10 RPGs that dominated the ’90s

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The ’90s was a renaissance period for tabletop role-playing games. Since being released in the mid-70s, Dungeons and Dragons had dominated the RPG market. If you were playing something that wasn’t D&D in the 80s, it was because you were so into the hobby you wanted to try more innovative and original designs, or you wanted to play a different system because it was backed by a powerful IP.

By the late 80s, people started to get tired of D&D. The design was old, and the rules were scattered all over the place. 2nd edition, released in ’89, was supposed to fix the game’s biggest problems by streamlining the rules and updating them for the upcoming decade. Unfortunately while gamer’s wanted darker and more mature themes, TSR decided to make D&D more family friendly in response to religious nutjobs and daytime talk show hosts making up stories about its relationship to Satanism. They also went with a marketing strategy of producing as many rules supplements and campaign settings as they could to increase sales. Meanwhile no efforts were made to innovate the game’s mechanics, or adapt the game to emerging trends.

TSR’s handling of 2nd edition ultimately destroyed the company, but it also left an opening for innovative RPGs with a better understanding of current gamer culture to finally steal a big portion of D&D’s market share.

These are ten games that dominated the 90s. Some of these games were first published in the late 80s, but they remained popular and hit their peak during the 90s. I didn’t include any games from the late 90s, because the best games from that period didn’t peak until the 2000s. Next week I’ll tackle RPGs from the late 70s and early 80s that aren’t D&D, so check back next Tuesday if you want to go even further back in RPG history.

10. Mechwarrior

There were several mech-themed RPGs that were popular in the 90s. It's a bit surprising because I can't think of anyone I knew in the 90s who played one or wanted to play one. By far the most popular mech-themed role-playing game of the 90s was Mechwarrior. Mechwarrior was based on Battletech. Battletech is a mech-themed wargame played on a hexagonal board with painted miniatures which had optional rules for playing it like a miniature game. In the 90s, Battletech was THE mech game. It was also THE Mech game in the 80s. There were other mech games, but Battletech was by far the most popular, it had the most stuff you could buy for it, and it was the one everyone I knew played.

Mechwarrior's popularity was due to its relationship with Battletech. Not only did they share the same universe, but the product lines were almost entirely compatible with each other. The vehicles, weapons, and lore found in Battletech products could be incorporated into Mechwarrior, and Mechwarrior's lore could be used to set up Battletech scenarios that were true to its in-universe history. After Mechwarrior's release, most Battletech supplements were designed to also be used as Mechwarrior supplements.

Mechwarrior was first published in 1986, however the 1st edition was all about piloting mechs. The 2nd edition, published in 1991, further fleshed out the system with rules for creating characters that weren't mech pilots. Sadly Mechwarrior seems to have been discontinued, with a 3rd edition published in '99 and a 4th edition in 2010. Battletech is still around, but it's not anywhere near as big as it was 20 or so years ago.

9.Rifts

In the 80s Palladium released a game called the Palladium Fantasy Role-playing Game. It was a brand-X alternative to Dungeons and Dragons, although it wasn't a straight knock-off, and some people preferred the Palladium FRPG to D&D. Palladium continued to release new RPGs in different settings and, of course, supplements for all their games, but with each of their games they still used the same basic rules found in the Palladium FRPG, making all of their games cross-compatible. If you owned their Superspies and Ninjas game, for instance, you could use the martial-arts rules in your Palladium FRPG game. Alternatively you could have your Superspies and Ninjas fighting an ancient Wizard who got frozen in time using the magic rules found in the Palladium FRPG.

There were limits of what you could do before things got too absurd though. If your players are a robot, a wizard, a Victorian detective, and Leonardo from the Ninja Turtles, that just comes off as silly, and there's no world they'd all fit into together. That is, until, Palladium solved that problem by releasing Rifts in 1990.

