RPGs for reading, not playing
June 8, 2013 8:49 PM   Subscribe

I like reading pen-and-paper RPG rulebooks. Can you recommend some of your favorites? Extra points for: non-Tolkein universes, a cool new spin on classes or magic, and anything that has interesting non-combat systems.

I've previously read Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, Exalted, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Shadowrun. I haven't read anything that uses the GURPs system mostly because I don't know where to start. I've read some short one-off campaigns in different systems, but nothing too extensive.

I've played so many fantasy roleplaying video games that I'd prefer stuff that deviates from the orc/human/halfling wizard/paladin/thief fighting kobolds/dragons/necromancers with STR/DEX/CHA type stats.

I would love some Arabian or Middle East or African mythology-inspired RPGs. Steampunk, cyberpunk, Cthulhu mythos, sci-fi, and alternate history also interest me. They don't have to be fun to play (I'm not playing them), but interesting ideas and well written are a must. If you can, recommend a good GM supplement with detailed maps and scenarios to go with it.
posted by subject_verb_remainder to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (40 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe the Palladium-published ones? Rifts especially fits your bill if I remember correctly.
posted by axiom at 8:53 PM on June 8, 2013

The Poor Wizard's Almanacs from D&D / Mystara.
Ivid the Undying from AD&D2 had a lot of great lore.
The Delta Green books are pretty excellent.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:55 PM on June 8, 2013

Nightbane, maybe? I've never played open and paper rpgs either, but I remember reading this book and enjoying it. Also seconding Rifts.
posted by Qberting at 9:01 PM on June 8, 2013

Dark Sun is a D&D campaign setting based on the ancient Middle East - ziggurats etc.
posted by XMLicious at 9:11 PM on June 8, 2013

The Dying Earth RPG and supplements are a rollicking good time.
posted by zueod at 9:12 PM on June 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Oh man, you want to read Fiasco. It ticks your non-fantasy boxes, the mechanics are totally unlike any of the games you list above, and it's damn well-written and short to boot. Here's part of the summary of the game, to give you an idea of the content and the writing style.

You’ll play ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control. There will be big dreams and flawed execution. It won’t go well for them, to put it mildly, and in the end it will probably all go south in a glorious heap of jealousy, murder, and recrimination. Lives and reputations will be lost, painful wisdom will be gained, and if you are really lucky, your guy just might end up back where he started.

As for Middle-Eastern inspired, give 1001 Nights a look. Been a while since I've read/played this one, so I don't remember the content of the rule book as well, but I do recall that it comes with middle-eastern recipe ideas for creating a good game-playing atmosphere, and that alone is awesome.
posted by ActionPopulated at 9:18 PM on June 8, 2013

I remember enjoying the Torg rulebooks back in the day. And Paranoia rules are a riot.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:18 PM on June 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

Maybe Gamma World, a post apocalyptic rpg where you can play mutated animals? I've only read the original books (a couple decades ago) and can't speak to the newer versions. You can also check out Metamorphosis Alpha, which inspired it.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:24 PM on June 8, 2013

Eclipse Phase. One of the very few sci-fi RPGs that isn't just fantasy with lasers, and with one of the most engaging and complex universes you're likely to find. It's authors are fervently open source, so here are all the PDFs.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:26 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and Don't Rest Your Head is fantastical and quite well-written, but definitely not fantasy in the standard orc/human/wizard way. The tone reminds me of Neil Gaiman more than anything. If you like that, there's a supplement, Don't Lose Your Mind that includes additional 'madness talents' (abilities for PCs) and 'nightmares' (NPC bad guys).
posted by ActionPopulated at 9:34 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed reading the rulebooks for Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World and Luke Crane & David Petersen's Mouse Guard RPG.
posted by bewilderbeast at 9:36 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember Maelstrom being pretty fun. Elizabethan England, characters can be itinerant tradesmen or herbalists or the like, a dash of weirdness.
posted by irrelephant at 9:40 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mouseguard RPG, which uses a modified version of the Burning Wheel system. I don't particularly want to play, but I enjoyed the system enough to read about it. (On preview, seconding.)

I'm also a sucker for Hackmaster and its tongue-in-cheek approach to old-school RPG mayhem.

GURPS is all about the supplements, so poke around those if you're interested. I got a kick out of the Goblins one a long while back, but I don't know how well that rec would hold up.

I will recommend a self-published supplement that I came across recently: Anomalous Subsurface Environment. It's got a sequel also, but I haven't read that yet.

