13 Great Classic ROLE-PLAYING GAMES That AREN’T Dungeons & Dragons

Columnist JIM BEARD has dice on the brain.

After all, he’s got a new book out: D20 or Die!, a collection of essays from a variety of contributors that recall the heady days of role-playing games in the ’70s and ’80s.

The book was just released through Amazon — click here to order. “In D20 or Die! writer-editor Jim Beard acts as a game-playing guru as he expands his “Memories from Today’s Grown-Up Kids” series of pop-culture reminiscences to crack the covers of all the classic, old-school, tabletop role-playing games of legend and lore! Just watch those hit points, adventurers!” reads the book’s description.

Anyway, to mark the occasion, Jim has put together a trio of columns that celebrate those RPGs of yore. The first is below and the other two will “roll” out in the coming days.

Dig it.


I get it, I really do—Dungeons & Dragons has always dominated the tabletop role-playing game field, practically created it in fact, but I’m here to tell you there’s something more. A lot of somethings, actually.

Back when I gamed regularly, when I had a lot more hair but was still nearsighted, D&D was my go-to, but while my friends experimented with other, uh, medicinal concoctions, I chose to expand my mind into other games. When I did, I found there was life beyond the Beholders and Bugbears.

Settle in for a brief celebration of a whole passel of RPGs that, just because they weren’t D&D, had to try harder and fly farther.

Boot Hill (TSR, 1975). Did you know Boot Hill was only the third game TSR published? Interestingly, it’s supposedly the first RPG to use percentile dice rolls and had a huge focus on gunplay as opposed to more peaceful means of solving problems. Go figure.

Bunnies & Burrows (Fantasy Games Unlimited, 1976). Hey, I actually played this one, so hear me out. Inspired by Watership Down, B&B was not only one of the first games to feature non-human player characters, but also the first to kick up interest in martial arts for role-playing use.

Traveller (GDW, 1977). I suppose it’s a coincidence it hit the same year as Star Wars, but it was probably pretty significant for an SF game to be available when everyone was going gaga for anything with spaceships and galactic empires. Traveller is a true classic among RPGs.

RuneQuest (The Chaosium, 1978). I almost feel bad for any fantasy-based RPG to try to exist alongside D&D, but RuneQuest managed it and became what some see as the second-most popular of its kind. The game’s had a lot of owners and publishers over the years, but it’s still beloved to this day.

Gamma World (TSR, 1978). It was inevitable that a post-apocalyptic RPG would appear on the market. I still have my first-edition box set, and I have a lot of good memories of designing adventures in the decades and centuries following the nuclear apocalypse. Gamma World was a fun melting pot of SF and fantasy.

Champions (Hero Games, 1981). It’s one of the granddaddies of all superhero RPGs, isn’t it? I snatched it up back in the day because I didn’t know better and wanted comic book-type role-playing, but I admit I never cared much for it. Supposedly, Champions was one of the first games where you designed a character first, then “bought” powers and skills for it.

Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium, 1981). Nobody could ever mistake me for a Lovecraft fan, but I really enjoyed the few times I played this one back in the day. I remember how creepy it was, and how easy it was to lose your character’s sanity just by peeking at the pages of some old book.

Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (FASA, 1982). I won a copy of the game from a local gaming store and discovered mine was signed by Walter “Chekov” Koenig. From what I understand, there was a lot of back-and-forth to get it designed in a way that exemplified Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, and not just a hack-and-slash attitude.

Marvel Super Heroes (TSR, 1984). This was it for me, the Big One next to D&D. It had one of the very best, simple-to-learn combat systems that enabled players to duplicate all the Marvel comic book action perfectly and quickly. Once I had this, I never went back to Champions. And boy did I buy a lot of extra material for the game.

The Doctor Who Role Playing Game (FASA, 1985). Not content with just having the biggest SF license around, FASA also went after the biggest British SF license, Doctor Who. I learned the second edition of the game the next year had to eliminate the Sixth Doctor because of some copyright issues. In all, a Doctor Who RPG is still going today, albeit in a different form.

