There are RPGs we love, and then there are RPGs that cause us to shudder and make the sign of the cross. Make your offerings to Saint Gygax, then gird yourself for this harrowing list of the most controversial and notorious RPGs ever published.
Sometimes when I review an RPG, I'll suggest the rules are overly complex or that they rely on too many tables and charts. I can't do that anymore because of Phoenix Command, which I'd forgotten about. This game of modern combat closely resembles what Actuary: The RPG would look like. Its goal is insanely detailed accuracy, with table after table describing the statistical values of weapons and ammunition and what happens when said ammunition hits a human body. This excerpt from an RPGNet forum post describes a single round – actually, the part I'm quoting is maybe a tenth of the total procedure needed to calculate a single round of gun fire.
"My odds of putting the burst in the correct location are at 97%. I roll a 37. The burst is at the correct elevation, so I look up my minimum arc. It is .7, so the burst has spread over 1.4 yards. My rate of fire is *7, so I look up on another table the chance of hitting with a ROF of *7 and a MA of .7. The full-page table says I hit with 1 round. Now roll for the hit location. I roll a 292 and look up on the Side Hit table (I hit him in the side) and the bullet passes through the man's liver and stomach. Now I look up on one of the 64+ damage tables (yes, there's a specific table for a side hit to the hip socket) and find the one for a side hit to the stomach-liver."
Perhaps it's not surprising that Phoenix Command's designer, Barry Nakazono, went on to a career as an actual rocket scientist.
If I can indulge in a bit of hipsterism here, my friends and I were really into the original TMNT comics, before they blew up and got watered down by cartoons and breakfast cereals. The official TMNT RPG came out around the same time, just before the turtles became mass culture megastars. We loved it because it was set in the turtles' gritty urban world, a very different world from any RPG we'd played before. It had rules for creating a huge variety of mutated animals, then using them to beat the crap out of criminals. While my memories of the game are fond, the game is notorious too. Early editions included a list of possible mental illnesses and sexual deviations, and homosexuality was on the list. This apparently caused quite an uproar — although I don't recall the controversy or that section of the book — and later editions had those sections covered with a blank white sticker.
Most of the notorious games on this list were created by small presses or individuals. This is the rare notorious game produced by the biggest company in the industry, TSR. It's partly notorious for being absolutely terrible, a game with poorly designed rules and such a narrow focus it was nearly unplayable. But that notoriety has lived on in a strange form. Gen Con attendees may be familiar with the annual Diana Jones Award for excellence in gaming. For years I'd assumed Ms. Jones was some beloved designer from the early years of the RPG industry, tragically lost to us.
When TSR lost the Indiana Jones license in the 1980s, all unsold copies of the game had to be burned. Employees at the UK office rescued the last, partially burned copy, and for some reason encased it in a pyramid of Perspex along with a few other items from the game. This feels like a particularly British response to the situation. The pyramid bounced from owner to owner for years, until 2001, when it was decided that it would make a suitable trophy for someone (or thing) who's done great work within the gaming industry. The punchline to this story, of course, is that the only legible part of the title on the partly incinerated game is, "diana Jones."
You can't talk about notorious games and not mention F.A.T.A.L. It is the most heinous, despicable piece of crap to ever bear the term "role-playing game." It seems to have been written by a group of 13-year-old boys who happen to be vile, depraved, severely confused about sex, and grotesquely preoccupied with poop and pee and genitalia, even for 13-year-old boys. For instance, the damage charts have separate entries for both "rectum" and "anus," and such a wound requires a die roll to determine the number of chunks of poop that are inadvertently released. The game is racist, sexist and homophobic in astonishing ways. It's honestly hard to imagine how bad it is until you've read some.
But even worse is F.A.T.A.L.'s insane fixation on rape. There are detailed (and ludicrous) statistics on the nature and prevalence of rape. Rape is not considered a serious crime in the world of F.A.T.A.L. A startling number of the magic spells involve mind-controlling women or inflicting sexual punishments on them. Even if they're dead – there is a spell called, "Have Her Cadaver." And the final, putrid, rancid, filthy nail in this coffin: the detailed rules on perpetrating rape as a natural course of your average F.A.T.A.L. gaming session. Hey, you just slayed a dragon, obviously you get to rape someone now as your just reward.
There is really only one thing F.A.T.A.L. accomplished in its short history, and that is to become the closest thing to a true Lovecraftian presence in the gaming industry. The mere knowledge of its existence weighs darkly upon one's mind, and the world seems a bleaker, more horrifying place knowing that F.A.T.A.L.'s creators are out there, somewhere.
Back in our early teens, my friends and I frequented a Buffalo game store called Outland. One day while we were shopping for new Chill RPG books and Battletech miniatures, the 20-something clerk told us about Kult. "It's so intense it's banned in Sweden," he said. That wasn't really true, though the game's dark subject matter was controversial in its home country, and it was implicated in a few murders and suicides there. Still, "It's banned in Sweden," is pretty much the best possible sales pitch you can make to a couple of 14-year-old boys.
And indeed Kult turns out to be a pretty interesting, intense RPG. It's a horror game set in the modern world, but it's quite different from White Wolf's World of Darkness. It has a sort of heavy metal aesthetic, and it's built on a framework of gnostic mysticism and Buddhism. You portray "awakened" characters who can see through the illusion of reality and interact with the supernatural world that exists alongside it. Some of Kult's controversy stems from the inclusion of rape among the many horrors that could be experienced by a character. Like me, you may not be interested in dealing with those kinds of issues during a gaming session, but to its credit, Kult made it clear that rape had serious and terrible consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator.
Although Kult was never a big success in North America, it still holds that strange frisson of ominous allure.
Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium is notorious in the gaming industry for how thoroughly Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro botched the whole thing and killed it before it ever went anywhere. One of the original designers even wrote about it at io9 a few years ago. And SenZar and The World of Synnabarr are both frequently mentioned as two of the worst RPGs ever published, in case you couldn't tell just from the names.