Mar 04

My Big Four RPGs


TalesOfAGM Dice Sq SmAround Christmas time last year, there was a popular twitter tag #fourRPGs. I tweeted my four most influential games on Boxing Day, but wanted to expand upon that simple list with a proper blog post.


Follow me on twitter @NichollsBolas


Over my thirty-plus year of gaming, I have played many games, and ran a few. There were highs and lows, and some gaps along the way as life took over. A couple of games were obvious choices for my top four, but the other two spots were harder choices.


However, in chronological order, my top four most influential games are:

  • Basic D&D
  • HERO System
  • HeroQuest 2
  • Hillfolk




1. Basic D&D

D&D_1983_Basic_Rules_coverWhat is it? Basic D&D was a streamlined version of TSR’s flagship Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, released in a series of box sets. I started playing the set edited by Tom Moldvay, with art by Erol Otis. Shortly afterwards, a revised version was issued, edited by Frank Mentzer. This updated edition was released in a distinctive red box, with iconic art by Larry Elmore.


See the Basic D&D sets on DriveThru RPG [affiliate link]


When was this? Probably 1983, when the red box set was first released.


Why does it makes the list? Primarily because Basic D&D was my first ever game. This was an intense experience, and I still have fond memories of my first character, an elf modelled very closely on Gandalf the Grey. We played through B2: Keep on the Borderlands, which was bundled with the Moldvay set. Later, we progressed to some scenarios written by my first GM, Gavin.


Inevitably, Gavin made my list of most-influential GMs


Subsequently, the Mentzer Red Box was my first RPG purchase. I probably hoped to buy the earlier Moldvay version, as this was the game Gavin had. The Mentzer edition included a play-as-you-learn solo adventure, which was fun to work through. I remember reading these two books many times. I still have the plastic polyhedral dice, which I inked using a Rotring pen.


Many years later, I ran a beginners game of Basic at University. By then I had already cut my teeth running the multi-volume AD&D. Yet, Basic was where it all began, and deserves a place on the list.


Note: In my original tweet, I cited only the Red Box Basic. However, in the course of writing this essay, I realised that Basic as a whole deserved a place on the list.



2. HERO System

HERO system coverWhat is it? A generic RPG, developed from the Champions superhero game. HERO System features a complex point-buy character generation system and an intricate method of building powers.


Find out more about HERO System on DriveThru RPG [affiliate link]


When was this? The early ’90s, maybe 1993.


Why does it makes the list? This game marks my first exposure to so many central features of my current game. Here was a universal rules set that could be used for any genre, focused on skills not classes and with a framework for building any kind of magical effect. These effects were built using powers, but could be fine-tuned in so many ways.


For the next seven years, or so, I bought themed supplements, and explored the myriad options within the rules. I ran a swashbuckling fantasy Napoleonic-era game, mashing together my passions. I also ran a home-brew fantasy game, which was the forerunner of my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign.


However, my enthusiasm gradually waned. The maths of HERO System was very complex, and it was not a game for beginners. Parts of the rules, notably the powers, never really lost their superhero feel, and were a bit clunky when converted to magical spells.


HERO System was the high-water mark of my love of crunchy rules. It created the desire for highly narrative games, but I found the complex rules too much of a struggle.



3. HeroQuest 2

HeroQuest 2What is it? A generic, narrative rules system, designed by Robin D Laws.


Learn more about HeroQuest 2 at


When was this? HeroQuest 2 was released in 2009, so I expect I first read it later that year. I already had a copy of the first edition book, and was eager to read the updated version.


Why does it makes the list? HeroQuest 2 is my one gaming true love, as regular readers of my blog know. I found HeroQuest 2 delivered on the narrative potential of HERO System, without all the complex maths. Here was a simple, flexible system which allowed the story to take centre stage. It was all I could want in an RPG.


Rather than repeat all the many, many reasons why this is so, I refer you to an article dedicated to HeroQuest 2.


Why I love HeroQuest 2



4. Hillfolk

Hillfolk CoverWhat is it? Hillfolk is a game of dramatic conflict, powered by the DramaSystem rules engine. It was published by Pelgrane Press in 2013, and designed by Robin D Laws. DramaSystem focuses on the social relationships of the core characters, and the dynamics of interpersonal conflict.


Learn more about Hillfolk at the Pelgrane Press website


When was this? Early 2012, as I was lucky enough to be involved in the Playtest.


Why does it makes the list? I do not think Pelgrane really qualify as an indie publisher, but Hillfolk certainly expanded my horizons to indie games, and what they could offer my game. This process has continued with Becoming, My Life with Master and Fiasco.


DramaSystem is about the interplay of relationships, and this philosophy has spread to my ongoing campaign. Notably, the DramaSystem relationship web is a common part of the campaign generation process. I am expecting to run another of these in the coming weeks as we brainstorm our next campaign.


Most influential of all, DramaSystem led to the creation of campaign interludes. These are short breaks in the ongoing campaign, usually between one and three sessions, where the focus switches away from the central Heroes. Over the years we have played flashbacks, character development and villainous plots as the subject of an interlude. This technique is a core part of how I run my campaign, and it all began with the Hillfolk playtest.


Read more about Interludes here.


