I’m thinking of this in that “You are on a desert island and you only have essential tools” sort of way.
It would have to be writing materials of some kind. I think that would be even more important than things like randomizers. Randomizers you can make out of coconuts or fish bones or something, but stuff to keep records with is far harder to produce (although, take just a moment and imagine the Lascaux cave paintings as a chronicle of some group’s RPG campaign – it’s pretty awesome!)
I’m not really a big fan of bells and whistles. Since I run mostly a) online where physical tools are not all that useful, or b) at conventions where any tools I decide to bring I have to lug around all weekend, I really prefer to go minimal whenever possible. I am partial to good quality character sheets though – particularly when I can get the players to actually fill them out and update them… wait, that never happens*. I think mostly it is a holdout from the old days of complex character sheets when there was so much technical information about the character that as GM I needed a standardized place to look for the information.
After character sheets I love a good GM screen. Again I think its largely a throwback to the days when there were a million zillion charts to keep track of and it was nice to have them all in front of me. These days I like the GM screens that you can slide charts and tables into. I honestly find the layout of a lot of GM screens to be baffling – they frequetly have charts and tables that I never use featured prominently, and charts and tables that I DO use crunched down in a corner on the lower right side. They also waste up to 50% of their available space putting a big illustration on one side announcing the name of the game system – which totally makes for an awesome photograph of me as GM with my head poking above the illustration at conventions, but is USELESS for anything other than my ego.
While I am on the subject, let me just give some Kudos to Green Ronin, which actually supplies some extra double-sided, laminated charts for Mutants and Masterminds that are suitable for putting into those plastic table sign standie things. This was an act of sheer genius that I am surprised hasn’t been widely copied. Even if you don’t want to invest in plastic table sign standie things, most conventions now have them sitting around holding table signs, and you can easily procure a couple for your convention game. I invested in some, and one of the big reasons that I am running “League of Extraordinary Felines” at Big Bad Con this year in the Mutants and Masterminds 5th system is that I can plunk those charts on the players side of the GM screen and everyone at the table can have access to them without having to flip through books or squint at the screen. Damn that was a fine idea.
*My beloved wife is a notable exception to this. As a player, I confess that I am not.
Not sure that I like this question. It seems biased in favor of large RPGs that have lots of splat books, adventure books, etc. There are lots of little RPGs out there which come complete, or nearly complete unto themselves that don’t provide anything by way of resources that are completely left out in this particular question.
But OK. Not every question has to be applicable to every roleplaying game I guess.
Ars Magica has unbelievable resources. the writers are all very smart and very dedicated to the game. Many of their supplements read like Masters theses on a given topic edited into game form, complete with lists of references. The game has attracted and inspired a large number of Medieval historians and enthusiasts who have in turn showered the game with love which shines through in the number and quality of resource books produced over its five editions.
Appealing to a broader audience than Ars Magica, the Fate system has really blossomed in terms of resources since it’t most recent reboot as Fate Core (and Fate Accelerated). With numerous setting books now out, as well as toolkit books and compendiums of articles on Fate and how to tweak it, Fate gives roleplaying enthusiasts great options at every level of detail, from those who want to simulate a pre-published setting to those who want to create their own.
Ars and Fate are interesting to compare in terms of their resources (and design philosophy) because they are such opposites. Ars Magica has a specific setting and focuses everything on defining/broadening out that setting in very specific ways. Fate, on the other hand, is largely independent of setting and focuses on giving GMs and players the resources they need to apply the rules to a setting of their choice. Whichever you are looking for, however, there is no denying that these games have quality resources available for them.
Run a game for them. Seriously. GMs almost always want to be players – they love roleplaying so much that they are willing to take on the extra duties and responsibilities of writing the scenarios, buying the books, distributing information, drawing maps, and wrangling conflicting schedules all so that you all can play. But deep in their hearts, GMs WANT to play too. And you should make that happen from time to time. Because if you don’t they will eventually burn out and then there will be no fun for anyone.