But seriously, Dying Earth is still the most entertaining of the lot.
posted by zueod at 9:42 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ones I remember as being particularly good: Paranoia, Deadlands, the Warhammer 30k universe, especially the Space Marine Codex, and the Shadowrun Africa expansion.

There was also a pretty great sort of X-File-ish one about basically assuming that every conspiracy theory you'd heard was true (and it wasn't Illuminati) that had a pretty great combo-based combat system (which I remember allowing a grab-pistolwhip-pistolwhip-pistolwhip thing that I found hilarious in high school).
posted by klangklangston at 9:42 PM on June 8, 2013

Oh, and the Aztlan Shadowrun sourcebook is also good, as is Turtles Down Under, which is weirdly under the Rifts rules set.
posted by klangklangston at 9:43 PM on June 8, 2013

Over The Edge might be a bit hard to find since it's out of print, but its got a great world which is a mix of "The Naked Lunch" and every conspiracy theory you've run into, set on a fictional island in the Mediterranean sea ruled over by a woman who might be your typical tin pot dictator, or might be a servant of the devil, or might be a the dupe of alien invaders.

If you like street gangs with trained baboons; Nordic biker gangs who take astrology way too seriously; mad scientist; artists who dive too close to madness and bring it back with them; occult conspiracies; mind controlling invading alien lobsters; political skulduggery of every sort; time machines from the future trying to guarantee that they're built in the first place; or infectious taxi cab companies; well, these may be the soucebooks for you.
posted by bswinburn at 9:44 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by Area Man at 9:54 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Old person here.

RuneQuest is one of the first published RPGs, and it's been through many versions. Its a game you think would be made by a half-insane anthropologists on LSD. Myths are true—everyone's myths, even if they conflict. So bronze-age realism is combined with things like: the world is literally flat; if you go far enough east you will come to the land where the sun rises, but what the sun is may change definition. It's a game of warring realities, but also a game of stealing cattle and trying to get harvests in. Griffin Mountain is a good setting book. There's a fun videogame. It can be hard to get a grip on what the world is. RQ also had an ahead-of-its-time game system that became the Basic Roleplaying system used for the Call of Cthulhu games, though later versions of RQ went into more narrative systems.

There's a lot online material, and probably a mefi FPP or two. Dig and you'll be rewarded. Sites from my bookmarks: 1 2 3.

My personal favorite RuneQuest rulebook/edition is 2nd edition. (Not to be confused with RQ II).

Empire of the Petal Throne is another one of the oldest RPGs. It is set on an alien world that was settled by space-traveling humans and their alien buddies, which world then fell into another dimension and has regressed since to a strange, decadent, wild world of ancient cruel empires. It's about as non-European as you can get, with its own languages and strange alphabets. Think, maybe... Bollywood does a Lord of the Rings + Star Wars + Conan mashup. Like RuneQuest, it has gone through many different versions. Wouldn't you know, I like the first-ish one best. Here's a blog post that gives a taste. Look at that fucking map!

Jorune never had much material released for it, but is an evocative setting with flying islands, psychic magic, and alien races. In feeling it's sort of Miyazaki meets.. Ender's Game I wanna say. It's tighter and more modern than the two hoary old beasts above.

GURPS gamebooks are usually pretty solid and well-written, so you can't go too wrong just picking one and reading. Adaptation the GURPS system tends to suck the life out of settings though, IMHO.
posted by fleacircus at 9:59 PM on June 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

De Profundis is an uncanny/Lovecraftian collaborative letter writing rpg. Sort of.
posted by lovecrafty at 10:04 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love reading RPG rulebooks, too. I've enjoyed reading probably twice as many as I've actually played.

My favourite is Dogs in the Vineyard. The PCs are pseudo-Mormon cowboy paladins in an alternate wild west, travelling from town to town to deliver the mail, name babies, and root out each town's hidden injustice and heresy and demonic influence, and solve those problems by whatever means they think best.

The rulebook is really well written and does a great job of conveying the setting and theme. The combat and non-combat systems are original (to me, at least) and work well. Skills, attributes, and relationships are written down on the character sheet as descriptive sentences and assigned a dice value, and pulled into play whenever the players and storyteller agree that the skill might apply. Characters skill up somewhat through experience, but largely through failing at tasks.

I've played a couple of times and it was fun, but damned if I don't keep coming back to the rulebook for years afterwards to leaf through and just enjoy reading it. It's excellent. Oh, and there are lots of fan adventures (and post-action writeups) online, too.
posted by Fully Completely at 10:18 PM on June 8, 2013


If you're into comic books, Champions, especially all the villain and world-building supplements.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:25 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hol (Human Occupied Landfill)!
posted by The otter lady at 10:40 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hoo boy, do I have a bunch of these from way back.