Rifts is a multi-genre game that takes place in a post-apocoliptic future that has detailed settings for each region of the world that covers nearly every genre imaginable. Not only that, but the world is also full of rifts, which are dimensional portals that lead to alien worlds, alternate universes, and any sort of setting that can be imagined.

As cool as Rifts sounds, it was built on top of the Palladium system, a system that is known for being very rules heavy and strict relative to other systems from the 80s, a period when rules heavy RPGs were the norm. Rifts doesn't help simplify the Palladium system, instead it slaps even more rules on top of it.

Its setting is awesome, but always having been sold as an RPG for advanced players, its system is an acquired taste that's made for a specific kind of gamer. If it's your bag though, Palladium is still around and releasing new Rifts material, with hundreds of books having been previously published.

8. Fudge

FUDGE, the Freeform Universal Donated Game Engine, was created by RPG players on USENET in a project led by Steven O'Sullivan, a game designer who had worked on several Gurps projects for Steve Jackson Games.

The 90s were a bad time to be into RPGs if you didn't have a lot of disposable income. Although most games could technically be played with just one book (2nd Edition D&D required three), it was a common tactic for publishers to offer lots of rules supplements and additional setting information with the implication that you should probably have this too. TSR was by far the biggest offender with their D&D line, but most of the companies were doing it, just to a lesser extent. Being a broke teenager in the 90s, I remember how difficult it was to participate in the hobby, with most games seeming to need a hundred or more dollars worth of rulebooks to play. Although it was a great way to fleece gamer's who got into the hobby in the 80s and now were young adults with careers and disposable incomes, it made it really hard for young gamers and college students, the demographics that traditionally grew the hobby, to discover RPGs.

Then in 1992 a group of players came together on the Internet and created FUDGE, an RPG for paupers. The main draw of FUDGE was that it was free, at least it was if you owned a computer and had an Internet connection. Fudge wasn't just free though, it also picked up on most of the emerging trends that would become popular in 90s RPGs. FUDGE is a generic system that can be adapted to fit any sort of setting. It's rules light, using an adjective based skill system with everything being determined by rolling 4d6. The core rulebook is just over 100 pages, with a lot of it being optional rules and examples, and it's all anyone needs to play. The game also encourages storytelling and role-playing while discouraging lots of dice rolling and character min-maxing, although the system's open enough to be played any way a group prefers. The rules can easily be modified and expanded to add anything a game master might imagine into the game, like mutant superpowers, space ships, and magic systems.

Fudge is still around today, and its still free. The original 1995 rules can be downloaded, and updated rules using the OGL license are also available. FUDGE publisher Grey Ghost Games offers an expanded rulebook for purchase, and FUDGE is used as the skeleton of the FATE RPG system.

7. Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game

Originally released in 1987, the game really hit its stride with the 2nd edition released in '92 and revised in '96, and it was a staple RPG of the 1990s. Published by West End Games, the Star Wars rules and mechanics were largely derivative of the company's earlier Ghostbusters role-playing game. Ghostbusters was critically acclaimed when it was released for its minimalist rules light system, and West End Games was a pioneer in the rules light trend in RPGs.

Star Wars had innovative mechanics that fit perfectly with 90s RPG culture, but that's not why people played it. People who played Star Wars: The RPG played it because they wanted to play Star Wars. As far as being a giant Star Wars sandbox for players to make up their own stories in, this game delivered. The game's sourcebooks are still considered some of the best references for the pre-Disney expanded universe, and several Star Wars authors were instructed to use them when writing their novels. Parts of the expanded universe were initially created for this RPG.

The game is everything a Star Wars fan could ever want. West End Games lost the rights to Star Wars in 1999, and since then new Star Wars RPG's have been released by Wizards of the Coast and Fantasy Flight. West End Games reimplemented its Star Wars rules and mechanics into a generic space opera game, D6 Space.

