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Baker's Dozen

Here Be Not Just Dragons: Stu Horvath's Favourite Tabletop RPGs
The Quietus , October 11th, 2023 17:18

As he publishes a comprehensive new book charting the history of tabletop role-playing games, Stu Horvath picks his thirteen favourite examples of the form in a special Baker's Dozen

Stu Horvath, portrait by Kyle Patterson

Tabletop roleplaying games first appeared in 1974, with the release of Dungeons & Dragons. They’re games of the imagination – in essence, a game master presents a situation, then players decide the actions of their characters, the success of which are determined by cross-referencing the result of a die roll with the value of a character’s appropriate attribute. I discovered Dungeons & Dragons about a little over a decade after it first emerged, when I was in fourth grade, probably because of the Saturday morning cartoon series. I never stopped reading, playing and generally appreciating the vast variety of RPGs in the years since. I started collecting them in earnest around 2014 and began posting about items from that collection on the Vintage RPG account in April of 2017. As of this writing, that account has 2,490 posts amounting to over half a million words on the subject. I wrote a book about RPGs in 2020 (another 180,000 words, give or take), which will hit shelves October 10 of this year as Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground, thanks to MIT Press.

Now, usually, when I talk about tabletop RPGs with folks outside the hobby (which is the vast majority of folks, as the hobby remains fairly niche despite its unprecedented popularity at this current moment), the assumption is that I’m talking about Dungeons & Dragons – it was the first, is undoubtedly the biggest and has left the deepest cultural footprint. When an RPG shows up in a TV show like Community or Freaks And Geeks or Stranger Things, it’s inevitably going to be D&D, or heavily reference its established tropes. But as much as I enjoy D&D, the reason I have an abiding interest in RPGs, and the reason I wrote the book, is because there are so many more games besides it, delivering experiences for every mood and interest. It’s a much stranger world out there, among the independent publishers, the zine-makers and the do-it-yourselfers.

This naturally makes picking thirteen favourites for this Baker’s Dozen a difficult, if not impossible prospect. Setting aside the fact that I love just too many games to begin with, my fondness for a game is often linked to the people I might play it with, or the mood I am in, or any one of countless variables. I’m not going to put on a Carcass record to accompany a family dinner (probably) any more than I’d expect a club to pipe in Mozart on the house system before Poison Ruïn stomp onstage. So, while all the games I’ve picked here are personally significant, I also picked them in order to illustrate the rich cross-currents that run between RPGs and pop culture. In turn, I hope that those readers who cherish their eclectic tastes in music might find themselves surprised by the range of experiences on offer in the world of RPGs beyond the slaying of dragons . Well, there are a still a couple of dragons. Come on, dragons are cool!