Dungeons & Dragons certainly was notorious in the larger world in the ’80s and ’90s — largely unearned as that reputation was based on religious hysteria, on bereft parents looking for anyone to blame, and on lies told about the James Dallas Egbert disappearance.

There are many more roleplaying games that have a reputation within our own industry, rightly or wrongly. What follows is a list of ten of the most infamous. It purposefully avoids crossover with The Top 10 Censored RPG Books, though the two game systems there, Alma Mater (1982) and Killer (1982), could just as easily have appeared here.

When reading this list, recall the unfairness of TSR’s reputation within the larger world. Some of these games might be bad, some might be out of touch with the rest of the industry, but it’s just as possible that their reputations within the industry are unearned as well. So, read about these RPGs that have achieved infamy, and then make your own judgements about them.

The Top 10 Infamous RPGs

1. The Spawn of Fashan (1981)

Reason: Incomprehensibility

The Spawn of Fashan is one of several one-hit wonders of the ’80s, alongside games like Creeks & Crawdads (1986) and for that matter Alma Mater, which were singular and weird publications that disappeared as quickly as they appeared. We may never know the whole stories of these publications.

However, The Spawn of Fashan got more attention than most because it was … unfathomable. When Lawrence Schick reviewed it for Dragon #60 (April 1982) he called it “a great parody of role-playing rules”. The thing is, it wasn’t. Poorly written, arcanely jargoned, apparently unedited, and complexly designed, Spawn of Fashan aptly demonstrated the repercussions of the low barriers to entry in roleplaying publishing at the time.

The game gained such infamy in the ’80s from its very small print run that the author began reprinting it in the ’90s, originally charging $20 a copy, then as much as $50.

2. DragonRaid (1984)

Reason: Indoctrination

DragonRaid is rather famously a Christian RPG. It’s not the only one of its sort as a Swedish diocese called Västerås Stift has actually commissioned a whole series of RPGs, starting with Vägen (“The Way”, 1993). DragonRaid probably racked up some notoriety solely due to the time of its publication, back when “BADD” and a number of religious preachers were attacking RPGs. (Ironically, they attacked DragonRaid too.) So, in a time of us vs. them, DragonRaid seemed like them.

However, DragonRaid received much more notoriety within the hobby for one its mechanics, the WordRunes. They fell somewhere between teaching, proselytization, and conditioning: players had to memorize and recite Bible verses to call down powers in times of need.

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

Reasons: Lack of Character Creation, Nazis(TM)

The Adventures of Indiana Jones has received notoriety for two different reasons. Neither one may be fair, but sometimes infamy isn’t.

First, Indiana Jones didn’t have any character creation; instead you picked a character to play from one of the films. This was thanks to a requirement from Lucasfilm, who only wanted characters from the films to be played. It wasn’t a popular choice in the hobby itself. TSR eventually released rules for character generation in IJAC1: Indiana Jones Judge’s Survival Pack (1985), but it was too late.

Second, Indiana Jones started the legend that TSR had trademarked the word Nazi — which was seen as very ironic at the time because of their litigious attitude toward most of the roleplaying field. The rumor is true and false. A stand-up figure of a Nazi in IJ2: Raiders of the Lost Ark Adventure Path (1984) showed a brownshirt and clearly stated “NAZI TM & © LFL 1984”. LFL would (once more) be LucasFilm, and TSR was obligated to record the trademark for Indiana Jones characters as part of their contract.

The moral of the story: sometimes licensors suck.

Indiana Jones was a flash in the pan that lasted less than two years at TSR. One of the last copies was burned in ignominy and its burnt fragments are part of the Diana Jones award.

4. Phoenix Command (1986)

Reasons: Complexity, Militarism

Leading Edge Games’ Phoenix Command is seen as perhaps the most complex RPG ever professionally published. That’s largely due to its combat system, which claims to be extremely realistic.

More broadly, Phoenix Comand can be seen as a high mark of two gaming trends of the ’80s, each of which generated a lot of games that verge on infamy.

First, there were games of increasing complexity. Space Opera (1980) and Aftermath! (1981) were two of the earliest, and also candidates for the List of Infamy. Many games by FGU and many military focused games also incorporated high levels of complexity.

Second, there were military focused games, a trend that dates back to at least The Morrow Project (1980) and notably includes Twilight: 2000 (1984). Greg Costikyan’s The Price of Freedom (1986) is the other militaristic RPG that nearly achieved placement on the List of Infamy because it received considerable criticism in Europe where it was seen as a high tide of American jingoism and insensitivity, the Red Dawn (1984) of roleplaying.

5. Cyborg Commando (1987)

Reasons: Disappointment, Over-the-top Play

Why do games achieve infamy? One reason is a failure to live up to expectations, and that was surely one of the strikes against Cyborg Commando, which was Gary Gygax’s first RPG after being forced out of TSR. However, even though Gygax’s later works, Dangerous Journeys: Mythus (1992) and Lejendary Adventure (1999), didn’t reinvent the field, they also didn’t achieve the same notoriety: there was something special about Cyborg Commando.

A review might say it best: “Fundamentally, the problem with the Cyborg Commando game is the idea that playing cyborgs shooting lasers out of their fingers, in a world overwhelmed by aliens, was in some way cool.” It was a totally over-the-top game, and that category of play has always received jeers, even when the games were quite popular — and Cyborg Commando unfortunately wasn’t.