DC Heroes (Mayfair Games, 1985). The day I bought this game is still fresh in my mind. I saw that George Perez cover and felt the weight of the box and I plunked down the coin for it—which, if I remember, was a fair amount. Still, this sucker looked great, despite its overly complicated rules and gameplay. I also picked up the next two editions of it and a lot of supplements.

Ghostbusters (West End Games, 1986). Did you have this one? I almost picked it up a few times, but never did. It has one of the best RPG subtitles ever: “A Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game,” and allowed players to join Ghostbusters International, obviously Peter Venkman’s dream of franchises across the world come true. I wonder if you could fight a Twinkie in it?

Star Wars (West End Games, 1987). Interesting that it took four years after the original movie trilogy ended for a Star Wars RPG to hit the market, but in my opinion, it was worth the wait. There was more than one later version of it, but those two hardcovers in ’87 still rank pretty high for me in terms of slick RPG productions.


— THE ATLAS OF THE DC UNIVERSE: Paul Kupperberg Reveals 13 FASCINATING FACTS. Click here.

— 13 REASONS They Said Roleplaying Games Were Dangerous — and Why They Were Right(?). Click here.

When JIM BEARD’s not editing and publishing through his two houses, Flinch Books and Becky Books, he’s pounding out adventure fiction with both original and licensed characters. In fact, he’s put words in the mouths of Luke Skywalker, Superman, Fox Mulder, Carl Kolchak, Peter Venkman and the Green Hornet… and lived to tell about it. His latest pop culture non-fiction tome is D20 or Die!, available here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. The flood of memories……where to start?! You hit so many familiar buttons. The big two after D&D were Gamma World and Boot Hill. My buddy would have his character running around throwing sticks of dynamite. Good times.

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      • Fantasy role playing games were at top of my list too. And twilight 2000

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  2. Wow! What a trip down memory lane! I never played Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, or Bunnies and Burrows (never even heard of that one!), but Runequest was a favorite, and I used to play with a club that mashed those rules together with ICE’s RoleMaster series, SPI’s Dragonquest, and even a little bit of Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip. To say nothing of all the Chaosium experimentation (Stormbringer, Pendragon, Superworld…). Thanks!

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    • You’re most welcome, man. Please check out my new D20 OR DIE! book. It was written just for people like you.

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  3. Played D&D and Star Wars, but my favs were Marvel Superheroes and DC Heroes! Still have many books and supplements of all of them!

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  4. I also love Call of Cthulu but could never get anyone to play it!

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  5. WEG Star Wars is still a great system! It has been revived as Star Wars REUP, available in pdf form from many legitimate sources. It’s an excellent resource, and includes a lot of tutorials to help beginners learn the rules.

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  6. There was a James Bond RPG from around this mid-1980s period that I recall playing a few times. Don’t recall much if the gameplay, but I remember it being somewhat-campy enjoyment as befitted the state of Bond in the late Roger Moore era.

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    • I’m with you! Gamma World was a great time, but Marvel Super Heroes was the next big one for me after D&D. I also agree that the two initial Star Wars RPG hardcovers hold up incredibly well. Looking forward to the book!

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  7. I used to play Boot Hill, Champions and Traveler with my older brother. I played the Marvel Super Heroes game a lot with friends. So much fun! There was also a spy role playing game we used to play called Top Secret that was great.

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      • Champions got the built-it idea from Supergame (1980).

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  8. I really enjoyed this. Besides Marvel Super Heroes, I never had access to these as I lived in rural Iowa. And I was able to pick that up in the Quad Cities on a trip with my mom, which was over an hour away. Great stuff.

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  9. I’d have dropped Boot HIll and added Ars Magica, myself…

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  10. Add in Top Secret and MERP

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  11. Another I thought of while going through this list was the James Bond 007 RPG (1983) by Victory Games. That was a lot of fun. I still have the box set for that.

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  12. Great compilation! Friends and I still playing D+D in our 50s. Loved Boot Hill and Marvel Superheroes in the 80s too.

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    • Thanks, man! Please take a look at the book – I think you’ll see a lot there to love.

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  13. I played or ran a lot of these games especially champions, I liked the ability to build my own heroes, vit was very math intensive so it was a turn off for most role players so I get it. Just recently I acquired Boot Hill again and now running ot for a small group of friends.

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