I have accumulated a lot of roleplaying game books over the years. Just enough to fit into my 5×5 IKEA shelf. But you may also notice an unorthodox arrangement to the books. You see, I’m tall. I used to sort all of the books alphabetically – first by publisher, then by game, then by book title. Unfortunately, while this worked out well for the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game (published until this year by Alderac Entertainment Group), it meant that anything “White Wolf” or “Wizards of the Coast” was down near the floor (and, in particular, D&D 5E was a pain to get at). So, because I want my favorite books to be more readily visible and accessible to me, I sorted things into columns, and then within each column I put my favorite stuff on top, where it’s easier for my tall self to see and reach it (note: I reserve the right to change my preferences at any time without warning; this is just how the shelf is arranged right now). Dungeons & Dragons has a column, Legend of the Five Rings has a column, White Wolf/Onyx Path has two columns, and everything else gets put into the final column (at this point, the plurality of that fifth column is Pathfinder). The White Wolf columns are divided into two sections – modern age Vampire (Masquerade and Requiem) and everything else (the historical Vampire books like Dark Ages and Victorian Age, the similar-to-but-not-the-same Kindred of the East, other World of Darkness or new World of Darkness books, and Exalted).
This is the fifth and final Top Shelf article, each one taking a brief look at quite literally the top shelf of each of those columns – what are the books that I chose to put there, and why? Some of those reasons will be personal. Some will be more ‘objective’ (to the extent that any opinion on the better book can be objective). Part 1 covered Vampire: The Masquerade. Part 2 covered Dungeons & Dragons. Part 3 covered Legend of the Five Rings. Part 4 covered the rest of the World of Darkness. Today’s article gets the less-than-elegant title of “everything else” because today’s column is everything else – the games that aren’t Dungeons & Dragons, that aren’t Legend of the Five Rings, and that weren’t published by White Wolf/Onyx Path Publishing.
But, specifically, here’s what we’re looking at today:
Let me give my usual caveat – this is an actual shelf of actual books. If I don’t own a physical copy of the book, it can’t be on the shelf. So, for example, while you’ll see me talk about Star Trek roleplaying games below, I only have a PDF copy of Star Trek Adventures.
In Nomine (limited edition core book; although the picture to the right is a normal version because it probably conveys more about the game): The very original version of this game was published in French as In Nomine Satanis (“In Satan’s Name”)/Magna Veritas (“The Great Truth”). The version of that I saw had the two books in one – you could read one side, flip the book over, then read the other. I am, however, given to understand that the French version was much more comedic in tone (alas, while our GM spoke French, I do not) than the Steve Jackson Games U.S. version, which was simply known as In Nomine (a title which, without knowing the original French version’s title, one might think came only from the trinitarian formula – in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti – well known to Catholics and E-Nomine fans). In Nomine gives the players the option of being either angels or demons, and I’ve played as both, but (to my mind) the game is really about playing on the side of the angels. Obviously I love Vampire: the Masquerade, and the characters are monsters there to, but part of the horror of the game is the characters feeling bad about it and slowly losing themselves. Just flat-out playing a demon lacks that, and I have difficulty spending too long with a character who lacks any sort of moral compass. The game used the gimmicky d666 system (there was also a GURPS version, which I have not played), which included rolling 2d6 and adding them together – this may work for the theme-heavy games immediately below, but it’s dicey for anything that’s trying to be mechanically serious, due to the massive statistical “hump” in a 2d6 roll. The third d6 was a degree of success die. Rolling triple ones was always a critical success (for angels, anyway), while rolling triple sixes was always a critical failure (again, for angels) – these represented divine or infernal interventions. Characters had Choirs (which kind of angel they were; there is a musical theme to the game world) and Superiors (which archangel they worked for). As I mentioned in the Vampire Top Shelf (in the discussion on Revelations of the Dark Mother), I developed a strong interest in Lilith mythology in undergrad, so I’ll note that Lilith was the “Demon Princess” of Freedom (a rather unique role in the world), and her children are the Lilim. There are five Choirs of angels, and four matching Bands of demons, but one type of angel is incapable of Falling, so it does not have a pair. Thus the fifth choice for demonic players are the Lilim, who aren’t really demons at all (although they are still covered in more detail in the Infernal Player’s Guide). Given my above-described preference for characters who are at least somewhat moral, you won’t be surprised at all to know that my longest-running In Nomine character was a Redeemed Lilim. Which is kind of like the In Nomine version of being the one Good drow running around. Did I mention that I played a Neutral Good drow cleric/wizards for an extended period of time? Yes, I am apparently that full of cliche. But In Nomine, while a mechanically flawed game, does present an interesting and thought-provoking setting that touches on issues I tend to be drawn to in roleplaying games anyway (religion, morality, contradiction, conflicting worldviews).
