I'm continuing with the RPGs I Recommend series today with my Fantasy RPG recommendations. Easily the largest genre within the RPG hobby, you can't swing a stick without hitting hundreds of variants and styles of fantasy RPGs. However, the games below have stood up well in actual play for me, and that's the basis of my recommendation. Some are rules light, some rules heavy, but all have given gaming groups over the year a great experience.
If you're a novice Game Master or gamer reading this, I hope you get a chance to try out a few of these systems, to see which is the best fit. For more experienced gamers, I hope this list highlights something you might have overlooked somewhere along the way. With that in mind, let's go to the list:
BBF is the newest game on this list, and easily one of the most impressive. Using a roll-under percentile system, it is an immensely easy system to jump in and play. For such a light RPG, it is surprisingly robust and well-supported, and the layout is superb. My daughter (8) has been able to jump right in and get this system immediately, yet there’s still enough here for longer-term play. The spells can be quickly customized and parlayed into whatever desired effect one might want, and the rank and skill system makes playing interesting hybrids such as a Warrior-Thief or Scholar-Leader an absolute blast. This beats anything else I’ve seen out there in at least the past year.
BareBones Fantasy is available in pdf, softcover, hardcover, and print/pdf bundles from RPGNow.
Rolemaster has been derided over the years as “chartmaster”, but that name belies the speed and simplicity of resolution once character creation is complete. RM’s open-ended percentile system gave us the gift of the critical hit and critical fumble, and the hobby is all the better for it. The massive spell lists, the hilarious and grisly crit charts, and the depth of character ability and customization have all been massive hits with every group I’ve ever played with. There’s a new Rolemaster version in playtest, but I still find Rolemaster 2nd Edition/Rolemaster Classic my edition of choice. Yes, character generation is a bear, but it’s like anything else in gaming—only use the parts you need. The payoff in terms of character options, critical hits, and open-ended resolution is well worth it.
Various Rolemaster 2e/Classic titles may be found at RPGNow, both in pdf and print-on-demand. The print copies from the initial print run have become very scarce and expensive, so you'll have to look around on those.
Palladium Fantasy, 1st Edition
Written in a time when Palladium Books products were somewhat less gonzo, Palladium Fantasy 1e is one of the best games and fantasy RPGs produced in the mid-80s. With playable, 3-D humanoid characters such as Wolfen and Goblins, PFRPG had a more involved combat system, expanded martial and non-martial classes, evocative and diverse magic systems, and a surprising amount of setting depth and consideration at a time when it was not the norm. An inspired product, it is written in an enthusiastic, engaging style that makes you want to grab your dice and start gaming. Forgotten by many, it deserves a second look. I consider it far superior to the 2nd edition of the game.
PFRPG 2e is available for pdf download from RPGNow, or can still be found cheaply on Amazon. The supplements for the line also remain largely available through various sites.
Castles & Crusades
When the Old School Revival was first gaining steam, I had great luck bridging the gap between players of newer and older games with Castles & Crusades. The game delivered a quintessentially classic style of play, but being based on d20, was instantly recognizable to my Pathfinder and D&D 3.x-playing friends. The game is a natural meeting place for folks from several gaming traditions, and is immensely easy to both run and adjudicate.
You can check out RPGNow or the Troll Lord Games website for your C&C needs.
Microlite 74 and Microlite 75 have been my go-to convention games for several years now. They are just about as rules-light as one can reasonably go and still have the essential framework for an old-school gaming experience. The Microlite library overall is free, but donations for this great work go to a very worthy cause--the fight against cancer. The next time you need a fast-playing, free game for a one-off or last-minute convention game, Microlite 74/75 should have your back.
Check out Microlite 74/75 and the rest of the Microlite line at RetroRoleplaying.
The brainchild of the incomparable Erick Wujcik, Amber Diceless Roleplaying remains a landmark product in gaming history. With its bidding, scheming, and rewarding for crafty planning, Amber produces players capable of holding their own against whatever paltry Machiavellian dealings other campaigns attempt to provide. A beautifully designed RPG, it is surprisingly flexible, with a scope that can be geared towards true deific struggle or more mundane battles in other avenues of conflict. Interested parties may also want to check out Lords of Olympus, a newer RPG from Precis Intermedia that is deeply and directly inspired by Amber.
The original Amber Diceless RPG is available through RPGNow; Lords of Olympus is available through RPGNow or in print via the Precis Intermedia webstore.
Rules Cyclopedia Dungeons & Dragons
It has now been 22 years since TSR published the Rules Cyclopedia, and it still remains (in my opinion) the single-greatest comprehensive fantasy rulebook of all time. In just over 300 pages, it describes the essence of the D&D experience, taking players all the way from 1st level to Immortal status. Copies may still be found, but the retro-clone Dark Dungeons should also be of interest to those looking to play this iteration of fantasy gaming. With any luck, Wizards of the Coast will designate this work for a reprint in the very near future.
The Rules Cyclopedia is available secondhand through several outlets, but has yet to be made available again via RPGNow at the time this list was made. Dark Dungeons may be found here.
Further Afield: Epic Role Playing is a rules-heavier RPG that has some of the most divergent and unique magic systems out there. Swords & Wizardry is of course a well-supported retro-clone of classic D&D. Michael Wolf’s Warrior, Rogue & Mage is a lighter system with some clever balancing between three character classifications, and is free to boot. Of course, there is also Pathfinder, which has retained and attracted a very large playbase for those favoring the 3.x style of fantasy gaming. Novus is a strong rules-medium alternative with a well-considered system. Shadow, Sword & Spell is pure sword-and-sorcery goodness.