31. Favorite RPG of All Time. This is a tough one to answer, because there are many lesser-known RPGs that I admire a great deal. And it’s tempting to cite D&D in all its incarnations, since it was the focus of my day job for a decade and the origin of many of my favorite settings, including those for which I’ve written tie-in novels.
Yet I’m going with Call of Cthulhu for several reasons.
It’s a great example—perhaps the greatest—of a designer’s translating the essential concept of a milieu, in this case cosmic horror, into an elegant game mechanic. While my teenage self found a Sanity stat laughable, I eventually realized its brilliance, especially in the simple balance between sanity and knowing the truth about the Mythos.
It offers gamers a simple paradigm every bit as compelling as fighting monsters and gathering treasure in D&D. Call of Cthulhu entices investigators with clues to a secret world of eldritch horror. Their objective is often simply to survive long enough to give the survivors a chance to prevent worse horrors from devastating the world. The thrill is to ride that razor’s edge between knowledge and sanity.
Especially with the “default” setting of the 1920s, Call of Cthulhu takes advantage of history in ways other games seldom do. Introducing the characters to Ernest Hemingway in or sending them to Weimar Germany or placing them on the Titanic adds dramatic tension at the same time as it appeals to readers of historical fiction.
Finally, the Call of Cthulhu game is a portal into the best parts of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination without his often disappointing storytelling and prose (but what a delightful vocabulary!), not to mention his racist views. It’s a great tool to separate the good from the bad from a complicated author whose best ideas inspired countless others to expand and improve upon the fruit of his damaged psyche.