John Tynes' Puppetland. "A storytelling game with strings set in a grim world of make-believe."

Anyone waiting for Numenera to come out should check out Anders Sandberg's Transhumanist RPG resources. Here you can find Phil Goetz's Men Like Gods game and his notes about a cool setting called "The City".

Paul Mason's Outlaws of the Water Margin is a lovely game about roleplaying a Chinese epic novel. If you like that kind of setting but want an even simpler rule system check out Daniel Bayn's Wushu.

Philippe Tromeur's Wuthering Heights roleplay. "This work deals with such themes as suicide, despair, homosexuality and socialism for the sole purpose of entertainment."

Willingham, Berkman, et al's Theatrix Ironwood (Review, Summary of Theatrix system). "Ironwood is an action packed, pulp fantasy setting based on Bill Willingham's underground comic of the same name." (cite) I haven't actually read this one, but I want to. I would totally use it to make Oglaf the RPG.

Thank you so much for asking this question just so I could look all these up and find them again.
posted by wobh at 11:08 PM on June 8, 2013

Response by poster: fleacircus: "...There's a fun videogame...." - I have been playing the hell out of King of Dragon Pass on my phone. The lore is wonderful and actually what led me to write this. It hits all those Epic Fantasy notes while being really different at the same time.

I'm going through and downloading the free ones tonight to start devouring. Don't Rest Your Head and Over the Edge and Dogs in the Vineyard are the kind of thing I'd never think to ask for, but would absolutely adore.

But yeah, keep 'em coming. Thank you to all who've responded so far.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:46 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Though this is a subject near and dear to my heart, I don't have time at the moment to answer in detail, so here are some highlights.

Nobilis. A thousand times Nobilis (2nd Edition, aka "The Great White Book"). A truly inspiring fusion of system and a spectacular setting. Prose that blows my mind nearly every time I read it. One of my favorite books, to be honest!

Continuum. Simple and fantastic time-travel mechanics, presented in an appealing fictional wrapper.

Ars Magica. A fractious confederation of magical scholars ply their trade across a highly mythologized version of Europe. Great setting, exemplary spell creation and research mechanics.

Demon: the Fallen, one of the more obscure products of White Wolf's original World of Darkness line. It's basically Paradise Lost: the RPG. Rolling up a Demon character, and tracing his history from the moment of Creation to the present day, was one of the most rewarding writing exercises I've ever done.

Seconding Dark Sun, which really inspired me when I was younger. Athas is a desert world so dangerous that the original supplement recommended that players make at least two reserve characters. Really neat cosmology -- Athas is isolated from the rest of the multiverse, and the gods can't even see it -- and all magic is based on life energy. Thus, arcane magic-users need to decide to be Preservers, doing as little damage to the little ambient vegetation Athas has left to produce magical effects, or Defilers, who don't care what they destroy in their pursuit of power. A cool setting indeed.

These are just off the top of my head. More to follow! Good luck and good reading :)
posted by lumensimus at 2:45 AM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Amber Diceless Roleplaying System is a favorite of mine.

Also, I always thought that the various Rifts books were much better ats reading material than as playable RPGs.
posted by anansi at 6:37 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Itras By is an excellent read. Set in a vaguely 1920s European city, it is a wonderful mash up of pulp, surrealism, horror and weirdness. Per the authors' description, "In the city center, reality is relatively stable, but the further afield you get, the more it deteriorates, mutates, becomes dream-like. In the setting chapter you’ll find descriptions of dreams which have become real, mad scientists, an outline of a city strictly divided by class, sea elephants, the Machine God who lurks under the city, a gentleman with a monster in his basement, a description of the structural cancer that haunts some of the city’s buildings and much more." Highly recommended.
posted by ReginaHart at 7:05 AM on June 9, 2013

Beaten to the punch on recommending Paranoia but that's only because they're all out to get me
posted by ook at 7:53 AM on June 9, 2013

Tribe 8 has an interesting take on post-apocalyptic roleplaying and a very specific setting (the ruins of Montreal). The sourcebooks are full of vignettes describing incidents in the game world, and the main cycle of adventures is a complete story arc.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:40 AM on June 9, 2013

HoL and its only supplement Buttery Wholesomeness.
Teenagers From Outer Space
I remember the Cyberpunk 2013(!) and 2020 books by R. Talesorian Games being quite readable as well. (too many to link!)
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:21 AM on June 9, 2013

Seconding Gamma World and Cyberpunk mentions from upthread.Traveller5 is a great update of the classic Traveller game by the original designer Marc Miller. Top Secret was a spy-fiction RPG put out by TSR. Boot Hill was a wild west RPG that was put out by TSR.
posted by Rob Rockets at 11:45 AM on June 9, 2013

Chivalry and Sorcery the ultimate read. The Red book is the one. All others pale.

