Only Ten

If you could only keep ten of your printed RPG books, which would you pick? I asked this question a while back on Google Plus, and got some interesting answers (I also learned about some awesome books, like the Warhammer Realms of Chaos volumes; thanks Zak!). Then recently this TSR versus OSR thread came up on ODD74. I do not generally enjoy false choice hypotheticals, but it did make me recall this exercise, which is sort of an empirical version of the same idea.

I’m going with the following arbitrary conventions, because restrictions are fun. First, it has to be something I actually own and a physical book. Second, the decision has to be based on content not rarity or value (though content can incorporate things like nostalgia value and artwork).

The original list that I posted to G+ was the following: AD&D DMG, the 3 OD&D booklets, LotFP Referee book, S1-4 Realms of Horror, The Guide Book to Taladas, D&D Rules Cyclopedia, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Tome of Adventure Design. I have changed a few items, but it has remained largely the same.

Also, I know many people think very highly of the core Wilderlands books, and some of them probably deserve placement. I only have them in badly-scanned RPGNow PDFs though, and so I haven’t really spent much time with them. So they are disqualified both for technical reasons (not books) and for practical reasons (I really haven’t used them much).

So how do the TSR and OSR camps fare?

  • 4 early TSR (original D&D and the DMG)
  • 1 Judges Guild (Ready Ref Sheets)
  • 3 OSR (LotFP Grindhouse, TOAD, Carcosa)
  • 1 more recent non-OSR (Vampire)
  • 1 alternate take on fantasy from the 80s (Warhammer)

Also, when I was doing this, I couldn’t actually keep it to only ten, so I included some runners-up also. The runners-up are about evenly divided between “original” material and OSR material.

This is not just an idle exercise, as I might be spending a few months in London at the end of the year, so I might actually have to pick a few books to take with me.

I, II, III: Dungeons & Dragons. Suggestive rather than prescriptive. By the time we get to AD&D, we can already see all the tendencies of modern games in proto form. Here, things are still wide open. And the systems are really elegant, if you can get past the bad organization. Concise though, so still faster to learn than most bigger games.

IV: Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Gygax’s magnum opus. I believe this volume needs no introduction. I don’t even particularly like AD&D as a complete system, and this still would take a place near the top.

V: Ready Ref Sheets. This is sort of the Judges Guild DMG, but almost all tables. City encounters by social level, poison tables, offensive locution rules (social combat!), tables for ruins, verdict and punishment tables. A really great resource.

VI: Tome of Adventure Design. Random tables for just about everything, and lots of philosophy about how to use them. Another random monster generator. More tools for dungeon generation. There is not really anything else of this scope and quality available, even considering everything published to date.

VII: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Another direction fantasy gaming could have gone. A great diversity of character options that manages to avoid choice paralysis and does not reward system mastery. Not afraid of dark atmosphere. Chaos metaphysics. Also, John Blanche (example 1, example 2, example 3).

VIII: LotFP Grindhouse Edition Referee Book. Probably the best thematic book on refereeing. Fits my “suspense movie” style perfectly. If we’re counting boxed sets as single items, of course the entire Grindhouse Edition would go here, but this is the standout booklet from that set for me. There is a free no-art PDF of the Rules & Magic book.

IX: Vampire: The Dark Ages. What is a Storyteller book doing in the top 10? I have enough D&D mechanics in my head that I don’t really need anything to play, so what I want in books is primarily inspiration. This book is beautiful, and has excellent atmosphere. I would probably still use D&D type mechanics. Dark ages Transylvanian dungeon crawls.

X: Carcosa. Unapologetic dark imagery, one of the best examples of a sandbox, random cthuloid monster generator, random robot generator, random tech artifact generator. This is how it’s done. It’s only missing a sample town. Perhaps the most attractive bound RPG book I own, too. Rich Longmore art.

Runner-up I: Empire of the Petal Throne. Honestly, this should almost certainly be higher on this list. It isn’t only because I don’t yet feel knowledgeable enough about EPT to have much intelligent to say about it. I am more interested in EPT because of its system, not the setting, which I gather is odd.

Runners-up II, III: B/X D&D. In many respects, these two books make up my favorite iteration of the game. So why aren’t they in the top ten? Well, the 3 LBBs are already there, it’s hard to justify both, and the LBBs have more (though in less detail). For example, there is no stronghold resident generator in B/X. If B/X was one book, it might replace Vampire in the top ten.