6. Mage: The Ascension

Mage: The Ascension was the third of the five core games published by White Wolf that shared the World of Darkness setting. The first game, Vampire: The Masquerade, appears later in this list. The second, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, was good in its own right, but never became as popular as Mage and Vampire. The fourth game, Wraith: The Oblivion, wowed critics with its original setting, but didn't get played all that much. The final game, Changeling: The Dreaming, most fans found disappointing. All of the World of Darkness games share the same basic rules, so all the games and their spin-offs and supplements are cross-compatible. Mixed player parties are possible, but the games weren't balanced for it, and it creates its own story challenges. However with Live Action Role Playing events (LARPs) that use lighter rules and have dozens of players, mixed parties are more viable and the cross-compatible rules make World of Darkness a strong LARP system.

Mage plays a lot like the other World of Darkness games. The game uses relatively simple rules, and the mechanics are all centered around rolling a number of d10s based on your stats and counting how many dice roll higher than an action's difficulty rating. Even though the game's mechanics are solid and innovative, that isn't the game's focus. Most of the game's rulebook, and most of the pages in its supplements as well, are focused on fleshing out the world's setting, history, and story. Players presumably play as Mage's who are devoted to one of the nine middle paths. This puts them in the middle of a war between the extremist factions. One faction is devoted to order and their magic revolves around using advanced technology, one faction is devoted to chaos and they're just frickin' crazy, and one faction is devoted to destruction and is actively trying to destroy the world.

Probably the most unique and coolest part about Mage is its magic system. Instead of using spells, players are able to shape reality. There are nine different prime forces that control the universe that players are able to put stat points into. The higher the stat, the easier it is for the player to manipulate that force, and the more powerful things they can do with it. The rulebook gives some examples of what players can do with different abilities at different levels, but ultimately the possibilities are limited only to their imagination.

5. Ars Magica

Ars Magica was first released by Lion Rampart Games in 1987 with a 2nd edition in 1989. Lion Rampart Games merged with White Wolf Magazine to form White Wolf Studios, and the new company released a third edition in 1992. White Wolf studios also published the World of Darkness games, and the d10 dice pool mechanic that's at the core of all World of Darkness games was originally developed for Ars Magica.

Ars Magica is a medieval fantasy game, and at the time of its release there was an oversaturation of medieval fantasy RPGs. Ars Magica differentiates itself by being set in a mostly historically accurate early 13th century Europe with fantasy additions, which makes the game sound awesome to history buffs, but makes it seem more boring to everyone else. Considering its the originator of the innovative mechanics World of Darkness is based on, Ars Magica could have become the RPG that defined the 90s if it had a more marketable setting. Instead it achieved a respectable cult following that got larger following the success of Vampire: the Masquerade due to it being published by the same company.

Another innovation pioneered by Ars Magica, and one that wasn't incorporated into the World of Darkness games, was its troupe system. In Ars Magica, players are part of a magical order, and each player makes their own player character. Each player also makes a companion character, and the group collectively creates mercenaries and servants that work for the group. During an adventure, only one player plays as their player character, and the other players take on the roles of the companion and the servants, who are collectively controlled characters played by different players adventure to adventure. Because the roles are swapped around in Ars Magica, the same player doesn't have to be the game master every session. The role of game master can change from adventure to adventure, with all players having the chance to game master and the opportunity to play as a character.

4. Shadowrun

With its first edition released in '89, and its 2nd edition in '92, no other RPG screams, 'I am a product from the 90's' as much as Shadowrun does. The game takes place in a cyberpunk dystopian future, but also includes lots of medieval fantasy elements, such as a magic system and the ability to play as staple fantasy races like Elves, Dwarves, and Orks.

In Shadowrun, governments are controlled by mega-corporations. Players are criminal mercenaries that live in the shadows and earn money by taking jobs doing heists, attacking rival corporations, taking down the man, and similar things.

Although the game's rules work just fine, there's nothing incredibly special about them. The game's big draw was its sci-fi cyberpunk with classic fantasy elements setting. It's essentially Dungeons and Dragons in the near future with guns and a bit more moral ambiguity, which if you were a role-player circa 1992, that description would sound frickin' awesome.

