I know, I keep using the Stan Lee quotes - but with my three-year-old addicted to Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, it's hard not to get caught up in Stan's exuberance.
An old friend asked me on Facebook the other day what my top ten RPGs of all time were, and why. I was about to try to answer from the hip, but damned if this is a much bigger question than I could answer without putting some serious thought into it. Surely, there are RPGs I can consider among my favorites, but to pick and rank just ten? I had to wait until I had some time to think about it, and then start working on a list- then revising the list, then throwing the list away and starting over. Sooo many games that have things I like about them, and soooo many games I have sentimental attachments to, and soooo many new games that might make this list, but I've not had the chance to see them in action yet due to school, parenting and work. So... what are the top ten RPGs of all time for The Old Dragoon as of today, 22 October 2012? Let's start with Number Ten and work our way down to #1.
10) - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (First and Second Editions)
Publisher : TSR Hobbies
The Rules: Class-level. All the basic polyhedron dice, with a myriad of mechanics and sub-systems. This was the gold standard for many years, sublime in its incomprehensability.
Preferred Editions: First and Second. I played 3.0/3.5 and 4e, but they aren't on this Top Ten list.
Why I Love It: This was the Big Boys game. I first flipped through AD&D books in 1985, before I had played my first game. It was like the first time I read Stephen Hawking - I couldn't quite grasp what the book was on about, but I knew I wanted to. AD&D was the staple game of my high school years. While I never left D&D Basic behind, and we dabbled in LOTS of other games, we always came back to AD&D. I will always remember my first sojurn through Ravenloft before it was a game world, or the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I loved exceptional strength, multiclass demihumans, THAC0 - most of the things that made it complex and frustrating and were thrown out in later editions. Also - artwork. The original 1e covers are good for inspiration. The second set by Clyde Caldwell are even better for my money. The picture here, the 1e Dungeon Master's Guide's second cover, just oozes atmosphere. The Second Edition has some great cover and interior art, and truth be told, when AD&D2e came out in 1989, we switched over to it pretty exclusively for the rest of High School. Lots of folks look back at it with an unfavorable eye, but we had so damn much fun playing it I guess we were too busy to notice how much it apparently sucked. I happened to *like* 2e. I would still run it today. Same for 1e. They have their flaws, but if they were unplayable... never mind. I won't get into edition wars here. Sufficient to say AD&D (both editions) were important enough to my formative experiences as a gamer growing up in the 80s that I'll include them here separate from Basic D&D, which also appears on this list.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About AD&D:
- (V,S,M) - Spell requirements. Holy crap the game actually takes into account *how* the spell is cast, not just that it is. That's cool! Likewise, page requirements for spellbooks. Detailed memorization times... Advanced, indeed!
- NON WEAPON PROFICIENCIES FTW!
- The Dragonlance hardcover book for AD&D 1e. Wow. Just... wow. Krynn really caught my imagination back then, and the classes for Krynn were awesome. I still want to play a Solamnic Knight by those rules someday.
- UNEARTHED ARCANA! I loved playing Cavaliers. Too bad none of them made it past third level.
The Rules: Skill-based, with professions that you might call classes. D6s only on this one, with various arcane subsystems to carry out various tasks. Ranged combat and melee combat on two TOTALLY different systems.
Preferred Editions: The original. The Savage Worlds redux seems OK, though.
Why I Love It: This game was Steampunk before Steampunk was a thing. A thing that is running the risk of overexposure. But let's face it, it's a COOL thing. And this game was an awesome idea that really had not been explored much in the annals of RPG history. Crown Colonies on Mars? Edison inventing the Ether Propeller? Germans riding dinosaurs on Venus? Sign me up! Add to that the really cool invention rules so that your character could be some sort of mad scientist or inventor and use their new infernal devices for good or for awesome and Space: 1889 became an instant classic for me. Problem was, most of my gamer friends just didn't "get" it, so it didn't get nearly the love it deserved in sheer play-hours. This game was supported by some really great supplements and wargames like Sky Galleons of Mars and Cloudships & Gunboats, both of which were lots of fun to play. Again, a game I love because it positively oozes the genre it's trying to emulate. The rules were a bit off-putting at first, and perhaps the new Savage Worlds take on the game would find more traction, especially now that Steampunk is a much more popular genre.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About Space: 1889:
- The look of the book interior was very, very nice. Good paper stock, old-fashioned illustrations, lots of sidebars on history both real and imagined.
