Released in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons was the first role-playing game. It’s also consistently been the most popular role-playing game system every year since its release, except for a period in the 90s during its 2nd edition. If you were a role-player in the 70s or 80s, you probably played Dungeons and Dragons, and just Dungeons and Dragons. If you were brave enough to give something that wasn’t D&D a try, there were a lot of alternatives with cool settings and innovative mechanics. This is our list of the Top 10 RPGs of the 70s and 80s that aren’t Dungeons and Dragons. We’re also excluding late 80s releases like the Star Wars RPG or Shadowrun, because those games belong more to the 90s than the 80s. Those games are however included on our list of 10 RPGs that Dominated the 90s.
10. Middle-Earth Role Playing
In 1980 Iron Crown Enterprises published a book called Arms Law. It was a stand-alone supplement meant to be used as an alternative, overly complex combat system that could be used with whatever RPG you were playing. Several years later, after a few more books were published in the series, ICE had a complete fantasy RPG ruleset which became known as Rolemaster. Rolemaster isn't without it's fans, but for every good innovation it made, it made ten more innovations that involved rolling a bunch of dice and cross referencing several charts to find out what happens. Rolemaster is a complicated, numbers heavy system, and it doesn't do anything that some other game didn't do better within a couple years of its release.
What the generic Rolemaster RPG really needed to survive was a strong IP license, and ICE licensed the best fantasy IP there was, Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Middle-Earth flavored Rolemaster came to be known as Middle-Earth Role Playing, or MERP. MERP is Rolemaster with all its flaws, but it plays heavy into the Middle-Earth theme. ICE hired renowned Tolkien illustrators for their gamebooks and created most of the expanded universe Middle-Earth lore.
MERP is a mediocre role-playing system. Rolemaster's number crunching mechanics were a hard sell even in the 80s, and by today's standards the system is so dated it's not worth even trying to play it. The only thing that makes MERP good is that it lets you role-play in Middle-Earth, and for fantasy fans that's more than enough.
MERP did receive a 2nd edition, and a rules-lite spin-off game to help introduce new fans to the system, The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. ICE also created a Middle-Earth CCG in the mid-90s that incorporated a lot of the additional lore from MERP. ICE lost the Tolkien IP in 1999 while they were developing a 3rd edition of MERP, and the company went bankrupt a year later.
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness
Nothing is quite as 80s as the Ninja Turtles. In the mid-80s Palladium games released a Ninja Turtle role-playing game using the same rule system first introduced in the Palladium Fantasy RPG. For the most part that made it compatible with all other Palladium products. Palladium's TMNT RPG was based on the original Mirage Studios TMNT universe, which is a little bit darker and more adult than the cartoon show and the Archie Comics series. The Mirage version is essentially a PG-13 version of the Ninja Turtles, and that's mostly due to violence.
Unfortunately when the game was released there weren't a lot of Mirage Studios comics, and Eastman and Laird had a release schedule of whenever we have time to make them, which became less and less as the cartoon and toy line grew into multi-million dollar properties. Palladium took whatever they could from the Mirage Studios universe, and then they expanded on it with their own material to make it big enough for gaming campaigns.
One of Palladium's big additions, both to the Mirage Studios TMNT universe and their own ruleset, were rules for playing as lots of different anthromorphs including the benefits and disadvantages of playing as different species. At the time of its publication, the only mutants that existed in the Mirage Studios universe were the four turtles, Splinter, and Leatherhead.
Several sourcebooks were released for the game, and Palladium released a spin-off game using the TMNT and Other Strangeness rules called After the Bomb. It took place in a post-apocalyptic world where nuclear fallout had created societies of anthromorphic mutants.
Palladium has long since lost the license and the game is no longer made. I've heard claims that the cartoon show and its kiddie nature killed the once successful game, but I don't know if I buy it. TMNT and After the Bomb books were still for sale at brick and morter stores into at least the late 90s, and into the mid-2000s there were more players interested in TMNT games than any other Palladium series except maybe Rifts.
Released in 1977, Traveller is one of the earliest RPGs. It's also the first RPG that wasn't just trying to be the next Dungeons and Dragons. Traveller's science-fiction theme may not seem all that innovative today, but it's the first RPG about something other than going into dungeons and fighting dragons, and it opened the door to the large variety of RPG themes available today.
Traveller isn't just Dungeons and Dragons in space either. Traveller has an entirely unique rule system built from the ground up for the game. Characters are created using a career system where players make choices that determine their character stats, and its possible for characters to die during creation. Traveller also threw out the idea of experience points and leveling up, and replaced it with social strata and acquiring material wealth.
