When I did my previous article on the ubiquity of D&D and looked for equivalent games, I ran across some game that have been around for a long time, but for whatever reason don’t dominate their respective fields like D&D does. These aren’t games that have been around for twenty years and define their genre; these are the quirky games that mostly define themselves, and bounce in and out of print and between publishers.
Gamma World is a good example of this. There have been seven editions between 1978 and 2010, and depending on how you count, had up to three publishers and six different rules systems. (The first two used a system based on D&D, and had conversion rules in the 1st edition DMG. The third edition fell into the fad at TSR for color-based charts along the lines of Marvel Super Heroes. The fourth edition was closer to 2nd Ed AD&D. The fifth was the first released by WotC, as a worldbook for Alternity. Sixth edition was based on d20 Modern and released by Sword & Sorcery Studios, in a release that apparently removed the endearing goofiness of the setting. Seventh edition was released by WotC again, this time based on 4E. How many rulesets that is depends on how similar you consider the different editions of D&D to be, since there was a version modeled on each of the four editions to date.)
GW can’t be said to dominate its genre so much as define it. The “default” post-apocalyptic setting isn’t as well-defined as fantasy’s is, but GW’s weird stew of influences and elements is recognizable as its own. (It’s partially derived from James Ward’s earlier Metamorphosis Alpha. Of the two other post-apocalyptic RPGs with mutant animals, Mutant Future makes no bones about its source. Palladium’s After the Bomb was originally a supplement for the TMNT RPG, so the presence of mutated animals makes sense.) A GM is less likely to come up with a campaign idea and reach for GW as a base system than to start with GW’s setting and work outwards.
What would define other games in Gamma World‘s niche? As described above, the concepts of the game world are integral to the way the game is perceived and used, and as a result the property has its own definable feel. Its publishing history has longevity but not continuity–it hasn’t been continually in print but has gone away and come back, sometimes from a new publisher or in a new game system. (The difference between the d20 versions of Call of Cthulhu and Gamma World is that for CoC it was another rules system in addition to the existing one; for GW it was the return of a setting that hadn’t been around for a while.)
Here are some examples. Unlike the D&D article, I’m not breaking them down by genre, since they’re too individualistic for that. I’m not including licensed games (with one exception), since the game’s identity comes from the source material first and the game second. (Not that licensed games can’t have their own identities–West End’s d6 Star Wars feels different from Edge of Empire–but it’s outside the scope of this article.)
Ars Magica. Five editions from four publishers between 1987 and 2004. A game of wizards in a medieval Europe that conforms to the beliefs of the era, this game was originally published by Lion Rampant, one of the companies that merged to form White Wolf Publishing. Some of its terms and concepts carried over into Vampire and Mage.
Earthdawn. Five editions from three publishers between 1993 and 2012. A game that was a bit ahead of its time in presenting a distinctive spin on the generic fantasy setting. It has some overlap with Shadowrun.
Paranoia. Five editions (plus a couple of major revisions) from two publishers between 1984 and 2009. A good example of a game whose identity comes primarily from its setting, Paranoia is a game of dark humor set in a post-apocalyptic future. The game is set in an enormous underground complex run by The Computer, whose commands in the struggle against Commie Mutant Traitors must be obeyed–or, more accurately, the PCs’ goal is to avoid being caught disobeying its commands. There’s nothing in that description that could be considered even vaguely generic.
Shadowrun. Six editions from three publishers between 1989 and 2013. I covered this in the D&D article, but as an example of a game that defines its own subgenre, which qualifies it for this one as well. Neither the cyberpunk nor fantasy elements that went into this game are especially original on their own, but the combination of the two is distinctive and well-done.
Tekumel. This is the exception to the no-licensed-games rule. A setting created by Professor M.A.R. Barker, it was the basis of four games from five publishers (one was a reprint) between 1975 and 2005. I make the exception because, while there is more to the setting than the RPGs, the games were the way the setting was introduced (the first Tekumel novel didn’t come out until 1984) and therefore the primary association in most gamers’ minds. (Empire of the Petal Throne is by far the best-known of the four.)
Traveller. Up to nine editions from six publishers between 1977 and 2013, depending on how you count adaptations and spinoffs. Another game I covered in the D&D article; while I found that it was the closest to a D&D analogue for science fiction, it had strikes against it that didn’t make it a perfect fit, and those strikes make it fit well here.
Honorable mention: Metamorphosis Alpha (five editions from four publishers between 1976 and 2007) and Deadlands (five rulesets from four publishers between 1996 and 2006, plus three spinoffs–the winner for highest ratio of editions to time). While there have been many versions of these games over the years, they’ve been largely overseen by their creators, James M. Ward and Shane Lacy Hensley, respectively. I exempt them from the main list for this reason, since this gives them a continuity that the other games on the list don’t have.
Can anyone suggest any other games that fit this model?
Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “I reject your reality and substitute my own”.