- Lloyd Bates' Criminal Mastermind and his henchman, Jiri. If you don't like it, Lloyd will have Jiri stab you.
- The Royal Geographic Society's race 'round the inner planets campaign that I never ran. I designed ten completly different Ether Flyers for the NPC participants of the race.
8) - Marvel Super Heroes
Year: 1984 (Basic) 1986 (Advanced) 1991 (Revised Advanced)
The Rules: D100 with a chart that handled effects for pretty much everything. This was one of the first games I played with a true "unified mechanic" although we would not recognize it as such, because back then we just played the damn games, we didn't try to pidgeonhole them and pick them apart mechanically. With evocative ratings like "Amazing" and "Monstrous" instead of straight ability score numbers, and effects like "Slam" and "Grand Slam" this system really made a good use of its intended genre.
Preferred Editions: Most people play Advanced, I like the 1991 Revised Basic Set
Why I Love It:
Classic Marvel Forever.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About Marvel Superheroes:
- Rolling up TONS of random supers.
- Cody Hammock's shapeshifting Penguin with ice generation powers.
- Realizing how boned the PC's Karma Pool is when they get into a fight in town.
- Thinking about running Secret Wars for the umpteenth time...
7) - Traveller
The Rules: 2D6+Skill, with the game being skill-based while having classes of sorts represented by the services the characters took part in before the game begins. This was the first game I played where you did not begin at "first level"
Preferred Editions: Classic, and Mongoose
Why I Love It: Traveller was gifted to me by the engineers at Eaton Corporation where my Mom worked. They gave me a bunch of Traveller books and a brand new Cyberpunk boxed set. This was probably one of the best gifts I've ever gotten from older geeks to a younger geek, and this act really made me want to keep passing the geekitude along as the years go by. Traveller's little black books and the compiled "The Traveller Book" I also received got a LOT of love from me both during games, and during long hours of summer before I had to get a job when I had nothing better to do - or was waiting for the next game session to start with my friends. Traveller's character gen system was really eye-opening to me. No more did you play a fresh young "first level" character, now you could be a retired Admiral, or a grizzled veteran merchant having years of experience and a decent bankroll behind you. The ship construction system was really awesome, too - I know I tried to design the Jupiter 2 several times while watching Lost In Space reruns. I learned a lot of real science from Traveller - the damn formula for calculating travel time in space based on distance and constant acceleration is part of the game... Also, I learned how big the mass of a ton of hydrogen is. So much was packed into the three little books, allowing you to generate planets, animals, characters, ships... Plus all the supplemental books were great. There were even bootleg stats for Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the back of one of the booklets. I made a game of trying to roll up a Merchant Captain who scores a ship upon retirement and has the title free and clear. It's not an easy thing to do, and most of the characters wash out or are candidates for a nursing home by the time they can accomplish that feat. The new version by Mongoose Publishing codifies the 2D6 throws into 2D6+Skill+Mod versus 8 across the board, somewhat cleaning up the more 70s situational approach of the original Traveller. It's very playable, aside from a few editing issues. It is a worthy successor to the original Traveller.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About Traveller:
- Rolling up TONS AND TONS AND TONS of characters. Because character gen was fun. And yes, you could die.
- Getting really pissed off because the Army had an easy promotion roll... but a 50% chance of getting booted out of the service every damn term.
- Reading the part where they describe the kinds of weapons in terms of modern firearms... then having a mental image of troops in Battle Dress powered-armor storming off an assault cutter wielding Garands.
MEGATRAVELLER - A sort of second edition that had refined character creation, but a totally changed setting as the Imperium shattered.
