I keep wanting to like licensed RPGs, but I’ve discovered that there’s a problem with them: they rarely work for me. I either find myself retreading the same ground as the source in an un-fun way, or I find myself deviating so far from the source that it’s no longer the same thing. It’s very hard to find that sweet spot, particularly in the case of source materials that I love for the characters more than the setting.
But there’s one significant exception to this for me: Babylon 5. It’s my favorite science fiction show (or movie) ever, and part of the beauty of it is that it’s a relatively well-developed world, but big enough that there’s plenty to do without being, or even encountering, the main characters from the TV series. It also happened to spawn an RPG that captured that middle ground, and was a good RPG in its own right: The Babylon Project. Sadly, it only made it to one supplement and is now long out of print. Happily, there’s a whole pile of Babylon 5 D20 books to draw upon, full of good RPG content (once you dump the rules parts), to give you just about anything you want that isn’t in the Lurker’s Guide or the TV show itself.
What The Babylon Project got so right was in focusing on character backgrounds and stories (while also having a pretty standard stat/skill system), rather than trying to focus too closely on the specific events of the TV show. If you’re a big fan of the series, you already know all that. If you’re not, it’s just unnecessary detail. What you need is enough about the setting to tell your own stories, about your own characters, not just make pastiches of the main characters in similar stories.
Well, there’s “still play”, and then there’s “still play”. The oldest published RPG I have played recently is probably The Shadow of Yesterday (we’re playing it now). I also regularly return to Primetime Adventures, though it’s been a couple years since we last played it. And Primetime Adventures is pretty much my go-to game when I don’t have some other game specifically in mind, so I’m sure I’ll play it again some time soon.
And then there are several older games that I would play at the drop of a hat, but it’s been many years since I last have: Ars Magica, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Underground, The Babylon Project, Everway, Fading Suns, Deadlands (the original), or Over the Edge. I still buy all the Ars Magica supplements as they come out, and try to find time to read them.
The oldest published game I actually have played semi-recently is Rolemaster: I played for a bit about 4 years ago with a group that is still playing the original edition, 30 years later. But I don’t really think it’s fair to say that I “still” play or read it—I haven’t touched it since then, didn’t read any of the books at the time, and before that group I had last looked at a Rolemaster book in about ’85.
The only games older than The Shadow of Yesterday that I’ve both recently played and intend to play again in the future would be my own Four Colors al Fresco, created in 1999, released as a free beta PDF around 2004, but not yet properly published. It will be this fall/winter, if I can make the time between school and work.
But of games that I’ve never gotten to play, I guess I’d have to say that Undergroundis the never-played game that I most want to play. It beats out the others by virtue of its genre and mechanics. The unique blend of dystopia, cyberpunk, and supers, used to foment social commentary, is something I’ve not found even half of in any other game. The mechanics are not as novel as some games, but still provide some nice touches. I’m particularly fond of the character creation, which puts the player in an impossible situation that mimics the impossible situation their characters are in, and the rules for how characters’ actions change society, always with unintended consequences—I believe Underground was the first commercial RPG to have formal mechanics for this.