Runner-up IV: Monster Manual. If Monsters & Treasure from the original box didn’t also have treasure, the Monster Manual would probably win. It has all the important iconic monsters, though I still sort of prefer the open ended nature of the OD&D box monster write-ups.

Runner-up V: Fiend Folio. More weird fantasy and less mythology than the Monster Manual. An excellent example of what might live in an alternate cosmology setting. Russ Nicholson art. Elemental princes of evil. Githyanki and drow. Grell. Killmoulis. Slaad. Man, maybe this should be in the top ten. The encounter tables in the back are also almost a complete setting.

Runner-up VI: Mutant Future. I’ve never seen the original Gamma World, but I gather Mutant Future is more compatible with D&D, which is how I would want to use a post-apocalyptic game anyways. I like MF more than Metamorphosis Alpha. One of the real strengths of the OSR is the off-genre offerings.

Runner-up VII: The Guide Book to Taladas. From The Time of the Dragon setting (and see here). One of my favorite settings; more original and less sprawling than most TSR settings without being batshit crazy like Dark Sun (which I also like). And illustrated by Stephen Fabian (linked pictures are just to give you a sense of his style; they are not from this book).

Runner-up VIII: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. The style and attitude of this volume are just amazing, and there are lots of rules ideas that could easily be poached, like the dice chain and variable attack bonuses. So what that half of the content is spell tables. Erol Otus art. Pete Mullen art. I’m usually not a fan of such physically cumbersome books, but DCC caries it.

Runner-up IX: Realms of Crawling Chaos. This is a great supplement, very tightly written. A bit too much overlap with Carcosa to have both in the top ten, but very worth picking up, especially for the Reading Eldritch Tomes and Random Artifacts appendices. The psionics section is also good. Most of this book is reusable as open game content, too.

Runner-up X: D&D Rules Cyclopedia. With both OD&D and B/X in the running, there is no way that I could include the Rules Cyclopedia too, but it still deserves a mention for the breadth of material that it covers, even if pretty much all of the interior art is bland. The hex maps are great too, but but the book lacks guidelines on hexcrawl play.

Runner-up XI: B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. I feel an example of town, wilderness, and dungeon all together would be good to have (though the wilderness in B2 is not really fleshed out). Perhaps this should be higher; I’m not sure. B2 also has lots of good referee advice that probably should have been in the core rulebooks.

28 thoughts on “Only Ten

  1. Tom Hudson

    Amusingly enough, I’m looking at spending the rest of the year in London, too, but when I asked this question on my G+ the only answer I got was one vote for AD&D DMG. I still haven’t fleshed out my own answer.

  2. faoladh

    I’m still thinking about this. The DMG, of course, but maybe the other two AD&D books, too (plus FF). I expect that the Traveller5 book will be in there (if not, Traveller will take up three slots, as I’d have to include the 3 MT books). The core Pendragon book, and maybe Pagan Shore. Flashing Blades.

    Any more would depend on the specifics of the first couple of games. It might be the DMG and the Rules Cyclopedia instead of all four AD&D books (I go back and forth). I might not end up liking T5. I might find something more important than Pagan Shore (though I doubt it).

    Still a lot to think about.

    1. faoladh

      Except for the setting changes, yes, for the most part – but I’m not really interested in the Imperium setting these days, anyway. Besides, if I wanted CT, I’ve got The Traveller Book.

    2. faoladh

      Thanks to threadsurrection, I am thinking about this again. I have new books to consider (ACKS! Dragons at Dawn! Adventures Dark & Deep!), a more refined sense of what I’m looking for, and time on my hands. 😀

      So, I have T5 in my possession, and I find that it is not what I’d hoped. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it is not up to MT’s standards, which is still my standard for best Traveller edition. On the other hand, it is very, very complete, which is a significant advantage in these sorts of exercises.

      So, 3 MT books, the DMG, Pendragon (4th edition) and Pagan Shore, Flashing Blades, ACKS, the Adventures Dark & Deep Players Manual, and the Monster Manual. I might dump ACKS for the ADD referees book, but I don’t have it yet. I will almost certainly dump the Monster Manual for the ADD monster book when it comes out.

  3. Beedo

    Moldvay Basic
    Cook Expert
    Realms of Crawling Chaos
    1e Monster Manual
    1e Fiend Folio
    1e MM 2
    1e DMG
    And a player to be named later – maybe a historical reference

    1. Brendan

      That’s three iterations of B/X you have there. 🙂 A good list though, and one that I would greatly enjoy gaming with. I’m surprised you did not include any Call of Cthulhu (or similar games) given the focus of Dreams in the Lich House.