2300 AD - Originally marketed as "Traveller : 2300" this game is not actually related to Traveller, but rather to Twilight : 2000 as the world that arose after World War III. This was a more or less hard sci-fi game, and an excellent one that only barely did not make this list. I recommend it highly.
Traveller : The New Era - Not as well recieved as GDW had hoped, this version of Traveller reworks the system competely, and shakes up the Imperium yet again by making it a more or less post-apoc version of the Imperium bootstrapping itself back into space after Virus (a sentient computer virus) takes out... oh... everything. Vampire Fleets - vessels whose self-aware computers become affected by Virus and kill their own crews - ply the spacelanes. The Star Vikings seek to restore interstellar travel. Basically, the setting rocks, the system is a bit more modern than classic traveller... a good game to check out. Good luck on the book not falling apart, though...
6) - Star Wars (D6 Version)
The Rules: D6s only, dice pool system. Roll the dice, add together, try to beat target number. Characters were built on a set of templates at the back of the book. Very simple, very quick.
Preferred Editions: The first one. Definitely.
Why I Love It: This game was the first time I was aware of "genre emulation" as a thing. Marvel DID it, but it didn't really click to me what it was doing. In Star Wars, Greg Costikyan wrote in a conversational tone, and offered advice on how to make the game feel like Star Wars. Ammunition? Don't worry about it, they didn't in the movies. If you don't sound convincingly like a Wookiee, don't play one. Keep things fast, keep the pace moving, make it feel like a Star Wars movie, dammit! That style of writing in an RPG book was something I'd not encountered, and as a kid who grew up with Star Wars, this game was a no-brainer. The cover art... wow. The interiors were all stills from the movies or artwork from the production staff (often Ralph McQuarrie!) that very much help set the tone of the game. The rules run pretty quick, and character creation by template is a snap. I still keep a couple of sets of these templates in a file folder in my game room for one-off Star Wars games. This is my gateway drug of choice for teaching people the hobby if for some reason D&D won't work. Why? It's easy, it uses the dice everyone already knows from Monopoly, the templates are iconic, and pretty much everyone has seen Star Wars. The Second Edition and the Revised Second Edition are good games, too - but they make the mistake or realizing they are role-playing games and correct things like not having ammo limitations for weapons and having skills that are too broad. The result is a marginally crunchier game that gets away from Star Wars, to my mind.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About Star Wars:
- Putting a Butter Krust book cover on the core book so I could read it in Saturday Detention.
- Using my vinyl copy of the original Star Wars soundtrack on a turntable to add ambience to the game.
- This game is when I became aware of my endearing love of the Y-Wing.
- The Star Warriors fighter combat game (which I got used in Tampa, FL the Christmas we invaded Panama) was awesome, and your RPG characters could be used in it without any need for conversion or modification.
5) - Cyberpunk (also known as Cyberpunk 2013 and Cyberpunk 2020)
The Rules: 1D10 + Stat + Skill. Very simple system. Lifepath character generation gives you some background before you begin. Combat is unforgiving if you're not wearing armor. Probably one of my favorite base game systems ever, even if Reflexes is something of a God Stat. There are classes "roles" but they only limit the one skille each role has exclusively.
Preferred Editions: Either 2013 or 2020 are great. CP2013 was a boxed set, and represents a fairly solid core. CP2020 was a stand-alone book with some rule refinements, but the power creep began with the supplements to 2020.
Why I Love It: I was gifted this game the year it came out. I'd done space, I'd done fantasy, I'd done stuff based on anime - but this was something different. This was the Dark Future of... our Earth. Not a long time ago, etc. Not some fantasy world. This was OUR Earth. And the Japanese Megacorps ruled everything! Remember that in the 80s the fear of Japanese economic takeover was very real. This was something new to me - but somehow familiar. I had Bladerunner on VHS. I was a huge fan of the Max Headroom TV series. I had yet to read Neuromancer - but I would after playing this. This tapped into the Cyberpunk I had been exposed to in media and gave it an outlet. And it was my very first anti-hero game, where the players weren't explicity trying to be Lawful Good or anything like it. You were scraping the bottom, just trying to survive, and the future was disposable! This game brought out the worst in us in a good way. Getting to play high-tech low-lifes was a blast. Little did we know in another year there would be a twist to the genre that would blow us away again! These days, I run Cyberpunk 2020 when I run Cyberpunk - but I have been giving some thought to a limited campaign using only what was in the 2013 boxed set for the same reason I've thought about doing limited D&D (B/X only) or MechWarrior (nothing published after '89) games - to avoid power creep.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About Cyberpunk:
- Thinking being a Netrunner would be the coolest thing ever.
