Pencil and Paper RPGS have always had a special place in my world of gaming, I think it’s no doubt a result of the fact that while most games are played, in many ways pencil and paper RPGS in addition to playing include a creative process where players take on the roles of game world designers. We create our characters, we create the world we play in and we invent the story’s our characters experience. It’s as much an art form as it is a game. That said over the years there have been literally thousands of role-playing game systems and they are not all created equal. I thought that it might be fun to create a top 10 list of my favorite RPG’s and explain what makes each one special and unique.

Without further ado, here is the top best pencil and paper RPG’s.

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NO. 1 : Alternity by TSR

Alternity was released somewhere between the end of TSR and beginning of Wizards of the Coast era in the late 90’s. This is the precursor game system to the D20 era, although in many ways while the designers of the original D20 system where all involved in the development of Alternity it is a far cry from that system even though it shares several key concepts. There are three things that really separate Alternity from other RPG’s, all of which make up the whole that make this one of the best RPG’s in existence in particular if you are a science-fiction fan.

First and foremost there is a clear separation between Class, Level and Skill. It is a merger of a class, level and skill system not unlike the D20 system, but with a skill point buy system that ensures there is true customization without sacrificing a characters effectiveness in or out of combat to specialize in any given area. After Alternity the era of class/race pigeon holding began under the D20 system, starting with Wizards 3d edition D&D and ultimately trickling down through the various versions of the D20. While these systems carried with them their own genius, ultimately this was the last system out of TSR and perhaps the only system that allowed for truly unique character customization without a lot of class driven limitations.

The second key to the game was its groundbreaking StarDrive campaign setting that catapulted the systems success through its clever writing and truly universal and epic science-fiction setting. Unquestionably one of the best campaign books ever written and it’s only available for the Alternity system.

Finally there is the dice mechanic itself. Both simple, yet spanning the entire system as a core dice mechanic ensures that games are never slowed down by rules. Once you learn the system you will find it quite rare to have any reason to reference the rules. It was a system designed for play, yet the mechanic just works great to give the vision of science fiction a down to earth, realistic sense of things. It was both a heroic system allowing players to distinguish themselves as hero’s, but also a realistic system forcing players to really think about their actions and fear the dangers of the game world.

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NO 2. Pathfinder by Paizo

Pathfinder is really the definitive final version of the D20 fantasy system (D&D 3.5 rule set). It very wisely expands the system cautiously while limiting it to a core mechanic and core books. A single book that encompasses the entire system is all a player ever needs and Paizo’s dedication to quality supplements focused on adventure paths (modules) ensure that you aren’t drowned by an endless array of rule contradiction as is the case in most modern franchises, its precursor 3rd edition in particular. Additionally the system has been streamlined for play and again you will find it a rare occasion to have to look up rules once you learn the system and if you know the 3.5 rules aside from some improvements to the rules and clarification on critical failures of the 3.5 rules you already know the system making the transition simple as pie. Pathfinder stands out as one of the best fantasy based RPG’s in the market with an old school feel yet new age simplicity.

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NO 3. The World Of Darkness by White Wolf

White Wolf made famous by its first world of darkness took their game world and re-invented in the second coming of this amazing horror genre game. While the game world changed in many ways the key aspect that attracted me to the game is that it was now a truly together and whole world rather than a number of separate game worlds that didn’t mix well. You can mix Vampire, WereWolf, Hunter and even plain good old fashion mortals into a single flawless experience. The game does horror beautifully and as always all writing from White Wolf is exceptional and their support for the game phenomenal. White Wolf ensures that its game system is fluid and as much part of the creative process as it is a part of the gaming process. I have had some outstanding experiences under the new world of darkness which is without question superior in every way to the old system. For Horror fans there is no question in my mind that this is a one stop shop for everything you will ever need.

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NO 4. GURPS by Steve Jackson Games

GURPS to me represents a real departure from traditional role-playing games, not just because of its universal approach to world physics allowing players to blend their game worlds without any restriction but also because it remains one of the true hold outs to the classic no apologies for complexity systems. It definitely takes a certain type of gaming group to pull off a GURPS game but if you let yourself be absorbed by its many depths and its incredible attention to detail the result will be phenomenally unique gaming experience. Not for the faint of heart to be sure, but to me GURPS represents a game system without borders and when you can’t find a game mechanic to fit a certain game world GURPS is ready to pick up the torch and help you along the way. I don’t play GURPS often because its complexity has a tendency to overwhelm less experienced players but when played among veterans who are ready and happy to dive into shark infested waters of complexity this game offers role-playing in a way no other can. The latest edition of GURPS carries on the tradition of Steve Jacksons approach and its community is without question one of the most helpful you will ever find.