  4. Kent

    Caverns of Thracia
    Griffin Mountain (Runequest)
    Cults of Terror (Runequest)
    Wilderlands volumes I,II (Judges Guild)
    The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun WG4
    The Glass Harmoinca

  5. Random Wizard

    I guess I have converted to the digital age as all my physical RPG material sits in boxes in the garage and I rarely ever go open them up. Game mechanics wise, I speak a hybrid Basic and Advanced D&D. I no longer need a reference book for the rules. Therefore, I think my choices would actually veer toward the GURPS sourcebooks; Vikings, Rome, Celtic Myth, Camelot, Cyberpunk, Japan, Old West, Time Travel, Atlantis, Swashbucklers. Growing up in the late 80s, early 90s, it was like having wikipedia at your fingertips before you had continuous access to the Internet.

  6. John Bell

    I’d say:

    Swords and Wizardry Complete
    Mongoose Traveller corebook
    Stars Without Number
    Unknown Armies 2nd Edition
    AD&D 1e DMG
    Mythic GM Emulator
    WFRP 2e corebook
    On Conflict and Consensus by C.T. Lawrence Butler

    The last one isn’t so much a roleplaying book as a book I refer to a lot when running games. If I had to swap it out for anything, it would be a printed copy of Kellri’s Encounters Reference.

    1. John Bell

      It’s one of the few books since the DMG to have useful advice for GMs, by laying out how relationship maps work and how to pace sessions. The system itself is a nice, rules-light, non-Cthulhu-based occult horror / urban fantasy system with some interesting play quirks (PCs never know how much HP they have left; the baseline for skills is calculated from the percentage to successfully perform the skill while fleeing down a dark corridor being chased by ravening monsters; madness meters and triggers make the player struggle for control of their character).

  7. ClawCarver

    Moldvay D&D Basic
    Cook/Marsh D&D Expert
    Gygax DMG
    AD&D 2e Vikings sourcebook
    BRP “Big Gold Book”
    Call of Cthulhu
    Skyrealms of Jorune 3e*
    Skyrealms of Jorune Sholari’s Companion
    Faerie Wood

    *I really prefer Jorune 2e but that’s three rulebooks and a module in a box, whereas 3e is one book so it wins on this occasion. Your accursed ten-book limit is hard on boxed sets.

    1. Brendan

      I ordered a copy of that 2E Vikings book late last year and have not got around to reading it yet. If it’s all the way up on your top ten, I better bump it up in the queue.

    2. ClawCarver

      2e gets a bad rap but I thought the historical sourcebooks were generally very well done and encouraged DMs to tweak classes, magic, and other rules to suit different kinds of campaigns. I think David Cook’s Vikings sourcebook is as good as the equivalent ones for RQ or the recent BRP Mythic Iceland book. I’ll be hacking its rune magic system for my next D&D campaign.

  8. Il Male™

    OD&D Single Volume with compiled Philotomy’s Musings
    AD&D Monster Manual
    Supplement V: Carcosa
    Ready Ref Sheets Vol I
    Chaosium’s Call Of Cthulhu
    Gamma World, 1st Edition
    Labyrinth Lord
    D&D 3.0 Player’s Handbook
    D&D 3.0 Dungeon Master’s Guide
    D&D 3.0 Monster Manual

    The reason why of this book roster is here on my blog 🙂

  9. Anders Kirstein Jensen


    Here is what i would take, right now, joining in if only just to put something different into the lists (in that i like both AD&D and Pathfinder, well and B/X, according to group/taste/wants):

    Pathfinder Core Rulebook
    Pathfinder Bestiary
    AD&D DMG
    AD&D PHB
    AD&D MM
    Rappan Athuk Complete – Pathfinder version
    Barrowmaze 1 & 2 (ouch i’m taking it as one 😉
    Necropolis (Gary Gygax’s, the d20 one)
    Caverns of Thracia (the d20 one)
    The Tomb of Abysthor

    1. Brendan


      Why Necropolis?

      I’ve thought about getting a copy, but have avoided it so far. Late Gygax tends to be a bit prolix for me.

    1. Necropraxis Post author


      No problem at all. In fact, I am glad you commented because I don’t follow blogs as closely as I used to and the setting looks like something I would appreciate.


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