Of course, not everyone has the skill set or the willingness to get behind the GM screen and actually run something. For those who don’t –
It doesn’t have to be money of course. Take them to your FLGS and let them pick something out, and then snatch it from their cold, heartless hands and pay for it. Buy them a cool new game aid they don’t have. Sponsor a kickstarter in their name.
Another great option – thank them publicly on social media. Tell people how much you enjoy their game. Generate buzz about it. Say good and kind things. Give compliments. They’re free and they mean a lot.
Finally, give them food. GMs tend to eat like Zoidberg in Futurama. If they are going to run a game that takes hours of preparation time for you, at least feed them.
Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more.
Disclaimer: so far as I know she isn’t really a PWYW publisher. She writes for Evil Hat. And Evil Hat has been very good to us. looking through the list of questions, this may be my last opportunity to shamelessly plug her work, so by God I am going to take it.
Attention Fred Hicks: please don’t have me murdered in my sleep. I want to be awake for it.
RPG layout has never been something that made my jaw drop, except in the very few instances where it was jaw-droppingly BAD. This is extremely unfair to hard-working editors, but for me – and I think for a lot of people – bad editing and layout gets noticed and good editing and layout simply disappear into the flow of the material, letting the reader read without confusion or struggle. Good editing and layout are EXTREMELY IMPORTANT – they organize the flow of ideas into a framework that is easy to follow (or they don’t). Good editing and layout will usually not sell an RPG, but bad editing and layout can certainly tank one.
All that being said, here are some things that I look for in a well-written RPG:
Table of Contents AND Index: they are NOT INTERCHANGEABLE! Look, I know that a good index is an art form – deciding what topics go in and what topics stay out is something that all game designers should put thought into. But you need both. Table of Contents lays out the outline for the book and gives the reader an outline of what is to come so that they can begin to grasp the overall flow of the work (and as a side note, I hate TOCs that just list “Chapter 1”, “Chapter 2” etc. All that tells me is that the damned book has chapters. But I digress). The index allows the reader to look up specific topics that may be partially covered in several places in the book.
Font – please pick a readable font. Yes, you and your twenty-something friends might be able to read the 6-point font, and it is mildly impressive that you have taught yourself to read wingdings as text. But older, lesser mortals want to read your work too, and you want them to give you money. So put the work in some form of legible text, pretty please?
Art – hand-drawn pen-and-ink art can be extremely evocative. It’s my preferred form of RPG art (not for me the lavishly illustrated full-color art of Pathfinder and D&D. Give me sketch art any day!). That said, it is generally a bad – a really bad – idea to use sketch art for things that require a detailed examination – like dungeon maps for example. Yes, they look really cool. But arguments about whether the flaming pi/crusher/spike/poison/dehydrator death trap is in a single square of extends into multiple squares can lead to fist fights and back-stab maneuvers. Also, you may like your handwriting, but others may find it less legible when it is converted into a reduced scale print map of your scenario map.
Organization – character creation stuff should be in the character creation chapter. Skill resolution should be in the game mechanics chapter. World information should be in the world chapter (and yes you can smatter it elsewhere to hold the interest of the readers, but all the important stuff needs to be in the world chapter, and all the rest needs to be put in the index so everyone can find it).
Now I haven’t really answered the question, so let me mention a little game with innovative layout.
Nope. Not going to say another word about it – check it out.
Low/no prep games such as Fiasco and Powered by the Apocalypse are easiest for me to run because, well, they are low/no prep (the category rather says it all I suppose). There are story games that push the envelope of “what is a roleplaying game?” like Questlandia and the Quiet Year.
Almost any game CAN be low/no prep if you are sufficiently familiar with the rules and have put in some time preparing in the past. I used to run Champions with little preparation because I knew the system so well.