- Thinking that it would be pretty damn stupid to put all your personal and banking information on some kind of world-wide computer network where it could be hacked. I mean, that's grotesquely stupid, isn't it?
- Soviet Cyberware. Soviet anything. Yakov Smirnoff would still be funny for another year or two when this was written.
- Jennifer Milburn's solo who liked to kill opponents with a hammer. A plain old hardware-store hammer.
4) - Robotech
The Rules: The Palladium House System used D20s for combat - opposed rolls for dodging, parrying etc. The skill system is D100. It's class-level.
Preferred Editions: That's a tough one. The original edition was terribly flawed in that it did not accurately reflect a lot of the source material - especially the hardware. The second edition is more accurate, but has its own issues with character creation and combat. Don't let me sell you off this game, though - we had a LOT of fun with it, and you can, too.
Why I Love It: Robotech was the first cartoon I ever watched where someone died. And when that happened, boy howdy was there wailing and gnashing of teeth that day at River Hills Elementary School in Temple Terrace, FL. I think we were more upset about Roy Fokker than we were about the space shuttle. Robotech, as much as it doesn't hold up very well to adult viewing for some people, was ground-breaking. Yes, a direct translation of Macross would have been better - but it was the 80s, and I'm not sure America was ready for primetime animation that wasn't The Simpsons or The Flintstones. The Robotech RPG was the first game book I ever purchased with my own money after my birthday in 1987 when I picked up a copy at King's Hobby Shop along with a set of Koplow Games red translucent dice with white ink. Since Robotech never aired in the Round Rock area, and it had been over a year since any of us had seen it - except the three episodes that could be rented from local movie stores on VHS - we didn't notice a lot of the inconsistencies in the RPG material. The VR-052 cyclone never had chest missiles. The radar mast of the Beta Fighter wasn't a missile launcher. The Super Veritech was just a standard veritech with a FAST pack added, not a separate model...
Screw it, the game rocked. OK, so it wasn't accurate. Was it fun? HELL yes. We ran the crap outta that game, especially the Robotech II : The Sentinels core book that showed us what we would have seen if the Sentinels series had been made. Fighting the Invid with VF-series Veritechs, using mecha that never existed in the show (VF-1V Vindicator, I'm looking at YOU) and rolling with the alien concepts from the aborted TV show was a blast. To this DAY I want to run another Sentinels campaign. A lot.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About Robotech:
- The field scientist kit, chock full of useful items and specimen containers. You know, for all that science 7th graders do when fighting aliens.
- PERYTONIAN ENERGY WIZARDS, BITCHES!
- Handguns that did more damage than tank guns.
- Personal armor that could take a tank shell. WTF?!?
- The books thankfully included no Minmei recordings.
3) - Shadowrun (And Shadowrun, Second Edition)
Year: 1989 (Second Edition 1992)
The Rules: Dice pool of D6s, rolling for target numbers. The first game I played where dice "explode" or roll again when max value is rolled. The system is... arcane. Lots of sub-systems. 2nd Edition cleaned it up a bit. Complex, but the system really supports the game world.
Preferred Editions: 1st and 2nd. With the publication of Shadowrun 2050, it is not possible to play a 2050s game with the Shadowrun 20th Anniversary rules set. I may try that.
