I really own a lot of gaming books. You know one of those big blond Ikea bookshelves? I have one that's three quarters full of gaming books. The Abigail and I have old favorites like Call of Cthulhu, new offerings like Little Fears: Nightmare Edition, stuff as mainstream as the entire White Wolf canon and stuff as indie as Dogs in the Vineyard. Truly, we are an eclectic pair.
Well, not that eclectic. Actually, we're pretty much your classic filthy narrativists.
On a lark, I decided to decide which book in my collection is the best and then opine to you, the masses, my selection. On further reflection, however, I made a correction: I can't possibly pick just one good book. Ion. Instead, I've decided on five categories of bestness. Feel free to bask in my wit below.
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Category One: Best Read
Beyond a doubt, Weapons of the Gods by Eos Press is the most fun book in my collection. I won't say it's necessarily the best game - though it's quite good - and I won't say that it's the most fun to play, because I've never actually plated it. I will, however, say that it's the only gaming book I own that I'll sometimes pick up and read, cover to cover, for fun.
Or, rather, I used to, before I became a full time teacher and "copious free time" became a thing of the past.
The trick is in the ficklets. The setting of Weapons of the Gods is explicated entirely in tiny stories scattered here and there throughout the book. Except for the core mechanics and the setting basics, every game concept - from set pieces to advanced rules - is prefaced with a tiny story that illustrates that game concept in action. Weapons of the Gods' microfiction makes the book huge fun to read. I wish more game designers used this format, because it's neat.
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Category Two: Best Adds
By "best adds" I mean "adds the most to the game," and in for that category, I will dust off and then select my ancient copy of Dreams and Nightmares, a sourcebook for White Wolf's Changeling: the Dreaming. In Changeling, your characters perceive a world of dreams and fantasies, chimerical reality, laid alongside the real world. Deeper into chimerical reality, you encounter a world of dreams that doesn't directly map to the fields we know. Dreams and Nightmares is a partial travelogue of that world.
The book includes rules for how the abundant glamour (magical energy that powers faeries) of the Deep Dreaming makes changelings more powerful, and also more problematic. It has a huge variety of great places and great people for characters to run into, run away from, learn from, steal from, and, of course, fight.
I don't know exactly how to describe how beautiful this book is. I don't know that I can. Instead, I'm going to provide my favorite quote, a paragraph in the description of places called the snail graveyards, where the oldest and wisest snails go to die:
"Each of the graveyards is guarded by one of the brothers called the Boys with Nautilus Hearts. These entities are beautiful adolescent males, pale in coloring, with sad eyes. Each is crippled in some way: one is blind, another is asthmatic, a third is lame, and so on. All share a communion with snails and other shelled creatures and are polite but inscrutable. They are also expert in secret ways of waging war in the name of innocence."
- Dreams and Nightmares, p84
There's so much possibility here! I want to meet one of the Boys with Nautilus Hearts. I want to learn the secret ways of waging war in the name of innocence. I want to go to a snail graveyard. This is Dreams and Nightmares in a snail shell: all the best of Changeling: the Dreaming in its sad, beautiful, and dreamlike glory.
Damnit, every time I read this book I want to play Changeling. Somebody run me Changeling.
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Category Three: Best Explication
Reign is a new game in my collection, and I'm extremely fond of it. Because I've never run or played it, I can't speak to the value of the system. I can say that the setting is extremely neat, however (epic political fantasy set on two continents that look like people and may be the bodies of dead and/or sleeping gods).
More to the point, author Greg Stolze abandons the traditional layout of RPG books. Instead of several dry chapters on rules followed by several more juicy chapters on setting, Stolze alternates rules concepts and set pieces, making Reign another fun read (though not as fun as Weapons of the Gods).
Most to the point, Reign does an extremely good job of communicating what the game is about in both the system and the setting chapters. The writing is just plain good. Stolze manages to be very clear about what his game means and how to play and run it well.
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Category Four: Best Book, Overall
Hunter: the Vigil is a gorgeous game. In the words of the Abigail "Hunter is incredibly flexible and incredibly stand-alone. It is the game that has the most going on in the most ways." I'd like to add that Hunter integrates all these things with a single, powerful theme: you are the candle in the darkness, you are the first and last line against the things in the dark... and the only way to make yourself stronger for the fight is to give up a little of what makes you human - a little of what makes you different from them. Hunter is a twenty games wrapped up in one, and the writers somehow make it work.
Incidentally, the runner-up for this category was...
The only reason Promethean: the Created didn't win is that unlike Hunter, the real greatness of Promethean emerges in the supplements, and this post is about the best book, not the best line. Now, you can play Promethean with just the core, and it looks like it would work really well. With Hunter, though, the beauty of the game is right there in one book, thus making it a shoe-in for this category.
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Category Five: My Favorite
Mage: the Ascension is my favorite game, ever.
In some ways, it was the first game to ever really catch me. Oh, sure. D&D was great (I could play a paladin!), and Vampire had some cool (vampires!), but in Mage... in Mage, you can play anything. As a little geek, I loved how research-intensive Mage could be. Anyone could be a fireball slingin' Hermetic, but I can do research into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, read up on Aliester Crowley, and play a Hermetic like you wouldn't believe. That sentiment pretty clearly sums of the best of Mage for me. The game is incredibly dense, full of awesome ideas and beautiful themes.
Oh, I'll grant that Mage: the Ascension is a little scattered... ok, a lot scattered. The concept's new incarnation, Mage: the Awakening, is almost certainly a better game in almost every respect. For a some values of Mage, even Unknown Armies is far superior. However, Ascension will always have a special place in my heart, and on my shelf.
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I'm glad you enjoyed my endless pontification on the subject of books I own. Stay tuned for reflections on the early episodes of Lost, a review of the podcast novel I'm listening to (as soon as I know, finish it), and perhaps more steampunk. You never know where the burning zeppelin will fly next!