The “Catacomb librarian” over at Mesmerized by sirens called for blog posts in appreciation of pre-1990 FRPGs, and I think that’s a very worthy idea. I was pretty sure I’d find something in my book shelves that would it the bill, but there’s a bit of history. you see, when my brother & I got into gaming, we had fairly different interests in terms of what we bought. Tom loves collecting and reading rules sets, and if he had a blog (and the time) he could probably mention an obscure RPG for every day of the month. I on the other hand was mostly into the miniatures from the start. At some point, probably when we were in high school or college, we agreed to split up everything so that Tom kept all the books and I kept all the minis. Literally the only gaming books I had for years were war games rules and other miniatures-related books, although I broke down and picked up my own copies of a few books (GURPS basic, a few AD&D manuals, and that sort of thing). About five years ago I began collecting old RPG material and have amassed a decent collection of basic and advanced D&D books and magazines, and even some modules, mixed in with some stuff I’ve borrowed from Tom for the campaign I’m running.
Going back to the pre-1990 days, apart from GURPS there were only two RPGs I bought: Man-to-Man and Valley of the Pharaohs.
Valley of the Pharaohs was advertised pretty heavily in Dragon Magazine in 1983 or so, when it was first published, so I think many older gamers have seen the cover even if they never played it. It quietly went out of print in 1985, and I’ve never so much as seen a review of this game. My copy of Valley of the Pharaohs disappeared back when I was in college. I never even realized that my copy — bought second-hand at a convention, I believe — was incomplete until a couple of years ago when I discovered it was supposed to have more than the booklet and a single map. Apparently there were more maps, character sheets, and maybe some reference sheets in the boxed set. VotP was published by Palladium, and the book was about the size of one of their “Arms & Armor” books. The rules were not the ones that would later be published as the Palladium FRPG and later Palladium games, but there are similarities. The combat system was fairly similar, with dodging and parrying as rolls, and the damage listed for weapons was similar to PFRPG too. There were four castes (Nobility, Clergy, Bureaucracts, Commoners) and the attributes were pretty close to the typical “D&D heart-breaker” — in this case Strength, Speed, Intellect, Power, and Persona. You rolled for caste and attributes but could pick a profession (Soldier, Priest, Scholar, Merchant, and Thief were the only ones), then you got skills based on occupation, with some choices…it is a big list, taking up 1/2 the character sheet. The best thing about it was they stole a page from Chaosium and rather than having levels, you increased or gained skills by using them or training. The magic system was sort of brief and listed 20 or so generic spells and a nice list of magical amulets, statues, and paintings which are clearly based on Egyptian beliefs. Spell casters have a “magick” skill used to cast spells, and each spell must be learned separately. Spellcasting also uses magic points, so it was quite a departure from the magic systems in D&D and PFRPG.
When I first read it, I found that my knowledge on Egypt was pretty shaky and the world of ancient Egypt too alien. Aside from an overview of Egyptian society with too much focus on the royalty, burial practices, and gods (really — that’s all stuff you can find in any book), there were about seven pages of “G.M. Notes” and much of that is taken up by equipment lists, a list of the nomes of ancient Egypt (which is already on the map), and nearly a full page of bibliography. (Really, no annotations? Just titles and authors to look up?) A few adventure seeds might have helped … I just got stuck on ‘tomb robbing’ and ‘going up river/down river to deliver gifts or receive tributes for pharaoh.’ I gave up on running it in college despite a few enthusiastic players wanting to play. One player was really enthusiastic about making an “Egyptian bard based on Paul Anka” so maybe it was better left un-run. For someone willing to do some research, this is actually a nice little game; the problem is that it is so different from vanilla fantasy, or from the middles ages, that it’s hard to come up with ideas that don’t feel like “so-and-so in Egypt” rather than a real Egyptian milieu.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is available as a pdf (rather cheaply) here. Print copies are very pricey for such a small item. The preview pages available at RPGNow are all just maps and plans, so there are no clues as the system there. At one time Palladium had if as a free download on their website, but it was taken down some time ago. I was able to find the copy I downloaded way back then, but it might be worthwhile to pay for the newer PDF since the old one was broken into sections and was just a bare-bones scan. Now that I am recalling all this, I find myself more interested in trying them out for real. I should probably check out the GURPS Egypt book while I’m at it ….
My back-up game for Obscure FRPG Appreciation Day was Man-to-Man. Insofar as it was really a pre-release of the GURPS combat system, I am not sure I can say it is truly obscure — GURPS after all was and still is a very popular game among gamers. But when it came out in the mid-1980s, Man-to-Man was a big step forward in terms of design from its predecessor, Steve Jackson’s Melee. (And by “a big step forward” I mean a big increase in complexity and “realism”! Not sure I’d call that progress now, but in the mid-1980s it was great!)
Man-to-Man did not give a lot of space to developing the non-combat aspects of a character. All the skills and advantages and disadvantages were centered on combat. And yet a module was released for it (Orcslayer) that connected a series of combats with role-playing interludes. It was almost as if Steve Jackson had briefly experimented with the idea of having rules only for adjudicating combat and letting everything else be hand-waved in favor of role-playing and problem-solving, which is pretty much how we played AD&D in the early 1980s too. While I often mourn the GURPS second and third edition rules, which gave way to the over-complicated mess we have today, Man-to-Man is a great reminder of how simple a game it could be.
In fact, looking back on Man-to-Man, I think one of the best things about it was how incomplete it was. Nothing was stopping you from adding non-combat skills and advantages, as well as disadvantages, to expand the characters. The absence of a magic system is perhaps an advantage too. The implied setting of Man-to-Man would turn into the more fully fleshed out GURPS Fantasy setting (Yrth) but if we assume that no PCs have access to magic, the game would be perfect for a swords and sorcery game pitting the player characters who must rely on wits and steel against anything the GM can dream up.