Why I Love It: Ok, I loved Cyberpunk. A lot. Like I said above, Bladerunner, Max Headroom... Obviously, I liked fantasy as well. Peanut butter? Chocolate? HOLY CRAP. SHADOWRUN. This game came at me like a jacked-up Troll Go-Ganger, chummer, and it's hard for me to tell you how wiz that drek is. Yes, the slang was one of my favorite things. Another thing I loved was the "shadowtalk" in the sourcebooks, where denizens of the Shadowrun universe would hack into files and leave their own thoughts on things that might differ from the official version. The weapons commentaries in the Street Samurai Catalog were particularly amusing at times. "Now I can flatten light rounds against body armor faster than ever before!" Orcs, Trolls, Dwarves and Elves in a hypertechnological cyberpunk dystopia? Sign my ass up. This game was really, really something new. Mixed genres was something we'd never done before, even if we knew from the back of the AD&D 1e Dungeon Master's Guide that we could port Boot Hill characters into AD&D. Even if we did play Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. The mix of magic and tech was a brand new thing at the time - at least to us - and we played the crap out of it. The rules were complex, but somehow felt right given the source material. There are rules holes in Shadowrun 1e you could drive an Aries Citymaster through, but if your players aren't actively trying to abuse the rules, it'll hold up well enough. Shadowrun Second Edition fixed a lot of the abuse-worthy rules, but not all. Shadowrun 2e is my go-to for Shadowrun these days, ans the Third and Fourth editions committed the unforgivable sin of moving the world forward and trying to adapt it to how modern technology was emerging. Leave by Cyberpunk firmly 20 minutes into the future of 1987, dammit! Deckers must jack in! Decks are the size of a Commodore 64! The only thing wireless is cellular phones! Anyway, Shadowrun had this great feel and vibe. We actually stopped playing straight Cyberpunk for about five years due to Shadowrun. This game has very much earned its place as #3 on my list.
Snapshots of Things I Remember About Shadowrun:
- Running the Universal Brotherhood module for three girls. It was amazing. Girls are brutal, heartless and cunning. Read all about it.
- My former girlfriend Amy, the Great Love of My Life(tm) and The One That Got Away(tm) as far as my teenage mind was concerned, coming to play dressed as her character. I still have my Shadowrun First Edition hardcover in which she pinpointed the location of her character's apartment on the Seattle map.
- The absolutely jaw-dropping combat ability of a cybered-up troll with an axe. More damage than a 20mm cannon you say? Yes, most definitely.
- The ability of that same cybered-up troll to eat three .50 machinegun rounds and only take a wound level of "Moderate"
2) - MechWarrior (and MechWarrior, Second Edition)
Year: 1986 (First Edition) 1991 (Second Edition)
The Rules: 2D6 task resolution versus target number, skill-based but "classes" do exist insomuch as in-game jobs like MechWarrior or Aerospace Pilot tend to be exclusive.
Preferred Editions: First for atmosphere and feel, Second for game mechanics, my own version for both rolled into one. That one's forthcoming. May take a while, though.
Why I Love It: Because it's MechWarrior. There aren't too many game universes with as much background and development as the MechWarrior Universe. I started playing Battletech in 1986 at Chisholm Trail Middle School, we played at lunch, I played the WSP-1A Wasp a lot because I thought it looked cool. I died a lot because it was a WSP-1A Wasp. I read Battletechnology Magazine voraciously, and I loved the black and white "photos" of battlefields using models and toys and parts of Robotix sets. This was the first RPG I ever played where there were five (seven if you count The Star League and The Periphery) House books that were nothing but history and background for the factions in the game. Hundreds of pages on the political systems, religions, militaries, intelligence agencies... It was mind-boggling, and intriguing and exciting. I was a House Steiner loyalist almost from the get-go. My friend Robby Houser has the Davion flag tatoo on his arm. MechWarrior inspired a level of interest in the world and the factions I'd never encountered before. The game was amazingly deep compared to other games on the market, and the blend of post-apoc, Dune, giant robots and Starship Troopers was really, really cool to folks like me. The initial book was full of details about house retinues, landholds, Planetologists, ComStar religious zealots - and the best thing about it was the random event tables and total lack of metaplot beyond 3025 that let you lead your game where you wanted to. I will say that my deep and abiding love of the MechWarrior universe is rooted firmly in the Third Succession War era. The further one gets forward in the timeline, the less deep and abiding my love for the universe gets. My problem is not the normal gripes about The Clans and the technology they bring to the game - my gripe is about the fundamental change to the atmosphere of the game. MechWarrior 1e is about MechWarriors as Knights. Their 'Mechs, like an ancestral suit of armor, are handed down the generations. MechWarriors hold land, and rule from a position of military strength. The techno-feudal feel is strong, as is the feel of a society in its twilight after centuries of brutal war. It works for me. By the time of the 3050 setting, MechWarriors are just jet pilots as far as being special goes. Well trained, yes, respected, yes - but now that BattleMechs are rolling in ever increasing numbers off the assembly lines the BattleMech has once again become just another piece of military hardware. A lot of the post-apoc and hard-scrabble feel, not to mention the Pendragon with Giant Robots feel - has gone out the window.
