with fantasy RPGs for the time being. As a result, the obscure RPGs that I found myself drawn to were often of a horror bent or, even more often, humor games. Thankfully, other than my missing spiral bound copy of Whispering Vault, I still have most of these. Also thankfully, my gorgeous wife seems to not mind that I have tons of bookshelf space dedicated to game system after game system. So, in honor of the first Obscure RPG Appreciation Day, I took a trip to that one particular shelf that holds some of my stranger, lesser-known RPGs and picked out a few favorites.
HOLWhile at first glance, the casual reader might chalk Black Dog & Dirt Merchant Games's seminal HOL (Human Occupied Landfill) up as merely another weird humor RPG, the game is so much more. Set in a grimdark universe not unlike (and probably in parody of) WH40K, on the planet that is effectively that universe's armpit and tacitly its landfill (seriously, this is the place where all of the universe's garbage -- both human and otherwise -- gets sent), this game is less "humor RPG" and more "gonzo ridiculous sci fi adventure holy-fuck-splosion." The basic game committed what I consider the cardinal sin of RPGs: not including a character creation section. Instead, we had to wait for the game's first (and, to my knowledge, only) supplement "Buttery Wholesomeness" for character creation, and then it's more or less a riff off of old school Traveller (man, that extra "l" likes to throw off spell check, doesn't it?) involving rolling on random tables with often disastrous and hilarious results. HOL was hugely influential on me, personally, as an object lesson in the fact that the only shit that matters in any game is the shit that you decide matters. While its graphics are a bit dated (most of the shit like this went out of style with the nu metal bands of the late 90's, early 2000's), the layout (all done by hand with pen or brush and ink) is wonderfully inspired and full of fantastic visual gags. I've always loved this game and never got a chance to run it, despite how personally influential it was.
Oh, and the bonus LARP rules inserted into Buttery Wholesomeness are worth twice the price of admission.
( (c) 1994 Dirt Merchant Games)
Shattered DreamsIn the 90's, it was really difficult to produce a horror RPG without coming within spitting distance of White Wolf products. Hell, it still is. Just ask Dark Phoenix Publishing. I kid, I kid. But seriously, it was tough back then (it's just a little bit easier now). I'm not exactly sure where or when I learned about Shattered Dreams, but I dug the concept. The players are psychics of a sort, capable of entering the dreams of others, who work to combat the horrific supernatural beings that infest and twist the dreaming of their victims. While the art was not fantastic (I totally recognized some of the art being just line drawings of poses from a Victoria's Secret catalog from back then), the game offered some neat stuff. First, it used d12s. I friggin' love the d12. I actually think that's what might have sold me on it. In using that d12, it also played a bit with the logic of dice, allowing the player to pick which numbers on the die meant success rather than just a traditional range of numbers. Ultimately, that distinction is completely meaningless and far less useful than it sounds, but it was a fun thought to entertain. Thing two is that Shattered Dreams (yes, this Shattered Dreams) was the game that introduced me to the concept of player narrative agency. In being able to manipulate the fabric of the dream around them, player Dreamwalkers were the first player characters that I can think of who could control their circumstances. While I'm not a "story games or nothing!" type of gamer (I'm really like a "games or games!" type of gamer), I dig some story game mechanics.
All of that having been said, the game had some real shitty bits. Every character had to build up a pool of two separate sets of skills: one for the real world and one for the world of dreams. This is actually kind of jarring to the reader of today, that old school-y skill proliferation and need to cover all situations is out of step with the role playing emphasis and narrative control mechanism. The setting is a little wonky, and I'm not sure I'd be able to use the game as-written again (I did run this briefly for a spate of about a month back in '94 when the game still had that new car smell), but I think it could be stripped down to run in FAE. That'd actually be kind of cool. Maybe I should look into that...
( (c) 1994 Apex Publications, Inc.)
It Came From The Late, Late, Late ShowAnd now on to one of the gems of my RPG collection: It Came From The Late, Late, Late Show. I bought my copy from one of the authors (not sure which one) at GenCon '93 (I have a surprising amount of stories of that particular GenCon, my first) and I think I've run it exactly once since, a fact that I'm sorely disappointed in. Here's the thing: ICFTLLLS is an old school-style game (the rules seem reminiscent of RQ2 to me) that pushes attributes and skills but has a surprisingly new school approach. Rather than just play characters in a bad movie, the players instead play the actors who are playing the characters in a bad movie. Thus, even if your character "dies," he can always be in the next movie (or even in the sequel to the original movie if the budget is low enough).
Mechanically, the game isn't innovative, the layout of the game is worse than dated, and the art is best when it directly apes recognizable horror movie tropes, but ICFTLLLS is a game that influenced a number of game concepts that I'm currently toying with (stuff that I can't exactly go into right now) and is goddamn fun! Much like HOL, what should be a humor game really just becomes a gonzo horror game without consequences or conscience. While the B (or worse) horror, sci-fi and action movies that ICFTLLLS imitates often have a happy ending, ICFTLLLS games needn't. Thankfully.
( (c) 1989, 1990, 1993 Stellar Games, Inc.)
So, folks, there you have it. Hats off to the Catacomb Librarian for getting this appreciation day out there in the blogosphere and letting me rant about some of my favorite obscure RPGs. To keep the appreciation rolling, I'm going to offer to run one of these three fine RPGs via a G+ Hangout some time in the next month. The first four people to comment in favor of the same game discussed here will decide which game it will be! Details will be posted here once the (metaphorical) votes are in!