Not all of Traveller's innovations influenced future RPG designs. In fact most of them didn't. Traveller's real innovation was that it was something different, and that it was willing to experiment with original mechanics nobody had seen before.
Traveller is still being published today, with its 11th edition, the Mongoose 2nd Edition Traveller, being released in 2016. Prior to that was Traveller5 released in 2013. Not content to number its editions like everyone else, Traveller uses its own original edition numbering system that makes no sense to anyone who hasn't spent half a day researching its publication history. I doubt other RPGs will follow Traveller's lead and number their editions in a similar way, but this is what Traveller is all about, innovating for no other reason but to see what the hell will happen.
Released in 1978, RuneQuest has a fantasy theme, and at a glance it looks like yet another fantasy RPG trying to rip-off Dungeons and Dragons. What makes RuneQuest special is that it wasn't trying to rip-off D&D, it was trying to be better than D&D.
RuneQuest is set in the world of Glorantha, which is one of the most fleshed out RPG settings of its era. Glorantha contains most of the staple fantasy creatures found in D&D and other fantasy RPGs, but in some instances at least RuneQuest gives a unique and fresh take on them, and the game contains many original fantasy creatures as well.
What really sets RuneQuest apart from Dungeons and Dragons is its game mechanics. Rather than be inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, RuneQuest has an original system built around rolling percentile dice. The rule system is open ended enough that game masters and players can easily build on it and adapt it to whatever they want it to be.
RuneQuest's rules may be a bit complicated by today's standards, but for its time, if it wasn't a better fantasy RPG than D&D, it was at least an alternative that offered players things that D&D couldn't. RuneQuest continues to have new editions released, the most recent being the 7th edition published in 2018, and Chaosium adapted RuneQuest's mechanics for about a dozen other RPGs, including Call of Cthulhu.
Published by Steve Jackson Games, GURPS is short for the Generic Universal RolePlaying System.
A lot of publishers, such as Palladium, ICE, and Chaosium, used a single set of generic rules that were adapted for most of their games. All of these publishers introduced their generic rulesets by using them to create a game, and then created more games with the same set, making the games more or less compatible with each other. GURPS is different, because with GURPS the ruleset was released by itself, and players were told to go crazy and create whatever kind of game they wanted to play.
GURPS uses a point system for character creation. Gamemasters can decide the relative power level of their campaign, and then set an appropriate point limit for character creation. The point system can also be used as a rough estimate to balance enemy encounters, and it can be used to compare the relative power of characters from different genres and games. GURPS is intentionally open-ended, and the corebook can be used to create any kind of RPG imaginable if the gamemaster is willing to put in the time to create the additional rules and setting for it.
Despite GURPS being a complete game system with just the corebooks, Steve Jackson Games continued to support the RPG with hundreds of supplements, campaign settings, adventure modules, and conversions for popular games using other systems. Just about any imaginable kind of RPG is possible with GURPS, and if you don't want to work out the specifics of something you'd like added to the system, Steve Jackson Games has probably published a book that does it for you.
Pendragon is a game that strives to be just a little bit different than everything else, and is amazing in the execution. Bucking the trend of Tolkien inspired RPG fantasy settings, Pendragon is instead set in a fantasy version of Britain based on the Arthurian legends.
Players are knights in the time of King Arthur doing knightly quests, which are usually of a military or spiritual nature. Each adventure is meant to span an entire year, with characters using their downtime to improve their lands and build their family. If characters don't die, they'll eventually succumb to old age, and they can switch over to playing as their now adult children and continue their family's legacy.
Pendragon is built on a simplified version of RuneQuest's rules. The mechanics revolve around an original system of virtues, vices, and passions that was revolutionary for its time.
Where the game really sets itself apart is its dedication to its Arthurian setting. The game mashes together different parts of British history with the Arthurian mythos to create a setting that isn't historically accurate, but is true to how Britain is depicted in the Arthurian cycle.
Pendragon is still in print today, with the 2nd revision of its 5th edition being released in 2016. Since its release in 1985 there has never been an argument about what the best Arthurian RPG is, just what edition of Pendragon is the best one.
4. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Released in 1986, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is exactly what the name suggests, a fantasy role-playing game set in the same universe as Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniature game. From a marketing standpoint, creating a tie-in fantasy RPG makes a lot of sense. Games Workshop had already created a fantasy world full of world-building lore for the miniature game, and now new products could be sold as both a miniature supplement and an RPG supplement. Warhammer Fantasy Battles would provide the game with a significant fanbase, and fantasy RPGs, particularly Dungeons and Dragons, were really hot in the 80s.