The current license holders at Catalyst and their fans love to point out that the Battletech universe would have stagnated without a major shakeup. Well, if the Fourth War hadn't been glossed over in two volumes, and "20 Year Update" glossed over the rest, how much story could have been told without such a drastic shift in feel? The friggin Jihad storyline took FOURTEEN YEARS of real-time and they're saying they couldn't get more than four out of the original setting? I don't buy it. The new regime's A Time of War RPG is what we're using now for the Royal Dragoon Guards, but it really doesn't "do it" for us any more than any other edition of MechWarrior did - the rules are more than a bit cumbersome (Damage in quarter points? Really?) and the game tries to cover so much ground it really doesn't carry the feel of Battletech with it at all. With that in mind, Bobby Dean and I are working on our own take... Stay tuned for more on that...
Snapshots of Things I Remember About MechWarrior:
- Being a young, inexperienced GM and throwing the Slayers from Krull into a MechWarrior game.
- Clint Hill pulling off a rock star character in a Solaris VII campaign and making it work. Downward Spiral will henceforth appear in all my Solaris VII games regardless of time period.
- How the Jim Holloway cover art from MW1e just got my imagination rolling.
- Falling in love with Melissa Steiner only to see her marry Hanse Davion. Well played, Hanse. Well played.
1) - Dungeons and Dragons Basic
The Rules : Class and Level system. Elves, Dwarves and Halflings are a class. D20 for attacks, but not "D20 System." Uses all the classic polyhedral dice, some things are roll high, some things are roll low, by modern game standards a mess. But oh, what a glorious mess!
1983 Elmore-art Mentzer BECMI/Rules Cyclopedia Version
1980 Erol Otus-art Moldvay B/X Edition
Why I Love It: D&D was my first love. I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons during the summer of 1986 with Daniel Varner as my first DM at his house on Dry Creek/Purple Sage Drive. My love affair with roleplaying games had begun. My first D&D boxed set was the 1983 set whose cover is posted here. Larry Elmore, Jim Holloway, Jeff Easley- their art inspired me. Frank Mentzer's reworking of the Basic D&D rules was easily grasped by my middle-school mind and it wasn't long before I was DMing myself. I cannot overstress how the art in and on the books and boxes of this series inspired my early D&D games. This is still my go-to edition of D&D after all these years. The 1991 Rules Cyclopedia is my "Desert Island" RPG - if I can only have one RPG book to run from for the rest of my life, it's the most complete version of D&D that has ever existed in a single volume. In later years, I obtained the 1980 Erol Otus-cover Basic and Expert sets, as well as the earlier Holmes blue-cover edition from 1977. All of them have more than just historical merit. There has been a movement lately to base new versions of fantasy RPGs on the simplicity and completness as a game. There is SO MUCH MILAGE you can get out of just the Basic and Expert rules. Also - the default setting for the 1980 and beyond sets, the Known World or Mystara, is awesome and gonzo. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos has been the backdrop for many, many epic campaigns and entertaining one-shots.