I have had a rollicking good time with Vs. Outlaws, both as a GM and as a player. Small enough to fit into a CD case, yet amazingly complete, Vs. Outlaws gives you everything you need to ride the range as a cowboy, fighting criminals (or the law) and doing all those Wild Westy things you want your character to do without becoming bogged down in a long, tedious, and nonsensical rules system (I’m looking at you, TSR’s Boot Hill!). Plus, you can actually order the rules in packs, so you can hand them out to your players and everyone will have a full copy of the rules!
The game is solid, playable, and streamlined. Because when it’s high noon and you’re standing on Main Street ready to skin your smokewagon, you don’t want to get bogged down looking up rules.
Your so-called “friends”: It is a deep, dark secret of the gaming world that few will admit to, but the cold hard fact of the matter is that gamers tackle the difficult (for us) task of actually making friends rather than gaming with strangers and weirdos we meet at back alley game stores almost solely so that we can parasitize their game collections when they need money.
Craigslist: This is like #1 above except for people you don’t know.
Convention flea-markets: As for the above, but you actually have to get into a room full of ravenous, sweaty gamers – often being forced to actually TOUCH people and even MAKE EYE CONTACT in order to be successful. Absolutely worth it when you find that copy of Steel Deep for $5.00. Shower before and after.
Used book stores: these are a good place to look, as the owner/operators often don’t have much idea of what the products are actually worth and so may sell them for a pittance. Also has the advantage of giving you access to multiple copies of every Forgotten Realms novel ever published, as well as a plethora of books on how to write scenarios, often disguised as the Fiction and History sections. Finally, unlike fleamarkets, the other customers and staff don’t want to interact with you any more than you want to interact with them, and moreover have dozens of narrow aisles and tall bookshelves to hide behind, so it’s almost as if you are alone except for that moment you have to go to the cashier.
Friendly Neighborhood Game Stores: WARNING! FLGSs are often staffed by people who will actually charge a reasonable price for their used product. This alone puts them far down on the list of preferred places to shop. One tactic I have been successful with is engaging in an interminable conversation about your character with the staff, holding up the line and doing a great job of casting the equivalent of a sleep spell. However, this must be done with caution, because the staff usually have their own tales to tell, and if your magic resistance fails you may walk out with $1,000.00 plus worth of cards, games, and rule systems.
Dumpsters: high effort, low yield, but if you absolutely MUST have that Pathfinder product to get your new character build approved by the PFS for the upcoming event, possibly worth it. Be on the lookout especially for people weeping over crumpled character sheets and those who have collapsed from the strain of lugging a physical copy of every splatbook and adventure around with them on a pallet jack.
Those boxes in the back corner of your basement: you know that there are some gems there you haven’t seen in years. They’re right next to your old comic books. Go look – it will only take a minute.
Scintillating, brilliant micro-fiction that will keep you reading far into the night, WoA unique setting and sympathetic characterizations of the protagonists make it an absolute page turner!
What about Aftermath?
OK, now that you are done bragging, what OTHER RPG has the best writing?
The original, not the remake (which was good, absolutely). This tiny little product packed a tremendous amount of good writing in an inexpensive, simple product with an easy-to-use system and an evocative horror setting. It was certainly a major influence on my thinking about RPGs in terms of system, setting, and even presentation.
The remake was more or less an expansion of the original with more bells and whistles added. Still good, it lacked the stark, clean, and simple horror of the original.
It would have to be the Hero System. When I first came to the Bay Area we played the living heck out of that system – Champions, Achaean Hero,Justice Inc., Fantasy Hero, Danger International, Star Hero – it was our go-to system for almost everything.
Of course, this was back in the old days (the old days – yesss) before anyone ever had the idea of “hey, lets publish a master rulebook and then a whole bunch of setting books to go with it!” so none of the games were 100% compatible with one another. But we had great fun. I still have fond memories of my JI character, “Wombat” Dundee, Alan Hicks my Star Hero character who spent three entire sessions lying in an autodoc (ok, not such a good memory), or my Achaean Hero character Nineus of Crete, a great hero who carried his nagging crone mother on his back everywhere he went.