Near Misses

There were several other games which nearly made the list:

  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, also known as 1st Edition or AD&D. This was the dominant game in my early years. I suspect my first GM experience was with Basic, but after a couple of years I bought some second-hand AD&D manuals and moved on to the advanced game. Just as my early play experience came from Basic, my formative GM experience came from Advanced.
  • DragonQuest was my first step away from D&D, bringing an emphasis on skills and Colleges of Magic. I ran some DQ games in University, but enthusiasm waned when I discovered the flexibility of HERO System. However, some aspects of DQ can still be found in my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign, such as the Colleges of Magic and the rune aspects.
  • Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 marked my return to RPGs following almost a decade away. After the complexity of HERO System, D&D 3.5 seemed a lot easier to run. It brought together my familiarity with AD&D and the skills from DragonQuest. First I bought a lot of books, and then explored building my own system. As I tried to model everything, the house rules grew ever more complex. Then I read HeroQuest 2, and realised simplicity was the way forward.




Top four RPG QuoteIt has been great exploring my own roleplaying path from the early days of Basic D&D, through increasingly complex rules systems, to the narrative joy of HeroQuest 2. Even though I am in the process of clearing out my physical books, I am keeping most of these influential titles. I have no great wish to run these games anymore, but they are part of my gaming history, and it can be fun to browse through them sometimes.


What are your top four RPGs? Does your gaming history follow a similar arc to mine? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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  1. Top 4 for me, in no particular order, would be AD&D, as my introduction to the hobby; ShadowRun for my first, successful GM experience; Ironclaw for my first GM at conventions experience and the ease of the system which made even spellcasting simple enough for new players to handle; and FATE, for the character and story driven narrative of game.

    Honorable mention goes to Pathfinder.

      • Phil on March 4, 2016 at 8:11 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Arlene,

      Thanks for sharing your list. Firsts as a Player or GM are always memorable.

      I have tried FAE as a one-shot interlude in my campaign, but we struggled to make the Fate point economy work. Glad you have a better experience with it.

      All the best

        • Adam on March 8, 2016 at 12:41 am
        • Reply

        Our group has also had a hard time making the Fate Economy work. Our problem seemed to be a lack of compels causing players to hoarded fate points instead of spending them freely. It seems to take a bit of mind shift to get the GM and Players looking for the moments that a little complication can add to the narrative and gain a fate point without side tracking the narrative, especially when you have players that naturally play their faults.

          • Phil on March 8, 2016 at 10:12 am
          • Reply

          Hi Adam,

          Yes, that was the problem we had.

          Possibly there was also the issue that FAE felt too much like our regular HeroQuest sessions. Thus, we did not appreciate the different style of play required, nor did I make it clear enough.

          Maybe this is a game I need to see in action.

          Thanks for sharing your experiences

      1. It helped that I had index cards with character names and their aspects. I kept one eye on those and then played a little fast and loose on interpretation. And let the players use Fate Points to pull of ridiculous stuff. Which made them want to get more, so they could do more stuff.

          • Phil on March 8, 2016 at 3:09 pm
          • Reply

          Hi Arlene,

          I love it when the Players can pull off crazy stunts in the game!

          Great advice on how to feed the Fate point economy. In my HeroQuest game I keep a list of the Heroes’ best abilities, flaws and social links. It is always useful to know what strings a GM can pull to motivate a character.

          Thank you again for sharing

    • Adam on March 8, 2016 at 12:27 am
    • Reply

    My four most influential RPGs are:

    1) AD&D2nd edition
    My first was basic d&d, but AD&D2nd is the game I spent all my allowance on and played with many different players and GMs. This is still what I think of when I think of D&D. Its was my first RPG Love. Though 5E has really hit a nice sweet spot.

    2) Vampire by White Wolf
    Cyberpunk 2020 was the first game I GMed, But vampire is the game that honed my GM skills. I learned how important it was to prep relationship maps, faction maps, and having active NPCs with Goals. It taught me to make the players the center of change, and how to ignore a lot of published material.

    3) Sorcerer
    This is the Indie game that got me back into roleplaying after a long post college break. I love the dice mechanics and that each character has a kicker. The concepts of Bangs, Bobs and Weaves still effect my way of thinking about my game prep.

    Ron Edwards and some of his other game, Trollbabe, and Circle of Hands, have really shaped what I look for in an RPG. I want something more edgy and emotional that forces some difficult decisions. Prep should be easy because the players did most of it, which means they are engaged in the situation.

    4) Apocalypse World and Dungeon World
    This game wrote rules for the GM, that when followed created a very specific game feel. At the time I was trying to create that feel and codify how to do it, so this game made my heart swoon. I learned how import succeeding at a cost can be to the narrative. The GM does not roll dice allowed me to truly focus on the narrative elements along with the fronts adventure design was freeing. I enjoyed the NPCs have no stats other then how i wanted to describe them, this allows for easy improv.

    The RPG game is a conversation which should be mostly about narrative elements that surround brief interludes of mechanical is really an important thing to learn and work on. “Begin and end all actions with fiction.”, and “Play to find out what Happens” are thing I remind my self before every session of any game I play or run. I knew most of this but to see it codified in an easy way to remember and follow was awesome.

    Runner ups:
    Fate Core, Technior, HeroQuest 2, and Risus.

      • Phil on March 8, 2016 at 10:18 am
      • Reply

      Hi Adam,

      That is a great set of influential games.

      I have written a long series of articles about Trollbabe on the blog, and I have bgeun writing about Dungeon World for Johnn Four.

      It really strikes me you have progressed from mechanics to narrative in a manner similar to my journey.

      Thank you so much for sharing

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