Traveller was also a treasure trove of goodness.
posted by Max Power at 11:58 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I heavily recommend pretty much everything written by Ken Hite or Robin D Laws (disclaimer: friends of mine, but so are roughly 20% of people in RPG publishing). They are masters of the craft of RPG design at the top of their game. Trail of Cthulhu—an RPG actually designed for investigation rather than futilely shooting at nameless horrors—is particularly splendid. Robin Laws' Weather the Cuckoo Likes, a supplement for Over the Edge, is one of the finest RPG supplements ever written.

The Delta Green line, sublime modern-day Lovecraftian investigation.

Tekumel, the Empire of the Petal Throne. The Guardians of Order version is probably the best single-volume introduction to one of gaming's most unique and memorable worlds.

I would recommend Nobilis, Puppetland and De Profundis, mentioned above, but I published them so I'm biased.

I do recommend everything that's ever appeared on the shortlist of the Diana Jones Award (which I run, so I'm sort-of biased.)

posted by Hogshead at 1:28 PM on June 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Dungeon Crawl Classics.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:18 PM on June 9, 2013

Encounter Critical is a fun read. (pdf zip, also can be downloaded from here along with other fun stuff.)

Citybook I and Grimtooth's Traps are fun blasts from the past as well, with really good art.
posted by fleacircus at 4:41 PM on June 9, 2013

Ah, you want stuff by S. John Ross (on preview I see Encounter Critical is already mentioned). Easily my favorite RPG writer. Blind Geoffrey is a good example of the way he writes up situations that he expands on more in Uresia. He also makes the best maps I've ever seen in RPG books.

His Risus is my go-to rules-lite RPG, and Pokethulhu is fun if you have a group who the setting appeals to.

Baron Munchausen is also spectacular, though less for the read and more for the idea of play. The MAID RPG is full of great random tables.
posted by 23 at 9:44 PM on June 9, 2013

Mobile Frame Zero is a ruleset for tabletop mecha war gaming (with Lego, no less) but the book (a free download) describes a pretty awesome universe, including a nicely-done take on the 'alien symbiot' trope.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:14 AM on June 10, 2013

Night's Black Agents by Ken Hite is my current number one. A great read, some genuinely brilliant advice around story/campaign creation, how to make the cities you use one of the characters, an excellent toolkit for creating the bad guys and a conspiracy in which they can manouevre and a nice basic system that rewards storytelling and prevents the players from ever hitting a roadblock in terms of "what do we do now?"

For bonus NBA fun The Zalozhniy Quartet is a country-spanning adventure from the Ukraine to the Middle East via a bank heist in Switzerland and reheating the Cold War in Vienna.

There's plenty of great suggestions from other folks above - if you're willing to tolerate the dire system I understand that certain websites will allow you to access When Gravity Fails - a "mod-kit" for Cyberpunk 2020 set in George Alec Effinger's Middle-Eastern Cyberpunk world (or you can look for a pre-owned copy - good luck!).
posted by longbaugh at 1:37 AM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh - whilst I remember anything to do with either Delta Green or The Laundry RPG. Call of Cthulhu via Charlie Stross is very much the good lark.
posted by longbaugh at 1:54 AM on June 10, 2013

Wow, some of these comments are real trips down memory lane!

Seconding "Don't Rest Your Head" - fairly simple system with lots of atmosphere and room for creepy nightmarish adventures.

The Nobilis (2nd) ed. book is also worth reading just for the prose, although I found the actual system a bit vague in spots. Haven't read the 3rd edition (which has awful art for reasons not worth going into here.

Achtung Cthulhu - think Lovecraftian horror and Nazis in World War II is definitely worth a look, as is The Kerberos Club, set in Victorian England with strange and fantastic powers.

Also definitely check out Fate Accelerated, a short sweet take on Fate Core (also by Evil Hat), a narrative-driven fast-playing generic system.

Last but not least, for both reading enjoyment and a new take on an old trope, Monsterhearts. Think Buffy, Veronica Mars, or any other show where teenagers tangle with the supernatural and it makes their already crazy lives even crazier..
posted by canine epigram at 6:33 AM on June 10, 2013

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