For RPG fans, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay looked like yet another fantasy RPG trying to jump on the D&D money train. It's rules largely reimplement the mechanics used in the miniature game, so not only were the mechanics uninspired, but combat was brutal. The combat system wasn't designed for an RPG, so it wasn't a good fit for the way fantasy RPGs are usually played. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay also hit the scene during a period when the market was oversaturated with Fantasy RPGs, many with innovative rules and stronger licenses. It's amazing anyone bothered to even try Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but when they did try it they found one of the best role-playing experiences available in the 80s.
What made Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay so special was that it could do grimdark fantasy adventures better than anyone else. Other fantasy RPGs, including Dungeons and Dragons, tried their hand at grimdark adventures, but no one ever did it well. Most of the time the material came off as being written by the 80s equivalent of an edgelord, or it was just a party of evil alignment characters murdering everyone like they were Skyrim's dragonborn just before loading a previous save.
Warhammer Fantasy's war torn universe was the perfect backdrop to a grimdark adventure, and the brutal combat system was perfect for creating a world where life was cheap, and an adventurer's early death was probably inevitable.
Several attempts have been made to modernize Warhammer Fantasy's rules, with the most recent being the 4th edition released in 2018. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is still around, but it's nowhere near as popular and special as it was in the 80s and early 90s. Today a lot of fantasy games can do grimdark, and do it better, than Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
Paranoia is unlike any other RPG on the market. It's probably because it was released in 1984, before anyone had written down the defining characteristics of an RPG, and because it was created by West End Games, a company known for their innovative RPG games.
Paranoia is a tongue-in-cheek dystopian sci-fi game taking place in the city of Alpha Complex, which is run by a computer AI. Players are troubleshooters for the computer, their job being to find trouble and shoot it. Missions given by the computer are often contradictory and unintelligible, and the players all belong to different secret societies with their own secret missions. These secret missions usually involve stealing from and killing other players.
Paranoia lives up to its name. It's a game where everything is trying to kill you. Your mission objectives. The computer you work for. Probably your secret society too. Definitely the other players. And the equipment you use is about as likely to maim or kill you as it is to do whatever it's actually supposed to do.
Maybe absolutely everything isn't trying to kill you in Paranoia, but it's likely enough that it's best to assume it is. Paranoia is a game that is best played with a carefree attitude and a good sense of humor. If any of the players take the game seriously, it can be a train wreck, but otherwise Paranoia is one of the most fun and unique role-playing experiences you'll ever have.
Taking place after the events of the first movie, the Ghostbusters have become a franchise, and players get to be the owner/operators of their own Ghostbusters business located anywhere in the world. Additional rules are included for players who want to play as the actual Ghostbusters. In either case, the rules let players bust ghosts along with investigating and fighting anything else that could be classified as paranormal.
Despite the Ghostbusters theme being about as iconicaly 80s as you can get, its rules and mechanics are about ten to fifteen years ahead of the curve. A lot of the innovations and trends of late 80s and 90s RPGs are inspired, at least in part, by the Ghosbusters RPG. The game was never that popular, but its influence is immense.
Ghostbusters uses minimalist rules that focus more on story, role-playing, and having fun than stats and dice rolls. That pretty much describes every RPG released in the 90s. The game's books also capture the humor of the film, and they do a good job of creating a larger Ghostbusters inspired universe for players to play in. The game was published by West End Games, and not only did they have some of the most innovative rule mechanics of the 80s, but they also have a better sense of humor than any other publisher.
West End Games released a 2nd edition in 1989 around the time Ghostbusters 2 was released, but after a few more books the system officially went out of print. The rules of Ghostbusters were adapted to West End Games' Star Wars RPG, which is included in my list of 90s RPGs, but that game has also gone out of print and the Star Wars license has shifted hands to other companies.
1. Call of Cthulhu
This was #2 on my list of RPGs that dominated the 90s. It's also #1 on this list. For at least the first 30 years after its release, no game has been as popular and received as much acclaim as Call of Cthulhu, except for Dungeons and Dragons and, for a brief period in the 90s, Vampire: The Masquerade. Despite being one of the earliest RPGs, its mechanics were so revolutionary and ahead of their time that it still seemed like a current game decades after its release.
As I explained in its other entry, Call of Cthulhu is a brutally difficult game where players are unlikely to survive a single adventure. Instead of just romping through a dungeon or something similar, players are investigators who gather clues that lead them from one scene to the next. Combat is frequently deadly and often times the only right solution is to run away.
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.