6. The World of Synnibarr (1991)

Reasons: Over-the-top Play, Powergaming

Speaking of over-the-top games, The World of Synnibarr is another larger-than-life entrant in the field. That larger-than-lifeness largely comes about through powergaming play in a science fantasy setting. You can play a Bio Sentha Cyborg, a Mage Tiger, or a Gnome. You can bounce an Electro-Boomerang off of Sunstone Plate (because it divides all damage by 10,000). You can cast spells up to fiftieth level! (You get the idea.) Even though it was no Spawn of Fashan, a lot of readers also found the setting background and the rules entirely impenetrable.

Despite Synnibarr’s notoriety (or perhaps because of it), it’s achieved a cult following unlike almost anything on this list. The author, Raven c.s. McCracken, also continues to be a member of the convention scene. If you’re lucky, he’ll give you his trading card — and sign it.

7. SenZar (1996)

Reasons: Over-the-top Play, Powergaming, Sock Puppeting

Jumping forward five years, one review claimed that SenZar was heralded as “the worst game since Synnibar”, clearly placing it in the List of Infamy. It’s another over-the-top D&D-influenced game: Death Horde servants, dragon men, plant men, tiger men, and others take on roles such as Dragonslayer, Mystic Assassin, or Spellsinger. Unlike games such as Fashan and Synnibarr, the reviews of the SenZar mechanics are usually positive, it’s just that they’re mechanics directed toward power gaming.

However, the thing that really made Senzar infamous, and that’s kept it in peoples’ mind, is an advertising campaign gone very wrong. At the time, the creators were accused of both over-publicizing it on USENET and using sock puppets to attack their critics. The truth seems to be that they had players who publicized it on the ‘net, and the creators only found out about it after criticism; they tried to dive into USENET in response, and the results weren’t pretty.

8. CthulhuTech (2007)

Reasons: Disappointment, Hentai Influence, Railroaded Adventures

CthulhuTech got a lot of positive attention early on, as an intriguing mix of Cthulhu horror and science-fiction. Its main problem in those early days was that it jumped through a huge variety of publishers before the creators started publishing on their own as WildFire.

The game’s problems emerged as supplements were released. One of the biggest issues was a hentai influence, which many found objectionable and which got pushed more into the forefront as more supplements were released. Add in Muslim stereotypes and railroaded adventures, and you have a recipe for fan unhappiness — especially when people were so excited over the initial release. (The designers acknowledged the problems with the game, and in 2016 opened up a beta of a second edition intended to correct them.)

9. Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2010)

Reasons: Sex & Violence, Controversial Creator

Lamentations of the Flame Princess was one of the leading members of the second generation of OSR publications, which went beyond the retroclones to reimagine D&D in their own ways. It was generally considered quite well-written and well-produced, but some people were put off by the gory imagery and the sexual themes within the game. Lamentations even published Geoffrey McKinney’s adult-themed Carcosa (2008, 2011) as a supplement.

Today, the game has fallen somewhat from the pedestal it was placed on in the early days of the OSR due to its author, James Edward Raggi IV. He’s always been a controversial figure, but a picture of him with reactionary psychiatry professor Jordan Peterson followed by his apparent desire to continue working with a bad actor in the OSR community began to move that needle toward infamy for himself and his game. That certainly reveals a new world in the 21st century, where it’s not just a game and its design, but also its designer who can place a game on the List of Infamy (and that’s true for the final entry as well).

Of all the infamous games in this list, Lamentations may have earned the most mixed response: fans love it, while others would prefer not to see it at all. It’s thus a fine example of a game that achieves success despite its infamy — or maybe even because of it.

10. Beast: The Primordial (2016)

Reasons: Problematic Theming, Controversial Creator

The newest infamous game is Beast: The Primordial, one of the more recent Chronicles of Darkness RPGs. The initial problem was in its theming: players took on the roles of abusive monsters; and their victims were painted as obsessive and evil monsters themselves. Worse, because the eponymous Beasts experienced dysphoria over their secret nature, some took this all as a particularly negative commentary on LGBTQ+ issues.

The text received huge controversy in its initial, Kickstarter draft, and afterward the authors tried to pull back some of the more problematic elements. However when it came out that a text that read like an apologia for abusers was written by Matt McFarland, who was himself credibly accused of being an abuser, the whole game became even more problematic (and infamous).

The International Trio

Though this list is focused on infamy within the roleplaying industry, three games deserve honorary mention for the negative attention they received in the wider world.

  1. D&D (1974). The most infamous game of all time, thanks to organizations like BADD and various religious zealots who blamed it for their own problems (and those of the world).
  2. Kult (1991). Although this occult game hasn’t received much attention in its English-language editions, it was blamed for a murder in its home country of Sweden, leading to BADD-like hysteria and even a mention in their Parliament.
  3. Vampire 5e (2018). Vampire 5e had a hard development path because of its very edgy developers, but the biggest problems arose from one of its supplements, whose description of Checyna was so problematic that it caused an international incident: the Chechen Minister for National Policy and External Relations literally demanded satisfaction.

The Vile Trio

Three games nowadays tend to placed at the top of lists of infamous RPGs: Racial Holy War (2001), FATAL (2002), and HYBRID (2006). None of them were professionally published, and none them seem to have been created in good faith as actual RPGs, so they aren’t included in this list. (They’re also not deserving of any attention.)

The Honorary Mention

Many other games could have been place on the List of Infamy (and appear on other lists). Possibilities neglected here include Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth (1994), Cyberpunk v3 (2005), deadEarth (2000), Empire of Satanis (2005), KABAL (1980), Lords of Creation (1984), Macho Women with Guns (1988), Marvel Universal Roleplaying (2003), Paranoia the Fifth Edition (1995), Rifts (1990), Vampire: Undeath (2013), Violence (199) and Wraethtu (2005). Some were too complex, some were too weird, some were bad revisions, some were over-the-top, and some were satire that was misunderstood.

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #44 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

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