Worst RPGs ever

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Contemplating the worst RPG of all time is a lot like enjoying a foul wine. Not drinking it, of course. But watching another person take a sip, cackling at the expression on their face, and guffawing when they throw up all over their shoes. And then reminiscing about the half-digested spray after the fact. The exquisite pleasure of an aromatic bouquet, second-hand.

The usual suspects in this category are rarely elevated to legendary status merely because of poorly implemented or conceptualized rules. No, candidates are often judged based on the pure offensiveness of their subject matter, naked authorial hubris on internet forums like Usenet or RPGnet, for being the conspicuous failure of an otherwise notable designer (like Gary Gygax), or for sheer gonzo wackiness; and then popularized by flame-filled threads and scathing and hyperbolically over-the-top reviews. Many of the most successful contenders could be disqualified for not being complete and playable games. And many, including the worst three, are only available electronically and never reached print.

The Unholy Trinity

The list of the worst RPGs of all time is consistently topped by an unholy trinity: F.A.T.A.L., Racial Holy War (RaHoWa), and HYBRID. Two of these are notorious for their sheer offensiveness, regardless of their poor design: F.A.T.A.L., which has been called "the date rape RPG, without dating" and has a stat for a character's "anal circumference"; and the white supremacist RaHoWa set in a post-apocalyptic world where the PCs hunt down and kill racial minorities. HYBRID, while also given to racist and sexist ranting, is more noted for its utter incomprehensibility and is apparently the result of the delusional and paranoid mind of a schizophrenic. Of the three, only F.A.T.A.L. was ever sold (as a PDF) or played (despite a ridiculously ornate system); RaHoWa is not a complete game, and in any case may merely be a propaganda tool for an odious subculture; and HYBRID is just a list of nonsensical rules, despite its grandiose claim that it correctly models physical reality.

F.A.T.A.L.

When it first hit the fora it was greeted with derision and disbelief, with posters quoting snippets from the ruleset as “evidence” that they can't be serious, this can't be a real game, they had to be putting everyone on. Sadly, it eventually came out that it was no joke, that Byron Hall and company were dead serious and firmly believed they had created the Greatest Game Ever (an opinion they apparently still hold).

The short version: FATAL is over-complex, incoherent, racist, misogynist, and deviant in a bad way. More details are in the “Game That Must Not Be Named” entry and the links from there. Note: The source of the game, fatalgames.com, may have recently gone out of business. (And the consensus is "good riddance".)

In the first edition, F.A.T.A.L is an acronym for "Fantasy Adventures to Adult Lechery", but this was toned down to "From Another Time, Another Land" in the second edition.

  • "Review of FATAL" by Jason Sartin and Darren MacLennan. Originally posted to RPGnet in 2004(?), but quickly pulled because of language and the questionable decision to include an embedded link to the infamous "tubgirl" picture. Survived for a few years at Sartin's Primary Error until the site went away, and then was only available via the Wayback Machine. An expanded version was resubmitted to RPGnet, and reappeared in October 2009.
    • FATALReviewRebuttal. A copy of author Byron Hall's rebuttal of the Sartin & MacLennan review (originally posted at www.fatalgames.com).
  • "Review of F.A.T.A.L." thread on RPGnet where Byron Hall announced the availability of the rebuttal. Degenerated into a massive flamewar. Other RPGnet threads/flamewars: "FATAL: WTF?!", "Sexuality : Exalted Vs. Fatal...".
  • Fatal Games website, as preserved by the Wayback Machine. Includes the original pdf.

Racial Holy War (RaHoWa)

The PCs play “White Warriors”, fighting against the classic 'enemies' of racist groups: blacks, Jews, latrinos (the game uses that term), and basically everyone outside of the “Aryan ideal”--or, would, if the game had decent rules. Incomplete, racist, and stupid.

HYBRID

HYBRID burst into the collective gamers' consciousness in the late 1990s, when a poster using the sobriquet "C++" (later "Matthew") migrated from the comic book newsgroups, and started posting to the Usenet group rec.games.frp.super-heroes. The posts, a series of unrelated and unsequential numbered rules that conflated mathematical equations and racist and sexist screeds into an apparent (and later, stated) attempt to quantify and perfectly describe (perhaps even create) reality using comic book characters as a basis, at first caused disbelief. Yet the sheer unremitting number of posts turned the consensus into amazement and derision, which snowballed into a panoply of mocking replies in any thread that C++ graced. Combined with the almost random way the author replied to entirely unrelated threads, this caused an inenvitable effect: The newsgroup quickly died under the weight of sheer nonsense and his raving horde of anti-fans.