Shadowrun released two well regarded video games during its peak in the mid-90s, one for the Super Nintendo and one for the Genesis, and both still receive critical acclaim today. Shadowrun's publisher, FASA, is no longer in business, but the RPG lives on with a trilogy of videogames released in mid-2010s, and the 6th edition of the tabletop game released just this year. Shadowrun will probably never be as popular as it was during its peak though. The setting is just too drenched in 90s culture to age well.

3. Planescape

The 90s was a dark age for D&D fans. 90s role-players generally wanted games with exciting settings, darker themes, heavy role-playing, and lighter rules. 2nd edition D&D was the exact opposite of all those things. TSR made the marketing decision of removing any moral ambiguity from the D&D rules in order to appease parents who had been led to believe the game might be satanic. They cut creative ties with the game's co-creator, Gary Gygax, and later Dragonlance authors Hickman and Weiss, losing the popular Dragonlance setting in the process. TSR's main focus on building D&D was making more and more rules and settings for the game in order to sell more books. It was a strategy that made the game one of the most rule heavy RPGs of the era if all of the supplemental rules were used, and one of the most expensive RPGs to come into as a new player, or remain current on as a veteran player. People were getting tired of TSR, and even though D&D was probably still the most played RPG on the market, players were moving on to other systems putting TSR into a financial death spiral.

Before TSR finally bit the dust, they came out with the Planescape setting. Planescape wasn't the typical medieval fantasy setting the game was known for. Instead players were planeswalkers, adventurers that could explore the entire universe travelling through different planes. There were now rules and setting information for players to travel to strange new alien worlds, heavenly and hellish planes, elemental planes, and many other imaginative places. Planescape was also completely compatible with almost every setting and rules supplement ever published by TSR.

Planescape wasn't an original idea. Rifts released four years earlier with a similar idea, and like TSR's Planescape, Rifts was compatible with all of the rules and supplements Palladium had previously published. It was also a transparent play by TSR to develop a setting whose primary goal was selling as many new books to its players as possible. In addition to being compatible with everything in TSR's existing library, the large number of planes meant that players who wanted to explore the entire setting would have to buy dozens of books to do so. Planescape didn't save TSR either. The company continued its death spiral and nearly dissolved completely before Wizards of the Coast bought it.

However Planescape was a new take on D&D. It was a colorful and cool setting. The books had a lot more fluff, and although the system was still built upon the rules heavy and outdated standard D&D system, it was at least making an attempt to have a deeper setting and be more focused on role-playing. Planescape got people excited about playing D&D again. The setting has since been fully incorporated into the standard D&D's universe, and it was the campaign setting used in Planescape: Torment, a classic CRPG which has received more critical acclaim than any other D&D based video game.

2. Call of Cthulhu

I had a hard time figuring out if Call of Cthulhu belonged here, or on the list of 80s RPGs. The first edition was released in 1981, and it was incredibly innovative and ahead of its time. The 4th edition was released in '89 and the 5th in '92, and despite the game's age it was still one of the most original game's of the 90s and one of the most popular and beloved as well. I can't imagine anyone in the 90s who had played Call of Cthulhu not including it in their list of top five RPGs of all time.

The base game, like many of Lovecraft's stories, took place in the 1920s in the Northeastern US, although supplements were released that changed the setting and period of the game. Rather than play as the larger than life figures usually found in RPGs, player characters in Call of Cthullu are more or less normal people. In a typical adventure, players would be tasked with solving a Lovecraftian mystery by moving from one role-playing scenario to the next while gathering clues. Being normal people, players usually had to think their way through problems, and often the only right solution was to run away. Adventures were meant to be brutally difficult, and most player characters wouldn't make it through a single adventure without being killed or driven insane.

Call of Cthulhu continues to remain in print. The most recent edition is the 7th which was published in 2014, and featured a significant revision to the game's rules.