Masks: A New Generation – I only recently reviewed this one, so I will let you click through that link for the long version, but the short version is that Masks is an amazing implementation of the teenage superteam, full of characters who are still figuring out who they are and what their place in the world is. Sure, they fight supervillains, but there’s just as much about the relationships between the characters on the team and their relationships with the adult superheroes. Masks (along with Monsterhearts 2, discussed below) adjust the Powered by the Apocalypse system in just the right way to hit a thematic home run.
Monsterhearts 2 – Another one where you can go back and read my full thoughts, Monsterhearts 2 (as noted above) is also Powered by the Apocalypse. It also features a healthy dose of teenage drama. Or maybe that’s an unhealthy dose, because Monsterhearts is all about the teenage drama. Sure, the setting involves (almost) all of the characters having some sort of supernatural background or powers … but that’s all just window-dressing for the teenage angst.
Numenera – Numenera has moved on to a second edition, and I didn’t back that one on Kickstarter so it can’t be on the shelf, but the original was great (full review) so I imagine the newer version is as well. Numenera presents fantasy with Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘third law’ in mind – “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It is a fantasy setting, but where most of the ‘magic’ is remnants of prior, far more advanced civilizations. The mechanics (what became the Cypher System) mesh perfectly with the theme of the setting, rewarding exploration and making most ‘magic’ items transient. And the setting material is exceptionally evocative, really making you want to go out and explore the weird and wonderful Ninth World.
Pathfinder Core Rulebook – Pathfinder has the heaviest presence on this shelf that otherwise almost entirely contains core books. In the article on my Dungeons & Dragons shelf, I discussed why D&D third (and 3.5) is the nearest and dearest to my heart, and Pathfinder is basically D&D 3.75. D&D has gotten itself back on track with Fifth Edition, and Pathfinder is moving to its second edition next year, but it’s still a great system.
Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide – One notable difference between what I have for Pathfinder and what I have (at least for the moment) for Dungeons & Dragons is what kind of books are here. My D&D shelf still has a lot of 3.5 “crunch” books. Pathfinder has produced piles and piles of really great crunch books over the last ten years (although I don’t own as many of them as I do D&D 3/3.5 books). But almost none of them are on the top shelf. Partially that’s because D&D has its own shelf, while Pathfinder has to share. But in the paragraph just above everything I talked about what was how Pathfinder was a mechanical extension of D&D 3.5! I think this is a reflection of my changing tastes in roleplaying games. I like Pathfinder. But it is on one end of the mechanically-focused spectrum. And, while I can still geek out about mechanics (and if you read my reviews I will sometimes still do things like run the math on dice rolls for new systems), I really want more than just mechanics. So, while the mechanics were my original hook for Pathfinder, and I really like the crunchy bits, it’s often other things that get me more excited these days (which is why I’ve been reading all of the Pathfinder comics with my older kid; you get the iconics not just as cool images, but as more fleshed out characters). But, out of all the mechanical things, I guess I like having more ancestry/species/race/whatever options. It’s way more options for way more ancestries than one could ever use, and like many books of this sort, I as an individual player would not want to use many of them. But I’m always down for even more options for my favorites (e.g., elves, who to be honest are kind of in a bad way in Golarion) and out of the non-core species there are always some that tickle your fancy, be it the new version of old standbys (aasimar) or things I haven’t seen before (samsarans). So this one makes it on the shelf.
Pathfinder Campaign Setting Inner Sea World Guide/Inner Sea Gods – Speaking of flavor, the Inner Sea World Guide is the “core book” of the world of Pathfinder. If you want to get to the heart of the flavor of Golarion, this is the place to start. Now, there are setting books beyond that, but the one I include here is Inner Sea Gods. As I mentioned up in the discussion about In Nomine, one of the topics I like to explore with characters is belief and religion. Fantasy worlds often give an easy hook on this, as they include a broad array of divinities with variety of concerns and moral nuances (and that’s without leaving the Good spectrum, which is pretty much always where I’m going to play in a game like this). The basics are in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook (because Clerics generally need gods), but there’s a lot more detail (and more options) in Inner Sea Gods.