C++ eventually made the jump to RPGnet, and Phillippe Tromeur (may the Supreme Gamer have mercy on his soul) collated, collected, and published the ever-growing and randomly-versioned game (using the term "game" in the loosest of all possible senses) on the web, perpetuating and enshrining the Wonderlandian nonsensical and night-Lovecraftian work of love (or at least obsessive compulsion) for all to view.

The attempt to create one ruleset to simulate the whole of reality using comics is most probably a schizophrenic's cry for help — or possibly an extended game of Nomic gone berserk. No one's entirely sure, including the author if the text is any indication. Probably (no — absolutely, 100%, totally) not playable, but here because it is, after all, an attempt at a game by someone who seems to have no idea what an rpg is.

Previous title-holders

Spawn of Fashan (1981)

From the early years of the hobby, overcomplex to the point of being incomprehensible and so bad that some gamers insisted it had to be a deliberate satire. Including notable game designer and author of Heroic Worlds Lawrence Schick, who wrote a scathing review in Dragon magazine #60, concluding that the game was so terrible it just had to be a deliberate parody. Its legacy (such as it is) as one of the first truly terrible games catapulted it into the limelight (being of course pre-World Wide Web, more efficient means of propulsion like those that secured the notoriety of the much later F.A.T.A.L. were simply not available). The early 1980s USENET article "Real Men Don't Play Fantasy Role-Playing Games," written by Jeff Okamoto, Sandy Petersen, and other USENET users, which classifies roleplayers into "Real Men, Real Roleplayers, Munchkins, and Loonies," listed Spawn of Fashan as the preferred game for Loonies. The popular success of the article, and its (much-)subsequent proliferation as a minor internet meme (many variations on the original are available via friendly neighborhood search engines), ensured that the game's reputation survived into the digital era.

Reviews on RPGnet:

The World of Synnibarr (1991)

This science fantasy RPG is among the most legendary examples of mass "worst game ever!" sentiment, and has been mocked both for its surreal setting (every time Synnibarr comes up in discussion, someone just has to mention the flying grizzly bears with laser beam eyes) and incredibly complex rules (which go as far as providing an equation for how hard you can exhale!). This reputation was not helped by creator Raven c.s. McCracken's hostility towards the game's critics in the early 1990s. These days, however, Mr. McCracken is more friendly (he even got along with Darren MacLennan at Origins 2003, despite the latter's previous vitriol), and many people feel FATAL is more deserving of "worst game ever" status than Synnibarr ever was. A few gamers even enjoy the game's silliness in an Ed Wood/Plan 9 From Outer Space way.

Review on RPGnet:

SenZar (1995)

This fantasy RPG became infamous after a 1996 USENET incident where the creators overhyped the game, going as far as using sock puppet accounts to attack the inevitable critics. As with World of Synnibarr, SenZar was once considered by many RPGnet denizens the worst RPG ever, but this antipathy has largely been redirected against FATAL. The game itself is surprisingly playable, having more elegant rules and fewer restrictions than most class/level games, and arguably doesn't belong in any list of terrible games. Nonetheless, it still has elements that an average gamer might object to, such as its open encouragement of powergaming, the lack of balance among the professions/classes, the rather juvenile writing, or the fetish for all things heavy metal.

Reviews on RPGnet:

Also-rans

The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-Playing Game (1984)

This game generated the false rumor that TSR had tried to trademark 'Nazi'. One of the most astonishingly limited RPGs ever published: you can only play a short list of characters from the films, there are no character generation rules in the boxed set (though rules were included in the Judge's Screen accessory), and adventure formats were similarly sparse. Some of these features might be excused if the game was thought of as deliberately 'introductory' in nature, but the fact is, it sucked. This is not be confused with 1994's The World of Indiana Jones by West End Games.

Cyborg Commando (1987)

Cyborg Commando has reached iconic status primarily because of the name on the cover: Gary Gygax. After his departure from TSR, Gygax founded New Infinities Productions, Inc. and published Cyborg in 1987, with fellow luminaries Kim Mohan and Frank Mentzer. The game designers, rooted in the trends of the 1970s, attempted to create a game adopting the dark sensibilities then in vogue in the 1980s. The result is an implausible game about cyborgs who fight alien invaders ("Xenoborgs") by shooting lasers from their fingers with a wonky mechanic.

deadEarth (2000)

deadEarth is a post-apocalyptic RPG that was distributed primarily in the Wisconsin area. The second edition is available under the GNU FDL which unfortunately means copies are available on the web, even though the original website is defunct. In addition to risible mechanics and a very random setting, deadEarth commits the two cardinal sins of game design: it claims to be realistic, and tries to prop itself up by bashing other RPGs.