1. Vampire: The Masquerade

When it was released in 1991, Vampire: The Masquerade incorporated everything that was trending with 90s RPG players while perfectly hitting the counterculture zeitgeist of the period. It was a massive success, and it was the first RPG that didn't exist in the shadow of D&D, but challenged its position as king of the hill.

Since the very beginning of role-playing games, there has been this idea that RPGs aren't supposed to be about stats and rules and rolling dice, they're supposed to be about role-playing and collective storytelling. Despite this idea being printed as a mantra in most rulebooks, through out the 80s Dungeons and Dragons had a lot of stats and rules, and the mechanics were largely centered on combat and leveling up. Although there were a few games that attempted minimalist role-play centered designs, most games differentiated themselves from Dungeons and Dragons by having more detailed rules and stats, more options for upgrading character, and more detailed combat systems.

When Vampire released in 1991, we finally got an RPG that was everything game designers had always told us RPGs should be. Vampire's mechanics were solid, but its rules were designed to be simple and intuitive using the same dice pool system used in later World of Darkness games. Most of Vampire's rulebook was spent fleshing out its world and setting. Although the game included rules for combat, the game's focus wasn't on combat, but rather political maneuverings within vampire society. The game took every opportunity to stress that this was supposed to be a game about role-playing and storytelling, and everything in the game's rulebook was derived from that ethos.

Although the rights have changed hands a few times, Vampire and its larger World of Darkness setting are still around, but they've never been able to regain the popularity they enjoyed in the 90s. The fifth edition, released in 2018, faced controversy when it looked like the publisher was specifically targeting neo-Nazi's as a demographic to buy their game, and it faced controversy again this year when a supplement used the Chechnya anti-gay purges as a backdrop for an adventure. Vampire was hugely important in shaping the way RPGs are designed and played, and it was the first game to really move the hobby away from its D&D roots. Today most fans acknowledge that there are a lot of different ways to enjoy RPGs, and none of them are wrong, its just a matter of preference. Different RPGs are now designed for all kinds of players, whether they want innovative mechanics, heavy role-play, or lots of stats and dice rolling. D&D has even become a better game that's now enjoying yet another renaissance. Vampire's 90s counterculture vibe hasn't aged well, and its innovations are old hat. In a world where it's becoming more difficult and less special to be edgy and dark, maybe its time we acknowledge how great Vampire used to be, and then let it finally rest in peace.

5 comments

    1. I didn’t include any games from the late 90s because they weren’t around for most of the decade. If I ever do a list for the 2000s, something from Silhouette will probably end up on it.

  1. You missed a number of other ‘dark’ roleplaying games, notably Kult – which was a successful translation of a Swedish game, and more obviously Cyberpunk 2020. Feng Shui created a splash against this tendency, as did Castle Falkenstein and so did Deadlands, although this was still technically a horror game (just more jocular in tone). One should also take note of the rise in Mind’s Eye Theatre (LARP) gaming, and diceless gaming which was pioneered with Amber Diceless.

    Fudge, I’m afraid, barely registed in significance at the time, while Heavy Gear was a lot more prominant in game circles than Mechwarrior ever was.

    In terms of Call of Cthulhu, in fact, it was regarded as a bit stuffy in the early 1990s compared to all the other horror RPG games that emerged. A number of popular 70s and 80s games suffered a bit of a hiatus in the 1990s – RuneQuest was barely seen, for example. However, Call of Cthulhu reclaimed a ‘cool spot’ in the later 1990s with the emergence of the Delta Green supplements (that essentially tied it to The X Files).

    1. I almost put Cyberpunk 2020 on the list. It was the last game I cut to get it down to ten. And I honestly forgot that Amber was a thing.

      I’ll disagree on Fudge though. As someone who spent most of the 90s a broke teenager with equally broke friends, Fudge’s free rules were a godsend. It’s also the only game other than D&D I remember getting a lot of play in online chatrooms in the 90s.

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