Snapshots of Things I Remember about D&D Basic:
- You never forget your first. Come on, that has to count for something.
- My Cleric, Brother Maynard of the Holy Outhouse, bravely fighting demons all summer at Lost Pines Scout Camp, where Troop 145 was much more interested in D&D than they were in all that scouting stuff...
- My first wizard being killed by the acid breath of a dragon we had subdued while attempting to feed bag the dragon. This was done by the DM intentionally because said wizard was around 20th level and way too powerful for the campaign, which we played most days after school and almost every Saturday for 6th, 7th and part of 8th grades.
- Thinking level limits on demihumans was awesome - because hey, an 8th-level Halfling becomes SHERRIFF OF HIS OWN FRIGGIN SHIRE. How cool is that? Also, the artifacts each demi-human race was able to create as they levelled up. Who needed levels when you kept advancing in Attack Rank anyway?
I have to give a shout-out to a couple of games which are derivative of D&D Basic under the OSR (Original Source Rules) movement. These are also called Retroclones, as they are clones of the rules of Basic D&D. While these games are, fundamentally, Basic D&D each one seeks to do something with the rules that Basic D&D didn't do. Here they are, and why I recommend them.
Why I Like It: It's a modernized presentation of B/X D&D in a sturdy, attractive volume. The rules are almost unchanged, close enough that old modules can be run with no coversion. There are modules, a GM screen, and the Advanced Edition Companion which allows it to expand to cover AD&D as well.
Oh, and it's FREE in PDF.
Stars Without Number
Why I Like It: SWN is brilliant. I say that with a twinge of pain because I was working on my own sci-fi adapation of B/X when this came out. It did everything I wanted my version to do and more - and it did it better. Honestly, this game rocks HARD. It has a core of Basic D&D, but adds a skill system that is 2D6+Skill+Mods for a very simple, Traveller-like skill experience. It has domains and factions, and the tools to manage them and place them in conflict with one another. It has vehicle and startships - even 'Mechs. This is one hell of a one-volume game.
And oh, yeah, it's FREE in PDF.
Adventurer Conqueror King System
Why I Like It: This is Basic/Expert D&D with explicit phases of a campaign. The low levels are "Adventurer" and play like most D&D campaigns. As you ease into "Conqueror" you start finding a different flavor of adventure as your PC becomes the most proficient in the land at what it is you do. Graduating to "King" levels, your PCs are carving out their own domains. This game really brings depth and interest to the old "At 9th level the Fighter may construct a Castle..." Lots of depth. Domain management, economy, war... It's all here in wonderful detail with simple mechanics. A few new character classes round out the game, along with an explicit table showing just how good at their job a character of 1st-14th level is. 14th level, as in the original Expert set, is the upper limit of this game. I haven't gotten to run it yet, but I've read the book longingly, wondering where all my time to game has gone and then remembering oh, yeah, parenthood and college...
Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG
Why I Like It: This game gave me a hummer, then kicked me in the jimmy so hard I just had to run it. First, DCC got me with the artwork. Oh, the artwork. Jeff Dee, Erol Otus, the list goes on. It is old school in the best of ways and the art just begs to play the kind of gonzo sword-and-sorcery stuff that cries out for a million Boris Vallejo paintings. This game is brutal and beautiful at the same time. Fighters are capable of amazing deeds of might without a cumbersome feat system. Arcane spellcasters run the risk of corruption regardless of their alignment, and Clerics must take care not to offend their gods. Death waits around every corner, especially due to the fact that in the first adventure of the campaign each player rolls up multiple completely random 0-level characters. The one that survives the first adventure gets to be first level. Some might chafe at the extreme old-school sensibilities of this game, but the group I ran a 0-level grinder for loved the ever living crap out of it. This game is simply amazing in its ability to capture the feel of all those stories of "the way it was done in the 70s" and do it with modern mechanics. Don't expect modern mechanics to include class balance or any of those other newfangled concepts, though. This game is old school through-and-through, and that makes it pretty damn awesome.