Pathfinder Deluxe Anniversary Edition Adventure Paths – Rise of the Runelords/Curse of the Crimson Throne – It turns out that the Pathfinder campaign setting existed before the Pathfinder game did. Pathfinder originally existed as material produced for D&D 3.5 under the Open Game License (OGL). And leading the way was the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, a series of six smaller adventure books that takes characters from level 1 all the way to the top. The anniversary editions update Rise of the Runelords and the second adventure path, Curse of the Crimson Throne, for the Pathfinder rules and present everything you need in one heavy hardback book. They’re really spectacular stories.
The Mask of Death – From Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, this Pathfinder-compatible adventure lets your group play through the module that the characters are playing in The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. If you haven’t seen the movie, that will mean nothing, but you can readily rectify that situation by giving Amazon a few bucks (or free, if you have Prime). Backing ZOE on Patreon probably gets you that as well (or you can back us on Patreon, and just read about it instead). But I have seen the movie, and it was both funny and sweet (the first Gamers was a bit too mean for my taste), so I backed this on Kickstarter and have a signed version from Gen Con that year. And I am quite satisfied, even though I’ve never played it.
Star Trek: the Next Generation/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Roleplaying Games (Last Unicorn Games) – I think I own, either in physical or digital form, every Star Trek Roleplaying Game that’s been published, but my favorite version is the ones from Last Unicorn. And not just because it’s the only roleplaying game I ever played with my father. There were three core books, one each for the Original Series, Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine. They shared a common mechanical core, but deviated to suit the needs of their respective series (the TOS version was the most distinct). Deep Space Nine is my favorite, but really only because Deep Space Nine was my favorite Star Trek show. Which one to play would really come down to whether you want the characters to have a static home base with a lot of things coming to them, or whether you want the characters to always be venturing out into whatever trouble they’re going to get into. They just felt really Trek, and I like Trek. Indeed, if the Last Unicorn books weren’t here, I would probably have some of the Decipher books here instead (Player’s Guide, Narrator’s Guide, Starfleet Operations Manual). It was also pretty good, although even shorter-lived than the LUG version.
Star Wars Roleplaying Game (Wizards of the Coast, Revised) – Like Star Trek, there have been a variety of Star Wars RPGs over the years (the license is currently held by Fantasy Flight Games). The original, and what many would consider the greatest, was the West End Games version (FFG just released an anniversary edition). The WEG Star Wars game was groundbreaking. There is a lot about Star Wars that was first created by WEG for the roleplaying game – it’s thanks to WEG that we don’t have characters called things like “walrus man” or “hammerhead” anymore. But … well, I don’t really like the system. I’ve played it, and I just don’t like it. So, while I respect the role it played, it doesn’t go here. But the Wizards of the Coast version? That one I liked. Probably not surprising, because it’s a d20 game, based on the D&D 3rd rules, and obviously I liked that. But the d20 system is pretty flexible, and worked well here. There was a first edition of the game in 2000, which had some flaws. The second edition came out in 2002, and was noticeably smoother – that’s the version here. It’s still the Star Wars system I’ve played the most of. There was also a third, Saga Edition version (the books are very recognizable, because they’re squares instead of rectangles). This moved further away from the standard d20. There are some good arguments to be made that it was a better game than the second edition … but the second edition is the one that has my heart.
Starfinder Core Rulebook – Just in case there wasn’t enough d20/OGL/D&D3.5 content here, let me wrap this up with Starfinder, the science fantasy counterpart to Pathfinder. Set in the same universe, but well into the future (but with Golarion gone and with The Gap preventing anyone from knowing what happened to it), Starfinder has all of the fantasy races tucked around, but also a whole slew of new ones. I reviewed the game when it launched last year, and I said then that I thought it was the best science fiction or science fantasy roleplaying game. I still think that. Now, it doesn’t have a license, so it’s not going to scratch that Star Wars/Star Trek/Babylon 5/Mass Effect itch (I’m kidding, there’s no Mass Effect TTRPG, although for the life of me I don’t know why).
Finally, as I have ended all of these, here’s the next shelf down if you’re curious:
I don’t usually say anything about this second shelf, because you’ve already waded through a whole article, but I know that people who look at my shelf often ask why Edge of the Empire isn’t there along with Age of Rebellion and Forces and Destiny. The answer is that I just don’t enjoy that aspect of the Star Wars universe as much. I know, all three games are completely compatible and the three systems are virtually identical. But I like Star Wars because of Jedi. I like Star Wars because of epic space battles and heroic starfighters clashing against the forces of evil. I don’t really care that much about smugglers running around the fringe making a buck … until they start fighting the good fight. And that’s when they join your Age of Rebellion game.
And with that, we close out the Top Shelf article series. Maybe next year I’ll revisit and see if anything new has floated to the top.