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NO 5. Star Wars Saga Edition by Wizards of the Coast

I’m a huge Star Wars fan and when it comes to role-playing games there is nothing better than a system designed from the ground up for a very specific franchise. Star Wars Saga Edition is the final version of the D20 Star Wars game and frankly there is no possible way Star Wars could have been done better than under D20. It has the right feel, design philosophy and mechanical functionality to bring the game world to the RPG table. Simple enough to keep the game going, yet specific enough to bring the Force and the many other nuances of the Star Wars universe to life. One of the few products from Wizards of the coast that didn’t drown in game book bloat, it remains as good today as when it was originally released. If Star Wars is your flavor you need look no further.

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NO 6. SpyCraft by Alderac Entertainment Group

The unique genre that is over the top spy thriller never really had a home until Alderac Entertainment Group took advantage of the D20 system and created a genre specific game. Thanks to the OGL the game took the best parts of the D20 system and managed to very delicately place a layer of mission impossible over it allowing for both the over the top action of a D20 game while simultaneously keeping a very close link to the source material on which the game is based. It is a wonderful marriage and while this genre is not seen often at the game table if you want to try something truly different and unique SpyCraft offers it in spades. I find that this game is one of those that is rarely requested but when I do run it it’s often hailed as one of the best RPG’s I run as a GM.

NO 7. 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons by Wizards Of The Coast

To me Dungeons and Dragons always has been and always will be about Hack and Slash fantasy action and while there have been many versions of Gygaxs’s classic I think this is the most exciting and focused interpretation made to date. It draws on the power of adventure and imagination with great balance and precision. So simple to learn that you can pull it out like a board game, teach everyone the rules and still have plenty of time to enjoy the game. A true rarity in the role-playing game genre where a game is so accessible to literally everyone, yet attracts veterans with the same ferocity D&D has always enjoyed. If there is a flaw with the game it’s that its departure from tradition can have traditionalist up in arms, but that has not dissuaded a community of hardcore fans for which Wizards of the Coast has earned a lot of street credit as one of the few developers that has brought role-playing to the mainstream. Thanks to 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, role-playing is no longer something you have to hide from your peers in embarrassment; it is played in the open.

NO 8. 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons by TSR

It would be a crime for 2nd edition D&D to not make this list, not only is it the granddaddy of role-playing but it is the final iteration of Gygax genius. Nostalgia aside this game still has a place in modern gaming as a classic interpretation of the fantasy role-playing genre deeply rooted in Tolkein goodness. Its unprecedented source material offers a wide array of gaming options and its unapologetic game design philosophy focused on fans offers nostalgia in spades whether you play it for that reason or not. While this one doesn’t see so much play anymore in my groups even after 25 years of role-playing it stands out as the most played game on my list and remains as one of the most requested games for me to run as a GM. It carries with it the spirit of role-playing like no other game and remains a playable classic that just won’t die.

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NO 9. Aberrant by White Wolf

White Wolfs dark take on the world of super hero’s throws out the tights and brings to us a more modern game experience in a simultaneously futuristic version of a super hero game. With its D10 foundation the game mechanic is solid, flexible and easy to run while simultaneously Aberrant offers a near limitless amount of options allowing players to create any super hero they can imagine. White Wolfs classic take however is a dark one, a world of super hero’s who are impersonated in a tragic way allowing for a more human experience and down to earth style of play, yet simultaneously players represent over the top super heroes with enormous power. There are many super hero games but none quite like Aberrant.

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NO 10. Star Trek The Next Generation Role-Playing Game by Last Unicorn Games

I think obviously you must be a Star Trek fan to appreciation the nuances of this game, but when it comes to representing the TV show as a game none have done it better than Last Unicorn Game using the Icon System. A relatively simple mechanic with quite a few limitations most of which are by design focused to brng the classic franchise to life rather than creating a general sci-fi game. I have owned this game for years but have unfortunately only been able to run the game for a few short campaigns due mainly to the fact that most of the players I play with are not Star Trek fans. Albeit they always gave positive reviews to the game which in a way shows off its great design because after all, if a non trekie still managed to find some enjoyment and found little to fault the system the design may indeed be solid. I could think of a number of games that might deserve the number 10 spot on my list more simply because I have played them more often but I put Star Trek here because Its one of those game designs that focuses just the right amount on the content and doesn’t apologize for being designed specifically for fans. I love it, but it’s hard to recommend to anyone but a fan.