Let's tackle the "realism" angle. First up on the drawing board is a table of 1,000 powers a PC can acquire from radiation exposure. Well, yes it is possible to develop urinary tract problems (029 Fire Pee). But more common are mutations like the ability prevent someone from dying by physically fighting the spirit of death (436 Verve Paladin), to automatically die if the character is ever exposed to a pool of water (007 Belly Up), or... become a good housekeeper (005 Homebody or 401 Doorman). Bizarre deaths, random character traits that don't belong on a "mutation" table, and weird super powers.

Oh, yes. Death. In the vein of other more classic games like Traveller, deadEarth PCs will often die during character creation. However, a player is only allowed to roll up three characters. Which means if a player rolls poorly, they're not allowed to play the game. Whew. At last, a desirable outcome. Better than being unable to tell which end of a sharp object is sharp (140 Bloody Palm), and certainly more dignified than having to write "Hooters" (217) or "Pimp" (212) on a character sheet.

Empire of Satanis (2005)

The author of Satanis, Darrick Dishaw, described his game in the RPGnet forums as a "dark fantasy RPG inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, Hellraiser, and [his] own nightmares." What players who cracked open the game found was a mess of a game whose major reason for existing was to be as "rebellious" and "dark" as a 14-year-old proto-Goth. The system was a competent enough spin on d6, but the setting killed the interest for a number of reviewers, who just didn't see a reason for playing beings of pure evil who scheme in a hell dimension and occasionally go out and torment humans. Dishaw didn't help matters much; the self-proclaimed Satanist and "Cthulhu Cultist" (believing that beings made up by H.P. Lovecraft were representational imagery of real Things That Should Not Be) actually tried to levy a curse against all those who panned his game on the RPGnet forums. An interesting idea that had already been portrayed by In Nomine in a more well-rounded fashion, and which wasn't at all helped by the eccentricites of the author.

K.A.B.A.L. (Knights and Berserkers and Legerdemain, 1980)

One of the first RPG's to follow in the wake of original D&D, and arguably the hobby's first unmitigated flop.

The designer of this game traveled throughout central Florida (his home base) running sessions of this game. He was actually a very good GM, if a little full of himself, and the games were always fun.

June 20, 2011; The game is very complex and requires extensive number crunching but is realistic...for a fantasy game. From a marketing standpoint it was a flop but the game actually had a lot of merit and could have been adapted to online mmorg's of today. (edited by a friend of the games creator..for full disclosure)

Leading Edge Games

LEG's Phoenix Command is one of the most complex role-playing systems ever devised, to the point of unplayability - with mechanics such as varying times to aim based off square root of a firearm barrel length. After the financial failure of LEG its founder/author, Barry Nakazono, went back to designing rockets for the aerospace industry. (reference: [1] ). LEG also produced "Sword's Path Glory" a generic add-on for D&D and clones thereof, a book comprising largely of mathematically modelled hit location charts which would determine a flesh depth penetration from impact and cross-reference with armour value to determine exact organs injured and hits scored.

Wraeththu (2005)

At the top of the “bizarre setting” list is this game, based on a series of novels by Storm Constantine. The Wraeththu are hermaphrodite bishonen ubermenschen who are apparently slowly taking over the Earth—and, along the way, converting the occasional human into one of them by transfusing blood into them. Oh yeah, there are only male Wraeththu—and their genitalia look like flowers or anemones. (Hence the name I'm trying to popularize for it, MHLD, for Mr. Happy Looks Different.)

The apparently decorative flower on the cover of the core rulebook is, well, not. A flower, that is. The embellishment makes Wraeththu: From Enchantment to Fulfilment perhaps the only RPG with a penis prominently displayed on the front cover.

Though the setting is what most people remember about Wraeththu, it is quite closely modelled on the series of novels that it is based on. It is more the system that is at fault here than the campaign world, which is precisely what it set out to be - a fanguide to a set of obscure pseudo-homoerotic fantasies written by Storm Constantine. The novels have their own cult following. The rules on the other hand include such wonderful faux pas as chainmail armour that provides complete protection from flamethrower damage, collision rules that would result in instant death from kicking a stationary car, falling rules that would have the average human killed every time he tripped, magic rules that were blatantly stolen from the original Mage RPG by White Wolf, and a general system so entirely unsuited to its subject matter that it's somewhat akin to grafting D&D's mechanics onto an episode of Love Story.

Zarrakan (1997?)

The author of Zarrakan: Where the Adventure Never Ends started his posting career on RPGnet in January 2008, resurrecting a five-year old thread entitled "Zarrakan - Is This For Real?" by making a personal attack against the critic. After several more critical posts, and several personal attacks in reply the author gloated that the thread was generating additional hits on his website, and was promptly banned.