A lot of our love for tabletop games comes down to nostalgia. A game we played in the 80s might have terrible rules and a hackneyed game world, but we love it all the same. Sadly, many of those classic RPGs are long out of print. Here’s a look at the best of these lost games.
Out of print is a slippery term these days, with plenty of older games living on in PDF form. Certainly a clever seeker could turn up a PDF copy of even the most obscure game manual with enough effort. For our purposes, “out of print” specifically refers to games that are not available in official form from the legal publisher in any form, print or electronic.
Let’s start in the distant past of RPGs. Arduin Grimoire was created as a sort of unofficial supplement to Dungeons & Dragons, adding new races, magic spells and other modular systems. There was even some copyright controversy, resolved with a bottle whiteout. The Arduin setting had its own distinct flavor, and the unforgiving rules earned the game fans as well. The primitive art carries a lot of charm.
There are no other games or settings quite like Paranoia. Players must survive within the rigid (and constantly changing) laws set by the Computer, which rules over a future society living in a giant dome. It’s tense and brutal, but at the same time it’s filled with slapstick humor and over the top action scenes, a blend that’s hard to describe and amazing to experience. Paranoia’s out of print status is a little vague – Mongoose Publishing seems to have pulled the latest edition from both print and PDF sale, but nothing official has been announced, as far as I can tell. Update: Industry sources told me off the record there may be some developments with Paranoia in the coming months.
Star Wars D6
West End Games produced the first Star Wars RPG in 1987, and it’s the game most frequently cited when I asked people about their favorite OOP games. It uses a D6 system (originally developed for a Ghostbusters RPG) that lots of gamers and game designers admire. In the roughly ten years of its life, the Star Wars RPG spawned over 100 adventures and sourcebooks and even an ongoing magazine. A lot of the expanded universe is actually based on material first created for this game.
You’ll often hear this game referred to as “FASERIP,” an acronym for the game’s seven basic attributes. Nostalgia is a huge factor here, as the system itself isn’t really all that great. But my memories of the game (and those of thousands of other 80s gamers) are tied to that brilliant looking “Universal Results Table,” and the little paper fold-up miniatures.
It’s actually quite difficult for a game to fall entirely out of print today. The ease of on demand printing and PDF storefronts, not to mentioned Kickstarters breathing new life into once forgotten games means almost everything is still available somewhere. The exceptions tend to be games tied to licensed intellectual properties, like Star Wars and Marvel comics. Once the license has been purchased by a new publisher, it ensures that the old versions of the game can no longer be printed or supported. It’s why Green Ronin’s decision to base their DC RPG on the pre-existing Mutants & Masterminds system is so brilliant.
This explains why Marvel SAGA is the second Marvel licensed RPG on this list (I could have added Margaret Weis Productions’ Marvel Heroic as well, which became out of print very recently). It’s an innovative game that uses no dice, with players drawing from a deck of cards to create characters and resolve battles. This is one of my favorite RPGs of all time simple because the system is so unique and the cards allow the GM to turn up unpredictable circumstances that mirror the plot turns of a comic book.
The Marvel SAGA game was based on a system created for the Dragonlance Fifth Age RPG. While both SAGA games are quite rare and expensive, the Dragonlance one is particularly hard to find. I still have yet to see a copy in person, although for some reason the price has come down in the last few years. I’m looking forward to playing this one someday, even though some reviewers at the time felt the magic system was clunky and the published adventures unplayable.
I hadn’t heard of this gem, so I asked game designer Jonathan Lavallee why he remembers it so fondly. “Mostly the backlash rules for magic. Figuring out ways to work around them, and the fact that it made magic really risky,” he told me. I have to assume the amazing art didn’t hurt. It looks like Cracked Magazine mad a fantasy RPG, and that is not a criticism.
This is another personal favorite that no one else mentioned. But I will always love Chill. I played the second edition, from Mayfair Games, and we used it to recreate the X-Files with our own team of agents investigating supernatural events. I’m pretty sad that I missed the first edition, which featured supplements narrated by Elvira. Because everything is 13 times as awesome when you add Elvira.
There are a few beloved games that almost made this list, but turned out to actually be in print in some format or another. Steve Jackson Games offers PDF versions of Toon, for instance, and Tales from the Floating Vagabond recently had a successful Kickstarter to reboot it. Talislanta, meanwhile, is available completely free in electronic form from the publisher. Every book, every edition. Deadlands has a current edition and classic editions are still supported, while Amber Diceless continues to exist in a sort of PDF limbo (although the system was recently licensed for an original setting).
Do you have any favorite hard to find RPGs that didn’t make the list?